LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
THE MARK UPON MY LADY'S WRIST
Robert found Sir Michael and Lady Audley in the drawing-room. My lady was sitting on a music-stool before the grand piano, turning over the leaves of some new music. She twirled upon the revolving seat, making a rustling with her silk flounces, as Mr. Robert Audley's name was announced; then, leaving the piano, she made her nephew a pretty, mock ceremonious courtesy.
"Thank you so much for the sables," she said, holding out her little fingers, all glittering and twinkling with the diamonds she wore upon them; "thank you for those beautiful sables. How good it was of you to get them for me."
Robert had almost forgotten the commission he had executed for Lady Audley during his Russian expedition. His mind was so full of George Talboys that he only acknowledged nay lady's gratitude by a bow.
"Would you believe it, Sir Michael?" he said. "That foolish chum of mine has gone back to London leaving me in the lurch."
"Mr. George Talboys returned to town?" exclaimed my lady, lifting her eyebrows. "What a dreadful catastrophe!" said Alicia, maliciously, "since Pythias, in the person of Mr. Robert Audley, cannot exist for half an hour without Damon, commonly known as George Talboys."
"He's a very good fellow," Robert said, stoutly; "and to tell the honest truth, I'm rather uneasy about him."
"Uneasy about him!" My lady was quite anxious to know why Robert was uneasy about his friend.
"I'll tell you why, Lady Audley," answered the young barrister. "George had a bitter blow a year ago in the death of his wife. He has never got over that trouble. He takes life pretty quietly—almost as quietly as I do—but he often talks very strangely, and I sometimes think that one day this grief will get the better of him, and he will do something rash."
Mr. Robert Audley spoke vaguely, but all three of his listeners knew that the something rash to which he alluded was that one deed for which there is no repentance.
There was a brief pause, during which Lady Audley arranged her yellow ringlets by the aid of the glass over the console table opposite to her.
"Dear me!" she said, "this is very strange. I did not think men were capable of these deep and lasting affections. I thought that one pretty face was as good as another pretty face to them; and that when number one with blue eyes and fair hair died, they had only to look out for number two, with dark eyes and black hair, by way of variety."
"George Talboys is not one of those men. I firmly believe that his wife's death broke his heart."
"How sad!" murmured Lady Audley. "It seems almost cruel of Mrs. Talboys to die, and grieve her poor husband so much."
"Alicia was right, she is childish," thought Robert as he looked at his aunt's pretty face.
My lady was very charming at the dinner-table; she professed the most bewitching incapacity for carving the pheasant set before her, and called Robert to her assistance.
"I could carve a leg of mutton at Mr. Dawson's," she said, laughing; "but a leg of mutton is so easy, and then I used to stand up."
Sir Michael watched the impression my lady made upon his nephew with a proud delight in her beauty and fascination.
"I am so glad to see my poor little woman in her usual good spirits once more," he said. "She was very down-hearted yesterday at a disappointment she met with in London."
"Yes, Mr. Audley, a very cruel one," answered my lady. "I received the other morning a telegraphic message from my dear old friend and school-mistress, telling me that she was dying, and that if I wanted to see her again, I must hasten to her immediately. The telegraphic dispatch contained no address, and of course, from that very circumstance, I imagined that she must be living in the house in which I left her three years ago. Sir Michael and I hurried up to town immediately, and drove straight to the old address. The house was occupied by strange people, who could give me no tidings of my friend. It is in a retired place, where there are very few tradespeople about. Sir Michael made inquiries at the few shops there are, but, after taking an immense deal of trouble, could discover nothing whatever likely to lead to the information we wanted. I have no friends in London, and had therefore no one to assist me except my dear, generous husband, who did all in his power, but in vain, to find my friend's new residence."
"It was very foolish not to send the address in the telegraphic message," said Robert.
"When people are dying it is not so easy to think of all these things," murmured my lady, looking reproachfully at Mr. Audley with her soft blue eyes.
In spite of Lady Audley's fascination, and in spite of Robert's very unqualified admiration of her, the barrister could not overcome a vague feeling of uneasiness on this quiet September evening.
As he sat in the deep embrasure of a mullioned window, talking to my lady, his mind wandered away to shady Figtree Court, and he thought of poor George Talboys smoking his solitary cigar in the room with the birds and canaries.
"I wish I'd never felt any friendliness for the fellow," he thought. "I feel like a man who has an only son whose life has gone wrong with him. I wish to Heaven I could give him back his wife, and send him down to Ventnor to finish his days in peace."
Still my lady's pretty musical prattle ran on as merrily and continuously as the babble in some brook; and still Robert's thoughts wandered, in spite of himself, to George Talboys.
He thought of him hurrying down to Southampton by the mail train to see his boy. He thought of him as he had often seen him spelling over the shipping advertisements in the Times, looking for a vessel to take him back to Australia. Once he thought of him with a shudder, lying cold and stiff at the bottom of some shallow stream with his dead face turned toward the darkening sky.
Lady Audley noticed his abstraction, and asked him what he was thinking of.
"George Talboys," he answered abruptly.
She gave a little nervous shudder.
"Upon my word," she said, "you make me quite uncomfortable by the way in which you talk of Mr. Talboys. One would think that something extraordinary had happened to him."
"God forbid! But I cannot help feeling uneasy about him."
Later in the evening Sir Michael asked for some music, and my lady went to the piano. Robert Audley strolled after her to the instrument to turn over the leaves of her music; but she played from memory, and he was spared the trouble his gallantry would have imposed upon him.
He carried a pair of lighted candles to the piano, and arranged them conveniently for the pretty musician. She struck a few chords, and then wandered into a pensive sonata of Beethoven's. It was one of the many paradoxes in her character, that love of somber and melancholy melodies, so opposite to her gay nature.
Robert Audley lingered by her side, and as he had no occupation in turning over the leaves of her music, he amused himself by watching her jeweled, white hands gliding softly over the keys, with the lace sleeves dropping away from, her graceful, arched wrists. He looked at her pretty fingers one by one; this one glittering with a ruby heart; that encircled by an emerald serpent; and about them all a starry glitter of diamonds. From the fingers his eyes wandered to the rounded wrists: the broad, flat, gold bracelet upon her right wrist dropped over her hand, as she executed a rapid passage. She stopped abruptly to rearrange it; but before she could do so Robert Audley noticed a bruise upon her delicate skin.
"You have hurt your arm, Lady Audley!" he exclaimed. She hastily replaced the bracelet.
"It is nothing," she said. "I am unfortunate in having a skin which the slightest touch bruises."
She went on playing, but Sir Michael came across the room to look into the matter of the bruise upon his wife's pretty wrist.
"What is it, Lucy?" he asked; "and how did it happen?"
"How foolish you all are to trouble yourselves about anything so absurd!" said Lady Audley, laughing. "I am rather absent in mind, and amused myself a few days ago by tying a piece of ribbon around my arm so tightly, that it left a bruise when I removed it."
"Hum!" thought Robert. "My lady tells little childish white lies; the bruise is of a more recent date than a few days ago; the skin has only just begun to change color."
Sir Michael took the slender wrist in his strong hand.
"Hold the candle, Robert," he said, "and let us look at this poor little arm."
It was not one bruise, but four slender, purple marks, such as might have been made by the four fingers of a powerful hand, that had grasped the delicate wrist a shade too roughly. A narrow ribbon, bound tightly, might have left some such marks, it is true, and my lady protested once more that, to the best of her recollection, that must have been how they were made.
Across one of the faint purple marks there was a darker tinge, as if a ring worn on one of those strong and cruel fingers had been ground into the tender flesh.
"I am sure my lady must tell white lies," thought Robert, "for I can't believe the story of the ribbon."
He wished his relations good-night and good-by at about half past ten o'clock; he should run up to London by the first train to look for George in Figtree Court.
"If I don't find him there I shall go to Southampton," he said; "and if I don't find him there—"
"What then?" asked my lady.
"I shall think that something strange has happened."
Robert Audley felt very low-spirited as he walked slowly home between the shadowy meadows; more low-spirited still when he re-entered the sitting room at Sun Inn, where he and George had lounged together, staring out of the window and smoking their cigars.
"To think," he said, meditatively, "that it is possible to care so much for a fellow! But come what may, I'll go up to town after him the first thing to-morrow morning; and, sooner than be balked in finding him, I'll go to the very end of the world."
With Mr. Audley's lymphatic nature, determination was so much the exception rather than the rule, that when he did for once in his life resolve upon any course of action, he had a certain dogged, iron-like obstinacy that pushed him on to the fulfillment of his purpose.
The lazy bent of his mind, which prevented him from thinking of half a dozen things at a time, and not thinking thoroughly of any one of them, as is the manner of your more energetic people, made him remarkably clear-sighted upon any point to which he ever gave his serious attention.
Indeed, after all, though solemn benchers laughed at him, and rising barristers shrugged their shoulders under rustling silk gowns, when people spoke of Robert Audley, I doubt if, had he ever taken the trouble to get a brief, he might not have rather surprised the magnates who underrated his abilities.