THE WRITING IN THE BOOK.
It was exactly five minutes past four as Mr. Robert Audley stepped out upon the platform at Shoreditch, and waited placidly until such time as his dogs and his portmanteau should be delivered up to the attendant porter who had called his cab, and undertaken the general conduct of his affairs, with that disinterested courtesy which does such infinite credit to a class of servitors who are forbidden to accept the tribute of a grateful public.
Robert Audley waited with consummate patience for a considerable time; but as the express was generally a long train, and as there were a great many passengers from Norfolk carrying guns and pointers, and other paraphernalia of a critical description, it took a long while to make matters agreeable to all claimants, and even the barrister's seraphic indifference to mundane affairs nearly gave way.
"Perhaps, when that gentleman who is making such a noise about a pointer with liver-colored spots, has discovered the particular pointer and spots that he wants--which happy combination of events scarcely seems likely to arrive--they'll give me my luggage and let me go. The designing wretches knew at a glance that I was born to be imposed upon; and that if they were to trample the life out of me upon this very platform, I should never have the spirit to bring an action against the company."
Suddenly an idea seemed to strike him, and he left the porter to struggle for the custody of his goods, and walked round to the other side of the station.
He heard a bell ring, and looking at the clock, had remembered that the down train for Colchester started at this time. He had learned what it was to have an earnest purpose since the disappearance of George Talboys; and he reached the opposite platform in time to see the passengers take their seats.
There was one lady who had evidently only just arrived at the station; for she hurried on to the platform at the very moment that Robert approached the train, and almost ran against that gentleman in her haste and excitement.
"I beg your pardon," she began, ceremoniously; then raising her eyes from Mr. Audley's waistcoat, which was about on a level with her pretty face, she exclaimed, "Robert, you in London already?"
"Yes, Lady Audley; you were quite right; the Castle Inn is a dismal place, and--"
"You got tired of it--I knew you would. Please open the carriage door for me: the train will start in two minutes."
Robert Audley was looking at his uncle's wife with rather a puzzled expression of countenance.
"What does it mean?" he thought. "She is altogether a different being to the wretched, helpless creature who dropped her mask for a moment, and looked at me with her own pitiful face, in the little room at Mount Stanning, four hours ago. What has happened to cause the change?"
He opened the door for her while he thought this, and helped her to settle herself in her seat, spreading her furs over her knees, and arranging the huge velvet mantle in which her slender little figure was almost hidden.
"Thank you very much; how good you are to me," she said, as he did this. "You will think me very foolish to travel upon such a day, without my dear darling's knowledge too; but I went up to town to settle a very terrific milliner's bill, which I did not wish my best of husbands to see; for, indulgent as he is, he might think me extravagant; and I cannot bear to suffer even in his thoughts."
"Heaven forbid that you ever should, Lady Audley," Robert said, gravely.
She looked at him for a moment with a smile, which had something defiant in its brightness.
"Heaven forbid it, indeed," she murmured. "I don't think I ever shall."
The second bell rung, and the train moved as she spoke. The last Robert Audley saw of her was that bright defiant smile.
"Whatever object brought her to London has been successfully accomplished," he thought. "Has she baffled me by some piece of womanly jugglery? Am I never to get any nearer to the truth, but am I to be tormented all my life by vague doubts, and wretched suspicions, which may grow upon me till I become a monomaniac? Why did she come to London?"
He was still mentally asking himself this question as he ascended the stairs in Figtree Court, with one of his dogs under each arm, and his railway rugs over his shoulder.
He found his chambers in their accustomed order. The geraniums had been carefully tended, and the canaries had retired for the night under cover of a square of green baize, testifying to the care of honest Mrs. Maloney. Robert cast a hurried glance round the sitting-room; then setting down the dogs upon the hearth-rug, he walked straight into the little inner chamber which served as his dressing-room.
It was in this room that he kept disused portmanteaus, battered japanned cases, and other lumber; and it was in this room that George Talboys had left his luggage. Robert lifted a portmanteau from the top of a large trunk, and kneeling down before it with a lighted candle in his hand, carefully examined the lock.
To all appearance it was exactly in the same condition in which George had left it, when he laid his mourning garments aside and placed them in this shabby repository with all other memorials of his dead wife. Robert brushed his coat sleeve across the worn, leather-covered lid, upon which the initials G. T. were inscribed with big brass-headed nails; but Mrs. Maloney, the laundress, must have been the most precise of housewives, for neither the portmanteau nor the trunk were dusty.
Mr. Audley dispatched a boy to fetch his Irish attendant, and paced up and down his sitting-room waiting anxiously for her arrival.
She came in about ten minutes, and, after expressing her delight in the return of "the master," humbly awaited his orders.
"I only sent for you to ask if anybody has been here; that is to say, if anybody has applied to you for the key of my rooms to-day--any lady?"
"Lady? No, indeed, yer honor; there's been no lady for the kay; barrin' it's the blacksmith."
"Yes; the blacksmith your honor ordered to come to-day."
"I order a blacksmith!" exclaimed Robert. "I left a bottle of French brandy in the cupboard," he thought, "and Mrs. M. has been evidently enjoying herself."
"Sure, and the blacksmith your honor tould to see to the locks," replied Mrs. Maloney. "It's him that lives down in one of the little streets by the bridge," she added, giving a very lucid description of the man's whereabouts.
Robert lifted his eyebrows in mute despair.
"If you'll sit down and compose yourself, Mrs. M.," he said--he abbreviated her name thus on principle, for the avoidance of unnecessary labor--"perhaps we shall be able by and by to understand each other. You say a blacksmith has been here?"
"Sure and I did, sir."
"Quite correct, sir."
Step by step Mr. Audley elicited the following information. A locksmith had called upon Mrs. Maloney that afternoon at three o'clock, and had asked for the key of Mr. Audley's chambers, in order that he might look to the locks of the doors, which he stated were all out of repair. He declared that he was acting upon Mr. Audley's own orders, conveyed to him by a letter from the country, where the gentleman was spending his Christmas. Mrs. Maloney, believing in the truth of this statement, had admitted the man to the chambers, where he stayed about half an hour.
"But you were with him while he examined the locks, I suppose?" Mr. Audley asked.
"Sure I was, sir, in and out, as you may say, all the time, for I've been cleaning the stairs this afternoon, and I took the opportunity to begin my scouring while the man was at work."
"Oh, you were in and out all the time. If you _could_ conveniently give me a plain answer, Mrs. M., I should be glad to know what was the longest time that you were _out_ while the locksmith was in my chambers?"
But Mrs. Maloney could not give a plain answer. It might have been ten minutes; though she didn't think it was as much. It might have been a quarter of an hour; but she was sure it wasn't more. It didn't _seem_ to her more than five minutes, but "thim stairs, your honor;" and here she rambled off into a disquisition upon the scouring of stairs in general, and the stairs outside Robert's chambers in particular.
Mr. Audley sighed the weary sigh of mournful resignation.
"Never mind, Mrs. M.," he said; "the locksmith had plenty of time to do anything he wanted to do, I dare say, without your being any the wiser."
Mrs. Maloney stared at her employer with mingled surprise and alarm.
"Sure, there wasn't anything for him to stale, your honor, barrin' the birds and the geran'ums, and--"
"No, no, I understand. There, that'll do, Mrs. M. Tell me where the man lives, and I'll go and see him."
"But you'll have a bit of dinner first, sir?"
"I'll go and see the locksmith before I have my dinner."
He took up his hat as he announced his determination, and walked toward the door.
"The man's address, Mrs. M?"
The Irishwoman directed him to a small street at the back of St. Bride's Church, and thither Mr. Robert Audley quietly strolled, through the miry slush which simple Londoners call _snow_.
He found the locksmith, and, at the sacrifice of the crown of his hat, contrived to enter the low, narrow doorway of a little open shop. A jet of gas was flaring in the unglazed window, and there was a very merry party in the little room behind the shop; but no one responded to Robert's "Hulloa!" The reason of this was sufficiently obvious. The merry party was so much absorbed in its own merriment as to be deaf to all commonplace summonses from the outer world; and it was only when Robert, advancing further into the cavernous little shop, made so bold as to open the half-glass door which separated him from the merry-makers, that he succeeded in obtaining their attention.
A very jovial picture of the Teniers school was presented to Mr. Robert Audley upon the opening of this door.
The locksmith, with his wife and family, and two or three droppers-in of the female sex, were clustered about a table, which was adorned by two bottles; not vulgar bottles of that colorless extract of the juniper berry, much affected by the masses; but of _bona fide_ port and sherry--fiercely strong sherry, which left a fiery taste in the mouth, nut-brown sherry--rather unnaturally brown, if anything--and fine old port; no sickly vintage, faded and thin from excessive age: but a rich, full-bodied wine, sweet and substantial and high colored.
The locksmith was speaking as Robert Audley opened the door.
"And with that," he said, "she walked off, as graceful as you please."
The whole party was thrown into confusion by the appearance of Mr. Audley, but it was to be observed that the locksmith was more embarrassed than his companions. He set down his glass so hurriedly, that he spilt his wine, and wiped his mouth nervously with the back of his dirty hand.
"You called at my chambers to-day," Robert said, quietly. "Don't let me disturb you, ladies." This to the droppers-in. "You called at my chambers to-day, Mr. White, and--"
The man interrupted him.
"I hope, sir, you will be so good as to look over the mistake," he stammered. "I'm sure, sir, I'm very sorry it should have occurred. I was sent for to another gentleman's chambers, Mr. Aulwin, in Garden Court; and the name slipped my memory; and havin' done odd jobs before for you, I thought it must be you as wanted me to-day; and I called at Mrs. Maloney's for the key accordin'; but directly I see the locks in your chambers, I says to myself, the gentleman's locks ain't out of order; the gentleman don't want all his locks repaired."
"But you stayed half an hour."
"Yes, sir; for there was _one_ lock out of order--the door nighest the staircase--and I took it off and cleaned it and put it on again. I won't charge you nothin' for the job, and I hope as you'll be as good as to look over the mistake as has occurred, which I've been in business thirteen years come July, and--"
"Nothing of this kind ever happened before, I suppose," said Robert, gravely. "No, it's altogether a singular kind of business, not likely to come about every day. You've been enjoying yourself this evening I see, Mr. White. You've done a good stroke of work to-day, I'll wager--made a lucky hit, and you're what you call 'standing treat,' eh?"
Robert Audley looked straight into the man's dingy face as he spoke. The locksmith was not a bad-looking fellow, and there was nothing that he need have been ashamed of in his face, except the dirt, and that, as Hamlet's mother says, "is common;" but in spite of this, Mr. White's eyelids dropped under the young barrister's calm scrutiny, and he stammered out some apologetic sort of speech about his "missus," and his missus' neighbors, and port wine and sherry wine, with as much confusion as if he, an honest mechanic in a free country, were called upon to excuse himself to Robert Audley for being caught in the act of enjoying himself in his own parlor.
Robert cut him short with a careless nod.
"Pray don't apologize," he said; "I like to see people enjoy themselves. Good-night, Mr. White good-night, ladies."
He lifted his hat to "the missus," and the missus' neighbors, who were much fascinated by his easy manner and his handsome face, and left the shop.
"And so," he muttered to himself as he went back to his chambers, "'with that she walked off as graceful as you please.'Who was it that walked off; and what was the story which the locksmith was telling when I interrupted him at that sentence? Oh, George Talboys, George Talboys, am I ever to come any I nearer to the secret of your fate? Am I coming nearer to it now, slowly but surely? Is the radius to grow narrower day by day until it draws a dark circle around the home of those I love? How is it all to end?"
He sighed wearily as he walked slowly back across the flagged quadrangles in the Temple to his own solitary chambers.
Mrs. Maloney had prepared for him that bachelor's dinner, which, however excellent and nutritious in itself, has no claim to the special charm of novelty. She had cooked for him a mutton-chop, which was soddening itself between two plates upon the little table near the fire.
Robert Audley sighed as he sat down to the familiar meal, remembering his uncle's cook with a fond, regretful sorrow.
"Her cutlets a la Maintenon made mutton seem more than mutton; a sublimated meat that could scarcely have grown upon any mundane sheep," he murmured sentimentally, "and Mrs. Maloney's chops are apt to be tough; but such is life--what does it matter?"
He pushed away his plate impatiently after eating a few mouthfuls.
"I have never eaten a good dinner at this table since I lost George Talboys," he said. "The place seems as gloomy as if the poor fellow had died in the next room, and had never been taken away to be buried. How long ago that September afternoon appears as I look back at it--that September afternoon upon which I parted with him alive and well; and lost him as suddenly and unaccountably as if a trap-door had opened in the solid earth and let him through to the antipodes!"
Mr. Audley rose from the dinner-table and walked over to the cabinet in which he kept the document he had drawn up relating to George Talboys. He unlocked the doors of his cabinet, took the paper from the pigeon-hole marked important, and seated himself at his desk to write. He added several paragraphs to those in the document, numbering the fresh paragraphs as carefully as he had numbered the old ones.
"Heaven help us all," he muttered once; "is this paper with which no attorney has had any hand to be my first brief?"
He wrote for about half an hour, then replaced the document in the pigeon-hole, and locked the cabinet. When he had done this, he took a candle in his hand, and went into the room in which were his own portmanteaus and the trunk belonging to George Talboys.
He took a bunch of keys from his pocket, and tried them one by one. The lock of the shabby old trunk was a common one, and at the fifth trial the key turned easily.
"There'd be no need for any one to break open such a lock as this," muttered Robert, as he lifted the lid of the trunk.
He slowly emptied it of its contents, taking out each article separately, and laying it carefully upon a chair by his side. He handled the things with a respectful tenderness, as if he had been lifting the dead body of his lost friend. One by one he laid the neatly folded mourning garments on the chair. He found old meerschaum pipes, and soiled, crumpled gloves that had once been fresh from the Parisian maker; old play-bills, whose biggest letters spelled the names of actors who were dead and gone; old perfume-bottles, fragrant with essences, whose fashion had passed away; neat little parcels of letters, each carefully labeled with the name of the writer; fragments of old newspapers; and a little heap of shabby, dilapidated books, each of which tumbled into as many pieces as a pack of cards in Robert's incautious hand. But among all the mass of worthless litter, each scrap of which had once had its separate purpose, Robert Audley looked in vain for that which he sought--the packet of letters written to the missing man by his dead wife Helen Talboys. He had heard George allude more than once to the existence of these letters. He had seen him once sorting the faded papers with a reverent hand; and he had seen him replace them, carefully tied together with a faded ribbon which had once been Helen's, among the mourning garments in the trunk. Whether he had afterward removed them, or whether they had been removed since his disappearance by some other hand, it was not easy to say; but they were gone.
Robert Audley sighed wearily as he replaced the things in the empty box, one by one, as he had taken them out. He stopped with the little heap of tattered books in his hand, and hesitated for a moment.
"I will keep these out," he muttered, "there maybe something to help me in one of them."
George's library was no very brilliant collection of literature. There was an old Greek Testament and the Eton Latin Grammar; a French pamphlet on the cavalry sword-exercise; an odd volume of Tom Jones with one half of its stiff leather cover hanging to it by a thread; Byron's Don Juan, printed in a murderous type, which must have been invented for the special advantage of oculists and opticians; and a fat book in a faded gilt and crimson cover.
Robert Audley locked the trunk and took the books under his arm. Mrs. Maloney was clearing away the remains of his repast when he returned to the sitting-room. He put the books aside on a little table in a corner of the fire-place, and waited patiently while the laundress finished her work. He was in no humor even for his meerschaum, consoler; the yellow-papered fictions on the shelves above his head seemed stale and profitless--he opened a volume of Balzac, but his uncle's wife's golden curls danced and trembled in a glittering haze, alike upon the metaphysical diablerie of the _Peau de Chagrin_, and the hideous social horrors of "_Cousine Bette_." The volume dropped from his hand, and he sat wearily watching Mrs. Maloney as she swept up the ashes on the hearth, replenished the fire, drew the dark damask curtains, supplied the simple wants of the canaries, and put on her bonnet in the disused clerk's office, prior to bidding her employer good-night. As the door closed upon the Irishwoman, he arose impatiently from his chair, and paced up and down the room.
"Why do I go on with this," he said, "when I know that it is leading me, step by step, day by day, hour by hour, nearer to that conclusion which, of all others, I should avoid? Am I tied to a wheel, and must I go with its every revolution, let it take me where it will? Or can I sit down here to-night and say I have done my duty to my missing friend, I have searched for him patiently, but I have searched in vain? Should I be justified in doing this? Should I be justified in letting the chain which I have slowly put together, link by link, drop at this point, or must I go on adding fresh links to that fatal chain until the last rivet drops into its place and the circle is complete? I think, and I believe, that I shall never see my friend's face again; and that no exertion of mine can ever be of any benefit to him. In plainer, crueler words I believe him to be dead. Am I bound to discover how and where he died? or being, as I think, on the road to that discovery, shall I do a wrong to the memory of George Talboys by turning back or stopping still? What am I to do?--what am I to do?"
He rested his elbows on his knees, and buried his face in his hands. The one purpose which had slowly grown up in his careless nature until it had become powerful enough to work a change in that very nature, made him what he had never been before--a Christian; conscious of his own weakness; anxious to keep to the strict line of duty; fearful to swerve from the conscientious discharge of the strange task that had been forced upon him; and reliant on a stronger hand than his own to point the way which he was to go. Perhaps he uttered his first earnest prayer that night, seated by his lonely fireside, thinking of George Talboys. When he raised his head from that long and silent revery, his eyes had a bright, determined glance, and every feature in his face seemed to wear a new expression.
"Justice to the dead first," he said; "mercy to the living afterward."
He wheeled his easy-chair to the table, trimmed the lamp, and settled himself to the examination of the books.
He took them up, one by one, and looked carefully through them, first looking at the page on which the name of the owner is ordinarily written, and then searching for any scrap of paper which might have been left within the leaves. On the first page of the Eton Latin Grammar the name of Master Talboys was written in a prim, scholastic hand; the French pamphlet had a careless G.T. scrawled on the cover in pencil, in George's big, slovenly calligraphy: the Tom Jones had evidently been bought at a book-stall, and bore an inscription, dated March 14th, 1788, setting forth that the book was a tribute of respect to Mr. Thos. Scrowton, from his obedient servant, James Anderley; the Don Juan and the Testament were blank. Robert Audley breathed more freely; he had arrived at the last but one of the books without any result whatever, and there only remained the fat gilt-and-crimson-bound volume to be examined before his task was finished.
It was an annual of the year 1845. The copper-plate engravings of lovely ladies, who had flourished in that day, were yellow and spotted with mildew; the costumes grotesque and outlandish; the simpering beauties faded and commonplace. Even the little clusters of verses (in which the poet's feeble candle shed its sickly light upon the obscurities of the artist's meaning) had an old-fashioned twang; like music on a lyre, whose strings are slackened by the damps of time. Robert Audley did not stop to read any of the mild productions. He ran rapidly through the leaves, looking for any scrap of writing or fragment of a letter which might have been used to mark a place. He found nothing but a bright ring of golden hair, of that glittering hue which is so rarely seen except upon the head of a child--a sunny lock, which curled as naturally as the tendril of a vine; and was very opposite in texture, if not different in hue, to the soft, smooth tresses which the landlady at Ventnor had given to George Talboys after his wife's death. Robert Audley suspended his examination of the book, and folded this yellow lock in a sheet of letter paper, which he sealed with his signet-ring, and laid aside, with the memorandum about George Talboys and Alicia's letter, in the pigeon-hole marked important. He was going to replace the fat annual among the other books, when he discovered that the two blank leaves at the beginning were stuck together. He was so determined to prosecute his search to the very uttermost, that he took the trouble to part these leaves with the sharp end of his paper-knife, and he was rewarded for his perseverance by finding an inscription upon one of them. This inscription was in three parts, and in three different hands. The first paragraph was dated as far back as the year in which the annual had been published, and set forth that the book was the property of a certain Miss Elizabeth Ann Bince, who had obtained the precious volume as a reward for habits of order, and for obedience to the authorities of Camford House Seminary, Torquay. The second paragraph was dated five years later, and was in the handwriting of Miss Bince herself, who presented the book, as a mark of undying affection and unfading esteem (Miss Bince was evidently of a romantic temperament) to her beloved friend, Helen Maldon. The third paragraph was dated September, 1853, and was in the hand of Helen Maldon, who gave the annual to George Talboys; and it was at the sight of this third paragraph that Mr. Robert Audley's face changed from its natural hue to a sickly, leaden pallor.
"I thought it would be so," said the young man, shutting the book with a weary sigh. "God knows I was prepared for the worst, and the worst has come. I can understand all now. My next visit must be to Southampton. I must place the boy in better hands."
Among the packet of letters which Robert Audley had found in George's trunk, there was one labeled with the name of the missing man's father--the father, who had never been too indulgent a friend to his younger son, and who had gladly availed himself of the excuse afforded by George's imprudent marriage to abandon the young man to his own resources. Robert Audley had never seen Mr. Harcourt Talboys; but George's careless talk of his father had given his friend some notion of that gentleman's character. He had written to Mr. Talboys immediately after the disappearance of George, carefully wording his letter, which vaguely hinted at the writer's fear of some foul play in the mysterious business; and, after the lapse of several weeks, he had received a formal epistle, in which Mr. Harcourt Talboys expressly declared that he had washed his hands of all responsibility in his son George's affairs upon the young man's wedding-day; and that his absurd disappearance was only in character with his preposterous marriage. The writer of this fatherly letter added in a postscript that if George Talboys had any low design of alarming his friends by this pretended disappearance, and thereby playing on their feelings with a view to pecuniary advantage, he was most egregiously deceived in the character of those persons with whom he had to deal.
Robert Audley had answered this letter by a few indignant lines, informing Mr. Talboys that his son was scarcely likely to hide himself for the furtherance of any deep-laid design on the pockets of his relatives, as he had left twenty thousand pounds in his bankers' hands at the time of his disappearance. After dispatching this letter, Robert had abandoned all thought of assistance from the man who, in the natural course of things, should have been most interested in George's fate; but now that he found himself advancing every day some step nearer to the end that lay so darkly before him, his mind reverted to this heartlessly indifferent Mr. Harcourt Talboys.
"I will run into Dorsetshire after I leave Southampton," he said, "and see this man. If _he_ is content to let his son's fate rest a dark and cruel mystery to all who knew him--if he is content to go down to his grave uncertain to the last of this poor fellow's end--why should I try to unravel the tangled skein, to fit the pieces of the terrible puzzle, and gather together the stray fragments which, when collected, may make such a hideous whole? I will go to him and lay my darkest doubts freely before him. It will be for him to say what I am to do."
Robert Audley started by an early express for Southampton. The snow lay thick and white upon the pleasant country through which he went; and the young barrister had wrapped himself in so many comforters and railway rugs as to appear a perambulating mass of woollen goods, rather than a living member of a learned profession. He looked gloomily out of the misty window, opaque with the breath of himself and an elderly Indian officer, who was his only companion, and watched the fleeting landscape, which had a certain phantom-like appearance in its shroud of snow. He wrapped himself in the vast folds of his railway rug, with a peevish shiver, and felt inclined to quarrel with the destiny which compelled him to travel by an early train upon a pitiless winter's day.
"Who would have thought that I could have grown so fond of the fellow," he muttered, "or feel so lonely without him? I've a comfortable little fortune in the three per cents.; I'm heir presumptive to my uncle's title; and I know of a certain dear little girl who, as I think, would do her best to make me happy; but I declare that I would freely give up all, and stand penniless in the world to-morrow, if this mystery could be satisfactorily cleared away, and George Talboys could stand by my side."
He reached Southampton between eleven and twelve o'clock, and walked across the platform, with the snow drifting in his face, toward the pier and the lower end of the town. The clock of St. Michael's Church was striking twelve as he crossed the quaint old square in which that edifice stands, and groped his way through the narrow streets leading down to the water.
Mr. Maldon had established his slovenly household gods in one of those dreary thoroughfares which speculative builders love to raise upon some miserable fragment of waste ground hanging to the skirts of a prosperous town. Brigsome's Terrace was, perhaps, one of the most dismal blocks of building that was ever composed of brick and mortar since the first mason plied his trowel and the first architect drew his plan. The builder who had speculated in the ten dreary eight-roomed prison-houses had hung himself behind the parlor door of an adjacent tavern while the carcases were yet unfinished. The man who had bought the brick and mortar skeletons had gone through the bankruptcy court while the paper-hangers were still busy in Brigsome's Terrace, and had whitewashed his ceilings and himself simultaneously. Ill luck and insolvency clung to the wretched habitations. The bailiff and the broker's man were as well known as the butcher and the baker to the noisy children who played upon the waste ground in front of the parlor windows. Solvent tenants were disturbed at unhallowed hours by the noise of ghostly furniture vans creeping stealthily away in the moonless night. Insolvent tenants openly defied the collector of the water-rate from their ten-roomed strongholds, and existed for weeks without any visible means of procuring that necessary fluid.
Robert Audley looked about him with a shudder as he turned from the waterside into this poverty-stricken locality. A child's funeral was leaving one of the houses as he approached, and he thought with a thrill of horror that if the little coffin had held George's son, he would have been in some measure responsible for the boy's death.
"The poor child shall not sleep another night in this wretched hovel," he thought, as he knocked at the door of Mr. Maldon's house. "He is the legacy of my best friend, and it shall be my business to secure his safety."
A slipshod servant girl opened the door and looked at Mr. Audley rather suspiciously as she asked him, very much through her nose, what he pleased to want. The door of the little sitting room was ajar, and Robert could hear the clattering of knives and forks and the childish voice of little George prattling gayly. He told the servant that he had come from London, that he wanted to see Master Talboys, and that he would announce himself; and walking past her, without further ceremony he opened the door of the parlor. The girl stared at him aghast as he did this; and as if struck by some sudden and terrible conviction, threw her apron over her head and ran out into the snow. She darted across the waste ground, plunged into a narrow alley, and never drew breath till she found herself upon the threshold of a certain tavern called the Coach and Horses, and much affected by Mr. Maldon. The lieutenant's faithful retainer had taken Robert Audley for some new and determined collector of poor's rates--rejecting that gentleman's account of himself as an artful fiction devised for the destruction of parochial defaulters--and had hurried off to give her master timely warning of the enemy's approach.
When Robert entered the sitting-room he was surprised to find little George seated opposite to a woman who was doing the honors of a shabby repast, spread upon a dirty table-cloth, and flanked by a pewter beer measure. The woman rose as Robert entered, and courtesied very humbly to the young barrister. She looked about fifty years of age, and was dressed in rusty widow's weeds. Her complexion was insipidly fair, and the two smooth bands of hair beneath her cap were of that sunless, flaxen hue which generally accompanies pink cheeks and white eyelashes. She had been a rustic beauty, perhaps, in her time, but her features, although tolerably regular in their shape, had a mean, pinched look, as if they had been made too small for her face. This defect was peculiarly noticeable in her mouth, which was an obvious misfit for the set of teeth it contained. She smiled as she courtesied to Mr. Robert Audley, and her smile, which laid bare the greater part of this set of square, hungry-looking teeth, by no means added to the beauty of her personal appearance.
"Mr. Maldon is not at home, sir," she said, with insinuating civility; "but if it's for the water-rate, he requested me to say that--"
She was interrupted by little George Talboys, who scrambled down from the high chair upon which he had been perched, and ran to Robert Audley.
"I know you," he said; "you came to Ventnor with the big gentleman, and you came here once, and you gave me some money, and I gave it to gran'pa to take care of, and gran'pa kept it, and he always does."
Robert Audley took the boy in his arms, and carried him to a little table in the window.
"Stand there, Georgey," he said, "I want to have a good look at you."
He turned the boy's face to the light, and pushed the brown curls off his forehead with both hands.
"You are growing more like your father every day, Georgey; and you're growing quite a man, too," he said; "would you like to go to school?"
"Oh, yes, please, I should like it very much," the boy answered, eagerly. "I went to school at Miss Pevins' once--day-school, you know--round the corner in the next street; but I caught the measles, and gran'pa wouldn't let me go any more, for fear I should catch the measles again; and gran'pa won't let me play with the little boys in the street, because they're rude boys; he said blackguard boys; but he said I mustn't say blackguard boys, because it's naughty. He says damn and devil, but he says he may because he's old. I shall say damn and devil when I'm old; and I should like to go to school, please, and I can go to-day, if you like; Mrs. Plowson will get my frocks ready, won't you, Mrs. Plowson?"
"Certainly, Master Georgey, if your grandpapa wishes it," the woman answered, looking rather uneasily at Mr. Robert Audley.
"What on earth is the matter with this woman," thought Robert as he turned from the boy to the fair-haired widow, who was edging herself slowly toward the table upon which little George Talboys stood talking to his guardian. "Does she still take me for a tax-collector with inimical intentions toward these wretched goods and chattels; or can the cause of her fidgety manner lie deeper still. That's scarcely likely, though; for whatever secrets Lieutenant Maldon may have, it's not very probable that this woman has any knowledge of them."
Mrs. Plowson had edged herself close to the little table by this time, and was making a stealthy descent upon the boy, when Robert turned sharply round.
"What are you going to do with the child?" he said.
"I was only going to take him away to wash his pretty face, sir, and smooth his hair," answered the woman, in the most insinuating tone in which she had spoken of the water-rate. "You don't see him to any advantage, sir, while his precious face is dirty. I won't be five minutes making him as neat as a new pin."
She had her long, thin arms about the boy as she spoke, and she was evidently going to carry him off bodily, when Robert stopped her.
"I'd rather see him as he is, thank you," he said. "My time in Southampton isn't very long, and I want to hear all that the little man can tell me."
The little man crept closer to Robert, and looked confidingly into the barrister's gray eyes.
"I like you very much," he said. "I was frightened of you when you came before, because I was shy. I am not shy now--I am nearly six years old."
Robert patted the boy's head encouragingly, but he was not looking at little George; he was watching the fair-haired widow, who had moved to the window, and was looking out at the patch of waste ground.
"You're rather fidgety about some one, ma'am, I'm afraid," said Robert.
She colored violently as the barrister made this remark, and answered him in a confused manner.
"I was looking for Mr. Maldon, sir," she said; "he'll be so disappointed if he doesn't see you."
"You know who I am, then?"
"No, sir, but--"
The boy interrupted her by dragging a little jeweled watch from his bosom and showing it to Robert.
"This is the watch the pretty lady gave me," he said. "I've got it now--but I haven't had it long, because the jeweler who cleans it is an idle man, gran'pa says, and always keeps it such a long time; and gran'pa says it will have to be cleaned again, because of the taxes. He always takes it to be cleaned when there's taxes--but he says if he were to lose it the pretty lady would give me another. Do you know the pretty lady?"
"No, Georgey, but tell me about her."
Mrs. Plowson made another descent upon the boy. She was armed with a pocket-handkerchief this time, and displayed great anxiety about the state of little George's nose, but Robert warded off the dreaded weapon, and drew the child away from his tormentor.
"The boy will do very well, ma'am," he said, "if you'll be good enough to let him alone for five minutes. Now, Georgey, suppose you sit on my knee, and tell me all about the pretty lady."
The child clambered from the table onto Mr. Audley's knees, assisting his descent by a very unceremonious manipulation of his guardian's coat-collar.
"I'll tell you all about the pretty lady," he said, "because I like you very much. Gran'pa told me not to tell anybody, but I'll tell you, you know, because I like you, and because you're going to take me to school. The pretty lady came here one night--long ago--oh, so long ago," said the boy, shaking his head, with a face whose solemnity was expressive of some prodigious lapse of time. "She came when I was not nearly so big as I am now--and she came at night--after I'd gone to bed, and she came up into my room, and sat upon the bed, and cried--and she left the watch under my pillow, and she--Why do you make faces at me, Mrs. Plowson? I may tell this gentleman," Georgey added, suddenly addressing the widow, who was standing behind Robert's shoulder.
Mrs. Plowson mumbled some confused apology to the effect that she was afraid Master George was troublesome.
"Suppose you wait till I say so, ma'am, before you stop the little fellow's mouth," said Robert Audley, sharply. "A suspicious person might think from your manner that Mr. Maldon and you had some conspiracy between you, and that you were afraid of what the boy's talk may let slip."
He rose from his chair, and looked full at Mrs. Plowson as he said this. The fair-haired widow's face was as white as her cap when she tried to answer him, and her pale lips were so dry that she was compelled to wet them with her tongue before the words would come.
The little boy relieved her embarrassment.
"Don't be cross to Mrs. Plowson," he said. "Mrs. Plowson is very kind to me. Mrs. Plowson is Matilda's mother. You don't know Matilda. Poor Matilda was always crying; she was ill, she--"
The boy was stopped by the sudden appearance of Mr. Maldon, who stood on the threshold of the parlor door staring at Robert Audley with a half-drunken, half-terrified aspect, scarcely consistent with the dignity of a retired naval officer. The servant girl, breathless and panting, stood close behind her master. Early in the day though it was, the old man's speech was thick and confused, as he addressed himself fiercely to Mrs. Plowson.
"You're a prett' creature to call yoursel' sensible woman?" he said. "Why don't you take th' chile 'way, er wash 's face? D'yer want to ruin me? D'yer want to 'stroy me? Take th' chile 'way! Mr. Audley, sir, I'm ver' glad to see yer; ver' 'appy to 'ceive yer in m' humbl' 'bode," the old man added with tipsy politeness, dropping into a chair as he spoke, and trying to look steadily at his unexpected visitor.
"Whatever this man's secrets are," thought Robert, as Mrs. Plowson hustled little George Talboys out of the room, "that woman has no unimportant share of them. Whatever the mystery may be, it grows darker and thicker at every step; but I try in vain to draw back or to stop short upon the road, for a stronger hand than my own is pointing the way to my lost friend's unknown grave."