Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The silver cord - Part 8
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
“Miss Henderson,” said Ernest Adair, as Mrs. Urquhart’s servant entered a little room on the ground-floor of one of the little inns at Versailles, “you are punctual, but you don’t look pleased.”
“I shouldn’t say I was,” replied the domestic.
She was rather a pretty girl, in spite of a flattish face, a large mouth, with plenty of white strong teeth in it, a couple of hard black eyes, and a habit of erecting her head in a slanting and defiant manner.
“I am so sorry,” said Ernest Adair, whose regret was certainly not expressed in the tone in which the careless words were said, nor was it more palpably demonstrated by the way in which he threw himself upon a straw-bottomed chair, placed his feet upon the other, and proceeded to kindle the eternal cigarette.
“Now, don’t make me smell of smoke, Mr. Adair, but say what you want to say, and let me go, as we have got some people, and I shall be missed.”
“You have got some people? Name the people.”
“Nobody you know.”
“That, my dear, is an assumption on a subject of which you know nothing. I know everybody, and whether I do or not, be good enough to do as I ask you.”
“Well, I don’t know the names.”
“That is an untruth.”
“I declare I don’t. Madame called one of the ladies her dear Louise.”
“How long have they been there?”
“Only half an hour.”
“English or French?”
“There is a gentleman and two ladies. He is French, and one of the ladies is English.”
“Is that my dear Louise?”
“No, the other.”
“You are short in your replies to-day, Miss Henderson, or shall I say Matilda—not that I believe that to be your name. I should have thought that your experience had told you that short answers do not suit me.”
“I have told you all I know, and how can I tell you more?”
“You can tell me a great deal more, and will have the goodness to do so.”
“I say then that I know nothing of them, except that they came in a carriage.”
“How many horses, and their colour?”
“Two horses,—brown ones.”
“Colour of carriage?”
“There, you see, valuable information at once, which shows that you do not do yourself justice. They sent in their cards, I suppose?”
“Angelique took them in.”
“You will be kind enough to copy them for me, and enclose the copy in one of those blue envelopes I gave you. Post it this evening.”
“Very well. Is that all? I shall be sure to smell of smoke,” said Matilda, “and Madame does hate it so.”
“Naturally. It reminds her of her husband, who is never without a cigar, I think.”
“I wish you were half as good a man as Mr. Urquhart.”
“Never wish impossibilities, my dear. I have no ambition to attain such a sublime of virtue as can impress even Miss Matilda Henderson with admiration.”
“Can I go?”
“Certainly not. What I have told you is the smallest part of our business. Your look of impatience is not lost upon me, and I answer it by saying that if you had chosen to tell me all that you have told me without giving me the trouble of questioning, we should have saved much time. So, if Madame boxes your ears it will be your own fault.”
“Madame box my ears, indeed!”
“It might be for your good, occasionally,” said Ernest. “I have felt that so strongly, that I have at times been inclined to do it myself, and I don’t know that I may not yet make that effort for your improvement. In the meantime, I have something else to tell you.”
“Do make haste,” said the girl.
“You are going to have another visitor.”
“Yes, I expected that.”
“And why did you not mention your expectations to me?”
“Why, what time have I had? The note came only an hour ago.”
“A lady’s note, English hand, the letter L on the seal?”
“No, there was no seal.”
“Careless in the writer, knowing the house she was writing to.”
“It is like you, to drive a girl into spying and meanness, and then throw it in her teeth,” said Matilda.
“Is it? I pique myself on my consistency, do you know?” returned Adair, smiling. “How did you manage to read the note?”
“I have not read it. Madame tore it open eagerly, and hurried through it, and seemed very much pleased. Then she went into the little spare bedroom, and looked about it, as if she wanted it to be ready for somebody.”
“But gave no orders?”
“No. Don’t I tell you that these other people came?”
“Very well; don’t be angry. You have no idea who this new visitor is?”
“Not I. I shall know when she comes, I suppose, and that will be time enough for me.”
“It will not. There are reasons why you should know beforehand, and that is why I have asked your presence here, Miss Henderson.”
“Well, who is it?”
“Your mistress’s sister. What a tell-tale face you have! You look as pleased as if it were your own sister coming. Perhaps more so?”
“You have no call to talk about my sister, or anybody else belonging to me, Mr. Adair,” returned the girl, flushing up. “I shall be glad if Mrs. Hawkesley is coming, because she is a kind creature.”
“Visions of five-franc pieces, spare my aching sight! ye unworn dresses, crowd not on my soul!” said Adair, rather to himself than the girl.
“It has nothing to do with her presents,” retorted Matilda, catching at the meaning of the parody; “but because she is truly kind and considerate, and thinks of a servant as if she were flesh and blood.”
“Is that a reproach to me, for having failed to render due homage to your attractions?”
“Have you anything more to say to me, Mr. Adair?” said the girl, not vouchsafing to notice the speech.
“Yes. First, it is not Mrs. Hawkesley who is coming. Don’t look vexed, Mrs. Urquhart’s other sister is quite as well off as Mrs. Hawkesley, and there are several reasons why the visit may be a much better thing for you than if it were from that good-natured lady who kept you up so late from her love of going to the theatres.”
“Is it Mrs. Lygon?”
“Certainly. Has your mistress a third sister?”
“Well, Mrs. Lygon is a very sweet lady, too; though she is prouder than Mrs. Hawkesley.”
“What the deuce do you know about pride?” answered Adair, with an expression of bitter contempt, which stung the girl into sudden anger.
“As much as a gentleman,” she replied, hastily, “who sets servants to spy upon their mistresses, gets copies of letters and cards, and does all sorts of mean tricks.”
“I like that honest outbreak,” said Adair, not in the least discomposed. “I like earnestness, and never quarrel with the way in which it shows itself. But if I do some little things which offend the delicate feelings of a lady’s-maid, I do some generous things to make up for them. I think that your handsome admirer, Monsieur Silvain, would not have gone quite so well out of that little affair about Madame’s wine and some other trifles, if I had not befriended him with the police.”
“Poor Silvain would have been a better man, if—if you had not made his acquaintance,” said Matilda, with tears rising to her eyes, “and why you should demean yourself to make friends with a perfumer, I don’t know, but I am sure for no good.”
“I am sorry to hear such aristocratic sentiments from a daughter of the people,” said Ernest Adair, gravely. “Don’t you know that we are all equal, and though you think I ought to despise poor little Silvain——”
“Despise him, indeed!” said she, in another rage. “You have much more right to be despised by him, I can tell you that.”
“Quite right, my dear. I have no settled residence and position in the world, whereas he has a charming little shop in which he sells the very worst perfumery in the whole world, at prices that will soon enable him to claim Mademoiselle Henderson’s fair hand. But as she will not be able to give it without my approbation, she should not try to make me an enemy of the lover of her heart.”
“I must go,” said the girl. “What will Madame say?”
“I will secure you from Madame’s anger. There. When I say a thing of that kind I mean it. Now, attend to me, and forget Monsieur Silvain for a moment. Mrs. Lygon is coming to visit your mistress, and as I want to arouse all your instincts as a lady’s-maid, let me tell you that the visit is a secret one, and made without the knowledge of either of the ladies’ husbands. Now, if Madame shows such want of confidence in you as to try to keep that from you, I suppose that you know what is due to yourself.”
“What do I want to know about her secrets. If it was not for you I would never have touched one of her letters in my life.”
“Thank me for having educated you into intelligence, then. And whether you care about her secrets or not, I care a good deal about them, and therefore I shall require you to be particularly on the alert until I tell you to relax your vigilance.”
“You make me do what you like, but I hate myself, and——
“And me. We all hate people who compel us to do sensible things, and I don’t expect you to be wiser than the rest of the word. But I promise you that whatever you do, under my directions, shall be to your advantage; and it is exceedingly agreeable, my dear Mademoiselle Henderson, to put it in that way, instead of hinting at any little unpleasantness that might arise—let us say to Monsieur the perfumer, if he dropped out of my good graces through any indiscretion of yours. You understand?”
“Tell me what to do,” said Matilda, doggedly.
“In the first place, Mrs. Lygon will not come direct to your house. She desires, as I say, to avoid meeting your large master.”
“She can’t meet him, for there has been some railway accident, and he is gone to set it right.”
“Ah! That is news to me,” said Adair, turning to her with more interest. “When did he go?”
“The brave man! The good man!”
“Yes, he is that,” said Matilda, “though you do not mean it when you say it.”
“But I do. He delights me much. I am pleased with the large Scotchman. Excellent Robert! Worthy Urquhart!”
He was occupied in new and sudden thought, and the mocking words dropped from his lips unmeaningly.
“That is well,” he said, after a pause. “It would be better if the other were not on his way; but Providence seldom sends us everything that we desire, and perhaps it would not be good for us, my dear, if it did. Not in Versailles—excellent! Then listen again, intending bride of Monsieur Silvain. Mrs. Lygon will be at your house sooner than expected. That is to say, she will meet her sister, to whom she has of course written, making an appointment, and Mrs. Urquhart will state to her that the Caledonian giant being away, his castle may be approached without fear. Now, I must know where the ladies meet; and that you must instantly find out for me. After they have come home, the business must be in your hands. So, off instantly with you, and manage to find the note which Mrs. Urquhart has received. If you can get it, do; but at all events learn the place of meeting, and bring the news to me.”
“I think she put the note in her pocket. How am I to get at it?”
“Matilda, you make me blush for your incapacity. Am I to tell a lady’s-maid what pretence to invent in order to get a dress into her hands—can I imagine that it is torn, or is not fit to go out in, or is wanted for a pattern, or any of the thousand-and-one lies that are already in your mind, and any one of which will do for an excuse to put your hand upon the letter. Do I not know the adroitness of your kind? Away, I tell you, and remember that I am waiting for you here, and shall count the minutes——”
“If I cannot get it.”
“Then I shall not reproach you, my dear, but I think that the worthy Monsieur Silvain may be less forbearing, after the domiciliary visit with which the police may favour him, at an early date.”
“I think you are a fiend,” said Henderson, leaving the room.
“I don’t think I am,” said Ernest Adair, aloud, to himself, after her departure. “Indeed, I may say that I am sure I cannot be a fiend, because there are such manifest interpositions of Providence in my favour. What a very remarkable piece of good fortune it was that, instead of following Mrs. Lygon to the station, I resolved to remain in Boulogne, and see Jules Dufour about that other matter. And again, how fortunate that the said Jules had not recovered his night of gambling and drinking, and thereupon could not appear until the afternoon. Then, what an extraordinarily good thing it was that I happened to think of watching the arrivals from England, and that I should hear Mr. Arthur Lygon announce his advent on the soil of France. Again it was a thing which really shows how I am favoured of fate, that he should believe that extremely respectable official whom I sent to throw himself in his way, and give him the exact time for the departure of the Paris train, which train my friend Mr. Lygon thereby missed. Well, in all these successes, I had some share; and I will not affect to be over-grateful to fortune, but in this last matter I claim no credit at all. Could I dream that a railway accident would occur for the express purpose of sending out of Versailles that gentleman whose presence there was so pecuculiarly objectionable to me at the moment? No, I must distinctly dispute my friend Matilda’s proposition, and assert, on the contrary, that I am not a fiend.”
Ernest Adair either found pleasure in this kind of mocking self-communing with himself, or it had become a habit which he could not shake off. But, to do him justice, he never indulged in it at a time when it might have been dangerous, and it was a a favourite phrase with him that the melodramatic expedient of an overheard soliloquy could not be fairly introduced in the drama of his life. But to talk to himself was Adair’s custom, as it is with many men, who will avow that they never seem thoroughly masters of a plan, or thoroughly prepared for an interview, until they have held actual discourse with themselves upon it, and have had a sort of private rehearsal of what is to come. It has been held that talking to oneself is a sign of weakness, although the wittiest men have defended the practice by the wittiest suggestions; but there is perhaps a greater weakness, and that is the attempt to base a general psychological rule upon an accidental habit.
Adair had to wait longer than pleased him in the little room at the inn, nor did the questionable absinthe which he obtained there tend to make his hour pass the more agreeably.
But at length his spy returned, hurriedly, from the house, which stood but a few hundred yards from the Place d’Armes.
“Victory, eh?” he said.
“Madame is actually out, and on her way to meet—
“To meet where—where?”
“Near the Fountain of Neptune.”
“What, in the gardens here?”
“Good child—excellent Matilda—embrace Monsieur Silvain on my behalf at the first opportunity,” said Adair, hastily gathering up his cap and gloves.
“You will meet her, or she will see you. I could scarcely get away in time to run round.”
“My dear Matilda,” said Ernest Adair, “is there anything disreputable about me, which should make me avoid the eyes of your mistress?”
“Oh, I cannot understand you,” said the girl.
“Probably not,” he replied. “All in good time. Nay, you are a meritorious agent, and deserve the confidence of your principal. I will behave better to you than Mrs. Urquhart does, in that respect. I have no desire that the two ladies should have much opportunity of talking confidentially in the gardens, because I very much want to know what they say, and listening in the open air is not a very easy thing. Therefore, my dear Matilda, Madame Silvain that is to be, I shall endeavour to drive the ladybirds home, and therefore, at the right moment, I shall permit Mrs. Urquhart to see that I am in the neigbourhood.”
“I can see her coming,” said the girl, looking out of a side window.
“Very elegantly dressed, and in a way that does her maid the highest honour,” said Adair. “That fair complexion of hers reminds me of my own beloved land—and now I think is just the time to go out. Remember, Madame Silvain, from the moment they return, you are to be all ear, except that you are to be also all eye, as I shall be particularly curious about any letters that may arrive during Mrs. Lygon’s visit. And find out whether the Scotch giant sends any word of his intention to come home. Good child!”
He touched her black hair with his neatly gloved hand, and went out. The girl dashed her hand impatiently over the place he had touched, as if to blot out the impression of his having done so, and then looked to see the meeting between him and her mistress. But though from the door of the inn she could see Mrs. Urquhart entering the gates of the palace, Mr. Adair did not join her, nor could the girl catch any glance of him on her way home.
The fact simply was that Ernest Adair had gone in another direction, and long before Mrs. Urquhart had passed through the court yard, he was in the gardens. How he managed this is not of much consequence; persons with Ernest Adair’s private advantages over their fellows have frequently means of obtaining singularly irregular admission to all sorts of places, especially in France.
Mrs. Urqhart went on her way as rapidly as is consistent with the walk and bearing of an elegantly dressed woman in France, (one has seen an Englishwoman in England sufficiently oblivious of the grand duty of life as to be in an ungraceful hurry when on the way to an important interview, nay, even when she had only a kindness to do), and was soon within sight of the Fountain of Neptune. But she had another and an unwelcome sight to encounter before she could reach the basin in which stood and stands the sea-compelling Poseidon.
It was, however, no more repulsive an object than the well-dressed and striking-looking man who had been interesting himself so deeply in her movements, and he approached her with a newspaper in his hand, and apparently without seeing her.
Yet he might well have been excused for lowering his “Galignani,” and noticing the beautiful woman who advanced.
Exquisitely fair, and with features of singular regularity, Mrs. Urquhart was permitted, even in Paris, to pass for a beauty. Her walking costume prevented much display of her golden tresses, or of the symmetry of her head and bust, but the delicate mouth and the blue eyes came with a double and instant charm upon you, and you felt thankful, and content to wait for other revelations. Of middle height, her figure was full and rounded, and to-day her anxiety to meet her sister had given her step an elasticity which it did not usually evince, and had also imparted some addition of colour to her almost too pale complexion. A lovelier creature had seldom paced through those proud gardens, even in the days when they were consecrated to all that was noble and gay—and perhaps, even in those days of levity, never had a lovely woman walked towards the Fountain with more sadness at her heart, or better reason for such sadness.
Ernest dropped his paper at the right moment, recognised Mrs. Urquhart, and raised his cap. He noticed that her lips suddenly compressed, and then formed themselves into a half-smile, which had nothing in it beyond the stereotype courtesy of society. She would as soon have been without her charmingly-fitting gloves as without that smile when she met an acquaintance. That was all.
But not quite all in the case of Ernest Adair. Mrs. Urquhart’s smile disappeared even sooner than usual, and in its place came a strange shade over the beautiful face. The effect was painful—it was really like that of the sudden fading away of sunshine from a bright river or a glowing flower-plot. The features themselves were not perhaps capable of much expression, but the whole face yielded to the sensation of the moment, and a story was told—one which there was no need to tell to the man who stood before her.
Stood, but for a moment. His only object has been told by himself, and that was already attained.
He passed her with a bow, and the ordinary words of greeting, and would have gone on.
But Bertha was a weak woman, and even while she feared, dreaded, almost hated, she could not bear to pass by the man whom she had so much reason to abhor. Before finally judging her, note her nature.
“Reading, in the retirement of Versailles?” she said, with a forced smile and a slight laugh which was aught but cheerful, and had something in it that should have suggested pity—those who have heard such laughs often have spent a life which should trouble them when it comes to the ending.
“I was looking for English news,” said Adair, in that artificial voice which implies a desire to forbear from any earnest talk—men are, perhaps, cowards when using it,—women, when they speak in it, are either to be feared or pitied, or both. “But I find,” he continued, “news which affects friends here. Is this railway accident serious?”
“No, no, I believe not. I do not know. I do not understand such things. Mr. Urquhart has gone to the place.”
“Let us hope that he will not be detained long.”
And he was again about to pass on, when Bertha said, harshly:
“You received my note?”
“With the gage d'amitié. It is here,” and he touched his finger, and pressed it to his lips. “All thanks. But I must not detain you from your walk.”
And then he passed on in spite of a word which still sought to stop him, and which he seemed not to hear. Perhaps he left the gardens, perhaps he entered the palace, and from some window gazed out eagerly, as many a jealous lover or furious husband may have done in the old days, for there is not a corner of that strange place but has clinging in it a story of a bad man and a foolish woman.
In a few minutes more, the sisters met.
Words of affection, looks from moistened eyes, warm pressure to the heart—and Laura and Bertha were again, as of old, in counsel against the common enemy.
“Did you meet him?” was Bertha’s first question.
“No. What, has he followed you here?” asked Laura.
“I spoke to him this moment. I thought that you must have seen us.”
“It is the same thing for his purpose. He knows that you will have told me. O Bertha, Bertha, my darling, how we are hunted!”
And for a few moments the two women did look tearful and helpless enough, as they stood each holding the other’s hand convulsively.
Mrs. Lygon was the first to speak.
“It must not last, and shall not,” she said, brushing away her tears. “I have risked too much,—O! I know not yet what I have risked, but come what will of it now, this torture must be ended.”
“Torture, indeed,” said Bertha, “but what can we do? If I were rich, I might go on supplying him, though, since he has taken to play, I could never know where his demands would end. But whether Robert has fancied that I am extravagant, or whether he has calls upon him which make it necessary for him to spend less, I know not, but he has supplied me far less liberally of late, and I have been driven to strange devices to obtain the money.”
“Nothing that would be——
“Would be disgraceful if known, darling, you mean. No, not disgraceful—at least nothing wrong—I am told that other women do such things. I have no secrets from you. I have pawned a great many of my jewels.”
“Well, that would not be of much consequence, because I have enough left to wear upon any ordinary occasion, and Robert is not very likely to wish me to go to any grand place at present—he is so closely occupied with business that he scarcely visits anywhere, and always seems rather pleased when I refuse invitations.”
“You will tell me everything? You have no reason to apprehend that he has the faintest suspicion.”
“You make me tremble so that I can scarcely stand. You do not mean that you have heard anything that makes you say that, Laura?”
“Not a syllable, not a whisper, nothing of the kind. I spoke only on what you had said.”
“Does anything I have said make you think that such a thing is possible?” gasped Bertha, trembling like an aspen-leaf. “It may be so, now you detect it at once, while I have been living in such a state of maddening and distracting unhappiness, that I can form a judgment on nothing. Do you see anything to terrify us?”
“No, no, Bertha; be calm, my love.”
“I am certain you meant something.”
“Indeed I did not.”
“You have heard something, and that has brought you over so suddenly and secretly, and I am to flee. Oh, I cannot flee, my darling; if they hunt me to death I must die. I have no more energy, no more courage, and it would be much better that I were dead.”
“Do not talk madly,” said Laura, energetically, almost impatiently, pressing both her sister’s hands in her own. “There is no new danger whatever, at least none to you.”
“To whom, then?”
“To me, perhaps; but we will not speak of that now. What I have done, is done, and God will protect me through the rest,—at least I pray so. But we must be calm and rational, my dearest Bertha, and not bring the worst upon ourselves, when we may be able to avert it. You were speaking of your jewels.”
“Oh, yes. I was saying that I did not care about their being sent away, as I have told you, only that sometimes Robert lets a curious fancy come upon him, and he asks me to come down to dinner with some particular ornament which he has given me. His memory is wonderful; and if he should happen to ask me to wear something which I have not kept back, I know not indeed, with my nerves in the condition in which they are, what I should say. His going away, even for a few days, is a relief.”
“My poor Bertha, I gathered all this from the last note which you wrote to him.”
“He has sent you that?” said Bertha, colouring to the temples.
“He gave it into my hand,” said Laura, calmly. “Where and when, I will tell you by-and-by. But we have much to say to one another.”
“We must not say it here,” said Bertha, looking round, as if in terror.
“Not here, dear? Where can there be less interruption than in these quiet walks?”
“No, no. He may hear us. I know he will. He has spies everywhere—all round.”
“You must exaggerate, dear Bertha. Your fears have made you create dangers where there are none.”
“No, I tell you,” said poor Bertha, sinking her voice to a whisper, although there was no one within a hundred yards of the sisters, “he knows everything. Why is he in the garden to-day? Only to show that he knew I was coming, and why.”
“Impossible, dear child, unless you have shown him my note.”
“No, that I have in my pocket, here—see.” Mrs. Urquhart felt for the note, and Laura saw her face blanch with agitation.
“No, I have not got it. He has it. He has taken it from me. I know not how, but he has it.”
“How childish, dearest! How much more rational to suppose that, if you have really not got it, you left it on the table or dropped it on the floor. How shall I ever be able to help you if you are so wild?”
“I put it most carefully into my pocket, I tell you,” said Bertha, “and felt that it was safely there, and yet he has managed to get hold of it. You may judge what sort of a life I am leading.”
“I will not argue with you, dear, but I wish I were as sure of finding a bank-note on your table as my letter.”
“Come home at once with me. Oh, not for that, but that we may speak in safety.”
“Are we safer there than here?”
“Yes, yes. Come, dear.”
“I would come in a moment, but there is one thing I want to say. He hinted to me that you had been compelled to place confidence—more than you ought to place in any servant—in——”
“Yes, that is the name.”
“There is nothing to fear from her.”
“Bertha, she is in his power.”
“There is nothing to fear from her. Do not speak more about it. I would tell you everything.”
“You must, dear, now, for reasons which I will give you. Else all will be ruined.”
“Well, come to the house.”
“I will. But, Bertha, there is no fear of Robert’s coming back while I am here?”
“None whatever. He will be away at least a week. But tell me, dearest, why should you object to see Robert? I thought that you admired him so much, and I am sure that he always had the highest regard for you.”
“I will answer that, dear, when I tell you my whole story. Now, listen. It must not be known that I am at your house.”
“Do you mean that the servants—Henderson knows you, of course, but not any of the others.”
“What I mean is that you must put me into your little room, where I will live while I am with you.”
“Yes, yes, certainly, love.”
“And remember, Bertha, whoever comes, and I make no exception, dear—I am neither seen nor mentioned.”
“That is all easy enough, but, my dear girl, what does this anxious charge mean? Who are you afraid should follow you?”
“It does not matter. Nobody must see me.”
“Laura,” sobbed out Bertha, “I dare not ask you whether there is anything that you are—that you are afraid to tell me——”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Laura, in her turn colouring deeply, but with a far different reason from that which had crimsoned the face of her sister. “I will tell you all, but promise me that I shall be kept in concealment, come who may.”
“Why, of course I promise. What is such a promise as that between you and me? But I warn you of one thing. He will know it.”
“That I care not for.”
“Then let us go. I know that he is watching us.”
“To what end—to what good?”
“I know not, but it is so. Come.”
And the sisters left the palace, and proceeded to the house in the avenue.