LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
AT THE CASTLE INN
The little sitting-room into which Phoebe Marks ushered the baronet's nephew was situated on the ground floor, and only separated by a lath-and-plaster partition from the little bar-parlor occupied by the innkeeper and his wife.
It seemed as though the wise architect who had superintended the building of the Castle Inn had taken especial care that nothing but the frailest and most flimsy material should be used, and that the wind, having a special fancy for this unprotected spot, should have full play for the indulgence of its caprices.
To this end pitiful woodwork had been used instead of solid masonry; rickety ceilings had been propped up by fragile rafters, and beams that threatened on every stormy night to fall upon the heads of those beneath them; doors whose specialty was never to be shut, yet always to be banging; windows constructed with a peculiar view to letting in the draft when they were shut, and keeping out the air when they were open. The hand of genius had devised this lonely country inn; and there was not an inch of woodwork, or trowelful of plaster employed in all the rickety construction that did not offer its own peculiar weak point to every assault of its indefatigable foe.
Robert looked about him with a feeble smile of resignation.
It was a change, decidedly, from the luxurious comforts of Audley Court, and it was rather a strange fancy of the young barrister to prefer loitering at this dreary village hostelry to returning to his snug chambers in Figtree Court.
But he had brought his Lares and Penates with him, in the shape of his German pipe, his tobacco canister, half a dozen French novels, and his two ill-conditioned, canine favorites, which sat shivering before the smoky little fire, barking shortly and sharply now and then, by way of hinting for some slight refreshment.
While Mr. Robert Audley contemplated his new quarters, Phoebe Marks summoned a little village lad who was in the habit of running errands for her, and taking him into the kitchen, gave him a tiny note, carefully folded and sealed.
"You know Audley Court?"
"If you'll run there with this letter to-night, and see that it's put safely in Lady Audley's hands, I'll give you a shilling."
"You understand? Ask to see my lady; you can say you've a message—not a note, mind—but a message from Phoebe Marks; and when you see her, give this into her own hand."
"You won't forget?"
"Then be off with you."
The boy waited for no second bidding, but in another moment was scudding along the lonely high road, down the sharp descent that led to Audley.
Phoebe Marks went to the window, and looked out at the black figure of the lad hurrying through the dusky winter evening.
"If there's any bad meaning in his coming here," she thought, "my lady will know of it in time, at any rate,"
Phoebe herself brought the neatly arranged tea-tray, and the little covered dish of ham and eggs which had been prepared for this unlooked-for visitor. Her pale hair was as smoothly braided, and her light gray dress fitted as precisely as of old. The same neutral tints pervaded her person and her dress; no showy rose-colored ribbons or rustling silk gown proclaimed the well-to-do innkeeper's wife. Phoebe Marks was a person who never lost her individuality. Silent and self-constrained, she seemed to hold herself within herself, and take no color from the outer world.
Robert looked at her thoughtfully as she spread the cloth, and drew the table nearer to the fireplace.
"That," he thought, "is a woman who could keep a secret."
The dogs looked rather suspiciously at the quiet figure of Mrs. Marks gliding softly about the room, from the teapot to the caddy, and from the caddy to the kettle singing on the hob.
"Will you pour out my tea for me, Mrs. Marks?" said Robert, seating himself on a horsehair-covered arm-chair, which fitted him as tightly in every direction as if he had been measured for it.
"You have come straight from the Court, sir?" said Phoebe, as she handed Robert the sugar-basin.
"Yes; I only left my uncle's an hour ago."
"And my lady, sir, was she quite well?"
"Yes, quite well."
"As gay and light-hearted as ever, sir?"
"As gay and light-hearted as ever."
Phoebe retired respectfully after having given Mr. Audley his tea, but as she stood with her hand upon the lock of the door he spoke again.
"You knew Lady Audley when she was Miss Lucy Graham, did you not?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. I lived at Mrs. Dawson's when my lady was governess there."
"Indeed! Was she long in the surgeon's family?"
"A year and a half, sir."
"And she came from London?"
"And she was an orphan, I believe?"
"Always as cheerful as she is now?"
Robert emptied his teacup and handed it to Mrs. Marks. Their eyes met—a lazy look in his, and an active, searching glance in hers.
"This woman would be good in a witness-box," he thought; "it would take a clever lawyer to bother her in a cross-examination."
He finished his second cup of tea, pushed away his plate, fed his dogs, and lighted his pipe, while Phoebe carried off the tea-tray.
The wind came whistling up across the frosty open country, and through the leafless woods, and rattled fiercely at the window-frames.
"There's a triangular draught from those two windows and the door that scarcely adds to the comfort of this apartment," murmured Robert; "and there certainly are pleasanter sensations than that of standing up to one's knees in cold water."
He poked the fire, patted his dogs, put on his great coat, rolled a rickety old sofa close to the hearth, wrapped his legs in his railway rug, and stretching himself at full length upon the narrow horsehair cushion, smoked his pipe, and watched the bluish-gray wreaths curling upward to the dingy ceiling.
"No," he murmured, again; "that is a woman who can keep a secret. A counsel for the prosecution could get very little out of her."
I have said that the bar-parlor was only separated from the sitting-room occupied by Robert by a lath-and-plaster partition. The young barrister could hear the two or three village tradesmen and a couple of farmers laughing and talking round the bar, while Luke Marks served them from his stock of liquors.
Very often he could even hear their words, especially the landlord's, for he spoke in a coarse, loud voice, and had a more boastful manner than any of his customers.
"The man is a fool," said Robert, as he laid down his pipe. "I'll go and talk to him by-and-by."
He waited till the few visitors to the Castle had dropped away one by one, and when Luke Marks had bolted the door upon the last of his customers, he strolled quietly into the bar-parlor, where the landlord was seated with his wife.
Phoebe was busy at a little table, upon which stood a prim work-box, with every reel of cotton and glistening steel bodkin in its appointed place. She was darning the coarse gray stockings that adorned her husband's awkward feet, but she did her work as daintily as if they had been my lady's delicate silken hose.
I say that she took no color from external things, and that the vague air of refinement that pervaded her nature clung to her as closely in the society of her boorish husband at the Castle Inn as in Lady Audley's boudoir at the Court.
She looked up suddenly as Robert entered the bar-parlor. There was some shade of vexation in her pale gray eyes, which changed to an expression of anxiety—nay, rather of almost terror—as she glanced from Mr. Audley to Luke Marks.
"I have come in for a few minutes' chat before I go to bed," said Robert, settling himself very comfortably before the cheerful fire. "Would you object to a cigar, Mrs. Marks? I mean, of course, to my smoking one," he added, explanatorily.
"Not at all, sir."
"It would be a good 'un her objectin' to a bit o' 'bacca," growled Mr. Marks, "when me and the customers smokes all day."
Robert lighted his cigar with a gilt-paper match of Phoebe's making that adorned the chimney-piece, and took half a dozen reflective puffs before he spoke.
"I want you to tell me all about Mount Stanning, Mr. Marks," he said, presently.
"Then that's pretty soon told," replied Luke, with a harsh, grating laugh. "Of all the dull holes as ever a man set foot in, this is about the dullest. Not that the business don't pay pretty tidy; I don't complain of that; but I should ha' liked a public at Chelmsford, or Brentwood, or Romford, or some place where there's a bit of life in the streets; and I might have had it," he added, discontentedly, "if folks hadn't been so precious stingy."
As her husband muttered this complaint in a grumbling undertone, Phoebe looked up from her work and spoke to him.
"We forgot the brew-house door, Luke," she said. "Will you come with me and help me put up the bar?"
"The brew-house door can bide for to-night," said Mr. Marks; "I ain't agoin' to move now. I've seated myself for a comfortable smoke."
He took a long clay pipe from a corner of the fender as he spoke, and began to fill it deliberately.
"I don't feel easy about that brew-house door, Luke," remonstrated his wife; "there are always tramps about, and they can get in easily when the bar isn't up."
"Go and put the bar up yourself, then, can't you?" answered Mr. Marks.
"It's too heavy for me to lift."
"Then let it bide, if you're too fine a lady to see to it yourself. You're very anxious all of a sudden about this here brew-house door. I suppose you don't want me to open my mouth to this here gent, that's about it. Oh, you needn't frown at me to stop my speaking! You're always putting in your tongue and clipping off my words before I've half said 'em; but I won't stand it."
"Do you hear? I won't stand it!"
Phoebe Marks shrugged her shoulders, folded her work, shut her work-box, and crossing her hands in her lap, sat with her gray eyes fixed upon her husband's bull-like face.
"Then you don't particularly care to live at Mount Stanning?" said Robert, politely, as if anxious to change the conversation.
"No, I don't," answered Luke; "and I don't care who knows it; and, as I said before, if folks hadn't been so precious stingy, I might have had a public in a thrivin' market town, instead of this tumble-down old place, where a man has his hair blowed off his head on a windy day. What's fifty pound, or what's a hundred pound—"
"No, you're not goin' to stop my mouth with all your 'Luke, Lukes!'" answered Mr. Marks to his wife's remonstrance. "I say again, what's a hundred pound?"
"No," answered Robert Audley, with wonderful distinctness, and addressing his words to Luke Marks, but fixing his eyes upon Phoebe's anxious face. "What, indeed, is a hundred pounds to a man possessed of the power which you hold, or rather which your wife holds, over the person in question."
"Phoebe's face, at all times almost colorless, seemed scarcely capable of growing paler; but as her eyelids drooped under Robert Audley's searching glance, a visible change came over the pallid hues of her complexion.
"A quarter to twelve," said Robert, looking at his watch.
"Late hours for such a quiet village as Mount Stanning. Good-night, my worthy host. Good-night, Mrs. Marks. You needn't send me my shaving water till nine o'clock to-morrow morning."