LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
HIDDEN IN THE GRAVE
Upon his return from Wildernsea, Robert Audley found a letter from his Cousin Alicia, awaiting him at his chambers.
"Papa is much better," the young lady wrote, "and is very anxious to have you at the Court. For some inexplicable reason, my stepmother has taken it into her head that your presence is extremely desirable, and worries me with her frivolous questions about your movements. So pray come without delay, and set these people at rest. Your affectionate cousin, A.A."
"So my lady is anxious to know my movements," thought Robert Audley, as he sat brooding and smoking by his lonely fireside. "She is anxious; and she questions her step-daughter in that pretty, childlike manner which has such a bewitching air of innocent frivolity. Poor little creature; poor unhappy little golden-haired sinner; the battle between us seems terribly unfair. Why doesn't she run away while there is still time? I have given her fair warning, I have shown her my cards, and worked openly enough in this business, Heaven knows. Why doesn't she run away?"
He repeated this question again and again as he filled and emptied his meerschaum, surrounding himself with the blue vapor from his pipe until he looked like some modern magician seated in his laboratory.
"Why doesn't she run away? I would bring no needless shame upon that house, of all other houses upon this wide earth. I would only do my duty to my missing friend, and to that brave and generous man who has pledged his faith to a worthless woman. Heaven knows I have no wish to punish. Heaven knows I was never born to be the avenger of guilt or the persecutor of the guilty. I only wish to do my duty. I will give her one more warning, a full and fair one, and then—"
His thoughts wandered away to that gloomy prospect in which he saw no gleam of brightness to relieve the dull, black obscurity that encompassed the future, shutting in his pathway on every side, and spreading a dense curtain around and about him, which Hope was powerless to penetrate. He was forever haunted by the vision of his uncle's anguish, forever tortured by the thought of that ruin and desolation which, being brought about by his instrumentality, would seem in a manner his handiwork. But amid all, and through all, Clara Talboys, with an imperious gesture, beckoned him onward to her brother's unknown grave.
"Shall I go down to Southampton," he thought, "and endeavor to discover the history of the woman who died at Ventnor? Shall I work underground, bribing the paltry assistants in that foul conspiracy, until I find my way to the thrice guilty principal? No! not till I have tried other means of discovering the truth. Shall I go to that miserable old man, and charge him with his share in the shameful trick which I believe to have been played upon my poor friend? No; I will not torture that terror-stricken wretch as I tortured him a few weeks ago. I will go straight to that arch-conspirator, and will tear away the beautiful veil under which she hides her wickedness, and will wring from her the secret of my friend's fate, and banish her forever from the house which her presence has polluted."
He started early the next morning for Essex, and reached Audley before eleven o'clock.
Early as it was, my lady was out. She had driven to Chelmsford upon a shopping expedition with her step-daughter. She had several calls to make in the neighborhood of the town, and was not likely to return until dinner-time. Sir Michael's health was very much improved, and he would come down stairs in the afternoon. Would Mr. Audley go to his uncle's room?
No; Robert had no wish to meet that generous kinsman. What could he say to him? How could he smooth the way to the trouble that was to come?—how soften the cruel blow of the great grief that was preparing for that noble and trusting heart?
"If I could forgive her the wrong done to my friend," Robert thought, "I should still abhor her for the misery her guilt must bring upon the man who has believed in her."
He told his uncle's servant that he would stroll into the village, and return before dinner. He walked slowly away from the Court, wandering across the meadows between his uncle's house and the village, purposeless and indifferent, with the great trouble and perplexity of his life stamped upon his face and reflected in his manner.
"I will go into the churchyard," he thought, "and stare at the tombstones. There is nothing I can do that will make me more gloomy than I am."
He was in those very meadows through which he had hurried from Audley Court to the station upon the September day in which George Talboys had disappeared. He looked at the pathway by which he had gone upon that day, and remembered his unaccustomed hurry, and the vague feeling of terror which had taken possession of him immediately upon losing sight of his friend.
"Why did that unaccountable terror seize upon me," he thought. "Why was it that I saw some strange mystery in my friend's disappearance? Was it a monition, or a monomania? What if I am wrong after all? What if this chain of evidence which I have constructed link by link, is woven out of my own folly? What if this edifice of horror and suspicion is a mere collection of crotchets—the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal bachelor? Mr. Harcourt Talboys sees no meaning in the events out of which I have made myself a horrible mystery. I lay the separate links of the chain before him, and he cannot recognize their fitness. He is unable to put them together. Oh, my God, if it should be in myself all this time that the misery lies; if—" he smiled bitterly, and shook his head. "I have the handwriting in my pocket-book which is the evidence of the conspiracy," he thought. "It remains for me to discover the darker half of my lady's secret."
He avoided the village, still keeping to the meadows. The church lay a little way back from the straggling High street, and a rough wooden gate opened from the churchyard into a broad meadow, that was bordered by a running stream, and sloped down into a grassy valley dotted by groups of cattle.
Robert slowly ascended the narrow hillside pathway leading up to the gate in the churchyard. The quiet dullness of the lonely landscape harmonized with his own gloom. The solitary figure of an old man hobbling toward a stile at the further end of the wide meadow was the only human creature visible upon the area over which the young barrister looked. The smoke slowly ascending from the scattered houses in the long High street was the only evidence of human life. The slow progress of the hands of the old clock in the church steeple was the only token by which a traveler could perceive that a sluggish course of rustic life had not come to a full stop in the village of Audley.
Yes, there was one other sign. As Robert opened the gate of the churchyard, and strolled listessly into the little inclosure, he became aware of the solemn music of an organ, audible through a half-open window in the steeple.
He stopped and listened to the slow harmonies of a dreamy melody that sounded like an extempore composition of an accomplished player.
"Who would have believed that Audley church could boast such an organ?" thought Robert. "When last I was here, the national schoolmaster used to accompany his children by a primitive performance of common chords. I didn't think the old organ had such music in it."
He lingered at the gate, not caring to break the lazy spell woven about him by the monotonous melancholy of the organist's performance. The tones of the instrument, now swelling to their fullest power, now sinking to a low, whispering softness, floated toward him upon the misty winter atmosphere, and had a soothing influence, that seemed to comfort him in his trouble.
He closed the gate softly, and crossed the little patch of gravel before the door of the church. The door had been left ajar—by the organist, perhaps. Robert Audley pushed it open, and walked into the square porch, from which a flight of narrow stone steps wound upward to the organ-loft and the belfry. Mr. Audley took off his hat, and opened the door between the porch and the body of the church. He stepped softly into the holy edifice, which had a damp, moldy smell upon week-days. He walked down the narrow aisle to the altar-rails, and from that point of observation took a survey of the church. The little gallery was exactly opposite to him, but the scanty green curtains before the organ were closely drawn, and he could not get a glimpse of the player.
The music, still rolled on. The organist had wandered into a melody of Mendelssohn's, a strain whose dreamy sadness went straight to Robert's heart. He loitered in the nooks and corners of the church, examining the dilapidated memorials of the well-nigh forgotten dead, and listening to the music.
"If my poor friend, George Talboys, had died in my arms, and I had buried him in this quiet church, in one corner of the vaults over which I tread to-day, how much anguish of mind, vacillation and torment I might have escaped," thought Robert Audley, as he read the faded inscriptions upon tablets of discolored marble; "I should have known his fate—I should have known his fate! Ah, how much there would have been in that. It is this miserable uncertainty, this horrible suspicion which has poisoned my very life."
He looked at his watch.
"Half-past one," he muttered. "I shall have to wait four or five dreary hours before my lady comes home from her morning calls—her pretty visits of ceremony or friendliness. Good Heaven! what an actress this woman is. What an arch trickster—what an all-accomplished deceiver. But she shall play her pretty comedy no longer under my uncle's roof. I have diplomatized long enough. She has refused to accept an indirect warning. To-night I will speak plainly."
The music of the organ ceased, and Robert heard the closing of the instrument.
"I'll have a look at this new organist," he thought, "who can afford to bury his talents at Audley, and play Mendelssohn's finest fugues for a stipend of sixteen pounds a year." He lingered in the porch, waiting for the organist to descend the awkward little stair-case. In the weary trouble of his mind, and with the prospect of getting through the five hours in the best way he could, Mr. Audley was glad to cultivate any diversion of thought, however idle. He therefore freely indulged his curiosity about the new organist.
The first person who appeared upon the steep stone steps was a boy in corduroy trousers and a dark linen smock-frock, who shambled down the stairs with a good deal of unnecessary clatter of his hobnailed shoes, and who was red in the face from the exertion of blowing the bellows of the old organ. Close behind this boy came a young lady, very plainly dressed in a black silk gown and a large gray shawl, who started and turned pale at sight of Mr. Audley.
This young lady was Clara Talboys.
Of all people in the world she was the last whom Robert either expected or wished to see. She had told him that she was going to pay a visit to some friends who lived in Essex; but the county is a wide one, and the village of Audley one of the most obscure and least frequented spots in the whole of its extent. That the sister of his lost friend should be here—here where she could watch his every action, and from those actions deduce the secret workings of his mind, tracing his doubts home to their object, made a complication of his difficulties that he could never have anticipated. It brought him back to that consciousness of his own helplessness, in which he had exclaimed:
"A hand that is stronger than my own is beckoning me onward on the dark road that leads to my lost friend's unknown grave."
Clara Talboys was the first to speak.
"You are surprised to see me here, Mr. Audley," she said.
"Very much surprised."
"I told you that I was coming to Essex. I left home day before yesterday. I was leaving home when I received your telegraphic message. The friend with whom I am staying is Mrs. Martyn, the wife of the new rector of Mount Stanning. I came down this morning to see the village and church, and as Mrs. Martyn had to pay a visit to the school with the curate and his wife, I stopped here and amused myself by trying the old organ. I was not aware till I came here that there was a village called Audley. The place takes its name from your family, I suppose?"
"I believe so," Robert answered, wondering at the lady's calmness, in contradistinction to his own embarrassment. "I have a vague recollection of hearing the story of some ancestor who was called Audley of Audley in the reign of Edward the Fourth. The tomb inside the rails near the altar belongs to one of the knights of Audley, but I have never taken the trouble to remember his achievements. Are you going to wait here for your friends, Miss Talboys?"
"Yes; they are to return here for me after they have finished their rounds."
"And you go back to Mount Stanning with them this afternoon?"
Robert stood with his hat in his hand, looking absently out at the tombstones and the low wall of the church yard. Clara Talboys watched his pale face, haggard under the deepening shadow that had rested upon it so long.
"You have been ill since I saw you last, Mr. Audley," she said, in a low voice, that had the same melodious sadness as the notes of the old organ under her touch.
"No, I have not been ill; I have been only harassed, wearied by a hundred doubts and perplexities."
He was thinking as he spoke to her:
"How much does she guess? How much does she suspect?"
He had told the story of George's disappearance and of his own suspicions, suppressing only the names of those concerned in the mystery; but what if this girl should fathom this slender disguise, and discover for herself that which he had chosen to withhold.
Her grave eyes were fixed upon his face, and he knew that she was trying to read the innermost secrets of his mind.
"What am I in her hands?" he thought. "What am I in the hands of this woman, who has my lost friend's face and the manner of Pallas Athene. She reads my pitiful, vacillating soul, and plucks the thoughts out of my heart with the magic of her solemn brown eyes. How unequal the fight must be between us, and how can I ever hope to conquer against the strength of her beauty and her wisdom?"
Mr. Audley was clearing his throat preparatory to bidding his beautiful companion good-morning, and making his escape from the thraldom of her presence into the lonely meadow outside the churchyard, when Clare Talboys arrested him by speaking upon that very subject which he was most anxious to avoid.
"You promised to write to me, Mr. Audley," she said, "if you made any discovery which carried you nearer to the mystery of my brother's disappearance. You have not written to me, and I imagine, therefore, that you have discovered nothing."
Robert Audley was silent for some moments. How could he answer this direct question?
"The chain of circumstantial evidence which unites the mystery of your brother's fate with the person whom I suspect," he said, after a pause, "is formed of very slight links. I think that I have added another link to that chain since I saw you in Dorsetshire."
"And you refuse to tell me what it is that you have discovered?"
"Only until I have discovered more."
"I thought from your message that you were going to Wildernsea."
"I have been there."
"Indeed! It was there that you made some discovery, then?"
"It was," answered Robert. "You must remember, Miss Talboys that the sole ground upon which my suspicions rest is the identity of two individuals who have no apparent connection—the identity of a person who is supposed to be dead with one who is living. The conspiracy of which I believe your brother to have been the victim hinges upon this. If his wife, Helen Talboys, died when the papers recorded her death—if the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard was indeed the woman whose name is inscribed on the headstone of the grave—I have no case, I have no clew to the mystery of your brother's fate. I am about to put this to the test. I believe that I am now in a position to play a bold game, and I believe that I shall soon arrive at the truth."
He spoke in a low voice, and with a solemn emphasis that betrayed the intensity of his feeling. Miss Talboys stretched out her ungloved hand, and laid it in his own. The cold touch of that slender hand sent a shivering thrill through his frame.
"You will not suffer my brother's fate to remain a mystery, Mr. Audley," she said, quietly. "I know that you will do your duty to your friend."
The rector's wife and her two companions entered the churchyard as Clara Talboys said this. Robert Audley pressed the hand that rested in his own, and raised it to his lips.
"I am a lazy, good-for-nothing fellow, Miss Talboys," he said; "but if I could restore your brother George to life and happiness, I should care very little for any sacrifice of my own feeling, fear that the most I can do is to fathom the secret of his fate and in doing that I must sacrifice those who are dearer to me than myself."
He put on his hat, and hurried through the gateway leading into the field as Mrs. Martyn came up to the porch.
"Who is that handsome young man I caught tete-a-tete with you, Clara?" she asked, laughing.
"He is a Mr. Audley, a friend of my poor brother's."
"Indeed! He is some relation of Sir Michael Audley, I suppose?"
"Sir Michael Audley!"
"Yes, my dear; the most important personage in the parish of Audley. But we'll call at the Court in a day or two, and you shall see the baronet and his pretty young wife."
"His young wife!" replied Clara Talboys, looking earnestly at her friend. "Has Sir Michael Audley lately married, then?"
"Yes. He was a widower for sixteen years, and married a penniless young governess about a year and a half ago. The story is quite romantic, and Lady Audley is considered the belle of the county. But come, my dear Clara, the pony is tired of waiting for us, and we've a long drive before dinner."
Clara Talboys took her seat in the little basket-carriage which was waiting at the principal gate of the churchyard, in the care of the boy who had blown the organ-bellows. Mrs. Martyn shook the reins, and the sturdy chestnut cob trotted off in the direction of Mount Stanning.
"Will you tell me more about this Lady Audley, Fanny?" Miss Talboys said, after a long pause. "I want to know all about her. Have you heard her maiden name?"
"Yes; she was a Miss Graham."
"And she is very pretty?"
"Yes, very, very pretty. Rather a childish beauty though, with large, clear blue eyes, and pale golden ringlets, that fall in a feathery shower over her throat and shoulders."
Clara Talboys was silent. She did not ask any further questions about my lady.
She was thinking of a passage in that letter which George had written to her during his honeymoon—a passage in which he said: "My childish little wife is watching me as I write this—Ah! how I wish you could see her, Clara! Her eyes are as blue and as clear as the skies on a bright summer's day, and her hair falls about her face like the pale golden halo you see round the head of a Madonna in an Italian picture."