AT THE CASTLE INN.
The little sitting-room into which Phoebe Marks ushered the baronet's nephew was situated on the ground floor, and only separated by a lath-and-plaster partition from the little bar-parlor occupied by the innkeeper and his wife.
It seemed as though the wise architect who had superintended the building of the Castle Inn had taken especial care that nothing but the frailest and most flimsy material should be used, and that the wind, having a special fancy for this unprotected spot, should have full play for the indulgence of its caprices.
To this end pitiful woodwork had been used instead of solid masonry; rickety ceilings had been propped up by fragile rafters, and beams that threatened on every stormy night to fall upon the heads of those beneath them; doors whose specialty was never to be shut, yet always to be banging; windows constructed with a peculiar view to letting in the draft when they were shut, and keeping out the air when they were open. The hand of genius had devised this lonely country inn; and there was not an inch of woodwork, or trowelful of plaster employed in all the rickety construction that did not offer its own peculiar weak point to every assault of its indefatigable foe.
Robert looked about him with a feeble smile of resignation.
It was a change, decidedly, from the luxurious comforts of Audley Court, and it was rather a strange fancy of the young barrister to prefer loitering at this dreary village hostelry to returning to his snug chambers in Figtree Court.
But he had brought his Lares and Penates with him, in the shape of his German pipe, his tobacco canister, half a dozen French novels, and his two ill-conditioned, canine favorites, which sat shivering before the smoky little fire, barking shortly and sharply now and then, by way of hinting for some slight refreshment.
While Mr. Robert Audley contemplated his new quarters, Phoebe Marks summoned a little village lad who was in the habit of running errands for her, and taking him into the kitchen, gave him a tiny note, carefully folded and sealed.
"You know Audley Court?"
"If you'll run there with this letter to-night, and see that it's put safely in Lady Audley's hands, I'll give you a shilling."
"You understand? Ask to see my lady; you can say you've a message--not a note, mind--but a message from Phoebe Marks; and when you see her, give this into her own hand."
"You won't forget?"
"Then be off with you."
The boy waited for no second bidding, but in another moment was scudding along the lonely high road, down the sharp descent that led to Audley.
Phoebe Marks went to the window, and looked out at the black figure of the lad hurrying through the dusky winter evening.
"If there's any bad meaning in his coming here," she thought, "my lady will know of it in time, at any rate,"
Phoebe herself brought the neatly arranged tea-tray, and the little covered dish of ham and eggs which had been prepared for this unlooked-for visitor. Her pale hair was as smoothly braided, and her light gray dress fitted as precisely as of old. The same neutral tints pervaded her person and her dress; no showy rose-colored ribbons or rustling silk gown proclaimed the well-to-do innkeeper's wife. Phoebe Marks was a person who never lost her individuality. Silent and self-constrained, she seemed to hold herself within herself, and take no color from the outer world.
Robert looked at her thoughtfully as she spread the cloth, and drew the table nearer to the fireplace.
"That," he thought, "is a woman who could keep a secret."
The dogs looked rather suspiciously at the quiet figure of Mrs. Marks gliding softly about the room, from the teapot to the caddy, and from the caddy to the kettle singing on the hob.
"Will you pour out my tea for me, Mrs. Marks?" said Robert, seating himself on a horsehair-covered arm-chair, which fitted him as tightly in every direction as if he had been measured for it.
"You have come straight from the Court, sir?" said Phoebe, as she handed Robert the sugar-basin.
"Yes; I only left my uncle's an hour ago."
"And my lady, sir, was she quite well?"
"Yes, quite well."
"As gay and light-hearted as ever, sir?"
"As gay and light-hearted as ever."
Phoebe retired respectfully after having given Mr. Audley his tea, but as she stood with her hand upon the lock of the door he spoke again.
"You knew Lady Audley when she was Miss Lucy Graham, did you not?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. I lived at Mrs. Dawson's when my lady was governess there."
"Indeed! Was she long in the surgeon's family?"
"A year and a half, sir."
"And she came from London?"
"And she was an orphan, I believe?"
"Always as cheerful as she is now?"
Robert emptied his teacup and handed it to Mrs. Marks. Their eyes met--a lazy look in his, and an active, searching glance in hers.
"This woman would be good in a witness-box," he thought; "it would take a clever lawyer to bother her in a cross-examination."
He finished his second cup of tea, pushed away his plate, fed his dogs, and lighted his pipe, while Phoebe carried off the tea-tray.
The wind came whistling up across the frosty open country, and through the leafless woods, and rattled fiercely at the window-frames.
"There's a triangular draught from those two windows and the door that scarcely adds to the comfort of this apartment," murmured Robert; "and there certainly are pleasanter sensations than that of standing up to one's knees in cold water."
He poked the fire, patted his dogs, put on his great coat, rolled a rickety old sofa close to the hearth, wrapped his legs in his railway rug, and stretching himself at full length upon the narrow horsehair cushion, smoked his pipe, and watched the bluish-gray wreaths curling upward to the dingy ceiling.
"No," he murmured, again; "that is a woman who can keep a secret. A counsel for the prosecution could get very little out of her."
I have said that the bar-parlor was only separated from the sitting-room occupied by Robert by a lath-and-plaster partition. The young barrister could hear the two or three village tradesmen and a couple of farmers laughing and talking round the bar, while Luke Marks served them from his stock of liquors.
Very often he could even hear their words, especially the landlord's, for he spoke in a coarse, loud voice, and had a more boastful manner than any of his customers.
"The man is a fool," said Robert, as he laid down his pipe. "I'll go and talk to him by-and-by."
He waited till the few visitors to the Castle had dropped away one by one, and when Luke Marks had bolted the door upon the last of his customers, he strolled quietly into the bar-parlor, where the landlord was seated with his wife.
Phoebe was busy at a little table, upon which stood a prim work-box, with every reel of cotton and glistening steel bodkin in its appointed place. She was darning the coarse gray stockings that adorned her husband's awkward feet, but she did her work as daintily as if they had been my lady's delicate silken hose.
I say that she took no color from external things, and that the vague air of refinement that pervaded her nature clung to her as closely in the society of her boorish husband at the Castle Inn as in Lady Audley's boudoir at the Court.
She looked up suddenly as Robert entered the bar-parlor. There was some shade of vexation in her pale gray eyes, which changed to an expression of anxiety--nay, rather of almost terror--as she glanced from Mr. Audley to Luke Marks.
"I have come in for a few minutes' chat before I go to bed," said Robert, settling himself very comfortably before the cheerful fire. "Would you object to a cigar, Mrs. Marks? I mean, of course, to my smoking one," he added, explanatorily.
"Not at all, sir."
"It would be a good 'un her objectin' to a bit o' 'bacca," growled Mr. Marks, "when me and the customers smokes all day."
Robert lighted his cigar with a gilt-paper match of Phoebe's making that adorned the chimney-piece, and took half a dozen reflective puffs before he spoke.
"I want you to tell me all about Mount Stanning, Mr. Marks," he said, presently.
"Then that's pretty soon told," replied Luke, with a harsh, grating laugh. "Of all the dull holes as ever a man set foot in, this is about the dullest. Not that the business don't pay pretty tidy; I don't complain of that; but I should ha' liked a public at Chelmsford, or Brentwood, or Romford, or some place where there's a bit of life in the streets; and I might have had it," he added, discontentedly, "if folks hadn't been so precious stingy."
As her husband muttered this complaint in a grumbling undertone, Phoebe looked up from her work and spoke to him.
"We forgot the brew-house door, Luke," she said. "Will you come with me and help me put up the bar?"
"The brew-house door can bide for to-night," said Mr. Marks; "I ain't agoin' to move now. I've seated myself for a comfortable smoke."
He took a long clay pipe from a corner of the fender as he spoke, and began to fill it deliberately.
"I don't feel easy about that brew-house door, Luke," remonstrated his wife; "there are always tramps about, and they can get in easily when the bar isn't up."
"Go and put the bar up yourself, then, can't you?" answered Mr. Marks.
"It's too heavy for me to lift."
"Then let it bide, if you're too fine a lady to see to it yourself. You're very anxious all of a sudden about this here brew-house door. I suppose you don't want me to open my mouth to this here gent, that's about it. Oh, you needn't frown at me to stop my speaking! You're always putting in your tongue and clipping off my words before I've half said 'em; but I won't stand it."
"Do you hear? I won't stand it!"
Phoebe Marks shrugged her shoulders, folded her work, shut her work-box, and crossing her hands in her lap, sat with her gray eyes fixed upon her husband's bull-like face.
"Then you don't particularly care to live at Mount Stanning?" said Robert, politely, as if anxious to change the conversation.
"No, I don't," answered Luke; "and I don't care who knows it; and, as I said before, if folks hadn't been so precious stingy, I might have had a public in a thrivin' market town, instead of this tumble-down old place, where a man has his hair blowed off his head on a windy day. What's fifty pound, or what's a hundred pound--"
"No, you're not goin' to stop my mouth with all your 'Luke, Lukes!'" answered Mr. Marks to his wife's remonstrance. "I say again, what's a hundred pound?"
"No," answered Robert Audley, with wonderful distinctness, and addressing his words to Luke Marks, but fixing his eyes upon Phoebe's anxious face. "What, indeed, is a hundred pounds to a man possessed of the power which you hold, or rather which your wife holds, over the person in question."
"Phoebe's face, at all times almost colorless, seemed scarcely capable of growing paler; but as her eyelids drooped under Robert Audley's searching glance, a visible change came over the pallid hues of her complexion.
"A quarter to twelve," said Robert, looking at his watch.
"Late hours for such a quiet village as Mount Stanning. Good-night, my worthy host. Good-night, Mrs. Marks. You needn't send me my shaving water till nine o'clock to-morrow morning."
ROBERT RECEIVES A VISITOR WHOM HE HAD SCARCELY EXPECTED.
Eleven o'clock struck the next morning, and found Mr. Robert Audley still lounging over the well ordered little breakfast table, with one of his dogs at each side of his arm-chair, regarding him with watchful eyes and opened mouths, awaiting the expected morsel of ham or toast. Robert had a county paper on his knees, and made a feeble effort now and then to read the first page, which was filled with advertisements of farming stock, quack medicines, and other interesting matter.
The weather had changed, and the snow, which had for the last few days been looming blackly in the frosty sky, fell in great feathery flakes against the windows, and lay piled in the little bit of garden-ground without.
The long, lonely road leading toward Audley seemed untrodden by a footstep, as Robert Audley looked out at the wintry landscape.
"Lively," he said, "for a man used to the fascinations of Temple Bar."
As he watched the snow-flakes falling every moment thicker and faster upon the lonely road, he was surprised by seeing a brougham driving slowly up the hill.
"I wonder what unhappy wretch has too restless a spirit to stop at home on such a morning as this," he muttered, as he returned to the arm-chair by the fire.
He had only reseated himself a few moments when Phoebe Marks entered the room to announce Lady Audley.
"Lady Audley! Pray beg her to come in," said Robert; and then, as Phoebe left the room to usher in this unexpected visitor, he muttered between his teeth--"A false move, my lady, and one I never looked for from you."
Lucy Audley was radiant on this cold and snowy January morning. Other people's noses are rudely assailed by the sharp fingers of the grim ice-king, but not my lady's; other people's lips turn pale and blue with the chilling influence of the bitter weather, but my lady's pretty little rosebud of a mouth retained its brightest coloring and cheeriest freshness.
She was wrapped in the very sables which Robert Audley had brought from Russia, and carried a muff that the young man thought seemed almost as big as herself.
She looked a childish, helpless, babyfied little creature; and Robert looked down upon her with some touch of pity in his eyes, as she came up to the hearth by which he was standing, and warmed her tiny gloved hands at the blaze.
"What a morning, Mr. Audley!" she said, "what a morning!"
"Yes, indeed! Why did you come out in such weather?"
"Because I wished to see you--particularly."
"Yes," said my lady, with an air of considerable embarrassment, playing with the button of her glove, and almost wrenching it off in her restlessness--"yes, Mr. Audley, I felt that you had not been well treated; that--that you had, in short, reason to complain; and that an apology was due to you."
"I do not wish for any apology, Lady Audley."
"But you are entitled to one," answered my lady, quietly. "Why, my dear Robert, should we be so ceremonious toward each other? You were very comfortable at Audley; we were very glad to have you there; but, my dear, silly husband must needs take it into his foolish head that it is dangerous for his poor little wife's peace of mind to have a nephew of eight or nine and twenty smoking his cigars in her boudoir, and, behold! our pleasant little family circle is broken up."
Lucy Audley spoke with that peculiar childish vivacity which seemed so natural to her, Robert looking down almost sadly at her bright, animated face.
"Lady Audley," he said, "Heaven forbid that either you or I should ever bring grief or dishonor upon my uncle's generous heart! Better, perhaps, that I should be out of the house--better, perhaps, that I had never entered it!"
My lady had been looking at the fire while her nephew spoke, but at his last words she lifted her head suddenly, and looked him full in the face with a wondering expression--an earnest, questioning gaze, whose full meaning the young barrister understood.
"Oh, pray do not be alarmed, Lady Audley," he said, gravely. "You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas _fils_, to fear from me. The benchers of the Inner Temple will tell you that Robert Audley is troubled with none of the epidemics whose outward signs are turn-down collars and Byronic neckties. I say that I wish I had never entered my uncle's house during the last year; but I say it with a far more solemn meaning than any sentimental one."
My lady shrugged her shoulders.
"If you insist on talking in enigmas, Mr. Audley," she said, "you must forgive a poor little woman if she declines to answer them."
Robert made no reply to this speech.
"But tell me," said my lady, with an entire change of tone, "what could have induced you to come up to this dismal place?"
"Yes; I felt an interest in that bull-necked man, with the dark-red hair and wicked gray eyes. A dangerous man, my lady--a man in whose power I should not like to be."
A sudden change came over Lady Audley's face; the pretty, roseate flush faded out from her cheeks, and left them waxen white, and angry flashes lightened in her blue eyes.
"What have I done to you, Robert Audley," she cried, passionately--"what have I done to you that you should hate me so?"
He answered her very gravely:
"I had a friend, Lady Audley, whom I loved very dearly, and since I have lost him I fear that my feelings toward other people are strangely embittered."
"You mean the Mr. Talboys who went to Australia?"
"Yes, I mean the Mr. Talboys who I was told set out for Liverpool with the idea of going to Australia."
"And you do not believe in his having sailed for Australia?"
"I do not."
"But why not?"
"Forgive me, Lady Audley, if I decline to answer that question."
"As you please," she said, carelessly.
"A week after my friend disappeared," continued Robert, "I posted an advertisement to the Sydney and Melbourne papers, calling upon him if he was in either city when the advertisement appeared, to write and tell me of his whereabouts, and also calling on any one who had met him, either in the colonies or on the voyage out, to give me any information respecting him. George Talboys left Essex, or disappeared from Essex, on the 6th of September last. I ought to receive some answer to this advertisement by the end of this month. To-day is the 27th; the time draws very near."
"And if you receive no answer?" asked Lady Audley.
"If I receive no answer I shall think that my fears have been not unfounded, and I shall do my best to act."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Ah, Lady Audley, you remind me how very powerless I am in this matter. My friend might have been made away with in this very inn, and I might stay here for a twelvemonth, and go away at the last as ignorant of his fate as if I had never crossed the threshold. What do we know of the mysteries that may hang about the houses we enter? If I were to go to-morrow into that commonplace, plebeian, eight-roomed house in which Maria Manning and her husband murdered their guest, I should have no awful prescience of that bygone horror. Foul deeds have been done under the most hospitable roofs; terrible crimes have been committed amid the fairest scenes, and have left no trace upon the spot where they were done. I do not believe in mandrake, or in bloodstains that no time can efface. I believe rather that we may walk unconsciously in an atmosphere of crime, and breathe none the less freely. I believe that we may look into the smiling face of a murderer, and admire its tranquil beauty."
My lady laughed at Robert's earnestness.
"You seem to have quite a taste for discussing these horrible subjects," she said, rather scornfully; "you ought to have been a detective police officer."
"I sometimes think I should have been a good one."
"Because I am patient."
"But to return to Mr. George Talboys, whom we lost sight of in your eloquent discussion. What if you receive no answer to your advertisements?"
"I shall then consider myself justified in concluding my friend is dead."
"Yes, and then--?"
"I shall examine the effects he left at my chambers."
"Indeed! and what are they? Coats, waistcoats, varnished boots, and meerschaum pipes, I suppose," said Lady Audley, laughing.
"No; letters--letters from his friends, his old schoolfellows, his father, his brother officers."
"Letters, too, from his wife."
My lady was silent for some few moments, looking thoughtfully at the fire.
"Have you ever seen any of the letters written by the late Mrs. Talboys?" she asked presently.
"Never. Poor soul! her letters are not likely to throw much light upon my friend's fate. I dare say she wrote the usual womanly scrawl. There are very few who write so charming and uncommon a hand as yours, Lady Audley."
"Ah, you know my hand, of course."
"Yes, I know it very well indeed."
My lady warmed her hands once more, and then taking up the big muff which she had laid aside upon a chair, prepared to take her departure.
"You have refused to accept my apology, Mr. Audley," she said; "but I trust you are not the less assured of my feelings toward you."
"Perfectly assured, Lady Audley."
"Then good-by, and let me recommend you not to stay long in this miserable draughty place, if you do not wish to take rheumatism back to Figtree Court."
"I shall return to town to-morrow morning to see after my letters."
"Then once more good-by."
She held out her hand; he took it loosely in his own. It seemed such a feeble little hand that he might have crushed it in his strong grasp, had he chosen to be so pitiless.
He attended her to her carriage, and watched it as it drove off, not toward Audley, but in the direction of Brentwood, which was about six miles from Mount Stanning.
About an hour and a half after this, as Robert stood at the door of the inn, smoking a cigar and watching the snow falling in the whitened fields opposite, he saw the brougham drive back, empty this time, to the door of the inn.
"Have you taken Lady Audley back to the Court?" he said to the coachman, who had stopped to call for a mug of hot spiced ale.
"No, sir; I've just come from the Brentwood station. My lady started for London by the 12.40 train."
"My lady gone to London!" said Robert, as he returned to the little sitting-room. "Then I'll follow her by the next train; and if I'm not very much mistaken, I know where to find her."
He packed his portmanteau, paid his bill, fastened his dogs together with a couple of leathern collars and a chain, and stepped into the rumbling fly kept by the Castle Inn for the convenience of Mount Stanning. He caught an express that left Brentwood at three o'clock, and settled himself comfortably in a corner of an empty first-class carriage, coiled up in a couple of railway rugs, and smoking a cigar in mild defiance of the authorities.