LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
No feverish sleeper traveling in a strange dream ever looked out more wonderingly upon a world that seemed unreal than Robert Audley, as he stared absently at the flat swamps and dismal poplars between Villebrumeuse and Brussels. Could it be that he was returning to his uncle's house without the woman who had reigned in it for nearly two years as queen and mistress? He felt as if he had carried off my lady, and had made away with her secretly and darkly, and must now render up an account to Sir Michael of the fate of that woman, whom the baronet had so dearly loved.
"What shall I tell him?" he thought. "Shall I tell the truth-the horrible, ghastly truth? No; that would be too cruel. His generous spirit would sink under the hideous revelation. Yet, in his ignorance of the extent of this wretched woman's wickedness, he may think, perhaps, that I have been hard with her."
Brooding thus, Mr. Robert Audley absently watched the cheerless landscape from the seat in the shabby coupe of the diligence, and thought how great a leaf had been torn out of his life, now that the dark story of George Talboys was finished.
What had he to do next? A crowd of horrible thoughts rushed into his mind as he remembered the story that he had heard from the white lips of Helen Talboys. His friend-his murdered friend-lay hidden among the moldering ruins of the old well at Audley Court. He had lain there for six long months, unburied, unknown; hidden in the darkness of the old convent well. What was to be done?
To institute a search for the remains of the murdered man was to inevitably bring about a coroner's inquest. Should such an inquest be held, it was next to impossible that the history of my lady's crime could fail to be brought to light. To prove that George Talboys met with his death at Audley Court, was to prove almost as surely that my lady had been the instrument of that mysterious death; for the young man had been known to follow her into the lime-walk upon the day of his disappearance.
"My God!" Robert exclaimed, as the full horror of his position became evident to him; "is my friend to rest in this unhallowed burial-place because I have condoned the offenses of the woman who murdered him?"
He felt that there was no way out of this difficulty. Sometimes he thought that it little mattered to his dead friend whether he lay entombed beneath a marble monument, whose workmanship should be the wonder of the universe, or in that obscure hiding-place in the thicket at Audley Court. At another time he would be seized with a sudden horror at the wrong that had been done to the murdered man, and would fain have traveled even more rapidly than the express between Brussels and Paris could carry him in his eagerness to reach the end of his journey, that he might set right this cruel wrong.
He was in London at dusk on the second day after that on which he had left Audley Court, and he drove straight to the Clarendon, to inquire after his uncle. He had no intention of seeing Sir Michael, as he had not yet determined how much or how little he should tell him, but he was very anxious to ascertain how the old man had sustained the cruel shock he had so lately endured.
"I will see Alicia," he thought, "she will tell me all about her father. It is only two days since he left Audley. I can scarcely expect to hear of any favorable change."
But Mr. Audley was not destined to see his cousin that evening, for the servants at the Clarendon told him that Sir Michael and his daughter had left by the morning mail for Paris, on their way to Vienna.
Robert was very well pleased to receive this intelligence; it afforded him a welcome respite, for it would be decidedly better to tell the baronet nothing of his guilty wife until he returned to England, with health unimpaired and spirits re-established, it was to be hoped.
Mr. Audley drove to the Temple. The chambers which had seemed dreary to him ever since the disappearance of George Talboys, were doubly so to-night. For that which had been only a dark suspicion had now become a horrible certainty. There was no longer room for the palest ray, the most transitory glimmer of hope. His worst terrors had been too well founded.
George Talboys had been cruelly and treacherously murdered by the wife he had loved and mourned.
There were three letters waiting for Mr. Audley at his chambers. One was from Sir Michael, and another from Alicia. The third was addressed in a hand the young barrister knew only too well, though he had seen it but once before. His face flushed redly at the sight of the superscription, and he took the letter in his hand, carefully and tenderly, as if it had been a living thing, and sentient to his touch. He turned it over and over in his hands, looking at the crest upon the envelope, at the post-mark, at the color of the paper, and then put it into the bosom of his waistcoat with a strange smile upon his face.
"What a wretched and unconscionable fool I am!" he thought. "Have I laughed at the follies of weak men all my life, and am I to be more foolish than the weakest of them at last? The beautiful brown-eyed creature! Why did I ever see her? Why did my relentless Nemesis ever point the way to that dreary house in Dorsetshire?"
He opened the first two letters. He was foolish enough to keep the last for a delicious morsel-a fairy-like dessert after the commonplace substantialities of a dinner.
Alicia's letter told him that Sir Michael had borne his agony with such a persevering tranquility that she had become at last far more alarmed by his patient calmness than by any stormy manifestation of despair. In this difficulty she had secretly called upon the physician who attended the Audley household in any cases of serious illness, and had requested this gentleman to pay Sir Michael an apparently accidental visit. He had done so, and after stopping half an hour with the baronet, had told Alicia that there was no present danger of any serious consequence from this great grief, but that it was necessary that every effort should be made to arouse Sir Michael, and to force him, however unwillingly, into action.
Alicia had immediately acted upon this advice, had resumed her old empire as a spoiled child, and reminded her father of a promise he had made of taking her through Germany. With considerable difficulty she had induced him to consent to fulfilling this old promise, and having once gained her point, she had contrived that they should leave England as soon as it was possible to do so, and she told Robert, in conclusion, that she would not bring her father back to his old house until she had taught him to forget the sorrows associated with it.
The baronet's letter was very brief. It contained half a dozen blank checks on Sir Michael Audley's London bankers.
"You will require money, my dear Robert," he wrote, "for such arrangements as you may think fit to make for the future comfort of the person I committed to your care. I need scarcely tell you that those arrangements cannot be too liberal. But perhaps it is as well that I should tell you now, for the first and only time, that it is my earnest wish never again to hear that person's name. I have no wish to be told the nature of the arrangements you may make for her. I am sure that you will act conscientiously and mercifully. I seek to know no more. Whenever you want money, you will draw upon me for any sums that you may require; but you will have no occasion to tell me for whose use you want that money."
Robert Audley breathed a long sigh of relief as he folded this letter. It released him from a duty which it would have been most painful for him to perform, and it forever decided his course of action with regard to the murdered man.
George Talboys must lie at peace in his unknown grave, and Sir Michael Audley must never learn that the woman he had loved bore the red brand of murder on her soul.
Robert had only the third letter to open-the letter which he had placed in his bosom while he read the others; he tore open the envelope, handling it carefully and tenderly as he had done before.
The letter was as brief as Sir Michael's. It contained only these few lines:
"DEAR MR. AUDLEY-The rector of this place has been twice to see Marks, the man you saved in the fire at the Castle Inn. He lies in a very precarious state at his mother's cottage, near Audley Court, and is not expected to live many days. His wife is attending him, and both he and she have expressed a most earnest desire that you should see him before he dies. Pray come without delay.
"Yours very sincerely,
"Mount Stanning Rectory, March 6."
Robert Audley folded this letter very reverently, and placed it underneath that part of his waistcoat which might be supposed to cover the region of his heart. Having done this, he seated himself in his favorite arm-chair, filled and lighted a pipe and smoked it out, staring reflectingly at the fire as long as his tobacco lasted. "What can that man Marks want with me," thought the barrister. "He is afraid to die until he has made confession, perhaps. He wishes to tell me that which I know already-the story of my lady's crime. I knew that he was in the secret. I was sure of it even upon the night on which I first saw him. He knew the secret, and he traded on it."
Robert Audley shrank strangely from returning to Essex. How should he meet Clara Talboys now that he knew the secret of her brother's fate? How many lies he should have to tell, or how much equivocation he must use in order to keep the truth from her? Yet would there be any mercy in telling that horrible story, the knowledge of which must cast a blight upon her youth, and blot out every hope she had even secretly cherished? He knew by his own experience how possible it was to hope against hope, and to hope unconsciously; and he could not bear that her heart should be crushed as his had been by the knowledge of the truth. "Better that she should hope vainly to the last," he thought; "better that she should go through life seeking the clew to her lost brother's fate, than that I should give that clew into her hands, and say, 'Our worst fears are realized. The brother you loved has been foully murdered in the early promise of his youth.'"
But Clara Talboys had written to him, imploring him to return to Essex without delay. Could he refuse to do her bidding, however painful its accomplishment might be? And again, the man was dying, perhaps, and had implored to see him. Would it not be cruel to refuse to go-to delay an hour unnecessarily? He looked at his watch. It wanted only five minutes to nine. There was no train to Audley after the Ipswich mail, which left London at half-past eight; but there was a train that left Shoreditch at eleven, and stopped at Brentwood between twelve and one. Robert decided upon going by this train, and walking the distance between Brentwood and Audley, which was upwards of six miles.
He had a long time to wait before it would be necessary to leave the Temple on his way to Shoreditch, and he sat brooding darkly over the fire and wondering at the strange events which had filled his life within the last year and a half, coming like angry shadows between his lazy inclinations and himself, and investing him with purposes that were not his own.
"Good Heaven!" he thought, as he smoked his second pipe; "how can I believe that it was I who used to lounge all day in this easy-chair reading Paul de Kock, and smoking mild Turkish; who used to drop in at half price to stand among the pressmen at the back of the boxes and see a new burlesque and finish the evening with the 'Chough and Crow,' and chops and pale ale at 'Evans'. Was it I to whom life was such an easy merry-go-round? Was it I who was one of the boys who sit at ease upon the wooden horses, while other boys run barefoot in the mud and work their hardest in the hope of a ride when their work is done? Heaven knows I have learned the business of life since then: and now I must needs fall in love and swell the tragic chorus which is always being sung by the poor addition of my pitiful sighs and, groans. Clara Talboys! Clara Talboys! Is there any merciful smile latent beneath the earnest light of your brown eyes? What would you say to me if I told you that I love you as earnestly and truly as I have mourned for your brother's fate-that the new strength and purpose of my life, which has grown out of my friendship for the murdered man, grows even stronger as it turns to you, and changes me until I wonder at myself? What would she say to me? Ah! Heaven knows. If she happened to like the color of my hair or the tone of my voice, she might listen to me, perhaps. But would she hear me any more because I love her truly, and purely; because I would be constant and honest and faithful to her? Not she! These things might move her, perhaps to be a little pitiful to me; but they would move her no more! If a girl with freckles and white eylashes adored me, I should only think her a nuisance; but if Clara Talboys had a fancy to trample upon my uncouth person, I should think she did me a favor. I hope poor little Alicia may pick up with some fair-haired Saxon in the course of her travels. I hope-" His thoughts wandered away wearily and lost themselves. How could he hope for anything or think of anything, while the memory of his dead friend's unburied body haunted him like a horrible specter? He remembered a story-a morbid, hideous, yet delicious story, which had once pleasantly congealed his blood on a social winter's evening-the story of a man, monomaniac, perhaps, who had been haunted at every turn by the image of an unburied kinsman who could not rest in his unhallowed hiding-place. What if that dreadful story had its double in reality? What if he were henceforth to be haunted by the phantom of murdered George Talboys?
He pushed his hair away from his face with both hands, and looked rather nervously around the snug little apartment. There were lurking shadows in the corners of the room that he scarcely liked. The door opening into his little dressing-room was ajar; he got up to shut it, and turned the key in the lock with a sharp click.
"I haven't read Alexander Dumas and Wilkie Collins for nothing," he muttered. "I'm up to their tricks, sneaking in at doors behind a fellow's back, and flattening their white faces against window panes, and making themselves all eyes in the twilight. It's a strange thing that your generous hearted fellow, who never did a shabby thing in his life, is capable of any meanness the moment he becomes a ghost. I'll have the gas laid on to-morrow and I'll engage Mrs. Maloney's eldest son to sleep under the letter-box in the lobby. The youth plays popular melodies upon a piece of tissue paper and a small-tooth comb, and it will be quite pleasant company."
Mr. Audley walked wearily up and down the room, trying to get rid of the time. It was no use leaving the Temple until ten o'clock, and even then he would be sure to reach the station half an hour too early. He was tired of smoking. The soothing narcotic influence might be pleasant enough in itself, but the man must be of a singularly unsocial disposition who does not, after a half dozen lonely pipes, feel the need of some friendly companion, at whom he can stare dreamily athwart the pale gray mists, and who will stare kindly back at him in return. Do not think that Robert Audley was without friends, because he so often found himself alone in his chambers. The solemn purpose which had taken so powerful a hold upon his careless life had separated him from old associations, and it was for this reason that he was alone.
He had dropped away from his old friends. How could he sit among them, at social wine parties, perhaps, or at social little dinners, that were washed down with nonpareil and chambertin, pomard and champagne? How could he sit among them, listening to their careless talk of politics and opera, literature and racing, theaters and science, scandal and theology, and yet carry in his mind the horrible burden of those dark terrors and suspicions that were with him by day and by night? He could not do it! He had shrunk from those men as if he had, indeed, been a detective police officer, stained with vile associations and unfit company for honest gentlemen. He had drawn himself away from all familiar haunts, and shut himself in his lonely rooms with the perpetual trouble of his mind for his sole companion, until he had grown as nervous as habitual solitude will eventually make the strongest and the wisest man, however he may vaunt himself of his strength and wisdom.
The clock of the Temple Church, and the clocks of St. Dunstan's, St. Clement's Danes, and a crowd of other churches, whose steeples uprear themselves above the house tops by the river, struck ten at last, and Mr. Audley, who had put on his hat and overcoat nearly half an hour before, let himself out of the little lobby, and locked his door behind him. He mentally reiterated his determination to engage "Parthrick," as Mrs. Maloney's eldest son was called by his devoted mother. The youth should enter upon his functions the very night after, and if the ghost of the hapless George Talboys should invade these gloomy apartments, the phantom must make its way across Patrick's body before it could reach the inner chamber in which the proprietor of the premises slept.
Do not laugh at poor George because he grew hypochondriacal after hearing the horrible story of his friend's death. There is nothing so delicate, so fragile, as that invisible balance upon which the mind is always trembling. "Mad to-day and sane to-morrow."
Who can forget that almost terrible picture of Dr. Samuel Johnson? The awful disputant of the club-room, solemn, ponderous, severe and merciless, the admiration and the terror of humble Bozzy, the stern monitor of gentle Oliver, the friend of Garrick and Reynolds to-night; and before to-morrow sunset a weak, miserable old man, discovered by good Mr. and Mrs. Thrale, kneeling upon the floor of his lonely chamber, in an agony of childish terror and confusion, and praying to a merciful God for the preservation of his wits. I think the memory of that dreadful afternoon, and of the tender care he then received, should have taught the doctor to keep his hand steady at Streatham, when he took his bedroom candlestick, from which it was his habit to shower rivulets of molten wax upon the costly carpet of his beautiful protectress; and might have even had a more enduring effect, and taught him to be merciful, when the brewer's widow went mad in her turn, and married that dreadful creature, the Italian singer. Who has not been, or in not to be mad in some lonely hour of life? Who is quite safe from the trembling of the balance?
Fleet street was quiet and lonely at this late hour, and Robert Audley being in a ghost-seeing mood, would have been scarcely astonished had he seen Johnson's set come roystering westward in the lamp-light, or blind John Milton groping his way down the steps before Saint Bride's Church.
Mr. Audley hailed a hansom at the corner of Farrington street, and was rattled rapidly away across tenantless Smithfield market, and into a labyrinth of dingy streets that brought him out upon the broad grandeur of Finsbury Pavement.
The hansom rattled up the steep and stony approach to Shoreditch Station, and deposited Robert at the doors of that unlovely temple. There were very few people going to travel by this midnight train, and Robert walked up and down the long wooden platform, reading the huge advertisements whose gaunt lettering looked wan and ghastly in the dim lamplight.
He had the carriage in which he sat all to himself. All to himself did I say? Had he not lately summoned to his side that ghostly company which of all companionship is the most tenacious? The shadow of George Talboys pursued him, even in the comfortable first-class carriage, and was behind him when he looked out of the window, and was yet far ahead of him and the rushing engine, in that thicket toward which the train was speeding, by the side of the unhallowed hiding-place in which the mortal remains of the dead man lay, neglected and uncared for.
"I must give my lost friend decent burial," Robert thought, as the chill wind swept across the flat landscape, and struck him with such frozen breath as might have emanated from the lips of the dead. "I must do it; or I shall die of some panic like this which has seized upon me to-night. I must do it; at any peril; at any cost. Even at the price of that revelation which will bring the mad woman back from her safe hiding-place, and place her in a criminal dock." He was glad when the train stopped at Brentwood at a few minutes after twelve.
It was half-past one o'clock when the night wanderer entered the village of Audley, and it was only there that he remembered that Clara Talboys had omitted to give him any direction by which he might find the cottage in which Luke Marks lay.
"It was Dawson who recommended that the poor creature should be taken to his mother's cottage," Robert thought, by-and-by, "and, I dare say. Dawson has attended him ever since the fire. He'll be able to tell me the way to the cottage."
Acting upon this idea, Mr. Audley stopped at the house in which Helen Talboys had lived before her second marriage. The door of the little surgery was ajar, and there was a light burning within. Robert pushed the door open and peeped in. The surgeon was standing at the mahogany counter, mixing a draught in a glass measure, with his hat close beside him. Late as it was, he had evidently only just come in. The harmonious snoring of his assistant sounded from a little room within the surgery.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Mr. Dawson," Robert said, apologetically, as the surgeon looked up and recognized him, "but I have come down to see Marks, who, I hear, is in a very bad way, and I want you to tell me the way to his mother's cottage."
"I'll show you the way, Mr. Audley," answered the surgeon, "I am going there this minute."
"The man is very bad, then?"
"So bad that he can be no worse. The change that can happen is that change which will take him beyond the reach of any earthly suffering."
"Strange!" exclaimed Robert. "He did not appear to be much burned."
"He was not much burnt. Had he been, I should never have recommended his being removed from Mount Stanning. It is the shock that has done the business. He has been in a raging fever for the last two days; but to-night he is much calmer, and I'm afraid, before to-morrow night, we shall have seen the last of him."
"He has asked to see me, I am told," said Mr. Audley.
"Yes," answered the surgeon, carelessly. "A sick man's fancy, no doubt. You dragged him out of the house, and did your best to save his life. I dare say, rough and boorish as the poor fellow is, he thinks a good deal of that."
They had left the surgery, the door of which Mr. Dawson had locked behind him. There was money in the till, perhaps, for surely the village apothecary could not have feared that the most daring housebreaker would imperil his liberty in the pursuit of blue pill and colocynth, of salts and senna.
The surgeon led the way along the silent street, and presently turned into a lane at the end of which Robert Audley saw the wan glimmer of a light; a light which told of the watch that is kept by the sick and dying; a pale, melancholy light, which always has a dismal aspect when looked upon in this silent hour betwixt night and morning. It shone from the window of the cottage in which Luke Marks lay, watched by his wife and mother.
Mr. Dawson lifted the latch, and walked into the common room of the little tenement, followed by Robert Audley. It was empty, but a feeble tallow candle, with a broken back, and a long, cauliflower-headed wick, sputtered upon the table. The sick man lay in the room above.
"Shall I tell him you are here?" asked Mr. Dawson.
"Yes, yes, if you please. But be cautious how you tell him, if you think the news likely to agitate him. I am in no hurry. I can wait. You can call me when you think I can safely come up-stairs."
The surgeon nodded, and softly ascended the narrow wooden stairs leading to the upper chamber.
Robert Audley seated himself in a Windsor chair by the cold hearth-stone, and stared disconsolately about him. But he was relieved at last by the low voice of the surgeon, who looked down from the top of the little staircase to tell him that Luke Marks was awake, and would be glad to see him.
Robert immediately obeyed this summons. He crept softly up the stairs, and took off his hat before he bent his head to enter at the low doorway of the humble rustic chamber. He took off his hat in the presence of this common peasant man, because he knew that there was another and a more awful presence hovering about the room, and eager to be admitted.
Phoebe Marks was sitting at the foot of the bed, with her eyes fixed upon her husband's face-not with any very tender expression in the pale light, but with a sharp, terrified anxiety, which showed that it was the coming of death itself that she dreaded, rather than the loss of her husband. The old woman was busy at the fire-place, airing linen, and preparing some mess of broth which it was not likely the patient would ever eat. The sick man lay with his head propped up by pillows, his coarse face deadly pale, and his great hands wandering uneasily about the coverlet. Phoebe had been reading to him, for an open Testament lay among the medicine and lotion bottles upon the table near the bed. Every object in the room was neat and orderly, and bore witness of that delicate precision which had always been a distinguishing characteristic of Phoebe.
The young woman rose as Robert Audley crossed the threshold, and hurried toward him.
"Let me speak to you for a moment, sir, before you talk to Luke," she said, in an eager whisper. "Pray let me speak to you first."
"What's the gal a-sayin', there?" asked the invalid in a subdued roar, which died away hoarsely on his lips. He was feebly savage, even in his weakness. The dull glaze of death was gathering over his eyes, but they still watched Phoebe with a sharp glance of dissatisfaction. "What's she up to there?" he said. "I won't have no plottin' and no hatchin' agen me. I want to speak to Mr. Audley my own self; and whatever I done I'm goin' to answer for. If I done any mischief, I'm a-goin' to try and undo it. What's she a-sayin'?"
"She ain't a-sayin' nothin', lovey," answered the old woman, going to the bedside of her son, who even when made more interesting than usual by illness, did not seem a very fit subject for this tender appellation.
"She's only a-tellin' the gentleman how bad you've been, my pretty."
"What I'm a-goin' to tell I'm only a-goin' to tell to him, remember," growled Mr. Mark; "and ketch me a-tellin' of it to him if it warn't for what he done for me the other night."
"To be sure not, lovey," answered the old woman soothingly.
Phoebe Marks had drawn Mr. Audley out of the room and onto the narrow landing at the top of the little staircase. This landing was a platform of about three feet square, and it was as much as the two could manage to stand upon it without pushing each other against the whitewashed wall, or backward down the stairs.
"Oh, sir, I wanted to speak to you so badly," Phoebe answered, eagerly; "you know what I told you when I found you safe and well upon the night of the fire?"
"I told you what I suspected; what I think still."
"Yes, I remember."
"But I never breathed a word of it to anybody but you, sir, and I think that Luke has forgotten all about that night; I think that what went before the fire has gone clean out of his head altogether. He was tipsy, you know, when my la-when she came to the Castle; and I think he was so dazed and scared like by the fire that it all went out of his memory. He doesn't suspect what I suspect, at any rate, or he'd have spoken of it to anybody or everybody; but he's dreadful spiteful against my lady, for he says if she'd have let him have a place at Brentwood or Chelmsford, this wouldn't have happened. So what I wanted to beg of you, sir, is not to let a word drop before Luke."
"Yes, yes, I understand; I will be careful."
"My lady has left the Court, I hear, sir?"
"Never to come back, sir?"
"Never to come back."
"But she has not gone where she'll be cruelly treated; where she'll be ill-used?"
"No: she will be very kindly treated."
"I'm glad of that, sir; I beg your pardon for troubling you with the question, sir, but my lady was a kind mistress to me."
Luke's voice, husky and feeble, was heard within the little chamber at this period of the conversation, demanding angrily when "that gal would have done jawing;" upon which Phoebe put her finger to her lips, and led Mr. Audley back into the sick-room.
"I don't want you" said Mr. Marks, decisively, as his wife re-entered the chamber-"I don't want you; you've no call to hear what I've got to say-I only want Mr. Audley, and I wants to speak to him all alone, with none o' your sneakin' listenin' at doors, d'ye hear? so you may go down-stairs and keep there till you're wanted; and you may take mother-no, mother may stay, I shall want her presently."
The sick man's feeble hand pointed to the door, through which his wife departed very submissively.
"I've no wish to hear anything, Luke," she said, "but I hope you won't say anything against those that have been good and generous to you."
"I shall say what I like," answered Mr. Marks, fiercely, "and I'm not a-goin' to be ordered by you. You ain't the parson, as I've ever heerd of; nor the lawyer neither."
The landlord of the Castle Inn had undergone no moral transformation by his death-bed sufferings, fierce and rapid as they had been. Perhaps some faint glimmer of a light that had been far off from his life now struggled feebly through the black obscurities of ignorance that darkened his soul. Perhaps a half angry, half sullen penitence urged him to make some rugged effort to atone for a life that had been selfish and drunken and wicked. Be it how it might he wiped his white lips, and turning his haggard eyes earnestly upon Robert Audley, pointed to a chair by the bedside.
"You made game of me in a general way, Mr. Audley," he said, presently, "and you've drawed me out, and you've tumbled and tossed me about like in a gentlemanly way, till I was nothink or anythink in your hands; and you've looked me through and through, and turned me inside out till you thought you knowed as much as I knowed. I'd no particular call to be grateful to you, not before the fire at the Castle t'other night. But I am grateful to you for that. I'm not grateful to folks in a general way, p'r'aps, because the things as gentlefolks have give have a'most allus been the very things I didn't want. They've give me soup, and tracks, and flannel, and coals; but, Lord, they've made such a precious noise about it that I'd have been to send 'em all back to 'em. But when a gentleman goes and puts his own life in danger to save a drunken brute like me, the drunkenest brute as ever was feels grateful like to that gentleman, and wishes to say before he dies-which he sees in the doctor's face as he ain't got long to live-'Thank ye, sir, I'm obliged to you."
Luke Marks stretched out his left hand-the right hand had been injured by the fire, and was wrapped in linen-and groped feebly for that of Mr. Robert Audley.
The young man took the coarse but shrunken hand in both his own, and pressed it cordially.
"I need no thanks, Luke Marks," he said; "I was very glad to be of service to you."
Mr. Marks did not speak immediately. He was lying quietly upon his side, staring reflectingly at Robert Audley.
"You was oncommon fond of that gent as disappeared at the Court, warn't you, sir?" he said at last.
Robert started at the mention of his dead friend.
"You was oncommon fond of that Mr. Talboys, I've heard say, sir," repeated Luke.
"Yes, yes," answered Robert, rather impatiently, "he was my very dear friend."
"I've heard the servants at the Court say how you took on when you couldn't find him. I've heered the landlord of the Sun Inn say how cut up you was when you first missed him. 'If the two gents had been brothers,' the landlord said, 'our gent,' meanin' you, sir, 'couldn't have been more cut up when he missed the other.'"
"Yes, yes, I know, I know," said Robert; "pray do not speak any more of this subject. I cannot tell you now much it distresses me."
Was he to be haunted forever by the ghost of his unburied friend? He came here to comfort the sick man, and even here he was pursued by this relentless shadow; even here he was reminded of the secret crime which had darkened his life.
"Listen to me, Marks," he said, earnestly; "believe me that I appreciate your grateful words, and that I am very glad to have been of service to you. But before you say anything more, let me make one most solemn request. If you have sent for me that you may tell me anything of the fate of my lost friend, I entreat you to spare yourself and to spare me that horrible story. You can tell me nothing which I do not already know. The worst you can tell me of the woman who was once in your power, has already been revealed to me by her own lips. Pray, then, be silent upon this subject; I say again, you can tell me nothing which I do not know."
Luke Marks looked musingly at the earnest face of his visitor, and some shadowy expression, which was almost like a smile, flitted feebly across the sick man's haggard features.
"I can't tell you nothin' you don't know?" he asked.
"Then it ain't no good for me to try," said the invalid, thoughtfully. "Did she tell you?" he asked, after a pause.
"I must beg, Marks, that you will drop the subject," Robert answered, almost sternly. "I have already told you that I do not wish to hear it spoken of. Whatever discoveries you made, you made your market out of them. Whatever guilty secrets you got possession of, you were paid for keeping silence. You had better keep silence to the end."
"Had I?" cried Luke Marks, in an eager whisper. "Had I really now better hold my tongue to the last?"
"I think so, most decidedly. You traded on your secret, and you were paid to keep it. It would be more honest to hold to your bargain, and keep it still."
"But, suppose I want to tell something," cried Luke, with feverish energy, "suppose I feel I can't die with a secret on my mind, and have asked to see you on purpose that I might tell you; suppose that, and you'll suppose nothing but the truth. I'd have been burnt alive before I'd have told her." He spoke these words between his set teeth, and scowled savagely as he uttered them. "I'd have been burnt alive first. I made her pay for her pretty insolent ways; I made her pay for her airs and graces; I'd never have told her-never, never! I had my power over her, and I kept it; I had my secret and was paid for it; and there wasn't a petty slight as she ever put upon me or mine that I didn't pay her out for twenty times over!"
"Marks, Marks, for Heaven's sake be calm" said Robert, earnestly. "What are you talking of? What is it that you could have told?"
"I'm a-goin to tell you," answered Luke, wiping his lips. "Give us a drink, mother."
The old woman poured out some cooling drink into a mug, and carried it to her son.
He drank it in an eager hurry, as if he felt that the brief remainder of his life must be a race with the pitiless pedestrian, Time.
"Stop where you are," he said to his mother, pointing to a chair at the foot of the bed.
The old woman obeyed, and seated herself meekly opposite to Mr. Audley.
"I'll ask you another question, mother," said Luke, "and I think it'll be strange if you can't answer it. Do you remember when I was at work upon Atkinson's farm; before I was married you know, and when I was livin' down here along of you?"
"Yes, yes," Mrs. Marks answered, nodding triumphantly, "I remember that, my dear. It were last fall, just about as the apples was bein' gathered in the orchard across our lane, and about the time as you had your new sprigged wesket. I remember, Luke, I remember."
Mr. Audley wondered where all this was to lead to, and how long he would have to sit by the sick man's bed, hearing a conversation that had no meaning to him.
"If you remember that much, maybe you'll remember more, mother," said Luke. "Can you call to mind my bringing some one home here one night, while Atkinsons was stackin' the last o' their corn?"
Once more Mr. Audley started violently, and this time he looked up earnestly at the face of the speaker, and listened, with a strange, breathless interest, that he scarcely understood himself, to what Luke Marks was saying.
"I rek'lect your bringing home Phoebe," the old woman answered, with great animation. "I rek'lect your bringin' Phoebe home to take a cup o' tea, or a little snack o' supper, a mort o' times."
"Bother Phoebe," cried Mr. Marks, "who's a talkin' of Phoebe? What's Phoebe, that anybody should go to put theirselves out about her? Do you remember my bringin' home a gentleman after ten o'clock, one September night; a gentleman as was wet through to the skin, and was covered with mud and slush, and green slime and black muck, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, and had his arm broke, and his shoulder swelled up awful; and was such a objeck that nobody would ha' knowed him; a gentleman as had to have his clothes cut off him in some places, and as sat by the kitchen fire, starin' at the coals as if he had gone mad or stupid-like, and didn't know where he was, or who he was; and as had to be cared for like a baby, and dressed, and dried, and washed, and fed with spoonfuls of brandy, that had to be forced between his locked teeth, before any life could be got into him? Do you remember that, mother?"
The old woman nodded, and muttered something to the effect that she remembered all these circumstances most vividly, now that Luke happened to mention them.
Robert Audley uttered a wild cry, and fell down upon his knees by the side of the sick man's bed.
"My God!" he ejaculated, "I think Thee for Thy wondrous mercies. George Talboys is alive!"
"Wait a bit," said Mr. Marks, "don't you be too fast. Mother, give us down that tin box on the shelf over against the chest of drawers, will you?"
The old woman obeyed, and after fumbling among broken teacups and milk-jugs, lidless wooden cotton-boxes, and a miscellaneous litter of rags and crockery, produced a tin snuff-box with a sliding lid; a shabby, dirty-looking box enough.
Robert Audley still knelt by the bedside with his face hidden by his clasped hands. Luke Marks opened the tin box.
"There ain't no money in it, more's the pity," he said, "or if there had been it wouldn't have been let stop very long. But there's summat in it that perhaps you'll think quite as valliable as money, and that's what I'm goin' to give you as a proof that a drunken brute can feel thankful to them as is kind to him."
He took out two folded papers, which he gave into Robert Audley's hands.
They were two leaves torn out of a pocket-book, and they were written upon in pencil, and in a handwriting that was quite strange to Mr. Audley-a cramped, stiff, and yet scrawling hand, such as some plowman might have written.
"I don't know this writing," Robert said, as he eagerly unfolded the first of the two papers. "What has this to do with my friend? Why do you show me these?"
"Suppose you read 'em first," said Mr. Marks, "and ask me questions about them afterwards."
The first paper which Robert Audley had unfolded contained the following lines, written in that cramped, yet scrawling hand which was so strange to him:
"MY DEAR FRIEND-I write to you in such utter confusion of mind as perhaps no man ever before suffered. I cannot tell you what has happened to me, I can only tell you that something has happened which will drive me from England a broken-hearted man, to seek some corner of the earth in which I may live and die unknown and forgotten. I can only ask you to forget me. If your friendship could have done me any good, I would have appealed to it. If your counsel could have been any help to me, I would have confided in you. But neither friendship nor counsel can help me; and all I can say to you is this, God bless you for the past, and teach you to forget me in the future. G.T."
The second paper was addressed to another person, and its contents were briefer than those of the first.
"HELEN-May God pity and forgive you for that which you have done to-day, as truly as I do. Rest in peace. You shall never hear of me again; to you and to the world I shall henceforth be that which you wished me to be to-day. You need fear no molestation from me. I leave England never to return.
Robert Audley sat staring at these lines in hopeless bewilderment. They were not in his friend's familiar hand, and yet they purported to be written by him and were signed with his initials.
He looked scrutinizingly at the face of Luke Marks, thinking that perhaps some trick was being played upon him.
"This was not written by George Talboys," he said.
"It was," answered Luke Marks, "it was written by Mr. Talboys, every line of it. He wrote it with his own hand; but it was his left hand, for he couldn't use his right because of his broken arm."
Robert Audley looked up suddenly, and the shadow of suspicion passed away from his face.
"I understand," he said, "I understand. Tell me all; tell me how it was that my poor friend was saved."
"I was at work up at Atkinson's farm, last September," said Luke Marks, "helping to stack the last of the corn, and as the nighest way from the farm to mother's cottage was through the meadows at the back of the Court, I used to come that way, and Phoebe used to stand in the garden wall beyond the lime-walk sometimes, to have a chat with me, knowin' my time o' comin' home.
"I don't know what Phoebe was a-doin' upon the evenin' of the seventh o' September-I rek'lect the date because Farmer Atkinson paid me my wages all of a lump on that day, and I'd had to sign a bit of a receipt for the money he give me-I don't know what she was a-doin', but she warn't at the gate agen the lime-walk, so I went round to the other side o' the gardens and jumped across the dry ditch, for I wanted partic'ler to see her that night, as I was goin' away to work upon a farm beyond Chelmsford the next day. Audley church clock struck nine as I was crossin' the meadows between Atkinson's and the Court, and it must have been about a quarter past nine when I got into the kitchen garden.
"I crossed the garden, and went into the lime-walk; the nighest way to the servants' hall took me through the shrubbery and past the dry well. It was a dark night, but I knew my way well enough about the old place, and the light in the window of the servants' hall looked red and comfortable through the darkness. I was close against the mouth of the dry well when I heard a sound that made my blood creep. It was a groan-a groan of a man in pain, as was lyin' somewhere hid among the bushes. I warn't afraid of ghosts and I warn't afraid of anythink in a general way, but there was somethin in hearin' this groan as chilled me to the very heart, and for a minute I was struck all of a heap, and didn't know what to do. But I heard the groan again, and then I began to search among the bushes. I found a man lyin' hidden under a lot o' laurels, and I thought at first he was up to no good, and I was a-goin' to collar him to take him to the house, when he caught me by the wrist without gettin' up from the ground, but lookin' at me very earnest, as I could see by the way his face was turned toward me in the darkness, and asked me who I was, and what I was, and what I had to do with the folks at the Court.
"There was somethin' in the way he spoke that told me he was a gentleman, though I didn't know him from Adam, and couldn't see his face; and I answered his questions civil.
"'I want to get away from this place,' he said, 'without bein' seen by any livin' creetur, remember that. I've been lyin' here ever since four o'clock to-day, and I'm half dead, but I want to get away without bein' seen, mind that.'
"I told him that was easy enough, but I began to think my first thoughts of him might have been right enough, after all, and that he couldn't have been up to no good to want to sneak away so precious quiet.
"'Can you take me to any place where I can get a change of dry clothes,' he says, 'without half a dozen people knowin' it?'
"He'd got up into a sittin' attitude by this time, and I could see that his right arm hung close by his side, and that he was in pain.
"I pointed to his arm, and asked him what was the matter with it; but he only answered, very quiet like: 'Broken, my lad, broken. Not that that's much,' he says in another tone, speaking to himself like, more than to me. 'There's broken hearts as well as broken limbs, and they're not so easy mended.'
"I told him I could take him to mother's cottage, and that he could dry his clothes there and welcome.
"'Can your mother keep a secret?' he asked.
"'Well, she could keep one well enough if she could remember it,' I told him; 'but you might tell her all the secrets of the Freemasons, and Foresters, and Buffalers and Oddfellers as ever was, to-night: and she'd have forgotten all about 'em to-morrow mornin'.'
"He seemed satisfied with this, and he got himself up by holdin' on to me, for it seemed as if his limbs was cramped, the use of 'em was almost gone. I felt as he came agen me, that his clothes was wet and mucky.
"'You haven't been and fell into the fish-pond, have you, sir?' I asked.
"He made no answer to my question; he didn't seem even to have heard it. I could see now he was standin' upon his feet that he was a tall, fine-made man, a head and shoulders higher than me.
"'Take me to your mother's cottage,' he said, 'and get me some dry clothes if you can; I'll pay you well for your trouble.'
"I knew that the key was mostly left in the wooden gate in the garden wall, so I led him that way. He could scarcely walk at first, and it was only by leanin' heavily upon my shoulder that he managed to get along. I got him through the gate, leavin' it unlocked behind me, and trustin' to the chance of that not bein' noticed by the under-gardener, who had the care of the key, and was a careless chap enough. I took him across the meadows, and brought him up here, still keepin' away from the village, and in the fields, where there wasn't a creature to see us at that time o' night; and so I got him into the room down-stairs, where mother was a-sittin' over the fire gettin' my bit o' supper ready for me.
"I put the strange chap in a chair agen the fire, and then for the first time I had a good look at him. I never see anybody in such a state before. He was all over green damp and muck, and his hands was scratched and cut to pieces. I got his clothes off him how I could, for he was like a child in my hands, and sat starin' at the fire as helpless as any baby; only givin' a long heavy sigh now and then, as if his heart was a-goin' to bust. At last he dropped into a kind of a doze, a stupid sort of sleep, and began to nod over the fire, so I ran and got a blanket and wrapped him in it, and got him to lie down on the press bedstead in the room under this. I sent mother to bed, and I sat by the fire and watched him, and kep' the fire up till it was just upon daybreak, when he 'woke up all of a sudden with a start, and said he must go, directly this minute.
"I begged him not to think of such a thing and told him he warn't fit to move for ever so long; but he said he must go, and he got up, and though he staggered like, and at first could hardly stand steady two minutes together, he wouldn't be beat, and he got me to dress him in his clothes as I'd dried and cleaned as well as I could while he laid asleep. I did manage it at last, but the clothes was awful spoiled, and he looked a dreadful objeck, with his pale face and a great cut on his forehead that I'd washed and tied up with a handkercher. He could only get his coat on by buttoning it on round his neck, for he couldn't put a sleeve upon his broken arm. But he held out agen everything, though he groaned every now and then; and what with the scratches and bruises on his hands, and the cut upon his forehead, and his stiff limbs and broken arm, he'd plenty of call to groan; and by the time it was broad daylight he was dressed and ready to go.
"'What's the nearest town to this upon the London road?' he asked me.
"I told him as the nighest town was Brentwood.
"'Very well, then,' he says, 'if you'll go with me to Brentwood, and take me to some surgeon as'll set my arm, I'll give you a five pound note for that and all your other trouble.'
"I told him that I was ready and willin' to do anything as he wanted done; and asked him if I shouldn't go and see if I could borrow a cart from some of the neighbors to drive him over in, for I told him it was a good six miles' walk.
"He shook his head. No, no, no, he said, he didn't want anybody to know anything about him; he'd rather walk it.
"He did walk it; and he walked like a good 'un, too; though I know as every step he took o' them six miles he took in pain; but he held out as he'd held out before; I never see such a chap to hold out in all my blessed life. He had to stop sometimes and lean agen a gateway to get his breath; but he held out still, till at last we got into Brentwood, and then he says, 'Take me to the nighest surgeon's,' and I waited while he had his arm set in splints, which took a precious long time. The surgeon wanted him to stay in Brentwood till he was better, but he said it warn't to be heard on, he must get up to London without a minute's loss of time; so the surgeon made him as comfortable as he could, considering and tied up his arm in a sling."
Robert Audley started. A circumstance connected with his visit to Liverpool dashed suddenly back upon his memory. He remembered the clerk who had called him back to say there was a passenger who took his berth on board the Victoria Regia within an hour or so of the vessel's sailing; a young man with his arm in a sling, who had called himself by some common name, which Robert had forgotten.
"When his arm was dressed," continued Luke, "he says to the surgeon, 'Can you give me a pencil to write something before I go away?' The surgeon smiles and shakes his head: 'You'll never be able to write with that there hand to-day,' he says, pointin' to the arm as had just been dressed. 'P'raps not,' the young chap answers, quiet enough, 'but I can write with the other,' 'Can't I write it for you?' says the surgeon. 'No, thank you,' answers the other; 'what I've got to write is private. If you can give me a couple of envelopes, I'll be obliged to you.'
"With that the surgeon goes to fetch the envelopes, and the young chap takes a pocket-book out of his coat pocket with his left hand; the cover was wet and dirty, but the inside was clean enough, and he tears out a couple of leaves and begins to write upon 'em as you see; and he writes dreadful awk'ard with his left hand, and he writes slow, but he contrives to finish what you see, and then he puts the two bits o' writin' into the envelopes as the surgeon brings him, and he seals 'em up, and he puts a pencil cross upon one of 'em, and nothing on the other: and then he pays the surgeon for his trouble, and the surgeon says, ain't there nothin' more he can do for him, and can't he persuade him to stay in Brentwood till his arm's better; but he says no, no, it ain't possible; and then he says to me, 'Come along o' me to the railway station, and I'll give you what I've promised.'
"So I went to the station with him. We was in time to catch the train as stops at Brentwood at half after eight, and we had five minutes to spare. So he takes me into a corner of the platform, and he says, 'I wants you to deliver these here letters for me,' which I told him I was willin'. 'Very well, then,' he says; 'look here; you know Audley Court?' 'Yes,' I says, 'I ought to, for my sweetheart lives lady's maid there.' 'Whose lady's maid?' he says. So I tells him, 'My lady's, the new lady what was governess at Mr. Dawson's.' 'Very well, then,' he says; 'this here letter with the cross upon the envelope is for Lady Audley, but you're to be sure to give it into her own hands; and remember to take care as nobody sees you give it.' I promises to do this, and he hands me the first letter. And then he says, 'Do you know Mr. Audley, as is nevy to Sir Michael?' and I said, 'Yes, I've heerd tell on him, and I've heerd as he was a reg'lar swell, but affable and free-spoken' (for I heerd 'em tell on you, you know)," Luke added, parenthetically. "'Now look here,' the young chap says, 'you're to give this other letter to Mr. Robert Audley, whose a-stayin' at the Sun Inn, in the village;' and I tells him it's all right, as I've know'd the Sun ever since I was a baby. So then he gives me the second letter, what's got nothing wrote upon the envelope, and he gives me a five-pound note, accordin' to promise; and then he says, 'Good-day, and thank you for all your trouble,'and he gets into a second-class carriage; and the last I sees of him is a face as white as a sheet of writin' paper, and a great patch of stickin'-plaster criss-crossed upon his forehead."
"Poor George! poor George!"
"I went back to Audley, and I went straight to the Sun Inn, and asked for you, meanin' to deliver both letters faithful, so help me God! then; but the landlord told me as you'd started off that mornin' for London, and he didn't know when you'd come back, and he didn't know the name o' the place where you lived in London, though he said he thought it was in one o' them law courts, such as Westminster Hall or Doctors' Commons, or somethin' like that. So what was I to do? I couldn't send a letter by post, not knowin' where to direct to, and I couldn't give it into your own hands, and I'd been told partickler not to let anybody else know of it; so I'd nothing to do but to wait and see if you come back, and bide my time for givin' of it to you.
"I thought I'd go over to the Court in the evenin'and see Phoebe, and find out from her when there'd be a chance of seein' her lady, for I know'd she could manage it if she liked. So I didn't go to work that day, though I ought to ha' done, and I lounged and idled about until it was nigh upon dusk, and then I goes down to the meadows behind the Court, and there I finds Phoebe sure enough, waitin' agen the wooden door in the wall, on the lookout for me.
"I hadn't been talkin' to her long before I see there was somethink wrong with her and I told her as much.
"Well,' she says, 'I ain't quite myself this evenin', for I had a upset yesterday, and I ain't got over it yet.'
"'A upset,' I says. 'You had a quarrel with your missus, I suppose.'
"She didn't answer me directly, but she smiled the queerest smile as ever I see, and presently she says:
"No, Luke, it weren't nothin' o' that kind; and what's more, nobody could be friendlier toward me than my lady. I think she'd do any think for me a'most; and I think, whether it was a bit o' farming stock and furniture or such like, or whether it was the good-will of a public-house, she wouldn't refuse me anythink as I asked her.'
"I couldn't make out this, for it was only a few days before as she'd told me her missus was selfish and extravagant, and we might wait a long time before we could get what we wanted from her.
"So I says to her, 'Why, this is rather sudden like, Phoebe;' and she says, 'Yes, it is sudden;' and she smiles again, just the same sort of smile as before. Upon that I turns round upon her sharp, and says:
"I'll tell you what it is, my gal, you're a-keepin' somethink from me; somethink you've been told, or somethink you've found out; and if you think you're a-goin' to try that game on with me, you'll find you're very much mistaken; and so I give you warnin'."
"But she laughed it off like, and says, 'Lor' Luke, what could have put such fancies into your head?'
"'Perhaps other people can keep secrets as well as you,' I said, 'and perhaps other people can make friends as well as you. There was a gentleman came here to see your missus yesterday, warn't there-a tall young gentleman with a brown beard?'
"Instead of answering of me like a Christian, my Cousin Phoebe bursts out a-cryin', and wrings her hands, and goes on awful, until I'm dashed if I can make out what she's up to.
"But little by little I got it out of her, for I wouldn't stand no nonsense; find she told me how she'd been sittin' at work at the window of her little room, which was at the top of the house, right up in one of the gables, and overlooked the lime-walk, and the shrubbery and the well, when she see my lady walking with a strange gentleman, and they walked together for a long time, until by-and-by they-"
"Stop!" cried Robert, "I know the rest."
"Well, Phoebe told me all about what she see, and she told me she'd met her lady almost directly afterward, and somethin' had passed between 'em, not much, but enough to let her missus know that the servant what she looked down upon had found out that as would put her in that servant's power to the last day of her life.
"'And she is in my power, Luke,' says Phoebe; 'and she'll do anythin' in the world for us if we keep her secret.'
"So you see both my Lady Audley and her maid thought as the gentleman as I'd seen safe off by the London train was lying dead at the bottom of the well. If I was to give the letter they'd find out the contrary of this; and if I was to give the letter, Phoebe and me would lose the chance of gettin' started in life by her missus.
"So I kep' the letter and kep' my secret, and my lady kep' hern. But I thought if she acted liberal by me, and gave me the money I wanted, free like, I'd tell her everythink, and make her mind easy.
"But she didn't. Whatever she give me she throwed me as if I'd been a dog. Whenever she spoke to me, she spoke as she might have spoken to a dog; and a dog she couldn't abide the sight of. There was no word in her mouth that was too bad for me; there was no toss as she could give her head that was too proud and scornful for me; and my blood b'iled agen her, and I kep' my secret, and let her keep hern. I opened the two letters, and I read 'em, but I couldn't make much sense out of 'em, and I hid 'em away; and not a creature but me has seen 'em until this night."
Luke Marks had finished his story, and lay quietly enough, exhausted by having talked so long. He watched Robert Audley's face, fully expecting some reproof, some grave lecture; for he had a vague consciousness that he had done wrong.
But Robert did not lecture him; he had no fancy for an office which he did not think himself fitted to perform.
Robert Audley sat until long after daybreak with the sick man, who fell into a heavy slumber a short time after he had finished his story. The old woman had dozed comfortably throughout her son's confession. Phoebe was asleep upon the press bedstead in the room below; so the young barrister was the only watcher.
He could not sleep; he could only think of the story he had heard. He could only thank God for his friend's preservation, and pray that he might be able to go to Clara Talboys, and say, "Your brother still lives, and has been found."
Phoebe came up-stairs at eight o'clock, ready to take her place at the sick-bed, and Robert Audley went away, to get a bed at the Sun Inn. It was nearly dusk when he awoke out of a long dreamless slumber, and dressed himself before dining in the little sitting-room, in which he and George had sat together a few months before.
The landlord waited upon him at dinner, and told him that Luke Marks had died at five o'clock that afternoon. "He went off rather sudden like," the man said, "but very quiet."
Robert Audley wrote a long letter that evening, addressed to Madame Taylor, care of Monsieur Val, Villebrumeuse; a long letter in which he told the wretched woman who had borne so many names, and was to bear a false one for the rest of her life, the story that the dying man had told him.
"It may be some comfort to her to hear that her husband did not perish in his youth by her wicked hand," he thought, "if her selfish soul can hold any sentiment of pity or sorrow for others."