LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
BEGINNING AT THE OTHER END
Robert Audley walked slowly through the leafless grove, under the bare and shadowless trees in the gray February atmosphere, thinking as he went of the discovery he had just made.
"I have that in my pocket-book," he pondered, "which forms the connecting link between the woman whose death George Talboys read of in the Times newspaper and the woman who rules in my uncle's house. The history of Lucy Graham ends abruptly on the threshold of Mrs. Vincent's school. She entered that establishment in August, 1854. The schoolmistress and her assistant can tell me this but they cannot tell me whence she came. They cannot give me one clew to the secrets of her life from the day of her birth until the day she entered that house. I can go no further in this backward investigation of my lady's antecedents. What am I to do, then, if I mean to keep my promise to Clara Talboys?"
He walked on for a few paces revolving this question in his mind, with a darker shadow than the shadows of the gathering winter twilight on his face, and a heavy oppression of mingled sorrow and dread weighing down his heart.
"My duty is clear enough," he thought—"not the less clear because it leads me step by step, carrying ruin and desolation with me, to the home I love. I must begin at the other end—I must begin at the other end, and discover the history of Helen Talboys from the hour of George's departure until the day of the funeral in the churchyard at Ventnor."
Mr. Audley hailed a passing hansom, and drove back to his chambers.
He reached Figtree Court in time to write a few lines to Miss Talboys, and to post his letter at St. Martin's-le-Grand off before six o'clock.
"It will save me a day," he thought, as he drove to the General Post Office with this brief epistle.
He had written to Clara Talboys to inquire the name of the little seaport town in which George had met Captain Maldon and his daughter: for in spite of the intimacy between the two young men, Robert Audley knew very few particulars of his friend's brief married life.
From the hour in which George Talboys had read the announcement of his wife's death in the columns of the Times, he had avoided all mention of the tender history which had been so cruelly broken, the familiar record which had been so darkly blotted out.
There was so much that was painful in that brief story! There was such bitter self-reproach involved in the recollection of that desertion which must have seemed so cruel to her who waited and watched at home! Robert Audley comprehended this, and he did not wonder at his friend's silence. The sorrowful story had been tacitly avoided by both, and Robert was as ignorant of the unhappy history of this one year in his schoolfellow's life as if they had never lived together in friendly companionship in those snug Temple chambers.
The letter, written to Miss Talboys by her brother George, within a month of his marriage, was dated Harrowgate. It was at Harrowgate, therefore, Robert concluded, the young couple spent their honeymoon.
Robert Audley had requested Clara Talboys to telegraph an answer to his question, in order to avoid the loss of a day in the accomplishment of the investigation he had promised to perform.
The telegraphic answer reached Figtree Court before twelve o'clock the next day.
The name of the seaport town was Wildernsea, Yorkshire.
Within an hour of the receipt of this message, Mr. Audley arrived at the King's-cross station, and took his ticket for Wildernsea by an express train that started at a quarter before two.
The shrieking engine bore him on the dreary northward journey, whirling him over desert wastes of flat meadow-land and bare cornfields, faintly tinted with fresh sprouting green. This northern road was strange and unfamiliar to the young barrister, and the wide expanse of the wintry landscape chilled him by its aspect of bare loneliness. The knowledge of the purpose of his journey blighted every object upon which his absent glances fixed themselves for a moment, only to wander wearily away; only to turn inward upon that far darker picture always presenting itself to his anxious mind.
It was dark when the train reached the Hull terminus, but Mr. Audley's journey was not ended. Amidst a crowd of porters and scattered heaps of that incongruous and heterogeneous luggage with which travelers incumber themselves, he was led, bewildered and half asleep, to another train which was to convey him along the branch line that swept past Wildernsea, and skirted the border of the German Ocean.
Half an hour after leaving Hull, Robert felt the briny freshness of the sea upon the breeze that blew in at the open window of the carriage, and an hour afterward the train stopped at a melancholy station, built amid a sandy desert, and inhabited by two or three gloomy officials, one of whom rung a terrific peal upon a harshly clanging bell as the train approached.
Mr. Audley was the only passenger who alighted at the dismal station. The train swept on to the gayer scenes before the barrister had time to collect his senses, or to pick up the portmanteau which had been discovered with some difficulty amid a black cavern of baggage only illuminated by one lantern.
"I wonder whether settlers in the backwoods of America feel as solitary and strange as I feel to-night?" he thought, as he stared hopelessly about him in the darkness.
He called to one of the officials, and pointed to his portmanteau.
"Will you carry that to the nearest hotel for me?" he asked—"that is to say, if I can get a good bed there."
The man laughed as he shouldered the portmanteau.
"You can get thirty beds, I dare say, sir, if you wanted 'em," he said. "We ain't over busy at Wildernsea at this time o' year. This way, sir."
The porter opened a wooden door in the station wall, and Robert Audley found himself upon a wide bowling-green of smooth grass, which surrounded a huge, square building, that loomed darkly on him through the winter's night, its black solidity only relieved by two lighted windows, far apart from each other, and glimmering redly like beacons on the darkness.
"This is the Victoria Hotel, sir," said the porter. "You wouldn't believe the crowds of company we have down here in the summer."
In the face of the bare grass-plat, the tenantless wooden alcoves, and the dark windows of the hotel, it was indeed rather difficult to imagine that the place was ever gay with merry people taking pleasure in the bright summer weather; but Robert Audley declared himself willing to believe anything the porter pleased to tell him, and followed his guide meekly to a little door at the side of the big hotel, which led into a comfortable bar, where the humbler classes of summer visitors were accommodated with such refreshments as they pleased to pay for, without running the gantlet of the prim, white-waistcoated waiters on guard at the principal entrance.
But there were very few attendants retained at the hotel in the bleak February season, and it was the landlord himself who ushered Robert into a dreary wilderness of polished mahogany tables and horsehair cushioned chairs, which he called the coffee-room.
Mr. Audley seated himself close to the wide steel fender, and stretched his cramped legs upon the hearth-rug, while the landlord drove the poker into the vast pile of coal, and sent a ruddy blaze roaring upward through the chimney.
"If you would prefer a private room, sir—" the man began.
"No, thank you," said Robert, indifferently; "this room seems quite private enough just now. If you will order me a mutton chop and a pint of sherry, I shall be obliged."
"And I shall be still more obliged if you will favor me with a few minutes' conversation before you do so."
"With very great pleasure, sir," the landlord answered, good-naturedly. "We see so very little company at this season of the year, that we are only too glad to oblige those gentlemen who do visit us. Any information which I can afford you respecting the neighborhood of Wildernsea and its attractions," added the landlord, unconsciously quoting a small hand-book of the watering-place which he sold in the bar, "I shall be most happy to—"
"But I don't want to know anything about the neighborhood of Wildernsea," interrupted Robert, with a feeble protest against the landlord's volubility. "I want to ask you a few questions about some people who once lived here."
The landlord bowed and smiled, with an air which implied his readiness to recite the biographies of all the inhabitants of the little seaport, if required by Mr. Audley to do so.
"How many years have you lived here?" Robert asked, taking his memorandum book from his pocket. "Will it annoy you if I make notes of your replies to my questions?"
"Not at all, sir," replied the landlord, with a pompous enjoyment of the air of solemnity and importance which pervaded this business. "Any information which I can afford that is likely to be of ultimate value—"
"Yes, thank you," Robert murmured, interrupting the flow of words. "You have lived here—"
"Six years, sir."
"Since the year fifty-three?"
"Since November, in the year fifty-two, sir. I was in business at Hull prior to that time. This house was only completed in the October before I entered it."
"Do you remember a lieutenant in the navy, on half-pay, I believe, at that time, called Maldon?"
"Captain Maldon, sir?"
"Yes, commonly called Captain Maldon. I see you do remember him."
"Yes, sir. Captain Maldon was one of our best customers. He used to spend his evenings in this very room, though the walls were damp at that time, and we weren't able to paper the place for nearly a twelvemonth afterward. His daughter married a young officer that came here with his regiment, at Christmas time in fifty-two. They were married here, sir, and they traveled on the Continent for six months, and came back here again. But the gentleman ran away to Australia, and left the lady, a week or two after her baby was born. The business made quite a sensation in Wildernsea, sir, and Mrs.—Mrs.—I forgot the name—"
"Mrs. Talboys," suggested Robert.
"To be sure, sir, Mrs. Talboys. Mrs. Talboys was very much pitied by the Wildernsea folks, sir, I was going to say, for she was very pretty, and had such nice winning ways that she was a favorite with everybody who knew her."
"Can you tell me how long Mr. Maldon and his daughter remained at Wildernsea after Mr. Talboys left them?" Robert asked.
"Well—no, sir," answered the landlord, after a few moments' deliberation. "I can't say exactly how long it was. I know Mr. Maldon used to sit here in this very parlor, and tell people how badly his daughter had been treated, and how he'd been deceived by a young man he'd put so much confidence in; but I can't say how long it was before he left Wildernsea. But Mrs. Barkamb could tell you, sir," added the landlord, briskly.
"Yes, Mrs. Barkamb is the person who owns No. 17 North Cottages, the house in which Mr. Maldon and his daughter lived. She's a nice, civil spoken, motherly woman, sir, and I'm sure she'll tell you anything you may want to know."
"Thank you, I will call upon Mrs. Barkamb to-morrow. Stay—one more question. Should you recognize Mrs. Talboys if you were to see her?"
"Certainly, sir. As sure as I should recognize one of my own daughters."
Robert Audley wrote Mrs. Barkamb's address in his pocket-book, ate his solitary dinner, drank a couple of glasses of sherry, smoked a cigar, and then retired to the apartment in which a fire had been lighted for his comfort.
He soon fell asleep, worn out with the fatigue of hurrying from place to place during the last two days; but his slumber was not a heavy one, and he heard the disconsolate moaning of the wind upon the sandy wastes, and the long waves rolling in monotonously upon the flat shore. Mingling with these dismal sounds, the melancholy thoughts engendered by his joyless journey repeated themselves in never-varying succession in the chaos of his slumbering brain, and made themselves into visions of things that never had been and never could be upon this earth, but which had some vague relation to real events remembered by the sleeper.
In those troublesome dreams he saw Audley Court, rooted up from amidst the green pastures and the shady hedgerows of Essex, standing bare and unprotected upon that desolate northern shore, threatened by the rapid rising of a boisterous sea, whose waves seemed gathering upward to descend and crush the house he loved. As the hurrying waves rolled nearer and nearer to the stately mansion, the sleeper saw a pale, starry face looking out of the silvery foam, and knew that it was my lady, transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction. Beyond that rising sea great masses of cloud, blacker than the blackest ink, more dense than the darkest night, lowered upon the dreamer's eye; but as he looked at the dismal horizon the storm-clouds slowly parted, and from a narrow rent in the darkness a ray of light streamed out upon the hideous waves, which slowly, very slowly, receded, leaving the old mansion safe and firmly rooted on the shore.
Robert awoke with the memory of this dream in his mind, and a sensation of physical relief, as if some heavy weight, which had oppressed him all the night, had been lifted from his breast.
He fell asleep again, and did not awake until the broad winter sunlight shone upon the window-blind, and the shrill voice of the chambermaid at his door announced that it was half-past eight o'clock. At a quarter-before ten he had left Victoria Hotel, and was making his way along the lonely platform in front of a row of shadowless houses that faced the sea.
This row of hard, uncompromising, square-built habitations stretched away to the little harbor, in which two or three merchant vessels and a couple of colliers were anchored. Beyond the harbor there loomed, gray and cold upon the wintry horizon, a dismal barrack, parted from the Wildernsea houses by a narrow creek, spanned by an iron drawbridge. The scarlet coat of the sentinel who walked backward and forward between two cannons, placed at remote angles before the barrack wall, was the only scrap of color that relieved the neutral-tinted picture of the gray stone houses and the leaden sea.
On one side of the harbor a long stone pier stretched out far away into the cruel loneliness of the sea, as if built for the especial accommodation of some modern Timon, too misanthropical to be satisfied even with the solitude of Wildernsea, and anxious to get still further away from his fellow-creatures.
It was on that pier George Talboys had first met his wife, under the blazing glory of a midsummer sky, and to the music of a braying band. It was there that the young cornet had first yielded to that sweet delusion, that fatal infatuation which had exercised so dark an influence upon his after-life.
Robert looked savagely at this solitary watering-place—the shabby seaport.
"It is such a place as this," he thought, "that works a strong man's ruin. He comes here, heart whole and happy, with no better experience of women than is to be learned at a flower-show or in a ball-room; with no more familiar knowledge of the creature than he has of the far-away satellites or the remoter planets; with a vague notion that she is a whirling teetotum in pink or blue gauze, or a graceful automaton for the display of milliners' manufacture. He comes to some place of this kind, and the universe is suddenly narrowed into about half a dozen acres; the mighty scheme of creation is crushed into a bandbox. The far-away creatures whom he had seen floating about him, beautiful and indistinct, are brought under his very nose; and before he has time to recover his bewilderment, hey presto, the witchcraft has begun; the magic circle is drawn around him! the spells are at work, the whole formula of sorcery is in full play, and the victim is as powerless to escape as the marble-legged prince in the Eastern story."
Ruminating in this wise, Robert Audley reached the house to which he had been directed as the residence of Mrs. Barkamb. He was admitted immediately by a prim, elderly servant, who ushered him into a sitting-room as prim and elderly-looking as herself. Mrs. Barkamb, a comfortable matron of about sixty years of age, was sitting in an arm-chair before a bright handful of fire in the shining grate. An elderly terrier, whose black-and-tan coat was thickly sprinkled with gray, reposed in Mrs. Barkamb's lap. Every object in the quiet sitting-room had an elderly aspect of simple comfort and precision, which is the evidence of outward repose.
"I should like to live here," Robert thought, "and watch the gray sea slowly rolling over the gray sand under the still, gray sky. I should like to live here, and tell the beads upon my rosary, and repent and rest."
He seated himself in the arm-chair opposite Mrs. Barkamb, at that lady's invitation, and placed his hat upon the ground. The elderly terrier descended from his mistress' lap to bark at and otherwise take objection to this hat.
"You were wishing, I suppose, sir, to take one—be quiet, Dash—one of the cottages," suggested Mrs. Barkamb, whose mind ran in one narrow groove, and whose life during the last twenty years had been an unvarying round of house-letting.
Robert Audley explained the purpose of his visit.
"I come to ask one simple question," he said, in conclusion, "I wish to discover the exact date of Mrs. Talboys' departure from Wildernsea. The proprietor of the Victoria Hotel informed me that you were the most likely person to afford me that information."
Mrs. Barkamb deliberated for some moments.
"I can give you the date of Captain Maldon's departure," she said, "for he left No. 17 considerably in my debt, and I have the whole business in black and white; but with regard to Mrs. Talboys—"
Mrs. Barkamb paused for a few moments before resuming.
"You are aware that Mrs. Talboys left rather abruptly?" she asked.
"I was not aware of that fact."
"Indeed! Yes, she left abruptly, poor little woman! She tried to support herself after her husband's desertion by giving music lessons; she was a very brilliant pianist, and succeeded pretty well, I believe. But I suppose her father took her money from her, and spent it in public houses. However that might be, they had a very serious misunderstanding one night; and the next morning Mrs. Talboys left Wildernsea, leaving her little boy, who was out at nurse in the neighborhood."
"But you cannot tell me the date of her leaving?"
"I'm afraid not," answered Mrs. Barkamb; "and yet, stay. Captain Maldon wrote to me upon the day his daughter left. He was in very great distress, poor old gentleman, and he always came to me in his troubles. If I could find that letter, it might be dated, you know—mightn't it, now?"
Mr. Audley said that it was only probable the letter was dated.
Mrs. Barkamb retired to a table in the window on which stood an old-fashioned mahogany desk, lined with green baize, and suffering from a plethora of documents, which oozed out of it in every direction. Letters, receipts, bills, inventories and tax-papers were mingled in hopeless confusion; and among these Mrs. Barkamb set to work to search for Captain Maldon's letter.
Mr. Audley waited very patiently, watching the gray clouds sailing across the gray sky, the gray vessels gliding past upon the gray sea.
After about ten minutes' search, and a great deal of rustling, crackling, folding and unfolding of the papers, Mrs. Barkamb uttered an exclamation of triumph.
"I've got the letter," she said; "and there's a note inside it from Mrs. Talboys."
Robert Audley's pale face flushed a vivid crimson as he stretched out his hand to receive the papers.
"The persons who stole Helen Maldon's love-letters from George's trunk in my chambers might have saved themselves the trouble," he thought.
The letter from the old lieutenant was not long, but almost every other word was underscored.
"My generous friend," the writer began—Mr. Maldon had tried the lady's generosity pretty severely during his residence in her house, rarely paying his rent until threatened with the intruding presence of the broker's man—"I am in the depths of despair. My daughter has left me! You may imagine my feelings! We had a few words last night upon the subject of money matters, which subject has always been a disagreeable one between us, and on rising this morning I found I was deserted! The enclosed from Helen was waiting for me on the parlor table.
"Yours in distraction and despair,
"NORTH COTTAGES, August 16th, 1854."
The note from Mrs. Talboys was still more brief. It began abruptly thus:
"I am weary of my life here, and wish, if I can, to find a new one. I go out into the world, dissevered from every link which binds me to the hateful past, to seek another home and another fortune. Forgive me if I have been fretful, capricious, changeable. You should forgive me, for you know why I have been so. You know the secret which is the key to my life.
These lines were written in a hand that Robert Audley knew only too well.
He sat for a long time pondering silently over the letter written by Helen Talboys.
What was the meaning of those two last sentences—"You should forgive me, for you know why I have been so. You know the secret which is the key to my life?"
He wearied his brain in endeavoring to find a clew to the signification of these two sentences. He could remember nothing, nor could he imagine anything that would throw a light upon their meaning. The date of Helen's departure, according to Mr. Maldon's letter, was the 16th of August, 1854. Miss Tonks had declared that Lucy Graham entered the school at Crescent Villas upon the 17th or 18th of August in the same year. Between the departure of Helen Talboys from the Yorkshire watering-place and the arrival of Lucy Graham at the Brompton school, not more than eight-and-forty hours could have elapsed. This made a very small link in the chain of circumstantial evidence, perhaps; but it was a link, nevertheless, and it fitted neatly into its place.
"Did Mr. Maldon hear from his daughter after she had left Wildernsea?" Robert asked.
"Well, I believe he did hear from her," Mrs. Barkamb answered; "but I didn't see much of the old gentleman after that August. I was obliged to sell him up in November, poor fellow, for he owed me fifteen months' rent; and it was only by selling his poor little bits of furniture that I could get him out of my place. We parted very good friends, in spite of my sending in the brokers; and the old gentleman went to London with the child, who was scarcely a twelvemonth old."
Mrs. Barkamb had nothing more to tell, and Robert had no further questions to ask. He requested permission to retain the two letters written by the lieutenant and his daughter, and left the house with them in his pocket-book.
He walked straight back to the hotel, where he called for a time-table. An express for London left Wildernsea at a quarter past one. Robert sent his portmanteau to the station, paid his bill, and walked up and down the stone terrace fronting the sea, waiting for the starting of the train.
"I have traced the histories of Lucy Graham and Helen Talboys to a vanishing point," he thought; "my next business is to discover the history of the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard."