LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
Among the packet of letters which Robert Audley had found in George's trunk, there was one labeled with the name of the missing man's father—the father, who had never been too indulgent a friend to his younger son, and who had gladly availed himself of the excuse afforded by George's imprudent marriage to abandon the young man to his own resources. Robert Audley had never seen Mr. Harcourt Talboys; but George's careless talk of his father had given his friend some notion of that gentleman's character. He had written to Mr. Talboys immediately after the disappearance of George, carefully wording his letter, which vaguely hinted at the writer's fear of some foul play in the mysterious business; and, after the lapse of several weeks, he had received a formal epistle, in which Mr. Harcourt Talboys expressly declared that he had washed his hands of all responsibility in his son George's affairs upon the young man's wedding-day; and that his absurd disappearance was only in character with his preposterous marriage. The writer of this fatherly letter added in a postscript that if George Talboys had any low design of alarming his friends by this pretended disappearance, and thereby playing on their feelings with a view to pecuniary advantage, he was most egregiously deceived in the character of those persons with whom he had to deal.
Robert Audley had answered this letter by a few indignant lines, informing Mr. Talboys that his son was scarcely likely to hide himself for the furtherance of any deep-laid design on the pockets of his relatives, as he had left twenty thousand pounds in his bankers' hands at the time of his disappearance. After dispatching this letter, Robert had abandoned all thought of assistance from the man who, in the natural course of things, should have been most interested in George's fate; but now that he found himself advancing every day some step nearer to the end that lay so darkly before him, his mind reverted to this heartlessly indifferent Mr. Harcourt Talboys.
"I will run into Dorsetshire after I leave Southampton," he said, "and see this man. If he is content to let his son's fate rest a dark and cruel mystery to all who knew him—if he is content to go down to his grave uncertain to the last of this poor fellow's end—why should I try to unravel the tangled skein, to fit the pieces of the terrible puzzle, and gather together the stray fragments which, when collected, may make such a hideous whole? I will go to him and lay my darkest doubts freely before him. It will be for him to say what I am to do."
Robert Audley started by an early express for Southampton. The snow lay thick and white upon the pleasant country through which he went; and the young barrister had wrapped himself in so many comforters and railway rugs as to appear a perambulating mass of woollen goods, rather than a living member of a learned profession. He looked gloomily out of the misty window, opaque with the breath of himself and an elderly Indian officer, who was his only companion, and watched the fleeting landscape, which had a certain phantom-like appearance in its shroud of snow. He wrapped himself in the vast folds of his railway rug, with a peevish shiver, and felt inclined to quarrel with the destiny which compelled him to travel by an early train upon a pitiless winter's day.
"Who would have thought that I could have grown so fond of the fellow," he muttered, "or feel so lonely without him? I've a comfortable little fortune in the three per cents.; I'm heir presumptive to my uncle's title; and I know of a certain dear little girl who, as I think, would do her best to make me happy; but I declare that I would freely give up all, and stand penniless in the world to-morrow, if this mystery could be satisfactorily cleared away, and George Talboys could stand by my side."
He reached Southampton between eleven and twelve o'clock, and walked across the platform, with the snow drifting in his face, toward the pier and the lower end of the town. The clock of St. Michael's Church was striking twelve as he crossed the quaint old square in which that edifice stands, and groped his way through the narrow streets leading down to the water.
Mr. Maldon had established his slovenly household gods in one of those dreary thoroughfares which speculative builders love to raise upon some miserable fragment of waste ground hanging to the skirts of a prosperous town. Brigsome's Terrace was, perhaps, one of the most dismal blocks of building that was ever composed of brick and mortar since the first mason plied his trowel and the first architect drew his plan. The builder who had speculated in the ten dreary eight-roomed prison-houses had hung himself behind the parlor door of an adjacent tavern while the carcases were yet unfinished. The man who had bought the brick and mortar skeletons had gone through the bankruptcy court while the paper-hangers were still busy in Brigsome's Terrace, and had whitewashed his ceilings and himself simultaneously. Ill luck and insolvency clung to the wretched habitations. The bailiff and the broker's man were as well known as the butcher and the baker to the noisy children who played upon the waste ground in front of the parlor windows. Solvent tenants were disturbed at unhallowed hours by the noise of ghostly furniture vans creeping stealthily away in the moonless night. Insolvent tenants openly defied the collector of the water-rate from their ten-roomed strongholds, and existed for weeks without any visible means of procuring that necessary fluid.
Robert Audley looked about him with a shudder as he turned from the waterside into this poverty-stricken locality. A child's funeral was leaving one of the houses as he approached, and he thought with a thrill of horror that if the little coffin had held George's son, he would have been in some measure responsible for the boy's death.
"The poor child shall not sleep another night in this wretched hovel," he thought, as he knocked at the door of Mr. Maldon's house. "He is the legacy of my best friend, and it shall be my business to secure his safety."
A slipshod servant girl opened the door and looked at Mr. Audley rather suspiciously as she asked him, very much through her nose, what he pleased to want. The door of the little sitting room was ajar, and Robert could hear the clattering of knives and forks and the childish voice of little George prattling gayly. He told the servant that he had come from London, that he wanted to see Master Talboys, and that he would announce himself; and walking past her, without further ceremony he opened the door of the parlor. The girl stared at him aghast as he did this; and as if struck by some sudden and terrible conviction, threw her apron over her head and ran out into the snow. She darted across the waste ground, plunged into a narrow alley, and never drew breath till she found herself upon the threshold of a certain tavern called the Coach and Horses, and much affected by Mr. Maldon. The lieutenant's faithful retainer had taken Robert Audley for some new and determined collector of poor's rates—rejecting that gentleman's account of himself as an artful fiction devised for the destruction of parochial defaulters—and had hurried off to give her master timely warning of the enemy's approach.
When Robert entered the sitting-room he was surprised to find little George seated opposite to a woman who was doing the honors of a shabby repast, spread upon a dirty table-cloth, and flanked by a pewter beer measure. The woman rose as Robert entered, and courtesied very humbly to the young barrister. She looked about fifty years of age, and was dressed in rusty widow's weeds. Her complexion was insipidly fair, and the two smooth bands of hair beneath her cap were of that sunless, flaxen hue which generally accompanies pink cheeks and white eyelashes. She had been a rustic beauty, perhaps, in her time, but her features, although tolerably regular in their shape, had a mean, pinched look, as if they had been made too small for her face. This defect was peculiarly noticeable in her mouth, which was an obvious misfit for the set of teeth it contained. She smiled as she courtesied to Mr. Robert Audley, and her smile, which laid bare the greater part of this set of square, hungry-looking teeth, by no means added to the beauty of her personal appearance.
"Mr. Maldon is not at home, sir," she said, with insinuating civility; "but if it's for the water-rate, he requested me to say that—"
She was interrupted by little George Talboys, who scrambled down from the high chair upon which he had been perched, and ran to Robert Audley.
"I know you," he said; "you came to Ventnor with the big gentleman, and you came here once, and you gave me some money, and I gave it to gran'pa to take care of, and gran'pa kept it, and he always does."
Robert Audley took the boy in his arms, and carried him to a little table in the window.
"Stand there, Georgey," he said, "I want to have a good look at you."
He turned the boy's face to the light, and pushed the brown curls off his forehead with both hands.
"You are growing more like your father every day, Georgey; and you're growing quite a man, too," he said; "would you like to go to school?"
"Oh, yes, please, I should like it very much," the boy answered, eagerly. "I went to school at Miss Pevins' once—day-school, you know—round the corner in the next street; but I caught the measles, and gran'pa wouldn't let me go any more, for fear I should catch the measles again; and gran'pa won't let me play with the little boys in the street, because they're rude boys; he said blackguard boys; but he said I mustn't say blackguard boys, because it's naughty. He says damn and devil, but he says he may because he's old. I shall say damn and devil when I'm old; and I should like to go to school, please, and I can go to-day, if you like; Mrs. Plowson will get my frocks ready, won't you, Mrs. Plowson?"
"Certainly, Master Georgey, if your grandpapa wishes it," the woman answered, looking rather uneasily at Mr. Robert Audley.
"What on earth is the matter with this woman," thought Robert as he turned from the boy to the fair-haired widow, who was edging herself slowly toward the table upon which little George Talboys stood talking to his guardian. "Does she still take me for a tax-collector with inimical intentions toward these wretched goods and chattels; or can the cause of her fidgety manner lie deeper still. That's scarcely likely, though; for whatever secrets Lieutenant Maldon may have, it's not very probable that this woman has any knowledge of them."
Mrs. Plowson had edged herself close to the little table by this time, and was making a stealthy descent upon the boy, when Robert turned sharply round.
"What are you going to do with the child?" he said.
"I was only going to take him away to wash his pretty face, sir, and smooth his hair," answered the woman, in the most insinuating tone in which she had spoken of the water-rate. "You don't see him to any advantage, sir, while his precious face is dirty. I won't be five minutes making him as neat as a new pin."
She had her long, thin arms about the boy as she spoke, and she was evidently going to carry him off bodily, when Robert stopped her.
"I'd rather see him as he is, thank you," he said. "My time in Southampton isn't very long, and I want to hear all that the little man can tell me."
The little man crept closer to Robert, and looked confidingly into the barrister's gray eyes.
"I like you very much," he said. "I was frightened of you when you came before, because I was shy. I am not shy now—I am nearly six years old."
Robert patted the boy's head encouragingly, but he was not looking at little George; he was watching the fair-haired widow, who had moved to the window, and was looking out at the patch of waste ground.
"You're rather fidgety about some one, ma'am, I'm afraid," said Robert.
She colored violently as the barrister made this remark, and answered him in a confused manner.
"I was looking for Mr. Maldon, sir," she said; "he'll be so disappointed if he doesn't see you."
"You know who I am, then?"
"No, sir, but—"
The boy interrupted her by dragging a little jeweled watch from his bosom and showing it to Robert.
"This is the watch the pretty lady gave me," he said. "I've got it now—but I haven't had it long, because the jeweler who cleans it is an idle man, gran'pa says, and always keeps it such a long time; and gran'pa says it will have to be cleaned again, because of the taxes. He always takes it to be cleaned when there's taxes—but he says if he were to lose it the pretty lady would give me another. Do you know the pretty lady?"
"No, Georgey, but tell me about her."
Mrs. Plowson made another descent upon the boy. She was armed with a pocket-handkerchief this time, and displayed great anxiety about the state of little George's nose, but Robert warded off the dreaded weapon, and drew the child away from his tormentor.
"The boy will do very well, ma'am," he said, "if you'll be good enough to let him alone for five minutes. Now, Georgey, suppose you sit on my knee, and tell me all about the pretty lady."
The child clambered from the table onto Mr. Audley's knees, assisting his descent by a very unceremonious manipulation of his guardian's coat-collar.
"I'll tell you all about the pretty lady," he said, "because I like you very much. Gran'pa told me not to tell anybody, but I'll tell you, you know, because I like you, and because you're going to take me to school. The pretty lady came here one night—long ago—oh, so long ago," said the boy, shaking his head, with a face whose solemnity was expressive of some prodigious lapse of time. "She came when I was not nearly so big as I am now—and she came at night—after I'd gone to bed, and she came up into my room, and sat upon the bed, and cried—and she left the watch under my pillow, and she—Why do you make faces at me, Mrs. Plowson? I may tell this gentleman," Georgey added, suddenly addressing the widow, who was standing behind Robert's shoulder.
Mrs. Plowson mumbled some confused apology to the effect that she was afraid Master George was troublesome.
"Suppose you wait till I say so, ma'am, before you stop the little fellow's mouth," said Robert Audley, sharply. "A suspicious person might think from your manner that Mr. Maldon and you had some conspiracy between you, and that you were afraid of what the boy's talk may let slip."
He rose from his chair, and looked full at Mrs. Plowson as he said this. The fair-haired widow's face was as white as her cap when she tried to answer him, and her pale lips were so dry that she was compelled to wet them with her tongue before the words would come.
The little boy relieved her embarrassment.
"Don't be cross to Mrs. Plowson," he said. "Mrs. Plowson is very kind to me. Mrs. Plowson is Matilda's mother. You don't know Matilda. Poor Matilda was always crying; she was ill, she—"
The boy was stopped by the sudden appearance of Mr. Maldon, who stood on the threshold of the parlor door staring at Robert Audley with a half-drunken, half-terrified aspect, scarcely consistent with the dignity of a retired naval officer. The servant girl, breathless and panting, stood close behind her master. Early in the day though it was, the old man's speech was thick and confused, as he addressed himself fiercely to Mrs. Plowson.
"You're a prett' creature to call yoursel' sensible woman?" he said. "Why don't you take th' chile 'way, er wash 's face? D'yer want to ruin me? D'yer want to 'stroy me? Take th' chile 'way! Mr. Audley, sir, I'm ver' glad to see yer; ver' 'appy to 'ceive yer in m' humbl' 'bode," the old man added with tipsy politeness, dropping into a chair as he spoke, and trying to look steadily at his unexpected visitor.
"Whatever this man's secrets are," thought Robert, as Mrs. Plowson hustled little George Talboys out of the room, "that woman has no unimportant share of them. Whatever the mystery may be, it grows darker and thicker at every step; but I try in vain to draw back or to stop short upon the road, for a stronger hand than my own is pointing the way to my lost friend's unknown grave."