LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
The dreary London January dragged its dull length slowly out. The last slender records of Christmas time were swept away, and Robert Audley still lingered in town—still spent his lonely evenings in his quiet sitting-room in Figtree Court—still wandered listlessly in the Temple Gardens on sunny mornings, absently listening to the children's babble, idly watching their play. He had many friends among the inhabitants of the quaint old buildings round him; he had other friends far away in pleasant country places, whose spare bedrooms were always at Bob's service, whose cheerful firesides had snugly luxurious chairs specially allotted to him. But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys. Elderly benchers indulged in facetious observations upon the young man's pale face and moody manner. They suggested the probability of some unhappy attachment, some feminine ill-usage as the secret cause of the change. They told him to be of good cheer, and invited him to supper-parties, at which "lovely woman, with all her faults, God bless her," was drunk by gentlemen who shed tears as they proposed the toast, and were maudlin and unhappy in their cups toward the close of the entertainment. Robert had no inclination for the wine-bibbing and the punch-making. The one idea of his life had become his master. He was the bonden slave of one gloomy thought—one horrible presentiment. A dark cloud was brooding above his uncle's house, and it was his hand which was to give the signal for the thunder-clap, and the tempest that was to ruin that noble life.
"If she would only take warning and run away," he said to himself sometimes. "Heaven knows, I have given her a fair chance. Why doesn't she take it and run away?"
He heard sometimes from Sir Michael, sometimes from Alicia. The young lady's letter rarely contained more than a few curt lines informing him that her papa was well; and that Lady Audley was in very high spirits, amusing herself in her usual frivolous manner, and with her usual disregard for other people.
A letter from Mr. Marchmont, the Southampton schoolmaster, informed Robert that little Georgey was going on very well, but that he was behindhand in his education, and had not yet passed the intellectual Rubicon of words of two syllables. Captain Maldon had called to see his grandson, but that privilege had been withheld from him, in accordance with Mr. Audley's instructions. The old man had furthermore sent a parcel of pastry and sweetmeats to the little boy, which had also been rejected on the ground of indigestible and bilious tendencies in the edibles.
Toward the close of February, Robert received a letter from his cousin Alicia, which hurried him one step further forward toward his destiny, by causing him to return to the house from which he had become in a manner exiled at the instigation of his uncle's wife,
"Papa is very ill," Alicia wrote; "not dangerously ill, thank God; but confined to his room by an attack of low fever which has succeeded a violent cold. Come and see him, Robert, if you have any regard for your nearest relations. He has spoken about you several times; and I know he will be glad to have you with him. Come at once, but say nothing about this letter.
"From your affectionate cousin, ALICIA."
A sick and deadly terror chilled Robert Audley's heart, as he read this letter—a vague yet hideous fear, which he dared not shape into any definite form.
"Have I done right?" he thought, in the first agony of this new horror—"have I done right to tamper with justice; and to keep the secret of my doubts in the hope that I was shielding those I love from sorrow and disgrace? What shall I do if I find him ill, very ill, dying perhaps, dying upon her breast! What shall I do?"
One course lay clear before him; and the first step of that course was a rapid journey to Audley Court. He packed his portmanteau, jumped into a cab, and reached the railway station within an hour of his receipt of Alicia's letter, which had come by the afternoon post.
The dim village lights flickered faintly through the growing dusk when Robert reached Audley. He left his portmanteau with the station-master, and walked at a leisurely pace through the quiet lanes that led away to the still loneliness of the Court. The over-arching trees stretched their leafless branches above his head, bare and weird in the dusky light. A low moaning wind swept across the flat meadow land, and tossed those rugged branches hither and thither against the dark gray sky. They looked like the ghostly arms of shrunken and withered giants, beckoning Robert to his uncle's house. They looked like threatening phantoms in the chill winter twilight, gesticulating to him to hasten upon his journey. The long avenue so bright and pleasant when the perfumed limes scattered their light bloom upon the pathway, and the dog-rose leaves floated on the summer air, was terribly bleak and desolate in the cheerless interregnum that divides the homely joys of Christmas from the pale blush of coming spring—a dead pause in the year, in which Nature seems to lie in a tranced sleep, awaiting the wondrous signal for the budding of the flower.
A mournful presentiment crept into Robert Audley's heart as he drew nearer to his uncle's house. Every changing outline in the landscape was familiar to him; every bend of the trees; every caprice of the untrammeled branches; every undulation in the bare hawthorn hedge, broken by dwarf horse-chestnuts, stunted willows, blackberry and hazel bushes.
Sir Michael had been a second father to the young man, a generous and noble friend, a grave and earnest adviser; and perhaps the strongest sentiment of Robert's heart was his love for the gray-bearded baronet. But the grateful affection was so much a part of himself, that it seldom found an outlet in words, and a stranger would never have fathomed the depth of feeling which lay, a deep and powerful current, beneath the stagnant surface of the barrister's character.
"What would become of this place if my uncle were to die?" he thought, and he drew nearer to the ivied archway, and the still water-pools, coldly gray in the twilight. "Would other people live in the old house, and sit under the low oak ceilings in the homely familiar rooms?"
That wonderful faculty of association, so interwoven with the inmost fibers of even the hardest nature, filled the young man's breast with a prophetic pain as he remembered that, however long or late, the day must come on which the oaken shutters would be closed for awhile, and the sunshine shut out of the house he loved. It was painful to him even to remember this; as it must always be painful to think of the narrow lease the greatest upon this earth can ever hold of its grandeurs. Is it so wonderful that some wayfarers drop asleep under the hedges, scarcely caring to toil onward on a journey that leads to no abiding habitation? Is it wonderful that there have been quietists in the world ever since Christ's religion was first preached upon earth. Is it strange that there is a patient endurance and tranquil resignation, calm expectation of that which is to come on the further shore of the dark flowing river? Is it not rather to be wondered that anybody should ever care to be great for greatness' sake; for any other reason than pure conscientiousness; the simple fidelity of the servant who fears to lay his talents by in a napkin, knowing that indifference is near akin to dishonesty? If Robert Audley had lived in the time of Thomas a'Kempis, he would very likely have built himself a narrow hermitage amid some forest loneliness, and spent his life in tranquil imitation of the reputed author of The Imitation. As it was, Figtree Court was a pleasant hermitage in its way, and for breviaries and Books of Hours, I am ashamed to say the young barrister substituted Paul de Kock and Dumas, fils. But his sins were of so simply negative an order, that it would have been very easy for him to have abandoned them for negative virtues.
Only one solitary light was visible in the long irregular range of windows facing the archway, as Robert passed under the gloomy shade of the rustling ivy, restless in the chill moaning of the wind. He recognized that lighted window as the large oriel in his uncle's room. When last he had looked at the old house it had been gay with visitors, every window glittering like a low star in the dusk; now, dark and silent, it faced the winter's night like some dismal baronial habitation, deep in a woodland solitude.
The man who opened the door to the unlooked-for visitor, brightened as he recognized his master's nephew.
"Sir Michael will be cheered up a bit, sir, by the sight of you," he said, as he ushered Robert Audley into the fire-lit library, which seemed desolate by reason of the baronet's easy-chair standing empty on the broad hearth-rug. "Shall I bring you some dinner here, sir, before you go up-stairs?" the servant asked. "My lady and Miss Audley have dined early during my master's illness, but I can bring you anything you would please to take, sir."
"I'll take nothing until I have seen my uncle," Robert answered, hurriedly; "that is to say, if I can see him at once. He is not too ill to receive me, I suppose?" he added, anxiously.
"Oh, no, sir—not too ill; only a little low, sir. This way, if you please."
He conducted Robert up the short flight of shallow oaken stairs to the octagon chamber in which George Talboys had sat long five months before, staring absently at my lady's portrait. The picture was finished now, and hung in the post of honor opposite the window, amidst Claudes, Poussins and Wouvermans, whose less brilliant hues were killed by the vivid coloring of the modern artist. The bright face looked out of that tangled glitter of golden hair, in which the Pre-Raphaelites delight, with a mocking smile, as Robert paused for a moment to glance at the well-remembered picture. Two or three moments afterward he had passed through my lady's boudoir and dressing-room and stood upon the threshold of Sir Michael's room. The baronet lay in a quiet sleep, his arm laying outside the bed, and his strong hand clasped in his young wife's delicate fingers. Alicia sat in a low chair beside the broad open hearth, on which the huge logs burned fiercely in the frosty atmosphere. The interior of this luxurious bedchamber might have made a striking picture for an artist's pencil. The massive furniture, dark and somber, yet broken up and relieved here and there by scraps of gilding, and masses of glowing color; the elegance of every detail, in which wealth was subservient to purity of taste; and last, but greatest in importance, the graceful figures of the two women, and the noble form of the old man would have formed a worthy study for any painter.
Lucy Audley, with her disordered hair in a pale haze of yellow gold about her thoughtful face, the flowing lines of her soft muslin dressing-gown falling in straight folds to her feet, and clasped at the waist by a narrow circlet of agate links might have served as a model for a mediaeval saint, in one of the tiny chapels hidden away in the nooks and corners of a gray old cathedral, unchanged by Reformation or Cromwell; and what saintly martyr of the Middle Ages could have borne a holier aspect than the man whose gray beard lay upon the dark silken coverlet of the stately bed?
Robert paused upon the threshold, fearful of awaking his uncle. The two ladies had heard his step, cautious though he had been, and lifted their heads to look at him. My lady's face, quietly watching the sick man, had worn an anxious earnestness which made it only more beautiful; but the same face recognizing Robert Audley, faded from its delicate brightness, and looked scared and wan in the lamplight.
"Mr. Audley!" she cried, in a faint, tremulous voice.
"Hush!" whispered Alicia, with a warning gesture; "you will wake papa. How good of you to come, Robert," she added, in the same whispered tones, beckoning to her cousin to take an empty chair near the bed.
The young man seated himself in the indicated seat at the bottom of the bed, and opposite to my lady, who sat close beside the pillows. He looked long and earnestly at the face of the sleeper; still longer, still more earnestly at the face of Lady Audley, which was slowly recovering its natural hues.
"He has not been very ill, has he?" Robert asked, in the same key as that in which Alicia had spoken.
My lady answered the question.
"Oh, no, not dangerously ill," she said, without taking her eyes from her husband's face; "but still we have been anxious, very, very anxious."
Robert never relaxed his scrutiny of that pale face.
"She shall look at me," he thought; "I will make her meet my eyes, and I will read her as I have read her before. She shall know how useless her artifices are with me."
He paused for a few minutes before he spoke again. The regular breathing of the sleeper the ticking of a gold hunting-watch at the head of the bed, and the crackling of the burning logs, were the only sounds that broke the stillness.
"I have no doubt you have been anxious, Lady Audley," Robert said, after a pause, fixing my lady's eyes as they wandered furtively to his face. "There is no one to whom my uncle's life I can be of more value than to you. Your happiness, your prosperity, your safety depend alike upon his existence."
The whisper in which he uttered these words was too low to reach the other side of the room, where Alicia sat.
Lucy Audley's eyes met those of the speaker with some gleam of triumph in their light.
"I know that," she said. "Those who strike me must strike through him."
She pointed to the sleeper as she spoke, still looking at Robert Audley. She defied him with her blue eyes, their brightness intensified by the triumph in their glance. She defied him with her quiet smile—a smile of fatal beauty, full of lurking significance and mysterious meaning—the smile which the artist had exaggerated in his portrait of Sir Michael's wife.
Robert turned away from the lovely face, and shaded his eyes with his hand; putting a barrier between my lady and himself; a screen which baffled her penetration and provoked her curiosity. Was he still watching her or was he thinking? and of what was he thinking?
Robert had been seated at the bedside for upward of an hour before his uncle awoke. The baronet was delighted at his nephew's coming.
"It was very good of you to come to me, Bob," he said. "I have been thinking of you a good deal since I have been ill. You and Lucy must be good friends, you know, Bob; and you must learn to think of her as your aunt, sir; though she is young and beautiful; and—and—you understand, eh?"
Robert grasped his uncle's hand, but he looked down as he answered: "I do understand you, sir," he said, quietly; "and I give you my word of honor that I am steeled against my lady's fascinations. She knows that as well as I do."
Lucy Audley made a little grimace with her pretty little lips. "Bah, you silly Robert," she exclaimed; "you take everything au serieux. If I thought you were rather too young for a nephew, it was only in my fear of other people's foolish gossip; not from any—"
She hesitated for a moment, and escaped any conclusion to her sentence by the timely intervention of Mr. Dawson, her late employer, who entered the room upon his evening visit while she was speaking.
He felt the patient's pulse; asked two or three questions; pronounced the baronet to be steadily improving; exchanged a few commonplace remarks with Alicia and Lady Audley, and prepared to leave the room. Robert rose and accompanied him to the door.
"I will light you to the staircase," he said, taking a candle from one of the tables, and lighting it at the lamp.
"No, no, Mr. Audley, pray do not trouble yourself," expostulated the surgeon; "I know my way very well indeed."
Robert insisted, and the two men left the room together. As they entered the octagon ante-chamber the barrister paused and shut the door behind him.
"Will you see that the door is closed, Mr. Dawson?" he said, pointing to that which opened upon the staircase. "I wish to have a few moments' private conversation with you."
"With much pleasure," replied the surgeon, complying with Robert's request; "but if you are at all alarmed about your uncle, Mr. Audley, I can set your mind at rest. There is no occasion for the least uneasiness. Had his illness been at all serious I should have telegraphed immediately for the family physician."
"I am sure that you would have done your duty, sir," answered Robert, gravely. "But I am not going to speak of my uncle. I wish to ask you two or three questions about another person."
"The person who once lived in your family as Miss Lucy Graham; the person who is now Lady Audley."
Mr. Dawson looked up with an expression of surprise upon his quiet face.
"Pardon me, Mr. Audley," he answered; "you can scarcely expect me to answer any questions about your uncle's wife without Sir Michael's express permission. I can understand no motive which can prompt you to ask such questions—no worthy motive, at least." He looked severely at the young man, as much as to say: "You have been falling in love with your uncle's pretty wife, sir, and you want to make me a go-between in some treacherous flirtation; but it won't do, sir, it won't do."
"I always respected the lady as Miss Graham, sir," he said, "and I esteem her doubly as Lady Audley—not on account of her altered position, but because she is the wife of one of the noblest men in Christendom."
"You cannot respect my uncle or my uncle's honor more sincerely than I do," answered Robert. "I have no unworthy motive for the questions I am about to ask; and you must answer them."
"Must!" echoed Mr. Dawson, indignantly.
"Yes, you are my uncle's friend. It was at your house he met the woman who is now his wife. She called herself an orphan, I believe, and enlisted his pity as well as his admiration in her behalf. She told him that she stood alone in the world, did she not?—without a friend or relative. This was all I could ever learn of her antecedents."
"What reason have you to wish to know more?" asked the surgeon.
"A very terrible reason," answered Robert Audley. "For some months past I have struggled with doubts and suspicions which have embittered my life. They have grown stronger every day; and they will not be set at rest by the commonplace sophistries and the shallow arguments with which men try to deceive themselves rather than believe that which of all things upon earth they most fear to believe. I do not think that the woman who bears my uncle's name, is worthy to be his wife. I may wrong her. Heaven grant that it is so. But if I do, the fatal chain of circumstantial evidence never yet linked itself so closely about an innocent person. I wish to set my doubts at rest or—or to confirm my fears. There is but one manner in which I can do this. I must trace the life of my uncle's wife backward, minutely and carefully, from this night to a period of six years ago. This is the twenty-fourth of February, fifty-nine. I want to know every record of her life between to-night and the February of the year fifty-three."
"And your motive is a worthy one?"
"Yes, I wish to clear her from a very dreadful suspicion."
"Which exists only in your mind?"
"And in the mind of one other person."
"May I ask who that person is?"
"No, Mr. Dawson," answered Robert, decisively; "I cannot reveal anything more than what I have already told you. I am a very irresolute, vacillating man in most things. In this matter I am compelled to be decided. I repeat once more that I must know the history of Lucy Graham's life. If you refuse to help me to the small extent in your power, I will find others who will help me. Painful as it would become, I will ask my uncle for the information which you would withhold, rather than be baffled in the first step of my investigation."
Mr. Dawson was silent for some minutes.
"I cannot express how much you have astonished and alarmed me, Mr. Audley." he said. "I can tell you so little about Lady Audley's antecedents, that it would be mere obstinacy to withhold the small amount of information I possess. I have always considered your uncle's wife one of the most amiable of women. I cannot bring myself to think her otherwise. It would be an uprooting of one of the strongest convictions of my life were I compelled to think her otherwise. You wish to follow her life backward from the present hour to the year fifty-three?"
"She was married to your uncle last June twelvemonth, in the midsummer of fifty-seven. She had lived in my house a little more than thirteen months. She became a member of my household upon the fourteenth of May, in the year fifty-six."
"And she came to you—"
"From a school at Brompton, a school kept by a lady of the name of Vincent. It was Mrs. Vincent's strong recommendation that induced me to receive Miss Graham into my family without any more special knowledge of her antecedents."
"Did you see this Mrs. Vincent?"
"I did not. I advertised for a governess, and Miss Graham answered my advertisement. In her letter she referred me to Mrs. Vincent, the proprietress of a school in which she was then residing as junior teacher. My time is always so fully occupied, that I was glad to escape the necessity of a day's loss in going from Audley to London to inquire about the young lady's qualifications. I looked for Mrs. Vincent's name in the directory, found it, and concluded that she was a responsible person, and wrote to her. Her reply was perfectly satisfactory;—Miss Lucy Graham was assiduous and conscientious; as well as fully qualified for the situation I offered. I accepted this reference, and I had no cause to regret what may have been an indiscretion. And now, Mr. Audley, I have told you all that I have the power to tell."
"Will you be so kind as to give me the address of this Mrs. Vincent?" asked Robert, taking out his pocketbook.
"Certainly; she was then living at No. 9 Crescent Villas, Brompton."
"Ah, to be sure," muttered Mr. Audley, a recollection of last September flashing suddenly back upon him as the surgeon spoke.
"Crescent Villas—yes, I have heard the address before from Lady Audley herself. This Mrs. Vincent telegraphed to my uncle's wife early in last September. She was ill—dying, I believe—and sent for my lady; but had removed from her old house and was not to be found."
"Indeed! I never heard Lady Audley mention the circumstance."
"Perhaps not. It occurred while I was down here. Thank you, Mr. Dawson, for the information you have so kindly and honestly given me. It takes me back two and a-half years in the history of my lady's life; but I have still a blank of three years to fill up before I can exonerate her from my terrible suspicion. Good evening."
Robert shook hands with the surgeon and returned to his uncle's room. He had been away about a quarter of an hour. Sir Michael had fallen asleep once more, and my lady's loving hands had lowered the heavy curtains and shaded the lamp by the bedside. Alicia and her father's wife were taking tea in Lady Audley's boudoir, the room next to the antechamber in which Robert and Mr. Dawson had been seated.
Lucy Audley looked up from her occupation among the fragile china cups and watched Robert rather anxiously as he walked softly to his uncle's room and back again to the boudoir. She looked very pretty and innocent, seated behind the graceful group of delicate opal china and glittering silver. Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea. The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance. The floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing herbs; whose secrets are known to her alone, envelope her in a cloud of scented vapor, through which she seems a social fairy, weaving potent spells with Gunpowder and Bohea. At the tea-table she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable. What do men know of the mysterious beverage? Read how poor Hazlitt made his tea, and shudder at the dreadful barbarism. How clumsily the wretched creatures attempt to assist the witch president of the tea-tray; how hopelessly they hold the kettle, how continually they imperil the frail cups and saucers, or the taper hands of the priestess. To do away with the tea-table is to rob woman of her legitimate empire. To send a couple of hulking men about among your visitors, distributing a mixture made in the housekeeper's room, is to reduce the most social and friendly of ceremonies to a formal giving out of rations. Better the pretty influence of the tea cups and saucers gracefully wielded in a woman's hand than all the inappropriate power snatched at the point of the pen from the unwilling sterner sex. Imagine all the women of England elevated to the high level of masculine intellectuality, superior to crinoline; above pearl powder and Mrs. Rachael Levison; above taking the pains to be pretty; above tea-tables and that cruelly scandalous and rather satirical gossip which even strong men delight in; and what a drear, utilitarian, ugly life the sterner sex must lead.
My lady was by no means strong-minded. The starry diamonds upon her white fingers flashed hither and thither among the tea-things, and she bent her pretty head over the marvelous Indian tea-caddy of sandal-wood and silver, with as much earnestness as if life held no higher purpose than the infusion of Bohea.
"You'll take a cup of tea with us, Mr. Audley?" she asked, pausing with the teapot in her hand to look up at Robert, who was standing near the door.
"If you please."
"But you have not dined, perhaps? Shall I ring and tell them to bring you something a little more substantial than biscuits and transparent bread and butter?"
"No, thank you, Lady Audley. I took some lunch before I left town. I'll trouble you for nothing but a cup of tea."
He seated himself at the little table and looked across it at his Cousin Alicia, who sat with a book in her lap, and had the air of being very much absorbed by its pages. The bright brunette complexion had lost its glowing crimson, and the animation of the young lady's manner was suppressed—on account of her father's illness, no doubt, Robert thought.
"Alicia, my dear," the barrister said, after a very leisurely contemplation of his cousin, "you're not looking well."
Miss Audley shrugged her shoulders, but did not condescend to lift her eyes from her book.
"Perhaps not," she answered, contemptuously. "What does it matter? I'm growing a philosopher of your school, Robert Audley. What does it matter? Who cares whether I am well or ill?"
"What a spitfire she is," thought the barrister. He always knew his cousin was angry with him when she addressed him as "Robert Audley."
"You needn't pitch into a fellow because he asks you a civil question, Alicia," he said, reproachfully. "As to nobody caring about your health, that's nonsense. I care." Miss Audley looked up with a bright smile. "Sir Harry Towers cares." Miss Audley returned to her book with a frown.
"What are you reading there, Alicia?" Robert asked, after a pause, during which he had sat thoughtfully stirring his tea.
"Changes and Chances."
"Who is it by?"
"The author of Follies and Faults," answered Alicia, still pursuing her study of the romance upon her lap.
"Is it interesting?"
Miss Audley pursed up her mouth and shrugged her shoulders.
"Not particularly," she said.
"Then I think you might have better manners than to read it while your first cousin is sitting opposite you," observed Mr. Audley, with some gravity, "especially as he has only come to pay you a flying visit, and will be off to-morrow morning."
"To-morrow morning!" exclaimed my lady, looking up suddenly.
Though the look of joy upon Lady Audley's face was as brief as a flash of lightning on a summer sky, it was not unperceived by Robert.
"Yes," he said; "I shall be obliged to run up to London to-morrow on business, but I shall return the next day, if you will allow me, Lady Audley, and stay here till my uncle recovers."
"But you are not seriously alarmed about him, are you?" asked my lady, anxiously.
"You do not think him very ill?"
"No," answered Robert. "Thank Heaven, I think there is not the slightest cause for apprehension."
My lady sat silent for a few moments, looking at the empty teacups with a prettily thoughtful face—a face grave with the innocent seriousness of a musing child.
"But you were closeted such a long time with Mr. Dawson, just now," she said, after this brief pause. "I was quite alarmed at the length of your conversation. Were you talking of Sir Michael all the time?"
"No; not all the time?"
My lady looked down at the teacups once more.
"Why, what could you find to say to Mr. Dawson, or he to say to you?" she asked, after another pause. "You are almost strangers to each other."
"Suppose Mr. Dawson wished to consult me about some law business."
"Was it that?" cried Lady Audley, eagerly.
"It would be rather unprofessional to tell you if it were so, my lady," answered Robert, gravely.
My lady bit her lip, and relapsed into silence. Alicia threw down her book, and watched her cousin's preoccupied face. He talked to her now and then for a few minutes, but it was evidently an effort to him to arouse himself from his revery.
"Upon my word, Robert Audley, you are a very agreeable companion," exclaimed Alicia at length, her rather limited stock of patience quite exhausted by two or three of these abortive attempts at conversation. "Perhaps the next time you come to the Court you will be good enough to bring your mind with you. By your present inanimate appearance, I should imagine that you had left your intellect, such as it is, somewhere in the Temple. You were never one of the liveliest of people, but latterly you have really grown almost unendurable. I suppose you are in love, Mr. Audley, and are thinking of the honored object of your affections."
He was thinking of Clara Talboys' uplifted face, sublime in its unutterable grief; of her impassioned words still ringing in his ears as clearly as when they were first spoken. Again he saw her looking at him with her bright brown eyes. Again he heard that solemn question: "Shall you or I find my brother's murderer?" And he was in Essex; in the little village from which he firmly believed George Talboys had never departed. He was on the spot at which all record of his friend's life ended as suddenly as a story ends when the reader shuts the book. And could he withdraw now from the investigation in which he found himself involved? Could he stop now? For any consideration? No; a thousand times no! Not with the image of that grief-stricken face imprinted on his mind. Not with the accents of that earnest appeal ringing on his ear.