Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 22

Coming to a Standstill.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else — so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys’.

Perhaps Mr. Harcourt Talboys was the last person in this world with whom it was possible to associate the homely, hearty, rural old English title of squire. He neither hunted nor farmed. He had never worn crimson, pink, or top-boots in his life. A southerly wind and a cloudy sky were matters of supreme indifference to him, so long as they did not in any way interfere with his own prim comforts; and he only cared for the state of the crops inasmuch as it involved the hazard of certain rents which he received for the farms upon his estate. He was a man of about fifty years of age, tall, straight, bony and angular, with a square, pale face, light gray eyes, and scanty dark hair, brushed from either ear across a bald crown, and thus imparting to his physiognomy some faint resemblance to that of a terrier — a sharp, uncompromising, hard-headed terrier — a terrier not to be taken in by the cleverest dog-stealer who ever distinguished himself in his profession.

Nobody ever remembered getting upon what is popularly called the blind side of Harcourt Talboys. He was like his own square-built, northern-fronted, shelterless house. There were no shady nooks in his character into which one could creep for shelter from his hard daylight. He was all daylight. He looked at everything in the same broad glare of intellectual sunlight, and would see no softening shadows that might alter the sharp outlines of cruel facts, subduing them to beauty. I do not know if I express what I mean, when I say that there were no curves in his character — that his mind ran in straight lines, never diverging to the right or the left to round off their pitiless angles. With him right was right, and wrong was wrong. He had never in his merciless, conscientious life admitted the idea that circumstances might mitigate the blackness of wrong or weaken the force of right. He had cast off his only son because his only son had disobeyed him, and he was ready to cast off his only daughter at five minutes’ notice for the same reason.

If this square-built, hard-headed man could be possessed of such a weakness as vanity, he was certainly vain of his hardness. He was vain of that inflexible squareness of intellect, which made him the disagreeable creature that he was. He was vain of that unwavering obstinacy which no influence of love or pity had ever been known to bend from its remorseless purpose. He was vain of the negative force of a nature which had never known the weakness of the affections, or the strength which may be born of that very weakness.

If he had regretted his son’s marriage, and the breach of his own making, between himself and George, his vanity had been more powerful than his regret, and had enabled him to conceal it. Indeed, unlikely as it appears at the first glance that such a man as this could have been vain, I have little doubt that vanity was the center from which radiated all the disagreeable lines in the character of Mr. Harcourt Talboys. I dare say Junius Brutus was vain, and enjoyed the approval of awe-stricken Rome when he ordered his son off for execution. Harcourt Talboys would have sent poor George from his presence between the reversed fasces of the lictors, and grimly relished his own agony. Heaven only knows how bitterly this hard man may have felt the separation between himself and his only son, or how much the more terrible the anguish might have been made by that unflinching self-conceit which concealed the torture.

“My son did me an unpardonable wrong by marrying the daughter of a drunken pauper,” Mr. Talboys would answer to any one who had the temerity to speak to him about George, “and from that hour I had no longer a son. I wish him no ill. He is simply dead to me. I am sorry for him, as I am sorry for his mother who died nineteen years ago. If you talk to me of him as you would talk of the dead, I shall be ready to hear you. If you speak of him as you would speak of the living, I must decline to listen.”

I believe that Harcourt Talboys hugged himself upon the gloomy Roman grandeur of this speech, and that he would like to have worn a toga, and wrapped himself sternly in its folds, as he turned his back upon poor George’s intercessor. George never in his own person made any effort to soften his father’s verdict. He knew his father well enough to know that the case was hopeless.

“If I write to him, he will fold my letter with the envelope inside, and indorse it with my name and the date of its arrival,” the young man would say, “and call everybody in the house to witness that it had not moved him to one softening recollection or one pitiful thought. He will stick to his resolution to his dying day. I dare say, if the truth was known, he is glad that his only son has offended him and given him the opportunity of parading his Roman virtues.”

George had answered his wife thus when she and her father had urged him to ask assistance from Harcourt Talboys.

“No my darling,” he would say, conclusively. “It’s very hard, perhaps, to be poor, but we will bear it. We won’t go with pitiful faces to the stern father, and ask him to give us food and shelter, only to be refused in long, Johnsonian sentences, and made a classical example for the benefit of the neighborhood. No, my pretty one; it is easy to starve, but it is difficult to stoop.”

Perhaps poor Mrs. George did not agree very heartily to the first of these two propositions. She had no great fancy for starving, and she whimpered pitifully when the pretty pint bottles of champagne, with Cliquot’s and Moet’s brands upon their corks, were exchanged for sixpenny ale, procured by a slipshod attendant from the nearest beer-shop. George had been obliged to carry his own burden and lend a helping hand with that of his wife, who had no idea of keeping her regrets or disappointments a secret.

“I thought dragoons were always rich,” she used to say, peevishly. “Girls always want to marry dragoons; and tradespeople always want to serve dragoons; and hotel-keepers to entertain dragoons; and theatrical managers to be patronized by dragoons. Who could have ever expected that a dragoon would drink sixpenny ale, smoke horrid bird’s-eye tobacco, and let his wife wear a shabby bonnet?”

If there were any selfish feelings displayed in such speeches as these, George Talboys had never discovered it. He had loved and believed in his wife from the first to the last hour of his brief married life. The love that is not blind is perhaps only a spurious divinity after all; for when Cupid takes the fillet from his eyes it is a fatally certain indication that he is preparing to spread his wings for a flight. George never forgot the hour in which he had first become bewitched by Lieutenant Maldon’s pretty daughter, and however she might have changed, the image which had charmed him then, unchanged and unchanging, represented her in his heart.

Robert Audley left Southampton by a train which started before daybreak, and reached Wareham station early in the day. He hired a vehicle at Wareham to take him over to Grange Heath.

The snow had hardened upon the ground, and the day was clear and frosty, every object in the landscape standing in sharp outline against the cold blue sky. The horses’ hoofs clattered upon the ice-bound road, the iron shoes striking on the ground that was almost as iron as themselves. The wintry day bore some resemblance to the man to whom Robert was going. Like him, it was sharp, frigid, and uncompromising: like him, it was merciless to distress and impregnable to the softening power of sunshine. It would accept no sunshine but such January radiance as would light up the bleak, bare country without brightening it; and thus resembled Harcourt Talboys, who took the sternest side of every truth, and declared loudly to the disbelieving world that there never had been, and never could be, any other side.

Robert Audley’s heart sunk within him as the shabby hired vehicle stopped at a stern-looking barred fence, and the driver dismounted to open a broad iron gate which swung back with a clanking noise and was caught by a great iron tooth, planted in the ground, which snapped at the lowest bar of the gate as if it wanted to bite.

This iron gate opened into a scanty plantation of straight-limbed fir-trees, that grew in rows and shook their sturdy winter foliage defiantly in the very teeth of the frosty breeze. A straight graveled carriage-drive ran between these straight trees across a smoothly kept lawn to a square red-brick mansion, every window of which winked and glittered in the January sunlight as if it had been that moment cleaned by some indefatigable housemaid.

I don’t know whether Junius Brutus was a nuisance in his own house, but among other of his Roman virtues, Mr. Talboys owned an extreme aversion to disorder, and was the terror of every domestic in his establishment.

The windows winked and the flight of stone steps glared in the sunlight, the prim garden walks were so freshly graveled that they gave a sandy, gingery aspect to the place, reminding one unpleasantly of red hair. The lawn was chiefly ornamented with dark, wintry shrubs of a funereal aspect which grew in beds that looked like problems in algebra; and the flight of stone steps leading to the square half-glass door of the hall was adorned with dark-green wooden tubs containing the same sturdy evergreens.

“If the man is anything like his house,” Robert thought, “I don’t wonder that poor George and he parted.”

At the end of a scanty avenue the carriage-drive turned a sharp corner (it would have been made to describe a curve in any other man’s grounds) and ran before the lower windows of the house. The flyman dismounted at the steps, ascended them, and rang a brass-handled bell, which flew back to its socket, with an angry, metallic snap, as if it had been insulted by the plebeian touch of the man’s hand.

A man in black trousers and a striped linen jacket, which was evidently fresh from the hands of the laundress, opened the door. Mr. Talboys was at home. Would the gentleman send in his card?

Robert waited in the hall while his card was taken to the master of the house.

The hall was large and lofty, paved with stone. The panels of the oaken wainscot shone with the same uncompromising polish which was on every object within and without the red-bricked mansion.

Some people are so weak-minded as to affect pictures and statues. Mr. Harcourt Talboys was far too practical to indulge in any foolish fancies. A barometer and an umbrella-stand were the only adornments of his entrance-hall.

Robert Audley looked at these while his name was being submitted to George’s father.

The linen-jacketed servant returned presently. He was a square, pale-faced man of almost forty, and had the appearance of having outlived every emotion to which humanity is subject.

“If you will step this way, sir,” he said, “Mr. Talboys will see you, although he is at breakfast. He begged me to state that everybody in Dorsetshire was acquainted with his breakfast hour.”

This was intended as a stately reproof to Mr. Robert Audley. It had, however, very small effect upon the young barrister. He merely lifted his eyebrows in placid deprecation of himself and everybody else.

“I don’t belong to Dorsetshire,” he said. “Mr. Talboys might have known that, if he’d done me the honor to exercise his powers of ratiocination. Drive on, my friend.”

The emotionless man looked at Robert Audley with a vacant stare of unmitigated horror, and opening one of the heavy oak doors, led the way into a large dining-room furnished with the severe simplicity of an apartment which is meant to be ate in, but never lived in; and at top of a table which would have accommodated eighteen persons Robert beheld Mr. Harcourt Talboys.

Mr. Talboys was robed in a dressing-gown of gray cloth, fastened about his waist with a girdle. It was a severe looking garment, and was perhaps the nearest approach to the toga to be obtained within the range of modern costume. He wore a buff waistcoat, a stiffly starched cambric cravat, and a faultless shirt collar. The cold gray of his dressing gown was almost the same as the cold gray of his eyes, and the pale buff of his waistcoat was the pale buff of his complexion.

Robert Audley had not expected to find Harcourt Talboys at all like George in his manners or disposition, but he had expected to see some family likeness between the father and the son. There was none. It would have been impossible to imagine any one more unlike George than the author of his existence. Robert scarcely wondered at the cruel letter he received from Mr. Talboys when he saw the writer of it. Such a man could scarcely have written otherwise.

There was a second person in the large room, toward whom Robert glanced after saluting Harcourt Talboys, doubtful how to proceed. This second person was a lady, who sat at the last of a range of four windows, employed with some needlework, the kind which is generally called plain work, and with a large wicker basket, filled with calicoes and flannels, standing by her.

The whole length of the room divided this lady from Robert, but he could see that she was young, and that she was like George Talboys.

“His sister!” he thought in that one moment, during which he ventured to glance away from the master of the house toward the female figure at the window. “His sister, no doubt. He was fond of her, I know. Surely, she is not utterly indifferent as to his fate?”

The lady half rose from her seat, letting her work, which was large and awkward, fall from her lap as she did so, and dropping a reel of cotton, which rolled away upon the polished oaken flooring beyond the margin of the Turkey carpet.

“Sit down, Clara,” said the hard voice of Mr. Talboys.

That gentleman did not appear to address his daughter, nor had his face been turned toward her when she rose. It seemed as if he had known it by some social magnetism peculiar to himself; it seemed, as his servants were apt disrespectfully to observe, as if he had eyes in the back of his head.

“Sit down, Clara,” he repeated, “and keep your cotton in your workbox.”

The lady blushed at this reproof, and stooped to look for the cotton. Mr. Robert Audley, who was unabashed by the stern presence of the master of the house, knelt on the carpet, found the reel, and restored it to its owner; Harcourt Talboys staring at the proceeding with an expression of unmitigated astonishment.

“Perhaps, Mr. —— Mr. Robert Audley!” he said, looking at the card which he held between his finger and thumb, “perhaps when you have finished looking for reels of cotton, you will be good enough to tell me to what I owe the honor of this visit?”

He waved his well-shaped hand with a gesture which might have been admired in the stately John Kemble; and the servant, understanding the gesture, brought forward a ponderous red-morocco chair.

The proceeding was so slow and solemn, that Robert had at first thought that something extraordinary was about to be done; but the truth dawned upon him at last, and he dropped into the massive chair.

“You may remain, Wilson,” said Mr. Talboys, as the servant was about to withdraw; “Mr. Audley would perhaps like coffee.”

Robert had eaten nothing that morning, but he glanced at the long expanse of dreary table-cloth, the silver tea and coffee equipage, the stiff splendor, and the very little appearance of any substantial entertainment, and he declined Mr. Talboys’ invitation.

“Mr. Audley will not take coffee, Wilson,” said the master of the house. “You may go.”

The man bowed and retired, opening and shutting the door as cautiously as if he were taking a liberty in doing it at all, or as if the respect due to Mr. Talboys demanded his walking straight through the oaken panel like a ghost in a German story.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys sat with his gray eyes fixed severely on his visitor, his elbows on the red-morocco arms of his chair, and his finger-tips joined. It was the attitude in which, had he been Junius Brutus, he would have sat at the trial of his son. Had Robert Audley been easily to be embarrassed, Mr. Talboys might have succeeded in making him feel so: as he would have sat with perfect tranquility upon an open gunpowder barrel lighting his cigar, he was not at all disturbed upon this occasion. The father’s dignity seemed a very small thing to him when he thought of the possible causes of the son’s disappearance.

“I wrote to you some time since, Mr. Talboys,” he said quietly, when he saw that he was expected to open the conversation.

Harcourt Talboys bowed. He knew that it was of his lost son that Robert came to speak. Heaven grant that his icy stoicism was the paltry affectation of a vain man, rather than the utter heartlessness which Robert thought it. He bowed across his finger-tips at his visitor. The trial had begun, and Junius Brutus was enjoying himself.

“I received your communication, Mr. Audley,” he said. “It is among other business letters: it was duly answered.”

“That letter concerned your son.”

There was a little rustling noise at the window where the lady sat, as Robert said this: he looked at her almost instantaneously, but she did not seem to have stirred. She was not working, but she was perfectly quiet.

“She’s as heartless as her father, I expect, though she is like George,” thought Mr. Audley.

“If your letter concerned the person who was once my son, perhaps, sir,” said Harcourt Talboys, “I must ask you to remember that I have no longer a son.”

“You have no reason to remind me of that, Mr. Talboys,” answered Robert, gravely; “I remember it only too well. I have fatal reason to believe that you have no longer a son. I have bitter cause to think that he is dead.”

It may be that Mr. Talboys’ complexion faded to a paler shade of buff as Robert said this; but he only elevated his bristling gray eyebrows and shook his head gently.

“No,” he said, “no, I assure you, no.”

“I believe that George Talboys died in the month of September.”

The girl who had been addressed as Clara, sat with work primly folded upon her lap, and her hands lying clasped together on her work, and never stirred when Robert spoke of his friend’s death. He could not distinctly see her face, for she was seated at some distance from him, and with her back to the window.

“No, no, I assure you,” repeated Mr. Talboys, “you labor under a sad mistake.”

“You believe that I am mistaken in thinking your son dead?” asked Robert.

“Most certainly,” replied Mr. Talboys, with a smile, expressive of the serenity of wisdom. “Most certainly, my dear sir. The disappearance was a very clever trick, no doubt, but it was not sufficiently clever to deceive me. You must permit me to understand this matter a little better than you, Mr. Audley, and you must also permit me to assure you of three things. In the first place, your friend is not dead. In the second place, he is keeping out of the way for the purpose of alarming me, of trifling with my feelings as a — as a man who was once his father, and of ultimately obtaining my forgiveness. In the third place, he will not obtain that forgiveness, however long he may please to keep out of the way; and he would therefore act wisely by returning to his ordinary residence and avocations without delay.”

“Then you imagine him to purposely hide himself from all who know him, for the purpose of —”

“For the purpose of influencing me,” exclaimed Mr. Talboys, who, taking a stand upon his own vanity, traced every event in life from that one center, and resolutely declined to look at it from any other point of view. “For the purpose of influencing me. He knew the inflexibility of my character; to a certain degree he was acquainted with me, and knew that all attempts at softening my decision, or moving me from the fixed purpose of my life, would fail. He therefore tried extraordinary means; he has kept out of the way in order to alarm me, and when after due time he discovers that he has not alarmed me, he will return to his old haunts. When he does so,” said Mr. Talboys, rising to sublimity, “I will forgive him. Yes, sir, I will forgive him. I shall say to him: You have attempted to deceive me, and I have shown you that I am not to be deceived; you have tried to frighten me, and I have convinced you that I am not to be frightened; you did not believe in my generosity, I will show you that I can be generous.”

Harcourt Talboys delivered himself of these superb periods with a studied manner, that showed they had been carefully composed long ago.

Robert Audley sighed as he heard them.

“Heaven grant that you may have an opportunity of saying this to your son, sir,” he answered sadly. “I am very glad to find that you are willing to forgive him, but I fear that you will never see him again upon this earth. I have a great deal to say to you upon this — this sad subject, Mr. Talboys; but I would rather say it to you alone,” he added, glancing at the lady in the window.

“My daughter knows my ideas upon this subject, Mr. Audley,” said Harcourt Talboys; “there is no reason why she should not hear all you have to say. Miss Clara Talboys, Mr. Robert Audley,” he added, waving his hand majestically.

The young lady bent her head in recognition of Robert’s bow.

“Let her hear it,” he thought. “If she has so little feeling as to show no emotion upon such a subject, let her hear the worst I have to tell.”

There was a few minutes’ pause, during which Robert took some papers from his pocket; among them the document which he had written immediately after George’s disappearance.

“I shall require all your attention, Mr. Talboys,” he said, “for that which I have to disclose to you is of a very painful nature. Your son was my very dear friend — dear to me for many reasons. Perhaps most of all dear, because I had known him and been with him through the great trouble of his life; and because he stood comparatively alone in the world — cast off by you who should have been his best friend, bereft of the only woman he had ever loved.”

“The daughter of a drunken pauper,” Mr. Talboys remarked, parenthetically.

“Had he died in his bed, as I sometimes thought be would,” continued Robert Audley, “of a broken heart, I should have mourned for him very sincerely, even though I had closed his eyes with my own hands, and had seen him laid in his quiet resting-place. I should have grieved for my old schoolfellow, and for the companion who had been dear to me. But this grief would have been a very small one compared to that which I feel now, believing, as I do only too firmly, that my poor friend has been murdered.”

“Murdered!”

The father and daughter simultaneously repeated the horrible word. The father’s face changed to a ghastly duskiness of hue; the daughter’s face dropped upon her clasped hands, and was never lifted again throughout the interview.

“Mr. Audley, you are mad!” exclaimed Harcourt Talboys; “you are mad, or else you are commissioned by your friend to play upon my feelings. I protest against this proceeding as a conspiracy, and I— I revoke my intended forgiveness of the person who was once my son!”

He was himself again as he said this. The blow had been a sharp one, but its effect had been momentary.

“It is far from my wish to alarm you unnecessarily, sir,” answered Robert. “Heaven grant that you may be right and I wrong. I pray for it, but I cannot think it — I cannot even hope it. I come to you for advice. I will state to you plainly and dispassionately the circumstances which have aroused my suspicions. If you say those suspicions are foolish and unfounded I am ready to submit to your better judgment. I will leave England; and I abandon my search for the evidence wanting to — to confirm my fears. If you say go on, I will go on.”

Nothing could be more gratifying to the vanity of Mr. Harcourt Talboys than this appeal. He declared himself ready to listen to all that Robert might have to say, and ready to assist him to the uttermost of his power.

He laid some stress upon this last assurance, deprecating the value of his advice with an affectation that was as transparent as his vanity itself.

Robert Audley drew his chair nearer to that of Mr. Talboys, and commenced a minutely detailed account of all that had occurred to George from the time of his arrival in England to the hour of his disappearance, as well as all that had occurred since his disappearance in any way touching upon that particular subject. Harcourt Talboys listened with demonstrative attention, now and then interrupting the speaker to ask some magisterial kind of question. Clara Talboys never once lifted her face from her clasped hands.

The hands of the clock pointed to a quarter past eleven when Robert began his story. The clock struck twelve as he finished.

He had carefully suppressed the names of his uncle and his uncle’s wife in relating the circumstances in which they had been concerned.

“Now, sir,” he said, when the story had been told, “I await your decision. You have heard my reasons for coming to this terrible conclusion. In what manner do these reasons influence you?”

“They don’t in any way turn me from my previous opinion,” answered Mr. Harcourt Talboys, with the unreasoning pride of an obstinate man. “I still think, as I thought before, that my son is alive, and that his disappearance is a conspiracy against myself. I decline to become the victim of that conspiracy,”

“And you tell me to stop?” asked Robert, solemnly.

“I tell you only this: If you go on, you go on for your own satisfaction, not for mine. I see nothing in what you have told me to alarm me for the safety of — your friend.”

“So be it, then!” exclaimed Robert, suddenly; “from this moment I wash my hands of this business. From this moment the purpose of my life shall be to forget it.”

He rose as he spoke, and took his hat from the table on which he had placed it. He looked at Clara Talboys. Her attitude had never changed since she had dropped her face upon her hands. “Good morning, Mr. Talboys,” he said, gravely. “God grant that you are right. God grant that I am wrong. But I fear a day will come when you will have reason to regret your apathy respecting the untimely fate of your only son.”

He bowed gravely to Mr. Harcourt Talboys and to the lady, whose face was hidden by her hands.

He lingered for a moment looking at Miss Talboys, thinking that she would look up, that she would make some sign, or show some desire to detain him.

Mr. Talboys rang for the emotionless servant, who led Robert off to the hall-door with the solemnity of manner which would have been in perfect keeping had he been leading him to execution.

“She is like her father,” thought Mr. Audley, as he glanced for the last time at the drooping head. “Poor George, you had need of one friend in this world, for you have had very few to love you.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31