THE MARK UPON MY LADY'S WRIST.
Robert found Sir Michael and Lady Audley in the drawing-room. My lady was sitting on a music-stool before the grand piano, turning over the leaves of some new music. She twirled upon the revolving seat, making a rustling with her silk flounces, as Mr. Robert Audley's name was announced; then, leaving the piano, she made her nephew a pretty, mock ceremonious courtesy.
"Thank you so much for the sables," she said, holding out her little fingers, all glittering and twinkling with the diamonds she wore upon them; "thank you for those beautiful sables. How good it was of you to get them for me."
Robert had almost forgotten the commission he had executed for Lady Audley during his Russian expedition. His mind was so full of George Talboys that he only acknowledged nay lady's gratitude by a bow.
"Would you believe it, Sir Michael?" he said. "That foolish chum of mine has gone back to London leaving me in the lurch."
"Mr. George Talboys returned to town?" exclaimed my lady, lifting her eyebrows. "What a dreadful catastrophe!" said Alicia, maliciously, "since Pythias, in the person of Mr. Robert Audley, cannot exist for half an hour without Damon, commonly known as George Talboys."
"He's a very good fellow," Robert said, stoutly; "and to tell the honest truth, I'm rather uneasy about him."
"Uneasy about him!" My lady was quite anxious to know why Robert was uneasy about his friend.
"I'll tell you why, Lady Audley," answered the young barrister. "George had a bitter blow a year ago in the death of his wife. He has never got over that trouble. He takes life pretty quietly--almost as quietly as I do--but he often talks very strangely, and I sometimes think that one day this grief will get the better of him, and he will do something rash."
Mr. Robert Audley spoke vaguely, but all three of his listeners knew that the something rash to which he alluded was that one deed for which there is no repentance.
There was a brief pause, during which Lady Audley arranged her yellow ringlets by the aid of the glass over the console table opposite to her.
"Dear me!" she said, "this is very strange. I did not think men were capable of these deep and lasting affections. I thought that one pretty face was as good as another pretty face to them; and that when number one with blue eyes and fair hair died, they had only to look out for number two, with dark eyes and black hair, by way of variety."
"George Talboys is not one of those men. I firmly believe that his wife's death broke his heart."
"How sad!" murmured Lady Audley. "It seems almost cruel of Mrs. Talboys to die, and grieve her poor husband so much."
"Alicia was right, she is childish," thought Robert as he looked at his aunt's pretty face.
My lady was very charming at the dinner-table; she professed the most bewitching incapacity for carving the pheasant set before her, and called Robert to her assistance.
"I could carve a leg of mutton at Mr. Dawson's," she said, laughing; "but a leg of mutton is so easy, and then I used to stand up."
Sir Michael watched the impression my lady made upon his nephew with a proud delight in her beauty and fascination.
"I am so glad to see my poor little woman in her usual good spirits once more," he said. "She was very down-hearted yesterday at a disappointment she met with in London."
"Yes, Mr. Audley, a very cruel one," answered my lady. "I received the other morning a telegraphic message from my dear old friend and school-mistress, telling me that she was dying, and that if I wanted to see her again, I must hasten to her immediately. The telegraphic dispatch contained no address, and of course, from that very circumstance, I imagined that she must be living in the house in which I left her three years ago. Sir Michael and I hurried up to town immediately, and drove straight to the old address. The house was occupied by strange people, who could give me no tidings of my friend. It is in a retired place, where there are very few tradespeople about. Sir Michael made inquiries at the few shops there are, but, after taking an immense deal of trouble, could discover nothing whatever likely to lead to the information we wanted. I have no friends in London, and had therefore no one to assist me except my dear, generous husband, who did all in his power, but in vain, to find my friend's new residence."
"It was very foolish not to send the address in the telegraphic message," said Robert.
"When people are dying it is not so easy to think of all these things," murmured my lady, looking reproachfully at Mr. Audley with her soft blue eyes.
In spite of Lady Audley's fascination, and in spite of Robert's very unqualified admiration of her, the barrister could not overcome a vague feeling of uneasiness on this quiet September evening.
As he sat in the deep embrasure of a mullioned window, talking to my lady, his mind wandered away to shady Figtree Court, and he thought of poor George Talboys smoking his solitary cigar in the room with the birds and canaries.
"I wish I'd never felt any friendliness for the fellow," he thought. "I feel like a man who has an only son whose life has gone wrong with him. I wish to Heaven I could give him back his wife, and send him down to Ventnor to finish his days in peace."
Still my lady's pretty musical prattle ran on as merrily and continuously as the babble in some brook; and still Robert's thoughts wandered, in spite of himself, to George Talboys.
He thought of him hurrying down to Southampton by the mail train to see his boy. He thought of him as he had often seen him spelling over the shipping advertisements in the _Times_, looking for a vessel to take him back to Australia. Once he thought of him with a shudder, lying cold and stiff at the bottom of some shallow stream with his dead face turned toward the darkening sky.
Lady Audley noticed his abstraction, and asked him what he was thinking of.
"George Talboys," he answered abruptly.
She gave a little nervous shudder.
"Upon my word," she said, "you make me quite uncomfortable by the way in which you talk of Mr. Talboys. One would think that something extraordinary had happened to him."
"God forbid! But I cannot help feeling uneasy about him."
Later in the evening Sir Michael asked for some music, and my lady went to the piano. Robert Audley strolled after her to the instrument to turn over the leaves of her music; but she played from memory, and he was spared the trouble his gallantry would have imposed upon him.
He carried a pair of lighted candles to the piano, and arranged them conveniently for the pretty musician. She struck a few chords, and then wandered into a pensive sonata of Beethoven's. It was one of the many paradoxes in her character, that love of somber and melancholy melodies, so opposite to her gay nature.
Robert Audley lingered by her side, and as he had no occupation in turning over the leaves of her music, he amused himself by watching her jeweled, white hands gliding softly over the keys, with the lace sleeves dropping away from, her graceful, arched wrists. He looked at her pretty fingers one by one; this one glittering with a ruby heart; that encircled by an emerald serpent; and about them all a starry glitter of diamonds. From the fingers his eyes wandered to the rounded wrists: the broad, flat, gold bracelet upon her right wrist dropped over her hand, as she executed a rapid passage. She stopped abruptly to rearrange it; but before she could do so Robert Audley noticed a bruise upon her delicate skin.
"You have hurt your arm, Lady Audley!" he exclaimed. She hastily replaced the bracelet.
"It is nothing," she said. "I am unfortunate in having a skin which the slightest touch bruises."
She went on playing, but Sir Michael came across the room to look into the matter of the bruise upon his wife's pretty wrist.
"What is it, Lucy?" he asked; "and how did it happen?"
"How foolish you all are to trouble yourselves about anything so absurd!" said Lady Audley, laughing. "I am rather absent in mind, and amused myself a few days ago by tying a piece of ribbon around my arm so tightly, that it left a bruise when I removed it."
"Hum!" thought Robert. "My lady tells little childish white lies; the bruise is of a more recent date than a few days ago; the skin has only just begun to change color."
Sir Michael took the slender wrist in his strong hand.
"Hold the candle, Robert," he said, "and let us look at this poor little arm."
It was not one bruise, but four slender, purple marks, such as might have been made by the four fingers of a powerful hand, that had grasped the delicate wrist a shade too roughly. A narrow ribbon, bound tightly, might have left some such marks, it is true, and my lady protested once more that, to the best of her recollection, that must have been how they were made.
Across one of the faint purple marks there was a darker tinge, as if a ring worn on one of those strong and cruel fingers had been ground into the tender flesh.
"I am sure my lady must tell white lies," thought Robert, "for I can't believe the story of the ribbon."
He wished his relations good-night and good-by at about half past ten o'clock; he should run up to London by the first train to look for George in Figtree Court.
"If I don't find him there I shall go to Southampton," he said; "and if I don't find him there--"
"What then?" asked my lady.
"I shall think that something strange has happened."
Robert Audley felt very low-spirited as he walked slowly home between the shadowy meadows; more low-spirited still when he re-entered the sitting room at Sun Inn, where he and George had lounged together, staring out of the window and smoking their cigars.
"To think," he said, meditatively, "that it is possible to care so much for a fellow! But come what may, I'll go up to town after him the first thing to-morrow morning; and, sooner than be balked in finding him, I'll go to the very end of the world."
With Mr. Audley's lymphatic nature, determination was so much the exception rather than the rule, that when he did for once in his life resolve upon any course of action, he had a certain dogged, iron-like obstinacy that pushed him on to the fulfillment of his purpose.
The lazy bent of his mind, which prevented him from thinking of half a dozen things at a time, and not thinking thoroughly of any one of them, as is the manner of your more energetic people, made him remarkably clear-sighted upon any point to which he ever gave his serious attention.
Indeed, after all, though solemn benchers laughed at him, and rising barristers shrugged their shoulders under rustling silk gowns, when people spoke of Robert Audley, I doubt if, had he ever taken the trouble to get a brief, he might not have rather surprised the magnates who underrated his abilities.
The September sunlight sparkled upon the fountain in the Temple Gardens when Robert Audley returned to Figtree Court early the following morning.
He found the canaries singing in the pretty little room in which George had slept, but the apartment was in the same prim order in which the laundress had arranged it after the departure of the two young men--not a chair displaced, or so much as the lid of a cigar-box lifted, to bespeak the presence of George Talboys. With a last, lingering hope, he searched upon the mantelpieces and tables of his rooms, on the chance of finding some letter left by George.
"He may have slept here last night, and started for Southampton early this morning," he thought. "Mrs. Maloney has been here, very likely, to make everything tidy after him."
But as he sat looking lazily around the room, now and then whistling to his delighted canaries, a slipshod foot upon the staircase without bespoke the advent of that very Mrs. Maloney who waited upon the two young men.
No, Mr. Talboys had not come home; she had looked in as early as six o'clock that morning, and found the chambers empty.
"Had anything happened to the poor, dear gentleman?" she asked, seeing Robert Audley's pale face.
He turned around upon her quite savagely at this question.
Happened to him! What should happen to him? They had only parted at two o'clock the day before.
Mrs. Maloney would have related to him the history of a poor dear young engine-driver, who had once lodged with her, and who went out, after eating a hearty dinner, in the best of spirits, to meet with his death from the concussion of an express and a luggage train; but Robert put on his hat again, and walked straight out of the house before the honest Irishwoman could begin her pitiful story.
It was growing dusk when he reached Southampton. He knew his way to the poor little terrace of houses, in a full street leading down to the water, where George's father-in-law lived. Little Georgey was playing at the open parlor window as the young man walked down the street.
Perhaps it was this fact, and the dull and silent aspect of the house, which filled Robert Audley's mind with a vague conviction that the man he came to look for was not there. The old man himself opened the door, and the child peeped out of the parlor to see the strange gentleman.
He was a handsome boy, with his father's brown eyes and dark waving hair, and with some latent expression which was not his father's and which pervaded his whole face, so that although each feature of the child resembled the same feature in George Talboys, the boy was not actually like him.
Mr. Maldon was delighted to see Robert Audley; he remembered having had the pleasure of meeting him at Ventnor, on the melancholy occasion of--He wiped his watery old eyes by way of conclusion to the sentence. Would Mr. Audley walk in? Robert strode into the parlor. The furniture was shabby and dingy, and the place reeked with the smell of stale tobacco and brandy-and-water. The boy's broken playthings, and the old man's broken clay pipes and torn, brandy-and-water-stained newspapers were scattered upon the dirty carpet. Little Georgey crept toward the visitor, watching him furtively out of his big, brown eyes. Robert took the boy on his knee, and gave him his watch-chain to play with while he talked to the old man.
"I need scarcely ask the question that I come to ask," he said; "I was in hopes I should have found your son-in-law here."
"What! you knew that he was coming to Southampton?"
"Knew that he was coming?" cried Robert, brightening up. "He _is_ here, then?"
"No, he is not here now; but he has been here."
"Late last night; he came by the mail."
"And left again immediately?"
"He stayed little better than an hour."
"Good Heaven!" said Robert, "what useless anxiety that man has given me! What can be the meaning of all this?"
"You knew nothing of his intention, then?"
"Of what intention?"
"I mean of his determination to go to Australia."
"I know that it was always in his mind more or less, but not more just now than usual."
"He sails to-night from Liverpool. He came here at one o'clock this morning to have a look at the boy, he said, before he left England, perhaps never to return. He told me he was sick of the world, and that the rough life out there was the only thing to suit him. He stayed an hour, kissed the boy without awaking him, and left Southampton by the mail that starts at a quarter-past two."
"What can be the meaning of all this?" said Robert. "What could be his motive for leaving England in this manner, without a word to me, his most intimate friend--without even a change of clothes; for he has left everything at my chambers? It is the most extraordinary proceeding!"
The old man looked very grave. "Do you know, Mr. Audley," he said, tapping his forehead significantly, "I sometimes fancy that Helen's death had a strange effect upon poor George."
"Pshaw!" cried Robert, contemptuously; "he felt the blow most cruelly, but his brain was as sound as yours or mine."
"Perhaps he will write to you from Liverpool," said George's father-in-law. He seemed anxious to smooth over any indignation that Robert might feel at his friend's conduct.
"He ought," said Robert, gravely, "for we've been good friends from the days when we were together at Eton. It isn't kind of George Talboys to treat me like this."
But even at the moment that be uttered the reproach a strange thrill of remorse shot through his heart.
"It isn't like him," he said, "it isn't like George Talboys."
Little Georgey caught at the sound. "That's my name," he said, "and my papa's name--the big gentleman's name."
"Yes, little Georgey, and your papa came last night and kissed you in your sleep. Do you remember?"
"No," said the boy, shaking his curly little head.
"You must have been very fast asleep, little Georgey, not to see poor papa."
The child did not answer, but presently, fixing his eyes upon Robert's face, he said abruptly:
"Where's the pretty lady?"
"What pretty lady?"
"The pretty lady that used to come a long while ago."
"He means his poor mamma," said the old man.
"No," cried the boy resolutely, "not mamma. Mamma was always crying. I didn't like mamma--"
"Hush, little Georgey!"
"But I didn't, and she didn't like me. She was always crying. I mean the pretty lady; the lady that was dressed so fine, and that gave me my gold watch."
"He means the wife of my old captain--an excellent creature, who took a great fancy to Georgey, and gave him some handsome presents."
"Where's my gold watch? Let me show the gentleman my gold watch," cried Georgey.
"It's gone to be cleaned, Georgey," answered his grandfather.
"It's always going to be cleaned," said the boy.
"The watch is perfectly safe, I assure you, Mr. Audley," murmured the old man, apologetically; and taking out a pawnbroker's duplicate, he handed it to Robert.
It was made out in the name of Captain Mortimer: "Watch, set with diamonds, L11."
"I'm often hard pressed for a few shillings, Mr. Audley," said the old man. "My son-in-law has been very liberal to me; but there are others, there are others, Mr. Audley--and--and--I've not been treated well." He wiped away some genuine tears as he said this in a pitiful, crying voice. "Come, Georgey, it's time the brave little man was in bed. Come along with grandpa. Excuse me for a quarter of an hour, Mr. Audley."
The boy went very willingly. At the door of the room the old man looked back at his visitor, and said in the same peevish voice, "This is a poor place for me to pass my declining years in, Mr. Audley. I've made many sacrifices, and I make them still, but I've not been treated well."
Left alone in the dusky little sitting-room, Robert Audley folded his arms, and sat absently staring at the floor.
George was gone, then; he might receive some letter of explanation perhaps, when he returned to London; but the chances were that he would never see his old friend again.
"And to think that I should care so much for the fellow!" he said, lifting his eyebrows to the center of his forehead.
"The place smells of stale tobacco like a tap-room," he muttered presently; "there can be no harm in my smoking a cigar here."
He took one from the case in his pocket: there was a spark of fire in the little grate, and he looked about for something to light his cigar with.
A twisted piece of paper lay half burned upon the hearthrug; he picked it up, and unfolded it, in order to get a better pipe-light by folding it the other way of the paper. As he did so, absently glancing at the penciled writing upon the fragment of thin paper, a portion of a name caught his eye--a portion of the name that was most in his thoughts. He took the scrap of paper to the window, and examined it by the declining light.
It was part of a telegraphic dispatch. The upper portion had been burnt away, but the more important part, the greater part of the message itself, remained.
"--alboys came to last night, and left by the mail for London, on his way to Liverpool, whence he was to sail for Sydney."
The date and the name and address of the sender of the message had been burnt with the heading. Robert Audley's face blanched to a deathly whiteness. He carefully folded the scrap of paper, and placed it between the leaves of his pocket-book.
"My God!" he said, "what is the meaning of this? I shall go to Liverpool to-night, and make inquiries there!"