The dreary London January dragged its dull length slowly out. The last slender records of Christmas time were swept away, and Robert Audley still lingered in town--still spent his lonely evenings in his quiet sitting-room in Figtree Court--still wandered listlessly in the Temple Gardens on sunny mornings, absently listening to the children's babble, idly watching their play. He had many friends among the inhabitants of the quaint old buildings round him; he had other friends far away in pleasant country places, whose spare bedrooms were always at Bob's service, whose cheerful firesides had snugly luxurious chairs specially allotted to him. But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys. Elderly benchers indulged in facetious observations upon the young man's pale face and moody manner. They suggested the probability of some unhappy attachment, some feminine ill-usage as the secret cause of the change. They told him to be of good cheer, and invited him to supper-parties, at which "lovely woman, with all her faults, God bless her," was drunk by gentlemen who shed tears as they proposed the toast, and were maudlin and unhappy in their cups toward the close of the entertainment. Robert had no inclination for the wine-bibbing and the punch-making. The one idea of his life had become his master. He was the bonden slave of one gloomy thought--one horrible presentiment. A dark cloud was brooding above his uncle's house, and it was his hand which was to give the signal for the thunder-clap, and the tempest that was to ruin that noble life.
"If she would only take warning and run away," he said to himself sometimes. "Heaven knows, I have given her a fair chance. Why doesn't she take it and run away?"
He heard sometimes from Sir Michael, sometimes from Alicia. The young lady's letter rarely contained more than a few curt lines informing him that her papa was well; and that Lady Audley was in very high spirits, amusing herself in her usual frivolous manner, and with her usual disregard for other people.
A letter from Mr. Marchmont, the Southampton schoolmaster, informed Robert that little Georgey was going on very well, but that he was behindhand in his education, and had not yet passed the intellectual Rubicon of words of two syllables. Captain Maldon had called to see his grandson, but that privilege had been withheld from him, in accordance with Mr. Audley's instructions. The old man had furthermore sent a parcel of pastry and sweetmeats to the little boy, which had also been rejected on the ground of indigestible and bilious tendencies in the edibles.
Toward the close of February, Robert received a letter from his cousin Alicia, which hurried him one step further forward toward his destiny, by causing him to return to the house from which he had become in a manner exiled at the instigation of his uncle's wife,
"Papa is very ill," Alicia wrote; "not dangerously ill, thank God; but confined to his room by an attack of low fever which has succeeded a violent cold. Come and see him, Robert, if you have any regard for your nearest relations. He has spoken about you several times; and I know he will be glad to have you with him. Come at once, but say nothing about this letter.
"From your affectionate cousin, ALICIA."
A sick and deadly terror chilled Robert Audley's heart, as he read this letter--a vague yet hideous fear, which he dared not shape into any definite form.
"Have I done right?" he thought, in the first agony of this new horror--"have I done right to tamper with justice; and to keep the secret of my doubts in the hope that I was shielding those I love from sorrow and disgrace? What shall I do if I find him ill, very ill, dying perhaps, dying upon her breast! What shall I do?"
One course lay clear before him; and the first step of that course was a rapid journey to Audley Court. He packed his portmanteau, jumped into a cab, and reached the railway station within an hour of his receipt of Alicia's letter, which had come by the afternoon post.
The dim village lights flickered faintly through the growing dusk when Robert reached Audley. He left his portmanteau with the station-master, and walked at a leisurely pace through the quiet lanes that led away to the still loneliness of the Court. The over-arching trees stretched their leafless branches above his head, bare and weird in the dusky light. A low moaning wind swept across the flat meadow land, and tossed those rugged branches hither and thither against the dark gray sky. They looked like the ghostly arms of shrunken and withered giants, beckoning Robert to his uncle's house. They looked like threatening phantoms in the chill winter twilight, gesticulating to him to hasten upon his journey. The long avenue so bright and pleasant when the perfumed limes scattered their light bloom upon the pathway, and the dog-rose leaves floated on the summer air, was terribly bleak and desolate in the cheerless interregnum that divides the homely joys of Christmas from the pale blush of coming spring--a dead pause in the year, in which Nature seems to lie in a tranced sleep, awaiting the wondrous signal for the budding of the flower.
A mournful presentiment crept into Robert Audley's heart as he drew nearer to his uncle's house. Every changing outline in the landscape was familiar to him; every bend of the trees; every caprice of the untrammeled branches; every undulation in the bare hawthorn hedge, broken by dwarf horse-chestnuts, stunted willows, blackberry and hazel bushes.
Sir Michael had been a second father to the young man, a generous and noble friend, a grave and earnest adviser; and perhaps the strongest sentiment of Robert's heart was his love for the gray-bearded baronet. But the grateful affection was so much a part of himself, that it seldom found an outlet in words, and a stranger would never have fathomed the depth of feeling which lay, a deep and powerful current, beneath the stagnant surface of the barrister's character.
"What would become of this place if my uncle were to die?" he thought, and he drew nearer to the ivied archway, and the still water-pools, coldly gray in the twilight. "Would other people live in the old house, and sit under the low oak ceilings in the homely familiar rooms?"
That wonderful faculty of association, so interwoven with the inmost fibers of even the hardest nature, filled the young man's breast with a prophetic pain as he remembered that, however long or late, the day must come on which the oaken shutters would be closed for awhile, and the sunshine shut out of the house he loved. It was painful to him even to remember this; as it must always be painful to think of the narrow lease the greatest upon this earth can ever hold of its grandeurs. Is it so wonderful that some wayfarers drop asleep under the hedges, scarcely caring to toil onward on a journey that leads to no abiding habitation? Is it wonderful that there have been quietists in the world ever since Christ's religion was first preached upon earth. Is it strange that there is a patient endurance and tranquil resignation, calm expectation of that which is to come on the further shore of the dark flowing river? Is it not rather to be wondered that anybody should ever care to be great for greatness' sake; for any other reason than pure conscientiousness; the simple fidelity of the servant who fears to lay his talents by in a napkin, knowing that indifference is near akin to dishonesty? If Robert Audley had lived in the time of Thomas a'Kempis, he would very likely have built himself a narrow hermitage amid some forest loneliness, and spent his life in tranquil imitation of the reputed author of _The Imitation_. As it was, Figtree Court was a pleasant hermitage in its way, and for breviaries and Books of Hours, I am ashamed to say the young barrister substituted Paul de Kock and Dumas, fils. But his sins were of so simply negative an order, that it would have been very easy for him to have abandoned them for negative virtues.
Only one solitary light was visible in the long irregular range of windows facing the archway, as Robert passed under the gloomy shade of the rustling ivy, restless in the chill moaning of the wind. He recognized that lighted window as the large oriel in his uncle's room. When last he had looked at the old house it had been gay with visitors, every window glittering like a low star in the dusk; now, dark and silent, it faced the winter's night like some dismal baronial habitation, deep in a woodland solitude.
The man who opened the door to the unlooked-for visitor, brightened as he recognized his master's nephew.
"Sir Michael will be cheered up a bit, sir, by the sight of you," he said, as he ushered Robert Audley into the fire-lit library, which seemed desolate by reason of the baronet's easy-chair standing empty on the broad hearth-rug. "Shall I bring you some dinner here, sir, before you go up-stairs?" the servant asked. "My lady and Miss Audley have dined early during my master's illness, but I can bring you anything you would please to take, sir."
"I'll take nothing until I have seen my uncle," Robert answered, hurriedly; "that is to say, if I can see him at once. He is not too ill to receive me, I suppose?" he added, anxiously.
"Oh, no, sir--not too ill; only a little low, sir. This way, if you please."
He conducted Robert up the short flight of shallow oaken stairs to the octagon chamber in which George Talboys had sat long five months before, staring absently at my lady's portrait. The picture was finished now, and hung in the post of honor opposite the window, amidst Claudes, Poussins and Wouvermans, whose less brilliant hues were killed by the vivid coloring of the modern artist. The bright face looked out of that tangled glitter of golden hair, in which the Pre-Raphaelites delight, with a mocking smile, as Robert paused for a moment to glance at the well-remembered picture. Two or three moments afterward he had passed through my lady's boudoir and dressing-room and stood upon the threshold of Sir Michael's room. The baronet lay in a quiet sleep, his arm laying outside the bed, and his strong hand clasped in his young wife's delicate fingers. Alicia sat in a low chair beside the broad open hearth, on which the huge logs burned fiercely in the frosty atmosphere. The interior of this luxurious bedchamber might have made a striking picture for an artist's pencil. The massive furniture, dark and somber, yet broken up and relieved here and there by scraps of gilding, and masses of glowing color; the elegance of every detail, in which wealth was subservient to purity of taste; and last, but greatest in importance, the graceful figures of the two women, and the noble form of the old man would have formed a worthy study for any painter.
Lucy Audley, with her disordered hair in a pale haze of yellow gold about her thoughtful face, the flowing lines of her soft muslin dressing-gown falling in straight folds to her feet, and clasped at the waist by a narrow circlet of agate links might have served as a model for a mediaeval saint, in one of the tiny chapels hidden away in the nooks and corners of a gray old cathedral, unchanged by Reformation or Cromwell; and what saintly martyr of the Middle Ages could have borne a holier aspect than the man whose gray beard lay upon the dark silken coverlet of the stately bed?
Robert paused upon the threshold, fearful of awaking his uncle. The two ladies had heard his step, cautious though he had been, and lifted their heads to look at him. My lady's face, quietly watching the sick man, had worn an anxious earnestness which made it only more beautiful; but the same face recognizing Robert Audley, faded from its delicate brightness, and looked scared and wan in the lamplight.
"Mr. Audley!" she cried, in a faint, tremulous voice.
"Hush!" whispered Alicia, with a warning gesture; "you will wake papa. How good of you to come, Robert," she added, in the same whispered tones, beckoning to her cousin to take an empty chair near the bed.
The young man seated himself in the indicated seat at the bottom of the bed, and opposite to my lady, who sat close beside the pillows. He looked long and earnestly at the face of the sleeper; still longer, still more earnestly at the face of Lady Audley, which was slowly recovering its natural hues.
"He has not been very ill, has he?" Robert asked, in the same key as that in which Alicia had spoken.
My lady answered the question.
"Oh, no, not dangerously ill," she said, without taking her eyes from her husband's face; "but still we have been anxious, very, very anxious."
Robert never relaxed his scrutiny of that pale face.
"She shall look at me," he thought; "I will make her meet my eyes, and I will read her as I have read her before. She shall know how useless her artifices are with me."
He paused for a few minutes before he spoke again. The regular breathing of the sleeper the ticking of a gold hunting-watch at the head of the bed, and the crackling of the burning logs, were the only sounds that broke the stillness.
"I have no doubt you have been anxious, Lady Audley," Robert said, after a pause, fixing my lady's eyes as they wandered furtively to his face. "There is no one to whom my uncle's life I can be of more value than to you. Your happiness, your prosperity, your _safety_ depend alike upon his existence."
The whisper in which he uttered these words was too low to reach the other side of the room, where Alicia sat.
Lucy Audley's eyes met those of the speaker with some gleam of triumph in their light.
"I know that," she said. "Those who strike me must strike through him."
She pointed to the sleeper as she spoke, still looking at Robert Audley. She defied him with her blue eyes, their brightness intensified by the triumph in their glance. She defied him with her quiet smile--a smile of fatal beauty, full of lurking significance and mysterious meaning--the smile which the artist had exaggerated in his portrait of Sir Michael's wife.
Robert turned away from the lovely face, and shaded his eyes with his hand; putting a barrier between my lady and himself; a screen which baffled her penetration and provoked her curiosity. Was he still watching her or was he thinking? and of what was he thinking?
Robert had been seated at the bedside for upward of an hour before his uncle awoke. The baronet was delighted at his nephew's coming.
"It was very good of you to come to me, Bob," he said. "I have been thinking of you a good deal since I have been ill. You and Lucy must be good friends, you know, Bob; and you must learn to think of her as your aunt, sir; though she is young and beautiful; and--and--you understand, eh?"
Robert grasped his uncle's hand, but he looked down as he answered: "I do understand you, sir," he said, quietly; "and I give you my word of honor that I am steeled against my lady's fascinations. She knows that as well as I do."
Lucy Audley made a little grimace with her pretty little lips. "Bah, you silly Robert," she exclaimed; "you take everything _au serieux_. If I thought you were rather too young for a nephew, it was only in my fear of other people's foolish gossip; not from any--"
She hesitated for a moment, and escaped any conclusion to her sentence by the timely intervention of Mr. Dawson, her late employer, who entered the room upon his evening visit while she was speaking.
He felt the patient's pulse; asked two or three questions; pronounced the baronet to be steadily improving; exchanged a few commonplace remarks with Alicia and Lady Audley, and prepared to leave the room. Robert rose and accompanied him to the door.
"I will light you to the staircase," he said, taking a candle from one of the tables, and lighting it at the lamp.
"No, no, Mr. Audley, pray do not trouble yourself," expostulated the surgeon; "I know my way very well indeed."
Robert insisted, and the two men left the room together. As they entered the octagon ante-chamber the barrister paused and shut the door behind him.
"Will you see that the door is closed, Mr. Dawson?" he said, pointing to that which opened upon the staircase. "I wish to have a few moments' private conversation with you."
"With much pleasure," replied the surgeon, complying with Robert's request; "but if you are at all alarmed about your uncle, Mr. Audley, I can set your mind at rest. There is no occasion for the least uneasiness. Had his illness been at all serious I should have telegraphed immediately for the family physician."
"I am sure that you would have done your duty, sir," answered Robert, gravely. "But I am not going to speak of my uncle. I wish to ask you two or three questions about another person."
"The person who once lived in your family as Miss Lucy Graham; the person who is now Lady Audley."
Mr. Dawson looked up with an expression of surprise upon his quiet face.
"Pardon me, Mr. Audley," he answered; "you can scarcely expect me to answer any questions about your uncle's wife without Sir Michael's express permission. I can understand no motive which can prompt you to ask such questions--no worthy motive, at least." He looked severely at the young man, as much as to say: "You have been falling in love with your uncle's pretty wife, sir, and you want to make me a go-between in some treacherous flirtation; but it won't do, sir, it won't do."
"I always respected the lady as Miss Graham, sir," he said, "and I esteem her doubly as Lady Audley--not on account of her altered position, but because she is the wife of one of the noblest men in Christendom."
"You cannot respect my uncle or my uncle's honor more sincerely than I do," answered Robert. "I have no unworthy motive for the questions I am about to ask; and you must answer them."
"_Must!_" echoed Mr. Dawson, indignantly.
"Yes, you are my uncle's friend. It was at your house he met the woman who is now his wife. She called herself an orphan, I believe, and enlisted his pity as well as his admiration in her behalf. She told him that she stood alone in the world, did she not?--without a friend or relative. This was all I could ever learn of her antecedents."
"What reason have you to wish to know more?" asked the surgeon.
"A very terrible reason," answered Robert Audley. "For some months past I have struggled with doubts and suspicions which have embittered my life. They have grown stronger every day; and they will not be set at rest by the commonplace sophistries and the shallow arguments with which men try to deceive themselves rather than believe that which of all things upon earth they most fear to believe. I do not think that the woman who bears my uncle's name, is worthy to be his wife. I may wrong her. Heaven grant that it is so. But if I do, the fatal chain of circumstantial evidence never yet linked itself so closely about an innocent person. I wish to set my doubts at rest or--or to confirm my fears. There is but one manner in which I can do this. I must trace the life of my uncle's wife backward, minutely and carefully, from this night to a period of six years ago. This is the twenty-fourth of February, fifty-nine. I want to know every record of her life between to-night and the February of the year fifty-three."
"And your motive is a worthy one?"
"Yes, I wish to clear her from a very dreadful suspicion."
"Which exists only in your mind?"
"And in the mind of one other person."
"May I ask who that person is?"
"No, Mr. Dawson," answered Robert, decisively; "I cannot reveal anything more than what I have already told you. I am a very irresolute, vacillating man in most things. In this matter I am compelled to be decided. I repeat once more that I _must_ know the history of Lucy Graham's life. If you refuse to help me to the small extent in your power, I will find others who will help me. Painful as it would become, I will ask my uncle for the information which you would withhold, rather than be baffled in the first step of my investigation."
Mr. Dawson was silent for some minutes.
"I cannot express how much you have astonished and alarmed me, Mr. Audley." he said. "I can tell you so little about Lady Audley's antecedents, that it would be mere obstinacy to withhold the small amount of information I possess. I have always considered your uncle's wife one of the most amiable of women. I _cannot_ bring myself to think her otherwise. It would be an uprooting of one of the strongest convictions of my life were I compelled to think her otherwise. You wish to follow her life backward from the present hour to the year fifty-three?"
"She was married to your uncle last June twelvemonth, in the midsummer of fifty-seven. She had lived in my house a little more than thirteen months. She became a member of my household upon the fourteenth of May, in the year fifty-six."
"And she came to you--"
"From a school at Brompton, a school kept by a lady of the name of Vincent. It was Mrs. Vincent's strong recommendation that induced me to receive Miss Graham into my family without any more special knowledge of her antecedents."
"Did you see this Mrs. Vincent?"
"I did not. I advertised for a governess, and Miss Graham answered my advertisement. In her letter she referred me to Mrs. Vincent, the proprietress of a school in which she was then residing as junior teacher. My time is always so fully occupied, that I was glad to escape the necessity of a day's loss in going from Audley to London to inquire about the young lady's qualifications. I looked for Mrs. Vincent's name in the directory, found it, and concluded that she was a responsible person, and wrote to her. Her reply was perfectly satisfactory;--Miss Lucy Graham was assiduous and conscientious; as well as fully qualified for the situation I offered. I accepted this reference, and I had no cause to regret what may have been an indiscretion. And now, Mr. Audley, I have told you all that I have the power to tell."
"Will you be so kind as to give me the address of this Mrs. Vincent?" asked Robert, taking out his pocketbook.
"Certainly; she was then living at No. 9 Crescent Villas, Brompton."
"Ah, to be sure," muttered Mr. Audley, a recollection of last September flashing suddenly back upon him as the surgeon spoke.
"Crescent Villas--yes, I have heard the address before from Lady Audley herself. This Mrs. Vincent telegraphed to my uncle's wife early in last September. She was ill--dying, I believe--and sent for my lady; but had removed from her old house and was not to be found."
"Indeed! I never heard Lady Audley mention the circumstance."
"Perhaps not. It occurred while I was down here. Thank you, Mr. Dawson, for the information you have so kindly and honestly given me. It takes me back two and a-half years in the history of my lady's life; but I have still a blank of three years to fill up before I can exonerate her from my terrible suspicion. Good evening."
Robert shook hands with the surgeon and returned to his uncle's room. He had been away about a quarter of an hour. Sir Michael had fallen asleep once more, and my lady's loving hands had lowered the heavy curtains and shaded the lamp by the bedside. Alicia and her father's wife were taking tea in Lady Audley's boudoir, the room next to the antechamber in which Robert and Mr. Dawson had been seated.
Lucy Audley looked up from her occupation among the fragile china cups and watched Robert rather anxiously as he walked softly to his uncle's room and back again to the boudoir. She looked very pretty and innocent, seated behind the graceful group of delicate opal china and glittering silver. Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea. The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance. The floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing herbs; whose secrets are known to her alone, envelope her in a cloud of scented vapor, through which she seems a social fairy, weaving potent spells with Gunpowder and Bohea. At the tea-table she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable. What do men know of the mysterious beverage? Read how poor Hazlitt made his tea, and shudder at the dreadful barbarism. How clumsily the wretched creatures attempt to assist the witch president of the tea-tray; how hopelessly they hold the kettle, how continually they imperil the frail cups and saucers, or the taper hands of the priestess. To do away with the tea-table is to rob woman of her legitimate empire. To send a couple of hulking men about among your visitors, distributing a mixture made in the housekeeper's room, is to reduce the most social and friendly of ceremonies to a formal giving out of rations. Better the pretty influence of the tea cups and saucers gracefully wielded in a woman's hand than all the inappropriate power snatched at the point of the pen from the unwilling sterner sex. Imagine all the women of England elevated to the high level of masculine intellectuality, superior to crinoline; above pearl powder and Mrs. Rachael Levison; above taking the pains to be pretty; above tea-tables and that cruelly scandalous and rather satirical gossip which even strong men delight in; and what a drear, utilitarian, ugly life the sterner sex must lead.
My lady was by no means strong-minded. The starry diamonds upon her white fingers flashed hither and thither among the tea-things, and she bent her pretty head over the marvelous Indian tea-caddy of sandal-wood and silver, with as much earnestness as if life held no higher purpose than the infusion of Bohea.
"You'll take a cup of tea with us, Mr. Audley?" she asked, pausing with the teapot in her hand to look up at Robert, who was standing near the door.
"If you please."
"But you have not dined, perhaps? Shall I ring and tell them to bring you something a little more substantial than biscuits and transparent bread and butter?"
"No, thank you, Lady Audley. I took some lunch before I left town. I'll trouble you for nothing but a cup of tea."
He seated himself at the little table and looked across it at his Cousin Alicia, who sat with a book in her lap, and had the air of being very much absorbed by its pages. The bright brunette complexion had lost its glowing crimson, and the animation of the young lady's manner was suppressed--on account of her father's illness, no doubt, Robert thought.
"Alicia, my dear," the barrister said, after a very leisurely contemplation of his cousin, "you're not looking well."
Miss Audley shrugged her shoulders, but did not condescend to lift her eyes from her book.
"Perhaps not," she answered, contemptuously. "What does it matter? I'm growing a philosopher of your school, Robert Audley. What does it matter? Who cares whether I am well or ill?"
"What a spitfire she is," thought the barrister. He always knew his cousin was angry with him when she addressed him as "Robert Audley."
"You needn't pitch into a fellow because he asks you a civil question, Alicia," he said, reproachfully. "As to nobody caring about your health, that's nonsense. _I_ care." Miss Audley looked up with a bright smile. "Sir Harry Towers cares." Miss Audley returned to her book with a frown.
"What are you reading there, Alicia?" Robert asked, after a pause, during which he had sat thoughtfully stirring his tea.
"_Changes and Chances_."
"Who is it by?"
"The author of _Follies and Faults_," answered Alicia, still pursuing her study of the romance upon her lap.
"Is it interesting?"
Miss Audley pursed up her mouth and shrugged her shoulders.
"Not particularly," she said.
"Then I think you might have better manners than to read it while your first cousin is sitting opposite you," observed Mr. Audley, with some gravity, "especially as he has only come to pay you a flying visit, and will be off to-morrow morning."
"To-morrow morning!" exclaimed my lady, looking up suddenly.
Though the look of joy upon Lady Audley's face was as brief as a flash of lightning on a summer sky, it was not unperceived by Robert.
"Yes," he said; "I shall be obliged to run up to London to-morrow on business, but I shall return the next day, if you will allow me, Lady Audley, and stay here till my uncle recovers."
"But you are not seriously alarmed about him, are you?" asked my lady, anxiously.
"You do not think him very ill?"
"No," answered Robert. "Thank Heaven, I think there is not the slightest cause for apprehension."
My lady sat silent for a few moments, looking at the empty teacups with a prettily thoughtful face--a face grave with the innocent seriousness of a musing child.
"But you were closeted such a long time with Mr. Dawson, just now," she said, after this brief pause. "I was quite alarmed at the length of your conversation. Were you talking of Sir Michael all the time?"
"No; not all the time?"
My lady looked down at the teacups once more.
"Why, what could you find to say to Mr. Dawson, or he to say to you?" she asked, after another pause. "You are almost strangers to each other."
"Suppose Mr. Dawson wished to consult me about some law business."
"Was it that?" cried Lady Audley, eagerly.
"It would be rather unprofessional to tell you if it were so, my lady," answered Robert, gravely.
My lady bit her lip, and relapsed into silence. Alicia threw down her book, and watched her cousin's preoccupied face. He talked to her now and then for a few minutes, but it was evidently an effort to him to arouse himself from his revery.
"Upon my word, Robert Audley, you are a very agreeable companion," exclaimed Alicia at length, her rather limited stock of patience quite exhausted by two or three of these abortive attempts at conversation. "Perhaps the next time you come to the Court you will be good enough to bring your _mind_ with you. By your present inanimate appearance, I should imagine that you had left your intellect, such as it is, somewhere in the Temple. You were never one of the liveliest of people, but latterly you have really grown almost unendurable. I suppose you are in love, Mr. Audley, and are thinking of the honored object of your affections."
He was thinking of Clara Talboys' uplifted face, sublime in its unutterable grief; of her impassioned words still ringing in his ears as clearly as when they were first spoken. Again he saw her looking at him with her bright brown eyes. Again he heard that solemn question: "Shall you or I find my brother's murderer?" And he was in Essex; in the little village from which he firmly believed George Talboys had never departed. He was on the spot at which all record of his friend's life ended as suddenly as a story ends when the reader shuts the book. And could he withdraw now from the investigation in which he found himself involved? Could he stop now? For any consideration? No; a thousand times no! Not with the image of that grief-stricken face imprinted on his mind. Not with the accents of that earnest appeal ringing on his ear.
SO FAR AND NO FARTHER.
Robert left Audley the next morning by an early train, and reached Shoreditch a little after nine o'clock. He did not return to his chambers, but called a cab and drove straight to Crescent Villas, West Brompton. He knew that he should fail in finding the lady he went to seek at this address, as his uncle had failed a few months before, but he thought it possible to obtain some clew to the schoolmistress' new residence, in spite of Sir Michael's ill-success.
"Mrs. Vincent was in a dying state, according to the telegraphic message," Robert thought. "If I do find her, I shall at least succeed in discovering whether that message was genuine."
He found Crescent Villas after some difficulty. The houses were large, but they lay half imbedded among the chaos of brick and rising mortar around them. New terraces, new streets, new squares led away into hopeless masses of stone and plaster on every side. The roads were sticky with damp clay, which clogged the wheels of the cab and buried the fetlocks of the horse. The desolations--that awful aspect of incompleteness and discomfort which pervades a new and unfinished neighborhood--had set its dismal seal upon the surrounding streets which had arisen about and intrenched Crescent Villas; and Robert wasted forty minutes by his watch, and an hour and a quarter by the cabman's reckoning, in driving up and down uninhabited streets and terraces, trying to find the Villase; whose chimney-tops were frowning down upon him black and venerable, amid groves of virgin plaster, undimmed by time or smoke.
But having at last succeeded in reaching his destination, Mr. Audley alighted from the cab, directed the driver to wait for him at a certain corner, and set out upon his voyage of discovery.
"If I were a distinguished Q.C., I could not do this sort of thing," he thought; "my time would be worth a guinea or so a minute, and I should be retained in the great case of Hoggs vs. Boggs, going forward this very day before a special jury at Westminster Hall. As it is, I can afford to be patient."
He inquired for Mrs. Vincent at the number which Mr. Dawson had given him. The maid who opened the door had never heard that lady's name; but after going to inquire of her mistress, she returned to tell Robert that Mrs. Vincent had lived there, but that she had left two months before the present occupants had entered the house, "and missus has been here fifteen months," the girl added emphatically.
"But you cannot tell where she went on leaving here?" Robert asked, despondingly.
"No, sir; missus says she believes the lady failed, and that she left sudden like, and didn't want her address to be known in the neighborhood."
Mr. Audley felt himself at a standstill once more. If Mrs. Vincent had left the place in debt, she had no doubt scrupulously concealed her whereabouts. There was little hope, then, of learning her address from the tradespeople; and yet, on the other hand, it was just possible that some of her sharpest creditors might have made it their business to discover the defaulter's retreat.
He looked about him for the nearest shops, and found a baker's, a stationer's, and a fruiterer's a few paces from the Crescent. Three empty-looking, pretentious shops, with plate-glass windows, and a hopeless air of gentility.
He stopped at the baker's, who called himself a pastrycook and confectioner, and exhibited some specimens of petrified sponge-cake in glass bottles, and some highly-glazed tarts, covered with green gauze.
"She _must_ have bought bread," Robert thought, as he deliberated before the baker's shop; "and she is likely to have bought it at the handiest place. I'll try the baker."
The baker was standing behind his counter, disputing the items of a bill with a shabby-genteel young woman. He did not trouble himself to attend to Robert Audley until he had settled the dispute, but he looked up as he was receipting the bill, and asked the barrister what he pleased to want.
"Can you tell me the address of a Mrs. Vincent, who lived at No. 9 Crescent Villas a year and a half ago?" Mr. Audley inquired, mildly.
"No, I can't," answered the baker, growing very red in the face, and speaking in an unnecessarily loud voice; "and what's more, I wish I could. That lady owes me upward of eleven pound for bread, and it's rather more than I can afford to lose. If anybody can tell me where she lives, I shall be much obliged to 'em for so doing."
Robert Audley shrugged his shoulders and wished the man good-morning. He felt that his discovery of the lady's whereabouts would involve more trouble than he had expected. He might have looked for Mrs. Vincent's name in the Post-Office directory, but he thought it scarcely likely that a lady who was on such uncomfortable terms with her creditors, would afford them so easy a means of ascertaining her residence.
"If the baker can't find her, how should I find her?" he thought, despairingly. "If a resolute, sanguine, active and energetic creature, such as the baker, fail to achieve this business, how can a lymphatic wretch like me hope to accomplish it? Where the baker has been defeated, what preposterous folly it would be for me to try to succeed."
Mr. Audley abandoned himself to these gloomy reflections as he walked slowly back toward the corner at which he had left the cab. About half-way between the baker's shop and this corner he was arrested by hearing a woman's step close at his side, and a woman's voice asking him to stop. He turned and found himself face to face with the shabbily-dressed woman whom he had left settling her account with the baker.
"Eh, what?" he asked, vaguely. "Can I do anything for you, ma'am? Does Mrs. Vincent owe _you_ money, too?"
"Yes, sir," the woman answered, with a semi-genteel manner which corresponded with the shabby gentility of her dress. "Mrs. Vincent is in my debt; but it isn't that, sir. I--I want to know, please, what your business may be with her--because--because--"
"You can give me her address if you choose, ma'am. That's what you mean to say, isn't it?"
The woman hesitated a little, looking rather suspiciously at Robert.
"You're not connected with--with the tally business, are you, sir?" she asked, after considering Mr. Audley's personal appearance for a few moments.
"The _what_, ma'am?" asked the young barrister, staring aghast at his questioner.
"I'm sure I beg your pardon, sir," exclaimed the little woman, seeing that she had made some awful mistake. "I thought you might have been, you know. Some of the gentlemen who collect for the tally shops do dress so very handsome; and I know Mrs. Vincent owes a good deal of money."
Robert Audley laid his hand upon the speaker's arm.
"My dear madam," he said, "I want to know nothing of Mrs. Vincent's affairs. So far from being concerned in what you call _the tally business_, I have not the remotest idea what you mean by that expression. You may mean a political conspiracy; you may mean some new species of taxes. Mrs. Vincent does not owe _me_ any money, however badly she may stand with that awful-looking baker. I never saw her in my life; but I wish to see her to-day for the simple purpose of asking her a few very plain questions about a young lady who once resided in her house. If you know where Mrs. Vincent lives and will give me her address, you will be doing me a great favor."
He took out his card-case and handed a card to the woman, who examined the slip of pasteboard anxiously before she spoke again.
"I'm sure you look and speak like a gentleman, sir," she said, after a brief pause, "and I hope you will excuse me if I've seemed mistrustful like; but poor Mrs. Vincent has had dreadful difficulties, and I'm the only person hereabouts that she's trusted with her addresses. I'm a dressmaker, sir, and I've worked for her for upward of six years, and though she doesn't pay me regular, you know, sir, she gives me a little money on account now and then, and I get on as well as I can. I may tell you where she lives, then, sir? You haven't deceived me, have you?"
"On my honor, no."
"Well, then sir," said the dressmaker, dropping her voice as if she thought the pavement beneath her feet, or the iron railings before the houses by her side, might have ears to hear her, "it's Acacia Cottage, Peckham Grove. I took a dress there yesterday for Mrs. Vincent."
"Thank you," said Robert, writing the address in his pocketbook. "I am very much obliged to you, and you may rely upon it, Mrs. Vincent shall not suffer any inconvenience through me."
He lifted his hat, bowed to the little dressmaker, and turned back to the cab.
"I have beaten the baker, at any rate," he thought. "Now for the second stage, traveling backward, in my lady's life."
The drive from Brompton to the Peckham Road was a very long one, and between Crescent Villas and Acacia Cottage, Robert Audley had ample leisure for reflection. He thought of his uncle lying weak and ill in the oak-room at Audley Court. He thought of the beautiful blue eyes watching Sir Michael's slumbers; the soft, white hands tending on his waking moments; the low musical voice soothing his loneliness, cheering and consoling his declining years. What a pleasant picture it might have been, had he been able to look upon it ignorantly, seeing no more than others saw, looking no further than a stranger could look. But with the black cloud which he saw brooding over it, what an arch mockery, what a diabolical delusion it seemed.
Peckham Grove--pleasant enough in the summer-time--has rather a dismal aspect upon a dull February day, when the trees are bare and leafless, and the little gardens desolate. Acacia Cottage bore small token of the fitness of its nomenclature, and faced the road with its stuccoed walls sheltered only by a couple of attenuated poplars. But it announced that it was Acacia Cottage by means of a small brass plate upon one of the gate-posts, which was sufficient indication for the sharp-sighted cabman, who dropped Mr. Audley upon the pavement before the little gate.
Acacia Cottage was much lower in the social scale than Crescent Villas, and the small maid-servant who came to the low wooden gate and parleyed with Mr. Audley, was evidently well used to the encounter of relentless creditors across the same feeble barricade.
She murmured the familiar domestic fiction of the uncertainty regarding her mistress's whereabouts; and told Robert that if he would please to state his name and business, she would go and see if Mrs. Vincent was at home.
Mr. Audley produced a card, and wrote in pencil under his own name: "a connection of the late Miss Graham."
He directed the small servant to carry his card to her mistress, and quietly awaited the result.
The servant returned in about five minutes with the key of the gate. Her mistress was at home, she told Robert as she admitted him, and would be happy to see the gentleman.
The square parlor into which Robert was ushered bore in every scrap of ornament, in every article of furniture, the unmistakable stamp of that species of poverty which is most comfortless because it is never stationary. The mechanic who furnishes his tiny sitting-room with half-a-dozen cane chairs, a Pembroke table, a Dutch clock, a tiny looking-glass, a crockery shepherd and shepherdess, and a set of gaudily-japanned iron tea-trays, makes the most of his limited possessions, and generally contrives to get some degree of comfort out of them; but the lady who loses the handsome furniture of the house she is compelled to abandon and encamps in some smaller habitation with the shabby remainder--bought in by some merciful friend at the sale of her effects--carries with her an aspect of genteel desolation and tawdry misery not easily to be paralleled in wretchedness by any other phase which poverty can assume.
The room which Robert Audley surveyed was furnished with the shabbier scraps snatched from the ruin which had overtaken the imprudent schoolmistress in Crescent Villas. A cottage piano, a chiffonier, six sizes too large for the room, and dismally gorgeous in gilded moldings that were chipped and broken; a slim-legged card-table, placed in the post of honor, formed the principal pieces of furniture. A threadbare patch of Brussels carpet covered the center of the room, and formed an oasis of roses and lilies upon a desert of shabby green drugget. Knitted curtains shaded the windows, in which hung wire baskets of horrible-looking plants of the cactus species, that grew downward, like some demented class of vegetation, whose prickly and spider-like members had a fancy for standing on their heads.
The green-baize covered card-table was adorned with gaudily-bound annuals or books of beauty, placed at right angles; but Robert Audley did not avail himself of these literary distractions. He seated himself upon one of the rickety chairs, and waited patiently for the advent of the schoolmistress. He could hear the hum of half-a-dozen voices in a room near him, and the jingling harmonies of a set of variations in _Deh Conte_, upon a piano, whose every wire was evidently in the last stage of attenuation.
He had waited for about a quarter of an hour, when the door was opened, and a lady, very much dressed, and with the setting sunlight of faded beauty upon her face, entered the room.
"Mr. Audley, I presume," she said, motioning to Robert to reseat himself, and placing herself in an easy-chair opposite to him. "You will pardon me, I hope, for detaining you so long; my duties--"
"It is I who should apologize for intruding upon you," Robert answered, politely; "but my motive for calling upon you is a very serious one, and must plead my excuse. You remember the lady whose name I wrote upon my card?"
"May I ask how much you know of that lady's history since her departure from your house?"
"Very little. In point of fact, scarcely anything at all. Miss Graham, I believe, obtained a situation in the family of a surgeon resident in Essex. Indeed, it was I who recommended her to that gentleman. I have never heard from her since she left me."
"But you have communicated with her?" Robert asked, eagerly.
Mr. Audley was silent for a few moments, the shadow of gloomy thoughts gathering darkly on his face.
"May I ask if you sent a telegraphic dispatch to Miss Graham early in last September, stating that you were dangerously ill, and that you wished to see her?"
Mrs. Vincent smiled at her visitor's question.
"I had no occasion to send such a message," she said; "I have never been seriously ill in my life."
Robert Audley paused before he asked any further questions, and scrawled a few penciled words in his note-book.
"If I ask you a few straightforward questions about Miss Lucy Graham, madam," he said. "Will you do me the favor to answer them without asking my motive in making such inquiries?"
"Most certainly," replied Mrs. Vincent. "I know nothing to Miss Graham's disadvantage, and have no justification for making a mystery of the little I do know."
"Then will you tell me at what date the young lady first came to you?"
Mrs. Vincent smiled and shook her head. She had a pretty smile--the frank smile of a woman who had been admired, and who has too long felt the certainty of being able to please, to be utterly subjugated by any worldly misfortune.
"It's not the least use to ask me, Mr. Audley," she said. "I'm the most careless creature in the world; I never did, and never could remember dates, though I do all in my power to impress upon my girls how important it is for their future welfare that they should know when William the Conqueror began to reign, and all that kind of thing. But I haven't the remotest idea when Miss Graham came to me, although I know it was ages ago, for it was the very summer I had my peach-colored silk. But we must consult Tonks--Tonks is sure to be right."
Robert Audley wondered who or what Tonks could be; a diary, perhaps, or a memorandum-book--some obscure rival of Letsome.
Mrs. Vincent rung the bell, which was answered by the maid-servant who had admitted Robert.
"Ask Miss Tonks to come to me," she said. "I want to see her particularly."
In less than five minutes Miss Tonks made her appearance. She was wintry and rather frost-bitten in aspect, and seemed to bring cold air in the scanty folds of her somber merino dress. She was no age in particular, and looked as if she had never been younger, and would never grow older, but would remain forever working backward and forward in her narrow groove, like some self-feeding machine for the instruction of young ladies.
"Tonks, my dear," said Mrs. Vincent, without ceremony, "this gentleman is a relative of Miss Graham's. Do you remember how long it is since she came to us at Crescent Villas?"
"She came in August, 1854," answered Miss Tonks; "I think it was the eighteenth of August, but I'm not quite sure that it wasn't the seventeenth. I know it was on a Tuesday."
"Thank you, Tonks; you are a most invaluable darling," exclaimed Mrs. Vincent, with her sweetest smile. It was, perhaps, because of the invaluable nature of Miss Tonks' services that she had received no remuneration whatever from her employer for the last three or four years. Mrs. Vincent might have hesitated to pay from very contempt for the pitiful nature of the stipend as compared with the merits of the teacher.
"Is there anything else that Tonks or I can tell you, Mr. Audley?" asked the schoolmistress. "Tonks has a far better memory than I have."
"Can you tell me where Miss Graham came from when she entered your household?" Robert inquired.
"Not very precisely," answered Mrs. Vincent. "I have a vague notion that Miss Graham said something about coming from the seaside, but she didn't say where, or if she did I have forgotten it. Tonks, did Miss Graham tell you where she came from?"
"Oh, no!" replied Miss Tonks, shaking her grim little head significantly. "Miss Graham told me nothing; she was too clever for that. She knows how to keep her own secrets, in spite of her innocent ways and her curly hair," Miss Tonks added, spitefully.
"You think she had secrets?" Robert asked, rather eagerly.
"I know she had," replied Miss Tonks, with frosty decision; "all manner of secrets. I wouldn't have engaged such a person as junior teacher in a respectable school, without so much as one word of recommendation from any living creature."
"You had no reference, then, from Miss Graham?" asked Robert, addressing Mrs. Vincent.
"No," the lady answered, with some little embarrassment; "I waived that. Miss Graham waived the question of salary; I could not do less than waive the question of reference. She quarreled with her papa, she told me, and she wanted to find a home away from all the people she had ever known. She wished to keep herself quite separate from these people. She had endured so much, she said, young as she was, and she wanted to escape from her troubles. How could I press her for a reference under these circumstances, especially when I saw that she was a perfect lady. You know that Lucy Graham was a perfect lady, Tonks, and it is very unkind for you to say such cruel things about my taking her without a reference."
"When people make favorites, they are apt to be deceived in them," Miss Tonks answered, with icy sententiousness, and with no very perceptible relevance to the point in discussion.
"I never made her a favorite, you jealous Tonks," Mrs. Vincent answered, reproachfully. "I never said she was as useful as you, dear. You know I never did."
"Oh, no!" replied Miss Tonks, with a chilling accent, "you never said she was useful. She was only ornamental; a person to be shown off to visitors, and to play fantasias on the drawing-room piano."
"Then you can give me no clew to Miss Graham's previous history?" Robert asked, looking from the schoolmistress to her teacher. He saw very clearly that Miss Tonks bore an envious grudge against Lucy Graham--a grudge which even the lapse of time had not healed.
"If this woman knows anything to my lady's detriment, she will tell it," he thought. "She will tell it only too willingly."
But Miss Tonks appeared to know nothing whatever; except that Miss Graham had sometimes declared herself an ill-used creature, deceived by the baseness of mankind, and the victim of unmerited sufferings, in the way of poverty and deprivation. Beyond this, Miss Tonks could tell nothing; and although she made the most of what she did know, Robert soon sounded the depth of her small stock of information.
"I have only one more question to ask," he said at last. "It is this: Did Miss Graham leave any books or knick-knacks, or any other kind of property whatever, behind her, when she left your establishment?"
"Not to my knowledge," Mrs. Vincent replied.
"Yes," cried Miss Tonks, sharply. "She did leave something. She left a box. It's up-stairs in my room. I've got an old bonnet in it. Would you like to see the box?" she asked, addressing Robert.
"If you will be so good as to allow me," he answered, "I should very much like to see it."
"I'll fetch it down," said Miss Tonks. "It's not very big."
She ran out of the room before Mr. Audley had time to utter any polite remonstrance.
"How pitiless these women are to each other," he thought, while the teacher was absent. "This one knows intuitively that there is some danger to the other lurking beneath my questions. She sniffs the coming trouble to her fellow female creature, and rejoices in it, and would take any pains to help me. What a world it is, and how these women take life out of her hands. Helen Maldon, Lady Audley, Clara Talboys, and now Miss Tonks--all womankind from beginning to end."
Miss Tonks re-entered while the young barrister was meditating upon the infamy of her sex. She carried a dilapidated paper-covered bonnet-box, which she submitted to Robert's inspection.
Mr. Audley knelt down to examine the scraps of railway labels and addresses which were pasted here and there upon the box. It had been battered upon a great many different lines of railway, and had evidently traveled considerably. Many of the labels had been torn off, but fragments of some of them remained, and upon one yellow scrap of paper Robert read the letters, TURI.
"The box has been to Italy," he thought. "Those are the first four letters of the word Turin, and the label is a foreign one."
The only direction which had not been either defaced or torn away was the last, which bore the name of Miss Graham, passenger to London. Looking very closely at this label, Mr. Audley discovered that it had been pasted over another.
"Will you be so good as to let me have a little water and a piece of sponge?" he said. "I want to get off this upper label. Believe me that I am justified in what I am doing."
Miss Tonks ran out of the room and returned immediately with a basin of water and a sponge.
"Shall I take off the label?" she asked.
"No, thank you," Robert answered, coldly. "I can do it very well myself."
He damped the upper label several times before he could loosen the edges of the paper; but after two or three careful attempts the moistened surface peeled off, without injury to the underneath address.
Miss Tonks could not contrive to read this address across Robert's shoulder, though she exhibited considerable dexterity in her endeavors to accomplish that object.
Mr. Audley repeated his operations upon the lower label, which he removed from the box, and placed very carefully between two blank leaves of his pocket-book.
"I need intrude upon you no longer, ladies," he said, when he had done this. "I am extremely obliged to you for having afforded me all the information in your power. I wish you good-morning."
Mrs. Vincent smiled and bowed, murmuring some complacent conventionality about the delight she had felt in Mr. Audley's visit. Miss Tonks, more
observant, stared at the white change, which had come over the young man's face since he had removed the upper label from the box.
Robert walked slowly away from Acacia Cottage. "If that which I have found to-day is no evidence for a jury," he thought, "it is surely enough to convince my uncle that he has married a designing and infamous woman."