Part 4 out of 9
I thought it must be you as wanted me to-day; and I called at Mrs.
Maloney's for the key accordin'; but directly I see the locks in your
chambers, I says to myself, the gentleman's locks ain't out of order;
the gentleman don't want all his locks repaired."
"But you stayed half an hour."
"Yes, sir; for there was _one_ lock out of order--the door nighest the
staircase--and I took it off and cleaned it and put it on again. I won't
charge you nothin' for the job, and I hope as you'll be as good as to
look over the mistake as has occurred, which I've been in business
thirteen years come July, and--"
"Nothing of this kind ever happened before, I suppose," said Robert,
gravely. "No, it's altogether a singular kind of business, not likely to
come about every day. You've been enjoying yourself this evening I see,
Mr. White. You've done a good stroke of work to-day, I'll wager--made a
lucky hit, and you're what you call 'standing treat,' eh?"
Robert Audley looked straight into the man's dingy face as he spoke. The
locksmith was not a bad-looking fellow, and there was nothing that he
need have been ashamed of in his face, except the dirt, and that, as
Hamlet's mother says, "is common;" but in spite of this, Mr. White's
eyelids dropped under the young barrister's calm scrutiny, and he
stammered out some apologetic sort of speech about his "missus," and his
missus' neighbors, and port wine and sherry wine, with as much confusion
as if he, an honest mechanic in a free country, were called upon to
excuse himself to Robert Audley for being caught in the act of enjoying
himself in his own parlor.
Robert cut him short with a careless nod.
"Pray don't apologize," he said; "I like to see people enjoy themselves.
Good-night, Mr. White good-night, ladies."
He lifted his hat to "the missus," and the missus' neighbors, who were
much fascinated by his easy manner and his handsome face, and left the
"And so," he muttered to himself as he went back to his chambers, "'with
that she walked off as graceful as you please.'Who was it that walked
off; and what was the story which the locksmith was telling when I
interrupted him at that sentence? Oh, George Talboys, George Talboys, am
I ever to come any I nearer to the secret of your fate? Am I coming
nearer to it now, slowly but surely? Is the radius to grow narrower day
by day until it draws a dark circle around the home of those I love? How
is it all to end?"
He sighed wearily as he walked slowly back across the flagged
quadrangles in the Temple to his own solitary chambers.
Mrs. Maloney had prepared for him that bachelor's dinner, which, however
excellent and nutritious in itself, has no claim to the special charm of
novelty. She had cooked for him a mutton-chop, which was soddening
itself between two plates upon the little table near the fire.
Robert Audley sighed as he sat down to the familiar meal, remembering
his uncle's cook with a fond, regretful sorrow.
"Her cutlets a la Maintenon made mutton seem more than mutton; a
sublimated meat that could scarcely have grown upon any mundane sheep,"
he murmured sentimentally, "and Mrs. Maloney's chops are apt to be
tough; but such is life--what does it matter?"
He pushed away his plate impatiently after eating a few mouthfuls.
"I have never eaten a good dinner at this table since I lost George
Talboys," he said. "The place seems as gloomy as if the poor fellow had
died in the next room, and had never been taken away to be buried. How
long ago that September afternoon appears as I look back at it--that
September afternoon upon which I parted with him alive and well; and
lost him as suddenly and unaccountably as if a trap-door had opened in
the solid earth and let him through to the antipodes!"
Mr. Audley rose from the dinner-table and walked over to the cabinet in
which he kept the document he had drawn up relating to George Talboys.
He unlocked the doors of his cabinet, took the paper from the
pigeon-hole marked important, and seated himself at his desk to write.
He added several paragraphs to those in the document, numbering the
fresh paragraphs as carefully as he had numbered the old ones.
"Heaven help us all," he muttered once; "is this paper with which no
attorney has had any hand to be my first brief?"
He wrote for about half an hour, then replaced the document in the
pigeon-hole, and locked the cabinet. When he had done this, he took a
candle in his hand, and went into the room in which were his own
portmanteaus and the trunk belonging to George Talboys.
He took a bunch of keys from his pocket, and tried them one by one. The
lock of the shabby old trunk was a common one, and at the fifth trial
the key turned easily.
"There'd be no need for any one to break open such a lock as this,"
muttered Robert, as he lifted the lid of the trunk.
He slowly emptied it of its contents, taking out each article
separately, and laying it carefully upon a chair by his side. He handled
the things with a respectful tenderness, as if he had been lifting the
dead body of his lost friend. One by one he laid the neatly folded
mourning garments on the chair. He found old meerschaum pipes, and
soiled, crumpled gloves that had once been fresh from the Parisian
maker; old play-bills, whose biggest letters spelled the names of actors
who were dead and gone; old perfume-bottles, fragrant with essences,
whose fashion had passed away; neat little parcels of letters, each
carefully labeled with the name of the writer; fragments of old
newspapers; and a little heap of shabby, dilapidated books, each of
which tumbled into as many pieces as a pack of cards in Robert's
incautious hand. But among all the mass of worthless litter, each scrap
of which had once had its separate purpose, Robert Audley looked in vain
for that which he sought--the packet of letters written to the missing
man by his dead wife Helen Talboys. He had heard George allude more than
once to the existence of these letters. He had seen him once sorting the
faded papers with a reverent hand; and he had seen him replace them,
carefully tied together with a faded ribbon which had once been Helen's,
among the mourning garments in the trunk. Whether he had afterward
removed them, or whether they had been removed since his disappearance
by some other hand, it was not easy to say; but they were gone.
Robert Audley sighed wearily as he replaced the things in the empty box,
one by one, as he had taken them out. He stopped with the little heap of
tattered books in his hand, and hesitated for a moment.
"I will keep these out," he muttered, "there maybe something to help me
in one of them."
George's library was no very brilliant collection of literature. There
was an old Greek Testament and the Eton Latin Grammar; a French pamphlet
on the cavalry sword-exercise; an odd volume of Tom Jones with one half
of its stiff leather cover hanging to it by a thread; Byron's Don Juan,
printed in a murderous type, which must have been invented for the
special advantage of oculists and opticians; and a fat book in a faded
gilt and crimson cover.
Robert Audley locked the trunk and took the books under his arm. Mrs.
Maloney was clearing away the remains of his repast when he returned to
the sitting-room. He put the books aside on a little table in a corner
of the fire-place, and waited patiently while the laundress finished her
work. He was in no humor even for his meerschaum, consoler; the
yellow-papered fictions on the shelves above his head seemed stale and
profitless--he opened a volume of Balzac, but his uncle's wife's golden
curls danced and trembled in a glittering haze, alike upon the
metaphysical diablerie of the _Peau de Chagrin_, and the hideous social
horrors of "_Cousine Bette_." The volume dropped from his hand, and he
sat wearily watching Mrs. Maloney as she swept up the ashes on the
hearth, replenished the fire, drew the dark damask curtains, supplied
the simple wants of the canaries, and put on her bonnet in the disused
clerk's office, prior to bidding her employer good-night. As the door
closed upon the Irishwoman, he arose impatiently from his chair, and
paced up and down the room.
"Why do I go on with this," he said, "when I know that it is leading me,
step by step, day by day, hour by hour, nearer to that conclusion which,
of all others, I should avoid? Am I tied to a wheel, and must I go with
its every revolution, let it take me where it will? Or can I sit down
here to-night and say I have done my duty to my missing friend, I have
searched for him patiently, but I have searched in vain? Should I be
justified in doing this? Should I be justified in letting the chain
which I have slowly put together, link by link, drop at this point, or
must I go on adding fresh links to that fatal chain until the last rivet
drops into its place and the circle is complete? I think, and I believe,
that I shall never see my friend's face again; and that no exertion of
mine can ever be of any benefit to him. In plainer, crueler words I
believe him to be dead. Am I bound to discover how and where he died? or
being, as I think, on the road to that discovery, shall I do a wrong to
the memory of George Talboys by turning back or stopping still? What am
I to do?--what am I to do?"
He rested his elbows on his knees, and buried his face in his hands. The
one purpose which had slowly grown up in his careless nature until it
had become powerful enough to work a change in that very nature, made
him what he had never been before--a Christian; conscious of his own
weakness; anxious to keep to the strict line of duty; fearful to swerve
from the conscientious discharge of the strange task that had been
forced upon him; and reliant on a stronger hand than his own to point
the way which he was to go. Perhaps he uttered his first earnest prayer
that night, seated by his lonely fireside, thinking of George Talboys.
When he raised his head from that long and silent revery, his eyes had a
bright, determined glance, and every feature in his face seemed to wear
a new expression.
"Justice to the dead first," he said; "mercy to the living afterward."
He wheeled his easy-chair to the table, trimmed the lamp, and settled
himself to the examination of the books.
He took them up, one by one, and looked carefully through them, first
looking at the page on which the name of the owner is ordinarily
written, and then searching for any scrap of paper which might have been
left within the leaves. On the first page of the Eton Latin Grammar the
name of Master Talboys was written in a prim, scholastic hand; the
French pamphlet had a careless G.T. scrawled on the cover in pencil, in
George's big, slovenly calligraphy: the Tom Jones had evidently been
bought at a book-stall, and bore an inscription, dated March 14th, 1788,
setting forth that the book was a tribute of respect to Mr. Thos.
Scrowton, from his obedient servant, James Anderley; the Don Juan and
the Testament were blank. Robert Audley breathed more freely; he had
arrived at the last but one of the books without any result whatever,
and there only remained the fat gilt-and-crimson-bound volume to be
examined before his task was finished.
It was an annual of the year 1845. The copper-plate engravings of lovely
ladies, who had flourished in that day, were yellow and spotted with
mildew; the costumes grotesque and outlandish; the simpering beauties
faded and commonplace. Even the little clusters of verses (in which the
poet's feeble candle shed its sickly light upon the obscurities of the
artist's meaning) had an old-fashioned twang; like music on a lyre,
whose strings are slackened by the damps of time. Robert Audley did not
stop to read any of the mild productions. He ran rapidly through the
leaves, looking for any scrap of writing or fragment of a letter which
might have been used to mark a place. He found nothing but a bright ring
of golden hair, of that glittering hue which is so rarely seen except
upon the head of a child--a sunny lock, which curled as naturally as the
tendril of a vine; and was very opposite in texture, if not different in
hue, to the soft, smooth tresses which the landlady at Ventnor had given
to George Talboys after his wife's death. Robert Audley suspended his
examination of the book, and folded this yellow lock in a sheet of
letter paper, which he sealed with his signet-ring, and laid aside, with
the memorandum about George Talboys and Alicia's letter, in the
pigeon-hole marked important. He was going to replace the fat annual
among the other books, when he discovered that the two blank leaves at
the beginning were stuck together. He was so determined to prosecute his
search to the very uttermost, that he took the trouble to part these
leaves with the sharp end of his paper-knife, and he was rewarded for
his perseverance by finding an inscription upon one of them. This
inscription was in three parts, and in three different hands. The first
paragraph was dated as far back as the year in which the annual had been
published, and set forth that the book was the property of a certain
Miss Elizabeth Ann Bince, who had obtained the precious volume as a
reward for habits of order, and for obedience to the authorities of
Camford House Seminary, Torquay. The second paragraph was dated five
years later, and was in the handwriting of Miss Bince herself, who
presented the book, as a mark of undying affection and unfading esteem
(Miss Bince was evidently of a romantic temperament) to her beloved
friend, Helen Maldon. The third paragraph was dated September, 1853, and
was in the hand of Helen Maldon, who gave the annual to George Talboys;
and it was at the sight of this third paragraph that Mr. Robert Audley's
face changed from its natural hue to a sickly, leaden pallor.
"I thought it would be so," said the young man, shutting the book with a
weary sigh. "God knows I was prepared for the worst, and the worst has
come. I can understand all now. My next visit must be to Southampton. I
must place the boy in better hands."
Among the packet of letters which Robert Audley had found in George's
trunk, there was one labeled with the name of the missing man's
father--the father, who had never been too indulgent a friend to his
younger son, and who had gladly availed himself of the excuse afforded
by George's imprudent marriage to abandon the young man to his own
resources. Robert Audley had never seen Mr. Harcourt Talboys; but
George's careless talk of his father had given his friend some notion of
that gentleman's character. He had written to Mr. Talboys immediately
after the disappearance of George, carefully wording his letter, which
vaguely hinted at the writer's fear of some foul play in the mysterious
business; and, after the lapse of several weeks, he had received a
formal epistle, in which Mr. Harcourt Talboys expressly declared that he
had washed his hands of all responsibility in his son George's affairs
upon the young man's wedding-day; and that his absurd disappearance was
only in character with his preposterous marriage. The writer of this
fatherly letter added in a postscript that if George Talboys had any low
design of alarming his friends by this pretended disappearance, and
thereby playing on their feelings with a view to pecuniary advantage, he
was most egregiously deceived in the character of those persons with
whom he had to deal.
Robert Audley had answered this letter by a few indignant lines,
informing Mr. Talboys that his son was scarcely likely to hide himself
for the furtherance of any deep-laid design on the pockets of his
relatives, as he had left twenty thousand pounds in his bankers' hands
at the time of his disappearance. After dispatching this letter, Robert
had abandoned all thought of assistance from the man who, in the natural
course of things, should have been most interested in George's fate; but
now that he found himself advancing every day some step nearer to the
end that lay so darkly before him, his mind reverted to this heartlessly
indifferent Mr. Harcourt Talboys.
"I will run into Dorsetshire after I leave Southampton," he said, "and
see this man. If _he_ is content to let his son's fate rest a dark and
cruel mystery to all who knew him--if he is content to go down to his
grave uncertain to the last of this poor fellow's end--why should I try
to unravel the tangled skein, to fit the pieces of the terrible puzzle,
and gather together the stray fragments which, when collected, may make
such a hideous whole? I will go to him and lay my darkest doubts freely
before him. It will be for him to say what I am to do."
Robert Audley started by an early express for Southampton. The snow lay
thick and white upon the pleasant country through which he went; and the
young barrister had wrapped himself in so many comforters and railway
rugs as to appear a perambulating mass of woollen goods, rather than a
living member of a learned profession. He looked gloomily out of the
misty window, opaque with the breath of himself and an elderly Indian
officer, who was his only companion, and watched the fleeting landscape,
which had a certain phantom-like appearance in its shroud of snow. He
wrapped himself in the vast folds of his railway rug, with a peevish
shiver, and felt inclined to quarrel with the destiny which compelled
him to travel by an early train upon a pitiless winter's day.
"Who would have thought that I could have grown so fond of the fellow,"
he muttered, "or feel so lonely without him? I've a comfortable little
fortune in the three per cents.; I'm heir presumptive to my uncle's
title; and I know of a certain dear little girl who, as I think, would
do her best to make me happy; but I declare that I would freely give up
all, and stand penniless in the world to-morrow, if this mystery could
be satisfactorily cleared away, and George Talboys could stand by my
He reached Southampton between eleven and twelve o'clock, and walked
across the platform, with the snow drifting in his face, toward the pier
and the lower end of the town. The clock of St. Michael's Church was
striking twelve as he crossed the quaint old square in which that
edifice stands, and groped his way through the narrow streets leading
down to the water.
Mr. Maldon had established his slovenly household gods in one of those
dreary thoroughfares which speculative builders love to raise upon some
miserable fragment of waste ground hanging to the skirts of a prosperous
town. Brigsome's Terrace was, perhaps, one of the most dismal blocks of
building that was ever composed of brick and mortar since the first
mason plied his trowel and the first architect drew his plan. The
builder who had speculated in the ten dreary eight-roomed prison-houses
had hung himself behind the parlor door of an adjacent tavern while the
carcases were yet unfinished. The man who had bought the brick and
mortar skeletons had gone through the bankruptcy court while the
paper-hangers were still busy in Brigsome's Terrace, and had whitewashed
his ceilings and himself simultaneously. Ill luck and insolvency clung
to the wretched habitations. The bailiff and the broker's man were as
well known as the butcher and the baker to the noisy children who played
upon the waste ground in front of the parlor windows. Solvent tenants
were disturbed at unhallowed hours by the noise of ghostly furniture
vans creeping stealthily away in the moonless night. Insolvent tenants
openly defied the collector of the water-rate from their ten-roomed
strongholds, and existed for weeks without any visible means of
procuring that necessary fluid.
Robert Audley looked about him with a shudder as he turned from the
waterside into this poverty-stricken locality. A child's funeral was
leaving one of the houses as he approached, and he thought with a thrill
of horror that if the little coffin had held George's son, he would have
been in some measure responsible for the boy's death.
"The poor child shall not sleep another night in this wretched hovel,"
he thought, as he knocked at the door of Mr. Maldon's house. "He is the
legacy of my best friend, and it shall be my business to secure his
A slipshod servant girl opened the door and looked at Mr. Audley rather
suspiciously as she asked him, very much through her nose, what he
pleased to want. The door of the little sitting room was ajar, and
Robert could hear the clattering of knives and forks and the childish
voice of little George prattling gayly. He told the servant that he had
come from London, that he wanted to see Master Talboys, and that he
would announce himself; and walking past her, without further ceremony
he opened the door of the parlor. The girl stared at him aghast as he
did this; and as if struck by some sudden and terrible conviction, threw
her apron over her head and ran out into the snow. She darted across the
waste ground, plunged into a narrow alley, and never drew breath till
she found herself upon the threshold of a certain tavern called the
Coach and Horses, and much affected by Mr. Maldon. The lieutenant's
faithful retainer had taken Robert Audley for some new and determined
collector of poor's rates--rejecting that gentleman's account of himself
as an artful fiction devised for the destruction of parochial
defaulters--and had hurried off to give her master timely warning of the
When Robert entered the sitting-room he was surprised to find little
George seated opposite to a woman who was doing the honors of a shabby
repast, spread upon a dirty table-cloth, and flanked by a pewter beer
measure. The woman rose as Robert entered, and courtesied very humbly to
the young barrister. She looked about fifty years of age, and was
dressed in rusty widow's weeds. Her complexion was insipidly fair, and
the two smooth bands of hair beneath her cap were of that sunless,
flaxen hue which generally accompanies pink cheeks and white eyelashes.
She had been a rustic beauty, perhaps, in her time, but her features,
although tolerably regular in their shape, had a mean, pinched look, as
if they had been made too small for her face. This defect was peculiarly
noticeable in her mouth, which was an obvious misfit for the set of
teeth it contained. She smiled as she courtesied to Mr. Robert Audley,
and her smile, which laid bare the greater part of this set of square,
hungry-looking teeth, by no means added to the beauty of her personal
"Mr. Maldon is not at home, sir," she said, with insinuating civility;
"but if it's for the water-rate, he requested me to say that--"
She was interrupted by little George Talboys, who scrambled down from
the high chair upon which he had been perched, and ran to Robert Audley.
"I know you," he said; "you came to Ventnor with the big gentleman, and
you came here once, and you gave me some money, and I gave it to gran'pa
to take care of, and gran'pa kept it, and he always does."
Robert Audley took the boy in his arms, and carried him to a little
table in the window.
"Stand there, Georgey," he said, "I want to have a good look at you."
He turned the boy's face to the light, and pushed the brown curls off
his forehead with both hands.
"You are growing more like your father every day, Georgey; and you're
growing quite a man, too," he said; "would you like to go to school?"
"Oh, yes, please, I should like it very much," the boy answered,
eagerly. "I went to school at Miss Pevins' once--day-school, you
know--round the corner in the next street; but I caught the measles, and
gran'pa wouldn't let me go any more, for fear I should catch the measles
again; and gran'pa won't let me play with the little boys in the street,
because they're rude boys; he said blackguard boys; but he said I
mustn't say blackguard boys, because it's naughty. He says damn and
devil, but he says he may because he's old. I shall say damn and devil
when I'm old; and I should like to go to school, please, and I can go
to-day, if you like; Mrs. Plowson will get my frocks ready, won't you,
"Certainly, Master Georgey, if your grandpapa wishes it," the woman
answered, looking rather uneasily at Mr. Robert Audley.
"What on earth is the matter with this woman," thought Robert as he
turned from the boy to the fair-haired widow, who was edging herself
slowly toward the table upon which little George Talboys stood talking
to his guardian. "Does she still take me for a tax-collector with
inimical intentions toward these wretched goods and chattels; or can the
cause of her fidgety manner lie deeper still. That's scarcely likely,
though; for whatever secrets Lieutenant Maldon may have, it's not very
probable that this woman has any knowledge of them."
Mrs. Plowson had edged herself close to the little table by this time,
and was making a stealthy descent upon the boy, when Robert turned
"What are you going to do with the child?" he said.
"I was only going to take him away to wash his pretty face, sir, and
smooth his hair," answered the woman, in the most insinuating tone in
which she had spoken of the water-rate. "You don't see him to any
advantage, sir, while his precious face is dirty. I won't be five
minutes making him as neat as a new pin."
She had her long, thin arms about the boy as she spoke, and she was
evidently going to carry him off bodily, when Robert stopped her.
"I'd rather see him as he is, thank you," he said. "My time in
Southampton isn't very long, and I want to hear all that the little man
can tell me."
The little man crept closer to Robert, and looked confidingly into the
barrister's gray eyes.
"I like you very much," he said. "I was frightened of you when you came
before, because I was shy. I am not shy now--I am nearly six years old."
Robert patted the boy's head encouragingly, but he was not looking at
little George; he was watching the fair-haired widow, who had moved to
the window, and was looking out at the patch of waste ground.
"You're rather fidgety about some one, ma'am, I'm afraid," said Robert.
She colored violently as the barrister made this remark, and answered
him in a confused manner.
"I was looking for Mr. Maldon, sir," she said; "he'll be so disappointed
if he doesn't see you."
"You know who I am, then?"
"No, sir, but--"
The boy interrupted her by dragging a little jeweled watch from his
bosom and showing it to Robert.
"This is the watch the pretty lady gave me," he said. "I've got it
now--but I haven't had it long, because the jeweler who cleans it is an
idle man, gran'pa says, and always keeps it such a long time; and
gran'pa says it will have to be cleaned again, because of the taxes. He
always takes it to be cleaned when there's taxes--but he says if he were
to lose it the pretty lady would give me another. Do you know the pretty
"No, Georgey, but tell me about her."
Mrs. Plowson made another descent upon the boy. She was armed with a
pocket-handkerchief this time, and displayed great anxiety about the
state of little George's nose, but Robert warded off the dreaded weapon,
and drew the child away from his tormentor.
"The boy will do very well, ma'am," he said, "if you'll be good enough
to let him alone for five minutes. Now, Georgey, suppose you sit on my
knee, and tell me all about the pretty lady."
The child clambered from the table onto Mr. Audley's knees, assisting
his descent by a very unceremonious manipulation of his guardian's
"I'll tell you all about the pretty lady," he said, "because I like you
very much. Gran'pa told me not to tell anybody, but I'll tell you, you
know, because I like you, and because you're going to take me to school.
The pretty lady came here one night--long ago--oh, so long ago," said
the boy, shaking his head, with a face whose solemnity was expressive of
some prodigious lapse of time. "She came when I was not nearly so big as
I am now--and she came at night--after I'd gone to bed, and she came up
into my room, and sat upon the bed, and cried--and she left the watch
under my pillow, and she--Why do you make faces at me, Mrs. Plowson? I
may tell this gentleman," Georgey added, suddenly addressing the widow,
who was standing behind Robert's shoulder.
Mrs. Plowson mumbled some confused apology to the effect that she was
afraid Master George was troublesome.
"Suppose you wait till I say so, ma'am, before you stop the little
fellow's mouth," said Robert Audley, sharply. "A suspicious person might
think from your manner that Mr. Maldon and you had some conspiracy
between you, and that you were afraid of what the boy's talk may let
He rose from his chair, and looked full at Mrs. Plowson as he said this.
The fair-haired widow's face was as white as her cap when she tried to
answer him, and her pale lips were so dry that she was compelled to wet
them with her tongue before the words would come.
The little boy relieved her embarrassment.
"Don't be cross to Mrs. Plowson," he said. "Mrs. Plowson is very kind to
me. Mrs. Plowson is Matilda's mother. You don't know Matilda. Poor
Matilda was always crying; she was ill, she--"
The boy was stopped by the sudden appearance of Mr. Maldon, who stood on
the threshold of the parlor door staring at Robert Audley with a
half-drunken, half-terrified aspect, scarcely consistent with the
dignity of a retired naval officer. The servant girl, breathless and
panting, stood close behind her master. Early in the day though it was,
the old man's speech was thick and confused, as he addressed himself
fiercely to Mrs. Plowson.
"You're a prett' creature to call yoursel' sensible woman?" he said.
"Why don't you take th' chile 'way, er wash 's face? D'yer want to ruin
me? D'yer want to 'stroy me? Take th' chile 'way! Mr. Audley, sir, I'm
ver' glad to see yer; ver' 'appy to 'ceive yer in m' humbl' 'bode," the
old man added with tipsy politeness, dropping into a chair as he spoke,
and trying to look steadily at his unexpected visitor.
"Whatever this man's secrets are," thought Robert, as Mrs. Plowson
hustled little George Talboys out of the room, "that woman has no
unimportant share of them. Whatever the mystery may be, it grows darker
and thicker at every step; but I try in vain to draw back or to stop
short upon the road, for a stronger hand than my own is pointing the way
to my lost friend's unknown grave."
LITTLE GEORGEY LEAVES HIS OLD HOME.
"I am going to take your grandson away with me, Mr. Maldon," Robert said
gravely, as Mrs. Plowson retired with her young charge.
The old man's drunken imbecility was slowly clearing away like the heavy
mists of a London fog, through which the feeble sunshine struggles dimly
to appear. The very uncertain radiance of Lieutenant Maldon's intellect
took a considerable time in piercing the hazy vapors of rum-and-water;
but the flickering light at last faintly glimmered athwart the clouds,
and the old man screwed his poor wits to the sticking-point.
"Yes, yes," he said, feebly; "take the boy away from his poor old
grandfather; I always thought so."
"You always thought that I should take him away?" scrutinizing the
half-drunken countenance with a searching glance. "Why did you think so,
The fogs of intoxication got the better of the light of sobriety for a
moment, and the lieutenant answered vaguely:
"Thought so--'cause I thought so."
Meeting the young barrister's impatient frown, he made another effort,
and the light glimmered again.
"Because I thought you or his father would fetch 'm away."
"When I was last in this house, Mr. Maldon, you told me that George
Talboys had sailed for Australia."
"Yes, yes--I know, I know," the old man answered, confusedly, shuffling
his scanty limp gray hairs with his two wandering hands--"I know; but he
might have come back--mightn't he? He was restless, and--and--queer in
his mind, perhaps, sometimes. He might have come back."
He repeated this two or three times in feeble, muttering tones; groping
about on the littered mantle-piece for a dirty-looking clay pipe, and
filling and lighting it with hands that trembled violently.
Robert Audley watched those poor, withered, tremulous fingers dropping
shreds of tobacco upon the hearth rug, and scarcely able to kindle a
lucifer for their unsteadiness. Then walking once or twice up and down
the little room, he left the old man to take a few puffs from the great
Presently he turned suddenly upon the half-pay lieutenant with a dark
solemnity in his handsome face.
"Mr. Maldon," he said, slowly watching the effect of every syllable as
he spoke, "George Talboys never sailed for Australia--that I know. More
than this, he never came to Southampton; and the lie you told me on the
8th of last September was dictated to you by the telegraphic message
which you received on that day."
The dirty clay pipe dropped from the tremulous hand, and shivered
against the iron fender, but the old man made no effort to find a fresh
one; he sat trembling in every limb, and looking, Heaven knows how
piteously, at Robert Audley.
"The lie was dictated to you, and you repeated your lesson. But you no
more saw George Talboys here on the 7th of September than I see him in
this room now. You thought you had burnt the telegraphic message, but
you had only burnt a part of it--the remainder is in my possession."
Lieutenant Maldon was quite sober now.
"What have I done?" he murmured, hopelessly. "Oh, my God! what have I
"At two o'clock on the 7th of September last," continued the pitiless,
accusing voice, "George Talboys was seen alive and well at a house in
Robert paused to see the effect of these words. They had produced no
change in the old man. He still sat trembling from head to foot, and
staring with the fixed and solid gaze of some helpless wretch whose
every sense is gradually becoming numbed by terror.
"At two o'clock on that day," remarked Robert Audley, "my poor friend
was seen alive and well at ----, at the house of which I speak. From
that hour to this I have never been able to hear that he has been seen
by any living creature. I have taken such steps as _must_ have resulted
in procuring the information of his whereabouts, were he alive. I have
done this patiently and carefully--at first, even hopefully. Now I know
that he is dead."
Robert Audley had been prepared to witness some considerable agitation
in the old man's manner, but he was not prepared for the terrible
anguish, the ghastly terror, which convulsed Mr. Maldon's haggard face
as he uttered the last word.
"No, no, no, no," reiterated the lieutenant, in a shrill, half-screaming
voice; "no, no! For God's sake, don't say that! Don't think it--don't
let _me_ think it--don't let me dream of it! Not dead--anything but
dead! Hidden away, perhaps--bribed to keep out of the way, perhaps; but
not dead--not dead--not dead!"
He cried these words aloud, like one beside himself, beating his hands
upon his gray head, and rocking backward and forward in his chair. His
feeble hands trembled no longer--they were strengthened by some
convulsive force that gave them a new power.
"I believe," said Robert, in the same solemn, relentless voice, "that my
friend left Essex; and I believe he died on the 7th of September last."
The wretched old man, still beating his hands among his thin gray hair,
slid from his chair to the ground, and groveled at Robert's feet.
"Oh! no, no--for God's, no!" he shrieked hoarsely. "No! you don't know
what you say--you don't know what your words mean!"
"I know their weight and value only too well--as well as I see you do,
Mr. Maldon. God help us!"
"Oh, what am I doing? what am I doing?" muttered the old man, feebly;
then raising himself from the ground with an effort, he drew himself to
his full hight, and said, in a manner which was new to him, and which
was not without a certain dignity of his own--that dignity which must be
always attached to unutterable misery, in whatever form it may
appear--he said, gravely:
"You have no right to come here and terrify a man who has been drinking,
and who is not quite himself. You have no right to do it, Mr. Audley.
Even the--the officer, sir, who--who--." He did not stammer, but his
lips trembled so violently that his words seemed to be shaken into
pieces by their motion. "The officer, I repeat, sir, who arrests
a--thief, or a--." He stopped to wipe his lips, and to still them if he
could by doing so, which he could not. "A thief or a murderer--" His
voice died suddenly away upon the last word, and it was only by the
motion of those trembling lips that Robert knew what he meant. "Gives
him warning, sir, fair warning, that he may say nothing which shall
commit himself--or--or--other people. The--the--law, sir, has that
amount of mercy for a--a--suspected criminal. But you, sir,--you come to
my house, and you come at a time when--when--contrary to my usual
habits--which, as people will tell you, are sober--you take the
opportunity to--terrify me--and it is not right, sir--it is--"
Whatever he would have said died away into inarticulate gasps, which
seemed to choke him, and sinking into a chair, he dropped his face upon
the table, and wept aloud. Perhaps in all the dismal scenes of domestic
misery which had been acted in those spare and dreary houses--in all the
petty miseries, the burning shames, the cruel sorrows, the bitter
disgraces which own poverty for their father--there had never been such
a scene as this. An old man hiding his face from the light of day, and
sobbing aloud in his wretchedness. Robert Audley contemplated the
painful picture with a hopeless and pitying face.
"If I had known this," he thought, "I might have spared him. It would
have been better, perhaps, to have spared him."
The shabby room, the dirt, the confusion, the figure of the old man,
with his gray head upon the soiled tablecloth, amid the muddled _debris_
of a wretched dinner, grew blurred before the sight of Robert Audley as
he thought of another man, as old as this one, but, ah! how widely
different in every other quality! who might come by and by to feel the
same, or even a worse anguish, and to shed, perhaps, yet bitterer tears.
The moment in which the tears rose to his eyes and dimmed the piteous
scene before him, was long enough to take him back to Essex, and to show
him the image of his uncle, stricken by agony and shame.
"Why do I go on with this?" he thought; "how pitiless I am, and how
relentlessly I am carried on. It is not myself; it is the hand which is
beckoning me further and further upon the dark road, whose end I dare
not dream of."
He thought this, and a hundred times more than this, while the old man
sat with his face still hidden, wrestling with his anguish, but without
power to keep it down.
"Mr. Maldon," Robert Audley said, after a pause, "I do not ask you to
forgive me for what I have brought upon you, for the feeling is strong
within me that it must have come to you sooner or later--if not through
me, through some one else. There are--" he stopped for a moment
hesitating. The sobbing did not cease; it was sometimes low, sometimes
loud, bursting out with fresh violence, or dying away for an instant,
but never ceasing. "There are some things which, as people say, cannot
be hidden. I think there is truth in that common saying which had its
origin in that old worldly wisdom which people gathered from experience
and not from books. If--if I were content to let my friend rest in his
hidden grave, it is but likely that some stranger who had never heard
the name of George Talboys, might fall by the remotest accident upon the
secret of his death. To-morrow, perhaps; or ten years hence, or in
another generation, when the--the hand that wronged him is as cold as
his own. If I _could_ let the matter rest; if--if I could leave England
forever, and purposely fly from the possibility of ever coming across
another clew to the secret, I would do it--I would gladly, thankfully do
it--but I _cannot_! A hand which is stronger than my own beckons me on.
I wish to take no base advantage of you, less than of all other people;
but I must go on; I must go on. If there is any warning you would give
to any one, give it. If the secret toward which I am traveling day by
day, hour by hour, involves any one in whom you have an interest, let
that person fly before I come to the end. Let them leave this country;
let them leave all who know them--all whose peace their wickedness has
endangered; let them go away--they shall not be pursued. But if they
slight your warning--if they try to hold their present position in
defiance of what it will be in your power to tell them--let them beware
of me, for, when the hour comes, I swear that I will not spare them."
The old man looked up for the first time, and wiped his wrinkled face
upon a ragged silk handkerchief.
"I declare to you that I do not understand you," he said. "I solemnly
declare to you that I cannot understand; and I do not believe that
George Talboys is dead."
"I would give ten years of my own life if I could see him alive,"
answered Robert, sadly. "I am sorry for you, Mr. Malden--I am sorry for
all of us."
"I do not believe that my son-in-law is dead," said the lieutenant; "I
do not believe that the poor lad is dead."
He endeavored in a feeble manner to show to Robert Audley that his wild
outburst of anguish had been caused by his grief for the loss of George;
but the pretense was miserably shallow.
Mrs. Plowson re-entered the room, leading little Georgey, whose face
shone with that brilliant polish which yellow soap and friction can
produce upon the human countenance.
"Dear heart alive!" exclaimed Mrs. Plowson, "what has the poor old
gentleman been taking on about? We could hear him in the passage,
Little George crept up to his grandfather, and smoothed the wet and
wrinkled face with his pudgy hand.
"Don't cry, gran'pa," he said, "don't cry. You shall have my watch to be
cleaned, and the kind jeweler shall lend you the money to pay the taxman
while he cleans the watch--I don't mind, gran'pa. Let's go to the
jeweler, the jeweler in High street, you know, with golden balls painted
upon his door, to show that he comes from Lombar--Lombardshire," said
the boy, making a dash at the name. "Come, gran'pa."
The little fellow took the jeweled toy from his bosom and made for the
door, proud of being possessed of a talisman, which he had seen so often
"There are wolves at Southampton," he said, with rather a triumphant nod
to Robert Audley. "My gran'pa says when he takes my watch that he does
it to keep the wolf from the door. Are there wolves where you live?"
The young barrister did not answer the child's question, but stopped him
as he was dragging his grandfather toward the door.
"Your grandpapa does not want the watch to-day, Georgey," he said,
"Why is he sorry, then?" asked Georgey, naively; "when he wants the
watch he is always sorry, and beats his poor forehead so"--the boy
stopped to pantomime with his small fists--"and says that she--the pretty
lady, I think he means--uses him very hard, and that he can't keep the
wolf from the door; and then I say, 'Gran'pa, have the watch;' and then
he takes me in his arms, and says, 'Oh, my blessed angel! how can I rob
my blessed angel?' and then he cries, but not like to-day--not loud, you
know; only tears running down his poor cheeks, not so that you could
hear him in the passage."
Painful as the child's prattle was to Robert Audley, it seemed a relief
to the old man. He did not hear the boy's talk, but walked two or three
times up and down the little room and smoothed his rumpled hair and
suffered his cravat to be arranged by Mrs. Plowson, who seemed very
anxious to find out the cause of his agitation.
"Poor dear old gentleman," she said, looking at Robert.
"What has happened to upset him so?"
"His son-in-law is dead," answered Mr. Audley, fixing his eyes upon Mrs.
Plowson's sympathetic face. "He died, within a year and a half after the
death of Helen Talboys, who lies burried in Ventnor churchyard."
The face into which he was looking changed very slightly, but the eyes
that had been looking at him shifted away as he spoke, and Mrs. Plowson
was obliged to moisten her white lips with her tongue before she
"Poor Mr. Talboys dead!" she said; "that is bad news indeed, sir."
Little George looked wistfully up at his guardian's face as this was
"Who's dead?" he said. "George Talboys is my name. Who's dead?"
"Another person whose name is Talboys, Georgey."
"Poor person! Will he go to the pit-hole?"
The boy had that notion of death which is generally imparted to children
by their wise elders, and which always leads the infant mind to the open
grave and rarely carries it any higher.
"I should like to _see_ him put in the pit-hole," Georgey remarked,
after a pause. He had attended several infant funerals in the
neighborhood, and was considered valuable as a mourner on account of his
interesting appearance. He had come, therefore, to look upon the
ceremony of interment as a solemn festivity; in which cake and wine, and
a carriage drive were the leading features.
"You have no objection to my taking Georgey away with me, Mr. Maldon?"
asked Robert Audley.
The old man's agitation had very much subsided by this time. He had
found another pipe stuck behind the tawdry frame of the looking-glass,
and was trying to light it with a bit of twisted newspaper.
"You do not object, Mr. Maldon?"
"No, sir--no, sir; you are his guardian, and you have a right to take
him where you please. He has been a very great comfort to me in my
lonely old age, but I have been prepared to lose him. I--I may not have
always done my duty to him, sir, in--in the way of schooling, and--and
boots. The number of boots which boys of his age wear out, sir, is not
easily realized by the mind of a young man like yourself; he has been
kept away from school, perhaps, sometimes, and occasionally worn shabby
boots when our funds have got low; but he has not been unkindly treated.
No, sir; if you were to question him for a week, I don't think you'd
hear that his poor old grandfather ever said a harsh word to him."
Upon this, Georgie, perceiving the distress of his old protector, set up
a terrible howl, and declared that he would never leave him.
"Mr. Maldon," said Robert Audley, with a tone which was half-mournful,
half-compassionate, "when I looked at my position last night, I did not
believe that I could ever come to think it more painful than I thought
it then. I can only say--God have mercy upon us all. I feel it my duty
to take the child away, but I shall take him straight from your house to
the best school in Southampton; and I give you my honor that I will
extort nothing from his innocent simplicity which can in any manner--I
mean," he said, breaking off abruptly, "I mean this. I will not seek to
come one step nearer the secret through him. I--I am not a detective
officer, and I do not think the most accomplished detective would like
to get his information from a child."
The old man did not answer; he sat with his face shaded by his hand, and
with his extinguished pipe between the listless fingers of the other.
"Take the boy away, Mrs. Plowson," he said, after a pause; "take him
away and put his things on. He is going with Mr. Audley."
"Which I do say that it's not kind of the gentleman to take his poor
grandpa's pet away," Mrs. Plowson exclaimed, suddenly, with respectful
"Hush, Mrs. Plowson," the old man answered, piteously; "Mr. Audley is
the best judge. I--I haven't many years to live; I sha'n't trouble
The tears oozed slowly through the dirty fingers with which he shaded
his blood-shot eyes, as he said this.
"God knows, I never injured your friend, sir," he said, by-and-by, when
Mrs. Plowson and Georgey had returned, "nor even wished him any ill. He
was a good son-in-law to me--better than many a son. I never did him any
wilful wrong, sir. I--I spent his money, perhaps, but I am sorry for
it--I am very sorry for it now. But I don't believe he is dead--no, sir;
no, I don't believe it!" exclaimed the old man, dropping his hand from
his eyes, and looking with new energy at Robert Audley. "I--I don't
believe it, sir! How--how should he be dead?"
Robert did not answer this eager questioning. He shook his head
mournfully, and, walking to the little window, looked out across a row
of straggling geraniums at the dreary patch of waste ground on which the
children were at play.
Mrs. Plowson returned with little Georgey muffled in a coat and
comforter, and Robert took the boy's hand.
The little fellow sprung toward the old man, and clinging about him,
kissed the dirty tears from his faded cheeks.
"Don't be sorry for me, gran'pa," he said; "I am going to school to
learn to be a clever man, and I shall come home to see you and Mrs.
Plowson, sha'n't I?" he added, turning to Robert.
"Yes, my dear, by-and-by."
"Take him away, sir--take him away," cried Mr. Maldon; "you are breaking
The little fellow trotted away contentedly at Robert's side. He was very
well pleased at the idea of going to school, though he had been happy
enough with his drunken old grandfather, who had always displayed a
maudlin affection for the pretty child, and had done his best to spoil
Georgey, by letting him have his own way in everything; in consequence
of which indulgence, Master Talboys had acquired a taste for late hours,
hot suppers of the most indigestible nature, and sips of rum-and-water
from his grandfather's glass.
He communicated his sentiments upon many subjects to Robert Audley, as
they walked to the Dolphin Hotel; but the barrister did not encourage
him to talk.
It was no very difficult matter to find a good school in such a place as
Southampton. Robert Audley was directed to a pretty house between the
Bar and the Avenue, and leaving Georgey to the care of a good-natured
waiter, who seemed to have nothing to do but to look out of the window,
and whisk invisible dust off the brightly polished tables, the barrister
walked up the High street toward Mr. Marchmont's academy for young
He found Mr. Marchmont a very sensible man, and he met a file of
orderly-looking young gentlemen walking townward under the escort of a
couple of ushers as he entered the house.
He told the schoolmaster that little George Talboys had been left in his
charge by a dear friend, who had sailed for Australia some months
before, and whom he believed to be dead. He confided him to Mr.
Marchmont's especial care, and he further requested that no visitors
should be admitted to see the boy unless accredited by a letter from
himself. Having arranged the matter in a very few business-like words,
he returned to the hotel to fetch Georgey.
He found the little man on intimate terms with the idle waiter, who had
been directing Master Georgey's attention to the different objects of
interest in the High street.
Poor Robert had about as much notion of the requirements of a child as
he had of those of a white elephant. He had catered for silkworms,
guinea-pigs, dormice, canary-birds, and dogs, without number, during his
boyhood, but he had never been called upon to provide for a young person
of five years old.
He looked back five-and-twenty years, and tried to remember his own diet
at the age of five.
"I've a vague recollection of getting a good deal of bread and milk and
boiled mutton," he thought; "and I've another vague recollection of not
liking them. I wonder if this boy likes bread and milk and boiled
He stood pulling his thick mustache and staring thoughtfully at the
child for some minutes before he could get any further.
"I dare say you're hungry, Georgey?" he said, at last.
The boy nodded, and the waiter whisked some more invisible dust from the
nearest table as a preparatory step toward laying a cloth.
"Perhaps you'd like some lunch?" Mr. Audley suggested, still pulling his
The boy burst out laughing.
"Lunch!" he cried. "Why, it's afternoon, and I've had my dinner."
Robert Audley felt himself brought to a standstill. What refreshment
could he possibly provide for a boy who called it afternoon at three
"You shall have some bread and milk, Georgey," he said, presently.
"Waiter, bread and milk, and a pint of hock."
Master Talboys made a wry face.
"I never have bread and milk," he said, "I don't like it. I like what
gran'pa calls something savory. I should like a veal cutlet. Gran'pa
told me he dined here once, and the veal cutlets were lovely, gran'pa
said. Please may I have a veal cutlet, with egg and bread-crumb, you
know, and lemon-juice you know?" he added to the waiter: "Gran'pa knows
the cook here. The cook's such a nice gentleman, and once gave me a
shilling, when gran'pa brought me here. The cook wears better clothes
than gran'pa--better than yours, even," said Master Georgey, pointing to
Robert's rough great-coat with a depreciating nod.
Robert Audley stared aghast. How was he to deal with this epicure of
five years old, who rejected bread and milk and asked for veal cutlets?
"I'll tell you what I'll do with you, little Georgey," he exclaimed,
after a pause--"_I'll give you a dinner!_"
The waiter nodded briskly.
"Upon my word, sir," he said, approvingly, "I think the little gentleman
will know how to eat it."
"I'll give you a dinner, Georgey," repeated Robert--"some stewed eels, a
little Julienne, a dish of cutlets, a bird, and a pudding. What do you
say to that, Georgey?"
"I don't think the young gentleman will object to it when he sees it,
sir," said the waiter. "Eels, Julienne, cutlets, bird, pudding--I'll go
and tell the cook, sir. What time, sir?"
"Well, we'll say six, and Master Georgey will get to his new school by
bedtime. You can contrive to amuse the child for this afternoon, I dare
say. I have some business to settle, and sha'n't be able to take him
out. I shall sleep here to-night. Good-by, Georgey; take care of
yourself and try and get your appetite in order against six o'clock."
Robert Audley left the boy in charge of the idle waiter, and strolled
down to the water side, choosing that lonely bank which leads away under
the moldering walls of the town toward the little villages beside the
He had purposely avoided the society of the child, and he walked through
the light drifting snow till the early darkness closed upon him.
He went back to the town, and made inquiries at the station about the
trains for Dorsetshire.
"I shall start early to-morrow morning," he thought, "and see George's
father before nightfall. I will tell him all--all but the interest which
I take in--in the suspected person, and he shall decide what is next to
Master Georgey did very good justice to the dinner which Robert had
ordered. He drank Bass' pale ale to an extent which considerably alarmed
his entertainer, and enjoyed himself amazingly, showing an appreciation
of roast pheasant and bread-sauce which was beyond his years. At eight
o'clock a fly was brought out for his accommodation, and he departed in
the highest spirits, with a sovereign in his pocket, and a letter from
Robert to Mr. Marchmont, inclosing a check for the young gentleman's
"I'm glad I'm going to have new clothes," he said, as he bade Robert
good-by; "for Mrs. Plowson has mended the old ones ever so many times.
She can have them now, for Billy."
"Who's Billy?" Robert asked, laughing at the boy's chatter.
"Billy is poor Matilda's little boy. He's a common boy, you know.
Matilda was common, but she--"
But the flyman snapping his whip at this moment, the old horse jogged
off, and Robert Audley heard no more of Matilda.
COMING TO A STANDSTILL.
Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within
a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The
prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square
grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be
called anything else--so neither the house nor the grounds had any name,
and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys'.
Perhaps Mr. Harcourt Talboys was the last person in this world with whom
it was possible to associate the homely, hearty, rural old English title
of squire. He neither hunted nor farmed. He had never worn crimson,
pink, or top-boots in his life. A southerly wind and a cloudy sky were
matters of supreme indifference to him, so long as they did not in any
way interfere with his own prim comforts; and he only cared for the
state of the crops inasmuch as it involved the hazard of certain rents
which he received for the farms upon his estate. He was a man of about
fifty years of age, tall, straight, bony and angular, with a square,
pale face, light gray eyes, and scanty dark hair, brushed from either
ear across a bald crown, and thus imparting to his physiognomy some
faint resemblance to that of a terrier--a sharp, uncompromising,
hard-headed terrier--a terrier not to be taken in by the cleverest
dog-stealer who ever distinguished himself in his profession.
Nobody ever remembered getting upon what is popularly called the blind
side of Harcourt Talboys. He was like his own square-built,
northern-fronted, shelterless house. There were no shady nooks in his
character into which one could creep for shelter from his hard daylight.
He was all daylight. He looked at everything in the same broad glare of
intellectual sunlight, and would see no softening shadows that might
alter the sharp outlines of cruel facts, subduing them to beauty. I do
not know if I express what I mean, when I say that there were no curves
in his character--that his mind ran in straight lines, never diverging
to the right or the left to round off their pitiless angles. With him
right was right, and wrong was wrong. He had never in his merciless,
conscientious life admitted the idea that circumstances might mitigate
the blackness of wrong or weaken the force of right. He had cast off his
only son because his only son had disobeyed him, and he was ready to
cast off his only daughter at five minutes' notice for the same reason.
If this square-built, hard-headed man could be possessed of such a
weakness as vanity, he was certainly vain of his hardness. He was vain
of that inflexible squareness of intellect, which made him the
disagreeable creature that he was. He was vain of that unwavering
obstinacy which no influence of love or pity had ever been known to bend
from its remorseless purpose. He was vain of the negative force of a
nature which had never known the weakness of the affections, or the
strength which may be born of that very weakness.
If he had regretted his son's marriage, and the breach of his own
making, between himself and George, his vanity had been more powerful
than his regret, and had enabled him to conceal it. Indeed, unlikely as
it appears at the first glance that such a man as this could have been
vain, I have little doubt that vanity was the center from which radiated
all the disagreeable lines in the character of Mr. Harcourt Talboys. I
dare say Junius Brutus was vain, and enjoyed the approval of
awe-stricken Rome when he ordered his son off for execution. Harcourt
Talboys would have sent poor George from his presence between the
reversed fasces of the lictors, and grimly relished his own agony.
Heaven only knows how bitterly this hard man may have felt the
separation between himself and his only son, or how much the more
terrible the anguish might have been made by that unflinching
self-conceit which concealed the torture.
"My son did me an unpardonable wrong by marrying the daughter of a
drunken pauper," Mr. Talboys would answer to any one who had the
temerity to speak to him about George, "and from that hour I had no
longer a son. I wish him no ill. He is simply dead to me. I am sorry for
him, as I am sorry for his mother who died nineteen years ago. If you
talk to me of him as you would talk of the dead, I shall be ready to
hear you. If you speak of him as you would speak of the living, I must
decline to listen."
I believe that Harcourt Talboys hugged himself upon the gloomy Roman
grandeur of this speech, and that he would like to have worn a toga, and
wrapped himself sternly in its folds, as he turned his back upon poor
George's intercessor. George never in his own person made any effort to
soften his father's verdict. He knew his father well enough to know that
the case was hopeless.
"If I write to him, he will fold my letter with the envelope inside, and
indorse it with my name and the date of its arrival," the young man
would say, "and call everybody in the house to witness that it had not
moved him to one softening recollection or one pitiful thought. He will
stick to his resolution to his dying day. I dare say, if the truth was
known, he is glad that his only son has offended him and given him the
opportunity of parading his Roman virtues."
George had answered his wife thus when she and her father had urged him
to ask assistance from Harcourt Talboys.
"No my darling," he would say, conclusively. "It's very hard, perhaps,
to be poor, but we will bear it. We won't go with pitiful faces to the
stern father, and ask him to give us food and shelter, only to be
refused in long, Johnsonian sentences, and made a classical example for
the benefit of the neighborhood. No, my pretty one; it is easy to
starve, but it is difficult to stoop."
Perhaps poor Mrs. George did not agree very heartily to the first of
these two propositions. She had no great fancy for starving, and she
whimpered pitifully when the pretty pint bottles of champagne, with
Cliquot's and Moet's brands upon their corks, were exchanged for
sixpenny ale, procured by a slipshod attendant from the nearest
beer-shop. George had been obliged to carry his own burden and lend a
helping hand with that of his wife, who had no idea of keeping her
regrets or disappointments a secret.
"I thought dragoons were always rich," she used to say, peevishly.
"Girls always want to marry dragoons; and tradespeople always want to
serve dragoons; and hotel-keepers to entertain dragoons; and theatrical
managers to be patronized by dragoons. Who could have ever expected that
a dragoon would drink sixpenny ale, smoke horrid bird's-eye tobacco, and
let his wife wear a shabby bonnet?"
If there were any selfish feelings displayed in such speeches as these,
George Talboys had never discovered it. He had loved and believed in his
wife from the first to the last hour of his brief married life. The love
that is not blind is perhaps only a spurious divinity after all; for
when Cupid takes the fillet from his eyes it is a fatally certain
indication that he is preparing to spread his wings for a flight. George
never forgot the hour in which he had first become bewitched by
Lieutenant Maldon's pretty daughter, and however she might have changed,
the image which had charmed him then, unchanged and unchanging,
represented her in his heart.
Robert Audley left Southampton by a train which started before daybreak,
and reached Wareham station early in the day. He hired a vehicle at
Wareham to take him over to Grange Heath.
The snow had hardened upon the ground, and the day was clear and frosty,
every object in the landscape standing in sharp outline against the cold
blue sky. The horses' hoofs clattered upon the ice-bound road, the iron
shoes striking on the ground that was almost as iron as themselves. The
wintry day bore some resemblance to the man to whom Robert was going.
Like him, it was sharp, frigid, and uncompromising: like him, it was
merciless to distress and impregnable to the softening power of
sunshine. It would accept no sunshine but such January radiance as would
light up the bleak, bare country without brightening it; and thus
resembled Harcourt Talboys, who took the sternest side of every truth,
and declared loudly to the disbelieving world that there never had been,
and never could be, any other side.
Robert Audley's heart sunk within him as the shabby hired vehicle
stopped at a stern-looking barred fence, and the driver dismounted to
open a broad iron gate which swung back with a clanking noise and was
caught by a great iron tooth, planted in the ground, which snapped at
the lowest bar of the gate as if it wanted to bite.
This iron gate opened into a scanty plantation of straight-limbed
fir-trees, that grew in rows and shook their sturdy winter foliage
defiantly in the very teeth of the frosty breeze. A straight graveled
carriage-drive ran between these straight trees across a smoothly kept
lawn to a square red-brick mansion, every window of which winked and
glittered in the January sunlight as if it had been that moment cleaned
by some indefatigable housemaid.
I don't know whether Junius Brutus was a nuisance in his own house, but
among other of his Roman virtues, Mr. Talboys owned an extreme aversion
to disorder, and was the terror of every domestic in his establishment.
The windows winked and the flight of stone steps glared in the sunlight,
the prim garden walks were so freshly graveled that they gave a sandy,
gingery aspect to the place, reminding one unpleasantly of red hair. The
lawn was chiefly ornamented with dark, wintry shrubs of a funereal
aspect which grew in beds that looked like problems in algebra; and the
flight of stone steps leading to the square half-glass door of the hall
was adorned with dark-green wooden tubs containing the same sturdy
"If the man is anything like his house," Robert thought, "I don't wonder
that poor George and he parted."
At the end of a scanty avenue the carriage-drive turned a sharp corner
(it would have been made to describe a curve in any other man's grounds)
and ran before the lower windows of the house. The flyman dismounted at
the steps, ascended them, and rang a brass-handled bell, which flew back
to its socket, with an angry, metallic snap, as if it had been insulted
by the plebeian touch of the man's hand.
A man in black trousers and a striped linen jacket, which was evidently
fresh from the hands of the laundress, opened the door. Mr. Talboys was
at home. Would the gentleman send in his card?
Robert waited in the hall while his card was taken to the master of the
The hall was large and lofty, paved with stone. The panels of the oaken
wainscot shone with the same uncompromising polish which was on every
object within and without the red-bricked mansion.
Some people are so weak-minded as to affect pictures and statues. Mr.
Harcourt Talboys was far too practical to indulge in any foolish
fancies. A barometer and an umbrella-stand were the only adornments of
Robert Audley looked at these while his name was being submitted to
The linen-jacketed servant returned presently. He was a square,
pale-faced man of almost forty, and had the appearance of having
outlived every emotion to which humanity is subject.
"If you will step this way, sir," he said, "Mr. Talboys will see you,
although he is at breakfast. He begged me to state that everybody in
Dorsetshire was acquainted with his breakfast hour."
This was intended as a stately reproof to Mr. Robert Audley. It had,
however, very small effect upon the young barrister. He merely lifted
his eyebrows in placid deprecation of himself and everybody else.
"I don't belong to Dorsetshire," he said. "Mr. Talboys might have known
that, if he'd done me the honor to exercise his powers of ratiocination.
Drive on, my friend."
The emotionless man looked at Robert Audley with a vacant stare of
unmitigated horror, and opening one of the heavy oak doors, led the way
into a large dining-room furnished with the severe simplicity of an
apartment which is meant to be ate in, but never lived in; and at top of
a table which would have accommodated eighteen persons Robert beheld Mr.
Mr. Talboys was robed in a dressing-gown of gray cloth, fastened about
his waist with a girdle. It was a severe looking garment, and was
perhaps the nearest approach to the toga to be obtained within the range
of modern costume. He wore a buff waistcoat, a stiffly starched cambric
cravat, and a faultless shirt collar. The cold gray of his dressing gown
was almost the same as the cold gray of his eyes, and the pale buff of
his waistcoat was the pale buff of his complexion.
Robert Audley had not expected to find Harcourt Talboys at all like
George in his manners or disposition, but he had expected to see some
family likeness between the father and the son. There was none. It would
have been impossible to imagine any one more unlike George than the
author of his existence. Robert scarcely wondered at the cruel letter he
received from Mr. Talboys when he saw the writer of it. Such a man could
scarcely have written otherwise.
There was a second person in the large room, toward whom Robert glanced
after saluting Harcourt Talboys, doubtful how to proceed. This second
person was a lady, who sat at the last of a range of four windows,
employed with some needlework, the kind which is generally called plain
work, and with a large wicker basket, filled with calicoes and flannels,
standing by her.
The whole length of the room divided this lady from Robert, but he could
see that she was young, and that she was like George Talboys.
"His sister!" he thought in that one moment, during which he ventured to
glance away from the master of the house toward the female figure at the
window. "His sister, no doubt. He was fond of her, I know. Surely, she
is not utterly indifferent as to his fate?"
The lady half rose from her seat, letting her work, which was large and
awkward, fall from her lap as she did so, and dropping a reel of cotton,
which rolled away upon the polished oaken flooring beyond the margin of
the Turkey carpet.
"Sit down, Clara," said the hard voice of Mr. Talboys.
That gentleman did not appear to address his daughter, nor had his face
been turned toward her when she rose. It seemed as if he had known it by
some social magnetism peculiar to himself; it seemed, as his servants
were apt disrespectfully to observe, as if he had eyes in the back of
"Sit down, Clara," he repeated, "and keep your cotton in your workbox."
The lady blushed at this reproof, and stooped to look for the cotton.
Mr. Robert Audley, who was unabashed by the stern presence of the master
of the house, knelt on the carpet, found the reel, and restored it to
its owner; Harcourt Talboys staring at the proceeding with an expression
of unmitigated astonishment.
"Perhaps, Mr. ----, Mr. Robert Audley!" he said, looking at the card
which he held between his finger and thumb, "perhaps when you have
finished looking for reels of cotton, you will be good enough to tell me
to what I owe the honor of this visit?"
He waved his well-shaped hand with a gesture which might have been
admired in the stately John Kemble; and the servant, understanding the
gesture, brought forward a ponderous red-morocco chair.
The proceeding was so slow and solemn, that Robert had at first thought
that something extraordinary was about to be done; but the truth dawned
upon him at last, and he dropped into the massive chair.
"You may remain, Wilson," said Mr. Talboys, as the servant was about to
withdraw; "Mr. Audley would perhaps like coffee."
Robert had eaten nothing that morning, but he glanced at the long
expanse of dreary table-cloth, the silver tea and coffee equipage, the
stiff splendor, and the very little appearance of any substantial
entertainment, and he declined Mr. Talboys' invitation.
"Mr. Audley will not take coffee, Wilson," said the master of the house.
"You may go."
The man bowed and retired, opening and shutting the door as cautiously
as if he were taking a liberty in doing it at all, or as if the respect
due to Mr. Talboys demanded his walking straight through the oaken panel
like a ghost in a German story.
Mr. Harcourt Talboys sat with his gray eyes fixed severely on his
visitor, his elbows on the red-morocco arms of his chair, and his
finger-tips joined. It was the attitude in which, had he been Junius
Brutus, he would have sat at the trial of his son. Had Robert Audley
been easily to be embarrassed, Mr. Talboys might have succeeded in
making him feel so: as he would have sat with perfect tranquility upon
an open gunpowder barrel lighting his cigar, he was not at all disturbed
upon this occasion. The father's dignity seemed a very small thing to
him when he thought of the possible causes of the son's disappearance.
"I wrote to you some time since, Mr. Talboys," he said quietly, when he
saw that he was expected to open the conversation.
Harcourt Talboys bowed. He knew that it was of his lost son that Robert
came to speak. Heaven grant that his icy stoicism was the paltry
affectation of a vain man, rather than the utter heartlessness which
Robert thought it. He bowed across his finger-tips at his visitor. The
trial had begun, and Junius Brutus was enjoying himself.
"I received your communication, Mr. Audley," he said. "It is among other
business letters: it was duly answered."
"That letter concerned your son."
There was a little rustling noise at the window where the lady sat, as
Robert said this: he looked at her almost instantaneously, but she did
not seem to have stirred. She was not working, but she was perfectly
"She's as heartless as her father, I expect, though she is like George,"
thought Mr. Audley.
"If your letter concerned the person who was once my son, perhaps, sir,"
said Harcourt Talboys, "I must ask you to remember that I have no longer
"You have no reason to remind me of that, Mr. Talboys," answered Robert,
gravely; "I remember it only too well. I have fatal reason to believe
that you have no longer a son. I have bitter cause to think that he is
It may be that Mr. Talboys' complexion faded to a paler shade of buff as
Robert said this; but he only elevated his bristling gray eyebrows and
shook his head gently.
"No," he said, "no, I assure you, no."
"I believe that George Talboys died in the month of September."
The girl who had been addressed as Clara, sat with work primly folded
upon her lap, and her hands lying clasped together on her work, and
never stirred when Robert spoke of his friend's death. He could not
distinctly see her face, for she was seated at some distance from him,
and with her back to the window.
"No, no, I assure you," repeated Mr. Talboys, "you labor under a sad
"You believe that I am mistaken in thinking your son dead?" asked
"Most certainly," replied Mr. Talboys, with a smile, expressive of the
serenity of wisdom. "Most certainly, my dear sir. The disappearance was
a very clever trick, no doubt, but it was not sufficiently clever to
deceive me. You must permit me to understand this matter a little better
than you, Mr. Audley, and you must also permit me to assure you of three
things. In the first place, your friend is not dead. In the second
place, he is keeping out of the way for the purpose of alarming me, of
trifling with my feelings as a--as a man who was once his father, and of
ultimately obtaining my forgiveness. In the third place, he will not
obtain that forgiveness, however long he may please to keep out of the
way; and he would therefore act wisely by returning to his ordinary
residence and avocations without delay."
"Then you imagine him to purposely hide himself from all who know him,
for the purpose of--"
"For the purpose of influencing _me_," exclaimed Mr. Talboys, who,
taking a stand upon his own vanity, traced every event in life from that
one center, and resolutely declined to look at it from any other point
of view. "For the purpose of influencing me. He knew the inflexibility
of my character; to a certain degree he was acquainted with me, and knew
that all attempts at softening my decision, or moving me from the fixed
purpose of my life, would fail. He therefore tried extraordinary means;
he has kept out of the way in order to alarm me, and when after due time
he discovers that he has not alarmed me, he will return to his old
haunts. When he does so," said Mr. Talboys, rising to sublimity, "I will
forgive him. Yes, sir, I will forgive him. I shall say to him: You have
attempted to deceive me, and I have shown you that I am not to be
deceived; you have tried to frighten me, and I have convinced you that I
am not to be frightened; you did not believe in my generosity, I will
show you that I can be generous."
Harcourt Talboys delivered himself of these superb periods with a
studied manner, that showed they had been carefully composed long ago.
Robert Audley sighed as he heard them.
"Heaven grant that you may have an opportunity of saying this to your
son, sir," he answered sadly. "I am very glad to find that you are
willing to forgive him, but I fear that you will never see him again
upon this earth. I have a great deal to say to you upon this--this sad
subject, Mr. Talboys; but I would rather say it to you alone," he added,
glancing at the lady in the window.
"My daughter knows my ideas upon this subject, Mr. Audley," said
Harcourt Talboys; "there is no reason why she should not hear all you
have to say. Miss Clara Talboys, Mr. Robert Audley," he added, waving
his hand majestically.
The young lady bent her head in recognition of Robert's bow.
"Let her hear it," he thought. "If she has so little feeling as to show
no emotion upon such a subject, let her hear the worst I have to tell."
There was a few minutes' pause, during which Robert took some papers
from his pocket; among them the document which he had written
immediately after George's disappearance.
"I shall require all your attention, Mr. Talboys," he said, "for that
which I have to disclose to you is of a very painful nature. Your son
was my very dear friend--dear to me for many reasons. Perhaps most of
all dear, because I had known him and been with him through the great
trouble of his life; and because he stood comparatively alone in the
world--cast off by you who should have been his best friend, bereft of
the only woman he had ever loved."
"The daughter of a drunken pauper," Mr. Talboys remarked,
"Had he died in his bed, as I sometimes thought be would," continued
Robert Audley, "of a broken heart, I should have mourned for him very
sincerely, even though I had closed his eyes with my own hands, and had
seen him laid in his quiet resting-place. I should have grieved for my
old schoolfellow, and for the companion who had been dear to me. But
this grief would have been a very small one compared to that which I
feel now, believing, as I do only too firmly, that my poor friend has
The father and daughter simultaneously repeated the horrible word. The
father's face changed to a ghastly duskiness of hue; the daughter's face
dropped upon her clasped hands, and was never lifted again throughout
"Mr. Audley, you are mad!" exclaimed Harcourt Talboys; "you are mad, or
else you are commissioned by your friend to play upon my feelings. I
protest against this proceeding as a conspiracy, and I--I revoke my
intended forgiveness of the person who was once my son!"
He was himself again as he said this. The blow had been a sharp one, but
its effect had been momentary.
"It is far from my wish to alarm you unnecessarily, sir," answered
Robert. "Heaven grant that you may be right and I wrong. I pray for it,
but I cannot think it--I cannot even hope it. I come to you for advice.
I will state to you plainly and dispassionately the circumstances which
have aroused my suspicions. If you say those suspicions are foolish and
unfounded I am ready to submit to your better judgment. I will leave
England; and I abandon my search for the evidence wanting to--to confirm
my fears. If you say go on, I will go on."
Nothing could be more gratifying to the vanity of Mr. Harcourt Talboys
than this appeal. He declared himself ready to listen to all that Robert
might have to say, and ready to assist him to the uttermost of his
He laid some stress upon this last assurance, deprecating the value of
his advice with an affectation that was as transparent as his vanity
Robert Audley drew his chair nearer to that of Mr. Talboys, and
commenced a minutely detailed account of all that had occurred to George
from the time of his arrival in England to the hour of his
disappearance, as well as all that had occurred since his disappearance
in any way touching upon that particular subject. Harcourt Talboys
listened with demonstrative attention, now and then interrupting the
speaker to ask some magisterial kind of question. Clara Talboys never
once lifted her face from her clasped hands.
The hands of the clock pointed to a quarter past eleven when Robert
began his story. The clock struck twelve as he finished.
He had carefully suppressed the names of his uncle and his uncle's wife
in relating the circumstances in which they had been concerned.
"Now, sir," he said, when the story had been told, "I await your
decision. You have heard my reasons for coming to this terrible
conclusion. In what manner do these reasons influence you?"
"They don't in any way turn me from my previous opinion," answered Mr.
Harcourt Talboys, with the unreasoning pride of an obstinate man. "I
still think, as I thought before, that my son is alive, and that his
disappearance is a conspiracy against myself. I decline to become the
victim of that conspiracy,"
"And you tell me to stop?" asked Robert, solemnly.
"I tell you only this: If you go on, you go on for your own
satisfaction, not for mine. I see nothing in what you have told me to
alarm me for the safety of--your friend."
"So be it, then!" exclaimed Robert, suddenly; "from this moment I wash
my hands of this business. From this moment the purpose of my life shall
be to forget it."
He rose as he spoke, and took his hat from the table on which he had
placed it. He looked at Clara Talboys. Her attitude had never changed
since she had dropped her face upon her hands. "Good morning, Mr.
Talboys," he said, gravely. "God grant that you are right. God grant
that I am wrong. But I fear a day will come when you will have reason to
regret your apathy respecting the untimely fate of your only son."
He bowed gravely to Mr. Harcourt Talboys and to the lady, whose face was
hidden by her hands.
He lingered for a moment looking at Miss Talboys, thinking that she
would look up, that she would make some sign, or show some desire to
Mr. Talboys rang for the emotionless servant, who led Robert off to the
hall-door with the solemnity of manner which would have been in perfect
keeping had he been leading him to execution.
"She is like her father," thought Mr. Audley, as he glanced for the last
time at the drooping head. "Poor George, you had need of one friend in
this world, for you have had very few to love you."
Robert Audley found the driver asleep upon the box of his lumbering
vehicle. He had been entertained with beer of so hard a nature as to
induce temporary strangulation in the daring imbiber thereof, and he was
very glad to welcome the return of his fare. The old white horse, who
looked as if he had been foaled in the year in which the carriage had
been built, and seemed, like the carriage, to have outlived the fashion,
was as fast asleep as his master, and woke up with a jerk as Robert came
down the stony flight of steps, attended by his executioner, who waited
respectfully till Mr. Audley had entered the vehicle and been turned
The horse, roused by a smack of his driver's whip and a shake of the
shabby reins, crawled off in a semi-somnambulent state; and Robert, with
his hat very much over his eyes, thought of his missing friend.
He had played in these stiff gardens, and under these dreary firs, years
ago, perhaps--if it were possible for the most frolicsome youth to be
playful within the range of Mr. Harcourt Talboys' hard gray eyes. He had
played beneath these dark trees, perhaps, with the sister who had heard
of his fate to day without a tear. Robert Audley looked at the rigid
primness of the orderly grounds, wondering how George could have grown
up in such a place to be the frank, generous, careless friend whom he
had known. How was it that with his father perpetually before his eyes,
he had not grown up after the father's disagreeable model, to be a
nuisance to his fellow-men? How was it? Because we have Some One higher
than our parents to thank for the souls which make us great or small;
and because, while family noses and family chins may descend in orderly
sequence from father to son, from grandsire to grandchild, as the
fashion of the fading flowers of one year is reproduced in the budding
blossoms of the next, the spirit, more subtle than the wind which blows
among those flowers, independent of all earthly rule, owns no order but
the harmonious law of God.
"Thank God!" thought Robert Audley; "thank God! it is over. My poor
friend must rest in his unknown grave; and I shall not be the means of
bringing disgrace upon those I love. It will come, perhaps, sooner or
later, but it will not come through me. The crisis is past, and I am
He felt an unutterable relief in this thought. His generous nature
revolted at the office into which he had found himself drawn--the office
of spy, the collector of damning facts that led on to horrible
He drew a long breath--a sigh of relief at his release. It was all over
The fly was crawling out of the gate of the plantation as he thought
this, and he stood up in the vehicle to look back at the dreary
fir-trees, the gravel paths, the smooth grass, and the great
desolate-looking, red-brick mansion.
He was startled by the appearance of a woman running, almost flying,
along the carriage-drive by which he had come, and waving a handkerchief
in her uplifted hand.
He stared at this singular apparition for some moments in silent wonder
before he was able to reduce his stupefaction into words.
"Is it _me_ the flying female wants?" he exclaimed, at last. "You'd
better stop, perhaps" he added, to the flyman. "It is an age of
eccentricity, an abnormal era of the world's history. She may want me.
Very likely I left my pocket-handkerchief behind me, and Mr. Talboys has
sent this person with it. Perhaps I'd better get out and go and meet
her. It's civil to send my handkerchief."
Mr. Robert Audley deliberately descended from the fly and walked slowly
toward the hurrying female figure, which gained upon him rapidly.
He was rather short sighted, and it was not until she came very near to
him that he saw who she was.
"Good Heaven!" he exclaimed, "it's Miss Talboys."
It was Miss Talboys, flushed and breathless, with a woolen shawl thrown
over her head.
Robert Audley now saw her face clearly for the first time, and he saw
that she was very handsome. She had brown eyes, like George's, a pale
complexion (she had been flushed when she approached him, but the color
faded away as she recovered her breath), regular features, with a
mobility of expression which bore record of every change of feeling. He
saw all this in a few moments, and he wondered only the more at the
stoicism of her manner during his interview with Mr. Talboys. There were
no tears in her eyes, but they were bright with a feverish
luster--terribly bright and dry--and he could see that her lips trembled
as she spoke to him.
"Miss Talboys," he said, "what can I--why--"
She interrupted him suddenly, catching at his wrist with her disengaged
hand--she was holding her shawl in the other.
"Oh, let me speak to you," she cried--"let me speak to you, or I shall
go mad. I heard it all. I believe what you believe, and I shall go mad
unless I can do something--something toward avenging his death."
For a few moments Robert Audley was too much bewildered to answer her.
Of all things possible upon earth he had least expected to behold her
"Take my arm, Miss Talboys," he said. "Pray calm yourself. Let us walk a
little way back toward the house, and talk quietly. I would not have
spoken as I did before you had I known--"
"Had you known that I loved my brother?" she said, quickly. "How should
you know that I loved him? How should any one think that I loved him,
when I have never had power to give him a welcome beneath that roof, or
a kindly word from his father? How should I dare to betray my love for
him in that house when I knew that even a sister's affection would be
turned to his disadvantage? You do not know my father, Mr. Audley. I do.
I knew that to intercede for George would have been to ruin his cause. I
knew that to leave matters in my father's hands, and to trust to time,
was my only chance of ever seeing that dear brother again. And I
waited--waited patiently, always hoping for the best; for I knew that my
father loved his only son. I see your contemptuous smile, Mr. Audley,
and I dare say it is difficult for a stranger to believe that underneath
his affected stoicism my father conceals some degree of affection for
his children--no very warm attachment perhaps, for he has always ruled
his life by the strict law of duty. Stop," she said, suddenly, laying
her hand upon his arm, and looking back through the straight avenue of
pines; "I ran out of the house by the back way. Papa must not see me
talking to you, Mr. Audley, and he must not see the fly standing at the
gate. Will you go into the high-road and tell the man to drive on a
little way? I will come out of the plantation by a little gate further
on, and meet you in the road."
"But you will catch cold, Miss Talboys," remonstrated Robert, looking at
her anxiously, for he saw that she was trembling. "You are shivering
"Not with cold," she answered. "I am thinking of my brother George. If
you have any pity for the only sister of your lost friend, do what I ask
you, Mr. Audley. I must speak to you--I must speak to you--calmly, if I
She put her hand to her head as if trying to collect her thoughts, and
then pointed to the gate. Robert bowed and left her. He told the man to
drive slowly toward the station, and walked on by the side of the tarred
fence surrounding Mr. Talboys' grounds. About a hundred yards beyond the
principal entrance he came to a little wooden gate in the fence, and
waited at it for Miss Talboys.
She joined him presently, with her shawl still over her head, and her
eyes still bright and tearless.
"Will you walk with me inside the plantation?" she said. "We might be
observed on the high-road."
He bowed, passed through the gate, and shut it behind him.
When she took his offered arm he found that she was still
trembling--trembling very violently.
"Pray, pray calm yourself, Miss Talboys," he said; "I may have been
deceived in the opinion which I have formed; I may--"
"No, no, no," she exclaimed, "you are not deceived. My brother has been
murdered. Tell me the name of that woman--the woman whom you suspect of
being concerned in his disappearance--in his murder."
"That I cannot do until--"
"Until I know that she is guilty."
"You told my father that you would abandon all idea of discovering the
truth--that you would rest satisfied to leave my brother's fate a
horrible mystery never to be solved upon this earth; but you will not do
so, Mr. Audley--you will not be false to the memory of your friend. You
will see vengeance done upon those who have destroyed him. You will do
this, will you not?"
A gloomy shadow spread itself like a dark veil over Robert Audley's
He remembered what he had said the day before at Southampton:
"A hand that is stronger than my own is beckoning me onward, upon the
A quarter of an hour before, he had believed that all was over, and that
he was released from the dreadful duty of discovering the secret of
George's death. Now this girl, this apparently passionless girl, had
found a voice, and was urging him on toward his fate.
"If you knew what misery to me may be involved in discovering the truth,
Miss Talboys," he said, "you would scarcely ask me to pursue this
business any farther?"
"But I do ask you," she answered, with suppressed passion--I do ask you.
I ask you to avenge my brother's untimely death. Will you do so? Yes or
"What if I answer no?"
"Then I will do it myself," she exclaimed, looking at him with her
bright brown eyes. "I myself will follow up the clew to this mystery; I
will find this woman--though you refuse to tell me in what part of
England my brother disappeared. I will travel from one end of the world
to the other to find the secret of his fate, if you refuse to find it
for me. I am of age; my own mistress; rich, for I have money left me by
one of my aunts; I shall be able to employ those who will help me in my
search, and I will make it to their interest to serve me well. Choose
between the two alternatives, Mr. Audley. Shall you or I find my
He looked in her face, and saw that her resolution was the fruit of no
transient womanish enthusiasm which would give way under the iron hand
of difficulty. Her beautiful features, naturally statuesque in their
noble outlines, seemed transformed into marble by the rigidity of her
expression. The face in which he looked was the face of a woman whom
death only could turn from her purpose.
"I have grown up in an atmosphere of suppression," she said, quietly; "I
have stifled and dwarfed the natural feelings of my heart, until they
have become unnatural in their intensity; I have been allowed neither
friends nor lovers. My mother died when I was very young. My father has
always been to me what you saw him to-day. I have had no one but my
brother. All the love that my heart can hold has been centered upon him.
Do you wonder, then, that when I hear that his young life has been ended
by the hand of treachery, that I wish to see vengeance done upon the
traitor? Oh, my God," she cried, suddenly clasping her hands, and
looking up at the cold winter sky, "lead me to the murderer of my
brother, and let mine be the hand to avenge his untimely death."
Robert Audley stood looking at her with awe-stricken admiration. Her
beauty was elevated into sublimity by the intensity of her suppressed
passion. She was different to all other women that he had ever seen. His
cousin was pretty, his uncle's wife was lovely, but Clara Talboys was
beautiful. Niobe's face, sublimated by sorrow, could scarcely have been
more purely classical than hers. Even her dress, puritan in its gray
simplicity, became her beauty better than a more beautiful dress would
have become a less beautiful woman.
"Miss Talboys," said Robert, after a pause, "your brother shall not be
unavenged. He shall not be forgotten. I do not think that any
professional aid which you could procure would lead you as surely to the
secret of this mystery as I can lead you, if you are patient and trust
"I will trust you," she answered, "for I see that you will help me."
"I believe that it is my destiny to do so," she said, solemnly.
In the whole course of his conversation with Harcourt Talboys, Robert
Audley had carefully avoided making any deductions from the
circumstances which he had submitted to George's father. He had simply
told the story of the missing man's life, from the hour of his arriving
in London to that of his disappearance; but he saw that Clara Talboys
had arrived at the same conclusion as himself, and that it was tacitly
understood between them.
"Have you any letters of your brother's, Miss Talboys?" he asked.
"Two. One written soon after his marriage, the other written at
Liverpool, the night before he sailed for Australia."
"Will you let me see them?"
"Yes, I will send them to you if you will give me your address You will
write to me from time to time, will you not, to tell me whether you are
approaching the truth. I shall be obliged to act secretly here, but I am
going to leave home in two or three months, and I shall be perfectly
free then to act as I please."
"You are not going to leave England?" Robert asked.
"Oh no! I am only going to pay a long-promised visit to some friends in
Robert started so violently as Clara Talboys said this, that she looked
suddenly at his face. The agitation visible there, betrayed a part of
"My brother George disappeared in Essex," she said.
He could not contradict her.
"I am sorry you have discovered so much," he replied. "My position
becomes every day more complicated, every day more painful. Good-bye."
She gave him her hand mechanically, when he held out his; but it was
cold as marble, and lay listlessly in his own, and fell like a log at
her side when he released it.
"Pray lose no time in returning to the house," he said earnestly. "I
fear you will suffer from this morning's work."
"Suffer!" she exclaimed, scornfully. "You talk to me of suffering, when
the only creature in this world who ever loved me has been taken from it
in the bloom of youth. What can there be for me henceforth but
suffering? What is the cold to me?" she said, flinging back her shawl
and baring her beautiful head to the bitter wind. "I would walk from
here to London barefoot through the snow, and never stop by the way, if
I could bring him back to life. What would I not do to bring him back?
What would I not do?"
The words broke from her in a wail of passionate sorrow; and clasping
her hands before her face, she wept for the first time that day. The
violence of her sobs shook her slender frame, and she was obliged to
lean against the trunk of a tree for support.
Robert looked at her with a tender compassion in his face; she was so
like the friend whom he had loved and lost, that it was impossible for
him to think of her as a stranger; impossible to remember that they had
met that morning for the first time.
"Pray, pray be calm," he said: "hope even against hope. We may both be
deceived; your brother may still live."
"Oh! if it were so," she murmured, passionately; "if it could be so."
"Let us try and hope that it may be so."
"No," she answered, looking at him through her tears, "let us hope for
nothing but revenge. Good-by, Mr. Audley. Stop; your address."
He gave her a card, which she put into the pocket of her dress.
"I will send you George's letters," she said; "they may help you.
She left him half bewildered by the passionate energy of her manner, and
the noble beauty of her face. He watched her as she disappeared among
the straight trunks of the fir-trees, and then walked slowly out of the
"Heaven help those who stand between me and the secret," he thought,
"for they will be sacrificed to the memory of George Talboys."
Robert Audley did not return to Southampton, but took a ticket for the
first up town train that left Wareham, and reached Waterloo Bridge an
hour or two after dark. The snow, which had been hard and crisp in
Dorsetshire, was a black and greasy slush in the Waterloo Road, thawed
by the flaring lamps of the gin-palaces and the glaring gas in the
Robert Audley shrugged his shoulders as he looked at the dingy streets
through which the Hansom carried him, the cab-man choosing--with that
delicious instinct which seems innate in the drivers of hackney
vehicles--all those dark and hideous thoroughfares utterly unknown to
the ordinary pedestrian.
"What a pleasant thing life is," thought the barrister. "What an
unspeakable boon--what an overpowering blessing! Let any man make a
calculation of his existence, subtracting the hours in which he has been
_thoroughly_ happy--really and entirely at his ease, without one
_arriere pensee_ to mar his enjoyment--without the most infinitesimal
cloud to overshadow the brightness of his horizon. Let him do this, and
surely he will laugh in utter bitterness of soul when he sets down the
sum of his felicity, and discovers the pitiful smallness of the amount.
He will have enjoyed himself for a week or ten days in thirty years,
perhaps. In thirty years of dull December, and blustering March, and
showery April, and dark November weather, there may have been seven or
eight glorious August days, through which the sun has blazed in