LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
THE HEADSTONE AT VENTNOR
Yes, there it was in black and white—"Helen Talboys, aged 22."
When George told the governess on board the Argus that if he heard any evil tidings of his wife he should drop down dead, he spoke in perfect good faith; and yet, here were the worst tidings that could come to him, and he sat rigid, white and helpless, staring stupidly at the shocked face of his friend.
The suddenness of the blow had stunned him. In this strange and bewildered state of mind he began to wonder what had happened, and why it was that one line in the Times newspaper could have so horrible an effect upon him.
Then by degrees even this vague consciousness of his misfortune faded slowly out of his mind, succeeded by a painful consciousness of external things.
The hot August sunshine, the dusty window-panes and shabby-painted blinds, a file of fly-blown play-bills fastened to the wall, the black and empty fire-places, a bald-headed old man nodding over the Morning Advertizer, the slip-shod waiter folding a tumbled table-cloth, and Robert Audley's handsome face looking at him full of compassionate alarm—he knew that all these things took gigantic proportions, and then, one by one, melted into dark blots and swam before his eyes, He knew that there was a great noise, as of half a dozen furious steam-engines tearing and grinding in his ears, and he knew nothing more—except that somebody or something fell heavily to the ground.
He opened his eyes upon the dusky evening in a cool and shaded room, the silence only broken by the rumbling of wheels at a distance.
He looked about him wonderingly, but half indifferently. His old friend, Robert Audley, was seated by his side smoking. George was lying on a low iron bedstead opposite to an open window, in which there was a stand of flowers and two or three birds in cages.
"You don't mind the pipe, do you, George?" his friend asked, quietly.
He lay for some time looking at the flowers and the birds; one canary was singing a shrill hymn to the setting sun.
"Do the birds annoy you, George? Shall I take them out of the room?"
"No; I like to hear them sing."
Robert Audley knocked the ashes out of his pipe, laid the precious meerschaum tenderly upon the mantelpiece, and going into the next room, returned presently with a cup of strong tea.
"Take this, George," he said, as he placed the cup on a little table close to George's pillow; "it will do your head good."
The young man did not answer, but looked slowly round the room, and then at his friend's grave face.
"Bob," he said, "where are we?"
"In my chambers, dear boy, in the Temple. You have no lodgings of your own, so you may as well stay with me while you're in town."
George passed his hand once or twice across his forehead, and then, in a hesitating manner, said, quietly:
"That newspaper this morning, Bob; what was it?"
"Never mind just now, old boy; drink some tea."
"Yes, yes," cried George, impatiently, raising himself upon the bed, and staring about him with hollow eyes. "I remember all about it. Helen! my Helen! my wife, my darling, my only love! Dead, dead!"
"George," said Robert Audley, laying his hand gently upon the young man's arm, "you must remember that the person whose name you saw in the paper may not be your wife. There may have been some other Helen Talboys."
"No, no!" he cried; "the age corresponds with hers, and Talboys is such an uncommon name."
"It may be a misprint for Talbot."
"No, no, no; my wife is dead!"
He shook off Robert's restraining hand, and rising from the bed, walked straight to the door.
"Where are you going?" exclaimed his friend.
"To Ventnor, to see her grave."
"Not to-night, George, not to-night. I will go with you myself by the first train to-morrow."
Robert led him back to the bed, and gently forced him to lie down again. He then gave him an opiate, which had been left for him by the medical man whom they had called in at the coffee-house in Bridge street, when George fainted.
So George Talboys fell into a heavy slumber, and dreamed that he went to Ventnor, to find his wife alive and happy, but wrinkled, old, and gray, and to find his son grown into a young man.
Early the next morning he was seated opposite to Robert Audley in the first-class carriage of an express, whirling through the pretty open country toward Portsmouth.
They landed at Ventnor under the burning heat of the midday sun. As the two young men came from the steamer, the people on the pier stared at George's white face and untrimmed beard.
"What are we to do, George?" Robert Audley asked. "We have no clew to finding the people you want to see."
The young man looked at him with a pitiful, bewildered expression. The big dragoon was as helpless as a baby; and Robert Audley, the most vacillating and unenergetic of men, found himself called upon to act for another. He rose superior to himself, and equal to the occasion.
"Had we not better ask at one of the hotels about a Mrs. Talboys, George?" he said.
"Her father's name was Maldon," George muttered; "he could never have sent her here to die alone."
They said nothing more; but Robert walked straight to a hotel where he inquired for a Mr. Maldon.
Yes, they told him, there was a gentleman of that name stopping at Ventnor, a Captain Maldon; his daughter was lately dead. The waiter would go and inquire for the address.
The hotel was a busy place at this season; people hurrying in and out, and a great bustle of grooms and waiters about the halls.
George Talboys leaned against the doorpost, with much the same look in his face, as that which had frightened his friend in the Westminister coffee-house.
The worst was confirmed now. His wife, Captain Maldon's daughter was dead.
The waiter returned in about five minutes to say that Captain Maldon was lodging at Lansdowne Cottage, No. 4.
They easily found the house, a shabby, low-windowed cottage, looking toward the water.
Was Captain Maldon at home? No, the landlady said; he had gone out on the beach with his little grandson. Would the gentleman walk in and sit down a bit?
George mechanically followed his friend into the little front parlor—dusty, shabbily furnished, and disorderly, with a child's broken toys scattered on the floor, and the scent of stale tobacco hanging about the muslin window-curtains.
"Look!" said George, pointing to a picture over the mantelpiece.
It was his own portrait, painted in the old dragooning days. A pretty good likeness, representing him in uniform, with his charger in the background.
Perhaps the most animated of men would have been scarcely so wise a comforter as Robert Audley. He did not utter a word to the stricken widower, but quietly seated himself with his back to George, looking out of the open window.
For some time the young man wandered restlessly about the room, looking at and sometimes touching the nick-nacks lying here and there.
Her workbox, with an unfinished piece of work; her album full of extracts from Byron and Moore, written in his own scrawling hand; some books which he had given her, and a bunch of withered flowers in a vase they had bought in Italy.
"Her portrait used to hang by the side of mine," he muttered; "I wonder what they have done with it."
By-and-by he said, after about an hour's silence:
"I should like to see the woman of the house; I should like to ask her about—"
He broke down, and buried his face in his hands.
Robert summoned the landlady. She was a good-natured garrulous creature, accustomed to sickness and death, for many of her lodgers came to her to die.
She told all the particulars of Mrs. Talboys' last hours; how she had come to Ventnor only ten days before her death, in the last stage of decline; and how, day by day, she had gradually, but surely, sunk under the fatal malady. Was the gentleman any relative? she asked of Robert Audley, as George sobbed aloud.
"Yes, he is the lady's husband."
"What!" the woman cried; "him as deserted her so cruel, and left her with her pretty boy upon her poor old father's hands, which Captain Maldon has told me often, with the tears in his poor eyes?"
"I did not desert her," George cried out; and then he told the history of his three years' struggle.
"Did she speak of me?" he asked; "did she speak of me—at—at the last?"
"No, she went off as quiet as a lamb. She said very little from the first; but the last day she knew nobody, not even her little boy, nor her poor old father, who took on awful. Once she went off wild-like, talking about her mother, and about the cruel shame it was to leave her to die in a strange place, till it was quite pitiful to hear her."
"Her mother died when she was quite a child," said George. "To think that she should remember her and speak of her, but never once of me."
The woman took him into the little bedroom in which his wife had died. He knelt down by the bed and kissed the pillow tenderly, the landlady crying as he did so.
While he was kneeling, praying, perhaps, with his face buried in this humble, snow-white pillow, the woman took something from a drawer. She gave it to him when he rose from his knees; it was a long tress of hair wrapped in silver paper.
"I cut this off when she lay in her coffin," she said, "poor dear?"
He pressed the soft lock to his lips. "Yes," he murmured; "this is the dear hair that I have kissed so often when her head lay upon my shoulder. But it always had a rippling wave in it then, and now it seems smooth and straight."
"It changes in illness," said the landlady. "If you'd like to see where they have laid her, Mr. Talboys, my little boy shall show you the way to the churchyard."
So George Talboys and his faithful friend walked to the quiet spot, where, beneath a mound of earth, to which the patches of fresh turf hardly adhered, lay that wife of whose welcoming smile George had dreamed so often in the far antipodes.
Robert left the young man by the side of this newly-made grave, and returning in about a quarter of an hour, found that he had not once stirred.
He looked up presently, and said that if there was a stone-mason's anywhere near he should like to give an order.
They very easily found the stonemason, and sitting down amidst the fragmentary litter of the man's yard, George Talboys wrote in pencil this brief inscription for the headstone of his dead wife's grave:
Sacred to the Memory of
THE BELOVED WIFE OF GEORGE TALBOYS,
"Who departed this life
August 24th, 18—, aged 22,
Deeply regretted by her sorrowing Husband.