LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
Clara Talboys returned to Dorsetshire, to tell her father that his only son had sailed for Australia upon the 9th of September, and that it was most probable he yet lived, and would return to claim the forgiveness of the father he had never very particularly injured; except in the matter of having made that terrible matrimonial mistake which had exercised so fatal an influence upon his youth.
Mr. Harcourt-Talboys was fairly nonplused. Junius Brutus had never been placed in such a position as this, and seeing no way of getting out of this dilemma by acting after his favorite model, Mr. Talboys was fain to be natural for once in his life, and to confess that he had suffered much uneasiness and pain of mind about his only son since his conversation with Robert Audley, and that he would be heartily glad to take his poor boy to his arms, whenever he should return to England. But when was he likely to return? and how was he to be communicated with? That was the question. Robert Audley remembered the advertisements which he had caused to be inserted in the Melbourne and Sydney papers. If George had re-entered either city alive, how was it that no notice had ever been taken of that advertisement? Was it likely that his friend would be indifferent to his uneasiness? But then, again, it was just possible that George Talboys had not happened to see this advertisement; and, as he had traveled under a feigned name, neither his fellow passengers nor the captain of the vessel would have been able to identify him with the person advertised for. What was to be done? Must they wait patiently till George grew weary of his exile, and returned to his friends who loved him? or were there any means to be taken by which his return might be hastened? Robert Audley was at fault! Perhaps, in the unspeakable relief of mind which he had experienced upon the discovery of his friend's escape, he was unable to look beyond the one fact of that providential preservation.
In this state of mind he went down to Dorsetshire to pay a visit to Mr. Talboys, who had given way to a perfect torrent of generous impulses, and had gone so far as to invite his son's friend to share the prim hospitality of the square, red brick mansion.
Mr. Talboys had only two sentiments upon the subject of George's story; one was a natural relief and happiness in the thought that his son had been saved, the other was an earnest wish that my lady had been his wife, and that he might thus have had the pleasure of making a signal example of her.
"It is not for me to blame you, Mr. Audley," he said, "for having smuggled this guilty woman out of the reach of justice, and thus, as I may say, paltered with the laws of your country. I can only remark that, had the lady fallen into my hands, she would have been very differently treated."
It was in the middle of April when Robert Audley found himself once more under those black fir-trees beneath which his wandering thoughts had so often stayed since his first meeting with Clara Talboys. There were primroses and early violets in the hedges now, and the streams, which, upon his first visit, had been hard and frost-bound as the heart of Harcourt Talboys, had thawed, like that gentleman, and ran merrily under the blackthorn bushes in the capricious April sunshine.
Robert had a prim bedroom, and an uncompromising dressing-room allotted him in the square house, and he woke every morning upon a metallic spring mattress, which always gave him the idea of sleeping upon some musical instrument, to see the sun glaring in upon him through the square, white blinds and lighting up the two lackered urns which adorned the foot of the blue iron bedstead, until they blazed like two tiny brazen lamps of the Roman period. He emulated Mr. Harcourt Talboys in the matter of shower-baths and cold water, and emerged prim and blue as that gentleman himself, as the clock in the hall struck seven, to join the master of the house in his ante-breakfast constitutional under the fir-trees in the stiff plantation.
But there was generally a third person who assisted in the constitutional promenades, and that third person was Clara Talboys, who used to walk by her father's side, more beautiful than the morning—for that was sometimes dull and cloudy, while she was always fresh and bright—in a broad-leaved straw-hat and flapping blue ribbons, one quarter of an inch of which Mr. Audley would have esteemed a prouder decoration than ever adorned a favored creature's button-hole.
At first they were very ceremonious toward each other, and were only familiar and friendly upon the one subject of George's adventures; but little by little a pleasant intimacy arose between them, and before the first three weeks of Robert's visit had elapsed, Miss Talboys made him happy, by taking him seriously in hand and lecturing him on the purposeless life he had led so long, and the little use he had made of the talents and opportunities that had been given to him.
How pleasant it was to be lectured by the woman he loved! How pleasant it was to humiliate himself and depreciate himself before her! How delightful it was to get such splendid opportunities of hinting that if his life had been sanctified by an object he might indeed have striven to be something better than an idle flaneur upon the smooth pathways that have no particular goal; that, blessed by the ties which would have given a solemn purpose to every hour of his existence, he might indeed have fought the battle earnestly and unflinchingly. He generally wound up with a gloomy insinuation to the effect that it was only likely he would drop quietly over the edge of the Temple Gardens some afternoon when the river was bright and placid in the low sunlight, and the little children had gone home to their tea.
"Do you think I can read French novels and smoke mild Turkish until I am three-score-and-ten, Miss Talboys?" he asked. "Do you think there will not come a day in which my meerschaums will be foul, and the French novels more than usually stupid, and life altogether such a dismal monotony that I shall want to get rid of it somehow or other?"
I am sorry to say that while this hypocritical young barrister was holding forth in this despondent way, he had mentally sold up his bachelor possessions, including all Michel Levy's publications, and half a dozen solid silver-mounted meerschaums; pensioned off Mrs. Maloney, and laid out two or three thousand pounds in the purchase of a few acres of verdant shrubbery and sloping lawn, embosomed amid which there should be a fairy cottage ornee, whose rustic casements should glimmer out of bowers of myrtle and clematis to see themselves reflected in the purple bosom of the lake.
Of course, Clara Talboys was far from discovering the drift of these melancholy lamentations. She recommended Mr. Audley to read hard and think seriously of his profession, and begin life in real earnest. It was a hard, dry sort of existence, perhaps, which she recommended; a life of serious work and application, in which he should strive to be useful to his fellow-creatures, and win a reputation for himself.
"I'd do all that," he thought, "and do it earnestly, if I could be sure of a reward for my labor. If she would accept my reputation when it was won, and support me in the struggle by her beloved companionship. But what if she sends me away to fight the battle, and marries some hulking country squire while my back is turned?"
Being naturally of a vacillating and dilatory disposition, there is no saying how long Mr. Audley might have kept his secret, fearful to speak and break the charm of that uncertainty which, though not always hopeful, was very seldom quite despairing, had not he been hurried by the impulse of an unguarded moment into a full confession of the truth.
He had stayed five weeks at Grange Heath, and felt that he could not, in common decency, stay any longer; so he had packed his portmanteau one pleasant May morning, and had announced his departure.
Mr. Talboys was not the sort of man to utter any passionate lamentations at the prospect of losing his guest, but he expressed himself with a cool cordiality which served with him as the strongest demonstration of friendship.
"We have got on very well together, Mr. Audley," he said, "and you have been pleased to appear sufficiently happy in the quiet routine of our orderly household; nay, more, you have conformed to our little domestic regulations in a manner which I cannot refrain from saying I take as an especial compliment to myself."
Robert bowed. How thankful he was to the good fortune which had never suffered him to oversleep the signal of the clanging bell, or led him away beyond the ken of clocks at Mr. Talboys' luncheon hour.
"I trust as we have got on so remarkably well together," Mr. Talboys resumed, "you will do me the honor of repeating your visit to Dorsetshire whenever you feel inclined. You will find plenty of sport among my farms, and you will meet with every politeness and attention from my tenants, if you like to bring your gun with you."
Robert responded most heartily to these friendly overtures. He declared that there was no earthly occupation that was more agreeable to him than partridge-shooting, and that he should be only too delighted to avail himself of the privilege so kindly offered to him. He could not help glancing toward Clara as he said this. The perfect lids drooped a little over the brown eyes, and the faintest shadow of a blush illuminated the beautiful face.
But this was the young barrister's last day in Elysium, and there must be a dreary interval of days and nights and weeks and months before the first of September would give him an excuse for returning to Dorsetshire; a dreary interval which fresh colored young squires or fat widowers of eight-and-forty, might use to his disadvantage. It was no wonder, therefore, that he contemplated this dismal prospect with moody despair, and was bad company for Miss Talboys that morning.
But in the evening after dinner, when the sun was low in the west, and Harcourt Talboys closeted in his library upon some judicial business with his lawyer and a tenant farmer, Mr. Audley grew a little more agreeable. He stood by Clara's side in one of the long windows of the drawing-room, watching the shadows deepening in the sky and the rosy light growing every moment rosier as the sun died out. He could not help enjoying that quiet tete-a-tete, though the shadow of the next morning's express which was to carry him away to London loomed darkly across the pathway of his joy. He could not help being happy in her presence; forgetful of the past, reckless of the future.
They talked of the one subject which was always a bond of union between them. They talked of her lost brother George. She spoke of him in a very melancholy tone this evening. How could she be otherwise than sad, remembering that if he lived—and she was not even sure of that—he was a lonely wanderer far away from all who loved him, and carrying the memory of a blighted life wherever he went.
"I cannot think how papa can be so resigned to my poor brother's absence," she said, "for he does love him, Mr. Audley; even you must have seen lately that he does love him. But I cannot think how he can so quietly submit to his absence. If I were a man, I would go to Australia, and find him, and bring him back; if he was still to be found among the living," she added, in a lower voice.
She turned her face away from Robert, and looked out at the darkening sky. He laid his hand upon her arm. It trembled in spite of him, and his voice trembled, too, as he spoke to her.
"Shall I go to look for your brother?" he said.
"You!" She turned her head, and looked at him earnestly through her tears. "You, Mr. Audley! Do you think that I could ask you to make such a sacrifice for me, or for those I love?"
"And do you think, Clara, that I should think any sacrifice too great a one if it were made for you? Do you think there is any voyage I would refuse to take, if I knew that you would welcome me when I came home, and thank me for having served you faithfully? I will go from one end of the continent of Australia to the other to look for your brother, if you please, Clara; and will never return alive unless I bring him with me, and will take my chance of what reward you shall give me for my labor."
Her head was bent, and it was some moments before she answered him.
"You are very good and generous, Mr. Audley," she said, at last, "and I feel this offer too much to be able to thank you for it. But what you speak of could never be. By what right could I accept such a sacrifice?"
"By the right which makes me your bounden slave forever and ever, whether you will or no. By right of the love I bear you, Clara," cried Mr. Audley, dropping on his knees—rather awkwardly, it must be confessed—and covering a soft little hand, that he had found half hidden among the folds of a silken dress, with passionate kisses.
"I love you, Clara," he said, "I love you. You may call for your father, and have me turned out of the house this moment, if you like; but I shall go on loving you all the same; and I shall love you forever and ever, whether you will or no."
The little hand was drawn away from his, but not with a sudden or angry gesture, and it rested for one moment lightly and tremulously upon his dark hair.
"Clara, Clara!" he murmured, in a low, pleading voice, "shall I go to Australia to look for your brother?"
There was no answer. I don't know how it is, but there is scarcely anything more delicious than silence in such cases. Every moment of hesitation is a tacit avowal; every pause is a tender confession.
"Shall we both go, dearest? Shall we go as man and wife? Shall we go together, my dear love, and bring our brother back between us?"
Mr. Harcourt Talboys, coming into the lamplit room a quarter of an hour afterward, found Robert Audley alone, and had to listen to a revelation which very much surprised him. Like all self-sufficient people, he was tolerably blind to everything that happened under his nose, and he had fully believed that his own society, and the Spartan regularity of his household, had been the attractions which had made Dorsetshire delightful to his guest.
He was rather disappointed, therefore; but he bore his disappointment pretty well, and expressed a placid and rather stoical satisfaction at the turn which affairs had taken.
So Robert Audley went back to London, to surrender his chambers in Figtree Court, and to make all due inquiries about such ships as sailed from Liverpool for Sydney in the month of June.
He had lingered until after luncheon at Grange Heath, and it was in the dusky twilight that he entered the shady Temple courts and found his way to his chambers. He found Mrs. Maloney scrubbing the stairs, as was her wont upon a Saturday evening, and he had to make his way upward amidst an atmosphere of soapy steam, that made the balusters greasy under his touch.
"There's lots of letters, yer honor," the laundress said, as she rose from her knees and flattened herself against the wall to enable Robert to pass her, "and there's some parcels, and there's a gentleman which has called ever so many times, and is waitin' to-night, for I towld him you'd written to me to say your rooms were to be aired."
He opened the door of his sitting-room, and walked in. The canaries were singing their farewell to the setting sun, and the faint, yellow light was flickering upon the geranium leaves. The visitor, whoever he was, sat with his back to the window and his head bent upon his breast. But he started up as Robert Audley entered the room, and the young man uttered a great cry of delight and surprise, and opened his arms to his lost friend, George Talboys.
We know how much Robert had to tell. He touched lightly and tenderly upon that subject which he knew was cruelly painful to his friends; he said very little of the wretched woman who was wearing out the remnant of her wicked life in the quiet suburb of the forgotten Belgian city.
George Talboys spoke very briefly of that sunny seventh of September, upon which he had left his friend sleeping by the trout stream while he went to accuse his false wife of that conspiracy which had well nigh broken his heart.
"God knows that from the moment in which I sunk into the black pit, knowing the treacherous hand that had sent me to what might have been my death, my chief thought was of the safety of the woman who had betrayed me. I fell upon my feet upon a mass of slush and mire, but my shoulder was bruised, and my arm broken against the side of the well. I was stunned and dazed for a few minutes, but I roused myself by an effort, for I felt that the atmosphere I breathed was deadly. I had my Australian experiences to help me in my peril; I could climb like a cat. The stones of which the well was built were rugged and irregular, and I was able to work my way upward by planting my feet in the interstices of the stones, and resting my back at times against the opposite side of the well, helping myself as well as I could with my hands, though one arm was crippled. It was hard work, Bob, and it seems strange that a man who had long professed himself weary of his life, should take so much trouble to preserve it. I think I must have been working upward of half an hour before I got to the top; I know the time seemed an eternity of pain and peril. It was impossible for me to leave the place until after dark without being observed, so I hid myself behind a clump of laurel-bushes, and lay down on the grass faint and exhausted to wait for nightfall. The man who found me there told you the rest. Robert."
"Yes, my poor old friend.—yes, he told me all."
George had never returned to Australia after all. He had gone on board the Victoria Regia, but had afterward changed his berth for one in another vessel belonging to the same owners, and had gone to New York, where he had stayed as long as he could endure the loneliness of an existence which separated him from every friend he had ever known.
"Jonathan was very kind to me, Bob," he said; "I had enough money to enable me to get on pretty well in my own quiet way and I meant to have started for the California gold fields to get more when that was gone. I might have made plenty of friends had I pleased, but I carried the old bullet in my breast; and what sympathy could I have with men who knew nothing of my grief? I yearned for the strong grasp of your hand, Bob; the friendly touch of the hand which had guided me through the darkest passage of my life."