The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

The Beginning of the End.

IT was baking-day in the establishment of Mr. Andrew Treverton when the messenger intrusted with Doctor Chennery’s letter found his way to the garden door of the cottage at Bayswater. After he had rung three times, he heard a gruff voice, on the other side of the wall, roaring at him to let the bell alone, and asking who he was, and what the devil he wanted.

“A letter for Mr. Treverton,” said the messenger, nervously backing away from the door while he spoke.

“Chuck it over the wall, then, and be off with you!” answered the gruff voice.

The messenger obeyed both injunctions, he was a meek, modest, elderly man; and when Nature mixed up the ingredients of his disposition, the capability of resenting injuries was not among them.

The man with the gruff voice — or, to put it in plainer terms, the man Shrowl — picked up the letter, weighed it in his hand, looked at the address on it with an expression of contemptuous curiosity in his bull-terrier eyes, put it in his waistcoat pocket, and walked around lazily to the kitchen entrance of the cottage.

In the apartment which would probably have been called the pantry, if the house had belonged to civilized tenants, a hand-mill had been set up; and, at the moment when Shrowl made his way to this room, Mr. Treverton was engaged in asserting his independence of all the millers in England by grinding his own corn. He paused irritably in turning the handle of the mill when his servant appeared at the door.

“What do you come here for?” he asked. “When the flour’s ready, I’ll call for you. Don’t let’s look at each other oftener than we can help! I never set eyes on you, Shrowl, but I ask myself whether, in the whole range of creation, there is any animal as ugly as man? I saw a cat this morning on the garden wall, and there wasn’t a single point in which you would bear comparison with him. The cat’s eyes were clear — yours are muddy. The cat’s nose was straight — yours is crooked. The cat’s whiskers were clean — yours are dirty. The cat’s coat fitted him — yours hangs about you like a sack. I tell you again, Shrowl, the species to which you (and I) belong is the ugliest on the whole face of creation. Don’t let us revolt each other by keeping in company any longer. Go away, you last, worst, infirmest freak of Nature — go away!”

Shrowl listened to this complimentary address with an aspect of surly serenity. When it had come to an end, he took the letter from his waistcoat pocket, without condescending to make any reply. He was, by this time, too thoroughly conscious of his own power over his master to attach the smallest importance to anything Mr. Treverton might say to him.

“Now you’ve done your talking, suppose you take a look at that” said Shrowl, dropping the letter carelessly on a deal table by his master’s side. “It isn’t often that people trouble themselves to send letters to you — is it? I wonder whether your niece has took a fancy to write to you? It was put in the papers the other day that she’d got a son and heir. Open the letter, and see if it’s an invitation to the christening. The company would be sure to want your smiling face at the table to make ’em jolly. Just let me take a grind at the mill, while you go out and get a silver mug. The son and heir expects a mug you know, and his nurse expects half a guinea, and his mamma expects all your fortune. What a pleasure to make the three innocent creeturs happy! It’s shocking to see you pulling wry faces, like that, over the letter. Lord! lord! where can all your natural affection have gone to? — ”

“If I only knew where to lay my hand on a gag, I’d cram it into your infernal mouth!” cried Mr. Treverton. “How dare you talk to me about my niece? You wretch! you know I hate her for her mother’s sake. What do you mean by harping perpetually on my fortune? Sooner than leave it to the play-actress’s child, I’d even leave it to you; and sooner than leave it to you, I would take every farthing of it out in a boat, and bury it forever at the bottom of the sea!” Venting his dissatisfaction in these strong terms, Mr. Treverton snatched up Doctor Chennery’s letter, and tore it open in a humor which by no means promised favorably for the success of the vicar’s application.

He read the letter with an ominous scowl on his face, which grew darker and darker as he got nearer and nearer to the end. When he came to the signature his humor changed, and he laughed sardonically. “Faithfully yours, Robert Chennery,” he repeated to himself “Yes! faithfully mine, if I humor your whim. And what if I don’t, parson?” He paused, and looked at the letter again, the scowl re-appealing on his face as he did so. “There’s a lie of some kind lurking about under these lines of fair writing,” he muttered suspiciously. “I am not one of his congregation: the law gives him no privilege of imposing on me. What does he mean by making the attempt?” He stopped again, reflected a little, looked up suddenly at Shrowl, and said to him,

“Have you lit the oven fire yet?”

“No, I hav’n’t,” answered Shrowl.

Mr. Treverton examined the letter for the third time — hesitated — then slowly tore it in half and tossed the two pieces over contemptuously to his servant.

“Light the fire at once,” he said. “And, if you want paper, there it is for you. Stop!” he added, after Shrowl had picked up the torn letter. “If anybody comes here to-morrow morning to ask for an answer, tell them I gave you the letter to light the fire with, and say that’s the answer.” With those words Mr. Treverton returned to the mill, and began to grind at it again, with a grin of malicious satisfaction on his haggard face.

Shrowl withdrew into the kitchen, closed the door, and, placing the torn pieces of the letter together on the dresser, applied himself, with the coolest deliberation, to the business of reading it. When he had gone slowly and carefully through it, from the address at the beginning to the name at the end, he scratched reflectively for a little while at his ragged beard, then folded the letter up carefully and put it in his pocket.

“I’ll have another look at it later in the day,” he thought to himself, tearing off a piece of an old newspaper to light the fire with. “It strikes me, just at present, that there may be better things done with this letter than burning it.”

Resolutely abstaining from taking the letter out of his pocket again until all the duties of the household for that day had been duly performed, Shrowl lit the fire, occupied the morning in making and baking the bread, and patiently took his turn afterward at digging in the kitchen garden. It was four o’clock in the afternoon before he felt himself at liberty to think of his private affairs, and to venture on retiring into solitude with the object of secretly looking over the letter once more.

A second perusal of Doctor Chennery’s unlucky application to Mr. Treverton helped to confirm Shrowl in his resolution not to destroy the letter. With great pains and perseverance, and much incidental scratching at his beard, he contrived to make himself master of three distinct points in it, which stood out, in his estimation, as possessing prominent and serious importance.

The first point which he contrived to establish clearly in his mind was that the person who signed the name of Robert Chennery was desirous of examining a plan, or printed account, of the north side of the interior of a certain old house in Cornwall, called Porthgenna Tower. The second point appeared to resolve itself into this, that Robert Chennery believed some such plan or printed account might be found among the collection of books belonging to Mr. Treverton. The third point was that this same Robert Chennery would receive the loan of the plan or printed account as one of the greatest favors that could be conferred on him. Meditating on the latter fact, with an eye exclusively fixed on the contemplation of his own interests, Shrowl arrived at the conclusion that it might be well worth his while, in a pecuniary point of view, to try if he could not privately place himself in a position to oblige Robert Chennery by searching in secret among his master’s books. “It might be worth a five-pound note to me, if I managed it well,” thought Shrowl, putting the letter back in his pocket again, and ascending the stairs thoughtfully to the lumber-rooms at the top of the house.

These rooms were two in number, were entirely unfurnished, and were littered all over with the rare collection of books which had once adorned the library at Porthgenna Tower. Covered with dust, and scattered in all directions and positions over the floor, lay hundreds and hundreds of volumes, cast out of their packing-cases as coals are cast out of their sacks into a cellar. Ancient books, which students would have treasured as priceless, lay in chaotic equality of neglect side by side with modern publications whose chief merit was the beauty of the binding by which they were inclosed. Into this wilderness of scattered volumes Shrowl now wandered, fortified by the supreme self-possession of ignorance, to search resolutely for one particular book, with no other light to direct him than the faint glimmer of the two guiding words — Porthgenna Tower. Having got them firmly fixed in his mind, his next object was to search until he found them printed on the first page of any one of the hundreds of volumes that lay around him. This was, for the time being, emphatically his business in life, and there he now stood, in the largest of the two attics, doggedly prepared to do it.

He cleared away space enough with his feet to enable him to sit down comfortably on the floor, and then began to look over all the books that lay within arm’s -length of him. Odd volumes of rare editions of the classics, odd volumes of the English historians, odd volumes of plays by the Elizabethan dramatists, books of travel, books of sermons, books of jests, books of natural history, books of sport, turned up in quaint and rapid succession; but no book containing on the title-page the words “Porthgenna Tower” rewarded the searching industry of Shrowl for the first ten minutes after he had sat himself down on the floor.

Before removing to another position, and contending with a fresh accumulation of literary lumber, he paused and considered a little with himself, whether there might not be some easier and more orderly method than any he had yet devised of working his way through the scattered mass of volumes which yet remained to be examined. The result of his reflections was that it would be less confusing to him if he searched through the books in all parts of the room indifferently, regulating his selection of them solely by their various sizes; disposing of all the largest to begin with; then, after stowing them away together, proceeding to the next largest, and so going on until he came down at last to the pocket volumes. Accordingly, he cleared away another morsel of vacant space near the wall, and then, trampling over the books as coolly as if they were so many clods of earth on a ploughed field, picked out the largest of’ all the volumes that lay on the floor.

It was an atlas; Shrowl turned over the maps, reflected, shook his head, and removed the volume to the vacant space which he had cleared close to the wall.

The next largest book was a magnificently bound collection of engraved portraits of distinguished characters. Shrowl saluted the distinguished characters with a grunt of Gothic disapprobation, and carried them off to keep the atlas company against the wall.

The third largest book lay under several others. It projected a little at one end, and it was bound in scarlet morocco. In another position, or bound in a quieter color, it would probably have escaped notice. Shrowl drew it out with some difficulty, opened it with a portentous frown of distrust, looked at the title-page — and suddenly slapped his thigh with a great oath of exultation. There were the very two words of which he was in search, staring him in the face, as it were, with all the emphasis of the largest capital letters.

He took a step toward the door to make sure that his master was not moving in the house; then checked himself and turned back. “What do I care,” thought Shrowl, “whether he sees me or not? If it comes to a tussle betwixt us which is to have his own way, I know who’s master and who’s servant in the house by this time.” Composing himself with that reflection, he turned to the first leaf of the book, with the intention of looking it over carefully, page by page, from beginning to end.

The first leaf was a blank. The second leaf had an inscription written at the top of it, in faded ink, which contained these words and initials: “Rare. Only six copies printed. J. A. T.” Below, on the middle of the leaf, was the printed dedication: “To John Arthur Treverton, Esquire, Lord of the Manor of Porthgenna, One of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, F.R.S., etc., etc., etc., this work, in which an attempt is made to describe the ancient and honored Mansion of his Ancestors — ” There were many more lines, filled to bursting with all the largest and most obsequious words to be found in the dictionary; but Shrowl wisely abstained from giving himself the trouble of reading them, and turned over at once to the title-page.

There were the all-important words: “The History and Antiquities of PORTHGENNA TOWER. From the period of its first erection to the present time; comprising interesting genealogical particulars relating to the Treverton family; with an inquiry into the Origin of Gothic Architecture, and a few thoughts on the Theory of Fortification after the period of the Norman Conquest. By the Reverend Job Dark, D.D., Rector of Porthgenna. The whole adorned with Portraits, Views, and Plans, executed in the highest style of art. Not published. Printed by Spaldock and Grimes, Truro, 1734.”

That was the title-page. The next leaf contained an engraved view of Porthgenna Tower from the West. Then came several pages devoted to the origin of Gothic Architecture. Then more pages, explaining the Norman Theory of Fortification. These were succeeded by another engraving — Porthgenna Tower from the East. After that followed more reading, under the title of The Treverton Family; and then came the third engraving — Porthgenna Tower from the North. Shrowl paused there, and looked with interest at the leaf opposite the print. It only announced more reading still, about the Erection of the Mansion; and this was succeeded by engravings from family portraits in the gallery at Porthgenna. Placing his left thumb between the leaves to mark the place, Shrowl impatiently turned to the end of the book, to see what he could find there. The last leaf contained a plan of the stables; the leaf before that presented a plan of the north garden; and on the next leaf, turning backward, was the very thing described in Robert Chennery’s letter — a plan of the interior arrangement of the north side of the house!

Shrowl’s first impulse on making this discovery was to carry the book away to the safest hiding-place he could find for it, preparatory to secretly offering it for sale when the messenger called the next morning for an answer to the letter. A little reflection, however, convinced him that a proceeding of this sort bore a dangerously close resemblance to the act of thieving, and might get him into trouble if the person with whom he desired to deal asked him any preliminary questions touching his right to the volume which he wanted to dispose of. The only alternative that remained was to make the best copy he could of the Plan, and to traffic with that, as a document which the most scrupulous person in the world need not hesitate to purchase.

Resolving, after some consideration, to undergo the trouble of making the copy rather than run the risk of purloining the book, Shrowl descended to the kitchen, took from one of the drawers of the dresser an old stump of a pen, a bottle of ink, and a crumpled half-sheet of dirty letter-paper, and returned to the garret to copy the Plan as he best might. It was of the simplest kind, and it occupied but a small portion of the page; yet it presented to his eyes a hopelessly involved and intricate appearance when he now examined it for the second time.

The rooms were represented by rows of small squares, with names neatly printed inside them; and the positions of doors, staircases, and passages were indicated by parallel lines of various lengths and breadths. After much cogitation, frowning, and pulling at his beard, it occurred to Shrowl that the easiest method of copying the Plan would be to cover it with the letter-paper which, though hardly half the size of the page, was large enough to spread over the engraving on it — and then to trace the lines which he saw through the paper as carefully as he could with his pen and ink. He puffed and snorted and grumbled, and got red in the face over his task; but he accomplished it at last — bating certain drawbacks in the shape of blots and smears — in a sufficiently creditable manner; then stopped to let the ink dry and to draw his breath freely, before he attempted to do anything more.

The next obstacle to be overcome consisted in the difficulty of copying the names of the rooms, which were printed inside the squares. Fortunately for Shrowl, who was one of the clumsiest of mankind in the use of the pen, none of the names were very long. As it was, he found the greatest difficulty in writing them in sufficiently small characters to fit into the squares. One name in particular — that of the Myrtle Room presented combinations of letters, in the word “Myrtle,” which tried his patience and his fingers sorely when he attempted to reproduce them. Indeed, the result, in this case, when he had done his best, was so illegible, even to his eyes, that he wrote the word over again in larger characters at the top of the page, and connected it by a wavering line with the square which represented the Myrtle Room. The same accident happened to him in two other instances, and was remedied in the same way. With the rest of the names, however, he succeeded better; and, when he had finally completed the business of transcription by writing the title, “Plan of the North Side,” his copy presented, on the whole, a more respectable appearance than might have been anticipated. After satisfying himself of its accuracy by a careful comparison of it with the original, he folded it up along with Doctor Chennery’s letter, and deposited it in his pocket with a hoarse gasp of relief and a grim smile of satisfaction.

The next morning the garden door of the cottage presented itself to the public eye in the totally new aspect of standing hospitably ajar; and one of the bare posts had the advantage of being embellished by the figure of Shrowl, who leaned against it easily, with his legs crossed, his hands in his pockets, and his pipe in his mouth, looking out for the return of the messenger who had delivered Doctor Chennery’s letter the day before.

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