The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

Outside the House.

THE next morning wrought no change in the resolution at which Uncle Joseph had arrived overnight. Out of the amazement and confusion produced in his mind by his niece’s avowal of the object that had brought her to Cornwall, he had contrived to extract one clear and definite conclusion — that she was obstinately bent on placing herself in a situation of uncertainty, if not of absolute peril. Once persuaded of this, his kindly instincts all sprang into action, his natural firmness on the side of self-sacrifice asserted itself; and his determination not to let Sarah proceed on her journey alone, followed as a matter of course.

Strong in the self-denying generosity of his purpose — though strong in nothing else — when he and his niece met in the morning, and when Sarah spoke self-reproachfully of the sacrifice that he was making, of the serious hazards to which he was exposing himself for her sake, he refused to listen to her just as obstinately as he had refused the previous night. There was no need, he said, to speak another word on that subject. If she had abandoned her intention of going to Porthgenna, she had only to say so. If she had not, it was mere waste of breath to talk any more, for he was deaf in both ears to everything in the shape of a remonstrance that she could possibly address to him. Having expressed himself in these uncompromising terms, Uncle Joseph abruptly dismissed the subject, and tried to turn the conversation to a cheerful every-day topic by asking his niece how she had passed the night.

“I was too anxious to sleep,” she answered. “I can’t fight with my fears and misgivings as some people can. All night long they keep me waking and thinking as if it was day.”

“Thinking about what?” asked Uncle Joseph. “About the letter that is hidden? about the house of Porthgenna? about the Myrtle Room?”

“About how to get into the Myrtle Room,” she said. “The more I try to plan and ponder, and settle beforehand what I shall do, the more confused and helpless I seem to be. All last night, uncle, I was trying to think of some excuse for getting inside the doors of Porthgenna Tower — and yet, if I was standing on the house-step at this moment, I should not know what to say when the servant and I first came face to face. How are we to persuade them to let us in? How am I to slip out of sight, even if we do get in? Can’t you tell me? — you will try, Uncle Joseph — I am sure you will try. Only help me so far, and I think I can answer for the rest. If they keep the keys where they used to keep them in my time, ten minutes to myself is all I should want — ten minutes, only ten short minutes, to make the end of my life easier to me than the beginning has been; to help me to grow old quietly and resignedly, if it is God’s will that I should live out my years. Oh, how happy people must be who have all the courage they want; who are quick and clever, and have their wits about them! You are readier than I am, uncle; you said last night that you would think about how to advise me for the best — what did your thoughts end in? You will make me so much easier if you will only tell me that.”

Uncle Joseph nodded assentingly, assumed a look of the profoundest gravity, and slowly laid his forefinger along the side of his nose.

“What did I promise you last night?” he said. “Was it not to take my pipe, and ask him to make me think? Good, I smoke three pipes, and think three thoughts. My first thought is — Wait! My second thought is again — Wait! My third thought is yet once more — Wait! You say you will be easy, Sarah, if I tell you the end of all my thoughts. Good, I have told you. There is the end — you are easy — it is all right.”

“Wait?” repeated Sarah, with a look of bewilderment which suggested anything rather than a mind at ease. “I am afraid, uncle, I don’t quite understand. Wait for what? Wait till when?”

“Wait till we arrive at the house, to be sure! Wait till we are got outside the door; then is time enough to think how we are to get in,” said Uncle Joseph, with an air of conviction. “You understand now?”

“Yes — at least I understand better than I did. But there is still another difficulty left. Uncle! I must tell you more than I intended ever to tell anybody — I must tell you that the letter is locked up.”

“Locked up in a room?”

“Worse than that — locked up in something inside the room. The key that opens the door — even if I get it — the key that opens the door of the room is not all I want. There is another key besides that, a little key — ” She stopped, with a confused, startled look.

“A little key that you have lost?” asked Uncle Joseph.

“I threw it down the well in the village on the morning when I made my escape from Porthgenna. Oh, if I had only kept it about me! If it had only crossed my mind that I might want it again!”

“Well, well; there is no help for that now. Tell me, Sarah, what the something is which the letter is hidden in.”

“I am afraid of the very walls hearing me.”

“What nonsense! Come! whisper it to me.”

She looked all round her distrustfully, and then whispered into the old man’s ear. He listened eagerly, and laughed when she was silent again. “Bah!” he cried. “If that is all, make yourself happy. As you wicked English people say, it is as easy as lying. Why, my child, you can burst him open for yourself.”

“Burst it open? how?”

Uncle Joseph went to the window-seat, which was made on the old-fashioned plan, to serve the purpose of a chest as well as a seat. He opened the lid, searched among some tools which lay in the receptacle beneath, and took out a chisel. “See,” he said, demonstrating on the top of the window-seat the use to which the tool was to be put. “You push him in so — crick! Then you pull him up so — crack! It is the business of one little moment — crick! crack! — and the lock is done for. Take the chisel yourself; wrap him up in a bit of that stout paper there, and put him in your pocket What are you waiting for? Do you want me to show you again, or do you think you can do it now for yourself?”

“I should like you to show me again, Uncle Joseph, but not now — not till we have got to the end of our journey.”

“Good. Then I may finish my packing up, and go ask about the coach. First and foremost, Mozart must put on his great coat, and travel with us.” He took up the musical box, and placed it carefully in a leather case, which he slung by a strap over one shoulder. “Next, there is my pipe, the tobacco to feed him with, and the matches to set him alight. Last, here is my old German knapsack, which I pack last night. See! here is shirt, night-cap, comb, pocket-handkerchief; sock. Say I am an emperor, and what do I want more than that? Good. I have Mozart, I have the pipe, I have the knapsack. I have — stop! stop! there is the old leather purse; he must not be forgotten. Look! here he is. Listen! Ting, ting, ting! He jingles; he has in his inside money. Aha, my friend, my good Leather, you shall be lighter and leaner before you come home again. So, so — it is all complete; we are ready for the march now, from our tops to our toes. Good-by, Sarah, my child, for a little half-hour; you shall wait here and amuse yourself while I go ask for the coach.”

When Uncle Joseph came back, he brought his niece information that a coach would pass through Truro in an hour’s time, which would set them down at a stage not more than five or six miles distant from the regular post-town of Porthgenna. The only direct conveyance to the post-town was a night-coach which carried the letter-bags, and which stopped to change horses at Truro at the very inconvenient hour of two o’clock in the morning. Being of opinion that to travel at bed-time was to make a toil of a pleasure, Uncle Joseph recommended taking places in the day-coach, and hiring any conveyance that could be afterward obtained to carry his niece and himself on to the post-town. By this arrangement they would not only secure their own comfort, but gain the additional advantage of losing as little time as possible at Truro before proceeding on their journey to Porthgenna.

The plan thus proposed was the plan followed. When the coach stopped to change horses, Uncle Joseph and his niece were waiting to take their places by it. They found all the inside seats but one disengaged, were set down two hours afterward at the stage that was nearest to the destination for which they were bound, hired a pony-chaise there, and reached the post-town between one and two o’clock in the afternoon.

Dismissing their conveyance at the inn, from motives of caution which were urged by Sarah, they set forth to walk across the moor to Porthgenna. On their way out of the town they met the postman returning from his morning’s delivery of letters in the surrounding district. His bag had been much heavier and his walk much longer that morning than usual. Among the extra letters that had taken him out of his ordinary course was one addressed to the housekeeper at Porthgenna Tower, which he had delivered early in the morning, when he first started on his rounds.

Throughout the whole journey, Uncle Joseph had not made a single reference to the object for which it had been undertaken. Possessing a child’s simplicity of nature, he was also endowed with a child’s elasticity of disposition. The doubts and forebodings which troubled his niece’s spirit, and kept her silent and thoughtful and sad, cast no darkening shadow over the natural sunshine of his mind. If he had really been traveling for pleasure alone, he could not have enjoyed more thoroughly than he did the different sights and events of the journey. All the happiness which the passing minute had to give him he took as readily and gratefully as if there was no uncertainty in the future, no doubt, difficulty, or danger lying in wait for him at the journey’s end. Before he had been half an hour in the coach he had began to tell the third inside passenger — a rigid old lady, who stared at him in speechless amazement — the whole history of the musical box, ending the narrative by setting it playing, in defiance of all the noise that the rolling wheels could make. When they left the coach, he was just as sociable afterward with the driver of the chaise, vaunting the superiority of German beer over Cornish cider, and making his remarks upon the objects which they passed on the road with the pleasantest familiarity, and the heartiest enjoyment of his own jokes. It was not till he and Sarah were well out of the little town, and away by themselves on the great moor which stretched beyond it, that his manner altered, and his talk ceased altogether. After walking on in silence for some little time, with his niece’s arm in his, he suddenly stopped, looked her earnestly and kindly in the face, and laid his hand on hers.

“There is yet one thing more I want to ask you, my child,” he said. “The journey has put it out of my head, but it has been in my heart all the time. When we leave this place of Porthgenna, and get back to my house, you will not go away? you will not leave Uncle Joseph again? Are you in service still, Sarah? Are you not your own master yet?”

“I was in service a few days since,” she answered; “but I am free now. I have lost my place.”

“Aha! You have lost your place; and why?”

“Because I would not hear an innocent person unjustly blamed. Because — ”

She checked herself. But the few words she had said were spoken with such a suddenly heightened color, and with such an extraordinary emphasis and resolution of tone, that the old man opened his eyes as widely as possible, and looked at his niece in undisguised astonishment.

“So! so! so!” he exclaimed. “What! You have had a quarrel, Sarah!”

“Hush! Don’t ask me any more questions now!” she pleaded earnestly. “I am too anxious and too frightened to answer. Uncle! this is Porthgenna Moor — this is the road I passed over, sixteen years ago, when I ran away to you. Oh! let us get on, pray let us get on! I can’t think of anything now but the house we are so near, and the risk we are going to run.”

They went on quickly, in silence. Half an hour’s rapid walking brought them to the highest elevation on the moor, and gave the whole western prospect grandly to their view.

There, below them, was the dank, lonesome, spacious structure of Porthgenna Tower, with the sunlight already stealing round toward the windows of the west front! There was the path winding away to it gracefully over the brown moor, in curves of dazzling white! There, lower down, was the solitary old church, with the peaceful burial-ground nestling by its side! There, lower still, were the little scattered roofs of the fishermen’s cottages! And there, beyond all, was the changeless glory of the sea, with its old seething lines of white foam, with the old winding margin of its yellow shores!

Sixteen long years — such years of sorrow, such years of suffering, such years of change, commuted by the pulses of the living heart! — had passed over the dead tranquillity of Porthgenna, and had altered it as little as if they had all been contained within the lapse of a single day!

The moments when the spirit within us is most deeply stirred are almost invariably the moments also when its outward manifestations are hardest to detect. Our own thoughts rise above us; our own feelings lie deeper than we can reach. How seldom words can help us, when their help is most wanted! How often our tears are dried up when we most long for them to relieve us! Was there ever a strong emotion in this world that could adequately express its own strength? What third person, brought face to face with the old man and his niece, as they now stood together on the moor, would have suspected, to look at them, that the one was contemplating the landscape with nothing more than a stranger’s curiosity, and that the other was viewing it through the recollections of half a lifetime? The eyes of both were dry, the tongues of both were silent, the faces of both were set with equal attention toward the prospect. Even between themselves there was no real sympathy, no intelligent appeal from one spirit to the other. The old man’s quiet admiration of the view was not more briefly and readily expressed, when they moved forward and spoke to each other, than the customary phrases of assent by which his niece replied to the little that he said. How many moments there are in this mortal life, when, with all our boasted powers of speech, the words of our vocabulary treacherously fade out, and the page presents nothing to us but the sight of a perfect blank!

Slowly descending the slope of the moor, the uncle and niece drew nearer and nearer to Porthgenna Tower. They were within a quarter of an hour’s walk of the house when Sarah stopped at a place where a second path intersected the main foot-track which they had hitherto been following. On the left hand, as they now stood, the cross-path ran on until it was lost to the eye in the expanse of the moor. On the right hand it led straight to the church.

“What do we stop for now?” asked Uncle Joseph, looking first in one direction and then in the other.

“Would you mind waiting for me here a little while, uncle? I can’t pass the church path — ” (she paused, in some trouble how to express herself) — “without wishing (as I don’t know what may happen after we get to the house), without wishing to see — to look at something — ” She stopped again, and turned her face wistfully toward the church. The tears, which had never wetted her eyes at the first view of Porthgenna, were beginning to rise in them now.

Uncle Joseph’s natural delicacy warned him that it would be best to abstain from asking her for any explanations.

“Go you where you like, to see what you like,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “I shall stop here to make myself happy with my pipe; and Mozart shall come out of his cage, and sing a little in this fine fresh air.” He unslung the leather case from his shoulder while he spoke, took out the musical box, and set it ringing its tiny peal to the second of the two airs which it was constructed to play — the minuet in Don Giovanni. Sarah left him looking about carefully, not for a seat for himself; but for a smooth bit of rock to place the box upon. When he had found this, he lit his pipe, and sat down to his music and his smoking, like an epicure to a good dinner. “Aha!” he exclaimed to himself, looking round as composedly at the wild prospect on all sides of him as if he was still in his own little parlor at Truro — “Aha! Here is a fine big music-room, my friend Mozart, for you to sing in! Ouf, there is wind enough in this place to blow your pretty dance-tune out to sea, and give the sailor-people a taste of it as they roll about in their ships.”

Meanwhile Sarah walked on rapidly toward the church, and entered the inclosure of the little burial-ground. Toward that same part of it to which she had directed her steps on the morning of her mistress’s death, she now turned her face again, after a lapse of sixteen years. Here, at least, the march of time had left its palpable track — its foot-prints whose marks were graves. How many a little spot of ground, empty when she last saw it, had its mound and its head-stone now! The one grave that she had come to see — the grave which had stood apart in the by-gone days, had companion graves on the right hand and on the left. She could not have singled it out but for the weather stains on the head-stone, which told of storm and rain over it, that had not passed over the rest. The mound was still kept in shape; but the grass grew long, and waved a dreary welcome to her as the wind swept through it. She knelt down by the stone, and tried to read the inscription. The black paint which had once made the carved words distinct was all flayed off from them now. To any other eyes but hers the very name of the dead man would have been hard to trace. She sighed heavily as she followed the letters of the inscription mechanically, one by one, with her finger:









DECEMBER 17TH, 1823.

Her hand lingered over the letters after it had followed them to the last line, and she bent forward and pressed her lips on the stone.

“Better so!” she said to herself; as she rose from her knees, and looked down at the inscription for the last time. “Better it should fade out so! Fewer strangers’ eyes will see it; fewer strangers’ feet will follow where mine have been — he will lie all the quieter in the place of his rest!”

She brushed the tears from her eyes, and gathered a few blades of glass from the grave — then left the churchyard. Outside the hedge that surrounded the inclosure she stopped for a moment, and drew from the bosom of her dress the little book of Wesley’s Hymns which she had taken with her from the desk in her bedroom on the morning of her flight from Porthgenna. The withered remains of the grass that she had plucked from the grave sixteen years ago lay between the pages still. She added to them the flesh fragments that she had just gathered, replaced the book in the bosom of her dress, and hastened back over the moor to the spot where the old man was waiting for her.

She found him packing up the musical box again in its leather case. “A good wind,” he said, holding up the palm of his hand to the fresh breeze that was sweeping over the moor — “A very good wind, indeed, if you take him by himself — but a bitter bad wind if you take him with Mozart. He blows off the tune as if it was the hat on my head. You come back, my child, just at the nick of time — just when my pipe is done, and Mozart is ready to travel along the road once more. Ah, have you got the crying look in your eyes again, Sarah? What have you met with to make you cry? So! so! I see — the fewer questions I ask just now, the better you will like me. Good. I have done. No! I have a last question yet. What are we standing here for? why do we not go on?”

“Yes, yes; you are right, Uncle Joseph; let us go on at once. I shall lose all the little courage I have if we stay here much longer looking at the house.”

They proceeded down the path without another moment of delay. When they had reached the end of it, they stood opposite the eastern boundary wall of Porthgenna Tower. The principal entrance to the house, which had been very rarely used of late years, was in the west front, and was approached by a terrace road that overlooked the sea. The smaller entrance, which was generally used, was situated on the south side of the building, and led through the servants’ offices to the great hall and the west staircase. Sarah’s old experience of Porthgenna guided her instinctively toward this part of the house. She led her companion on until they gained the southern angle of the east wall — then stopped and looked about her. Since they had passed the postman and had entered on the moor, they had not set eyes on a living creature; and still, though they were now under the very walls of Porthgenna, neither man, woman, nor child — not even a domestic animal — appeared in view.

“It is very lonely here,” said Sarah, looking round her distrustfully; “much lonelier than it used to be.”

“Is it only to tell me what I can see for myself that you are stopping now?” asked Uncle Joseph, whose inveterate cheerfulness would have been proof against the solitude of Sahara itself.

“No, no!” she answered, in a quick, anxious whisper. “But the bell we must ring at is so close — only round there — I should like to know what we are to say when we come face to face with the servant. You told me it was time enough to think about that when we were at the door. Uncle! we are all but at the door now. What shall we do?”

“The first thing to do,” said Uncle Joseph, shrugging his shoulders, “is surely to ring.”

“Yes — but when the servant comes, what are we to say?”

“Say?” repeated Uncle Joseph, knitting his eyebrows quite fiercely with the effort of thinking, and rapping his forehead with his forefinger just under his hat — “Say? Stop, stop, stop, stop! Ah, I have got it! I know! Make yourself quite easy, Sarah. The moment the door is opened, all the speaking to the servant shall be done by me.”

“Oh, how you relieve me! What shall you say?”

“Say? This — ‘How do you do? We have come to see the house.’”

When he had disclosed that remarkable expedient for effecting an entrance into Porthgenna Tower, he spread out both his hands interrogatively, drew back several paces from his niece, and looked at her with the serenely self-satisfied air of a man who has leaped, at one mental bound, from a doubt to a discovery. Sarah gazed at him in astonishment. The expression of absolute conviction on his face staggered her. The poorest of all the poor excuses for gaining admission into the house which she herself had thought of and had rejected, during the previous night, seemed like the very perfection of artifice by comparison with such a childishly simple expedient as that suggested by Uncle Joseph. And yet there he stood, apparently quite convinced that he had hit on the means of smoothing away all obstacles at once. Not knowing what to say, not believing sufficiently in the validity of her own doubts to venture on openly expressing an opinion either one way or the other, she took the last refuge that was now left open to her — she endeavored to gain time.

“It is very, very good of you, uncle, to take all the difficulty of speaking to the servant on your own shoulders,” she said; the hidden despondency at her heart expressing itself, in spite of her, in the faintness of her voice and the forlorn perplexity of her eyes. “But would you mind waiting a little before we ring at the door, and walking up and down for a few minutes by the side of this wall, where nobody is likely to see us? I want to get a little more time to prepare myself for the trial that I have to go through; and — and in case the servant makes any difficulties about letting us in — I mean difficulties that we cannot just now anticipate — would it not be as well to think of something else to say at the door? Perhaps, if you were to consider again — ”

“There is not the least need,” interposed Uncle Joseph. “I have only to speak to the servant, and — crick! crack! — you will see that we shall get in. But I will walk up and down as long as you please. There is no reason, because I have done all my thinking in one moment, that you should have done all your thinking in one moment too. No, no, no — no reason at all.” Saying those words with a patronizing air and a self-satisfied smile, which would have been irresistibly comical under any less critical circumstances, the old man again offered his arm to his niece, and led her back over the broken ground that lay under the eastern wall of Porthgenna Tower.


While Sarah was waiting in doubt outside the walls, it happened, by a curious coincidence, that another person, vested with the highest domestic authority, was also waiting in doubt inside the walls. This person was no other than the housekeeper of Porthgenna Tower; and the cause of her perplexity was nothing less than the letter which had been delivered by the postman that very morning.

It was a letter from Mrs. Frankland, which had been written after she had held a long conversation with her husband and Mr. Orridge, on receiving the last fragments of information which the doctor was able to communicate in reference to Mrs. Jazeph.

The housekeeper had read the letter through over and over again, and was more puzzled and astonished by it at every fresh reading. She was now waiting for the return of the steward, Mr. Munder, from his occupations out of doors, with the intention of taking his opinion on the singular communication which she had received from her mistress.

While Sarah and her uncle were still walking up and down outside the eastern wall, Mr. Munder entered the housekeeper’s room. He was one of those tall, grave, benevolent-looking men, with a conical head, a deep voice, a slow step, and a heavy manner, who passively contrive to get a great reputation for wisdom without the trouble of saying or doing anything to deserve it. All round the Porthgenna neighborhood the steward was popularly spoken of as a remarkably sound, sensible man; and the housekeeper, although a sharp woman in other matters, in this one respect shared to a large extent in the general delusion.

“Good-morning, Mrs. Pentreath,” said Mr. Munder. “Any news to-day?” What a weight and importance his deep voice and his impressively slow method of using it, gave to those two insignificant sentences!

“News, Mr. Munder, that will astonish you,” replied the housekeeper. “I have received a letter this morning from Mrs. Frankland, which is, without any exception, the most mystifying thing of the sort I ever met with. I am told to communicate the letter to you; and I have been waiting the whole morning to hear your opinion of it. Pray sit down, and give me all your attention — for I do positively assure you that the letter requires it.”

Mr. Munder sat down, and became the picture of attention immediately — not of ordinary attention, which can be wearied, but of judicial attention, which knows no fatigue, and is superior alike to the power of dullness and the power of time. The housekeeper, without wasting the precious minutes — Mr. Munder’s minutes, which ranked next on the scale of importance to a prime minister’s! — opened her mistress’s letter, and, resisting the natural temptation to make a few more prefatory remarks on it, immediately favored the steward with the first paragraph, in the following terms:


“MRS. PENTREATH, — You must be tired of receiving letters from me, fixing a day for the arrival of Mr. Frankland and myself. On this, the third occasion of my writing to you about our plans, it will be best, I think, to make no third appointment, but merely to say that we shall leave West Winston for Porthgenna the moment I can get the doctors permission to travel.”


“So far,” remarked Mrs. Pentreath, placing the letter on her lap, and smoothing it out rather irritably while she spoke — “so far, there is nothing of much consequence. The letter certainly seems to me (between ourselves) to be written in rather poor language — too much like common talking to come up to my idea of what a lady’s style of composition ought to be — but that is a matter of opinion. I can’t say, and I should be the last person to wish to say, that the beginning of Mrs. Frankland’s letter is not, upon the whole, perfectly clear. It is the middle and the end that I wish to consult you about, Mr. Munder.”

“Just so,” said Mr. Munder. Only two words, but more meaning in them than two hundred in the mouth of an ordinary man! The housekeeper cleared her throat with extraordinary loudness and elaboration, and read on thus:


“My principal object in writing these lines is to request, by Mr. Frankland’s desire, that you and Mr. Munder will endeavor to ascertain, as privately as possible, whether a person now traveling in Cornwall — in whom we happen to be much interested — has been yet seen in the neighborhood of Porthgenna. The person in question is known to us by the name of Mrs. Jazeph. She is an elderly woman, of quiet, ladylike manners, looking nervous and in delicate health. She dresses, according to our experience of her, with extreme propriety and neatness, and in dark colors. Her eyes have a singular expression of timidity, her voice is particularly soft and low, and her manner is frequently marked by extreme hesitation. I am thus particular in describing her, in case she should not be traveling under the name by which we know her.

“For reasons which it is not necessary to state, both my husband and myself think it probable that, at some former period of her life, Mrs. Jazeph may have been connected with the Porthgenna neighborhood. Whether this be the fact or no, it is indisputably certain that she is familiar with the interior of Porthgenna Tower, and that she has an interest of some kind, quite incomprehensible to us, in the house. Coupling these facts with the knowledge we have of her being now in Cornwall, we think it just within the range of possibility that you or Mr. Munder, or some other person in our employment, may meet with her; and we are particularly anxious, if she should by any chance ask to see the house, not only that you should show her over it with perfect readiness and civility, but also that you should take private and particular notice of her conduct from the time when she enters the building to the time when she leaves it. Do not let her out of your sight for a moment; and, if possible, pray get some trustworthy person to follow her unperceived, and ascertain where she goes to after she has quitted the house. It is of the most vital importance that these instructions (strange as they may seem to you) should be implicitly obeyed to the very letter.

“I have only room and time to add that we know nothing to the discredit of this person, and that we particularly desire you will manage matters with sufficient discretion (in case you meet with her) to prevent her from having any suspicion that you are acting under orders, or that you have any especial interest in watching her movements. You will be good enough to communicate this letter to the steward, and you are at liberty to repeat the instructions in it to any other trustworthy person, if necessary.

Yours truly,


“P.S. — I have left my room, and the baby is getting on charmingly.”


“There!” said the housekeeper. “Who is to make head or tail of that, I should like to know! Did you ever, in all your experience, Mr. Munder, meet with such a letter before? Here is a very heavy responsibility laid on our shoulders, without one word of explanation. I have been puzzling my brains about what their interest in this mysterious woman can be the whole morning; and the more I think, the less comes of it. What is your opinion, Mr. Munder? We ought to do something immediately. Is there any course in particular which you feel disposed to point out?”

Mr. Munder coughed dubiously, crossed his right leg over his left, put his head critically on one side, coughed for the second time, and looked at the housekeeper. If it had belonged to any other man in the world, Mrs. Pentreath would have considered that the face which now confronted hers expressed nothing but the most profound and vacant bewilderment. But it was Mr. Munder’s face, and it was only to be looked at with sentiments of respectful expectation.

“I rather think — ” began Mr. Munder.

“Yes?” said the housekeeper, eagerly.

Before another word could be spoken, the maid-servant entered the room to lay the cloth for Mrs. Pentreath’s dinner.

“There, there! never mind now, Betsey,” said the housekeeper, impatiently. “Don’t lay the cloth till I ring for you. Mr. Munder and I have something very important to talk about, and we can’t be interrupted just yet.”

She had hardly said the word, before an interruption of the most unexpected kind happened. The door-bell rang. This was a very unusual occurrence at Porthgenna Tower. The few persons who had any occasion to come to the house on domestic business always entered by a small side gate, which was left on the latch in the day-time.

“Who in the world can that be!” exclaimed Mrs. Pentreath, hastening to the window, which commanded a side view of the lower door steps.

The first object that met her eye when she looked out was a lady standing on the lowest step — a lady dressed very neatly in quiet, dark colors.

“Good Heavens, Mr. Munder!” cried the housekeeper, hurrying back to the table, and snatching up Mrs. Frankland’s letter, which she had left on it. “There is a stranger waiting at the door at this very moment! a lady! or, at least, a woman — and dressed neatly, dressed in dark colors! You might knock me down, Mr. Munder, with a feather! Stop, Betsey — stop where you are!”

“I was only going, ma’am, to answer the door,” said Betsey, in amazement.

“Stop where you are,” reiterated Mrs. Pentreath, composing herself by a great effort. “I happen to have certain reasons, on this particular occasion, for descending out of my own place and putting myself into yours. Stand out of the way, you staring fool! I am going upstairs to answer that ring at the door myself.”

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