Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The silver cord - Part 36
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
There is a crowd about the gate of the garden that is before the house in the avenue, but the people do not come nearer than the gate, for the police is there, and stern orders are given to stand away, and no one dares to climb upon the coping of the little wall, which, in England, would have long since been swarming with a double line of clinging gazers.
It is easy enough to keep off a well-behaved and obedient mob, but it is not so easy for the all-powerful police to enter the house, although they know that a fierce deed has been done there. The front door has been tried in every way, but the key inside prevents false keys from being used, and all the united force of the stalwart gendarmes has been brought to bear, but vainly. But the police are in earnest, and the crowd stands back as an officer passes out to summon the nearest blacksmith. Meantime other officers inspect the lower windows, but they are securely fastened with shutters, and to break in that way will require instruments.
They listen, however, and order silence in the crowd that they may listen the better, and the intelligent French mob instantly comprehends the object, and is hushed. But the police do not give sign that they can hear anything within. It would be strange if they could.
The officer has not returned with the blacksmith, and two Englishmen arrive hastily. These are Hawkesley and Aventayle. The crowd let them pass, and the former addresses a few words to one of the gendarmes, and is recognised and admitted, with his friend, before he has finished his sentence.
“Why does not somebody get a ladder, and go through a first-floor window? There is one open,” is the prompt and practical demand of Mr. Aventayle.
But the police look coldly at the speaker, and prefer to do things in their own way. And here comes their comrade with a working-man in a clean blouse. He had done his work, and was going out, but has seized two or three hammers and a wedge, and hastens in aid of the law.
The smith is brought up to the door, and looks at it and at those who have sent for him, and delays operations for a minute or two, and then removes his blouse, with the air of a man who is master of the situation. But the police have little patience with sentiment, and a sharp word, which calls up an angry glance in the man’s dark eye, nevertheless quickens him, and he places his wedge on the hinge side of the door. An exclamation of approval from one of the officers brings a slight smile of contempt to the smith’s lips.
“I suppose that you would try there,” he says, pointing to the lock, “so that when you had broken the bolts, you might have the further pleasure of breaking the chain, if you could.”
“How do you know that there is a chain?”
“Because I put it up myself, and was desired to make it strong, as the house was left to women, who wished to be secure.”
“And are not the hinges secure?”
“I was not told to do anything to the hinges,” replies the blacksmith.
They stood his blows, however, very well, and it was some time before he could make an opening for the wedge. It was gained at last, and the man struck hard, and the strong door began to give way.
Hawkesley was watching eagerly as the upper part of the door seemed to be yielding, and was ready to be the first to rush into the house, when Aventayle said:
“Surely she should not have come.”
“She—who?” and Hawkesley turning, saw Mrs. Lygon making her way through the crowd.
He sprang away, and was by her side in a moment.
“I beg you not to come, Laura,” he said. “This is no place for you. For God’s sake stop away from the house. I will fetch you, if you will, when we have done.”
“I must come in with you, Charles.”
“You do not know what you are asking—”
“I must come in. You cannot understand why I say so—but you must let me come. All my life may hang on a moment’s speech with him.”
“With him,—with whom?” said Hawkesley, impatiently.
Before Laura could reply, Henderson hurried up.
“It is useless, it is wicked—you must not, madam, indeed you must not. It is too dreadful. Take her away, sir, for the love of Heaven. It is too dreadful!”
The girl’s face was pale with terror, and her bright keen eyes shone out with a ghastly effect. She clung to Laura, and with gesture and earnest words implored her to keep back.
“I must see him,” said Laura, in a low voice.
“You cannot, dear lady, you cannot. And if you—”
But a crash announced that under the blows of the smith, aided by the pressure of the other men, the door had given way.
Hawkesley was about to run back to the house, but paused to adjure Laura to wait his return.
“If you would only hear me for one moment, dear lady,” implored Henderson. “Run in, Mr. Hawkesley, run in. I am sure that Mrs. Lygon will give me one minute.”
He saw that the girl had something that she would say, saw that she would detain Laura, by force if needful, and he darted back, and hurried into the house.
The police had already rushed through the large room in front, and through the smaller chamber, and had found no one. Charles Hawkesley hastened up-stairs to the drawing-rooms, and as he reached the landing, a gendarme, followed by another, confronted him—they had ascended by the private stair from the room at the back, the stair down which Mrs. Lygon had been conducted to her hiding-place.
The next moment Hawkesley was in the front drawing-room. It was empty.
Not so the second room.
There were signs there that men had closed in a fierce struggle, and near the open window the carpet was torn from its fastenings as by the stamping and grinding of foot and heel—furniture had been dashed about in that wild strife.
But these were points for the police to note. Hawkesley saw none of them.
He saw only the dead body of Robert Urquhart.
There lay the strong man. Upon his lip was blood, but this had flowed, as was plain, from wounds self-inflicted, and when he had set his teeth grimly, in some access of fiery passion, now still for ever. But he had died by a single blow,—a blow that had been delivered truly, and home. It had been struck, and he had gone down. Across the place of the wound the fold of the loose coat had fallen, and it was not until one of the officers gently drew it back, that the tale was told. It was not told in the face, for upon the strong features had come a calm that gave them a loftiness they had rarely shown in life, and upon the bleeding lip there was almost a smile.
“That man has not died in the presence of his murderer,” said, in a low voice, one of the officers—a soldier who had seen other deaths. “What is that gold in his hand?”
The hand was stiffening, but it yielded easily as yet, and Hawkesley drew from its clasp a small locket. It had been worn on a ribbon, which was broken, and there were specks of blood upon the glass, as if it had been pressed to the wounded lips.
Hawkesley knew well the fair hair of Bertha.
“He has forgiven her—forgiven her his death—but that was the least he had to pardon,” said Hawkesley, his voice breaking with his tears.
But he spoke in presence of the dead only—the officers had dispersed on the traces of the assassin.
Aventayle had lingered behind his friend, for, lacking the personal interest which hurried Hawkesley on to whatever sight might be in store for him, the former owned to a shuddering repugnance to encounter, needlessly, a spectacle of terror. A few words from one of the men told him that a far other result than that which he had expected had followed the meeting of the enemies, and Aventayle, made yet more willing to be spared a terrible sight, gladly accepted the thought that he had better be the first to break the truth to Laura.
But she was gone.
“Had she been told?” asked Aventayle, hurriedly.
“Madame knows all, sir!” said, respectfully, a young man who came up to the Englishman. “The young person who was with her has conducted her home,” added Silvain.
“That was kind and right,” answered Aventayle, and he turned towards the house, and wished that Hawkesley would descend.
“Monsieur is a friend of Madame Lygon,” said Silvain, earnestly.
“At least of her family—of Mr. Hawkesley.”
“So I am informed; and it would be kind if Monsieur would deign to favour me with a few minutes of conversation.”
Aventayle instantly assented; and Silvain, leaving a message for Mr. Hawkesley, the charge of which was instantly taken by half a dozen in the crowd, led the Englishman away to some distance.
Silvain briefly explained his acquaintance with the family upon whom this fearful misfortune had come, and if Aventayle had been in the mood for suspicion, the young Frenchman’s manner would have dispelled any doubt as to his loyalty. He spoke with little restraint, and as one who considered his being aware of many painful circumstances was not now a fact to be apologised for, more serious affairs being pressing.
“I was desired to tell your friend what I am about to tell you, Monsieur, but it was afterwards thought that I might more properly confide it to yourself, to be again mentioned to him at such time as you may think best.”
“I will do so,” said Aventayle. “My God! what has happened? That man, whom I saw in all his health and strength in the court of the hotel, and now!”
“We may die for glory, we may die for duty,” said Silvain, “but it is hard to die in vain, as that brave man has done.”
“We have no right to say that of any death,” said Aventayle, after a pause. “But these police, will they hunt down the murderer, or will they let him escape? and the people, why are they not encouraged to join in the hunt? Surely he has not had time to get far away.”
“He will not escape,” replied Silvain, “but the police will have their own way. Will Monsieur pardon me if I ask him to attend, for a short time, to what concerns the welfare of the living rather than revenge for the dead?”
“Go on—I will do my best to bear what you say in mind. But I feel as if I had in some way been mixed up with this fearful business, and I am scarcely a free agent.”
“We ought all to feel thus when a crime against society has been committed,” said Silvain, who had read some books, and remembered something of what was in them. “But the crime will be punished, in the meantime let us attend to ourselves.”
They walked on as he spoke, and quite beyond observation of those who had collected, and were rapidly collecting in the avenue.
“I would not speak much of the painful business which has brought you, Monsieur, and your friends to France,” said Silvain, “but as I am to make you completely understand, I must suppose that you know that the person who is, doubtless, the assassin of M. Urquhart, had a secret which involved the reputation of two ladies. One of them is now a widow,” he added, pointing in the direction of the house, “the other I need not name.”
“I know all this—more than I desire to know.”
“But is Monsieur aware of the business which brought the man Adair this day to Versailles?”
“I have some knowledge of it,” said Aventayle. “And I have reason to know that he was supposed to be about to rush into a very great peril, and that it was certainly not thought that he would leave that house alive.”
Silvain’s face assumed a warning expression.
“Pardon me,” he said, “but that is far more than any man should say to any other man when such an event has happened. I will consider it not said, but Monsieur will do well to be guarded. I will only assume that it is understood that this Adair had a very important object in view when he came to the house of the late M. Urquhart.”
“That I know nothing about.”
“It was so, and I am to inform you of the circumstances, in order that M. Hawkesley may know them. Adair had in his possession a volume of letters which he produced to the unfortunate man whom he has slain, and these letters are the fatal evidence against the lady who—who is now dwelling in Versailles.”
“Had in his possession, you say. Do you mean that he has not now got them?”
“That is the point to which I am coming, Monsieur. This Adair, of whom I cannot speak with too much abhorrence, was an agent of the police, and may still consider himself so; I have reason to believe that he so deludes himself. That he was so, however, is certain, and equally certain that he was for a long time here at Versailles, at which time, though he did not know it, he was as vigilantly watched as any person upon whom he had been ordered to keep his eyes. I myself had a share in observing him.”
“Another agent of police,” said Aventayle, drawing back involuntarily.
“Nothing of the kind, Monsieur,” said Silvain, with some dignity. “In my own interest, and to repay certain wrongs, I availed myself in the single case of this man of certain offers that were made to me, but it was in this case only, and I shall never again undertake such a duty. When I tell Monsieur that I am about to marry an Englishwoman, he will probably receive my word as to the police question.”
“Yes,” said Aventayle, bluntly, “I do not believe that an honest English girl would marry a damned spy, and I beg your pardon.”
“There is no offence, Monsieur,” said Silvain, quietly. “I was about to say that Adair finally discovered that he was watched, and became much more cautious, but not sufficiently so to attain his own ends. He did not really know who was observing him. But he did know that his papers were examined, and at times borrowed, and he was fully aware that none of the ordinary places of concealment which his own lodging gave him were of much use. He was a bold man, and he adopted a bold course.”
“The safe possession of this volume of letters was everything to him, for he intended to obtain a very large sum for them, and retire to England; and he informed me that he meant to become an actor.”
“That is true; and I, who am a manager, was asked by the miscreant to bring him upon the boards.”
“For the boards we shall substitute the scaffold, I doubt not,” said Silvain, coolly. “He had, Monsieur, become intimately acquainted with the interior of the house in which he has committed this frightful crime. I need not remind you how it happened that he had the means of acquiring that knowledge—”
“But it was intimate and complete. And having this precious volume of evidence to conceal, he placed it in the very house of the man whom he had wronged, and in the very room in which the women whom he had so cruelly injured had been in the habit of spending their hours. That was very brutal, very atrocious.”
The nature of Silvain spoke out frankly. He felt that the circumstance he was mentioning aggravated the crimes of Adair.
“Yes, Monsieur, there was a secret recess at the bottom of an almost secret well in a closet in that chamber, and there did Adair deposit his cursed proofs; there, where the dresses of the poor ladies must have touched within a few inches of his treacherous book. And, Monsieur, it was to fetch this book, a task that he would entrust to no other hand, that Adair came back this day to Versailles.”
“Ha! To fetch this book of letters. And poor Urquhart found him in the house, and has been killed in endeavouring to arrest him?”
“How it occurred,” said Silvain, in a tone that implied his desire not to be needlessly explicit, “how it occurred that M. Urquhart became aware of the intentions of Adair will no doubt appear when Adair is before the tribunal of justice. It is enough that they met in the house, and that Adair has bought his escape at the price of a crime.”
“Taking the letters with him?”
“How do you know that?”
“Because, Monsieur, the letters had been removed from the place of deposit before Adair entered the house.”
“By a trustworthy person, Monsieur.”
“Who retains them, of course,” said Aventayle, instantly suspecting that a new bargain for the evidence was about to be offered. “Well?”
“You are doing an injustice to one who never injured you, Monsieur,” said Silvain, reproachfully. “The secret that the letters were hidden in the well-hole became known to the young person whom I am about to marry. Unhappily she did not discover it in time to make the knowledge useful, but at least she was in time to prevent Adair from gaining a great triumph. She ventured into the house, and secured the letters.”
“Well done. I beg her pardon for having wronged her in thought. Then Adair must have searched in vain for them, and perhaps, in his rage at the loss, attacked the unhappy man who has died by his hand.”
“It may be so, Monsieur. I may believe that M. Urquhart entered the fatal house, intending vengeance upon Adair. But this may be known hereafter. The letters—”
“Yes, the letters, where are they?”
“They are in the hands of Madame Lygon.”
“What!” exclaimed Aventayle. “Mrs. Lygon has got all the evidence against her—has got delivered to her without fee or reward what all the police in Paris did not seem likely to get at all? That is a bit of good news in the midst of our trouble.”
“There will be neither fee nor reward, Monsieur, given or expected. The poor are not permitted many luxuries, but sometimes they may be allowed the luxury of doing good for nothing.”
Aventayle had heard that virtuous sentiment in many a melodrama, but it was uttered by Silvain with so much propriety that it was impossible to regard it with disrespect. And the event of the hour had scared away all disposition to levity, at least in a mind like that of Aventayle. A harder man might have rallied sooner.
“And this is what I am to tell Mr. Hawkesley?”
“This is what I was desired to say.”
“Out of evil—and it is dreadful evil—comes good,” said Aventayle. “These letters arrive at an hour when we had no right to expect good fortune.”
“Whether the recovery of the letters is good fortune or not,” said Silvain, gravely, “others have more right to form an opinion than myself. I did not gather, Monsieur, from what has been said to me, that any great gain would arise to the lady who now has them, but it is something to have rescued them from the clutches of Adair, who would have sold them at a high price.”
“He, at least, implied that they were invaluable to her,” said Aventayle. “But this is, as you say, for others to decide. Have you more to say to me?—I should return to poor Hawkesley.”
“You have not asked my name, Monsieur.”
“I have not. I have been too much shocked to remember anything.”
“Mr. Hawkesley may not know it, but it is well known to Madame Lygon. My name is Silvain, my shop any one in Versailles will show your friend.”
“I shall not forget it.”
He returned to the house, before which the crowd had now collected in large numbers, and it was with some difficulty, and only after an appeal to the police, that Aventayle could make his way to the gate. The strangest stories were being exchanged by the people as to the fearful event, and the most distorted and improbable surmises seemed to receive the most favour. It would have been difficult indeed for the populace that stood before that gate to have imagined the true key to the mystery of the deed that had been done, but the wildness of some of the conjectures that were offered was extraordinary. One tale only need be mentioned, and this because its history is less mysterious than itself. It was distinctly affirmed by several of the crowd that the house was notoriously haunted, that the master who now lay dead had been the terror of the mountain region in which he had lived before coming to France, and that he had escaped to that country in the hope of avoiding the spectre of a woman who in early life had fallen a victim, first to his love and then to his hate. That he had fled in vain, and that having espoused a young and beautiful wife, he had compelled her to share his hours of despair, and to witness the approach of the spirit. That there was a winding stair in the house, constructed by the murderer to remind him of his castle in Scotland, and that it was up this stair that the spirit glided, at the hour at which the deed had been done, and fled down it shrieking, as the living victim, flying and praying for life, had done in the old castle. At length the poor wife, unable to bear such terrors, had fled to her home in England, but the murderer, though he had shut up the house, and endeavoured to leave it, had been compelled to return by the summons of the spirit, and, in madness, had at last died by his own hand. Those who may recall the device by which, when it was desired to exclude the domestics in Mr. Urquhart’s employ from the lower portion of the house, the girl Henderson effected that object by a terrifying narrative, have the key to the origin of the story which was freely circulated among the crowd, and to which the female part of it was by no means indisposed to lend belief.
Aventayle was admitted to the house, but was requested to remain in the apartment below, while an official note of the circumstances attending the supposed murder was being completed. But Hawkesley was informed of his having come in, and hastened down.
“It is too fearful to think of now,” said Hawkesley, holding his friend’s hand. “What shall I say to you for having entangled you in such a terrible business?”
“Not a word, but tell me whether I can be of any use.”
“I fear not, but stay. You went out to see Mrs. Lygon.”
“She knows all and has been taken home.”
“I know that, and you went away with Silvain, the lover of a girl who attends on Laura.”
“You know him then? He is to be trusted?”
“He has given me a message for you.”
And in a few words, few, considering the excited condition of Aventayle, he conveyed to Hawkesley the information Silvain had given.
Brief as the story was, Hawkesley heard it with an impatience that increased from the moment he comprehended the fact that the letters had been rescued from Adair’s possession. But the excitement manifested by Hawkesley did not seem to be mixed with the gratification which Aventayle, who had formed his own idea as to the character of the letters, expected. On the contrary, Hawkesley compressed his lips, and paced the apartment hastily.
“I ought not to leave this place, Aventayle,” he said, abruptly, “and yet I must see Laura.”
“Is there such haste?”
“Yes—her impulse may lead her to—to do what will cause irreparable mischief—and yet to leave him, while the officers are making these perquisitions—I must go, however.”
“Surely, Hawkesley, you can write, or send such a message by me as will save that necessity?”
“That is true—and yet, unless you comprehend all—but I must not leave that poor, noble fellow in the hands of strangers. Aventayle, find Silvain again—that you can easily do—and make him take you to Mrs. Lygon’s lodgings. Say you came from me, and she will, I am sure, see you. But if she is actually too ill to see you, and nothing else will prevent it, speak to the girl, Henderson. She is to be trusted. This is the one message, the solemn charge from me. Do not destroy one line, as you value all that is dear to you in the world. Not one line—impress that on her, Aventayle, and say that I came from the dead man’s presence, released the dead man’s hand, that I might send her that charge.”
Silvain had mixed in the crowd, and with a certain scorn, as one who knew the history of the fable, listened to the fiction which has been mentioned.
“It is entirely untrue,” he said to a matron who had just finished her version of the story. “The man who lies dead in that house was a brave and noble man.”
No one contradicted him, for he spoke almost angrily. But as soon as he had, in obedience to a signal from Aventayle, joined the latter at the outside of the crowd, another matron remarked—
“Of course he will say so. It is his duty. He marries a girl who came from England, and knows the frightful secret.”
“She has seen the spectre,” affirmed another woman, half terrified at her own speech.
“My son wants a wife,” said a third, “but sooner than he should share his bed with a girl who has seen a foul sight like that, I would gladly dress him for his bed in the ground.”
Aventayle, under the guidance of Silvain, soon reached the house in which Mrs. Lygon had her apartments.
“I am sure that she cannot see you, sir,” was the reply of Henderson. “I hardly dare take the message, but I will venture, as you come from Mr. Hawkesley. At least I will knock.”
Mrs. Lygon could see no one—“would see no one,” had been the answer to Henderson.
And no inducement, not even Silvain’s support of the request, would induce the girl to go up again.
“At any other time,” said Henderson; “Silvain knows that I am not easily daunted, and I would go in a moment. But not now. I have never seen her as I have seen her to-day, and there is cause.”
“But under any circumstances Mrs. Lygon must have the message I bring. You, who have done so much to serve her, will simply be undoing all the good you have done if Mr. Hawkesley’s message is not delivered to her.”
“You hear this, dear Matilde,” said Silvain, earnestly.
“I tell you,” said the girl, in a low voice, “I dare not. That is something for me to say.”
“Tell me,” said Aventayle, “what is Mrs. Lygon doing?”
“You know, sir, what has come into her hands to-day.”
“Yes, yes, and that must be what Mr. Hawkesley specially means. What is she doing?”
“Now,” said Henderson, still in a low voice, “she is reading page upon page of handwriting, with her face in a flame, and with the hot tears coming down like rain, but, for all that, the last time I looked into the room, her eyes glared at me like coals of fire. I will not go in again.”
“You do not know what mischief you may be doing by your fear,” replied Aventayle. “I must speak to her myself, if it is outside her door.”
The tapping of a foot was heard in the room above.
“That is for me!” exclaimed the girl.
“Ask her to admit me, if only for a moment,” said Aventayle, hastily, “but if this is impossible, say this,”—and he gave Hawkesley’s message.
In a few minutes Aventayle was requested to come upstairs.
Laura was seated at her table, and before her lay the rescued volume—the volume which we have seen but once—when Ernest Adair laid it in the hand of Robert Urquhart. Some hand had torn from it several leaves, but they were still there.
“I am just in time, it seems,” said Aventayle, pointing at the volume.
“I am sorry to have sent you down what must have seemed a rude message,” said Mrs. Lygon, “but I was very much occupied, and I did not recognise your name. A friend of Mr. Hawkesley’s ought not to have cause to complain of incivility from me.”
Where is this face of flame—where are these coals of fire? thought Aventayle, as he looked at the beautiful and self-composed woman before him, and listened to her excuse, offered in the tone of the drawing-room. And yet, after what has happened to-day, what right has she to be so calm? She ought to be agitated. I do not like this woman.
And so hath been judged, and so will be judged until the day of the one judgment, when, for the first time, justice shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven, many a cause that is but half understood.
“Has your servant conveyed the message which Mr. Hawkesley begged me to deliver?”
“I scarcely understood it. But now that I think I understand it, from what you said at coming in, I will only ask you to say that my brother-in-law’s wish shall be obeyed to the letter.”
There was something of triumph—it was but a little—but it broke out in spite of the well-ordered features, and the calmness of tone.
“That nothing will be destroyed?”
“Nothing,” said Laura.
She laid her hands upon the book, as if to guard its contents against all the world.
“My errand is done,” said Aventayle, “and it will be my apology for my intrusion.” He was about to go, when she took his hand.
“You have come in all kindness,” she said, in a low voice, and with agitation, “and you ought not to be sent away with the thoughts that I know are in your mind. But bear with me, Mr. Aventayle. You cannot know what the day has brought to me. Have you any children?”
“Indeed yes,” said Aventayle, “God bless them!”
“Then you can understand—but I must not talk to you so,” she said, trying to smile as tears forced their way—“I have no right to talk to you. Only, if you had seen a black wall rise between you and those children, and day by day grow stronger and blacker, shutting you away from them for ever, and then there suddenly came to you—we have such things in dreams,”—and again she tried to smile, “a hope that the wall was crumbling away—you would know how to bear with a mother whose heart was nearly breaking, but who believes that the black wall is coming down. God bless you, and thank you for bringing me Charles’s message, but there is no fear of what he seems to fear—assure him of that.”
Again she held out her hand, and he pressed it and went down.
“A word, my good girl,” said Aventayle, when he found himself with Henderson. “Did I understand aright that Mrs. Lygon had been informed of the dreadful thing that has happened to-day?”
“Silvain told you so, sir, did he not?”
“He was right to tell you so, but it is not true.”
“What do you mean?”
“We did not dare. And she thinks at this moment that it is Adair who has been killed.”
“I thought it must be so. Keep the truth from her until her present excitement is over. I thought it must be so. Mr. Hawkesley shall come up as soon as he can leave the house. By all means keep the truth from her.”
The police had examined the whole building, and had easily detected the mode by which Ernest Adair had entered. They found the traces of his feet, and those of the unmistakeable foot of Urquhart, but in the mould of the bed between the wall and the window, they also discovered the marks of a third person’s tread. The shoes had been well made, but must have been those of an artisan or other member of the humbler class of society. This fact remained to be explained, and was much debated by the police.
There had been but two men who could have explained it, and one of them could bear no more witness in this world.
The other was a mechanic who had mingled in the crowd, had remained in it, but silently, during all the proceedings, and had spoken but once.
That was when Silvain, having listened to the charges which were so wildly advanced, and to the strange story of the spirit, had indignantly broken out with his declaration that he who had been slain was good and noble.
“He was both,” said the man, with a deep oath. “And he has died by the hand of one whose head is the due of the executioner. God willing, the debt shall be paid.”
The people looked at him strangely, and he went away.