Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The silver cord - Part 34
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
Mrs. Hawkesley to her Husband.
My dearest Charles,
All which you know without my telling it.
And now for serious matters. Be sure that you read this letter when you are by yourself, and be quite sure that you make out every word in it before you destroy it,—not exactly an unnecessary request, as your remembrance will tell you.
Poor Bertha has been exceedingly ill, and is so still, although Dr. Solmes considers that there is no immediate danger. But the fever has only excited her frightfully, and has not made her light-headed, as I expected it would do. She insists upon talking, and the irritation into which she is thrown by being desired to be silent is perhaps more dangerous than the permitting her to speak. If she is left alone, she at once rings the bell so violently that the whole house is alarmed, and I dare not tie the rope up out of her way, or, feeble as she is, I believe that she would crawl out of her room, and do herself some fearful mischief. If it were not for this state of things, I should have refused to hear anything from her upon the terrible subject; but what can I do? And it is better that she should pour out her incoherent confidences to me than to any one else. I write in her room, interrupted by her incessantly, and therefore you must do your best to make out my meaning, and I write as fast as I can at the risk of saying the same thing over again; but you are used to that in me.
My dearest Charles, I know not how—and the more I consider it the less I know how—to separate the truth from the idle talk which flows from Bertha’s lips hour after hour. Such a mixture of the most solemn and the most frivolous things I never heard, and it is very difficult to believe her in the full possession of her senses. Yet she is so minutely accurate about small matters, and recollects the tiniest point about dress, or ornament, or any sight she has seen, or any stranger she has met, that it is a hard struggle to believe that when she breaks out into revelations that I cannot even hint at, she is inventing or wandering. Is there any form of mental disease in which the sufferer’s mind cannot grasp anything beyond trifles? While I write the words, they recal a curious speech you yourself once made, in which you said that perhaps when we get into the next world we should discover that we had never had the resolution really to open our eyes at all in this, and so had never seen the angels and ghosts all round us, but only felt our way along. Bertha seems never to have looked out firmly upon life, but to have contented herself with what was quite close to her, just as baby, when you sat her down for the first time by the sea, and you expected her to be astonished and delighted with the waves, pulled her little hat over her eyes and filled her lap with the stones, and you were disappointed. My dear Charles, bear with my scribbling. I feel that I try to keep away from a painful theme.
I cannot arrive at a decision. But you know this already, because you know my ways, and that you would have had it in the very first line of my letter if I had been certain. I have gone over and over everything that Bertha has said and keeps on saying, and have put it in all shapes and forms, and yet I cannot weave it all into one connected story. That E. A. is the most fearfully wicked man who ever lived there cannot be a shadow of a doubt, and that poor Bertha is all that we have been forced to believe, I wish I could say was in the least degree made doubtful. I cannot write about this, and I need not. But I cannot, from all that she has said, and from all that I can bring out of it when she allows me time to think for myself—I cannot make out the true character of R. U. No one could esteem him so highly as you did, and I am sure that I was always ready to accept your estimate of him, and to suppose that you understood him better than a woman could do. And do not think that any representations of Bertha’s would have weight with me against your judgment, or that I am unconsciously allowing an erring wife to make me listen to any extenuations which she may try to find in the character of her husband. It is not from anything that she says against him (and it is very little indeed that I ever permit her to say upon the subject), that a strange impression is fixing itself into my mind. If I am to believe what she says—I mean, dear, the actual facts which she tells—I must say, and please forgive me if I put the case too abruptly against your friend, that—I scarcely like to write it—but if R. had desired to make known all about E. A. very much sooner, the proofs were within his reach.
Reading over these last lines, and having broken off to attend to my patient, I am not satisfied with them; and you must let me put what I mean in plainer words. Did not R. know of all that had taken place long before he chose to make others aware that it had come to his knowledge? You told me what he had said to poor Arthur when sending him home. Charles, if R. were not then in the dark as to his own household misery!
You will reject this thought at the first reading; but do you think that I would have put it on paper if I could have justified to myself the not writing it to you? Because it is a very shocking thought, and because it is far more terrible when we come to connect it with what has happened since. Please to think over all this as calmly as you would do, if you were sitting by my side, which I wish more than I can tell you that you were, at such a time. I know your faith in R. U. and God knows that I would be the last to try to shake it; but if he is your friend, remember that Laura is my sister, and let me speak as freely for her as you would do for him.
You have thought over it, dearest, and in spite of my assurance that Bertha, ill as she is now, and childish as she is at the best of times, is perfectly capable of bearing witness to facts, you have come to the conclusion that a woman has allowed herself to be talked into a confused belief by another woman who has a confused mind, and who is not to be trusted. No, dear Charles, you have not. You have, man-like, taken that view first, and then you have thought of me as not quite like all the easy and credulous women whom you have known, and you have come round to the conclusion that your wife would not write as she has done unless she had something to say which was worth your serious attention. I know that you are giving me fair play, dearest—what a word? but I write as fast as I could speak, and I have picked no words at all. You are shocked and grieved, and grieved too, dear one, am I that I cannot throw my arms round you while I am wounding you, as I feel I am doing. But it is the truth, Charles. I am convinced that it is the truth.
Do not think that I have rushed on hastily. When I could no longer blind myself to the conviction that R. had chosen, for his own reasons, to retain in his own bosom his knowledge of the terrible truth, I fought against all the repugnance which such a thought calls up in a woman’s nature, and I tried with all my might to find excuses for his conduct. The natural thought of course was that he might say he had insufficient evidence, and that it was not for him to act until he had more, and that in the meantime he should defeat his own purpose by causing suspicion that he had discovered anything. That might be a humiliating position for a man—and there are men who would have died sooner than have borne it—but it might be in his stern nature to bear all things until the day of retribution should come. I clung to that view, Charles, I am sure for your sake more than because I could feel that it was right, but it is not true. You must take my word for what I must not write, but it is not true.
Then, dearest Charles, what becomes of all that follows? If it should be made clear to you that R. was acting this unmanly and treacherous part, if you come to the belief that while he was preaching to Arthur of love, and confidence, and domestic happiness, he was nursing up the materials of vengeance, what is to be said of his conduct as regards Laura? Are we to believe in one single word of his statements? He writes that evidence has been placed in his hands, and upon that evidence Arthur is to give himself up to a misery that will break his heart, and you, dearest, are silent, or only speak to confess that if R. is convinced, hope is over—and then it is our turn to make discoveries, and we learn that let him pretend to have what new proofs he may, he had long before had evidence that should have parted him and Bertha for ever. Can we continue to place any faith—the least faith in a man who has been living and acting what I call treachery, put what worldly name you like upon it? I am certain, as I write these lines, that my husband, as he reads them, will feel that we have been cruelly imposed upon. And for you to know of a wrong, Charles, is to hasten to do justice, and I love you for that and for all the rest.
Again I am interrupted, and Bertha asks, in a querulous voice, whether I am setting down things against her, and wishes that she was dead. Dr. Solmes also has come, and will not speak out upon the case, but sees no alteration for the worse, and wishes that she would sleep. Yet he appears to hesitate as to giving her any strong narcotic. I think that he is puzzled, and yet he is too honest a man to be afraid to say so, and he would desire another opinion if he thought that it would be useful. But if there is no change to-morrow, I will take upon myself to speak plainly.
Your letter was short, but very welcome. I do not ask you to write me long letters, but let me have a line every day—I am breaking off from what I most wanted to say. It is this. Let me beg of you not to be guided by any of the considerations which men think so much of, and, whether you have the sanction of Arthur or not, do you find out Laura, and see her. In one minute from the time you and Laura meet, you will know all. I would give thousands to meet her face to face for one minute. Pray, Charles, my own husband, give way to me in this, and let R. say what he may, or let A. urge that it is not for you to forestal him, do you think of me and my happiness, and go away and see Laura. And write me word that you have done so. Do this, dearest. I have more to say to you than I could get into my letter, but if you will only read carefully what I have scribbled so carelessly, I shall be sure that you understand me. I do not believe that R. is a man who should be called the friend of an honourable man; and if you are inclined to be angry with me for writing so harshly, do not be angry until I have told you all that I have to say.
There will be little rest for me until you return, but I am quite well, and so are the children. You need not be told what they would say, bless them, if they knew that I was writing to papa.
Ever your own,
In reference to this letter it is only necessary to say that the injunction of Mrs. Hawkesley had been obeyed, by anticipation, through the means of Charles Hawkesley’s accidental meeting with Mrs. Lygon in the gardens, and that his reply, in which that interview was described, crossed his wife’s letter. Hawkesley’s communication need not be given, but it should be said that it was brief, that he had touched very slightly upon anything that had occurred in Paris, but had sought to prepare his wife to be told that there was no hope of the reunion of Laura and her husband.
Mr. Aventayle left the Hotel Mirabeau, and with no great accession of good spirits wandered forth into Paris.
“Those fellows make me d—d melancholy,” said the kindly-natured manager, “and while they are all engaged upon business of that infernal kind, I swear I have no heart to go grinning at vaudevilles, as I ought to do. Just like me, always letting other folks’ affairs interfere with my own.”
Nevertheless he generally managed to attend to his own indifferently well; and it is satisfactory to know that the warm-hearted, open-handed man was a great deal more prosperous than he would allow, even in the confessional set up by the commissioners of income tax.
As he went lounging slowly along with a comprehensive grumble at the universe, he put his hand into his waistcoat pocket, and grumbled once more—this time at a concentrated grievance. He had scratched his hand with a stiff card, which he immediately drew out, and perceived that it was that which M. Wolowski had given him when they separated in front of the café on the Boulevard.
“He must be a snob,” said the incensed manager, “to use thick cards like that, when decent Frenchmen carry none much thicker than paper. But he asked me to go and call on him, if we did not see our way to doing any good without him. I see none, and I am rather thrown over than not by that swell at the bureau. I swear I’ll go and talk to the Pole. I suppose I have a right to talk to a Pole if I like. I shall not do any good, I dare say; but it is something to do no harm on an afternoon in Paris.”
So Mr. Aventayle made out the obscure house to which the card invited him, was immediately admitted, and found himself in the room where Ernest Adair had been finally discomfited by the production of the original manuscript from which he had copied the play sent to Aventayle. While he waited, a pretty girl came into the room, with apparent unconsciousness that anyone was there.
“I cannot find him, papa Wolowski,” she said, innocently, and the next moment was all surprise and apology to the stranger.
Aventayle immediately projected his mind into his theatre, and gazed at Madelon with a thought as to how she would make up, and how well that coquettish costume and neat ancle would look behind the foot-lights. Then he took note of the coquettish costume, and resolved that a young lady who formed part of his company, and who had quite as neat an ancle as Madelon, should appear in that garb, at the earliest opportunity. For Mr. Aventayle seldom lost a chance of catering for the edification of the public.
“I cannot flatter myself with the hope that you came to look for me, Mademoiselle,” said the polite manager.
It would not have been flattery, however. For papa Wolowski, always ready to afford his pet any innocent gratification, had told her to go up and look at the celebrated London actor.
Of course she had come to speak to M. Wolowski, who had been there a moment before, and had sent her on a message.
“M. Wolowski is happy to be served by such charming messengers.”
The intellectual conversation was speedily interrupted by the advent of M. Wolowski himself; and Madelon departed, forgetting that she had a message to deliver to him—a point which Mr. Aventayle noticed—and then recollected that he was fifty, which thought did not comfort him so much as his next recollection, that he was a celebrity.
“Are you to be complimented as the real papa of that pretty young person, M. Wolowski, or was the term only one of friendship?”
“I hardly know,” said M. Wolowski, quaintly. “But as so distinguished a connoisseur allows that she is pretty, we will give her the benefit of the doubt.”
“I wish I had a sketch of her dress—it is charming.”
“You shall have one before you leave Paris, if you are good enough to think it worth accepting. A young friend of hers has skill with the pencil, and you will make two persons happy by commanding the sitting.”
“He is happy already.”
“Thanks, in Madelon’s name. And so, Mr. Aventayle, you have done me the favour to accept my invitation to call.”
“Well, yes, but really—”
“I am your debtor for that. And I perceive, by your manner, that you hardly know what you have come for, or in what way you would like to avail yourself of my humble services.”
“You really say what I meant to say. But since I saw you, I have heard a great many strange things, and I have been told—”
“If I can save you any trouble, I will. I know I can save you a little by informing you that I am aware of all that has passed between you and your friend, and M. ——, at the bureau, and of a good deal more.”
“Then you know of an appointment that has been made for to-morrow?”
“For M. Ernest Adair to meet other parties, and disclose certain secrets?”
“Yes, you are evidently in M. ——’s confidence.”
“I might have heard of the appointment from other sources, but to be frank with you, I have the honour you mention.”
“Well, M. Adair is your friend, and therefore I do not expect that you will tell me anything that he would not wish you to tell.”
“That, my dear Mr. Aventayle, is the most charmingly original view of friendship. I have been unlucky enough to find that it is one’s friends who are always the most ready with objectionable revelations about one, things that one’s enemies would never have been able to pick up without such affectionate assistance.”
“True enough,” grumbled the manager. “But as you are his agent and so on, I speak to you as acting in his interest. I have no finesse about me, and I must go straight to the point, or stop at home.”
“No reticence, eh?” laughed the Pole.
The manager looked at him with a humorous expression.
“Oh, if you were not under the table, you know all about it,” he said. “Yes, I hate reticence, though I don’t know exactly what it is. I dare say that I am showing none, and I want to show none. I wish to say to you, in the first place, that I do not believe your friend, M. Ernest Adair, will reveal any secrets at that meeting to morrow.”
“Nor do I,” replied the Pole, calmly.
“There then,” said Mr. Aventayle, angrily. “Just as I supposed. Then we are all to be made fools of once more, and M. —— was merely humbugging.”
“No one can accuse you of not making yourself understood, my dear Mr. Aventayle,” said Wolowski, smiling. “But you jump to conclusions with an agility that does honour to your mental muscles.”
“I did not know I had any. However, muscles or cockles, we are to be done again.”
“Let us accuse nobody unjustly. I think that it is more than probable that my friend, M. Adair, may have to be absent from the meeting to-morrow, and of course, if he cannot attend, he can make no revelation.”
“But he ought to be present.”
“I think that if he should attend, and should reveal any of the secrets which will then be in his possession, he will be about the most unwelcome guest that ever joined a party.”
“What do you mean, M. Wolowski?”
“As a theatrical artist, Mr. Aventayle, it may have fallen to your lot to play Don Giovanni, and to invite the statue to supper.”
“No, but I have often played Leporello. But what has that to do with it?”
“Leporello’s experiences will equally serve to explain my meaning. When the statue of the dead man comes into the room, what did you do as Leporello?”
“I got under the table, of course, enacting the awfullest funk in the world.”
“Well, I think,” said the Pole, with the most imperturbable calmness, “that to-morrow, in the event of M. Ernest Adair appearing at the meeting, your friends will have the opportunity of comparing the real and the artistic expression of terror.”
“What the devil do you mean?”
“I think that M. Adair will be killed to-night.”
“I think so. I have very good reason to think so. And in that case, I suppose that you will not be so happy to see him at one to-morrow.”
“Good God, man!” exclaimed Aventayle, “don’t talk of murder in that cold-blooded way!—bah!—you are playing a bit of farce, and, like an old actor, I am sure to be taken in. It is a bad compliment to you, though,” he added, “that I was serious for an instant, but I have heard such a quantity of extraordinary things, that I can’t feel quite regularly, and as one ought to do. Killed! Not bad.”
“At any risk of shocking or paining you,” said the Pole, with gravity, “I must prevent you from treating the subject in a way which you would regret. I spoke in all seriousness.”
“What are you telling me?”
“M. Adair has gone upon a mission, in connection with the appointment of to-morrow, and it is almost impossible that he should return alive.”
“But this is horrible,” said Aventayle, starting up. “Who sent him, where is he gone, why is he not protected?”
“He goes of his own free will.”
“But—but—what is the sort of danger?”
“You chose to give it a name just now, and, looking at it in an English point of view, I do not know that the name does not suit. We give it a milder name in France. You called it murder.”
“And you sit there, and say this as if you were speaking of a trifle!”
“No good purpose would be served by my exciting myself, Mr. Aventayle. I have nothing to do with the business, or the result. I have tried to serve M. Adair, at very considerable loss of reputation to myself, but he will not let himself be served on my terms. He has now chosen, with a kind of dogged impulsiveness, to execute an errand which might have been safely performed by any other person, but which was probable death to him. Circumstances now enable me to say that it is all but certain death to him. He has chosen to throw himself into the power of the deadliest enemy he has in the world, and it happens that the enemy knows the fact. I do not expect to see M. Adair again, unless, as very intimate with him, I should be judicially invited to identify his body.”
“I cannot talk to you, you make my blood run cold,” said Aventayle, looking very white, and glancing at the door. “Yet tell me. You mean that this poor wretch has gone to meet Mr. Urquhart?”
“His errand was to Mr. Urquhart’s house, and there Mr. Urquhart will find him. More probably has now found him. Do you know the man?”
“He is a giant, in whose hands Adair will be like a child; and he is a giant maddened by a sense of the worst wrong.”
“And we have sent the unfortunate creature on this fearful errand,” said Aventayle.
“No,” said Wolowski; “I was prepared to hear you say that. If you consider it a crime to have placed a bad man in the way of punishment, you are acquitted. It was proposed to him that he should give up his secret, and trust to the honour of those who would have acted fairly by him. But he refused to do so, supposing that he should be able to make better terms with the Englishmen than with the bureau. It is his own avarice that has killed him.”
“Is it too late to stop him? Surely something can be done?” said the agitated manager. “It is downright wicked to sit here and speak of a poor wretch being killed. I will do something, at all events.”
“I assure you that it is too late,” said the Pole. “Whatever was to be done has been done long ere this. Go to Versailles as fast as steam can carry you, but it will be idle.”
“I will try, though,” said Aventayle, with an oath which it may be hoped is not set down against him. “I am in some sort a party to this wickedness, and it shall not be on my conscience.” And he dashed from the apartment.
“A theatrical manager with a conscience!” said the Pole, thoughtfully, as he rose to close the door which Aventayle had left open. “What new lusus naturæ may we look for? They will hurry off to Versailles,” he added, “he and the others, and they will be too late. There was no help for it. Adair had finally taken the bit between his teeth, and there was nothing to do but to let him dash himself against the next wall. As for his secret, doubtless M. —— has taken care of that, and will be some ten thousand francs the richer thereby. Poor Adair! It is a pity that he had not more self-command, and less greediness. I always cautioned him against gambling, at which he was ever being ruined, and I hoped that he was cured. Now he gambles again upon a frightful scale, and against players who are ten times stronger than he is, and he is utterly lost. I am sorry for him—really sorry. Chantal has far more steadiness, but not his genius. Ite, missa est.”
But Hawkesley was not at the hotel when Aventayle once more hastened thither. Mr. Lygon was there; but upon him the manager felt an almost insuperable objection to break, for their acquaintance was slight, and the character of the communication which Aventayle had to make was one which made the subject especially unapproachable. Yet, what was to be done? While the manager hesitated, Lygon, hearing a foostep in his brother-in-law’s room, opened his own door.
“I thought that Charles had returned,” said Arthur, retiring.
“A moment, Mr. Lygon, if you please. I had hoped to find him here; but I have missed him. You have no idea where he is to be found?”
“Not much. He just mentioned Versailles, but I can hardly say that I think he is gone there.”
“Versailles! Let me say one word to you.”
“By all means, Mr. Aventayle,” said Arthur, closing the door.
“I scarcely know how to begin, Mr. Lygon; and yet minutes may be precious. I had better say at once, without stopping to apologise for knowing anything that concerns yourself, or any one else, that I have just learned that a frightful meeting is likely to take place—may have taken place already—and that murder may be the issue.”
“Some one we care about, or you would not be so agitated. Who is it, who?”
“Mr. Urquhart has gone down to Versailles to meet Ernest Adair.”
“Stop,” said Arthur Lygon, his eyes flashing, but his voice subdued by a painful effort until it was almost calmer than ordinary. “How do you know this?”
“From a man who cannot be mistaken—who knows all—who speaks of Ernest Adair as a dead man.”
“As a dead man,” repeated Arthur Lygon. “That is a strange way to speak of him,” he added, very slowly, the words evidently meaning nothing less than what was in the speaker’s mind. “So Urquhart has gone down to meet him,” he said, after a pause. “You are sure that it is Urquhart?”
“Quite sure. I came to tell Hawkesley.”
“It is much more proper that you should tell me,” said Arthur, with extraordinary calmness.
“Certainly, and I am obliged to you for doing so. I wonder whether Hawkesley was aware of this, and whether that knowledge took him to Versailles?”
“No, he could not be.”
“You speak positively. I dare say that you are right. However, if he has gone there, it is all very well. He will let me know what is to be done next.”
“I fear that I have not made you understand me.”
“Perfectly. Urquhart is gone to Versailles to meet Adair.”
“To kill him, sir. He will kill him.”
“He has a right to do so,” replied Arthur Lygon, calmly as before. “At least, for reasons which we need not enter upon, he has the first right to make the attempt. If he foregoes that right, or fails, it will then be a question as to any subsequent step. But Hawkesley will inform me as to that. I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Aventayle.”
And with a courteous gesture, Lygon left the room.
“That man is stunned,” said Aventayle. “He is not responsible for his actions. I do not think that Charles Hawkesley ought to leave him alone. But, in the name of Heaven, what had I better do? I wish I had not called upon that accursed Pole, and then I should not have been burdened with the knowledge of this horror. I can do nothing. I could tear down to Versailles, and to what end? I might do actual harm. It might be said that I had some knowledge of the deed that was to be done—the police will accuse a man of anything, and that Pole is in league with them.”
And the manager, to do him justice, more agitated at the news he had heard, than disturbed at the possibility of his getting into difficulty, sat down and meditated on the extraordinary position in which he had been placed. And in the mean time others were as excited as himself, and with even more cause.
A few moments after Adair had finished transcribing the contents of the affiche in front of the house in the avenue, a ceremony which he performed with some ostentation, even returning as if to verify what he had written down, Mary Henderson, emerging from a back street in the neighbourhood, hurried away from the town, and made for a point in the road near the spot where Silvain had met Ernest.
She waited some time, expecting the arrival of her lover, and evinced some of her characteristic impatience. She walked up and down rapidly, and cast eager glances up and down the approaches.
“It is done, though,” she said, by way of calming herself. “Only when one has done anything, it is so aggravating to be kept waiting by the person to whom one burns to tell it. Ah, here he comes, and at what a pace, poor fellow. I will not say a severe word to him.”
Silvain was certainly coming—coming, too, with all the speed he could put on. No lover ever hurried at that rate to any love-making since the world began. Even Henderson, with all her knowledge of Silvain’s devotion, not to speak of his awe, could not attribute that excess of zeal to his mere desire not to keep her waiting.
“You have news!” she cried, the instant he came within hearing.
“News indeed,” answered the panting Silvain.
And in half a dozen hurried words he told her that Adair was in the house, and that Mr. Urquhart had followed him.
“I knew it would be so, I knew it would be so. I saw him for a moment, Silvain. I knew that he was come for vengeance. It is too dreadful. I must tell the poor lady—I must tell her—I have lost my head—I must tell her.”
Mrs. Lygon had been reading, in her chamber, but her heart was far away from the book, which had fallen from her hand. She was far away in England, and a child was at her knee, and the soft cheek of another child, a younger one, rested against her own, and she heard its murmur of affection, an inarticulate utterance to all the world, and more eloquent than any words to one heart.
In a moment Laura was brought back to the realities of her position.
The door suddenly opened, and Henderson, without a word of apology, rushed to the side of Laura.
“The vengeance has come!—it has come upon him, m’m! It has come now!”
The girl was indeed terrified, and it was with difficulty that she could bring out the words.
Terror is contagious, and Mrs. Lygon clutched at the arm of Henderson, and faintly demanded her meaning.
“They are in the empty house together, Mrs. Lygon!—there will be murder, if it has not been done already!”
“Who?—who are, girl?—speak.”
“Adair, m’m, and Mr. Urquhart has rushed in to him. There will be murder now, if ever in this world!”