LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
SO FAR AND NO FARTHER
Robert left Audley the next morning by an early train, and reached Shoreditch a little after nine o'clock. He did not return to his chambers, but called a cab and drove straight to Crescent Villas, West Brompton. He knew that he should fail in finding the lady he went to seek at this address, as his uncle had failed a few months before, but he thought it possible to obtain some clew to the schoolmistress' new residence, in spite of Sir Michael's ill-success.
"Mrs. Vincent was in a dying state, according to the telegraphic message," Robert thought. "If I do find her, I shall at least succeed in discovering whether that message was genuine."
He found Crescent Villas after some difficulty. The houses were large, but they lay half imbedded among the chaos of brick and rising mortar around them. New terraces, new streets, new squares led away into hopeless masses of stone and plaster on every side. The roads were sticky with damp clay, which clogged the wheels of the cab and buried the fetlocks of the horse. The desolations—that awful aspect of incompleteness and discomfort which pervades a new and unfinished neighborhood—had set its dismal seal upon the surrounding streets which had arisen about and intrenched Crescent Villas; and Robert wasted forty minutes by his watch, and an hour and a quarter by the cabman's reckoning, in driving up and down uninhabited streets and terraces, trying to find the Villase; whose chimney-tops were frowning down upon him black and venerable, amid groves of virgin plaster, undimmed by time or smoke.
But having at last succeeded in reaching his destination, Mr. Audley alighted from the cab, directed the driver to wait for him at a certain corner, and set out upon his voyage of discovery.
"If I were a distinguished Q.C., I could not do this sort of thing," he thought; "my time would be worth a guinea or so a minute, and I should be retained in the great case of Hoggs vs. Boggs, going forward this very day before a special jury at Westminster Hall. As it is, I can afford to be patient."
He inquired for Mrs. Vincent at the number which Mr. Dawson had given him. The maid who opened the door had never heard that lady's name; but after going to inquire of her mistress, she returned to tell Robert that Mrs. Vincent had lived there, but that she had left two months before the present occupants had entered the house, "and missus has been here fifteen months," the girl added emphatically.
"But you cannot tell where she went on leaving here?" Robert asked, despondingly.
"No, sir; missus says she believes the lady failed, and that she left sudden like, and didn't want her address to be known in the neighborhood."
Mr. Audley felt himself at a standstill once more. If Mrs. Vincent had left the place in debt, she had no doubt scrupulously concealed her whereabouts. There was little hope, then, of learning her address from the tradespeople; and yet, on the other hand, it was just possible that some of her sharpest creditors might have made it their business to discover the defaulter's retreat.
He looked about him for the nearest shops, and found a baker's, a stationer's, and a fruiterer's a few paces from the Crescent. Three empty-looking, pretentious shops, with plate-glass windows, and a hopeless air of gentility.
He stopped at the baker's, who called himself a pastrycook and confectioner, and exhibited some specimens of petrified sponge-cake in glass bottles, and some highly-glazed tarts, covered with green gauze.
"She must have bought bread," Robert thought, as he deliberated before the baker's shop; "and she is likely to have bought it at the handiest place. I'll try the baker."
The baker was standing behind his counter, disputing the items of a bill with a shabby-genteel young woman. He did not trouble himself to attend to Robert Audley until he had settled the dispute, but he looked up as he was receipting the bill, and asked the barrister what he pleased to want.
"Can you tell me the address of a Mrs. Vincent, who lived at No. 9 Crescent Villas a year and a half ago?" Mr. Audley inquired, mildly.
"No, I can't," answered the baker, growing very red in the face, and speaking in an unnecessarily loud voice; "and what's more, I wish I could. That lady owes me upward of eleven pound for bread, and it's rather more than I can afford to lose. If anybody can tell me where she lives, I shall be much obliged to 'em for so doing."
Robert Audley shrugged his shoulders and wished the man good-morning. He felt that his discovery of the lady's whereabouts would involve more trouble than he had expected. He might have looked for Mrs. Vincent's name in the Post-Office directory, but he thought it scarcely likely that a lady who was on such uncomfortable terms with her creditors, would afford them so easy a means of ascertaining her residence.
"If the baker can't find her, how should I find her?" he thought, despairingly. "If a resolute, sanguine, active and energetic creature, such as the baker, fail to achieve this business, how can a lymphatic wretch like me hope to accomplish it? Where the baker has been defeated, what preposterous folly it would be for me to try to succeed."
Mr. Audley abandoned himself to these gloomy reflections as he walked slowly back toward the corner at which he had left the cab. About half-way between the baker's shop and this corner he was arrested by hearing a woman's step close at his side, and a woman's voice asking him to stop. He turned and found himself face to face with the shabbily-dressed woman whom he had left settling her account with the baker.
"Eh, what?" he asked, vaguely. "Can I do anything for you, ma'am? Does Mrs. Vincent owe you money, too?"
"Yes, sir," the woman answered, with a semi-genteel manner which corresponded with the shabby gentility of her dress. "Mrs. Vincent is in my debt; but it isn't that, sir. I—I want to know, please, what your business may be with her—because—because—"
"You can give me her address if you choose, ma'am. That's what you mean to say, isn't it?"
The woman hesitated a little, looking rather suspiciously at Robert.
"You're not connected with—with the tally business, are you, sir?" she asked, after considering Mr. Audley's personal appearance for a few moments.
"The what, ma'am?" asked the young barrister, staring aghast at his questioner.
"I'm sure I beg your pardon, sir," exclaimed the little woman, seeing that she had made some awful mistake. "I thought you might have been, you know. Some of the gentlemen who collect for the tally shops do dress so very handsome; and I know Mrs. Vincent owes a good deal of money."
Robert Audley laid his hand upon the speaker's arm.
"My dear madam," he said, "I want to know nothing of Mrs. Vincent's affairs. So far from being concerned in what you call the tally business, I have not the remotest idea what you mean by that expression. You may mean a political conspiracy; you may mean some new species of taxes. Mrs. Vincent does not owe me any money, however badly she may stand with that awful-looking baker. I never saw her in my life; but I wish to see her to-day for the simple purpose of asking her a few very plain questions about a young lady who once resided in her house. If you know where Mrs. Vincent lives and will give me her address, you will be doing me a great favor."
He took out his card-case and handed a card to the woman, who examined the slip of pasteboard anxiously before she spoke again.
"I'm sure you look and speak like a gentleman, sir," she said, after a brief pause, "and I hope you will excuse me if I've seemed mistrustful like; but poor Mrs. Vincent has had dreadful difficulties, and I'm the only person hereabouts that she's trusted with her addresses. I'm a dressmaker, sir, and I've worked for her for upward of six years, and though she doesn't pay me regular, you know, sir, she gives me a little money on account now and then, and I get on as well as I can. I may tell you where she lives, then, sir? You haven't deceived me, have you?"
"On my honor, no."
"Well, then sir," said the dressmaker, dropping her voice as if she thought the pavement beneath her feet, or the iron railings before the houses by her side, might have ears to hear her, "it's Acacia Cottage, Peckham Grove. I took a dress there yesterday for Mrs. Vincent."
"Thank you," said Robert, writing the address in his pocketbook. "I am very much obliged to you, and you may rely upon it, Mrs. Vincent shall not suffer any inconvenience through me."
He lifted his hat, bowed to the little dressmaker, and turned back to the cab.
"I have beaten the baker, at any rate," he thought. "Now for the second stage, traveling backward, in my lady's life."
The drive from Brompton to the Peckham Road was a very long one, and between Crescent Villas and Acacia Cottage, Robert Audley had ample leisure for reflection. He thought of his uncle lying weak and ill in the oak-room at Audley Court. He thought of the beautiful blue eyes watching Sir Michael's slumbers; the soft, white hands tending on his waking moments; the low musical voice soothing his loneliness, cheering and consoling his declining years. What a pleasant picture it might have been, had he been able to look upon it ignorantly, seeing no more than others saw, looking no further than a stranger could look. But with the black cloud which he saw brooding over it, what an arch mockery, what a diabolical delusion it seemed.
Peckham Grove—pleasant enough in the summer-time—has rather a dismal aspect upon a dull February day, when the trees are bare and leafless, and the little gardens desolate. Acacia Cottage bore small token of the fitness of its nomenclature, and faced the road with its stuccoed walls sheltered only by a couple of attenuated poplars. But it announced that it was Acacia Cottage by means of a small brass plate upon one of the gate-posts, which was sufficient indication for the sharp-sighted cabman, who dropped Mr. Audley upon the pavement before the little gate.
Acacia Cottage was much lower in the social scale than Crescent Villas, and the small maid-servant who came to the low wooden gate and parleyed with Mr. Audley, was evidently well used to the encounter of relentless creditors across the same feeble barricade.
She murmured the familiar domestic fiction of the uncertainty regarding her mistress's whereabouts; and told Robert that if he would please to state his name and business, she would go and see if Mrs. Vincent was at home.
Mr. Audley produced a card, and wrote in pencil under his own name: "a connection of the late Miss Graham."
He directed the small servant to carry his card to her mistress, and quietly awaited the result.
The servant returned in about five minutes with the key of the gate. Her mistress was at home, she told Robert as she admitted him, and would be happy to see the gentleman.
The square parlor into which Robert was ushered bore in every scrap of ornament, in every article of furniture, the unmistakable stamp of that species of poverty which is most comfortless because it is never stationary. The mechanic who furnishes his tiny sitting-room with half-a-dozen cane chairs, a Pembroke table, a Dutch clock, a tiny looking-glass, a crockery shepherd and shepherdess, and a set of gaudily-japanned iron tea-trays, makes the most of his limited possessions, and generally contrives to get some degree of comfort out of them; but the lady who loses the handsome furniture of the house she is compelled to abandon and encamps in some smaller habitation with the shabby remainder—bought in by some merciful friend at the sale of her effects—carries with her an aspect of genteel desolation and tawdry misery not easily to be paralleled in wretchedness by any other phase which poverty can assume.
The room which Robert Audley surveyed was furnished with the shabbier scraps snatched from the ruin which had overtaken the imprudent schoolmistress in Crescent Villas. A cottage piano, a chiffonier, six sizes too large for the room, and dismally gorgeous in gilded moldings that were chipped and broken; a slim-legged card-table, placed in the post of honor, formed the principal pieces of furniture. A threadbare patch of Brussels carpet covered the center of the room, and formed an oasis of roses and lilies upon a desert of shabby green drugget. Knitted curtains shaded the windows, in which hung wire baskets of horrible-looking plants of the cactus species, that grew downward, like some demented class of vegetation, whose prickly and spider-like members had a fancy for standing on their heads.
The green-baize covered card-table was adorned with gaudily-bound annuals or books of beauty, placed at right angles; but Robert Audley did not avail himself of these literary distractions. He seated himself upon one of the rickety chairs, and waited patiently for the advent of the schoolmistress. He could hear the hum of half-a-dozen voices in a room near him, and the jingling harmonies of a set of variations in Deh Conte, upon a piano, whose every wire was evidently in the last stage of attenuation.
He had waited for about a quarter of an hour, when the door was opened, and a lady, very much dressed, and with the setting sunlight of faded beauty upon her face, entered the room.
"Mr. Audley, I presume," she said, motioning to Robert to reseat himself, and placing herself in an easy-chair opposite to him. "You will pardon me, I hope, for detaining you so long; my duties—"
"It is I who should apologize for intruding upon you," Robert answered, politely; "but my motive for calling upon you is a very serious one, and must plead my excuse. You remember the lady whose name I wrote upon my card?"
"May I ask how much you know of that lady's history since her departure from your house?"
"Very little. In point of fact, scarcely anything at all. Miss Graham, I believe, obtained a situation in the family of a surgeon resident in Essex. Indeed, it was I who recommended her to that gentleman. I have never heard from her since she left me."
"But you have communicated with her?" Robert asked, eagerly.
Mr. Audley was silent for a few moments, the shadow of gloomy thoughts gathering darkly on his face.
"May I ask if you sent a telegraphic dispatch to Miss Graham early in last September, stating that you were dangerously ill, and that you wished to see her?"
Mrs. Vincent smiled at her visitor's question.
"I had no occasion to send such a message," she said; "I have never been seriously ill in my life."
Robert Audley paused before he asked any further questions, and scrawled a few penciled words in his note-book.
"If I ask you a few straightforward questions about Miss Lucy Graham, madam," he said. "Will you do me the favor to answer them without asking my motive in making such inquiries?"
"Most certainly," replied Mrs. Vincent. "I know nothing to Miss Graham's disadvantage, and have no justification for making a mystery of the little I do know."
"Then will you tell me at what date the young lady first came to you?"
Mrs. Vincent smiled and shook her head. She had a pretty smile—the frank smile of a woman who had been admired, and who has too long felt the certainty of being able to please, to be utterly subjugated by any worldly misfortune.
"It's not the least use to ask me, Mr. Audley," she said. "I'm the most careless creature in the world; I never did, and never could remember dates, though I do all in my power to impress upon my girls how important it is for their future welfare that they should know when William the Conqueror began to reign, and all that kind of thing. But I haven't the remotest idea when Miss Graham came to me, although I know it was ages ago, for it was the very summer I had my peach-colored silk. But we must consult Tonks—Tonks is sure to be right."
Robert Audley wondered who or what Tonks could be; a diary, perhaps, or a memorandum-book—some obscure rival of Letsome.
Mrs. Vincent rung the bell, which was answered by the maid-servant who had admitted Robert.
"Ask Miss Tonks to come to me," she said. "I want to see her particularly."
In less than five minutes Miss Tonks made her appearance. She was wintry and rather frost-bitten in aspect, and seemed to bring cold air in the scanty folds of her somber merino dress. She was no age in particular, and looked as if she had never been younger, and would never grow older, but would remain forever working backward and forward in her narrow groove, like some self-feeding machine for the instruction of young ladies.
"Tonks, my dear," said Mrs. Vincent, without ceremony, "this gentleman is a relative of Miss Graham's. Do you remember how long it is since she came to us at Crescent Villas?"
"She came in August, 1854," answered Miss Tonks; "I think it was the eighteenth of August, but I'm not quite sure that it wasn't the seventeenth. I know it was on a Tuesday."
"Thank you, Tonks; you are a most invaluable darling," exclaimed Mrs. Vincent, with her sweetest smile. It was, perhaps, because of the invaluable nature of Miss Tonks' services that she had received no remuneration whatever from her employer for the last three or four years. Mrs. Vincent might have hesitated to pay from very contempt for the pitiful nature of the stipend as compared with the merits of the teacher.
"Is there anything else that Tonks or I can tell you, Mr. Audley?" asked the schoolmistress. "Tonks has a far better memory than I have."
"Can you tell me where Miss Graham came from when she entered your household?" Robert inquired.
"Not very precisely," answered Mrs. Vincent. "I have a vague notion that Miss Graham said something about coming from the seaside, but she didn't say where, or if she did I have forgotten it. Tonks, did Miss Graham tell you where she came from?"
"Oh, no!" replied Miss Tonks, shaking her grim little head significantly. "Miss Graham told me nothing; she was too clever for that. She knows how to keep her own secrets, in spite of her innocent ways and her curly hair," Miss Tonks added, spitefully.
"You think she had secrets?" Robert asked, rather eagerly.
"I know she had," replied Miss Tonks, with frosty decision; "all manner of secrets. I wouldn't have engaged such a person as junior teacher in a respectable school, without so much as one word of recommendation from any living creature."
"You had no reference, then, from Miss Graham?" asked Robert, addressing Mrs. Vincent.
"No," the lady answered, with some little embarrassment; "I waived that. Miss Graham waived the question of salary; I could not do less than waive the question of reference. She quarreled with her papa, she told me, and she wanted to find a home away from all the people she had ever known. She wished to keep herself quite separate from these people. She had endured so much, she said, young as she was, and she wanted to escape from her troubles. How could I press her for a reference under these circumstances, especially when I saw that she was a perfect lady. You know that Lucy Graham was a perfect lady, Tonks, and it is very unkind for you to say such cruel things about my taking her without a reference."
"When people make favorites, they are apt to be deceived in them," Miss Tonks answered, with icy sententiousness, and with no very perceptible relevance to the point in discussion.
"I never made her a favorite, you jealous Tonks," Mrs. Vincent answered, reproachfully. "I never said she was as useful as you, dear. You know I never did."
"Oh, no!" replied Miss Tonks, with a chilling accent, "you never said she was useful. She was only ornamental; a person to be shown off to visitors, and to play fantasias on the drawing-room piano."
"Then you can give me no clew to Miss Graham's previous history?" Robert asked, looking from the schoolmistress to her teacher. He saw very clearly that Miss Tonks bore an envious grudge against Lucy Graham—a grudge which even the lapse of time had not healed.
"If this woman knows anything to my lady's detriment, she will tell it," he thought. "She will tell it only too willingly."
But Miss Tonks appeared to know nothing whatever; except that Miss Graham had sometimes declared herself an ill-used creature, deceived by the baseness of mankind, and the victim of unmerited sufferings, in the way of poverty and deprivation. Beyond this, Miss Tonks could tell nothing; and although she made the most of what she did know, Robert soon sounded the depth of her small stock of information.
"I have only one more question to ask," he said at last. "It is this: Did Miss Graham leave any books or knick-knacks, or any other kind of property whatever, behind her, when she left your establishment?"
"Not to my knowledge," Mrs. Vincent replied.
"Yes," cried Miss Tonks, sharply. "She did leave something. She left a box. It's up-stairs in my room. I've got an old bonnet in it. Would you like to see the box?" she asked, addressing Robert.
"If you will be so good as to allow me," he answered, "I should very much like to see it."
"I'll fetch it down," said Miss Tonks. "It's not very big."
She ran out of the room before Mr. Audley had time to utter any polite remonstrance.
"How pitiless these women are to each other," he thought, while the teacher was absent. "This one knows intuitively that there is some danger to the other lurking beneath my questions. She sniffs the coming trouble to her fellow female creature, and rejoices in it, and would take any pains to help me. What a world it is, and how these women take life out of her hands. Helen Maldon, Lady Audley, Clara Talboys, and now Miss Tonks—all womankind from beginning to end."
Miss Tonks re-entered while the young barrister was meditating upon the infamy of her sex. She carried a dilapidated paper-covered bonnet-box, which she submitted to Robert's inspection.
Mr. Audley knelt down to examine the scraps of railway labels and addresses which were pasted here and there upon the box. It had been battered upon a great many different lines of railway, and had evidently traveled considerably. Many of the labels had been torn off, but fragments of some of them remained, and upon one yellow scrap of paper Robert read the letters, TURI.
"The box has been to Italy," he thought. "Those are the first four letters of the word Turin, and the label is a foreign one."
The only direction which had not been either defaced or torn away was the last, which bore the name of Miss Graham, passenger to London. Looking very closely at this label, Mr. Audley discovered that it had been pasted over another.
"Will you be so good as to let me have a little water and a piece of sponge?" he said. "I want to get off this upper label. Believe me that I am justified in what I am doing."
Miss Tonks ran out of the room and returned immediately with a basin of water and a sponge.
"Shall I take off the label?" she asked.
"No, thank you," Robert answered, coldly. "I can do it very well myself."
He damped the upper label several times before he could loosen the edges of the paper; but after two or three careful attempts the moistened surface peeled off, without injury to the underneath address.
Miss Tonks could not contrive to read this address across Robert's shoulder, though she exhibited considerable dexterity in her endeavors to accomplish that object.
Mr. Audley repeated his operations upon the lower label, which he removed from the box, and placed very carefully between two blank leaves of his pocket-book.
"I need intrude upon you no longer, ladies," he said, when he had done this. "I am extremely obliged to you for having afforded me all the information in your power. I wish you good-morning."
Mrs. Vincent smiled and bowed, murmuring some complacent conventionality about the delight she had felt in Mr. Audley's visit. Miss Tonks, more observant, stared at the white change, which had come over the young man's face since he had removed the upper label from the box.
Robert walked slowly away from Acacia Cottage. "If that which I have found to-day is no evidence for a jury," he thought, "it is surely enough to convince my uncle that he has married a designing and infamous woman."