The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Book III.

Chapter 1

Timon of London.

TIMON of Athens retreated from an ungrateful world to a cavern by the sea-shore, vented his misanthropy in magnificent poetry, and enjoyed the honor of being called “My Lord.” Timon of London took refuge from his species in a detached house at Bayswater — expressed his sentiments in shabby prose — and was only addressed as “Mr. Treverton.” The one point of resemblance which it is possible to set against these points of contrast between the two Timons consisted in this: that their misanthropy was, at least, genuine. Both were incorrigible haters of mankind.

There is probably no better proof of the accuracy of that definition of man which describes him as an imitative animal, than is to be found in the fact that the verdict of humanity is always against any individual member of the species who presumes to differ from the rest. A man is one of a flock, and his wool must be of the general color. He must drink when the rest drink, and graze where the rest graze. Let him walk at noonday with perfect composure of countenance and decency of gait, with not the slightest appearance of vacancy in his eyes or wildness in his manner, from one end of Oxford Street to the other without his hat, and let every one of the thousands of hat-wearing people whom he passes be asked separately what they think of him, how many will abstain from deciding instantly that he is mad, on no other evidence than the evidence of his bare head? Nay, more; let him politely stop each one of those passengers, and let him explain in the plainest form of words, and in the most intelligible manner, that his head feels more easy and comfortable without a hat than with one, how many of his fellow mortals who decided that he was mad on first meeting him, will change their opinion when they part from him after hearing his explanation? In the vast majority of cases, the very explanation itself would be accepted as an excellent additional proof that the intellect of the hatless man was indisputably deranged.

Starting at the beginning of the march of life out of step with the rest of the mortal regiment, Andrew Treverton paid the penalty of his irregularity from his earliest days. He was a phenomenon in the nursery, a butt at school, and a victim at college. The ignorant nurse-maid reported him as a queer child; the learned school-master genteelly varied the phrase, and described him as an eccentric boy; the college tutor, harping on the same string, facetiously likened his head to a roof, and said there was a slate loose in it. When a slate is loose, if nobody fixes it in time, it ends by falling off. In the roof of a house we view that consequence as a necessary result of neglect; in the roof of a man’s head we are generally very much shocked and surprised by it.

Overlooked in some directions and misdirected in others, Andrew’s uncouth capacities for good tried helplessly to shape themselves. The better side of his eccentricity took the form of friendship. He became violently and unintelligibly fond of one among his school-fellows — a boy who treated him with no especial consideration in the play-ground, and who gave him no particular help in the class. Nobody could discover the smallest reason for it, but it was nevertheless a notorious fact that Andrew’s pocket-money was always at this boy’s service, that Andrew ran about after him like a dog, and that Andrew over and over again took the blame and punishment on his own shoulders which ought to have fallen on the shoulders of his friend. When, a few years afterward, that friend went to college, the lad petitioned to be sent to college too, and attached himself there more closely than ever to the strangely chosen comrade of his school-boy days. Such devotion as this must have touched any man possessed of ordinary generosity of disposition. It made no impression whatever on the inherently base nature of Andrew’s friend. After three years of intercourse at college — intercourse which was all selfishness on one side and all self-sacrifice on the other — the end came, and the light was let in cruelly on Andrew’s eyes. When his purse grew light in his friend’s hand, and when his acceptances were most numerous on his friend’s bills, the brother of his honest affection, the hero of his simple admiration, abandoned him to embarrassment, to ridicule, and to solitude, without the faintest affectation of penitence — without so much even as a word of farewell.

He returned to his father’s house, a soured man at the outset of life — returned to be upbraided for the debts that he had contracted to serve the man who had heartlessly outraged and shamelessly cheated him. He left home in disgrace to travel on a small allowance. The travels were protracted, and they ended, as such travels often do, in settled expatriation. The life he led, the company he kept, during his long residence abroad, did him permanent and fatal harm. When he at last returned to England, he presented himself in the most hopeless of all characters — the character of a man who believes in nothing. At this period of his life, his one chance for the future lay in the good results which his brother’s influence over him might have produced. The two had hardly resumed their intercourse of early days, when the quarrel occasioned by Captain Treverton’s marriage broke it off forever. From that time, for all social interests and purposes, Andrew was a lost man. From that time he met the last remonstrances that were made to him by the last friends who took any interest in his fortunes always with the same bitter and hopeless form of reply: “My dearest friend forsook and cheated me,” he would say. “My only brother has quarreled with me for the sake of a play-actress. What am I to expect of the rest of mankind after that? I have suffered twice for my belief in others — I will never suffer a third time. The wise man is the man who does not disturb his heart at its natural occupation of pumping blood through his body. I have gathered my experience abroad and at home, and have learned enough to see though the delusions of life which look like realities to other men’s eyes. My business in this world is to eat, drink, sleep, and die. Everything else is superfluity — and I have done with it.”

The few people who ever cared to inquire about him again, after being repulsed by such an avowal as this, heard of him three or four years after his brother’s marriage in the neighborhood of Bayswater. Local report described him as having bought the first cottage he could find which was cut off from other houses by a wall all round it. It was further rumored that he was living like a miser; that he had got an old man-servant, named Shrowl, who was even a greater enemy to mankind than himself; that he allowed no living soul, not even an occasional charwoman, to enter the house; that he was letting his beard grow, and that he had ordered his servant Shrowl to follow his example. In the year eighteen hundred and forty-four, the fact of a man’s not shaving was regarded by the enlightened majority of the English nation as a proof of unsoundness of intellect. At the present time Mr. Treverton’s beard would only have interfered with his reputation for respectability. Seventeen years ago it was accepted as so much additional evidence in support of the old theory that his intellects were deranged. He was at that very time, as his stock-broker could have testified, one of the sharpest men of business in London; he could argue on the wrong side of any question with an acuteness of sophistry and sarcasm that Dr. Johnson himself might have envied; he kept his household accounts right to a farthing — but what did these advantages avail him, in the estimation of his neighbors, when he presumed to live on another plan than theirs, and when he wore a hairy certificate of lunacy on the lower part of his face? We have advanced a little in the matter of partial toleration of beards since that time; but we have still a good deal of ground to get over. In the present year of progress, eighteen hundred and sixty-one, would the most trustworthy banker’s clerk in the whole metropolis have the slightest chance of keeping his situation if he left off shaving his chin?

Common report, which calumniated Mr. Treverton as mad, had another error to answer for in describing him as a miser. He saved more than two-thirds of the income derived from his comfortable fortune, not because he liked hoarding up money, but because he had no enjoyment of the comforts and luxuries which money is spent in procuring. To do him justice, his contempt for his own wealth was quite as hearty as his contempt for the wealth of his neighbors. Thus characteristically wrong in endeavoring to delineate his character, report was, nevertheless, for once in a way, inconsistently right in describing his manner of life. It was true that he had bought the first cottage he could find that was secluded within its own walls — -true that nobody was allowed, on any pretense whatever, to enter his rooms — and true that he had met with a servant, who was even bitterer against all mankind than himself, in the person of Mr. Shrowl.

The life these two led approached as nearly to the existence of the primitive man (or savage) as the surrounding conditions of civilization would allow. Admitting the necessity of eating and drinking, the first object of Mr. Treverton’s ambition was to sustain life with the least possible dependence on the race of men who professed to supply their neighbors’ bodily wants, and who, as he conceived, cheated them infamously on the strength of their profession.

Having a garden at the back of the house, Timon of London dispensed with the green-grocer altogether by cultivating his own vegetables. There was no room for growing wheat, or he would have turned farmer also on his own account; but he could outwit the miller and the baker, at any rate, by buying a sack of corn, grinding it in his own hand-mill, and giving the flour to Shrowl to make into bread. On the same principle, the meat for the house was bought wholesale of the City salesmen — the master and servant eating as much of it in the fresh state as they could, salting the rest, and setting butchers at defiance. As for drink, neither brewer nor publican ever had the chance of extorting a farthing from Mr. Treverton’s pocket. He and Shrowl were satisfied with beer — and they brewed for themselves. With bread, vegetables, meat, and malt liquor, these two hermits of modern days achieved the great double purpose of keeping life in and keeping the tradesmen out.

Eating like primitive men, they lived in all other respects like primitive men also. They had pots, pans, and pipkins, two deal tables, two chairs, two old sofas, two short pipes, and two long cloaks. They had no stated meal-times, no carpets and bedsteads, no cabinets, book-cases, or ornamental knickknacks of any kind, no laundress, and no charwoman. When either of the two wanted to eat and drink, he cut off his crust of bread, cooked his bit of meat, drew his drop of beer, without the slightest reference to the other. When either of the two thought he wanted a clean shirt, which was very seldom, he went and washed one for himself. When either of the two discovered that any part of the house was getting very dirty indeed, he took a bucket of water and a birch-broom, and washed the place out like a dog-kennel. And, lastly, when either of the two wanted to go to sleep, he wrapped himself up in his cloak, lay down on one of the sofas, and took what repose he required, early in the evening or late in the morning, just as he pleased.

When there was no baking, brewing, gardening, or cleaning to be done, the two sat down opposite each other, and smoked for hours, generally without uttering a word. Whenever they did speak, they quarreled. Their ordinary dialogue was a species of conversational prize-fight, beginning with a sarcastic affectation of good-will on either side, and ending in hearty exchanges of violent abuse — just as the boxers go through the feeble formality of shaking hands before they enter on the serious practical business of beating each other’s faces out of all likeness to the image of man. Not having so many disadvantages of early refinement and education to contend against as his master, Shrowl generally won the victory in these engagements of the tongue. Indeed, though nominally the servant, he was really the ruling spirit in the house — acquiring unbounded influence over his master by dint of outmarching Mr. Treverton in every direction on his own ground. Shrowl’s was the harshest voice; Shrowl’s were the bitterest sayings; and Shrowl’s was the longest beard. The surest of all retributions is the retribution that lies in wait for a man who boasts. Mr. Treverton was rashly given to boasting of his independence, and when retribution over-took him it assumed a personal form, and bore the name of Shrowl.

 

On a certain morning, about three weeks after Mrs. Frankland had written to the housekeeper at Porthgenna Tower to mention the period at which her husband and herself might be expected there, Mr. Treverton descended, with his sourest face and his surliest manner, from the upper regions of the cottage to one of the rooms on the ground-floor, which civilized tenants would probably have called the parlor. Like his elder brother, he was a tall, well-built man; but his bony, haggard, sallow face bore not the slightest resemblance to the handsome, open, sunburnt face of the Captain. No one seeing them together could possibly have guessed that they were brothers — so completely did they differ in expression as well as in feature. The heartaches that he had suffered in youth; the reckless, wandering, dissipated life that he had led in manhood; the petulance, the disappointment, and the physical exhaustion of his latter days, had so wasted and worn him away that he looked his brother’s elder by almost twenty years. With unbrushed hair and unwashed face, with a tangled gray beard, and an old, patched, dirty flannel dressing-gown that hung about him like a sack, this descendant of a wealthy and ancient family looked as if his birthplace had been the work-house, and his vocation in life the selling of cast-off clothes.

It was breakfast-time with Mr. Treverton — that is to say, it was the time at which he felt hungry enough to think about eating something. In the same position over the mantel-piece in which a looking-glass would have been placed in a household of ordinary refinement, there hung in the cottage of Timon of London a side of bacon. On the deal table by the fire stood half a loaf of heavy-looking brown bread; in a corner of the room was a barrel of beer, with two battered pewter pots hitched onto nails in the wall above it; and under the grate lay a smoky old gridiron, left just as it had been thrown down when last used and done with. Mr. Treverton took a greasy clasp-knife out of the pocket of his dressing-gown, cut off a rasher of bacon, jerked the gridiron onto the fire, and began to cook his breakfast. He had just turned the rasher, when the door opened, and Shrowl entered the room, with his pipe in his mouth, bent on the same eating errand as his master.

In personal appearance, Shrowl was short, fat, flabby, and perfectly bald, except at the back of his head, where a ring of bristly iron-gray hair projected like a collar that had got hitched out of its place. To make amends for the scantiness of his hair, the beard which he had cultivated by his master’s desire grew far over his cheeks, and drooped down on his chest in two thick jagged peaks. He wore a very old long-tailed dress-coat, which he had picked up a bargain in Petticoat Lane — a faded yellow shirt, with a large torn frill — velveteen trowsers, turned up at the ankles — and Blucher boots that had never been blacked since the day when they last left the cobbler’s stall. His color was unhealthy florid, his thick lips curled upward with a malicious grin, and his eyes were the nearest approach, in form and expression, to the eyes of a bull terrier which those features are capable of achieving when they are placed in the countenance of a man. Any painter wanting to express strength, insolence, ugliness, coarseness, and cunning in the face and figure of one and the same individual, could have discovered no better model for the purpose, all the world over, than he might have found in the person of Mr. Shrowl.

Neither master nor servant exchanged a word or took the smallest notice of each other on first meeting. Shrowl stood stolidly contemplative, with his hands in his pockets, waiting for his turn at the gridiron. Mr. Treverton finished his cooking, took his bacon to the table, and, cutting a crust of bread, began to eat his breakfast. When he had disposed of the first mouthful, he condescended to look up at Shrowl, who was at that moment opening his clasp-knife and approaching the side of bacon with slouching steps and sleepily greedy eyes.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Mr. Treverton, pointing with indignant surprise at Shrowl’s breast. “You ugly brute, you’ve got a clean shirt on!”

“Thankee, Sir, for noticing it,” said Shrowl, with a sarcastic affectation of humility. “This is a joyful occasion, this is. I couldn’t do no less than put a clean shirt on, when it’s my master’s birthday. Many happy returns, Sir. Perhaps you thought I should forget that to-day was your birthday? Lord bless your sweet face, I wouldn’t have forgot it on any account. How old are you to-day? It’s a long time ago, Sir, since you was a plump smiling little boy, with a frill round your neck, and marbles in your pocket, and trowsers and waistcoat all in one, and kisses and presents from Pa and Ma and uncle and aunt, on your birthday. Don’t you be afraid of me wearing out this shirt by too much washing. I mean to put it away in lavender against your next birthday; or against your funeral, which is just as likely at your time of life — isn’t it, Sir?”

“Don’t waste a clean shirt on my funeral,” retorted Mr. Treverton. “I hav’n’t left you any money in my will, Shrowl. You’ll be on your way to the work-house when I’m on my way to the grave.”

“Have you really made your will at last, Sir?” inquired Shrowl, pausing, with an appearance of the greatest interest, in the act of cutting off his slice of bacon. “I humbly beg pardon, but I always thought you was afraid to do it.”

The servant had evidently touched intentionally on one of the master’s sore points. Mr. Treverton thumped his crust of bread on the table, and looked up angrily at Shrowl.

“Afraid of making my will, you fool!” said he. “I don’t make it, and I won’t make it, on principle.”

Shrowl slowly sawed off his slice of bacon, and began to whistle a tune.

“On principle,” repeated Mr. Treverton. “Rich men who leave money behind them are the farmers who raise the crop of human wickedness. When a man has any spark of generosity in his nature, if you want to put it out, leave him a legacy. When a man is bad, if you want to make him worse, leave him a legacy. If you want to collect a number of men together for the purpose of perpetuating corruption and oppression on a large scale, leave them a legacy under the form of endowing a public charity. If you want to give a woman the best chance in the world of getting a bad husband, leave her a legacy. Make my will! I have a pretty strong dislike of my species, Shrowl, but I don’t quite hate mankind enough yet to do such mischief among them as that!” Ending his diatribe in those words, Mr. Treverton took down one of the battered pewter pots, and refreshed himself with a pint of beer.

Shrowl shifted the gridiron to a clear place in the fire, and chuckled sarcastically.

“Who the devil would you have me leave my money to?” cried Mr. Treverton, overhearing him. “To my brother, who thinks me a brute now; who would think me a fool then; and who would encourage swindling, anyhow, by spending all my money among doxies and strolling players? To the child of that player-woman, whom I have never set eyes on, who has been brought up to hate me, and who would turn hypocrite directly by pretending, for decency’s sake, to be sorry for my death? To you, you human baboon! — you, who would set up an usury office directly, and prey upon the widow, the fatherless, and the unfortunate generally, all over the world? Your good health, Mr. Shrowl! I can laugh as well as you — especially when I know I’m not going to leave you sixpence.”

Shrowl, in his turn, began to get a little irritated now. The jeering civility which he had chosen to assume on first entering the room gave place to his habitual surliness of manner and his natural growling intonation of voice.

“You just let me alone — will you?” he said, sitting down sulkily to his breakfast. “I’ve done joking for to-day; suppose you finish too. What’s the use of talking nonsense about your money? You must leave it to somebody.”

“Yes, I will,” said Mr. Treverton. “I will leave it, as I have told you over and over again, to the first Somebody I can find who honestly despises money, and who can’t be made the worse, therefore, by having it.”

“That means nobody,” grunted Shrowl.

“I know it does!” retorted his master.

Before Shrowl could utter a word of rejoinder, there was a ring at the gate-bell of the cottage.

“Go out,” said Mr. Treverton, “and see what that is. If it’s a woman visitor, show her what a scarecrow you are, and frighten her away. If it’s a man visitor — ”

“If it’s a man visitor,” interposed Shrowl, “I’ll punch his head for interrupting me at my breakfast.”

Mr. Treverton filled and lit his pipe during his servant’s absence. Before the tobacco was well alight, Shrowl returned, and reported a man visitor.

“Did you punch his head?” asked Mr. Treverton.

“No,” said Shrowl. “I picked up his letter. He poked it under the gate and went away. Here it is.”

The letter was written on foolscap paper, superscribed in a round legal hand. As Mr. Treverton opened it, two slips cut from newspapers dropped out. One fell on the table before which he was sitting; the other fluttered to the floor. This last slip Shrowl picked up and looked over its contents, without troubling himself to go through the ceremony of first asking leave.

After slowly drawing in and slowly puffing out again one mouthful of tobacco-smoke, Mr. Treverton began to read the letter. As his eye fell on the first lines, his lips began to work round the mouth-piece of the pipe in a manner that was very unusual with him. The letter was not long enough to require him to turn over the first leaf of it — it ended at the bottom of the opening sheet. He read it down to the signature — then looked up to the address, and went through it again from the beginning. His lips still continued to work round the mouth-piece of the pipe, but he smoked no more. When he had finished the second reading, he set the letter down very gently on the table, looked at his servant with an unaccustomed vacancy in the expression of his eyes, and took the pipe out of his mouth with a hand that trembled a little.

“Shrowl,” he said, very quietly, “my brother, the Captain, is drowned.”

“I know he is,” answered Shrowl, without looking up from the newspaper-slip. “I’m reading about it here.”

“The last words my brother said to me when we quarreled about the player-woman,” continued Mr. Treverton, speaking as much to himself as to his servant, “were that I should die without one kind feeling in my heart toward any living creature.”

“So you will,” muttered Shrowl, turning the slip over to see if there was anything worth reading at the back of it.

“I wonder what he thought about me when he was dying?” said Mr. Treverton, abstractly, taking up the letter again from the table.

“He didn’t waste a thought on you or anybody else,” remarked Shrowl. “If he thought at all, he thought about how he could save his life. When he had done thinking about that, he had done living too.” With this expression of opinion Mr. Shrowl went to the beer-barrel, and drew his morning draught.

“Damn that player-woman!” muttered Mr. Treverton. As he said the words his face darkened and his lips closed firmly. He smoothed the letter out on the table. There seemed to be some doubt in his mind whether he had mastered all its contents yet — some idea that there ought to be more in it than he had yet discovered. In going over it for the third time, he read it to himself aloud and very slowly, as if he was determined to fix every separate word firmly in his memory. This was the letter:

 

“SIR, — As the old legal adviser and faithful friend of your family, I am desired by Mrs. Frankland, formerly Miss Treverton, to acquaint you with the sad news of your brother’s death. This deplorable event occurred on board the ship of which he was captain, during a gale of wind in which the vessel was lost on a reef of rocks off the island of Antigua. I inclose a detailed account of the shipwreck, extracted from the Times, by which you will see that your brother died nobly in the performance of his duty toward the officers and men whom he commanded. I also send a slip from the local Cornish paper, containing a memoir of the deceased gentleman.

“Before closing this communication, I must add that no will has been found, after the most rigorous search, among the papers of the late Captain Treverton. Having disposed, as you know, of Porthgenna, the only property of which he was possessed at the time of his death was personal property, derived from the sale of his estate; and this, in consequence of his dying intestate, will go in due course of law to his daughter, as his nearest of kin.

“I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

“ALEXANDER NIXON.”

 

The newspaper-slip, which had fallen on the table, contained the paragraph from the Times. The slip from the Cornish paper, which had dropped to the floor, Shrowl poked under his master’s eyes, in a fit of temporary civility, as soon as he had done reading it. Mr. Treverton took not the slightest notice either of the one paragraph or the other. He still sat looking at the letter, even after he had read it for the third time.

“Why don’t you give the strip of print a turn, as well as the sheet of writing?” asked Shrowl. “Why don’t you read about what a great man your brother was, and what a good life he led, and what a wonderful handsome daughter he’s left behind him, and what a capital marriage she’s made along with the man that’s owner of your old family estate? She don’t want your money now, at any rate! The ill wind that blowed her father’s ship on the rocks has blowed forty thousand pounds of good into her lap. Why don’t you read about it? She and her husband have got a better house in Cornwall than you have got here. Ain’t you glad of that? They were going to have repaired the place from top to bottom for your brother to go and live along with ’em in clover when he came back from sea. Who will ever repair a place for you? I wonder whether your niece would knock the old house about for your sake, now, if you was to clean yourself up and go and ask her?”

At the last question, Shrowl paused in the work of aggravation — not for want of more words, but for want of encouragement to utter them. For the first time since they had kept house together, he had tried to provoke his master and had failed. Mr. Treverton listened, or appeared to listen, without moving a muscle — without the faintest change to anger in his face. The only words he said when Shrowl had done were these two —

“Go out!”

Shrowl was not an easy man to move, but he absolutely changed color when he heard himself suddenly ordered to leave the room.

“Go out!” reiterated Mr. Treverton. “And hold your tongue henceforth and forever about my brother and my brother’s daughter. I never have set eyes upon the player-woman’s child, and I never will. Hold your tongue — leave me alone — go out!”

“I’ll be even with him for this,” thought Shrowl as he slowly withdrew from the room.

When he had closed the door, he listened outside of it, and heard Mr. Treverton push aside his chair, and walk up and down, talking to himself. Judging by the confused words that escaped him, Shrowl concluded that his thoughts were still running on the “player-woman” who had set his brother and himself at variance. He seemed to feel a barbarous sense of relief in venting his dissatisfaction with himself after the news of Captain Treverton’s death, on the memory of the woman whom he hated so bitterly, and on the child whom she had left behind her.

After a while the low rumbling tones of his voice ceased altogether. Shrowl peeped through the key-hole, and saw that he was reading the newspaper-slips which contained the account of the shipwreck and the Memoir of his brother. The latter adverted to some of those family particulars which the vicar of Long Beckley had mentioned to his guest; and the writer of the Memoir concluded by expressing a hope that the bereavement which Mr. and Mrs. Frankland had suffered would not interfere with their project for repairing Porthgenna Tower, after they had gone the length already of sending a builder to survey the place. Something in the wording of that paragraph seemed to take Mr. Treverton’s memory back to his youth-time when the old family house had been his home. He whispered a few words to himself which gloomily referred to the days that were gone, rose from his chair impatiently, threw both the newspaper-slips into the fire, watched them while they were burning, and sighed when the black gossamer ashes floated upward on the draught, and were lost in the chimney.

The sound of that sigh startled Shrowl as the sound of a pistol-shot might have startled another man. His bull-terrier eyes opened wide in astonishment, and he shook his head ominously as he walked away from the door.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/dead_secret/book3.1.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29