LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
When Robert Audley awoke he was surprised to see the fishing-rod lying on the bank, the line trailing idly in the water, and the float bobbing harmlessly up and down in the afternoon sunshine. The young barrister was a long time stretching his arms and legs in various directions to convince himself, by means of such exercise, that he still retained the proper use of those members; then, with a mighty effort, he contrived to rise from the grass, and having deliberately folded his railway rug into a convenient shape for carrying over his shoulder, he strolled away to look for George Talboys.
Once or twice he gave a sleepy shout, scarcely loud enough to scare the birds in the branches above his head, or the trout in the stream at his feet: but receiving no answer, grew tired of the exertion, and dawdled on, yawning as he went, and still looking for George Talboys.
By-and-by he took out his watch, and was surprised to find that it was a quarter past four.
"Why, the selfish beggar must have gone home to his dinner!" he muttered, reflectively; "and yet that isn't much like him, for he seldom remembers even his meals unless I jog his memory."
Even a good appetite, and the knowledge that his dinner would very likely suffer by this delay, could not quicken Mr. Robert Audley's constitutional dawdle, and by the time he strolled in at the front door of the Sun, the clocks were striking five. He so fully expected to find George Talboys waiting for him in the little sitting-room, that the absence of that gentleman seemed to give the apartment a dreary look, and Robert groaned aloud.
"This is lively!" he said. "A cold dinner, and nobody to eat it with!"
The landlord of the Sun came himself to apologize for his ruined dishes.
"As fine a pair of ducks, Mr. Audley, as ever you clapped eyes on, but burnt up to a cinder, along of being kep' hot."
"Never mind the ducks," Robert said impatiently; "where's Mr. Talboys?"
"He ain't been in, sir, since you went out together this morning."
"What!" cried Robert. "Why, in heaven's name, what has the man done with himself?"
He walked to the window and looked out upon the broad, white high road. There was a wagon laden with trusses of hay crawling slowly past, the lazy horses and the lazy wagoner drooping their heads with a weary stoop under the afternoon's sunshine. There was a flock of sheep straggling about the road, with a dog running himself into a fever in the endeavor to keep them decently together. There were some bricklayers just released from work—a tinker mending some kettles by the roadside; there was a dog-cart dashing down the road, carrying the master of the Audley hounds to his seven o'clock dinner; there were a dozen common village sights and sounds that mixed themselves up into a cheerful bustle and confusion; but there was no George Talboys.
"Of all the extraordinary things that ever happened to me in the whole course of my life," said Mr. Robert Audley, "this is the most miraculous!"
The landlord still in attendance, opened his eyes as Robert made this remark. What could there be extraordinary in the simple fact of a gentleman being late for his dinner?"
"I shall go and look for him," said Robert, snatching up his hat and walking straight out of the house.
But the question was where to look for him. He certainly was not by the trout stream, so it was no good going back there in search of him. Robert was standing before the inn, deliberating on what was best to be done, when the landlord came out after him.
"I forgot to tell you, Mr. Audley, as how your uncle called here five minutes after you was gone, and left a message, asking of you and the other gentleman to go down to dinner at the Court."
"Then I shouldn't wonder," said Robert, "if George Talboys has gone down to the Court to call upon my uncle. It isn't like him, but it's just possible that he has done it."
It was six o'clock when Robert knocked at the door of his uncle's house. He did not ask to see any of the family, but inquired at once for his friend.
Yes, the servant told him; Mr. Talboys had been there at two o'clock or a little after.
"And not since?"
"No, not since."
Was the man sure that it was at two Mr. Talboys called? Robert asked.
"Yes, perfectly sure. He remembered the hour because it was the servants' dinner hour, and he had left the table to open the door to Mr. Talboys.
"Why, what can have become of the man?" thought Robert, as he turned his back upon the Court. "From two till six—four good hours—and no signs of him!"
If any one had ventured to tell Mr. Robert Audley that he could possibly feel a strong attachment to any creature breathing, that cynical gentleman would have elevated his eyebrows in supreme contempt at the preposterous notion. Yet here he was, flurried and anxious, bewildering his brain by all manner of conjectures about his missing friend; and false to every attribute of his nature, walking fast.
"I haven't walked fast since I was at Eton," he murmured, as he hurried across one of Sir Michael's meadows in the direction of the village; "and the worst of it is, that I haven't the most remote idea where I am going."
Here he crossed another meadow, and then seating himself upon a stile, rested his elbows upon his knees, buried his face in his hands, and set himself seriously to think the matter out.
"I have it," he said, after a few minutes' thought; "the railway station!" He sprang over the stile, and started off in the direction of the little red brick building.
There was no train expected for another half hour, and the clerk was taking his tea in an apartment on one side of the office, on the door of which was inscribed in large, white letters, "Private."
But Mr. Audley was too much occupied with the one idea of looking for his friend to pay any attention to this warning. He strode at once to the door, and rattling his cane against it, brought the clerk out of his sanctum in a perspiration from hot tea, and with his mouth full of bread and butter.
"Do you remember the gentleman that came down to Audley with me, Smithers?" asked Robert.
"Well, to tell you the real truth, Mr. Audley, I can't say that I do. You came by the four o'clock, if you remember, and there's always a good many passengers by that train."
"You don't remember him, then?"
"Not to my knowledge, sir."
"That's provoking! I want to know, Smithers, whether he has taken a ticket for London since two o'clock to-day. He's a tall, broad-chested young fellow, with a big brown beard. You couldn't well mistake him."
"There was four or five gentlemen as took tickets for the 3.30 up," said the clerk rather vaguely, casting an anxious glance over his shoulder at his wife, who looked by no means pleased at this interruption to the harmony of the tea-table.
"Four or five gentlemen! But did either of them answer to the description of my friend?"
"Well, I think one of them had a beard, sir."
"A dark-brown beard?"
"Well, I don't know, but it was brownish-like."
"Was he dressed in gray?"
"I believe it was gray; a great many gents wear gray. He asked for the ticket sharp and short-like, and when he'd got it walked straight out onto the platform whistling."
"That's George," said Robert. "Thank you, Smithers; I needn't trouble you any more. It's as clear as daylight," he muttered, as he left the station; "he's got one of his gloomy fits on him, and he's gone back to London without saying a word about it. I'll leave Audley myself to-morrow morning; and for to-night—why, I may as well go down to the Court and make the acquaintance of my uncle's young wife. They don't dine till seven; if I get back across the fields I shall be in time. Bob—otherwise Robert Audley—this sort of thing will never do; you are falling over head and ears in love with your aunt."