LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
LITTLE GEORGEY LEAVES HIS OLD HOME
"I am going to take your grandson away with me, Mr. Maldon," Robert said gravely, as Mrs. Plowson retired with her young charge.
The old man's drunken imbecility was slowly clearing away like the heavy mists of a London fog, through which the feeble sunshine struggles dimly to appear. The very uncertain radiance of Lieutenant Maldon's intellect took a considerable time in piercing the hazy vapors of rum-and-water; but the flickering light at last faintly glimmered athwart the clouds, and the old man screwed his poor wits to the sticking-point.
"Yes, yes," he said, feebly; "take the boy away from his poor old grandfather; I always thought so."
"You always thought that I should take him away?" scrutinizing the half-drunken countenance with a searching glance. "Why did you think so, Mr. Maldon?"
The fogs of intoxication got the better of the light of sobriety for a moment, and the lieutenant answered vaguely:
"Thought so—'cause I thought so."
Meeting the young barrister's impatient frown, he made another effort, and the light glimmered again.
"Because I thought you or his father would fetch 'm away."
"When I was last in this house, Mr. Maldon, you told me that George Talboys had sailed for Australia."
"Yes, yes—I know, I know," the old man answered, confusedly, shuffling his scanty limp gray hairs with his two wandering hands—"I know; but he might have come back—mightn't he? He was restless, and—and—queer in his mind, perhaps, sometimes. He might have come back."
He repeated this two or three times in feeble, muttering tones; groping about on the littered mantle-piece for a dirty-looking clay pipe, and filling and lighting it with hands that trembled violently.
Robert Audley watched those poor, withered, tremulous fingers dropping shreds of tobacco upon the hearth rug, and scarcely able to kindle a lucifer for their unsteadiness. Then walking once or twice up and down the little room, he left the old man to take a few puffs from the great consoler.
Presently he turned suddenly upon the half-pay lieutenant with a dark solemnity in his handsome face.
"Mr. Maldon," he said, slowly watching the effect of every syllable as he spoke, "George Talboys never sailed for Australia—that I know. More than this, he never came to Southampton; and the lie you told me on the 8th of last September was dictated to you by the telegraphic message which you received on that day."
The dirty clay pipe dropped from the tremulous hand, and shivered against the iron fender, but the old man made no effort to find a fresh one; he sat trembling in every limb, and looking, Heaven knows how piteously, at Robert Audley.
"The lie was dictated to you, and you repeated your lesson. But you no more saw George Talboys here on the 7th of September than I see him in this room now. You thought you had burnt the telegraphic message, but you had only burnt a part of it—the remainder is in my possession."
Lieutenant Maldon was quite sober now.
"What have I done?" he murmured, hopelessly. "Oh, my God! what have I done?"
"At two o'clock on the 7th of September last," continued the pitiless, accusing voice, "George Talboys was seen alive and well at a house in Essex."
Robert paused to see the effect of these words. They had produced no change in the old man. He still sat trembling from head to foot, and staring with the fixed and solid gaze of some helpless wretch whose every sense is gradually becoming numbed by terror.
"At two o'clock on that day," remarked Robert Audley, "my poor friend was seen alive and well at ——, at the house of which I speak. From that hour to this I have never been able to hear that he has been seen by any living creature. I have taken such steps as must have resulted in procuring the information of his whereabouts, were he alive. I have done this patiently and carefully—at first, even hopefully. Now I know that he is dead."
Robert Audley had been prepared to witness some considerable agitation in the old man's manner, but he was not prepared for the terrible anguish, the ghastly terror, which convulsed Mr. Maldon's haggard face as he uttered the last word.
"No, no, no, no," reiterated the lieutenant, in a shrill, half-screaming voice; "no, no! For God's sake, don't say that! Don't think it—don't let me think it—don't let me dream of it! Not dead—anything but dead! Hidden away, perhaps—bribed to keep out of the way, perhaps; but not dead—not dead—not dead!"
He cried these words aloud, like one beside himself, beating his hands upon his gray head, and rocking backward and forward in his chair. His feeble hands trembled no longer—they were strengthened by some convulsive force that gave them a new power.
"I believe," said Robert, in the same solemn, relentless voice, "that my friend left Essex; and I believe he died on the 7th of September last."
The wretched old man, still beating his hands among his thin gray hair, slid from his chair to the ground, and groveled at Robert's feet.
"Oh! no, no—for God's, no!" he shrieked hoarsely. "No! you don't know what you say—you don't know what your words mean!"
"I know their weight and value only too well—as well as I see you do, Mr. Maldon. God help us!"
"Oh, what am I doing? what am I doing?" muttered the old man, feebly; then raising himself from the ground with an effort, he drew himself to his full hight, and said, in a manner which was new to him, and which was not without a certain dignity of his own—that dignity which must be always attached to unutterable misery, in whatever form it may appear—he said, gravely:
"You have no right to come here and terrify a man who has been drinking, and who is not quite himself. You have no right to do it, Mr. Audley. Even the—the officer, sir, who—who—." He did not stammer, but his lips trembled so violently that his words seemed to be shaken into pieces by their motion. "The officer, I repeat, sir, who arrests a—thief, or a—." He stopped to wipe his lips, and to still them if he could by doing so, which he could not. "A thief or a murderer—" His voice died suddenly away upon the last word, and it was only by the motion of those trembling lips that Robert knew what he meant. "Gives him warning, sir, fair warning, that he may say nothing which shall commit himself—or—or—other people. The—the—law, sir, has that amount of mercy for a—a—suspected criminal. But you, sir,—you come to my house, and you come at a time when—when—contrary to my usual habits—which, as people will tell you, are sober—you take the opportunity to—terrify me—and it is not right, sir—it is—"
Whatever he would have said died away into inarticulate gasps, which seemed to choke him, and sinking into a chair, he dropped his face upon the table, and wept aloud. Perhaps in all the dismal scenes of domestic misery which had been acted in those spare and dreary houses—in all the petty miseries, the burning shames, the cruel sorrows, the bitter disgraces which own poverty for their father—there had never been such a scene as this. An old man hiding his face from the light of day, and sobbing aloud in his wretchedness. Robert Audley contemplated the painful picture with a hopeless and pitying face.
"If I had known this," he thought, "I might have spared him. It would have been better, perhaps, to have spared him."
The shabby room, the dirt, the confusion, the figure of the old man, with his gray head upon the soiled tablecloth, amid the muddled debris of a wretched dinner, grew blurred before the sight of Robert Audley as he thought of another man, as old as this one, but, ah! how widely different in every other quality! who might come by and by to feel the same, or even a worse anguish, and to shed, perhaps, yet bitterer tears. The moment in which the tears rose to his eyes and dimmed the piteous scene before him, was long enough to take him back to Essex, and to show him the image of his uncle, stricken by agony and shame.
"Why do I go on with this?" he thought; "how pitiless I am, and how relentlessly I am carried on. It is not myself; it is the hand which is beckoning me further and further upon the dark road, whose end I dare not dream of."
He thought this, and a hundred times more than this, while the old man sat with his face still hidden, wrestling with his anguish, but without power to keep it down.
"Mr. Maldon," Robert Audley said, after a pause, "I do not ask you to forgive me for what I have brought upon you, for the feeling is strong within me that it must have come to you sooner or later—if not through me, through some one else. There are—" he stopped for a moment hesitating. The sobbing did not cease; it was sometimes low, sometimes loud, bursting out with fresh violence, or dying away for an instant, but never ceasing. "There are some things which, as people say, cannot be hidden. I think there is truth in that common saying which had its origin in that old worldly wisdom which people gathered from experience and not from books. If—if I were content to let my friend rest in his hidden grave, it is but likely that some stranger who had never heard the name of George Talboys, might fall by the remotest accident upon the secret of his death. To-morrow, perhaps; or ten years hence, or in another generation, when the—the hand that wronged him is as cold as his own. If I could let the matter rest; if—if I could leave England forever, and purposely fly from the possibility of ever coming across another clew to the secret, I would do it—I would gladly, thankfully do it—but I cannot! A hand which is stronger than my own beckons me on. I wish to take no base advantage of you, less than of all other people; but I must go on; I must go on. If there is any warning you would give to any one, give it. If the secret toward which I am traveling day by day, hour by hour, involves any one in whom you have an interest, let that person fly before I come to the end. Let them leave this country; let them leave all who know them—all whose peace their wickedness has endangered; let them go away—they shall not be pursued. But if they slight your warning—if they try to hold their present position in defiance of what it will be in your power to tell them—let them beware of me, for, when the hour comes, I swear that I will not spare them."
The old man looked up for the first time, and wiped his wrinkled face upon a ragged silk handkerchief.
"I declare to you that I do not understand you," he said. "I solemnly declare to you that I cannot understand; and I do not believe that George Talboys is dead."
"I would give ten years of my own life if I could see him alive," answered Robert, sadly. "I am sorry for you, Mr. Malden—I am sorry for all of us."
"I do not believe that my son-in-law is dead," said the lieutenant; "I do not believe that the poor lad is dead."
He endeavored in a feeble manner to show to Robert Audley that his wild outburst of anguish had been caused by his grief for the loss of George; but the pretense was miserably shallow.
Mrs. Plowson re-entered the room, leading little Georgey, whose face shone with that brilliant polish which yellow soap and friction can produce upon the human countenance.
"Dear heart alive!" exclaimed Mrs. Plowson, "what has the poor old gentleman been taking on about? We could hear him in the passage, sobbin' awful."
Little George crept up to his grandfather, and smoothed the wet and wrinkled face with his pudgy hand.
"Don't cry, gran'pa," he said, "don't cry. You shall have my watch to be cleaned, and the kind jeweler shall lend you the money to pay the taxman while he cleans the watch—I don't mind, gran'pa. Let's go to the jeweler, the jeweler in High street, you know, with golden balls painted upon his door, to show that he comes from Lombar—Lombardshire," said the boy, making a dash at the name. "Come, gran'pa."
The little fellow took the jeweled toy from his bosom and made for the door, proud of being possessed of a talisman, which he had seen so often made useful.
"There are wolves at Southampton," he said, with rather a triumphant nod to Robert Audley. "My gran'pa says when he takes my watch that he does it to keep the wolf from the door. Are there wolves where you live?"
The young barrister did not answer the child's question, but stopped him as he was dragging his grandfather toward the door.
"Your grandpapa does not want the watch to-day, Georgey," he said, gravely.
"Why is he sorry, then?" asked Georgey, naively; "when he wants the watch he is always sorry, and beats his poor forehead so"—the boy stopped to pantomime with his small fists—"and says that she—the pretty lady, I think he means—uses him very hard, and that he can't keep the wolf from the door; and then I say, 'Gran'pa, have the watch;' and then he takes me in his arms, and says, 'Oh, my blessed angel! how can I rob my blessed angel?' and then he cries, but not like to-day—not loud, you know; only tears running down his poor cheeks, not so that you could hear him in the passage."
Painful as the child's prattle was to Robert Audley, it seemed a relief to the old man. He did not hear the boy's talk, but walked two or three times up and down the little room and smoothed his rumpled hair and suffered his cravat to be arranged by Mrs. Plowson, who seemed very anxious to find out the cause of his agitation.
"Poor dear old gentleman," she said, looking at Robert.
"What has happened to upset him so?"
"His son-in-law is dead," answered Mr. Audley, fixing his eyes upon Mrs. Plowson's sympathetic face. "He died, within a year and a half after the death of Helen Talboys, who lies burried in Ventnor churchyard."
The face into which he was looking changed very slightly, but the eyes that had been looking at him shifted away as he spoke, and Mrs. Plowson was obliged to moisten her white lips with her tongue before she answered him.
"Poor Mr. Talboys dead!" she said; "that is bad news indeed, sir."
Little George looked wistfully up at his guardian's face as this was said.
"Who's dead?" he said. "George Talboys is my name. Who's dead?"
"Another person whose name is Talboys, Georgey."
"Poor person! Will he go to the pit-hole?"
The boy had that notion of death which is generally imparted to children by their wise elders, and which always leads the infant mind to the open grave and rarely carries it any higher.
"I should like to see him put in the pit-hole," Georgey remarked, after a pause. He had attended several infant funerals in the neighborhood, and was considered valuable as a mourner on account of his interesting appearance. He had come, therefore, to look upon the ceremony of interment as a solemn festivity; in which cake and wine, and a carriage drive were the leading features.
"You have no objection to my taking Georgey away with me, Mr. Maldon?" asked Robert Audley.
The old man's agitation had very much subsided by this time. He had found another pipe stuck behind the tawdry frame of the looking-glass, and was trying to light it with a bit of twisted newspaper.
"You do not object, Mr. Maldon?"
"No, sir—no, sir; you are his guardian, and you have a right to take him where you please. He has been a very great comfort to me in my lonely old age, but I have been prepared to lose him. I—I may not have always done my duty to him, sir, in—in the way of schooling, and—and boots. The number of boots which boys of his age wear out, sir, is not easily realized by the mind of a young man like yourself; he has been kept away from school, perhaps, sometimes, and occasionally worn shabby boots when our funds have got low; but he has not been unkindly treated. No, sir; if you were to question him for a week, I don't think you'd hear that his poor old grandfather ever said a harsh word to him."
Upon this, Georgie, perceiving the distress of his old protector, set up a terrible howl, and declared that he would never leave him.
"Mr. Maldon," said Robert Audley, with a tone which was half-mournful, half-compassionate, "when I looked at my position last night, I did not believe that I could ever come to think it more painful than I thought it then. I can only say—God have mercy upon us all. I feel it my duty to take the child away, but I shall take him straight from your house to the best school in Southampton; and I give you my honor that I will extort nothing from his innocent simplicity which can in any manner—I mean," he said, breaking off abruptly, "I mean this. I will not seek to come one step nearer the secret through him. I—I am not a detective officer, and I do not think the most accomplished detective would like to get his information from a child."
The old man did not answer; he sat with his face shaded by his hand, and with his extinguished pipe between the listless fingers of the other.
"Take the boy away, Mrs. Plowson," he said, after a pause; "take him away and put his things on. He is going with Mr. Audley."
"Which I do say that it's not kind of the gentleman to take his poor grandpa's pet away," Mrs. Plowson exclaimed, suddenly, with respectful indignation.
"Hush, Mrs. Plowson," the old man answered, piteously; "Mr. Audley is the best judge. I—I haven't many years to live; I sha'n't trouble anybody long."
The tears oozed slowly through the dirty fingers with which he shaded his blood-shot eyes, as he said this.
"God knows, I never injured your friend, sir," he said, by-and-by, when Mrs. Plowson and Georgey had returned, "nor even wished him any ill. He was a good son-in-law to me—better than many a son. I never did him any wilful wrong, sir. I—I spent his money, perhaps, but I am sorry for it—I am very sorry for it now. But I don't believe he is dead—no, sir; no, I don't believe it!" exclaimed the old man, dropping his hand from his eyes, and looking with new energy at Robert Audley. "I—I don't believe it, sir! How—how should he be dead?"
Robert did not answer this eager questioning. He shook his head mournfully, and, walking to the little window, looked out across a row of straggling geraniums at the dreary patch of waste ground on which the children were at play.
Mrs. Plowson returned with little Georgey muffled in a coat and comforter, and Robert took the boy's hand.
The little fellow sprung toward the old man, and clinging about him, kissed the dirty tears from his faded cheeks.
"Don't be sorry for me, gran'pa," he said; "I am going to school to learn to be a clever man, and I shall come home to see you and Mrs. Plowson, sha'n't I?" he added, turning to Robert.
"Yes, my dear, by-and-by."
"Take him away, sir—take him away," cried Mr. Maldon; "you are breaking my heart."
The little fellow trotted away contentedly at Robert's side. He was very well pleased at the idea of going to school, though he had been happy enough with his drunken old grandfather, who had always displayed a maudlin affection for the pretty child, and had done his best to spoil Georgey, by letting him have his own way in everything; in consequence of which indulgence, Master Talboys had acquired a taste for late hours, hot suppers of the most indigestible nature, and sips of rum-and-water from his grandfather's glass.
He communicated his sentiments upon many subjects to Robert Audley, as they walked to the Dolphin Hotel; but the barrister did not encourage him to talk.
It was no very difficult matter to find a good school in such a place as Southampton. Robert Audley was directed to a pretty house between the Bar and the Avenue, and leaving Georgey to the care of a good-natured waiter, who seemed to have nothing to do but to look out of the window, and whisk invisible dust off the brightly polished tables, the barrister walked up the High street toward Mr. Marchmont's academy for young gentlemen.
He found Mr. Marchmont a very sensible man, and he met a file of orderly-looking young gentlemen walking townward under the escort of a couple of ushers as he entered the house.
He told the schoolmaster that little George Talboys had been left in his charge by a dear friend, who had sailed for Australia some months before, and whom he believed to be dead. He confided him to Mr. Marchmont's especial care, and he further requested that no visitors should be admitted to see the boy unless accredited by a letter from himself. Having arranged the matter in a very few business-like words, he returned to the hotel to fetch Georgey.
He found the little man on intimate terms with the idle waiter, who had been directing Master Georgey's attention to the different objects of interest in the High street.
Poor Robert had about as much notion of the requirements of a child as he had of those of a white elephant. He had catered for silkworms, guinea-pigs, dormice, canary-birds, and dogs, without number, during his boyhood, but he had never been called upon to provide for a young person of five years old.
He looked back five-and-twenty years, and tried to remember his own diet at the age of five.
"I've a vague recollection of getting a good deal of bread and milk and boiled mutton," he thought; "and I've another vague recollection of not liking them. I wonder if this boy likes bread and milk and boiled mutton."
He stood pulling his thick mustache and staring thoughtfully at the child for some minutes before he could get any further.
"I dare say you're hungry, Georgey?" he said, at last.
The boy nodded, and the waiter whisked some more invisible dust from the nearest table as a preparatory step toward laying a cloth.
"Perhaps you'd like some lunch?" Mr. Audley suggested, still pulling his mustache.
The boy burst out laughing.
"Lunch!" he cried. "Why, it's afternoon, and I've had my dinner."
Robert Audley felt himself brought to a standstill. What refreshment could he possibly provide for a boy who called it afternoon at three o'clock?
"You shall have some bread and milk, Georgey," he said, presently. "Waiter, bread and milk, and a pint of hock."
Master Talboys made a wry face.
"I never have bread and milk," he said, "I don't like it. I like what gran'pa calls something savory. I should like a veal cutlet. Gran'pa told me he dined here once, and the veal cutlets were lovely, gran'pa said. Please may I have a veal cutlet, with egg and bread-crumb, you know, and lemon-juice you know?" he added to the waiter: "Gran'pa knows the cook here. The cook's such a nice gentleman, and once gave me a shilling, when gran'pa brought me here. The cook wears better clothes than gran'pa—better than yours, even," said Master Georgey, pointing to Robert's rough great-coat with a depreciating nod.
Robert Audley stared aghast. How was he to deal with this epicure of five years old, who rejected bread and milk and asked for veal cutlets?
"I'll tell you what I'll do with you, little Georgey," he exclaimed, after a pause—"I'll give you a dinner!"
The waiter nodded briskly.
"Upon my word, sir," he said, approvingly, "I think the little gentleman will know how to eat it."
"I'll give you a dinner, Georgey," repeated Robert—"some stewed eels, a little Julienne, a dish of cutlets, a bird, and a pudding. What do you say to that, Georgey?"
"I don't think the young gentleman will object to it when he sees it, sir," said the waiter. "Eels, Julienne, cutlets, bird, pudding—I'll go and tell the cook, sir. What time, sir?"
"Well, we'll say six, and Master Georgey will get to his new school by bedtime. You can contrive to amuse the child for this afternoon, I dare say. I have some business to settle, and sha'n't be able to take him out. I shall sleep here to-night. Good-by, Georgey; take care of yourself and try and get your appetite in order against six o'clock."
Robert Audley left the boy in charge of the idle waiter, and strolled down to the water side, choosing that lonely bank which leads away under the moldering walls of the town toward the little villages beside the narrowing river.
He had purposely avoided the society of the child, and he walked through the light drifting snow till the early darkness closed upon him.
He went back to the town, and made inquiries at the station about the trains for Dorsetshire.
"I shall start early to-morrow morning," he thought, "and see George's father before nightfall. I will tell him all—all but the interest which I take in—in the suspected person, and he shall decide what is next to be done."
Master Georgey did very good justice to the dinner which Robert had ordered. He drank Bass' pale ale to an extent which considerably alarmed his entertainer, and enjoyed himself amazingly, showing an appreciation of roast pheasant and bread-sauce which was beyond his years. At eight o'clock a fly was brought out for his accommodation, and he departed in the highest spirits, with a sovereign in his pocket, and a letter from Robert to Mr. Marchmont, inclosing a check for the young gentleman's outfit.
"I'm glad I'm going to have new clothes," he said, as he bade Robert good-by; "for Mrs. Plowson has mended the old ones ever so many times. She can have them now, for Billy."
"Who's Billy?" Robert asked, laughing at the boy's chatter.
"Billy is poor Matilda's little boy. He's a common boy, you know. Matilda was common, but she—"
But the flyman snapping his whip at this moment, the old horse jogged off, and Robert Audley heard no more of Matilda.