Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The silver cord - Part 11
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
After a fruitless search for the hotel mentioned by Silvain, as that at which a letter would be left for Mr. Lygon, the latter, whose nature was unsuspicious, endeavoured to retain the belief that a hasty message had been misunderstood, and that the Frenchman had accidentally directed him wrongly. But the sorrow, the excitement, and the irritation which Arthur had gone through since his wife’s departure from England began to tell upon him, and some darker thoughts than he had ever before admitted to his mind took the place of the frank and unsuspecting feeling with which he had been in the habit of receiving the statements of others. The transition was unfortunate for his own happiness, for a nature like his, once warped, often proceeds to subtleties of distrust and suspicion which tinge subsequent life with a gloom that no conviction can ever entirely dispel. The steel once tarnished may be polished never so carefully, at times the spots will re-appear upon the blade.
He lost little time in returning to the avenue. Expecting that Mrs. Urquhart might be denied to him, he had made up his mind not to leave the house again until he had had an interview with her. But her part had been assigned to her, and Lygon was at once admitted.
Bertha rose, gave him her hand, and spoke before he had time to address her.
“Arthur, what must you have thought of my unceremonious flight?”
“I might understand that, Bertha,” he said, almost sternly, “but not the absence of another, whom I come back to seek. Where is Laura?”
“That is what I have to tell you, but pray do not agitate me, for I am very ill.”
“You have only to answer a question.”
“First I must tell you that Henderson is out of her wits with alarm at the terrible mistake she has committed. She caused her French lover, Silvain, to deliver to you a message that was never intended for yourself, and which must have taken you to Paris on a useless errand. The blunder was, I believe, his rather than hers, and the message was for a friend of Mr. Urquhart's, a gentleman who has been hunting him up about some railway business."
Lygon looked at her with a keen glance.
"It matters little, Bertha. All I want at this moment is to see Laura. Where is she?"
"She has gone into Paris—Henderson says that she told you so."
"Where in Paris?"
"I am not to tell you."
" Bertha, what kind of an answer is that?" said Lygon, turning white with anger.
"You may frighten me to death," said Bertha, crying, "but I can make you no other."
"Is it—do you dare to tell me—that my wife has given you this injunction."
"I do not say that, but I am not to say more."
"Bertha, beware what you are about! The woman who lends herself to help a separation of man and wife incurs an awful responsibility."
"It will all come right," sobbed Bertha; "but do be patient."
"Are you mad, Bertha? Patient, with a wife whom I loved better than my life, suddenly abandoning her home and her children, and hiding herself from me, as if she were criminal? I command you to disobey any orders, and tell me where my wife has gone."
"You—you have no right to command me," stammered Bertha.
"No," said Lygon, more calmly. "That is true. But Robert Urquhart has a right, and he shall exert it."
The tone of his voice was merely expressive of determination, but Bertha's conscience read menace in it, and she suddenly sprang to his side, and fell on her knees.
"No, no, Arthur. For God's sake, spare me. He will kill me."
"What can you mean?" replied Arthur Lygon, astonished.
"Nay, I know what you mean," said Bertha, clutching at his arm. "You came here prepared to use your power."
"My power," repeated Lygon, in sincere bewilderment.
"You told me that you knew all," said Bertha, agitated. "But I implore you, Arthur, spare me."
Lygon's mind was too painfully filled with his own trouble to comprehend hers for the moment. But as her meaning dawned upon him, he raised her from the ground, and said—there was both indignation and kindness in his voice—
"I am ashamed to understand you, Bertha. More ashamed that you should be able to think such a thought of me."
"You do not mean to reveal to Mr. Urquhart—"
"Silence, Bertha, for very shame! What have I done to deserve such a question? Why, have I not found my only comfort in believing that Laura has foolishly come over here in order to serve you in some mysterious way, and what other belief could make we forgive her wild step? I wish to know nothing but where I can find her. Tell me that."
"If I refuse, you will call on Robert to compel me?"
"You will not refuse."
"Indeed I must."
"And your reason for refusing?" said Lygon, trembling with passion.
"That I must not say."
"Bertha, I will have an answer, even if I am driven to demand it through your husband. I will ask him for nothing but that simple answer. It will be your own act if he, in obtaining it for me, asks why Laura has come here."
"She did not come on my affairs," said Bertha, in an undertone.
"What!" cried Lygon, fiercely. "Nay, you are not speaking truthfully," he added, in a gentler voice.
"You have a right to insult me," said Mrs. Urquhart, piteously.
"Neither right nor wish," was his reply, "but you must not play with my feelings. Let me hear the truth from you."
"So you do. It is not on my business that Laura has come over, but on her own. I swear it to you."
"Be it what it may," said Arthur, "I am upon her traces, and I must find her. There is no time for soft language, Bertha. I must know where she is, and I once more demand it of you."
"You will compel me to speak," gasped poor Bertha, terrified. "There is no kindness in your voice now——"
"Nor in my heart, nor will there be until I am satisfied."
"He will kill me," muttered Bertha.
"What is this madness?" he replied, angrily. "You are only asked to give up a secret that you have no right to keep. Five words between us and we part for years. Tell me what I ask—but beware of deceiving me again."
"Again?" said Bertha, looking up at him with tearful eyes.
"You are talking to gain time," said he, impetuously. "Do you think I believe that your adroit servant made a blunder in the message? Now, the truth."
"Laura is on her way back to England."
"To her home?"
"I do not know."
"Am I to believe this?" said he.
"Shall I swear it to you?"
"No," said Arthur, with a certain cynicism of tone which struck on the heart of Bertha.
"I understand you," she said. "You think that—that an oath would have no terror for me. But you are wrong, and I am telling you the truth now. Laura is returning to England. You cannot follow her to-night, for the last train has left. Look at the paper for yourself."
"Mrs. Urquhart," said he, with a strong effort suppressing all manifestation of feeling, "I must hear more from you. I have a right to ask more, and whether that be so or not, I do ask more. My own heart furnishes me with excuse for aught that may seem harsh, and I can bear to be trifled with no longer. Tell me the business which brought my wife to France."
"I do not know, I do not know," repeated Mrs. Urquhart.
"That must be false. You have no secrets between you."
"This is one, Arthur. If I made a guess I might deceive you, which I have no wish to do——"
"Well," said he, thinking a gleam of light might be afforded him.
"It may be—I almost suppose it is—something about my father."
"About Mr. Vernon?"
"Yes. When he came over to France during his troubles, he was engaged in a dark plot against the Government. I never understood it, but there were oaths and secrets, and the police knew all about it. From what Laura has said, and it was very little, I think that she has been summoned on a matter of life and death, but more I know not. I do know that she has accomplished her business, and is returning."
"I have no means of knowing whether you speak truthfully or not; but remember, your story will be tested in a few days."
"Do not threaten me until you find I deserve it."
"It will then be too late for threats," said Arthur Lygon. "Remember that; and if you are withholding the truth from me, you have still an opportunity of setting yourself right."
"I have told you all I know," said Bertha, "except Laura's address in Paris, and that would be of no use to you, because she will have left before you could reach it."
"That is true," said Arthur. "Still give it me, as proof that the rest of the story is true." Bertha took a card from among several that lay in a China basket, and gave it to Lygon. He saw that it was a woman's card, with an address, and placed it in his pocket.
"There are no more trains," Bertha repeated. "You will stay here to-night, though it will be sad for you, Robert being away, and my being so ill. But we will make you as comfortable as we can."
"I thank you, Bertha, but no. I shall be off by the earliest train, and it would disturb your household. I will sleep in the town here, and trouble no one. Farewell. If you are behaving loyally to me now, I shall have an opportunity of saying to you—or, better, of showing you that you retain a friend, although——"
"Although Laura will be ordered never to see or correspond with me again."
"I am too much in the dark to speak of the future, but no one as yet has had a right to call me a harsh judge. What I may be under disloyal treatment, I know not."
"If you knew all, Arthur, you would indeed pity me."
"Indeed I do, and should, if I only knew that you were a wife who dares not tell her husband every thought of her heart. I do indeed pity you, Bertha."
"Laura tells you every thought of hers," said Bertha, holding his hand.
"I believed so. I believe that she will do so. When I believe that she ceases to do so I shall have no wife. Farewell, Bertha."
He pressed her hand, and went out into the now lovely summer night.
When Mrs. Hawkesley had departed on her visit to her father at Canonbury, her husband, after making short work with the end of an article in which the House of Hapsburg was strongly, yet affectionately, recommended by him to set itself in order at the earliest opportunity, started for his walk to Brompton, to visit Laura's children. But a man must mind his own business, more or less, whatever may be happening to his friends, and in the Park Hawkesley encountered the manager of one of the pleasantest of the London theatres.
"Stand and deliver!" said Mr. Aventayle. "I see a manuscript in your pocket, and of course it is the piece you have promised me so long. This is not exactly in your way from Maida Hill to the theatre; but perhaps you were going to read out to yourself sub tegmine fagi?"
"This is not a manuscript," said the author, laughing. "Do you think I would trust myself with valuables in solitary places where managers and such like walk about? This is a kaleidoscope, which affords you a good opportunity for introducing an appropriate quotation—
'Each change of many-coloured life he drew.'"
"But he—meaning you—did nothing of the sort. There's no getting anything out of you. I suppose you do not care about money."
"Not the least. If I take it, that is only for form's sake. I write purely to do my fellow-creatures good."
"Do me some, and give me a good piece," said Mr. Aventayle. "We want it particularly, just now."
"Just now I am particularly busy, my dear Aventayle."
"Of course you are. But, come, promise, then I shall get it."
"I cannot say, to a week, when I can take it up."
"I don't want you to say to a week—say it to me. Laughs," added Mr. Aventayle, mockingly quoting a stage direction.
"If you can make such epigrams as that, you might write your own pieces," said Hawkesley, "and not try to demoralise me by giving me such work. But walk with me this way, that's a good fellow, for I have a call over yonder to make."
"What, at the French Embassy? Going to ask the Ambassador for the loan of a few French plays," laughed Aventayle, a gentlemanly and accomplished man, out of whom not even the troubled politics of management had been able to make what the necessity of self-defence makes of a good many of us, both in and out of management. They walked on in companionship.
"Nonsense apart, Hawkesley, I should be very glad of a piece from you just now. We are getting capital houses to the Bright Poker, and long may they last; but I want to be ready with something else the moment that flags."
"I can't write Bright Pokers. I am a moral man, and the father of a family."
"There's nothing immoral in our piece, come, young virtuous. You have not seen it."
"I have, three times."
"More shame to you, if it isn't correct. Shows your real nature. But the fact is, there is not an objectionable word in the whole thing."
"No. But the plot is simply an illustration of how a married woman can conceal a disgraceful intrigue by the most enormous lying."
"Ah, and don't she lie well? But it's a French notion, and French morals are admitted duty free."
"Very neat, but proves nothing, except, as I say, Aventayle, that you ought to write your own pieces."
"I prefer paying you. And I don't pay badly, do I, come?"
"No, on the contrary. But let us see, you have been debilitating your company, haven't you?"
"No such thing; so there's not that excuse for you."
"I saw in a paper that Mrs. Dumharton was leaving you."
"Well, she doesn't attract, and she doesn't play half as well as she did."
"You thought differently at Easter."
"Certainly, because she was then coming to me, and now she's going away. If she comes back at Christmas, I shall be prepared to think about her as I thought in March, namely, that she is a capital actress, and a very disagreeable woman. That is the only change in my company, Hawkesley of Maida Hill."
"No, no, Salter told me that Miss Pinnock was leaving you."
"Salter lied. Miss Pinnock some time ago got from her Catechism to her Marriage Service, and the result may detain her at home for a moon or so, but she will be quite ready to play your young lady. Any other mean excuse for not getting to work?"
"Well, I'll look up some jottings I made for a piece, and let you know whether I see my way in it."
"You will do nothing of the kind," said Aventayle, taking out a memorandum book.
"You will state to me here, with your foot upon your native park, and your name McHawkesley, what day I am to receive the first act. Now, let me write it down."
"You shall have the first when you have the I rest. They say women and fools ought never to be allowed to see anything in an unfinished state, and though you are neither woman nor fool, I have a prejudice for extending the rule to people who have to get up a play."
"My dear fellow, I should not think of looking at your manuscript until I got the whole of it. But I like to have an instalment under lock and key. When will you hand over the whole?"
"Don't tie me down, that's a good fellow. I'll not lose time."
"Will it be a full piece?"
"Yes, I will use as many of your stars as I can, never fear."
"None of your scoffs. It is the best company in London, which is the reason, Mr. Hawkesley of Maida Hill, why I apply to the best author to write for it. Give me an idea of the scenery, and I will set Vister to work."
"Well—first act, before a gentleman's country house."
"Manly sports on the lawn, greased pole, and leg of mutton, running in sacks, and all that. Or, I say, take it into Scotland, and let the tenants be putting the stone, tossing the caber, and so on. The Highland dresses will look well."
"Keep such things for your pantomimes, sir, and don't seek to degrade the drama. Upon second thoughts, I don't mind some targets, and girls in archery costume, only your girls are such guys."
"I tell you that you don't know the company. Little Fanny Tudor is as pretty a girl as is on the stage, and then there's Maria Lincoln, come, and Julia Greening, come, and Loo Fennell, come. If those girls are guys, I wish it was fifth of Novem her all the year round."
"I forgot your resources. Well, make a pretty house, and a lawn, and have Fanny, and Maria, and Julia, and Loo taught some shooting, and I will let you know about the second act as soon as I can."
"But make it as great a contrast to the sun shiny lawn as you can. You couldn't lay the next scene down a coal-pit, could you?"
"And end with an explosion of fire-damp, and call the piece 'Davy's Lamp.' Thank you."
"Hm," said the manager, "many a good word is spoken in jest, and if I don't have a fire-damp explosion before long—never mind. Do you copyright the suggestion."
"No, I present it to you."
The manager, with a look of affected solemnity of the most awful description, made a note in his pocket-book.
"By the way," he said, closing it, "I have something else to say to you, which is also of a professional kind. I have had a piece sent to me by a man whose name I never heard, but the drama is full of good stuff, only crudely put together. I have a strong notion that it would do, but it wants manipulation. Would you give it a look over, and see whether you agree with me. If you would do the necessary work to it yourself, of course it should be worth your while, but, anyhow, look it over."
"Send it me. Who's the man."
"His name is Adair. Probably a nom de plume. But he is a very smart fellow, and has a genius for 'situation.' Also he writes a beautiful hand, which is more than can he said of every friend of mine."
"Distrust any man who writes too good a hand, that is, a hand in the least degree better than mine."
"I shall be happy to distrust him; but if you think as well of his piece as I do, I shall also be very happy to play it."
"Then you can give me a couple of months longer for mine."
"Not an hour. If you were ready to-day, I would underline it to-morrow, and I will on Monday, if you will give me the title. There is confidence."
"Assurance, you mean," said Hawkeslcy, laughing. "But I'll think of you. I am going to call in Gurdon Terrace, on some little people."
"Will you like to give them a box?'" said the good-natured Aventayle. "I dare say I have got one."
"Sorry you have any to give away; but I will take it notwithstanding, as they are too young to be hurt by your bright poker. Thanks."
They parted, and Charles Hawkesley went on to Lygon's house.
"Uncle Charles!" cried Fred with a great shout, as his friend entered. "Walter,"he bawled at the top of his lungs," Here's Uncle Charles!"
Walter was immediately heard jumping down stairs half-a-dozen at a time, with intermediate lumps at the landings.
"Easy to see that mamma and papa are away, Master Walter, by the way you come down. How are you, my boy?"
"Oh, all right," said Walter."How's Aunty?"
"Very well. Will you come to us to-morrow, and spend the day?"
"I will," said Fred, promptly.
"Who asked you," said his uncle, laughing.
"I had rather not come, uncle," said Walter. "Papa and mamma might come home while I was away."
"And don't you think they could bear to wait for you till night?"
"Yes," said Walter, his eyes filling with tears, "but I couldn't bear to wait for them."
"My boy, I dare say it is lonely for you," said Charles Hawkesley, taking his hand, "but of course they will soon be back."
"Have you heard from them yet, uncle?" said Walter, anxiously.
"Well, no; but the reason for that of course is, that as they must be coming home so soon they don't think it worth while to write. Don't you think so, Price," he said to the domestic, a very respectable and kindly-looking woman—just the person to be left in charge of children, and extremely unlikely to invoke any form of Bogey to aid her.
"That would be a very good reason, sir," she said. "Could I speak to you for a moment?" she added.
"Certainly, Price. I'll come to you boys directly; stop here in the dining-room," said Hawkesley, and he went into the little room with the servant.
"I beg your pardon for taking the liberty, sir——"
"No liberty, Price. What can I do?"
"You said you had not heard from master or mistress, sir."
"I have not, nor has Mrs. Hawkesley, and I thought that Mr. and Mrs. Lygon might have returned, and I walked over to see. Anything wanted that we can do?"
"I hope you will not think me overbold, sir," said Price, closing the door, "but there are some very strange things going about, and I would not for the world they should come to the ears of the dear children; and if you did not think that my mistress would be back soon, and it would not be putting you out of your way, it might be best for them to stop at your house with their cousins."
"That was what I came to tell them, but certainly not for any reason like yours. What do you mean, Price?"
"You have heard nothing, sir, about my mistress '.'"
"Nothing, except that her father accidentally mentions in a letter that he has not heard of her, or from Walter, lately."
"That's Mr. Vernon, sir?"
"To be sure—who else?"
"And it was he," said Price, "who came here late last night. I judged as much from the de scription."
"Came to see the children?"
"No, sir, they were in bed, and I had gone out to get some things in. Mr. Vernon came in a way very unlike a gentleman—I mean he rang the servants' bell, and when Eliza answered it, he only said he wished to know if all was right. She did not know him, and thought there was some trick of a thief, so she very properly put the chain up, and let him speak across it. He asked some curious questions which she did not quite understand, and said we were to write to Canonbury, which gave me the clue."
"But there is nothing to be uneasy about in that. He evidently did not wish to alarm anybody, but wanted to satisfy himself. He is an odd man, but very kind-hearted."
"I cannot see why he should ring the servants' bell," persisted Price.
"Perhaps he took it for the visitors' bell."
"Maybe, sir, but I cannot say I like appearances," replied the domestic. "However, that would not be much, one way or the other, and I should not have felt it my duty to speak about it, if it had not happened to tally, as I may say, with what you said."
"But you spoke of strange things, Price. There's nothing very strange in a grandfather coming to inquire after his grandchildren, ringing the wrong bell by mistake, and frightening a girl who did not know him."
"No, sir, there is not. But I wish that was all. The tradespeople in the neighbourhood have heard something else, and it has been brought to I only wish it could have been kept to me, and I know I used that language to Eliza, for repeating some of it, that a woman should not use to a young girl unless she richly deserves it."
"I know well, Price, that you would be as much vexed at any false rumours that affected the house of your master as he himself could be."
"I hope so, sir, for he and my mistress have been as kind as kind could be to me, and mine I may say, for Mr. Lygon got my half-brother Henry a place on the railway, and as for my mistress, when I was ill, no sister of her own could have been better nursed. And there ought to be a law for making people hold their tongues, unless they can prove it," said Price, getting a little confused in her usually excellent English.
"Prove what, Price?"
"Sir," said she, in a lower tone. "I don't believe a syllable of it, and if it were true, there is something at the bottom that we know nothing about, but I believe it to be all a wicked lie. But some of the tradespeople that we deal with have had a hint that Mrs. Lygon will not come back.”
“I should like six words with any of them who have dared to circulate such a slander,” said Hawkesley, “and you will tell me their names.”
“It is very strange, sir, that three of them should all have heard of it at once, that is Turton, the baker, and two others. But what is strangest is that Watkins, the grocer, should have heard it, because we have dealt with him only for about ten days, and my mistress has been there only once, with Miss Clara.”
“That would certainly look as if—but, Price, you may speak frankly to me, indeed it is your place to do so. What do you understand to be meant by ‘not coming back?’”
“Well, sir, people who like to spread such stories are generally cowardly as well as base, and take great care what words they use that may be brought against them. I dare say that if my mistress were home to-morrow, as I heartily hope she may be, and anything was said to one of the tradesmen about the report, he would pretend to be horridly shocked at being accused, and swear that he had never dreamed of such a thing, and very likely want to punish any poor servant who had mentioned what he said. But a good deal can be said without many words. I am ashamed to repeat such a thing, sir, but the story is that Mrs. Lygon has gone off with a gentleman.”
“Run away from her husband?”
“It comes to that.”
“What scoundrels these fellows must be! One wonders that their own interest does not shut their mouths.”
“I thought of that, sir, but it seems the notion is that Mr. Lygon will give up the house and go away, so there will not be much more to be got out of us. But not a. shilling from this house shall be spent in any of their shops again, unless my mistress chooses to do it after she has heard of their slandering tongues.”
“Well, Price, you know as well as I do that the story is a confounded and malicious lie, and we will think hereafter about punishing those who have dared to spread it. Meantime, you had better adhere to what Mr. Lygon told you, and say, from me if you like, that as there is no change in the condition of the lady whom your mistress went to visit, she has to remain in the country.”
“That I certainly will, sir, and gladly.”
“And for fear such a notion should reach the children, I will take them back with me. Send them over a carpet-bag to my house with what they will want for three or four days. I trust that their mother will be back, before that, to see after them.”
“It would be too bold in me to ask you, now I have told you everything, whether this news breaks on you for the first time, sir?”
“Price, you are a faithful and trustworthy person, and deserve every confidence I can place in you. Your mistress has no more gone away with a gentleman, in the sense in which these rascals use the word, than you have, but I have a reason of my own for thinking that she has made an enemy of a very bad and malicious person, who has somehow heard of her absence, and takes advantage of it to spread lies. When the time comes, we will punish that person in a way that shall satisfy everybody. Meantime, we must be prudent.”
“My mistress have an enemy! I am sure, sir, that she has never done anything to deserve one.”
“Never, but that is no rule, Price.”
“I will pack the carpet-bag for Master Fred, sir, and Master Walter, if he will go.”
“What makes you think that he will not wish to go?”
“You heard what he said, sir.”
“Ah, yes; he is a very good affectionate lad, but he must not stay moping here, especially under the circumstances.”
Mr. Hawkesley intimated to the boys that they should accompany him to Maida Hill. Usually such an announcement from him was a subject of exultation, for in addition to the enjoyments of his cheerful house (one in which. as Mr. Vernon had written, there was a hermetically sealed study, which prevented Hawkesley from being the terror and bugbear of everybody who played a tune or laughed a laugh during the author’s hours of work), the evening was often made brilliant by a visit to some theatre, and the still more exquisite delight of a manly supper with uncle at some oyster-room or other place of terrible Sybaritism.
“Would you take Fred, uncle?” said Walter, “I had rather stay at home.”
“My dear boy, your parents would much prefer your coming to us.”
“They have not told you so, uncle.”
“No, my dear Walter. But you must be quite sure that your aunt and I know what would please them.”
“I think you only say it in kindness, uncle, because you think that we are dull here. Fred is, and I wish you’d take him off; but I am not dull at all, and I am writing out something that I know papa will like.”
“But you can write at my house as well as here—better, as you have said more than once, sir, don’t you recollect?”
“Ah, that was in the days when this house was happy,” said Walter, bursting into a paroxysm of tears, and throwing himself into his uncle’s arms.
“When this house was happy,” repeated Charles Hawkesley, holding the sobbing boy kindly, and striving to calm him. “Why, this house has always been happy, and is going to be happy for many a long day to come. What can you be thinking of, Walter?”
“Will she ever come back?” faltered Walter, shaken with his agitation.
“Mamma. Why, of course she will. What has put such a strange idea into your head? For shame, Walter. It is a baby’s question when its mother goes out of the room, not the question of a schoolboy who reads Eutropius.”
“Whisper, uncle,” said Walter, clutching Hawkesley’s hand convulsively, “and don’t let little Fred hear. A boy I know told me that it was all about London that mamma had run away. "And where did you hit that boy?"
"Aha!" said Walter, with a sort of spasmodic laugh, and a proud smile through his tears;" he was thirteen, but that didn't help him, uncle. I blacked his eye, and as for what he got in the mouth, look here," and he showed his knuckles, which were still bleeding.
"Sent him down, I hope."
"He fell down and wouldn't get up, and I kicked him soundly. I hope it wasn't cowardly, uncle, to kick him when he was down, but it wasn't my fault that he wouldn't get up. A butcher said it was right," added the boy, pensively and gravely.