The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 5

A Council of Three.

ON the morning after the departure of Mrs. Jazeph, the news that she had been sent away from the Tiger’s Head by Mr. Frankland’s directions, reached the doctor’s residence from the inn just as he was sitting down to breakfast. Finding that the report of the nurse’s dismissal was not accompanied by any satisfactory explanation of the cause of it, Mr. Orridge refused to believe that her attendance on Mrs. Frankland had really ceased. However, although he declined to credit the news, he was so far disturbed by it that he finished his breakfast in a hurry, and went to pay his morning visit at the Tigers Head nearly two hours before the time at which he usually attended on his patient.

On his way to the inn he was met and stopped by the one waiter attached to the establishment. “I was just bringing you a message from Mr. Frankland, Sir,” said the man. “He wants to see you as soon as possible.”

“Is it true that Mrs. Frankland’s nurse was sent away last night by Mr. Frankland’s order?” asked Mr. Orridge.

“Quite true, Sir,” answered the waiter.

The doctor colored, and looked seriously discomposed. One of the most precious things we have about us — especially if we happen to belong to the medical profession — is our dignity. It struck Mr. Orridge that he ought to have been consulted before a nurse of his recommending was dismissed from her situation at a moment’s notice. Was Mr. Frankland presuming upon his position as a gentleman of fortune? The power of wealth may do much with impunity, but it is not privileged to offer any practical contradictions to a man’s good opinion of himself. Never had the doctor thought more disrespectfully of rank and riches; never had he been conscious of reflecting on republican principles with such absolute impartiality, as when he now followed the waiter in sullen silence to Mr. Frankland’s room.

“Who is that?” asked Leonard, when he heard the door open.

“Mr. Orridge, Sir,” said the waiter.

“Good-morning,” said Mr. Orridge, with self-asserting abruptness and familiarity.

Mr. Frankland was sitting in an arm-chair, with his legs crossed. Mr. Orridge carefully selected another arm-chair, and crossed his legs on the model of Mr. Frankland’s the moment he sat down. Mr. Frankland’s hands were in the pockets of his dressing gown. Mr. Orridge had no pockets, except in his coat-tails, which he could not conveniently get at; but he put his thumbs into the arm-holes of his waistcoat, and asserted himself against the easy insolence of wealth in that way. It made no difference to him — so curiously narrow is the range of a man’s perceptions when he is insisting on his own importance — that Mr. Frankland was blind, and consequently incapable of being impressed by the independence of his bearing. Mr. Orridge’s own dignity was vindicated in Mr. Orridge’s own presence, and that was enough.

“I am glad you have come so early, doctor,” said Mr. Frankland. “A very unpleasant thing happened here last night. I was obliged to send the new nurse away at a moment’s notice.”

“Were your, indeed!” said Mr. Orridge, defensively matching Mr. Frankland’s composure by an assumption of the completest indifference. “Aha! were you indeed?”

“If there had been time to send and consult you, of course I should have been only too glad to have done so,” continued Leonard; “but it was impossible to hesitate. We were all alarmed by a loud ringing of my wife’s bell; I was taken up to her room, and found her in a condition of the most violent agitation and alarm. She told me she had been dreadfully frightened by the new nurse; declared her conviction that the woman was not in her right senses; and entreated that I would get her out of the house with as little delay and as little harshness as possible. Under these circumstances, what could I do? I may seem to have been wanting in consideration toward you, in proceeding on my own sole responsibility; but Mrs. Frankland was in such a state of excitement that I could not tell what might be the consequence of opposing her, or of venturing on any delays; and after the difficulty had been got over, she would not hear of your being disturbed by a summons to the inn. I am sure you will understand this explanation, doctor, in the spirit in which I offer it.”

Mr. Orridge began to look a little confused. His solid substructure of independence was softening and sinking from under him. He suddenly found himself thinking of the cultivated manners of the wealthy classes; his thumbs slipped mechanically out of the arm-holes of his waistcoat; and, before he well knew what he was about, he was stammering his way through all the choicest intricacies of a complimentary and respectful reply.

“You will naturally be anxious to know what the new nurse said or did to frighten my wife so,” pursued Mr. Frankland. “I can tell you nothing in detail; for Mrs. Frankland was in such a state of nervous dread last night that I was really afraid of asking for any explanations; and I have purposely waited to make inquiries this morning until you could come here and accompany me upstairs. You kindly took so much trouble to secure this unlucky woman’s attendance, that you have a right to hear all that can be alleged against her, now she has been sent away. Considering all things, Mrs. Frankland is not so ill this morning as I was afraid she would be. She expects to see you with me; and, if you will kindly give me your arm, we will go up to her immediately.”

On entering Mrs. Frankland’s room, the doctor saw at a glance that she had been altered for the worse by the events of the past evening. He remarked that the smile with which she greeted her husband was the faintest and saddest he had seen on her face. Her eyes looked dim and weary, her skin was dry, her pulse was irregular. It was plain that she had passed a wakeful night, and that her mind was not at ease. She dismissed the inquiries of her medical attendant as briefly as possible, and led the conversation immediately, of her own accord, to the subject of Mrs. Jazeph.

“I suppose you have heard what has happened,” she said, addressing Mr. Orridge. “I can’t tell you how grieved I am about it. My conduct must look in your eyes, as well as in the eyes of the poor unfortunate nurse, the conduct of a capricious, unfeeling woman. I am ready to cry with sorrow and vexation when I remember how thoughtless I was, and how little courage I showed. Oh, Lenny, it is dreadful to hurt the feelings of anybody, but to have pained that unhappy, helpless woman as we pained her, to have made her cry so bitterly, to have caused her such humiliation and wretchedness — ”

“My dear Rosamond,” interposed Mr. Frankland, “you are lamenting effects, and forgetting causes altogether. Remember what a state of terror I found you in — there must have been some reason for that. Remember, too, how strong your conviction was that the nurse was out of her senses. Surely you have not altered your opinion on that point already?”

“It is that very opinion, love, that has been perplexing and worrying me all night. I can’t alter it; I feel more certain than ever that there must be something wrong with the poor creature’s intellect — and yet, when I remember how good-naturedly she came here to help me, and how anxious she seemed to make herself useful, I can’t help feeling ashamed of my suspicions; I can’t help reproaching myself for having been the cause of her dismissal last night. Mr. Orridge, did your notice anything in Mrs. Jazeph’s face or manner which might lead you to doubt whether her intellects were quite as sound as they ought to be?”

“Certainly not, Mrs. Frankland, or I should never have brought her here. I should not have been astonished to hear that she was suddenly taken ill, or that she had been seized with a fit, or that some slight accident, which would have frightened nobody else, had seriously frightened her; but to be told that there is anything approaching to derangement in her faculties, does, I own, fairly surprise me.”

“Can I have been mistaken?” exclaimed Rosamond, looking confusedly and self-distrustfully from Mr. Orridge to her husband. “Lenny! Lenny! if I have been mistaken, I shall never forgive myself.”

“Suppose you tell us, my dear, what led you to suspect that she was mad?” suggested Mr. Frankland.

Rosamond hesitated. “Things that are great in one’s own mind,” she said, “seem to get so little when they are put into words. I almost despair of making you understand what good reason I had to be frightened — and then, I am afraid, in trying to do justice to myself, that I may not do justice to the nurse.”

“Tell your own story, my love, in your own way, and you will be sure to tell it properly,” said Mr. Frankland.

“And pray remember,” added Mr. Orridge, “that I attach no real importance to my opinion of Mrs. Jazeph. I have not had time enough to form it. Your opportunities of observing her have been far more numerous than mine.”

Thus encouraged, Rosamond plainly and simply related all that had happened in her room on the previous evening, up to the time when she had closed her eyes and had heard the nurse approaching her bedside. Before repeating the extraordinary words that Mrs. Jazeph had whispered in her ear, she made a pause, and looked earnestly in her husband’s face.

“Why do you stop?” asked Mr. Frankland.

“I feel nervous and flurried still, Lenny, when I think of the words the nurse said to me, just before I rang the bell.”

“What did she say? Was it something you would rather not repeat?”

“No! no! I am most anxious to repeat it, and to hear what you think it means. As I have just told your, Lenny, we had been talking of Porthgenna, and of my project of exploring the north rooms as soon as I got there; and she had been asking many questions about the old house; appearing, I must say, to be unaccountably interested in it, considering she was a stranger.”

“Yes?”

“Well, when she came to the bedside, she knelt down close at my ear, and whispered all on a sudden — ‘When you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room!’”

Mr. Frankland started. “Is there such a room at Porthgenna?” he asked, eagerly.

“I never heard of it,” said Rosamond.

“Are you sure of that?” inquired Mr. Orridge. Up to this moment the doctor had privately suspected that Mrs. Frankland must have fallen asleep soon after he left her the evening before; and that the narrative which she was now relating, with the sincerest conviction of its reality, was actually derived from nothing but a series of vivid impressions produced by a dream.

“I am certain I never heard of such a room,” said Rosamond. “I left Porthgenna at five years old; and I had never heard of it then. My father often talked of the house in after-years; but I am certain that he never spoke of any of the rooms by any particular names; and I can say the same of your father, Lenny, whenever I was in his company after he had bought the place. Besides, don’t your remember, when the builder we sent down to survey the house wrote your that letter, he complained that there were no names of the rooms on the different keys to guide him in opening the doors, and that he could get no information from anybody at Porthgenna on the subject? How could I ever have heard of the Myrtle Room? Who was there to tell me?”

Mr. Orridge began to look perplexed; it seemed by no means so certain that Mrs. Frankland had been dreaming, after all.

“I have thought of nothing else,” said Rosamond to her husband, in low, whispering tones. “I can’t get those mysterious words off my mind. Feel my heart, Lenny — it is beating quicker than usual only with saying them over to you. They are such very strange, startling words. What do you think they mean?”

“Who is the woman who spoke them? — that is the most important question,” said Mr. Frankland.

“But why did she say the words to me? That is what I want to know — that is what I must know, if I am ever to feel easy in my mind again!”

“Gently, Mrs. Frankland, gently!” said Mr. Orridge. “For your child’s sake, as well as for your own, pray try to be calm, and to look at this very mysterious event as composedly as you can. If any exertions of mine can throw light upon this strange woman and her still stranger conduct, I will not spare them. I am going to-day to her mistress’s house to see one of the children; and, depend upon it, I will manage in some way to make Mrs. Jazeph explain herself. Her mistress shall hear every word that you have told me; and I can assure you she is just the sort of downright, resolute woman who will insist on having the whole mystery instantly cleared up.”

Rosamond’s weary eyes brightened at the doctor’s proposal. “Oh, go at once, Mr. Orridge!” she exclaimed, “go at once!”

“I have a great deal of medical work to do in the town first,” said the doctor, smiling at Mrs. Frankland’s impatience.

“Begin it, then, without losing another instant,” said Rosamond. “The baby is quite well, and I am quite well — we need not detain you a moment. And, Mr. Orridge, pray be as gentle and considerate as possible with the poor woman; and tell her that I never should have thought of sending her away if I had not been too frightened to know what I was about. And say how sorry I am this morning, and say — ”

“My dear, if Mrs. Jazeph is really not in her right senses, what would be the use of overwhelming her with all these excuses?” interposed Mr. Frankland. “It will be more to the purpose if Mr. Orridge will kindly explain and apologize for us to her mistress.”

“Go! Don’t stop to talk — pray go at once!” cried Rosamond, as the doctor attempted to reply to Mr. Frankland.

“Don’t be afraid; no time shall be lost,” said Mr. Orridge, opening the door. “But remember, Mrs. Frankland, I shall expect you to reward your ambassador, when he returns from his mission, by showing him that you are a little more quiet and composed than I find you this morning.” With that parting hint, the doctor took his leave.

“‘When you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room,’” repeated Mr. Frankland, thoughtfully. “Those are very strange words, Rosamond. Who can this woman really be? She is a perfect stranger to both of us; we are brought into contact with her by the merest accident; and we find that she knows something about our own house of which we were both perfectly ignorant until she chose to speak!”

“But the warning, Lenny — the warning, so pointedly and mysteriously addressed to me? Oh, if I could only go to sleep at once, and not wake again till the doctor comes back!”

“My love, try not to count too certainly on our being enlightened, even then. The woman may refuse to explain herself to anybody.”

“Don’t even hint at such a disappointment as that, Lenny — or I shall be wanting to get up, and go and question her myself!”

“Even if you could get up and question her, Rosamond, you might find it impossible to make her answer. She may be afraid of certain consequences which we cannot foresee; and, in that case, I can only repeat that it is more than probable she will explain nothing — or, perhaps, still more likely that she will coolly deny her own words altogether.”

“Then, Lenny, we will put them to the proof for ourselves.”

“And how can we do that?”

“By continuing our journey to Porthgenna the moment I am allowed to travel, and by leaving no stone unturned when we get there until we have discovered whether there is or is not any room in the old house that ever was known, at any time of its existence, by the name of the Myrtle Room.”

“And suppose it should turn out that there is such a room?” asked Mr. Frankland, beginning to feel the influence of his wife’s enthusiasm.

“If it does turn out so,” said Rosamond, her voice rising, and her face lighting up with its accustomed vivacity, “how can you doubt what will happen next? Am I not a woman? And have I not been forbidden to enter the Myrtle Room? Lenny! Lenny! Do you know so little of my half of humanity as to doubt what I should do the moment the room was discovered? My darling, as a matter of course, I should walk into it immediately.”

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