Wylder's Hand, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 21.

In which Captain Lake Visits His Sister’s Sick Bed.

I suspect there are very few mere hypocrites on earth. Of course, I do not reckon those who are under compulsion to affect purity of manners and a holy integrity of heart — and there are such — but those who volunteer an extraordinary profession of holiness, being all the while conscious villains. The Pharisees, even while devouring widows’ houses, believed honestly in their own supreme righteousness.

I am afraid our friend Jos. Larkin wore a mask. I am sure he often wore it when he was quite alone. I don’t know indeed, that he ever took it off. He was, perhaps, content to see it, even when he looked in the glass, and had not a very distinct idea what the underlying features might be. It answers with the world; it almost answers with himself. Pity it won’t do everywhere! ‘When Moses went to speak with God,’ says the admirable Hall, ‘he pulled off his veil. It was good reason he should present to God that face which he had made. There had been more need of his veil to hide the glorious face of God from him than to hide his from God. Hypocrites are contrary to Moses. He showed his worst to men, his best to God; they show their best to men, their worst to God; but God sees both their veil and their face, and I know not whether He more hates their veil of dissimulation or their face of wickedness.’

Captain Lake wanted rest — sleep — quiet thoughts at all events. When he was alone he was at once in a state of fever and gloom, and seemed always watching for something. His strange eyes glanced now this way, now that, with a fierce restlessness — now to the window — now to the door — and you would have said he was listening intently to some indistinct and too distant conversation affecting him vitally, there was such a look of fear and conjecture always in his face.

He bolted his door and unlocked his dressing case, and from a little silver box in that glittering repository he took, one after the other, two or three little wafers of a dark hue, and placed them successively on his tongue, and suffered them to melt, and so swallowed them. They were not liquorice. I am afraid Captain Lake dabbled a little in opium. He was not a great adept — yet, at least — like those gentlemen who can swallow five hundred drops of laudanum at a sitting. But he knew the virtues of the drug, and cultivated its acquaintance, and was oftener under its influence than perhaps any mortal, except himself, suspected.

The greater part of mankind are, upon the whole, happier and more cheerful than they are always willing to allow. Nature subserves the majority. She smiled very brightly next morning. There was a twittering of small birds among the brown leaves and ivy, and a thousand other pleasant sounds and sights stirring in the sharp, sunny air. This sort of inflexible merry-making in nature seems marvellously selfish in the eyes of anxious Captain Lake. Fear hath torment — and fear is the worst ingredient in mental pain. This is the reason why suspense is so intolerable, and the retrospect even of the worst less terrible.

Stanley Lake would have given more than he could well afford that it were that day week, and he no worse off. Why did time limp so tediously away with him, prolonging his anguish gratuitously? He felt truculently, and would have murdered that week, if he could, in the midst of its loitering sunshine and gaiety.

There was a strange pain at his heart, and the pain of intense and fruitless calculation in his brain; and, as the Mahometan prays towards Mecca, and the Jew towards Jerusalem, so Captain Lake’s morning orisons, whatsoever they were, were offered at the window of his bed-room toward London, from whence he looked for his salvation, or it might be the other thing — with a dreadful yearning.

He hated the fresh glitter of that morning scene. Why should the world be cheerful? It was a repast spread of which he could not partake, and it spited him. Yes; it was selfish — and hating selfishness — he would have struck the sun out of the sky that morning with his walking-cane, if he could, and draped the world in black.

He saw from his window the good vicar walk smiling by, in white choker and seedy black, his little boy holding by his fingers, and capering and wheeling in front, and smiling up in his face. They were very busy talking.

Little ‘Fairy’ used to walk, when parochial visits were not very distant, with his ‘Wapsie;’ how that name came about no one remembered, but the vicar answered to it more cheerily than to any other. The little man was solitary, and these rambles were a delight. A beautiful smiling little fellow, very exacting of attention — troublesome, perhaps; he was so sociable, and needed sympathy and companionship, and repaid it with a boundless, sensitive love. The vicar told him the stories of David and Goliath, and Joseph and his brethren, and of the wondrous birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the star that led the Wise Men, and the celestial song heard by the shepherds keeping their flocks by night, and snatches of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’; and sometimes, when they made a feast and eat their pennyworth of cherries, sitting on the style, he treated him, I am afraid, to the profane histories of Jack the Giant-killer and the Yellow Dwarf; the vicar had theories about imagination, and fancied it was an important faculty, and that the Creator had not given children their unextinguishable love of stories to no purpose.

I don’t envy the man who is superior to the society of children. What can he gain from children’s talk? Is it witty, or wise, or learned? Be frank. Is it not, honestly, a mere noise and interruption — a musical cackling of geese, and silvery braying of tiny asses? Well, say I, out of my large acquaintance, there are not many men to whom I would go for wisdom; learning is better found in books, and, as for wit, is it always pleasant? The most companionable men are not always the greatest intellects. They laugh, and though they don’t converse, they make a cheerful noise, and show a cheerful countenance.

There was not a great deal in Will Honeycomb, for instance; but our dear Mr. Spectator tells us somewhere that ‘he laughed easily,’ which I think quite accounts for his acceptance with the club. He was kindly and enjoying. What is it that makes your dog so charming a companion in your walks? Simply that he thoroughly likes you and enjoys himself. He appeals imperceptibly to your affections, which cannot be stirred — such is God’s will — ever so lightly, without some little thrillings of happiness; and through the subtle absorbents of your sympathy he infuses into you something of his own hilarious and exulting spirit.

When Stanley Lake saw the vicar, the lines of his pale face contracted strangely, and his wild gaze followed him, and I don’t think he breathed once until the thin smiling man in black, with the little gambolling bright boy holding by his hand, had passed by. He was thinking, you may be sure, of his Brother Mark.

When Lake had ended his toilet and stared in the glass, he still looked so haggard, that on greeting Mr. Larkin in the parlour, he thought it necessary to mention that he had taken cold in that confounded billiard-room last night, which spoiled his sleep, and made him awfully seedy that morning. Of course, his host was properly afflicted and sympathetic.

‘By-the-bye, I had a letter this morning from that party — our common friend, Mr. W., you know,’ said Larkin, gracefully.

‘Well, what is he doing, and when does he come back? You mean Wylder, of course?’

‘Yes; my good client, Mr. Mark Wylder. Permit me to assist you to some honey, you’ll find it remarkably good, I venture to say; it comes from the gardens of Queen’s Audley. The late marquis, you know, prided himself on his honey — and my friend, Thornbury, cousin to Sir Frederick Thornbury — I suppose you know him — an East Indian judge, you know — very kindly left it at Dollington for me, on his way to the Earl of Epsom’s.’

‘Thank you — delicious, I’m sure, it has been in such good company. May I see Wylder’s note — that is, if there’s no private business?’

‘Oh, certainly.’

And, with Wylder’s great red seal on the back of the envelope, the letter ran thus:—

‘DEAR LARKIN — I write in haste to save post, to say I shall be detained in town a few days longer than I thought. Don’t wait for me about the parchments; I am satisfied. If anything crosses your mind, a word with Mr. De C. at the Hall, will clear all up. Have all ready to sign and seal when I come back — certainly, within a week.

‘Yours sincerely,

‘M. WYLDER,

‘London.’

It was evidently written in great haste, with the broad-nibbed pen he liked; but notwithstanding the sort of swagger with which the writing marched across the page, Lake might have seen here and there a little quaver — indicative of something different from haste — the vibrations of another sort of flurry.

‘“Certainly within a week,” he writes. Does he mean he’ll be here in a week or only to have the papers ready in a week?’ asked Lake.

‘The question, certainly, does arise. It struck me on the first perusal,’ answered the attorney. ‘His address is rather a wide one, too — London! Do you know his club, Captain Lake?’

‘The Wanderers. He has left the United Service. Nothing for me, by-the-way?’

‘No letter. No.’

Tant mieux, I hate them,’ said the captain. ‘I wonder how my sister is this morning.’

‘Would you like a messenger? I’ll send down with pleasure to enquire.’

‘Thank you, no; I’ll walk down and see her.’

And Lake yawned at the window, and then took his hat and stick and sauntered toward Gylingden. At the post-office window he tapped with the silver tip of his cane, and told Miss Driver with a sleepy smile —

‘I’m going down to Redman’s Farm, and any letters for my sister, Miss Lake, I may as well take with me.’

Everybody ‘in business’ in the town of Gylingden, by this time, knew Captain Lake and his belongings — a most respectable party — a high man; and, of course, there was no difficulty. There was only one letter — the address was written —‘Miss Lake, Redman’s Farm, near Brandon Park, Gylingden,’ in a stiff hand, rather slanting backwards.

Captain Lake put it in his paletot pocket, looked in her face gently, and smiled, and thanked her in his graceful way — and, in fact, left an enduring impression upon that impressible nature.

Turning up the dark road at Redman’s Dell, the gallant captain passed the old mill, and, all being quiet up and down the road, he halted under the lordly shadow of a clump of chestnuts, and opened and read the letter he had just taken charge of. It contained only these words:—

‘Wednesday.

‘On Friday night, next, at half-past twelve.’

This he read twice or thrice, pausing between whiles. The envelope bore the London postmark. Then he took out his cigar case, selected a promising weed, and wrapping the laconic note prettily round one of his scented matches, lighted it, and the note flamed pale in the daylight, and dropped still blazing, at the root of the old tree he stood by, and sent up a little curl of blue smoke — an incense to the demon of the wood — and turned in a minute more into a black film, overrun by a hundred creeping sparkles; and having completed his mysterious incremation, he, with his yellow eyes, made a stolen glance around, and lighting his cigar, glided gracefully up the steep road, under the solemn canopy of old timber, to the sound of the moaning stream below, and the rustle of withered leaves about him, toward Redman’s Farm.

As he entered the flower-garden, the jaundiced face of old Tamar, with its thousand small wrinkles and its ominous gleam of suspicion, was looking out from the darkened porch. The white cap, kerchief, and drapery, courtesied to him as he drew near, and the dismal face changed not.

‘Well, Tamar, how do you do? — how are all? Where is that girl Margery?’

‘In the kitchen, Master Stanley,’ said she, courtesying again.

‘Are you sure?’ said Captain Lake, peeping toward that apartment over the old woman’s shoulder.

‘Certain sure, Master Stanley.’

‘Well, come up stairs to your mistress’s room,’ said Lake, mounting the stairs, with his hat in his hand, and on tip-toe, like a man approaching a sick chamber.

There was something I think grim and spectral in this ceremonious ascent to the empty chamber. Children had once occupied that silent floor for there was a little balustraded gate across the top of the staircase.

‘I keep this closed,’ said old Tamar, ‘and forbid her to cross it, lest she should disturb the mistress. Heaven forgive me!’

‘Very good,’ he whispered, and he peeped over the banister, and then entered Rachel’s silent room, darkened with closed shutters, the white curtains and white coverlet so like ‘the dark chamber of white death.’

He had intended speaking to Tamar there, but changed his mind, or rather could not make up his mind; and he loitered silently, and stood with the curtain in his gloved hand, looking upon the cold coverlet, as if Rachel lay dead there.

‘That will do,’ he said, awaking from his wandering thought. ‘We’ll go down now, Tamar.’

And in the same stealthy way, walking lightly and slowly, down the stairs they went, and Stanley entered the kitchen.

‘How do you do, Margery? You’ll be glad to hear your mistress is better. You must run down to the town, though, and buy some jelly, and you are to bring her back change of this.’

And he placed half-a-crown in her hand.

‘Put on your bonnet and my old shawl, child; and take the basket, and come back by the side door,’ croaked old Tamar.

So the girl dried her hands — she was washing the teacups — and in a twinkling was equipped and on her way to Gylingden.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49