The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Book V.

Chapter 1

An Old Friend and a New Scheme.

IN declaring, positively, that the boy whom she had seen digging on the moor had followed her uncle and herself to the post-town of Porthgenna, Sarah had asserted the literal truth. Jacob had tracked them to the inn, had waited a little while about the door, to ascertain if there was any likelihood of their continuing their journey that evening, and had then returned to Porthgenna Tower to make his report, and to claim his promised reward.

The same night, the housekeeper and the steward devoted themselves to the joint production of a letter to Mrs. Frankland, informing her of all that had taken place, from the time when the visitors first made their appearance, to the time when the gardener’s boy had followed them to the door of the inn. The composition was plentifully garnished throughout with the flowers of Mr. Munder’s rhetoric, and was, by a necessary consequence, inordinately long as a narrative, and hopelessly confused as a statement of facts.

It is unnecessary to say that the letter, with all its faults and absurdities, was read by Mrs. Frankland with the deepest interest. Her husband and Mr. Orridge, to both of whom she communicated its contents, were as much amazed and perplexed by it as she was herself. Although the discovery of Mrs. Jazeph’s departure for Cornwall had led them to consider it within the range of possibility that she might appear at Porthgenna, and although the housekeeper had been written to by Rosamond under the influence of that idea, neither she nor her husband were quite prepared for such a speedy confirmation of their suspicions as they had now received. Their astonishment, however, on first ascertaining the general purport of the letter, was as nothing compared with their astonishment when they came to those particular passages in it which referred to Uncle Joseph. The fresh element of complication imparted to the thickening mystery of Mrs. Jazeph and the Myrtle Room, by the entrance of the foreign stranger on the scene, and by his intimate connection with the extraordinary proceedings that had taken place in the house, fairly baffled them all. The letter was read again and again; was critically dissected paragraph by paragraph; was carefully annotated by the doctor, for the purpose of extricating all the facts that it contained from the mass of unmeaning words in which Mr. Munder had artfully and lengthily involved them; and was finally pronounced, after all the pains that had been taken to render it intelligible, to be the most mysterious and bewildering document that mortal pen had ever produced.

The first practical suggestion, after the letter had been laid aside in despair, emanated from Rosamond. She proposed that her husband and herself (the baby included, as a matter of course) should start at once for Porthgenna, to question the servants minutely about the proceedings of Mrs. Jazeph and the foreign stranger who had accompanied her, and to examine the premises on the north side of the house, with a view to discovering a clue to the locality of the Myrtle Room, while events were still fresh in the memories of witnesses. The plan thus advocated, however excellent in itself, was opposed by Mr. Orridge on medical grounds. Mrs. Frankland had caught cold by exposing herself too carelessly to the air, on first leaving her room, and the doctor refused to grant her permission to travel for at least a week to come, if not for a longer period.

The next proposal came from Mr. Frankland. He declared it to be perfectly clear to his mind that the only chance of penetrating the mystery of the Myrtle Room rested entirely on the discovery of some means of communicating with Mrs. Jazeph. He suggested that they should not trouble themselves to think of anything unconnected with the accomplishment of this purpose; and he proposed that the servant then in attendance on him at West Winston — a man who had been in his employment for many years, and whose zeal, activity, and intelligence could be thoroughly depended on — should be sent to Porthgenna forthwith, to start the necessary inquiries, and to examine the premises carefully on the north side of the house.

This advice was immediately acted on. At an hour’s notice the servant started for Cornwall, thoroughly instructed as to what he was to do, and well supplied with money, in case he found it necessary to employ many persons in making the proposed inquiries. In due course of time he sent a report of his proceedings to his master. It proved to be of a most discouraging nature.

All trace of Mrs. Jazeph and her companion had been lost at the post-town of Porthgenna. Investigations had been made in every direction, but no reliable information had been obtained. People in totally different parts of the country declared readily enough that they had seen two persons answering to the description of the lady in the dark dress and the old foreigner; but when they were called upon to state the direction in which the two strangers were traveling, the answers received turned out to be of the most puzzling and contradictory kind. No pains had been spared, no necessary expenditure of money had been grudged; but, so far, no results of the slightest value had been obtained. Whether the lady and the foreigner had gone east, west, north, or south, was more than Mr. Frankland’s servant, at the present stage of the proceedings, could take it on himself to say.

The report of the examination of the north rooms was not more satisfactory. Here, again, nothing of any importance could be discovered. The servant had ascertained that there were twenty-two rooms on the uninhabited side of the house — six on the ground-floor opening into the deserted garden, eight on the first floor, and eight above that, on the second story. He had examined all the doors carefully from top to bottom, and had come to the conclusion that none of them had been opened. The evidence afforded by the lady’s own actions led to nothing. She had, if the testimony of the servant could be trusted, dropped the keys on the floor of the hall. She was found, as the housekeeper and the steward asserted, lying, in a fainting condition, at the top of the landing of the first flight of stairs. The door opposite to her, in this position, showed no more traces of having been recently opened than any of the other doors of the other twenty-one rooms. Whether the room to which she wished to gain access was one of the eight on the first floor, or whether she had fainted on her way up to the higher range of eight rooms on the second floor, it was impossible to determine.

The only conclusions that could be fairly drawn from the events that had taken place in the house were two in number. First, it might be taken for granted that the lady had been disturbed before she had been able to use the keys to gain admission to the Myrtle Room. Secondly, it might be assumed, from the position in which she was found on the stairs, and from the evidence relating to the dropping of the keys, that the Myrtle Room was not on the ground-floor, but was one of the sixteen rooms situated on the first and second stories. Beyond this the writer of the report had nothing further to mention, except that he had ventured to decide on waiting at Porthgenna, in the event of his master having any further instructions to communicate.

What was to be done next? That was necessarily the first question suggested by the servant’s announcement of the unsuccessful result of his inquiries at Porthgenna. How it was to be answered was not very easy to discover. Mrs. Frankland had nothing to suggest, Mr. Frankland had nothing to suggest, the doctor had nothing to suggest. The more industriously they all three hunted through their minds for a new idea, the less chance there seemed to be of their succeeding in finding one. At last, Rosamond proposed, in despair, that they should seek the advice of some fourth person who could be depended on; and asked her husband’s permission to write a confidential statement of their difficulties to the vicar of Long Beckley. Doctor Chennery was their oldest friend and adviser; he had known them both as children; he was well acquainted with the history of their families; he felt a fatherly interest in their fortunes; and he possessed that invaluable quality of plain, clear-headed common-sense which marked him out as the very man who would be most likely, as well as most willing, to help them.

Mr. Frankland readily agreed to his wife’s suggestion; and Rosamond wrote immediately to Doctor Chennery, informing him of everything that had happened since Mrs. Jazeph’s first introduction to her, and asking him for his opinion on the course of proceeding which it would be best for her husband and herself to adopt in the difficulty in which they were now placed. By return of post an answer was received, which amply justified Rosamond’s reliance on her old friend. Doctor Chennery not only sympathized heartily with the eager curiosity which Mrs. Jazeph’s language and conduct had excited in the mind of his correspondent, but he had also a plan of his own to propose for ascertaining the position of the Myrtle Room.

The vicar prefaced his suggestion by expressing a strong opinion against instituting any further search after Mrs. Jazeph. Judging by the circumstances, as they were related to him, he considered that it would be the merest waste of time to attempt to find her out. Accordingly he passed from that part of the subject at once, and devoted himself to the consideration of the more important question — How Mr. and Mrs. Frankland were to proceed in the endeavor to discover for themselves the mystery of the Myrtle Room?

On this point Doctor Chennery entertained a conviction of the strongest kind, and he warned Rosamond beforehand that she must expect to be very much surprised when he came to the statement of it. Taking it for granted that she and her husband could not hope to find out where the room was, unless they were assisted by someone better acquainted than themselves with the old local arrangements of the interior of Porthgenna Tower, the vicar declared it to be his opinion that there was only one individual living who could afford them the information they wanted, and that this person was no other than Rosamond’s own cross-grained relative, Andrew Treverton.

This startling opinion Doctor Chennery supported by two reasons. In the first place, Andrew was the only surviving member of the elder generation who had lived at Porthgenna Tower in the by-gone days when all traditions connected with the north rooms were still fresh in the memories of the inhabitants of the house. The people who lived in it now were strangers, who had been placed in their situations by Mr. Frankland’s father; and the servants employed in former days by Captain Treverton were dead or dispersed. The one available person, therefore, whose recollections were likely to be of any service to Mr. and Mrs. Frankland, was indisputably the brother of the old owner of Porthgenna Tower.

In the second place, there was the chance, even if Andrew Treverton’s memory was not to be trusted, that he might possess written or printed information relating to the locality of the Myrtle Room. By his father’s will — which had been made when Andrew was a young man just going to college, and which had not been altered at the period of his departure from England, or at any after-time — he had inherited the choice old collection of books in the library at Porthgenna. Supposing that he still preserved these heirlooms, it was highly probable that there might exist among them some plan, or some description of the house as it was in the olden time, which would supply all the information that was wanted. Here, then, was another valid reason for believing that if a clue to the position of the Myrtle Room existed anywhere, Andrew Treverton was the man to lay his hand on it.

Assuming it, therefore, to be proved that the surly old misanthrope was the only person who could be profitably applied to for the requisite information, the next question was, How to communicate with him? The vicar understood perfectly that after Andrew’s inexcusably heartless conduct toward her father and mother, it was quite impossible for Rosamond to address any direct application to him. The obstacle, however, might be surmounted by making the necessary communication proceed from Doctor Chennery. Heartily as the vicar disliked Andrew Treverton personally, and strongly as he disapproved of the old misanthrope’s principles, he was willing to set aside his own antipathies and objections to serve the interests of his young friends; and he expressed his perfect readiness to write and recall himself to Andrew’s recollection, and to ask, as if it was a matter of antiquarian curiosity, for information on the subject of the north side of Porthgenna Tower — including, of course, a special request to be made acquainted with the names by which the rooms had been individually known in former days.

In making this offer, the vicar frankly acknowledged that he thought the chances were very much against his receiving any answer at all to his application, no matter how carefully he might word it, with a view to humoring Andrew’s churlish peculiarities. However, considering that, in the present posture of affairs, a forlorn hope was better than no hope at all, he thought it was at least worth while to make the attempt on the plan which he had just suggested. If Mr. and Mrs. Frankland could devise any better means of opening communications with Andrew Treverton, or if they had discovered any new method of their own for obtaining the information of which they stood in need, Doctor Chennery was perfectly ready to set aside his own opinions and to defer to theirs.

A very brief consideration of the vicar’s friendly letter convinced Rosamond and her husband that they had no choice but gratefully to accept the offer which it contained. The chances were certainly against the success of the proposed application; but were they more unfavorable than the chances against the success of any unaided investigations at Porthgenna? There was, at least, a faint hope of Doctor Chennery’s request for information producing some results; but there seemed no hope at all of penetrating a mystery connected with one room only, by dint of wandering, in perfect ignorance of what to search for, through two ranges of rooms which reached the number of sixteen. Influenced by these considerations, Rosamond wrote back to the vicar to thank him for his kindness, and to beg that he would communicate with Andrew Treverton, as he had proposed, without a moment’s delay.

Doctor Chennery immediately occupied himself in the composition of the important letter, taking care to make the application on purely antiquarian grounds, and accounting for his assumed curiosity on the subject of the interior of Porthgenna Tower by referring to his former knowledge of the Treverton family, and to his natural interest in the old house within which their name and fortunes had been so closely connected. After appealing to Andrew’s early recollections for the information that he wanted, he ventured a step farther, and alluded to the library of old books, mentioning his own idea that there might be found among them some plan or verbal description of the house, which might prove to be of the greatest service, in the event of Mr. Treverton’s memory not having preserved all particulars in connection with the names and positions of the north rooms. In conclusion, he took the liberty of mentioning that the loan of any document of the kind to which he had alluded, or the permission to have extracts made from it, would be thankfully acknowledged as a great favor conferred; and he added, in a postscript, that, in order to save Mr. Treverton all trouble, a messenger would call for any answer he might he disposed to give the day after the delivery of the letter. Having completed the application in these terms, the vicar inclosed it under cover to his man of business in London, with directions that it was to be delivered by a trustworthy person, and that the messenger was to call again the next morning to know if there was any answer.

Three days after this letter had been dispatched to its destination — at which time no tidings of any sort had been received from Doctor Chennery — Rosamond at last obtained her medical attendant’s permission to travel. Taking leave of Mr. Orridge, with many promises to let him know what progress they made toward discovering the Myrtle Room, Mr. and Mrs. Frankland turned their backs on West Winston, and for the third time started on the journey to Porthgenna Tower.

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