Part 6 out of 9
"Who would have believed that Audley church could boast such an organ?"
thought Robert. "When last I was here, the national schoolmaster used to
accompany his children by a primitive performance of common chords. I
didn't think the old organ had such music in it."
He lingered at the gate, not caring to break the lazy spell woven about
him by the monotonous melancholy of the organist's performance. The
tones of the instrument, now swelling to their fullest power, now
sinking to a low, whispering softness, floated toward him upon the misty
winter atmosphere, and had a soothing influence, that seemed to comfort
him in his trouble.
He closed the gate softly, and crossed the little patch of gravel before
the door of the church. The door had been left ajar--by the organist,
perhaps. Robert Audley pushed it open, and walked into the square porch,
from which a flight of narrow stone steps wound upward to the organ-loft
and the belfry. Mr. Audley took off his hat, and opened the door between
the porch and the body of the church. He stepped softly into the holy
edifice, which had a damp, moldy smell upon week-days. He walked down
the narrow aisle to the altar-rails, and from that point of observation
took a survey of the church. The little gallery was exactly opposite to
him, but the scanty green curtains before the organ were closely drawn,
and he could not get a glimpse of the player.
The music, still rolled on. The organist had wandered into a melody of
Mendelssohn's, a strain whose dreamy sadness went straight to Robert's
heart. He loitered in the nooks and corners of the church, examining the
dilapidated memorials of the well-nigh forgotten dead, and listening to
"If my poor friend, George Talboys, had died in my arms, and I had
buried him in this quiet church, in one corner of the vaults over which
I tread to-day, how much anguish of mind, vacillation and torment I
might have escaped," thought Robert Audley, as he read the faded
inscriptions upon tablets of discolored marble; "I should have known his
fate--I should have known his fate! Ah, how much there would have been
in that. It is this miserable uncertainty, this horrible suspicion which
has poisoned my very life."
He looked at his watch.
"Half-past one," he muttered. "I shall have to wait four or five dreary
hours before my lady comes home from her morning calls--her pretty
visits of ceremony or friendliness. Good Heaven! what an actress this
woman is. What an arch trickster--what an all-accomplished deceiver. But
she shall play her pretty comedy no longer under my uncle's roof. I have
diplomatized long enough. She has refused to accept an indirect warning.
To-night I will speak plainly."
The music of the organ ceased, and Robert heard the closing of the
"I'll have a look at this new organist," he thought, "who can afford to
bury his talents at Audley, and play Mendelssohn's finest fugues for a
stipend of sixteen pounds a year." He lingered in the porch, waiting for
the organist to descend the awkward little stair-case. In the weary
trouble of his mind, and with the prospect of getting through the five
hours in the best way he could, Mr. Audley was glad to cultivate any
diversion of thought, however idle. He therefore freely indulged his
curiosity about the new organist.
The first person who appeared upon the steep stone steps was a boy in
corduroy trousers and a dark linen smock-frock, who shambled down the
stairs with a good deal of unnecessary clatter of his hobnailed shoes,
and who was red in the face from the exertion of blowing the bellows of
the old organ. Close behind this boy came a young lady, very plainly
dressed in a black silk gown and a large gray shawl, who started and
turned pale at sight of Mr. Audley.
This young lady was Clara Talboys.
Of all people in the world she was the last whom Robert either expected
or wished to see. She had told him that she was going to pay a visit to
some friends who lived in Essex; but the county is a wide one, and the
village of Audley one of the most obscure and least frequented spots in
the whole of its extent. That the sister of his lost friend should be
here--here where she could watch his every action, and from those
actions deduce the secret workings of his mind, tracing his doubts home
to their object, made a complication of his difficulties that he could
never have anticipated. It brought him back to that consciousness of his
own helplessness, in which he had exclaimed:
"A hand that is stronger than my own is beckoning me onward on the dark
road that leads to my lost friend's unknown grave."
Clara Talboys was the first to speak.
"You are surprised to see me here, Mr. Audley," she said.
"Very much surprised."
"I told you that I was coming to Essex. I left home day before
yesterday. I was leaving home when I received your telegraphic message.
The friend with whom I am staying is Mrs. Martyn, the wife of the new
rector of Mount Stanning. I came down this morning to see the village
and church, and as Mrs. Martyn had to pay a visit to the school with the
curate and his wife, I stopped here and amused myself by trying the old
organ. I was not aware till I came here that there was a village called
Audley. The place takes its name from your family, I suppose?"
"I believe so," Robert answered, wondering at the lady's calmness, in
contradistinction to his own embarrassment. "I have a vague recollection
of hearing the story of some ancestor who was called Audley of Audley in
the reign of Edward the Fourth. The tomb inside the rails near the altar
belongs to one of the knights of Audley, but I have never taken the
trouble to remember his achievements. Are you going to wait here for
your friends, Miss Talboys?"
"Yes; they are to return here for me after they have finished their
"And you go back to Mount Stanning with them this afternoon?"
Robert stood with his hat in his hand, looking absently out at the
tombstones and the low wall of the church yard. Clara Talboys watched
his pale face, haggard under the deepening shadow that had rested upon
it so long.
"You have been ill since I saw you last, Mr. Audley," she said, in a low
voice, that had the same melodious sadness as the notes of the old organ
under her touch.
"No, I have not been ill; I have been only harassed, wearied by a
hundred doubts and perplexities."
He was thinking as he spoke to her:
"How much does she guess? How much does she suspect?"
He had told the story of George's disappearance and of his own
suspicions, suppressing only the names of those concerned in the
mystery; but what if this girl should fathom this slender disguise, and
discover for herself that which he had chosen to withhold.
Her grave eyes were fixed upon his face, and he knew that she was trying
to read the innermost secrets of his mind.
"What am I in her hands?" he thought. "What am I in the hands of this
woman, who has my lost friend's face and the manner of Pallas Athene.
She reads my pitiful, vacillating soul, and plucks the thoughts out of
my heart with the magic of her solemn brown eyes. How unequal the fight
must be between us, and how can I ever hope to conquer against the
strength of her beauty and her wisdom?"
Mr. Audley was clearing his throat preparatory to bidding his beautiful
companion good-morning, and making his escape from the thraldom of her
presence into the lonely meadow outside the churchyard, when Clare
Talboys arrested him by speaking upon that very subject which he was
most anxious to avoid.
"You promised to write to me, Mr. Audley," she said, "if you made any
discovery which carried you nearer to the mystery of my brother's
disappearance. You have not written to me, and I imagine, therefore,
that you have discovered nothing."
Robert Audley was silent for some moments. How could he answer this
"The chain of circumstantial evidence which unites the mystery of your
brother's fate with the person whom I suspect," he said, after a pause,
"is formed of very slight links. I think that I have added another link
to that chain since I saw you in Dorsetshire."
"And you refuse to tell me what it is that you have discovered?"
"Only until I have discovered more."
"I thought from your message that you were going to Wildernsea."
"I have been there."
"Indeed! It was there that you made some discovery, then?"
"It was," answered Robert. "You must remember, Miss Talboys that the
sole ground upon which my suspicions rest is the identity of two
individuals who have no apparent connection--the identity of a person
who is supposed to be dead with one who is living. The conspiracy of
which I believe your brother to have been the victim hinges upon this.
If his wife, Helen Talboys, died when the papers recorded her death--if
the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard was indeed the woman
whose name is inscribed on the headstone of the grave--I have no case, I
have no clew to the mystery of your brother's fate. I am about to put
this to the test. I believe that I am now in a position to play a bold
game, and I believe that I shall soon arrive at the truth."
He spoke in a low voice, and with a solemn emphasis that betrayed the
intensity of his feeling. Miss Talboys stretched out her ungloved hand,
and laid it in his own. The cold touch of that slender hand sent a
shivering thrill through his frame.
"You will not suffer my brother's fate to remain a mystery, Mr. Audley,"
she said, quietly. "I know that you will do your duty to your friend."
The rector's wife and her two companions entered the churchyard as Clara
Talboys said this. Robert Audley pressed the hand that rested in his
own, and raised it to his lips.
"I am a lazy, good-for-nothing fellow, Miss Talboys," he said; "but if I
could restore your brother George to life and happiness, I should care
very little for any sacrifice of my own feeling, fear that the most I
can do is to fathom the secret of his fate and in doing that I must
sacrifice those who are dearer to me than myself."
He put on his hat, and hurried through the gateway leading into the
field as Mrs. Martyn came up to the porch.
"Who is that handsome young man I caught _tete-a-tete_ with you, Clara?"
she asked, laughing.
"He is a Mr. Audley, a friend of my poor brother's."
"Indeed! He is some relation of Sir Michael Audley, I suppose?"
"Sir Michael Audley!"
"Yes, my dear; the most important personage in the parish of Audley. But
we'll call at the Court in a day or two, and you shall see the baronet
and his pretty young wife."
"His young wife!" replied Clara Talboys, looking earnestly at her
friend. "Has Sir Michael Audley lately married, then?"
"Yes. He was a widower for sixteen years, and married a penniless young
governess about a year and a half ago. The story is quite romantic, and
Lady Audley is considered the belle of the county. But come, my dear
Clara, the pony is tired of waiting for us, and we've a long drive
Clara Talboys took her seat in the little basket-carriage which was
waiting at the principal gate of the churchyard, in the care of the boy
who had blown the organ-bellows. Mrs. Martyn shook the reins, and the
sturdy chestnut cob trotted off in the direction of Mount Stanning.
"Will you tell me more about this Lady Audley, Fanny?" Miss Talboys
said, after a long pause. "I want to know all about her. Have you heard
her maiden name?"
"Yes; she was a Miss Graham."
"And she is very pretty?"
"Yes, very, very pretty. Rather a childish beauty though, with large,
clear blue eyes, and pale golden ringlets, that fall in a feathery
shower over her throat and shoulders."
Clara Talboys was silent. She did not ask any further questions about my
She was thinking of a passage in that letter which George had written to
her during his honeymoon--a passage in which he said: "My childish
little wife is watching me as I write this--Ah! how I wish you could
see her, Clara! Her eyes are as blue and as clear as the skies on a
bright summer's day, and her hair falls about her face like the pale
golden halo you see round the head of a Madonna in an Italian picture."
IN THE LIME-WALK.
Robert Audley was loitering upon the broad grass-plat in front of the
Court as the carriage containing my lady and Alicia drove under the
archway, and drew up at the low turret-door. Mr. Audley presented
himself in time to hand the ladies out of the vehicle.
My lady looked very pretty in a delicate blue bonnet and the sables
which her nephew had bought for her at St. Petersburg. She seemed very
well pleased to see Robert, and smiled most bewitchingly as she gave him
her exquisitely gloved little hand.
"So you have come back to us, truant?" she said, laughing. "And now that
you have returned, we shall keep you prisoner. We won't let him run away
again, will we, Alicia?"
Miss Audley gave her head a scornful toss that shook the heavy curls
under her cavalier hat.
"I have nothing to do with the movements of so erratic an individual,"
she said. "Since Robert Audley has taken it into his head to conduct
himself like some ghost-haunted hero in a German story, I have given up
attempting to understand him."
Mr. Audley looked at his cousin with an expression of serio-comic
perplexity. "She's a nice girl," he thought, "but she's a nuisance. I
don't know how it is, but she seems more a nuisance than she used to
He pulled his mustaches reflectively as he considered this question. His
mind wandered away for a few moments from the great trouble of his life
to dwell upon this minor perplexity.
"She's a dear girl," he thought; "a generous-hearted, bouncing, noble
English lassie; and yet--" He lost himself in a quagmire of doubt and
difficulty. There was some hitch in his mind which he could not
understand; some change in himself, beyond the change made in him by his
anxiety about George Talboys, which mystified and bewildered him.
"And pray where have you been wandering during the last day or two, Mr.
Audley?" asked my lady, as she lingered with her step-daughter upon the
threshold of the turret-door, waiting until Robert should be pleased to
stand aside and allow them to pass. The young man started as she asked
this question and looked up at her suddenly. Something in the aspect of
her bright young beauty, something in the childish innocence of her
expression, seemed to smite him to the heart, and his face grew ghastly
pale as he looked at her.
"I have been--in Yorkshire," he said; "at the little watering place
where my poor friend George Talboys lived at the time of his marriage."
The white change in my lady's face was the only sign of her having heard
these words. She smiled, a faint, sickly smile, and tried to pass her
"I must dress for dinner," she said. "I am going to a dinner-party, Mr.
Audley; please let me go in."
"I must ask you to spare me half an hour, Lady Audley," Robert answered,
in a low voice. "I came down to Essex on purpose to speak to you."
"What about?" asked my lady.
She had recovered herself from any shock which she might have sustained
a few moments before, and it was in her usual manner that she asked this
question. Her face expressed the mingled bewilderment and curiosity of a
puzzled child, rather than the serious surprise of a woman.
"What can you want to talk to me about, Mr. Audley?" she repeated.
"I will tell you when we are alone," Robert said, glancing at his
cousin, who stood a little way behind my lady, watching this
confidential little dialogue.
"He is in love with my step-mother's wax-doll beauty," thought Alicia,
"and it is for her sake he has become such a disconsolate object. He's
just the sort of person to fall in love with his aunt."
Miss Audley walked away to the grass-plat, turning her back upon Robert
and my lady.
"The absurd creature turned as white as a sheet when he saw her," she
thought. "So he can be in love, after all. That slow lump of torpidity
he calls his heart can beat, I suppose, once in a quarter of a century;
but it seems that nothing but a blue-eyed wax-doll can set it going. I
should have given him up long ago if I'd known that his idea of beauty
was to be found in a toy-shop."
Poor Alicia crossed the grass-plat and disappeared upon the opposite
side of the quadrangle, where there was a Gothic gate that communicated
with the stables. I am sorry to say that Sir Michael Audley's daughter
went to seek consolation from her dog Caesar and her chestnut mare
Atalanta, whose loose box the young lady was in the habit of visiting
"Will you come into the lime-walk, Lady Audley?" said Robert, as his
cousin left the garden. "I wish to talk to you without fear of
interruption or observation. I think we could choose no safer place than
that. Will you come there with me?"
"If you please," answered my lady. Mr. Audley could see that she was
trembling, and that she glanced from side to side as if looking for some
outlet by which she might escape him.
"You are shivering, Lady Audley," he said.
"Yes, I am very cold. I would rather speak to you some other day,
please. Let it be to-morrow, if you will. I have to dress for dinner,
and I want to see Sir Michael; I have not seen him since ten o'clock
this morning. Please let it be to-morrow."
There was a painful piteousness in her tone. Heaven knows how painful to
Robert's heart. Heaven knows what horrible images arose in his mind as
he looked down at that fair young face and thought of the task that lay
"I _must_ speak to you, Lady Audley," he said. "If I am cruel, it is you
who have made me cruel. You might have escaped this ordeal. You might
have avoided me. I gave you fair warning. But you have chosen to defy
me, and it is your own folly which is to blame if I no longer spare you.
Come with me. I tell you again I must speak to you."
There was a cold determination in his tone which silenced my lady's
objections. She followed him submissively to the little iron gate which
communicated with the long garden behind the house--the garden in which
a little rustic wooden bridge led across the quiet fish-pond into the
The early winter twilight was closing in, and the intricate tracery of
the leafless branches that overarched the lonely pathway looked black
against the cold gray of the evening sky. The lime-walk seemed like some
cloister in this uncertain light.
"Why do you bring me to this horrible place to frighten me out of my
poor wits?" cried my lady, peevishly. "You ought to know how nervous I
"You are nervous, my lady?"
"Yes, dreadfully nervous. I am worth a fortune to poor Mr. Dawson. He is
always sending me camphor, and sal volatile, and red lavender, and all
kinds of abominable mixtures, but he can't cure me."
"Do you remember what Macbeth tells his physician, my lady?" asked
Robert, gravely. "Mr. Dawson may be very much more clever than the
Scottish leech, but I doubt if even _he_ can minister to the mind that
"Who said that my mind was diseased?" exclaimed Lady Audley.
"I say so, my lady," answered Robert. "You tell me that you are nervous,
and that all the medicines your doctor can prescribe are only so much
physic that might as well be thrown to the dogs. Let me be the physician
to strike to the root of your malady, Lady Audley. Heaven knows that I
wish to be merciful--that I would spare you as far as it is in my power
to spare you in doing justice to others--but justice must be done. Shall
I tell you why you are nervous in this house, my lady?"
"If you can," she answered, with a little laugh.
"Because for you this house is haunted."
"Yes, haunted by the ghost of George Talboys."
Robert Audley heard my lady's quickened breathing, he fancied he could
almost hear the loud beating of her heart as she walked by his side,
shivering now and then, and with her sable cloak wrapped tightly around
"What do you mean?" she cried suddenly, after a pause of some moments.
"Why do you torment me about this George Talboys, who happens to have
taken it into his head to keep out of your way for a few months? Are you
going mad, Mr. Audley, and do you select me as the victim of your
monomania? What is George Talboys to me that you should worry me about
"He was a stranger to you, my lady, was he not?"
"Of course!" answered Lady Audley. "What should he be but a stranger?"
"Shall I tell you the story of my friend's disappearance as I read that
story, my lady?" asked Robert.
"No," cried Lady Audley; "I wish to know nothing of your friend. If he
is dead, I am sorry for him. If he lives, I have no wish either to see
him or to hear of him. Let me go in to see my husband, if you please,
Mr. Audley, unless you wish to detain me in this gloomy place until I
catch my death of cold."
"I wish to detain you until you have heard what I have to say, Lady
Audley," answered Robert, resolutely. "I will detain you no longer than
is necessary, and when you have heard me you shall take your own course
"Very well, then; pray lose no time in saying what you have to say,"
replied my lady, carelessly. "I promise you to attend very patiently."
"When my friend, George Talboys, returned to England," Robert began,
gravely, "the thought which was uppermost in his mind was the thought of
"Whom he had deserted," said my lady, quickly. "At least," she added,
more deliberately, "I remember your telling us something to that effect
when you first told us your friend's story."
Robert Audley did not notice this observation.
"The thought that was uppermost in his mind was the thought of his wife,"
he repeated. "His fairest hope in the future was the hope of making her
happy, and lavishing upon her the pittance which he had won by the force
of his own strong arm in the gold-fields of Australia. I saw him within
a few hours of his reaching England, and I was a witness to the joyful
pride with which he looked forward to his re-union with his wife. I was
also a witness to the blow which struck him to the very heart--which
changed him from the man he had been to a creature as unlike that former
self as one human being can be unlike another. The blow which made that
cruel change was the announcement of his wife's death in the _Times_
newspaper. I now believe that that announcement was a black and bitter
"Indeed!" said my lady; "and what reason could any one have for
announcing the death of Mrs. Talboys, if Mrs. Talboys had been alive?"
"The lady herself might have had a reason," Robert answered, quietly.
"How if she had taken advantage of George's absence to win a richer
husband? How if she had married again, and wished to throw my poor
friend off the scent by this false announcement?"
Lady Audley shrugged her shoulders.
"Your suppositions are rather ridiculous, Mr. Audley," she said; "it is
to be hoped that you have some reasonable grounds for them."
"I have examined a file of each of the newspapers published in
Chelmsford and Colchester," continued Robert, without replying to my
lady's last observation, "and I find in one of the Colchester papers,
dated July the 2d, 1850, a brief paragraph among numerous miscellaneous
scraps of information copied from other newspapers, to the effect that a
Mr. George Talboys, an English gentleman, had arrived at Sydney from the
gold-fields, carrying with him nuggets and gold-dust to the amount of
twenty thousand pounds, and that he had realized his property and sailed
for Liverpool in the fast-sailing clipper _Argus_. This is a very small
fact, of course, Lady Audley, but it is enough to prove that any person
residing in Essex in the July of the year fifty-seven, was likely to
become aware of George Talboys' return from Australia. Do you follow
"Not very clearly," said my lady. "What have the Essex papers to do with
the death of Mrs. Talboys?"
"We will come to that by-and-by, Lady Audley. I say that I believe the
announcement in the _Times_ to have been a false announcement, and a
part of the conspiracy which was carried out by Helen Talboys and
Lieutenant Maldon against my poor friend."
"Yes, a conspiracy concocted by an artful woman, who had speculated upon
the chances of her husband's death, and had secured a splendid position
at the risk of committing a crime; a bold woman, my lady, who thought to
play her comedy out to the end without fear of detection; a wicked
woman, who did not care what misery she might inflict upon the honest
heart of the man she betrayed; but a foolish woman, who looked at life
as a game of chance, in which the best player was likely to hold the
winning cards, forgetting that there is a Providence above the pitiful
speculators, and that wicked secrets are never permitted to remain long
hidden. If this woman of whom I speak had never been guilty of any
blacker sin than the publication of that lying announcement in the
_Times_ newspaper, I should still hold her as the most detestable and
despicable of her sex--the most pitiless and calculating of human
creatures. That cruel lie was a base and cowardly blow in the dark; it
was the treacherous dagger-thrust of an infamous assassin."
"But how do you know that the announcement was a false one?" asked my
lady. "You told us that you had been to Ventnor with Mr. Talboys to see
his wife's grave. Who was it who died at Ventnor if it was not Mrs.
"Ah, Lady Audley," said Robert, "that is a question which only two or
three people can answer, and one or other of those persons shall answer
it to me before long. I tell you, my lady, that I am determined to
unravel the mystery of George Talboy's death. Do you think I am to be
put off by feminine prevarication--by womanly trickery? No! Link by link
I have put together the chain of evidence, which wants but a link here
and there to be complete in its terrible strength. Do you think I will
suffer myself to be baffled? Do you think I shall fail to discover those
missing links? No, Lady Audley, I shall not fail, for _I know where to
look for them!_ There is a fair-haired woman at Southampton--a woman
called Plowson, who has some share in the secrets of the father of my
friend's wife. I have an idea that she can help me to discover the
history of the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard, and I will
spare no trouble in making that discovery, unless--"
"Unless what?" asked my lady, eagerly.
"Unless the woman I wish to save from degradation and punishment accepts
the mercy I offer her, and takes warning while there is still time."
My lady shrugged her graceful shoulders, and flashed bright defiance out
of her blue eyes.
"She would be a very foolish woman if she suffered herself to be
influenced by any such absurdity," she said. "You are hypochondriacal,
Mr. Audley, and you must take camphor, or red lavender, or sal volatile.
What can be more ridiculous than this idea which you have taken into
your head? You lose your friend George Talboys in rather a mysterious
manner--that is to say, that gentleman chooses to leave England without
giving you due notice. What of that? You confess that he became an
altered man after his wife's death. He grew eccentric and
misanthropical; he affected an utter indifference as to what became of
him. What more likely, then, than that he grew tired of the monotony of
civilized life, and ran away to those savage gold-fields to find a
distraction for his grief? It is rather a romantic story, but by no
means an uncommon one. But you are not satisfied with this simple
interpretation of your friend's disappearance, and you build up some
absurd theory of a conspiracy which has no existence except in your own
overheated brain. Helen Talboys is dead. The _Times_ newspaper declares
she is dead. Her own father tells you that she is dead. The headstone of
the grave in Ventnor churchyard bears record of her death. By what
right," cried my lady, her voice rising to that shrill and piercing tone
peculiar to her when affected by any intense agitation--"by what right,
Mr. Audley, do you come to me, and torment me about George Talboys--by
what right do you dare to say that his wife is still alive?"
"By the right of circumstantial evidence, Lady Audley," answered
Robert--"by the right of that circumstantial evidence which will
sometimes fix the guilt of a man's murder upon that person who, on the
first hearing of the case, seems of all other men the most unlikely to
"What circumstantial evidence?"
"The evidence of time and place. The evidence of handwriting. When Helen
Talboys left her father's at Wildernsea, she left a letter behind her--a
letter in which she declared that she was weary of her old life, and
that she wished to seek a new home and a new fortune. That letter is in
"Shall I tell you whose handwriting resembles that of Helen Talboys so
closely, that the most dexterous expert could perceive no distinction
between the two?"
"A resemblance between the handwriting of two women is no very uncommon
circumstance now-a-days," replied my lady carelessly. "I could show you
the caligraphies of half-a-dozen female correspondents, and defy you to
discover any great difference in them."
"But what if the handwriting is a very uncommon one, presenting marked
peculiarities by which it may be recognized among a hundred?"
"Why, in that case the coincidence is rather curious," answered my lady;
"but it is nothing more than a coincidence. You cannot deny the fact of
Helen Talboys death on the ground that her handwriting resembles that of
some surviving person."
"But if a series of such coincidences lead up to the same point," said
Robert. "Helen Talboys left her father's house, according to the
declaration in her own handwriting, because she was weary of her old
life, and wished to begin a new one. Do you know what I infer from
My lady shrugged her shoulders.
"I have not the least idea," she said; "and as you have detained me in
this gloomy place nearly half-an-hour, I must beg that you will release
me, and let me go and dress for dinner."
"No, Lady Audley," answered Robert, with a cold sternness that was so
strange to him as to transform him into another creature--a pitiless
embodiment of justice, a cruel instrument of retribution--"no, Lady
Audley," he repeated, "I have told you that womanly prevarication will
not help you; I tell you now that defiance will not serve you. I have
dealt fairly with you, and have given you fair warning. I gave you
indirect notice of your danger two months ago."
"What do you mean?" asked my lady, suddenly.
"You did not choose to take that warning, Lady Audley," pursued Robert,
"and the time has come in which I must speak very plainly to you. Do you
think the gifts which you have played against fortune are to hold you
exempt from retribution? No, my lady, your youth and beauty, your grace
and refinement, only make the horrible secret of your life more
horrible. I tell you that the evidence against you wants only one link
to be strong enough for your condemnation, and that link shall be added.
Helen Talboys never returned to her father's house. When she deserted
that poor old father, she went away from his humble shelter with the
declared intention of washing her hands of that old life. What do people
generally do when they wish to begin a new existence--to start for a
second time in the race of life, free from the incumbrances that had
fettered their first journey. _They change their names_, Lady Audley.
Helen Talboys deserted her infant son--she went away from Wildernsea
with the predetermination of sinking her identity. She disappeared as
Helen Talboys upon the 16th of August, 1854, and upon the 17th of that
month she reappeared as Lucy Graham, the friendless girl who undertook a
profitless duty in consideration of a home in which she was asked no
"You are mad, Mr. Audley!" cried my lady. "You are mad, and my husband
shall protect me from your insolence. What if this Helen Talboys ran
away from her home upon one day, and I entered my employer's house upon
the next, what does that prove?"
"By itself, very little," replied Robert Audley; "but with the help of
"The evidence of two labels, pasted one over the other, upon a box left
by you in possession of Mrs. Vincent, the upper label bearing the name
of Miss Graham, the lower that of Mrs. George Talboys."
My lady was silent. Robert Audley could not see her face in the dusk,
but he could see that her two small hands were clasped convulsively over
her heart, and he knew that the shot had gone home to its mark.
"God help her, poor, wretched creature," he thought. "She knows now that
she is lost. I wonder if the judges of the land feel as I do now when
they put on the black cap and pass sentence of death upon some poor,
shivering wretch, who has never done them any wrong. Do they feel a
heroic fervor of virtuous indignation, or do they suffer this dull
anguish which gnaws my vitals as I talk to this helpless woman?"
He walked by my lady's side, silently, for some minutes. They had been
pacing up and down the dim avenue, and they were now drawing near the
leafless shrubbery at one end of the lime-walk--the shrubbery in which
the ruined well sheltered its unheeded decay among the tangled masses of
A winding pathway, neglected and half-choked with weeds, led toward this
well. Robert left the lime-walk, and struck into this pathway. There was
more light in the shrubbery than in the avenue, and Mr. Audley wished to
see my lady's face.
He did not speak until they reached the patch of rank grass beside the
well. The massive brickwork had fallen away here and there, and loose
fragments of masonry lay buried amidst weeds and briars. The heavy posts
which had supported the wooden roller still remained, but the iron
spindle had been dragged from its socket and lay a few paces from the
well, rusty, discolored, and forgotten.
Robert Audley leaned against one of the moss-grown posts and looked down
at my lady's face, very pale in the chill winter twilight. The moon had
newly risen, a feebly luminous crescent in the gray heavens, and a
faint, ghostly light mingled with the misty shadows of the declining
day. My lady's face seemed like that face which Robert Audley had seen
in his dreams looking out of the white foam-flakes on the green sea
waves and luring his uncle to destruction.
"Those two labels are in my possession, Lady Audley," he resumed. "I
took them from the box left by you at Crescent Villas. I took them in
the presence of Mrs. Vincent and Miss Tonks. Have you any proofs to
offer against this evidence? You say to me, 'I am Lucy Graham and I have
nothing whatever to do with Helen Talboys.' In that case you will
produce witnesses who will declare your antecedents. Where had you been
living prior to your appearance at Crescent Villas? You must have
friends, relations, connections, who can come forward to prove as much
as this for you? If you were the most desolate creature upon this earth,
you would be able to point to someone who could identify you with the
"Yes," cried my lady, "if I were placed in a criminal dock I could, no
doubt, bring forward witnesses to refute your absurd accusation. But I
am not in a criminal dock, Mr. Audley, and I do not choose to do
anything but laugh at your ridiculous folly. I tell you that you are
mad! If you please to say that Helen Talboys is not dead, and that I am
Helen Talboys, you may do so. If you choose to go wandering about in the
places in which I have lived, and to the places in which this Mrs.
Talboys has lived, you must follow the bent of your own inclination, but
I would warn you that such fancies have sometimes conducted people, as
apparently sane as yourself, to the life-long imprisonment of a private
Robert Audley started and recoiled a few paces among the weeds and
brushwood as my lady said this.
"She would be capable of any new crime to shield her from the
consequences of the old one," he thought. "She would be capable of using
her influence with my uncle to place me in a mad-house."
I do not say that Robert Audley was a coward, but I will admit that a
shiver of horror, something akin to fear, chilled him to the heart as he
remembered the horrible things that have been done by women since that
day upon which Eve was created to be Adam's companion and help-meet in
the garden of Eden. "What if this woman's hellish power of dissimulation
should be stronger than the truth, and crush him? She had not spared
George Talboys when he stood in her way and menaced her with a certain
peril; would she spare him who threatened her with a far greater danger?
Are women merciful, or loving, or kind in proportion to their beauty and
grace? Was there not a certain Monsieur Mazers de Latude, who had the
bad fortune to offend the all-accomplished Madam de Pompadour, who
expiated his youthful indiscretion by a life-long imprisonment; who
twice escaped from prison, to be twice cast back into captivity; who,
trusting in the tardy generosity of his beautiful foe, betrayed himself
to an implacable fiend? Robert Audley looked at the pale face of the
woman standing by his side; that fair and beautiful face, illumined by
starry-blue eyes, that had a strange and surely a dangerous light in
them; and remembering a hundred stories of womanly perfidy, shuddered as
he thought how unequal the struggle might be between himself and his
"I have shown her my cards," he thought, "but she has kept hers hidden
from me. The mask that she wears is not to be plucked away. My uncle
would rather think me mad than believe her guilty."
The pale face of Clara Talboys--that grave and earnest face, so
different in its character to my lady's fragile beauty--arose before
"What a coward I am to think of myself or my own danger," he thought.
"The more I see of this woman the more reason I have to dread her
influence upon others; the more reason to wish her far away from this
He looked about him in the dusky obscurity. The lonely garden was as
quiet as some solitary grave-yard, walled in and hidden away from the
world of the living.
"It was somewhere in this garden that she met George Talboys upon the
day of his disappearance," he thought. "I wonder where it was they met;
I wonder where it was that he looked into her cruel face and taxed her
with her falsehood?"
My lady, with her little hand resting lightly upon the opposite post to
that against which Robert leaned, toyed with her pretty foot among the
long weeds, but kept a furtive watch upon her enemy's face.
"It is to be a duel to the death, then, my lady," said Robert Audley,
solemnly. "You refuse to accept my warning. You refuse to run away and
repent of your wickedness in some foreign place, far from the generous
gentleman you have deceived and fooled by your false witcheries. You
choose to remain here and defy me."
"I do," answered Lady Audley, lifting her head and looking full at the
young barrister. "It is no fault of mine if my husband's nephew goes
mad, and chooses me for the victim of his monomania."
"So be it, then, my lady," answered Robert. "My friend George Talboys
was last seen entering these gardens by the little iron gate by which we
came in to-night. He was last heard inquiring for you. He was seen to
enter these gardens, but he was never seen to leave them. I believe that
he met his death within the boundary of these grounds; and that his body
lies hidden below some quiet water, or in some forgotten corner of this
place. I will have such a search made as shall level that house to the
earth and root up every tree in these gardens, rather than I will fail
in finding the grave of my murdered friend."
Lucy Audley uttered a long, low, wailing cry, and threw up her arms
above her head with a wild gesture of despair, but she made no answer to
the ghastly charge of her accuser. Her arms slowly dropped, and she
stood staring at Robert Audley, her white face gleaming through the
dusk, her blue eyes glittering and dilated.
"You shall never live to do this," she said. "_I will kill you first_.
Why have you tormented me so? Why could you not let me alone? What harm
had I ever done you that you should make yourself my persecutor, and dog
my steps, and watch my looks, and play the spy upon me? Do you want to
drive me mad? Do you know what it is to wrestle with a mad-woman? No,"
cried my lady, with a laugh, "you do not, or you would never--"
She stopped abruptly and drew herself suddenly to her fullest hight. It
was the same action which Robert had seen in the old half-drunken
lieutenant; and it had that same dignity--the sublimity of extreme
"Go away, Mr. Audley," she said. "You are mad, I tell you, you are mad."
"I am going, my lady," answered Robert, quietly. "I would have condoned
your crimes out of pity to your wretcheness. You have refused to accept
my mercy. I wished to have pity upon the living. I shall henceforth only
remember my duty to the dead."
He walked away from the lonely well under the shadow of the limes. My
lady followed him slowly down that long, gloomy avenue, and across the
rustic bridge to the iron gate. As he passed through the gate, Alicia
came out of a little half-glass door that opened from an oak-paneled
breakfast-room at one angle of the house, and met her cousin upon the
threshold of the gateway.
"I have been looking for you everywhere, Robert," she said. "Papa has
come down to the library, and will be glad to see you."
The young man started at the sound of his cousin's fresh young voice.
"Good Heaven!" he thought, "can these two women be of the same clay? Can
this frank, generous-hearted girl, who cannot conceal any impulse of her
innocent nature, be of the same flesh and blood as that wretched
creature whose shadow falls upon the path beside me!"
He looked from his cousin to Lady Audley, who stood near the gateway,
waiting for him to stand aside and let her pass him.
"I don't know what has come to your cousin, my dear Alicia," said my
lady. "He is so absent-minded and eccentric as to be quite beyond my
"Indeed," exclaimed Miss Audley; "and yet I should imagine, from the
length of your _tete-a-tete_, that you had made some effort to
"Oh, yes," said Robert, quietly, "my lady and I understand each other
very well; but as it is growing late I will wish you good-evening,
ladies. I shall sleep to-night at Mount Stanning, as I have some
business to attend to up there, and I will come down and see my uncle
"What, Robert," cried Alicia, "you surely won't go away without seeing
"Yes, my dear," answered the young man. "I am a little disturbed by some
disagreeable business in which I am very much concerned, and I would
rather not see my uncle. Good-night, Alicia. I will come or write
He pressed his cousin's hand, bowed to Lady Audley, and walked away
under the black shadows of the archway, and out into the quiet avenue
beyond the Court.
My lady and Alicia stood watching him until he was out of sight.
"What in goodness' name is the matter with my Cousin Robert?" exclaimed
Miss Audley, impatiently, as the barrister disappeared. "What does he
mean by these absurd goings-on? Some disagreeable business that disturbs
him, indeed! I suppose the unhappy creature has had a brief forced upon
him by some evil-starred attorney, and is sinking into a state of
imbecility from a dim consciousness of his own incompetence."
"Have you ever studied your cousin's character, Alicia?" asked my lady,
very seriously, after a pause.
"Studied his character! No, Lady Audley. Why should I study his
character?" said Alicia. "There is very little study required to
convince anybody that he is a lazy, selfish Sybarite, who cares for
nothing in the world except his own ease and comfort."
"But have you never thought him eccentric?"
"Eccentric!" repeated Alicia, pursing up her red lips and shrugging up
her shoulders. "Well, yes--I believe that is the excuse generally made
for such people. I suppose Bob is eccentric."
"I have never heard you speak of his father and mother," said my lady,
thoughtfully. "Do you remember them?"
"I never saw his mother. She was a Miss Dalrymple, a very dashing girl,
who ran away with my uncle, and lost a very handsome fortune in
consequence. She died at Nice when poor Bob was five years old."
"Did you ever hear anything particular about her?"
"How do you mean 'particular?'" asked Alicia.
"Did you ever hear that she was eccentric--what people call 'odd?'"
"Oh, no," said Alicia, laughing. "My aunt was a very reasonable woman, I
believe, though she did marry for love. But you must remember that she
died before I was born, and I have not, therefore, felt very much
curiosity about her."
"But you recollect your uncle, I suppose."
"My Uncle Robert?" said Alicia. "Oh, yes, I remember him very well,
"Was _he_ eccentric--I mean to say, peculiar in his habits, like your
"Yes, I believe Robert inherits all his absurdities from his father. My
uncle expressed the same indifference for his fellow-creatures as my
cousin, but as he was a good husband, an affectionate father, and a kind
master, nobody ever challenged his opinions."
"But he _was_ eccentric?"
"Yes; I suppose he was generally thought a little eccentric."
"Ah," said my lady, gravely, "I thought as much. Do you know, Alicia,
that madness is more often transmitted from father to daughter, and from
mother to daughter than from mother to son? Your cousin, Robert Audley,
is a very handsome young man, and I believe, a very good-hearted young
man, but he must be watched, Alicia, for he is _mad_!"
"Mad!" cried Miss Audley, indignantly; "you are dreaming, my lady,
or--or--you are trying to frighten me," added the young lady, with
"I only wish to put you on your guard, Alicia," answered my lady. "Mr.
Audley may be as you say, merely eccentric; but he has talked to me this
evening in a manner that has filled me with absolute terror, and I
believe that he is going mad? I shall speak very seriously to Sir
Michael this very night."
"Speak to papa," exclaimed Alicia; "you surely won't distress papa by
suggesting such a possibility!"
"I shall only put him on his guard, my dear Alicia."
"But he'll never believe you," said Miss Audley; "he will laugh at such
"No, Alicia; he will believe anything that I tell him," answered my
lady, with a quiet smile.
PREPARING THE GROUND.
Lady Audley went from the garden to the library, a pleasant,
oak-paneled, homely apartment in which Sir Michael liked to sit reading
or writing, or arranging the business of his estate with his steward, a
stalwart countryman, half agriculturalist, half lawyer, who rented a
small farm a few miles from the Court.
The baronet was seated in a capacious easy-chair near the hearth. The
bright blaze of the fire rose and fell, flashing now upon the polished
carvings of the black-oak bookcase, now upon the gold and scarlet
bindings of the books; sometimes glimmering upon the Athenian helmet of
a marble Pallas, sometimes lighting up the forehead of Sir Robert Peel.
The lamp upon the reading-table had not yet been lighted, and Sir
Michael sat in the firelight waiting for the coming of his young wife.
It is impossible for me ever to tell the purity of his generous love--it
is impossible to describe that affection which was as tender as the love
of a young mother for her first born, as brave and chivalrous as the
heroic passion of a Bayard for his liege mistress.
The door opened while he was thinking of this fondly-loved wife, and
looking up, the baronet saw the slender form standing in the doorway.
"Why, my darling!" he exclaimed, as my lady closed the door behind her,
and came toward his chair, "I have been thinking of you and waiting for
you for an hour. Where have you been, and what have you been doing?"
My lady, standing in the shadow rather than the light, paused a few
moments before replying to this question.
"I have been to Chelmsford," she said, "shopping; and--"
She hesitated--twisting her bonnet strings in her thin white fingers
with an air of pretty embarrassment.
"And what, my dear?" asked the baronet--"what have you been doing since
you came from Chelmsford? I heard a carriage stop at the door an hour
ago. It was yours, was it not?"
"Yes, I came home an hour ago," answered my lady, with the same air of
"And what have you been doing since you came home?"
Sir Michael Audley asked this question with a slightly reproachful
accent. His young wife's presence made the sunshine of his life; and
though he could not bear to chain her to his side, it grieved him to
think that she could willingly remain unnecessarily absent from him,
frittering away her time in some childish talk or frivolous occupation.
"What have you been doing since you came home, my dear?" he repeated.
"What has kept you so long away from me?"
"I have been--talking--to--Mr. Robert Audley."
She still twisted her bonnet-string round and round her fingers.
She still spoke with the same air of embarrassment.
"Robert!" exclaimed the baronet; "is Robert here?"
"He was here a little while ago."
"And is here still, I suppose?"
"No, he has gone away."
"Gone away!" cried Sir Michael. "What do you mean, my darling?"
"I mean that your nephew came to the Court this afternoon. Alicia and I
found him idling about the gardens. He stayed here till about a quarter
of an hour ago talking to me, and then he hurried off without a word of
explanation; except, indeed, some ridiculous excuse about business at
"Business at Mount Stanning! Why, what business can he possibly have in
that out-of-the-way place? He has gone to sleep at Mount Stanning, then,
"Yes; I think he said something to that effect."
"Upon my word," exclaimed the baronet, "I think that boy is half mad."
My lady's face was so much in shadow, that Sir Michael Audley was
unaware of the bright change that came over its sickly pallor as he made
this very commonplace observation. A triumphant smile illuminated Lucy
Audley's countenance, a smile that plainly said, "It is coming--it is
coming; I can twist him which way I like. I can put black before him,
and if I say it is white, he will believe me."
But Sir Michael Audley in declaring that his nephew's wits were
disordered, merely uttered that commonplace ejaculation which is
well-known to have very little meaning. The baronet had, it is true, no
very great estimate of Robert's faculty for the business of this
everyday life. He was in the habit of looking upon his nephew as a
good-natured nonentity--a man whose heart had been amply stocked by
liberal Nature with all the best things the generous goddess had to
bestow, but whose brain had been somewhat overlooked in the distribution
of intellectual gifts. Sir Michael Audley made that mistake which is
very commonly made by easy-going, well-to-do-observers, who have no
occasion to look below the surface. He mistook laziness for incapacity.
He thought because his nephew was idle, he must necessarily be stupid.
He concluded that if Robert did not distinguish himself, it was because
he could not.
He forgot the mute inglorious Miltons, who die voiceless and
inarticulate for want of that dogged perseverance, that blind courage,
which the poet must possess before he can find a publisher; he forgot
the Cromwells, who see the noble vessels of the state floundering upon a
sea of confusion, and going down in a tempest of noisy bewilderment, and
who yet are powerless to get at the helm; forbidden even to send out a
life-boat to the sinking ship. Surely it is a mistake to judge of what a
man can do by that which he has done.
The world's Valhalla is a close borough, and perhaps the greatest men
may be those who perish silently far away from the sacred portal.
Perhaps the purest and brightest spirits are those who shrink from the
turmoil of the race-course--the tumult and confusion of the struggle.
The game of life is something like the game of _ecarte_, and it may be
that the very best cards are sometimes left in the pack.
My lady threw off her bonnet, and seated herself upon a velvet-covered
footstool at Sir Michael's feet. There was nothing studied or affected
in this girlish action. It was so natural to Lucy Audley to be childish,
that no one would have wished to see her otherwise. It would have seemed
as foolish to expect dignified reserve or womanly gravity from this
amber-haired siren, as to wish for rich basses amid the clear treble of
a sky-lark's song.
She sat with her pale face turned away from the firelight, and with her
hands locked together upon the arm of her husband's easy-chair. They
were very restless, these slender white hands. My lady twisted the
jeweled fingers in and out of each other as she talked to her husband.
"I wanted to come to you, you know, dear," said she--"I wanted to come
to you directly I got home, but Mr. Audley insisted upon my stopping to
talk to him."
"But what about, my love?" asked the baronet. "What could Robert have to
say to you?"
My lady did not answer this question. Her fair head dropped upon her
husband's knee, her rippling, yellow curls fell over her face.
Sir Michael lifted that beautiful head with his strong hands, and raised
my lady's face. The firelight shining on that pale face lit up the
large, soft blue eyes and showed them drowned in tears.
"Lucy, Lucy!" cried the baronet, "what is the meaning of this? My love,
my love! what has happened to distress you in this manner?"
Lady Audley tried to speak, but the words died inarticulately upon her
trembling lips. A choking sensation in her throat seemed to strangle
those false and plausible words, her only armor against her enemies. She
could not speak. The agony she had endured silently in the dismal
lime-walk had grown too strong for her, and she broke into a tempest of
hysterical sobbing. It was no simulated grief that shook her slender
frame and tore at her like some ravenous beast that would have rent her
piecemeal with its horrible strength. It was a storm of real anguish and
terror, of remorse and misery. It was the one wild outcry, in which the
woman's feebler nature got the better of the siren's art.
It was not thus that she had meant to fight her terrible duel with
Robert Audley. Those were not the weapons which she had intended to use;
but perhaps no artifice which she could have devised would have served
her so well as this one outburst of natural grief. It shook her husband
to the very soul. It bewildered and terrified him. It reduced the strong
intellect of the man to helpless confusion and perplexity. It struck at
the one weak point in a good man's nature. It appealed straight to Sir
Michael Audley's affection for his wife.
Ah, Heaven help a strong man's tender weakness for the woman he loves!
Heaven pity him when the guilty creature has deceived him and comes with
her tears and lamentations to throw herself at his feet in
self-abandonment and remorse; torturing him with the sight of her agony;
rending _his_ heart with her sobs, lacerating _his_ breast with her
groans--multiplying her sufferings into a great anguish for him to bear!
multiplying them by twenty-fold; multiplying them in a ratio of a brave
man's capacity for endurance. Heaven forgive him, if maddened by that
cruel agony, the balance wavers for a moment, and he is ready to forgive
_anything_; ready to take this wretched one to the shelter of his
breast, and to pardon that which the stern voice of manly honor urges
must not be pardoned. Pity him, pity him! The wife's worst remorse when
she stands without the threshold of the home she may never enter more is
not equal to the agony of the husband who closes the portal on that
familiar and entreating face. The anguish of the mother who may never
look again upon her children is less than the torment of the father who
has to say to those little ones, "My darlings, you are henceforth
Sir Michael Audley rose from his chair, trembling with indignation, and
ready to do immediate battle with the person who had caused his wife's
"Lucy," he said, "Lucy, I insist upon your telling me what and who has
distressed you. I insist upon it. Whoever has annoyed you shall answer
to me for your grief. Come, my love, tell me directly what it is."
He seated himself and bent over the drooping figure at his feet, calming
his own agitation in his desire to soothe his wife's distress.
"Tell me what it is, my dear," he whispered, tenderly.
The sharp paroxysm had passed away, and my lady looked up. A glittering
light shone through the tears in her eyes, and the lines about her
pretty rosy mouth, those hard and cruel lines which Robert Audley had
observed in the pre-Raphaelite portrait, were plainly visible in the
"I am very silly," she said; "but really he has made me quite
"Who--who has made you hysterical?"
"Your nephew--Mr. Robert Audley."
"Robert," cried the baronet. "Lucy, what do you mean?"
"I told you that Mr. Audley insisted upon my going into the lime-walk,
dear," said my lady. "He wanted to talk to me, he said, and I went, and
he said such horrible things that--"
"What horrible things, Lucy?"
Lady Audley shuddered, and clung with convulsive fingers to the strong
hand that had rested caressingly upon her shoulder.
"What did he say, Lucy?"
"Oh, my dear love, how can I tell you?" cried my lady. "I know that I
shall distress you--or you will laugh at me, and then--"
"Laugh at you? no, Lucy."
Lady Audley was silent for a moment. She sat looking straight before her
into the fire, with her fingers still locked about her husband's hand.
"My dear," she said, slowly, hesitating now and then between her words,
as if she almost shrunk from uttering them, "have you ever--I am so
afraid of vexing you--have you ever thought Mr. Audley a little--a
"A little what, my darling?"
"A little out of his mind?" faltered Lady Audley.
"Out of his mind!" cried Sir Michael. "My dear girl, what are you
"You said just now, dear, that you thought he was half mad."
"Did I, my love?" said the baronet, laughing. "I don't remember saying
it, and it was a mere _facon de parler_, that meant nothing whatever.
Robert may be a little eccentric--a little stupid, perhaps--he mayn't be
overburdened with wits, but I don't think he has brains enough for
madness. I believe it's generally your great intellects that get out of
"But madness is sometimes hereditary," said my lady. "Mr. Audley may
"He has inherited no madness from his father's family," interrupted Sir
Michael. "The Audleys have never peopled private lunatic asylums or feed
"Nor from his mother's family?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"People generally keep these things a secret," said my lady, gravely.
"There may have been madness in your sister-in-law's family."
"I don't think so, my dear," replied Sir Michael. "But, Lucy, tell me
what, in Heaven's name, has put this idea into your head."
"I have been trying to account for your nephew's conduct. I can account
for it in no other manner. If you had heard the things he said to me
to-night, Sir Michael, you too might have thought him mad."
"But what did he say, Lucy?"
"I can scarcely tell you. You can see how much he has stupefied and
bewildered me. I believe he has lived too long alone in those solitary
Temple chambers. Perhaps he reads too much, or smokes too much. You know
that some physicians declare madness to be a mere illness of the
brain--an illness to which any one is subject, and which may be produced
by given causes, and cured by given means."
Lady Audley's eyes were still fixed upon the burning coals in the wide
grate. She spoke as if she had been discussing a subject that she had
often heard discussed before. She spoke as if her mind had almost
wandered away from the thought of her husband's nephew to the wider
question of madness in the abstract.
"Why should he not be mad?" resumed my lady. "People are insane for
years and years before their insanity is found out. _They_ know that
they are mad, but they know how to keep their secret; and, perhaps, they
may sometimes keep it till they die. Sometimes a paroxysm seizes them,
and in an evil hour they betray themselves. They commit a crime,
perhaps. The horrible temptation of opportunity assails them; the knife
is in their hand, and the unconscious victim by their side. They may
conquer the restless demon and go away and die innocent of any violent
deed; but they _may_ yield to the horrible temptation--the frightful,
passionate, hungry craving for violence and horror. They sometimes yield
and are lost."
Lady Audley's voice rose as she argued this dreadful question, The
hysterical excitement from which she had only just recovered had left
its effects upon her, but she controlled herself, and her tone grew
calmer as she resumed:
"Robert Audley is mad," she said, decisively. "What is one of the
strangest diagnostics of madness--what is the first appalling sign of
mental aberration? The mind becomes stationary; the brain stagnates; the
even current of reflection is interrupted; the thinking power of the
brain resolves itself into a monotone. As the waters of a tideless pool
putrefy by reason of their stagnation, the mind becomes turbid and
corrupt through lack of action; and the perpetual reflection upon one
subject resolves itself into monomania. Robert Audley is a monomaniac.
The disappearance of his friend, George Talboys, grieved and bewildered
him. He dwelt upon this one idea until he lost the power of thinking of
anything else. The one idea looked at perpetually became distorted to
his mental vision. Repeat the commonest word in the English language
twenty times, and before the twentieth repetition you will have begun to
wonder whether the word which you repeat is really the word you mean to
utter. Robert Audley has thought of his friend's disappearance until the
one idea has done its fatal and unhealthy work. He looks at a common
event with a vision that is diseased, and he distorts it into a gloomy
horror engendered of his own monomania. If you do not want to make me as
mad as he is, you must never let me see him again. He declared to-night
that George Talboys was murdered in this place, and that he will root up
every tree in the garden, and pull down every brick in the house in
My lady paused. The words died away upon her lips. She had exhausted
herself by the strange energy with which she had spoken. She had been
transformed from a frivolous, childish beauty into a woman, strong to
argue her own cause and plead her own defense.
"Pull down this house?" cried the baronet. "George Talboys murdered at
Audley Court! Did Robert say this, Lucy?"
"He said something of that kind--something that frightened me very
"Then he must be mad," said Sir Michael, gravely. "I'm bewildered by
what you tell me. Did he really say this, Lucy, or did you misunderstand
"I--I--don't think I did," faltered my lady. "You saw how frightened I
was when I first came in. I should not have been so much agitated if he
hadn't said something horrible."
Lady Audley had availed herself of the very strongest arguments by which
she could help her cause.
"To be sure, my darling, to be sure," answered the baronet. "What could
have put such a horrible fancy into the unhappy boy's head. This Mr.
Talboys--a perfect stranger to all of us--murdered at Audley Court!
I'll go to Mount Stanning to-night, and see Robert. I have known him
ever since he was a baby, and I cannot be deceived in him. If there is
really anything wrong, he will not be able to conceal it from me."
My lady shrugged her shoulders.
"That is rather an open question," she said. "It is generally a stranger
who is the first to observe any psychological peculiarity."
The big words sounded strange from my lady's rosy lips; but her
newly-adopted wisdom had a certain quaint prettiness about it, which
charmed and bewildered her husband.
"But you must not go to Mount Stanning, my dear darling," she said,
tenderly. "Remember that you are under strict orders to stay in doors
until the weather is milder, and the sun shines upon this cruel
Sir Michael Audley sank back in his capacious chair with a sigh of
"That's true, Lucy," he said; "we must obey Mr. Dawson. I suppose Robert
will come to see me to-morrow."
"Yes, dear. I think he said he would."
"Then we must wait till to-morrow, my darling. I can't believe that
there really is anything wrong with the poor boy--I can't believe it,
"Then how do you account for this extraordinary delusion about this Mr.
Talboys?" asked my lady.
Sir Michael shook his head.
"I don't know, Lucy--I don't know," he answered. "It is always so
difficult to believe that any one of the calamities that continually
befall our fellow-men will ever happen to us. I can't believe that my
nephew's mind is impaired--I can't believe it. I--I'll get him to stop
here, Lucy, and I'll watch him closely. I tell you, my love, if there is
anything wrong I am sure to find it out. I can't be mistaken in a young
man who has always been the same to me as my own son. But, my darling,
why were you so frightened by Robert's wild talk? It could not affect
My lady sighed piteously.
"You must think me very strong-minded, Sir Michael," she said, with
rather an injured air, "if you imagine I can hear of these sort of
things indifferently. I know I shall never be able to see Mr. Audley
"And you shall not, my dear--you shall not."
"You said just now you would have him here," murmured Lady Audley.
"But I will not, my darling girl, if his presence annoys you. Good
Heaven! Lucy, can you imagine for a moment that I have any higher wish
than to promote your happiness? I will consult some London physician
about Robert, and let him discover if there is really anything the
matter with my poor brother's only son. _You_ shall not be annoyed,
"You must think me very unkind, dear," said my lady, "and I know I
_ought_ not to be annoyed by the poor fellow; but he really seems to
have taken some absurd notion into his head about me."
"About _you_, Lucy!" cried Sir Michael.
"Yes, dear. He seems to connect me in some vague manner--which I cannot
quite understand--with the disappearance of this Mr. Talboys."
"Impossible, Lucy! You must have misunderstood him."
"I don't think so."
"Then he must be mad," said the baronet--"he must be mad. I will wait
till he goes back to town, and then send some one to his chambers to
talk to him. Good Heaven! what a mysterious business this is."
"I fear I have distressed you, darling," murmured Lady Audley.
"Yes, my dear, I am very much distressed by what you have told me; but
you were quite right to talk to me frankly about this dreadful business.
I must think it over, dearest, and try and decide what is best to be
My lady rose from the low ottoman on which she had been seated. The fire
had burned down, and there was only a faint glow of red light in the
room. Lucy Audley bent over her husband's chair, and put her lips to his
"How good you have always been to me, dear," she whispered softly. "You
would never let any one influence you against me, would you, dear?"
"Influence me against you?" repeated the baronet. "No, my love."
"Because you know, dear," pursued my lady, "there are wicked people as
well as mad people in the world, and there may be some persons to whose
interest it would be to injure me."
"They had better not try it, then, my dear," answered Sir Michael; "they
would find themselves in rather a dangerous position if they did."
Lady Audley laughed aloud, with a gay, triumphant, silvery peal of
laughter that vibrated through the quiet room.
"My own dear darling," she said, "I know you love me. And now I must run
away, dear, for it's past seven o'clock. I was engaged to dine at Mrs.
Montford's, but I must send a groom with a message of apology, for Mr.
Audley has made me quite unfit for company. I shall stay at home and
nurse you, dear. You'll go to bed very early, won't you, and take great
care of yourself?"
My lady tripped out of the room to give her orders about the message
that was to be carried to the house at which she was to have dined. She
paused for a moment as she closed the library door--she paused, and laid
her hand upon her breast to check the rapid throbbing of her heart.
"I have been afraid of you, Mr. Robert Audley," she thought; "but
perhaps the time may come in which you will have cause to be afraid of
The division between Lady Audley and her step-daughter had not become
any narrower in the two months which had elapsed since the pleasant
Christmas holiday time had been kept at Audley Court. There was no open
warfare between the two women; there was only an armed neutrality,
broken every now and then by brief feminine skirmishes and transient
wordy tempests. I am sorry to say that Alicia would very much have
preferred a hearty pitched battle to this silent and undemonstrative
disunion; but it was not very easy to quarrel with my lady. She had soft
answers for the turning away of wrath. She could smile bewitchingly at
her step-daughter's open petulance, and laugh merrily at the young
lady's ill-temper. Perhaps had she been less amiable, had she been more
like Alicia in disposition, the two ladies might have expended their
enmity in one tremendous quarrel, and might ever afterward have been
affectionate and friendly. But Lucy Audley would not make war. She
carried forward the sum of her dislike, and put it out at a steady rate
of interest, until the breach between her step-daughter and herself,
widening a little every day, became a great gulf, utterly impassable by
olive-branch-bearing doves from either side of the abyss. There can be
no reconciliation where there is no open warfare. There must be a
battle, a brave, boisterous battle, with pennants waving and cannon
roaring, before there can be peaceful treaties and enthusiastic shaking
of hands. Perhaps the union between France and England owes its greatest
force to the recollection of Cressy and Waterloo, Navarino and
Trafalgar. We have hated each other and licked each other and _had it
out_, as the common phrase goes; and we can afford now to fall into each
others' arms and vow eternal friendship and everlasting brotherhood. Let
us hope that when Northern Yankeedom has decimated and been decimated,
blustering Jonathan may fling himself upon his Southern brother's
breast, forgiving and forgiven.
Alicia Audley and her father's pretty wife had plenty of room for the
comfortable indulgence of their dislike in the spacious old mansion. My
lady had her own apartments, as we know--luxurious chambers, in which
all conceivable elegancies had been gathered for the comfort of their
occupant. Alicia had her own rooms in another part of the large house.
She had her favorite mare, her Newfoundland dog, and her drawing
materials, and she made herself tolerably happy. She was not very happy,
this frank, generous-hearted girl, for it was scarcely possible that she
could be altogether at ease in the constrained atmosphere of the Court.
Her father was changed; that dear father over whom she had once reigned
supreme with the boundless authority of a spoiled child, had accepted
another ruler and submitted to a new dynasty. Little by little my lady's
petty power made itself felt in that narrow household; and Alicia saw
her father gradually lured across the gulf that divided Lady Audley from
her step-daughter, until he stood at last quite upon the other side of
the abyss, and looked coldly upon his only child across that widening
Alicia felt that he was lost to her. My lady's beaming smiles, my lady's
winning words, my lady's radiant glances and bewitching graces had done
their work of enchantment, and Sir Michael had grown to look upon his
daughter as a somewhat wilful and capricious young person who had
behaved with determined unkindness to the wife he loved.
Poor Alicia saw all this, and bore her burden as well as she could. It
seemed very hard to be a handsome, gray-eyed heiress, with dogs and
horses and servants at her command, and yet to be so much alone in the
world as to know of not one friendly ear into which she might pour her
"If Bob was good for anything I could have told him how unhappy I am,"
thought Miss Audley; "but I may just as well tell Caesar my troubles for
any consolation I should get from Cousin Robert."
Sir Michael Audley obeyed his pretty nurse, and went to bed a little
after nine o'clock upon this bleak March evening. Perhaps the baronet's
bedroom was about the pleasantest retreat that an invalid could have
chosen in such cold and cheerless weather. The dark-green velvet
curtains were drawn before the windows and about the ponderous bed. The
wood fire burned redly upon the broad hearth. The reading lamp was
lighted upon a delicious little table close to Sir Michael's pillow, and
a heap of magazines and newspapers had been arranged by my lady's own
fair hands for the pleasure of the invalid.
Lady Audley sat by the bedside for about ten minutes, talking to her
husband, talking very seriously, about this strange and awful
question--Robert Audley's lunacy; but at the end of that time she rose
and bade her husband good-night.
She lowered the green silk shade before the reading lamp, adjusting it
carefully for the repose of the baronet's eyes.
"I shall leave you, dear," she said. "If you can sleep, so much the
better. If you wish to read, the books and papers are close to you. I
will leave the doors between the rooms open, and I shall hear your voice
if you call me."
Lady Audley went through her dressing-room into the boudoir, where she
had sat with her husband since dinner.
Every evidence of womanly refinement was visible in the elegant chamber.
My lady's piano was open, covered with scattered sheets of music and
exquisitely-bound collections of scenas and fantasias which no master
need have disdained to study. My lady's easel stood near the window,
bearing witness to my lady's artistic talent, in the shape of a
water-colored sketch of the Court and gardens. My lady's fairy-like
embroideries of lace and muslin, rainbow-hued silks, and
delicately-tinted wools littered the luxurious apartment; while the
looking-glasses, cunningly placed at angles and opposite corners by an
artistic upholsterer, multiplied my lady's image, and in that image
reflected the most beautiful object in the enchanted chamber.
Amid all this lamplight, gilding, color, wealth, and beauty, Lucy Audley
sat down on a low seat by the fire to think.
If Mr. Holman Hunt could have peeped into the pretty boudoir, I think
the picture would have been photographed upon his brain to be reproduced
by-and-by upon a bishop's half-length for the glorification of the
pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. My lady in that half-recumbent attitude,
with her elbow resting on one knee, and her perfect chin supported by
her hand, the rich folds of drapery falling away in long undulating
lines from the exquisite outline of her figure, and the luminous,
rose-colored firelight enveloping her in a soft haze, only broken by the
golden glitter of her yellow hair--beautiful in herself, but made
bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings which adorn the
shrine of her loveliness. Drinking-cups of gold and ivory, chiseled by
Benvenuto Cellini; cabinets of buhl and porcelain, bearing the cipher of
Austrain Marie-Antoinette, amid devices of rosebuds and true-lovers'
knots, birds and butterflies, cupidons and shepherdesses, goddesses,
courtiers, cottagers, and milkmaids; statuettes of Parian marble and
biscuit china; gilded baskets of hothouse flowers; fantastical caskets
of Indian filigree-work; fragile tea-cups of turquoise china, adorned by
medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved,
Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de
Vaubernier: cabinet pictures and gilded mirrors, shimmering satin and
diaphanous lace; all that gold can buy or art devise had been gathered
together for the beautification of this quiet chamber in which my lady
sat listening to the mourning of the shrill March wind, and the flapping
of the ivy leaves against the casements, and looking into the red chasms
in the burning coals.
I should be preaching a very stale sermon, and harping upon a very
familiar moral, if I were to seize this opportunity of declaiming
against art and beauty, because my lady was more wretched in this
elegant apartment than many a half-starved seamstress in her dreary
garret. She was wretched by reason of a wound which lay too deep for the
possibility of any solace from such plasters as wealth and luxury; but
her wretchedness was of an abnormal nature, and I can see no occasion
for seizing upon the fact of her misery as an argument in favor of
poverty and discomfort as opposed to opulence. The Benvenuto Cellini
carvings and the Sevres porcelain could not give her happiness, because
she had passed out of their region. She was no longer innocent; and the
pleasure we take in art and loveliness being an innocent pleasure, had
passed beyond her reach. Six or seven years before, she would have been
happy in the possession of this little Aladdin's palace; but she had
wandered out of the circle of careless, pleasure seeking creatures, she
had strayed far away into a desolate labyrinth of guilt and treachery,
terror and crime, and all the treasures that had been collected for her
could have given her no pleasure but one, the pleasure of flinging them
into a heap beneath her feet and trampling upon them and destroying them
in her cruel despair.
There were some things that would have inspired her with an awful joy, a
horrible rejoicing. If Robert Audley, her pitiless enemy, her
unrelenting pursuer, had lain dead in the adjoining chamber, she would
have exulted over his bier.
What pleasures could have remained for Lucretia Borgia and Catharine de
Medici, when the dreadful boundary line between innocence and guilt was
passed, and the lost creatures stood upon the lonely outer side? Only
horrible, vengeful joys, and treacherous delights were left for these
miserable women. With what disdainful bitterness they must have watched
the frivolous vanities, the petty deceptions, the paltry sins of
ordinary offenders. Perhaps they took a horrible pride in the enormity
of their wickedness; in this "Divinity of Hell," which made them
greatest among sinful creatures.
My lady, brooding by the fire in her lonely chamber, with her large,
clear blue eyes fixed upon the yawning gulfs of lurid crimson in the
burning coals, may have thought of many things very far away from the
terribly silent struggle in which she was engaged. She may have thought
of long-ago years of childish innocence, childish follies and
selfishness, of frivolous, feminine sins that had weighed very lightly
upon her conscience. Perhaps in that retrospective revery she recalled
that early time in which she had first looked in the glass and
discovered that she was beautiful; that fatal early time in which she
had first begun to look upon her loveliness as a right divine, a
boundless possession which was to be a set-off against all girlish
shortcomings, a counterbalance of every youthful sin. Did she remember
the day in which that fairy dower of beauty had first taught her to be
selfish and cruel, indifferent to the joys and sorrows of others,
cold-hearted and capricious, greedy of admiration, exacting and
tyrannical with that petty woman's tyranny which is the worst of
despotism? Did she trace every sin of her life back to its true source?
and did she discover that poisoned fountain in her own exaggerated
estimate of the value of a pretty face? Surely, if her thoughts wandered
so far along the backward current of her life, she must have repented in
bitterness and despair of that first day in which the master-passions of
her life had become her rulers, and the three demons of Vanity,
Selfishness, and Ambition, had joined hands and said, "This woman is our
slave, let us see what she will become under our guidance."
How small those first youthful errors seemed as my lady looked back upon
them in that long revery by the lonely hearth! What small vanities, what
petty cruelties! A triumph over a schoolfellow; a flirtation with the
lover of a friend; an assertion of the right divine invested in blue
eyes and shimmering golden-tinted hair. But how terribly that narrow
pathway had widened out into the broad highroad of sin, and how swift
the footsteps had become upon the now familiar way!
My lady twisted her fingers in her loose amber curls, and made as if she
would have torn them from her head. But even in that moment of mute
despair the unyielding dominion of beauty asserted itself, and she
released the poor tangled glitter of ringlets, leaving them to make a
halo round her head in the dim firelight.
"I was not wicked when I was young," she thought, as she stared
gloomingly at the fire, "I was only thoughtless. I never did any
harm--at least, wilfully. Have I ever been really _wicked_, I wonder?"
she mused. "My worst wickednesses have bean the result of wild impulses,
and not of deeply-laid plots. I am not like the women I have read of,
who have lain night after night in the horrible darkness and stillness,
planning out treacherous deeds, and arranging every circumstance of an
appointed crime. I wonder whether they suffered--those women--whether
they ever suffered as--"
Her thoughts wandered away into a weary maze of confusion. Suddenly she
drew herself up with a proud, defiant gesture, and her eyes glittered
with a light that was not entirely reflected from the fire.
"You are mad, Mr. Robert Audley," she said, "you are mad, and your
fancies are a madman's fancies. I know what madness is. I know its signs
and tokens, and I say that you are mad."
She put her hand to her head, as if thinking of something which confused
and bewildered her, and which she found it difficult to contemplate with
"Dare I defy him?" she muttered. "Dare I? dare I? Will he stop, now that
he has once gone so far? Will he stop for fear of me? Will he stop for
fear of me, when the thought of what his uncle must suffer has not
stopped him? Will anything stop him--but death?"
She pronounced the last words in an awful whisper; and with her head
bent forward, her eyes dilated, and her lips still parted as they had
been parted in her utterance of that final word "death," she sat blankly
staring at the fire.
"I can't plot horrible things," she muttered, presently; "my brain isn't
strong enough, or I'm not wicked enough, or brave enough. If I met
Robert Audley in those lonely gardens, as I--"
The current of her thoughts was interrupted by a cautious knocking at
her door. She rose suddenly, startled by any sound in the stillness of
her room. She rose, and threw herself into a low chair near the fire.
She flung her beautiful head back upon the soft cushions, and took a
book from the table near her. Insignificant as this action was, it spoke
very plainly. It spoke very plainly of ever-recurring fears--of fatal
necessities for concealment--of a mind that in its silent agonies was
ever alive to the importance of outward effect. It told more plainly
than anything else could have told how complete an actress my lady had
been made by the awful necessity of her life.
The modest rap at the door was repeated.
"Come in," cried Lady Audley, in her liveliest tone.
The door was opened with that respectful noiselessness peculiar to a
well-bred servant, and a young woman, plainly dressed, and carrying some
of the cold March winds in the folds of her garments, crossed the
threshold of the apartment and lingered near the door, waiting
permission to approach the inner regions of my lady's retreat.
It was Phoebe Marks, the pale-faced wife of the Mount Stanning
"I beg pardon, my lady, for intruding without leave," she said; "but I
thought I might venture to come straight up without waiting for
"Yes, yes, Phoebe, to be sure. Take off your bonnet, you wretched,
cold-looking creature, and come sit down here."
Lady Audley pointed to the low ottoman upon which she had herself been
seated a few minutes before. The lady's maid had often sat upon it
listening to her mistress' prattle in the old days, when she had been my
lady's chief companion and _confidante_,
"Sit down here, Phoebe," Lady Audley repeated; "sit down here and talk
to me; I'm very glad you came here to-night. I was horribly lonely in
this dreary place."
My lady shivered and looked round at the bright collection of
_bric-a-brac_, as if the Sevres and bronze, the buhl and ormolu, had
been the moldering adornments of some ruined castle. The dreary
wretchedness of her thoughts had communicated itself to every object
about her, and all outer things took their color from that weary inner
life which held its slow course of secret anguish in her breast. She had
spoken the entire truth in saying that she was glad of her lady's maid's
visit. Her frivolous nature clung to this weak shelter in the hour of
her fear and suffering. There were sympathies between her and this girl,
who was like herself, inwardly as well as outwardly--like herself,
selfish, and cold, and cruel, eager for her own advancement, and greedy
of opulence and elegance; angry with the lot that had been cast her, and
weary of dull dependence. My lady hated Alicia for her frank,
passionate, generous, daring nature; she hated her step-daughter, and
clung to this pale-faced, pale-haired girl, whom she thought neither
better nor worse than herself.
Phoebe Marks obeyed her late mistress' commands, and took off her bonnet
before seating herself on the ottoman at Lady Audley's feet. Her smooth
bands of light hair were unruffled by the March winds; her trimly-made
drab dress and linen collar were as neatly arranged as they could have
been had she only that moment completed her toilet.
"Sir Michael is better, I hope, my lady," she said.
"Yes, Phoebe, much better. He is asleep. You may close that door," added
Lady Audley, with a motion of her head toward the door of communication
between the rooms, which had been left open.
Mrs. Marks obeyed submissively, and then returned to her seat.
"I am very, very unhappy, Phoebe," my lady said, fretfully; "wretchedly
"About the--secret?" asked Mrs. Marks, in a half whisper.
My lady did not notice that question. She resumed in the same
complaining tone. She was glad to be able to complain even to this
lady's maid. She had brooded over her fears, and had suffered in secret
so long, that it was an inexpressible relief to her to bemoan her fate
"I am cruelly persecuted and harassed, Phoebe Marks," she said. "I am
pursued and tormented by a man whom I never injured, whom I have never
wished to injure. I am never suffered to rest by this relentless
She paused, staring at the fire again, as she had done in her
loneliness. Lost again in the dark intricacies of thoughts which
wandered hither and thither in a dreadful chaos of terrified
bewilderments, she could not come to any fixed conclusion.
Phoebe Marks watched my lady's face, looking upward at her late mistress
with pale, anxious eyes, that only relaxed their watchfulness when Lady
Audley's glance met that of her companion.
"I think I know whom you mean, my lady," said the innkeeper's wife,
after a pause; "I think I know who it is who is so cruel to you."
"Oh, of course," answered my lady, bitterly; "my secrets are everybody's
secrets. You know all about it, no doubt."
"The person is a gentleman--is he not, my lady?"
"A gentleman who came to the Castle Inn two months ago, when I warned
"Yes, yes," answered my lady, impatiently.
"I thought so. The same gentleman is at our place to-night, my lady."
Lady Audley started up from her chair--started up as if she would have
done something desperate in her despairing fury; but she sank back again
with a weary, querulous sigh. What warfare could such a feeble creature
wage against her fate? What could she do but wind like a hunted hare
till she found her way back to the starting-point of the cruel chase, to
be there trampled down by her pursuers?
"At the Castle Inn?" she cried. "I might have known as much. He has gone
there to wring my secrets from your husband. Fool!" she exclaimed,
suddenly turning upon Phoebe Marks in a transport of anger, "do you want
to destroy me that you have left those two men together?"
Mrs. Marks clasped her hands piteously.
"I didn't come away of my own free will, my lady," she said; "no one
could have been more unwilling to leave the house than I was this night.
I was sent here."
"Who sent you here?"
"Luke, my lady. You can't tell how hard he can be upon me if I go
"Why did he send you?"
The innkeeper's wife dropped her eyelids under Lady Audley's angry
glances, and hesitated confusedly before she answered this question.
"Indeed, my lady," she stammered, "I didn't want to come. I told Luke
that it was too bad for us to worry you, first asking this favor, and
then asking that, and never leaving you alone for a month together;
but--but--he bore me down with his loud, blustering talk, and he made me
"Yes, yes," cried Lady Audley, impatiently. "I know that. I want to know
why you have come."
"Why, you know, my lady," answered Phoebe, half reluctantly, "Luke is
very extravagant; and all I can say to him, I can't get him to be
careful or steady. He's not sober; and when he's drinking with a lot of
rough countrymen, and drinking, perhaps even more than they do, it isn't
likely that his head can be very clear for accounts. If it hadn't been
for me we should have been ruined before this; and hard as I've tried, I
haven't been able to keep the ruin off. You remember giving me the money
for the brewer's bill, my lady?"
"Yes, I remember very well," answered Lady Audley, with a bitter laugh,
"for I wanted that money to pay my own bills."
"I know you did, my lady, and it was very, very hard for me to have to
come and ask you for it, after all that we'd received from you before.
But that isn't the worst: when Luke sent me down here to beg the favor
of that help he never told me that the Christmas rent was still owing;
but it was, my lady, and it's owing now, and--and there's a bailiff in
the house to-night, and we're to be sold up to-morrow unless--"
"Unless I pay your rent, I suppose," cried Lucy Audley. "I might have
guessed what was coming."
"Indeed, indeed, my lady, I wouldn't have asked it," sobbed Phoebe
Marks, "but he made me come."
"Yes," answered my lady, bitterly, "he made you come; and he will make
you come whenever he pleases, and whenever he wants money for the
gratification of his low vices; and you and he are my pensioners as long
as I live, or as long as I have any money to give; for I suppose when my
purse is empty and my credit ruined, you and your husband will turn upon
me and sell me to the highest bidder. Do you know, Phoebe Marks, that my
jewel-case has been half emptied to meet your claims? Do you know that
my pin-money, which I thought such a princely allowance when my marriage
settlement was made, and when I was a poor governess at Mr. Dawson's,
Heaven help me! my pin-money has been overdrawn half a year to satisfy
your demands? What can I do to appease you? Shall I sell my Marie
Antoinette cabinet, or my pompadour china, Leroy's and Benson's ormolu
clocks, or my Gobelin tapestried chairs and ottomans? How shall I
satisfy you next?"
"Oh, my lady, my lady," cried Phoebe, piteously, "don't be so cruel to
me; you know, you know that it isn't I who want to impose upon you."
"I know nothing," exclaimed Lady Audley, "except that I am the most
miserable of women. Let me think," she cried, silencing Phoebe's
consolatory murmurs with an imperious gesture. "Hold your tongue, girl,
and let me think of this business, if I can."
She put her hands to her forehead, clasping her slender fingers across
her brow, as if she would have controlled the action of her brain by
their convulsive pressure.
"Robert Audley is with your husband," she said, slowly, speaking to
herself rather than to her companion. "These two men are together, and
there are bailiffs in the house, and your brutal husband is no doubt
brutally drunk by this time, and brutally obstinate and ferocious in his
drunkenness. If I refuse to pay this money his ferocity will be
multiplied by a hundredfold. There's little use in discussing that
matter. The money must be paid."
"But if you do pay it," said Phoebe, earnestly, "I hope you will impress
upon Luke that it is the last money you will ever give him while he
stops in that house."
"Why?" asked Lady Audley, letting her hands fall on her lap, and looking
inquiringly at Mrs. Marks.
"Because I want Luke to leave the Castle."
"But why do you want him to leave?"
"Oh, for ever so many reasons, my lady," answered Phoebe. "He's not fit
to be the landlord of a public-house. I didn't know that when I married
him, or I would have gone against the business, and tried to persuade
him to take to the farming line. Not that I suppose he'd have given up
his own fancy, either; for he's obstinate enough, as you know, my lady.
He's not fit for his present business. He's scarcely ever sober after
dark; and when he's drunk he gets almost wild, and doesn't seem to know
what he does. We've had two or three narrow escapes with him already."
"Narrow escapes!" repeated Lady Audley. "What do you mean?"
"Why, we've run the risk of being burnt in our beds through his
"Burnt in your beds through his carelessness! Why, how was that?" asked
my lady, rather listlessly. She was too selfish, and too deeply absorbed
in her own troubles to take much interest in any danger which had
befallen her some-time lady's-maid.
"You know what a queer old place the Castle is, my lady; all tumble-down
wood-work, and rotten rafters, and such like. The Chelmsford Insurance
Company won't insure it; for they say if the place did happen to catch
fire of a windy night it would blaze away like so much tinder, and
nothing in the world could save it. Well, Luke knows this; and the
landlord has warned him of it times and often, for he lives close
against us, and he keeps a pretty sharp eye upon all my husband's goings
on; but when Luke's tipsy he doesn't know what he's about, and only a
week ago he left a candle burning in one of the out-houses, and the
flame caught one of the rafters of the sloping roof, and if it hadn't
been for me finding it out when I went round the house the last thing,
we should have all been burnt to death, perhaps. And that's the third
time the same kind of thing has happened in the six months we've had the
place, and you can't wonder that I'm frightened, can you, my lady?"
My lady had not wondered, she had not thought about the business at all.
She had scarcely listened to these commonplace details; why should she
care for this low-born waiting-woman's perils and troubles? Had she not
her own terrors, her own soul-absorbing perplexities to usurp every
thought of which her brain was capable?
She did not make any remark upon that which poor Phoebe just told her;
she scarcely comprehended what had been said, until some moments after
the girl had finished speaking, when the words assumed their full
meaning, as some words do after they have been heard without being
"Burnt in your beds," said the young lady, at last. "It would have been
a good thing for me if that precious creature, your husband, had been
burnt in his bed before to-night."
A vivid picture had flashed upon her as she spoke. The picture of that
frail wooden tenement, the Castle Inn, reduced to a roofless chaos of
lath and plaster, vomiting flames from its black mouth, and spitting
blazing sparks upward toward the cold night sky.
She gave a weary sigh as she dismissed this image from her restless
brain. She would be no better off even if this enemy should be for ever
silenced. She had another and far more dangerous foe--a foe who was not
to be bribed or bought off, though she had been as rich as an empress.
"I'll give you the money to send this bailiff away," my lady said, after
a pause. "I must give you the last sovereign in my purse, but what of
that? you know as well as I do that I dare not refuse you."