Wylder's Hand, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 61.

In which Dame Dutton is Visited.

Duly next morning the rosy-fingered Aurora drew the gold and crimson curtains of the east, and the splendid Apollo, stepping forth from his chamber, took the reins of his unrivalled team, and driving four-in-hand through the sky, like a great swell as he is, took small note of the staring hucksters and publicans by the road-side, and sublimely overlooked the footsore and ragged pedestrians that crawl below his level. It was, in fact, one of those brisk and bright mornings which proclaim a universal cheerfulness, and mock the miseries of those dismal wayfarers of life, to whom returning light is a renewal of sorrow, who, bowing toward the earth, resume their despairing march, and limp and groan under heavy burdens, until darkness, welcome, comes again, and their eyelids drop, and they lie down with their loads on, looking up a silent supplication, and wishing that death would touch their eyelids in their sleep, and their journey end where they lie.

Captain Lake was in London this morning. We know he came about electioneering matters; but he had not yet seen Leverett. Perhaps on second thoughts he rightly judged that Leverett knew no more than he did of the matter. It depended on the issue of the great debate that was drawing nigh. The Minister himself could not tell whether the dissolution was at hand; and could no more postpone it, when the time came, than he could adjourn an eclipse.

Notwithstanding the late whist party of the previous night, the gallant captain made a very early toilet. With his little bag in his hand, he went down stairs, thinking unpleasantly, I believe, and jumped into the Hansom that awaited him at the door, telling the man to go to the —— station. They had hardly turned the corner, however, when he popped his head forward and changed the direction.

He looked at his watch. He had quite time to make his visit, and save the down-train after.

He did not know the City well. Many men who lived two hundred miles away, and made a flying visit only once in three years, knew it a great deal better than the London-bred rake who had lived in the West-end all his days.

Captain Lake looked peevish and dangerous, as he always did, when he was anxious. In fact he did not know what the next ten minutes might bring him. He was thinking what had best be done in any and every contingency. Was he still abroad, or had he arrived? was he in Shive’s Court, or, cursed luck! had he crossed him yesterday by the down-train, and was he by this time closeted with Larkin in the Lodge? Lake, so to speak, stood at his wicket, and that accomplished bowler, Fortune, ball in hand, at the other end; will it be swift round-hand, or a slow twister, or a shooter, or a lob? Eye and hand, foot and bat, he must stand tense, yet flexible, lithe and swift as lightning, ready for everything — cut, block, slip, or hit to leg. It was not altogether pleasant. The stakes were enormous! and the suspense by no means conducive to temper.

Lake fancied that the man was driving wrong, once or twice, and was on the point of cursing him to that effect, from the window. But at last, with an anxious throb at his heart, he recognised the dingy archway, and the cracked brown marble tablet over the keystone, and he recognised Shive’s Court.

So forth jumped the captain, so far relieved, and glided into the dim quadrangle, with its square of smoky sky overhead; and the prattle of children playing on the flags, and the scrape of a violin from a window, were in his ears, but as it were unheard. He was looking up at a window, with a couple of sooty scarlet geraniums in it. This was the court where Dame Dutton dwelt. He glided up her narrow stair and let himself in by the latch; and with his cane made a smacking like a harlequin’s sword upon the old woman’s deal table, crying: ‘Mrs. Dutton; Mrs. Dutton. Is Mrs. Dutton at home?’

The old lady, who was a laundress, entered, in a short blue cotton wrapper, wiping the suds from her shrunken but sinewy arms with her apron, and on seeing the captain, her countenance, which was threatening, became very reverential indeed.

‘How d’ye do, Mrs. Dutton? Quite well. Have you heard lately from Jim?’

‘No.’

‘You’ll see him soon, however, and give him this note, d’ye see, and tell him I was here, asking about you and him, and very well, and glad if I can serve him again? don’t forget that, very glad. Where will you keep that note? Oh! your tea-caddy, not a bad safe; and see, give him this, it’s ten pounds. You won’t forget; and you want a new gown, Mrs. Dutton. I’d choose it thyself, only I’m such a bad judge; but you’ll choose it for me, won’t you? and let me see it on you when next I come,’ and with a courtesy and a great beaming smile on her hot face, she accepted the five-pound note, which he placed in her hand.

In another moment the captain was gone. He had just time to swallow a cup of coffee at the ‘Terminus Hotel,’ and was gliding away towards the distant walls of Brandon Hall.

He had a coupé all to himself. But he did not care for the prospect. He saw Lawyer Larkin, as it were, reflected in the plate-glass, with his hollow smile and hungry eyes before him, knowing more than he should do, paying him compliments, and plotting his ruin.

‘Everything would have been quite smooth only for that d —— fellow. The Devil fixed him precisely there for the express purpose of fleecing and watching, and threatening him — perhaps worse. He hated that sly, double-dealing reptile of prey — the arachnida of social nature — the spiders with which also naturalists place the scorpions. I dare say Mr. Larkin would have had as little difficulty in referring the gallant captain to the same family.

While Stanley Lake is thus scanning the shabby, but dangerous image of the attorney in the magic mirror before him, that eminent limb of the law was not inactive in the quiet town of Gylingden. Under ordinary circumstances his ‘pride’ would have condemned the vicar to a direful term of suspense, and he certainly would not have knocked at the door of the pretty little gabled house at the Dollington end of the town for many days to come. The vicar would have had to seek out the attorney, to lie in wait for and to woo him.

But Jos. Larkin’s pride, like all his other passions — except his weakness for the precious metals — was under proper regulation. Jim Dutton might arrive at any moment, and it would not do to risk his publishing the melancholy intelligence of Mark Wylder’s death before the transfer of the vicar’s reversion; and to prevent that risk the utmost promptitude was indispensable.

At nine o’clock, therefore, he presented himself, attended by his legal henchmen as before.

‘Another man might not have come here, Mr. Wylder, until his presence had been specially invited, after the — the ——’ when he came to define the offence it was not very easy to do so, inasmuch as it consisted in the vicar’s having unconsciously very nearly escaped from his fangs; ‘but let that pass. I have had, I grieve to say, by this morning’s post a most serious letter from London;’ the attorney shook his head, while searching his pocket. ‘I’ll read just a passage or two if you’ll permit me; it comes from Burlington and Smith. I protest I have forgot it at home; however, I may mention, that in consequence of the letter you authorised me to write, and guaranteed by your bond, on which they have entered judgment, they have gone to the entire expense of drawing the deeds, and investigating title, and they say that the purchaser will positively be off, unless the articles are in their office by twelve o’clock to-morrow; and, I grieve to say, they add, that in the event of the thing falling through, they will issue execution for the amount of their costs, which, as I anticipated, a good deal exceeds four hundred pounds. I have, therefore, my dear Mr. Wylder, casting aside all unpleasant feeling, called to entreat you to end and determine any hesitation you may have felt, and to execute without one moment’s delay the articles which are prepared, and which must be in the post-office within half an hour.’

Then Mr. Jos. Larkin entered pointedly and briefly into Miss Lake’s offer, which he characterised as ‘wholly nugatory, illusory, and chimerical;’ told him he had spoken on the subject, yesterday evening, to the young lady, who now saw plainly that there really was nothing in it, and that she was not in a position to carry out that part of her proposition, which contemplated a residence in the vicar’s family.

This portion of his discourse he dismissed rather slightly and mysteriously; but he contrived to leave upon the vicar’s mind a very painful and awful sort of uncertainty respecting the young lady of whom he spoke.

Then he became eloquent on the madness of further indecision in a state of things so fearfully menacing, freely admitting that it would have been incomparably better for the vicar never to have moved in the matter, than, having put his hand to the plough, to look back as he had been doing. If he declined his advice, there was no more to be said, but to bow his head to the storm, and that ponderous execution would descend in wreck and desolation.

So the vicar, very much flushed, in panic and perplexity, and trusting wildly to his protesting lawyer’s guidance, submitted. Buggs and the bilious youngster entered with the deed, and the articles were duly executed, and the vicar signed also a receipt for the fanciful part of the consideration, and upon it and the deed he endorsed a solemn promise, in the terms I have mentioned before, that he would never take any step to question, set aside, or disturb the purchase, or any matter connected therewith.

Then the attorney, now in his turn flushed and very much elated, congratulated the poor vicar on his emancipation from his difficulties; and ‘now that it was all done and over, told him, what he had never told him before, that, considering the nature of the purchase, he had got a splendid price for it.’

The good man had also his agreement from Lake to sell Five Oaks.

The position of the good attorney, therefore, in a commercial point of view, was eminently healthy and convenient. For less than half the value of Five Oaks alone, he was getting that estate, and a vastly greater one beside, to be succeeded to on Mark Wylder’s death.

No wonder, then, that the good attorney was more than usually bland and happy that day. He saw the pork-butcher in his back-parlour, and had a few words to say about the chapel-trust, and his looks and talk were quite edifying. He met two little children in the street, and stopped and smiled as he stooped down to pat them on the heads, and ask them whose children they were, and gave one of them a halfpenny. And he sat afterwards, for nearly ten minutes, with lean old Mrs. Mullock, in her little shop, where toffey, toys, and penny books for young people were sold, together with baskets, tea-cups, straw-mats, and other adult ware; and he was so friendly and talked so beautifully, and although, as he admitted in his lofty way, ‘there might be differences in fortune and position,’ yet were we not all members of one body? And he talked upon this theme till the good lady, marvelling how so great a man could be so humble, was called to the receipt of custom, on the subject of ‘paradise’ and ‘lemon-drops,’ and the heavenly-minded attorney, with a celestial condescension, recognised his two little acquaintances of the street, and actually adding another halfpenny to his bounty — escaped, with a hasty farewell and a smile, to the street, as eager to evade the thanks of the little people, and the admiration of Mrs. Mullock.

It is not to be supposed, that having got one momentous matter well off his mind, the good attorney was to be long rid of anxieties. The human mind is fertile in that sort of growth. As well might the gentleman who shaves suppose, as his fingers glide, after the operation, over the polished surface of his chin — factus ad unguem — that he may fling his brush and strop into the fire, and bury his razor certain fathoms in the earth. No! One crop of cares will always succeed another — not very oppressive, nor in any wise grand, perhaps — worries, simply, no more; but needing a modicum of lather, the looking glass, the strop, the diligent razor, delicate manipulation, and stealing a portion of our precious time every day we live; and this must go on so long as the state of man is imperfect, and plenty of possible evil in futurity.

The attorney must run up to London for a day or two. What if that mysterious, and almost illegible brute, James Dutton, should arrive while he was away. Very unpleasant, possibly! For the attorney intended to keep that gentleman very quiet. Sufficient time must be allowed to intervene to disconnect the purchase of the vicar’s remainder from the news of Mark Wylder’s demise. A year and a-half, maybe, or possibly a year might do. For if the good attorney was cautious, he was also greedy, and would take possession as early as was safe. Therefore arrangements were carefully adjusted to detain that important person, in the event of his arriving; and a note, in the good attorney’s hand, inviting him to remain at the Lodge till his return, and particularly requesting that ‘he would kindly abstain from mentioning to anyone, during his absence, any matter he might intend to communicate to him in his professional capacity or otherwise.’

This, of course, was a little critical, and made his to-morrow’s journey to London a rather anxious prospect.

In the meantime our friend, Captain Lake, arrived in a hired fly, with his light baggage, at the door of stately Brandon. So soon as the dust and ashes of railway travel were removed, the pale captain, in changed attire, snowy cambric, and with perfumed hair and handkerchief, presented himself before Dorcas.

‘Now, Dorkie, darling, your poor soldier has come back, resolved to turn over a new leaf, and never more to reserve another semblance of a secret from you,’ said he, so soon as his first greeting was over. ‘I long to have a good talk with you, Dorkie. I have no one on earth to confide in but you. I think,’ he said, with a little sigh, ‘I would never have been so reserved with you, darling, if I had had anything pleasant to confide; but all I have to say is triste and tiresome — only a story of difficulties and petty vexations. I want to talk to you, Dorkie. Where shall it be?’

They were in the great drawing-room, where I had first seen Dorcas Brandon and Rachel Lake, on the evening on which my acquaintance with the princely Hall was renewed, after an interval of so many years.

‘This room, Stanley, dear?’

‘Yes, this room will answer very well,’ he said, looking round. ‘We can’t be overheard, it is so large. Very well, darling, listen.’

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