WHEN the two months had passed we returned to Darrock Hall. Nobody there had received any news in our absence of the whereabouts of my master and his yacht.
Six more weary weeks elapsed, and in that time but one event happened at the Hall to vary the dismal monotony of the lives we now led in the solitary place. One morning Josephine came down after dressing my mistress with her face downright livid to look at, except on one check, where there was a mark as red as burning fire. I was in the kitchen at the time, and I asked what was the matter.
"The matter!" says she, in her shrill voice and her half-foreign English. "Use your own eyes, if you please, and look at this cheek of mine. What! have you lived so long a time with your mistress, and don't you know the mark of her hand yet?"
I was at a loss to understand what she meant, but she soon explained herself. My mistress, whose temper had been sadly altered for the worse by the trials and humiliations she had gone through, had got up that morning more out of humor than usual, and, in answer to her maid's inquiry as to how she had passed the night, had begun talking about her weary, miserable life in an unusually fretful and desperate way. Josephine, in trying to cheer her spirits, had ventured, most improperly, on making a light, jesting reference to Mr. Meeke, which had so enraged my mistress that she turned round sharp on the half-breed and gave her--to use the common phrase--a smart box on the ear. Josephine confessed that, the moment after she had done this, her better sense appeared to tell her that she had taken a most improper way of resenting undue familiarity. She had immediately expressed her regret for having forgotten herself, and had proved the sincerity of it by a gift of half a dozen cambric handkerchiefs, presented as a peace-offering on the spot. After that I thought it impossible that Josephine could bear any malice against a mistress whom she had served ever since she had been a girl, and I said as much to her when she had done telling me what had happened upstairs.
"I! Malice!" cries Miss Josephine, in her hard, sharp, snappish way. "And why, and wherefore, if you please? If my mistress smacks my cheek with one hand, she gives me handkerchiefs to wipe it with the other. My good mistress, my kind mistress, my pretty mistress! I, the servant, bear malice against her, the mistress! Ah! you bad man, even to think of such a thing! Ah! fie, fie! I am quite ashamed of you!"
She gave me one look--the wickedest look I ever saw, and burst out laughing--the harshest laugh I ever heard from a woman's lips. Turning away from me directly after, she said no more, and never referred to the subject again on any subsequent occasion.
From that time, however, I noticed an alteration in Miss Josephine; not in her way of doing her work, for she was just as sharp and careful about it as ever, but in her manners and habits. She grew amazingly quiet, and passed almost all her leisure time alone. I could bring no charge against her which authorized me to speak a word of warning; but, for all that, I could not help feeling that if I had been in my mistress's place, I would have followed up the present of the cambric handkerchiefs by paying her a month's wages in advance, and sending her away from the house the same evening.
With the exception of this little domestic matter, which appeared trifling enough at the time, hut which led to very serious consequences afterward, nothing happened at all out of the ordinary way during the six weary weeks to which I have referred. At the beginning of the seventh week, however, an event occurred at last.
One morning the postman brought a letter to the Hall addressed to my mistress. I took it upstairs, and looked at the direction as I put it on the salver. The handwriting was not my master's; was not, as it appeared to me, the handwriting of any well-educated person. The outside of the letter was also very dirty, and the seal a common office-seal of the usual lattice-work pattern. "This must be a begging-letter," I thought to myself as I entered the breakfast- room and advanced with it to my mistress.
She held up her hand before she opened it as a sign to me that she had some order to give, and that I was not to leave the room till I had received it. Then she broke the seal and began to read the letter.
Her eyes had hardly been on it a moment before her face turned as pale as death, and the paper began to tremble in her fingers. She read on to the end, and suddenly turned from pale to scarlet, started out of her chair, crumpled the letter up violently in her hand, and took several turns backward and forward in the room, without seeming to notice me as I stood by the door. "You villain! you villain! you villain!" I heard her whisper to herself many times over, in a quick, hissing, fierce way. Then she stopped, and said on a sudden, "Can it be true?" Then she looked up, and, seeing me standing at the door, started as if I had been a stranger, changed color again, and told me, in a stifled voice, to leave her and come back again in half an hour. I obeyed, feeling certain that she must have received some very bad news of her husband, and wondering, anxiously enough, what it might be.
When I returned to the breakfast-room her face was as much discomposed as ever. Without speaking a word she handed me two sealed letters: one, a note to be left for Mr. Meeke at the parsonage; the other, a letter marked "Immediate," and addressed to her solicitor in London, who was also, I should add, her nearest living relative.
I left one of these letters and posted the other. When I came back I heard that my mistress had taken to her room. She remained there for four days, keeping her new sorrow, whatever it was, strictly to herself. On the fifth day the lawyer from London arrived at the Hall. My mistress went down to him in the library, and was shut up there with him for nearly two hours. At the end of that time the bell rang for me.
"Sit down, William," said my mistress, when I came into the room. "I feel such entire confidence in your fidelity and attachment that I am about, with the full concurrence of this gentleman, who is my nearest relative and my legal adviser, to place a very serious secret in your keeping, and to employ your services on a matter which is as important to me as a matter of life and death."
Her poor eyes were very red, and her lips quivered as she spoke to me. I was so startled by what she had said that I hardly knew which chair to sit in. She pointed to one placed near herself at the table, and seemed about to speak to me again, when the lawyer interfered.
"Let me entreat you," he said, "not to agitate yourself unnecessarily. I will put this person in possession of the facts, and, if I omit anything, you shall stop me and set me right."
My mistress leaned back in her chair and covered her face with her handkerchief. The lawyer waited a moment, and then addressed himself to me.
"You are already aware," he said, "of the circumstances under which your master left this house, and you also know, I have no doubt, that no direct news of him has reached your mistress up to this time?"
I bowed to him and said I knew of the circumstances so far.
"Do you remember," he went on, "taking a letter to your mistress five days ago?"
"Yes, sir," I replied; "a letter which seemed to distress and alarm her very seriously."
"I will read you that letter before we say any more," continued the lawyer. "I warn you beforehand that it contains a terrible charge against your master, which, however, is not attested by the writer's signature. I have already told your mistress that she must not attach too much importance to an anonymous letter; and I now tell you the same thing."
Saying that, he took up a letter from the table and read it aloud. I had a copy of it given to me afterward, which I looked at often enough to fix the contents of the letter in my memory. I can now repeat them, I think, word for word.
"I dare not acknowledge who I am, for I believe Mr. James Smith would stick at no crime to revenge himself on me if he ever came to a knowledge of the step I am now taking, and of the means by which I got my information; neither have I time to enter into particulars. I simply warn you of what has happened, and leave you to act on that warning as you please. You may disbelieve this letter, because it is not signed by any name. In that case, if Mr. James Smith should ever venture into your presence, I recommend you to ask him suddenly what he has done with his _new wife,_ and to see if his countenance does not immediately testify that the truth has been spoken by
"YOUR UNKNOWN FRIEND."
Poor as my opinion was of my master, I had never believed him to be capable of such villainy as this, and I could not believe it when the lawyer had done reading the letter.
"Oh, sir," I said, "surely that is some base imposition? Surely it cannot be true?"
"That is what I have told your mistress," he answered. "But she says in return--"
"That I feel it to be true," my mistress broke in, speaking behind the handkerchief in a faint, smothered voice.
"We need not debate the question," the lawyer went on. "Our business now is to prove the truth or falsehood of this letter. That must be done at once. I have written to one of my clerks, who is accustomed to conducting delicate investigations, to come to this house without loss of time. He is to be trusted with anything, and he will pursue the needful inquiries immediately.
It is absolutely necessary, to make sure of committing no mistakes, that he should be accompanied by some one who is well acquainted with Mr. James Smith's habits and personal appearance, and your mistress has fixed upon you to be that person. However well the inquiry is managed, it may be attended by much trouble and delay, may necessitate a long journey, and may involve some personal danger. Are you," said the lawyer, looking hard at me, "ready to suffer any inconvenience and to run any risk for your mistress's sake?"
"There is nothing I can do, sir," said I, "that I will not do. I am a fraid I am not clever enough to be of much use; but, so far as troubles and risks are concerned, I am ready for anything from this moment."
My mistress took the handkerchief from her face, looked at me with her eyes full of tears, and held out her hand. How I came to do it I don't know, but I stooped down and kissed the hand she offered me, feeling half startled, half ashamed at my own boldness the moment after.
"You will do, my man," said the lawyer, nodding his head. "Don't trouble yourself about the cleverness or the cunning that may be wanted. My clerk has got head enough for two. I have only one word more to say before you go downstairs again. Remember that this investigation and the cause that leads to it must be kept a profound secret. Except us three, and the clergyman here (to whom your mistress has written word of what has happened), nobody knows anything about it. I will let my clerk into the secret when he joins us. As soon as you and he are away from the house, you may talk about it. Until then, you will close your lips on the subject."
The clerk did not keep us long waiting. He came as fast as the mail from London could bring him.
I had expected, from his master's description, to see a serious, sedate man, rather sly in his looks, and rather reserved in his manner. To my amazement, this practiced hand at delicate investigations was a brisk, plump, jolly little man, with a comfortable double chin, a pair of very bright black eyes, and a big bottle-nose of the true groggy red color. He wore a suit of black, and a limp, dingy white cravat; took snuff perpetually out of a very large box; walked with his hands crossed behind his back; and looked, upon the whole, much more like a parson of free-and-easy habits than a lawyer's clerk.
"How d'ye do?" says he, when I opened the door to him. "I'm the man you expect from the office in London. Just say Mr. Dark, will you? I'll sit down here till you come back; and, young man, if there is such a thing as a glass of ale in the house, I don't mind committing myself so far as to say that I'll drink it."
I got him the ale before I announced him. He winked at me as he put it to his lips.
"Your good health," says he. "I like you. Don't forget that the name's Dark; and just leave the jug and glass, will you, in case my master keeps me waiting."
I announced him at once, and was told to show him into the library.
When I got back to the hall the jug was empty, and Mr. Dark was comforting himself with a pinch of snuff, snorting over it like a perfect grampus. He had swallowed more than a pint of the strongest old ale in the house; and, for all the effect it seemed to have had on him, he might just as well have been drinking so much water.
As I led him along the passage to the library Josephine passed us. Mr. Dark winked at me again, and made her a low bow.
"Lady's maid," I heard him whisper to himself. "A fine woman to look at, but a damned bad one to deal with." I turned round on him, rather angry at his cool ways, and looked hard at him just before I opened the library door. Mr. Dark looked hard at me. "All right," says he. "I can show myself in." And he knocks at the door, and opens it, and goes in with another wicked wink, all in a moment.
Half an hour later the bell rang for me. Mr. Dark was sitting between my mistress (who was looking at him in amazement) and the lawyer (who was looking at him with approval). He had a map open on his knee, and a pen in his hand. Judging by his face, the communication of the secret about my master did not seem to have made the smallest impression on him.
"I've got leave to ask you a question," says he, the moment I appeared. "When you found your master's yacht gone, did you hear which way she had sailed? Was it northward toward Scotland? Speak up, young man, speak up!"
"Yes," I answered. "The boatmen told me that when I made inquiries at the harbor."
"Well, sir," says Mr. Dark, turning to the lawyer, "if he said he was going to Sweden, he seems to have started on the road to it, at all events. I think I have got my instructions now?"
The lawyer nodded, and looked at my mistress, who bowed her head to him. He then said, turning to me:
"Pack up your bag for traveling at once, and have a conveyance got ready to go to the nearest post-town. Look sharp, young man--look sharp!"
"And, whatever happens in the future," added my mistress, her kind voice trembling a little, "believe, William, that I shall never forget the proof you now show of your devotion to me. It is still some comfort to know that I have your fidelity to depend on in this dreadful trial--your fidelity and the extraordinary intelligence and experience of Mr. Dark."
Mr. Dark did not seem to hear the compliment. He was busy writing, with his paper upon the map on his knee.
A quarter of an hour later, when I had ordered the dog-cart, and had got down into the hall with my bag packed, I found him there waiting for me. He was sitting in the same chair which he had occupied when he first arrived, and he had another jug of the old ale on the table by his side.
"Got any fishing-rods in the house?" says he, when I put my bag down in the hall.
"Yes," I replied, astonished at the question. "What do you want with them?"
"Pack a couple in cases for traveling," says Mr. Dark, "with lines, and hooks, and fly-books all complete. Have a drop of the ale before you go--and don't stare, William, don't stare. I'll let the light in on you as soon as we are out of the house. Off with you for the rods! I want to be on the road in five minutes."
When I came back with the rods and tackle I found Mr. Dark in the dog-cart.
"Money, luggage, fishing-rods, papers of directions, copy of anonymous letter, guide-book, map," says he, running over in his mind the things wanted for the journey--"all right so far. Drive off."
I took the reins and started the horse. As we left the house I saw my mistress and Josephine looking after us from two of the windows on the second floor. The memory of those two attentive faces--one so fair and so good, the other so yellow and so wicked--haunted my mind perpetually for many days afterward.
"Now, William," says Mr. Dark, when we were clear of the lodge gates, "I'm going to begin by telling you that you must step out of your own character till further notice. You are a clerk in a bank, and I'm another. We have got our regular holiday, that comes, like Christmas, once a year, and we are taking a little tour in Scotland to see the curiosities, and to breathe the sea air, and to get some fishing whenever we can. I'm the fat cashier who digs holes in a drawerful of gold with a copper shovel, and you're the arithmetical young man who sits on a perch behind me and keeps the books. Scotland's a beautiful country, William. Can you make whisky-toddy? I can; and, what's more, unlikely as the thing may seem to you, I can actually drink it into the bargain."
"Scotland!" says I. "What are we going to Scotland for?"
"Question for question," says Mr. Dark. "What are we starting on a journey for?"
"To find my master," I answered, "and to make sure if the letter about him is true."
"Very good," says he. "How would you set about doing that, eh?"
"I should go and ask about him at Stockholm in Sweden, where he said his letters were to be sent."
"Should you, indeed?" says Mr. Dark. "If you were a shepherd, William, and had lost a sheep in Cumberland, would you begin looking for it at the Land's End, or would you try a little nearer home?"
"You're attempting to make a fool of me now," says I.
"No," says Mr. Dark, "I'm only letting the light in on you, as I said I would. Now listen to reason, William, and profit by it as much as you can. Mr. James Smith says he is going on a cruise to Sweden, and makes his word good, at the beginning, by starting northward toward the coast of Scotland. What does he go in? A yacht. Do yachts carry live beasts and a butcher on board? No. Will joints of meat keep fresh all the way from Cumberland to Sweden? No. Do gentlemen like living on salt provisions? No. What follows from these three Noes? That Mr. James Smith must have stopped somewhere on the way to S weden to supply his sea-larder with fresh provisions. Where, in that case, must he stop? Somewhere in Scotland, supposing he didn't alter his course when he was out of sight of your seaport. Where in Scotland? Northward on the main land, or westward at one of the islands? Most likely on the main land, where the seaside places are largest, and where he is sure of getting all the stores he wants. Next, what is our business? Not to risk losing a link in the chain of evidence by missing any place where he has put his foot on shore. Not to overshoot the mark when we want to hit it in the bull's-eye. Not to waste money and time by taking a long trip to Sweden till we know that we must absolutely go there. Where is our journey of discovery to take us to first, then? Clearly to the north of Scotland. What do you say to that, Mr. William? Is my catechism all correct, or has your strong ale muddled my head?"
It was evident by this time that no ale could do that, and I told him so. He chuckled, winked at me, and, taking another pinch of snuff, said he would now turn the whole case over in his mind again, and make sure that he had got all the bearings of it quite clear.
By the time we reached the post-town he had accomplished this mental effort to his own perfect satisfaction, and was quite ready to compare the ale at the inn with the ale at Darrock Hall. The dog-cart was left to be taken back the next morning by the hostler. A post-chaise and horses were ordered out. A loaf of bread, a Bologna sausage, and two bottles of sherry were put into the pockets of the carriage; we took our seats, and started briskly on our doubtful journey.
"One word more of friendly advice," says Mr. Dark, settling himself comfortably in his corner of the carriage. "Take your sleep, William, whenever you feel that you can get it. You won't find yourself in bed again till we get to Glasgow."
We care about eBooks because we care about the environment.
Copyright © 2000- Literature Project. All Rights Reserved.