The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XIII. The Australian Room
It was that discomfort to man, that cruelty to beast, that outrage by unnatural Nature upon all her children--a bitter summer's day. The wind was in the east; great swollen clouds wallowed across the sky, now without a drop, now breaking into capricious showers of stinging rain; and a very occasional burst of sunlight served only to emphasize the evil by reminding one of the season it really was, or should have been, even if it did not entice one to the wetting which was the sure reward of a walk abroad. The Delverton air was strong and bracing enough, but the patron wind of the district bit to the bone through garments never intended for winter wear.
On such a day there could be few more undesirable abodes than Normanthorpe House, with its marble floors, its high ceilings, and its general scheme of Italian coolness and discomfort. It was a Tuesday, when Mr. Steel usually amused himself by going on 'Change in Northborough and lunching there at the Delverton Club. Rachel was thus not only physically chilled and depressed, but thrown upon her own society at its worst; and she missed that of her husband more than she was aware.
Once she had been a bright and energetic person with plenty of resources within herself; now she had singularly few. She was distraught and uneasy in her mind, could settle less and less to her singing or a book, and was the victim of an increasing restlessness of mind and limb. Others did not see it; she had self-control; but repression was no cure. And for all this there were reasons enough; but the fear of identification by the neighbors as the notorious Mrs. Minchin was no longer one of them.
No; it was her own life, root and branch, that had grown into the upas-tree which was poisoning existence for Rachel Steel. She was being punished for her second marriage as she had been punished for her first, only more deservedly, and with more subtle stripes. Each day brought a dozen tokens of the anomalous position which she had accepted in the madness of an hour of utter recklessness and desperation. Rachel was not mistress in her own house, nor did she feel for a moment that it was her own house at all. Everything was done for her; a skilled housekeeper settled the smallest details; and that these were perfect alike in arrangement and execution, that the said housekeeper was a woman of irreproachable tact and capability, and that she herself had never an excuse for concrete complaint, formed a growing though intangible grievance in Rachel's mind. She had not felt it at first. She had changed in these summer months. She wanted to be more like other wives. There was Morna Woodgate, with the work cut out for every hour of her full and happy days; but Morna had not made an anomalous marriage, Morna had married for love.
And to-day there was not even Morna to come and see her, or for her to go and see, for Tuesday afternoon was not one of the few upon which the vicar's wife had no settled duty or occupation in the parish. Rachel so envied her the way in which she helped her husband in his work; she had tried to help also, in a desultory way; but it is one thing to do a thing because it is a duty, and another thing to do it for something to do, as Rachel soon found out. Besides, Hugh Woodgate was not her husband. Rachel had the right feeling to abandon those half-hearted attempts at personal recreation in the guise of good works, and the courage to give Morna her reasons; but she almost regretted it this afternoon.
She had explored for the twentieth time that strange treasury known as the Chinese Room, a state apartment filled with loot brought home from the Flowery Land by a naval scion of the house of Normanthorpe, and somewhat cynically included in the sale. The idols only leered in Rachel's face, and the cabinets of grotesque design were unprovided with any key to their history of former uses. In sheer desperation Rachel betook herself to her husband's study; it was the first time she had crossed that threshold in his absence, but within were the books, and a book she must have.
These also had been purchased with the house. With few exceptions, they were ancient books in battered calf, which Steel had stigmatized as "musty trash" once when Rachel had asked him if she might take one. She had not made that request again; indeed, it was seldom enough that she had set foot inside the spacious room which the old books lined, and in which the master of the house disliked being disturbed. Yet it was anything but trash which she now discovered upon the dusty shelves.
There was Tom Jones in four volumes and the Spectator in eight, Gil Blas and the works of Swift, all with the long "s," and backs like polished oak; in the lower shelves were Hogarth and Gillray in rare folios; at every level and on either hand were books worth taking out. But this was almost all that Rachel did; she took them out and put them in again, for that was her unsettled mood. She spent some minutes over the Swifts, but not sufficiently attracted to march off with them. The quaint, obsolete type of the various volumes attracted her more as a curiosity than as readable print; the coarse satires of the early masters of caricature and cartoon did not attract her at all. Rachel's upbringing had deprived her of the traditions, the superstitions, and the shibboleths which are at once a strength and a weakness of the ordinary English education; if, however, she was too much inclined to take a world's masterpiece exactly as she found it, her taste, such as it was, at all events was her own.
She had naturally an open mind, but it was not open now; it was full and running over with the mysteries and the perplexities of her own environment. Books would not take her out of herself; in them she could not hope to find a key to any one of the problems within problems which beset and tortured her. So she ran her hand along the dusty books, little dreaming that the key was there all the time; so in the end, and quite by chance, but for the fact that she was dipping into so many, she took out the right book, and started backward with it in her hand.
The book was The Faerie Queene, and Rachel had extracted it in a Gothic spirit, because she had once heard that very few living persons had read it from end to end; since she could not become interested in anything, she might as well be thoroughly bored. But she never opened the volume, for in the dark slit which it left something shone like a little new moon. Rachel put in her hand, and felt a small brass handle; to turn and pull it was the work of her hand without a guiding thought; but when tiers of books swung towards her with the opening door which they hid, it was not in human nature to shut that door again without so much as peeping in.
Rachel first peeped, then stepped, into a secret chamber as disappointing at the first glance as such a place could possibly be. It was deep in dust, and filled with packing-cases not half unpacked, a lumber-room and nothing more. The door swung to with a click behind her as Rachel stood in the midst of this uninteresting litter, and instinctively she turned round. That instant she stood rooted to the ground, her eyes staring, her chin fallen, a dreadful fear in every feature of her face.
It was not that her second husband had followed and discovered her; it was the face of her first husband that looked upon Rachel Steel, his bold eyes staring into hers, through the broken glass of a fly-blown picture-frame behind the door.
The portrait was not hanging from the wall, but resting against it on the floor. It was a photographic enlargement in colors, and the tinted eyes looked up at Rachel with all the bold assurance that she remembered so keenly in the perished flesh. She had not an instant's doubt about those eyes; they spoke in a way that made her shiver; and yet the photograph was that of a much younger man than she had married. It was Alexander Minchin with mutton-chop whiskers, his hair parted in the middle, and the kind of pin in the kind of tie which had been practically obsolete for years; it was none the less indubitably and indisputably Alexander Minchin.
And indeed that fact alone was enough to shake Rachel's nerves; her discovery had all the shock of an unwelcome encounter with the living. But it was the gradual appreciation of the true significance of her discovery that redoubled Rachel's qualms even as she was beginning to get the better of them. So they had been friends, her first husband and her second! Rachel stooped and looked hard at the enlargement, and there sure enough was the photographer's imprint. Yes, they had been friends in Australia, that country which John Buchanan Steel elaborately and repeatedly pretended never to have visited in all his travels!
Rachel could have smiled as she drew herself up with this point settled in her mind for ever; why, the room reeked of Australia! These cases had never been properly unpacked, they were overflowing with memorials of the life which she herself knew so well. Here a sheaf of boomerangs were peeping out; there was an old gray wide-awake, with a blue-silk fly-veil coiled above the brim; that was an Australian saddle; and those glass cases contained samples of merino wool. So it was in Australia as a squatter that Steel had made his fortune! But why suppress a fact so free from all discredit? These were just the relics of a bush life which a departing colonist might care to bring home with him to the old country. Then why cast them into a secret lumber-room whose very existence was unknown to the old Australian's Australian wife?
Rachel felt her brain reeling; and yet she was thankful for the light which had been vouchsafed to her at last. It was but a lantern flash through the darkness, which seemed the more opaque for that one thin beam of light; but it was something, a beginning, a clew. For the rest she was going straight to the man who had kept her so long in such unnecessary ignorance.
Why had he not told her about Australia, at all events? What conceivable harm could that have done? It would have been the strongest possible bond between them. But Rachel went further as she thought more. Why not have told her frankly that he had known Alexander Minchin years before she did herself? It could have made no difference after Alexander Minchin's death; then why had be kept the fact so jealously to himself? And the dead man's painted eyes answered "Why?" with the bold and mocking stare his wife could not forget, a stare which at that moment assumed a new and sinister significance in her sight.
Rachel looked upward through the window, which was barred, and almost totally eclipsed by shrubs; but a clout of sky was just visible under the architrave. It was a very gray sky; gray also was Rachel's face in the sudden grip of horror and surmise. Then a ragged edge of cloud caught golden fire, a glimmer found its way into the dust and dirt of the secret chamber, and Rachel relaxed with a slight smile but an exceedingly decided shake of the head. Thereafter she escaped incontinently, but successfully, as she had entered; closed the hidden door behind her, and restored The Faerie Queene very carefully to its place. Rachel no longer proposed to join the select band of those who have read that epic through.