The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

Will They Come?

THE housekeeper at Porthgenna Tower had just completed the necessary preparations for the reception of her master and mistress, at the time mentioned in Mrs. Frankland’s letter from St. Swithin’s-on-Sea, when she was startled by receiving a note sealed with black wax, and surrounded by a thick mourning border. The note briefly communicated the news of Captain Treverton’s death, and informed her that the visit of Mr. and Mrs. Frankland to Porthgenna was deferred for an indefinite period.

By the same post the builder, who was superintending the renovation of the west staircase, also received a letter, requesting him to send in his account as soon as the repairs on which he was then engaged were completed; and telling him that Mr. Frankland was unable, for the present, to give any further attention to the project for making the north rooms habitable. On the receipt of this communication, the builder withdrew himself and his men as soon as the west stairs and banisters had been made secure; and Porthgenna Tower was again left to the care of the housekeeper and her servant, without master or mistress, friends or strangers, to thread its solitary passages or enliven its empty rooms.

From this time eight months passed away, and the housekeeper heard nothing of her master and mistress, except through the medium of paragraphs in the local newspaper, which dubiously referred to the probability of their occupying the old house, and interesting themselves in the affairs of their tenantry, at no very distant period. Occasionally, too, when business took him to the post-town, the steward collected reports about his employers among the old friends and dependents of the Treverton family.

From these sources of information, the housekeeper was led to conclude that Mr. and Mrs. Frankland had returned to Long Beckley, after receiving the news of Captain Treverton’s death, and had lived there for some months in strict retirement. When they left that place, they moved (if the newspaper report was to be credited) to the neighborhood of London, and occupied the house of some friends who were traveling on the Continent. Here they must have remained for some time, for the new year came and brought no rumors of any change in their place of abode. January and February passed without any news of them. Early in March the steward had occasion to go to the post-town. When he returned to Porthgenna, he came back with a new report relating to Mr. and Mrs. Frankland, which excited the housekeeper’s interest in an extraordinary degree. In two different quarters, each highly respectable, the steward had heard it facetiously announced that the domestic responsibilities of his master and mistress were likely to be increased by their having a nurse to engage and a crib to buy at the end of the spring or the beginning of the summer. In plain English, among the many babies who might be expected to make their appearance in the world in the course of the next three months, there was one who would inherit the name of Frankland, and who (if the infant luckily turned out to be a boy) would cause a sensation throughout West Cornwall as heir to the Porthgenna estate.

In the next month, the month of April, before the housekeeper and the steward had done discussing their last and most important fragment of news, the postman made his welcome appearance at Porthgenna Tower, and brought another note from Mrs. Frankland. The housekeeper’s face brightened with unaccustomed pleasure and surprise as she read the first line. The letter announced that the long-deferred visit of her master and mistress to the old house would take place early in May, and that they might be expected to arrive any day from the first to the tenth of the month.

The reasons which had led the owners of Porthgenna to fix a period, at last, for visiting their country seat, were connected with certain particulars into which Mrs. Frankland had not thought it advisable to enter in her letter. The plain facts of the case were, that a little discussion had arisen between the husband and wife in relation to the next place of residence which they should select, after the return from the Continent of the friends whose house they were occupying. Mr. Frankland had very reasonably suggested returning again to Long Beckley — not only because all their oldest friends lived in the neighborhood, but also (and circumstances made this an important consideration) because the place had the advantage of possessing an excellent resident medical man. Unfortunately this latter advantage, so far from carrying any weight with it in Mrs. Frankland’s estimation, actually prejudiced her mind against the project of going to Long Beckley. She had always, she acknowledged, felt an unreasonable antipathy to the doctor there. He might be a very skillful, an extremely polite, and an undeniably respectable man; but she never had liked him, and never should, and she was resolved to oppose the plan for living at Long Beckley, because the execution of it would oblige her to commit herself to his care.

Two other places of residence were next suggested; but Mrs. Frankland had the same objection to oppose to both — in each case, the resident doctor would be a stranger to her, and she did not like the notion of being attended by a stranger. Finally, as she had all along anticipated, the choice of the future abode was left entirely to her own inclinations; and then, to the amazement of her husband and her friends, she immediately decided on going to Porthgenna. She had formed this strange project, and was now resolved on executing it, partly because she was more curious than ever to see the place again; partly because the doctor who had been with her mother in Mrs. Treverton’s last illness, and who had attended her through all her own little maladies when she was a child, was still living and practicing in the Porthgenna neighborhood. Her father and the doctor had been old cronies, and had met for years at the same chess-board every Saturday night. They had kept up their friendship, when circumstances separated them, by exchanges of Christmas presents every year; and when the sad news of the Captain’s death had reached Cornwall, the doctor had written a letter of sympathy and condolence to Rosamond, speaking in such terms of his former friend and patron as she could never forget. He must be a nice, fatherly old man now, the man of all others who was fittest, on every account, to attend her. In short, Mrs. Frankland was just as strongly prejudiced in favor of employing the Porthgenna doctor as she was prejudiced against employing the Long Beckley doctor; and she ended, as all young married women with affectionate husbands may, and do end, whenever they please — by carrying her own point, and having her own way.

On the first of May the west rooms were all ready for the reception of the master and mistress of the house. The beds were aired, the carpets cleaned, the sofas and chairs uncovered. The housekeeper put on her satin gown and her garnet brooch; the maid followed suit, at a respectful distance, in brown merino and a pink ribbon; and the steward, determining not to be outdone by the women, arrayed himself in a black brocaded waistcoat, which almost rivaled the gloom and grandeur of the housekeeper’s satin gown. The day wore on, evening closed in, bed-time came, and there were no signs yet of Mr. and Mrs. Frankland.

But the first was an early day on which to expect them. The steward thought so, and the housekeeper added that it would be foolish to feel disappointed, even if they did not arrive until the fifth. The fifth came, and still nothing happened. The sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth followed, and no sound of the expected carriage-wheels came near the lonely house.

On the tenth, and last day, the housekeeper, the steward, and the maid, all three rose earlier than usual; all three opened and shut doors, and went up and downstairs oftener than was needful; all three looked out perpetually toward the moor and the high road, and thought the view flatter and duller and emptier than ever it had appeared to them before. The day waned, the sunset came; darkness changed the perpetual looking-out of the housekeeper, the steward, and the maid into perpetual listening; ten o’clock struck, and still there was nothing to be heard when they went to the open window but the wearisome beating of the surf on the sandy shore.

The housekeeper began to calculate the time that would be consumed on the railway journey from London to Exeter, and on the posting journey afterward through Cornwall to Porthgenna. When had Mr. and Mrs. Franklin left Exeter? — that was the first question. And what delays might they have encountered afterward in getting horses? — that was the second. The housekeeper and the steward differed in debating these points; but both agreed that it was necessary to sit up until midnight, on the chance of the master and mistress arriving late. The maid, hearing her sentence of banishment from bed for the next two hours pronounced by the superior authorities, yawned and sighed mournfully — was reproved by the steward — and was furnished by the housekeeper with a book of hymns to read to keep up her spirits.

Twelve o’clock struck, and still the monotonous beating of the surf, varied occasionally by those loud, mysterious, cracking noises which make themselves heard at night in an old house, were the only audible sounds. The steward was dozing; the maid was fast asleep under the soothing influence of the hymns; the housekeeper was wide awake, with her eyes fixed on the window, and her head shaking forebodingly from time to time. At the last stroke of the clock she left her chair, listened attentively, and still hearing nothing, shook the maid irritably by the shoulder, and stamped on the floor to arouse the steward.

“We may go to bed,” she said. “They are not coming. This is the second time they have disappointed us. The first time the Captain’s death stood in the way. What stops them now? Another death? I shouldn’t wonder if it was.”

“Now I think of it, no more should I,” said the steward, ominously knitting his brows.

“Another death!” repeated the housekeeper, superstitiously. “If it is another death, I should take it, in their place, as a warning to keep away from the house.”

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