LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
Robert Audley did not return to Southampton, but took a ticket for the first up town train that left Wareham, and reached Waterloo Bridge an hour or two after dark. The snow, which had been hard and crisp in Dorsetshire, was a black and greasy slush in the Waterloo Road, thawed by the flaring lamps of the gin-palaces and the glaring gas in the butchers' shops.
Robert Audley shrugged his shoulders as he looked at the dingy streets through which the Hansom carried him, the cab-man choosing—with that delicious instinct which seems innate in the drivers of hackney vehicles—all those dark and hideous thoroughfares utterly unknown to the ordinary pedestrian.
"What a pleasant thing life is," thought the barrister. "What an unspeakable boon—what an overpowering blessing! Let any man make a calculation of his existence, subtracting the hours in which he has been thoroughly happy—really and entirely at his ease, without one arriere pensee to mar his enjoyment—without the most infinitesimal cloud to overshadow the brightness of his horizon. Let him do this, and surely he will laugh in utter bitterness of soul when he sets down the sum of his felicity, and discovers the pitiful smallness of the amount. He will have enjoyed himself for a week or ten days in thirty years, perhaps. In thirty years of dull December, and blustering March, and showery April, and dark November weather, there may have been seven or eight glorious August days, through which the sun has blazed in cloudless radiance, and the summer breezes have breathed perpetual balm. How fondly we recollect these solitary days of pleasure, and hope for their recurrence, and try to plan the circumstances that made them bright; and arrange, and predestinate, and diplomatize with fate for a renewal of the remembered joy. As if any joy could ever be built up out of such and such constituent parts! As if happiness were not essentially accidental—a bright and wandering bird, utterly irregular in its migrations; with us one summer's day, and forever gone from us on the next! Look at marriages, for instance," mused Robert, who was as meditative in the jolting vehicle, for whose occupation he was to pay sixpence a mile, as if he had been riding a mustang on the wild loneliness of the prairies. "Look at marriage! Who is to say which shall be the one judicious selection out of nine hundred and ninety-nine mistakes! Who shall decide from the first aspect of the slimy creature, which is to be the one eel out of the colossal bag of snakes? That girl on the curbstone yonder, waiting to cross the street when my chariot shall have passed, may be the one woman out of every female creature in this vast universe who could make me a happy man. Yet I pass her by—bespatter her with the mud from my wheels, in my helpless ignorance, in my blind submission to the awful hand of fatality. If that girl, Clara Talboys, had been five minutes later, I should have left Dorsetshire thinking her cold, hard, and unwomanly, and should have gone to my grave with that mistake part and parcel of my mind. I took her for a stately and heartless automaton; I know her now to be a noble and beautiful woman. What an incalculable difference this may make in my life. When I left that house, I went out into the winter day with the determination of abandoning all further thought of the secret of George's death. I see her, and she forces me onward upon the loathsome path—the crooked by-way of watchfulness and suspicion. How can I say to this sister of my dead friend, 'I believe that your brother has been murdered! I believe that I know by whom, but I will take no step to set my doubts at rest, or to confirm my fears'? I cannot say this. This woman knows half my secret; she will soon possess herself of the rest, and then—and then—"
The cab stopped in the midst of Robert Audley's meditation, and he had to pay the cabman, and submit to all the dreary mechanism of life, which is the same whether we are glad or sorry—whether we are to be married or hung, elevated to the woolsack, or disbarred by our brother benchers on some mysterious technical tangle of wrong-doing, which is a social enigma to those outside the forum domesticum of the Middle Temple.
We are apt to be angry with this cruel hardness in our life—this unflinching regularity in the smaller wheels and meaner mechanism of the human machine, which knows no stoppage or cessation, though the mainspring be forever hollow, and the hands pointing to purposeless figures on a shattered dial.
Who has not felt, in the first madness of sorrow, an unreasoning rage against the mute propriety of chairs and tables, the stiff squareness of Turkey carpets, the unbending obstinacy of the outward apparatus of existence? We want to root up gigantic trees in a primeval forest, and to tear their huge branches asunder in our convulsive grasp; and the utmost that we can do for the relief of our passion is to knock over an easy-chair, or smash a few shillings' worth of Mr. Copeland's manufacture.
Madhouses are large and only too numerous; yet surely it is strange they are not larger, when we think of how many helpless wretches must beat their brains against this hopeless persistency of the orderly outward world, as compared with the storm and tempest, the riot and confusion within—when we remember how many minds must tremble upon the narrow boundary between reason and unreason, mad to-day and sane to-morrow, mad yesterday and sane to-day.
Robert Audley had directed the cabman to drop him at the corner of Chancery Lane, and he ascended the brilliantly-lighted staircase leading to the dining-saloon of The London, and seated himself at one of the snug tables with a confused sense of emptiness and weariness, rather than any agreeable sensation of healthy hunger. He had come to the luxurious eating-house to dine, because it was absolutely necessary to eat something somewhere, and a great deal easier to get a very good dinner from Mr. Sawyer than a very bad one from Mrs. Maloney, whose mind ran in one narrow channel of chops and steaks, only variable by small creeks and outlets in the way of "broiled sole" or "boiled mack'-rill." The solicitous waiter tried in vain to rouse poor Robert to a proper sense of the solemnity of the dinner question. He muttered something to the effect that the man might bring him anything he liked, and the friendly waiter, who knew Robert as a frequent guest at the little tables, went back to his master with a doleful face, to say that Mr. Audley, from Figtree Court, was evidently out of spirits. Robert ate his dinner, and drank a pint of Moselle; but he had poor appreciation of the excellence of the viands or the delicate fragrance of the wine. The mental monologue still went on, and the young philosopher of the modern school was arguing the favorite modern question of the nothingness of everything, and the folly of taking too much trouble to walk upon a road that went nowhere, or to compass a work that meant nothing.
"I accept the dominion of that pale girl, with the statuesque features and the calm brown eyes," he thought. "I recognize the power of a mind superior to my own, and I yield to it, and bow down to it. I've been acting for myself, and thinking for myself, for the last few months, and I'm tired of the unnatural business. I've been false to the leading principle of my life, and I've suffered for the folly. I found two gray hairs in my head the week before last, and an impertinent crow has planted a delicate impression of his foot under my right eye. Yes, I'm getting old upon the right side; and why—why should it be so?"
He pushed away his plate and lifted his eyebrows, staring at the crumbs upon the glistening damask, as he pondered the question.
"What the devil am I doing in this galere?" he asked. "But I am in it, and I can't get out of it; so I better submit myself to the brown-eyed girl, and do what she tells me patiently and faithfully. What a wonderful solution to life's enigma there is in petticoat government! Man might lie in the sunshine, and eat lotuses, and fancy it 'always afternoon,' if his wife would let him! But she won't, bless her impulsive heart and active mind! She knows better than that. Who ever heard of a woman taking life as it ought to be taken? Instead of supporting it as an unavoidable nuisance, only redeemable by its brevity, she goes through it as if it were a pageant or a procession. She dresses for it, and simpers and grins, and gesticulates for it. She pushes her neighbors, and struggles for a good place in the dismal march; she elbows, and writhes, and tramples, and prances to the one end of making the most of the misery. She gets up early and sits up late, and is loud, and restless, and noisy, and unpitying. She drags her husband on to the woolsack, or pushes him into Parliament. She drives him full butt at the dear, lazy machinery of government, and knocks and buffets him about the wheels, and cranks, and screws, and pulleys; until somebody, for quiet's sake, makes him something that she wanted him to be made. That's why incompetent men sometimes sit in high places, and interpose their poor, muddled intellects between the things to be done and the people that can do them, making universal confusion in the helpless innocence of well-placed incapacity. The square men in the round holes are pushed into them by their wives. The Eastern potentate who declared that women were at the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. They don't know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramides, and Cleopatras, and Joans of Arc, Queen Elizabeths, and Catharines the Second, and they riot in battle, and murder, and clamor and desperation. If they can't agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they'll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills, and social storms in household teacups. Forbid them to hold forth upon the freedom of nations and the wrongs of mankind, and they'll quarrel with Mrs. Jones about the shape of a mantle or the character of a small maid-servant. To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators—anything they like—but let them be quiet—if they can."
Mr. Audley pushed his hands through the thick luxuriance of his straight brown hair, and uplifted the dark mass in his despair.
"I hate women," he thought, savagely. "They're bold, brazen, abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors. Look at this business of poor George's! It's all woman's work from one end to the other. He marries a woman, and his father casts him off penniless and professionless. He hears of the woman's death and he breaks his heart—his good honest, manly heart, worth a million of the treacherous lumps of self-interest and mercenary calculation which beats in women's breasts. He goes to a woman's house and he is never seen alive again. And now I find myself driven into a corner by another woman, of whose existence I had never thought until this day. And—and then," mused Mr. Audley, rather irrelevantly, "there's Alicia, too; she's another nuisance. She'd like me to marry her I know; and she'll make me do it, I dare say, before she's done with me. But I'd much rather not; though she is a dear, bouncing, generous thing, bless her poor little heart."
Robert paid his bill and rewarded the waiter liberally. The young barrister was very willing to distribute his comfortable little income among the people who served him, for he carried his indifference to all things in the universe, even to the matter of pounds, shillings and pence. Perhaps he was rather exceptional in this, as you may frequently find that the philosopher who calls life an empty delusion is pretty sharp in the investment of his moneys, and recognizes the tangible nature of India bonds, Spanish certificates, and Egyptian scrip—as contrasted with the painful uncertainty of an Ego or a non-Ego in metaphysics.
The snug rooms in Figtree Court seemed dreary in their orderly quiet to Robert Audley upon this particular evening. He had no inclination for his French novels, though there was a packet of uncut romances, comic and sentimental, ordered a month before, waiting his pleasure upon one of the tables. He took his favorite meerschaum and dropped into his favorite chair with a sigh.
"It's comfortable, but it seems so deuced lonely to-night. If poor George were sitting opposite to me, or—or even George's sister—she's very like him—existence might be a little more endurable. But when a fellow's lived by himself for eight or ten years he begins to be bad company."
He burst out laughing presently as he finished his first pipe.
"The idea of my thinking of George's sister," he thought; "what a preposterous idiot I am!"
The next day's post brought him a letter in a firm but feminine hand, which was strange to him. He found the little packet lying on his breakfast-table, beside the warm French roll wrapped in a napkin by Mrs. Maloney's careful but rather dirty hands. He contemplated the envelope for some minutes before opening it—not in any wonder as to his correspondent, for the letter bore the postmark of Grange Heath, and he knew that there was only one person who was likely to write to him from that obscure village, but in that lazy dreaminess which was a part of his character.
"From Clara Talboys," he murmured slowly, as he looked critically at the clearly-shaped letters of his name and address. "Yes, from Clara Talboys, most decidedly; I recognized a feminine resemblance to poor George's hand; neater than his, and more decided than his, but very like, very like."
He turned the letter over and examined the seal, which bore his friend's familiar crest.
"I wonder what she says to me?" he thought. "It's a long letter, I dare say; she's the kind of woman who would write a long letter—a letter that will urge me on, drive me forward, wrench me out of myself, I've no doubt. But that can't be helped—so here goes!"
He tore open the envelope with a sigh of resignation. It contained nothing but George's two letters, and a few words written on the flap: "I send the letters; please preserve and return them—C.T."
The letter, written from Liverpool, told nothing of the writer's life except his sudden determination of starting for a new world, to redeem the fortunes that had been ruined in the old. The letter written almost immediately after George's marriage, contained a full description of his wife—such a description as a man could only write within three weeks of a love match—a description in which every feature was minutely catalogued, every grace of form or beauty of expression fondly dwelt upon, every charm of manner lovingly depicted.
Robert Audley read the letter three times before he laid it down.
"If George could have known for what a purpose this description would serve when he wrote it," thought the young barrister, "surely his hand would have fallen paralyzed by horror, and powerless to shape one syllable of these tender words."