Robert Audley left Southampton by the mail, and let himself into his chambers just as the dawn was creeping cold and gray into the solitary rooms, and the canaries were beginning to rustle their feathers feebly in the early morning.
There were several letters in the box behind the door, but there was none from George Talboys.
The young barrister was worn out by a long day spent in hurrying from place to place. The usual lazy monotony of his life had been broken as it had never been broken before in eight-and-twenty tranquil, easy-going years. His mind was beginning to grow confused upon the point of time. It seemed to him months since he had lost sight of George Talboys. It was so difficult to believe that it was less than forty-eight hours ago that the young man had left him asleep under the willows by the trout stream.
His eyes were painfully weary for want of sleep. He searched about the room for some time, looking in all sorts of impossible places for a letter from George Talboys, and then threw himself dressed upon his friend's bed, in the room with the canaries and geraniums.
"I shall wait for to-morrow morning's post," he said; "and if that brings no letter from George, I shall start for Liverpool without a moment's delay."
He was thoroughly exhausted, and fell into a heavy sleep--a sleep which was profound without being in any way refreshing, for he was tormented all the time by disagreeable dreams--dreams which were painful, not from any horror in themselves, but from a vague and wearying sense of their confusion and absurdity.
At one time he was pursuing strange people and entering strange houses in the endeavor to unravel the mystery of the telegraphic dispatch; at another time he was in the church-yard at Ventnor, gazing at the headstone George had ordered for the grave of his dead wife. Once in the long, rambling mystery of these dreams he went to the grave, and found this headstone gone, and on remonstrating with the stonemason, was told that the man had a reason for removing the inscription; a reason that Robert would some day learn.
In another dream he saw the grave of Helen Talboys open, and while he waited, with the cold horror lifting up his hair, to see the dead woman rise and stand before him with her stiff, charnel-house drapery clinging about her rigid limbs, his uncle's wife tripped gaily put of the open grave, dressed in the crimson velvet robes in which the artist had painted her, and with her ringlets flashing like red gold in the unearthly light that shone about her.
But into all these dreams the places he had last been in, and the people with whom he had last been concerned, were dimly interwoven--sometimes his uncle; sometimes Alicia; oftenest of all my lady; the trout stream in Essex; the lime-walk at the Court. Once he was walking in the black shadows of this long avenue, with Lady Audley hanging on his arm, when suddenly they heard a great knocking in the distance, and his uncle's wife wound her slender arms around him, crying out that it was the day of judgment, and that all wicked secrets must now be told. Looking at her as she shrieked this in his ear, he saw that her face had grown ghastly white, and that her beautiful golden ringlets were changing into serpents, and slowly creeping down her fair neck.
He started from his dream to find that there was some one really knocking at the outer door of his chambers.
It was a dreary, wet morning, the rain beating against the windows, and the canaries twittering dismally to each other--complaining, perhaps, of the bad weather. Robert could not tell how long the person had been knocking. He had mixed the sound with his dreams, and when he woke he was only half conscious of other things.
"It's that stupid Mrs. Maloney, I dare say," he muttered. "She may knock again for all I care. Why can't she use her duplicate key, instead of dragging a man out of bed when he's half dead with fatigue."
The person, whoever it was, did knock again, and then desisted, apparently tired out; but about a minute afterward a key turned in the door.
"She had her key with her all the time, then," said Robert. "I'm very glad I didn't get up."
The door between the sitting-room and bed-room was half open, and he could see the laundress bustling about, dusting the furniture, and rearranging things that had never been disarranged.
"Is that you, Mrs. Maloney?" he asked.
"Then why, in goodness' name, did you make that row at the door, when you had a key with you all the time?"
"A row at the door, sir?"
"Yes; that infernal knocking."
"Sure I never knocked, Mister Audley, but walked straight in with my kay--"
"Then who did knock? There's been some one kicking up a row at that door for a quarter of an hour, I should think; you must have met him going down-stairs."
"But I'm rather late this morning, sir, for I've been in Mr. Martin's rooms first, and I've come straight from the floor above."
"Then you didn't see any one at the door, or on the stairs?"
"Not a mortal soul, sir."
"Was ever anything so provoking?" said Robert. "To think that I should have let this person go away without ascertaining who he was, or what he wanted! How do I know that it was not some one with a message or a letter from George Talboys?"
"Sure if it was, sir, he'll come again," said Mrs. Maloney, soothingly.
"Yes, of course, if it was anything of consequence he'll come again," muttered Robert. The fact was, that from the moment of finding the telegraphic message at Southampton, all hope of hearing of George had faded out of his mind. He felt that there was some mystery involved in the disappearance of his friend--some treachery toward himself, or toward George. What if the young man's greedy old father-in-law had tried to separate them on account of the monetary trust lodged in Robert Audley's hands? Or what if, since even in these civilized days all kinds of unsuspected horrors are constantly committed--what if the old man had decoyed George down to Southampton, and made away with him in order to get possession of that L20,000, left in Robert's custody for little Georgey's use?
But neither of these suppositions explained the telegraphic message, and it was the telegraphic message which had filled Robert's mind with a vague sense of alarm. The postman brought no letter from George Talboys, and the person who had knocked at the door of the chambers did not return between seven and nine o'clock, so Robert Audley left Figtree Court once more in search of his friend. This time he told the cabman to drive to the Euston Station, and in twenty minutes he was on the platform, making inquiries about the trains.
The Liverpool express had started half an hour before he reached the station, and he had to wait an hour and a quarter for a slow train to take him to his destination.
Robert Audley chafed cruelly at this delay. Half a dozen vessels might sail for Australia while he roamed up and down the long platform, tumbling over trucks and porters, and swearing at his ill-luck.
He bought the _Times_ newspaper, and looked instinctively at the second column, with a morbid interest in the advertisements of people missing--sons, brothers, and husbands who had left their homes, never to return or to be heard of more.
There was one advertisement of a young man found drowned somewhere on the Lambeth shore.
What if that should have been George's fate? No; the telegraphic message involved his father-in-law in the fact of his disappearance, and every speculation about him must start from that one point.
It was eight o'clock in the evening when Robert got into Liverpool; too late for anything except to make inquiries as to what vessel had sailed within the last two days for the antipodes.
An emigrant ship had sailed at four o'clock that afternoon--the _Victoria Regia_, bound for Melbourne.
The result of his inquiries amounted to this--If he wanted to find out who had sailed in the _Victoria Regia_, he must wait till the next morning, and apply for information of that vessel.
Robert Audley was at the office at nine o'clock the next morning, and was the first person after the clerks who entered it.
He met with every civility from the clerk to whom he applied. The young man referred to his books, and running his pen down the list of passengers who had sailed in the _Victoria Regia_, told Robert that there was no one among them of the name of Talboys. He pushed his inquiries further. Had any of the passengers entered their names within a short time of the vessel's sailing?
One of the other clerks looked up from his desk as Robert asked this question. Yes, he said; he remembered a young man's coming into the office at half-past three o'clock in the afternoon, and paying his passage money. His name was the last on the list--Thomas Brown.
Robert Audley shrugged his shoulders. There could have been no possible reason for George's taking a feigned name. He asked the clerk who had last spoken if he could remember the appearance of this Mr. Thomas Brown.
No; the office was crowded at the time; people were running in and out, and he had not taken any particular notice of this last passenger.
Robert thanked them for their civility, and wished them good-morning. As he was leaving the office, one of the young men called after him:
"Oh, by-the-by, sir," he said, "I remember one thing about this Mr. Thomas Brown--his arm was in a sling."
There was nothing more for Robert Audley to do but to return to town. He re-entered his chambers at six o'clock that evening, thoroughly worn out once more with his useless search.
Mrs. Maloney brought him his dinner and a pint of wine from a tavern in the Strand. The evening was raw and chilly, and the laundress had lighted a good fire in the sitting-room grate.
After eating about half a mutton-chop, Robert sat with his wine untasted upon the table before him, smoking cigars and staring into the blaze.
"George Talboys never sailed for Australia," he said, after long and painful reflection. "If he is alive, he is still in England; and if he is dead, his body is hidden in some corner of England."
He sat for hours smoking and thinking--trouble and gloomy thoughts leaving a dark shadow upon his moody face, which neither the brilliant light of the gas nor the red blaze of the fire could dispel.
Very late in the evening he rose from his chair, pushed away the table, wheeled his desk over to the fire-place, took out a sheet of fools-cap, and dipped a pen in the ink.
But after doing this he paused, leaned his forehead upon his hand, and once more relapsed into thought.
"I shall draw up a record of all that has occurred between our going down to Essex and to-night, beginning at the very beginning."
He drew up this record in short, detached sentences, which he numbered as he wrote.
It ran thus:
"_Journal of Facts connected with the Disappearance of George Talboys, inclusive of Facts which have no apparent Relation to that Circumstance._"
In spite of the troubled state of his mind, he was rather inclined to be proud of the official appearance of this heading. He sat for some time looking at it with affection, and with the feather of his pen in his mouth. "Upon my word," he said, "I begin to think that I ought to have pursued my profession, instead of dawdling my life away as I have done."
He smoked half a cigar before he had got his thoughts in proper train, and then began to write:
"1. I write to Alicia, proposing to take George down to the Court."
"2. Alicia writes, objecting to the visit, on the part of Lady Audley."
"3. We go to Essex in spite of that objection. I see my lady. My lady refuses to be introduced to George on that particular evening on the score of fatigue."
"4. Sir Michael invites George and me to dinner for the following evening."
"5. My lady receives a telegraphic dispatch the next morning which summons her to London."
"6. Alicia shows me a letter from my lady, in which she requests to be told when I and my friend, Mr. Talboys, mean to leave Essex. To this letter is subjoined a postscript, reiterating the above request."
"7. We call at the Court, and ask to see the house. My lady's apartments are locked."
"8. We get at the aforesaid apartments by means of a secret passage, the existence of which is unknown to my lady. In one of the rooms we find her portrait."
"9. George is frightened at the storm. His conduct is exceedingly strange for the rest of the evening."
"10. George quite himself again the following morning. I propose leaving Audley Court immediately; he prefers remaining till the evening."
"11. We go out fishing. George leaves me to go to the Court."
"12. The last positive information I can obtain of him in Essex is at the Court, where the servant says he thinks Mr. Talboys told him he would go and look for my lady in the grounds."
"13. I receive information about him at the station which may or may not be correct."
"14. I hear of him positively once more at Southampton, where, according to his father-in-law, he had been for an hour on the previous night."
"15. The telegraphic message."
When Robert Audley had completed this brief record, which he drew up with great deliberation, and with frequent pauses for reflection, alterations and erasures, he sat for a long time contemplating the written page.
At last he read it carefully over, stopping at some of the numbered paragraphs, and marking some of them with a pencil cross; then he folded the sheet of foolscap, went over to a cabinet on the opposite side of the room, unlocked it, and placed the paper in that very pigeon-hole into which he had thrust Alicia's letter--the pigeon-hole marked _Important_.
Having done this, he returned to his easy-chair by the fire, pushed away his desk, and lighted a cigar. "It's as dark as midnight from first to last," he said; "and the clew to the mystery must be found either at Southampton or in Essex. Be it how it may, my mind is made up. I shall first go to Audley Court, and look for George Talboys in a narrow radius."
"Mr. George Talboys.--Any person who has met this gentleman since the 7th inst., or who possesses any information respecting him subsequent to that date, will be liberally rewarded on communicating with A.Z., 14 Chancery Lane."
Sir Michael Audley read the above advertisement in the second column of the _Times_, as he sat at breakfast with my lady and Alicia two or three days after Robert's return to town.
"Robert's friend has not yet been heard of, then," said the baronet, after reading the advertisement to his wife and daughter.
"As for that," replied my lady, "I cannot help wondering that any one can be silly enough to advertise for him. The young man was evidently of a restless, roving disposition--a sort of Bamfyld Moore Carew of modern life, whom no attraction could ever keep in one spot."
Though the advertisement appeared three successive times, the party at the Court attached very little importance to Mr. Talboys disappearance; and after this one occasion his name was never again mentioned by either Sir Michael, my lady, or Alicia.
Alicia Audley and her pretty stepmother were by no means any better friends after that quiet evening on which the young barrister had dined at the Court.
"She is a vain, frivolous, heartless little coquette," said Alicia, addressing herself to her Newfoundland dog Caesar, who was the sole recipient of the young lady's confidences; "she is a practiced and consummate flirt, Caesar; and not contented with setting her yellow ringlets and her silly giggle at half the men in Essex, she must needs make that stupid cousin of mine dance attendance upon her. I haven't common patience with her."
In proof of which last assertion Miss Alice Audley treated her stepmother with such very palpable impertinence that Sir Michael felt himself called upon to remonstrate with his only daughter.
"The poor little woman is very sensitive, you know, Alicia," the baronet said, gravely, "and she feels your conduct most acutely."
"I don't believe it a bit, papa," answered Alicia, stoutly. "You think her sensitive because she has soft little white hands, and big blue eyes with long lashes, and all manner of affected, fantastical ways, which you stupid men call fascinating. Sensitive! Why, I've seen her do cruel things with those slender white fingers, and laugh at the pain she inflicted. I'm very sorry, papa," she added, softened a little by her father's look of distress; "though she has come between us, and robbed poor Alicia of the love of that dear, generous heart, I wish I could like her for your sake; but I can't, I can't, and no more can Caesar. She came up to him once with her red lips apart, and her little white teeth glistening between them, and stroked his great head with her soft hand; but if I had not had hold of his collar, he would have flown at her throat and strangled her. She may bewitch every man in Essex, but she'd never make friends with my dog."
"Your dog shall be shot," answered Sir Michael angrily, "if his vicious temper ever endangers Lucy."
The Newfoundland rolled his eyes slowly round in the direction of the speaker, as if he understood every word that had been said. Lady Audley happened to enter the room at this very moment, and the animal cowered down by the side of his mistress with a suppressed growl. There was something in the manner of the dog which was, if anything, more indicative of terror than of fury; incredible as it appears that Caesar should be frightened by so fragile a creature as Lucy Audley.
Amicable as was my lady's nature, she could not live long at the Court without discovering Alicia's dislike to her. She never alluded to it but once; then, shrugging her graceful white shoulders, she said, with a sigh:
"It seems very hard that you cannot love me, Alicia, for I have never been used to make enemies; but since it seems that it must be so, I cannot help it. If we cannot be friends, let us be neutral. You won't try to injure me?"
"Injure you!" exclaimed Alicia; "how should I injure you?"
"You'll not try to deprive me of your father's affection?"
"I may not be as amiable as you are, my lady, and I may not have the same sweet smiles and pretty words for every stranger I meet, but I am not capable of a contemptible meanness; and even if I were, I think you are so secure of my father's love, that nothing but your own act will ever deprive you of it."
"What a severe creature you are, Alicia!" said my lady, making a little grimace. "I suppose you mean to infer by all that, that I'm deceitful. Why, I can't help smiling at people, and speaking prettily to them. I know I'm no _better_ than the rest of the world; but I can't help it if I'm _pleasanter_. It's constitutional."
Alicia having thus entirely shut the door upon all intimacy between Lady Audley and herself, and Sir Michael being chiefly occupied in agricultural pursuits and manly sports, which kept him away from home, it was perhaps natural that my lady, being of an eminently social disposition, should find herself thrown a good deal upon her white-eyelashed maid for society.
Phoebe Marks was exactly the sort of a girl who is generally promoted from the post of lady's maid to that of companion. She had just sufficient education to enable her to understand her mistress when Lucy chose to allow herself to run riot in a species of intellectual tarantella, in which her tongue went mad to the sound of its own rattle, as the Spanish dancer at the noise of his castanets. Phoebe knew enough of the French language to be able to dip into the yellow-paper-covered novels which my lady ordered from the Burlington Arcade, and to discourse with her mistress upon the questionable subjects of these romances. The likeness which the lady's maid bore to Lucy Audley was, perhaps, a point of sympathy between the two women. It was not to be called a striking likeness; a stranger might have seen them both together, and yet have failed to remark it. But there were certain dim and shadowy lights in which, meeting Phoebe Marks gliding softly through the dark oak passages of the Court, or under the shrouded avenues in the garden, you might have easily mistaken her for my lady.
Sharp October winds were sweeping the leaves from the limes in the long avenue, and driving them in withered heaps with a ghostly rustling noise along the dry gravel walks. The old well must have been half choked up with the leaves that drifted about it, and whirled in eddying circles into its black, broken mouth. On the still bosom of the fish-pond the same withered leaves slowly rotted away, mixing themselves with the tangled weeds that discolored the surface of the water. All the gardeners Sir Michael could employ could not keep the impress of autumn's destroying hand from the grounds about the Court.
"How I hate this desolate month!" my lady said, as she walked about the garden, shivering beneath her sable mantle. "Every thing dropping to ruin and decay, and the cold flicker of the sun lighting up the ugliness of the earth, as the glare of gas-lamps lights the wrinkles of an old woman. Shall I ever grow old, Phoebe? Will my hair ever drop off as the leaves are falling from those trees, and leave me wan and bare like them? What is to become of me when I grow old?"
She shivered at the thought of this more than she had done at the cold, wintry breeze, and muffling herself closely in her fur, walked so fast that her maid had some difficulty in keeping up with her.
"Do you remember, Phoebe," she said, presently, relaxing her pace, "do you remember that French story we read--the story of a beautiful woman who had committed some crime--I forget what--in the zenith of her power and loveliness, when all Paris drank to her every night, and when the people ran away from the carriage of the king to flock about hers, and get a peep at her face? Do you remember how she kept the secret of what she had done for nearly half a century, spending her old age in her family chateau, beloved and honored by all the province as an uncanonized saint and benefactress to the poor; and how, when her hair was white, and her eyes almost blind with age, the secret was revealed through one of those strange accidents by which such secrets always are revealed in romances, and she was tried, found guilty, and condemned to be burned alive? The king who had worn her colors was dead and gone; the court of which she had been a star had passed away; powerful functionaries and great magistrates, who might perhaps have helped her, were moldering in the graves; brave young cavaliers, who would have died for her, had fallen upon distant battle-fields; she had lived to see the age to which she had belonged fade like a dream; and she went to the stake, followed by only a few ignorant country people, who forgot all her bounties, and hooted at her for a wicked sorceress."
"I don't care for such dismal stories, my lady," said Phoebe Marks with a shudder. "One has no need to read books to give one the horrors in this dull place."
Lady Audley shrugged her shoulders and laughed at her maid's candor.
"It is a dull place, Phoebe," she said, "though it doesn't do to say so to my dear old husband. Though I am the wife of one of the most influential men in the county, I don't know that I wasn't nearly as well off at Mr. Dawson's; and yet it's something to wear sables that cost sixty guineas, and have a thousand pounds spent on the decoration of one's apartments."
Treated as a companion by her mistress, in the receipt of the most liberal wages, and with perquisites such as perhaps lady's maid never had before, it was strange that Phoebe Marks should wish to leave her situation; but it was not the less a fact that she was anxious to exchange all the advantages of Audley Court for the very unpromising prospect which awaited her as the wife of her Cousin Luke.
The young man had contrived in some manner to associate himself with the improved fortunes of his sweetheart. He had never allowed Phoebe any peace till she had obtained for him, by the aid of my lady's interference, a situation as undergroom of the Court.
He never rode out with either Alicia or Sir Michael; but on one of the few occasions upon which my lady mounted the pretty little gray thoroughbred reserved for her use, he contrived to attend her in her ride. He saw enough, in the very first half hour they were out, to discover that, graceful as Lucy Audley might look in her long blue cloth habit, she was a timid horsewoman, and utterly unable to manage the animal she rode.
Lady Audley remonstrated with her maid upon her folly in wishing to marry the uncouth groom.
The two women were seated together over the fire in my lady's dressing-room, the gray sky closing in upon the October afternoon, and the black tracery of ivy darkening the casement windows.
"You surely are not in love with the awkward, ugly creature are you, Phoebe?" asked my lady sharply.
The girl was sitting on a low stool at her mistress feet. She did not answer my lady's question immediately, but sat for some time looking vacantly into the red abyss in the hollow fire.
Presently she said, rather as if she had been thinking aloud than answering Lucy's question:
"I don't think I can love him. We have been together from children, and I promised, when I was little better than fifteen, that I'd be his wife. I daren't break that promise now. There have been times when I've made up the very sentence I meant to say to him, telling him that I couldn't keep my faith with him; but the words have died upon my lips, and I've sat looking at him, with a choking sensation, in my throat that wouldn't let me speak. I daren't refuse to marry him. I've often watched and watched him, as he has sat slicing away at a hedge-stake with his great clasp-knife, till I have thought that it is just such men as he who have decoyed their sweethearts into lonely places, and murdered them for being false to their word. When he was a boy he was always violent and revengeful. I saw him once take up that very knife in a quarrel with his mother. I tell you, my lady, I must marry him."
"You silly girl, you shall do nothing of the kind!" answered Lucy. "You think he'll murder you, do you? Do you think, then, if murder is in him, you would be any safer as his wife? If you thwarted him, or made him jealous; if he wanted to marry another woman, or to get hold of some poor, pitiful bit of money of yours, couldn't he murder you then? I tell you you sha'n't marry him, Phoebe. In the first place I hate the man; and, in the next place I can't afford to part with you. We'll give him a few pounds and send him about his business."
Phoebe Marks caught my lady's hand in hers, and clasped them convulsively.
"My lady--my good, kind mistress!" she cried, vehemently, "don't try to thwart me in this--don't ask me to thwart him. I tell you I must marry him. You don't know what he is. It will be my ruin, and the ruin of others, if I break my word. I must marry him!"
"Very well, then, Phoebe," answered her mistress, "I can't oppose you. There must be some secret at the bottom of all this." "There is, my lady," said the girl, with her face turned away from Lucy.
"I shall be very sorry to lose you; but I have promised to stand your friend in all things. What does your cousin mean to do for a living when, you are married?"
"He would like to take a public house."
"Then he shall take a public house, and the sooner he drinks himself to death the better. Sir Michael dines at a bachelor's party at Major Margrave's this evening, and my step-daughter is away with her friends at the Grange. You can bring your cousin into the drawing-room after dinner, and I'll tell him what I mean to do for him."
"You are very good, my lady," Phoebe answered with a sigh.
Lady Audley sat in the glow of firelight and wax candles in the luxurious drawing-room; the amber damask cushions of the sofa contrasting with her dark violet velvet dress, and her rippling hair falling about her neck in a golden haze. Everywhere around her were the evidences of wealth and splendor; while in strange contrast to all this, and to her own beauty; the awkward groom stood rubbing his bullet head as my lady explained to him what she intended to do for her confidential maid. Lucy's promises were very liberal, and she had expected that, uncouth as the man was, he would, in his own rough manner, have expressed his gratitude.
To her surprise he stood staring at the floor without uttering a word in answer to her offer. Phoebe was standing close to his elbow, and seemed distressed at the man's rudeness.
"Tell my lady how thankful you are, Luke," she said.
"But I'm not so over and above thankful," answered her lover, savagely. "Fifty pound ain't much to start a public. You'll make it a hundred, my lady?"
"I shall do nothing of the kind," said Lady Audley, her clear blue eyes flashing with indignation, "and I wonder at your impertinence in asking it."
"Oh, yes, you will, though," answered Luke, with quiet insolence that had a hidden meaning. "You'll make it a hundred, my lady."
Lady Audley rose from her seat, looked the man steadfastly in the face till his determined gaze sunk under hers; then walking straight up to her maid, she said in a high, piercing voice, peculiar to her in moments of intense agitation:
"Phoebe Marks, you have told _this man_!"
The girl fell on her knees at my lady's feet.
"Oh, forgive me, forgive me!" she cried. "He forced it from me, or I would never, never have told!"