LITTLE GEORGEY LEAVES HIS OLD HOME.
"I am going to take your grandson away with me, Mr. Maldon," Robert said gravely, as Mrs. Plowson retired with her young charge.
The old man's drunken imbecility was slowly clearing away like the heavy mists of a London fog, through which the feeble sunshine struggles dimly to appear. The very uncertain radiance of Lieutenant Maldon's intellect took a considerable time in piercing the hazy vapors of rum-and-water; but the flickering light at last faintly glimmered athwart the clouds, and the old man screwed his poor wits to the sticking-point.
"Yes, yes," he said, feebly; "take the boy away from his poor old grandfather; I always thought so."
"You always thought that I should take him away?" scrutinizing the half-drunken countenance with a searching glance. "Why did you think so, Mr. Maldon?"
The fogs of intoxication got the better of the light of sobriety for a moment, and the lieutenant answered vaguely:
"Thought so--'cause I thought so."
Meeting the young barrister's impatient frown, he made another effort, and the light glimmered again.
"Because I thought you or his father would fetch 'm away."
"When I was last in this house, Mr. Maldon, you told me that George Talboys had sailed for Australia."
"Yes, yes--I know, I know," the old man answered, confusedly, shuffling his scanty limp gray hairs with his two wandering hands--"I know; but he might have come back--mightn't he? He was restless, and--and--queer in his mind, perhaps, sometimes. He might have come back."
He repeated this two or three times in feeble, muttering tones; groping about on the littered mantle-piece for a dirty-looking clay pipe, and filling and lighting it with hands that trembled violently.
Robert Audley watched those poor, withered, tremulous fingers dropping shreds of tobacco upon the hearth rug, and scarcely able to kindle a lucifer for their unsteadiness. Then walking once or twice up and down the little room, he left the old man to take a few puffs from the great consoler.
Presently he turned suddenly upon the half-pay lieutenant with a dark solemnity in his handsome face.
"Mr. Maldon," he said, slowly watching the effect of every syllable as he spoke, "George Talboys never sailed for Australia--that I know. More than this, he never came to Southampton; and the lie you told me on the 8th of last September was dictated to you by the telegraphic message which you received on that day."
The dirty clay pipe dropped from the tremulous hand, and shivered against the iron fender, but the old man made no effort to find a fresh one; he sat trembling in every limb, and looking, Heaven knows how piteously, at Robert Audley.
"The lie was dictated to you, and you repeated your lesson. But you no more saw George Talboys here on the 7th of September than I see him in this room now. You thought you had burnt the telegraphic message, but you had only burnt a part of it--the remainder is in my possession."
Lieutenant Maldon was quite sober now.
"What have I done?" he murmured, hopelessly. "Oh, my God! what have I done?"
"At two o'clock on the 7th of September last," continued the pitiless, accusing voice, "George Talboys was seen alive and well at a house in Essex."
Robert paused to see the effect of these words. They had produced no change in the old man. He still sat trembling from head to foot, and staring with the fixed and solid gaze of some helpless wretch whose every sense is gradually becoming numbed by terror.
"At two o'clock on that day," remarked Robert Audley, "my poor friend was seen alive and well at ----, at the house of which I speak. From that hour to this I have never been able to hear that he has been seen by any living creature. I have taken such steps as _must_ have resulted in procuring the information of his whereabouts, were he alive. I have done this patiently and carefully--at first, even hopefully. Now I know that he is dead."
Robert Audley had been prepared to witness some considerable agitation in the old man's manner, but he was not prepared for the terrible anguish, the ghastly terror, which convulsed Mr. Maldon's haggard face as he uttered the last word.
"No, no, no, no," reiterated the lieutenant, in a shrill, half-screaming voice; "no, no! For God's sake, don't say that! Don't think it--don't let _me_ think it--don't let me dream of it! Not dead--anything but dead! Hidden away, perhaps--bribed to keep out of the way, perhaps; but not dead--not dead--not dead!"
He cried these words aloud, like one beside himself, beating his hands upon his gray head, and rocking backward and forward in his chair. His feeble hands trembled no longer--they were strengthened by some convulsive force that gave them a new power.
"I believe," said Robert, in the same solemn, relentless voice, "that my friend left Essex; and I believe he died on the 7th of September last."
The wretched old man, still beating his hands among his thin gray hair, slid from his chair to the ground, and groveled at Robert's feet.
"Oh! no, no--for God's, no!" he shrieked hoarsely. "No! you don't know what you say--you don't know what your words mean!"
"I know their weight and value only too well--as well as I see you do, Mr. Maldon. God help us!"
"Oh, what am I doing? what am I doing?" muttered the old man, feebly; then raising himself from the ground with an effort, he drew himself to his full hight, and said, in a manner which was new to him, and which was not without a certain dignity of his own--that dignity which must be always attached to unutterable misery, in whatever form it may appear--he said, gravely:
"You have no right to come here and terrify a man who has been drinking, and who is not quite himself. You have no right to do it, Mr. Audley. Even the--the officer, sir, who--who--." He did not stammer, but his lips trembled so violently that his words seemed to be shaken into pieces by their motion. "The officer, I repeat, sir, who arrests a--thief, or a--." He stopped to wipe his lips, and to still them if he could by doing so, which he could not. "A thief or a murderer--" His voice died suddenly away upon the last word, and it was only by the motion of those trembling lips that Robert knew what he meant. "Gives him warning, sir, fair warning, that he may say nothing which shall commit himself--or--or--other people. The--the--law, sir, has that amount of mercy for a--a--suspected criminal. But you, sir,--you come to my house, and you come at a time when--when--contrary to my usual habits--which, as people will tell you, are sober--you take the opportunity to--terrify me--and it is not right, sir--it is--"
Whatever he would have said died away into inarticulate gasps, which seemed to choke him, and sinking into a chair, he dropped his face upon the table, and wept aloud. Perhaps in all the dismal scenes of domestic misery which had been acted in those spare and dreary houses--in all the petty miseries, the burning shames, the cruel sorrows, the bitter disgraces which own poverty for their father--there had never been such a scene as this. An old man hiding his face from the light of day, and sobbing aloud in his wretchedness. Robert Audley contemplated the painful picture with a hopeless and pitying face.
"If I had known this," he thought, "I might have spared him. It would have been better, perhaps, to have spared him."
The shabby room, the dirt, the confusion, the figure of the old man, with his gray head upon the soiled tablecloth, amid the muddled _debris_ of a wretched dinner, grew blurred before the sight of Robert Audley as he thought of another man, as old as this one, but, ah! how widely different in every other quality! who might come by and by to feel the same, or even a worse anguish, and to shed, perhaps, yet bitterer tears. The moment in which the tears rose to his eyes and dimmed the piteous scene before him, was long enough to take him back to Essex, and to show him the image of his uncle, stricken by agony and shame.
"Why do I go on with this?" he thought; "how pitiless I am, and how relentlessly I am carried on. It is not myself; it is the hand which is beckoning me further and further upon the dark road, whose end I dare not dream of."
He thought this, and a hundred times more than this, while the old man sat with his face still hidden, wrestling with his anguish, but without power to keep it down.
"Mr. Maldon," Robert Audley said, after a pause, "I do not ask you to forgive me for what I have brought upon you, for the feeling is strong within me that it must have come to you sooner or later--if not through me, through some one else. There are--" he stopped for a moment hesitating. The sobbing did not cease; it was sometimes low, sometimes loud, bursting out with fresh violence, or dying away for an instant, but never ceasing. "There are some things which, as people say, cannot be hidden. I think there is truth in that common saying which had its origin in that old worldly wisdom which people gathered from experience and not from books. If--if I were content to let my friend rest in his hidden grave, it is but likely that some stranger who had never heard the name of George Talboys, might fall by the remotest accident upon the secret of his death. To-morrow, perhaps; or ten years hence, or in another generation, when the--the hand that wronged him is as cold as his own. If I _could_ let the matter rest; if--if I could leave England forever, and purposely fly from the possibility of ever coming across another clew to the secret, I would do it--I would gladly, thankfully do it--but I _cannot_! A hand which is stronger than my own beckons me on. I wish to take no base advantage of you, less than of all other people; but I must go on; I must go on. If there is any warning you would give to any one, give it. If the secret toward which I am traveling day by day, hour by hour, involves any one in whom you have an interest, let that person fly before I come to the end. Let them leave this country; let them leave all who know them--all whose peace their wickedness has endangered; let them go away--they shall not be pursued. But if they slight your warning--if they try to hold their present position in defiance of what it will be in your power to tell them--let them beware of me, for, when the hour comes, I swear that I will not spare them."
The old man looked up for the first time, and wiped his wrinkled face upon a ragged silk handkerchief.
"I declare to you that I do not understand you," he said. "I solemnly declare to you that I cannot understand; and I do not believe that George Talboys is dead."
"I would give ten years of my own life if I could see him alive," answered Robert, sadly. "I am sorry for you, Mr. Malden--I am sorry for all of us."
"I do not believe that my son-in-law is dead," said the lieutenant; "I do not believe that the poor lad is dead."
He endeavored in a feeble manner to show to Robert Audley that his wild outburst of anguish had been caused by his grief for the loss of George; but the pretense was miserably shallow.
Mrs. Plowson re-entered the room, leading little Georgey, whose face shone with that brilliant polish which yellow soap and friction can produce upon the human countenance.
"Dear heart alive!" exclaimed Mrs. Plowson, "what has the poor old gentleman been taking on about? We could hear him in the passage, sobbin' awful."
Little George crept up to his grandfather, and smoothed the wet and wrinkled face with his pudgy hand.
"Don't cry, gran'pa," he said, "don't cry. You shall have my watch to be cleaned, and the kind jeweler shall lend you the money to pay the taxman while he cleans the watch--I don't mind, gran'pa. Let's go to the jeweler, the jeweler in High street, you know, with golden balls painted upon his door, to show that he comes from Lombar--Lombardshire," said the boy, making a dash at the name. "Come, gran'pa."
The little fellow took the jeweled toy from his bosom and made for the door, proud of being possessed of a talisman, which he had seen so often made useful.
"There are wolves at Southampton," he said, with rather a triumphant nod to Robert Audley. "My gran'pa says when he takes my watch that he does it to keep the wolf from the door. Are there wolves where you live?"
The young barrister did not answer the child's question, but stopped him as he was dragging his grandfather toward the door.
"Your grandpapa does not want the watch to-day, Georgey," he said, gravely.
"Why is he sorry, then?" asked Georgey, naively; "when he wants the watch he is always sorry, and beats his poor forehead so"--the boy stopped to pantomime with his small fists--"and says that she--the pretty lady, I think he means--uses him very hard, and that he can't keep the wolf from the door; and then I say, 'Gran'pa, have the watch;' and then he takes me in his arms, and says, 'Oh, my blessed angel! how can I rob my blessed angel?' and then he cries, but not like to-day--not loud, you know; only tears running down his poor cheeks, not so that you could hear him in the passage."
Painful as the child's prattle was to Robert Audley, it seemed a relief to the old man. He did not hear the boy's talk, but walked two or three times up and down the little room and smoothed his rumpled hair and suffered his cravat to be arranged by Mrs. Plowson, who seemed very anxious to find out the cause of his agitation.
"Poor dear old gentleman," she said, looking at Robert.
"What has happened to upset him so?"
"His son-in-law is dead," answered Mr. Audley, fixing his eyes upon Mrs. Plowson's sympathetic face. "He died, within a year and a half after the death of Helen Talboys, who lies burried in Ventnor churchyard."
The face into which he was looking changed very slightly, but the eyes that had been looking at him shifted away as he spoke, and Mrs. Plowson was obliged to moisten her white lips with her tongue before she answered him.
"Poor Mr. Talboys dead!" she said; "that is bad news indeed, sir."
Little George looked wistfully up at his guardian's face as this was said.
"Who's dead?" he said. "George Talboys is my name. Who's dead?"
"Another person whose name is Talboys, Georgey."
"Poor person! Will he go to the pit-hole?"
The boy had that notion of death which is generally imparted to children by their wise elders, and which always leads the infant mind to the open grave and rarely carries it any higher.
"I should like to _see_ him put in the pit-hole," Georgey remarked, after a pause. He had attended several infant funerals in the neighborhood, and was considered valuable as a mourner on account of his interesting appearance. He had come, therefore, to look upon the ceremony of interment as a solemn festivity; in which cake and wine, and a carriage drive were the leading features.
"You have no objection to my taking Georgey away with me, Mr. Maldon?" asked Robert Audley.
The old man's agitation had very much subsided by this time. He had found another pipe stuck behind the tawdry frame of the looking-glass, and was trying to light it with a bit of twisted newspaper.
"You do not object, Mr. Maldon?"
"No, sir--no, sir; you are his guardian, and you have a right to take him where you please. He has been a very great comfort to me in my lonely old age, but I have been prepared to lose him. I--I may not have always done my duty to him, sir, in--in the way of schooling, and--and boots. The number of boots which boys of his age wear out, sir, is not easily realized by the mind of a young man like yourself; he has been kept away from school, perhaps, sometimes, and occasionally worn shabby boots when our funds have got low; but he has not been unkindly treated. No, sir; if you were to question him for a week, I don't think you'd hear that his poor old grandfather ever said a harsh word to him."
Upon this, Georgie, perceiving the distress of his old protector, set up a terrible howl, and declared that he would never leave him.
"Mr. Maldon," said Robert Audley, with a tone which was half-mournful, half-compassionate, "when I looked at my position last night, I did not believe that I could ever come to think it more painful than I thought it then. I can only say--God have mercy upon us all. I feel it my duty to take the child away, but I shall take him straight from your house to the best school in Southampton; and I give you my honor that I will extort nothing from his innocent simplicity which can in any manner--I mean," he said, breaking off abruptly, "I mean this. I will not seek to come one step nearer the secret through him. I--I am not a detective officer, and I do not think the most accomplished detective would like to get his information from a child."
The old man did not answer; he sat with his face shaded by his hand, and with his extinguished pipe between the listless fingers of the other.
"Take the boy away, Mrs. Plowson," he said, after a pause; "take him away and put his things on. He is going with Mr. Audley."
"Which I do say that it's not kind of the gentleman to take his poor grandpa's pet away," Mrs. Plowson exclaimed, suddenly, with respectful indignation.
"Hush, Mrs. Plowson," the old man answered, piteously; "Mr. Audley is the best judge. I--I haven't many years to live; I sha'n't trouble anybody long."
The tears oozed slowly through the dirty fingers with which he shaded his blood-shot eyes, as he said this.
"God knows, I never injured your friend, sir," he said, by-and-by, when Mrs. Plowson and Georgey had returned, "nor even wished him any ill. He was a good son-in-law to me--better than many a son. I never did him any wilful wrong, sir. I--I spent his money, perhaps, but I am sorry for it--I am very sorry for it now. But I don't believe he is dead--no, sir; no, I don't believe it!" exclaimed the old man, dropping his hand from his eyes, and looking with new energy at Robert Audley. "I--I don't believe it, sir! How--how should he be dead?"
Robert did not answer this eager questioning. He shook his head mournfully, and, walking to the little window, looked out across a row of straggling geraniums at the dreary patch of waste ground on which the children were at play.
Mrs. Plowson returned with little Georgey muffled in a coat and comforter, and Robert took the boy's hand.
The little fellow sprung toward the old man, and clinging about him, kissed the dirty tears from his faded cheeks.
"Don't be sorry for me, gran'pa," he said; "I am going to school to learn to be a clever man, and I shall come home to see you and Mrs. Plowson, sha'n't I?" he added, turning to Robert.
"Yes, my dear, by-and-by."
"Take him away, sir--take him away," cried Mr. Maldon; "you are breaking my heart."
The little fellow trotted away contentedly at Robert's side. He was very well pleased at the idea of going to school, though he had been happy enough with his drunken old grandfather, who had always displayed a maudlin affection for the pretty child, and had done his best to spoil Georgey, by letting him have his own way in everything; in consequence of which indulgence, Master Talboys had acquired a taste for late hours, hot suppers of the most indigestible nature, and sips of rum-and-water from his grandfather's glass.
He communicated his sentiments upon many subjects to Robert Audley, as they walked to the Dolphin Hotel; but the barrister did not encourage him to talk.
It was no very difficult matter to find a good school in such a place as Southampton. Robert Audley was directed to a pretty house between the Bar and the Avenue, and leaving Georgey to the care of a good-natured waiter, who seemed to have nothing to do but to look out of the window, and whisk invisible dust off the brightly polished tables, the barrister walked up the High street toward Mr. Marchmont's academy for young gentlemen.
He found Mr. Marchmont a very sensible man, and he met a file of orderly-looking young gentlemen walking townward under the escort of a couple of ushers as he entered the house.
He told the schoolmaster that little George Talboys had been left in his charge by a dear friend, who had sailed for Australia some months before, and whom he believed to be dead. He confided him to Mr. Marchmont's especial care, and he further requested that no visitors should be admitted to see the boy unless accredited by a letter from himself. Having arranged the matter in a very few business-like words, he returned to the hotel to fetch Georgey.
He found the little man on intimate terms with the idle waiter, who had been directing Master Georgey's attention to the different objects of interest in the High street.
Poor Robert had about as much notion of the requirements of a child as he had of those of a white elephant. He had catered for silkworms, guinea-pigs, dormice, canary-birds, and dogs, without number, during his boyhood, but he had never been called upon to provide for a young person of five years old.
He looked back five-and-twenty years, and tried to remember his own diet at the age of five.
"I've a vague recollection of getting a good deal of bread and milk and boiled mutton," he thought; "and I've another vague recollection of not liking them. I wonder if this boy likes bread and milk and boiled mutton."
He stood pulling his thick mustache and staring thoughtfully at the child for some minutes before he could get any further.
"I dare say you're hungry, Georgey?" he said, at last.
The boy nodded, and the waiter whisked some more invisible dust from the nearest table as a preparatory step toward laying a cloth.
"Perhaps you'd like some lunch?" Mr. Audley suggested, still pulling his mustache.
The boy burst out laughing.
"Lunch!" he cried. "Why, it's afternoon, and I've had my dinner."
Robert Audley felt himself brought to a standstill. What refreshment could he possibly provide for a boy who called it afternoon at three o'clock?
"You shall have some bread and milk, Georgey," he said, presently. "Waiter, bread and milk, and a pint of hock."
Master Talboys made a wry face.
"I never have bread and milk," he said, "I don't like it. I like what gran'pa calls something savory. I should like a veal cutlet. Gran'pa told me he dined here once, and the veal cutlets were lovely, gran'pa said. Please may I have a veal cutlet, with egg and bread-crumb, you know, and lemon-juice you know?" he added to the waiter: "Gran'pa knows the cook here. The cook's such a nice gentleman, and once gave me a shilling, when gran'pa brought me here. The cook wears better clothes than gran'pa--better than yours, even," said Master Georgey, pointing to Robert's rough great-coat with a depreciating nod.
Robert Audley stared aghast. How was he to deal with this epicure of five years old, who rejected bread and milk and asked for veal cutlets?
"I'll tell you what I'll do with you, little Georgey," he exclaimed, after a pause--"_I'll give you a dinner!_"
The waiter nodded briskly.
"Upon my word, sir," he said, approvingly, "I think the little gentleman will know how to eat it."
"I'll give you a dinner, Georgey," repeated Robert--"some stewed eels, a little Julienne, a dish of cutlets, a bird, and a pudding. What do you say to that, Georgey?"
"I don't think the young gentleman will object to it when he sees it, sir," said the waiter. "Eels, Julienne, cutlets, bird, pudding--I'll go and tell the cook, sir. What time, sir?"
"Well, we'll say six, and Master Georgey will get to his new school by bedtime. You can contrive to amuse the child for this afternoon, I dare say. I have some business to settle, and sha'n't be able to take him out. I shall sleep here to-night. Good-by, Georgey; take care of yourself and try and get your appetite in order against six o'clock."
Robert Audley left the boy in charge of the idle waiter, and strolled down to the water side, choosing that lonely bank which leads away under the moldering walls of the town toward the little villages beside the narrowing river.
He had purposely avoided the society of the child, and he walked through the light drifting snow till the early darkness closed upon him.
He went back to the town, and made inquiries at the station about the trains for Dorsetshire.
"I shall start early to-morrow morning," he thought, "and see George's father before nightfall. I will tell him all--all but the interest which I take in--in the suspected person, and he shall decide what is next to be done."
Master Georgey did very good justice to the dinner which Robert had ordered. He drank Bass' pale ale to an extent which considerably alarmed his entertainer, and enjoyed himself amazingly, showing an appreciation of roast pheasant and bread-sauce which was beyond his years. At eight o'clock a fly was brought out for his accommodation, and he departed in the highest spirits, with a sovereign in his pocket, and a letter from Robert to Mr. Marchmont, inclosing a check for the young gentleman's outfit.
"I'm glad I'm going to have new clothes," he said, as he bade Robert good-by; "for Mrs. Plowson has mended the old ones ever so many times. She can have them now, for Billy."
"Who's Billy?" Robert asked, laughing at the boy's chatter.
"Billy is poor Matilda's little boy. He's a common boy, you know. Matilda was common, but she--"
But the flyman snapping his whip at this moment, the old horse jogged off, and Robert Audley heard no more of Matilda.
COMING TO A STANDSTILL.
Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else--so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys'.
Perhaps Mr. Harcourt Talboys was the last person in this world with whom it was possible to associate the homely, hearty, rural old English title of squire. He neither hunted nor farmed. He had never worn crimson, pink, or top-boots in his life. A southerly wind and a cloudy sky were matters of supreme indifference to him, so long as they did not in any way interfere with his own prim comforts; and he only cared for the state of the crops inasmuch as it involved the hazard of certain rents which he received for the farms upon his estate. He was a man of about fifty years of age, tall, straight, bony and angular, with a square, pale face, light gray eyes, and scanty dark hair, brushed from either ear across a bald crown, and thus imparting to his physiognomy some faint resemblance to that of a terrier--a sharp, uncompromising, hard-headed terrier--a terrier not to be taken in by the cleverest dog-stealer who ever distinguished himself in his profession.
Nobody ever remembered getting upon what is popularly called the blind side of Harcourt Talboys. He was like his own square-built, northern-fronted, shelterless house. There were no shady nooks in his character into which one could creep for shelter from his hard daylight. He was all daylight. He looked at everything in the same broad glare of intellectual sunlight, and would see no softening shadows that might alter the sharp outlines of cruel facts, subduing them to beauty. I do not know if I express what I mean, when I say that there were no curves in his character--that his mind ran in straight lines, never diverging to the right or the left to round off their pitiless angles. With him right was right, and wrong was wrong. He had never in his merciless, conscientious life admitted the idea that circumstances might mitigate the blackness of wrong or weaken the force of right. He had cast off his only son because his only son had disobeyed him, and he was ready to cast off his only daughter at five minutes' notice for the same reason.
If this square-built, hard-headed man could be possessed of such a weakness as vanity, he was certainly vain of his hardness. He was vain of that inflexible squareness of intellect, which made him the disagreeable creature that he was. He was vain of that unwavering obstinacy which no influence of love or pity had ever been known to bend from its remorseless purpose. He was vain of the negative force of a nature which had never known the weakness of the affections, or the strength which may be born of that very weakness.
If he had regretted his son's marriage, and the breach of his own making, between himself and George, his vanity had been more powerful than his regret, and had enabled him to conceal it. Indeed, unlikely as it appears at the first glance that such a man as this could have been vain, I have little doubt that vanity was the center from which radiated all the disagreeable lines in the character of Mr. Harcourt Talboys. I dare say Junius Brutus was vain, and enjoyed the approval of awe-stricken Rome when he ordered his son off for execution. Harcourt Talboys would have sent poor George from his presence between the reversed fasces of the lictors, and grimly relished his own agony. Heaven only knows how bitterly this hard man may have felt the separation between himself and his only son, or how much the more terrible the anguish might have been made by that unflinching self-conceit which concealed the torture.
"My son did me an unpardonable wrong by marrying the daughter of a drunken pauper," Mr. Talboys would answer to any one who had the temerity to speak to him about George, "and from that hour I had no longer a son. I wish him no ill. He is simply dead to me. I am sorry for him, as I am sorry for his mother who died nineteen years ago. If you talk to me of him as you would talk of the dead, I shall be ready to hear you. If you speak of him as you would speak of the living, I must decline to listen."
I believe that Harcourt Talboys hugged himself upon the gloomy Roman grandeur of this speech, and that he would like to have worn a toga, and wrapped himself sternly in its folds, as he turned his back upon poor George's intercessor. George never in his own person made any effort to soften his father's verdict. He knew his father well enough to know that the case was hopeless.
"If I write to him, he will fold my letter with the envelope inside, and indorse it with my name and the date of its arrival," the young man would say, "and call everybody in the house to witness that it had not moved him to one softening recollection or one pitiful thought. He will stick to his resolution to his dying day. I dare say, if the truth was known, he is glad that his only son has offended him and given him the opportunity of parading his Roman virtues."
George had answered his wife thus when she and her father had urged him to ask assistance from Harcourt Talboys.
"No my darling," he would say, conclusively. "It's very hard, perhaps, to be poor, but we will bear it. We won't go with pitiful faces to the stern father, and ask him to give us food and shelter, only to be refused in long, Johnsonian sentences, and made a classical example for the benefit of the neighborhood. No, my pretty one; it is easy to starve, but it is difficult to stoop."
Perhaps poor Mrs. George did not agree very heartily to the first of these two propositions. She had no great fancy for starving, and she whimpered pitifully when the pretty pint bottles of champagne, with Cliquot's and Moet's brands upon their corks, were exchanged for sixpenny ale, procured by a slipshod attendant from the nearest beer-shop. George had been obliged to carry his own burden and lend a helping hand with that of his wife, who had no idea of keeping her regrets or disappointments a secret.
"I thought dragoons were always rich," she used to say, peevishly. "Girls always want to marry dragoons; and tradespeople always want to serve dragoons; and hotel-keepers to entertain dragoons; and theatrical managers to be patronized by dragoons. Who could have ever expected that a dragoon would drink sixpenny ale, smoke horrid bird's-eye tobacco, and let his wife wear a shabby bonnet?"
If there were any selfish feelings displayed in such speeches as these, George Talboys had never discovered it. He had loved and believed in his wife from the first to the last hour of his brief married life. The love that is not blind is perhaps only a spurious divinity after all; for when Cupid takes the fillet from his eyes it is a fatally certain indication that he is preparing to spread his wings for a flight. George never forgot the hour in which he had first become bewitched by Lieutenant Maldon's pretty daughter, and however she might have changed, the image which had charmed him then, unchanged and unchanging, represented her in his heart.
Robert Audley left Southampton by a train which started before daybreak, and reached Wareham station early in the day. He hired a vehicle at Wareham to take him over to Grange Heath.
The snow had hardened upon the ground, and the day was clear and frosty, every object in the landscape standing in sharp outline against the cold blue sky. The horses' hoofs clattered upon the ice-bound road, the iron shoes striking on the ground that was almost as iron as themselves. The wintry day bore some resemblance to the man to whom Robert was going. Like him, it was sharp, frigid, and uncompromising: like him, it was merciless to distress and impregnable to the softening power of sunshine. It would accept no sunshine but such January radiance as would light up the bleak, bare country without brightening it; and thus resembled Harcourt Talboys, who took the sternest side of every truth, and declared loudly to the disbelieving world that there never had been, and never could be, any other side.
Robert Audley's heart sunk within him as the shabby hired vehicle stopped at a stern-looking barred fence, and the driver dismounted to open a broad iron gate which swung back with a clanking noise and was caught by a great iron tooth, planted in the ground, which snapped at the lowest bar of the gate as if it wanted to bite.
This iron gate opened into a scanty plantation of straight-limbed fir-trees, that grew in rows and shook their sturdy winter foliage defiantly in the very teeth of the frosty breeze. A straight graveled carriage-drive ran between these straight trees across a smoothly kept lawn to a square red-brick mansion, every window of which winked and glittered in the January sunlight as if it had been that moment cleaned by some indefatigable housemaid.
I don't know whether Junius Brutus was a nuisance in his own house, but among other of his Roman virtues, Mr. Talboys owned an extreme aversion to disorder, and was the terror of every domestic in his establishment.
The windows winked and the flight of stone steps glared in the sunlight, the prim garden walks were so freshly graveled that they gave a sandy, gingery aspect to the place, reminding one unpleasantly of red hair. The lawn was chiefly ornamented with dark, wintry shrubs of a funereal aspect which grew in beds that looked like problems in algebra; and the flight of stone steps leading to the square half-glass door of the hall was adorned with dark-green wooden tubs containing the same sturdy evergreens.
"If the man is anything like his house," Robert thought, "I don't wonder that poor George and he parted."
At the end of a scanty avenue the carriage-drive turned a sharp corner (it would have been made to describe a curve in any other man's grounds) and ran before the lower windows of the house. The flyman dismounted at the steps, ascended them, and rang a brass-handled bell, which flew back to its socket, with an angry, metallic snap, as if it had been insulted by the plebeian touch of the man's hand.
A man in black trousers and a striped linen jacket, which was evidently fresh from the hands of the laundress, opened the door. Mr. Talboys was at home. Would the gentleman send in his card?
Robert waited in the hall while his card was taken to the master of the house.
The hall was large and lofty, paved with stone. The panels of the oaken wainscot shone with the same uncompromising polish which was on every object within and without the red-bricked mansion.
Some people are so weak-minded as to affect pictures and statues. Mr. Harcourt Talboys was far too practical to indulge in any foolish fancies. A barometer and an umbrella-stand were the only adornments of his entrance-hall.
Robert Audley looked at these while his name was being submitted to George's father.
The linen-jacketed servant returned presently. He was a square, pale-faced man of almost forty, and had the appearance of having outlived every emotion to which humanity is subject.
"If you will step this way, sir," he said, "Mr. Talboys will see you, although he is at breakfast. He begged me to state that everybody in Dorsetshire was acquainted with his breakfast hour."
This was intended as a stately reproof to Mr. Robert Audley. It had, however, very small effect upon the young barrister. He merely lifted his eyebrows in placid deprecation of himself and everybody else.
"I don't belong to Dorsetshire," he said. "Mr. Talboys might have known that, if he'd done me the honor to exercise his powers of ratiocination. Drive on, my friend."
The emotionless man looked at Robert Audley with a vacant stare of unmitigated horror, and opening one of the heavy oak doors, led the way into a large dining-room furnished with the severe simplicity of an apartment which is meant to be ate in, but never lived in; and at top of a table which would have accommodated eighteen persons Robert beheld Mr. Harcourt Talboys.
Mr. Talboys was robed in a dressing-gown of gray cloth, fastened about his waist with a girdle. It was a severe looking garment, and was perhaps the nearest approach to the toga to be obtained within the range of modern costume. He wore a buff waistcoat, a stiffly starched cambric cravat, and a faultless shirt collar. The cold gray of his dressing gown was almost the same as the cold gray of his eyes, and the pale buff of his waistcoat was the pale buff of his complexion.
Robert Audley had not expected to find Harcourt Talboys at all like George in his manners or disposition, but he had expected to see some family likeness between the father and the son. There was none. It would have been impossible to imagine any one more unlike George than the author of his existence. Robert scarcely wondered at the cruel letter he received from Mr. Talboys when he saw the writer of it. Such a man could scarcely have written otherwise.
There was a second person in the large room, toward whom Robert glanced after saluting Harcourt Talboys, doubtful how to proceed. This second person was a lady, who sat at the last of a range of four windows, employed with some needlework, the kind which is generally called plain work, and with a large wicker basket, filled with calicoes and flannels, standing by her.
The whole length of the room divided this lady from Robert, but he could see that she was young, and that she was like George Talboys.
"His sister!" he thought in that one moment, during which he ventured to glance away from the master of the house toward the female figure at the window. "His sister, no doubt. He was fond of her, I know. Surely, she is not utterly indifferent as to his fate?"
The lady half rose from her seat, letting her work, which was large and awkward, fall from her lap as she did so, and dropping a reel of cotton, which rolled away upon the polished oaken flooring beyond the margin of the Turkey carpet.
"Sit down, Clara," said the hard voice of Mr. Talboys.
That gentleman did not appear to address his daughter, nor had his face been turned toward her when she rose. It seemed as if he had known it by some social magnetism peculiar to himself; it seemed, as his servants were apt disrespectfully to observe, as if he had eyes in the back of his head.
"Sit down, Clara," he repeated, "and keep your cotton in your workbox."
The lady blushed at this reproof, and stooped to look for the cotton. Mr. Robert Audley, who was unabashed by the stern presence of the master of the house, knelt on the carpet, found the reel, and restored it to its owner; Harcourt Talboys staring at the proceeding with an expression of unmitigated astonishment.
"Perhaps, Mr. ----, Mr. Robert Audley!" he said, looking at the card which he held between his finger and thumb, "perhaps when you have finished looking for reels of cotton, you will be good enough to tell me to what I owe the honor of this visit?"
He waved his well-shaped hand with a gesture which might have been admired in the stately John Kemble; and the servant, understanding the gesture, brought forward a ponderous red-morocco chair.
The proceeding was so slow and solemn, that Robert had at first thought that something extraordinary was about to be done; but the truth dawned upon him at last, and he dropped into the massive chair.
"You may remain, Wilson," said Mr. Talboys, as the servant was about to withdraw; "Mr. Audley would perhaps like coffee."
Robert had eaten nothing that morning, but he glanced at the long expanse of dreary table-cloth, the silver tea and coffee equipage, the stiff splendor, and the very little appearance of any substantial entertainment, and he declined Mr. Talboys' invitation.
"Mr. Audley will not take coffee, Wilson," said the master of the house. "You may go."
The man bowed and retired, opening and shutting the door as cautiously as if he were taking a liberty in doing it at all, or as if the respect due to Mr. Talboys demanded his walking straight through the oaken panel like a ghost in a German story.
Mr. Harcourt Talboys sat with his gray eyes fixed severely on his visitor, his elbows on the red-morocco arms of his chair, and his finger-tips joined. It was the attitude in which, had he been Junius Brutus, he would have sat at the trial of his son. Had Robert Audley been easily to be embarrassed, Mr. Talboys might have succeeded in making him feel so: as he would have sat with perfect tranquility upon an open gunpowder barrel lighting his cigar, he was not at all disturbed upon this occasion. The father's dignity seemed a very small thing to him when he thought of the possible causes of the son's disappearance.
"I wrote to you some time since, Mr. Talboys," he said quietly, when he saw that he was expected to open the conversation.
Harcourt Talboys bowed. He knew that it was of his lost son that Robert came to speak. Heaven grant that his icy stoicism was the paltry affectation of a vain man, rather than the utter heartlessness which Robert thought it. He bowed across his finger-tips at his visitor. The trial had begun, and Junius Brutus was enjoying himself.
"I received your communication, Mr. Audley," he said. "It is among other business letters: it was duly answered."
"That letter concerned your son."
There was a little rustling noise at the window where the lady sat, as Robert said this: he looked at her almost instantaneously, but she did not seem to have stirred. She was not working, but she was perfectly quiet.
"She's as heartless as her father, I expect, though she is like George," thought Mr. Audley.
"If your letter concerned the person who was once my son, perhaps, sir," said Harcourt Talboys, "I must ask you to remember that I have no longer a son."
"You have no reason to remind me of that, Mr. Talboys," answered Robert, gravely; "I remember it only too well. I have fatal reason to believe that you have no longer a son. I have bitter cause to think that he is dead."
It may be that Mr. Talboys' complexion faded to a paler shade of buff as Robert said this; but he only elevated his bristling gray eyebrows and shook his head gently.
"No," he said, "no, I assure you, no."
"I believe that George Talboys died in the month of September."
The girl who had been addressed as Clara, sat with work primly folded upon her lap, and her hands lying clasped together on her work, and never stirred when Robert spoke of his friend's death. He could not distinctly see her face, for she was seated at some distance from him, and with her back to the window.
"No, no, I assure you," repeated Mr. Talboys, "you labor under a sad mistake."
"You believe that I am mistaken in thinking your son dead?" asked Robert.
"Most certainly," replied Mr. Talboys, with a smile, expressive of the serenity of wisdom. "Most certainly, my dear sir. The disappearance was a very clever trick, no doubt, but it was not sufficiently clever to deceive me. You must permit me to understand this matter a little better than you, Mr. Audley, and you must also permit me to assure you of three things. In the first place, your friend is not dead. In the second place, he is keeping out of the way for the purpose of alarming me, of trifling with my feelings as a--as a man who was once his father, and of ultimately obtaining my forgiveness. In the third place, he will not obtain that forgiveness, however long he may please to keep out of the way; and he would therefore act wisely by returning to his ordinary residence and avocations without delay."
"Then you imagine him to purposely hide himself from all who know him, for the purpose of--"
"For the purpose of influencing _me_," exclaimed Mr. Talboys, who, taking a stand upon his own vanity, traced every event in life from that one center, and resolutely declined to look at it from any other point of view. "For the purpose of influencing me. He knew the inflexibility of my character; to a certain degree he was acquainted with me, and knew that all attempts at softening my decision, or moving me from the fixed purpose of my life, would fail. He therefore tried extraordinary means; he has kept out of the way in order to alarm me, and when after due time he discovers that he has not alarmed me, he will return to his old haunts. When he does so," said Mr. Talboys, rising to sublimity, "I will forgive him. Yes, sir, I will forgive him. I shall say to him: You have attempted to deceive me, and I have shown you that I am not to be deceived; you have tried to frighten me, and I have convinced you that I am not to be frightened; you did not believe in my generosity, I will show you that I can be generous."
Harcourt Talboys delivered himself of these superb periods with a studied manner, that showed they had been carefully composed long ago.
Robert Audley sighed as he heard them.
"Heaven grant that you may have an opportunity of saying this to your son, sir," he answered sadly. "I am very glad to find that you are willing to forgive him, but I fear that you will never see him again upon this earth. I have a great deal to say to you upon this--this sad subject, Mr. Talboys; but I would rather say it to you alone," he added, glancing at the lady in the window.
"My daughter knows my ideas upon this subject, Mr. Audley," said Harcourt Talboys; "there is no reason why she should not hear all you have to say. Miss Clara Talboys, Mr. Robert Audley," he added, waving his hand majestically.
The young lady bent her head in recognition of Robert's bow.
"Let her hear it," he thought. "If she has so little feeling as to show no emotion upon such a subject, let her hear the worst I have to tell."
There was a few minutes' pause, during which Robert took some papers from his pocket; among them the document which he had written immediately after George's disappearance.
"I shall require all your attention, Mr. Talboys," he said, "for that which I have to disclose to you is of a very painful nature. Your son was my very dear friend--dear to me for many reasons. Perhaps most of all dear, because I had known him and been with him through the great trouble of his life; and because he stood comparatively alone in the world--cast off by you who should have been his best friend, bereft of the only woman he had ever loved."
"The daughter of a drunken pauper," Mr. Talboys remarked, parenthetically.
"Had he died in his bed, as I sometimes thought be would," continued Robert Audley, "of a broken heart, I should have mourned for him very sincerely, even though I had closed his eyes with my own hands, and had seen him laid in his quiet resting-place. I should have grieved for my old schoolfellow, and for the companion who had been dear to me. But this grief would have been a very small one compared to that which I feel now, believing, as I do only too firmly, that my poor friend has been murdered."
The father and daughter simultaneously repeated the horrible word. The father's face changed to a ghastly duskiness of hue; the daughter's face dropped upon her clasped hands, and was never lifted again throughout the interview.
"Mr. Audley, you are mad!" exclaimed Harcourt Talboys; "you are mad, or else you are commissioned by your friend to play upon my feelings. I protest against this proceeding as a conspiracy, and I--I revoke my intended forgiveness of the person who was once my son!"
He was himself again as he said this. The blow had been a sharp one, but its effect had been momentary.
"It is far from my wish to alarm you unnecessarily, sir," answered Robert. "Heaven grant that you may be right and I wrong. I pray for it, but I cannot think it--I cannot even hope it. I come to you for advice. I will state to you plainly and dispassionately the circumstances which have aroused my suspicions. If you say those suspicions are foolish and unfounded I am ready to submit to your better judgment. I will leave England; and I abandon my search for the evidence wanting to--to confirm my fears. If you say go on, I will go on."
Nothing could be more gratifying to the vanity of Mr. Harcourt Talboys than this appeal. He declared himself ready to listen to all that Robert might have to say, and ready to assist him to the uttermost of his power.
He laid some stress upon this last assurance, deprecating the value of his advice with an affectation that was as transparent as his vanity itself.
Robert Audley drew his chair nearer to that of Mr. Talboys, and commenced a minutely detailed account of all that had occurred to George from the time of his arrival in England to the hour of his disappearance, as well as all that had occurred since his disappearance in any way touching upon that particular subject. Harcourt Talboys listened with demonstrative attention, now and then interrupting the speaker to ask some magisterial kind of question. Clara Talboys never once lifted her face from her clasped hands.
The hands of the clock pointed to a quarter past eleven when Robert began his story. The clock struck twelve as he finished.
He had carefully suppressed the names of his uncle and his uncle's wife in relating the circumstances in which they had been concerned.
"Now, sir," he said, when the story had been told, "I await your decision. You have heard my reasons for coming to this terrible conclusion. In what manner do these reasons influence you?"
"They don't in any way turn me from my previous opinion," answered Mr. Harcourt Talboys, with the unreasoning pride of an obstinate man. "I still think, as I thought before, that my son is alive, and that his disappearance is a conspiracy against myself. I decline to become the victim of that conspiracy,"
"And you tell me to stop?" asked Robert, solemnly.
"I tell you only this: If you go on, you go on for your own satisfaction, not for mine. I see nothing in what you have told me to alarm me for the safety of--your friend."
"So be it, then!" exclaimed Robert, suddenly; "from this moment I wash my hands of this business. From this moment the purpose of my life shall be to forget it."
He rose as he spoke, and took his hat from the table on which he had placed it. He looked at Clara Talboys. Her attitude had never changed since she had dropped her face upon her hands. "Good morning, Mr. Talboys," he said, gravely. "God grant that you are right. God grant that I am wrong. But I fear a day will come when you will have reason to regret your apathy respecting the untimely fate of your only son."
He bowed gravely to Mr. Harcourt Talboys and to the lady, whose face was hidden by her hands.
He lingered for a moment looking at Miss Talboys, thinking that she would look up, that she would make some sign, or show some desire to detain him.
Mr. Talboys rang for the emotionless servant, who led Robert off to the hall-door with the solemnity of manner which would have been in perfect keeping had he been leading him to execution.
"She is like her father," thought Mr. Audley, as he glanced for the last time at the drooping head. "Poor George, you had need of one friend in this world, for you have had very few to love you."