Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The silver cord - Part 16
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
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“What will become of me?” exclaimed Bertha, as the sound of her husband’s footsteps ceased. “He knows all. I am lost.”
“Why do you talk such folly?” said Mrs. Lygon, impatiently. “What more has Robert learned than he knew ten minutes ago, when you were going to meet him, except that I, whom he supposed on my way to England, am still in his house? Be calm, Bertha.”
“This agitation will be too much for me to bear,” said Mrs. Urquhart, in her helpless manner. “I shall break down under it.”
“Give way now,” said her sister, in an undertone of strong determination—almost menace, “and we never speak to one another again in this world.”
Bertha merely gazed on her; and, indeed, seemed deprived of all power of action.
“Listen, Bertha. It will now be for me to explain to Robert why I am here again. You thought that I had left for England. There, it is dreadful to have to say what is false, but saying that is the simplest thing for you to do, and I see well that you can do no more. You must leave the rest to me.”
“Oh, why did you ever come here?” replied Bertha, repiningly.
The word was repeated, but in another and a sterner tone. Mr. Urquhart was heard summoning his wife.
“I will go,” said Laura.
“Bertha will come,” replied Robert Urquhart, in a voice which awed even Laura, and which his wife, in white terror, hastened to obey. With a piteous gesture of her hands, she went through the doorway into the larger apartment. There Robert received her, and with an imperative sign motioned her to precede him. They went up to the drawing-room, and Mr. Urquhart placed a chair for his wife, which she took without a word.
“Why is Mrs. Lygon in my house?” was his demand.
“I thought—I believed—that she had gone home, Robert, indeed I did,” said Mrs. Urquhart, trembling.
“I know that you thought so, Bertha, for you told her husband so,” said Mr. Urquhart, sternly. “Do you suppose that I am suspecting you of a falsehood?”
“You ought not,” said his wife, whose feeble courage was restored by a word, and as easily dispelled.
“I know that I ought not, and I do not. Now, why is she here, or what does she tell you is her reason for being here?”
Thus urged, and in some measure reassured by the language of her husband, from whom she had expected far different treatment, Bertha rallied as well as she could, and answered with some firmness:
“You know what she came about, and why she went to Paris. She has come back to say that she has succeeded, and is going to return to England directly.”
“Is going to return to her home?”
“Yes, certainly, Robert, dear. Where else should she go?”
“Anywhere else,” he said, to himself, however, rather than to his wife.
“Anywhere else?” she repeated. “What can you mean?”
He came up to her, and took her hands in his own.
“Bertha,” he said, gravely, not harshly, “I have always done a husband’s duty by you. Maybe I have loved you so well that there was no merit in that. But you have nothing to lay to my charge.”
“I, Robert? You have been kindness itself! Have I ever said anything in my life in the way of accusing you? Why do you say this to me? I owe you everything in the world, and I only wish that I were worthier of you.”
And, if a shallow nature can be truthful, she was, at the moment, speaking truth in those last words.
“Nor have I ever complained of you,” he replied, without noticing those words. “It will be an ill day for us when I complain, but it will be a short one.”
“All that I would say to you, Bertha, is, that I am sorry you have weakly allowed yourself to be the dupe and tool of your sister. She is a much cleverer woman than yourself, as you have often said to me; and this should have made you cautious. But I know full well that she has not dared to tell you what my wife ought not to have heard.”
“Indeed she has not, Robert; but I cannot understand the mystery in your words.”
“You frighten me to death, Robert! Tell me what you mean.”
“I will not. That is not our business now. How long has she been here?”
“She came back yesterday,” stammered Bertha, unable to consider what would be the best reply, and answering at random.
“Ay. Just so. She remains here, when she might have been by this time where a wife and a mother would long to be, if she were lit to be there. So she has slept in the house again. I am sorry for it.”
“Sorry that Laura should sleep in this house!” echoed Bertha. “There is some dreadful thought in your mind. And you will not tell it to me?” said Bertha, who, now that she felt herself safe, ventured on a tone of wifely reproach.
“It is not so to be spoken of,” returned Urquhart, darkly. And he gazed on Bertha, for some moments, in silence. Then he said,
“She must leave the house instantly.”
Slight as were Bertha’s reasoning faculties, her instinct told her that she must make some stand against such a decree. Her own sister must not be turned from her house without some reason assigned for the act. Submission to it would imply that Mrs. Urquhart believed in the existence of a cause for such treatment of Laura.
“Robert,” she said, “you are the master here, and have a right to say who shall stay with us. But Laura is my sister, and must not be insulted.”
Something, resembling a smile of satisfaction, came over his face for a second, and disappeared.
“Insult means wrong treatment, Bertha,” he said, “and I never willingly do wrong. You are right to protest, but, as you say, I am the master, and for once I must ask to be obeyed without dispute. In some time to come I am afraid you will have to thank me. Now, you must be content to obey me. But I will spare you all the pain I can. Go to your room, and I will dismiss Laura Lygon.”
“Robert, I cannot behave to my sister in that way. What you mean I know not, and you refuse to tell me. But I must speak to her, and make her feel that if I am to part from her, it is in obedience to your wishes, and that I kuow nothing to blame her for.”
“Nothing to blame her for? She has deceived you, and caused you to deceive her husband, and make him the victim of a trick. Is that not enough to separate you for the rest of your lives? If that were all, Bertha, I would be sorry indeed to hear you call that woman sister again.”
Here failed Mrs. Urquhart’s power of resistance. Unable longer to defend the position she had taken up, she burst into tears. They were tears of real sorrow, but the cowardly and selfish nature would make no further effort for the sake of another. Let Laura go. What did it matter what Robert thought of her—she would be far away. And these schemes which Laura was trying, it would be better if they were at an end. Bertha could not understand them, and they would lead only to scenes of terror and agitation—let Laura go.
Such were the sisterly thoughts of the woman crying behind her handkerchief, and such was the repayment she meditated for what, so far as she knew, was a perilous and loving effort in her own behalf. We are commanded to help the weak-hearted, and we must obey the merciful command; but assuredly it is not at their hands that we must look for the reward of our deeds.
“I feel for you, and with you, Bertha,” said her husband, kindly. “It is not often that I have I brought the tears to your eyes.”
“No, dear, no,” sobbed Mrs. Urquhart.
“And right glad I would have been to save them now. But there is no mid-course between right and wrong, and Laura Lygon must leave this house at once, and without further speech with you.”
“You are wronging Laura, I am certain, Robert,” said Mrs. Urquhart, sadly.
“She has succeeded in so deceiving you, that you believe I am wronging her, and your love, your natural love and affection, helps her in preserving the delusion. We will say no more upon it while she remains under my roof, and that shall not be long. Now, Bertha, accept my counsel, and go to your room.”
As he spoke, Mrs. Lygon entered.
Urquhart looked at her sternly, and Bertha, who had risen, and had been standing beside her husband, sank upon a couch.
“I heard angry voices,” said Laura, with as much firmness as she could muster. “My being here has caused unhappiness, and I am very sorry for it.”
“There were no angry voices, Mrs. Lygon,” said Urquhart, “nor have you any right to interpose between myself and your sister. As for your sorrow, there is no doubt abundant cause for it, but it need not be expressed to me.”
His haughty manner awakened the pride of Laura, and it was with a calm loftiness of bearing that she replied—
“While you are in entire ignorance, Robert, of the circumstances, you will do well to avoid saying that which you will hereafter be sorry for.”
“You ought to be on your knees, Laura, imploring your Maker to forgive you,” said Urquhart.
“Be silent, Robert, until you have heard me,” said Laura.
“I have no wish to hear you,” he replied. “It is your wronged husband who has to be your judge. I have only to take care that the contamination of your example does not injure my own happiness and honour.”
She flushed over face and brow, and with difficulty said,
“You must be mad, to use such words.”
“I am not mad, Mrs. Lygon. What your husband may become, in consequence of your conduct, I dare not think.”
“You have been with him. He is not ill?” gasped Laura.
“Were you in the home you have abandoned you would know. But I could wish to cut this short. I shall order a carriage for you.”
“This must not be,” said Bertha, roused, in very shame, by the presence of her sister, “Laura must not be wronged. It is my duty to speak for her.”
“Silence, Bertha,” said her husband.
“No, it would be wicked, Robert. Laura will not tell you—”
“I too say—silence, Bertha,” said Mrs. Lygon, approaching her sister, and taking her hand.
A terrible expression came again upon the face of the husband as he beheld this action. He strode across to the couch, removed Laura’s hand from that of her sister, and led the former to a chair at some distance.
“Let the innocent hand hold off from the guilty one.” And turning, he rang the bell violently.
So, there were confronted the husband, the wife, the sister. The man believed himself to be acting wisely and justly. What the women knew, neither dared to utter, but in the look each turned on the other might have been read an agonizing comment on the judgment that had been given. Then, overcome by her conflicting emotions, Bertha again sank sobbing on the couch, and Laura, after one long, compassionating look upon her sister, turned to Mr. Urquhart, and regarded him for a moment with a quiet and searching gaze, like that of one who would fix something for perpetual remembrance. In silence, but with the calm and almost proud bearing natural to her, Laura then withdrew.
It had been Mr. Urquhart’s intention to have the carriage brought round for Laura, but this courtesy was rendered unnecessary by Mrs. Lygon’s leaving the house in a few minutes after the interview which has been described. In going out, Laura took the precautionary measure of mentioning to Henderson, that she should probably walk in the gardens of the palace for an hour, before taking the train for Paris.
In the gardens, therefore, she awaited the explanation which it was impossible that her sister should not endeavour to send. Her watch for a messenger from Bertha was a long one, but it did not surprise her that it should be so. Bertha was timid and irresolute, and might herself be watched. But it will easily be surmised that Mrs. Lygon had more than enough at her heart to make the time seem alternately to pass with strange rapidity, and to drag with a wearisome, torturing slowness. The scene which she had gone through—its sudden occurrence, and its hasty conclusion, would have made it seem a dream, but for the vividness of its chief incident, and the unspeakable humiliation which it had brought.
Judged, her conduct was to be, she knew, but she had thought of the judgment as something deferred, until at least her errand should be fulfilled or abandoned. But suddenly and rudely her husband’s most valued friend had taken her case in hand, and she was already driven out of the presence of her sister, and pronounced unworthy of her companionship. No wonder the woman’s heart shrunk under the blow so unexpectedly delivered.
But, she asked herself, what did Mr. Urquhart know, that he had presumed to judge? Had the enemy been at work with him, too? And was this but the prelude to a final and fearful stroke?
It seemed to the over-wrought mind and dimmed eye of Laura so natural a thing that the enemy should appear, that when Ernest Adair advanced towards her, she received his bow as something that she had been expecting. There is a kind of inferior second-sight in many who undergo strong trouble, and they will often tell you incidents which, to your calmer mind, seem startling coincidences, but for which they declare themselves to have been perfectly prepared.
“How considerate in you, Mrs. Lygon,” said Adair, after a few words of commonplace, scarcely I replied to by her, “how very considerate in you to leave the newly arrived husband to receive the congratulations of his wife, without the presence of a third person, even a third person who would be so welcome as yourself!”
“Have you any object in addressing me, Mr. Adair? If you have, spare any useless introduction—if not—”
“Spare me your presence, you were going to add, Mrs. Lygon, with the amiable frankness I have so often had to admire. Believe that I should not have ventured to intrude upon you, unless I had had an object.”
“What is it?”
“Although you are good enough to imply that introduction is needless, I feel ashamed of being too blunt on such a theme. I was about to offer some preliminary excuses.”
“They are needless.”
“Yet not the less due,” persisted Adair. “I will only presume to inquire—no. I will only presume to remark that whenever either of two ladies who have my interests very much at heart shall have anything to communicate to me, the information will be most welcome.”
“I understand. Be assured that no unnecessary delay is taking place.”
“The assurance is more than sufficient. I may infer that the arrival of Mr. Urquhart will not interpose any new difficulty.”
“Why should it?”
“Only by rendering the intercourse of those ladies more difficult.”
The words seemed to imply a knowledge on the part of Adair of what had taken place in Mr. Urquhart’s home that day. But had he avowed such knowledge, Laura would have felt no surprise; or, rather, would have scarcely given a thought to her surprise.
“Nothing will prevent the carrying out the object,” she said, coldly.
“I must say no more, or if I again venture to hint that there are reasons why promptness would confer a deep obligation upon me, I must couple that hint with the hope that it will disturb none of the admirable plans which I am sure are being forwarded.”
“I shall endeavour to act for the best.”
“And you will succeed. Should I be trespassing in asking whether in saying, ‘I,’ Mrs. Lygon implies that the management of the affair is entirely in her hands?”
“There is no use in entering into discussion. You are well aware that the business must be completed, and that it can be nobody’s wish to prolong it.”
“I accept the painful intimation that the sooner I am disposed of the better. I have only to add, that if Mrs. Lygon finds Mr. Urquhart inclined to any misconceptions upon the subject of her visit, and those misconceptions should take a disagreeable form, and one likely to interfere with what I may call our object, I might think it desirable to remove them, without her aid.”
“Do anything like that which your menace implies,” said Mrs. Lygon, “and you destroy your own hopes.”
“But I substitute for them—certainties,” replied Adair. “I am sure that I am understood; and, as here comes Henderson, with a message (no, a letter, by her keeping her hand in her pocket so carefully), I will not longer trespass on your time.”
He bowed, and passed to another part of the gardens.
“I saw him, Madame,” said Henderson, looking with a tigerish glance in the direction he had taken. “I would have waited until he had gone, but it was of no use. He knows of master breaking the door open, and, I suppose, a good deal more.”
“He still obtains information from the house, then, Mary?”
“I can’t quite bring it home to her yet,” said the girl, “but I know that Angelique had not a sou of money last Sunday, and she has bought herself a gold cross to hang round her great red neck. I guess where that money came from, but I cannot prove it yet, Madame. When I can, she and me will have a word of a sort. I suppose the sound of the money was too much for her fears of the ghost; and yet I thought I had frightened her into a fit. I know I tried my best, Madame.”
“You are sent by Mrs. Urquhart?”
“I have a note, Madame, and perhaps you would be so kind as to let me stand near you while you read it, for he might make a rush to get it.”
“I am not afraid of that,” said Mrs. Lygon, taking the note.
It was from Bertha, who had written a few hasty lines.
“I cannot explain, and I dare not come to you. I think that you had better go home, before worse comes of it, and leave me to manage in some way with A. You know what R. is when he takes anything into his head, and he will not hear a word in your favour; but of course you know my feelings. I will write to you to London. God bless you.
A heartless letter wounds more than a heartless speech. It is not that the deliberation of the act of writing implies studied unkindness, for many cruel letters are more hasty than many cruel words; and most letters are less kindly than the intentions of the writer; but there is in a written message of unkindness the blow given by one who instantly recedes into the distance, out of the way of reproach or expostulation. So Laura felt this epistle. This was the return for all that she had done, and sought to do.”
“There is no answer,” she said, with a smile to the expectant Henderson. “Only say that you delivered the note. Was Mrs. Urquhart’s headache better?”
“I did not hear of it, Madame. She seemed cheerful enough with master, laughing at his rough hair, and what not.”
“O, I am glad of that. Perhaps you had better not wait any longer, Mary.”
“You would be offended with me if I was to say something, Madame, and yet I should like to say it.”
“I do not take offence, Mary, where it is not intended. No one should do so.”
“Far be it from me to mean offending, Madame. But it is a bold thing in me, and I think I am always saying bold things. Only this, Madame. I do not know how ladies feel when one lady, who does not deserve it, is made the scapegoat for another who does, but I know how I should feel if the other one did nothing to set me right with other folks. But my feelings are nothing, and I beg pardon for speaking of them. Only this, Madame, that, mistress or no mistress, you may rely upon me to the end of the world, and letters to the house might not be safe but sent to me to the care of M. Silvain would be always delivered instantly or I would know the reason why. Good day, Madame I’m sure.”
All the latter part of this speech was delivered with great rapidity, and yet with nervousness, the speaker fearing to be interrupted before she had done. And when she had concluded she hastened away, and then, at the distance of some yards, made, in shame and with much elaboration, the curtsey with which she had intended to finish.
“Servants overhear. One sells the secret to my enemy. The other offers me her friendship and assistance. A fit ending to a day like this,” thought Laura, bitterly, as she crunched up her sister’s note.
M. Silvain was in his neat little shop when Mrs. Lygon entered it, and great was the delight of the former at beholding the English lady. But with the tact of his class in France, he abstained from any excess of demonstration, and it was only by the sparkle of his eye that his pleasure at being thus visited could have been detected.
“You are very well acquainted with Versailles, M. Silvain?”
M. Silvain had had the honour of being born in Paris, but his parents had removed to Versailles, when he was six years old, and since then it had been his home. Could his perfect acquaintance with every nook and corner in the place be of the slightest use to madame?
“I wish to remain here for a short time—how long I cannot exactly say at present—but I do not wish to go to an hotel. Do you know of a respectable lodging where—”
Might M. Silvain interrupt? It might be less trouble to madame to assent to his supposition, to correct him if wrong, than to speak. Madame desired a perfectly confortable lodging, in entire seclusion and privacy, where the persons would be more than content with the honour of entertaining madame, would ask for no other name than that which she pleased to give, and whoever might inquire for any other name would obtain no information. He had been so fortunate as to describe what madame wanted? In that case, if madame would allow him one half hour, such a place should then be ready, and she would have but to take the trouble to walk to it.
And Silvain was as good as his word, and in another hour Mrs. Lygon had taken possession of an apartment in a pleasant white house, some distance from the avenue, and in a somewhat retired situation. A few hasty purchases, and a few general directions to the clean, withered-apple faced old lady, to whom the place appertained, and Mrs. Lygon had nothing to think of but her life’s one business, and the many sorrows arising to her therefrom. With such thoughts for her companions, let us leave her for awhile.
“Aventayle’s Paris agent has made his inquiries,” said Charles Hawkesley, hastily entering his wife’s room on returning home.
“Well, and has news?” said Beatrice, starting up.
“Yes, indeed, if it may be depended on, and he is a man of business. He sent out, of course privately, to Versailles, and ascertained that somebody, who certainly answers the description of Arthur, had been at Robert’s, and had left in the middle of the night.”
“He was informed that no such person had been there. But it seems that the man who was sent was of a shrewd character, and though he does not send this message as part of his official answer, he has reason to think that a lady, not one of the regular inmates of the house, is staying there, and that she is English.”
“How did he know, dear?”
“That, of course, he does not explain. I consider that we had a right to make the inquiry in the way we did, because it might have caused alarm, had we applied direct to Bertha, under the circumstances, but I take it that the messenger has used other means to find out the truth than I should have desired.”
“No matter, in a case like this. I hate meanness, but I would peep through a keyhole if I thought somebody inside the room was hurting any one I loved. Then you think that we may set our minds at rest so far?”
“I think that Arthur and Laura are in Paris, but as for setting our minds at rest, I fear that we are not much further advanced, dear.”
“Why not, if they are together at Bertha’s?”
“I do not gather that they are together. To tell you the truth, it looks very much as if one were in search of the other; and as we know that Laura left home before Arthur did—”
“You have told me all you have heard?”
“Every word. I hurried home to do so.”
“It is a great thing, Charles, to have ascertained that she is with Bertha.”
“It is something; but—”
“Nay, is it not an answer at once to all the wicked suggestions which we heard that people had dared to make? We wanted no assuring of her perfect innocence, dear soul; but it will lighten Price’s heart to be able to say that her mistress is with Mrs. Urquhart. I will write to her immediately.”
“Not without some more consideration, dear.”
“I hate consideration. Do let me tell Walter; it will be such a pleasure to see the sunshine come over his face.”
“Poor dear boy, yes, but a minute’s sunshine may be bought too dear. We may be wrong. Are you not unconsciously adopting the story I suggested as possible—the idea of some religious motive having actuated Laura?”
“There would be a much simpler way of accounting for it all, if Laura were another kind of woman.”
“Some quarrel? Out of the question. Such a thing would be almost as possible between you and me.”
“No, don’t say that. Your temper is a better one—naturally, I mean, sir, than Arthur’s. He could be roused by a woman’s tongue.”
“So could Hawkesley, mind that, much as he has endured. But there has been no quarrel. It is impossible. If, indeed, Arthur had been another kind of man, and Laura could have imagined, or discovered anything to make her unhappy——”
“Do you mean, if he had got into difficulties?”
“No, in that case would she have left his side?”
“I mean difficulties he had concealed from her.”
“When a man conceals such things from his wife it is her fault. She has not convinced him that she can bear his troubles with him. Arthur has not to learn what Laura would be in the hour of trouble. No, I meant—what it is almost wrong to suggest—even when we are trying all conjectures. I mean if she had reason to suppose that his heart had gone astray.”
“Charles, dearest, if that were so, those children would not be here. She would have fled away with them all.”
“Would you have done so?”
“Don’t raise such a thought, darling,” said Beatrice, clutching at her husband’s hand, and the next moment dropping it, and adding, saucily,
"Yes, of course, but not until I had given you laudanum, and set fire to your house, and paid a hundred men to go and hiss your next play, and written to the ‘Times’ to say that you were a wretch. Then, we are not to tell the boys.”
“Let us wait a day or two longer. Arthur may be returning, and then we shall know all. Meantime we have done our duty by the children.”
“Poor dears. Charles, by the way, I have something to say to you. I have been setting your study to rights.” “Humph.”
“Don’t be absurd—it was in a shocking condition, and I have put everything where I found it. But I want to know where you got a play, which is not your own, and which you have been pencilling and marking.”
“Why, what of that?”
“Where did you get it? tell me.”
“From Aventayle. He wanted me to see whether it would do for him.”
“Do you know whose writing it is?”
“I forget the name, but I have the letter that came with it.”
“The writing is that of our writing-master at Lipthwaite.”
“What!” said Hawkesley. “Are you sure?”
“Certain. If there is one handwriting in all the world that one would know, it is one’s writing master’s. Not that he was mine so much; he came when Mr. Frost went away, and I had been his pupil, but he taught the other girls.”
“I told you the other day—Adair, Ernest Adair.”
“Yes, that’s it,” said Hawkesley. “I recollect quite well. That is the name in the letter.”
“How odd that you should have to sit in judgment on him! But that is nothing. Have you read the play?”
“Yes, it will not do.”
“I should think it would not do,” said Mrs. Hawkesley indignantly. “Why, he has founded it upon Lipthwaite scandals, and I am perfectly certain that the character of Manacle is meant for himself.”
“Lipthwaite scandals! Do you know, Beatrice, that you are putting some very extraordinary notions into my head,” said the author, thoughtfully, and “trying back” upon the fable of the piece in question. “Have you left it on my table?”
“No, it is here,” said his wife, taking the MS. out of a work-table.
“That is called leaving things as we found them,” said Hawkesley, “but give it me.”
And he turned over leaf after leaf with rapidity, reading passages as he went on, and finally becoming so absorbed in the play that Beatrice addressed him in vain.
“Yes,” he said, gazing hard at her, as he concluded.
“Yes, what?” she replied. “I have asked you half a dozen times what you had discovered.”
“I beg your pardon, my dear. So this is founded, you think, on Lipthwaite scandals?”
“I suppose not altogether, but he has taken such things as his groundwork. The part of the plain, ambitious, scheming, sly girl who loves Manacle, and whom he pretends to like for the sake of obtaining the situation, I know very well who that was meant for.”
“There are worse things than that, in fact that is rather good comedy. But what do you say to the device by which Ellinor loses her character, although perfectly virtuous?”
“I overlooked that. But there is another part, that of Miriam, the daughter of the clergyman, who is deceived by the tutor, and becomes so vindictive. That he is a bad man for using, because the poor old man’s heart was broken by the disgrace—it really occurred, and very nearly in the way Adair must have been told it, in confidence, for no one would have willingly talked about it.”
“But her vindictiveness is nothing to that of the plain woman, what’s her name? Sophia, who is so in love with Manacle.”
“That was Marion Wagstaffe, I am certain. They said that she was desperately in love with Mr. Adair, but that after he had amused himself