Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The silver cord - Part 20




Robert Urquhart raised his wife from the position whence her terror had left her powerless to arise, and he placed her in the single chair in the apartment. Adair, recovering from the rude shock he had received, came up to his assailant, and with much composure, said:

“There had better be no mistake between us, Mr. Urquhart.”

“There will be none, sir, rely on that,” replied the Scot, turning sternly upon him. “Who are you?”

“My name is Ernest Adair, I am an Englishman, and I am a prisoner at the moment, on the charge of having wounded a ruffian who assaulted me during a gambling quarrel.”

“Creditable company for a lady.”

“When you know the lady’s errand here, you will be glad to have abstained from harsh language.”

“The sooner I hear it the better, my man,” said Urquhart, who spoke calmly enough, but whose lip and nostril gave sign which even a braver man than Adair might have noted with apprehension.

“What is going to be said?” sobbed Bertha, wringing her hands in the extremity of her dismay.

“Very little, Bertha,” replied her husband. “But I believe it will be to the purpose.”

“It will, indeed, Mr. Urquhart,” said Adair. “But it is more fit that I should say it, than Mrs. Urquhart. You found this lady earnestly entreating a favour of me. Do you desire to hear what that favour was?”

“I desire it so much,” said the husband, “that if I do not learn it in your next words I will shake the answer out of you, or the life out of your body. Is that plain speaking, my man?”

“Useless violence, because I am as ready to tell as you are to hear. But will you request Mrs. Urquhart to withdraw?”

“No, sir,” replied Urquhart in a fierce voice. “I have to judge her conduct, and I choose to have her presence.”

“Then the fault is not mine if her feelings are wounded by what I must say to you.”

“Hold your d—d tongue about feelings, and speak the truth at once,” thundered Urquhart, “or it will be the worse for you.”

“Your violence is cowardly, Mr. Urquhart,” said Adair, with spirit. “Your personal strength is double my own, and I am unarmed, and if you choose to be brutal, strike. Else, hear me.”

And he folded his arms, and calmly confronted his gigantic companion.

“What hinders me to hear you,” returned Urquhart, “but yourself.” The display of courage in the undeniable presence of extreme peril produced its invariable effect upon a brave nature, and his tone, though stern, was somewhat less menacing. “Go on, sir.”

“Mrs. Urquhart is here to entreat that I, who hold in my hands the means of exposing an unworthy person, will refrain from doing so.”

“And who is the unworthy person who has the good fortune to enlist the sympathies of my wife? Silence, sir. I ask that question of her.”

“When you hear,” said Adair, promptly, “you will be glad not to have forced the name from her lips. The name is that of her sister.”

Robert Urquhart looked at his wife, who was swaying herself, after her custom in distress, backwards and forwards in her chair, and he saw by her piteous tremor, that he was hearing the truth.

An oath escaped him, and he strode to the window, where he stood for a few moments in silence. If Bertha tried to steal a glance at the face of Adair, it was unnoticed, for he stood with folded arms, and with his look immoveably fixed on the wall.

“I guessed that there was some shameful story to tell,” said Robert Urquhart, turning round to them, “but I did not guess that my own wife would dare to mix herself in sin and shame. But that she and I will speak of elsewhere. What is this secret, sir?”

“To reveal it to you, Mr. Urquhart, is to refuse the petition which you heard Mrs. Urquhart making to me.”

“Petition,” repeated Urquhart, furiously. “My wife stooping to petition anything from any man, and above all, petitioning that he will screen a worthless woman. It is my demand, sir, and it is hers,” he added, in a tone of authority, “that I hear the truth on this instant. Are you the—the lover of the woman who is to be screened?”

“If I were, Mr. Urquhart, and my life or death were in your hands, you would hear no word from me.”

“That swagger means that you are not. Who is?”

“It suits me to tell you in my own way, and in no other. It may occur to you on reflection that a man who has no fear may choose his own course. In my turn I demand that Mrs. Urquhart withdraw.”

He seated himself on the bed, and was so clearly resolved to be silent unless his demand were complied with, that Urquhart—after giving one savage thought to the expediency of violence—was not sorry that Bertha spoke.

“Yes—let me go, Robert—and come home to me directly, or I shall die.”

She looked so white, and so helpless, and so sad, that Urquhart could not but compassionate her.

“Wait for me in the walk below,” he said. “I do not know that we shall meet at home again. If you are not waiting for me, we never shall.”

Bertha trembled from the room, and then Urquhart, advancing to Adair, said,

“Now, sir, his name.”

“His name is on a tombstone, Mr. Urquhart.”

“Do you mean that he is dead, man?”

“He is dead.”

“And is it his death that brought her over to France?”

“In part. But she had other objects which I cannot explain, but which those who are interested in the matter may discover for themselves. My share in it will be a small one, but I owe a duty to the dead, and I intend to discharge it, in spite of Mrs. Urquhart’s tears, and notwithstanding your menaces.” I

“You know this dead scoundrel, then?”

“He was no scoundrel, and he was my friend. Use your own common sense as to the policy of such language when you wish for information.”

“Well, sir, what more? I suppose you have proofs of what you say?”

“You would have asked for them long since, if you had not been prepared to believe what I have to say. We may speak freely, Mr. Urquhart. I am, unhappily, well acquainted with many circumstances which you suppose to be unknown out of your family, and I am aware that you have reason to wish that Mrs. Arthur Lygon were not one of you.”

“How do you know this?” said Urquhart, darkly.

“Do not suppose for a moment that I have information from Mrs. Urquhart—if that thought is in your mind, dispel it. I have perfect knowledge, from other sources, of all that takes place under your roof, and many a roof beside. I tell you this frankly.”

“You are a spy?”

“If not, I have the means of commanding the services of persons of that class. If you doubt me, I will tell you of something which you have never told to any one, and which certainly Mrs. Urquhart could neither learn, nor comprehend if told to her.”

And he mentioned to Urquhart that the latter had, before returning from Paris, visited an obscure mechanic in a suburb, and gone though some experiments with him, for the purpose of testing the comparative power of resistance possessed by certain different kinds of manufactured iron.

“That shows how well the rascal work is done,” said Urquhart, contemptuously, “and I am quite ready to believe that you are what you say. Now, what are your proofs against this unhappy woman?”

“What use do you intend to make of them?”

“That is my affair.”

“True; but it is mine to know what you will do.”

“Suppose I say that there is but one use to which an honourable man can put the knowledge that his friend is wronged. Can you understand that?”

“Again I counsel you, Mr. Urquhart, to abstain from insult. Do I rightly interpret you to mean that you will apprise Mr. Lygon of what you may learn?”

“If the proofs hold, man, what else, in the devil’s name, do you suppose I should do?”

“Suppress them, for the sake of Mrs. Urquhart, and bribe me to silence.”

“Is that what you are going to propose to me?” said Urquhart, looking at him with an evil eye.

“No; that is not my plan. I will not be silenced on any terms that you can offer; but it is natural to suppose that you might wish to avoid a painful exposure.”

“Whether it is natural or not, sir, I am not going to debate with you. But if you have any fears that make you keep back your evidence, you may take my word for this, that if I cannot resist the proof, it shall be before Mr. Lygon in twenty-four hours thereafter.”

“That is as much as concerns me. I care for none of you all; but I have a duty to do, and I am in Versailles to do it. You have been wondering, I doubt not—nay, I know it—why Mrs. Lygon has been here. She has probably deceived you with an admirably-told story, for she is one of the cleverest women in the world; it is no news to you, and I need not apologise for saying that Mrs. Urquhart is a child in her hands. But you will discover the real reason for her presence when you have read some documents which are in my possession.”

“Give them to me.”

“Unfortunately they are not here. I was betrayed into a blunder last night, and in spite of my influence, whatever that may be, with certain quarters, I was brought here, and, until discharged, I can do nothing.

“That seems a shuffle. You can say where the documents are, if you please to do so.”

“I do not please to do so. It is my pleasure to be discharged.”

“What have I to do with that? What did you say you had done?”

“I told you that I was gambling, and my antagonist assaulted me, on which I struck him in the arm with a dagger. I had, it is true, taken too much brandy.”

“I suppose your spy-friends can get you out by a word to the police?”

“I do not choose to employ them. But if I am not released through your agency, and have to release myself in my own way, I shall disappear without further troubling myself in your affairs, and leave you to extract the truth from my hints to Mrs. Urquhart, and the confessions of Mrs. Lygon.”

“I will not have Mrs. Urquhart’s name dragged into question,” said Urquhart, “and I will see your proofs. Else you might lie here till doomsday, my man, for me.”

“I am well aware of that,” said Adair, “nor do I complain. I have no claim on you or Mrs. Urquhart.”

“I will send a lawyer to you. I suppose he will know what to do.”

“Send the lawyer who managed the affair for you when you were cheated in a horse, and threw the seller into the pond behind M. Daubiac’s stables.”

“Five years ago,” said Urquhart.

“Nothing is overlooked—nothing forgotten,” replied Adair, in answer to his tone rather than his words.

“You will come to my house, on being let out of this place,” said Urquhart, “and bring these papers. I have only your word for that.”

“Which you don’t value.”

“Not a jot, and that’s truth.”

“I will be more just to you, sir. I will take your word for something which, unless you promise, I will not produce a single line.”

“What am I to promise?”

“That the papers I place in your hands you will read, and then immediately return them to me.”

“I will not give the promise. I may desire to send them to Mr. Lygon.”

“Mr. Lygon will not need them. Mr. Lygon will be in no state to read papers. Let him receive the assurance that his brother-in-law and counsellor has examined them, and he will ask no more. Be this as it may, I must have them returned.”


“When they have done their work, I have sworn to burn them on the tomb of him who is gone.”

“What accursed play-book folly is that?” said Urquhart, with contempt.

“What? The keeping an oath?”

“You are no doubt exactly the man to indulge in fits of sentimentality,” said the Scot. “And you have never broken an oath?”

“I may have broken oaths, and induced others to break them,” said Ernest Adair, calmly; “but I intend to keep this oath. Give me your word.”

“I have no choice, I suppose?”

“None, as might have occurred to you before.”

“You have my word,” said Urquhart. “I will send the lawyer.”

“Bertha,” said her husband, when he joined her in the walk below, “listen to me, and do not make any answer. In yon room there lies one of the greatest scoundrels that God ever permitted to draw breath. I saw at the first glance that he was so, and that he was a man I am called on to hate, and some day, I hope, to punish. But he states that he holds proofs which I must see before I sleep. He is coming to my house with them as soon as he is set at liberty. At present my house is yours, and all that is in it. You know best whether there is anything which he can say to me, or show me, that should make us two. Do not tremble in that way, wife; I am making no charge, I am speaking in all kindness. I shall not return home for an hour. If I find you there, I shall know in one second—it will be a glad one, Bertha—that you were blameless of all knowledge of Laura’s sin until you learned it from this man. If this were so, Bertha,—but say that it was so, wife, whom I have loved so well, so dearly,—say that you knew nothing of Laura’s sin.”

And the strong man’s voice grew thick, and his stalwart form trembled beside that fragile woman.

“As I shall be judged at the last, Robert, and as I hope for mercy,” said Bertha, in a low voice, but with unusual firmness, “I never knew that Laura had sinned, nor, Robert, do I know it now.”

“God bless you, child!” said Urquhart, suppressing his emotion. “There, go to your home, and wait for me. I fear we have sad work to do. Go home, dear woman.”

And his eyes rested lovingly on her figure, as, after touching his hand as if thanking him for his kind words, she went homewards.


The mode in which the lawyer, employed by Robert Urquhart, achieved the liberation of Ernest Adair, does not connect itself with our narrative, and it is only necessary to say that in the course of the day Adair was set at liberty.

The condition of mind in which Bertha returned to the house of her husband, and still, as he had said, her own, was indeed pitiable.

What had passed in her presence in the prison apartment had, of course, conveyed to her the conviction that Ernest intended to save her at the expense of her sister, and it was in Bertha’s weak nature to derive comfort and re-assurance from the idea of her present safety. But independently of her agitation at the prospect of any inquiry into past histories, and without taking into consideration what her feeble and half hearted affection for her sister might cause her to feel, when informed that the latter was to be formally accused, Bertha had an undefined dread of some act of new treachery or cruelty on the part of Adair, and a terror lest the stern eye of her husband might detect in any tale that Ernest might frame, the vitiating flaw that would ruin the whole. Then the knowledge, derived from Henderson, that Laura had not left Versailles, was a new element of fear, for if Laura should claim to be confronted with Adair, the scene would end very differently from that in which Mrs. Lygon submitted to the insult of Urquhart, and departed silently from the room where she had been wronged. And if any thoughts of a deeper and nobler kind came to the mind of the feeble Bertha in her hour of trial,—if womanly pride, or womanly love had voices that made themselves heard amid the vulgar strife of shallow hopes and fears, those voices were soon stilled in the presence of the immediate danger.

It was no ordinary consolation to her when, a couple of hours after parting from her husband, Bertha received from the hand of Angelique an envelope in which were written, in the well-known hand of Adair, the words—

Be quite calm, and fear nothing.”

“If Laura had only gone home,” thought Bertha, “it would not so much matter, for I am certain that Arthur will never forgive her for what she has done already, so that, let him think what he may, things would not be a great deal worse. And why did she come at all?”

It was in this state of feeling—if feeling it may be called—that Bertha Urquhart prepared herself for the dreaded interview.

M. Ernest Adair was announced to Robert Urquhart, who was in the drawing-room with his wife. Up to the time of Adair’s arrival Urquhart had scarcely exchanged twenty words with her, but his manner, though sad, was kind. He also paid her several of those small attentions which are habitual with some husbands, and which others as habitually neglect. Urquhart himself was somewhat careless in such matters, and this, of course, made Bertha notice the circumstance, although she misconstrued it, and supposed that Robert desired to atone to her for having been harsh in the earlier part of the day. “There was no such stuff in his thoughts.”

Adair entered, bowed gravely to Bertha, something less ceremoniously to her husband, and said:

“I have to thank you, Mr. Urquhart, for the assistance which you have been good enough to afford me. I have offered my thanks to your legal adviser, who has enabled me to keep my appointment with you.”

“You have come prepared to substantiate what you stated this morning?” asked Urquhart.

“I stated nothing—I mean nothing for substantiation,” replied Adair. “I spoke very guardedly, but your own inferences went in the right direction, and those it is my painful duty to support by proofs.”

“Give them to me.”

“I need not recal your engagement?”

“I will return them when I have satisfied myself.”

“Then, before producing them, I will say a few words, and very few. The position in which 1 am placing myself would be under ordinary circumstances a humiliating one.”

“Most humiliating,” said Urquhart, bluntly. “A woman may be evil, but I do not envy the man who hunts her down.”

“Pardon me if I reply that here we are upon even terms, Mr. Urquhart, as I understood from you that this was the very course you proposed to take.”

“I am not inclined to bandy words with you, sir. In my case, however, the friend whom I value most in this world has either been deeply injured, or you are—what I need not say. It is my business to know which is the truth.”

“The friend whom I did value most in this world was deeply injured, Mr. Urquhart, and there is no alternative in my case.”

“Do not let us talk,” said the Scot. “The proofs you promised.”

“These proofs, Mr. Urquhart, consist of a series of letters addressed by a lady to her lover. They were placed in my charge for the purpose with which I am about to use them now, but the mode of my doing so and the time, were left to my own discretion. The time has now arrived, and the mode I now adopt is to lay the letters before the truest and best friend of that lady’s husband. If that friend, in perusing them, finds evidence that the husband possesses an unworthy wife, he will take whatever course he pleases. My duty will have been discharged when I have afforded this opportunity.”

Bertha sat to hear this speech, and maintained a dead silence, but some little action of her hand afforded Adair an excuse to add,

“It was not my wish that Mrs. Urquhart should undergo the pain of being present while Mr. Urquhart peruses these documents. I perceive that she was on the point of again appealing to me on the subject, but, I say it with all feeling for her, such an appeal would be in vain, even in the absence of the legitimate demand of her husband to know her justification for being found with me this morning.”

“I think it very—very wicked,” stammered Bertha.

“I have said that I will have these proofs,” Urquhart replied. “It is right, however, that you should be free to retire, Bertha, if you please.”

“It is also right,” said Adair, “that Mrs. Urquhart should be within reach, should it be wished to ask her a question.”

“I—I will go into the next room,” said Bertha, hurrying away, as she might have done from the scene of some painful operation, or to be out of hearing of the cries of a child that was to undergo punishment.

Ernest Adair then produced a book, into which a series of letters had been fastened, the original printed pages having been cut away to make room for the manuscripts. He handed the book to Robert Urquhart, who received it with an instinctive disgust, that was not entirely latent in the eye he cast upon Adair.

Urquhart took the volume, and laying it on a table, applied himself steadily to a perusal of the contents.

Adair watched him intensely, and with feelings in which excitement mingled far more powerfully than the circumstances, as hitherto related, would seem to warrant. Once or twice the pale face of Adair became even paler, and there were convulsive movements of his hands.

And once, when Bertha, childishly impatient of the long delay, rose from her seat in the further room, and ventured to glance in at the two men who had been so long silent, Adair’s look became perfectly fiendish. He ground his teeth, and the fierce expression that came over his face told that he utterly—actively hated Bertha Urquhart for presenting herself—that is, the recollection of herself—at that moment.

But when Urquhart looked up, Adair was engaged with a book.

Once—twice—in the course of the reading, a groan, that as nearly resembled an execration as an inarticulate sound could do, broke from Robert Urquhart.

Suddenly he sprang up, and called loudly—

“Bertha! Bertha!”

Mrs. Urquhart came in, and was beckoned to her husband’s side.

“There can be no earthly doubt,” he said, in a low voice, which sent an intense thrill through her.

She was safe.

“Look at that writing—and that—and that. Whose letters are they, Bertha?”

“There is no need to ask,” said Bertha, as the lines burned into her very brain. Here and there a word of affection—of love—of passion branded itself more deeply than the rest that went past her eyes as he turned over the leaves.

“There is no need to ask,” he repeated, placing his arm kindly around her shuddering and shivering form. “Be calm, dear, be calm. You have nothing to reproach yourself with. Be calm.”

And Ernest Adair gazed upon that husband and wife.

“You have proved your words, sir,” said Robert Urquhart, after a long pause.

“I see that I have done so. I read it in the face of an honest man, of an honourable woman. I have done my duty to him who is gone.”

“Let me hear no more of that,” said Urquhart, sternly. “If it be indeed true that the miscreant to whom these letters are addressed is dead, he is gone where no earthly curse can increase his punishment. If he is alive, I hope that he may live a curse to himself, and die by his own hands, for those of justice are too good for him. Silence on that subject! Take back your volume, and the best thing that I can say at parting is that I hope neither I nor mine will ever meet with you again.”

“I forgive all wild language at such a moment, Mr. Urquhart. It is a terrible thing to find that one’s family is stained.”

“Who are you to talk of stains?” replied Urquhart, fiercely. “A spy who would crawl into the bosom of a household, and win the confidence of all in it, from the mother by the fire to the child playing on the carpet, and would sell the trust they placed in you—would sell the woman’s kindly talk, the child’s prattle, to the ruffians who hire you. A spy talk of stains! Begone, sir, I have done with you.”

“You are violent,” said Ernest Adair, with a sinister smile, “but we will not quarrel over words. I fear that the expression to Mrs. Urquhart of my profoundest regret at having been compelled to inflict such suffering would not be acceptable.”

“I answer for my wife, sir, that she desires to hear no other word from you.”

“I believe it, sir,” said Adair, in a tone which struck upon the heart of Bertha. “At present, at all events, I will end an interview which is so fraught with sorrow.”

He bowed respectfully, and was gone.

“Sad—sad—Bertha,” said Urquhart, sorrowfully. “I clung to the hope that she might have been only foolish, weak, deluded; but the words are there, and the words are guilt.”

Bertha sobbed, but spoke not.

“I gave my promise to return him the letters, and I have done so, and kept my word,” said he. “But I doubt it would be wiser to follow him, and take them back; and if I wrung his neck in the process the work would be better done.”

“No, no, no,” said Bertha, clinging to his arm. “He might stab you, as he did the man yesterday, Robert, and what would become of me then?”

“Do not cry so bitterly, wife. The sorrow is great, but we must bear it. And if anything happened to me, she would be so lonely and sad, eh?”

“Why, whom have I in the world but you, dearest?”

“Aye. Well, we must try and be more to one another than we have been of late. If the sorrow draws us nearer together, it will not be so grievous. But that poor dear Arthur. I must write to him to-night, Bertha.”

“Not to-night, Robert.”

“Not at once?”

“No. I am sure that you are too much agitated to write the letter that should be written, and you always say that you wish to sleep over anything of importance.”

“Aye, but this is not a thing to sleep over. She may have joined him, have told her own story, been taken back to his honest arms, have had his children on her knee.”

“And if that were so, Robert, would it be for you to tear her from his arms again?”

“I would prevent her getting back to him.”

“But if she should have got back?”

“Bertha, you do not mean that you would have me possess this secret and keep it from him. You cannot for one moment entertain such a thought, or presume to utter it.”

“Do not be angry.”

“Angry. If I could think you serious, I would never be angry with you again. I do not see that we could ever have another thought in common.”

“Please do not make me cry any more. You know that I would sooner die than advise you to do anything against your honour. I only meant that if you thought, after considering everything over in your own wise, deep manner—you know I can never think in that way, and you ought never to be angry at my seeing only bits and pieces of things—”

“No, Bertha, I know you are incapable of unworthiness. Well, tell me what you thought.”

“Those letters—now please bear with me—those letters must have been written a long time ago, and since then there may have been repentance, and sorrow—real earnest repentance; and we know that since then has come marriage, and perhaps a better sense of what is good and right.”

“Grant all—and go on.”

“Well, the knowledge of the—the man came to you by an accident, and you certainly forced the secret out. I only want you to consider whether you are bound to act on knowledge that came in such a way.”

“I am still unable to understand you, Bertha. But while we are upon the subject, tell me how you learned that this Adair was in the prison-place.”

“He sent to tell me,” said Bertha, not knowing what other answer to make at the spur of the moment.

“He sent to tell you! Who was his messenger?”

“I do not know the man’s name, but he is a perfumer.”

“Do you mean the man who comes after Henderson?”


“But you did not see him at that time in the morning?”

“He sent the message through Henderson,” said Bertha, uneasily.

Robert Urquhart rang violently, and Angelique entered.

“Send Henderson here directly.”

“Oui, Monsieur.”

“What are you going to say to the poor girl?” said Bertha, whose terrors were all aroused again, and who especially remembered Henderson’s excitability on the subject of her lover.

The lady’s-maid entered. It would be too much to say that she had not been prepared for a scene, for she had seen Ernest Adair enter the house, and knew that he had been for a long time with her employers, to whom such visit boded no good. But she was surprised, on coming in, to see Mr. and Mrs. Urquhart standing near together, and apparently on no hostile terms, and she was still more surprised at the greeting she received from her master.

“Henderson, I never judge anybody without giving him or her the chance of making answer. Did any Frenchman give you a message this morning, to be delivered to your mistress?”

“Yes, sir,” said Henderson, perceiving at a glance that her mistress had spoken the truth, and therefore that it was useless for her attendant to tell a lie.

“Who was it?”

“M. Silvain, sir.”

“That person wants to marry you, does he not? Don’t look impertinent, but answer the question.”

“I hope there is no harm in a poor girl listening to an honest man, sir.”

“This Silvain wishes to marry you? I ask once more,” said Urquhart, in a voice that made Henderson tremble.

“Yes, sir, he does,” she said.

“Then you had better tell him that the sooner he takes you away and does it, the better; and that if he has not made up his mind to take you into his own house, he will find you a lodging somewhere else, for you don’t sleep another night in mine.”

“Sir?” said Henderson, doubtful of her ears.

“And you may tell him, at the same time, that if ever he brings a message from another gaol-bird to any member of my family, I will kick him up and down the avenue like a foot-ball, and then hand him to the police. Explain that to the fellow in your best French, and now go and pack your boxes.”

“Might I speak to you, Madame?” Henderson contrived to say through her anger. “I think it would be best if I were to speak to you, Madame, as gentlemen do not understand everything. Perhaps by and by might be more convenient, Madame?”

And Henderson withdrew.

“She is not a good girl, Bertha,” said Urquhart, “and I never understood your liking her. Pay her all she asks, however, as you have rather spoiled her, and we must not be over-hard upon faults that we have helped to create.”