BEGINNING AT THE OTHER END.
Robert Audley walked slowly through the leafless grove, under the bare and shadowless trees in the gray February atmosphere, thinking as he went of the discovery he had just made.
"I have that in my pocket-book," he pondered, "which forms the connecting link between the woman whose death George Talboys read of in the _Times_ newspaper and the woman who rules in my uncle's house. The history of Lucy Graham ends abruptly on the threshold of Mrs. Vincent's school. She entered that establishment in August, 1854. The schoolmistress and her assistant can tell me this but they cannot tell me whence she came. They cannot give me one clew to the secrets of her life from the day of her birth until the day she entered that house. I can go no further in this backward investigation of my lady's antecedents. What am I to do, then, if I mean to keep my promise to Clara Talboys?"
He walked on for a few paces revolving this question in his mind, with a darker shadow than the shadows of the gathering winter twilight on his face, and a heavy oppression of mingled sorrow and dread weighing down his heart.
"My duty is clear enough," he thought--"not the less clear because it leads me step by step, carrying ruin and desolation with me, to the home I love. I must begin at the other end--I must begin at the other end, and discover the history of Helen Talboys from the hour of George's departure until the day of the funeral in the churchyard at Ventnor."
Mr. Audley hailed a passing hansom, and drove back to his chambers.
He reached Figtree Court in time to write a few lines to Miss Talboys, and to post his letter at St. Martin's-le-Grand off before six o'clock.
"It will save me a day," he thought, as he drove to the General Post Office with this brief epistle.
He had written to Clara Talboys to inquire the name of the little seaport town in which George had met Captain Maldon and his daughter: for in spite of the intimacy between the two young men, Robert Audley knew very few particulars of his friend's brief married life.
From the hour in which George Talboys had read the announcement of his wife's death in the columns of the _Times_, he had avoided all mention of the tender history which had been so cruelly broken, the familiar record which had been so darkly blotted out.
There was so much that was painful in that brief story! There was such bitter self-reproach involved in the recollection of that desertion which must have seemed so cruel to her who waited and watched at home! Robert Audley comprehended this, and he did not wonder at his friend's silence. The sorrowful story had been tacitly avoided by both, and Robert was as ignorant of the unhappy history of this one year in his schoolfellow's life as if they had never lived together in friendly companionship in those snug Temple chambers.
The letter, written to Miss Talboys by her brother George, within a month of his marriage, was dated Harrowgate. It was at Harrowgate, therefore, Robert concluded, the young couple spent their honeymoon.
Robert Audley had requested Clara Talboys to telegraph an answer to his question, in order to avoid the loss of a day in the accomplishment of the investigation he had promised to perform.
The telegraphic answer reached Figtree Court before twelve o'clock the next day.
The name of the seaport town was Wildernsea, Yorkshire.
Within an hour of the receipt of this message, Mr. Audley arrived at the King's-cross station, and took his ticket for Wildernsea by an express train that started at a quarter before two.
The shrieking engine bore him on the dreary northward journey, whirling him over desert wastes of flat meadow-land and bare cornfields, faintly tinted with fresh sprouting green. This northern road was strange and unfamiliar to the young barrister, and the wide expanse of the wintry landscape chilled him by its aspect of bare loneliness. The knowledge of the purpose of his journey blighted every object upon which his absent glances fixed themselves for a moment, only to wander wearily away; only to turn inward upon that far darker picture always presenting itself to his anxious mind.
It was dark when the train reached the Hull terminus, but Mr. Audley's journey was not ended. Amidst a crowd of porters and scattered heaps of that incongruous and heterogeneous luggage with which travelers incumber themselves, he was led, bewildered and half asleep, to another train which was to convey him along the branch line that swept past Wildernsea, and skirted the border of the German Ocean.
Half an hour after leaving Hull, Robert felt the briny freshness of the sea upon the breeze that blew in at the open window of the carriage, and an hour afterward the train stopped at a melancholy station, built amid a sandy desert, and inhabited by two or three gloomy officials, one of whom rung a terrific peal upon a harshly clanging bell as the train approached.
Mr. Audley was the only passenger who alighted at the dismal station. The train swept on to the gayer scenes before the barrister had time to collect his senses, or to pick up the portmanteau which had been discovered with some difficulty amid a black cavern of baggage only illuminated by one lantern.
"I wonder whether settlers in the backwoods of America feel as solitary and strange as I feel to-night?" he thought, as he stared hopelessly about him in the darkness.
He called to one of the officials, and pointed to his portmanteau.
"Will you carry that to the nearest hotel for me?" he asked--"that is to say, if I can get a good bed there."
The man laughed as he shouldered the portmanteau.
"You can get thirty beds, I dare say, sir, if you wanted 'em," he said. "We ain't over busy at Wildernsea at this time o' year. This way, sir."
The porter opened a wooden door in the station wall, and Robert Audley found himself upon a wide bowling-green of smooth grass, which surrounded a huge, square building, that loomed darkly on him through the winter's night, its black solidity only relieved by two lighted windows, far apart from each other, and glimmering redly like beacons on the darkness.
"This is the Victoria Hotel, sir," said the porter. "You wouldn't believe the crowds of company we have down here in the summer."
In the face of the bare grass-plat, the tenantless wooden alcoves, and the dark windows of the hotel, it was indeed rather difficult to imagine that the place was ever gay with merry people taking pleasure in the bright summer weather; but Robert Audley declared himself willing to believe anything the porter pleased to tell him, and followed his guide meekly to a little door at the side of the big hotel, which led into a comfortable bar, where the humbler classes of summer visitors were accommodated with such refreshments as they pleased to pay for, without running the gantlet of the prim, white-waistcoated waiters on guard at the principal entrance.
But there were very few attendants retained at the hotel in the bleak February season, and it was the landlord himself who ushered Robert into a dreary wilderness of polished mahogany tables and horsehair cushioned chairs, which he called the coffee-room.
Mr. Audley seated himself close to the wide steel fender, and stretched his cramped legs upon the hearth-rug, while the landlord drove the poker into the vast pile of coal, and sent a ruddy blaze roaring upward through the chimney.
"If you would prefer a private room, sir--" the man began.
"No, thank you," said Robert, indifferently; "this room seems quite private enough just now. If you will order me a mutton chop and a pint of sherry, I shall be obliged."
"And I shall be still more obliged if you will favor me with a few minutes' conversation before you do so."
"With very great pleasure, sir," the landlord answered, good-naturedly. "We see so very little company at this season of the year, that we are only too glad to oblige those gentlemen who do visit us. Any information which I can afford you respecting the neighborhood of Wildernsea and its attractions," added the landlord, unconsciously quoting a small hand-book of the watering-place which he sold in the bar, "I shall be most happy to--"
"But I don't want to know anything about the neighborhood of Wildernsea," interrupted Robert, with a feeble protest against the landlord's volubility. "I want to ask you a few questions about some people who once lived here."
The landlord bowed and smiled, with an air which implied his readiness to recite the biographies of all the inhabitants of the little seaport, if required by Mr. Audley to do so.
"How many years have you lived here?" Robert asked, taking his memorandum book from his pocket. "Will it annoy you if I make notes of your replies to my questions?"
"Not at all, sir," replied the landlord, with a pompous enjoyment of the air of solemnity and importance which pervaded this business. "Any information which I can afford that is likely to be of ultimate value--"
"Yes, thank you," Robert murmured, interrupting the flow of words. "You have lived here--"
"Six years, sir."
"Since the year fifty-three?"
"Since November, in the year fifty-two, sir. I was in business at Hull prior to that time. This house was only completed in the October before I entered it."
"Do you remember a lieutenant in the navy, on half-pay, I believe, at that time, called Maldon?"
"Captain Maldon, sir?"
"Yes, commonly called Captain Maldon. I see you do remember him."
"Yes, sir. Captain Maldon was one of our best customers. He used to spend his evenings in this very room, though the walls were damp at that time, and we weren't able to paper the place for nearly a twelvemonth afterward. His daughter married a young officer that came here with his regiment, at Christmas time in fifty-two. They were married here, sir, and they traveled on the Continent for six months, and came back here again. But the gentleman ran away to Australia, and left the lady, a week or two after her baby was born. The business made quite a sensation in Wildernsea, sir, and Mrs.--Mrs.--I forgot the name--"
"Mrs. Talboys," suggested Robert.
"To be sure, sir, Mrs. Talboys. Mrs. Talboys was very much pitied by the Wildernsea folks, sir, I was going to say, for she was very pretty, and had such nice winning ways that she was a favorite with everybody who knew her."
"Can you tell me how long Mr. Maldon and his daughter remained at Wildernsea after Mr. Talboys left them?" Robert asked.
"Well--no, sir," answered the landlord, after a few moments' deliberation. "I can't say exactly how long it was. I know Mr. Maldon used to sit here in this very parlor, and tell people how badly his daughter had been treated, and how he'd been deceived by a young man he'd put so much confidence in; but I can't say how long it was before he left Wildernsea. But Mrs. Barkamb could tell you, sir," added the landlord, briskly.
"Yes, Mrs. Barkamb is the person who owns No. 17 North Cottages, the house in which Mr. Maldon and his daughter lived. She's a nice, civil spoken, motherly woman, sir, and I'm sure she'll tell you anything you may want to know."
"Thank you, I will call upon Mrs. Barkamb to-morrow. Stay--one more question. Should you recognize Mrs. Talboys if you were to see her?"
"Certainly, sir. As sure as I should recognize one of my own daughters."
Robert Audley wrote Mrs. Barkamb's address in his pocket-book, ate his solitary dinner, drank a couple of glasses of sherry, smoked a cigar, and then retired to the apartment in which a fire had been lighted for his comfort.
He soon fell asleep, worn out with the fatigue of hurrying from place to place during the last two days; but his slumber was not a heavy one, and he heard the disconsolate moaning of the wind upon the sandy wastes, and the long waves rolling in monotonously upon the flat shore. Mingling with these dismal sounds, the melancholy thoughts engendered by his joyless journey repeated themselves in never-varying succession in the chaos of his slumbering brain, and made themselves into visions of things that never had been and never could be upon this earth, but which had some vague relation to real events remembered by the sleeper.
In those troublesome dreams he saw Audley Court, rooted up from amidst the green pastures and the shady hedgerows of Essex, standing bare and unprotected upon that desolate northern shore, threatened by the rapid rising of a boisterous sea, whose waves seemed gathering upward to descend and crush the house he loved. As the hurrying waves rolled nearer and nearer to the stately mansion, the sleeper saw a pale, starry face looking out of the silvery foam, and knew that it was my lady, transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction. Beyond that rising sea great masses of cloud, blacker than the blackest ink, more dense than the darkest night, lowered upon the dreamer's eye; but as he looked at the dismal horizon the storm-clouds slowly parted, and from a narrow rent in the darkness a ray of light streamed out upon the hideous waves, which slowly, very slowly, receded, leaving the old mansion safe and firmly rooted on the shore.
Robert awoke with the memory of this dream in his mind, and a sensation of physical relief, as if some heavy weight, which had oppressed him all the night, had been lifted from his breast.
He fell asleep again, and did not awake until the broad winter sunlight shone upon the window-blind, and the shrill voice of the chambermaid at his door announced that it was half-past eight o'clock. At a quarter-before ten he had left Victoria Hotel, and was making his way along the lonely platform in front of a row of shadowless houses that faced the sea.
This row of hard, uncompromising, square-built habitations stretched away to the little harbor, in which two or three merchant vessels and a couple of colliers were anchored. Beyond the harbor there loomed, gray and cold upon the wintry horizon, a dismal barrack, parted from the Wildernsea houses by a narrow creek, spanned by an iron drawbridge. The scarlet coat of the sentinel who walked backward and forward between two cannons, placed at remote angles before the barrack wall, was the only scrap of color that relieved the neutral-tinted picture of the gray stone houses and the leaden sea.
On one side of the harbor a long stone pier stretched out far away into the cruel loneliness of the sea, as if built for the especial accommodation of some modern Timon, too misanthropical to be satisfied even with the solitude of Wildernsea, and anxious to get still further away from his fellow-creatures.
It was on that pier George Talboys had first met his wife, under the blazing glory of a midsummer sky, and to the music of a braying band. It was there that the young cornet had first yielded to that sweet delusion, that fatal infatuation which had exercised so dark an influence upon his after-life.
Robert looked savagely at this solitary watering-place--the shabby seaport.
"It is such a place as this," he thought, "that works a strong man's ruin. He comes here, heart whole and happy, with no better experience of women than is to be learned at a flower-show or in a ball-room; with no more familiar knowledge of the creature than he has of the far-away satellites or the remoter planets; with a vague notion that she is a whirling teetotum in pink or blue gauze, or a graceful automaton for the display of milliners' manufacture. He comes to some place of this kind, and the universe is suddenly narrowed into about half a dozen acres; the mighty scheme of creation is crushed into a bandbox. The far-away creatures whom he had seen floating about him, beautiful and indistinct, are brought under his very nose; and before he has time to recover his bewilderment, hey presto, the witchcraft has begun; the magic circle is drawn around him! the spells are at work, the whole formula of sorcery is in full play, and the victim is as powerless to escape as the marble-legged prince in the Eastern story."
Ruminating in this wise, Robert Audley reached the house to which he had been directed as the residence of Mrs. Barkamb. He was admitted immediately by a prim, elderly servant, who ushered him into a sitting-room as prim and elderly-looking as herself. Mrs. Barkamb, a comfortable matron of about sixty years of age, was sitting in an arm-chair before a bright handful of fire in the shining grate. An elderly terrier, whose black-and-tan coat was thickly sprinkled with gray, reposed in Mrs. Barkamb's lap. Every object in the quiet sitting-room had an elderly aspect of simple comfort and precision, which is the evidence of outward repose.
"I should like to live here," Robert thought, "and watch the gray sea slowly rolling over the gray sand under the still, gray sky. I should like to live here, and tell the beads upon my rosary, and repent and rest."
He seated himself in the arm-chair opposite Mrs. Barkamb, at that lady's invitation, and placed his hat upon the ground. The elderly terrier descended from his mistress' lap to bark at and otherwise take objection to this hat.
"You were wishing, I suppose, sir, to take one--be quiet, Dash--one of the cottages," suggested Mrs. Barkamb, whose mind ran in one narrow groove, and whose life during the last twenty years had been an unvarying round of house-letting.
Robert Audley explained the purpose of his visit.
"I come to ask one simple question," he said, in conclusion, "I wish to discover the exact date of Mrs. Talboys' departure from Wildernsea. The proprietor of the Victoria Hotel informed me that you were the most likely person to afford me that information."
Mrs. Barkamb deliberated for some moments.
"I can give you the date of Captain Maldon's departure," she said, "for he left No. 17 considerably in my debt, and I have the whole business in black and white; but with regard to Mrs. Talboys--"
Mrs. Barkamb paused for a few moments before resuming.
"You are aware that Mrs. Talboys left rather abruptly?" she asked.
"I was not aware of that fact."
"Indeed! Yes, she left abruptly, poor little woman! She tried to support herself after her husband's desertion by giving music lessons; she was a very brilliant pianist, and succeeded pretty well, I believe. But I suppose her father took her money from her, and spent it in public houses. However that might be, they had a very serious misunderstanding one night; and the next morning Mrs. Talboys left Wildernsea, leaving her little boy, who was out at nurse in the neighborhood."
"But you cannot tell me the date of her leaving?"
"I'm afraid not," answered Mrs. Barkamb; "and yet, stay. Captain Maldon wrote to me upon the day his daughter left. He was in very great distress, poor old gentleman, and he always came to me in his troubles. If I could find that letter, it might be dated, you know--mightn't it, now?"
Mr. Audley said that it was only probable the letter was dated.
Mrs. Barkamb retired to a table in the window on which stood an old-fashioned mahogany desk, lined with green baize, and suffering from a plethora of documents, which oozed out of it in every direction. Letters, receipts, bills, inventories and tax-papers were mingled in hopeless confusion; and among these Mrs. Barkamb set to work to search for Captain Maldon's letter.
Mr. Audley waited very patiently, watching the gray clouds sailing across the gray sky, the gray vessels gliding past upon the gray sea.
After about ten minutes' search, and a great deal of rustling, crackling, folding and unfolding of the papers, Mrs. Barkamb uttered an exclamation of triumph.
"I've got the letter," she said; "and there's a note inside it from Mrs. Talboys."
Robert Audley's pale face flushed a vivid crimson as he stretched out his hand to receive the papers.
"The persons who stole Helen Maldon's love-letters from George's trunk in my chambers might have saved themselves the trouble," he thought.
The letter from the old lieutenant was not long, but almost every other word was underscored.
"My generous friend," the writer began--Mr. Maldon had tried the lady's generosity pretty severely during his residence in her house, rarely paying his rent until threatened with the intruding presence of the broker's man--"I am in the depths of despair. My daughter has left me! You may imagine my feelings! We had a few words last night upon the subject of money matters, which subject has always been a disagreeable one between us, and on rising this morning I found I was deserted! The enclosed from Helen was waiting for me on the parlor table.
"Yours in distraction and despair,
"NORTH COTTAGES, August 16th, 1854."
The note from Mrs. Talboys was still more brief. It began abruptly thus:
"I am weary of my life here, and wish, if I can, to find a new one. I go out into the world, dissevered from every link which binds me to the hateful past, to seek another home and another fortune. Forgive me if I have been fretful, capricious, changeable. You should forgive me, for you know why I have been so. You know the secret which is the key to my life.
These lines were written in a hand that Robert Audley knew only too well.
He sat for a long time pondering silently over the letter written by Helen Talboys.
What was the meaning of those two last sentences--"You should forgive me, for you know _why_ I have been so. You know the _secret_ which is the key to my life?"
He wearied his brain in endeavoring to find a clew to the signification of these two sentences. He could remember nothing, nor could he imagine anything that would throw a light upon their meaning. The date of Helen's departure, according to Mr. Maldon's letter, was the 16th of August, 1854. Miss Tonks had declared that Lucy Graham entered the school at Crescent Villas upon the 17th or 18th of August in the same year. Between the departure of Helen Talboys from the Yorkshire watering-place and the arrival of Lucy Graham at the Brompton school, not more than eight-and-forty hours could have elapsed. This made a very small link in the chain of circumstantial evidence, perhaps; but it was a link, nevertheless, and it fitted neatly into its place.
"Did Mr. Maldon hear from his daughter after she had left Wildernsea?" Robert asked.
"Well, I believe he did hear from her," Mrs. Barkamb answered; "but I didn't see much of the old gentleman after that August. I was obliged to sell him up in November, poor fellow, for he owed me fifteen months' rent; and it was only by selling his poor little bits of furniture that I could get him out of my place. We parted very good friends, in spite of my sending in the brokers; and the old gentleman went to London with the child, who was scarcely a twelvemonth old."
Mrs. Barkamb had nothing more to tell, and Robert had no further questions to ask. He requested permission to retain the two letters written by the lieutenant and his daughter, and left the house with them in his pocket-book.
He walked straight back to the hotel, where he called for a time-table. An express for London left Wildernsea at a quarter past one. Robert sent his portmanteau to the station, paid his bill, and walked up and down the stone terrace fronting the sea, waiting for the starting of the train.
"I have traced the histories of Lucy Graham and Helen Talboys to a vanishing point," he thought; "my next business is to discover the history of the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard."
HIDDEN IN THE GRAVE.
Upon his return from Wildernsea, Robert Audley found a letter from his Cousin Alicia, awaiting him at his chambers.
"Papa is much better," the young lady wrote, "and is very anxious to have you at the Court. For some inexplicable reason, my stepmother has taken it into her head that your presence is extremely desirable, and worries me with her frivolous questions about your movements. So pray come without delay, and set these people at rest. Your affectionate cousin, A.A."
"So my lady is anxious to know my movements," thought Robert Audley, as he sat brooding and smoking by his lonely fireside. "She is anxious; and she questions her step-daughter in that pretty, childlike manner which has such a bewitching air of innocent frivolity. Poor little creature; poor unhappy little golden-haired sinner; the battle between us seems terribly unfair. Why doesn't she run away while there is still time? I have given her fair warning, I have shown her my cards, and worked openly enough in this business, Heaven knows. Why doesn't she run away?"
He repeated this question again and again as he filled and emptied his meerschaum, surrounding himself with the blue vapor from his pipe until he looked like some modern magician seated in his laboratory.
"Why doesn't she run away? I would bring no needless shame upon that house, of all other houses upon this wide earth. I would only do my duty to my missing friend, and to that brave and generous man who has pledged his faith to a worthless woman. Heaven knows I have no wish to punish. Heaven knows I was never born to be the avenger of guilt or the persecutor of the guilty. I only wish to do my duty. I will give her one more warning, a full and fair one, and then--"
His thoughts wandered away to that gloomy prospect in which he saw no gleam of brightness to relieve the dull, black obscurity that encompassed the future, shutting in his pathway on every side, and spreading a dense curtain around and about him, which Hope was powerless to penetrate. He was forever haunted by the vision of his uncle's anguish, forever tortured by the thought of that ruin and desolation which, being brought about by his instrumentality, would seem in a manner his handiwork. But amid all, and through all, Clara Talboys, with an imperious gesture, beckoned him onward to her brother's unknown grave.
"Shall I go down to Southampton," he thought, "and endeavor to discover the history of the woman who died at Ventnor? Shall I work underground, bribing the paltry assistants in that foul conspiracy, until I find my way to the thrice guilty principal? No! not till I have tried other means of discovering the truth. Shall I go to that miserable old man, and charge him with his share in the shameful trick which I believe to have been played upon my poor friend? No; I will not torture that terror-stricken wretch as I tortured him a few weeks ago. I will go straight to that arch-conspirator, and will tear away the beautiful veil under which she hides her wickedness, and will wring from her the secret of my friend's fate, and banish her forever from the house which her presence has polluted."
He started early the next morning for Essex, and reached Audley before eleven o'clock.
Early as it was, my lady was out. She had driven to Chelmsford upon a shopping expedition with her step-daughter. She had several calls to make in the neighborhood of the town, and was not likely to return until dinner-time. Sir Michael's health was very much improved, and he would come down stairs in the afternoon. Would Mr. Audley go to his uncle's room?
No; Robert had no wish to meet that generous kinsman. What could he say to him? How could he smooth the way to the trouble that was to come?--how soften the cruel blow of the great grief that was preparing for that noble and trusting heart?
"If I could forgive her the wrong done to my friend," Robert thought, "I should still abhor her for the misery her guilt must bring upon the man who has believed in her."
He told his uncle's servant that he would stroll into the village, and return before dinner. He walked slowly away from the Court, wandering across the meadows between his uncle's house and the village, purposeless and indifferent, with the great trouble and perplexity of his life stamped upon his face and reflected in his manner.
"I will go into the churchyard," he thought, "and stare at the tombstones. There is nothing I can do that will make me more gloomy than I am."
He was in those very meadows through which he had hurried from Audley Court to the station upon the September day in which George Talboys had disappeared. He looked at the pathway by which he had gone upon that day, and remembered his unaccustomed hurry, and the vague feeling of terror which had taken possession of him immediately upon losing sight of his friend.
"Why did that unaccountable terror seize upon me," he thought. "Why was it that I saw some strange mystery in my friend's disappearance? Was it a monition, or a monomania? What if I am wrong after all? What if this chain of evidence which I have constructed link by link, is woven out of my own folly? What if this edifice of horror and suspicion is a mere collection of crotchets--the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal bachelor? Mr. Harcourt Talboys sees no meaning in the events out of which I have made myself a horrible mystery. I lay the separate links of the chain before him, and he cannot recognize their fitness. He is unable to put them together. Oh, my God, if it should be in myself all this time that the misery lies; if--" he smiled bitterly, and shook his head. "I have the handwriting in my pocket-book which is the evidence of the conspiracy," he thought. "It remains for me to discover the darker half of my lady's secret."
He avoided the village, still keeping to the meadows. The church lay a little way back from the straggling High street, and a rough wooden gate opened from the churchyard into a broad meadow, that was bordered by a running stream, and sloped down into a grassy valley dotted by groups of cattle.
Robert slowly ascended the narrow hillside pathway leading up to the gate in the churchyard. The quiet dullness of the lonely landscape harmonized with his own gloom. The solitary figure of an old man hobbling toward a stile at the further end of the wide meadow was the only human creature visible upon the area over which the young barrister looked. The smoke slowly ascending from the scattered houses in the long High street was the only evidence of human life. The slow progress of the hands of the old clock in the church steeple was the only token by which a traveler could perceive that a sluggish course of rustic life had not come to a full stop in the village of Audley.
Yes, there was one other sign. As Robert opened the gate of the churchyard, and strolled listessly into the little inclosure, he became aware of the solemn music of an organ, audible through a half-open window in the steeple.
He stopped and listened to the slow harmonies of a dreamy melody that sounded like an extempore composition of an accomplished player.
"Who would have believed that Audley church could boast such an organ?" thought Robert. "When last I was here, the national schoolmaster used to accompany his children by a primitive performance of common chords. I didn't think the old organ had such music in it."
He lingered at the gate, not caring to break the lazy spell woven about him by the monotonous melancholy of the organist's performance. The tones of the instrument, now swelling to their fullest power, now sinking to a low, whispering softness, floated toward him upon the misty winter atmosphere, and had a soothing influence, that seemed to comfort him in his trouble.
He closed the gate softly, and crossed the little patch of gravel before the door of the church. The door had been left ajar--by the organist, perhaps. Robert Audley pushed it open, and walked into the square porch, from which a flight of narrow stone steps wound upward to the organ-loft and the belfry. Mr. Audley took off his hat, and opened the door between the porch and the body of the church. He stepped softly into the holy edifice, which had a damp, moldy smell upon week-days. He walked down the narrow aisle to the altar-rails, and from that point of observation took a survey of the church. The little gallery was exactly opposite to him, but the scanty green curtains before the organ were closely drawn, and he could not get a glimpse of the player.
The music, still rolled on. The organist had wandered into a melody of Mendelssohn's, a strain whose dreamy sadness went straight to Robert's heart. He loitered in the nooks and corners of the church, examining the dilapidated memorials of the well-nigh forgotten dead, and listening to the music.
"If my poor friend, George Talboys, had died in my arms, and I had buried him in this quiet church, in one corner of the vaults over which I tread to-day, how much anguish of mind, vacillation and torment I might have escaped," thought Robert Audley, as he read the faded inscriptions upon tablets of discolored marble; "I should have known his fate--I should have known his fate! Ah, how much there would have been in that. It is this miserable uncertainty, this horrible suspicion which has poisoned my very life."
He looked at his watch.
"Half-past one," he muttered. "I shall have to wait four or five dreary hours before my lady comes home from her morning calls--her pretty visits of ceremony or friendliness. Good Heaven! what an actress this woman is. What an arch trickster--what an all-accomplished deceiver. But she shall play her pretty comedy no longer under my uncle's roof. I have diplomatized long enough. She has refused to accept an indirect warning. To-night I will speak plainly."
The music of the organ ceased, and Robert heard the closing of the instrument.
"I'll have a look at this new organist," he thought, "who can afford to bury his talents at Audley, and play Mendelssohn's finest fugues for a stipend of sixteen pounds a year." He lingered in the porch, waiting for the organist to descend the awkward little stair-case. In the weary trouble of his mind, and with the prospect of getting through the five hours in the best way he could, Mr. Audley was glad to cultivate any diversion of thought, however idle. He therefore freely indulged his curiosity about the new organist.
The first person who appeared upon the steep stone steps was a boy in corduroy trousers and a dark linen smock-frock, who shambled down the stairs with a good deal of unnecessary clatter of his hobnailed shoes, and who was red in the face from the exertion of blowing the bellows of the old organ. Close behind this boy came a young lady, very plainly dressed in a black silk gown and a large gray shawl, who started and turned pale at sight of Mr. Audley.
This young lady was Clara Talboys.
Of all people in the world she was the last whom Robert either expected or wished to see. She had told him that she was going to pay a visit to some friends who lived in Essex; but the county is a wide one, and the village of Audley one of the most obscure and least frequented spots in the whole of its extent. That the sister of his lost friend should be here--here where she could watch his every action, and from those actions deduce the secret workings of his mind, tracing his doubts home to their object, made a complication of his difficulties that he could never have anticipated. It brought him back to that consciousness of his own helplessness, in which he had exclaimed:
"A hand that is stronger than my own is beckoning me onward on the dark road that leads to my lost friend's unknown grave."
Clara Talboys was the first to speak.
"You are surprised to see me here, Mr. Audley," she said.
"Very much surprised."
"I told you that I was coming to Essex. I left home day before yesterday. I was leaving home when I received your telegraphic message. The friend with whom I am staying is Mrs. Martyn, the wife of the new rector of Mount Stanning. I came down this morning to see the village and church, and as Mrs. Martyn had to pay a visit to the school with the curate and his wife, I stopped here and amused myself by trying the old organ. I was not aware till I came here that there was a village called Audley. The place takes its name from your family, I suppose?"
"I believe so," Robert answered, wondering at the lady's calmness, in contradistinction to his own embarrassment. "I have a vague recollection of hearing the story of some ancestor who was called Audley of Audley in the reign of Edward the Fourth. The tomb inside the rails near the altar belongs to one of the knights of Audley, but I have never taken the trouble to remember his achievements. Are you going to wait here for your friends, Miss Talboys?"
"Yes; they are to return here for me after they have finished their rounds."
"And you go back to Mount Stanning with them this afternoon?"
Robert stood with his hat in his hand, looking absently out at the tombstones and the low wall of the church yard. Clara Talboys watched his pale face, haggard under the deepening shadow that had rested upon it so long.
"You have been ill since I saw you last, Mr. Audley," she said, in a low voice, that had the same melodious sadness as the notes of the old organ under her touch.
"No, I have not been ill; I have been only harassed, wearied by a hundred doubts and perplexities."
He was thinking as he spoke to her:
"How much does she guess? How much does she suspect?"
He had told the story of George's disappearance and of his own suspicions, suppressing only the names of those concerned in the mystery; but what if this girl should fathom this slender disguise, and discover for herself that which he had chosen to withhold.
Her grave eyes were fixed upon his face, and he knew that she was trying to read the innermost secrets of his mind.
"What am I in her hands?" he thought. "What am I in the hands of this woman, who has my lost friend's face and the manner of Pallas Athene. She reads my pitiful, vacillating soul, and plucks the thoughts out of my heart with the magic of her solemn brown eyes. How unequal the fight must be between us, and how can I ever hope to conquer against the strength of her beauty and her wisdom?"
Mr. Audley was clearing his throat preparatory to bidding his beautiful companion good-morning, and making his escape from the thraldom of her presence into the lonely meadow outside the churchyard, when Clare Talboys arrested him by speaking upon that very subject which he was most anxious to avoid.
"You promised to write to me, Mr. Audley," she said, "if you made any discovery which carried you nearer to the mystery of my brother's disappearance. You have not written to me, and I imagine, therefore, that you have discovered nothing."
Robert Audley was silent for some moments. How could he answer this direct question?
"The chain of circumstantial evidence which unites the mystery of your brother's fate with the person whom I suspect," he said, after a pause, "is formed of very slight links. I think that I have added another link to that chain since I saw you in Dorsetshire."
"And you refuse to tell me what it is that you have discovered?"
"Only until I have discovered more."
"I thought from your message that you were going to Wildernsea."
"I have been there."
"Indeed! It was there that you made some discovery, then?"
"It was," answered Robert. "You must remember, Miss Talboys that the sole ground upon which my suspicions rest is the identity of two individuals who have no apparent connection--the identity of a person who is supposed to be dead with one who is living. The conspiracy of which I believe your brother to have been the victim hinges upon this. If his wife, Helen Talboys, died when the papers recorded her death--if the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard was indeed the woman whose name is inscribed on the headstone of the grave--I have no case, I have no clew to the mystery of your brother's fate. I am about to put this to the test. I believe that I am now in a position to play a bold game, and I believe that I shall soon arrive at the truth."
He spoke in a low voice, and with a solemn emphasis that betrayed the intensity of his feeling. Miss Talboys stretched out her ungloved hand, and laid it in his own. The cold touch of that slender hand sent a shivering thrill through his frame.
"You will not suffer my brother's fate to remain a mystery, Mr. Audley," she said, quietly. "I know that you will do your duty to your friend."
The rector's wife and her two companions entered the churchyard as Clara Talboys said this. Robert Audley pressed the hand that rested in his own, and raised it to his lips.
"I am a lazy, good-for-nothing fellow, Miss Talboys," he said; "but if I could restore your brother George to life and happiness, I should care very little for any sacrifice of my own feeling, fear that the most I can do is to fathom the secret of his fate and in doing that I must sacrifice those who are dearer to me than myself."
He put on his hat, and hurried through the gateway leading into the field as Mrs. Martyn came up to the porch.
"Who is that handsome young man I caught _tete-a-tete_ with you, Clara?" she asked, laughing.
"He is a Mr. Audley, a friend of my poor brother's."
"Indeed! He is some relation of Sir Michael Audley, I suppose?"
"Sir Michael Audley!"
"Yes, my dear; the most important personage in the parish of Audley. But we'll call at the Court in a day or two, and you shall see the baronet and his pretty young wife."
"His young wife!" replied Clara Talboys, looking earnestly at her friend. "Has Sir Michael Audley lately married, then?"
"Yes. He was a widower for sixteen years, and married a penniless young governess about a year and a half ago. The story is quite romantic, and Lady Audley is considered the belle of the county. But come, my dear Clara, the pony is tired of waiting for us, and we've a long drive before dinner."
Clara Talboys took her seat in the little basket-carriage which was waiting at the principal gate of the churchyard, in the care of the boy who had blown the organ-bellows. Mrs. Martyn shook the reins, and the sturdy chestnut cob trotted off in the direction of Mount Stanning.
"Will you tell me more about this Lady Audley, Fanny?" Miss Talboys said, after a long pause. "I want to know all about her. Have you heard her maiden name?"
"Yes; she was a Miss Graham."
"And she is very pretty?"
"Yes, very, very pretty. Rather a childish beauty though, with large, clear blue eyes, and pale golden ringlets, that fall in a feathery shower over her throat and shoulders."
Clara Talboys was silent. She did not ask any further questions about my lady.
She was thinking of a passage in that letter which George had written to her during his honeymoon--a passage in which he said: "My childish little wife is watching me as I write this--Ah! how I wish you could see her, Clara! Her eyes are as blue and as clear as the skies on a bright summer's day, and her hair falls about her face like the pale golden halo you see round the head of a Madonna in an Italian picture."