The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 6

Another Surprise.

WITH all the haste he could make, it was one o’clock in the afternoon before Mr. Orridge’s professional avocations allowed him to set forth in his gig for Mrs. Norbury’s house. He drove there with such good-will that he accomplished the half-hour’s journey in twenty minutes. The footman having heard the rapid approach of the gig, opened the hall door the instant the horse was pulled up before it, and confronted the doctor with a smile of malicious satisfaction.

“Well,” said Mr. Orridge, bustling into the hall, “you were all rather surprised last night when the housekeeper came back, I suppose?”

“Yes, Sir, we certainly were surprised when she came back last night,” answered the footman; “but we were still more surprised when she went away again this morning.”

“Went away! You don’t mean to say she is gone?”

“Yes, I do, Sir — she has lost her place, and gone for good.” The footman smiled again, as he made that reply; and the housemaid, who happened to be on her way downstairs while he was speaking, and to hear what he said, smiled too. Mrs. Jazeph had evidently been no favorite in the servants’ hall.

Amazement prevented Mr. Orridge from uttering another word. Hearing no more questions asked, the footman threw open the door of the breakfast-parlor, and the doctor followed him into the room. Mrs. Norbury was sitting near the window in a rigidly upright attitude, inflexibly watching the proceedings of her invalid child over a basin of beef-tea.

“I know what you are going to talk about before you open your lips,” said the outspoken lady. “But just look to the child first, and say what you have to say on that subject, if you please, before you enter on any other.”

The child was examined, was pronounced to be improving rapidly, and was carried away by the nurse to lie down and rest a little. As soon as the door of the room had closed, Mrs. Norbury abruptly addressed the doctor, interrupting him, for the second time, just as he was about to speak.

“Now, Mr. Orridge,” she said, “I want to tell you something at the outset. I am a remarkably just woman, and I have no quarrel with you. You are the cause of my having been treated with the most audacious insolence by three people — but you are the innocent cause, and, therefore, I don’t blame you.”

“I am really at a loss,” Mr. Orridge began, “quite at a loss, I assure you — ”

“To know what I mean?” said Mrs. Norbury. “I will soon tell you. Were you not the original cause of my sending my housekeeper to nurse Mrs. Frankland?”

“Yes.” Mr. Orridge could not hesitate to acknowledge that.

“Well,” pursued Mrs. Norbury, “and the consequence of my sending her is, as I said before, that I am treated with unparalleled insolence by no less than three people. Mrs. Frankland takes an insolent whim into her head, and affects to be frightened by my housekeeper. Mr. Frankland shows an insolent readiness to humor that whim, and hands me back my housekeeper as if she was a bad shilling; and last, and worst of all, my housekeeper herself insults me to my face as soon as she comes back — insults me, Mr. Orridge to that degree that I give her twelve hours’ notice to leave the place. Don’t begin to defend yourself! I know all about it; I know you had nothing to do with sending her back; I never said you had. All the mischief you have done is innocent mischief. I don’t blame you, remember that — whatever you do, Mr. Orridge, remember that!”

“I had no idea of defending myself,” said the doctor, “for I have no reason to do so. But you surprise me beyond all power of expression when you tell me that Mrs. Jazeph treated you with incivility.”

“Incivility!” exclaimed Mrs. Norbury. “Don’t talk about incivility — it’s not the word. Impudence is the word — brazen impudence. The only charitable thing to say of Mrs. Jazeph is that she is not right in her head. I never noticed anything odd about her myself; but the servants used to laugh at her for being as timid in the dark as a child, and for often running away to her candle in her own room when they declined to light the lamps before the night had fairly set in. I never troubled my head about this before; but I thought of it last night, I can tell you, when I found her looking me fiercely in the face, and contradicting me flatly the moment I spoke to her.”

“I should have thought she was the very last woman in the world to misbehave herself in that way,” answered the doctor.

“Very well. Now hear what happened when she came back last night,” said Mrs. Norbury. “She got here just as we were going upstairs to bed. Of course, I was astonished; and, of course, I called her into the drawing-room for an explanation. There was nothing very unnatural in that course of proceeding, I suppose? Well, I noticed that her eyes were swollen and red, and that her looks were remarkably wild and queer; but I said nothing, and waited for the explanation. All that she had to tell me was that something she had unintentionally said or done had frightened Mrs. Frankland, and that Mrs. Frankland’s husband had sent her away on the spot. I disbelieved this at first — and very naturally, I think — but she persisted in the story, and answered all my questions by declaring that she could tell me nothing more. ‘So then,’ I said, ‘I am to believe that, after I have inconvenienced myself by sparing you, and after you have inconvenienced yourself by undertaking the business of nurse, I am to be insulted, and you are to be insulted, by your being sent away from Mrs. Frankland on the very day when you get to her, because she chooses to take a whim into her head?’ ‘I never accused Mrs. Frankland of taking a whim into her head,’ said Mrs. Jazeph, and stares me straight in the face, with such a look as I never saw in her eyes before, after all my five years’ experience of her. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked, giving her back her look, I can promise you. ‘Are you base enough to take the treatment you have received in the light of a favor?’ ‘I am just enough,’ said Mrs. Jazeph, as sharp as lightning, and still with that same stare straight at me — ‘I am just enough not to blame Mrs. Frankland.’ ‘Oh, you are, are you?’ I said. ‘Then all I can tell you is, that I feel this insult, if you don’t; and that I consider Mrs. Frankland’s conduct to be the conduct of an ill-bred, impudent, capricious, unfeeling woman.’ Mrs. Jazeph takes a step up to me — takes a step, I give you my word of honor — and says distinctly, in so many words, ‘Mrs. Frankland is neither ill-bred, impudent, capricious, nor unfeeling.’ ‘Do you mean to contradict me, Mrs. Jazeph?’ I asked. ‘I mean to defend Mrs. Frankland from unjust imputations,’ says she. Those were her words, Mr. Orridge — on my honor, as a gentlewoman, those were exactly her words.”

The doctors face expressed the blankest astonishment. Mrs. Norbury went on —

“I was in a towering passion — I don’t mind confessing that, Mr. Orridge — but I kept it down. ‘Mrs. Jazeph,’ I said, ‘this is language that I am not accustomed to, and that I certainly never expected to hear from your lips. Why you should take it on yourself to defend Mrs. Frankland for treating us both with contempt, and to contradict me for resenting it, I neither know nor care to know. But I must tell you, in plain words, that I will be spoken to by every person in my employment, from my housekeeper to my scullery-maid, with respect. I would have given warning on the spot to any other servant in this house who had behaved to me as you have behaved.’ She tried to interrupt me there, but I would not allow her. ‘No;’ I said, ‘you are not to speak to me just yet; you are to hear me out. Any other servant, I tell you again, should have left this place to-morrow morning; but I will be more than just to you. I will give you the benefit of your five years’ good conduct in my service. I will leave you the rest of the night to get cool, and to reflect on what has passed between us; and I will not expect you to make the proper apologies to me until the morning You see, Mr. Orridge, I was determined to act justly and kindly; I was ready to make allowances — and what do you think she said in return? ‘I am willing to make any apologies, ma’am, for offending you,’ she said, ‘without the delay of a single minute; but, whether it is to-night, or whether it is to-morrow morning, I cannot stand by silent when I hear Mrs. Frankland charged with acting unkindly, uncivilly, or improperly toward me or toward anyone.’ ‘Do you tell me that deliberately, Mrs. Jazeph?’ I asked. ‘I tell it you sincerely, ma’am,’ she answered; ‘and I am very sorry to be obliged to do so.’ ‘Pray don’t trouble yourself to be sorry,’ I said, ‘for you may consider yourself no longer in my service. I will order the steward to pay you the usual month’s wages instead of the month’s warning the first thing to-morrow; and I beg that you will leave the house as soon as you conveniently can afterward.’ ‘I will leave to-morrow, ma’am,’ says she, ‘but without troubling the steward. I beg respectfully, and with many thanks for your past kindness, to decline taking a month’s money which I have not earned by a month’s service.’ And thereupon she courtesies and goes out. That is, word for word, what passed between us, Mr. Orridge. Explain the woman’s conduct in your own way, if you can. I say that it is utterly incomprehensible, unless you agree with me that she was not in her right senses when she came back to this house last night.”

The doctor began to think, after what he had just heard, that Mrs. Frankland’s suspicions in relation to the new nurse were not quite so unfounded as he had been at first disposed to consider them. He wisely refrained, however, from complicating matters by giving utterance to what he thought; and, after answering Mrs. Norbury in a few vaguely polite words, endeavored to soothe her irritation against Mr. and Mrs. Frankland by assuring her that he came as the bearer of apologies from both husband and wife, for the apparent want of courtesy and consideration in their conduct which circumstances had made inevitable. The offended lady, however, absolutely refused to be propitiated. She rose up, and waved her hand with an air of great dignity.

“I cannot hear a word more from you, Mr. Orridge,” she said; “I cannot receive any apologies which are made indirectly. If Mr. Frankland chooses to call, and if Mrs. Frankland condescends to write to me, I am willing to think no more of the matter. Under any other circumstances, I must be allowed to keep my present opinions both of the lady and the gentleman. Don’t say another word, and be so kind as to excuse me if I leave you, and go up to the nursery to see how the child is getting on. I am delighted to hear that you think her so much better. Pray call again to-morrow or next day, if you conveniently can. Good-morning!”

Half amused at Mrs. Norbury, half displeased at the curt tone she adopted toward him, Mr. Orridge remained for a minute or two alone in the breakfast-parlor, feeling rather undecided about what he should do next. He was, by this time, almost as much interested in solving the mystery of Mrs. Jazeph’s extraordinary conduct as Mrs. Frankland herself; and he felt unwilling, on all accounts, to go back to the Tiger’s Head, and merely repeat what Mrs. Norbury had told him, without being able to complete the narrative by informing Mr. and Mrs. Frankland of the direction that the housekeeper had taken on leaving her situation. After some pondering, he determined to question the footman, under the pretense of desiring to know if his gig was at the door. The man having answered the bell, and having reported the gig to be ready, Mr. Orridge, while crossing the hall, asked him carelessly if he knew at what time in the morning Mrs. Jazeph had left her place.

“About ten o’clock, Sir,” answered the footman. “When the carrier came by from the village, on his way to the station for the eleven o’clock train.”

“Oh! I suppose he took her boxes?” said Mr. Orridge.

“And he took her, too, Sir,” said the man, with a grin. “She had to ride, for once in her life, at any rate, in a carrier’s cart.”

On getting back to West Winston, the doctor stopped at the station to collect further particulars, before he returned to the Tiger’s Head. No trains, either up or down, happened to be due just at that time. The station-master was reading the newspaper, and the porter was gardening on the slope of the embankment.

“Is the train at eleven in the morning an up-train or a down-train?” asked Mr. Orridge, addressing the porter.

“A down-train.”

“Did many people go by it?”

The porter repeated the names of some of the inhabitants of West Winston.

“Were there no passengers but passengers from the town?” inquired the doctor.

“Yes, Sir. I think there was one stranger — a lady.”

“Did the station-master issue the tickets for that train?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Mr. Orridge went on to the station-master.

“Do you remember giving a ticket this morning, by the eleven o’clock down-train, to a lady traveling alone?”

The station-master pondered. “I have issued tickets, up and down, to half-a-dozen ladies to-day,” he answered, doubtfully.

“Yes, but I am speaking only of the eleven o’clock train,” said Mr. Orridge. “Try if you can’t remember?”

“Remember? Stop! I do remember; I know who you mean. A lady who seemed rather flurried, and who put a question to me that I am not often asked at this station. She had her veil down, I recollect, and she got here for the eleven o’clock train. Crouch, the carrier, brought her trunk into the office.”

“That is the woman. Where did she take her ticket for?”

“For Exeter.”

“You said she asked you a question?”

“Yes: a question about what coaches met the rail at Exeter to take travelers into Cornwall. I told her we were rather too far off here to have the correct time-table, and recommended her to apply for information to the Devonshire people when she got to the end of her journey. She seemed a timid, helpless kind of woman to travel alone. Anything wrong in connection with her, Sir?”

“Oh, no! nothing,” said Mr. Orridge, leaving the stationmaster and hastening back to his gig again.

When he drew up, a few minutes afterward, at the door of the Tiger’s Head, he jumped out of his vehicle with the confident air of a man who has done all that could be expected of him. It was easy to face Mrs. Frankland with the unsatisfactory news of Mrs. Jazeph’s departure, now that he could add, on the best authority, the important supplementary information that she had gone to Cornwall.

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