LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
ANYWHERE, ANYWHERE OUT OF THE WORLD
When they returned to Lansdowne Cottage they found the old man had not yet come in, so they walked down to the beach to look for him. After a brief search they found him, sitting upon a heap of pebbles, reading a newspaper and eating filberts. The little boy was at some distance from his grandfather, digging in the sand with a wooden spade. The crape round the old man's shabby hat, and the child's poor little black frock, went to George's heart. Go where he would he met fresh confirmation of this great grief of his life. His wife was dead.
"Mr. Maldon," he said, as he approached his father-in-law.
The old man looked up, and, dropping his newspaper, rose from the pebbles with a ceremonious bow. His faded light hair was tinged with gray; he had a pinched hook nose; watery blue eyes, and an irresolute-looking mouth; he wore his shabby dress with an affectation of foppish gentility; an eye-glass dangled over his closely buttoned-up waistcoat, and he carried a cane in his ungloved hand.
"Great Heaven!" cried George, "don't you know me?"
Mr. Maldon started and colored violently, with something of a frightened look, as he recognized his son-in-law.
"My dear boy," he said, "I did not; for the first moment I did not. That beard makes such a difference. You find the beard makes a great difference, do you not, sir?" he said, appealing to Robert.
"Great heavens!" exclaimed George Talboys, "is this the way you welcome me? I come to England to find my wife dead within a week of my touching land, and you begin to chatter to me about my beard—you, her father!"
"True! true!" muttered the old man, wiping his bloodshot eyes; "a sad shock, a sad shock, my dear George. If you'd only been here a week earlier."
"If I had," cried George, in an outburst of grief and passion, "I scarcely think that I would have let her die. I would have disputed for her with death. I would! I would! Oh God! why did not the Argus go down with every soul on board her before I came to see this day?"
He began to walk up and down the beach, his father-in-law looking helplessly at him, rubbing his feeble eyes with a handkerchief.
"I've a strong notion that that old man didn't treat his daughter too well," thought Robert, as he watched the half-pay lieutenant. "He seems, for some reason or other, to be half afraid of George."
While the agitated young man walked up and down in a fever of regret and despair, the child ran to his grandfather, and clung about the tails of his coat.
"Come home, grandpa, come home," he said. "I'm tired."
George Talboys turned at the sound of the babyish voice, and looked long and earnestly at the boy.
He had his father's brown eyes and dark hair.
"My darling! my darling!" said George, taking the child in his arms, "I am your father, come across the sea to find you. Will you love me?"
The little fellow pushed him away. "I don't know you," he said. "I love grandpa and Mrs. Monks at Southampton."
"Georgey has a temper of his own, sir," said the old man. "He has been spoiled."
They walked slowly back to the cottage, and once more George Talboys told the history of that desertion which had seemed so cruel. He told, too, of the twenty thousand pounds banked by him the day before. He had not the heart to ask any questions about the past, and his father-in-law only told him that a few months after his departure they had gone from the place where George left them to live at Southampton, where Helen got a few pupils for the piano, and where they managed pretty well till her health failed, and she fell into the decline of which she died. Like most sad stories it was a very brief one.
"The boy seems fond of you, Mr. Maldon," said George, after a pause.
"Yes, yes," answered the old man, smoothing the child's curling hair; "yes. Georgey is very fond of his grandfather."
"Then he had better stop with you. The interest of my money will be about six hundred a year. You can draw a hundred of that for Georgey's education, leaving the rest to accumulate till he is of age. My friend here will be trustee, and if he will undertake the charge, I will appoint him guardian to the boy, allowing him for the present to remain under your care."
"But why not take care of him yourself, George?" asked Robert Audley.
"Because I shall sail in the very next vessel that leaves Liverpool for Australia. I shall be better in the diggings or the backwoods than ever I could be here. I'm broken for a civilized life from this hour, Bob."
The old man's weak eyes sparkled as George declared this determination.
"My poor boy, I think you're right," he said, "I really think you're right. The change, the wild life, the—the—" He hesitated and broke down as Robert looked earnestly at him.
"You're in a great hurry to get rid of your son-in-law, I think, Mr. Maldon," he said, gravely.
"Get rid of him, dear boy! Oh, no, no! But for his own sake, my dear sir, for his own sake, you know."
"I think for his own sake he'd much better stay in England and look after his son," said Robert.
"But I tell you I can't," cried George; "every inch of this accursed ground is hateful to me—I want to run out of it as I would out of a graveyard. I'll go back to town to-night, get that business about the money settled early to-morrow morning, and start for Liverpool without a moment's delay. I shall be better when I've put half the world between me and her grave."
"Before he left the house he stole out to the landlady, and asked same more questions about his dead wife.
"Were they poor?" he asked, "were they pinched for money while she was ill?"
"Oh, no!" the woman answered; "though the captain dresses shabby, he has always plenty of sovereigns in his purse. The poor lady wanted for nothing."
George was relieved at this, though it puzzled him to know where the drunken half-pay lieutenant could have contrived to find money for all the expenses of his daughter's illness.
But he was too thoroughly broken down by the calamity which had befallen him to be able to think much of anything, so he asked no further questions, but walked with his father-in-law and Robert Audley down to the boat by which they were to cross to Portsmouth.
The old man bade Robert a very ceremonious adieu.
"You did not introduce me to your friend, by-the-bye, my dear boy," he said. George stared at him, muttered something indistinct, and ran down the ladder to the boat before Mr. Maldon could repeat his request. The steamer sped away through the sunset, and the outline of the island melted in the horizon as they neared the opposite shore.
"To think," said George, "that two nights ago, at this time, I was steaming into Liverpool, full of the hope of clasping her to my heart, and to-night I am going away from her grave!"
The document which appointed Robert Audley as guardian to little George Talboys was drawn up in a solicitor's office the next morning.
"It's a great responsibility," exclaimed Robert; "I, guardian to anybody or anything! I, who never in my life could take care of myself!"
"I trust in your noble heart, Bob," said George. "I know you will take care of my poor orphan boy, and see that he is well used by his grandfather. I shall only draw enough from Georgey's fortune to take me back to Sydney, and then begin my old work again."
But it seemed as if George was destined to be himself the guardian of his son; for when he reached Liverpool, he found that a vessel had just sailed, and that there would not be another for a month; so he returned to London, and once more threw himself upon Robert Audley's hospitality.
The barrister received him with open arms; he gave him the room with the birds and flowers, and had a bed put up in his dressing-room for himself. Grief is so selfish that George did not know the sacrifices his friend made for his comfort. He only knew that for him the sun was darkened, and the business of life done. He sat all day long smoking cigars, and staring at the flowers and canaries, chafing for the time to pass that he might be far out at sea.
But just as the hour was drawing near for the sailing of the vessel, Robert Audley came in one day, full of a great scheme.
A friend of his, another of those barristers whose last thought is of a brief, was going to St. Petersburg to spend the winter, and wanted Robert to accompany him. Robert would only go on condition that George went too.
For a long time the young man resisted; but when he found that Robert was, in a quiet way, thoroughly determined upon not going without him, he gave in, and consented to join the party. What did it matter? he said. One place was the same to him as another; anywhere out of England; what did he care where?
This was not a very cheerful way of looking at things, but Robert Audley was quite satisfied with having won his consent.
The three young men started under very favorable circumstances, carrying letters of introduction to the most influential inhabitants of the Russian capital.
Before leaving England, Robert wrote to his cousin Alicia, telling her of his intended departure with his old friend George Talboys, whom he had lately met for the first time after a lapse of years, and who had just lost his wife.
Alicia's reply came by return post, and ran thus:
"MY DEAR ROBERT—How cruel of you to run away to that horrid St. Petersburg before the hunting season! I have heard that people lose their noses in that disagreeable climate, and as yours is rather a long one, I should advise you to return before the very severe weather sets in. What sort of person is this Mr. Talboys? If he is very agreeable you may bring him to the Court as soon as you return from your travels. Lady Audley tells me to request you to secure her a set of sables. You are not to consider the price, but to be sure that they are the handsomest that can be obtained. Papa is perfectly absurd about his new wife, and she and I cannot get on together at all; not that she is, disagreeable to me, for, as far as that goes, she makes herself agreeable to every one; but she is so irretrievably childish and silly.
"Believe me to be, my dear Robert.
"Your affectionate cousin,