The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

Approaching the Precipice.

TRAVELING from London to Porthgenna, Mr. and Mrs. Frankland had stopped, on the ninth of May, at the West Winston station. On the eleventh of June they left it again to continue their journey to Cornwall. On the thirteenth, after resting two nights upon the road, they arrived toward the evening at Porthgenna Tower.

There had been storm and rain all the morning; it had lulled toward the afternoon, and at the hour when they reached the house the wind had dropped, a thick white fog hid the sea from view, and sudden showers fell drearily from time to time over the sodden land. Not even a solitary idler from the village was hanging about the west terrace as the carriage containing Mr. and Mrs. Frankland, the baby, and the two servants drove up to the house.

No one was waiting with the door open to receive the travelers; for all hope of their arriving on that day had been given up, and the ceaseless thundering of the surf, as the stormy sea surged in on the beach beneath, drowned the roll of the carriage-wheels over the terrace road. The driver was obliged to leave his seat and ring at the bell for admittance. A minute or more elapsed before the door was opened. With the rain falling sullen and steady on the roof of the carriage, with the raw dampness of the atmosphere penetrating through all coverings and defenses, with the booming of the surf sounding threateningly near in the dense obscurity of the fog, the young couple waited for admission to their own home, as strangers might have waited who had called at an ill-chosen time.

When the door was opened at last, the master and mistress, whom the servants would have welcomed with the proper congratulations on any other occasion, were now received with the proper apologies instead. Mr. Munder, Mrs. Pentreath, Betsey, and Mr. Frankland’s man all crowded together in the hall, and all begged pardon confusedly for not having been ready at the door when the carriage drove up. The appearance of the baby changed the conventional excuses of the housekeeper and the maid into conventional expressions of admiration; but the men remained grave and gloomy, and spoke of the miserable weather apologetically, as if the rain and the fog had been of their own making.

The reason for their persistency in dwelling on this one dreary topic came out while Mr. and Mrs. Frankland were being conducted up the west staircase. The storm of the morning had been fatal to three of the Porthgenna fishermen, who had been lost with their boat at sea, and whose deaths had thrown the whole village into mourning. The servants had done nothing but talk of the catastrophe ever since the intelligence of it had reached them early in the afternoon; and Mr. Munder now thought it his duty to explain that the absence of the villagers, on the occasion of the arrival of his master and mistress, was entirely attributable to the effect produced among the little community by the wreck of the fishing-boat. Under any less lamentable circumstances the west terrace would have been crowded, and the appearance of the carriage would have been welcomed with cheers.

“Lenny, I almost wish we had waited a little longer before we came here,” whispered Rosamond, nervously pressing her husband’s arm. “It is very dreary and disheartening to return to my first home on such a day as this. That story of the poor fishermen is a sad story, love, to welcome me back to the place of my birth. Let us send the first thing to-morrow morning, and see what we can do for the poor helpless women and children. I shall not feel easy in my mind, after hearing that story, till we have done something to comfort them.”

“I trust you will approve of the repairs, ma’am,” said the housekeeper, pointing to the staircase which led to the second story.

“The repairs?” said Rosamond, absently. “Repairs! I never hear the word now, without thinking of the north rooms, and of the plans we devised for getting my poor dear father to live in them. Mrs. Pentreath, I have a host of questions to ask you and Mr. Munder about all the extraordinary things that happened when the mysterious lady and the incomprehensible foreigner came here. But tell me first — -this is the west front, I suppose? — how far are we from the north rooms? I mean, how long would it take us to get to them, if we wanted to go now to that part of the house?”

“Oh, dear me, ma’am, not five minutes!” answered Mrs. Pentreath.

“Not five minutes!” repeated Rosamond, whispering to her husband again. “Do you hear that, Lenny? In five minutes we might be in the Myrtle Room!”

“Yet,” said Mr. Frankland, smiling, “in our present state of ignorance, we are just as far from it as if we were at West Winston still.”

“I can’t think that, Lenny. It may be only my fancy, but now we are on the spot I feel as if we had driven the mystery into its last hiding-place. We are actually in the house that holds the Secret; and nothing will persuade me that we are not half-way already toward finding it out. But don’t let us stop on this cold landing. Which way are we to go next?”

“This way, ma’am,” said Mr. Munder, seizing the first opportunity of placing himself in a prominent position. “There is a fire in the drawing-room. Will you allow me the honor of leading and conducting you, Sir, to the apartment in question?” he added, officiously stretching out his hand to Mr. Frankland.

“Certainly not!” interposed Rosamond sharply. She had noticed with her usual quickness of observation that Mr. Munder wanted the delicacy of feeling which ought to have restrained him from staring curiously at his blind master in her presence, and she was unfavorably disposed toward him in consequence. “Wherever the apartment in question may happen to be,” she continued with satirical emphasis, “I will lead Mr. Frankland to it, if you please. If you want to make yourself useful, you had better go on before us, and open the door.”

Outwardly crest-fallen, but inwardly indignant, Mr. Munder led the way to the drawing-room. The fire burned brightly, the old-fashioned furniture displayed itself to the most picturesque advantage, the paper on the walls looked comfortably mellow, the carpet, faded as it was, felt soft and warm underfoot. Rosamond led her husband to an easy chair by the fireside, and began to feel at home for the first time.

“This looks really comfortable,” she said. “When we have shut out that dreary white fog, and the candles are lit, and the tea is on the table, we shall have nothing in the world to complain of. You enjoy this nice warm atmosphere, don’t you, Lenny? There is a piano in the room, my dear; I can play to you in the evening at Porthgenna just as I used in London. Nurse, sit down and make yourself and the baby as comfortable as you can. Before we take our bonnets off, I must go away with Mrs. Pentreath and see about the bedrooms. What is your name, you very rosy, good-natured looking girl? Betsey, is it? Well, then, Betsey, suppose you go down and get the tea; and we shall like you all the better if you can contrive to bring us some cold meat with it.” Giving her orders in those good-humored terms, and not noticing that her husband looked a little uneasy while she was talking so familiarly to a servant, Rosamond left the room in company with Mrs. Pentreath.

When she returned, her face and manner were altered: she looked and spoke seriously and quietly.

“I hope I have arranged everything for the best, Lenny,” she said. “The airiest and largest room, Mrs. Pentreath tells me, is the room in which my mother died. But I thought we had better not make use of that: I felt as if it chilled and saddened me only to look at it. Farther on, along the passage, there is a room that was my nursery. I almost fancied, when Mrs. Pentreath told me she had heard I used to sleep there, that I remembered the pretty little arched door-way leading into the second room — the night-nursery it used to be called in former days. I have ordered the fire to be lit there, and the beds to be made. There is a third room on the right hand, which communicates with the day-nursery. I think we might manage to establish ourselves very comfortably in the three rooms — if you felt no objection — though they are not so large or so grandly furnished as the company bedrooms. I will change the arrangement, if you like — but the house looks rather lonesome and dreary, just at first — and my heart warms to the old nursery — and I think we might at least try it, to begin with, don’t you, Lenny?”

Mr. Frankland was quite of his wife’s opinion, and was ready to accede to any domestic arrangements that she might think fit to make. While he was assuring her of this the tea came up, and the sight of it helped to restore Rosamond to her usual spirits. When the meal was over, she occupied herself in seeing the baby comfortably established for the night, in the room on the right hand which communicated with the day-nursery. That maternal duty performed, she came back to her husband in the drawing-room; and the conversation between them turned — as it almost always turned now when they were alone — on the two perplexing subjects of Mrs. Jazeph and the Myrtle Room.

“I wish it was not night,” said Rosamond. “I should like to begin exploring at once. Mind, Lenny, you must be with me in all my investigations. I lend you my eyes, and you give me your advice. You must never lose patience, and never tell me that you can be of no use. How I do wish we were starting on our voyage of discovery at this very moment! But we may make inquires, at any rate,” she continued, ringing the bell. “Let us have the housekeeper and the steward up, and try if we can’t make them tell us something more than they told us in their letter.”

The bell was answered by Betsey. Rosamond desired that Mr. Munder and Mrs. Pentreath might be sent upstairs. Betsey having heard Mrs. Frankland express her intention of questioning the housekeeper and the steward, guessed why they were wanted, and smiled mysteriously.

“Did you see anything of those strange visitors who behaved so oddly?” asked Rosamond, detecting the smile. “Yes, I am sure you did. Tell us what you saw. We want to hear everything that happened — everything, down to the smallest trifle.”

Appealed to in these direct terms, Betsey contrived, with much circumlocution and confusion, to relate what her own personal experience had been of the proceedings of Mrs. Jazeph and her foreign companion. When she had done, Rosamond stopped her on her way to the door by asking this question —

“You say the lady was found lying in a fainting-fit at the top of the stairs. Have you any notion, Betsey, why she fainted?”

The servant hesitated.

“Come! Come!” said Rosamond. “You have some notion, I can see. Tell us what it is.”

“I’m afraid you will be angry with me, ma’am,” said Betsey, expressing embarrassment by drawing lines slowly with her forefinger on a table at her side.

“Nonsense! I shall only be angry with you if you won’t speak. Why do you think the lady fainted?”

Betsey drew a very long line with her embarrassed forefinger, wiped it afterward on her apron, and answered — “I think she fainted, if you please, ma’am, because she see the ghost.”

“The ghost! What! is there a ghost in the house? Lenny, here is a romance that we never expected. What sort of ghost is it? Let us have the whole story.”

The whole story, as Betsey told it, was not of a nature to afford her hearers any extraordinary information, or to keep them very long in suspense. The ghost was a lady who had been at a remote period the wife of one of the owners of Porthgenna Tower, and who had been guilty of deceiving her husband in some way unknown. She had been condemned in consequence to walk about the north rooms as long as ever the walls of them held together. She had long, curling, light-brown hair, and very white teeth, and a dimple in each cheek, and was altogether “awful beautiful” to look at. Her approach was heralded to any mortal creature who was unfortunate enough to fall in her way by the blowing of a cold wind, and nobody who had once felt that wind had the slightest chance of ever feeling warm again. That was all Betsey knew about the ghost; and it was in her opinion enough to freeze a person’s blood only to think of it.

Rosamond smiled, then looked grave again. “I wish you could have told us a little more,” she said. “But, as you cannot, we must try Mrs. Pentreath and Mr. Munder next. Send them up here, if you please, Betsey, as soon as you get downstairs.”

The examination of the housekeeper and the steward led to no result whatever. Nothing more than they had already communicated in their letter to Mrs. Frankland could be extracted from either of them. Mr. Munder’s dominant idea was that the foreigner had entered the doors of Porthgenna Tower with felonious ideas on the subject of the family plate. Mrs. Pentreath concurred in that opinion, and mentioned, in connection with it, her own private impression that the lady in the quiet dress was an unfortunate person who had escaped from a mad-house. As to giving a word of advice, or suggesting a plan for solving the mystery, neither the housekeeper nor the steward appeared to think that the rendering of any assistance of that sort lay at all within their province. They took their own practical view of the suspicious conduct of the two strangers, and no mortal power could persuade them to look an inch beyond it.

“Oh, the stupidity, the provoking, impenetrable, pretentious stupidity of respectable English servants!” exclaimed Rosamond, when she and her husband were alone again. “No help, Lenny, to be hoped for from either of those two people. We have nothing to trust to now but the examination of the house to-morrow; and that resource may fail us, like all the rest. What can Doctor Chennery be about? Why did we not hear from him before we left West Winston?”

“Patience, Rosamond, patience. We shall see what the post brings to-morrow.”

“Pray don’t talk about patience, dear! My stock of that virtue was never a very large one, and it was all exhausted ten days ago, at least. Oh, the weeks and weeks I have been vainly asking myself — Why should Mrs. Jazeph warn me against going into the Myrtle Room? Is she afraid of my discovering a crime? or afraid of my tumbling through the floor? What did she want to do in the room, when she made that attempt to get into it? Why, in the name of wonder, should she know something about this house that I never knew, that my father never knew, that nobody else — ”

“Rosamond!” cried Mr. Frankland, suddenly changing color, and starting in his chair — “I think I can guess who Mrs. Jazeph is!”

“Good gracious, Lenny! What do you mean?”

“Something in those last words of yours started the idea in my mind the instant you spoke. Do you remember, when we were staying at St. Swithin’s -on-Sea, and talking about the chances for and against our prevailing on your father to live with us here — do you remember, Rosamond, telling me at that time of certain unpleasant associations which he had with the house, and mentioning among them the mysterious disappearance of a servant on the morning of your mothers death?”

Rosamond turned pale at the question. “How came we never to think of that before?” she said.

“You told me,” pursued Mr. Frankland, “that this servant left a strange letter behind her, in which she confessed that your mother had charged her with the duty of telling a secret to your father — a secret that she was afraid to divulge, and that she was afraid of being questioned about. I am right, am I not, in stating those two reasons as the reasons she gave for her disappearance?”

“Quite right.”

“And your father never heard of her again?”

“Never!”

“It is a bold guess to make, Rosamond, but the impression is strong on my mind that, on the day when Mrs. Jazeph came into your room at West Winston, you and that servant met, and she knew it!”

“And the Secret, dear — the Secret she was afraid to tell my father?”

“Must be in some way connected with the Myrtle Room.”

Rosamond said nothing in answer. She rose from her chair, and began to walk agitatedly up and down the room. Hearing the rustle of her dress, Leonard called her to him, and, taking her hand, laid his fingers on her pulse, and then lifted them for a moment to her cheek.

“I wish I had waited until to-morrow morning before I told you my idea about Mrs. Jazeph,” he said. “I have agitated you to no purpose whatever, and have spoiled your chance of a good night’s rest.”

“No, no! nothing of the kind. Oh, Lenny, how this guess of your’s adds to the interest — the fearful, breathless interest — we have in tracing that woman, and in finding out the Myrtle Room. Do you think —?”

“I have done with thinking for the night, my dear; and you must have done with it too. We have said more than enough about Mrs. Jazeph already. Change the subject, and I will talk of anything else you please.”

“It is not so easy to change the subject,” said Rosamond, pouting, and moving away to walk up and down the room again.

“Then let us change the place, and make it easier that way. I know you think me the most provokingly obstinate man in the world, but there is reason in my obstinacy, and you will acknowledge as much when you awake to-morrow morning refreshed by a good night’s rest. Come, let us give our anxieties a holiday. Take me into one of the other rooms, and let me try if I can guess what it is like by touching the furniture.”

The reference to his blindness which the last words contained brought Rosamond to his side in a moment. “You always know best,” she said, putting her arm around his neck and kissing him. “I was looking cross, love, a minute ago, but the clouds are all gone now. We will change the scene, and explore some other room, as you propose.”

She paused, her eyes suddenly sparkled, her color rose, and she smiled to herself as if some new fancy had that instant crossed her mind.

“Lenny, I will take you where you shall touch a very remarkable piece of furniture indeed,” she resumed, leading him to the door while she spoke. “We will see if you can tell me at once what it is like. You must not be impatient, mind; and you must promise to touch nothing till you feel me guiding your hand.”

She drew him after her along the passage, opened the door of the room in which the baby had been put to bed, made a sign to the nurse to be silent, and, leading Leonard up to the cot, guided his hand down gently, so as to let the tips of his fingers touch the child’s cheek.

“There, Sir!” she cried, her face beaming with happiness as she saw the sudden flush of surprise and pleasure which changed her husband’s natural quiet, subdued expression in an instant. “What do you say to that piece of furniture? Is it a chair, or a table? Or is it the most precious thing in all the house, in all Cornwall, in all England, in all the world? Kiss it, and see what it is — a bust of a baby by a sculptor, or a living cherub by your wife!” She turned, laughing, to the nurse — “Hannah, you look so serious that I am sure you must be hungry. Have you had your supper yet?” The woman smiled, and answered that she had arranged to go downstairs, as soon as one of the servants could relieve her in taking care of the child. “Go at once,” said Rosamond. “I will stop here and look after the baby. Get your supper, and come back again in half an hour.”

When the nurse had left the roam, Rosamond placed a chair for Leonard by the side of the cot, and seated herself on a low stool at his knees. Her variable disposition seemed to change again when she did this; her face grew thoughtful, her eyes softened, as they turned, now on her husband, now on the bed in which the child was sleeping by his side. After a minute or two of silence, she took one of his hands, placed it on his knee, and laid her cheek gently down on it.

“Lenny,” she said, rather sadly, “I wonder whether we are any of us capable of feeling perfect happiness in this world?”

“What makes you ask that question, my dear?”

“I fancy that I could feel perfect happiness, and yet — ”

“And yet, what?”

“And yet it seems as if, with all my blessings, that blessing was never likely to be granted to me. I should be perfectly happy now but for one little thing. I suppose you can’t guess what that thing is?”

“I would rather you told me, Rosamond.”

Ever since our child was born, love, I have had a little aching at the heart — especially when we are all three together, as we are now — a little sorrow that I can’t quite put away from me on your account.”

“On my account! Lift up your head, Rosamond, and come nearer to me. I feel something on my hand which tells me that you are crying.”

She rose directly, and laid her face close to his. “My own love,” she said, clasping her arms fast round him. “My own heart’s darling, you have never seen our child.”

“Yes, Rosamond, I see him with your eyes.”

“Oh, Lenny! I tell you everything I can — I do my best to lighten the cruel, cruel darkness which shuts you out from that lovely little face lying so close to you! But can I tell you how he looks when he first begins to take notice? can I tell you all the thousand pretty things he will do when he first tries to talk? God has been very merciful to us — but, oh, how much more heavily the sense of your affliction weighs on me now when I am more to you than your wife — now when I am the mother of your child!”

“And yet that affliction ought to weigh lightly on your spirits, Rosamond, for you have made it weigh lightly on mine.”

“Have I? Really and truly, have I? It is something noble to live for, Lenny, if I can live for that! It is some comfort to hear you say, as you said just now, that you see with my eyes. They shall always serve you — oh, always! always! — as faithfully as if they were your own. The veriest trifle of a visible thing that I look at with any interest, you shall as good as look at too. I might have had my own little harmless secrets, dear, with another husband; but with you to have even so much as a thought in secret seems like taking the basest, the cruelest advantage of your blindness. I do love you so, Lenny! I am so much fonder of you now than I was when we were first married — I never thought I should be, but I am. You are so much handsomer to me, so much cleverer to me, so much more precious to me in every way. But I am always telling you that, am I not? Do you get tired of hearing me? No? Are you sure of that? Very, very, very sure?” She stopped, and looked at him earnestly, with a smile on her lips, and the tears still glistening in her eyes. Just then the child stirred a little in his cot, and drew her attention away. She arranged the bedclothes over him, watched him in silence for a little while, then sat down again on the stool at Leonard’s feet. “Baby has turned his face quite round toward you now,” she said. “Shall I tell you exactly how he looks, and what his bed is like, and how the room is furnished?”

Without waiting for an answer, she began to describe the child’s appearance and position with the marvelous minuteness of a woman’s observation. While she proceeded, her elastic spirits recovered themselves, and its naturally bright happy expression reappeared on her face. By the time the nurse returned to her post, Rosamond was talking with all her accustomed vivacity, and amusing her husband with all her accustomed success.

When they went back to the drawing-room, she opened the piano and sat down to play. “I must give you your usual evening concert, Lenny,” she said, “or I shall be talking again on the forbidden subject of the Myrtle Room.”

She played some of Mr. Frankland’s favorite airs, with a certain union of feeling and fancifulness in her execution of the music, which seemed to blend the charm of her own disposition with the charm of the melodies which sprang into life under her touch. After playing through the airs she could remember most easily, she ended with the Last Waltz of Weber. It was Leonard’s favorite, and it was always reserved on that account to grace the close of the evening’s performance.

She lingered longer than usual over the last plaintive notes of the waltz; then suddenly left the piano, and hastened across the room to the fireplace.

“Surely it has turned much colder within the last minute or two,” she said, kneeling down on the rug, and holding her face and hands over the fire.

“Has it?” returned Leonard. “I don’t feel any change.”

“Perhaps I have caught cold,” said Rosamond. “Or perhaps,” she added, laughing rather uneasily, “the wind that goes before the ghostly lady of the north rooms has been blowing over me. I certainly felt something like a sudden chill, Lenny, while I was playing the last notes of Weber.”

“Nonsense, Rosamond. You are overfatigued and overexcited. Tell your maid to make you some hot wine and water, and lose no time in getting to bed.”

Rosamond cowered closer over the fire. “It’s lucky I am not superstitious,” she said, “or I might fancy that I was predestined to see the ghost.”

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