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Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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leaving a dark shadow upon his moody face, which neither the brilliant
light of the gas nor the red blaze of the fire could dispel.

Very late in the evening he rose from his chair, pushed away the table,
wheeled his desk over to the fire-place, took out a sheet of fools-cap,
and dipped a pen in the ink.

But after doing this he paused, leaned his forehead upon his hand, and
once more relapsed into thought.

"I shall draw up a record of all that has occurred between our going
down to Essex and to-night, beginning at the very beginning."

He drew up this record in short, detached sentences, which he numbered
as he wrote.

It ran thus:

"_Journal of Facts connected with the Disappearance of George Talboys,
inclusive of Facts which have no apparent Relation to that

In spite of the troubled state of his mind, he was rather inclined to be
proud of the official appearance of this heading. He sat for some time
looking at it with affection, and with the feather of his pen in his
mouth. "Upon my word," he said, "I begin to think that I ought to have
pursued my profession, instead of dawdling my life away as I have done."

He smoked half a cigar before he had got his thoughts in proper train,
and then began to write:

"1. I write to Alicia, proposing to take George down to the Court."

"2. Alicia writes, objecting to the visit, on the part of Lady Audley."

"3. We go to Essex in spite of that objection. I see my lady. My lady
refuses to be introduced to George on that particular evening on the
score of fatigue."

"4. Sir Michael invites George and me to dinner for the following

"5. My lady receives a telegraphic dispatch the next morning which
summons her to London."

"6. Alicia shows me a letter from my lady, in which she requests to be
told when I and my friend, Mr. Talboys, mean to leave Essex. To this
letter is subjoined a postscript, reiterating the above request."

"7. We call at the Court, and ask to see the house. My lady's apartments
are locked."

"8. We get at the aforesaid apartments by means of a secret passage, the
existence of which is unknown to my lady. In one of the rooms we find
her portrait."

"9. George is frightened at the storm. His conduct is exceedingly
strange for the rest of the evening."

"10. George quite himself again the following morning. I propose leaving
Audley Court immediately; he prefers remaining till the evening."

"11. We go out fishing. George leaves me to go to the Court."

"12. The last positive information I can obtain of him in Essex is at
the Court, where the servant says he thinks Mr. Talboys told him he
would go and look for my lady in the grounds."

"13. I receive information about him at the station which may or may not
be correct."

"14. I hear of him positively once more at Southampton, where, according
to his father-in-law, he had been for an hour on the previous night."

"15. The telegraphic message."

When Robert Audley had completed this brief record, which he drew up
with great deliberation, and with frequent pauses for reflection,
alterations and erasures, he sat for a long time contemplating the
written page.

At last he read it carefully over, stopping at some of the numbered
paragraphs, and marking some of them with a pencil cross; then he folded
the sheet of foolscap, went over to a cabinet on the opposite side of
the room, unlocked it, and placed the paper in that very pigeon-hole
into which he had thrust Alicia's letter--the pigeon-hole marked

Having done this, he returned to his easy-chair by the fire, pushed away
his desk, and lighted a cigar. "It's as dark as midnight from first to
last," he said; "and the clew to the mystery must be found either at
Southampton or in Essex. Be it how it may, my mind is made up. I shall
first go to Audley Court, and look for George Talboys in a narrow



"Mr. George Talboys.--Any person who has met this gentleman since the
7th inst., or who possesses any information respecting him subsequent to
that date, will be liberally rewarded on communicating with A.Z., 14
Chancery Lane."

Sir Michael Audley read the above advertisement in the second column of
the _Times_, as he sat at breakfast with my lady and Alicia two or three
days after Robert's return to town.

"Robert's friend has not yet been heard of, then," said the baronet,
after reading the advertisement to his wife and daughter.

"As for that," replied my lady, "I cannot help wondering that any one
can be silly enough to advertise for him. The young man was evidently of
a restless, roving disposition--a sort of Bamfyld Moore Carew of modern
life, whom no attraction could ever keep in one spot."

Though the advertisement appeared three successive times, the party at
the Court attached very little importance to Mr. Talboys disappearance;
and after this one occasion his name was never again mentioned by either
Sir Michael, my lady, or Alicia.

Alicia Audley and her pretty stepmother were by no means any better
friends after that quiet evening on which the young barrister had dined
at the Court.

"She is a vain, frivolous, heartless little coquette," said Alicia,
addressing herself to her Newfoundland dog Caesar, who was the sole
recipient of the young lady's confidences; "she is a practiced and
consummate flirt, Caesar; and not contented with setting her yellow
ringlets and her silly giggle at half the men in Essex, she must needs
make that stupid cousin of mine dance attendance upon her. I haven't
common patience with her."

In proof of which last assertion Miss Alice Audley treated her
stepmother with such very palpable impertinence that Sir Michael felt
himself called upon to remonstrate with his only daughter.

"The poor little woman is very sensitive, you know, Alicia," the baronet
said, gravely, "and she feels your conduct most acutely."

"I don't believe it a bit, papa," answered Alicia, stoutly. "You think
her sensitive because she has soft little white hands, and big blue eyes
with long lashes, and all manner of affected, fantastical ways, which
you stupid men call fascinating. Sensitive! Why, I've seen her do cruel
things with those slender white fingers, and laugh at the pain she
inflicted. I'm very sorry, papa," she added, softened a little by her
father's look of distress; "though she has come between us, and robbed
poor Alicia of the love of that dear, generous heart, I wish I could
like her for your sake; but I can't, I can't, and no more can Caesar.
She came up to him once with her red lips apart, and her little white
teeth glistening between them, and stroked his great head with her soft
hand; but if I had not had hold of his collar, he would have flown at
her throat and strangled her. She may bewitch every man in Essex, but
she'd never make friends with my dog."

"Your dog shall be shot," answered Sir Michael angrily, "if his vicious
temper ever endangers Lucy."

The Newfoundland rolled his eyes slowly round in the direction of the
speaker, as if he understood every word that had been said. Lady Audley
happened to enter the room at this very moment, and the animal cowered
down by the side of his mistress with a suppressed growl. There was
something in the manner of the dog which was, if anything, more
indicative of terror than of fury; incredible as it appears that Caesar
should be frightened by so fragile a creature as Lucy Audley.

Amicable as was my lady's nature, she could not live long at the Court
without discovering Alicia's dislike to her. She never alluded to it but
once; then, shrugging her graceful white shoulders, she said, with a

"It seems very hard that you cannot love me, Alicia, for I have never
been used to make enemies; but since it seems that it must be so, I
cannot help it. If we cannot be friends, let us be neutral. You won't
try to injure me?"

"Injure you!" exclaimed Alicia; "how should I injure you?"

"You'll not try to deprive me of your father's affection?"

"I may not be as amiable as you are, my lady, and I may not have the
same sweet smiles and pretty words for every stranger I meet, but I am
not capable of a contemptible meanness; and even if I were, I think you
are so secure of my father's love, that nothing but your own act will
ever deprive you of it."

"What a severe creature you are, Alicia!" said my lady, making a little
grimace. "I suppose you mean to infer by all that, that I'm deceitful.
Why, I can't help smiling at people, and speaking prettily to them. I
know I'm no _better_ than the rest of the world; but I can't help it if
I'm _pleasanter_. It's constitutional."

Alicia having thus entirely shut the door upon all intimacy between Lady
Audley and herself, and Sir Michael being chiefly occupied in
agricultural pursuits and manly sports, which kept him away from home,
it was perhaps natural that my lady, being of an eminently social
disposition, should find herself thrown a good deal upon her
white-eyelashed maid for society.

Phoebe Marks was exactly the sort of a girl who is generally promoted
from the post of lady's maid to that of companion. She had just
sufficient education to enable her to understand her mistress when Lucy
chose to allow herself to run riot in a species of intellectual
tarantella, in which her tongue went mad to the sound of its own rattle,
as the Spanish dancer at the noise of his castanets. Phoebe knew enough
of the French language to be able to dip into the yellow-paper-covered
novels which my lady ordered from the Burlington Arcade, and to
discourse with her mistress upon the questionable subjects of these
romances. The likeness which the lady's maid bore to Lucy Audley was,
perhaps, a point of sympathy between the two women. It was not to be
called a striking likeness; a stranger might have seen them both
together, and yet have failed to remark it. But there were certain dim
and shadowy lights in which, meeting Phoebe Marks gliding softly through
the dark oak passages of the Court, or under the shrouded avenues in the
garden, you might have easily mistaken her for my lady.

Sharp October winds were sweeping the leaves from the limes in the long
avenue, and driving them in withered heaps with a ghostly rustling noise
along the dry gravel walks. The old well must have been half choked up
with the leaves that drifted about it, and whirled in eddying circles
into its black, broken mouth. On the still bosom of the fish-pond the
same withered leaves slowly rotted away, mixing themselves with the
tangled weeds that discolored the surface of the water. All the
gardeners Sir Michael could employ could not keep the impress of
autumn's destroying hand from the grounds about the Court.

"How I hate this desolate month!" my lady said, as she walked about the
garden, shivering beneath her sable mantle. "Every thing dropping to
ruin and decay, and the cold flicker of the sun lighting up the ugliness
of the earth, as the glare of gas-lamps lights the wrinkles of an old
woman. Shall I ever grow old, Phoebe? Will my hair ever drop off as the
leaves are falling from those trees, and leave me wan and bare like
them? What is to become of me when I grow old?"

She shivered at the thought of this more than she had done at the cold,
wintry breeze, and muffling herself closely in her fur, walked so fast
that her maid had some difficulty in keeping up with her.

"Do you remember, Phoebe," she said, presently, relaxing her pace, "do
you remember that French story we read--the story of a beautiful woman
who had committed some crime--I forget what--in the zenith of her power
and loveliness, when all Paris drank to her every night, and when the
people ran away from the carriage of the king to flock about hers, and
get a peep at her face? Do you remember how she kept the secret of what
she had done for nearly half a century, spending her old age in her
family chateau, beloved and honored by all the province as an
uncanonized saint and benefactress to the poor; and how, when her hair
was white, and her eyes almost blind with age, the secret was revealed
through one of those strange accidents by which such secrets always are
revealed in romances, and she was tried, found guilty, and condemned to
be burned alive? The king who had worn her colors was dead and gone; the
court of which she had been a star had passed away; powerful
functionaries and great magistrates, who might perhaps have helped her,
were moldering in the graves; brave young cavaliers, who would have died
for her, had fallen upon distant battle-fields; she had lived to see the
age to which she had belonged fade like a dream; and she went to the
stake, followed by only a few ignorant country people, who forgot all
her bounties, and hooted at her for a wicked sorceress."

"I don't care for such dismal stories, my lady," said Phoebe Marks with
a shudder. "One has no need to read books to give one the horrors in
this dull place."

Lady Audley shrugged her shoulders and laughed at her maid's candor.

"It is a dull place, Phoebe," she said, "though it doesn't do to say so
to my dear old husband. Though I am the wife of one of the most
influential men in the county, I don't know that I wasn't nearly as well
off at Mr. Dawson's; and yet it's something to wear sables that cost
sixty guineas, and have a thousand pounds spent on the decoration of
one's apartments."

Treated as a companion by her mistress, in the receipt of the most
liberal wages, and with perquisites such as perhaps lady's maid never
had before, it was strange that Phoebe Marks should wish to leave her
situation; but it was not the less a fact that she was anxious to
exchange all the advantages of Audley Court for the very unpromising
prospect which awaited her as the wife of her Cousin Luke.

The young man had contrived in some manner to associate himself with the
improved fortunes of his sweetheart. He had never allowed Phoebe any
peace till she had obtained for him, by the aid of my lady's
interference, a situation as undergroom of the Court.

He never rode out with either Alicia or Sir Michael; but on one of the
few occasions upon which my lady mounted the pretty little gray
thoroughbred reserved for her use, he contrived to attend her in her
ride. He saw enough, in the very first half hour they were out, to
discover that, graceful as Lucy Audley might look in her long blue cloth
habit, she was a timid horsewoman, and utterly unable to manage the
animal she rode.

Lady Audley remonstrated with her maid upon her folly in wishing to
marry the uncouth groom.

The two women were seated together over the fire in my lady's
dressing-room, the gray sky closing in upon the October afternoon, and
the black tracery of ivy darkening the casement windows.

"You surely are not in love with the awkward, ugly creature are you,
Phoebe?" asked my lady sharply.

The girl was sitting on a low stool at her mistress feet. She did not
answer my lady's question immediately, but sat for some time looking
vacantly into the red abyss in the hollow fire.

Presently she said, rather as if she had been thinking aloud than
answering Lucy's question:

"I don't think I can love him. We have been together from children, and
I promised, when I was little better than fifteen, that I'd be his wife.
I daren't break that promise now. There have been times when I've made
up the very sentence I meant to say to him, telling him that I couldn't
keep my faith with him; but the words have died upon my lips, and I've
sat looking at him, with a choking sensation, in my throat that wouldn't
let me speak. I daren't refuse to marry him. I've often watched and
watched him, as he has sat slicing away at a hedge-stake with his great
clasp-knife, till I have thought that it is just such men as he who have
decoyed their sweethearts into lonely places, and murdered them for
being false to their word. When he was a boy he was always violent and
revengeful. I saw him once take up that very knife in a quarrel with his
mother. I tell you, my lady, I must marry him."

"You silly girl, you shall do nothing of the kind!" answered Lucy. "You
think he'll murder you, do you? Do you think, then, if murder is in him,
you would be any safer as his wife? If you thwarted him, or made him
jealous; if he wanted to marry another woman, or to get hold of some
poor, pitiful bit of money of yours, couldn't he murder you then? I tell
you you sha'n't marry him, Phoebe. In the first place I hate the man;
and, in the next place I can't afford to part with you. We'll give him a
few pounds and send him about his business."

Phoebe Marks caught my lady's hand in hers, and clasped them

"My lady--my good, kind mistress!" she cried, vehemently, "don't try to
thwart me in this--don't ask me to thwart him. I tell you I must marry
him. You don't know what he is. It will be my ruin, and the ruin of
others, if I break my word. I must marry him!"

"Very well, then, Phoebe," answered her mistress, "I can't oppose you.
There must be some secret at the bottom of all this." "There is, my
lady," said the girl, with her face turned away from Lucy.

"I shall be very sorry to lose you; but I have promised to stand your
friend in all things. What does your cousin mean to do for a living
when, you are married?"

"He would like to take a public house."

"Then he shall take a public house, and the sooner he drinks himself to
death the better. Sir Michael dines at a bachelor's party at Major
Margrave's this evening, and my step-daughter is away with her friends
at the Grange. You can bring your cousin into the drawing-room after
dinner, and I'll tell him what I mean to do for him."

"You are very good, my lady," Phoebe answered with a sigh.

Lady Audley sat in the glow of firelight and wax candles in the
luxurious drawing-room; the amber damask cushions of the sofa
contrasting with her dark violet velvet dress, and her rippling hair
falling about her neck in a golden haze. Everywhere around her were the
evidences of wealth and splendor; while in strange contrast to all this,
and to her own beauty; the awkward groom stood rubbing his bullet head
as my lady explained to him what she intended to do for her confidential
maid. Lucy's promises were very liberal, and she had expected that,
uncouth as the man was, he would, in his own rough manner, have
expressed his gratitude.

To her surprise he stood staring at the floor without uttering a word in
answer to her offer. Phoebe was standing close to his elbow, and seemed
distressed at the man's rudeness.

"Tell my lady how thankful you are, Luke," she said.

"But I'm not so over and above thankful," answered her lover, savagely.
"Fifty pound ain't much to start a public. You'll make it a hundred, my

"I shall do nothing of the kind," said Lady Audley, her clear blue eyes
flashing with indignation, "and I wonder at your impertinence in asking

"Oh, yes, you will, though," answered Luke, with quiet insolence that
had a hidden meaning. "You'll make it a hundred, my lady."

Lady Audley rose from her seat, looked the man steadfastly in the face
till his determined gaze sunk under hers; then walking straight up to
her maid, she said in a high, piercing voice, peculiar to her in moments
of intense agitation:

"Phoebe Marks, you have told _this man_!"

The girl fell on her knees at my lady's feet.

"Oh, forgive me, forgive me!" she cried. "He forced it from me, or I
would never, never have told!"



Upon a lowering morning late in November, with the yellow fog low upon
the flat meadows, and the blinded cattle groping their way through the
dim obscurity, and blundering stupidly against black and leafless
hedges, or stumbling into ditches, undistinguishable in the hazy
atmosphere; with the village church looming brown and dingy through the
uncertain light; with every winding path and cottage door, every gable
end and gray old chimney, every village child and straggling cur seeming
strange and weird of aspect in the semi-darkness, Phoebe Marks and her
Cousin Luke made their way through the churchyard of Audley, and
presented themselves before a shivering curate, whose surplice hung in
damp folds, soddened by the morning mist, and whose temper was not
improved by his having waited five minutes for the bride and bridegroom.

Luke Marks, dressed in his ill-fitting Sunday clothes, looked by no
means handsomer than in his every-day apparel; but Phoebe, arrayed in a
rustling silk of delicate gray, that had been worn about half a dozen
times by her mistress, looked, as the few spectators of the ceremony
remarked, "quite the lady."

A very dim and shadowy lady, vague of outline, and faint of coloring,
with eyes, hair, complexion and dress all melting into such pale and
uncertain shades that, in the obscure light of the foggy November
morning a superstitious stranger might have mistaken the bride for the
ghost of some other bride, dead and buried in the vault below the

Mr. Luke Marks, the hero of the occasion, thought very little of all
this. He had secured the wife of his choice, and the object of his
life-long ambition--a public house. My lady had provided the
seventy-five pounds necessary for the purchase of the good-will and
fixtures, with the stock of ales and spirits, of a small inn in the
center of a lonely little village, perched on the summit of a hill, and
called Mount Stanning. It was not a very pretty house to look at; it had
something of a tumble-down, weather-beaten appearance, standing, as it
did, upon high ground, sheltered only by four or five bare and overgrown
poplars, that had shot up too rapidly for their strength, and had a
blighted, forlorn look in consequence. The wind had had its own way with
the Castle Inn, and had sometimes made cruel use of its power. It was
the wind that battered and bent the low, thatched roofs of outhouses and
stables, till they hung over and lurched forward, as a slouched hat
hangs over the low forehead of some village ruffian; it was the wind
that shook and rattled the wooden shutters before the narrow casements,
till they hung broken and dilapidated upon their rusty hinges; it was
the wind that overthrew the pigeon house, and broke the vane that had
been imprudently set up to tell the movements of its mightiness; it, was
the wind that made light of any little bit of wooden trellis-work, or
creeping plant, or tiny balcony, or any modest decoration whatsoever,
and tore and scattered it in its scornful fury; it was the wind that
left mossy secretions on the discolored surface of the plaster walls; it
was the wind, in short, that shattered, and ruined, and rent, and
trampled upon the tottering pile of buildings, and then flew shrieking
off, to riot and glory in its destroying strength. The dispirited
proprietor grew tired of his long struggle with this mighty enemy; so
the wind was left to work its own will, and the Castle Inn fell slowly
to decay. But for all that it suffered without, it was not the less
prosperous within doors. Sturdy drovers stopped to drink at the little
bar; well-to-do farmers spent their evenings and talked politics in the
low, wainscoted parlor, while their horses munched some suspicious
mixture of moldy hay and tolerable beans in the tumble-down stables.
Sometimes even the members of the Audley hunt stopped to drink and bait
their horses at the Castle Inn; while, on one grand and
never-to-be-forgotten occasion, a dinner had been ordered by the master
of the hounds for some thirty gentlemen, and the proprietor driven
nearly mad by the importance of the demand.

So Luke Marks, who was by no means troubled with an eye for the
beautiful, thought himself very fortunate in becoming the landlord of
the Castle Inn, Mount Stanning.

A chaise-cart was waiting in the fog to convey the bride and bridegroom
to their new home; and a few of the villagers, who had known Phoebe from
a child, were lingering around the churchyard gate to bid her good-by.
Her pale eyes were still paler from the tears she had shed, and the red
rims which surrounded them. The bridegroom was annoyed at this
exhibition of emotion.

"What are you blubbering for, lass?" he said, fiercely. "If you didn't
want to marry me you should have told me so. I ain't going to murder
you, am I?"

The lady's maid shivered as he spoke to her, and dragged her little silk
mantle closely around her.

"You're cold in all this here finery," said Luke, staring at her costly
dress with no expression of good-will. "Why can't women dress according
to their station? You won't have no silk gownds out of my pocket, I can
tell you."

He lifted the shivering girl into the chaise, wrapped a rough great-coat
about her, and drove off through the yellow fog, followed by a feeble
cheer from two or three urchins clustered around the gate.

A new maid was brought from London to replace Phoebe Marks about the
person of my lady--a very showy damsel, who wore a black satin gown, and
rose-colored ribbons in her cap, and complained bitterly of the dullness
of Audley Court.

But Christmas brought visitors to the rambling old mansion. A country
squire and his fat wife occupied the tapestried chamber; merry girls
scampered up and down the long passages, and young men stared out of the
latticed windows, watching for southerly winds and cloudy skies; there
was not an empty stall in the roomy old stables; an extempore forge had
been set up in the yard for the shoeing of hunters; yelping dogs made
the place noisy with their perpetual clamor; strange servants herded
together on the garret story; and every little casement hidden away
under some pointed gable, and every dormer window in the quaint old
roof, glimmered upon the winter's night with its separate taper, till,
coming suddenly upon Audley Court, the benighted stranger, misled by the
light, and noise, and bustle of the place, might have easily fallen into
young Marlowe's error, and have mistaken the hospitable mansion for a
good, old-fashioned inn, such as have faded from this earth since the
last mail coach and prancing tits took their last melancholy journey to
the knacker's yard.

Among other visitors Mr. Robert Audley came down to Essex for the
hunting season, with half a dozen French novels, a case of cigars, and
three pounds of Turkish tobacco in his portmanteau.

The honest young country squires, who talked all breakfast time of
Flying Dutchman fillies and Voltigeur colts; of glorious runs of seven
hours' hard riding over three counties, and a midnight homeward ride of
thirty miles upon their covert hacks; and who ran away from the
well-spread table with their mouths full of cold sirloin, to look at
that off pastern, or that sprained forearm, or the colt that had just
come back from the veterinary surgeon's, set down Robert Audley,
dawdling over a slice of bread and marmalade, as a person utterly
unworthy of any remark whatsoever.

The young barrister had brought a couple of dogs with him; and the
country gentleman who gave fifty pounds for a pointer; and traveled a
couple of hundred miles to look at a leash of setters before be struck a
bargain, laughed aloud at the two miserable curs, one of which had
followed Robert Audley through Chancery Lane, and half the length of
Holborn; while his companion had been taken by the barrister _vi et
armis_ from a coster-monger who was ill-using him. And as Robert
furthermore insisted on having these two deplorable animals under his
easy-chair in the drawing-room, much to the annoyance of my lady, who,
as we know, hated all dogs, the visitors at Audley Court looked upon the
baronet's nephew as an inoffensive species of maniac.

During other visits to the Court Robert Audley had made a feeble show of
joining in the sports of the merry assembly. He had jogged across half a
dozen ploughed fields on a quiet gray pony of Sir Michael's, and drawing
up breathless and panting at door of some farm-house, had expressed his
intention of following the hounds no further _that_ morning. He had even
gone so far as to put on, with great labor, a pair of skates, with a
view to taking a turn on the frozen surface of the fishpond, and had
fallen ignominously at the first attempt, lying placidly extended on the
flat of his back until such time as the bystanders should think fit to
pick him up. He had occupied the back seat in a dog-cart during a
pleasant morning drive, vehemently protesting against being taken up
hill, and requiring the vehicle to be stopped every ten minutes in order
to readjust the cushions. But this year he showed no inclination for any
of these outdoor amusements, and he spent his time entirely in lounging
in the drawing-room, and making himself agreeable, after his own lazy
fashion, to my lady and Alicia.

Lady Audley received her nephew's attentions in that graceful
half-childish fashion which her admirers found so charming; but Alicia
was indignant at the change in her cousin's conduct.

"You were always a poor, spiritless fellow, Bob," said the young lady,
contemptuously, as she bounced into the drawing-room in her
riding-habit, after a hunting breakfast, from which Robert had absented
himself, preferring a cup of tea in my lady's boudoir; "but this year I
don't know what has come to you. You are good for nothing but to hold a
skein of silk or read Tennyson to Lady Audley."

"My dear, hasty, impetuous Alicia, don't be violent," said the young man
imploringly. "A conclusion isn't a five-barred gate; and you needn't
give your judgment its head, as you give your mare Atalanta hers, when
you're flying across country at the heels of an unfortunate fox. Lady
Audley interests me, and my uncle's county friends do not. Is that a
sufficient answer, Alicia?"

Miss Audley gave her head a little scornful toss.

"It's as good an answer as I shall ever get from, you, Bob," she said,
impatiently; "but pray amuse yourself in your own way; loll in an
easy-chair all day, with those two absurd dogs asleep on your knees;
spoil my lady's window-curtains with your cigars and annoy everybody in
the house with your stupid, inanimate countenance."

Mr. Robert Audley opened his handsome gray eyes to their widest extent
at this tirade, and looked helplessly at Miss Alicia.

The young lady was walking up and down the room, slashing the skirt of
her habit with her riding-whip. Her eyes sparkled with an angry flash,
and a crimson glow burned under her clear brown skin. The young
barrister knew very well, by these diagnostics, that his cousin was in a

"Yes," she repeated, "your stupid, inanimate countenance. Do you know,
Robert Audley, that with all your mock amiability, you are brimful of
conceit and superciliousness. You look down upon our amusements; you
lift up your eyebrows, and shrug your shoulders, and throw yourself back
in your chair, and wash your hands of us and our pleasures. You are a
selfish, cold-hearted Sybarite--"

"Alicia! Good--gracious--me!"

The morning paper dropped out of his hands, and he sat feebly staring at
his assailant.

"Yes, _selfish_, Robert Audley! You take home half-starved dogs, because
you like half-starved dogs. You stoop down, and pat the head of every
good-for-nothing cur in the village street, because you like
good-for-nothing curs. You notice little children, and give them
halfpence, because it amuses you to do so. But you lift your eyebrows a
quarter of a yard when poor Sir Harry Towers tells a stupid story, and
stare the poor fellow out of countenance with your lazy insolence. As to
your amiability, you would let a man hit you, and say 'Thank you' for
the blow, rather than take the trouble to hit him again; but you
wouldn't go half a mile out of your way to serve your dearest friend.
Sir Harry is worth twenty of you, though he _did_ write to ask if my
m-a-i-r Atalanta had recovered from the sprain. He can't spell, or lift
his eyebrows to the roots of his hair; but he would go through fire and
water for the girl he loves; while _you_--"

At this very point, when Robert was most prepared to encounter his
cousin's violence, and when Miss Alicia seemed about to make her
strongest attack, the young lady broke down altogether, and burst into

Robert sprang from his easy-chair, upsetting his dogs on the carpet.

"Alicia, my darling, what is it?"

"It's--it's--it's the feather of my hat that got into my eyes," sobbed
his cousin; and before he could investigate the truth of this assertion
Alicia had darted out of the room.

Robert Audley was preparing to follow her, when he heard her voice in
the court-yard below, amidst the tramping of horses and the clamor of
visitors, dogs, and grooms. Sir Harry Towers, the most aristocratic
young sportsman in the neighborhood, had just taken her little foot in
his hand as she sprung into her saddle.

"Good Heaven!" exclaimed Robert, as he watched the merry party of
equestrians until they disappeared under the archway. "What does all
this mean? How charmingly she sits her horse! What a pretty figure, too,
and a fine, candid, brown, rosy face: but to fly at a fellow like that,
without the least provocation! That's the consequence of letting a girl
follow the hounds. She learns to look at everything in life as she does
at six feet of timber or a sunk fence; she goes through the world as she
goes across country--straight ahead, and over everything. Such a nice
girl as she might have been, too, if she'd been brought up in Figtree
Court! If ever I marry, and have daughters (which remote contingency may
Heaven forefend!) they shall be educated in Paper Buildings, take their
sole exercise in the Temple Gardens, and they shall never go beyond the
gates till they are marriageable, when I will walk them straight across
Fleet street to St. Dunstan's church, and deliver them into the hands of
their husbands."

With such reflections as these did Mr. Robert Audley beguile the time
until my lady re-entered the drawing-room, fresh and radiant in her
elegant morning costume, her yellow curls glistening with the perfumed
waters in which she had bathed, and her velvet-covered sketch-book in
her arms. She planted a little easel upon a table by the window, seated
herself before it, and began to mix the colors upon her palette, Robert
watching her out of his half-closed eyes.

"You are sure my cigar does not annoy you, Lady Audley?"

"Oh, no indeed; I am quite used to the smell of tobacco. Mr. Dawson, the
surgeon, smoked all the evening when I lived in his house."

"Dawson is a good fellow, isn't he?" Robert asked, carelessly.

My lady burst into her pretty, gushing laugh.

"The dearest of good creatures," she said. "He paid me five-and-twenty
pounds a year--only fancy, five-and-twenty pounds! That made six pounds
five a quarter. How well I remember receiving the money--six dingy old
sovereigns, and a little heap of untidy, dirty silver, that came
straight from the till in the surgery! And then how glad I was to get
it! While _now_--I can't help laughing while I think of it--these colors
I am using cost a guinea each at Winsor & Newton's--the carmine and
ultramarine thirty shillings. I gave Mrs. Dawson one of my silk dresses
the other day, and the poor thing kissed me, and the surgeon carried the
bundle home under his cloak."

My lady laughed long and joyously at the thought. Her colors were mixed;
she was copying a water-colored sketch of an impossibly Turneresque
atmosphere. The sketch was nearly finished, and she had only to put in
some critical little touches with the most delicate of her sable
pencils. She prepared herself daintily for the work, looking sideways at
the painting.

All this time Mr. Robert Audley's eyes were fixed intently on her pretty

"It _is_ a change," he said, after so long a pause that my lady might
have forgotten what she had been talking of, "it _is_ a change! Some
women would do a great deal to accomplish such a change as that."

Lady Audley's clear blue eyes dilated as she fixed them suddenly on the
young barrister. The wintry sunlight, gleaming full upon her face from a
side window, lit up the azure of those beautiful eyes, till their color
seemed to flicker and tremble betwixt blue and green, as the opal tints
of the sea change upon a summer's day. The small brush fell from her
hand, and blotted out the peasant's face under a widening circle of
crimson lake.

Robert Audley was tenderly coaxing the crumbled leaf of his cigar with
cautious fingers.

"My friend at the corner of Chancery Lane has not given me such good
Manillas as usual," he murmured. "If ever you smoke, my dear aunt (and I
am told that many women take a quiet weed under the rose), be very
careful how you choose your cigars."

My lady drew a long breath, picked up her brush, and laughed aloud at
Robert's advice.

"What an eccentric creature you are, Mr. Audley I Do you know that you
sometimes puzzle me--"

"Not more than you puzzle me, dear aunt."

My lady put away her colors and sketch book, and seating herself in the
deep recess of another window, at a considerable distance from Robert
Audley, settled to a large piece of Berlin-wool work--a piece of
embroidery which the Penelopes of ten or twelve years ago were very fond
of exercising their ingenuity upon--the Olden Time at Bolton Abbey.

Seated in the embrasure of this window, my lady was separated from
Robert Audley by the whole length of the room, and the young man could
only catch an occasional glimpse of her fair face, surrounded by its
bright aureole of hazy, golden hair.

Robert Audley had been a week at the Court, but as yet neither he nor my
lady had mentioned the name of George Talboys.

This morning, however, after exhausting the usual topics of
conversation, Lady Audley made an inquiry about her nephew's friend;
"That Mr. George--George--" she said, hesitating.

"Talboys," suggested Robert.

"Yes, to be sure--Mr. George Talboys. Rather a singular name, by-the-by,
and certainly, by all accounts, a very singular person. Have you seen
him lately?"

"I have not seen him since the 7th of September last--the day upon which
he left me asleep in the meadows on the other side of the village."

"Dear me!" exclaimed my lady, "what a very strange young man this Mr.
George Talboys must be! Pray tell me all about it."

Robert told, in a few words, of his visit to Southampton and his journey
to Liverpool, with their different results, my lady listening very

In order to tell this story to better advantage, the young man left his
chair, and, crossing the room, took up his place opposite to Lady
Audley, in the embrasure of the window.

"And what do you infer from all this?" asked my lady, after a pause.

"It is so great a mystery to me," he answered, "that I scarcely dare to
draw any conclusion whatever; but in the obscurity I think I can grope
my way to two suppositions, which to me seem almost certainties."

"And they are--"

"First, that George Talboys never went beyond Southampton. Second, that
he never went to Southampton at all."

"But you traced him there. His father-in-law had seen him."

"I have reason to doubt his father-in-law's integrity."

"Good gracious me!" cried my lady, piteously. "What do you mean by all

"Lady Audley," answered the young man, gravely, "I have never practiced
as a barrister. I have enrolled myself in the ranks of a profession, the
members of which hold solemn responsibilities and have sacred duties to
perform; and I have shrunk from those responsibilities and duties, as I
have from all the fatigues of this troublesome life. But we are
sometimes forced into the very position we have most avoided, and I have
found myself lately compelled to think of these things. Lady Audley, did
you ever study the theory of circumstantial evidence?"

"How can you ask a poor little woman about such horrid things?"
exclaimed my lady.

"Circumstantial evidence," continued the young man, as if he scarcely
heard Lady Audley's interruption--"that wonderful fabric which is built
out of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet
strong enough to hang a man. Upon what infinitesimal trifles may
sometimes hang the whole secret of some wicked mystery, inexplicable
heretofore to the wisest upon the earth! A scrap of paper, a shred of
some torn garment, the button off a coat, a word dropped incautiously
from the overcautious lips of guilt, the fragment of a letter, the
shutting or opening of a door, a shadow on a window-blind, the accuracy
of a moment tested by one of Benson's watches--a thousand circumstances
so slight as to be forgotten by the criminal, but links of iron in the
wonderful chain forged by the science of the detective officer; and lo!
the gallows is built up; the solemn bell tolls through the dismal gray
of the early morning, the drop creaks under the guilty feet, and the
penalty of crime is paid."

Faint shadows of green and crimson fell upon my lady's face from the
painted escutcheons in the mullioned window by which she sat; but every
trace of the natural color of that face had faded out, leaving it a
ghastly ashen gray.

Sitting quietly in her chair, her head fallen back upon the amber damask
cushions, and her little hands lying powerless in her lap, Lady Audley
had fainted away.

"The radius grows narrower day by day," said Robert Audley. "George
Talboys never reached Southampton."



The Christmas week was over, and one by one the country visitors dropped
away from Audley Court. The fat squire and his wife abandoned the gray,
tapestried chamber, and left the black-browed warriors looming from the
wall to scowl upon and threaten new guests, or to glare vengefully upon
vacancy. The merry girls on the second story packed, or caused to be
packed, their trunks and imperials, and tumbled gauze ball-dresses were
taken home that had been brought fresh to Audley. Blundering old family
chariots, with horses whose untrimmed fetlocks told of rougher work than
even country roads, were brought round to the broad space before the
grim oak door, and laden with chaotic heaps of womanly luggage. Pretty
rosy faces peeped out of carriage windows to smile the last farewell
upon the group at the hall door, as the vehicle rattled and rumbled
under the ivied archway. Sir Michael was in request everywhere. Shaking
hands with the young sportsmen; kissing the rosy-cheeked girls;
sometimes even embracing portly matrons who came to thank him for their
pleasant visit; everywhere genial, hospitable, generous, happy, and
beloved, the baronet hurried from room to room, from the hall to the
stables, from the stables to the court-yard, from the court-yard to the
arched gateway to speed the parting guest.

My lady's yellow curls flashed hither and thither like wandering gleams
of sunshine on these busy days of farewell. Her great blue eyes had a
pretty, mournful look, in charming unison with the soft pressure of her
little hand, and that friendly, though perhaps rather stereotyped
speech, in which she told her visitors how she was so sorry to lose
them, and how she didn't know what she should do till they came once
more to enliven the court by their charming society.

But however sorry my lady might be to lose her visitors, there was at
least one guest whose society she was not deprived of. Robert Audley
showed no intention of leaving his uncle's house. He had no professional
duties, he said; Figtree Court was delightfully shady in hot weather,
but there was a sharp corner round which the wind came in the summer
months, armed with avenging rheumatisms and influenzas. Everybody was so
good to him at the Court, that really he had no inclination to hurry

Sir Michael had but one answer to this: "Stay, my dear boy; stay, my
dear Bob, as long as ever you like. I have no son, and you stand to me
in the place of one. Make yourself agreeable to Lucy, and make the Court
your home as long as you live."

To which Robert would merely reply by grasping his uncle's hand
vehemently, and muttering something about "a jolly old prince."

It was to be observed that there was sometimes a certain vague sadness
in the young man's tone when he called Sir Michael "a jolly old prince;"
some shadow of affectionate regret that brought a mist into Robert's
eyes, as he sat in a corner of the room looking thoughtfully at the
white-bearded baronet.

Before the last of the young sportsmen departed, Sir Harry Towers
demanded and obtained an interview with Miss Alicia Audley in the oak
library--an interview in which considerable emotion was displayed by the
stalwart young fox-hunter; so much emotion, indeed, and of such a
genuine and honest character, that Alicia fairly broke down as she told
him she should forever esteem and respect him for his true and noble
heart, but that he must never, never, unless he wished to cause her the
most cruel distress, ask more from her than this esteem and respect.

Sir Harry left the library by the French window opening into the
pond-garden. He strolled into that very lime-walk which George Talboys
had compared to an avenue in a churchyard, and under the leafless trees
fought the battle of his brave young heart.

"What a fool I am to feel it like this!" he cried, stamping his foot
upon the frosty ground. "I always knew it would be so; I always knew
that she was a hundred times too good for me. God bless her! How nobly
and tenderly she spoke; how beautiful she looked with the crimson
blushes under her brown skin, and the tears in her big, gray
eyes--almost as handsome as the day she took the sunk fence, and let me
put the brush in her hat as we rode home! God bless her! I can get over
anything as long as she doesn't care for that sneaking lawyer. But I
couldn't stand that."

That sneaking lawyer, by which appellation Sir Harry alluded to Mr.
Robert Audley, was standing in the hall, looking at a map of the midland
counties, when Alicia came out of the library, with red eyes, after her
interview with the fox-hunting baronet.

Robert, who was short-sighted, had his eyes within half an inch of the
surface of the map as the young lady approached him.

"Yes," he said, "Norwich _is_ in Norfolk, and that fool, young Vincent,
said it was in Herefordshire. Ha, Alicia, is that you?"

He turned round so as to intercept Miss Audley on her way to the

"Yes," replied his cousin curtly, trying to pass him.

"Alicia, you have been crying."

The young lady did not condescend to reply.

"You have been crying, Alicia. Sir Harry Towers, of Towers Park, in the
county of Herts, has been making you an offer of his hand, eh?"

"Have you been listening at the door, Mr. Audley?"

"I have not, Miss Audley. On principle, I object to listen, and in
practice I believe it to be a very troublesome proceeding; but I am a
barrister, Miss Alicia, and able to draw a conclusion by induction. Do
you know what inductive evidence is, Miss Audley?"

"No," replied Alicia, looking at her cousin as a handsome young panther
might look at its daring tormentor.

"I thought not. I dare say Sir Harry would ask if it was a new kind of
horse-ball. I knew by induction that the baronet was going to make you
an offer; first, because he came downstairs with his hair parted on the
wrong side, and his face as pale as a tablecloth; secondly, because he
couldn't eat any breakfast, and let his coffee go the wrong way; and,
thirdly, because he asked for an interview with you before he left the
Court. Well, how's it to be, Alicia? Do we marry the baronet, and is
poor Cousin Bob to be the best man at the wedding?"

"Sir Harry Towers is a noble-hearted young man," said Alicia, still
trying to pass her cousin.

"But do we accept him--yes or no? Are we to be Lady Towers, with a
superb estate in Hertfordshire, summer quarters for our hunters, and a
drag with outriders to drive us across to papa's place in Essex? Is it
to be so, Alicia, or not?"

"What is that to you, Mr. Robert Audley?" cried Alicia, passionately.
"What do _you_ care what becomes of me, or whom I marry? If I married a
chimney-sweep you'd only lift up your eyebrows and say, 'Bless my soul,
she was always eccentric.' I have refused Sir Harry Towers; but when I
think of his generous and unselfish affection, and compare it with the
heartless, lazy, selfish, supercilious indifference of other men, I've a
good mind to run after him and tell him--"

"That you'll retract, and be my Lady Towers?"


"Then don't, Alicia, don't," said Robert Audley, grasping his cousin's
slender little wrist, and leading her up-stairs. "Come into the
drawing-room with me, Alicia, my poor little cousin; my charming,
impetuous, alarming little cousin. Sit down here in this mullioned
window, and let us talk seriously and leave off quarreling if we can."

The cousins had the drawing-room all to themselves. Sir Michael was out,
my lady in her own apartments, and poor Sir Harry Towers walking up and
down upon the gravel walk, darkened with the flickering shadows of the
leafless branches in the cold winter sunshine.

"My poor little Alicia," said Robert, as tenderly as if he had been
addressing some spoiled child, "do you suppose that because people don't
wear vinegar tops, or part their hair on the wrong side, or conduct
themselves altogether after the manner of well-meaning maniacs, by way
of proving the vehemence of their passion--do you suppose because of
this, Alicia Audley, that they may not be just as sensible of the merits
of a dear little warm-hearted and affectionate girl as ever their
neighbors can be? Life is such a very troublesome matter, when all is
said and done, that it's as well even to take its blessings quietly. I
don't make a great howling because I can get good cigars one door from
the corner of Chancery Lane, and have a dear, good girl for my cousin;
but I am not the less grateful to Providence that it is so."

Alicia opened her gray eyes to their widest extent, looking her cousin
full in the face with a bewildered stare. Robert had picked up the
ugliest and leanest of his attendant curs, and was placidly stroking the
animal's ears.

"Is this all you have to say to me, Robert?" asked Miss Audley, meekly.

"Well, yes, I think so," replied her cousin, after considerable
deliberation. "I fancy that what I wanted to say was this--don't marry
the fox-hunting baronet if you like anybody else better; for if you'll
only be patient and take life easily, and try and reform yourself of
banging doors, bouncing in and out rooms, talking of the stables, and
riding across country, I've no doubt the person you prefer will make you
a very excellent husband."

"Thank you, cousin," said Miss Audley, crimsoning with bright, indignant
blushes up to the roots of her waving brown hair; "but as you may not
know the person I prefer, I think you had better not take upon yourself
to answer for him."

Robert pulled the dog's ears thoughtfully for some moments.

"No, to be sure," he said, after a pause. "Of course, if I don't know
him--I thought I did."

"_Did you?_" exclaimed Alicia; and opening the door with a violence that
made her cousin shiver, she bounced out of the drawing-room.

"I only said I thought I knew him," Robert called after her; and, then,
as he sunk into an easy-chair, he murmured thoughtfully: "Such a nice
girl, too, if she didn't bounce."

So poor Sir Harry Towers rode away from Audley Court, looking very
crestfallen and dismal.

He had very little pleasure in returning to the stately mansion, hidden
among sheltering oaks and venerable beeches. The square, red brick
house, gleaming at the end of a long arcade of leafless trees was to be
forever desolate, he thought, since Alicia would not come to be its

A hundred improvements planned and thought of were dismissed from his
mind as useless now. The hunter that Jim the trainer was breaking in for
a lady; the two pointer pups that were being reared for the next
shooting season; the big black retriever that would have carried
Alicia's parasol; the pavilion in the garden, disused since his mother's
death, but which he had meant to have restored for Miss Audley--all
these things were now so much vanity and vexation of spirit.

"What's the good of being rich if one has no one to help spend one's
money?" said the young baronet. "One only grows a selfish beggar, and
takes to drinking too much port. It's a hard thing that a girl can
refuse a true heart and such stables as we've got at the park. It
unsettles a man somehow."

Indeed, this unlooked for rejection had very much unsettled the few
ideas which made up the small sum of the baronet's mind.

He had been desperately in love with Alicia ever since the last hunting
season, when he had met her at the county ball. His passion, cherished
through the slow monotony of a summer, had broken out afresh in the
merry winter months, and the young man's _mauvaise honte_ alone had
delayed the offer of his hand. But he had never for a moment supposed
that he would be refused; he was so used to the adulation of mothers who
had daughters to marry, and of even the daughters themselves; he had
been so accustomed to feel himself the leading personage in an assembly,
although half the wits of the age had been there, and he could only say
"Haw, to be sure!" and "By Jove--hum!" he had been so spoiled by the
flatteries of bright eyes that looked, or seemed to look, the brighter
when he drew near, that without being possessed of one shadow of
personal vanity, he had yet come to think that he had only to make an
offer to the prettiest girl in Essex to behold himself immediately

"Yes," he would say complacently to some admiring satellite, "I know I'm
a good match, and I know what makes the gals so civil. They're very
pretty, and they're very friendly to a fellow; but I don't care about
'em. They're all alike--they can only drop their eyes and say, 'Lor',
Sir Harry, why do you call that curly black dog a retriever?' or 'Oh Sir
Harry, and did the poor mare really sprain her pastern shoulder-blade?'
I haven't got much brains myself, I know," the baronet would add
deprecatingly; "and I don't want a strong-minded woman, who writes books
and wears green spectacles; but, hang it! I like a gal who knows what
she's talking about."

So when Alicia said "No," or rather made that pretty speech about esteem
and respect, which well-bred young ladies substitute for the obnoxious
monosyllable, Sir Harry Towers felt that the whole fabric of the future
he had built so complacently was shivered into a heap of dingy ruins.

Sir Michael grasped him warmly by the hand just before the young man
mounted his horse in the court-yard.

"I'm very sorry, Towers," he said. "You're as good a fellow as ever
breathed, and would have made my girl an excellent husband; but you know
there's a cousin, and I think that--"

"Don't say that, Sir Michael," interrupted the fox-hunter,
energetically. "I can get over anything but that. A fellow whose hand
upon the curb weighs half a ton (why, he pulled the Cavalier's mouth to
pieces, sir, the day you let him ride the horse); a fellow who turns his
collars down, and eats bread and marmalade! No, no, Sir Michael; it's a
queer world, but I can't think that of Miss Audley. There must be some
one in the background, sir; it can't be the cousin."

Sir Michael shook his head as the rejected suitor rode away.

"I don't know about that," he muttered. "Bob's a good lad, and the girl
might do worse; but he hangs back as if he didn't care for her. There's
some mystery--there's some mystery!"

The old baronet said this in that semi-thoughtful tone with which we
speak of other people's affairs. The shadows of the early winter
twilight, gathering thickest under the low oak ceiling of the hall, and
the quaint curve of the arched doorway, fell darkly round his handsome
head; but the light of his declining life, his beautiful and beloved
young wife, was near him, and he could see no shadows when she was by.

She came skipping through the hall to meet him, and, shaking her golden
ringlets, buried her bright head on her husband's breast.

"So the last of our visitors is gone, dear, and we're all alone," she
said. "Isn't that nice?"

"Yes, darling," he answered fondly, stroking her bright hair.

"Except Mr. Robert Audley. How long is that nephew of yours going to
stay here?"

"As long as he likes, my pet; he's always welcome," said the baronet;
and then, as if remembering himself, he added, tenderly: "But not unless
his visit is agreeable to you, darling; not if his lazy habits, or his
smoking, or his dogs, or anything about him is displeasing to you."

Lady Audley pursed up her rosy lips and looked thoughtfully at the

"It isn't that," she said, hesitatingly. "Mr. Audley is a very agreeable
young man, and a very honorable young man; but you know, Sir Michael,
I'm rather a young aunt for such a nephew, and--"

"And what, Lucy?" asked the baronet, fiercely.

"Poor Alicia is rather jealous of any attention Mr. Audley pays me,
and--and--I think it would be better for her happiness if your nephew
were to bring his visit to a close."

"He shall go to-night, Lucy," exclaimed Sir Michael. "I am a blind,
neglectful fool not to have thought of this before. My lovely little
darling, it was scarcely just to Bob to expose the poor lad to your
fascinations. I know him to be as good and true-hearted a fellow as ever
breathed, but--but--he shall go tonight."

"But you won't be too abrupt, dear? You won't be rude?"

"Rude! No, Lucy. I left him smoking in the lime-walk. I'll go and tell
him that he must get out of the house in an hour."

So in that leafless avenue, under whose gloomy shade George Talboys had
stood on that thunderous evening before the day of his disappearance,
Sir Michael Audley told his nephew that the Court was no home for him,
and that my lady was too young and pretty to accept the attentions of a
handsome nephew of eight-and-twenty.

Robert only shrugged his shoulders and elevated his thick, black
eyebrows as Sir Michael delicately hinted all this.

"I have been attentive to my lady," he said. "She interests me;" and
then, with a change in his voice, and an emotion not common to him, he
turned to the baronet, and grasping his hand, exclaimed, "God forbid, my
dear uncle, that I should ever bring trouble upon such a noble heart as
yours! God forbid that the slightest shadow of dishonor should ever fall
upon your honored head--least of all through agency of mine."

The young man uttered these few words in a broken and disjointed fashion
in which Sir Michael had never heard him speak, before, and then turning
away his head, fairly broke down.

He left the court that night, but he did not go far. Instead of taking
the evening train for London, he went straight up to the little village
of Mount Stanning, and walking into the neatly-kept inn, asked Phoebe
Marks if he could be accommodated with apartments.



The little sitting-room into which Phoebe Marks ushered the baronet's
nephew was situated on the ground floor, and only separated by a
lath-and-plaster partition from the little bar-parlor occupied by the
innkeeper and his wife.

It seemed as though the wise architect who had superintended the
building of the Castle Inn had taken especial care that nothing but the
frailest and most flimsy material should be used, and that the wind,
having a special fancy for this unprotected spot, should have full play
for the indulgence of its caprices.

To this end pitiful woodwork had been used instead of solid masonry;
rickety ceilings had been propped up by fragile rafters, and beams that
threatened on every stormy night to fall upon the heads of those beneath
them; doors whose specialty was never to be shut, yet always to be
banging; windows constructed with a peculiar view to letting in the
draft when they were shut, and keeping out the air when they were open.
The hand of genius had devised this lonely country inn; and there was
not an inch of woodwork, or trowelful of plaster employed in all the
rickety construction that did not offer its own peculiar weak point to
every assault of its indefatigable foe.

Robert looked about him with a feeble smile of resignation.

It was a change, decidedly, from the luxurious comforts of Audley Court,
and it was rather a strange fancy of the young barrister to prefer
loitering at this dreary village hostelry to returning to his snug
chambers in Figtree Court.

But he had brought his Lares and Penates with him, in the shape of his
German pipe, his tobacco canister, half a dozen French novels, and his
two ill-conditioned, canine favorites, which sat shivering before the
smoky little fire, barking shortly and sharply now and then, by way of
hinting for some slight refreshment.

While Mr. Robert Audley contemplated his new quarters, Phoebe Marks
summoned a little village lad who was in the habit of running errands
for her, and taking him into the kitchen, gave him a tiny note,
carefully folded and sealed.

"You know Audley Court?"

"Yes, mum."

"If you'll run there with this letter to-night, and see that it's put
safely in Lady Audley's hands, I'll give you a shilling."

"Yes, mum."

"You understand? Ask to see my lady; you can say you've a message--not a
note, mind--but a message from Phoebe Marks; and when you see her, give
this into her own hand."

"Yes, mum."

"You won't forget?"

"No, mum."

"Then be off with you."

The boy waited for no second bidding, but in another moment was scudding
along the lonely high road, down the sharp descent that led to Audley.

Phoebe Marks went to the window, and looked out at the black figure of
the lad hurrying through the dusky winter evening.

"If there's any bad meaning in his coming here," she thought, "my lady
will know of it in time, at any rate,"

Phoebe herself brought the neatly arranged tea-tray, and the little
covered dish of ham and eggs which had been prepared for this
unlooked-for visitor. Her pale hair was as smoothly braided, and her
light gray dress fitted as precisely as of old. The same neutral tints
pervaded her person and her dress; no showy rose-colored ribbons or
rustling silk gown proclaimed the well-to-do innkeeper's wife. Phoebe
Marks was a person who never lost her individuality. Silent and
self-constrained, she seemed to hold herself within herself, and take no
color from the outer world.

Robert looked at her thoughtfully as she spread the cloth, and drew the
table nearer to the fireplace.

"That," he thought, "is a woman who could keep a secret."

The dogs looked rather suspiciously at the quiet figure of Mrs. Marks
gliding softly about the room, from the teapot to the caddy, and from
the caddy to the kettle singing on the hob.

"Will you pour out my tea for me, Mrs. Marks?" said Robert, seating
himself on a horsehair-covered arm-chair, which fitted him as tightly in
every direction as if he had been measured for it.

"You have come straight from the Court, sir?" said Phoebe, as she handed
Robert the sugar-basin.

"Yes; I only left my uncle's an hour ago."

"And my lady, sir, was she quite well?"

"Yes, quite well."

"As gay and light-hearted as ever, sir?"

"As gay and light-hearted as ever."

Phoebe retired respectfully after having given Mr. Audley his tea, but
as she stood with her hand upon the lock of the door he spoke again.

"You knew Lady Audley when she was Miss Lucy Graham, did you not?" he

"Yes, sir. I lived at Mrs. Dawson's when my lady was governess there."

"Indeed! Was she long in the surgeon's family?"

"A year and a half, sir."

"And she came from London?"

"Yes, sir."

"And she was an orphan, I believe?"

"Yes, sir."

"Always as cheerful as she is now?"

"Always, sir."

Robert emptied his teacup and handed it to Mrs. Marks. Their eyes met--a
lazy look in his, and an active, searching glance in hers.

"This woman would be good in a witness-box," he thought; "it would take a
clever lawyer to bother her in a cross-examination."

He finished his second cup of tea, pushed away his plate, fed his dogs,
and lighted his pipe, while Phoebe carried off the tea-tray.

The wind came whistling up across the frosty open country, and through
the leafless woods, and rattled fiercely at the window-frames.

"There's a triangular draught from those two windows and the door that
scarcely adds to the comfort of this apartment," murmured Robert; "and
there certainly are pleasanter sensations than that of standing up to
one's knees in cold water."

He poked the fire, patted his dogs, put on his great coat, rolled a
rickety old sofa close to the hearth, wrapped his legs in his railway
rug, and stretching himself at full length upon the narrow horsehair
cushion, smoked his pipe, and watched the bluish-gray wreaths curling
upward to the dingy ceiling.

"No," he murmured, again; "that is a woman who can keep a secret. A
counsel for the prosecution could get very little out of her."

I have said that the bar-parlor was only separated from the sitting-room
occupied by Robert by a lath-and-plaster partition. The young barrister
could hear the two or three village tradesmen and a couple of farmers
laughing and talking round the bar, while Luke Marks served them from
his stock of liquors.

Very often he could even hear their words, especially the landlord's,
for he spoke in a coarse, loud voice, and had a more boastful manner
than any of his customers.

"The man is a fool," said Robert, as he laid down his pipe. "I'll go and
talk to him by-and-by."

He waited till the few visitors to the Castle had dropped away one by
one, and when Luke Marks had bolted the door upon the last of his
customers, he strolled quietly into the bar-parlor, where the landlord
was seated with his wife.

Phoebe was busy at a little table, upon which stood a prim work-box,
with every reel of cotton and glistening steel bodkin in its appointed
place. She was darning the coarse gray stockings that adorned her
husband's awkward feet, but she did her work as daintily as if they had
been my lady's delicate silken hose.

I say that she took no color from external things, and that the vague
air of refinement that pervaded her nature clung to her as closely in
the society of her boorish husband at the Castle Inn as in Lady Audley's
boudoir at the Court.

She looked up suddenly as Robert entered the bar-parlor. There was some
shade of vexation in her pale gray eyes, which changed to an expression
of anxiety--nay, rather of almost terror--as she glanced from Mr. Audley
to Luke Marks.

"I have come in for a few minutes' chat before I go to bed," said
Robert, settling himself very comfortably before the cheerful fire.
"Would you object to a cigar, Mrs. Marks? I mean, of course, to my
smoking one," he added, explanatorily.

"Not at all, sir."

"It would be a good 'un her objectin' to a bit o' 'bacca," growled Mr.
Marks, "when me and the customers smokes all day."

Robert lighted his cigar with a gilt-paper match of Phoebe's making that
adorned the chimney-piece, and took half a dozen reflective puffs before
he spoke.

"I want you to tell me all about Mount Stanning, Mr. Marks," he said,

"Then that's pretty soon told," replied Luke, with a harsh, grating
laugh. "Of all the dull holes as ever a man set foot in, this is about
the dullest. Not that the business don't pay pretty tidy; I don't
complain of that; but I should ha' liked a public at Chelmsford, or
Brentwood, or Romford, or some place where there's a bit of life in the
streets; and I might have had it," he added, discontentedly, "if folks
hadn't been so precious stingy."

As her husband muttered this complaint in a grumbling undertone, Phoebe
looked up from her work and spoke to him.

"We forgot the brew-house door, Luke," she said. "Will you come with me
and help me put up the bar?"

"The brew-house door can bide for to-night," said Mr. Marks; "I ain't
agoin' to move now. I've seated myself for a comfortable smoke."

He took a long clay pipe from a corner of the fender as he spoke, and
began to fill it deliberately.

"I don't feel easy about that brew-house door, Luke," remonstrated his
wife; "there are always tramps about, and they can get in easily when
the bar isn't up."

"Go and put the bar up yourself, then, can't you?" answered Mr. Marks.

"It's too heavy for me to lift."

"Then let it bide, if you're too fine a lady to see to it yourself.
You're very anxious all of a sudden about this here brew-house door. I
suppose you don't want me to open my mouth to this here gent, that's
about it. Oh, you needn't frown at me to stop my speaking! You're always
putting in your tongue and clipping off my words before I've half said
'em; but I won't stand it."

"Do you hear? I won't stand it!"

Phoebe Marks shrugged her shoulders, folded her work, shut her work-box,
and crossing her hands in her lap, sat with her gray eyes fixed upon her
husband's bull-like face.

"Then you don't particularly care to live at Mount Stanning?" said
Robert, politely, as if anxious to change the conversation.

"No, I don't," answered Luke; "and I don't care who knows it; and, as I
said before, if folks hadn't been so precious stingy, I might have had a
public in a thrivin' market town, instead of this tumble-down old place,
where a man has his hair blowed off his head on a windy day. What's
fifty pound, or what's a hundred pound--"

"Luke! Luke!"

"No, you're not goin' to stop my mouth with all your 'Luke, Lukes!'"
answered Mr. Marks to his wife's remonstrance. "I say again, what's a
hundred pound?"

"No," answered Robert Audley, with wonderful distinctness, and
addressing his words to Luke Marks, but fixing his eyes upon Phoebe's
anxious face. "What, indeed, is a hundred pounds to a man possessed of
the power which you hold, or rather which your wife holds, over the
person in question."

"Phoebe's face, at all times almost colorless, seemed scarcely capable
of growing paler; but as her eyelids drooped under Robert Audley's
searching glance, a visible change came over the pallid hues of her

"A quarter to twelve," said Robert, looking at his watch.

"Late hours for such a quiet village as Mount Stanning. Good-night, my
worthy host. Good-night, Mrs. Marks. You needn't send me my shaving
water till nine o'clock to-morrow morning."



Eleven o'clock struck the next morning, and found Mr. Robert Audley
still lounging over the well ordered little breakfast table, with one of
his dogs at each side of his arm-chair, regarding him with watchful eyes
and opened mouths, awaiting the expected morsel of ham or toast. Robert
had a county paper on his knees, and made a feeble effort now and then
to read the first page, which was filled with advertisements of farming
stock, quack medicines, and other interesting matter.

The weather had changed, and the snow, which had for the last few days
been looming blackly in the frosty sky, fell in great feathery flakes
against the windows, and lay piled in the little bit of garden-ground

The long, lonely road leading toward Audley seemed untrodden by a
footstep, as Robert Audley looked out at the wintry landscape.

"Lively," he said, "for a man used to the fascinations of Temple Bar."

As he watched the snow-flakes falling every moment thicker and faster
upon the lonely road, he was surprised by seeing a brougham driving
slowly up the hill.

"I wonder what unhappy wretch has too restless a spirit to stop at home
on such a morning as this," he muttered, as he returned to the arm-chair
by the fire.

He had only reseated himself a few moments when Phoebe Marks entered the
room to announce Lady Audley.

"Lady Audley! Pray beg her to come in," said Robert; and then, as Phoebe
left the room to usher in this unexpected visitor, he muttered between
his teeth--"A false move, my lady, and one I never looked for from you."

Lucy Audley was radiant on this cold and snowy January morning. Other
people's noses are rudely assailed by the sharp fingers of the grim
ice-king, but not my lady's; other people's lips turn pale and blue with
the chilling influence of the bitter weather, but my lady's pretty
little rosebud of a mouth retained its brightest coloring and cheeriest

She was wrapped in the very sables which Robert Audley had brought from
Russia, and carried a muff that the young man thought seemed almost as
big as herself.

She looked a childish, helpless, babyfied little creature; and Robert
looked down upon her with some touch of pity in his eyes, as she came up
to the hearth by which he was standing, and warmed her tiny gloved hands
at the blaze.

"What a morning, Mr. Audley!" she said, "what a morning!"

"Yes, indeed! Why did you come out in such weather?"

"Because I wished to see you--particularly."


"Yes," said my lady, with an air of considerable embarrassment, playing
with the button of her glove, and almost wrenching it off in her
restlessness--"yes, Mr. Audley, I felt that you had not been well
treated; that--that you had, in short, reason to complain; and that an
apology was due to you."

"I do not wish for any apology, Lady Audley."

"But you are entitled to one," answered my lady, quietly. "Why, my dear
Robert, should we be so ceremonious toward each other? You were very
comfortable at Audley; we were very glad to have you there; but, my
dear, silly husband must needs take it into his foolish head that it is
dangerous for his poor little wife's peace of mind to have a nephew of
eight or nine and twenty smoking his cigars in her boudoir, and, behold!
our pleasant little family circle is broken up."

Lucy Audley spoke with that peculiar childish vivacity which seemed so
natural to her, Robert looking down almost sadly at her bright, animated

"Lady Audley," he said, "Heaven forbid that either you or I should ever
bring grief or dishonor upon my uncle's generous heart! Better, perhaps,
that I should be out of the house--better, perhaps, that I had never
entered it!"

My lady had been looking at the fire while her nephew spoke, but at his
last words she lifted her head suddenly, and looked him full in the face
with a wondering expression--an earnest, questioning gaze, whose full
meaning the young barrister understood.

"Oh, pray do not be alarmed, Lady Audley," he said, gravely. "You have
no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or
Dumas _fils_, to fear from me. The benchers of the Inner Temple will
tell you that Robert Audley is troubled with none of the epidemics whose
outward signs are turn-down collars and Byronic neckties. I say that I
wish I had never entered my uncle's house during the last year; but I
say it with a far more solemn meaning than any sentimental one."

My lady shrugged her shoulders.

"If you insist on talking in enigmas, Mr. Audley," she said, "you must
forgive a poor little woman if she declines to answer them."

Robert made no reply to this speech.

"But tell me," said my lady, with an entire change of tone, "what could
have induced you to come up to this dismal place?"



"Yes; I felt an interest in that bull-necked man, with the dark-red hair
and wicked gray eyes. A dangerous man, my lady--a man in whose power I
should not like to be."

A sudden change came over Lady Audley's face; the pretty, roseate flush
faded out from her cheeks, and left them waxen white, and angry flashes
lightened in her blue eyes.

"What have I done to you, Robert Audley," she cried, passionately--"what
have I done to you that you should hate me so?"

He answered her very gravely:

"I had a friend, Lady Audley, whom I loved very dearly, and since I have
lost him I fear that my feelings toward other people are strangely

"You mean the Mr. Talboys who went to Australia?"

"Yes, I mean the Mr. Talboys who I was told set out for Liverpool with
the idea of going to Australia."

"And you do not believe in his having sailed for Australia?"

"I do not."

"But why not?"

"Forgive me, Lady Audley, if I decline to answer that question."

"As you please," she said, carelessly.

"A week after my friend disappeared," continued Robert, "I posted an
advertisement to the Sydney and Melbourne papers, calling upon him if he
was in either city when the advertisement appeared, to write and tell me
of his whereabouts, and also calling on any one who had met him, either
in the colonies or on the voyage out, to give me any information
respecting him. George Talboys left Essex, or disappeared from Essex, on
the 6th of September last. I ought to receive some answer to this
advertisement by the end of this month. To-day is the 27th; the time
draws very near."

"And if you receive no answer?" asked Lady Audley.

"If I receive no answer I shall think that my fears have been not
unfounded, and I shall do my best to act."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Ah, Lady Audley, you remind me how very powerless I am in this matter.
My friend might have been made away with in this very inn, and I might
stay here for a twelvemonth, and go away at the last as ignorant of his
fate as if I had never crossed the threshold. What do we know of the
mysteries that may hang about the houses we enter? If I were to go
to-morrow into that commonplace, plebeian, eight-roomed house in which
Maria Manning and her husband murdered their guest, I should have no
awful prescience of that bygone horror. Foul deeds have been done under
the most hospitable roofs; terrible crimes have been committed amid the
fairest scenes, and have left no trace upon the spot where they were
done. I do not believe in mandrake, or in bloodstains that no time can
efface. I believe rather that we may walk unconsciously in an atmosphere
of crime, and breathe none the less freely. I believe that we may look
into the smiling face of a murderer, and admire its tranquil beauty."

My lady laughed at Robert's earnestness.

"You seem to have quite a taste for discussing these horrible subjects,"
she said, rather scornfully; "you ought to have been a detective police

"I sometimes think I should have been a good one."


"Because I am patient."

"But to return to Mr. George Talboys, whom we lost sight of in your
eloquent discussion. What if you receive no answer to your

"I shall then consider myself justified in concluding my friend is

"Yes, and then--?"

"I shall examine the effects he left at my chambers."

"Indeed! and what are they? Coats, waistcoats, varnished boots, and
meerschaum pipes, I suppose," said Lady Audley, laughing.

"No; letters--letters from his friends, his old schoolfellows, his
father, his brother officers."


"Letters, too, from his wife."

My lady was silent for some few moments, looking thoughtfully at the

"Have you ever seen any of the letters written by the late Mrs.
Talboys?" she asked presently.

"Never. Poor soul! her letters are not likely to throw much light upon
my friend's fate. I dare say she wrote the usual womanly scrawl. There
are very few who write so charming and uncommon a hand as yours, Lady

"Ah, you know my hand, of course."

"Yes, I know it very well indeed."

My lady warmed her hands once more, and then taking up the big muff
which she had laid aside upon a chair, prepared to take her departure.

"You have refused to accept my apology, Mr. Audley," she said; "but I
trust you are not the less assured of my feelings toward you."

"Perfectly assured, Lady Audley."

"Then good-by, and let me recommend you not to stay long in this
miserable draughty place, if you do not wish to take rheumatism back to
Figtree Court."

"I shall return to town to-morrow morning to see after my letters."

"Then once more good-by."

She held out her hand; he took it loosely in his own. It seemed such a
feeble little hand that he might have crushed it in his strong grasp,
had he chosen to be so pitiless.

He attended her to her carriage, and watched it as it drove off, not
toward Audley, but in the direction of Brentwood, which was about six
miles from Mount Stanning.

About an hour and a half after this, as Robert stood at the door of the
inn, smoking a cigar and watching the snow falling in the whitened
fields opposite, he saw the brougham drive back, empty this time, to the
door of the inn.

"Have you taken Lady Audley back to the Court?" he said to the coachman,
who had stopped to call for a mug of hot spiced ale.

"No, sir; I've just come from the Brentwood station. My lady started for
London by the 12.40 train."

"For town?"

"Yes, sir."

"My lady gone to London!" said Robert, as he returned to the little
sitting-room. "Then I'll follow her by the next train; and if I'm not
very much mistaken, I know where to find her."

He packed his portmanteau, paid his bill, fastened his dogs together
with a couple of leathern collars and a chain, and stepped into the
rumbling fly kept by the Castle Inn for the convenience of Mount
Stanning. He caught an express that left Brentwood at three o'clock, and
settled himself comfortably in a corner of an empty first-class
carriage, coiled up in a couple of railway rugs, and smoking a cigar in
mild defiance of the authorities.



It was exactly five minutes past four as Mr. Robert Audley stepped out
upon the platform at Shoreditch, and waited placidly until such time as
his dogs and his portmanteau should be delivered up to the attendant
porter who had called his cab, and undertaken the general conduct of his
affairs, with that disinterested courtesy which does such infinite
credit to a class of servitors who are forbidden to accept the tribute
of a grateful public.

Robert Audley waited with consummate patience for a considerable time;
but as the express was generally a long train, and as there were a great
many passengers from Norfolk carrying guns and pointers, and other
paraphernalia of a critical description, it took a long while to make
matters agreeable to all claimants, and even the barrister's seraphic
indifference to mundane affairs nearly gave way.

"Perhaps, when that gentleman who is making such a noise about a pointer
with liver-colored spots, has discovered the particular pointer and
spots that he wants--which happy combination of events scarcely seems
likely to arrive--they'll give me my luggage and let me go. The
designing wretches knew at a glance that I was born to be imposed upon;
and that if they were to trample the life out of me upon this very
platform, I should never have the spirit to bring an action against the

Suddenly an idea seemed to strike him, and he left the porter to
struggle for the custody of his goods, and walked round to the other
side of the station.

He heard a bell ring, and looking at the clock, had remembered that the
down train for Colchester started at this time. He had learned what it
was to have an earnest purpose since the disappearance of George
Talboys; and he reached the opposite platform in time to see the
passengers take their seats.

There was one lady who had evidently only just arrived at the station;
for she hurried on to the platform at the very moment that Robert
approached the train, and almost ran against that gentleman in her haste
and excitement.

"I beg your pardon," she began, ceremoniously; then raising her eyes
from Mr. Audley's waistcoat, which was about on a level with her pretty
face, she exclaimed, "Robert, you in London already?"

"Yes, Lady Audley; you were quite right; the Castle Inn is a dismal
place, and--"

"You got tired of it--I knew you would. Please open the carriage door
for me: the train will start in two minutes."

Robert Audley was looking at his uncle's wife with rather a puzzled
expression of countenance.

"What does it mean?" he thought. "She is altogether a different being to
the wretched, helpless creature who dropped her mask for a moment, and
looked at me with her own pitiful face, in the little room at Mount
Stanning, four hours ago. What has happened to cause the change?"

He opened the door for her while he thought this, and helped her to
settle herself in her seat, spreading her furs over her knees, and
arranging the huge velvet mantle in which her slender little figure was
almost hidden.

"Thank you very much; how good you are to me," she said, as he did this.
"You will think me very foolish to travel upon such a day, without my
dear darling's knowledge too; but I went up to town to settle a very
terrific milliner's bill, which I did not wish my best of husbands to
see; for, indulgent as he is, he might think me extravagant; and I
cannot bear to suffer even in his thoughts."

"Heaven forbid that you ever should, Lady Audley," Robert said, gravely.

She looked at him for a moment with a smile, which had something defiant
in its brightness.

"Heaven forbid it, indeed," she murmured. "I don't think I ever shall."

The second bell rung, and the train moved as she spoke. The last Robert
Audley saw of her was that bright defiant smile.

"Whatever object brought her to London has been successfully
accomplished," he thought. "Has she baffled me by some piece of womanly
jugglery? Am I never to get any nearer to the truth, but am I to be
tormented all my life by vague doubts, and wretched suspicions, which
may grow upon me till I become a monomaniac? Why did she come to

He was still mentally asking himself this question as he ascended the
stairs in Figtree Court, with one of his dogs under each arm, and his
railway rugs over his shoulder.

He found his chambers in their accustomed order. The geraniums had been
carefully tended, and the canaries had retired for the night under cover
of a square of green baize, testifying to the care of honest Mrs.
Maloney. Robert cast a hurried glance round the sitting-room; then
setting down the dogs upon the hearth-rug, he walked straight into the
little inner chamber which served as his dressing-room.

It was in this room that he kept disused portmanteaus, battered japanned
cases, and other lumber; and it was in this room that George Talboys had
left his luggage. Robert lifted a portmanteau from the top of a large
trunk, and kneeling down before it with a lighted candle in his hand,
carefully examined the lock.

To all appearance it was exactly in the same condition in which George
had left it, when he laid his mourning garments aside and placed them in
this shabby repository with all other memorials of his dead wife. Robert
brushed his coat sleeve across the worn, leather-covered lid, upon which
the initials G. T. were inscribed with big brass-headed nails; but Mrs.
Maloney, the laundress, must have been the most precise of housewives,
for neither the portmanteau nor the trunk were dusty.

Mr. Audley dispatched a boy to fetch his Irish attendant, and paced up
and down his sitting-room waiting anxiously for her arrival.

She came in about ten minutes, and, after expressing her delight in the
return of "the master," humbly awaited his orders.

"I only sent for you to ask if anybody has been here; that is to say, if
anybody has applied to you for the key of my rooms to-day--any lady?"

"Lady? No, indeed, yer honor; there's been no lady for the kay; barrin'
it's the blacksmith."

"The blacksmith!"

"Yes; the blacksmith your honor ordered to come to-day."

"I order a blacksmith!" exclaimed Robert. "I left a bottle of French
brandy in the cupboard," he thought, "and Mrs. M. has been evidently
enjoying herself."

"Sure, and the blacksmith your honor tould to see to the locks," replied
Mrs. Maloney. "It's him that lives down in one of the little streets by
the bridge," she added, giving a very lucid description of the man's

Robert lifted his eyebrows in mute despair.

"If you'll sit down and compose yourself, Mrs. M.," he said--he
abbreviated her name thus on principle, for the avoidance of unnecessary
labor--"perhaps we shall be able by and by to understand each other. You
say a blacksmith has been here?"

"Sure and I did, sir."


"Quite correct, sir."

Step by step Mr. Audley elicited the following information. A locksmith
had called upon Mrs. Maloney that afternoon at three o'clock, and had
asked for the key of Mr. Audley's chambers, in order that he might look
to the locks of the doors, which he stated were all out of repair. He
declared that he was acting upon Mr. Audley's own orders, conveyed to
him by a letter from the country, where the gentleman was spending his
Christmas. Mrs. Maloney, believing in the truth of this statement, had
admitted the man to the chambers, where he stayed about half an hour.

"But you were with him while he examined the locks, I suppose?" Mr.
Audley asked.

"Sure I was, sir, in and out, as you may say, all the time, for I've
been cleaning the stairs this afternoon, and I took the opportunity to
begin my scouring while the man was at work."

"Oh, you were in and out all the time. If you _could_ conveniently give
me a plain answer, Mrs. M., I should be glad to know what was the
longest time that you were _out_ while the locksmith was in my

But Mrs. Maloney could not give a plain answer. It might have been ten
minutes; though she didn't think it was as much. It might have been a
quarter of an hour; but she was sure it wasn't more. It didn't _seem_ to
her more than five minutes, but "thim stairs, your honor;" and here she
rambled off into a disquisition upon the scouring of stairs in general,
and the stairs outside Robert's chambers in particular.

Mr. Audley sighed the weary sigh of mournful resignation.

"Never mind, Mrs. M.," he said; "the locksmith had plenty of time to do
anything he wanted to do, I dare say, without your being any the wiser."

Mrs. Maloney stared at her employer with mingled surprise and alarm.

"Sure, there wasn't anything for him to stale, your honor, barrin' the
birds and the geran'ums, and--"

"No, no, I understand. There, that'll do, Mrs. M. Tell me where the man
lives, and I'll go and see him."

"But you'll have a bit of dinner first, sir?"

"I'll go and see the locksmith before I have my dinner."

He took up his hat as he announced his determination, and walked toward
the door.

"The man's address, Mrs. M?"

The Irishwoman directed him to a small street at the back of St. Bride's
Church, and thither Mr. Robert Audley quietly strolled, through the miry
slush which simple Londoners call _snow_.

He found the locksmith, and, at the sacrifice of the crown of his hat,
contrived to enter the low, narrow doorway of a little open shop. A jet
of gas was flaring in the unglazed window, and there was a very merry
party in the little room behind the shop; but no one responded to
Robert's "Hulloa!" The reason of this was sufficiently obvious. The
merry party was so much absorbed in its own merriment as to be deaf to
all commonplace summonses from the outer world; and it was only when
Robert, advancing further into the cavernous little shop, made so bold
as to open the half-glass door which separated him from the
merry-makers, that he succeeded in obtaining their attention.

A very jovial picture of the Teniers school was presented to Mr. Robert
Audley upon the opening of this door.

The locksmith, with his wife and family, and two or three droppers-in of
the female sex, were clustered about a table, which was adorned by two
bottles; not vulgar bottles of that colorless extract of the juniper
berry, much affected by the masses; but of _bona fide_ port and
sherry--fiercely strong sherry, which left a fiery taste in the mouth,
nut-brown sherry--rather unnaturally brown, if anything--and fine old
port; no sickly vintage, faded and thin from excessive age: but a rich,
full-bodied wine, sweet and substantial and high colored.

The locksmith was speaking as Robert Audley opened the door.

"And with that," he said, "she walked off, as graceful as you please."

The whole party was thrown into confusion by the appearance of Mr.
Audley, but it was to be observed that the locksmith was more
embarrassed than his companions. He set down his glass so hurriedly,
that he spilt his wine, and wiped his mouth nervously with the back of
his dirty hand.

"You called at my chambers to-day," Robert said, quietly. "Don't let me
disturb you, ladies." This to the droppers-in. "You called at my
chambers to-day, Mr. White, and--"

The man interrupted him.

"I hope, sir, you will be so good as to look over the mistake," he
stammered. "I'm sure, sir, I'm very sorry it should have occurred. I was
sent for to another gentleman's chambers, Mr. Aulwin, in Garden Court;
and the name slipped my memory; and havin' done odd jobs before for you,

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