THE HEADSTONE AT VENTNOR.
Yes, there it was in black and white--"Helen Talboys, aged 22."
When George told the governess on board the _Argus_ that if he heard any evil tidings of his wife he should drop down dead, he spoke in perfect good faith; and yet, here were the worst tidings that could come to him, and he sat rigid, white and helpless, staring stupidly at the shocked face of his friend.
The suddenness of the blow had stunned him. In this strange and bewildered state of mind he began to wonder what had happened, and why it was that one line in the _Times_ newspaper could have so horrible an effect upon him.
Then by degrees even this vague consciousness of his misfortune faded slowly out of his mind, succeeded by a painful consciousness of external things.
The hot August sunshine, the dusty window-panes and shabby-painted blinds, a file of fly-blown play-bills fastened to the wall, the black and empty fire-places, a bald-headed old man nodding over the _Morning Advertizer_, the slip-shod waiter folding a tumbled table-cloth, and Robert Audley's handsome face looking at him full of compassionate alarm--he knew that all these things took gigantic proportions, and then, one by one, melted into dark blots and swam before his eyes, He knew that there was a great noise, as of half a dozen furious steam-engines tearing and grinding in his ears, and he knew nothing more--except that somebody or something fell heavily to the ground.
He opened his eyes upon the dusky evening in a cool and shaded room, the silence only broken by the rumbling of wheels at a distance.
He looked about him wonderingly, but half indifferently. His old friend, Robert Audley, was seated by his side smoking. George was lying on a low iron bedstead opposite to an open window, in which there was a stand of flowers and two or three birds in cages.
"You don't mind the pipe, do you, George?" his friend asked, quietly.
He lay for some time looking at the flowers and the birds; one canary was singing a shrill hymn to the setting sun.
"Do the birds annoy you, George? Shall I take them out of the room?"
"No; I like to hear them sing."
Robert Audley knocked the ashes out of his pipe, laid the precious meerschaum tenderly upon the mantelpiece, and going into the next room, returned presently with a cup of strong tea.
"Take this, George," he said, as he placed the cup on a little table close to George's pillow; "it will do your head good."
The young man did not answer, but looked slowly round the room, and then at his friend's grave face.
"Bob," he said, "where are we?"
"In my chambers, dear boy, in the Temple. You have no lodgings of your own, so you may as well stay with me while you're in town."
George passed his hand once or twice across his forehead, and then, in a hesitating manner, said, quietly:
"That newspaper this morning, Bob; what was it?"
"Never mind just now, old boy; drink some tea."
"Yes, yes," cried George, impatiently, raising himself upon the bed, and staring about him with hollow eyes. "I remember all about it. Helen! my Helen! my wife, my darling, my only love! Dead, dead!"
"George," said Robert Audley, laying his hand gently upon the young man's arm, "you must remember that the person whose name you saw in the paper may not be your wife. There may have been some other Helen Talboys."
"No, no!" he cried; "the age corresponds with hers, and Talboys is such an uncommon name."
"It may be a misprint for Talbot."
"No, no, no; my wife is dead!"
He shook off Robert's restraining hand, and rising from the bed, walked straight to the door.
"Where are you going?" exclaimed his friend.
"To Ventnor, to see her grave."
"Not to-night, George, not to-night. I will go with you myself by the first train to-morrow."
Robert led him back to the bed, and gently forced him to lie down again. He then gave him an opiate, which had been left for him by the medical man whom they had called in at the coffee-house in Bridge street, when George fainted.
So George Talboys fell into a heavy slumber, and dreamed that he went to Ventnor, to find his wife alive and happy, but wrinkled, old, and gray, and to find his son grown into a young man.
Early the next morning he was seated opposite to Robert Audley in the first-class carriage of an express, whirling through the pretty open country toward Portsmouth.
They landed at Ventnor under the burning heat of the midday sun. As the two young men came from the steamer, the people on the pier stared at George's white face and untrimmed beard.
"What are we to do, George?" Robert Audley asked. "We have no clew to finding the people you want to see."
The young man looked at him with a pitiful, bewildered expression. The big dragoon was as helpless as a baby; and Robert Audley, the most vacillating and unenergetic of men, found himself called upon to act for another. He rose superior to himself, and equal to the occasion.
"Had we not better ask at one of the hotels about a Mrs. Talboys, George?" he said.
"Her father's name was Maldon," George muttered; "he could never have sent her here to die alone."
They said nothing more; but Robert walked straight to a hotel where he inquired for a Mr. Maldon.
Yes, they told him, there was a gentleman of that name stopping at Ventnor, a Captain Maldon; his daughter was lately dead. The waiter would go and inquire for the address.
The hotel was a busy place at this season; people hurrying in and out, and a great bustle of grooms and waiters about the halls.
George Talboys leaned against the doorpost, with much the same look in his face, as that which had frightened his friend in the Westminister coffee-house.
The worst was confirmed now. His wife, Captain Maldon's daughter was dead.
The waiter returned in about five minutes to say that Captain Maldon was lodging at Lansdowne Cottage, No. 4.
They easily found the house, a shabby, low-windowed cottage, looking toward the water.
Was Captain Maldon at home? No, the landlady said; he had gone out on the beach with his little grandson. Would the gentleman walk in and sit down a bit?
George mechanically followed his friend into the little front parlor--dusty, shabbily furnished, and disorderly, with a child's broken toys scattered on the floor, and the scent of stale tobacco hanging about the muslin window-curtains.
"Look!" said George, pointing to a picture over the mantelpiece.
It was his own portrait, painted in the old dragooning days. A pretty good likeness, representing him in uniform, with his charger in the background.
Perhaps the most animated of men would have been scarcely so wise a comforter as Robert Audley. He did not utter a word to the stricken widower, but quietly seated himself with his back to George, looking out of the open window.
For some time the young man wandered restlessly about the room, looking at and sometimes touching the nick-nacks lying here and there.
Her workbox, with an unfinished piece of work; her album full of extracts from Byron and Moore, written in his own scrawling hand; some books which he had given her, and a bunch of withered flowers in a vase they had bought in Italy.
"Her portrait used to hang by the side of mine," he muttered; "I wonder what they have done with it."
By-and-by he said, after about an hour's silence:
"I should like to see the woman of the house; I should like to ask her about--"
He broke down, and buried his face in his hands.
Robert summoned the landlady. She was a good-natured garrulous creature, accustomed to sickness and death, for many of her lodgers came to her to die.
She told all the particulars of Mrs. Talboys' last hours; how she had come to Ventnor only ten days before her death, in the last stage of decline; and how, day by day, she had gradually, but surely, sunk under the fatal malady. Was the gentleman any relative? she asked of Robert Audley, as George sobbed aloud.
"Yes, he is the lady's husband."
"What!" the woman cried; "him as deserted her so cruel, and left her with her pretty boy upon her poor old father's hands, which Captain Maldon has told me often, with the tears in his poor eyes?"
"I did not desert her," George cried out; and then he told the history of his three years' struggle.
"Did she speak of me?" he asked; "did she speak of me--at--at the last?"
"No, she went off as quiet as a lamb. She said very little from the first; but the last day she knew nobody, not even her little boy, nor her poor old father, who took on awful. Once she went off wild-like, talking about her mother, and about the cruel shame it was to leave her to die in a strange place, till it was quite pitiful to hear her."
"Her mother died when she was quite a child," said George. "To think that she should remember her and speak of her, but never once of me."
The woman took him into the little bedroom in which his wife had died. He knelt down by the bed and kissed the pillow tenderly, the landlady crying as he did so.
While he was kneeling, praying, perhaps, with his face buried in this humble, snow-white pillow, the woman took something from a drawer. She gave it to him when he rose from his knees; it was a long tress of hair wrapped in silver paper.
"I cut this off when she lay in her coffin," she said, "poor dear?"
He pressed the soft lock to his lips. "Yes," he murmured; "this is the dear hair that I have kissed so often when her head lay upon my shoulder. But it always had a rippling wave in it then, and now it seems smooth and straight."
"It changes in illness," said the landlady. "If you'd like to see where they have laid her, Mr. Talboys, my little boy shall show you the way to the churchyard."
So George Talboys and his faithful friend walked to the quiet spot, where, beneath a mound of earth, to which the patches of fresh turf hardly adhered, lay that wife of whose welcoming smile George had dreamed so often in the far antipodes.
Robert left the young man by the side of this newly-made grave, and returning in about a quarter of an hour, found that he had not once stirred.
He looked up presently, and said that if there was a stone-mason's anywhere near he should like to give an order.
They very easily found the stonemason, and sitting down amidst the fragmentary litter of the man's yard, George Talboys wrote in pencil this brief inscription for the headstone of his dead wife's grave:
Sacred to the Memory of
THE BELOVED WIFE OF GEORGE TALBOYS,
"Who departed this life
August 24th, 18--, aged 22,
Deeply regretted by her sorrowing Husband.
ANYWHERE, ANYWHERE OUT OF THE WORLD.
When they returned to Lansdowne Cottage they found the old man had not yet come in, so they walked down to the beach to look for him. After a brief search they found him, sitting upon a heap of pebbles, reading a newspaper and eating filberts. The little boy was at some distance from his grandfather, digging in the sand with a wooden spade. The crape round the old man's shabby hat, and the child's poor little black frock, went to George's heart. Go where he would he met fresh confirmation of this great grief of his life. His wife was dead.
"Mr. Maldon," he said, as he approached his father-in-law.
The old man looked up, and, dropping his newspaper, rose from the pebbles with a ceremonious bow. His faded light hair was tinged with gray; he had a pinched hook nose; watery blue eyes, and an irresolute-looking mouth; he wore his shabby dress with an affectation of foppish gentility; an eye-glass dangled over his closely buttoned-up waistcoat, and he carried a cane in his ungloved hand.
"Great Heaven!" cried George, "don't you know me?"
Mr. Maldon started and colored violently, with something of a frightened look, as he recognized his son-in-law.
"My dear boy," he said, "I did not; for the first moment I did not. That beard makes such a difference. You find the beard makes a great difference, do you not, sir?" he said, appealing to Robert.
"Great heavens!" exclaimed George Talboys, "is this the way you welcome me? I come to England to find my wife dead within a week of my touching land, and you begin to chatter to me about my beard--you, her father!"
"True! true!" muttered the old man, wiping his bloodshot eyes; "a sad shock, a sad shock, my dear George. If you'd only been here a week earlier."
"If I had," cried George, in an outburst of grief and passion, "I scarcely think that I would have let her die. I would have disputed for her with death. I would! I would! Oh God! why did not the _Argus_ go down with every soul on board her before I came to see this day?"
He began to walk up and down the beach, his father-in-law looking helplessly at him, rubbing his feeble eyes with a handkerchief.
"I've a strong notion that that old man didn't treat his daughter too well," thought Robert, as he watched the half-pay lieutenant. "He seems, for some reason or other, to be half afraid of George."
While the agitated young man walked up and down in a fever of regret and despair, the child ran to his grandfather, and clung about the tails of his coat.
"Come home, grandpa, come home," he said. "I'm tired."
George Talboys turned at the sound of the babyish voice, and looked long and earnestly at the boy.
He had his father's brown eyes and dark hair.
"My darling! my darling!" said George, taking the child in his arms, "I am your father, come across the sea to find you. Will you love me?"
The little fellow pushed him away. "I don't know you," he said. "I love grandpa and Mrs. Monks at Southampton."
"Georgey has a temper of his own, sir," said the old man. "He has been spoiled."
They walked slowly back to the cottage, and once more George Talboys told the history of that desertion which had seemed so cruel. He told, too, of the twenty thousand pounds banked by him the day before. He had not the heart to ask any questions about the past, and his father-in-law only told him that a few months after his departure they had gone from the place where George left them to live at Southampton, where Helen got a few pupils for the piano, and where they managed pretty well till her health failed, and she fell into the decline of which she died. Like most sad stories it was a very brief one.
"The boy seems fond of you, Mr. Maldon," said George, after a pause.
"Yes, yes," answered the old man, smoothing the child's curling hair; "yes. Georgey is very fond of his grandfather."
"Then he had better stop with you. The interest of my money will be about six hundred a year. You can draw a hundred of that for Georgey's education, leaving the rest to accumulate till he is of age. My friend here will be trustee, and if he will undertake the charge, I will appoint him guardian to the boy, allowing him for the present to remain under your care."
"But why not take care of him yourself, George?" asked Robert Audley.
"Because I shall sail in the very next vessel that leaves Liverpool for Australia. I shall be better in the diggings or the backwoods than ever I could be here. I'm broken for a civilized life from this hour, Bob."
The old man's weak eyes sparkled as George declared this determination.
"My poor boy, I think you're right," he said, "I really think you're right. The change, the wild life, the--the--" He hesitated and broke down as Robert looked earnestly at him.
"You're in a great hurry to get rid of your son-in-law, I think, Mr. Maldon," he said, gravely.
"Get rid of him, dear boy! Oh, no, no! But for his own sake, my dear sir, for his own sake, you know."
"I think for his own sake he'd much better stay in England and look after his son," said Robert.
"But I tell you I can't," cried George; "every inch of this accursed ground is hateful to me--I want to run out of it as I would out of a graveyard. I'll go back to town to-night, get that business about the money settled early to-morrow morning, and start for Liverpool without a moment's delay. I shall be better when I've put half the world between me and her grave."
"Before he left the house he stole out to the landlady, and asked same more questions about his dead wife.
"Were they poor?" he asked, "were they pinched for money while she was ill?"
"Oh, no!" the woman answered; "though the captain dresses shabby, he has always plenty of sovereigns in his purse. The poor lady wanted for nothing."
George was relieved at this, though it puzzled him to know where the drunken half-pay lieutenant could have contrived to find money for all the expenses of his daughter's illness.
But he was too thoroughly broken down by the calamity which had befallen him to be able to think much of anything, so he asked no further questions, but walked with his father-in-law and Robert Audley down to the boat by which they were to cross to Portsmouth.
The old man bade Robert a very ceremonious adieu.
"You did not introduce me to your friend, by-the-bye, my dear boy," he said. George stared at him, muttered something indistinct, and ran down the ladder to the boat before Mr. Maldon could repeat his request. The steamer sped away through the sunset, and the outline of the island melted in the horizon as they neared the opposite shore.
"To think," said George, "that two nights ago, at this time, I was steaming into Liverpool, full of the hope of clasping her to my heart, and to-night I am going away from her grave!"
The document which appointed Robert Audley as guardian to little George Talboys was drawn up in a solicitor's office the next morning.
"It's a great responsibility," exclaimed Robert; "I, guardian to anybody or anything! I, who never in my life could take care of myself!"
"I trust in your noble heart, Bob," said George. "I know you will take care of my poor orphan boy, and see that he is well used by his grandfather. I shall only draw enough from Georgey's fortune to take me back to Sydney, and then begin my old work again."
But it seemed as if George was destined to be himself the guardian of his son; for when he reached Liverpool, he found that a vessel had just sailed, and that there would not be another for a month; so he returned to London, and once more threw himself upon Robert Audley's hospitality.
The barrister received him with open arms; he gave him the room with the birds and flowers, and had a bed put up in his dressing-room for himself. Grief is so selfish that George did not know the sacrifices his friend made for his comfort. He only knew that for him the sun was darkened, and the business of life done. He sat all day long smoking cigars, and staring at the flowers and canaries, chafing for the time to pass that he might be far out at sea.
But just as the hour was drawing near for the sailing of the vessel, Robert Audley came in one day, full of a great scheme.
A friend of his, another of those barristers whose last thought is of a brief, was going to St. Petersburg to spend the winter, and wanted Robert to accompany him. Robert would only go on condition that George went too.
For a long time the young man resisted; but when he found that Robert was, in a quiet way, thoroughly determined upon not going without him, he gave in, and consented to join the party. What did it matter? he said. One place was the same to him as another; anywhere out of England; what did he care where?
This was not a very cheerful way of looking at things, but Robert Audley was quite satisfied with having won his consent.
The three young men started under very favorable circumstances, carrying letters of introduction to the most influential inhabitants of the Russian capital.
Before leaving England, Robert wrote to his cousin Alicia, telling her of his intended departure with his old friend George Talboys, whom he had lately met for the first time after a lapse of years, and who had just lost his wife.
Alicia's reply came by return post, and ran thus:
"MY DEAR ROBERT--How cruel of you to run away to that horrid St. Petersburg before the hunting season! I have heard that people lose their noses in that disagreeable climate, and as yours is rather a long one, I should advise you to return before the very severe weather sets in. What sort of person is this Mr. Talboys? If he is very agreeable you may bring him to the Court as soon as you return from your travels. Lady Audley tells me to request you to secure her a set of sables. You are not to consider the price, but to be sure that they are the handsomest that can be obtained. Papa is perfectly absurd about his new wife, and she and I cannot get on together at all; not that she is, disagreeable to me, for, as far as that goes, she makes herself agreeable to every one; but she is so irretrievably childish and silly.
"Believe me to be, my dear Robert.
"Your affectionate cousin,