LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
Robert Audley found the driver asleep upon the box of his lumbering vehicle. He had been entertained with beer of so hard a nature as to induce temporary strangulation in the daring imbiber thereof, and he was very glad to welcome the return of his fare. The old white horse, who looked as if he had been foaled in the year in which the carriage had been built, and seemed, like the carriage, to have outlived the fashion, was as fast asleep as his master, and woke up with a jerk as Robert came down the stony flight of steps, attended by his executioner, who waited respectfully till Mr. Audley had entered the vehicle and been turned off.
The horse, roused by a smack of his driver's whip and a shake of the shabby reins, crawled off in a semi-somnambulent state; and Robert, with his hat very much over his eyes, thought of his missing friend.
He had played in these stiff gardens, and under these dreary firs, years ago, perhaps—if it were possible for the most frolicsome youth to be playful within the range of Mr. Harcourt Talboys' hard gray eyes. He had played beneath these dark trees, perhaps, with the sister who had heard of his fate to day without a tear. Robert Audley looked at the rigid primness of the orderly grounds, wondering how George could have grown up in such a place to be the frank, generous, careless friend whom he had known. How was it that with his father perpetually before his eyes, he had not grown up after the father's disagreeable model, to be a nuisance to his fellow-men? How was it? Because we have Some One higher than our parents to thank for the souls which make us great or small; and because, while family noses and family chins may descend in orderly sequence from father to son, from grandsire to grandchild, as the fashion of the fading flowers of one year is reproduced in the budding blossoms of the next, the spirit, more subtle than the wind which blows among those flowers, independent of all earthly rule, owns no order but the harmonious law of God.
"Thank God!" thought Robert Audley; "thank God! it is over. My poor friend must rest in his unknown grave; and I shall not be the means of bringing disgrace upon those I love. It will come, perhaps, sooner or later, but it will not come through me. The crisis is past, and I am free."
He felt an unutterable relief in this thought. His generous nature revolted at the office into which he had found himself drawn—the office of spy, the collector of damning facts that led on to horrible deductions.
He drew a long breath—a sigh of relief at his release. It was all over now.
The fly was crawling out of the gate of the plantation as he thought this, and he stood up in the vehicle to look back at the dreary fir-trees, the gravel paths, the smooth grass, and the great desolate-looking, red-brick mansion.
He was startled by the appearance of a woman running, almost flying, along the carriage-drive by which he had come, and waving a handkerchief in her uplifted hand.
He stared at this singular apparition for some moments in silent wonder before he was able to reduce his stupefaction into words.
"Is it me the flying female wants?" he exclaimed, at last. "You'd better stop, perhaps" he added, to the flyman. "It is an age of eccentricity, an abnormal era of the world's history. She may want me. Very likely I left my pocket-handkerchief behind me, and Mr. Talboys has sent this person with it. Perhaps I'd better get out and go and meet her. It's civil to send my handkerchief."
Mr. Robert Audley deliberately descended from the fly and walked slowly toward the hurrying female figure, which gained upon him rapidly.
He was rather short sighted, and it was not until she came very near to him that he saw who she was.
"Good Heaven!" he exclaimed, "it's Miss Talboys."
It was Miss Talboys, flushed and breathless, with a woolen shawl thrown over her head.
Robert Audley now saw her face clearly for the first time, and he saw that she was very handsome. She had brown eyes, like George's, a pale complexion (she had been flushed when she approached him, but the color faded away as she recovered her breath), regular features, with a mobility of expression which bore record of every change of feeling. He saw all this in a few moments, and he wondered only the more at the stoicism of her manner during his interview with Mr. Talboys. There were no tears in her eyes, but they were bright with a feverish luster—terribly bright and dry—and he could see that her lips trembled as she spoke to him.
"Miss Talboys," he said, "what can I—why—"
She interrupted him suddenly, catching at his wrist with her disengaged hand—she was holding her shawl in the other.
"Oh, let me speak to you," she cried—"let me speak to you, or I shall go mad. I heard it all. I believe what you believe, and I shall go mad unless I can do something—something toward avenging his death."
For a few moments Robert Audley was too much bewildered to answer her. Of all things possible upon earth he had least expected to behold her thus.
"Take my arm, Miss Talboys," he said. "Pray calm yourself. Let us walk a little way back toward the house, and talk quietly. I would not have spoken as I did before you had I known—"
"Had you known that I loved my brother?" she said, quickly. "How should you know that I loved him? How should any one think that I loved him, when I have never had power to give him a welcome beneath that roof, or a kindly word from his father? How should I dare to betray my love for him in that house when I knew that even a sister's affection would be turned to his disadvantage? You do not know my father, Mr. Audley. I do. I knew that to intercede for George would have been to ruin his cause. I knew that to leave matters in my father's hands, and to trust to time, was my only chance of ever seeing that dear brother again. And I waited—waited patiently, always hoping for the best; for I knew that my father loved his only son. I see your contemptuous smile, Mr. Audley, and I dare say it is difficult for a stranger to believe that underneath his affected stoicism my father conceals some degree of affection for his children—no very warm attachment perhaps, for he has always ruled his life by the strict law of duty. Stop," she said, suddenly, laying her hand upon his arm, and looking back through the straight avenue of pines; "I ran out of the house by the back way. Papa must not see me talking to you, Mr. Audley, and he must not see the fly standing at the gate. Will you go into the high-road and tell the man to drive on a little way? I will come out of the plantation by a little gate further on, and meet you in the road."
"But you will catch cold, Miss Talboys," remonstrated Robert, looking at her anxiously, for he saw that she was trembling. "You are shivering now."
"Not with cold," she answered. "I am thinking of my brother George. If you have any pity for the only sister of your lost friend, do what I ask you, Mr. Audley. I must speak to you—I must speak to you—calmly, if I can."
She put her hand to her head as if trying to collect her thoughts, and then pointed to the gate. Robert bowed and left her. He told the man to drive slowly toward the station, and walked on by the side of the tarred fence surrounding Mr. Talboys' grounds. About a hundred yards beyond the principal entrance he came to a little wooden gate in the fence, and waited at it for Miss Talboys.
She joined him presently, with her shawl still over her head, and her eyes still bright and tearless.
"Will you walk with me inside the plantation?" she said. "We might be observed on the high-road."
He bowed, passed through the gate, and shut it behind him.
When she took his offered arm he found that she was still trembling—trembling very violently.
"Pray, pray calm yourself, Miss Talboys," he said; "I may have been deceived in the opinion which I have formed; I may—"
"No, no, no," she exclaimed, "you are not deceived. My brother has been murdered. Tell me the name of that woman—the woman whom you suspect of being concerned in his disappearance—in his murder."
"That I cannot do until—"
"Until I know that she is guilty."
"You told my father that you would abandon all idea of discovering the truth—that you would rest satisfied to leave my brother's fate a horrible mystery never to be solved upon this earth; but you will not do so, Mr. Audley—you will not be false to the memory of your friend. You will see vengeance done upon those who have destroyed him. You will do this, will you not?"
A gloomy shadow spread itself like a dark veil over Robert Audley's handsome face.
He remembered what he had said the day before at Southampton:
"A hand that is stronger than my own is beckoning me onward, upon the dark road."
A quarter of an hour before, he had believed that all was over, and that he was released from the dreadful duty of discovering the secret of George's death. Now this girl, this apparently passionless girl, had found a voice, and was urging him on toward his fate.
"If you knew what misery to me may be involved in discovering the truth, Miss Talboys," he said, "you would scarcely ask me to pursue this business any farther?"
"But I do ask you," she answered, with suppressed passion—I do ask you. I ask you to avenge my brother's untimely death. Will you do so? Yes or no?"
"What if I answer no?"
"Then I will do it myself," she exclaimed, looking at him with her bright brown eyes. "I myself will follow up the clew to this mystery; I will find this woman—though you refuse to tell me in what part of England my brother disappeared. I will travel from one end of the world to the other to find the secret of his fate, if you refuse to find it for me. I am of age; my own mistress; rich, for I have money left me by one of my aunts; I shall be able to employ those who will help me in my search, and I will make it to their interest to serve me well. Choose between the two alternatives, Mr. Audley. Shall you or I find my brother's murderer?"
He looked in her face, and saw that her resolution was the fruit of no transient womanish enthusiasm which would give way under the iron hand of difficulty. Her beautiful features, naturally statuesque in their noble outlines, seemed transformed into marble by the rigidity of her expression. The face in which he looked was the face of a woman whom death only could turn from her purpose.
"I have grown up in an atmosphere of suppression," she said, quietly; "I have stifled and dwarfed the natural feelings of my heart, until they have become unnatural in their intensity; I have been allowed neither friends nor lovers. My mother died when I was very young. My father has always been to me what you saw him to-day. I have had no one but my brother. All the love that my heart can hold has been centered upon him. Do you wonder, then, that when I hear that his young life has been ended by the hand of treachery, that I wish to see vengeance done upon the traitor? Oh, my God," she cried, suddenly clasping her hands, and looking up at the cold winter sky, "lead me to the murderer of my brother, and let mine be the hand to avenge his untimely death."
Robert Audley stood looking at her with awe-stricken admiration. Her beauty was elevated into sublimity by the intensity of her suppressed passion. She was different to all other women that he had ever seen. His cousin was pretty, his uncle's wife was lovely, but Clara Talboys was beautiful. Niobe's face, sublimated by sorrow, could scarcely have been more purely classical than hers. Even her dress, puritan in its gray simplicity, became her beauty better than a more beautiful dress would have become a less beautiful woman.
"Miss Talboys," said Robert, after a pause, "your brother shall not be unavenged. He shall not be forgotten. I do not think that any professional aid which you could procure would lead you as surely to the secret of this mystery as I can lead you, if you are patient and trust me."
"I will trust you," she answered, "for I see that you will help me."
"I believe that it is my destiny to do so," she said, solemnly.
In the whole course of his conversation with Harcourt Talboys, Robert Audley had carefully avoided making any deductions from the circumstances which he had submitted to George's father. He had simply told the story of the missing man's life, from the hour of his arriving in London to that of his disappearance; but he saw that Clara Talboys had arrived at the same conclusion as himself, and that it was tacitly understood between them.
"Have you any letters of your brother's, Miss Talboys?" he asked.
"Two. One written soon after his marriage, the other written at Liverpool, the night before he sailed for Australia."
"Will you let me see them?"
"Yes, I will send them to you if you will give me your address You will write to me from time to time, will you not, to tell me whether you are approaching the truth. I shall be obliged to act secretly here, but I am going to leave home in two or three months, and I shall be perfectly free then to act as I please."
"You are not going to leave England?" Robert asked.
"Oh no! I am only going to pay a long-promised visit to some friends in Essex."
Robert started so violently as Clara Talboys said this, that she looked suddenly at his face. The agitation visible there, betrayed a part of his secret.
"My brother George disappeared in Essex," she said.
He could not contradict her.
"I am sorry you have discovered so much," he replied. "My position becomes every day more complicated, every day more painful. Good-bye."
She gave him her hand mechanically, when he held out his; but it was cold as marble, and lay listlessly in his own, and fell like a log at her side when he released it.
"Pray lose no time in returning to the house," he said earnestly. "I fear you will suffer from this morning's work."
"Suffer!" she exclaimed, scornfully. "You talk to me of suffering, when the only creature in this world who ever loved me has been taken from it in the bloom of youth. What can there be for me henceforth but suffering? What is the cold to me?" she said, flinging back her shawl and baring her beautiful head to the bitter wind. "I would walk from here to London barefoot through the snow, and never stop by the way, if I could bring him back to life. What would I not do to bring him back? What would I not do?"
The words broke from her in a wail of passionate sorrow; and clasping her hands before her face, she wept for the first time that day. The violence of her sobs shook her slender frame, and she was obliged to lean against the trunk of a tree for support.
Robert looked at her with a tender compassion in his face; she was so like the friend whom he had loved and lost, that it was impossible for him to think of her as a stranger; impossible to remember that they had met that morning for the first time.
"Pray, pray be calm," he said: "hope even against hope. We may both be deceived; your brother may still live."
"Oh! if it were so," she murmured, passionately; "if it could be so."
"Let us try and hope that it may be so."
"No," she answered, looking at him through her tears, "let us hope for nothing but revenge. Good-by, Mr. Audley. Stop; your address."
He gave her a card, which she put into the pocket of her dress.
"I will send you George's letters," she said; "they may help you. Good-by."
She left him half bewildered by the passionate energy of her manner, and the noble beauty of her face. He watched her as she disappeared among the straight trunks of the fir-trees, and then walked slowly out of the plantation.
"Heaven help those who stand between me and the secret," he thought, "for they will be sacrificed to the memory of George Talboys."