Part 5 out of 9
cloudless radiance, and the summer breezes have breathed perpetual balm.
How fondly we recollect these solitary days of pleasure, and hope for
their recurrence, and try to plan the circumstances that made them
bright; and arrange, and predestinate, and diplomatize with fate for a
renewal of the remembered joy. As if any joy could ever be built up out
of such and such constituent parts! As if happiness were not essentially
accidental--a bright and wandering bird, utterly irregular in its
migrations; with us one summer's day, and forever gone from us on the
next! Look at marriages, for instance," mused Robert, who was as
meditative in the jolting vehicle, for whose occupation he was to pay
sixpence a mile, as if he had been riding a mustang on the wild
loneliness of the prairies. "Look at marriage! Who is to say which shall
be the one judicious selection out of nine hundred and ninety-nine
mistakes! Who shall decide from the first aspect of the slimy creature,
which is to be the one eel out of the colossal bag of snakes? That girl
on the curbstone yonder, waiting to cross the street when my chariot
shall have passed, may be the one woman out of every female creature in
this vast universe who could make me a happy man. Yet I pass her
by--bespatter her with the mud from my wheels, in my helpless ignorance,
in my blind submission to the awful hand of fatality. If that girl,
Clara Talboys, had been five minutes later, I should have left
Dorsetshire thinking her cold, hard, and unwomanly, and should have gone
to my grave with that mistake part and parcel of my mind. I took her for
a stately and heartless automaton; I know her now to be a noble and
beautiful woman. What an incalculable difference this may make in my
life. When I left that house, I went out into the winter day with the
determination of abandoning all further thought of the secret of
George's death. I see her, and she forces me onward upon the loathsome
path--the crooked by-way of watchfulness and suspicion. How can I say to
this sister of my dead friend, 'I believe that your brother has been
murdered! I believe that I know by whom, but I will take no step to set
my doubts at rest, or to confirm my fears'? I cannot say this. This
woman knows half my secret; she will soon possess herself of the rest,
and then--and then--"
The cab stopped in the midst of Robert Audley's meditation, and he had
to pay the cabman, and submit to all the dreary mechanism of life, which
is the same whether we are glad or sorry--whether we are to be married
or hung, elevated to the woolsack, or disbarred by our brother benchers
on some mysterious technical tangle of wrong-doing, which is a social
enigma to those outside the _forum domesticum_ of the Middle Temple.
We are apt to be angry with this cruel hardness in our life--this
unflinching regularity in the smaller wheels and meaner mechanism of the
human machine, which knows no stoppage or cessation, though the
mainspring be forever hollow, and the hands pointing to purposeless
figures on a shattered dial.
Who has not felt, in the first madness of sorrow, an unreasoning rage
against the mute propriety of chairs and tables, the stiff squareness of
Turkey carpets, the unbending obstinacy of the outward apparatus of
existence? We want to root up gigantic trees in a primeval forest, and
to tear their huge branches asunder in our convulsive grasp; and the
utmost that we can do for the relief of our passion is to knock over an
easy-chair, or smash a few shillings' worth of Mr. Copeland's
Madhouses are large and only too numerous; yet surely it is strange they
are not larger, when we think of how many helpless wretches must beat
their brains against this hopeless persistency of the orderly outward
world, as compared with the storm and tempest, the riot and confusion
within--when we remember how many minds must tremble upon the narrow
boundary between reason and unreason, mad to-day and sane to-morrow, mad
yesterday and sane to-day.
Robert Audley had directed the cabman to drop him at the corner of
Chancery Lane, and he ascended the brilliantly-lighted staircase leading
to the dining-saloon of The London, and seated himself at one of the
snug tables with a confused sense of emptiness and weariness, rather
than any agreeable sensation of healthy hunger. He had come to the
luxurious eating-house to dine, because it was absolutely necessary to
eat something somewhere, and a great deal easier to get a very good
dinner from Mr. Sawyer than a very bad one from Mrs. Maloney, whose mind
ran in one narrow channel of chops and steaks, only variable by small
creeks and outlets in the way of "broiled sole" or "boiled
mack'-_rill_." The solicitous waiter tried in vain to rouse poor Robert
to a proper sense of the solemnity of the dinner question. He muttered
something to the effect that the man might bring him anything he liked,
and the friendly waiter, who knew Robert as a frequent guest at the
little tables, went back to his master with a doleful face, to say that
Mr. Audley, from Figtree Court, was evidently out of spirits. Robert ate
his dinner, and drank a pint of Moselle; but he had poor appreciation of
the excellence of the viands or the delicate fragrance of the wine. The
mental monologue still went on, and the young philosopher of the modern
school was arguing the favorite modern question of the nothingness of
everything, and the folly of taking too much trouble to walk upon a road
that went nowhere, or to compass a work that meant nothing.
"I accept the dominion of that pale girl, with the statuesque features
and the calm brown eyes," he thought. "I recognize the power of a mind
superior to my own, and I yield to it, and bow down to it. I've been
acting for myself, and thinking for myself, for the last few months, and
I'm tired of the unnatural business. I've been false to the leading
principle of my life, and I've suffered for the folly. I found two gray
hairs in my head the week before last, and an impertinent crow has
planted a delicate impression of his foot under my right eye. Yes, I'm
getting old upon the right side; and why--why should it be so?"
He pushed away his plate and lifted his eyebrows, staring at the crumbs
upon the glistening damask, as he pondered the question.
"What the devil am I doing in this _galere_?" he asked. "But I am in it,
and I can't get out of it; so I better submit myself to the brown-eyed
girl, and do what she tells me patiently and faithfully. What a
wonderful solution to life's enigma there is in petticoat government!
Man might lie in the sunshine, and eat lotuses, and fancy it 'always
afternoon,' if his wife would let him! But she won't, bless her
impulsive heart and active mind! She knows better than that. Who ever
heard of a woman taking life as it ought to be taken? Instead of
supporting it as an unavoidable nuisance, only redeemable by its
brevity, she goes through it as if it were a pageant or a procession.
She dresses for it, and simpers and grins, and gesticulates for it. She
pushes her neighbors, and struggles for a good place in the dismal
march; she elbows, and writhes, and tramples, and prances to the one end
of making the most of the misery. She gets up early and sits up late,
and is loud, and restless, and noisy, and unpitying. She drags her
husband on to the woolsack, or pushes him into Parliament. She drives
him full butt at the dear, lazy machinery of government, and knocks and
buffets him about the wheels, and cranks, and screws, and pulleys; until
somebody, for quiet's sake, makes him something that she wanted him to
be made. That's why incompetent men sometimes sit in high places, and
interpose their poor, muddled intellects between the things to be done
and the people that can do them, making universal confusion in the
helpless innocence of well-placed incapacity. The square men in the
round holes are pushed into them by their wives. The Eastern potentate
who declared that women were at the bottom of all mischief, should have
gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are
_never lazy_. They don't know what it is to be quiet. They are
Semiramides, and Cleopatras, and Joans of Arc, Queen Elizabeths, and
Catharines the Second, and they riot in battle, and murder, and clamor
and desperation. If they can't agitate the universe and play at ball
with hemispheres, they'll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of
domestic molehills, and social storms in household teacups. Forbid them
to hold forth upon the freedom of nations and the wrongs of mankind, and
they'll quarrel with Mrs. Jones about the shape of a mantle or the
character of a small maid-servant. To call them the weaker sex is to
utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the
more persevering, the most self-assertive sex. They want freedom of
opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be
lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators--anything
they like--but let them be quiet--if they can."
Mr. Audley pushed his hands through the thick luxuriance of his straight
brown hair, and uplifted the dark mass in his despair.
"I hate women," he thought, savagely. "They're bold, brazen, abominable
creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their
superiors. Look at this business of poor George's! It's all woman's work
from one end to the other. He marries a woman, and his father casts him
off penniless and professionless. He hears of the woman's death and he
breaks his heart--his good honest, manly heart, worth a million of the
treacherous lumps of self-interest and mercenary calculation which beats
in women's breasts. He goes to a woman's house and he is never seen
alive again. And now I find myself driven into a corner by another
woman, of whose existence I had never thought until this day. And--and
then," mused Mr. Audley, rather irrelevantly, "there's Alicia, too;
_she's_ another nuisance. She'd like me to marry her I know; and she'll
make me do it, I dare say, before she's done with me. But I'd much
rather not; though she is a dear, bouncing, generous thing, bless her
poor little heart."
Robert paid his bill and rewarded the waiter liberally. The young
barrister was very willing to distribute his comfortable little income
among the people who served him, for he carried his indifference to all
things in the universe, even to the matter of pounds, shillings and
pence. Perhaps he was rather exceptional in this, as you may frequently
find that the philosopher who calls life an empty delusion is pretty
sharp in the investment of his moneys, and recognizes the tangible
nature of India bonds, Spanish certificates, and Egyptian scrip--as
contrasted with the painful uncertainty of an Ego or a non-Ego in
The snug rooms in Figtree Court seemed dreary in their orderly quiet to
Robert Audley upon this particular evening. He had no inclination for
his French novels, though there was a packet of uncut romances, comic
and sentimental, ordered a month before, waiting his pleasure upon one
of the tables. He took his favorite meerschaum and dropped into his
favorite chair with a sigh.
"It's comfortable, but it seems so deuced lonely to-night. If poor
George were sitting opposite to me, or--or even George's sister--she's
very like him--existence might be a little more endurable. But when a
fellow's lived by himself for eight or ten years he begins to be bad
He burst out laughing presently as he finished his first pipe.
"The idea of my thinking of George's sister," he thought; "what a
preposterous idiot I am!"
The next day's post brought him a letter in a firm but feminine hand,
which was strange to him. He found the little packet lying on his
breakfast-table, beside the warm French roll wrapped in a napkin by Mrs.
Maloney's careful but rather dirty hands. He contemplated the envelope
for some minutes before opening it--not in any wonder as to his
correspondent, for the letter bore the postmark of Grange Heath, and he
knew that there was only one person who was likely to write to him from
that obscure village, but in that lazy dreaminess which was a part of
"From Clara Talboys," he murmured slowly, as he looked critically at the
clearly-shaped letters of his name and address. "Yes, from Clara
Talboys, most decidedly; I recognized a feminine resemblance to poor
George's hand; neater than his, and more decided than his, but very
like, very like."
He turned the letter over and examined the seal, which bore his friend's
"I wonder what she says to me?" he thought. "It's a long letter, I dare
say; she's the kind of woman who would write a long letter--a letter
that will urge me on, drive me forward, wrench me out of myself, I've no
doubt. But that can't be helped--so here goes!"
He tore open the envelope with a sigh of resignation. It contained
nothing but George's two letters, and a few words written on the flap:
"I send the letters; please preserve and return them--C.T."
The letter, written from Liverpool, told nothing of the writer's life
except his sudden determination of starting for a new world, to redeem
the fortunes that had been ruined in the old. The letter written almost
immediately after George's marriage, contained a full description of his
wife--such a description as a man could only write within three weeks of
a love match--a description in which every feature was minutely
catalogued, every grace of form or beauty of expression fondly dwelt
upon, every charm of manner lovingly depicted.
Robert Audley read the letter three times before he laid it down.
"If George could have known for what a purpose this description would
serve when he wrote it," thought the young barrister, "surely his hand
would have fallen paralyzed by horror, and powerless to shape one
syllable of these tender words."
The dreary London January dragged its dull length slowly out. The last
slender records of Christmas time were swept away, and Robert Audley
still lingered in town--still spent his lonely evenings in his quiet
sitting-room in Figtree Court--still wandered listlessly in the Temple
Gardens on sunny mornings, absently listening to the children's babble,
idly watching their play. He had many friends among the inhabitants of
the quaint old buildings round him; he had other friends far away in
pleasant country places, whose spare bedrooms were always at Bob's
service, whose cheerful firesides had snugly luxurious chairs specially
allotted to him. But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship,
all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the
disappearance of George Talboys. Elderly benchers indulged in facetious
observations upon the young man's pale face and moody manner. They
suggested the probability of some unhappy attachment, some feminine
ill-usage as the secret cause of the change. They told him to be of good
cheer, and invited him to supper-parties, at which "lovely woman, with
all her faults, God bless her," was drunk by gentlemen who shed tears as
they proposed the toast, and were maudlin and unhappy in their cups
toward the close of the entertainment. Robert had no inclination for the
wine-bibbing and the punch-making. The one idea of his life had become
his master. He was the bonden slave of one gloomy thought--one horrible
presentiment. A dark cloud was brooding above his uncle's house, and it
was his hand which was to give the signal for the thunder-clap, and the
tempest that was to ruin that noble life.
"If she would only take warning and run away," he said to himself
sometimes. "Heaven knows, I have given her a fair chance. Why doesn't
she take it and run away?"
He heard sometimes from Sir Michael, sometimes from Alicia. The young
lady's letter rarely contained more than a few curt lines informing him
that her papa was well; and that Lady Audley was in very high spirits,
amusing herself in her usual frivolous manner, and with her usual
disregard for other people.
A letter from Mr. Marchmont, the Southampton schoolmaster, informed
Robert that little Georgey was going on very well, but that he was
behindhand in his education, and had not yet passed the intellectual
Rubicon of words of two syllables. Captain Maldon had called to see his
grandson, but that privilege had been withheld from him, in accordance
with Mr. Audley's instructions. The old man had furthermore sent a
parcel of pastry and sweetmeats to the little boy, which had also been
rejected on the ground of indigestible and bilious tendencies in the
Toward the close of February, Robert received a letter from his cousin
Alicia, which hurried him one step further forward toward his destiny,
by causing him to return to the house from which he had become in a
manner exiled at the instigation of his uncle's wife,
"Papa is very ill," Alicia wrote; "not dangerously ill, thank God; but
confined to his room by an attack of low fever which has succeeded a
violent cold. Come and see him, Robert, if you have any regard for your
nearest relations. He has spoken about you several times; and I know he
will be glad to have you with him. Come at once, but say nothing about
"From your affectionate cousin, ALICIA."
A sick and deadly terror chilled Robert Audley's heart, as he read this
letter--a vague yet hideous fear, which he dared not shape into any
"Have I done right?" he thought, in the first agony of this new
horror--"have I done right to tamper with justice; and to keep the
secret of my doubts in the hope that I was shielding those I love from
sorrow and disgrace? What shall I do if I find him ill, very ill, dying
perhaps, dying upon her breast! What shall I do?"
One course lay clear before him; and the first step of that course was a
rapid journey to Audley Court. He packed his portmanteau, jumped into a
cab, and reached the railway station within an hour of his receipt of
Alicia's letter, which had come by the afternoon post.
The dim village lights flickered faintly through the growing dusk when
Robert reached Audley. He left his portmanteau with the station-master,
and walked at a leisurely pace through the quiet lanes that led away to
the still loneliness of the Court. The over-arching trees stretched
their leafless branches above his head, bare and weird in the dusky
light. A low moaning wind swept across the flat meadow land, and tossed
those rugged branches hither and thither against the dark gray sky. They
looked like the ghostly arms of shrunken and withered giants, beckoning
Robert to his uncle's house. They looked like threatening phantoms in
the chill winter twilight, gesticulating to him to hasten upon his
journey. The long avenue so bright and pleasant when the perfumed limes
scattered their light bloom upon the pathway, and the dog-rose leaves
floated on the summer air, was terribly bleak and desolate in the
cheerless interregnum that divides the homely joys of Christmas from the
pale blush of coming spring--a dead pause in the year, in which Nature
seems to lie in a tranced sleep, awaiting the wondrous signal for the
budding of the flower.
A mournful presentiment crept into Robert Audley's heart as he drew
nearer to his uncle's house. Every changing outline in the landscape was
familiar to him; every bend of the trees; every caprice of the
untrammeled branches; every undulation in the bare hawthorn hedge,
broken by dwarf horse-chestnuts, stunted willows, blackberry and hazel
Sir Michael had been a second father to the young man, a generous and
noble friend, a grave and earnest adviser; and perhaps the strongest
sentiment of Robert's heart was his love for the gray-bearded baronet.
But the grateful affection was so much a part of himself, that it seldom
found an outlet in words, and a stranger would never have fathomed the
depth of feeling which lay, a deep and powerful current, beneath the
stagnant surface of the barrister's character.
"What would become of this place if my uncle were to die?" he thought,
and he drew nearer to the ivied archway, and the still water-pools,
coldly gray in the twilight. "Would other people live in the old house,
and sit under the low oak ceilings in the homely familiar rooms?"
That wonderful faculty of association, so interwoven with the inmost
fibers of even the hardest nature, filled the young man's breast with a
prophetic pain as he remembered that, however long or late, the day must
come on which the oaken shutters would be closed for awhile, and the
sunshine shut out of the house he loved. It was painful to him even to
remember this; as it must always be painful to think of the narrow lease
the greatest upon this earth can ever hold of its grandeurs. Is it so
wonderful that some wayfarers drop asleep under the hedges, scarcely
caring to toil onward on a journey that leads to no abiding habitation?
Is it wonderful that there have been quietists in the world ever since
Christ's religion was first preached upon earth. Is it strange that
there is a patient endurance and tranquil resignation, calm expectation
of that which is to come on the further shore of the dark flowing river?
Is it not rather to be wondered that anybody should ever care to be
great for greatness' sake; for any other reason than pure
conscientiousness; the simple fidelity of the servant who fears to lay
his talents by in a napkin, knowing that indifference is near akin to
dishonesty? If Robert Audley had lived in the time of Thomas a'Kempis,
he would very likely have built himself a narrow hermitage amid some
forest loneliness, and spent his life in tranquil imitation of the
reputed author of _The Imitation_. As it was, Figtree Court was a
pleasant hermitage in its way, and for breviaries and Books of Hours, I
am ashamed to say the young barrister substituted Paul de Kock and
Dumas, fils. But his sins were of so simply negative an order, that it
would have been very easy for him to have abandoned them for negative
Only one solitary light was visible in the long irregular range of
windows facing the archway, as Robert passed under the gloomy shade of
the rustling ivy, restless in the chill moaning of the wind. He
recognized that lighted window as the large oriel in his uncle's room.
When last he had looked at the old house it had been gay with visitors,
every window glittering like a low star in the dusk; now, dark and
silent, it faced the winter's night like some dismal baronial
habitation, deep in a woodland solitude.
The man who opened the door to the unlooked-for visitor, brightened as
he recognized his master's nephew.
"Sir Michael will be cheered up a bit, sir, by the sight of you," he
said, as he ushered Robert Audley into the fire-lit library, which
seemed desolate by reason of the baronet's easy-chair standing empty on
the broad hearth-rug. "Shall I bring you some dinner here, sir, before
you go up-stairs?" the servant asked. "My lady and Miss Audley have
dined early during my master's illness, but I can bring you anything you
would please to take, sir."
"I'll take nothing until I have seen my uncle," Robert answered,
hurriedly; "that is to say, if I can see him at once. He is not too ill
to receive me, I suppose?" he added, anxiously.
"Oh, no, sir--not too ill; only a little low, sir. This way, if you
He conducted Robert up the short flight of shallow oaken stairs to the
octagon chamber in which George Talboys had sat long five months before,
staring absently at my lady's portrait. The picture was finished now,
and hung in the post of honor opposite the window, amidst Claudes,
Poussins and Wouvermans, whose less brilliant hues were killed by the
vivid coloring of the modern artist. The bright face looked out of that
tangled glitter of golden hair, in which the Pre-Raphaelites delight,
with a mocking smile, as Robert paused for a moment to glance at the
well-remembered picture. Two or three moments afterward he had passed
through my lady's boudoir and dressing-room and stood upon the threshold
of Sir Michael's room. The baronet lay in a quiet sleep, his arm laying
outside the bed, and his strong hand clasped in his young wife's
delicate fingers. Alicia sat in a low chair beside the broad open
hearth, on which the huge logs burned fiercely in the frosty atmosphere.
The interior of this luxurious bedchamber might have made a striking
picture for an artist's pencil. The massive furniture, dark and somber,
yet broken up and relieved here and there by scraps of gilding, and
masses of glowing color; the elegance of every detail, in which wealth
was subservient to purity of taste; and last, but greatest in
importance, the graceful figures of the two women, and the noble form of
the old man would have formed a worthy study for any painter.
Lucy Audley, with her disordered hair in a pale haze of yellow gold
about her thoughtful face, the flowing lines of her soft muslin
dressing-gown falling in straight folds to her feet, and clasped at the
waist by a narrow circlet of agate links might have served as a model
for a mediaeval saint, in one of the tiny chapels hidden away in the
nooks and corners of a gray old cathedral, unchanged by Reformation or
Cromwell; and what saintly martyr of the Middle Ages could have borne a
holier aspect than the man whose gray beard lay upon the dark silken
coverlet of the stately bed?
Robert paused upon the threshold, fearful of awaking his uncle. The two
ladies had heard his step, cautious though he had been, and lifted their
heads to look at him. My lady's face, quietly watching the sick man, had
worn an anxious earnestness which made it only more beautiful; but the
same face recognizing Robert Audley, faded from its delicate brightness,
and looked scared and wan in the lamplight.
"Mr. Audley!" she cried, in a faint, tremulous voice.
"Hush!" whispered Alicia, with a warning gesture; "you will wake papa.
How good of you to come, Robert," she added, in the same whispered
tones, beckoning to her cousin to take an empty chair near the bed.
The young man seated himself in the indicated seat at the bottom of the
bed, and opposite to my lady, who sat close beside the pillows. He
looked long and earnestly at the face of the sleeper; still longer,
still more earnestly at the face of Lady Audley, which was slowly
recovering its natural hues.
"He has not been very ill, has he?" Robert asked, in the same key as
that in which Alicia had spoken.
My lady answered the question.
"Oh, no, not dangerously ill," she said, without taking her eyes from
her husband's face; "but still we have been anxious, very, very
Robert never relaxed his scrutiny of that pale face.
"She shall look at me," he thought; "I will make her meet my eyes, and I
will read her as I have read her before. She shall know how useless her
artifices are with me."
He paused for a few minutes before he spoke again. The regular breathing
of the sleeper the ticking of a gold hunting-watch at the head of the
bed, and the crackling of the burning logs, were the only sounds that
broke the stillness.
"I have no doubt you have been anxious, Lady Audley," Robert said, after
a pause, fixing my lady's eyes as they wandered furtively to his face.
"There is no one to whom my uncle's life I can be of more value than to
you. Your happiness, your prosperity, your _safety_ depend alike upon
The whisper in which he uttered these words was too low to reach the
other side of the room, where Alicia sat.
Lucy Audley's eyes met those of the speaker with some gleam of triumph
in their light.
"I know that," she said. "Those who strike me must strike through him."
She pointed to the sleeper as she spoke, still looking at Robert Audley.
She defied him with her blue eyes, their brightness intensified by the
triumph in their glance. She defied him with her quiet smile--a smile of
fatal beauty, full of lurking significance and mysterious meaning--the
smile which the artist had exaggerated in his portrait of Sir Michael's
Robert turned away from the lovely face, and shaded his eyes with his
hand; putting a barrier between my lady and himself; a screen which
baffled her penetration and provoked her curiosity. Was he still
watching her or was he thinking? and of what was he thinking?
Robert had been seated at the bedside for upward of an hour before his
uncle awoke. The baronet was delighted at his nephew's coming.
"It was very good of you to come to me, Bob," he said. "I have been
thinking of you a good deal since I have been ill. You and Lucy must be
good friends, you know, Bob; and you must learn to think of her as your
aunt, sir; though she is young and beautiful; and--and--you understand,
Robert grasped his uncle's hand, but he looked down as he answered: "I
do understand you, sir," he said, quietly; "and I give you my word of
honor that I am steeled against my lady's fascinations. She knows that
as well as I do."
Lucy Audley made a little grimace with her pretty little lips. "Bah, you
silly Robert," she exclaimed; "you take everything _au serieux_. If I
thought you were rather too young for a nephew, it was only in my fear
of other people's foolish gossip; not from any--"
She hesitated for a moment, and escaped any conclusion to her sentence
by the timely intervention of Mr. Dawson, her late employer, who entered
the room upon his evening visit while she was speaking.
He felt the patient's pulse; asked two or three questions; pronounced
the baronet to be steadily improving; exchanged a few commonplace
remarks with Alicia and Lady Audley, and prepared to leave the room.
Robert rose and accompanied him to the door.
"I will light you to the staircase," he said, taking a candle from one
of the tables, and lighting it at the lamp.
"No, no, Mr. Audley, pray do not trouble yourself," expostulated the
surgeon; "I know my way very well indeed."
Robert insisted, and the two men left the room together. As they entered
the octagon ante-chamber the barrister paused and shut the door behind
"Will you see that the door is closed, Mr. Dawson?" he said, pointing to
that which opened upon the staircase. "I wish to have a few moments'
private conversation with you."
"With much pleasure," replied the surgeon, complying with Robert's
request; "but if you are at all alarmed about your uncle, Mr. Audley, I
can set your mind at rest. There is no occasion for the least
uneasiness. Had his illness been at all serious I should have
telegraphed immediately for the family physician."
"I am sure that you would have done your duty, sir," answered Robert,
gravely. "But I am not going to speak of my uncle. I wish to ask you two
or three questions about another person."
"The person who once lived in your family as Miss Lucy Graham; the
person who is now Lady Audley."
Mr. Dawson looked up with an expression of surprise upon his quiet face.
"Pardon me, Mr. Audley," he answered; "you can scarcely expect me to
answer any questions about your uncle's wife without Sir Michael's
express permission. I can understand no motive which can prompt you to
ask such questions--no worthy motive, at least." He looked severely at
the young man, as much as to say: "You have been falling in love with
your uncle's pretty wife, sir, and you want to make me a go-between in
some treacherous flirtation; but it won't do, sir, it won't do."
"I always respected the lady as Miss Graham, sir," he said, "and I
esteem her doubly as Lady Audley--not on account of her altered
position, but because she is the wife of one of the noblest men in
"You cannot respect my uncle or my uncle's honor more sincerely than I
do," answered Robert. "I have no unworthy motive for the questions I am
about to ask; and you must answer them."
"_Must!_" echoed Mr. Dawson, indignantly.
"Yes, you are my uncle's friend. It was at your house he met the woman
who is now his wife. She called herself an orphan, I believe, and
enlisted his pity as well as his admiration in her behalf. She told him
that she stood alone in the world, did she not?--without a friend or
relative. This was all I could ever learn of her antecedents."
"What reason have you to wish to know more?" asked the surgeon.
"A very terrible reason," answered Robert Audley. "For some months past
I have struggled with doubts and suspicions which have embittered my
life. They have grown stronger every day; and they will not be set at
rest by the commonplace sophistries and the shallow arguments with which
men try to deceive themselves rather than believe that which of all
things upon earth they most fear to believe. I do not think that the
woman who bears my uncle's name, is worthy to be his wife. I may wrong
her. Heaven grant that it is so. But if I do, the fatal chain of
circumstantial evidence never yet linked itself so closely about an
innocent person. I wish to set my doubts at rest or--or to confirm my
fears. There is but one manner in which I can do this. I must trace the
life of my uncle's wife backward, minutely and carefully, from this
night to a period of six years ago. This is the twenty-fourth of
February, fifty-nine. I want to know every record of her life between
to-night and the February of the year fifty-three."
"And your motive is a worthy one?"
"Yes, I wish to clear her from a very dreadful suspicion."
"Which exists only in your mind?"
"And in the mind of one other person."
"May I ask who that person is?"
"No, Mr. Dawson," answered Robert, decisively; "I cannot reveal anything
more than what I have already told you. I am a very irresolute,
vacillating man in most things. In this matter I am compelled to be
decided. I repeat once more that I _must_ know the history of Lucy
Graham's life. If you refuse to help me to the small extent in your
power, I will find others who will help me. Painful as it would become,
I will ask my uncle for the information which you would withhold, rather
than be baffled in the first step of my investigation."
Mr. Dawson was silent for some minutes.
"I cannot express how much you have astonished and alarmed me, Mr.
Audley." he said. "I can tell you so little about Lady Audley's
antecedents, that it would be mere obstinacy to withhold the small
amount of information I possess. I have always considered your uncle's
wife one of the most amiable of women. I _cannot_ bring myself to think
her otherwise. It would be an uprooting of one of the strongest
convictions of my life were I compelled to think her otherwise. You wish
to follow her life backward from the present hour to the year
"She was married to your uncle last June twelvemonth, in the midsummer
of fifty-seven. She had lived in my house a little more than thirteen
months. She became a member of my household upon the fourteenth of May,
in the year fifty-six."
"And she came to you--"
"From a school at Brompton, a school kept by a lady of the name of
Vincent. It was Mrs. Vincent's strong recommendation that induced me to
receive Miss Graham into my family without any more special knowledge of
"Did you see this Mrs. Vincent?"
"I did not. I advertised for a governess, and Miss Graham answered my
advertisement. In her letter she referred me to Mrs. Vincent, the
proprietress of a school in which she was then residing as junior
teacher. My time is always so fully occupied, that I was glad to escape
the necessity of a day's loss in going from Audley to London to inquire
about the young lady's qualifications. I looked for Mrs. Vincent's name
in the directory, found it, and concluded that she was a responsible
person, and wrote to her. Her reply was perfectly satisfactory;--Miss
Lucy Graham was assiduous and conscientious; as well as fully qualified
for the situation I offered. I accepted this reference, and I had no
cause to regret what may have been an indiscretion. And now, Mr. Audley,
I have told you all that I have the power to tell."
"Will you be so kind as to give me the address of this Mrs. Vincent?"
asked Robert, taking out his pocketbook.
"Certainly; she was then living at No. 9 Crescent Villas, Brompton."
"Ah, to be sure," muttered Mr. Audley, a recollection of last September
flashing suddenly back upon him as the surgeon spoke.
"Crescent Villas--yes, I have heard the address before from Lady Audley
herself. This Mrs. Vincent telegraphed to my uncle's wife early in last
September. She was ill--dying, I believe--and sent for my lady; but had
removed from her old house and was not to be found."
"Indeed! I never heard Lady Audley mention the circumstance."
"Perhaps not. It occurred while I was down here. Thank you, Mr. Dawson,
for the information you have so kindly and honestly given me. It takes
me back two and a-half years in the history of my lady's life; but I
have still a blank of three years to fill up before I can exonerate her
from my terrible suspicion. Good evening."
Robert shook hands with the surgeon and returned to his uncle's room. He
had been away about a quarter of an hour. Sir Michael had fallen asleep
once more, and my lady's loving hands had lowered the heavy curtains and
shaded the lamp by the bedside. Alicia and her father's wife were taking
tea in Lady Audley's boudoir, the room next to the antechamber in which
Robert and Mr. Dawson had been seated.
Lucy Audley looked up from her occupation among the fragile china cups
and watched Robert rather anxiously as he walked softly to his uncle's
room and back again to the boudoir. She looked very pretty and innocent,
seated behind the graceful group of delicate opal china and glittering
silver. Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea.
The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic
harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance. The
floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing
herbs; whose secrets are known to her alone, envelope her in a cloud of
scented vapor, through which she seems a social fairy, weaving potent
spells with Gunpowder and Bohea. At the tea-table she reigns omnipotent,
unapproachable. What do men know of the mysterious beverage? Read how
poor Hazlitt made his tea, and shudder at the dreadful barbarism. How
clumsily the wretched creatures attempt to assist the witch president of
the tea-tray; how hopelessly they hold the kettle, how continually they
imperil the frail cups and saucers, or the taper hands of the priestess.
To do away with the tea-table is to rob woman of her legitimate empire.
To send a couple of hulking men about among your visitors, distributing
a mixture made in the housekeeper's room, is to reduce the most social
and friendly of ceremonies to a formal giving out of rations. Better the
pretty influence of the tea cups and saucers gracefully wielded in a
woman's hand than all the inappropriate power snatched at the point of
the pen from the unwilling sterner sex. Imagine all the women of England
elevated to the high level of masculine intellectuality, superior to
crinoline; above pearl powder and Mrs. Rachael Levison; above taking the
pains to be pretty; above tea-tables and that cruelly scandalous and
rather satirical gossip which even strong men delight in; and what a
drear, utilitarian, ugly life the sterner sex must lead.
My lady was by no means strong-minded. The starry diamonds upon her
white fingers flashed hither and thither among the tea-things, and she
bent her pretty head over the marvelous Indian tea-caddy of sandal-wood
and silver, with as much earnestness as if life held no higher purpose
than the infusion of Bohea.
"You'll take a cup of tea with us, Mr. Audley?" she asked, pausing with
the teapot in her hand to look up at Robert, who was standing near the
"If you please."
"But you have not dined, perhaps? Shall I ring and tell them to bring
you something a little more substantial than biscuits and transparent
bread and butter?"
"No, thank you, Lady Audley. I took some lunch before I left town. I'll
trouble you for nothing but a cup of tea."
He seated himself at the little table and looked across it at his Cousin
Alicia, who sat with a book in her lap, and had the air of being very
much absorbed by its pages. The bright brunette complexion had lost its
glowing crimson, and the animation of the young lady's manner was
suppressed--on account of her father's illness, no doubt, Robert
"Alicia, my dear," the barrister said, after a very leisurely
contemplation of his cousin, "you're not looking well."
Miss Audley shrugged her shoulders, but did not condescend to lift her
eyes from her book.
"Perhaps not," she answered, contemptuously. "What does it matter? I'm
growing a philosopher of your school, Robert Audley. What does it
matter? Who cares whether I am well or ill?"
"What a spitfire she is," thought the barrister. He always knew his
cousin was angry with him when she addressed him as "Robert Audley."
"You needn't pitch into a fellow because he asks you a civil question,
Alicia," he said, reproachfully. "As to nobody caring about your health,
that's nonsense. _I_ care." Miss Audley looked up with a bright smile.
"Sir Harry Towers cares." Miss Audley returned to her book with a frown.
"What are you reading there, Alicia?" Robert asked, after a pause,
during which he had sat thoughtfully stirring his tea.
"_Changes and Chances_."
"Who is it by?"
"The author of _Follies and Faults_," answered Alicia, still pursuing
her study of the romance upon her lap.
"Is it interesting?"
Miss Audley pursed up her mouth and shrugged her shoulders.
"Not particularly," she said.
"Then I think you might have better manners than to read it while your
first cousin is sitting opposite you," observed Mr. Audley, with some
gravity, "especially as he has only come to pay you a flying visit, and
will be off to-morrow morning."
"To-morrow morning!" exclaimed my lady, looking up suddenly.
Though the look of joy upon Lady Audley's face was as brief as a flash
of lightning on a summer sky, it was not unperceived by Robert.
"Yes," he said; "I shall be obliged to run up to London to-morrow on
business, but I shall return the next day, if you will allow me, Lady
Audley, and stay here till my uncle recovers."
"But you are not seriously alarmed about him, are you?" asked my lady,
"You do not think him very ill?"
"No," answered Robert. "Thank Heaven, I think there is not the slightest
cause for apprehension."
My lady sat silent for a few moments, looking at the empty teacups with
a prettily thoughtful face--a face grave with the innocent seriousness
of a musing child.
"But you were closeted such a long time with Mr. Dawson, just now," she
said, after this brief pause. "I was quite alarmed at the length of your
conversation. Were you talking of Sir Michael all the time?"
"No; not all the time?"
My lady looked down at the teacups once more.
"Why, what could you find to say to Mr. Dawson, or he to say to you?"
she asked, after another pause. "You are almost strangers to each
"Suppose Mr. Dawson wished to consult me about some law business."
"Was it that?" cried Lady Audley, eagerly.
"It would be rather unprofessional to tell you if it were so, my lady,"
answered Robert, gravely.
My lady bit her lip, and relapsed into silence. Alicia threw down her
book, and watched her cousin's preoccupied face. He talked to her now
and then for a few minutes, but it was evidently an effort to him to
arouse himself from his revery.
"Upon my word, Robert Audley, you are a very agreeable companion,"
exclaimed Alicia at length, her rather limited stock of patience quite
exhausted by two or three of these abortive attempts at conversation.
"Perhaps the next time you come to the Court you will be good enough to
bring your _mind_ with you. By your present inanimate appearance, I
should imagine that you had left your intellect, such as it is,
somewhere in the Temple. You were never one of the liveliest of people,
but latterly you have really grown almost unendurable. I suppose you are
in love, Mr. Audley, and are thinking of the honored object of your
He was thinking of Clara Talboys' uplifted face, sublime in its
unutterable grief; of her impassioned words still ringing in his ears as
clearly as when they were first spoken. Again he saw her looking at him
with her bright brown eyes. Again he heard that solemn question: "Shall
you or I find my brother's murderer?" And he was in Essex; in the little
village from which he firmly believed George Talboys had never departed.
He was on the spot at which all record of his friend's life ended as
suddenly as a story ends when the reader shuts the book. And could he
withdraw now from the investigation in which he found himself involved?
Could he stop now? For any consideration? No; a thousand times no! Not
with the image of that grief-stricken face imprinted on his mind. Not
with the accents of that earnest appeal ringing on his ear.
SO FAR AND NO FARTHER.
Robert left Audley the next morning by an early train, and reached
Shoreditch a little after nine o'clock. He did not return to his
chambers, but called a cab and drove straight to Crescent Villas, West
Brompton. He knew that he should fail in finding the lady he went to
seek at this address, as his uncle had failed a few months before, but
he thought it possible to obtain some clew to the schoolmistress' new
residence, in spite of Sir Michael's ill-success.
"Mrs. Vincent was in a dying state, according to the telegraphic
message," Robert thought. "If I do find her, I shall at least succeed in
discovering whether that message was genuine."
He found Crescent Villas after some difficulty. The houses were large,
but they lay half imbedded among the chaos of brick and rising mortar
around them. New terraces, new streets, new squares led away into
hopeless masses of stone and plaster on every side. The roads were
sticky with damp clay, which clogged the wheels of the cab and buried
the fetlocks of the horse. The desolations--that awful aspect of
incompleteness and discomfort which pervades a new and unfinished
neighborhood--had set its dismal seal upon the surrounding streets which
had arisen about and intrenched Crescent Villas; and Robert wasted forty
minutes by his watch, and an hour and a quarter by the cabman's
reckoning, in driving up and down uninhabited streets and terraces,
trying to find the Villase; whose chimney-tops were frowning down upon
him black and venerable, amid groves of virgin plaster, undimmed by time
But having at last succeeded in reaching his destination, Mr. Audley
alighted from the cab, directed the driver to wait for him at a certain
corner, and set out upon his voyage of discovery.
"If I were a distinguished Q.C., I could not do this sort of thing," he
thought; "my time would be worth a guinea or so a minute, and I should
be retained in the great case of Hoggs vs. Boggs, going forward this
very day before a special jury at Westminster Hall. As it is, I can
afford to be patient."
He inquired for Mrs. Vincent at the number which Mr. Dawson had given
him. The maid who opened the door had never heard that lady's name; but
after going to inquire of her mistress, she returned to tell Robert that
Mrs. Vincent had lived there, but that she had left two months before
the present occupants had entered the house, "and missus has been here
fifteen months," the girl added emphatically.
"But you cannot tell where she went on leaving here?" Robert asked,
"No, sir; missus says she believes the lady failed, and that she left
sudden like, and didn't want her address to be known in the
Mr. Audley felt himself at a standstill once more. If Mrs. Vincent had
left the place in debt, she had no doubt scrupulously concealed her
whereabouts. There was little hope, then, of learning her address from
the tradespeople; and yet, on the other hand, it was just possible that
some of her sharpest creditors might have made it their business to
discover the defaulter's retreat.
He looked about him for the nearest shops, and found a baker's, a
stationer's, and a fruiterer's a few paces from the Crescent. Three
empty-looking, pretentious shops, with plate-glass windows, and a
hopeless air of gentility.
He stopped at the baker's, who called himself a pastrycook and
confectioner, and exhibited some specimens of petrified sponge-cake in
glass bottles, and some highly-glazed tarts, covered with green gauze.
"She _must_ have bought bread," Robert thought, as he deliberated before
the baker's shop; "and she is likely to have bought it at the handiest
place. I'll try the baker."
The baker was standing behind his counter, disputing the items of a bill
with a shabby-genteel young woman. He did not trouble himself to attend
to Robert Audley until he had settled the dispute, but he looked up as
he was receipting the bill, and asked the barrister what he pleased to
"Can you tell me the address of a Mrs. Vincent, who lived at No. 9
Crescent Villas a year and a half ago?" Mr. Audley inquired, mildly.
"No, I can't," answered the baker, growing very red in the face, and
speaking in an unnecessarily loud voice; "and what's more, I wish I
could. That lady owes me upward of eleven pound for bread, and it's
rather more than I can afford to lose. If anybody can tell me where she
lives, I shall be much obliged to 'em for so doing."
Robert Audley shrugged his shoulders and wished the man good-morning. He
felt that his discovery of the lady's whereabouts would involve more
trouble than he had expected. He might have looked for Mrs. Vincent's
name in the Post-Office directory, but he thought it scarcely likely
that a lady who was on such uncomfortable terms with her creditors,
would afford them so easy a means of ascertaining her residence.
"If the baker can't find her, how should I find her?" he thought,
despairingly. "If a resolute, sanguine, active and energetic creature,
such as the baker, fail to achieve this business, how can a lymphatic
wretch like me hope to accomplish it? Where the baker has been defeated,
what preposterous folly it would be for me to try to succeed."
Mr. Audley abandoned himself to these gloomy reflections as he walked
slowly back toward the corner at which he had left the cab. About
half-way between the baker's shop and this corner he was arrested by
hearing a woman's step close at his side, and a woman's voice asking him
to stop. He turned and found himself face to face with the
shabbily-dressed woman whom he had left settling her account with the
"Eh, what?" he asked, vaguely. "Can I do anything for you, ma'am? Does
Mrs. Vincent owe _you_ money, too?"
"Yes, sir," the woman answered, with a semi-genteel manner which
corresponded with the shabby gentility of her dress. "Mrs. Vincent is in
my debt; but it isn't that, sir. I--I want to know, please, what your
business may be with her--because--because--"
"You can give me her address if you choose, ma'am. That's what you mean
to say, isn't it?"
The woman hesitated a little, looking rather suspiciously at Robert.
"You're not connected with--with the tally business, are you, sir?" she
asked, after considering Mr. Audley's personal appearance for a few
"The _what_, ma'am?" asked the young barrister, staring aghast at his
"I'm sure I beg your pardon, sir," exclaimed the little woman, seeing
that she had made some awful mistake. "I thought you might have been,
you know. Some of the gentlemen who collect for the tally shops do dress
so very handsome; and I know Mrs. Vincent owes a good deal of money."
Robert Audley laid his hand upon the speaker's arm.
"My dear madam," he said, "I want to know nothing of Mrs. Vincent's
affairs. So far from being concerned in what you call _the tally
business_, I have not the remotest idea what you mean by that
expression. You may mean a political conspiracy; you may mean some new
species of taxes. Mrs. Vincent does not owe _me_ any money, however
badly she may stand with that awful-looking baker. I never saw her in my
life; but I wish to see her to-day for the simple purpose of asking her
a few very plain questions about a young lady who once resided in her
house. If you know where Mrs. Vincent lives and will give me her
address, you will be doing me a great favor."
He took out his card-case and handed a card to the woman, who examined
the slip of pasteboard anxiously before she spoke again.
"I'm sure you look and speak like a gentleman, sir," she said, after a
brief pause, "and I hope you will excuse me if I've seemed mistrustful
like; but poor Mrs. Vincent has had dreadful difficulties, and I'm the
only person hereabouts that she's trusted with her addresses. I'm a
dressmaker, sir, and I've worked for her for upward of six years, and
though she doesn't pay me regular, you know, sir, she gives me a little
money on account now and then, and I get on as well as I can. I may tell
you where she lives, then, sir? You haven't deceived me, have you?"
"On my honor, no."
"Well, then sir," said the dressmaker, dropping her voice as if she
thought the pavement beneath her feet, or the iron railings before the
houses by her side, might have ears to hear her, "it's Acacia Cottage,
Peckham Grove. I took a dress there yesterday for Mrs. Vincent."
"Thank you," said Robert, writing the address in his pocketbook. "I am
very much obliged to you, and you may rely upon it, Mrs. Vincent shall
not suffer any inconvenience through me."
He lifted his hat, bowed to the little dressmaker, and turned back to
"I have beaten the baker, at any rate," he thought. "Now for the second
stage, traveling backward, in my lady's life."
The drive from Brompton to the Peckham Road was a very long one, and
between Crescent Villas and Acacia Cottage, Robert Audley had ample
leisure for reflection. He thought of his uncle lying weak and ill in
the oak-room at Audley Court. He thought of the beautiful blue eyes
watching Sir Michael's slumbers; the soft, white hands tending on his
waking moments; the low musical voice soothing his loneliness, cheering
and consoling his declining years. What a pleasant picture it might have
been, had he been able to look upon it ignorantly, seeing no more than
others saw, looking no further than a stranger could look. But with the
black cloud which he saw brooding over it, what an arch mockery, what a
diabolical delusion it seemed.
Peckham Grove--pleasant enough in the summer-time--has rather a dismal
aspect upon a dull February day, when the trees are bare and leafless,
and the little gardens desolate. Acacia Cottage bore small token of the
fitness of its nomenclature, and faced the road with its stuccoed walls
sheltered only by a couple of attenuated poplars. But it announced that
it was Acacia Cottage by means of a small brass plate upon one of the
gate-posts, which was sufficient indication for the sharp-sighted
cabman, who dropped Mr. Audley upon the pavement before the little gate.
Acacia Cottage was much lower in the social scale than Crescent Villas,
and the small maid-servant who came to the low wooden gate and parleyed
with Mr. Audley, was evidently well used to the encounter of relentless
creditors across the same feeble barricade.
She murmured the familiar domestic fiction of the uncertainty regarding
her mistress's whereabouts; and told Robert that if he would please to
state his name and business, she would go and see if Mrs. Vincent was at
Mr. Audley produced a card, and wrote in pencil under his own name: "a
connection of the late Miss Graham."
He directed the small servant to carry his card to her mistress, and
quietly awaited the result.
The servant returned in about five minutes with the key of the gate. Her
mistress was at home, she told Robert as she admitted him, and would be
happy to see the gentleman.
The square parlor into which Robert was ushered bore in every scrap of
ornament, in every article of furniture, the unmistakable stamp of that
species of poverty which is most comfortless because it is never
stationary. The mechanic who furnishes his tiny sitting-room with
half-a-dozen cane chairs, a Pembroke table, a Dutch clock, a tiny
looking-glass, a crockery shepherd and shepherdess, and a set of
gaudily-japanned iron tea-trays, makes the most of his limited
possessions, and generally contrives to get some degree of comfort out
of them; but the lady who loses the handsome furniture of the house she
is compelled to abandon and encamps in some smaller habitation with the
shabby remainder--bought in by some merciful friend at the sale of her
effects--carries with her an aspect of genteel desolation and tawdry
misery not easily to be paralleled in wretchedness by any other phase
which poverty can assume.
The room which Robert Audley surveyed was furnished with the shabbier
scraps snatched from the ruin which had overtaken the imprudent
schoolmistress in Crescent Villas. A cottage piano, a chiffonier, six
sizes too large for the room, and dismally gorgeous in gilded moldings
that were chipped and broken; a slim-legged card-table, placed in the
post of honor, formed the principal pieces of furniture. A threadbare
patch of Brussels carpet covered the center of the room, and formed an
oasis of roses and lilies upon a desert of shabby green drugget. Knitted
curtains shaded the windows, in which hung wire baskets of
horrible-looking plants of the cactus species, that grew downward, like
some demented class of vegetation, whose prickly and spider-like members
had a fancy for standing on their heads.
The green-baize covered card-table was adorned with gaudily-bound
annuals or books of beauty, placed at right angles; but Robert Audley
did not avail himself of these literary distractions. He seated himself
upon one of the rickety chairs, and waited patiently for the advent of
the schoolmistress. He could hear the hum of half-a-dozen voices in a
room near him, and the jingling harmonies of a set of variations in _Deh
Conte_, upon a piano, whose every wire was evidently in the last stage
He had waited for about a quarter of an hour, when the door was opened,
and a lady, very much dressed, and with the setting sunlight of faded
beauty upon her face, entered the room.
"Mr. Audley, I presume," she said, motioning to Robert to reseat
himself, and placing herself in an easy-chair opposite to him. "You will
pardon me, I hope, for detaining you so long; my duties--"
"It is I who should apologize for intruding upon you," Robert answered,
politely; "but my motive for calling upon you is a very serious one, and
must plead my excuse. You remember the lady whose name I wrote upon my
"May I ask how much you know of that lady's history since her departure
from your house?"
"Very little. In point of fact, scarcely anything at all. Miss Graham, I
believe, obtained a situation in the family of a surgeon resident in
Essex. Indeed, it was I who recommended her to that gentleman. I have
never heard from her since she left me."
"But you have communicated with her?" Robert asked, eagerly.
Mr. Audley was silent for a few moments, the shadow of gloomy thoughts
gathering darkly on his face.
"May I ask if you sent a telegraphic dispatch to Miss Graham early in
last September, stating that you were dangerously ill, and that you
wished to see her?"
Mrs. Vincent smiled at her visitor's question.
"I had no occasion to send such a message," she said; "I have never been
seriously ill in my life."
Robert Audley paused before he asked any further questions, and scrawled
a few penciled words in his note-book.
"If I ask you a few straightforward questions about Miss Lucy Graham,
madam," he said. "Will you do me the favor to answer them without asking
my motive in making such inquiries?"
"Most certainly," replied Mrs. Vincent. "I know nothing to Miss Graham's
disadvantage, and have no justification for making a mystery of the
little I do know."
"Then will you tell me at what date the young lady first came to you?"
Mrs. Vincent smiled and shook her head. She had a pretty smile--the
frank smile of a woman who had been admired, and who has too long felt
the certainty of being able to please, to be utterly subjugated by any
"It's not the least use to ask me, Mr. Audley," she said. "I'm the most
careless creature in the world; I never did, and never could remember
dates, though I do all in my power to impress upon my girls how
important it is for their future welfare that they should know when
William the Conqueror began to reign, and all that kind of thing. But I
haven't the remotest idea when Miss Graham came to me, although I know
it was ages ago, for it was the very summer I had my peach-colored silk.
But we must consult Tonks--Tonks is sure to be right."
Robert Audley wondered who or what Tonks could be; a diary, perhaps, or
a memorandum-book--some obscure rival of Letsome.
Mrs. Vincent rung the bell, which was answered by the maid-servant who
had admitted Robert.
"Ask Miss Tonks to come to me," she said. "I want to see her
In less than five minutes Miss Tonks made her appearance. She was wintry
and rather frost-bitten in aspect, and seemed to bring cold air in the
scanty folds of her somber merino dress. She was no age in particular,
and looked as if she had never been younger, and would never grow older,
but would remain forever working backward and forward in her narrow
groove, like some self-feeding machine for the instruction of young
"Tonks, my dear," said Mrs. Vincent, without ceremony, "this gentleman
is a relative of Miss Graham's. Do you remember how long it is since she
came to us at Crescent Villas?"
"She came in August, 1854," answered Miss Tonks; "I think it was the
eighteenth of August, but I'm not quite sure that it wasn't the
seventeenth. I know it was on a Tuesday."
"Thank you, Tonks; you are a most invaluable darling," exclaimed Mrs.
Vincent, with her sweetest smile. It was, perhaps, because of the
invaluable nature of Miss Tonks' services that she had received no
remuneration whatever from her employer for the last three or four
years. Mrs. Vincent might have hesitated to pay from very contempt for
the pitiful nature of the stipend as compared with the merits of the
"Is there anything else that Tonks or I can tell you, Mr. Audley?" asked
the schoolmistress. "Tonks has a far better memory than I have."
"Can you tell me where Miss Graham came from when she entered your
household?" Robert inquired.
"Not very precisely," answered Mrs. Vincent. "I have a vague notion that
Miss Graham said something about coming from the seaside, but she didn't
say where, or if she did I have forgotten it. Tonks, did Miss Graham
tell you where she came from?"
"Oh, no!" replied Miss Tonks, shaking her grim little head
significantly. "Miss Graham told me nothing; she was too clever for
that. She knows how to keep her own secrets, in spite of her innocent
ways and her curly hair," Miss Tonks added, spitefully.
"You think she had secrets?" Robert asked, rather eagerly.
"I know she had," replied Miss Tonks, with frosty decision; "all manner
of secrets. I wouldn't have engaged such a person as junior teacher in a
respectable school, without so much as one word of recommendation from
any living creature."
"You had no reference, then, from Miss Graham?" asked Robert, addressing
"No," the lady answered, with some little embarrassment; "I waived that.
Miss Graham waived the question of salary; I could not do less than
waive the question of reference. She quarreled with her papa, she told
me, and she wanted to find a home away from all the people she had ever
known. She wished to keep herself quite separate from these people. She
had endured so much, she said, young as she was, and she wanted to
escape from her troubles. How could I press her for a reference under
these circumstances, especially when I saw that she was a perfect lady.
You know that Lucy Graham was a perfect lady, Tonks, and it is very
unkind for you to say such cruel things about my taking her without a
"When people make favorites, they are apt to be deceived in them," Miss
Tonks answered, with icy sententiousness, and with no very perceptible
relevance to the point in discussion.
"I never made her a favorite, you jealous Tonks," Mrs. Vincent answered,
reproachfully. "I never said she was as useful as you, dear. You know I
"Oh, no!" replied Miss Tonks, with a chilling accent, "you never said
she was useful. She was only ornamental; a person to be shown off to
visitors, and to play fantasias on the drawing-room piano."
"Then you can give me no clew to Miss Graham's previous history?" Robert
asked, looking from the schoolmistress to her teacher. He saw very
clearly that Miss Tonks bore an envious grudge against Lucy Graham--a
grudge which even the lapse of time had not healed.
"If this woman knows anything to my lady's detriment, she will tell it,"
he thought. "She will tell it only too willingly."
But Miss Tonks appeared to know nothing whatever; except that Miss
Graham had sometimes declared herself an ill-used creature, deceived by
the baseness of mankind, and the victim of unmerited sufferings, in the
way of poverty and deprivation. Beyond this, Miss Tonks could tell
nothing; and although she made the most of what she did know, Robert
soon sounded the depth of her small stock of information.
"I have only one more question to ask," he said at last. "It is this:
Did Miss Graham leave any books or knick-knacks, or any other kind of
property whatever, behind her, when she left your establishment?"
"Not to my knowledge," Mrs. Vincent replied.
"Yes," cried Miss Tonks, sharply. "She did leave something. She left a
box. It's up-stairs in my room. I've got an old bonnet in it. Would you
like to see the box?" she asked, addressing Robert.
"If you will be so good as to allow me," he answered, "I should very
much like to see it."
"I'll fetch it down," said Miss Tonks. "It's not very big."
She ran out of the room before Mr. Audley had time to utter any polite
"How pitiless these women are to each other," he thought, while the
teacher was absent. "This one knows intuitively that there is some
danger to the other lurking beneath my questions. She sniffs the coming
trouble to her fellow female creature, and rejoices in it, and would
take any pains to help me. What a world it is, and how these women take
life out of her hands. Helen Maldon, Lady Audley, Clara Talboys, and now
Miss Tonks--all womankind from beginning to end."
Miss Tonks re-entered while the young barrister was meditating upon the
infamy of her sex. She carried a dilapidated paper-covered bonnet-box,
which she submitted to Robert's inspection.
Mr. Audley knelt down to examine the scraps of railway labels and
addresses which were pasted here and there upon the box. It had been
battered upon a great many different lines of railway, and had evidently
traveled considerably. Many of the labels had been torn off, but
fragments of some of them remained, and upon one yellow scrap of paper
Robert read the letters, TURI.
"The box has been to Italy," he thought. "Those are the first four
letters of the word Turin, and the label is a foreign one."
The only direction which had not been either defaced or torn away was
the last, which bore the name of Miss Graham, passenger to London.
Looking very closely at this label, Mr. Audley discovered that it had
been pasted over another.
"Will you be so good as to let me have a little water and a piece of
sponge?" he said. "I want to get off this upper label. Believe me that I
am justified in what I am doing."
Miss Tonks ran out of the room and returned immediately with a basin of
water and a sponge.
"Shall I take off the label?" she asked.
"No, thank you," Robert answered, coldly. "I can do it very well
He damped the upper label several times before he could loosen the edges
of the paper; but after two or three careful attempts the moistened
surface peeled off, without injury to the underneath address.
Miss Tonks could not contrive to read this address across Robert's
shoulder, though she exhibited considerable dexterity in her endeavors
to accomplish that object.
Mr. Audley repeated his operations upon the lower label, which he
removed from the box, and placed very carefully between two blank leaves
of his pocket-book.
"I need intrude upon you no longer, ladies," he said, when he had done
this. "I am extremely obliged to you for having afforded me all the
information in your power. I wish you good-morning."
Mrs. Vincent smiled and bowed, murmuring some complacent conventionality
about the delight she had felt in Mr. Audley's visit. Miss Tonks, more
observant, stared at the white change, which had come over the young
man's face since he had removed the upper label from the box.
Robert walked slowly away from Acacia Cottage. "If that which I have
found to-day is no evidence for a jury," he thought, "it is surely
enough to convince my uncle that he has married a designing and infamous
BEGINNING AT THE OTHER END.
Robert Audley walked slowly through the leafless grove, under the bare
and shadowless trees in the gray February atmosphere, thinking as he
went of the discovery he had just made.
"I have that in my pocket-book," he pondered, "which forms the
connecting link between the woman whose death George Talboys read of in
the _Times_ newspaper and the woman who rules in my uncle's house. The
history of Lucy Graham ends abruptly on the threshold of Mrs. Vincent's
school. She entered that establishment in August, 1854. The
schoolmistress and her assistant can tell me this but they cannot tell
me whence she came. They cannot give me one clew to the secrets of her
life from the day of her birth until the day she entered that house. I
can go no further in this backward investigation of my lady's
antecedents. What am I to do, then, if I mean to keep my promise to
He walked on for a few paces revolving this question in his mind, with a
darker shadow than the shadows of the gathering winter twilight on his
face, and a heavy oppression of mingled sorrow and dread weighing down
"My duty is clear enough," he thought--"not the less clear because it
leads me step by step, carrying ruin and desolation with me, to the home
I love. I must begin at the other end--I must begin at the other end,
and discover the history of Helen Talboys from the hour of George's
departure until the day of the funeral in the churchyard at Ventnor."
Mr. Audley hailed a passing hansom, and drove back to his chambers.
He reached Figtree Court in time to write a few lines to Miss Talboys,
and to post his letter at St. Martin's-le-Grand off before six o'clock.
"It will save me a day," he thought, as he drove to the General Post
Office with this brief epistle.
He had written to Clara Talboys to inquire the name of the little
seaport town in which George had met Captain Maldon and his daughter:
for in spite of the intimacy between the two young men, Robert Audley
knew very few particulars of his friend's brief married life.
From the hour in which George Talboys had read the announcement of his
wife's death in the columns of the _Times_, he had avoided all mention
of the tender history which had been so cruelly broken, the familiar
record which had been so darkly blotted out.
There was so much that was painful in that brief story! There was such
bitter self-reproach involved in the recollection of that desertion
which must have seemed so cruel to her who waited and watched at home!
Robert Audley comprehended this, and he did not wonder at his friend's
silence. The sorrowful story had been tacitly avoided by both, and
Robert was as ignorant of the unhappy history of this one year in his
schoolfellow's life as if they had never lived together in friendly
companionship in those snug Temple chambers.
The letter, written to Miss Talboys by her brother George, within a
month of his marriage, was dated Harrowgate. It was at Harrowgate,
therefore, Robert concluded, the young couple spent their honeymoon.
Robert Audley had requested Clara Talboys to telegraph an answer to his
question, in order to avoid the loss of a day in the accomplishment of
the investigation he had promised to perform.
The telegraphic answer reached Figtree Court before twelve o'clock the
The name of the seaport town was Wildernsea, Yorkshire.
Within an hour of the receipt of this message, Mr. Audley arrived at the
King's-cross station, and took his ticket for Wildernsea by an express
train that started at a quarter before two.
The shrieking engine bore him on the dreary northward journey, whirling
him over desert wastes of flat meadow-land and bare cornfields, faintly
tinted with fresh sprouting green. This northern road was strange and
unfamiliar to the young barrister, and the wide expanse of the wintry
landscape chilled him by its aspect of bare loneliness. The knowledge of
the purpose of his journey blighted every object upon which his absent
glances fixed themselves for a moment, only to wander wearily away; only
to turn inward upon that far darker picture always presenting itself to
his anxious mind.
It was dark when the train reached the Hull terminus, but Mr. Audley's
journey was not ended. Amidst a crowd of porters and scattered heaps of
that incongruous and heterogeneous luggage with which travelers incumber
themselves, he was led, bewildered and half asleep, to another train
which was to convey him along the branch line that swept past
Wildernsea, and skirted the border of the German Ocean.
Half an hour after leaving Hull, Robert felt the briny freshness of the
sea upon the breeze that blew in at the open window of the carriage, and
an hour afterward the train stopped at a melancholy station, built amid
a sandy desert, and inhabited by two or three gloomy officials, one of
whom rung a terrific peal upon a harshly clanging bell as the train
Mr. Audley was the only passenger who alighted at the dismal station.
The train swept on to the gayer scenes before the barrister had time to
collect his senses, or to pick up the portmanteau which had been
discovered with some difficulty amid a black cavern of baggage only
illuminated by one lantern.
"I wonder whether settlers in the backwoods of America feel as solitary
and strange as I feel to-night?" he thought, as he stared hopelessly
about him in the darkness.
He called to one of the officials, and pointed to his portmanteau.
"Will you carry that to the nearest hotel for me?" he asked--"that is to
say, if I can get a good bed there."
The man laughed as he shouldered the portmanteau.
"You can get thirty beds, I dare say, sir, if you wanted 'em," he said.
"We ain't over busy at Wildernsea at this time o' year. This way, sir."
The porter opened a wooden door in the station wall, and Robert Audley
found himself upon a wide bowling-green of smooth grass, which
surrounded a huge, square building, that loomed darkly on him through
the winter's night, its black solidity only relieved by two lighted
windows, far apart from each other, and glimmering redly like beacons on
"This is the Victoria Hotel, sir," said the porter. "You wouldn't
believe the crowds of company we have down here in the summer."
In the face of the bare grass-plat, the tenantless wooden alcoves, and
the dark windows of the hotel, it was indeed rather difficult to imagine
that the place was ever gay with merry people taking pleasure in the
bright summer weather; but Robert Audley declared himself willing to
believe anything the porter pleased to tell him, and followed his guide
meekly to a little door at the side of the big hotel, which led into a
comfortable bar, where the humbler classes of summer visitors were
accommodated with such refreshments as they pleased to pay for, without
running the gantlet of the prim, white-waistcoated waiters on guard at
the principal entrance.
But there were very few attendants retained at the hotel in the bleak
February season, and it was the landlord himself who ushered Robert into
a dreary wilderness of polished mahogany tables and horsehair cushioned
chairs, which he called the coffee-room.
Mr. Audley seated himself close to the wide steel fender, and stretched
his cramped legs upon the hearth-rug, while the landlord drove the poker
into the vast pile of coal, and sent a ruddy blaze roaring upward
through the chimney.
"If you would prefer a private room, sir--" the man began.
"No, thank you," said Robert, indifferently; "this room seems quite
private enough just now. If you will order me a mutton chop and a pint
of sherry, I shall be obliged."
"And I shall be still more obliged if you will favor me with a few
minutes' conversation before you do so."
"With very great pleasure, sir," the landlord answered, good-naturedly.
"We see so very little company at this season of the year, that we are
only too glad to oblige those gentlemen who do visit us. Any information
which I can afford you respecting the neighborhood of Wildernsea and its
attractions," added the landlord, unconsciously quoting a small
hand-book of the watering-place which he sold in the bar, "I shall be
most happy to--"
"But I don't want to know anything about the neighborhood of
Wildernsea," interrupted Robert, with a feeble protest against the
landlord's volubility. "I want to ask you a few questions about some
people who once lived here."
The landlord bowed and smiled, with an air which implied his readiness
to recite the biographies of all the inhabitants of the little seaport,
if required by Mr. Audley to do so.
"How many years have you lived here?" Robert asked, taking his
memorandum book from his pocket. "Will it annoy you if I make notes of
your replies to my questions?"
"Not at all, sir," replied the landlord, with a pompous enjoyment of the
air of solemnity and importance which pervaded this business. "Any
information which I can afford that is likely to be of ultimate value--"
"Yes, thank you," Robert murmured, interrupting the flow of words. "You
have lived here--"
"Six years, sir."
"Since the year fifty-three?"
"Since November, in the year fifty-two, sir. I was in business at Hull
prior to that time. This house was only completed in the October before
I entered it."
"Do you remember a lieutenant in the navy, on half-pay, I believe, at
that time, called Maldon?"
"Captain Maldon, sir?"
"Yes, commonly called Captain Maldon. I see you do remember him."
"Yes, sir. Captain Maldon was one of our best customers. He used to
spend his evenings in this very room, though the walls were damp at that
time, and we weren't able to paper the place for nearly a twelvemonth
afterward. His daughter married a young officer that came here with his
regiment, at Christmas time in fifty-two. They were married here, sir,
and they traveled on the Continent for six months, and came back here
again. But the gentleman ran away to Australia, and left the lady, a
week or two after her baby was born. The business made quite a sensation
in Wildernsea, sir, and Mrs.--Mrs.--I forgot the name--"
"Mrs. Talboys," suggested Robert.
"To be sure, sir, Mrs. Talboys. Mrs. Talboys was very much pitied by the
Wildernsea folks, sir, I was going to say, for she was very pretty, and
had such nice winning ways that she was a favorite with everybody who
"Can you tell me how long Mr. Maldon and his daughter remained at
Wildernsea after Mr. Talboys left them?" Robert asked.
"Well--no, sir," answered the landlord, after a few moments'
deliberation. "I can't say exactly how long it was. I know Mr. Maldon
used to sit here in this very parlor, and tell people how badly his
daughter had been treated, and how he'd been deceived by a young man
he'd put so much confidence in; but I can't say how long it was before
he left Wildernsea. But Mrs. Barkamb could tell you, sir," added the
"Yes, Mrs. Barkamb is the person who owns No. 17 North Cottages, the
house in which Mr. Maldon and his daughter lived. She's a nice, civil
spoken, motherly woman, sir, and I'm sure she'll tell you anything you
may want to know."
"Thank you, I will call upon Mrs. Barkamb to-morrow. Stay--one more
question. Should you recognize Mrs. Talboys if you were to see her?"
"Certainly, sir. As sure as I should recognize one of my own daughters."
Robert Audley wrote Mrs. Barkamb's address in his pocket-book, ate his
solitary dinner, drank a couple of glasses of sherry, smoked a cigar,
and then retired to the apartment in which a fire had been lighted for
He soon fell asleep, worn out with the fatigue of hurrying from place to
place during the last two days; but his slumber was not a heavy one, and
he heard the disconsolate moaning of the wind upon the sandy wastes, and
the long waves rolling in monotonously upon the flat shore. Mingling
with these dismal sounds, the melancholy thoughts engendered by his
joyless journey repeated themselves in never-varying succession in the
chaos of his slumbering brain, and made themselves into visions of
things that never had been and never could be upon this earth, but which
had some vague relation to real events remembered by the sleeper.
In those troublesome dreams he saw Audley Court, rooted up from amidst
the green pastures and the shady hedgerows of Essex, standing bare and
unprotected upon that desolate northern shore, threatened by the rapid
rising of a boisterous sea, whose waves seemed gathering upward to
descend and crush the house he loved. As the hurrying waves rolled
nearer and nearer to the stately mansion, the sleeper saw a pale, starry
face looking out of the silvery foam, and knew that it was my lady,
transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction. Beyond
that rising sea great masses of cloud, blacker than the blackest ink,
more dense than the darkest night, lowered upon the dreamer's eye; but
as he looked at the dismal horizon the storm-clouds slowly parted, and
from a narrow rent in the darkness a ray of light streamed out upon the
hideous waves, which slowly, very slowly, receded, leaving the old
mansion safe and firmly rooted on the shore.
Robert awoke with the memory of this dream in his mind, and a sensation
of physical relief, as if some heavy weight, which had oppressed him all
the night, had been lifted from his breast.
He fell asleep again, and did not awake until the broad winter sunlight
shone upon the window-blind, and the shrill voice of the chambermaid at
his door announced that it was half-past eight o'clock. At a
quarter-before ten he had left Victoria Hotel, and was making his way
along the lonely platform in front of a row of shadowless houses that
faced the sea.
This row of hard, uncompromising, square-built habitations stretched
away to the little harbor, in which two or three merchant vessels and a
couple of colliers were anchored. Beyond the harbor there loomed, gray
and cold upon the wintry horizon, a dismal barrack, parted from the
Wildernsea houses by a narrow creek, spanned by an iron drawbridge. The
scarlet coat of the sentinel who walked backward and forward between two
cannons, placed at remote angles before the barrack wall, was the only
scrap of color that relieved the neutral-tinted picture of the gray
stone houses and the leaden sea.
On one side of the harbor a long stone pier stretched out far away into
the cruel loneliness of the sea, as if built for the especial
accommodation of some modern Timon, too misanthropical to be satisfied
even with the solitude of Wildernsea, and anxious to get still further
away from his fellow-creatures.
It was on that pier George Talboys had first met his wife, under the
blazing glory of a midsummer sky, and to the music of a braying band. It
was there that the young cornet had first yielded to that sweet
delusion, that fatal infatuation which had exercised so dark an
influence upon his after-life.
Robert looked savagely at this solitary watering-place--the shabby
"It is such a place as this," he thought, "that works a strong man's
ruin. He comes here, heart whole and happy, with no better experience of
women than is to be learned at a flower-show or in a ball-room; with no
more familiar knowledge of the creature than he has of the far-away
satellites or the remoter planets; with a vague notion that she is a
whirling teetotum in pink or blue gauze, or a graceful automaton for the
display of milliners' manufacture. He comes to some place of this kind,
and the universe is suddenly narrowed into about half a dozen acres; the
mighty scheme of creation is crushed into a bandbox. The far-away
creatures whom he had seen floating about him, beautiful and indistinct,
are brought under his very nose; and before he has time to recover his
bewilderment, hey presto, the witchcraft has begun; the magic circle is
drawn around him! the spells are at work, the whole formula of sorcery
is in full play, and the victim is as powerless to escape as the
marble-legged prince in the Eastern story."
Ruminating in this wise, Robert Audley reached the house to which he had
been directed as the residence of Mrs. Barkamb. He was admitted
immediately by a prim, elderly servant, who ushered him into a
sitting-room as prim and elderly-looking as herself. Mrs. Barkamb, a
comfortable matron of about sixty years of age, was sitting in an
arm-chair before a bright handful of fire in the shining grate. An
elderly terrier, whose black-and-tan coat was thickly sprinkled with
gray, reposed in Mrs. Barkamb's lap. Every object in the quiet
sitting-room had an elderly aspect of simple comfort and precision,
which is the evidence of outward repose.
"I should like to live here," Robert thought, "and watch the gray sea
slowly rolling over the gray sand under the still, gray sky. I should
like to live here, and tell the beads upon my rosary, and repent and
He seated himself in the arm-chair opposite Mrs. Barkamb, at that lady's
invitation, and placed his hat upon the ground. The elderly terrier
descended from his mistress' lap to bark at and otherwise take objection
to this hat.
"You were wishing, I suppose, sir, to take one--be quiet, Dash--one of
the cottages," suggested Mrs. Barkamb, whose mind ran in one narrow
groove, and whose life during the last twenty years had been an
unvarying round of house-letting.
Robert Audley explained the purpose of his visit.
"I come to ask one simple question," he said, in conclusion, "I wish to
discover the exact date of Mrs. Talboys' departure from Wildernsea. The
proprietor of the Victoria Hotel informed me that you were the most
likely person to afford me that information."
Mrs. Barkamb deliberated for some moments.
"I can give you the date of Captain Maldon's departure," she said, "for
he left No. 17 considerably in my debt, and I have the whole business in
black and white; but with regard to Mrs. Talboys--"
Mrs. Barkamb paused for a few moments before resuming.
"You are aware that Mrs. Talboys left rather abruptly?" she asked.
"I was not aware of that fact."
"Indeed! Yes, she left abruptly, poor little woman! She tried to support
herself after her husband's desertion by giving music lessons; she was a
very brilliant pianist, and succeeded pretty well, I believe. But I
suppose her father took her money from her, and spent it in public
houses. However that might be, they had a very serious misunderstanding
one night; and the next morning Mrs. Talboys left Wildernsea, leaving
her little boy, who was out at nurse in the neighborhood."
"But you cannot tell me the date of her leaving?"
"I'm afraid not," answered Mrs. Barkamb; "and yet, stay. Captain Maldon
wrote to me upon the day his daughter left. He was in very great
distress, poor old gentleman, and he always came to me in his troubles.
If I could find that letter, it might be dated, you know--mightn't it,
Mr. Audley said that it was only probable the letter was dated.
Mrs. Barkamb retired to a table in the window on which stood an
old-fashioned mahogany desk, lined with green baize, and suffering from
a plethora of documents, which oozed out of it in every direction.
Letters, receipts, bills, inventories and tax-papers were mingled in
hopeless confusion; and among these Mrs. Barkamb set to work to search
for Captain Maldon's letter.
Mr. Audley waited very patiently, watching the gray clouds sailing
across the gray sky, the gray vessels gliding past upon the gray sea.
After about ten minutes' search, and a great deal of rustling,
crackling, folding and unfolding of the papers, Mrs. Barkamb uttered an
exclamation of triumph.
"I've got the letter," she said; "and there's a note inside it from Mrs.
Robert Audley's pale face flushed a vivid crimson as he stretched out
his hand to receive the papers.
"The persons who stole Helen Maldon's love-letters from George's trunk
in my chambers might have saved themselves the trouble," he thought.
The letter from the old lieutenant was not long, but almost every other
word was underscored.
"My generous friend," the writer began--Mr. Maldon had tried the lady's
generosity pretty severely during his residence in her house, rarely
paying his rent until threatened with the intruding presence of the
broker's man--"I am in the depths of despair. My daughter has left me!
You may imagine my feelings! We had a few words last night upon the
subject of money matters, which subject has always been a disagreeable
one between us, and on rising this morning I found I was deserted! The
enclosed from Helen was waiting for me on the parlor table.
"Yours in distraction and despair,
"NORTH COTTAGES, August 16th, 1854."
The note from Mrs. Talboys was still more brief. It began abruptly thus:
"I am weary of my life here, and wish, if I can, to find a new one. I go
out into the world, dissevered from every link which binds me to the
hateful past, to seek another home and another fortune. Forgive me if I
have been fretful, capricious, changeable. You should forgive me, for
you know why I have been so. You know the secret which is the key to my
These lines were written in a hand that Robert Audley knew only too
He sat for a long time pondering silently over the letter written by
What was the meaning of those two last sentences--"You should forgive
me, for you know _why_ I have been so. You know the _secret_ which is
the key to my life?"
He wearied his brain in endeavoring to find a clew to the signification
of these two sentences. He could remember nothing, nor could he imagine
anything that would throw a light upon their meaning. The date of
Helen's departure, according to Mr. Maldon's letter, was the 16th of
August, 1854. Miss Tonks had declared that Lucy Graham entered the
school at Crescent Villas upon the 17th or 18th of August in the same
year. Between the departure of Helen Talboys from the Yorkshire
watering-place and the arrival of Lucy Graham at the Brompton school,
not more than eight-and-forty hours could have elapsed. This made a very
small link in the chain of circumstantial evidence, perhaps; but it was
a link, nevertheless, and it fitted neatly into its place.
"Did Mr. Maldon hear from his daughter after she had left Wildernsea?"
"Well, I believe he did hear from her," Mrs. Barkamb answered; "but I
didn't see much of the old gentleman after that August. I was obliged to
sell him up in November, poor fellow, for he owed me fifteen months'
rent; and it was only by selling his poor little bits of furniture that
I could get him out of my place. We parted very good friends, in spite
of my sending in the brokers; and the old gentleman went to London with
the child, who was scarcely a twelvemonth old."
Mrs. Barkamb had nothing more to tell, and Robert had no further
questions to ask. He requested permission to retain the two letters
written by the lieutenant and his daughter, and left the house with them
in his pocket-book.
He walked straight back to the hotel, where he called for a time-table.
An express for London left Wildernsea at a quarter past one. Robert sent
his portmanteau to the station, paid his bill, and walked up and down
the stone terrace fronting the sea, waiting for the starting of the
"I have traced the histories of Lucy Graham and Helen Talboys to a
vanishing point," he thought; "my next business is to discover the
history of the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard."
HIDDEN IN THE GRAVE.
Upon his return from Wildernsea, Robert Audley found a letter from his
Cousin Alicia, awaiting him at his chambers.
"Papa is much better," the young lady wrote, "and is very anxious to
have you at the Court. For some inexplicable reason, my stepmother has
taken it into her head that your presence is extremely desirable, and
worries me with her frivolous questions about your movements. So pray
come without delay, and set these people at rest. Your affectionate
"So my lady is anxious to know my movements," thought Robert Audley, as
he sat brooding and smoking by his lonely fireside. "She is anxious; and
she questions her step-daughter in that pretty, childlike manner which
has such a bewitching air of innocent frivolity. Poor little creature;
poor unhappy little golden-haired sinner; the battle between us seems
terribly unfair. Why doesn't she run away while there is still time? I
have given her fair warning, I have shown her my cards, and worked
openly enough in this business, Heaven knows. Why doesn't she run away?"
He repeated this question again and again as he filled and emptied his
meerschaum, surrounding himself with the blue vapor from his pipe until
he looked like some modern magician seated in his laboratory.
"Why doesn't she run away? I would bring no needless shame upon that
house, of all other houses upon this wide earth. I would only do my duty
to my missing friend, and to that brave and generous man who has pledged
his faith to a worthless woman. Heaven knows I have no wish to punish.
Heaven knows I was never born to be the avenger of guilt or the
persecutor of the guilty. I only wish to do my duty. I will give her one
more warning, a full and fair one, and then--"
His thoughts wandered away to that gloomy prospect in which he saw no
gleam of brightness to relieve the dull, black obscurity that
encompassed the future, shutting in his pathway on every side, and
spreading a dense curtain around and about him, which Hope was powerless
to penetrate. He was forever haunted by the vision of his uncle's
anguish, forever tortured by the thought of that ruin and desolation
which, being brought about by his instrumentality, would seem in a
manner his handiwork. But amid all, and through all, Clara Talboys, with
an imperious gesture, beckoned him onward to her brother's unknown
"Shall I go down to Southampton," he thought, "and endeavor to discover
the history of the woman who died at Ventnor? Shall I work underground,
bribing the paltry assistants in that foul conspiracy, until I find my
way to the thrice guilty principal? No! not till I have tried other
means of discovering the truth. Shall I go to that miserable old man,
and charge him with his share in the shameful trick which I believe to
have been played upon my poor friend? No; I will not torture that
terror-stricken wretch as I tortured him a few weeks ago. I will go
straight to that arch-conspirator, and will tear away the beautiful veil
under which she hides her wickedness, and will wring from her the secret
of my friend's fate, and banish her forever from the house which her
presence has polluted."
He started early the next morning for Essex, and reached Audley before
Early as it was, my lady was out. She had driven to Chelmsford upon a
shopping expedition with her step-daughter. She had several calls to
make in the neighborhood of the town, and was not likely to return until
dinner-time. Sir Michael's health was very much improved, and he would
come down stairs in the afternoon. Would Mr. Audley go to his uncle's
No; Robert had no wish to meet that generous kinsman. What could he say
to him? How could he smooth the way to the trouble that was to
come?--how soften the cruel blow of the great grief that was preparing
for that noble and trusting heart?
"If I could forgive her the wrong done to my friend," Robert thought, "I
should still abhor her for the misery her guilt must bring upon the man
who has believed in her."
He told his uncle's servant that he would stroll into the village, and
return before dinner. He walked slowly away from the Court, wandering
across the meadows between his uncle's house and the village,
purposeless and indifferent, with the great trouble and perplexity of
his life stamped upon his face and reflected in his manner.
"I will go into the churchyard," he thought, "and stare at the
tombstones. There is nothing I can do that will make me more gloomy than
He was in those very meadows through which he had hurried from Audley
Court to the station upon the September day in which George Talboys had
disappeared. He looked at the pathway by which he had gone upon that
day, and remembered his unaccustomed hurry, and the vague feeling of
terror which had taken possession of him immediately upon losing sight
of his friend.
"Why did that unaccountable terror seize upon me," he thought. "Why was
it that I saw some strange mystery in my friend's disappearance? Was it
a monition, or a monomania? What if I am wrong after all? What if this
chain of evidence which I have constructed link by link, is woven out of
my own folly? What if this edifice of horror and suspicion is a mere
collection of crotchets--the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal
bachelor? Mr. Harcourt Talboys sees no meaning in the events out of
which I have made myself a horrible mystery. I lay the separate links of
the chain before him, and he cannot recognize their fitness. He is
unable to put them together. Oh, my God, if it should be in myself all
this time that the misery lies; if--" he smiled bitterly, and shook his
head. "I have the handwriting in my pocket-book which is the evidence of
the conspiracy," he thought. "It remains for me to discover the darker
half of my lady's secret."
He avoided the village, still keeping to the meadows. The church lay a
little way back from the straggling High street, and a rough wooden gate
opened from the churchyard into a broad meadow, that was bordered by a
running stream, and sloped down into a grassy valley dotted by groups of
Robert slowly ascended the narrow hillside pathway leading up to the
gate in the churchyard. The quiet dullness of the lonely landscape
harmonized with his own gloom. The solitary figure of an old man
hobbling toward a stile at the further end of the wide meadow was the
only human creature visible upon the area over which the young barrister
looked. The smoke slowly ascending from the scattered houses in the long
High street was the only evidence of human life. The slow progress of
the hands of the old clock in the church steeple was the only token by
which a traveler could perceive that a sluggish course of rustic life
had not come to a full stop in the village of Audley.
Yes, there was one other sign. As Robert opened the gate of the
churchyard, and strolled listessly into the little inclosure, he became
aware of the solemn music of an organ, audible through a half-open
window in the steeple.
He stopped and listened to the slow harmonies of a dreamy melody that
sounded like an extempore composition of an accomplished player.