"You sent me a message respecting the person whose writing I happened to inquire about. It was like you to remember the circumstance; I had quite forgotten it. Your message reminded me of it again. I can't imagine what association I had with a hand like that, but I surely had some."
"You had some?" Mr. Tulkinghorn repeats.
"Oh, yes!" returns my Lady carelessly. "I think I must have had some. And did you really take the trouble to find out the writer of that actual thing — what is it! — affidavit?"
"How very odd!"
They pass into a sombre breakfast-room on the ground floor, lighted in the day by two deep windows. It is now twilight. The fire glows brightly on the panelled wall and palely on the window-glass, where, through the cold reflection of the blaze, the colder landscape shudders in the wind and a grey mist creeps along, the only traveller besides the waste of clouds.
My Lady lounges in a great chair in the chimney-corner, and Sir Leicester takes another great chair opposite. The lawyer stands before the fire with his hand out at arm's length, shading his face. He looks across his arm at my Lady.
"Yes," he says, "I inquired about the man, and found him. And, what is very strange, I found him — "
"Not to be any out-of-the-way person, I am afraid!" Lady Dedlock languidly anticipates.
"I found him dead."
"Oh, dear me!" remonstrated Sir Leicester. Not so much shocked by the fact as by the fact of the fact being mentioned.
"I was directed to his lodging — a miserable, poverty-stricken place — and I found him dead."
"You will excuse me, Mr. Tulkinghorn," observes Sir Leicester. "I think the less said — "
"Pray, Sir Leicester, let me hear the story out" (it is my Lady speaking). "It is quite a story for twilight. How very shocking! Dead?"
Mr. Tulkinghorn re-asserts it by another inclination of his head. "Whether by his own hand — "
"Upon my honour!" cries Sir Leicester. "Really!"
"Do let me hear the story!" says my Lady.
"Whatever you desire, my dear. But, I must say — "
"No, you mustn't say! Go on, Mr. Tulkinghorn."
Sir Leicester's gallantry concedes the point, though he still feels that to bring this sort of squalor among the upper classes is really — really —
"I was about to say," resumes the lawyer with undisturbed calmness, "that whether he had died by his own hand or not, it was beyond my power to tell you. I should amend that phrase, however, by saying that he had unquestionably died of his own act, though whether by his own deliberate intention or by mischance can never certainly be known. The coroner's jury found that he took the poison accidentally."
"And what kind of man," my Lady asks, "was this deplorable creature?"
"Very difficult to say," returns the lawyer, shaking his head. "He had lived so wretchedly and was so neglected, with his gipsy colour and his wild black hair and beard, that I should have considered him the commonest of the common. The surgeon had a notion that he had once been something better, both in appearance and condition."
"What did they call the wretched being?"
"They called him what he had called himself, but no one knew his name."
"Not even any one who had attended on him?"
"No one had attended on him. He was found dead. In fact, I found him."
"Without any clue to anything more?"
"Without any; there was," says the lawyer meditatively, "an old portmanteau, but — No, there were no papers."
During the utterance of every word of this short dialogue, Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn, without any other alteration in their customary deportment, have looked very steadily at one another — as was natural, perhaps, in the discussion of so unusual a subject. Sir Leicester has looked at the fire, with the general expression of the Dedlock on the staircase. The story being told, he renews his stately protest, saying that as it is quite clear that no association in my Lady's mind can possibly be traceable to this poor wretch (unless he was a begging-letter writer), he trusts to hear no more about a subject so far removed from my Lady's station.
"Certainly, a collection of horrors," says my Lady, gathering up her mantles and furs, "but they interest one for the moment! Have the kindness, Mr. Tulkinghorn, to open the door for me."
Mr. Tulkinghorn does so with deference and holds it open while she passes out. She passes close to him, with her usual fatigued manner and insolent grace. They meet again at dinner — again, next day — again, for many days in succession. Lady Dedlock is always the same exhausted deity, surrounded by worshippers, and terribly liable to be bored to death, even while presiding at her own shrine. Mr. Tulkinghorn is always the same speechless repository of noble confidences, so oddly but of place and yet so perfectly at home. They appear to take as little note of one another as any two people enclosed within the same walls could. But whether each evermore watches and suspects the other, evermore mistrustful of some great reservation; whether each is evermore prepared at all points for the other, and never to be taken unawares; what each would give to know how much the other knows — all this is hidden, for the time, in their own hearts.