The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

Standing on the Brink.

THE first night at Porthgenna passed without the slightest noise or interruption of any kind. No ghost, or dream of a ghost, disturbed the soundness of Rosamond’s slumbers. She awoke in her usual spirits and her usual health, and was out in the west garden before breakfast.

The sky was cloudy, and the wind veered about capriciously to all the points of the compass. In the course of her walk Rosamond met with the gardener, and asked him what he thought about the weather. The man replied that it might rain again before noon, but that, unless he was very much mistaken, it was going to turn to heat in the course of the next four-and-twenty hours.

“Pray, did you ever hear of a room on the north side of our old house called the Myrtle Room?” inquired Rosamond. She had resolved, on rising that morning, not to lose a chance of making the all-important discovery for want of asking questions of everybody in the neighborhood and she began with the gardener accordingly.

“I never heard tell of it, ma’am,” said the man. “But it’s a likely name enough, considering how the myrtles do grow in these parts.”

“Are there any myrtles growing at the north side of the house?” asked Rosamond, struck with the idea of tracing the mysterious room by searching for it outside the building instead of inside. “I mean close to the walls,” she added, seeing the man look puzzled; “under the windows, you know?”

“I never see anything under the windows in my time but weeds and rubbish,” replied the gardener.

Just then the breakfast-bell rang. Rosamond returned to the house, determined to explore the north garden, and if she found any relic of a bed of myrtles to mark the window above it, and to have the room which that window lighted opened immediately. She confided this new scheme to her husband. He complimented her on her ingenuity, but confessed that he had no great hope of any discoveries being made out of doors, after what the gardener had said about the weeds and rubbish.

As soon as breakfast was over, Rosamond rang the bell to order the gardener to be in attendance, and to say that the keys of the north rooms would be wanted. The summons was answered by Mr. Frankland’s servant, who brought up with him the morning’s supply of letters, which the postman had just delivered. Rosamond turned them over eagerly, pounced on one with an exclamation of delight, and said to her husband — “The Long Beckley postmark! News from the vicar, at last!”

She opened the letter and ran her eye over it — then suddenly dropped it in her lap with her face all in a glow. “Lenny!” she exclaimed, “there is news here that is positively enough to turn one’s head. I declare the vicar’s letter has quite taken away my breath!”

“Read it,” said Mr. Frankland; “pray read it at once.”

Rosamond complied with the request in a very faltering, unsteady voice. Doctor Chennery began his letter by announcing that his application to Andrew Treverton had remained unanswered; but he added that it had, nevertheless, produced results which no one could possibly have anticipated. For information on the subject of those results, he referred Mr. and Mrs. Frankland to a copy subjoined of a communication marked private, which he had received from his man of business in London.

The communication contained a detailed report of an interview which had taken place between Mr. Treverton’s servant and the messenger who had called for an answer to Doctor Chennery’s letter. Shrowl, it appeared, had opened the interview by delivering his master’s message, had then produced the vicar’s torn letter and the copy of the Plan, and had announced his readiness to part with the latter for the consideration of a five-pound note. The messenger had explained that he had no power to treat for the document, and had advised Mr. Treverton’s servant to wait on Doctor Chennery’s agent. After some hesitation, Shrowl had decided to do this on pretense of going out on an errand — had seen the agent — had been questioned about how he became possessed of the copy — and, finding that there would be no chance of disposing of it unless he answered all inquiries, had related the circumstances under which the copy had been made. After hearing his statement, the agent had engaged to apply immediately for instructions to Doctor Chennery; and had written accordingly, mentioning in a postscript that he had seen the transcribed Plan, and had ascertained that it really exhibited the positions of doors, staircases, and rooms, with the names attached to them.

Resuming his own letter, Doctor Chennery proceeded to say that he must now leave it entirely to Mr. and Mrs. Frankland to decide what course they ought to adopt. He had already compromised himself a little in his own estimation, by assuming a character which really did not belong to him, when he made his application to Andrew Treverton; and he felt he could personally venture no further in the affair, either by expressing an opinion or giving any advice, now that it had assumed such a totally new aspect. He felt quite sure that his young friends would arrive at the wise and the right decision, after they had maturely considered the matter in all its bearings. In that conviction, he had instructed his man of business not to stir in the affair until he had heard from Mr. Frankland, and to be guided entirely by any directions which that gentleman might give.

“Directions!” exclaimed Rosamond, crumpling up the letter in a high state of excitement as soon as she had read to the end of it. “All the directions we have to give may be written in a minute and read in a second! What in the world does the vicar mean by talking about mature consideration? Of course,” cried Rosamond, looking, woman-like, straight on to the purpose she had in view, without wasting a thought on the means by which it was to be achieved — “Of course we give the man his five-pound note, and get the Plan by return of post!”

Mr. Frankland shook his head gravely. “Quite impossible,” he said. “If you think for a moment, my dear, you will surely see that it is out of the question to traffic with a servant for information that has been surreptitiously obtained from his master’s library.”

“Oh, dear! dear! don’t say that!” pleaded Rosamond, looking quite aghast at the view her husband took of the matter. “What harm are we doing, if we give the man his five pounds? He has only made a copy of the Plan: he has not stolen anything.”

“He has stolen information, according to my idea of it,” said Leonard.

“Well, but if he has,” persisted Rosamond, “what harm does it do to his master? In my opinion his master deserves to have the information stolen, for not having had the common politeness to send it to the vicar. We must have the Plan — Oh, Lenny, don’t shake your head, please! — we must have it, you know we must! What is the use of being scrupulous with an old wretch (I must call him so, though he is my uncle) who won’t conform to the commonest usages of society? You can’t deal with him — and I am sure the vicar would say so, if he was here — as you would with civilized people, or people in their senses, which everybody says he is not. What use is the Plan of the north rooms to him? And, besides, if it is of any use, he has got the original; so his information is not stolen, after all, because he has got it the whole time — has he not, dear?”

“Rosamond! Rosamond!” said Leonard, smiling at his wife’s transparent sophistries, “you are trying to reason like a Jesuit.”

“I don’t care who I reason like, love, as long as I get the Plan.”

Mr. Frankland still shook his head. Finding her arguments of no avail, Rosamond wisely resorted to the immemorial weapon of her sex — Persuasion; using it at such close quarters and to such good purposes that she finally won her husband’s reluctant consent to a species of compromise, which granted her leave to give directions for purchasing the copied Plan on one condition.

This condition was that they should send back the Plan to Mr. Treverton as soon as it had served their purpose; making a full acknowledgment to him of the manner in which it had been obtained, and pleading in justification of the proceeding his own want of courtesy in withholding information, of no consequence in itself which anyone else in his place would have communicated as a matter of course. Rosamond tried hard to obtain the withdrawal or modification of this condition; but her husband’s sensitive pride was not to be touched, on that point, with impunity, even by her light hand. “I have done too much violence already to my own convictions,” he said, “and I will now do no more. If we are to degrade ourselves by dealing with this servant, let us at least prevent him from claiming us as his accomplices. Write in my name, Rosamond, to Doctor Chennery’s man of business, and say that we are willing to purchase the transcribed Plan on the condition that I have stated — which condition he will of course place before the servant in the plainest possible terms.”

“And suppose the servant refuses to risk losing his place, which he must do if he accepts your condition?” said Rosamond, going rather reluctantly to the writing-table.

“Let us not worry ourselves, my dear, by supposing anything. Let us wait and hear what happens, and act accordingly. When you are ready to write, tell me, and I will dictate your letter on this occasion. I wish to make the vicar’s man of business understand that we act as we do, knowing, in the first place, that Mr. Andrew Treverton can not be dealt with according to the established usages of society; and knowing, in the second place, that the information which his servant offers to us is contained in an extract from a printed book, and is in no way, directly or indirectly, connected with Mr. Treverton’s private affairs. Now that you have made me consent to this compromise, Rosamond, I must justify it as completely as possible to others as well as to myself.”

Seeing that his resolution was firmly settled, Rosamond had tact enough to abstain from saying anything more. The letter was written exactly as Leonard dictated it. When it had been placed in the post-bag, and when the other letters of the morning had been read and answered, Mr. Frankland reminded his wife of the intention she had expressed at breakfast-time of visiting the north garden, and requested that she would take him there with her. He candidly acknowledged that, since he had been made acquainted with Doctor Chennery’s letter, he would give five times the sum demanded by Shrowl for the copy of the Plan if the Myrtle Room could be discovered, without assistance from anyone, before the letter to the vicar’s man of business was put into the post. Nothing would give him so much pleasure, he said, as to be able to throw it into the fire, and to send a plain refusal to treat for the Plan in its place.

They went into the north garden, and there Rosamond’s own eyes convinced her that she had not the slightest chance of discovering any vestige of a myrtle-bed near any one of the windows. From the garden they returned to the house, and had the door opened that led into the north hall.

They were shown the place on the pavement where the keys had been found, and the place at the top of the first flight of stairs where Mrs. Jazeph had been discovered when the alarm was given. At Mr. Frankland’s suggestion, the door of the room which immediately fronted this spot was opened. It presented a dreary spectacle of dust and dirt and dimness. Some old pictures were piled against one of the walls, some tattered chairs were heaped together in the middle of the floor, some broken china lay on the mantel-piece, and a rotten cabinet, cracked through from top to bottom, stood in one corner. These few relics of the furnishing and fitting-up the room were all carefully examined, but nothing of the smallest importance — nothing tending in the most remote degree to clear up the mystery of the Myrtle Room was discovered.

“Shall we have the other doors opened?” inquired Rosamond when they came out on the landing again.

“I think it will be useless,” replied her husband. “Our only hope of finding out the mystery of the Myrtle Room if it is as deeply hidden from us as I believe it to be — is by searching for it in that room, and no other. The search, to be effectual, must extend, if we find it necessary, to the pulling up of the floor and wainscots — perhaps even to the dismantling of the walls. We may do that with one room when we know where it is, but we cannot, by any process short of pulling the whole side of the house down, do it with the sixteen rooms, through which our present ignorance condemns us to wander without guide or clue. It is hopeless enough to be looking for we know not what; but let us discover, if we can, where the four walls are within which that unpromising search must begin and end. Surely the floor of the landing must be dusty? Are there no foot-marks on it, after Mrs. Jazeph’s visit, that might lead us to the right door?”

This suggestion led to a search for footsteps on the dusty floor of the landing, but nothing of the sort could be found.

Matting had been laid down over the floor at some former period, and the surface, torn, ragged, and rotten with age, was too uneven in every part to allow the dust to lie smoothly on it. Here and there, where there was a hole through to the boards of the landing, Mr. Frankland’s servant thought he detected marks in the dust which might have been produced by the toe or the heel of a shoe; but these faint and doubtful indications lay yards and yards apart from each other, and to draw any conclusion of the slightest importance from them was simply and plainly impossible. After spending more than an hour in examining the north side of the house, Rosamond was obliged to confess that the servants were right when they predicted, on first opening the door in the hall, that she would discover nothing.

“The letter must go, Lenny,” she said, when they returned the breakfast-room.

“There is no help for it,” answered her husband. “Send away the post-bag, and let us say no more about it.”

The letter was dispatched by that day’s post. In the remote position of Porthgenna, and in the unfinished state of the railroad at that time, two days would elapse before an answer from London could be reasonably hoped for. Feeling that it would be better for Rosamond if this period of suspense was passed out of the house, Mr. Frankland proposed to fill up the time by a little excursion along the coast to some places famous for their scenery, which would be likely to interest his wife, and which she might occupy herself pleasantly in describing on the spot for the benefit of her husband. This suggestion was immediately acted on. The young couple left Porthgenna, and only returned on the evening of the second day.

On the morning of the third day the longed-for letter from the vicar’s man of business lay on the table when Leonard and Rosamond entered the breakfast-room. Shrowl had decided to accept Mr. Frankland’s condition — first, because he held that any man must be out of his senses who refused a five-pound note when it was offered to him; secondly, because he believed that his master was too absolutely dependent on him to turn him away for any cause whatever; thirdly, because, if Mr. Treverton did part with him, he was not sufficiently attached to his place to care at all about losing it. Accordingly the bargain had been struck in five minutes — and there was the copy of the Plan, inclosed with the letter of explanation to attest the fact!

Rosamond spread the all-important document out on the table with trembling hands, looked it over eagerly for a few moments, and laid her finger on the square that represented the position of the Myrtle Room.

“Here it is!” she cried. “Oh, Lenny, how my heart beats! One, two, three, four — the fourth door on the first-floor landing is the door of the Myrtle Room!”

She would have called at once for the keys of the north rooms; but her husband insisted on her waiting until she had composed herself a little, and until she had taken some breakfast. In spite of all he could say, the meal was hurried over so rapidly that in ten minutes more his wife’s arm was in his, and she was leading him to the staircase.

The gardener’s prognostication about the weather had been verified: it had turned to heat — heavy, misty, vaporous, dull heat. One white quivering fog-cloud spread thinly over all the heaven, rolled down seaward on the horizon line, and dulled the sharp edges of the distant moorland view. The sunlight shone pale and trembling; the lightest, highest leaves of flowers at open windows were still; the domestic animals lay about sleepily in dark corners. Chance household noises sounded heavy and loud in the languid, airless stillness which the heat seemed to hold over the earth. Down in the servants’ hall, the usual bustle of morning work was suspended. When Rosamond looked in, on her way to the housekeeper’s room to get the keys, the women were fanning themselves, and the men were sitting with their coats off. They were all talking peevishly about the heat, and all agreeing that such a day as that, in the month of June, they had never known and never heard of before.

Rosamond took the keys, declined the housekeeper’s offer to accompany her, and leading her husband along the passages, unlocked the door of the north hall.

“How unnaturally cool it is here!” she said, as they entered the deserted place.

At the foot of the stairs she stopped, and took a firmer hold of her husband’s arm.

“Is anything the matter?” asked Leonard. “Is the change to the damp coolness of this place affecting you in anyway?”

“No, no,” she answered hastily. “I am far too excited to feel either heat or damp, as I might feel them at other times. But, Lenny, supposing your guess about Mrs. Jazeph is right? — ”

“Yes?”

“And, supposing we discover the secret of the Myrtle Room, might it not turn out to be something concerning my father or my mother which we ought not to know? I thought of that when Mrs. Pentreath offered to accompany us, and it determined me to come here alone with you.”

“It is just as likely that the Secret might be something we ought to know,” replied Mr. Frankland, after a moment’s thought. “In any case, my idea about Mrs. Jazeph is, after all, only a guess in the dark. However, Rosamond, if you feel any hesitation — ”

“No! come what may of it, Lenny, we can’t go back now. Give me your hand again. We have traced the mystery thus far together, and together we will find it out.”

She ascended the staircase, leading him after her, as she spoke. On the landing she looked again at the Plan, and satisfied herself that the first impression she had derived from it, of the position of the Myrtle Room, was correct. She counted the doors on to the fourth, and looked out from the bunch the key numbered “IV.,” and put it in the lock.

Before she turned it she paused, and looked round at her husband.

He was standing by her side, with his patient face turned expectantly toward the door. She put her right hand on the key, turned it slowly in the lock, drew him closer to her with her left hand, and paused again.

“I don’t know what has come to me,” she whispered faintly. “I feel as if I was afraid to push open the door.”

“Your hand is cold, Rosamond. Wait a little — lock the door again — put it off till another day.”

He felt his wife’s fingers close tighter and tighter on his hand while he said those words. Then there was an instant — one memorable, breathless instant, never to be forgotten afterward — of utter silence. Then he heard the sharp, cracking sound of the opening door, and felt himself drawn forward suddenly into a changed atmosphere, and knew that Rosamond and he were in the Myrtle Room.

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