The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Book IV.

Chapter 1

A Plot Against the Secret.

TOWARD the close of the evening, on the day after Mr. Orridge’s interview with Mrs. Norbury, the Druid fast coach, running through Cornwall as far as Truro, set down three inside passengers at the door of the booking-office on arriving at its destination. Two of these passengers were an old gentleman and his daughter; the third was Mrs. Jazeph.

The father and daughter collected their luggage and entered the hotel; the outside passengers branched off in different directions with as little delay as possible; Mrs. Jazeph alone stood irresolute on the pavement, and seemed uncertain what she should do next. When the coachman good-naturedly endeavored to assist her in arriving at a decision of some kind, by asking whether he could do anything to help her, she started, and looked at him suspiciously; then, appearing to recollect herself thanked him for his kindness, and inquired, with a confusion of words and a hesitation of manner which appeared very extraordinary in the coachman’s eyes, whether she might be allowed to leave her trunk at the booking-office for a little while, until she could return and call for it again.

Receiving permission to leave her trunk as long as she pleased, she crossed over the principal street of the town, ascended the pavement on the opposite side, and walked down the first turning she came to. On entering the by-street to which the turning led, she glanced back, satisfied herself that nobody was following or watching her, hastened on a few yards, and stopped again at a small shop devoted to the sale of book-cases, cabinets, work-boxes, and writing-desks. After first looking up at the letters painted over the door — BUSCHMANN, CABINET-MAKER, &c. — she peered in at the shop window. A middle-aged man, with a cheerful face, sat behind the counter, polishing a rosewood bracket, and nodding briskly at regular intervals, as if he were humming a tune and keeping time to it with his head. Seeing no customers in the shop, Mrs. Jazeph opened the door and walked in.

As soon as she was inside, she became aware that the cheerful man behind the counter was keeping time, not to a tune of his own humming, but to a tune played by a musical box. The clear ringing notes came from a parlor behind the shop, and the air the box was playing was the lovely “Batti, Batti,” of Mozart.

“Is Mr. Buschmann at home?” asked Mrs. Jazeph.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the cheerful man, pointing with a smile toward the door that led into the parlor. “The music answers for him. Whenever Mr. Buschmann’s box is playing, Mr. Buschmann himself is not far off from it. Did you wish to see him, ma’am?”

“If there is nobody with him.”

“Oh, no, he is quite alone. Shall I give any name?”

Mrs. Jazeph opened her lips to answer, hesitated, and said nothing. The shopman, with a quicker delicacy of perception than might have been expected from him, judging by outward appearances, did not repent the question, but opened the door at once, and admitted the visitor to the presence of Mr. Buschmann.

The shop parlor was a very small room, with an old three-cornered look about it, with a bright green paper on the walls, with a large dried fish in a glass case over the fireplace, with two meerschaum pipes hanging together on the wall opposite, and a neat round table placed as accurately as possible in the middle of the floor. On the table were tea-things, bread, butter, a pot of jam, and a musical box in a quaint, old-fashioned case; and by the side of the table sat a little, rosy-faced, white-haired, simple-looking old man, who started up, when the door was opened, with an appearance of extreme confusion, and touched the top of the musical box so that it might cease playing when it came to the end of the air.

“A lady to speak with you, Sir,” said the cheerful shopman. “That is Mr. Buschmann, ma’am,” he added in a lower tone, seeing Mrs. Jazeph stop in apparent uncertainty on entering the parlor.

“Will you please to take a seat, ma’am?” said Mr. Buschmann, when the shopman had closed the door and gone back to his counter. “Excuse the music; it will stop directly.” He spoke these words in a foreign accent, but with perfect fluency.

Mrs. Jazeph looked at him earnestly while he was addressing her, and advanced a step or two before she said anything. “Am I so changed?” she asked softly. “So sadly, sadly changed, Uncle Joseph?”

“Gott im Himmel! it’s her voice — it’s Sarah Leeson!” cried the old man, running up to his visitor as nimbly as if he was a boy again, taking both her hands, and kissing her with an odd, brisk tenderness on the cheek. Although his niece was not at all above the average height of women, Uncle Joseph was so short that he had to raise himself on tiptoe to perform the ceremony of embracing her.

“To think of Sarah coming at last!” he said, pressing her into a chair. “After all these years and years, to think of Sarah Leeson coming to see Uncle Joseph again!”

“Sarah still, but not Sarah Leeson,” said Mrs. Jazeph, pressing her thin, trembling hands firmly together, and looking down on the floor while she spoke.

“Ah! married?” said Mr. Buschmann, gayly. “Married, of course. Tell me all about your husband, Sarah.”

“He is dead. Dead and forgiven.” She murmured the last three words in a whisper to herself.

“Ah! I am so sorry for you! I spoke too suddenly, did I not, my child?” said the old man. “Never mind! No, no; I don’t mean that — I mean let us talk of something else. You will have a bit of bread and jam, won’t you, Sarah? — ravishing raspberry jam that melts in your mouth. Some tea, then? So, so, she will have some tea, to be sure. And we won’t talk of our troubles — at least, not just yet. You look very pale, Sarah — very much older than you ought to look — no, I don’t mean that either; I don’t mean to be rude. It was your voice I knew you by, my child — your voice that your poor Uncle Max always said would have made your fortune if you would only have learned to sing. Here’s his pretty music box going still. Don’t look so downhearted — don’t, pray. Do listen a little to the music: you remember the box? — my brother Max’s box? Why, how you look! Have you forgotten the box that the divine Mozart gave to my brother with his own hand, when Max was a boy in the music school at Vienna? Listen! I have set it going again. It’s a song they call ‘Batti, Batti;’ it’s a song in an opera of Mozart’s . Ah! beautiful! beautiful! Your Uncle Max said that all music was comprehended in that one song. I know nothing about music, but I have my heart and my ears, and they tell me that Max was right.”

Speaking these words with abundant gesticulation and amazing volubility, Mr. Buschmann poured out a cup of tea for his niece, stirred it carefully, and, patting her on the shoulder, begged that she would make him happy by drinking it all up directly. As he came close to her to press this request, he discovered that the tears were in her eyes, and that she was trying to take her handkerchief from her pocket without being observed.

“Don’t mind me,” she said, seeing the old man’s face sadden as he looked at her; “and don’t think me forgetful or ungrateful, Uncle Joseph. I remember the box — I remember everything that you used to take an interest in, when I was younger and happier than I am now. When I last saw you, I came to you in trouble; and I come to you in trouble once more. It seems neglectful in me never to have written to you for so many years past; but my life has been a very sad one, and I thought I had no right to lay the burden of my sorrow on other shoulders than my own.”

Uncle Joseph shook his head at these last words, and touched the stop of the musical box. “Mozart shall wait a little,” he said, gravely, “till I have told you something. Sarah, hear what I say, and drink your tea, and own to me whether I speak the truth or not. What did I, Joseph Buschmann, tell you, when you first came to me in trouble, fourteen, fifteen, ah more! sixteen years ago, in this town, and in this same house? I said then, what I say again now: ‘Sarah’s sorrow is my sorrow, and Sarah’s joy is my joy;’ and if any man asks me reasons for that, I have three to give him.”

He stopped to stir up his niece’s tea for the second time, and to draw her attention to it by tapping with the spoon on the edge of the cup.

“Three reasons,” he resumed. “First, you are my sister’s child — some of her flesh and blood, and some of mine, therefore, also. Second, my sister, my brother, and lastly me myself; we owe to your good English father — all. A little word that means much, and may be said again and again — all. Your father’s friends cry, Fie! Agatha Buschmann is poor! Agatha Buschmann is foreign! But your father loves the poor German girl, and he marries her in spite of their Fie, Fie. Your father’s friends cry Fie! again; Agatha Buschmann has a musician brother, who gabbles to us about Mozart, and who cannot make to his porridge salt. Your father says, Good! I like his gabble; I like his playing; I shall get him people to teach; and while I have pinches of salt in my kitchen, he to his porridge shall have pinches of salt too. Your father’s friends cry Fie! for the third time. Agatha Buschmann has another brother, a little Stupid-Head, who to the others gabble can only listen and say Amen. Send him trotting; for the love of Heaven, shut up all the doors and send Stupid-Head trotting, at least. Your father says, No! Stupid-Head has his wits in his hands; he can cut and carve and polish; help him a little at the starting, and after he shall help himself. They are all gone now but me! Your father, your mother, and Uncle Max — they are all gone. Stupid-Head alone remains to remember and to be grateful — to take Sarah’s sorrow for his sorrow, and Sarah’s joy for his joy.”

He stopped again to blow a speck of dust off the musical box. His niece endeavored to speak, but he held up his hand, and shook his forefinger at her warningly.

“No,” he said. “It is yet my business to talk, and your business to drink tea. Have I not my third reason still? Ah! you look away from me; you know my third reason before I say a word. When I, in my turn, marry, and my wife dies, and leaves me alone with little Joseph, and when the boy falls sick, who comes then, so quiet, so pretty, so neat, with the bright young eyes, and the hands so tender and light? Who helps me with little Joseph by night and by day? Who makes a pillow for him on her arm when his head is weary? Who holds this box patiently at his ear? — yes! this box, that the hand of Mozart has touched — who holds it closer, closer always, when little Joseph’s sense grows dull, and he moans for the friendly music that he has known from a baby, the friendly music that he can now so hardly, hardly hear? Who kneels down by Uncle Joseph when his heart is breaking, and says, ‘Oh, hush! hush! The boy is gone where the better music plays, where the sickness shall never waste or the sorrow touch him more?’ Who? Ah, Sarah! you cannot forget those days; you cannot forget the Long Ago! When the trouble is bitter, and the burden is heavy, it is cruelty to Uncle Joseph to keep away; it is kindness to him to come here.”

The recollections that the old man had called up found their way tenderly to Sarah’s heart. She could not answer him; she could only hold out her hand. Uncle Joseph bent down, with a quaint, affectionate gallantry, and kissed it; then stepped back again to his place by the musical box. “Come!” he said, patting it cheerfully, “we will say no more for a while. Mozart’s box, Max’s box, little Joseph’s box, you shall talk to us again!”

Having put the tiny machinery in motion, he sat down by the table, and remained silent until the air had been played over twice. Then observing that his niece seemed calmer, he spoke to her once more.

“You are in trouble, Sarah,” he said, quietly. “You tell me that, and I see it is true in your face. Are you grieving for your husband?”

“I grieve that I ever met him,” she answered. “I grieve that I ever married him. Now that he is dead, I cannot grieve — I can only forgive him.”

“Forgive him? How you look, Sarah, when you say that! Tell me — ”

“Uncle Joseph! I have told you that my husband is dead, and that I have forgiven him.”

“You have forgiven him? He was hard and cruel with you, then? I see; I see. That is the end, Sarah — but the beginning? Is the beginning that you loved him?”

Her pale cheeks flushed; and she turned her head aside. “It is hard and humbling to confess it,” she murmured, without raising her eyes; “but you force the truth from me, uncle. I had no love to give to my husband — no love to give to any man.”

“And yet you married him! Wait! it is not for me to blame. It is for me to find out, not the bad, but the good. Yes, yes; I shall say to myself; she married him when she was poor and helpless; she married him when she should have come to Uncle Joseph instead. I shall say that to myself; and I shall pity, but I shall ask no more.”

Sarah half reached her hand out to the old man again — then suddenly pushed her chair back, and changed the position in which she was sitting. “It is true that I was poor,” she said, looking about her in confusion, and speaking with difficulty. “But you are so kind and so good, I cannot accept the excuse that your forbearance makes for me. I did not marry him because I was poor, but — ” She stopped, clasped her hands together, and pushed her chair back still farther from the table.

“So! so!” said the old man, noticing her confusion. “We will talk about it no more.”

“I had no excuse of love; I had no excuse of poverty,” she said, with a sudden burst of bitterness and despair. “Uncle Joseph, I married him because I was too weak to persist in saying No! The curse of weakness and fear has followed me all the days of my life! I said No to him once. I said No to him twice. Oh, uncle, if I could only have said it for the third time! But he followed me, he frightened me, he took away from me all the little will of my own that I had. He made me speak as he wished me to speak, and go where he wished me to go. No, no, no — don’t come to me, uncle; don’t say anything. He is gone; he is dead — I have got my release; I have given my pardon! Oh, if I could only go away and hide somewhere! All people’s eyes seem to look through me; all people’s words seem to threaten me. My heart has been weary ever since I was a young woman; and all these long, long years it has never got any rest. Hush! the man in the shop — I forgot the man in the shop. He will hear us; let us talk in a whisper. What made me break out so? I’m always wrong. Oh me! I’m wrong when I speak; I’m wrong when I say nothing; wherever I go and whatever I do, I’m not like other people. I seem never to have grown up in my mind since I was a little child. Hark! the man in the shop is moving — has he heard me? Oh, Uncle Joseph! do you think he has heard me?”

Looking hardly less startled than his niece, Uncle Joseph assured her that the door was solid, that the man’s place in the shop was at some distance from it, and that it was impossible, even if he heard voices in the parlor, that he could also distinguish any words that were spoken in it.

“You are sure of that?” she whispered, hurriedly. “Yes, yes, you are sure of that, or you would not have told me so, would you? We may go on talking now. Not about my married life: that is buried and past. Say that I had some years of sorrow and suffering, which I deserved — say that I had other years of quiet, when I was living in service with masters and mistresses who were often kind to me when my fellow-servants were not — say just that much about my life, and it is saying enough. The trouble that I am in now, the trouble that brings me to you, goes back further than the years we have been talking about — goes back, back, back, Uncle Joseph, to the distant day when we last met.”

“Goes back all through the sixteen years!” exclaimed the old man, incredulously. “Goes back, Sarah, even to the Long Ago!”

“Even to that time. Uncle, you remember where I was living, and what had happened to me, when — ”

“When you came here in secret? When you asked me to hide you? That was the same week, Sarah, when your mistress died; your mistress who lived away west in the old house. You were frightened, then — pale and frightened as I see you now.”

“As every one sees me! People are always staring at me; always thinking that I am nervous, always pitying me for being ill.”

Saying these words with a sudden fretfulness, she lifted the tea-cup by her side to her lips, drained it of its contents at a draught, and pushed it across the table to be filled again. “I have come all over thirsty and hot,” she whispered. “More tea, Uncle Joseph — more tea.”

“It is cold,” said the old man. “Wait till I ask for hot water.”

“No!” she exclaimed, stopping him as he was about to rise. “Give it me cold; I like it cold. Let nobody else come in — I can’t speak if anybody else comes in.” She drew her chair close to her uncle’s, and went on: “You have not forgotten how frightened I was in that by-gone time — do you remember why I was frightened?”

“You were afraid of being followed — that was it, Sarah. I grow old, but my memory keeps young. You were afraid of your master, afraid of his sending servants after you. You had run away; you had spoken no word to anybody; and you spoke little — ah, very, very little — even to Uncle Joseph — even to me.”

“I told you,” said Sarah, dropping her voice to so faint a whisper that the old man could barely hear her — “I told you that my mistress had left me a Secret on her death-bed — a Secret in a letter, which I was to give to my master. I told you I had hidden the letter, because I could not bring myself to deliver it, because I would rather die a thousand times over than be questioned about what I knew of it. I told you so much, I know. Did I tell you no more? Did I not say that my mistress made me take an oath on the Bible? — Uncle! are there candles in the room? Are there candles we can light without disturbing anybody, without calling anybody in here?”

“There are candles and a match-box in my cupboard,” answered Uncle Joseph. “But look out of window, Sarah. It is only twilight — it is not dark yet.”

“Not outside; but it is dark here.”


“In that corner. Let us have candles. I don’t like the darkness when it gathers in corners and creeps along walls.”

Uncle Joseph looked all round the room inquiringly; and smiled to himself as he took two candles from the cupboard and lighted them. “You are like the children,” he said playfully, while he pulled down the window-blind. “You are afraid of the dark.”

Sarah did not appear to hear him. Her eyes were fixed on the corner of the room which she had pointed out the moment before. When he resumed his place by her side, she never looked round, but laid her hand on his arm, and said to him suddenly — “Uncle! Do you believe that the dead can come back to this world, and follow the living everywhere, and see what they do in it?”

The old man started. “Sarah!” he said, “why do you talk so? Why do you ask me such a question?”

“Are there lonely hours,” she went on, still never looking away from the corner, still not seeming to hear him, “when you are sometimes frightened without knowing why — frightened all over in an instant, from head to foot? Tell me, Uncle, have you ever felt the cold steal round and round the roots of your hair, and crawl bit by bit down your back? I have felt that even in the summer. I have been out of doors, alone on a wide heath, in the heat and brightness of noon, and have felt as if chilly fingers were touching me — chilly, damp, softly creeping fingers. It says in the New Testament that the dead came once out of their graves, and went into the holy city. The dead! Have they rested, rested always, rested forever, since that time?”

Uncle Joseph’s simple nature recoiled in bewilderment from the dark and daring speculations to which his niece’s questions led. Without saying a word, he tried to draw away the arm which she still held; but the only result of the effort was to make her tighten her grasp, and bend forward in her chair so as to look closer still into the corner of the room.

“My mistress was dying” she said, “my mistress was very near her grave, when she made me take my oath on the Bible. She made me swear never to destroy the letter; and I did not destroy it. She made me swear not to take it away with me, if I left the house; and I did not take it away. She would have made me swear, for the third time, to give it to my master, but death was too quick for her — death stopped her from fastening that third oath on my conscience. But she threatened me, uncle, with the dead dampness on her forehead, and the dead whiteness on her cheeks — she threatened to come to me from the other world if I thwarted her — and I have thwarted her!”

She stopped, suddenly removed her hand from the old man’s arm, and made a strange gesture with it toward the part of the room on which her eyes remained fixed. “Rest, mistress, rest,” she whispered under her breath. “Is my master alive now? Rest, till the drowned rise. Tell him the Secret when the sea gives up her dead.”

“Sarah! Sarah! you are changed — you are ill — you frighten me!” cried Uncle Joseph, starting to his feet.

She turned round slowly, and looked at him with eyes void of all expression, with eyes that seemed to be staring through him vacantly at something beyond.

“Gott im Himmel! what does she see?” He looked round as the exclamation escaped him. “Sarah! what is it! Are you faint? Are you ill? Are you dreaming with your eyes open?”

He took her by both arms and shook her. At the instant when she felt the touch of his hands, she started violently and trembled all over. Their natural expression flew back into her eyes with the rapidity of a flash of light. Without saying a word, she hastily resumed her seat and began stirring the cold tea round and round in her cup, round and round so fast that the liquid overflowed into the saucer.

“Come! she gets more like herself,” said Uncle Joseph, watching her.

“More like myself?” she repeated, vacantly.

“So! so!” said the old man, trying to soothe her. “You are ill — what the English call out of sort. They are good doctors here. Wait till to-morrow, you shall have the best.”

“I want no doctors. Don’t speak of doctors. I can’t bear them; they look at me with such curious eyes; they are always prying into me, as if they wanted to find out something. What have we been stopping for? I had so much to say; and we seem to have been stopping just when we ought to have been going on. I am in grief and terror, Uncle Joseph; in grief and terror again about the Secret — ”

“No more of that!” pleaded the old man. “No more to-night at least!”

“Why not?”

“Because you will be ill again with talking about it. You will be looking into that corner, and dreaming with your eyes open. You are too ill — yes, yes, Sarah; you are too ill.”

“I’m not ill! Oh, why does everybody keep telling me that I am ill? Let me talk about it, uncle. I have come to talk about it; I can’t rest till I have told you.”

She spoke with a changing color and an embarrassed manner, now apparently conscious for the first time that she had allowed words and actions to escape her which it would have been more prudent to have restrained.

“Don’t notice me again,” she said, with her soft voice, and her gentle, pleading manner. “Don’t notice me if I talk or look as I ought not. I lose myself sometimes, without knowing it; and I suppose I lost myself just now. It means nothing, Uncle Joseph — nothing, indeed.”

Endeavoring thus to reassure the old man, she again altered the position of her chair, so as to place her back toward the part of the room to which her face had been hitherto turned.

“Well, well, it is good to hear that,” said Uncle Joseph; “but speak no more about the past time, for fear you should lose yourself again. Let us hear about what is now. Yes, yes, give me my way. Leave the Long Ago to me, and take you the present time. I can go back through the sixteen years as well as you. Ah! you doubt me? Hear me tell you what happened when we last met — hear me prove myself in three words: You leave your place at the old house — you run away here — you stop in hiding with me, while your master and his servants are hunting after you — you start off, when your road is clear, to work for your living, as far away from Cornwall as you can get — I beg and pray you to stop with me, but you are afraid of your master, and away you go. There! that is the whole story of your trouble the last time you came to this house. Leave it so; and tell me what is the cause of your trouble now.”

“The past cause of my trouble, Uncle Joseph, and the present cause of my trouble are the same. The Secret — ”

“What! you will go back to that!”

“I must go back to it.”

“And why?”

“Because the Secret is written in a letter — ”

“Yes; and what of that?”

“And the letter is in danger of being discovered. It is, uncle — it is! Sixteen years it has lain hidden — and now, after all that long time, the dreadful chance of its being dragged to light has come like a judgment. The one person in all the world who ought never to set eyes on that letter is the very person who is most likely to find it!”

“So! so! Are you very certain, Sarah? How do you know it?”

“I know it from her own lips. Chance brought us together — ”

“Us? us? What do you mean by us?”

“I mean — uncle, you remember that Captain Treverton was my master when I lived at Porthgenna Tower?”

“I had forgotten his name. But no matter — go on.”

“When I left my place, Miss Treverton was a little girl of five years old. She is a married woman now — so beautiful, so clever, such a sweet, youthful, happy face! And she has a child as lovely as herself. Oh, uncle, if you could see her! I would give so much if you could only see her!”

Uncle Joseph kissed his hand and shrugged his shoulders; expressing by the first action homage to the lady’s beauty, and by the second resignation under the misfortune of not being able to see her. “Well, well,” he said, philosophically, “put this shining woman by, and let us go on.”

“Her name is Frankland now,” said Sarah. “A prettier name than Treverton — a much prettier name, I think. Her husband is fond of her — I am sure he is. How can he have any heart at all, and not be fond of her?”

“So! so!” exclaimed Uncle Joseph, looking very much perplexed. “Good, if he is fond of her — very good. But what labyrinth are we getting into now? Wherefore all this about a husband and a wife? My word of honor, Sarah, but your explanation explains nothing — it only softens my brains.”

“I must speak of her and of Mr. Frankland, uncle. Porthgenna Tower belongs to her husband now, and they are both going to live there.”

“Ah! we are getting back into the straight road at last.”

“They are going to live in the very house that holds the Secret; they are going to repair that very part of it where the letter is hidden. She will go into the old rooms — I heard her say so; she will search about in them to amuse her curiosity; workmen will clear them out, and she will stand by in her idle hours, looking on.”

“But she suspects nothing of the Secret?”

“God forbid she ever should!”

“And there are many rooms in the house? And the letter in which the Secret is written is hidden in one of the many? Why should she hit on that one?”

“Because I always say the wrong thing! because I always get frightened and lose myself at the wrong time! The letter is hidden in a room called the Myrtle Room, and I was foolish enough, weak enough, crazed enough, to warn her against going into it.”

“Ah, Sarah! Sarah! that was a mistake, indeed.”

“I can’t tell what possessed me — I seemed to lose my senses when I heard her talking so innocently of amusing herself by searching through the old rooms, and when I thought of what she might find there. It was getting on toward night, too; the horrible twilight was gathering in the corners and creeping along the walls. I longed to light the candles, and yet I did not dare, for fear she should see the truth in my face. And when I did light them it was worse. Oh, I don’t know how I did it! I don’t know why I did it! I could have torn my tongue out for saying the words, and still I said them. Other people can think for the best; other people can act for the best; other people have had a heavy weight laid on their minds, and have not dropped under it as I have. Help me, uncle, for the sake of old times when we were happy — help me with a word of advice.”

“I will help you; I live to help you, Sarah! No, no, no — you must not look so forlorn; you must not look at me with those crying eyes. Come! I will advise this minute — but say in what; only say in what.”

“Have I not told you?”

“No; you have not told me a word yet.”

“I will tell you now.”

She paused, looked away distrustfully toward the door leading into the shop, listened a little, and resumed: “I am not at the end of my journey yet, Uncle Joseph — I am here on my way to Porthgenna Tower — on my way to the Myrtle Room-on my way, step by step, to the place where the letter lies hid. I dare not destroy it; I dare not remove it; but run what risk I may, I must take it out of the Myrtle Room.”

Uncle Joseph said nothing, but he shook his head despondingly.

“I must,” she repeated; “before Mrs. Frankland gets to Porthgenna, I must take that letter out of the Myrtle Room. There are places in the old house where I may hide it again — places that she would never think of — places that she would never notice. Only let me get it out of the one room that she is sure to search in, and I know where to hide it from her and from everyone forever.”

Uncle Joseph reflected, and shook his head again — then said: “One word, Sarah; does Mrs. Frankland know which is the Myrtle Room?”

“I did my best to destroy all trace of that name when I hid the letter; I hope and believe she does not. But she may find out — remember the words I was crazed enough to speak; they will set her seeking for the Myrtle Room; they are sure to do that.”

“And if she finds it? And if she finds the letter?”

“It will cause misery to innocent people; it will bring death to me. Don’t push your chair from me, uncle! It is not shameful death I speak of. The worst injury I have done is injury to myself; the worst death I have to fear is the death that releases a worn-out spirit and cures a broken heart.”

“Enough — enough so,” said the old man. “I ask for no secret, Sarah, that is not yours to give. It is all dark to me — very dark, very confused. I look away from it; I look only toward you. Not with doubt, my child, but with pity, and with sorrow, too — sorrow that ever you went near that house of Porthgenna — sorrow that you are now going to it again.”

“I have no choice, uncle, but to go. If every step on the road to Porthgenna took me nearer and nearer to my death, I must still tread it. Knowing what I know, I can’t rest, I can’t sleep — my very breath won’t come freely — till I have got that letter out of the Myrtle Room. How to do it — oh, Uncle Joseph, how to do it, without being suspected, without being discovered by anybody — that is what I would almost give my life to know! You are a man; you are older and wiser than I am; no living creature ever asked you for help in vain — help me now! my only friend in all the world, help me a little with a word of advice!”

Uncle Joseph rose from his chair, and folded his arms resolutely, and looked his niece full in the face.

“You will go?” he said. “Cost what it may, you will go? Say, for the last time, Sarah, is it yes, or no?”

“Yes! For the last time, I say, Yes.”

“Good. And you will go soon?”

“I must go to-morrow. I dare not waste a single day; hours even may be precious for anything I can tell.”

“You promise me, my child, that the hiding of this Secret does good, and that the finding of it will do harm?”

“If it was the last word I had to speak in this world, I would say, Yes!”

“You promise me, also, that you want nothing but to take the letter out of the Myrtle Room, and put it away somewhere else?”

“Nothing but that.”

“And it is yours to take and yours to put? No person has a better right to touch it than you?”

“Now that my master is dead, no person.”

“Good. You have given me my resolution. I have done. Sit you there, Sarah; and wonder, if you like, but say nothing.” With these words, Uncle Joseph stepped lightly to the door leading into the shop, opened it, and called to the man behind the counter.

“Samuel, my friend,” he said. “To-morrow I go a little ways into the country with my niece, who is this lady here. You keep shop and take orders, and be just as careful as you always are, till I get back. If anybody comes and asks for Mr. Buschmann, say he has gone a little ways into the country, and will be back in a few days. That is all. Shut up the shop, Samuel, my friend, for the night; and go to your supper. I wish you good appetite, nice victuals, and sound sleep.”

Before Samuel could thank his master, the door was shut again. Before Sarah could say a word, Uncle Joseph’s hand was on her lips, and Uncle Joseph’s handkerchief was wiping away the tears that were now falling fast from her eyes.

“I will have no more talking, and no more crying,” said the old man. “I am a German, and I glory in the obstinacy of six Englishmen, all rolled into one. To-night you sleep here, to-morrow we talk again of all this. You want me to help you with a word of advice. I will help you with myself, which is better than advice, and I say no more till I fetch my pipe down from the wall there, and ask him to make me think. I smoke and think to-night — I talk and do to-morrow. And you, you go up to bed; you take Uncle Max’s music box in your hand, and you let Mozart sing the cradle song before you go to sleep. Yes, yes, my child, there is always comfort in Mozart — better comfort than in crying. What is there to cry about, or to thank about? Is it so great a wonder that I will not let my sister’s child go alone to make a venture in the dark? I said Sarah’s sorrow was my sorrow, and Sarah’s joy my joy; and now, if there is no way of escape — if it must indeed be done — I also say: Sarah’s risk to-morrow is Uncle Joseph’s risk to-morrow, too! Good-night, my child — good-night.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52