Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The silver cord - Part 10
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
Letter from Archibald Vernon to Charles Hawkesley.
“My dear Charles,
“I am sure I do not know why we see so little of one another, except that having carefully examined the map, having discovered that between your new house and my Patmos, there is exactly distance enough for an agreeable and healthy walk, and having solemnly agreed with myself that duty and pleasure alike enjoined my coming to visit you at the earliest opportunity, I have not found that opportunity. With your merciless business habit, you will harshly demand what on earth I have to do that should prevent my putting on my hat any fine morning, and marching across to Maida Hill. This stern question I might find it difficult to answer—and yet not difficult, only you hate long letters, and I cannot write short ones. You will, I foresee, hand this over to Beatrice, with instructions to find out what her father wants, and tell you when you come out of that hermetically sealed study for the glass of sherry and biscuit that are to fortify you for another onslaught upon some less fortunate author, another act of the new comedy, another chapter of the forthcoming novel, another column of proof that some king of the earth ought to be promptly deposed. My dear multifarious son-in-law, I want you to be good enough to read this letter for yourself.
“Thank you much for the books. Indeed I ought to have thanked you long ago. I have not read them, but Beatrice’s pretty paper-knife has been at work on them, and I propose to begin them one of these days. I hear you, sir, and procrastination is a long and sonorous word, and is also the thief of time. Never mind. Let me go on in my own way. I admire, but do not envy you regular men, who do everything at the proper time, and are always to be relied upon. I got my notions of literary labour before the new type of author came out, and I am now too old to change my habits. Perhaps, if I had been more of a man of business, I should have been dating to you from my own villa, and sending you this letter by my own servant, instead of writing from a boarding house, and hoping that the maid will not omit to stick on a penny stamp when it shall please her to take my epistle round to the post-office. But if I am not a man of business, I have been made what I am by the discouragements of life, and by the oppression of people who resolutely set themselves to keep me down. Had my wife’s aunts been less bigoted, and had they advanced a sum to get me out of my troubles, I might have been heard of more advantageously, for I own that I do not find that the men who make great successes in these days are my superiors in handicraft. I hear you again, sir, and egotism, though a shorter word than procrastination, has almost as classical a sound—
[At this point in the letter, Mr. Hawkesley looked up, and in answer to a curious glance from his wife, observed:
“Only autobiography at present, but he wishes me to read it all.”
“Dear old man!” said Beatrice, “and so you shall.”]
“The papers, Charles, are very full of interest—
[“I wish he had to find subjects for leading articles,” grunted the journalist.]
—and it is my opinion that a very important crisis is at hand. [Another grunt.] When we look at the condition of the Western World, it is impossible not to perceive that there is an upheaving among its populations, both in the northern and southern continent, which must ere long result in some remarkable events. If we turn to the East, and inquire—
[“You are skipping, Charles; you are not reading it all.”
“My dear child, am I to be kept from my desk to inquire into the Eastern question?”
“Why, you were writing about it yourself yesterday—you told me so.”
“Nothing of the kind. I said the Great Eastern question.”
“It’s all the same. No, but do read it, dear, when he asks you.”
“You really merge your conjugal in your filial duty, Mrs. Hawkesley. But let us see.”]
—and inquire what will be the ultimate destiny of the interesting nations on the seaboard of the Mediterranean, I cannot but be struck with the utter indifference displayed by the world in general upon a topic of such magnitude. For my own part, I have quite made up my mind that the shores of the tideless sea will be the scenes of some very extraordinary events in the time that is coming, and I wish that you, who have the ear of the public, would write more strongly and urgently than you do. I observe with regret, that you and others are far too prone to accept existing things as if they were in themselves good; and that in place of denouncing much that you are convinced is evil, you are inclined to exhort people to make the best of things as they are. This policy is entirely erroneous, and there must be a general tempest-sweep throughout Europe before society can hope for regeneration.
[“I am sure the dear old thing writes very beautifully,” said Mrs. Hawkesley.
“Who’s a denyin’ on it, Betsey Prig?” returned her husband. “But one has heard all this before from him. It is a regular manifesto—a Vernon Gallery of contemporary history. What is he meditating?”]
“I have been thinking of writing to the managers of a literary institution in this neighbourhood, to inquire of them whether, in the event of my making up my mind to prepare some lectures on the existing state of Europe, they would be inclined to negotiate with me for their delivery.
[“Thinking of writing to inquire whether if—come, that is worthy of Sir Robert Peel, deceased.”
“Tell him so, dear, that will please him, I know. He used to speak highly of Sir Robert Peel. Was it not Sir Robert Peel who said every man had his price?”
“Sir Robert Walpole said something like it.”
“O yes, it was Walpole. But he was a Prime Minister, I know.”
“Quite right, my dear.”
“If you laugh, I will box your ears. I am sure it was a very good guess.”]
“If I decide upon writing, I shall ask you to give me your opinion upon the terms, and the best way of dealing with the subject, for I have not had much experience of such matters; and, indeed, if you would not mind taking the initiative, and writing in your own name to ascertain about it, and arrange, I should have nothing more to do except—
[“Except to ask me to write the lectures.”
“I am sure that he does not mean that. And if he does, you will just not do it, dear. You have a great deal too much work on your hands as it is,” said Beatrice.
“Likely to have, while people spend unheard-of sums on bronzes,” said Mr. Hawkesley, glancing at a little figure on the mantelpiece.
“You great story-teller!—it’s worth five times what I gave for it, and the man said that Lord Corbally would jump at it.”
“There is no Lord Corbally, so his gymnastics must be indefinitely postponed. But we won’t re-open that question, the figure is lovely, and was very cheap, and I am delighted with it.”
“Now, I will just change it to-morrow,” said Beatrice.
“Pray don’t, or I will buy another—be awfully cheated—get something you don’t like—and refuse to say where I bought it. Listen to your father, if you please.”]
“There is, however, no immediate hurry about this, and indeed it might not be altogether amiss to wait, and see what results from the negotiations which I find are likely to be set on foot about the Archipelago, and which I shall watch with very great interest. So we will let this subject stand over until I can see you on it, and explain my views more fully.
[“So all the letter, thus far, was unnecessary.”]
“I do not know, indeed, that I should have written to you to-day (for I have picked up a very curious tract, dated 1790, upon the French Revolution, and I am very anxious to finish it), but that I have received a letter which has caused me very great uneasiness.
[“What is that, dear?” said Beatrice.
“Well, it cannot be much to alarm one, when he brings it in after the Mediterranean question and the French Revolution.”
“But that is his way. It always was. He would talk about a dozen things before coming to something serious. It was not levity, but he always disliked to touch anything at all disagreeble.”
“So do I,” said Hawkesley, putting his arm round his wife’s waist, and reading on.]
“Uneasiness. I had not heard for a long time from Laura, nor have I had any of Walter’s scribble, which he is so fond of sending to grandpapa. But I did not think much of this, for I am not the best correspondent in the world, and I may not have answered their last despatches.
[“That would not have prevented Laura from writing to him,” said Beatrice.
“Of course not. His mentioning it is only another instance of what you were just saying,—his dislike to get to the facts.”]
“I had fully intended to go over to Gurdon Terrace this week, and see after them all, but it has been very hot, and my light coat had gone to be mended, and one thing and another interfered. But last night I received a letter—
[“Last night, and written at once. It must be something to have stirred him to such promptness,” said Hawkesley.]
—which I had better enclose to you instead of recapitulating its contents.
[“Where is it?” said Beatrice. “Let us read that at once, and hear his comments afterwards.”
But there was no letter enclosed.
“Just like him,” said his daughter. “Just exactly like him.”]
“When you have read this, return it to me, with your own ideas as to what it means, or what should be done. As for the ‘impending evil,’ and the ‘duty of watching over Laura’s children,’ the language is perfectly incomprehensible to me. You may, perhaps, make a better guess at its meaning. Has there been any epidemic about Brompton? I regret to say that I have not paid the attention that I ought to the interesting and valuable reports of the Registrar-General, but that functionary frequently makes allusions to diseases of a painful character, and the details grate upon my nerves. You may, very likely, be better in formed than I am, as I know that you frequently write upon sanatory subjects. If anything of this kind is the case, I think that you should at once send or write to Laura, advising her to remove into some other neighbourhood. I could wish that she liked this district, as I am sure it is healthy, and she would be near me, which would be very convenient to me, but this I would not unduly press, though you might more properly urge that consideration.
[“I’m sure I shan’t advise her to go and bury herself at Islington,” interjected Beatrice. “But I cannot think what he is talking about. How ridiculous to leave out the only important thing.”
“I will send over for the letter he intended to enclose.”
“Yes, do. Stop, I will go myself,” said Beatrice. “You will not be going out? I will not stay there ten minutes. Is there anything else?”
“Not much. He hopes that we will attend to the matter directly, and let him hear soon.”]
“I shall write to you again very soon, and with love to Beatrice, and kisses to the children;
“Always yours affectionately,
“Beatrice,” said Hawkesley, “go by all means, and do not lose any time in getting back.”
His wife instantly detected a certain gravity in his tone.
“Charles. Why do you say that?”
“I will tell you. I do not think I am giving way to a mere fancy, or I would keep it to myself, but is it not odd that neither Arthur nor Laura sends us a line from the country?”
“That has crossed my mind. But I told you what Price said.”
“Yes. But however interested they may be about the condition of their friend, and I cannot make out, after all, who it is that is so ill, one of them might have written. I wonder whether Price has heard.”
“Send there, while I am gone to Canonbury.”
“I have a good mind to walk over.”
“Well, if you can spare the time, do; and tell the boys to come to-morrow.”
“I cannot well spare the time, and yet I should like to know. It is so unlike Lygon not to send a line.”
“Perhaps the lady is dead.”
“Very likely, and we are fidgeting about nothing. But I confess that I shall be pleased to hear that all is right.”
“But what can be wrong, dear?”
“I do not know. But the letter which your father meant to enclose has followed so closely upon some vague thoughts of mink-however, dear, put on your bonnet, and I will send for a cab. I will not go out until you return.”
“I was only inclined to be angry with papa for his carelessness, but you have put that out of my head,” said Beatrice. “You have not heard anything?” she said, earnestly.
“Would I have kept it from you, darling?”
When Mrs. Hawkesley reached Canonbury Square, she found Mr. Vernon comfortably reclined upon a sofa, reading the newspaper. Robed in his dressing-gown, and slippered, and with a handsome smoking-cap upon his head, the slight and refined looking old gentleman rose to salute her with a very kindly smile.
“You did not expect me, papa?”
“Indeed, my dear child, I did,” he said, pleasantly.
“After what you sent, you mean, papa?”
“And after what I did not send.”
“What is this letter, and how could you forget it, when it was so important, papa?” said Mrs. Hawkesley.
“I did not forget it, my love. I was about to enclose it, when it occurred to me that if I did not put it in, I should certainly have the pleasure of seeing you here as soon as possible, and so I kept it out.”
“Leaving us in such a state of uncertainty. What is it? Where is it?”
“Impatient as ever, my dear. It is in my desk in my bed-room, for one has no private room here, and in the fine weather I write at my window, which gives me a view of the trees.”
“Will you get it, or shall I run up?”
“I believe that the room is being arranged by the domestic—.”
“What does that signify, dear? Please get it.”
“I know you of old, my dear, and that to obey is the least trouble where you are concerned,” said Mr. Vernon, leaving the room with another smile.
He returned in a few minutes, declaring himself unable to find the letter, at which announcement his daughter’s impatience was manifested with little restraint.
“Not find it, papa—you cannot have half looked.”
“Yes, dear, I have managed to mislay it. The fact is that we—I mean myself and two gentlemen who are staying here—got into an interesting discussion last night, and perhaps we grew too warm, at least they did, for I will never affect to be only half in earnest on subjects of political importance. We separated in some heat, and—”
“But what has a ridiculous political squabble to do with an important letter about Laura?” said Beatrice, irritated. “Never mind that; tell me who the letter was from, and what was in it.”
“My dear Beatrice, I wish you would emulate your husband’s calmness and patience.”
“He was as angry as myself that you had left out the letter, and would have been more angry if he had supposed that you had done it on purpose. But what is it—you can tell me what was in it. Who was it from?”
“That, my dear, I certainly cannot tell you.”
“Because it is anonymous.”
“Oh, an anonymous letter,” said Beatrice; “that is a relief.”
“I don’t understand why, my dear—”
“Yes,” said Beatrice, impetuously, “because any one who could send an anonymous letter is a creature whose words are not worth a moment’s attention, except to find him out and punish him.”
“I do not feel entirely with you, my dear,” said Mr. Vernon, blandly; “I think such a view is common-place and even coarse. I can quite understand that a person may be desirous that a fact should be known to another person, and yet may not wish to be known as the informant. If, of course, he states falsehoods, he is an unworthy person, but in simply laying a truth before another, and yet remaining shrouded, he may only wish that the truth should be looked at, abstractedly, and without the colouring derived from the other’s possible opinion of the writer.”
“An anonymous letter-writer is a wretch,” returned the prompt and unconvinced Mrs. Hawkesley; “and to think of such a one writing to you about Laura? What did he say, papa?”
“You beg the question of sex, my dear; but from my own impression of the letter, which I much regret to have mislaid in the way I was about to explain to you, I am inclined to think the writer was a lady.”
“Not a lady, certainly. A woman, perhaps.”
“Waiving that aristocratic distinction, my dear, I would say that the hand was very neat, and of the kind which is usually supposed to denote education.”
“And the words?” asked Mrs. Hawkesley, compressing her lips, and filially trying not to be in a rage with the author of her being. “What were they?”
“I will not affect to quote them accurately, but the main point was what I mentioned in my letter. I was recommended to watch over Laura's children, as some danger—as a heavy evil—was impending over them.”
“And that was all?”
“No. I was further advised to visit Gurdon Terrace, and endeavour to ascertain, if possible, where Mrs. Lygon had really gone, as the writer had very good reason to believe that there had been an endeavour to place everybody on the wrong scent—or something to that effect.”
“I must have that letter, papa, directly, if I ransack the house from top to bottom with my own hands. How very wrong in you not to have sent it us.”
“I do not know where else to look for it, my dear. And I may as well add,” he said, with some firmness, “that if I could lay my hand upon it at this moment, I do not know that I should feel it my duty to give it you.”
“I am sure you would. Charles would do his utmost to have the writer traced out.”
“For that very reason, my dear, I am not clear that I should not be betraying the confidence of a person who had written to me with the best intentions.”
“What, and accusing Laura of deceit!”
“I do not read any such charge, my dear. The allegation is that there is deceit somewhere. Were the accusation more specific, I do not know that I ought to hand over the writer to the unreasonable anger of others, even though they are members of my own family.”
“I have no patience with such hair-splitting, papa.”
“I am aware, my love, that patience is not exactly your forte, nor do you seem to have cultivated it much.”
“How can you speak so coolly, when such a charge is made against Laura? She is all truthfulness, as you know. Do you mean to say that you in your heart believe that she is gone anywhere but where Arthur says she is? I never heard anything so wicked in all my life.”
“I have no means of forming any opinion on the subject, my dear. I am very little consulted by my children as to what they do, and I cannot tell what Arthur’s course in life may be. Perhaps he has got into difficulties.”
“I am sure he has not,” returned she, indignantly.
“As upright men as Mr. Lygon have done so,” replied her father; “nor need you repel the suggestion with so much violence.”
“You make me quite angry, papa, when you talk in that wild, fanciful way, at the same time imputing the worst things to the best people whom you know. You do not care what you say. Was it all a fancy that the letter hinted something about the neighbourhood being unwholesome, or an epidemic being about,—what was it you wrote?”
“No, there was a word in the note that put the idea into my head. I cannot positively say that there was anything to lead to a definite impression on the subject.”
“It was only a wild guess of yours, then? But, papa, you must really have that note found, or I shall have to ask Charles to come over and convince you that he must have it. In Arthur’s absence Charles is bound to see after his interests.”
“I shall be very happy to see Hawkesley, my dear, and to argue with him on that or any other subject. In the meantime you must allow me to take my own view of what is right. If there is anything of truth in the letter, why not act upon the information, in any way that circumstances may dictate, without reference to the writer herself.”
“You are actually defending the wretch, and making yourself a party to her accusation.”
“No, my dear, I am only refusing to permit my natural feelings as a father to predominate over my sense of justice to a fellow-creature.”
“Well, papa, you will hear what Charles thinks about it; but it is very unkind of you to place me in such a position. I have to go back to my husband, and tell him that my father takes side with a cowardly, anonymous letter-writer, and has more regard for this skulking creature than for the feelings of his own children.”
There were tears in her eyes as she spoke, and the heart of the father began rapidly to soften. His theories seldom stood long in presence of the sorrow of those whom he loved.
“Nay, Beatrice, my dear, you are quite wrong, and you do me much injustice. I do not think you ought to avail yourself of my affection to induce me to act unfairly.”
“It is not unfairly,” said his daughter, seeing her advantage, and taking his hand. “And I am sure you would not make us all unhappy for the sake of a malicious stranger. Get me the letter, papa dear,” she added, giving him a kiss.
“You are going to be so angry with me,” said Mr. Vernon.
“Angry, papa dear? You know I am hasty and apt to say anything that comes to my tongue, but I never mean to be unkind. Forgive me if I spoke rudely, as I know I did.” And she gave him another kiss.
It completed her victory, but the victory was not a very profitable one. Mr. Vernon began to look rather foolish, and he said in a sort of whisper,
“What if I cannot give it you?”
“I know you can,—I know you can find it if you like, dear.”
“Well,” said Mr. Vernon, “if I had it, I would give it you with all my heart; but the fact is, Beatrice, I knew that though my views were right, yours would conquer, and in the fear of that I—I burned the letter.”
And he had done so. But may it be supposed that our readers have some idea whence the letter came?
Not until Mrs. Hawkesley had signified an affectionate forgiveness of his act was she allowed to depart, and though she could not help giving him what she described as a good scolding, the father is not unhappy who, in these days of liberty and equality, has never heard more unkind language from his child.
Again did Ernest Adair and the girl Henderson meet in the little room at the inn at Versailles. But this time the manner of the master was entirely altered. He neither threw himself upon a chair, nor had he recourse to his favourite cigarette, but the moment that Henderson entered the room, he signed to her to close the door; and, then, approaching her hastily, he addressed her almost with sternness.
“Now, say at once what you have to say. My time is precious.” The girl’s manner was as much changed as his own. Instead of employing the petulant, half-defiant tone in which she had resisted or resented his questions on the former occasions, Mary Henderson was as submissive and respectful as if he had been her lawful master, demanding from his own servant an account of her doings.
“Will you ask me anything, or shall I speak without?” she said, almost humbly.
“Both. Tell me your own story first, and then answer what I ask.”
“I managed to hear a conversation between Madame and her sister.”
“It was impossible for me to hear more, and I do not think that they have had any more.”
“Don’t talk to me about impossibilities. The other thing is more to the purpose, and what makes you say that they have had one talk only?”
“Because Mrs. Lygon did not see her sister again until bed-time, and then Madame was not in the bed-room with her for more than two or three minutes.”
“What! Not see her at dinner?”
“There were visitors at dinner, and Mrs. Lygon had a tray sent to her own room.”
“Was she ill, or only anxious to avoid strangers?”
“I did not hear anything about her being ill. She ate her dinner, I know.”
“Very right to notice that. I shall make you valuable in time. Mrs. Lygon evidently wishes not to be seen here. Well, now, go on. What was their conversation?”
“It was partly about yourself, Mr. Adair.”
“Not improbable. Well. They spoke bitterly of me, abused me, called me fiend, as you did? Tell me. I can bear it.”
“They said that you weread man.”
“Quite right. Go on.”
“When they dropped into whispers I could not very well hear, because I was a good way off; but I had no difficulty in understanding that you have been making Madame give you a great deal of money, and that you want more.”
“Come, I see that you are telling me the truth,” said Adair. “That is an accurate report of an accurate statement.”
“Madame does not know how to get more money for you.”
“Well,” said Adair, listening intently.
“Mrs. Lygon has not got much.”
“Go on, girl.”
“But,” said Henderson, “they agreed that the money must be raised in some way.”
“Sensible and practical women.”
“They mentioned various plans for raising it, but none of them seemed to suit, for reasons which I could not well make out. But there was one way which they seemed to agree would do if some things could be got at which they called—I did not know the name, and I wrote it down afterwards—”
She took a scrap of paper from her pocket, and glancing at a pencilled word, said,
“Yes; do you know what coupons are?”
“Well then, they are to be got at, and as I made out, they are to be handed to somebody who will pay money for them. And this is to be given to you.”
“With any conditions, did you hear?”
“Oh yes. You are to be asked to live in London.”
“Unheard-of cruelty. You are sure of that?”
“Yes, I suppose—indeed, Madame said something about gambling, and I suppose that they want you to be out of the way of it.”
“There being no gambling in London. That is very thoughtful and provident of the dear ladies.”
“I do not think that it was out of any kindness to you, but because it is wished to put you out of the way of people who cheat you and send you to worry Madame.”
“Did they say that?” said Adair, and a flush of anger for once showed itself on the pale features. He could bear all the abject humiliation of his position, all the self-contempt, even the taunts of such persons as Henderson and his other tools, but he was wretched at being described as a dupe of cleverer scoundrels. “They said I was cheated?”
“Yes,” said the girl, with woman’s quickness, perceiving that she had managed to sting him. “Mrs. Lygon laughed at the idea of your being any match for the Frenchmen, and said that it was hard that money, got with so much difficulty, should be lost clumsily.”
“You are lying,” said Ernest Adair, quickly.
“You had better listen for yourself, if you doubt me,” replied Henderson, with a touch of her natural petulance. “I beg your pardon, but indeed I am telling you the very words.”
“It may be so. It had better be so. Well, and in case I do not choose to live in London, what do they propose?”
“Nothing was said about that, and I suppose they think that you are in such a desperate condition that you must accept the money.”
“Ah! I have impressed that pleasant belief on them, then? And who is to obtain these coupons?”
“And the other lady is to use them?”
“I think so.”
Adair turned round upon her, and gazed in her face for some moments. Her eyes met his steadily for the first few seconds, and then she dropped them from before his fixed look, and said:
“I have angered you, and learned some of your secrets, but it was not my fault; you put me on the business.”
“You have not angered me in the least, I assure you,” was his reply. “On the contrary, you bring me very good news, and you shall not fail to have your reward when I receive mine. By the way, I suppose that we shall both have to wait some little time.”
“Madame was urgent about making haste.”
“And the other was not.”
“She is so calm and reserved, I can hardly make her out.”
“How did the conversation end?”
“Madame was to get the—the—things as soon as she could.”
“How you forget the word, although you took the pains to write it down, which so fixes a thing in the memory. Are you sure that you have the right word?”
“Quite right, quite right.”
“I know I am right.”
“Look again, I say.”
Somewhat more slowly than seemed natural, Henderson took the paper from her pocket, glanced at it again, and was about to replace it.
“Yes, I said so, coupons.”
He snatched her wrist, and though her hand closed on the paper, he forced open her fingers and took the paper.
“How absurd you are,” he said. “Where my interests are so much concerned, is it strange that I should desire to be rightly informed? Are you ashamed of my seeing your way of spelling a French word—and has not Silvain completed your education?”
He looked at the paper as he spoke.
“Yes, you were quite correct,” he said, gently, “quite.”
She rubbed her wrist, with an expression of pain, and the tears came to her eyes.
“What, was I rough? Nay, I cannot have hurt you. I should never forgive myself. There, there, don’t be angry. You have done your mission admirably, and I repeat to you, you shall not lose your reward. Well, I need not detain you. I will send for you when I want you again. Take that napoleon, and buy a ribbon for the pretty wrist I have so ill treated. And do not expose me to the wrath of Monsieur Silvain.”
He pressed the coin into her hand, and opening the door, rather urged her departure—she this time seeming inclined to linger.
When she had gone, he fastened the door, and examined the scrap of paper carefully.
“That is not the scrawl of a lady’s-maid,” he said.
Then from an inner pocket he took out two or three letters and compared their writing with that on the paper he had seized.
“Time has passed,” he said, “and hands alter. But I believe that it is hers. And they are laying a trap. Henderson was to remember the word, and it was written down for her, before she was sent with the pretty story. What do they want me to believe? That Madame means to rob her husband’s strong-box of some valuable documents in order to pay me? But, on the other hand, why should she not do it? The scheme would be a very sensible one. But that infernal scrap of paper; and why would not the girl give it me? Let me balance my convictions.”
A business which the reader will gladly leave him to perform alone.