CHAPTER 52. Secret Intelligence
Good Mrs Brown and her daughter Alice kept silent company together, in their own dwelling. It was early in the evening, and late in the spring. But a few days had elapsed since Mr Dombey had told Major Bagstock of his singular intelligence, singularly obtained, which might turn out to be valueless, and might turn out to be true; and the world was not satisfied yet.
The mother and daughter sat for a long time without interchanging a word: almost without motion. The old woman's face was shrewdly anxious and expectant; that of her daughter was expectant too, but in a less sharp degree, and sometimes it darkened, as if with gathering disappointment and incredulity. The old woman, without heeding these changes in its expression, though her eyes were often turned towards it, sat mumbling and munching, and listening confidently.
Their abode, though poor and miserable, was not so utterly wretched as in the days when only Good Mrs Brown inhabited it. Some few attempts at cleanliness and order were manifest, though made in a reckless, gipsy way, that might have connected them, at a glance, with the younger woman. The shades of evening thickened and deepened as the two kept silence, until the blackened walls were nearly lost in the prevailing gloom.
Then Alice broke the silence which had lasted so long, and said:
'You may give him up, mother. He'll not come here.'
'Death give him up!' returned the old woman, impatiently. 'He will come here.'
'We shall see,' said Alice.
'We shall see him,' returned her mother.
'And doomsday,' said the daughter.
'You think I'm in my second childhood, I know!' croaked the old woman. 'That's the respect and duty that I get from my own gal, but I'm wiser than you take me for. He'll come. T'other day when I touched his coat in the street, he looked round as if I was a toad. But Lord, to see him when I said their names, and asked him if he'd like to find out where they was!'
'Was it so angry?' asked her daughter, roused to interest in a moment.
'Angry? ask if it was bloody. That's more like the word. Angry? Ha, ha! To call that only angry!' said the old woman, hobbling to the cupboard, and lighting a candle, which displayed the workings of her mouth to ugly advantage, as she brought it to the table. 'I might as well call your face only angry, when you think or talk about 'em.'
It was something different from that, truly, as she sat as still as a crouched tigress, with her kindling eyes.
'Hark!' said the old woman, triumphantly. 'I hear a step coming. It's not the tread of anyone that lives about here, or comes this way often. We don't walk like that. We should grow proud on such neighbours! Do you hear him?'
'I believe you are right, mother,' replied Alice, in a low voice. 'Peace! open the door.'
As she drew herself within her shawl, and gathered it about her, the old woman complied; and peering out, and beckoning, gave admission to Mr Dombey, who stopped when he had set his foot within the door, and looked distrustfully around.
'It's a poor place for a great gentleman like your worship,' said the old woman, curtseying and chattering. 'I told you so, but there's no harm in it.'
'Who is that?' asked Mr Dombey, looking at her companion.
'That's my handsome daughter,' said the old woman. 'Your worship won't mind her. She knows all about it.'
A shadow fell upon his face not less expressive than if he had groaned aloud, 'Who does not know all about it!' but he looked at her steadily, and she, without any acknowledgment of his presence, looked at him. The shadow on his face was darker when he turned his glance away from her; and even then it wandered back again, furtively, as if he were haunted by her bold eyes, and some remembrance they inspired.
'Woman,' said Mr Dombey to the old witch who was chuckling and leering close at his elbow, and who, when he turned to address her, pointed stealthily at her daughter, and rubbed her hands, and pointed again, 'Woman! I believe that I am weak and forgetful of my station in coming here, but you know why I come, and what you offered when you stopped me in the street the other day. What is it that you have to tell me concerning what I want to know; and how does it happen that I can find voluntary intelligence in a hovel like this,' with a disdainful glance about him, 'when I have exerted my power and means to obtain it in vain? I do not think,' he said, after a moment's pause, during which he had observed her, sternly, 'that you are so audacious as to mean to trifle with me, or endeavour to impose upon me. But if you have that purpose, you had better stop on the threshold of your scheme. My humour is not a trifling one, and my acknowledgment will be severe.'
'Oh a proud, hard gentleman!' chuckled the old woman, shaking her head, and rubbing her shrivelled hands, 'oh hard, hard, hard! But your worship shall see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears; not with ours – and if your worship's put upon their track, you won't mind paying something for it, will you, honourable deary?'
'Money,' returned Mr Dombey, apparently relieved, and assured by this inquiry, 'will bring about unlikely things, I know. It may turn even means as unexpected and unpromising as these, to account. Yes. For any reliable information I receive, I will pay. But I must have the information first, and judge for myself of its value.'
'Do you know nothing more powerful than money?' asked the younger woman, without rising, or altering her attitude.
'Not here, I should imagine,' said Mr Dombey.
'You should know of something that is more powerful elsewhere, as I judge,' she returned. 'Do you know nothing of a woman's anger?'
'You have a saucy tongue, Jade,' said Mr Dombey.
'Not usually,' she answered, without any show of emotion: 'I speak to you now, that you may understand us better, and rely more on us. A woman's anger is pretty much the same here, as in your fine house. I am angry. I have been so, many years. I have as good cause for my anger as you have for yours, and its object is the same man.'
He started, in spite of himself, and looked at her with astonishment.
'Yes,' she said, with a kind of laugh. 'Wide as the distance may seem between us, it is so. How it is so, is no matter; that is my story, and I keep my story to myself. I would bring you and him together, because I have a rage against him. My mother there, is avaricious and poor; and she would sell any tidings she could glean, or anything, or anybody, for money. It is fair enough, perhaps, that you should pay her some, if she can help you to what you want to know. But that is not my motive. I have told you what mine is, and it would be as strong and all-sufficient with me if you haggled and bargained with her for a sixpence. I have done. My saucy tongue says no more, if you wait here till sunrise tomorrow.'
The old woman, who had shown great uneasiness during this speech, which had a tendency to depreciate her expected gains, pulled Mr Dombey softly by the sleeve, and whispered to him not to mind her. He glared at them both, by turns, with a haggard look, and said, in a deeper voice than was usual with him:
'Go on – what do you know?'
'Oh, not so fast, your worship! we must wait for someone,' answered the old woman. 'It's to be got from someone else – wormed out – screwed and twisted from him.'
'What do you mean?' said Mr Dombey.
'Patience,' she croaked, laying her hand, like a claw, upon his arm. 'Patience. I'll get at it. I know I can! If he was to hold it back from me,' said Good Mrs Brown, crooking her ten fingers, 'I'd tear it out of him!'
Mr Dombey followed her with his eyes as she hobbled to the door, and looked out again: and then his glance sought her daughter; but she remained impassive, silent, and regardless of him.
'Do you tell me, woman,' he said, when the bent figure of Mrs Brown came back, shaking its head and chattering to itself, 'that there is another person expected here?'
'Yes!' said the old woman, looking up into his face, and nodding.
'From whom you are to exact the intelligence that is to be useful to me?'
'Yes,' said the old woman, nodding again.
'Chut!' said the old woman, with a shrill laugh. 'What signifies! Well, well; no. No stranger to your worship. But he won't see you. He'd be afraid of you, and wouldn't talk. You'll stand behind that door, and judge him for yourself. We don't ask to be believed on trust What! Your worship doubts the room behind the door? Oh the suspicion of you rich gentlefolks! Look at it, then.'
Her sharp eye had detected an involuntary expression of this feeling on his part, which was not unreasonable under the circumstances. In satisfaction of it she now took the candle to the door she spoke of. Mr Dombey looked in; assured himself that it was an empty, crazy room; and signed to her to put the light back in its place.
'How long,' he asked, 'before this person comes?'
'Not long,' she answered. 'Would your worship sit down for a few odd minutes?'
He made no answer; but began pacing the room with an irresolute air, as if he were undecided whether to remain or depart, and as if he had some quarrel with himself for being there at all. But soon his tread grew slower and heavier, and his face more sternly thoughtful; as the object with which he had come, fixed itself in his mind, and dilated there again.
While he thus walked up and down with his eyes on the ground, Mrs Brown, in the chair from which she had risen to receive him, sat listening anew. The monotony of his step, or the uncertainty of age, made her so slow of hearing, that a footfall without had sounded in her daughter's ears for some moments, and she had looked up hastily to warn her mother of its approach, before the old woman was roused by it. But then she started from her seat, and whispering 'Here he is!' hurried her visitor to his place of observation, and put a bottle and glass upon the table, with such alacrity, as to be ready to fling her arms round the neck of Rob the Grinder on his appearance at the door.
'And here's my bonny boy,' cried Mrs Brown, 'at last! – oho, oho! You're like my own son, Robby!'
'Oh! Misses Brown!' remonstrated the Grinder. 'Don't! Can't you be fond of a cove without squeedging and throttling of him? Take care of the birdcage in my hand, will you?'
'Thinks of a birdcage, afore me!' cried the old woman, apostrophizing the ceiling. 'Me that feels more than a mother for him!'
'Well, I'm sure I'm very much obliged to you, Misses Brown,' said the unfortunate youth, greatly aggravated; 'but you're so jealous of a cove. I'm very fond of you myself, and all that, of course; but I don't smother you, do I, Misses Brown?'
He looked and spoke as if he would have been far from objecting to do so, however, on a favourable occasion.
'And to talk about birdcages, too!' whimpered the Grinder. 'As If that was a crime! Why, look'ee here! Do you know who this belongs to?'
'To Master, dear?' said the old woman with a grin.
'Ah!' replied the Grinder, lifting a large cage tied up in a wrapper, on the table, and untying it with his teeth and hands. 'It's our parrot, this is.'
'Mr Carker's parrot, Rob?'
'Will you hold your tongue, Misses Brown?' returned the goaded Grinder. 'What do you go naming names for? I'm blest,' said Rob, pulling his hair with both hands in the exasperation of his feelings, 'if she ain't enough to make a cove run wild!'
'What! Do you snub me, thankless boy!' cried the old woman, with ready vehemence.
'Good gracious, Misses Brown, no!' returned the Grinder, with tears in his eyes. 'Was there ever such a – ! Don't I dote upon you, Misses Brown?'
'Do you, sweet Rob? Do you truly, chickabiddy?' With that, Mrs Brown held him in her fond embrace once more; and did not release him until he had made several violent and ineffectual struggles with his legs, and his hair was standing on end all over his head.
'Oh!' returned the Grinder, 'what a thing it is to be perfectly pitched into with affection like this here. I wish she was – How have you been, Misses Brown?'
'Ah! Not here since this night week!' said the old woman, contemplating him with a look of reproach.
'Good gracious, Misses Brown,' returned the Grinder, 'I said tonight's a week, that I'd come tonight, didn't I? And here I am. How you do go on! I wish you'd be a little rational, Misses Brown. I'm hoarse with saying things in my defence, and my very face is shiny with being hugged!' He rubbed it hard with his sleeve, as if to remove the tender polish in question.
'Drink a little drop to comfort you, my Robin,' said the old woman, filling the glass from the bottle and giving it to him.
'Thank'ee, Misses Brown,' returned the Grinder. 'Here's your health. And long may you – et ceterer.' Which, to judge from the expression of his face, did not include any very choice blessings. 'And here's her health,' said the Grinder, glancing at Alice, who sat with her eyes fixed, as it seemed to him, on the wall behind him, but in reality on Mr Dombey's face at the door, 'and wishing her the same and many of 'em!'
He drained the glass to these two sentiments, and set it down.
'Well, I say, Misses Brown!' he proceeded. 'To go on a little rational now. You're a judge of birds, and up to their ways, as I know to my cost.'
'Cost!' repeated Mrs Brown.
'Satisfaction, I mean,' returned the Grinder. 'How you do take up a cove, Misses Brown! You've put it all out of my head again.'
'Judge of birds, Robby,' suggested the old woman.
'Ah!' said the Grinder. 'Well, I've got to take care of this parrot – certain things being sold, and a certain establishment broke up – and as I don't want no notice took at present, I wish you'd attend to her for a week or so, and give her board and lodging, will you? If I must come backwards and forwards,' mused the Grinder with a dejected face, 'I may as well have something to come for.'
'Something to come for?' screamed the old woman.
'Besides you, I mean, Misses Brown,' returned the craven Rob. 'Not that I want any inducement but yourself, Misses Brown, I'm sure. Don't begin again, for goodness' sake.'
'He don't care for me! He don't care for me, as I care for him!' cried Mrs Brown, lifting up her skinny hands. 'But I'll take care of his bird.'
'Take good care of it too, you know, Mrs Brown,' said Rob, shaking his head. 'If you was so much as to stroke its feathers once the wrong way, I believe it would be found out.'
'Ah, so sharp as that, Rob?' said Mrs Brown, quickly.
'Sharp, Misses Brown!' repeated Rob. 'But this is not to be talked about.'
Checking himself abruptly, and not without a fearful glance across the room, Rob filled the glass again, and having slowly emptied it, shook his head, and began to draw his fingers across and across the wires of the parrot's cage by way of a diversion from the dangerous theme that had just been broached.
The old woman eyed him slily, and hitching her chair nearer his, and looking in at the parrot, who came down from the gilded dome at her call, said:
'Out of place now, Robby?'
'Never you mind, Misses Brown,' returned the Grinder, shortly.
'Board wages, perhaps, Rob?' said Mrs Brown.
'Pretty Polly!' said the Grinder.
The old woman darted a glance at him that might have warned him to consider his ears in danger, but it was his turn to look in at the parrot now, and however expressive his imagination may have made her angry scowl, it was unseen by his bodily eyes.
'I wonder Master didn't take you with him, Rob,' said the old woman, in a wheedling voice, but with increased malignity of aspect.
Rob was so absorbed in contemplation of the parrot, and in trolling his forefinger on the wires, that he made no answer.
The old woman had her clutch within a hair's breadth of his shock of hair as it stooped over the table; but she restrained her fingers, and said, in a voice that choked with its efforts to be coaxing:
'Robby, my child.'
'Well, Misses Brown,' returned the Grinder.
'I say I wonder Master didn't take you with him, dear.'
'Never you mind, Misses Brown,' returned the Grinder.
Mrs Brown instantly directed the clutch of her right hand at his hair, and the clutch of her left hand at his throat, and held on to the object of her fond affection with such extraordinary fury, that his face began to blacken in a moment.
'Misses Brown!' exclaimed the Grinder, 'let go, will you? What are you doing of? Help, young woman! Misses Brow – Brow – !'
The young woman, however, equally unmoved by his direct appeal to her, and by his inarticulate utterance, remained quite neutral, until, after struggling with his assailant into a corner, Rob disengaged himself, and stood there panting and fenced in by his own elbows, while the old woman, panting too, and stamping with rage and eagerness, appeared to be collecting her energies for another swoop upon him. At this crisis Alice interposed her voice, but not in the Grinder's favour, by saying,
'Well done, mother. Tear him to pieces!'
'What, young woman!' blubbered Rob; 'are you against me too? What have I been and done? What am I to be tore to pieces for, I should like to know? Why do you take and choke a cove who has never done you any harm, neither of you? Call yourselves females, too!' said the frightened and afflicted Grinder, with his coat-cuff at his eye. 'I'm surprised at you! Where's your feminine tenderness?'
'You thankless dog!' gasped Mrs Brown. 'You impudent insulting dog!'
'What have I been and done to go and give you offence, Misses Brown?' retorted the fearful Rob. 'You was very much attached to me a minute ago.'
'To cut me off with his short answers and his sulky words,' said the old woman. 'Me! Because I happen to be curious to have a little bit of gossip about Master and the lady, to dare to play at fast and loose with me! But I'll talk to you no more, my lad. Now go!'
'I'm sure, Misses Brown,' returned the abject Grinder, 'I never Insiniwated that I wished to go. Don't talk like that, Misses Brown, if you please.'
'I won't talk at all,' said Mrs Brown, with an action of her crooked fingers that made him shrink into half his natural compass in the corner. 'Not another word with him shall pass my lips. He's an ungrateful hound. I cast him off. Now let him go! And I'll slip those after him that shall talk too much; that won't be shook away; that'll hang to him like leeches, and slink arter him like foxes. What! He knows 'em. He knows his old games and his old ways. If he's forgotten 'em, they'll soon remind him. Now let him go, and see how he'll do Master's business, and keep Master's secrets, with such company always following him up and down. Ha, ha, ha! He'll find 'em a different sort from you and me, Ally; Close as he is with you and me. Now let him go, now let him go!'
The old woman, to the unspeakable dismay of the Grinder, walked her twisted figure round and round, in a ring of some four feet in diameter, constantly repeating these words, and shaking her fist above her head, and working her mouth about.
'Misses Brown,' pleaded Rob, coming a little out of his corner, 'I'm sure you wouldn't injure a cove, on second thoughts, and in cold blood, would you?'
'Don't talk to me,' said Mrs Brown, still wrathfully pursuing her circle. 'Now let him go, now let him go!'
'Misses Brown,' urged the tormented Grinder, 'I didn't mean to – Oh, what a thing it is for a cove to get into such a line as this! – I was only careful of talking, Misses Brown, because I always am, on account of his being up to everything; but I might have known it wouldn't have gone any further. I'm sure I'm quite agreeable,' with a wretched face, 'for any little bit of gossip, Misses Brown. Don't go on like this, if you please. Oh, couldn't you have the goodness to put in a word for a miserable cove, here?' said the Grinder, appealing in desperation to the daughter.
'Come, mother, you hear what he says,' she interposed, in her stern voice, and with an impatient action of her head; 'try him once more, and if you fall out with him again, ruin him, if you like, and have done with him.'
Mrs Brown, moved as it seemed by this very tender exhortation, presently began to howl; and softening by degrees, took the apologetic Grinder to her arms, who embraced her with a face of unutterable woe, and like a victim as he was, resumed his former seat, close by the side of his venerable friend, whom he suffered, not without much constrained sweetness of countenance, combating very expressive physiognomical revelations of an opposite character to draw his arm through hers, and keep it there.
'And how's Master, deary dear?' said Mrs Brown, when, sitting in this amicable posture, they had pledged each other.
'Hush! If you'd be so good, Misses Brown, as to speak a little lower,' Rob implored. 'Why, he's pretty well, thank'ee, I suppose.'
'You're not out of place, Robby?' said Mrs Brown, in a wheedling tone.
'Why, I'm not exactly out of place, nor in,' faltered Rob. 'I – I'm still in pay, Misses Brown.'
'And nothing to do, Rob?'
'Nothing particular to do just now, Misses Brown, but to – keep my eyes open, said the Grinder, rolling them in a forlorn way.
'Master abroad, Rob?'
'Oh, for goodness' sake, Misses Brown, couldn't you gossip with a cove about anything else?' cried the Grinder, in a burst of despair.
The impetuous Mrs Brown rising directly, the tortured Grinder detained her, stammering 'Ye-es, Misses Brown, I believe he's abroad. What's she staring at?' he added, in allusion to the daughter, whose eyes were fixed upon the face that now again looked out behind.
'Don't mind her, lad,' said the old woman, holding him closer to prevent his turning round. 'It's her way – her way. Tell me, Rob. Did you ever see the lady, deary?'
'Oh, Misses Brown, what lady?' cried the Grinder in a tone of piteous supplication.
'What lady?' she retorted. 'The lady; Mrs Dombey.'
'Yes, I believe I see her once,' replied Rob.
'The night she went away, Robby, eh?' said the old woman in his ear, and taking note of every change in his face. 'Aha! I know it was that night.'
'Well, if you know it was that night, you know, Misses Brown,' replied Rob, 'it's no use putting pinchers into a cove to make him say so.
'Where did they go that night, Rob? Straight away? How did they go? Where did you see her? Did she laugh? Did she cry? Tell me all about it,' cried the old hag, holding him closer yet, patting the hand that was drawn through his arm against her other hand, and searching every line in his face with her bleared eyes. 'Come! Begin! I want to be told all about it. What, Rob, boy! You and me can keep a secret together, eh? We've done so before now. Where did they go first, Rob?'
The wretched Grinder made a gasp, and a pause.
'Are you dumb?' said the old woman, angrily.
'Lord, Misses Brown, no! You expect a cove to be a flash of lightning. I wish I was the electric fluency,' muttered the bewildered Grinder. 'I'd have a shock at somebody, that would settle their business.'
'What do you say?' asked the old woman, with a grin.
'I'm wishing my love to you, Misses Brown,' returned the false Rob, seeking consolation in the glass. 'Where did they go to first was it? Him and her, do you mean?'
'Ah!' said the old woman, eagerly. 'Them two.'
'Why, they didn't go nowhere – not together, I mean,' answered Rob.
The old woman looked at him, as though she had a strong impulse upon her to make another clutch at his head and throat, but was restrained by a certain dogged mystery in his face.
'That was the art of it,' said the reluctant Grinder; 'that's the way nobody saw 'em go, or has been able to say how they did go. They went different ways, I tell you Misses Brown.
'Ay, ay, ay! To meet at an appointed place,' chuckled the old woman, after a moment's silent and keen scrutiny of his face.
'Why, if they weren't a going to meet somewhere, I suppose they might as well have stayed at home, mightn't they, Brown?' returned the unwilling Grinder.
'Well, Rob? Well?' said the old woman, drawing his arm yet tighter through her own, as if, in her eagerness, she were afraid of his slipping away.
'What, haven't we talked enough yet, Misses Brown?' returned the Grinder, who, between his sense of injury, his sense of liquor, and his sense of being on the rack, had become so lachrymose, that at almost every answer he scooped his coats into one or other of his eyes, and uttered an unavailing whine of remonstrance. 'Did she laugh that night, was it? Didn't you ask if she laughed, Misses Brown?'
'Or cried?' added the old woman, nodding assent.
'Neither,' said the Grinder. 'She kept as steady when she and me – oh, I see you will have it out of me, Misses Brown! But take your solemn oath now, that you'll never tell anybody.'
This Mrs Brown very readily did: being naturally Jesuitical; and having no other intention in the matter than that her concealed visitor should hear for himself.
'She kept as steady, then, when she and me went down to Southampton,' said the Grinder, 'as a image. In the morning she was just the same, Misses Brown. And when she went away in the packet before daylight, by herself – me pretending to be her servant, and seeing her safe aboard – she was just the same. Now, are you contented, Misses Brown?'
'No, Rob. Not yet,' answered Mrs Brown, decisively.
'Oh, here's a woman for you!' cried the unfortunate Rob, in an outburst of feeble lamentation over his own helplessness.
'What did you wish to know next, Misses Brown?'
'What became of Master? Where did he go?' she inquired, still holding him tight, and looking close into his face, with her sharp eyes.
'Upon my soul, I don't know, Misses Brown,' answered Rob.
'Upon my soul I don't know what he did, nor where he went, nor anything about him I only know what he said to me as a caution to hold my tongue, when we parted; and I tell you this, Misses Brown, as a friend, that sooner than ever repeat a word of what we're saying now, you had better take and shoot yourself, or shut yourself up in this house, and set it a-fire, for there's nothing he wouldn't do, to be revenged upon you. You don't know him half as well as I do, Misses Brown. You're never safe from him, I tell you.'
'Haven't I taken an oath,' retorted the old woman, 'and won't I keep it?'
'Well, I'm sure I hope you will, Misses Brown,' returned Rob, somewhat doubtfully, and not without a latent threatening in his manner. 'For your own sake, quite as much as mine.'
He looked at her as he gave her this friendly caution, and emphasized it with a nodding of his head; but finding it uncomfortable to encounter the yellow face with its grotesque action, and the ferret eyes with their keen old wintry gaze, so close to his own, he looked down uneasily and sat skulking in his chair, as if he were trying to bring hImself to a sullen declaration that he would answer no more questions. The old woman, still holding him as before, took this opportunity of raising the forefinger of her right hand, in the air, as a stealthy signal to the concealed observer to give particular attention to what was about to follow.
'Rob,' she said, in her most coaxing tone.
'Good gracious, Misses Brown, what's the matter now?' returned the exasperated Grinder.
'Rob! where did the lady and Master appoint to meet?'
Rob shuffled more and more, and looked up and looked down, and bit his thumb, and dried it on his waistcoat, and finally said, eyeing his tormentor askance, 'How should I know, Misses Brown?'
The old woman held up her finger again, as before, and replying, 'Come, lad! It's no use leading me to that, and there leaving me. I want to know' waited for his answer. Rob, after a discomfited pause, suddenly broke out with, 'How can I pronounce the names of foreign places, Mrs Brown? What an unreasonable woman you are!'
'But you have heard it said, Robby,' she retorted firmly, 'and you know what it sounded like. Come!'
'I never heard it said, Misses Brown,' returned the Grinder.
'Then,' retorted the old woman quickly, 'you have seen it written, and you can spell it.'
Rob, with a petulant exclamation between laughing and crying – for he was penetrated with some admiration of Mrs Brown's cunning, even through this persecution – after some reluctant fumbling in his waistcoat pocket, produced from it a little piece of chalk. The old woman's eyes sparkled when she saw it between his thumb and finger, and hastily clearing a space on the deal table, that he might write the word there, she once more made her signal with a shaking hand.
'Now I tell you beforehand what it is, Misses Brown,' said Rob, 'it's no use asking me anything else. I won't answer anything else; I can't. How long it was to be before they met, or whose plan it was that they was to go away alone, I don't know no more than you do. I don't know any more about it. If I was to tell you how I found out this word, you'd believe that. Shall I tell you, Misses Brown?'
'Well then, Misses Brown. The way – now you won't ask any more, you know?' said Rob, turning his eyes, which were now fast getting drowsy and stupid, upon her.
'Not another word,' said Mrs Brown.
'Well then, the way was this. When a certain person left the lady with me, he put a piece of paper with a direction written on it in the lady's hand, saying it was in case she should forget. She wasn't afraid of forgetting, for she tore it up as soon as his back was turned, and when I put up the carriage steps, I shook out one of the pieces – she sprinkled the rest out of the window, I suppose, for there was none there afterwards, though I looked for 'em. There was only one word on it, and that was this, if you must and will know. But remember! You're upon your oath, Misses Brown!'
Mrs Brown knew that, she said. Rob, having nothing more to say, began to chalk, slowly and laboriously, on the table.
'"D,"' the old woman read aloud, when he had formed the letter.
'Will you hold your tongue, Misses Brown?' he exclaimed, covering it with his hand, and turning impatiently upon her. 'I won't have it read out. Be quiet, will you!'
'Then write large, Rob,' she returned, repeating her secret signal; 'for my eyes are not good, even at print.'
Muttering to himself, and returning to his work with an ill will, Rob went on with the word. As he bent his head down, the person for whose information he so unconsciously laboured, moved from the door behind him to within a short stride of his shoulder, and looked eagerly towards the creeping track of his hand upon the table. At the same time, Alice, from her opposite chair, watched it narrowly as it shaped the letters, and repeated each one on her lips as he made it, without articulating it aloud. At the end of every letter her eyes and Mr Dombey's met, as if each of them sought to be confirmed by the other; and thus they both spelt D.I.J.O.N.
'There!' said the Grinder, moistening the palm of his hand hastily, to obliterate the word; and not content with smearing it out, rubbing and planing all trace of it away with his coat-sleeve, until the very colour of the chalk was gone from the table. 'Now, I hope you're contented, Misses Brown!'
The old woman, in token of her being so, released his arm and patted his back; and the Grinder, overcome with mortification, cross-examination, and liquor, folded his arms on the table, laid his head upon them, and fell asleep.
Not until he had been heavily asleep some time, and was snoring roundly, did the old woman turn towards the door where Mr Dombey stood concealed, and beckon him to come through the room, and pass out. Even then, she hovered over Rob, ready to blind him with her hands, or strike his head down, if he should raise it while the secret step was crossing to the door. But though her glance took sharp cognizance of the sleeper, it was sharp too for the waking man; and when he touched her hand with his, and in spite of all his caution, made a chinking, golden sound, it was as bright and greedy as a raven's.
The daughter's dark gaze followed him to the door, and noted well how pale he was, and how his hurried tread indicated that the least delay was an insupportable restraint upon him, and how he was burning to be active and away. As he closed the door behind him, she looked round at her mother. The old woman trotted to her; opened her hand to show what was within; and, tightly closing it again in her jealousy and avarice, whispered:
'What will he do, Ally?'
'Mischief,' said the daughter.
'Murder?' asked the old woman.
'He's a madman, in his wounded pride, and may do that, for anything we can say, or he either.'
Her glance was brighter than her mother's, and the fire that shone in it was fiercer; but her face was colourless, even to her lips.
They said no more, but sat apart; the mother communing with her money; the daughter with her thoughts; the glance of each, shining in the gloom of the feebly lighted room. Rob slept and snored. The disregarded parrot only was in action. It twisted and pulled at the wires of its cage, with its crooked beak, and crawled up to the dome, and along its roof like a fly, and down again head foremost, and shook, and bit, and rattled at every slender bar, as if it knew its master's danger, and was wild to force a passage out, and fly away to warn him of it.
CHAPTER 53. More Intelligence
There were two of the traitor's own blood – his renounced brother and sister – on whom the weight of his guilt rested almost more heavily, at this time, than on the man whom he had so deeply injured. Prying and tormenting as the world was, it did Mr Dombey the service of nerving him to pursuit and revenge. It roused his passion, stung his pride, twisted the one idea of his life into a new shape, and made some gratification of his wrath, the object into which his whole intellectual existence resolved itself. All the stubbornness and implacability of his nature, all its hard impenetrable quality, all its gloom and moroseness, all its exaggerated sense of personal importance, all its jealous disposition to resent the least flaw in the ample recognition of his importance by others, set this way like many streams united into one, and bore him on upon their tide. The most impetuously passionate and violently impulsive of mankind would have been a milder enemy to encounter than the sullen Mr Dombey wrought to this. A wild beast would have been easier turned or soothed than the grave gentleman without a wrinkle in his starched cravat.
But the very intensity of his purpose became almost a substitute for action in it. While he was yet uninformed of the traitor's retreat, it served to divert his mind from his own calamity, and to entertain it with another prospect. The brother and sister of his false favourite had no such relief; everything in their history, past and present, gave his delinquency a more afflicting meaning to them.
The sister may have sometimes sadly thought that if she had remained with him, the companion and friend she had been once, he might have escaped the crime into which he had fallen. If she ever thought so, it was still without regret for what she had done, without the least doubt of her duty, without any pricing or enhancing of her self-devotion. But when this possibility presented itself to the erring and repentant brother, as it sometimes did, it smote upon his heart with such a keen, reproachful touch as he could hardly bear. No idea of retort upon his cruel brother came into his mind. New accusation of himself, fresh inward lamentings over his own unworthiness, and the ruin in which it was at once his consolation and his self-reproach that he did not stand alone, were the sole kind of reflections to which the discovery gave rise in him.
It was on the very same day whose evening set upon the last chapter, and when Mr Dombey's world was busiest with the elopement of his wife, that the window of the room in which the brother and sister sat at their early breakfast, was darkened by the unexpected shadow of a man coming to the little porch: which man was Perch the Messenger.
'I've stepped over from Balls Pond at a early hour,' said Mr Perch, confidentially looking in at the room door, and stopping on the mat to wipe his shoes all round, which had no mud upon them, 'agreeable to my instructions last night. They was, to be sure and bring a note to you, Mr Carker, before you went out in the morning. I should have been here a good hour and a half ago,' said Mr Perch, meekly, 'but for the state of health of Mrs P., who I thought I should have lost in the night, I do assure you, five distinct times.'
'Is your wife so ill?' asked Harriet.
'Why, you see,' said Mr Perch, first turning round to shut the door carefully, 'she takes what has happened in our House so much to heart, Miss. Her nerves is so very delicate, you see, and soon unstrung. Not but what the strongest nerves had good need to be shook, I'm sure. You feel it very much yourself, no doubts.
Harriet repressed a sigh, and glanced at her brother.
'I'm sure I feel it myself, in my humble way,' Mr Perch went on to say, with a shake of his head, 'in a manner I couldn't have believed if I hadn't been called upon to undergo. It has almost the effect of drink upon me. I literally feels every morning as if I had been taking more than was good for me over-night.'
Mr Perch's appearance corroborated this recital of his symptoms. There was an air of feverish lassitude about it, that seemed referable to drams; and, which, in fact, might no doubt have been traced to those numerous discoveries of himself in the bars of public-houses, being treated and questioned, which he was in the daily habit of making.
'Therefore I can judge,' said Mr Perch, shaking his head and speaking in a silvery murmur, 'of the feelings of such as is at all peculiarly sitiwated in this most painful rewelation.'
Here Mr Perch waited to be confided in; and receiving no confidence, coughed behind his hand. This leading to nothing, he coughed behind his hat; and that leading to nothing, he put his hat on the ground and sought in his breast pocket for the letter.
'If I rightly recollect, there was no answer,' said Mr Perch, with an affable smile; 'but perhaps you'll be so good as cast your eye over it, Sir.'
John Carker broke the seal, which was Mr Dombey's, and possessing himself of the contents, which were very brief, replied,
'No. No answer is expected.'
'Then I shall wish you good morning, Miss,' said Perch, taking a step toward the door, and hoping, I'm sure, that you'll not permit yourself to be more reduced in mind than you can help, by the late painful rewelation. The Papers,' said Mr Perch, taking two steps back again, and comprehensively addressing both the brother and sister in a whisper of increased mystery, 'is more eager for news of it than you'd suppose possible. One of the Sunday ones, in a blue cloak and a white hat, that had previously offered for to bribe me – need I say with what success? – was dodging about our court last night as late as twenty minutes after eight o'clock. I see him myself, with his eye at the counting-house keyhole, which being patent is impervious. Another one,' said Mr Perch, 'with military frogs, is in the parlour of the King's Arms all the blessed day. I happened, last week, to let a little obserwation fall there, and next morning, which was Sunday, I see it worked up in print, in a most surprising manner.'
Mr Perch resorted to his breast pocket, as if to produce the paragraph but receiving no encouragement, pulled out his beaver gloves, picked up his hat, and took his leave; and before it was high noon, Mr Perch had related to several select audiences at the King's Arms and elsewhere, how Miss Carker, bursting into tears, had caught him by both hands, and said, 'Oh! dear dear Perch, the sight of you is all the comfort I have left!' and how Mr John Carker had said, in an awful voice, 'Perch, I disown him. Never let me hear hIm mentioned as a brother more!'
'Dear John,' said Harriet, when they were left alone, and had remained silent for some few moments. 'There are bad tidings in that letter.'
'Yes. But nothing unexpected,' he replied. 'I saw the writer yesterday.'
'Mr Dombey. He passed twice through the Counting House while I was there. I had been able to avoid him before, but of course could not hope to do that long. I know how natural it was that he should regard my presence as something offensive; I felt it must be so, myself.'
'He did not say so?'
'No; he said nothing: but I saw that his glance rested on me for a moment, and I was prepared for what would happen – for what has happened. I am dismissed!'
She looked as little shocked and as hopeful as she could, but it was distressing news, for many reasons.
'"I need not tell you,"' said John Carker, reading the letter, '"why your name would henceforth have an unnatural sound, in however remote a connexion with mine, or why the daily sight of anyone who bears it, would be unendurable to me. I have to notify the cessation of all engagements between us, from this date, and to request that no renewal of any communication with me, or my establishment, be ever attempted by you." – Enclosed is an equivalent in money to a generously long notice, and this is my discharge." Heaven knows, Harriet, it is a lenient and considerate one, when we remember all!'
'If it be lenient and considerate to punish you at all, John, for the misdeed of another,' she replied gently, 'yes.'
'We have been an ill-omened race to him,' said John Carker. 'He has reason to shrink from the sound of our name, and to think that there is something cursed and wicked in our blood. I should almost think it too, Harriet, but for you.'
'Brother, don't speak like this. If you have any special reason, as you say you have, and think you have – though I say, No! – to love me, spare me the hearing of such wild mad words!'
He covered his face with both his hands; but soon permitted her, coming near him, to take one in her own.
'After so many years, this parting is a melancholy thing, I know,' said his sister, 'and the cause of it is dreadful to us both. We have to live, too, and must look about us for the means. Well, well! We can do so, undismayed. It is our pride, not our trouble, to strive, John, and to strive together!'
A smile played on her lips, as she kissed his cheek, and entreated him to be of of good cheer.
'Oh, dearest sister! Tied, of your own noble will, to a ruined man! whose reputation is blighted; who has no friend himself, and has driven every friend of yours away!'
'John!' she laid her hand hastily upon his lips, 'for my sake! In remembrance of our long companionship!' He was silent 'Now, let me tell you, dear,' quietly sitting by his side, 'I have, as you have, expected this; and when I have been thinking of it, and fearing that it would happen, and preparing myself for it, as well as I could, I have resolved to tell you, if it should be so, that I have kept a secret from you, and that we have a friend.'
'What's our friend's name, Harriet?' he answered with a sorrowful smile.
'Indeed, I don't know, but he once made a very earnest protestation to me of his friendship and his wish to serve us: and to this day I believe 'him.'
'Harriet!' exclaimed her wondering brother, 'where does this friend live?'
'Neither do I know that,' she returned. 'But he knows us both, and our history – all our little history, John. That is the reason why, at his own suggestion, I have kept the secret of his coming, here, from you, lest his acquaintance with it should distress you.
'Here! Has he been here, Harriet?'
'Here, in this room. Once.'
'What kind of man?'
'Not young. "Grey-headed," as he said, "and fast growing greyer." But generous, and frank, and good, I am sure.'
'And only seen once, Harriet?'
'In this room only once,' said his sister, with the slightest and most transient glow upon her cheek; 'but when here, he entreated me to suffer him to see me once a week as he passed by, in token of our being well, and continuing to need nothing at his hands. For I told him, when he proffered us any service he could render – which was the object of his visit – that we needed nothing.'
'And once a week – '
'Once every week since then, and always on the same day, and at the same hour, he his gone past; always on foot; always going in the same direction – towards London; and never pausing longer than to bow to me, and wave his hand cheerfully, as a kind guardian might. He made that promise when he proposed these curious interviews, and has kept it so faithfully and pleasantly, that if I ever felt any trifling uneasiness about them in the beginning (which I don't think I did, John; his manner was so plain and true) It very soon vanished, and left me quite glad when the day was coming. Last Monday – the first since this terrible event – he did not go by; and I have wondered whether his absence can have been in any way connected with what has happened.'
'How?' inquired her brother.
'I don't know how. I have only speculated on the coincidence; I have not tried to account for it. I feel sure he will return. When he does, dear John, let me tell him that I have at last spoken to you, and let me bring you together. He will certainly help us to a new livelihood. His entreaty was that he might do something to smooth my life and yours; and I gave him my promise that if we ever wanted a friend, I would remember him.'
'Then his name was to be no secret, 'Harriet,' said her brother, who had listened with close attention, 'describe this gentleman to me. I surely ought to know one who knows me so well.'
His sister painted, as vividly as she could, the features, stature, and dress of her visitor; but John Carker, either from having no knowledge of the original, or from some fault in her description, or from some abstraction of his thoughts as he walked to and fro, pondering, could not recognise the portrait she presented to him.
However, it was agreed between them that he should see the original when he next appeared. This concluded, the sister applied herself, with a less anxious breast, to her domestic occupations; and the grey-haired man, late Junior of Dombey's, devoted the first day of his unwonted liberty to working in the garden.
It was quite late at night, and the brother was reading aloud while the sister plied her needle, when they were interrupted by a knocking at the door. In the atmosphere of vague anxiety and dread that lowered about them in connexion with their fugitive brother, this sound, unusual there, became almost alarming. The brother going to the door, the sister sat and listened timidly. Someone spoke to him, and he replied and seemed surprised; and after a few words, the two approached together.
'Harriet,' said her brother, lighting in their late visitor, and speaking in a low voice, 'Mr Morfin – the gentleman so long in Dombey's House with James.'
His sister started back, as if a ghost had entered. In the doorway stood the unknown friend, with the dark hair sprinkled with grey, the ruddy face, the broad clear brow, and hazel eyes, whose secret she had kept so long!
'John!' she said, half-breathless. 'It is the gentleman I told you of, today!'
'The gentleman, Miss Harriet,' said the visitor, coming in – for he had stopped a moment in the doorway – 'is greatly relieved to hear you say that: he has been devising ways and means, all the way here, of explaining himself, and has been satisfied with none. Mr John, I am not quite a stranger here. You were stricken with astonishment when you saw me at your door just now. I observe you are more astonished at present. Well! That's reasonable enough under existing circumstances. If we were not such creatures of habit as we are, we shouldn't have reason to be astonished half so often.'
By this time, he had greeted Harriet with that able mingling of cordiality and respect which she recollected so well, and had sat down near her, pulled off his gloves, and thrown them into his hat upon the table.
'There's nothing astonishing,' he said, 'in my having conceived a desire to see your sister, Mr John, or in my having gratified it in my own way. As to the regularity of my visits since (which she may have mentioned to you), there is nothing extraordinary in that. They soon grew into a habit; and we are creatures of habit – creatures of habit!'
Putting his hands into his pockets, and leaning back in his chair, he looked at the brother and sister as if it were interesting to him to see them together; and went on to say, with a kind of irritable thoughtfulness:
'It's this same habit that confirms some of us, who are capable of better things, in Lucifer's own pride and stubbornness – that confirms and deepens others of us in villainy – more of us in indifference – that hardens us from day to day, according to the temper of our clay, like images, and leaves us as susceptible as images to new impressions and convictions. You shall judge of its influence on me, John. For more years than I need name, I had my small, and exactly defined share, in the management of Dombey's House, and saw your brother (who has proved himself a scoundrel! Your sister will forgive my being obliged to mention it) extending and extending his influence, until the business and its owner were his football; and saw you toiling at your obscure desk every day; and was quite content to be as little troubled as I might be, out of my own strip of duty, and to let everything about me go on, day by day, unquestioned, like a great machine – that was its habit and mine – and to take it all for granted, and consider it all right. My Wednesday nights came regularly round, our quartette parties came regularly off, my violoncello was in good tune, and there was nothing wrong in my world – or if anything not much – or little or much, it was no affair of mine.'
'I can answer for your being more respected and beloved during all that time than anybody in the House, Sir,' said John Carker.
'Pooh! Good-natured and easy enough, I daresay,'returned the other, 'a habit I had. It suited the Manager; it suited the man he managed: it suited me best of all. I did what was allotted to me to do, made no court to either of them, and was glad to occupy a station in which none was required. So I should have gone on till now, but that my room had a thin wall. You can tell your sister that it was divided from the Manager's room by a wainscot partition.'
'They were adjoining rooms; had been one, Perhaps, originally; and were separated, as Mr Morfin says,' said her brother, looking back to him for the resumption of his explanation.
'I have whistled, hummed tunes, gone accurately through the whole of Beethoven's Sonata in B,' to let him know that I was within hearing,' said Mr Morfin; 'but he never heeded me. It happened seldom enough that I was within hearing of anything of a private nature, certainly. But when I was, and couldn't otherwise avoid knowing something of it, I walked out. I walked out once, John, during a conversation between two brothers, to which, in the beginning, young Walter Gay was a party. But I overheard some of it before I left the room. You remember it sufficiently, perhaps, to tell your sister what its nature was?'
'It referred, Harriet,' said her brother in a low voice, 'to the past, and to our relative positions in the House.'
'Its matter was not new to me, but was presented in a new aspect. It shook me in my habit – the habit of nine-tenths of the world – of believing that all was right about me, because I was used to it,' said their visitor; 'and induced me to recall the history of the two brothers, and to ponder on it. I think it was almost the first time in my life when I fell into this train of reflection – how will many things that are familiar, and quite matters of course to us now, look, when we come to see them from that new and distant point of view which we must all take up, one day or other? I was something less good-natured, as the phrase goes, after that morning, less easy and complacent altogether.'
He sat for a minute or so, drumming with one hand on the table; and resumed in a hurry, as if he were anxious to get rid of his confession.
'Before I knew what to do, or whether I could do anything, there was a second conversation between the same two brothers, in which their sister was mentioned. I had no scruples of conscience in suffering all the waifs and strays of that conversation to float to me as freely as they would. I considered them mine by right. After that, I came here to see the sister for myself. The first time I stopped at the garden gate, I made a pretext of inquiring into the character of a poor neighbour; but I wandered out of that tract, and I think Miss Harriet mistrusted me. The second time I asked leave to come in; came in; and said what I wished to say. Your sister showed me reasons which I dared not dispute, for receiving no assistance from me then; but I established a means of communication between us, which remained unbroken until within these few days, when I was prevented, by important matters that have lately devolved upon me, from maintaining them.'
'How little I have suspected this,' said John Carker, 'when I have seen you every day, Sir! If Harriet could have guessed your name – '
'Why, to tell you the truth, John,' interposed the visitor, 'I kept it to myself for two reasons. I don't know that the first might have been binding alone; but one has no business to take credit for good intentions, and I made up my mind, at all events, not to disclose myself until I should be able to do you some real service or other. My second reason was, that I always hoped there might be some lingering possibility of your brother's relenting towards you both; and in that case, I felt that where there was the chance of a man of his suspicious, watchful character, discovering that you had been secretly befriended by me, there was the chance of a new and fatal cause of division. I resolved, to be sure, at the risk of turning his displeasure against myself – which would have been no matter – to watch my opportunity of serving you with the head of the House; but the distractions of death, courtship, marriage, and domestic unhappiness, have left us no head but your brother for this long, long time. And it would have been better for us,' said the visitor, dropping his voice, 'to have been a lifeless trunk.'
He seemed conscious that these latter words had escaped hIm against his will, and stretching out a hand to the brother, and a hand to the sister, continued: 'All I could desire to say, and more, I have now said. All I mean goes beyond words, as I hope you understand and believe. The time has come, John – though most unfortunately and unhappily come – when I may help you without interfering with that redeeming struggle, which has lasted through so many years; since you were discharged from it today by no act of your own. It is late; I need say no more to-night. You will guard the treasure you have here, without advice or reminder from me.'
With these words he rose to go.
'But go you first, John,' he said goodhumouredly, 'with a light, without saying what you want to say, whatever that maybe;' John Carker's heart was full, and he would have relieved it in speech,' if he could; 'and let me have a word with your sister. We have talked alone before, and in this room too; though it looks more natural with you here.'
Following him out with his eyes, he turned kindly to Harriet, and said in a lower voice, and with an altered and graver manner:
'You wish to ask me something of the man whose sister it is your misfortune to be.'
'I dread to ask,' said Harriet.
'You have looked so earnestly at me more than once,' rejoined the visitor, 'that I think I can divine your question. Has he taken money? Is it that?'
'He has not.'
'I thank Heaven!' said Harriet. 'For the sake of John.'
'That he has abused his trust in many ways,' said Mr Morfin; 'that he has oftener dealt and speculated to advantage for himself, than for the House he represented; that he has led the House on, to prodigious ventures, often resulting in enormous losses; that he has always pampered the vanity and ambition of his employer, when it was his duty to have held them in check, and shown, as it was in his power to do, to what they tended here or there; will not, perhaps, surprise you now. Undertakings have been entered on, to swell the reputation of the House for vast resources, and to exhibit it in magnificent contrast to other merchants' Houses, of which it requires a steady head to contemplate the possibly – a few disastrous changes of affairs might render them the probably – ruinous consequences. In the midst of the many transactions of the House, in most parts of the world: a great labyrinth of which only he has held the clue: he has had the opportunity, and he seems to have used it, of keeping the various results afloat, when ascertained, and substituting estimates and generalities for facts. But latterly – you follow me, Miss Harriet?'
'Perfectly, perfectly,' she answered, with her frightened face fixed on his. 'Pray tell me all the worst at once.
'Latterly, he appears to have devoted the greatest pains to making these results so plain and clear, that reference to the private books enables one to grasp them, numerous and varying as they are, with extraordinary ease. As if he had resolved to show his employer at one broad view what has been brought upon him by ministration to his ruling passion! That it has been his constant practice to minister to that passion basely, and to flatter it corruptly, is indubitable. In that, his criminality, as it is connected with the affairs of the House, chiefly consists.'
'One other word before you leave me, dear Sir,' said Harriet. 'There is no danger in all this?'
'How danger?' he returned, with a little hesitation.
'To the credit of the House?'
'I cannot help answering you plainly, and trusting you completely,' said Mr Morfin, after a moment's survey of her face.
'You may. Indeed you may!'
'I am sure I may. Danger to the House's credit? No; none There may be difficulty, greater or less difficulty, but no danger, unless – unless, indeed – the head of the House, unable to bring his mind to the reduction of its enterprises, and positively refusing to believe that it is, or can be, in any position but the position in which he has always represented it to himself, should urge it beyond its strength. Then it would totter.'
'But there is no apprehension of that?' said Harriet.
'There shall be no half-confidence,' he replied, shaking her hand, 'between us. Mr Dombey is unapproachable by anyone, and his state of mind is haughty, rash, unreasonable, and ungovernable, now. But he is disturbed and agitated now beyond all common bounds, and it may pass. You now know all, both worst and best. No more to-night, and good-night!'
With that he kissed her hand, and, passing out to the door where her brother stood awaiting his coming, put him cheerfully aside when he essayed to speak; told him that, as they would see each other soon and often, he might speak at another time, if he would, but there was no leisure for it then; and went away at a round pace, in order that no word of gratitude might follow him.
The brother and sister sat conversing by the fireside, until it was almost day; made sleepless by this glimpse of the new world that opened before them, and feeling like two people shipwrecked long ago, upon a solitary coast, to whom a ship had come at last, when they were old in resignation, and had lost all thought of any other home. But another and different kind of disquietude kept them waking too. The darkness out of which this light had broken on them gathered around; and the shadow of their guilty brother was in the house where his foot had never trod.
Nor was it to be driven out, nor did it fade before the sun. Next morning it was there; at noon; at night Darkest and most distinct at night, as is now to be told.
John Carker had gone out, in pursuance of a letter of appointment from their friend, and Harriet was left in the house alone. She had been alone some hours. A dull, grave evening, and a deepening twilight, were not favourable to the removal of the oppression on her spirits. The idea of this brother, long unseen and unknown, flitted about her in frightful shapes He was dead, dying, calling to her, staring at her, frowning on her. The pictures in her mind were so obtrusive and exact that, as the twilight deepened, she dreaded to raise her head and look at the dark corners of the room, lest his wraith, the offspring of her excited imagination, should be waiting there, to startle her. Once she had such a fancy of his being in the next room, hiding – though she knew quite well what a distempered fancy it was, and had no belief in it – that she forced herself to go there, for her own conviction. But in vain. The room resumed its shadowy terrors, the moment she left it; and she had no more power to divest herself of these vague impressions of dread, than if they had been stone giants, rooted in the solid earth.
It was almost dark, and she was sitting near the window, with her head upon her hand, looking down, when, sensible of a sudden increase in the gloom of the apartment, she raised her eyes, and uttered an involuntary cry. Close to the glass, a pale scared face gazed in; vacantly, for an instant, as searching for an object; then the eyes rested on herself, and lighted up.
'Let me in! Let me in! I want to speak to you!' and the hand rattled on the glass.
She recognised immediately the woman with the long dark hair, to whom she had given warmth, food, and shelter, one wet night. Naturally afraid of her, remembering her violent behaviour, Harriet, retreating a little from the window, stood undecided and alarmed.
'Let me in! Let me speak to you! I am thankful – quiet – humble – anything you like. But let me speak to you.'
The vehement manner of the entreaty, the earnest expression of the face, the trembling of the two hands that were raised imploringly, a certain dread and terror in the voice akin to her own condition at the moment, prevailed with Harriet. She hastened to the door and opened it.
'May I come in, or shall I speak here?' said the woman, catching at her hand.
'What is it that you want? What is it that you have to say?'
'Not much, but let me say it out, or I shall never say it. I am tempted now to go away. There seem to be hands dragging me from the door. Let me come in, if you can trust me for this once!'
Her energy again prevailed, and they passed into the firelight of the little kitchen, where she had before sat, and ate, and dried her clothes.
'Sit there,' said Alice, kneeling down beside her, 'and look at me. You remember me?'
'You remember what I told you I had been, and where I came from, ragged and lame, with the fierce wind and weather beating on my head?'
'You know how I came back that night, and threw your money in the dirt, and you and your race. Now, see me here, upon my knees. Am I less earnest now, than I was then?'
'If what you ask,' said Harriet, gently, 'is forgiveness – '
'But it's not!' returned the other, with a proud, fierce look 'What I ask is to be believed. Now you shall judge if I am worthy of belief, both as I was, and as I am.'
Still upon her knees, and with her eyes upon the fire, and the fire shining on her ruined beauty and her wild black hair, one long tress of which she pulled over her shoulder, and wound about her hand, and thoughtfully bit and tore while speaking, she went on:
'When I was young and pretty, and this,' plucking contemptuously at the hair she held, was only handled delicately, and couldn't be admired enough, my mother, who had not been very mindful of me as a child, found out my merits, and was fond of me, and proud of me. She was covetous and poor, and thought to make a sort of property of me. No great lady ever thought that of a daughter yet, I'm sure, or acted as if she did – it's never done, we all know – and that shows that the only instances of mothers bringing up their daughters wrong, and evil coming of it, are among such miserable folks as us.'
Looking at the fire, as if she were forgetful, for the moment, of having any auditor, she continued in a dreamy way, as she wound the long tress of hair tight round and round her hand.
'What came of that, I needn't say. Wretched marriages don't come of such things, in our degree; only wretchedness and ruin. Wretchedness and ruin came on me – came on me.
Raising her eyes swiftly from their moody gaze upon the fire, to Harriet's face, she said:
'I am wasting time, and there is none to spare; yet if I hadn't thought of all, I shouldn't be here now. Wretchedness and ruin came on me, I say. I was made a short-lived toy, and flung aside more cruelly and carelessly than even such things are. By whose hand do you think?'
'Why do you ask me?' said Harriet.
'Why do you tremble?' rejoined Alice, with an eager look. 'His usage made a Devil of me. I sunk in wretchedness and ruin, lower and lower yet. I was concerned in a robbery – in every part of it but the gains – and was found out, and sent to be tried, without a friend, without a penny. Though I was but a girl, I would have gone to Death, sooner than ask him for a word, if a word of his could have saved me. I would! To any death that could have been invented. But my mother, covetous always, sent to him in my name, told the true story of my case, and humbly prayed and petitioned for a small last gift – for not so many pounds as I have fingers on this hand. Who was it, do you think, who snapped his fingers at me in my misery, lying, as he believed, at his feet, and left me without even this poor sign of remembrance; well satisfied that I should be sent abroad, beyond the reach of farther trouble to him, and should die, and rot there? Who was this, do you think?'
'Why do you ask me?' repeated Harriet.
'Why do you tremble?' said Alice, laying her hand upon her arm' and looking in her face, 'but that the answer is on your lips! It was your brother James.
Harriet trembled more and more, but did not avert her eyes from the eager look that rested on them.
'When I knew you were his sister – which was on that night – I came back, weary and lame, to spurn your gift. I felt that night as if I could have travelled, weary and lame, over the whole world, to stab him, if I could have found him in a lonely place with no one near. Do you believe that I was earnest in all that?'
'I do! Good Heaven, why are you come again?'
'Since then,' said Alice, with the same grasp of her arm, and the same look in her face, 'I have seen him! I have followed him with my eyes, In the broad day. If any spark of my resentment slumbered in my bosom, it sprung into a blaze when my eyes rested on him. You know he has wronged a proud man, and made him his deadly enemy. What if I had given information of him to that man?'
'Information!' repeated Harriet.
'What if I had found out one who knew your brother's secret; who knew the manner of his flight, who knew where he and the companion of his flight were gone? What if I had made him utter all his knowledge, word by word, before his enemy, concealed to hear it? What if I had sat by at the time, looking into this enemy's face, and seeing it change till it was scarcely human? What if I had seen him rush away, mad, in pursuit? What if I knew, now, that he was on his road, more fiend than man, and must, in so many hours, come up with him?'
'Remove your hand!' said Harriet, recoiling. 'Go away! Your touch is dreadful to me!'
'I have done this,' pursued the other, with her eager look, regardless of the interruption. 'Do I speak and look as if I really had? Do you believe what I am saying?'
'I fear I must. Let my arm go!'
'Not yet. A moment more. You can think what my revengeful purpose must have been, to last so long, and urge me to do this?'
'Dreadful!' said Harriet.
'Then when you see me now,' said Alice hoarsely, 'here again, kneeling quietly on the ground, with my touch upon your arm, with my eyes upon your face, you may believe that there is no common earnestness in what I say, and that no common struggle has been battling in my breast. I am ashamed to speak the words, but I relent. I despise myself; I have fought with myself all day, and all last night; but I relent towards him without reason, and wish to repair what I have done, if it is possible. I wouldn't have them come together while his pursuer is so blind and headlong. If you had seen him as he went out last night, you would know the danger better.
'How can it be prevented? What can I do?' cried Harriet.
'All night long,' pursued the other, hurriedly, 'I had dreams of him – and yet I didn't sleep – in his blood. All day, I have had him near me.
'What can I do?' cried Harriet, shuddering at these words.
'If there is anyone who'll write, or send, or go to him, let them lose no time. He is at Dijon. Do you know the name, and where it is?'
'Warn him that the man he has made his enemy is in a frenzy, and that he doesn't know him if he makes light of his approach. Tell him that he is on the road – I know he is! – and hurrying on. Urge him to get away while there is time – if there is time – and not to meet him yet. A month or so will make years of difference. Let them not encounter, through me. Anywhere but there! Any time but now! Let his foe follow him, and find him for himself, but not through me! There is enough upon my head without.'
The fire ceased to be reflected in her jet black hair, uplifted face, and eager eyes; her hand was gone from Harriet's arm; and the place where she had been was empty.
CHAPTER 54. The Fugitives
Tea-time, an hour short of midnight; the place, a French apartment, comprising some half-dozen rooms; – a dull cold hall or corridor, a dining-room, a drawing-room, a bed-room, and an inner drawingroom, or boudoir, smaller and more retired than the rest. All these shut in by one large pair of doors on the main staircase, but each room provided with two or three pairs of doors of its own, establishing several means of communication with the remaining portion of the apartment, or with certain small passages within the wall, leading, as is not unusual in such houses, to some back stairs with an obscure outlet below. The whole situated on the first floor of so large an Hotel, that it did not absorb one entire row of windows upon one side of the square court-yard in the centre, upon which the whole four sides of the mansion looked.
An air of splendour, sufficiently faded to be melancholy, and sufficiently dazzling to clog and embarrass the details of life with a show of state, reigned in these rooms The walls and ceilings were gilded and painted; the floors were waxed and polished; crimson drapery hung in festoons from window, door, and mirror; and candelabra, gnarled and intertwisted like the branches of trees, or horns of animals, stuck out from the panels of the wall. But in the day-time, when the lattice-blinds (now closely shut) were opened, and the light let in, traces were discernible among this finery, of wear and tear and dust, of sun and damp and smoke, and lengthened intervals of want of use and habitation, when such shows and toys of life seem sensitive like life, and waste as men shut up in prison do. Even night, and clusters of burning candles, could not wholly efface them, though the general glitter threw them in the shade.
The glitter of bright tapers, and their reflection in looking-glasses, scraps of gilding and gay colours, were confined, on this night, to one room – that smaller room within the rest, just now enumerated. Seen from the hall, where a lamp was feebly burning, through the dark perspective of open doors, it looked as shining and precious as a gem. In the heart of its radiance sat a beautiful woman – Edith.
She was alone. The same defiant, scornful woman still. The cheek a little worn, the eye a little larger in appearance, and more lustrous, but the haughty bearing just the same. No shame upon her brow; no late repentance bending her disdainful neck. Imperious and stately yet, and yet regardless of herself and of all else, she sat with her dark eyes cast down, waiting for someone.
No book, no work, no occupation of any kind but her own thought, beguiled the tardy time. Some purpose, strong enough to fill up any pause, possessed her. With her lips pressed together, and quivering if for a moment she released them from her control; with her nostril inflated; her hands clasped in one another; and her purpose swelling in her breast; she sat, and waited.
At the sound of a key in the outer door, and a footstep in the hall, she started up, and cried 'Who's that?' The answer was in French, and two men came in with jingling trays, to make preparation for supper.
'Who had bade them to do so?' she asked.
'Monsieur had commanded it, when it was his pleasure to take the apartment. Monsieur had said, when he stayed there for an hour, en route, and left the letter for Madame – Madame had received it surely?'
'A thousand pardons! The sudden apprehension that it might have been forgotten had struck hIm;' a bald man, with a large beard from a neighbouring restaurant; 'with despair! Monsieur had said that supper was to be ready at that hour: also that he had forewarned Madame of the commands he had given, in his letter. Monsieur had done the Golden Head the honour to request that the supper should be choice and delicate. Monsieur would find that his confidence in the Golden Head was not misplaced.'
Edith said no more, but looked on thoughtfully while they prepared the table for two persons, and set the wine upon it. She arose before they had finished, and taking a lamp, passed into the bed-chamber and into the drawing-room, where she hurriedly but narrowly examined all the doors; particularly one in the former room that opened on the passage in the wall. From this she took the key, and put it on the outer side. She then came back.
The men – the second of whom was a dark, bilious subject, in a jacket, close shaved, and with a black head of hair close cropped – had completed their preparation of the table, and were standing looking at it. He who had spoken before, inquired whether Madame thought it would be long before Monsieur arrived?
'She couldn't say. It was all one.'
'Pardon! There was the supper! It should be eaten on the instant. Monsieur (who spoke French like an Angel – or a Frenchman – it was all the same) had spoken with great emphasis of his punctuality. But the English nation had so grand a genius for punctuality. Ah! what noise! Great Heaven, here was Monsieur. Behold him!'
In effect, Monsieur, admitted by the other of the two, came, with his gleaming teeth, through the dark rooms, like a mouth; and arriving in that sanctuary of light and colour, a figure at full length, embraced Madame, and addressed her in the French tongue as his charming wife.
'My God! Madame is going to faint. Madame is overcome with joy!' The bald man with the beard observed it, and cried out.
Madame had only shrunk and shivered. Before the words were spoken, she was standing with her hand upon the velvet back of a great chair; her figure drawn up to its full height, and her face immoveable.
'Francois has flown over to the Golden Head for supper. He flies on these occasions like an angel or a bird. The baggage of Monsieur is in his room. All is arranged. The supper will be here this moment.' These facts the bald man notified with bows and smiles, and presently the supper came.
The hot dishes were on a chafing-dish; the cold already set forth, with the change of service on a sideboard. Monsieur was satisfied with this arrangement. The supper table being small, it pleased him very well. Let them set the chafing-dish upon the floor, and go. He would remove the dishes with his own hands.
'Pardon!' said the bald man, politely. 'It was impossible!'
Monsieur was of another opinion. He required no further attendance that night.
'But Madame – ' the bald man hinted.
'Madame,' replied Monsieur, 'had her own maid. It was enough.'
'A million pardons! No! Madame had no maid!'
'I came here alone,' said Edith 'It was my choice to do so. I am well used to travelling; I want no attendance. They need send nobody to me.
Monsieur accordingly, persevering in his first proposed impossibility, proceeded to follow the two attendants to the outer door, and secure it after them for the night. The bald man turning round to bow, as he went out, observed that Madame still stood with her hand upon the velvet back of the great chair, and that her face was quite regardless of him, though she was looking straight before her.
As the sound of Carker's fastening the door resounded through the intermediate rooms, and seemed to come hushed and stilled into that last distant one, the sound of the Cathedral clock striking twelve mingled with it, in Edith's ears She heard him pause, as if he heard it too and listened; and then came back towards her, laying a long train of footsteps through the silence, and shutting all the doors behind him as he came along. Her hand, for a moment, left the velvet chair to bring a knife within her reach upon the table; then she stood as she had stood before.
'How strange to come here by yourself, my love!' he said as he entered.
'What?' she returned.
Her tone was so harsh; the quick turn of her head so fierce; her attitude so repellent; and her frown so black; that he stood, with the lamp in his hand, looking at her, as if she had struck him motionless.
'I say,' he at length repeated, putting down the lamp, and smiling his most courtly smile, 'how strange to come here alone! It was unnecessarty caution surely, and might have defeated itself. You were to have engaged an attendant at Havre or Rouen, and have had abundance of time for the purpose, though you had been the most capricious and difficult (as you are the most beautiful, my love) of women.'
Her eyes gleamed strangely on him, but she stood with her hand resting on the chair, and said not a word.
'I have never,' resumed Carker, 'seen you look so handsome, as you do to-night. Even the picture I have carried in my mind during this cruel probation, and which I have contemplated night and day, is exceeded by the reality.'
Not a word. Not a look Her eyes completely hidden by their drooping lashes, but her head held up.
'Hard, unrelenting terms they were!' said Carker, with a smile, 'but they are all fulfilled and passed, and make the present more delicious and more safe. Sicily shall be the Place of our retreat. In the idlest and easiest part of the world, my soul, we'll both seek compensation for old slavery.'
He was coming gaily towards her, when, in an instant, she caught the knife up from the table, and started one pace back.
'Stand still!' she said, 'or I shall murder you!'
The sudden change in her, the towering fury and intense abhorrence sparkling in her eyes and lighting up her brow, made him stop as if a fire had stopped him.
'Stand still!' she said, 'come no nearer me, upon your life!'
They both stood looking at each other. Rage and astonishment were in his face, but he controlled them, and said lightly,
'Come, come! Tush, we are alone, and out of everybody's sight and hearing. Do you think to frighten me with these tricks of virtue?'
'Do you think to frighten me,' she answered fiercely, 'from any purpose that I have, and any course I am resolved upon, by reminding me of the solitude of this place, and there being no help near? Me, who am here alone, designedly? If I feared you, should I not have avoided you? If I feared you, should I be here, in the dead of night, telling you to your face what I am going to tell?'
'And what is that,' he said, 'you handsome shrew? Handsomer so, than any other woman in her best humour?'
'I tell you nothing,' she returned, until you go back to that chair – except this, once again – Don't come near me! Not a step nearer. I tell you, if you do, as Heaven sees us, I shall murder you!'
'Do you mistake me for your husband?' he retorted, with a grin.
Disdaining to reply, she stretched her arm out, pointing to the chair. He bit his lip, frowned, laughed, and sat down in it, with a baffled, irresolute, impatient air, he was unable to conceal; and biting his nail nervously, and looking at her sideways, with bitter discomfiture, even while he feigned to be amused by her caprice.
She put the knife down upon the table, and touching her bosom wIth her hand, said:
'I have something lying here that is no love trinket, and sooner than endure your touch once more, I would use it on you – and you know it, while I speak – with less reluctance than I would on any other creeping thing that lives.'
He affected to laugh jestingly, and entreated her to act her play out quickly, for the supper was growing cold. But the secret look with which he regarded her, was more sullen and lowering, and he struck his foot once upon the floor with a muttered oath.
'How many times,' said Edith, bending her darkest glance upon him' 'has your bold knavery assailed me with outrage and insult? How many times in your smooth manner, and mocking words and looks, have I been twitted with my courtship and my marriage? How many times have you laid bare my wound of love for that sweet, injured girl and lacerated it? How often have you fanned the fire on which, for two years, I have writhed; and tempted me to take a desperate revenge, when it has most tortured me?'
'I have no doubt, Ma'am,' he replied, 'that you have kept a good account, and that it's pretty accurate. Come, Edith. To your husband, poor wretch, this was well enough – '
'Why, if,' she said, surveying him with a haughty contempt and disgust, that he shrunk under, let him brave it as he would, 'if all my other reasons for despising him could have been blown away like feathers, his having you for his counsellor and favourite, would have almost been enough to hold their place.'
'Is that a reason why you have run away with me?' he asked her, tauntingly.
'Yes, and why we are face to face for the last time. Wretch! We meet tonight, and part tonight. For not one moment after I have ceased to speak, will I stay here!'
He turned upon her with his ugliest look, and gripped the table with his hand; but neither rose, nor otherwise answered or threatened her.
'I am a woman,' she said, confronting him steadfastly, 'who from her childhood has been shamed and steeled. I have been offered and rejected, put up and appraised, until my very soul has sickened. I have not had an accomplishment or grace that might have been a resource to me, but it has been paraded and vended to enhance my value, as if the common crier had called it through the streets. My poor, proud friends, have looked on and approved; and every tie between us has been deadened in my breast. There is not one of them for whom I care, as I could care for a pet dog. I stand alone in the world, remembering well what a hollow world it has been to me, and what a hollow part of it I have been myself. You know this, and you know that my fame with it is worthless to me.'
'Yes; I imagined that,' he said.
'And calculated on it,' she rejoined, 'and so pursued me. Grown too indifferent for any opposition but indifference, to the daily working of the hands that had moulded me to this; and knowing that my marriage would at least prevent their hawking of me up and down; I suffered myself to be sold, as infamously as any woman with a halter round her neck is sold in any market-place. You know that.'
'Yes,' he said, showing all his teeth 'I know that.'
'And calculated on it,' she rejoined once more, 'and so pursued me. From my marriage day, I found myself exposed to such new shame – to such solicitation and pursuit (expressed as clearly as if it had been written in the coarsest words, and thrust into my hand at every turn) from one mean villain, that I felt as if I had never known humiliation till that time. This shame my husband fixed upon me; hemmed me round with, himself; steeped me in, with his own hands, and of his own act, repeated hundreds of times. And thus – forced by the two from every point of rest I had – forced by the two to yield up the last retreat of love and gentleness within me, or to be a new misfortune on its innocent object – driven from each to each, and beset by one when I escaped the other – my anger rose almost to distraction against both I do not know against which it rose higher – the master or the man!'
He watched her closely, as she stood before him in the very triumph of her indignant beauty. She was resolute, he saw; undauntable; with no more fear of him than of a worm.
'What should I say of honour or of chastity to you!' she went on. 'What meaning would it have to you; what meaning would it have from me! But if I tell you that the lightest touch of your hand makes my blood cold with antipathy; that from the hour when I first saw and hated you, to now, when my instinctive repugnance is enhanced by every minute's knowledge of you I have since had, you have been a loathsome creature to me which has not its like on earth; how then?'
He answered with a faint laugh, 'Ay! How then, my queen?'
'On that night, when, emboldened by the scene you had assisted at, you dared come to my room and speak to me,' she said, 'what passed?'
He shrugged his shoulders, and laughed
'What passed?' she said.
'Your memory is so distinct,' he said, 'that I have no doubt you can recall it.'
'I can,' she said. 'Hear it! Proposing then, this flight – not this flight, but the flight you thought it – you told me that in the having given you that meeting, and leaving you to be discovered there, if you so thought fit; and in the having suffered you to be alone with me many times before, – and having made the opportunities, you said, – and in the having openly avowed to you that I had no feeling for my husband but aversion, and no care for myself – I was lost; I had given you the power to traduce my name; and I lived, in virtuous reputation, at the pleasure of your breath.'
'All stratagems in love – -' he interrupted, smiling. 'The old adage – '
'On that night,' said Edith, 'and then, the struggle that I long had had with something that was not respect for my good fame – that was I know not what – perhaps the clinging to that last retreat – was ended. On that night, and then, I turned from everything but passion and resentment. I struck a blow that laid your lofty master in the dust, and set you there, before me, looking at me now, and knowing what I mean.'
He sprung up from his chair with a great oath. She put her hand into her bosom, and not a finger trembled, not a hair upon her head was stirred. He stood still: she too: the table and chair between them.
'When I forget that this man put his lips to mine that night, and held me in his arms as he has done again to-night,' said Edith, pointing at him; 'when I forget the taint of his kiss upon my cheek – the cheek that Florence would have laid her guiltless face against – when I forget my meeting with her, while that taint was hot upon me, and in what a flood the knowledge rushed upon me when I saw her, that in releasing her from the persecution I had caused by my love, I brought a shame and degradation on her name through mine, and in all time to come should be the solitary figure representing in her mind her first avoidance of a guilty creature – then, Husband, from whom I stand divorced henceforth, I will forget these last two years, and undo what I have done, and undeceive you!'
Her flashing eyes, uplifted for a moment, lighted again on Carker, and she held some letters out in her left hand.
'See these!' she said, contemptuously. 'You have addressed these to me in the false name you go by; one here, some elsewhere on my road. The seals are unbroken. Take them back!'
She crunched them in her hand, and tossed them to his feet. And as she looked upon him now, a smile was on her face.
'We meet and part to-night,' she said. 'You have fallen on Sicilian days and sensual rest, too soon. You might have cajoled, and fawned, and played your traitor's part, a little longer, and grown richer. You purchase your voluptuous retirement dear!'
'Edith!' he retorted, menacing her with his hand. 'Sit down! Have done with this! What devil possesses you?'
'Their name is Legion,' she replied, uprearing her proud form as if she would have crushed him; 'you and your master have raised them in a fruitful house, and they shall tear you both. False to him, false to his innocent child, false every way and everywhere, go forth and boast of me, and gnash your teeth, for once, to know that you are lying!'
He stood before her, muttering and menacing, and scowling round as if for something that would help him to conquer her; but with the same indomitable spirit she opposed him, without faltering.
'In every vaunt you make,' she said, 'I have my triumph I single out in you the meanest man I know, the parasite and tool of the proud tyrant, that his wound may go the deeper, and may rankle more. Boast, and revenge me on him! You know how you came here to-night; you know how you stand cowering there; you see yourself in colours quite as despicable, if not as odious, as those in which I see you. Boast then, and revenge me on yourself.'
The foam was on his lips; the wet stood on his forehead. If she would have faltered once for only one half-moment, he would have pinioned her; but she was as firm as rock, and her searching eyes never left him.
'We don't part so,' he said. 'Do you think I am drivelling, to let you go in your mad temper?'
'Do you think,' she answered, 'that I am to be stayed?'
'I'll try, my dear,' he said with a ferocious gesture of his head.
'God's mercy on you, if you try by coming near me!' she replied.
'And what,' he said, 'if there are none of these same boasts and vaunts on my part? What if I were to turn too? Come!' and his teeth fairly shone again. 'We must make a treaty of this, or I may take some unexpected course. Sit down, sit down!'
'Too late!' she cried, with eyes that seemed to sparkle fire. 'I have thrown my fame and good name to the winds! I have resolved to bear the shame that will attach to me – resolved to know that it attaches falsely – that you know it too – and that he does not, never can, and never shall. I'll die, and make no sign. For this, I am here alone with you, at the dead of night. For this, I have met you here, in a false name, as your wife. For this, I have been seen here by those men, and left here. Nothing can save you now.
He would have sold his soul to root her, in her beauty, to the floor, and make her arms drop at her sides, and have her at his mercy. But he could not look at her, and not be afraid of her. He saw a strength within her that was resistless. He saw that she was desperate, and that her unquenchable hatred of him would stop at nothing. His eyes followed the hand that was put with such rugged uncongenial purpose into her white bosom, and he thought that if it struck at hIm, and failed, it would strike there, just as soon.
He did not venture, therefore, to advance towards her; but the door by which he had entered was behind him, and he stepped back to lock it.
'Lastly, take my warning! Look to yourself!' she said, and smiled again. 'You have been betrayed, as all betrayers are. It has been made known that you are in this place, or were to be, or have been. If I live, I saw my husband in a carriage in the street to-night!'
'Strumpet, it's false!' cried Carker.
At the moment, the bell rang loudly in the hall. He turned white, as she held her hand up like an enchantress, at whose invocation the sound had come.
'Hark! do you hear it?'
He set his back against the door; for he saw a change in her, and fancied she was coming on to pass him. But, in a moment, she was gone through the opposite doors communicating with the bed-chamber, and they shut upon her.
Once turned, once changed in her inflexible unyielding look, he felt that he could cope with her. He thought a sudden terror, occasioned by this night-alarm, had subdued her; not the less readily, for her overwrought condition. Throwing open the doors, he followed, almost instantly.
But the room was dark; and as she made no answer to his call, he was fain to go back for the lamp. He held it up, and looked round, everywhere, expecting to see her crouching in some corner; but the room was empty. So, into the drawing-room and dining-room he went, in succession, with the uncertain steps of a man in a strange place; looking fearfully about, and prying behind screens and couches; but she was not there. No, nor in the hall, which was so bare that he could see that, at a glance.
All this time, the ringing at the bell was constantly renewed, and those without were beating at the door. He put his lamp down at a distance, and going near it, listened. There were several voices talking together: at least two of them in English; and though the door was thick, and there was great confusion, he knew one of these too well to doubt whose voice it was.
He took up his lamp again, and came back quickly through all the rooms, stopping as he quitted each, and looking round for her, with the light raised above his head. He was standing thus in the bed-chamber, when the door, leading to the little passage in the wall, caught his eye. He went to it, and found it fastened on the other side; but she had dropped a veil in going through, and shut it in the door.
All this time the people on the stairs were ringing at the bell, and knocking with their hands and feet.
He was not a coward: but these sounds; what had gone before; the strangeness of the place, which had confused him, even in his return from the hall; the frustration of his schemes (for, strange to say, he would have been much bolder, if they had succeeded); the unseasonable time; the recollection of having no one near to whom he could appeal for any friendly office; above all, the sudden sense, which made even his heart beat like lead, that the man whose confidence he had outraged, and whom he had so treacherously deceived, was there to recognise and challenge him with his mask plucked off his face; struck a panic through him. He tried the door in which the veil was shut, but couldn't force it. He opened one of the windows, and looked down through the lattice of the blind, into the court-yard; but it was a high leap, and the stones were pitiless.
The ringing and knocking still continuing – his panic too – he went back to the door in the bed-chamber, and with some new efforts, each more stubborn than the last, wrenched it open. Seeing the little staircase not far off, and feeling the night-air coming up, he stole back for his hat and coat, made the door as secure after hIm as he could, crept down lamp in hand, extinguished it on seeing the street, and having put it in a corner, went out where the stars were shining.