LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
IN THE FIRST PAGE OF "THE TIMES"
Robert Audley was supposed to be a barrister. As a barrister was his name inscribed in the law-list; as a barrister he had chambers in Figtree Court, Temple; as a barrister he had eaten the allotted number of dinners, which form the sublime ordeal through which the forensic aspirant wades on to fame and fortune. If these things can make a man a barrister, Robert Audley decidedly was one. But he had never either had a brief, or tried to get a brief, or even wished to have a brief in all those five years, during which his name had been painted upon one of the doors in Figtree Court. He was a handsome, lazy, care-for-nothing fellow, of about seven-and-twenty; the only son of a younger brother of Sir Michael Audley. His father had left him £400 a year, which his friends had advised him to increase by being called to the bar; and as he found it, after due consideration, more trouble to oppose the wishes of these friends than to eat so many dinners, and to take a set of chambers in the Temple, he adopted the latter course, and unblushingly called himself a barrister.
Sometimes, when the weather was very hot, and he had exhausted himself with the exertion of smoking his German pipe, and reading French novels, he would stroll into the Temple Gardens, and lying in some shady spot, pale and cool, with his shirt collar turned down and a blue silk handkerchief tied loosely about his neck, would tell grave benchers that he had knocked himself up with over work.
The sly old benchers laughed at the pleasant fiction; but they all agreed that Robert Audley was a good fellow; a generous-hearted fellow; rather a curious fellow, too, with a fund of sly wit and quiet humor, under his listless, dawdling, indifferent, irresolute manner. A man who would never get on in the world; but who would not hurt a worm. Indeed, his chambers were converted into a perfect dog-kennel, by his habit of bringing home stray and benighted curs, who were attracted by his looks in the street, and followed him with abject fondness.
Robert always spent the hunting season at Audley Court; not that he was distinguished as a Nimrod, for he would quietly trot to covert upon a mild-tempered, stout-limbed bay hack, and keep at a very respectful distance from the hard riders; his horse knowing quite as well as he did, that nothing was further from his thoughts than any desire to be in at the death.
The young man was a great favorite with his uncle, and by no means despised by his pretty, gipsy-faced, light-hearted, hoydenish cousin, Miss Alice Audley. It might have seemed to other men, that the partiality of a young lady who was sole heiress to a very fine estate, was rather well worth cultivating, but it did not so occur to Robert Audley. Alicia was a very nice girl, he said, a jolly girl, with no nonsense about her—a girl of a thousand; but this was the highest point to which enthusiasm could carry him. The idea of turning his cousin's girlish liking for him to some good account never entered his idle brain. I doubt if he even had any correct notion of the amount of his uncle's fortune, and I am certain that he never for one moment calculated upon the chances of any part of that fortune ultimately coming to himself. So that when, one fine spring morning, about three months before the time of which I am writing, the postman brought him the wedding cards of Sir Michael and Lady Audley, together with a very indignant letter from his cousin, setting forth how her father had just married a wax-dollish young person, no older than Alicia herself, with flaxen ringlets, and a perpetual giggle; for I am sorry to say that Miss Audley's animus caused her thus to describe that pretty musical laugh which had been so much admired in the late Miss Lucy Graham—when, I say, these documents reached Robert Audley—they elicited neither vexation nor astonishment in the lymphatic nature of that gentleman. He read Alicia's angry crossed and recrossed letter without so much as removing the amber mouth-piece of his German pipe from his mustached lips. When he had finished the perusal of the epistle, which he read with his dark eyebrows elevated to the center of his forehead (his only manner of expressing surprise, by the way) he deliberately threw that and the wedding cards into the waste-paper basket, and putting down his pipe, prepared himself for the exertion of thinking out the subject.
"I always said the old buffer would marry," he muttered, after about half an hour's revery. Alicia and my lady, the stepmother, will go at it hammer and tongs. I hope they won't quarrel in the hunting season, or say unpleasant things to each other at the dinner-table; rows always upset a man's digestion.
At about twelve o'clock on the morning following that night upon which the events recorded in my last chapter had taken place, the baronet's nephew strolled out of the Temple, Blackfriarsward, on his way to the city. He had in an evil hour obliged some necessitous friend by putting the ancient name of Audley across a bill of accommodation, which bill not having been provided for by the drawer, Robert was called upon to pay. For this purpose he sauntered up Ludgate Hill, with his blue necktie fluttering in the hot August air, and thence to a refreshingly cool banking-house in a shady court out of St. Paul's churchyard, where be made arrangements for selling out a couple of hundred pounds' worth of consols.
He had transacted this business, and was loitering at the corner of the court, waiting for a chance hansom to convey him back to the Temple, when he was almost knocked down by a man of about his own age, who dashed headlong into the narrow opening.
"Be so good as to look where you're going, my friend!" Robert remonstrated, mildly, to the impetuous passenger; "you might give a man warning before you throw him down and trample upon him."
The stranger stopped suddenly, looked very hard at the speaker, and then gasped for breath.
"Bob!" he cried, in a tone expressive of the most intense astonishment; "I only touched British ground after dark last night, and to think that I should meet you this morning."
"I've seen you somewhere before, my bearded friend," said Mr. Audley, calmly scrutinizing the animated face of the other, "but I'll be hanged if I can remember when or where."
"What!" exclaimed the stranger, reproachfully. "You don't mean to say that you've forgotten George Talboys?"
"No I have not!" said Robert, with an emphasis by no means usual to him; and then hooking his arm into that of his friend, he led him into the shady court, saying, with his old indifference, "and now, George tell us all about it."
George Talboys did tell him all about it. He told that very story which he had related ten days before to the pale governess on board the Argus; and then, hot and breathless, he said that he had twenty thousand pounds or so in his pocket, and that he wanted to bank it at Messrs. ——, who had been his bankers many years before.
"If you'll believe me, I've only just left their counting-house," said Robert. "I'll go back with you, and we'll settle that matter in five minutes."
They did contrive to settle it in about a quarter of an hour; and then Robert Audley was for starting off immediately for the Crown and Scepter, at Greenwich, or the Castle, at Richmond, where they could have a bit of dinner, and talk over those good old times when they were together at Eton. But George told his friend that before he went anywhere, before he shaved or broke his fast, or in any way refreshed himself after a night journey from Liverpool by express train, he must call at a certain coffee-house in Bridge street, Westminster, where he expected to find a letter from his wife.
As they dashed through Ludgate Hill, Fleet street, and the Strand, in a fast hansom, George Talboys poured into his friend's ear all those wild hopes and dreams which had usurped such a dominion over his sanguine nature.
"I shall take a villa on the banks of the Thames, Bob," he said, "for the little wife and myself; and we'll have a yacht, Bob, old boy, and you shall lie on the deck and smoke, while my pretty one plays her guitar and sings songs to us. She's for all the world like one of those what's-its-names, who got poor old Ulysses into trouble," added the young man, whose classic lore was not very great.
The waiters at the Westminster coffee-house stared at the hollow-eyed, unshaven stranger, with his clothes of colonial cut, and his boisterous, excited manner; but he had been an old frequenter of the place in his military days, and when they heard who he was they flew to do his bidding.
He did not want much—only a bottle of soda-water, and to know if there was a letter at the bar directed to George Talboys.
The waiter brought the soda-water before the young men had seated themselves in a shady box near the disused fire-place. No; there was no letter for that name.
The waiter said it with consummate indifference, while he mechanically dusted the little mahogany table.
George's face blanched to a deadly whiteness. "Talboys," he said; "perhaps you didn't hear the name distinctly—T, A, L, B, O, Y, S. Go and look again, there must be a letter."
The waiter shrugged his shoulders as he left the room, and returned in three minutes to say that there was no name at all resembling Talboys in the letter rack. There was Brown, and Sanderson, and Pinchbeck; only three letters altogether.
The young man drank his soda-water in silence, and then, leaning his elbows on the table, covered his face with his hands. There was something in his manner which told Robert Audley that his disappointment, trifling as it may appear, was in reality a very bitter one. He seated himself opposite to his friend, but did not attempt to address him.
By-and-by George looked up, and mechanically taking a greasy Times newspaper of the day before from a heap of journals on the table, stared vacantly at the first page.
I cannot tell how long he sat blankly staring at one paragraph among the list of deaths, before his dazed brain took in its full meaning; but after considerable pause he pushed the newspaper over to Robert Audley, and with a face that had changed from its dark bronze to a sickly, chalky grayish white, and with an awful calmness in his manner, he pointed with his finger to a line which ran thus:
"On the 24th inst., at Ventnor, Isle of Wight, Helen Talboys, aged 22."