LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
The September sunlight sparkled upon the fountain in the Temple Gardens when Robert Audley returned to Figtree Court early the following morning.
He found the canaries singing in the pretty little room in which George had slept, but the apartment was in the same prim order in which the laundress had arranged it after the departure of the two young men—not a chair displaced, or so much as the lid of a cigar-box lifted, to bespeak the presence of George Talboys. With a last, lingering hope, he searched upon the mantelpieces and tables of his rooms, on the chance of finding some letter left by George.
"He may have slept here last night, and started for Southampton early this morning," he thought. "Mrs. Maloney has been here, very likely, to make everything tidy after him."
But as he sat looking lazily around the room, now and then whistling to his delighted canaries, a slipshod foot upon the staircase without bespoke the advent of that very Mrs. Maloney who waited upon the two young men.
No, Mr. Talboys had not come home; she had looked in as early as six o'clock that morning, and found the chambers empty.
"Had anything happened to the poor, dear gentleman?" she asked, seeing Robert Audley's pale face.
He turned around upon her quite savagely at this question.
Happened to him! What should happen to him? They had only parted at two o'clock the day before.
Mrs. Maloney would have related to him the history of a poor dear young engine-driver, who had once lodged with her, and who went out, after eating a hearty dinner, in the best of spirits, to meet with his death from the concussion of an express and a luggage train; but Robert put on his hat again, and walked straight out of the house before the honest Irishwoman could begin her pitiful story.
It was growing dusk when he reached Southampton. He knew his way to the poor little terrace of houses, in a full street leading down to the water, where George's father-in-law lived. Little Georgey was playing at the open parlor window as the young man walked down the street.
Perhaps it was this fact, and the dull and silent aspect of the house, which filled Robert Audley's mind with a vague conviction that the man he came to look for was not there. The old man himself opened the door, and the child peeped out of the parlor to see the strange gentleman.
He was a handsome boy, with his father's brown eyes and dark waving hair, and with some latent expression which was not his father's and which pervaded his whole face, so that although each feature of the child resembled the same feature in George Talboys, the boy was not actually like him.
Mr. Maldon was delighted to see Robert Audley; he remembered having had the pleasure of meeting him at Ventnor, on the melancholy occasion of—He wiped his watery old eyes by way of conclusion to the sentence. Would Mr. Audley walk in? Robert strode into the parlor. The furniture was shabby and dingy, and the place reeked with the smell of stale tobacco and brandy-and-water. The boy's broken playthings, and the old man's broken clay pipes and torn, brandy-and-water-stained newspapers were scattered upon the dirty carpet. Little Georgey crept toward the visitor, watching him furtively out of his big, brown eyes. Robert took the boy on his knee, and gave him his watch-chain to play with while he talked to the old man.
"I need scarcely ask the question that I come to ask," he said; "I was in hopes I should have found your son-in-law here."
"What! you knew that he was coming to Southampton?"
"Knew that he was coming?" cried Robert, brightening up. "He is here, then?"
"No, he is not here now; but he has been here."
"Late last night; he came by the mail."
"And left again immediately?"
"He stayed little better than an hour."
"Good Heaven!" said Robert, "what useless anxiety that man has given me! What can be the meaning of all this?"
"You knew nothing of his intention, then?"
"Of what intention?"
"I mean of his determination to go to Australia."
"I know that it was always in his mind more or less, but not more just now than usual."
"He sails to-night from Liverpool. He came here at one o'clock this morning to have a look at the boy, he said, before he left England, perhaps never to return. He told me he was sick of the world, and that the rough life out there was the only thing to suit him. He stayed an hour, kissed the boy without awaking him, and left Southampton by the mail that starts at a quarter-past two."
"What can be the meaning of all this?" said Robert. "What could be his motive for leaving England in this manner, without a word to me, his most intimate friend—without even a change of clothes; for he has left everything at my chambers? It is the most extraordinary proceeding!"
The old man looked very grave. "Do you know, Mr. Audley," he said, tapping his forehead significantly, "I sometimes fancy that Helen's death had a strange effect upon poor George."
"Pshaw!" cried Robert, contemptuously; "he felt the blow most cruelly, but his brain was as sound as yours or mine."
"Perhaps he will write to you from Liverpool," said George's father-in-law. He seemed anxious to smooth over any indignation that Robert might feel at his friend's conduct.
"He ought," said Robert, gravely, "for we've been good friends from the days when we were together at Eton. It isn't kind of George Talboys to treat me like this."
But even at the moment that be uttered the reproach a strange thrill of remorse shot through his heart.
"It isn't like him," he said, "it isn't like George Talboys."
Little Georgey caught at the sound. "That's my name," he said, "and my papa's name—the big gentleman's name."
"Yes, little Georgey, and your papa came last night and kissed you in your sleep. Do you remember?"
"No," said the boy, shaking his curly little head.
"You must have been very fast asleep, little Georgey, not to see poor papa."
The child did not answer, but presently, fixing his eyes upon Robert's face, he said abruptly:
"Where's the pretty lady?"
"What pretty lady?"
"The pretty lady that used to come a long while ago."
"He means his poor mamma," said the old man.
"No," cried the boy resolutely, "not mamma. Mamma was always crying. I didn't like mamma—"
"Hush, little Georgey!"
"But I didn't, and she didn't like me. She was always crying. I mean the pretty lady; the lady that was dressed so fine, and that gave me my gold watch."
"He means the wife of my old captain—an excellent creature, who took a great fancy to Georgey, and gave him some handsome presents."
"Where's my gold watch? Let me show the gentleman my gold watch," cried Georgey.
"It's gone to be cleaned, Georgey," answered his grandfather.
"It's always going to be cleaned," said the boy.
"The watch is perfectly safe, I assure you, Mr. Audley," murmured the old man, apologetically; and taking out a pawnbroker's duplicate, he handed it to Robert.
It was made out in the name of Captain Mortimer: "Watch, set with diamonds, £11."
"I'm often hard pressed for a few shillings, Mr. Audley," said the old man. "My son-in-law has been very liberal to me; but there are others, there are others, Mr. Audley—and—and—I've not been treated well." He wiped away some genuine tears as he said this in a pitiful, crying voice. "Come, Georgey, it's time the brave little man was in bed. Come along with grandpa. Excuse me for a quarter of an hour, Mr. Audley."
The boy went very willingly. At the door of the room the old man looked back at his visitor, and said in the same peevish voice, "This is a poor place for me to pass my declining years in, Mr. Audley. I've made many sacrifices, and I make them still, but I've not been treated well."
Left alone in the dusky little sitting-room, Robert Audley folded his arms, and sat absently staring at the floor.
George was gone, then; he might receive some letter of explanation perhaps, when he returned to London; but the chances were that he would never see his old friend again.
"And to think that I should care so much for the fellow!" he said, lifting his eyebrows to the center of his forehead.
"The place smells of stale tobacco like a tap-room," he muttered presently; "there can be no harm in my smoking a cigar here."
He took one from the case in his pocket: there was a spark of fire in the little grate, and he looked about for something to light his cigar with.
A twisted piece of paper lay half burned upon the hearthrug; he picked it up, and unfolded it, in order to get a better pipe-light by folding it the other way of the paper. As he did so, absently glancing at the penciled writing upon the fragment of thin paper, a portion of a name caught his eye—a portion of the name that was most in his thoughts. He took the scrap of paper to the window, and examined it by the declining light.
It was part of a telegraphic dispatch. The upper portion had been burnt away, but the more important part, the greater part of the message itself, remained.
"—alboys came to last night, and left by the mail for London, on his way to Liverpool, whence he was to sail for Sydney."
The date and the name and address of the sender of the message had been burnt with the heading. Robert Audley's face blanched to a deathly whiteness. He carefully folded the scrap of paper, and placed it between the leaves of his pocket-book.
"My God!" he said, "what is the meaning of this? I shall go to Liverpool to-night, and make inquiries there!"