LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
Robert Audley left Southampton by the mail, and let himself into his chambers just as the dawn was creeping cold and gray into the solitary rooms, and the canaries were beginning to rustle their feathers feebly in the early morning.
There were several letters in the box behind the door, but there was none from George Talboys.
The young barrister was worn out by a long day spent in hurrying from place to place. The usual lazy monotony of his life had been broken as it had never been broken before in eight-and-twenty tranquil, easy-going years. His mind was beginning to grow confused upon the point of time. It seemed to him months since he had lost sight of George Talboys. It was so difficult to believe that it was less than forty-eight hours ago that the young man had left him asleep under the willows by the trout stream.
His eyes were painfully weary for want of sleep. He searched about the room for some time, looking in all sorts of impossible places for a letter from George Talboys, and then threw himself dressed upon his friend's bed, in the room with the canaries and geraniums.
"I shall wait for to-morrow morning's post," he said; "and if that brings no letter from George, I shall start for Liverpool without a moment's delay."
He was thoroughly exhausted, and fell into a heavy sleep—a sleep which was profound without being in any way refreshing, for he was tormented all the time by disagreeable dreams—dreams which were painful, not from any horror in themselves, but from a vague and wearying sense of their confusion and absurdity.
At one time he was pursuing strange people and entering strange houses in the endeavor to unravel the mystery of the telegraphic dispatch; at another time he was in the church-yard at Ventnor, gazing at the headstone George had ordered for the grave of his dead wife. Once in the long, rambling mystery of these dreams he went to the grave, and found this headstone gone, and on remonstrating with the stonemason, was told that the man had a reason for removing the inscription; a reason that Robert would some day learn.
In another dream he saw the grave of Helen Talboys open, and while he waited, with the cold horror lifting up his hair, to see the dead woman rise and stand before him with her stiff, charnel-house drapery clinging about her rigid limbs, his uncle's wife tripped gaily put of the open grave, dressed in the crimson velvet robes in which the artist had painted her, and with her ringlets flashing like red gold in the unearthly light that shone about her.
But into all these dreams the places he had last been in, and the people with whom he had last been concerned, were dimly interwoven—sometimes his uncle; sometimes Alicia; oftenest of all my lady; the trout stream in Essex; the lime-walk at the Court. Once he was walking in the black shadows of this long avenue, with Lady Audley hanging on his arm, when suddenly they heard a great knocking in the distance, and his uncle's wife wound her slender arms around him, crying out that it was the day of judgment, and that all wicked secrets must now be told. Looking at her as she shrieked this in his ear, he saw that her face had grown ghastly white, and that her beautiful golden ringlets were changing into serpents, and slowly creeping down her fair neck.
He started from his dream to find that there was some one really knocking at the outer door of his chambers.
It was a dreary, wet morning, the rain beating against the windows, and the canaries twittering dismally to each other—complaining, perhaps, of the bad weather. Robert could not tell how long the person had been knocking. He had mixed the sound with his dreams, and when he woke he was only half conscious of other things.
"It's that stupid Mrs. Maloney, I dare say," he muttered. "She may knock again for all I care. Why can't she use her duplicate key, instead of dragging a man out of bed when he's half dead with fatigue."
The person, whoever it was, did knock again, and then desisted, apparently tired out; but about a minute afterward a key turned in the door.
"She had her key with her all the time, then," said Robert. "I'm very glad I didn't get up."
The door between the sitting-room and bed-room was half open, and he could see the laundress bustling about, dusting the furniture, and rearranging things that had never been disarranged.
"Is that you, Mrs. Maloney?" he asked.
"Then why, in goodness' name, did you make that row at the door, when you had a key with you all the time?"
"A row at the door, sir?"
"Yes; that infernal knocking."
"Sure I never knocked, Mister Audley, but walked straight in with my kay—"
"Then who did knock? There's been some one kicking up a row at that door for a quarter of an hour, I should think; you must have met him going down-stairs."
"But I'm rather late this morning, sir, for I've been in Mr. Martin's rooms first, and I've come straight from the floor above."
"Then you didn't see any one at the door, or on the stairs?"
"Not a mortal soul, sir."
"Was ever anything so provoking?" said Robert. "To think that I should have let this person go away without ascertaining who he was, or what he wanted! How do I know that it was not some one with a message or a letter from George Talboys?"
"Sure if it was, sir, he'll come again," said Mrs. Maloney, soothingly.
"Yes, of course, if it was anything of consequence he'll come again," muttered Robert. The fact was, that from the moment of finding the telegraphic message at Southampton, all hope of hearing of George had faded out of his mind. He felt that there was some mystery involved in the disappearance of his friend—some treachery toward himself, or toward George. What if the young man's greedy old father-in-law had tried to separate them on account of the monetary trust lodged in Robert Audley's hands? Or what if, since even in these civilized days all kinds of unsuspected horrors are constantly committed—what if the old man had decoyed George down to Southampton, and made away with him in order to get possession of that £20,000, left in Robert's custody for little Georgey's use?
But neither of these suppositions explained the telegraphic message, and it was the telegraphic message which had filled Robert's mind with a vague sense of alarm. The postman brought no letter from George Talboys, and the person who had knocked at the door of the chambers did not return between seven and nine o'clock, so Robert Audley left Figtree Court once more in search of his friend. This time he told the cabman to drive to the Euston Station, and in twenty minutes he was on the platform, making inquiries about the trains.
The Liverpool express had started half an hour before he reached the station, and he had to wait an hour and a quarter for a slow train to take him to his destination.
Robert Audley chafed cruelly at this delay. Half a dozen vessels might sail for Australia while he roamed up and down the long platform, tumbling over trucks and porters, and swearing at his ill-luck.
He bought the Times newspaper, and looked instinctively at the second column, with a morbid interest in the advertisements of people missing—sons, brothers, and husbands who had left their homes, never to return or to be heard of more.
There was one advertisement of a young man found drowned somewhere on the Lambeth shore.
What if that should have been George's fate? No; the telegraphic message involved his father-in-law in the fact of his disappearance, and every speculation about him must start from that one point.
It was eight o'clock in the evening when Robert got into Liverpool; too late for anything except to make inquiries as to what vessel had sailed within the last two days for the antipodes.
An emigrant ship had sailed at four o'clock that afternoon—the Victoria Regia, bound for Melbourne.
The result of his inquiries amounted to this—If he wanted to find out who had sailed in the Victoria Regia, he must wait till the next morning, and apply for information of that vessel.
Robert Audley was at the office at nine o'clock the next morning, and was the first person after the clerks who entered it.
He met with every civility from the clerk to whom he applied. The young man referred to his books, and running his pen down the list of passengers who had sailed in the Victoria Regia, told Robert that there was no one among them of the name of Talboys. He pushed his inquiries further. Had any of the passengers entered their names within a short time of the vessel's sailing?
One of the other clerks looked up from his desk as Robert asked this question. Yes, he said; he remembered a young man's coming into the office at half-past three o'clock in the afternoon, and paying his passage money. His name was the last on the list—Thomas Brown.
Robert Audley shrugged his shoulders. There could have been no possible reason for George's taking a feigned name. He asked the clerk who had last spoken if he could remember the appearance of this Mr. Thomas Brown.
No; the office was crowded at the time; people were running in and out, and he had not taken any particular notice of this last passenger.
Robert thanked them for their civility, and wished them good-morning. As he was leaving the office, one of the young men called after him:
"Oh, by-the-by, sir," he said, "I remember one thing about this Mr. Thomas Brown—his arm was in a sling."
There was nothing more for Robert Audley to do but to return to town. He re-entered his chambers at six o'clock that evening, thoroughly worn out once more with his useless search.
Mrs. Maloney brought him his dinner and a pint of wine from a tavern in the Strand. The evening was raw and chilly, and the laundress had lighted a good fire in the sitting-room grate.
After eating about half a mutton-chop, Robert sat with his wine untasted upon the table before him, smoking cigars and staring into the blaze.
"George Talboys never sailed for Australia," he said, after long and painful reflection. "If he is alive, he is still in England; and if he is dead, his body is hidden in some corner of England."
He sat for hours smoking and thinking—trouble and gloomy thoughts leaving a dark shadow upon his moody face, which neither the brilliant light of the gas nor the red blaze of the fire could dispel.
Very late in the evening he rose from his chair, pushed away the table, wheeled his desk over to the fire-place, took out a sheet of fools-cap, and dipped a pen in the ink.
But after doing this he paused, leaned his forehead upon his hand, and once more relapsed into thought.
"I shall draw up a record of all that has occurred between our going down to Essex and to-night, beginning at the very beginning."
He drew up this record in short, detached sentences, which he numbered as he wrote.
It ran thus:
"Journal of Facts connected with the Disappearance of George Talboys, inclusive of Facts which have no apparent Relation to that Circumstance."
In spite of the troubled state of his mind, he was rather inclined to be proud of the official appearance of this heading. He sat for some time looking at it with affection, and with the feather of his pen in his mouth. "Upon my word," he said, "I begin to think that I ought to have pursued my profession, instead of dawdling my life away as I have done."
He smoked half a cigar before he had got his thoughts in proper train, and then began to write:
"1. I write to Alicia, proposing to take George down to the Court."
"2. Alicia writes, objecting to the visit, on the part of Lady Audley."
"3. We go to Essex in spite of that objection. I see my lady. My lady refuses to be introduced to George on that particular evening on the score of fatigue."
"4. Sir Michael invites George and me to dinner for the following evening."
"5. My lady receives a telegraphic dispatch the next morning which summons her to London."
"6. Alicia shows me a letter from my lady, in which she requests to be told when I and my friend, Mr. Talboys, mean to leave Essex. To this letter is subjoined a postscript, reiterating the above request."
"7. We call at the Court, and ask to see the house. My lady's apartments are locked."
"8. We get at the aforesaid apartments by means of a secret passage, the existence of which is unknown to my lady. In one of the rooms we find her portrait."
"9. George is frightened at the storm. His conduct is exceedingly strange for the rest of the evening."
"10. George quite himself again the following morning. I propose leaving Audley Court immediately; he prefers remaining till the evening."
"11. We go out fishing. George leaves me to go to the Court."
"12. The last positive information I can obtain of him in Essex is at the Court, where the servant says he thinks Mr. Talboys told him he would go and look for my lady in the grounds."
"13. I receive information about him at the station which may or may not be correct."
"14. I hear of him positively once more at Southampton, where, according to his father-in-law, he had been for an hour on the previous night."
"15. The telegraphic message."
When Robert Audley had completed this brief record, which he drew up with great deliberation, and with frequent pauses for reflection, alterations and erasures, he sat for a long time contemplating the written page.
At last he read it carefully over, stopping at some of the numbered paragraphs, and marking some of them with a pencil cross; then he folded the sheet of foolscap, went over to a cabinet on the opposite side of the room, unlocked it, and placed the paper in that very pigeon-hole into which he had thrust Alicia's letter—the pigeon-hole marked Important.
Having done this, he returned to his easy-chair by the fire, pushed away his desk, and lighted a cigar. "It's as dark as midnight from first to last," he said; "and the clew to the mystery must be found either at Southampton or in Essex. Be it how it may, my mind is made up. I shall first go to Audley Court, and look for George Talboys in a narrow radius."