Part 7 out of 9
Lady Audley rose and took the lighted lamp from her writing-table. "The
money is in my dressing-room," she said; "I will go and fetch it."
"Oh, my lady," exclaimed Phoebe, suddenly, "I forgot something; I was in
such a way about this business that I quite forgot it."
"Quite forgot what?"
"A letter that was given me to bring to you, my lady, just before I left
"A letter from Mr. Audley. He heard my husband mention that I was coming
down here, and he asked me to carry this letter."
Lady Audley set the lamp down upon the table nearest to her, and held
out her hand to receive the letter. Phoebe Marks could scarcely fail to
observe that the little jeweled hand shook like a leaf.
"Give it me--give it me," she cried; "let me see what more he has to
Lady Audley almost snatched the letter from Phoebe's hand in her wild
impatience. She tore open the envelope and flung it from her; she could
scarcely unfold the sheet of note-paper in her eager excitement.
The letter was very brief. It contained only these words:
"Should Mrs. George Talboys really have survived the date of her
supposed death, as recorded in the public prints, and upon the tombstone
in Ventnor churchyard, and should she exist in the person of the lady
suspected and accused by the writer of this, there can be no great
difficulty in finding some one able and willing to identify her. Mrs.
Barkamb, the owner of North Cottages, Wildernsea, would no doubt consent
to throw some light upon this matter; either to dispel a delusion or to
confirm a suspicion.
"March 3, 1859.
"The Castle Inn, Mount Stanning."
THE RED LIGHT IN THE SKY.
My lady crushed the letter fiercely in her hand, and flung it from her
into the flames.
"If he stood before me now, and I could kill him," she muttered in a
strange, inward whisper, "I would do it--I would do it!" She snatched up
the lamp and rushed into the adjoining room. She shut the door behind
her. She could not endure any witness of her horrible despair--she could
endure nothing, neither herself nor her surroundings.
The door between my lady's dressing-room and the bed-chamber in which
Sir Michael lay, had been left open. The baronet slept peacefully, his
noble face plainly visible in the subdued lamplight. His breathing was
low and regular, his lips curved into a half smile--a smile of tender
happiness which he often wore when he looked at his beautiful wife, the
smile of an all-indulgent father, who looks admiringly at his favorite
Some touch of womanly feeling, some sentiment of compassion softened
Lady Audley's glance as it fell upon that noble, reposing figure. For a
moment the horrible egotism of her own misery yielded to her pitying
tenderness for another. It was perhaps only a semi-selfish tenderness
after all, in which pity for herself was as powerful as pity for her
husband; but for once in a way, her thoughts ran out of the narrow
groove of her own terrors and her own troubles to dwell with prophetic
grief upon the coming sorrows of another.
"If they make him believe, how wretched he will be," she thought. But
intermingled with that thought there was another--there was the thought
of her lovely face, her bewitching manner, her arch smile, her low,
musical laugh, which was like a peal of silvery bells ringing across a
broad expanse of flat meadow-land and a rippling river in the misty
summer evening. She thought of all these things with a transient thrill
of triumph, which was stronger even than her terror.
If Sir Michael Audley lived to be a hundred years old, whatever he might
learn to believe of her, however he might grow to despise her, would he
ever be able to disassociate her from these attributes? No; a thousand
times no. To the last hour of his life his memory would present her to
him invested with the loveliness that had first won his enthusiastic
admiration, his devoted affection. Her worst enemies could not rob her
of that fairy dower which had been so fatal in its influence upon her
She paced up and down the dressing-room in the silvery lamplight,
pondering upon the strange letter which she had received from Robert
Audley. She walked backward and forward in that monotonous wandering for
some time before she was able to steady her thoughts--before she was
able to bring the scattered forces of her narrow intellect to bear upon
the one all-important subject of the threat contained in the barrister's
"He will do it," she said, between her set teeth--"he will do it, unless
I get him into a lunatic-asylum first; or unless--"
She did not finish the thought in words. She did not even think out the
sentence; but some new and unnatural impulse in her heart seemed to beat
each syllable against her breast.
The thought was this: "He will do it, unless some strange calamity
befalls him, and silences him for ever." The red blood flashed up into
my lady's face with as sudden and transient a blaze as the flickering
flame of a fire, and died as suddenly away, leaving her more pale than
winter snow. Her hands, which had before been locked convulsively
together, fell apart and dropped heavily at her sides. She stopped in
her rapid pacing to and fro--stopped as Lot's wife may have stopped,
after that fatal backward glance at the perishing city--with every pulse
slackening, with every drop of blood congealing in her veins, in the
terrible process that was to transform her from a woman into a statue.
Lady Audley stood still for about five minutes in that strangely
statuesque attitude, her head erect, her eyes staring straight before
her--staring far beyond the narrow boundary of her chamber wall, into
dark distances of peril and horror.
But by-and-by she started from that rigid attitude almost as abruptly as
she had fallen into it. She roused herself from that semi-lethargy. She
walked rapidly to her dressing-table, and, seating herself before it,
pushed away the litter of golden-stoppered bottles and delicate china
essence-boxes, and looked at her reflection in the large, oval glass.
She was very pale; but there was no other trace of agitation visible in
her girlish face. The lines of her exquisitely molded lips were so
beautiful, that it was only a very close observer who could have
perceived a certain rigidity that was unusual to them. She saw this
herself, and tried to smile away that statue-like immobility: but
to-night the rosy lips refused to obey her; they were firmly locked, and
were no longer the slaves of her will and pleasure. All the latent
forces of her character concentrated themselves in this one feature. She
might command her eyes, but she could not control the muscles of her
mouth. She rose from before her dressing-table, and took a dark velvet
cloak and bonnet from the recesses of her wardrobe, and dressed herself
for walking. The little ormolu clock on the chimney-piece struck the
quarter after eleven while Lady Audley was employed in this manner; five
minutes afterward she re-entered the room in which she had left Phoebe
The innkeeper's wife was sitting before the low fender very much in the
same attitude as that in which her late mistress had brooded over that
lonely hearth earlier in the evening. Phoebe had replenished the fire,
and had reassumed her bonnet and shawl. She was anxious to get home to
that brutal husband, who was only too apt to fall into some mischief in
her absence. She looked up as Lady Audley entered the room, and uttered
an exclamation of surprise at seeing her late mistress in a
"My lady," she cried, "you are not going out to-night?"
"Yes, I am, Phoebe," Lady Audley answered, very quietly. "I am going to
Mount Stanning with you to see this bailiff, and to pay and dismiss him
"But, my lady, you forget what the time is; you can't go out at such an
Lady Audley did not answer. She stood with her finger resting lightly
upon the handle of the bell, meditating quietly.
"The stables are always locked, and the men in bed by ten o'clock," she
murmured, "when we are at home. It will make a terrible hubbub to get a
carriage ready; but yet I dare say one of the servants could manage the
matter quietly for me."
"But why should you go to-night, my lady?" cried Phoebe Marks.
"To-morrow will do quite as well. A week hence will do as well. Our
landlord would take the man away if he had your promise to settle the
Lady Audley took no notice of this interruption. She went hastily into
the dressing-room, and flung off her bonnet and cloak, and then returned
to the boudoir, in her simple dinner-costume, with her curls brushed
carelessly away from her face.
"Now, Phoebe Marks, listen to me," she said, grasping her confidante's
wrist, and speaking in a low, earnest voice, but with a certain
imperious air that challenged contradiction and commanded obedience.
"Listen to me, Phoebe," she repeated. "I am going to the Castle Inn
to-night; whether it is early or late is of very little consequence to
me; I have set my mind upon going, and I shall go. You have asked me
why, and I have told you. I am going in order that I may pay this debt
myself; and that I may see for myself that the money I give is applied
to the purpose for which I give it. There is nothing out of the common
course of life in my doing this. I am going to do what other women in my
position very often do. I am going to assist a favorite servant."
"But it's getting on for twelve o'clock, my lady," pleaded Phoebe.
Lady Audley frowned impatiently at this interruption.
"If my going to your house to pay this man should be known," she
continued, still retaining her hold of Phoebe's wrist, "I am ready to
answer for my conduct; but I would rather that the business should be
kept quiet. I think that I can leave this house without being seen by
any living creature, if you will do as I tell you."
"I will do anything you wish, my lady," answered Phoebe, submissively.
"Then you will wish me good-night presently, when my maid comes into the
room, and you will suffer her to show you out of the house. You will
cross the courtyard and wait for me in the avenue upon the other side of
the archway. It may be half an hour before I am able to join you, for I
must not leave my room till the servants have all gone to bed, but you
may wait for me patiently, for come what may I will join you."
Lady Audley's face was no longer pale. An unnatural luster gleamed in
her great blue eyes. She spoke with an unnatural rapidity. She had
altogether the appearance and manner of a person who has yielded to the
dominant influence of some overpowering excitement. Phoebe Marks stared
at her late mistress in mute bewilderment. She began to fear that my
lady was going mad.
The bell which Lady Audley rang was answered by the smart lady's-maid
who wore rose-colored ribbons, and black silk gowns, and other
adornments which were unknown to the humble people who sat below the
salt in the good old days when servants wore linsey-woolsey.
"I did not know that it was so late, Martin," said my lady, in that
gentle tone which always won for her the willing service of her
inferiors. "I have been talking with Mrs. Marks and have let the time
slip by me. I sha'n't want anything to-night, so you may go to bed when
"Thank you, my lady," answered the girl, who looked very sleepy, and had
some difficulty in repressing a yawn even in her mistress' presence, for
the Audley household usually kept very early hours. "I'd better show
Mrs. Marks out, my lady, hadn't I?" asked the maid, "before I go to
"Oh, yes, to be sure; you can let Phoebe out. All the other servants
have gone to bed, then, I suppose?"
"Yes, my lady."
Lady Audley laughed as she glanced at the timepiece.
"We have been terrible dissipated up here, Phoebe," she said.
"Good-night. You may tell your husband that his rent shall be paid."
"Thank you very much, my lady, and good-night," murmured Phoebe as she
backed out of the room, followed by the lady's maid.
Lady Audley listened at the door, waiting till the muffled sounds of
their footsteps died away in the octagon chamber and on the carpeted
"Martin sleeps at the top of the house," she said, "half a mile away
from this room. In ten minutes I may safely make my escape."
She went back into her dressing-room, and put on her cloak and bonnet
for the second time. The unnatural color still burnt like a flame in her
cheeks; the unnatural light still glittered in her eyes. The excitement
which she was under held her in so strong a spell that neither her mind
nor her body seemed to have any consciousness of fatigue. However
verbose I may be in my description of her feelings, I can never describe
a tithe of her thoughts or her sufferings. She suffered agonies that
would fill closely printed volumes, bulky with a thousand pages, in that
one horrible night. She underwent volumes of anguish, and doubt, and
perplexity; sometimes repeating the same chapters of her torments over
and over again; sometimes hurrying through a thousand pages of her
misery without one pause, without one moment of breathing time. She
stood by the low fender in her boudoir, watching the minute-hand of the
clock, and waiting till it should be time for her to leave the house in
"I will wait ten minutes," she said, "not a moment beyond, before I
enter on my new peril."
She listened to the wild roaring of the March wind, which seemed to have
risen with the stillness and darkness of the night.
The hand slowly made its inevitable way to the figures which told that
the ten minutes were past. It was exactly a quarter to twelve when my
lady took her lamp in her hand, and stole softly from the room. Her
footfall was as light as that of some graceful wild animal, and there
was no fear of that airy step awakening any echo upon the carpeted stone
corridors and staircase. She did not pause until she reached the
vestibule upon the ground floor. Several doors opened out of the
vestibule, which was octagon, like my lady's ante-chamber. One of these
doors led into the library, and it was this door which Lady Audley
opened softly and cautiously.
To have attempted to leave the house secretly by any of the principal
outlets would have been simple madness, for the housekeeper herself
superintended the barricading of the great doors, back and front. The
secrets of the bolts, and bars, and chains, and bells which secured
these doors, and provided for the safety of Sir Michael Audley's
plate-room, the door of which was lined with sheet-iron, were known only
to the servants who had to deal with them. But although all these
precautions were taken with the principal entrances to the citadel, a
wooden shutter and a slender iron bar, light enough to be lifted by a
child, were considered sufficient safeguard for the half-glass door
which opened out of the breakfast-room into the graveled pathway and
smooth turf in the courtyard.
It was by this outlet that Lady Audley meant to make her escape. She
could easily remove the bar and unfasten the shutter, and she might
safely venture to leave the window ajar while she was absent. There was
little fear of Sir Michael's awaking for some time, as he was a heavy
sleeper in the early part of the night, and had slept more heavily than
usual since his illness.
Lady Audley crossed the library, and opened the door of the
breakfast-room, which communicated with it. This latter apartment was
one of the later additions to the Court. It was a simple, cheerful
chamber, with brightly papered walls and pretty maple furniture, and was
more occupied by Alicia than any one else. The paraphernalia of that
young lady's favorite pursuits were scattered about the
room--drawing-materials, unfinished scraps of work, tangled skeins of
silk, and all the other tokens of a careless damsel's presence; while
Miss Audley's picture--a pretty crayon sketch of a rosy-faced hoyden in
a riding-habit and hat--hung over the quaint Wedgewood ornaments on the
chimneypiece. My lady looked upon these familiar objects with scornful
hatred flaming in her blue eyes.
"How glad she will be if any disgrace befalls me," she thought; "how she
will rejoice if I am driven out of this house!"
Lady Audley set the lamp upon a table near the fireplace, and went to
the window. She removed the iron-bar and the light wooden shutter, and
then opened the glass-door. The March night was black and moonless, and
a gust of wind blew in upon her as she opened this door, and filled the
room with its chilly breath, extinguishing the lamp upon the table.
"No matter," my lady muttered, "I could not have left it burning. I
shall know how to find my way through the house when I come back. I have
left all the doors ajar."
She stepped quickly out upon the smooth gravel, and closed the
glass-door behind her. She was afraid lest that treacherous wind should
blow-to the door opening into the library, and thus betray her.
She was in the quadrangle now, with that chill wind sweeping against
her, and swirling her silken garments round her with a shrill, rustling
noise, like the whistling of a sharp breeze against the sails of a
yacht. She crossed the quadrangle and looked back--looked back for a
moment at the firelight gleaming between the rosy-tinted curtains in her
boudoir, and the dim gleam of the lamp through the mullioned windows in
the room where Sir Michael Audley lay asleep.
"I feel as if I were running away," she thought; "I feel as if I were
running away secretly in the dead of the night, to lose myself and be
forgotten. Perhaps it would be wiser in me to run away, to take this
man's warning, and escape out of his power forever. If I were to run
away and disappear as--as George Talboys disappeared. But where could I
go? what would become of me? I have no money; my jewels are not worth a
couple of hundred pounds, now that I have got rid of the best part of
them. What could I do? I must go back to the old life, the old, hard,
cruel, wretched life--the life of poverty, and humiliation, and
vexation, and discontent. I should have to go back and wear myself out
in that long struggle, and die--as my mother died, perhaps!"
My lady stood still for a moment on the smooth lawn between the
quadrangle and the archway, with her head drooping upon her breast and
her hands locked together, debating this question in the unnatural
activity of her mind. Her attitude reflected the state of that mind--it
expressed irresolution and perplexity. But presently a sudden change
came over her; she lifted her head--lifted it with an action of defiance
"No! Mr. Robert Audley," she said, aloud, in a low, clear voice; "I will
not go back--I will not go back. If the struggle between us is to be a
duel to the death, you shall not find me drop my weapon."
She walked with a firm and rapid step under the archway. As she passed
under that massive arch, it seemed as if she disappeared into some black
gulf that had waited open to receive her. The stupid clock struck
twelve, and the whole archway seemed to vibrate under its heavy strokes,
as Lady Audley emerged upon the other side and joined Phoebe Marks, who
had waited for her late mistress very near the gateway of the Court.
"Now, Phoebe," she said, "it is three miles from here to Mount Stanning,
"Yes, my lady."
"Then we can walk the distance in an hour and a half."
Lady Audley had not stopped to say this; she was walking quickly along
the avenue with her humble companion by her side. Fragile and delicate
as she was in appearance, she was a very good walker. She had been in
the habit of taking long country rambles with Mr. Dawson's children in
her old days of dependence, and she thought very little of a distance of
"Your beautiful husband will sit up for you, I suppose, Phoebe?" she
said, as they struck across an open field that was used as a short cut
from Audley Court to the high-road.
"Oh, yes, my lady; he's sure to sit up. He'll be drinking with the man,
I dare say."
"The man! What man?"
"The man that's in possession, my lady."
"Ah, to be sure," said Lady Audley, indifferently.
It was strange that Phoebe's domestic troubles should seem so very far
away from her thoughts at the time she was taking such an extraordinary
step toward setting things right at the Castle Inn.
The two women crossed the field and turned into the high road. The way
to Mount Stanning was all up hill, and the long road looked black and
dreary in the dark night; but my lady walked on with a desperate
courage, which was no common constituent in her selfish sensuous nature,
but a strange faculty born out of her great despair. She did not speak
again to her companion until they were close upon the glimmering lights
at the top of the hill. One of these village lights, glaring redly
through a crimson curtain, marked out the particular window behind which
it was likely that Luke Marks sat nodding drowsily over his liquor, and
waiting for the coming of his wife.
"He has not gone to bed, Phoebe," said my lady, eagerly. "But there is
no other light burning at the inn. I suppose Mr. Audley is in bed and
"Yes, my lady, I suppose so."
"You are sure he was going to stay at the Castle to night?"
"Oh, yes, my lady. I helped the girl to get his room ready before I came
The wind, boisterous everywhere, was even shriller and more pitiless in
the neighborhood of that bleak hill-top upon which the Castle Inn reared
its rickety walls. The cruel blasts raved wildly round that frail
erection. They disported themselves with the shattered pigeon-house, the
broken weathercock, the loose tiles, and unshapely chimneys; they
rattled at the window-panes, and whistled in the crevices; they mocked
the feeble building from foundation to roof, and battered, and banged,
and tormented it in their fierce gambols, until it trembled and rocked
with the force of their rough play.
Mr. Luke Marks had not troubled himself to secure the door of his
dwelling-house before sitting down to booze with the man who held
provisional possession of his goods and chattels. The landlord of the
Castle Inn was a lazy, sensual brute, who had no thought higher than a
selfish concern for his own enjoyments, and a virulent hatred for
anybody who stood in the way of his gratification.
Phoebe pushed open the door with her hand, and went into the house,
followed by my lady. The gas was flaring in the bar, and smoking the low
plastered ceiling. The door of the bar-parlor was half open, and Lady
Audley heard the brutal laughter of Mr. Marks as she crossed the
threshold of the inn.
"I'll tell him you're here, my lady," whispered Phoebe to her late
mistress. "I know he'll be tipsy. You--you won't be offended, my lady,
if he should say anything rude? You know it wasn't my wish that you
"Yes, yes," answered Lady Audley, impatiently, "I know that. What should
I care for his rudeness! Let him say what he likes."
Phoebe Marks pushed open the parlor door, leaving my lady in the bar
close behind her.
Luke sat with his clumsy legs stretched out upon the hearth. He held a
glass of gin-and-water in one hand and the poker in the other. He had
just thrust the poker into a heap of black coals, and was scattering
them to make a blaze, when his wife appeared upon the threshold of the
He snatched the poker from between the bars, and made a half drunken,
half threatening motion with it as he saw her.
"So you've condescended to come home at last, ma'am," he said; "I
thought you was never coming no more."
He spoke in a thick and drunken voice, and was by no means too
intelligible. He was steeped to the very lips in alcohol. His eyes were
dim and watery; his hands were unsteady; his voice was choked and
muffled with drink. A brute, even when most sober; a brute, even on his
best behavior, he was ten times more brutal in his drunkenness, when the
few restraints which held his ignorant, every day brutality in check
were flung aside in the indolent recklessness of intoxication.
"I--I've been longer than I intended to be, Luke," Phoebe answered, in
her most conciliatory manner; "but I've seen my lady, and she's been
very kind, and--and she'll settle this business for us."
"She's been very kind, has she?" muttered Mr. Marks, with a drunken
laugh; "thank her for nothing. I know the vally of her kindness. She'd
be oncommon kind, I dessay, if she warn't obligated to be it."
The man in possession, who had fallen into a maudlin and
semi-unconscious state of intoxication upon about a third of the liquor
that Mr. Marks had consumed, only stared in feeble wonderment at his
host and hostess. He sat near the table. Indeed, he had hooked himself
on to it with his elbows, as a safeguard against sliding under it, and
he was making imbecile attempts to light his pipe at the flame of a
guttering tallow candle near him.
"My lady has promised to settle the business for us, Luke," Phoebe
repeated, without noticing Luke's remarks. She knew her husband's dogged
nature well enough by this time to know that it was worse than useless
to try to stop him from doing or saying anything which his own stubborn
will led him to do or say. "My lady will settle it," she said, "and
she's come down here to see about it to-night," she added.
The poker dropped from the landlord's hand, and fell clattering among
the cinders on the hearth.
"My Lady Audley come here to-night!" he said.
My lady appeared upon the threshold of the door as Phoebe spoke.
"Yes, Luke Marks," she said, "I have come to pay this man, and to send
him about his business."
Lady Audley said these words in a strange, semi-mechanical manner; very
much as if she had learned the sentence by rote, and were repeating it
without knowing what she said.
Mr. Marks gave a discontented growl, and set his empty glass down upon
the table with an impatient gesture.
"You might have given the money to Phoebe," he said, "as well as have
brought it yourself. We don't want no fine ladies up here, pryin' and
pokin' their precious noses into everythink."
"Luke, Luke!" remonstrated Phoebe, "when my lady has been so kind!"
"Oh, damn her kindness!" cried Mr. Marks; "it ain't her kindness as we
want, gal, it's her money. She won't get no snivelin' gratitood from me.
Whatever she does for us she does because she is obliged; and if she
wasn't obliged she wouldn't do it--"
Heaven knows how much more Luke Marks might have said, had not my lady
turned upon him suddenly and awed him into silence by the unearthly
glitter of her beauty. Her hair had been blown away from her face, and
being of a light, feathery quality, had spread itself into a tangled
mass that surrounded her forehead like a yellow flame. There was another
flame in her eyes--a greenish light, such as might flash from the
changing-hued orbs of an angry mermaid.
"Stop," she cried. "I didn't come up here in the dead of night to listen
to your insolence. How much is this debt?"
Lady Audley produced her purse--a toy of ivory, silver, and
turquoise--she took from it a note and four sovereigns. She laid these
upon the table.
"Let that man give me a receipt for the money," she said, "before I go."
It was some time before the man could be roused into sufficient
consciousness for the performance of this simple duty, and it was only
by dipping a pen into the ink and pushing it between his clumsy fingers,
that he was at last made to comprehend that his autograph was wanted at
the bottom of the receipt which had been made out by Phoebe Marks. Lady
Audley took the document as soon as the ink was dry, and turned to leave
the parlor. Phoebe followed her.
"You mustn't go home alone, my lady," she said. "You'll let me go with
"Yes, yes; you shall go home with me."
The two women were standing near the door of the inn as my lady said
this. Phoebe stared wonderingly at her patroness. She had expected that
Lady Audley would be in a hurry to return home after settling this
business which she had capriciously taken upon herself; but it was not
so; my lady stood leaning against the inn door and staring into vacancy,
and again Mrs. Marks began to fear that trouble had driven her late
A little Dutch clock in the bar struck two while Lady Audley lingered in
this irresolute, absent manner. She started at the sound and began to
"I think I am going to faint, Phoebe," she said; "where can I get some
"The pump is in the wash-house, my lady; I'll run and get you a glass of
"No, no, no," cried my lady, clutching Phoebe's arm as she was about to
run away upon this errand; "I'll get it myself. I must dip my head in a
basin of water if I want to save myself from fainting. In which room
does Mr. Audley sleep?"
There was something so irrelevant in this question that Phoebe Marks
stared aghast at her mistress before she answered it.
"It was number three that I got ready, my lady--the front room--the room
next to ours," she replied, after that pause of astonishment.
"Give me a candle," said my lady. "I'll go into your room, and get some
water for my head; stay where you are, and see that that brute of a
husband of yours does not follow me!"
She snatched the candle which Phoebe had lighted from the girl's hand
and ran up the rickety, winding staircase which led to the narrow
corridor upon the upper floor. Five bed-rooms opened out of this
low-ceilinged, close-smelling corridor; the numbers of these rooms were
indicated by squat black figures painted upon the panels of the doors.
Lady Audley had driven up to Mount Stanning to inspect the house when
she bought the business for her servant's bridegroom, and she knew her
way about the dilapidated old place; she knew where to find Phoebe's
bedroom, but she stopped before the door of that other chamber which had
been prepared for Mr. Robert Audley.
She stopped and looked at the number on the door. The key was in the
lock, and her hand dropped upon it as if unconsciously. But presently
she suddenly began to tremble again, as she had trembled a few minutes
before at the striking of the clock. She stood for a few moments
trembling thus, with her hand still upon the key; then a horrible
expression came over her face, and she turned the key in the lock. She
turned it twice, double locking the door.
There was no sound from within; the occupant of the chamber made no sign
of having heard that ominous creaking of the rusty key in the rusty
Lady Audley hurried into the next room. She set the candle on the
dressing-table, flung off her bonnet and slung it loosely across her
arm; then she went to the wash-stand and filled the basin with water.
She plunged her golden hair into this water, and then stood for a few
moments in the center of the room looking about her, with a white,
earnest face, and an eager gaze that seemed to take in every object in
the poorly furnished chamber. Phoebe's bedroom was certainly very
shabbily furnished; she had been compelled to select all the most decent
things for those best bedrooms which were set apart for any chance
traveler who might stop for a night's lodging at the Castle Inn; but
Phoebe Marks had done her best to atone for the lack of substantial
furniture in her apartment by a superabundance of drapery. Crisp
curtains of cheap chintz hung from the tent-bedstead; festooned drapery
of the same material shrouded the narrow window shutting out the light
of day, and affording a pleasant harbor for tribes of flies and
predatory bands of spiders. Even the looking-glass, a miserably cheap
construction which distorted every face whose owner had the hardihood to
look into it, stood upon a draperied altar of starched muslin and pink
glazed calico, and was adorned with frills of lace and knitted work.
My lady smiled as she looked at the festoons and furbelows which met her
eyes upon every side. She had reason, perhaps, to smile, remembering the
costly elegance of her own apartments; but there was something in that
sardonic smile that seemed to have a deeper meaning than any natural
contempt for Phoebe's attempts at decoration. She went to the
dressing-table and, smoothed her wet hair before the looking-glass, and
then put on her bonnet. She was obliged to place the flaming tallow
candle very close to the lace furbelows about the glass; so close that
the starched muslin seemed to draw the flame toward it by some power of
attraction in its fragile tissue.
Phoebe waited anxiously by the inn door for my lady's coming She watched
the minute hand of the little Dutch clock, wondering at the slowness of
its progress. It was only ten minutes past two when Lady Audley came
down-stairs, with her bonnet on and her hair still wet, but without the
Phoebe was immediately anxious about this missing candle.
"The light, my lady," she said, "you have left it up-stairs!"
"The wind blew it out as I was leaving your room," Lady Audley answered,
quietly. "I left it there."
"In my room, my lady?"
"And it was quite out?"
"Yes, I tell you; why do you worry me about your candle? It is past two
She took the girl's arm, and half led, half dragged her from the house.
The convulsive pressure of her slight hand held her firmly as an iron
vise could have held her. The fierce March wind banged to the door of
the house, and left the two women standing outside it. The long, black
road lay bleak and desolate before them, dimly visible between straight
lines of leafless hedges.
A walk of three miles' length upon a lonely country road, between the
hours of two and four on a cold winter's morning, is scarcely a pleasant
task for a delicate woman--a woman whose inclinations lean toward ease
and luxury. But my lady hurried along the hard, dry highway, dragging
her companion with her as if she had been impelled by some horrible
demoniac force which knew no abatement. With the black night above
them--with the fierce wind howling around them, sweeping across a broad
expanse of hidden country, blowing as if it had arisen simultaneously
from every point of the compass, and making those wanderers the focus of
its ferocity--the two women walked through the darkness down the hill
upon which Mount Stanning stood, along a mile and a half of flat road,
and then up another hill, on the western side of which Audley Court lay
in that sheltered valley, which seemed to shut in the old house from all
the clamor and hubbub of the everyday world.
My lady stopped upon the summit of this hill to draw breath and to clasp
her hands upon her heart, in the vain hope that she might still its
cruel beating. They were now within three-quarters of a mile of the
Court, and they had been walking for nearly an hour since they had left
the Castle Inn.
Lady Audley stopped to rest, with her face still turned toward the place
of her destination. Phoebe Marks, stopping also, and very glad of a
moment's pause in that hurried journey, looked back into the far
darkness beneath which lay that dreary shelter that had given her so
much uneasiness. And she did so, she uttered a shrill cry of horror, and
clutched wildly at her companion's cloak.
The night sky was no longer all dark. The thick blackness was broken by
one patch of lurid light.
"My lady, my lady!" cried Phoebe, pointing to this lurid patch; "do you
"Yes, child, I see," answered Lady Audley, trying to shake the clinging
hands from her garments. "What's the matter?"
"It's a fire--a fire, my lady!"
"Yes, I am afraid it is a fire. At Brentwood, most likely. Let me go,
Phoebe; it's nothing to us."
"Yes, yes, my lady; it's nearer than Brentwood--much nearer; it's at
Lady Audley did not answer. She was trembling again, with the cold
perhaps, for the wind had torn her heavy cloak from her shoulders, and
had left her slender figure exposed to the blast.
"It's at Mount Stanning, my lady!" cried Phoebe Marks. "It's the Castle
that's on fire--I know it is, I know it is! I thought of fire to-night,
and I was fidgety and uneasy, for I knew this would happen some day. I
wouldn't mind if it was only the wretched place, but there'll be life
lost, there'll be life lost!" sobbed the girl, distractedly. "There's
Luke, too tipsy to help himself, unless others help him; there's Mr.
Phoebe Marks stopped suddenly at the mention of Robert's name, and fell
upon her knees, clasping her uplifted hands, and appealing wildly to
"Oh, my God!" she cried. "Say it's not true, my lady, say it's not true!
It's too horrible, it's too horrible, it's too horrible!"
"What's too horrible?"
"The thought that's in my mind; the terrible thought that's in my mind."
"What do you mean, girl?" cried my lady, fiercely.
"Oh, God forgive me if I'm wrong!" the kneeling woman gasped in detached
sentences, "and God grant I may be. Why did you go up to the Castle, my
lady? Why were you so set on going against all I could say--you who are
so bitter against Mr. Audley and against Luke, and who knew they were
both under that roof? Oh, tell me that I do you a cruel wrong, my lady;
tell me so--tell me! for as there is a Heaven above me I think that you
went to that place to-night on purpose to set fire to it. Tell me that
I'm wrong, my lady; tell me that I'm doing you a wicked wrong."
"I will tell you nothing, except that you are a mad woman," answered
Lady Audley; in a cold, hard voice. "Get up; fool, idiot, coward! Is
your husband such a precious bargain that you should be groveling there,
lamenting and groaning for him? What is Robert Audley to you, that you
behave like a maniac, because you think he is in danger? How do you know
the fire is at Mount Stanning? You see a red patch in the sky, and you
cry out directly that your own paltry hovel is in flames, as if there
were no place in the world that could burn except that. The fire may be
at Brentwood, or further away--at Romford, or still further away, on the
eastern side of London, perhaps. Get up, mad woman, and go back and look
after your goods and chattels, and your husband and your lodger. Get up
and go: I don't want you."
"Oh! my lady, my lady, forgive me," sobbed Phoebe; "there's nothing you
can say to me that's hard enough for having done you such a wrong, even
in my thoughts. I don't mind your cruel words--I don't mind anything if
"Go back and see for yourself," answered Lady Audley, sternly. "I tell
you again, I don't want you."
She walked away in the darkness, leaving Phoebe Marks still kneeling
upon the hard road, where she had cast herself in that agony of
supplication. Sir Michael's wife walked toward the house in which her
husband slept with the red blaze lighting up the skies behind her, and
with nothing but the blackness of the night before.
THE BEARER OF THE TIDINGS.
It was very late the next morning when Lady Audley emerged from her
dressing-room, exquisitely dressed in a morning costume of delicate
muslin, delicate laces, and embroideries; but with a very pale face, and
with half-circles of purple shadow under her eyes. She accounted for
this pale face and these hollow eyes by declaring that she had sat up
reading until a very late hour on the previous night.
Sir Michael and his young wife breakfasted in the library at a
comfortable round table, wheeled close to the blazing fire; and Alicia
was compelled to share this meal with her step-mother, however she might
avoid that lady in the long interval between breakfast and dinner.
The March morning was bleak and dull, and a drizzling rain fell
incessantly, obscuring the landscape and blotting out the distance.
There were very few letters by the morning post; the daily newspapers
did not arrive until noon; and such aids to conversation being missing,
there was very little talk at the breakfast table.
Alicia looked out at the drizzling rain drifting against the broad
"No riding to-day," she said; "and no chance of any callers to enliven
us, unless that ridiculous Bob comes crawling through the wet from Mount
Have you ever heard anybody, whom you knew to be dead, alluded to in a
light, easy going manner by another person who did not know of his
death--alluded to as doing that or this, as performing some trivial
everyday operation--when _you_ know that he has vanished away from the
face of this earth, and separated himself forever from all living
creatures and their commonplace pursuits in the awful solemnity of
death? Such a chance allusion, insignificant though it may be, is apt to
send a strange thrill of pain through the mind. The ignorant remark jars
discordantly upon the hyper-sensitive brain; the King of Terrors is
desecrated by that unwitting disrespect. Heaven knows what hidden reason
my lady may have had for experiencing some such revulsion of feeling on
the sudden mention of Mr. Audley's name, but her pale face blanched to a
sickly white as Alicia Audley spoke of her cousin.
"Yes, he will come down here in the wet, perhaps," the young lady
continued, "with his hat sleek and shining as if it had been brushed
with a pat of fresh butter, and with white vapors steaming out of his
clothes, and making him look like an awkward genie just let out of his
bottle. He will come down here and print impressions of his muddy boots
all over the carpet, and he'll sit on your Gobelin tapestry, my lady, in
his wet overcoat; and he'll abuse you if you remonstrate, and will ask
why people have chairs that are not to be sat upon, and why you don't
live in Figtree Court, and--"
Sir Michael Audley watched his daughter with a thoughtful countenance as
she talked of her cousin. She very often talked of him, ridiculing him
and inveighing against him in no very measured terms. But perhaps the
baronet thought of a certain Signora Beatrice who very cruelly entreated
a gentleman called Benedick, but who was, it may be, heartily in love
with him at the same time.
"What do you think Major Melville told me when he called here yesterday,
Alicia?" Sir Michael asked, presently.
"I haven't the remotest idea," replied Alicia, rather disdainfully.
"Perhaps he told you that we should have another war before long, by
Ged, sir; or perhaps he told you that we should have a new ministry, by
Ged, sir, for that those fellows are getting themselves into a mess,
sir; or that those other fellows were reforming this, and cutting down
that, and altering the other in the army, until, by Ged, sir, we shall
have no army at all, by-and-by--nothing but a pack of boys, sir, crammed
up to the eyes with a lot of senseless schoolmasters' rubbish, and
dressed in shell-jackets and calico helmets. Yes, sir, they're fighting
in Oudh in calico helmets at this very day, sir."
"You're an impertinent minx, miss," answered the baronet. "Major
Melville told me nothing of the kind; but he told me that a very devoted
admirer of you, a certain Sir Harry Towers, has forsaken his place in
Hertfordshire, and his hunting stable, and has gone on the continent for
a twelvemonths' tour."
Miss Audley flushed up suddenly at the mention of her old adorer, but
recovered herself very quickly.
"He has gone on the continent, has he?" she said indifferently. "He told
me that he meant to do so--if--if he didn't have everything his own way.
Poor fellow! he's a, dear, good-hearted, stupid creature, and twenty
times better than that peripatetic, patent refrigerator, Mr. Robert
"I wish, Alicia, you were not so fond of ridiculing Bob," Sir Michael
said, gravely. "Bob is a good fellow, and I'm as fond of him as if he'd
been my own son; and--and--I've been very uncomfortable about him
lately. He has changed very much within the last few days, and he has
taken all sorts of absurd ideas into his head, and my lady has alarmed
me about him. She thinks--"
Lady Audley interrupted her husband with a grave shake of her head.
"It is better not to say too much about it as yet awhile," she said;
"Alicia knows what I think."
"Yes," replied Miss Audley, "my lady thinks that Bob is going mad, but I
know better than that. He's not at all the sort of person to go mad. How
should such a sluggish ditch-pond of an intellect as his ever work
itself into a tempest? He may move about for the rest of his life,
perhaps, in a tranquil state of semi-idiotcy, imperfectly comprehending
who he is, and where he's going, and what he's doing--but he'll never go
Sir Michael did not reply to this. He had been very much disturbed by
his conversation with my lady on the previous evening, and had silently
debated the painful question, in his mind ever since.
His wife--the woman he best loved and most believed in--had told him,
with all appearance of regret and agitation, her conviction of his
nephew's insanity. He tried in vain to arrive at the conclusion he
wished most ardently to attain; he tried in vain to think that my lady
was misled by her own fancies, and had no foundation for what she said.
But then, again, it suddenly flashed upon him, that to think this was to
arrive at a worse conclusion; it was to transfer the horrible suspicion
from his nephew to his wife. She appeared to be possessed with an actual
conviction of Robert's insanity. To imagine her wrong was to imagine
some weakness in her own mind. The longer he thought of the subject the
more it harassed and perplexed him. It was most certain that the young
man had always been eccentric. He was sensible, he was tolerably clever,
he was honorable and gentlemanlike in feeling, though perhaps a little
careless in the performance of certain minor social duties; but there
were some slight differences, not easily to be defined, that separated
him from other men of his age and position. Then, again, it was equally
true that he had very much changed within the period that had succeeded
the disappearance of George Talboys. He had grown moody and thoughtful,
melancholy and absent-minded. He had held himself aloof from society,
had sat for hours without speaking; had talked at other points by fits
and starts; and had excited himself unusually in the discussion of
subjects which apparently lay far out of the region of his own life and
interests. Then there was even another region which seemed to strengthen
my lady's case against this unhappy young man. He had been brought up in
the frequent society of his cousin, Alicia--his pretty, genial
cousin--to whom interest, and one would have thought affection,
naturally pointed as his most fitting bride. More than this, the girl
had shown him, in the innocent guilelessness of a transparent nature,
that on her side at least, affection was not wanting; and yet, in spite
of all this, he had held himself aloof, and had allowed others to
propose for her hand, and to be rejected by her, and had still made no
Now love is so very subtle an essence, such an indefinable metaphysical
marvel, that its due force, though very cruelly felt by the sufferer
himself, is never clearly understood by those who look on at its
torments and wonder why he takes the common fever so badly. Sir Michael
argued that because Alicia was a pretty girl and an amiable girl it was
therefore extraordinary and unnatural in Robert Audley not to have duly
fallen in love with her. This baronet, who close upon his sixtieth
birthday, had for the first time encountered that one woman who out of
all the women in the world had power to quicken the pulses of his heart,
wondered why Robert failed to take the fever from the first breath of
contagion that blew toward him. He forgot that there are men who go
their ways unscathed amidst legions of lovely and generous women, to
succumb at last before some harsh-featured virago, who knows the secret
of that only philter which can intoxicate and bewitch him. He had forgot
that there are certain Jacks who go through life without meeting the
Jill appointed for them by Nemesis, and die old bachelors, perhaps, with
poor Jill pining an old maid upon the other side of the party-wall. He
forgot that love, which is a madness, and a scourge, and a fever, and a
delusion, and a snare, is also a mystery, and very imperfectly
understood by everyone except the individual sufferer who writhes under
its tortures. Jones, who is wildly enamored of Miss Brown, and who lies
awake at night until he loathes his comfortable pillow and tumbles his
sheets into two twisted rags of linen in his agonies, as if he were a
prisoner and wanted to wind them into impromptu ropes; this same Jones
who thinks Russell Square a magic place because his divinity inhabits
it, who thinks the trees in that inclosure and the sky above it greener
and bluer than other trees or sky, and who feels a pang, yes, an actual
pang, of mingled hope, and joy, and expectation, and terror, when he
emerges from Guilford street, descending from the hights of Islington,
into those sacred precincts; this very Jones is hard and callous toward
the torments of Smith, who adores Miss Robinson, and cannot imagine what
the infatuated fellow can see in the girl. So it was with Sir Michael
Audley. He looked at his nephew as a sample of a very large class of
young men, and his daughter as a sample of an equally extensive class of
feminine goods, and could not see why the two samples should not make a
very respectable match. He ignored all those infinitesimal differences
in nature which make the wholesome food of one man the deadly poison of
another. How difficult it is to believe sometimes that a man doesn't
like such and such a favorite dish. If at a dinner-party, a meek looking
guest refuses early salmon and cucumbers, or green peas in February, we
set him down as a poor relation whose instincts warn him off those
expensive plates. If an alderman were to declare that he didn't like
green fat, he would be looked upon as a social martyr, a Marcus Curtius
of the dinner-table, who immolated himself for the benefit of his kind.
His fellow-aldermen would believe in anything rather than an heretical
distaste for the city ambrosia of the soup tureen. But there are people
who dislike salmon, and white-bait, and spring ducklings, and all manner
of old-established delicacies, and there are other people who affect
eccentric and despicable dishes, generally stigmatized as nasty.
Alas, my pretty Alicia, your cousin did not love you! He admired your
rosy English face, and had a tender affection for you which might
perhaps have expanded by-and-by into something warm enough for
matrimony, that every-day jog-trot species of union which demands no
very passionate devotion, but for a sudden check which it had received
in Dorsetshire. Yes, Robert Audley's growing affection for his cousin, a
plant of very slow growth, I am fain to confess, had been suddenly
dwarfed and stunted upon that bitter February day on which he had stood
beneath the pine-trees talking to Clara Talboys. Since that day the
young man had experienced an unpleasant sensation in thinking of poor
Alicia. He looked at her as being in some vague manner an incumbrance
upon the freedom of his thoughts; he had a haunting fear that he was in
some tacit way pledged to her; that she had a species of claim upon him,
which forbade to him the right of thinking of another woman. I believe
it was the image of Miss Audley presented to him in this light that
goaded the young barrister into those outbursts of splenetic rage
against the female sex which he was liable to at certain times. He was
strictly honorable, so honorable that he would rather have immolated
himself upon the altar of truth and Alicia than have done her the
remotest wrong, though by so doing he might have secured his own comfort
"If the poor little girl loves me," he thought, "and if she thinks that
I love her, and has been led to think so by any word or act of mine, I'm
in duty bound to let her think so to the end of time, and to fulfill any
tacit promise which I may have unconsciously made. I thought once--I
meant once to--to make her an offer by-and-by when this horrible mystery
about George Talboys should have been cleared up and everything
peacefully settled--but now--"
His thoughts would ordinarily wander away at this point of his
reflections, carrying him where he never had intended to go; carrying
him back under the pine-trees in Dorsetshire, and setting him once more
face to face with the sister of his missing friend, and it was generally
a very laborious journey by which he traveled back to the point from
which he strayed. It was so difficult for him to tear himself away from
the stunted turf and the pine-trees.
"Poor little girl!" he would think on coming back to Alicia. "How good
it is of her to love me, and how grateful ought I to be for her
tenderness. How many fellows would think such a generous, loving heart
the highest boon that earth could give them. There's Sir Harry Towers
stricken with despair at his rejection. He would give me half his
estate, all his estate, twice his estate, if he had it, to be in the
shoes which I am anxious to shake off my ungrateful feet. Why don't I
love her? Why is it that although I know her to be pretty, and pure, and
good, and truthful, I don't love her? Her image never haunts me, except
reproachfully. I never see her in my dreams. I never wake up suddenly in
the dead of the night with her eyes shining upon me and her warm breath
upon my cheek, or with the fingers of her soft hand clinging to mine.
No, I'm not in love with her, I can't fall in love with her."
He raged and rebelled against his ingratitude. He tried to argue himself
into a passionate attachment for his cousin, but he failed
ignominiously, and the more he tried to think of Alicia the more he
thought of Clara Talboys. I am speaking now of his feelings in the
period that elapsed between his return from Dorsetshire and his visit to
Sir Michael sat by the library fire after breakfast upon this wretched
rainy morning, writing letters and reading the newspapers. Alicia shut
herself in her own apartment to read the third volume of a novel. Lady
Audley locked the door of the octagon ante-chamber, and roamed up and
down the suit of rooms from the bedroom to the boudoir all through that
She had locked the door to guard against the chance of any one coming in
suddenly and observing her before she was aware--before she had had
sufficient warning to enable her to face their scrutiny. Her pale face
seemed to grow paler as the morning advanced. A tiny medicine-chest was
open upon the dressing-table, and little stoppered bottles of red
lavender, sal-volatile, chloroform, chlorodyne, and ether were scattered
about. Once my lady paused before this medicine-chest, and took out the
remaining bottles, half-absently, perhaps, until she came to one which
was filled with a thick, dark liquid, and labeled "opium--poison."
She trifled a long time with this last bottle; holding it up to the
light, and even removing the stopper and smelling the sickly liquid. But
she put it from her suddenly with a shudder. "If I could!" she muttered,
"if I could only do it! And yet why should I _now_?"
She clinched her small hands as she uttered the last words, and walked
to the window of the dressing-room, which looked straight toward that
ivied archway under which any one must come who came from Mount Stanning
to the Court.
There were smaller gates in the gardens which led into the meadows
behind the Court, but there was no other way of coming from Mount
Stanning or Brentwood than by the principal entrance.
The solitary hand of the clock over the archway was midway between one
and two when my lady looked at it.
"How slow the time is," she said, wearily; "how slow, how slow! Shall I
grow old like this, I wonder, with every minute of my life seeming like
She stood for a few minutes watching the archway, but no one passed
under it while she looked, and she turned impatiently away from the
window to resume her weary wandering about the rooms.
Whatever fire that had been which had reflected itself vividly in the
black sky, no tidings of it had as yet come to Audley Court. The day was
miserably wet and windy, altogether the very last day upon which even
the most confirmed idler and gossip would care to venture out. It was
not a market-day, and there were therefore very few passengers upon the
road between Brentwood and Chelmsford, so that as yet no news of the
fire, which had occurred in the dead of the wintry night, had reached
the village of Audley, or traveled from the village to the Court.
The girl with the rose-colored ribbons came to the door of the anteroom
to summon her mistress to luncheon, but Lady Audley only opened the door
a little way, and intimated her intention of taking no luncheon.
"My head aches terribly, Martin," she said; "I shall go and lie down
till dinner-time. You may come at five to dress me."
Lady Audley said this with the predetermination of dressing at four, and
thus dispensing with the services of her attendant. Among all privileged
spies, a lady's-maid has the highest privileges; it is she who bathes
Lady Theresa's eyes with eau-de-cologne after her ladyship's quarrel
with the colonel; it is she who administers sal-volatile to Miss Fanny
when Count Beaudesert, of the Blues, has jilted her. She has a hundred
methods for the finding out of her mistress' secrets. She knows by the
manner in which her victim jerks her head from under the hair-brush, or
chafes at the gentlest administration of the comb, what hidden tortures
are racking her breast--what secret perplexities are bewildering her
brain. That well-bred attendant knows how to interpret the most obscure
diagnosis of all mental diseases that can afflict her mistress; she
knows when the ivory complexion is bought and paid for--when the pearly
teeth are foreign substances fashioned by the dentist--when the glossy
plaits are the relics of the dead, rather than the property of the
living; and she knows other and more sacred secrets than these; she
knows when the sweet smile is more false than Madame Levison's enamel,
and far less enduring--when the words that issue from between gates of
borrowed pearl are more disguised and painted than the lips which help
to shape them--when the lovely fairy of the ball-room re-enters the
dressing-room after the night's long revelry, and throws aside her
voluminous burnous and her faded bouquet, and drops her mask, and like
another Cinderella loses the glass-slipper, by whose glitter she has
been distinguished, and falls back into her rags and dirt, the lady's
maid is by to see the transformation. The valet who took wages from the
prophet of Korazin must have seen his master sometimes unveiled, and
must have laughed in his sleeve at the folly of the monster's
Lady Audley had made no _confidante_ of her new maid, and on this day of
all others she wished to be alone.
She did lie down; she cast herself wearily upon the luxurious sofa in
the dressing-room, and buried her face in the down pillows and tried to
sleep. Sleep!--she had almost forgotten what it was, that tender
restorer of tired nature, it seemed so long now since she had slept. It
was only about eight-and-forty hours perhaps, but it appeared an
intolerable time. Her fatigue of the night before, and her unnatural
excitement, had worn her out at last. She did fall asleep; she fell into
a heavy slumber that was almost like stupor. She had taken a few drops
out of the opium bottle in a glass of water before lying down.
The clock over the mantelpiece chimed the quarter before four as she
woke suddenly and started up, with the cold perspiration breaking out in
icy drops upon her forehead. She had dreamt that every member of the
household was clamoring at the door, eager to tell her of a dreadful
fire that had happened in the night.
There was no sound but the flapping of the ivy-leaves against the glass,
the occasional falling of a cinder, and the steady ticking of the clock.
"Perhaps I shall be always dreaming these sort of dreams," my lady
thought, "until the terror of them kills me!"
The rain had ceased, and the cold spring sunshine was glittering upon
the windows. Lady Audley dressed herself rapidly but carefully. I do not
say that even in her supremest hour of misery she still retained her
pride in her beauty. It was not so; she looked upon that beauty as a
weapon, and she felt that she had now double need to be well armed. She
dressed herself in her most gorgeous silk, a voluminous robe of silvery,
shimmering blue, that made her look as if she had been arrayed in
moonbeams. She shook out her hair into feathery showers of glittering
gold, and, with a cloak of white cashmere about her shoulders, went
down-stairs into the vestibule.
She opened the door of the library and looked in. Sir Michael Audley was
asleep in his easy-chair. As my lady softly closed this door Alicia
descended the stairs from her own room. The turret door was open, and
the sun was shining upon the wet grass-plat in the quadrangle. The firm
gravel-walks were already very nearly dry, for the rain had ceased for
upward of two hours.
"Will you take a walk with me in the quadrangle?" Lady Audley asked as
her step-daughter approached. The armed neutrality between the two women
admitted of any chance civility such as this.
"Yes, if you please, my lady," Alicia answered, rather listlessly. "I
have been yawning over a stupid novel all the morning, and shall be very
glad of a little fresh air."
Heaven help the novelist whose fiction Miss Audley had been perusing, if
he had no better critics than that young lady. She had read page after
page without knowing what she had been reading, and had flung aside the
volume half a dozen times to go to the window and watch for that visitor
whom she had so confidently expected.
Lady Audley led the way through the low doorway and on to the smooth
gravel drive, by which carriages approached the house. She was still
very pale, but the brightness of her dress and of her feathery golden
ringlets, distracted an observer's eyes from her pallid face. All mental
distress is, with some show of reason, associated in our minds with
loose, disordered garments and dishabilled hair, and an appearance in
every way the reverse of my lady's. Why had she come out into the chill
sunshine of that March afternoon to wander up and down that monotonous
pathway with the step-daughter she hated? She came because she was under
the dominion of a horrible restlessness, which, would not suffer her to
remain within the house waiting for certain tidings which she knew must
too surely come. At first she had wished to ward them off--at first she
had wished that strange convulsions of nature might arise to hinder
their coming--that abnormal winter lightnings might wither and destroy
the messenger who carried them--that the ground might tremble and yawn
beneath his hastening feet, and that impassable gulfs might separate the
spot from which the tidings were to come and the place to which they
were to be carried. She wished that the earth might stand still, and the
paralyzed elements cease from their natural functions, that the progress
of time might stop, that the Day of Judgment might come, and that she
might thus be brought before an unearthly tribunal, and so escape the
intervening shame and misery of any earthly judgment. In the wild chaos
of her brain, every one of these thoughts had held its place, and in her
short slumber on the sofa in her dressing-room she had dreamed all these
things and a hundred other things, all bearing upon the same subject.
She had dreamed that a brook, a tiny streamlet when she first saw it,
flowed across the road between Mount Stanning and Audley, and gradually
swelled into a river, and from a river became an ocean, till the village
on the hill receded far away out of sight and only a great waste of
waters rolled where it once had been. She dreamt that she saw the
messenger, now one person, now another, but never any probable person,
hindered by a hundred hinderances, now startling and terrible, now
ridiculous and trivial, but never either natural or probable; and going
down into the quiet house with the memory of these dreams strong upon
her, she had been bewildered by the stillness which had betokened that
the tidings had not yet come.
And now her mind underwent a complete change. She no longer wished to
delay the dreaded intelligence. She wished the agony, whatever it was to
be, over and done with, the pain suffered, and the release attained. It
seemed to her as if the intolerable day would never come to an end, as
if her mad wishes had been granted, and the progress of time had
"What a long day it has been!" exclaimed Alicia, as if taking up the
burden of my lady's thoughts; "nothing but drizzle and mist and wind!
And now that it's too late for anybody to go out, it must needs be
fine," the young lady added, with an evident sense of injury.
Lady Audley did not answer. She was looking at the stupid one-handed
clock, and waiting for the news which must come sooner or later, which
could not surely fail to come very speedily.
"They have been afraid to come and tell him," she thought; "they have
been afraid to break the news to Sir Michael. Who will come to tell it,
at last, I wonder? The rector of Mount Stanning, perhaps, or the doctor;
some important person at least."
If she could have gone out into the leafless avenues, or onto the high
road beyond them; if she could have gone so far as that hill upon which
she had so lately parted with Phoebe, she would have gladly done so. She
would rather have suffered anything than that slow suspense, that
corroding anxiety, that metaphysical dryrot in which heart and mind
seemed to decay under an insufferable torture. She tried to talk, and by
a painful effort contrived now and then to utter some commonplace
remark. Under any ordinary circumstances her companion would have
noticed her embarrassment, but Miss Audley, happening to be very much
absorbed by her own vexations, was quite as well inclined to be silent
as my lady herself. The monotonous walk up and down the graveled pathway
suited Alicia's humor. I think that she even took a malicious pleasure
in the idea that she was very likely catching cold, and that her Cousin
Robert was answerable for her danger. If she could have brought upon
herself inflammation of the lungs, or ruptured blood-vessels, by that
exposure to the chill March atmosphere, I think she would have felt a
gloomy satisfaction in her sufferings.
"Perhaps Robert might care for me, if I had inflammation of the lungs,"
she thought. "He couldn't insult me by calling me a bouncer then.
Bouncers don't have inflammation of the lungs."
I believe she drew a picture of herself in the last stage of
consumption, propped up by pillows in a great easy-chair, looking out of
a window in the afternoon sunshine, with medicine bottles, a bunch of
grapes and a Bible upon a table by her side, and with Robert, all
contrition and tenderness, summoned to receive her farewell blessing.
She preached a whole chapter to him in that parting benediction, talking
a great deal longer than was in keeping with her prostrate state, and
very much enjoying her dismal castle in the air. Employed in this
sentimental manner, Miss Audley took very little notice of her
step-mother, and the one hand of the blundering clock had slipped to six
by the time Robert had been blessed and dismissed.
"Good gracious me!" she cried, suddenly--"six o'clock, and I'm not
The half-hour bell rung in a cupola upon the roof while Alicia was
"I must go in, my lady," she said. "Won't you come?"
"Presently," answered Lady Audley. "I'm dressed, you see."
Alicia ran off, but Sir Michael's wife still lingered in the quadrangle,
still waited for those tidings which were so long coming.
It was nearly dark. The blue mists of evening had slowly risen from the
ground. The flat meadows were filled with a gray vapor, and a stranger
might have fancied Audley Court a castle on the margin of a sea. Under
the archway the shadows of fastcoming night lurked darkly, like traitors
waiting for an opportunity to glide stealthily into the quadrangle.
Through the archway a patch of cold blue sky glimmered faintly, streaked
by one line of lurid crimson, and lighted by the dim glitter of one
wintry-looking star. Not a creature was stirring in the quadrangle but
the restless woman who paced up and down the straight pathways,
listening for a footstep whose coming was to strike terror to her soul.
She heard it at last!--a footstep in the avenue upon the other side of
the archway. But was it the footstep? Her sense of hearing, made
unnaturally acute by excitement, told her that it was a man's
footstep--told even more, that it was the tread of a gentleman, no
slouching, lumbering pedestrian in hobnailed boots, but a gentleman who
walked firmly and well.
Every sound fell like a lump of ice upon my lady's heart. She could not
wait, she could not contain herself, she lost all self-control, all
power of endurance, all capability of self-restraint, and she rushed
toward the archway.
She paused beneath its shadow, for the stranger was close upon her. She
saw him, oh, God! she saw him in that dim evening light. Her brain
reeled, her heart stopped beating. She uttered no cry of surprise, no
exclamation of terror, but staggered backward and clung for support to
the ivied buttress of the archway. With her slender figure crouched into
the angle formed by the buttress and the wall which it supported, she
stood staring at the new-comer.
As he approached her more closely her knees sunk under her, and she
dropped to the ground, not fainting, or in any manner unconscious, but
sinking into a crouching attitude, and still crushed into the angle of
the wall, as if she would have made a tomb for herself in the shadow of
that sheltering brickwork.
The speaker was Robert Audley. He whose bedroom door she had
double-locked seventeen hours before at the Castle Inn.
"What is the matter with you?" he said, in a strange, constrained
manner. "Get up, and let me take you indoors."
He assisted her to rise, and she obeyed him very submissively. He took
her arm in his strong hand and led her across the quadrangle and into
the lamp-lit hall. She shivered more violently than he had ever seen any
woman shiver before, but she made no attempt at resistance to his will.
MY LADY TELLS THE TRUTH.
"Is there any room in which I can talk to you alone?" Robert Audley
asked, as he looked dubiously round the hall.
My lady only bowed her head in answer. She pushed open the door of the
library, which had been left ajar. Sir Michael had gone to his
dressing-room to prepare for dinner after a day of lazy enjoyment,
perfectly legitimate for an invalid. The apartment was quite empty, only
lighted by the blaze of the fire, as it had been upon the previous
Lady Audley entered the room, followed by Robert, who closed the door
behind him. The wretched, shivering woman went to the fireplace and
knelt down before the blaze, as if any natural warmth, could have power
to check that unnatural chill. The young man followed her, and stood
beside her upon the hearth, with his arm resting upon the chimney-piece.
"Lady Audley," he said, in a voice whose icy sternness held out no hope
of any tenderness or compassion, "I spoke to you last-night very
plainly, but you refused to listen to me. To-night I must speak to you
still more plainly, and you must no longer refuse to listen to me."
My lady, crouching before the fire with her face hidden in her hands,
uttered a low, sobbing sound which was almost a moan, but made no other
"There was a fire last night at Mount Stanning, Lady Audley," the
pitiless voice proceeded; "the Castle Inn, the house in which I slept,
was burned to the ground. Do you know how I escaped perishing in that
"I escaped by a most providential circumstance which seems a very simple
one. I did not sleep in the room which had been prepared for me. The
place seemed wretchedly damp and chilly, the chimney smoked abominably
when an attempt was made at lighting a fire, and I persuaded the servant
to make me up a bed on the sofa in the small ground-floor sitting-room
which I had occupied during the evening."
He paused for a moment, watching the crouching figure. The only change
in my lady's attitude was that her head had fallen a little lower.
"Shall I tell you by whose agency the destruction of the Castle Inn was
brought about, my lady?"
There was no answer.
"Shall I tell you?"
Still the same obstinate silence.
"My Lady Audley," cried Robert, suddenly, "_you_ are the incendiary. It
was you whose murderous hand kindled those flames. It was you who
thought by that thrice-horrible deed to rid yourself of me, your enemy
and denouncer. What was it to you that other lives might be sacrificed?
If by a second massacre of Saint Bartholomew you could have ridded
yourself of _me_ you would have sacrificed an army of victims. The day
is past for tenderness and mercy. For you I can no longer know pity or
compunction. So far as by sparing your shame I can spare others who must
suffer by your shame, I will be merciful, but no further. If there were
any secret tribunal before which you might be made to answer for your
crimes, I would have little scruple in being your accuser, but I would
spare that generous and high-born gentleman upon whose noble name your
infamy would be reflected."
His voice softened as he made this allusion, and for a moment he broke
down, but he recovered himself by an effort and continued:
"No life was lost in the fire of last night. I slept lightly, my lady,
for my mind was troubled, as it has been for a long time, by the misery
which I knew was lowering upon this house. It was I who discovered the
breaking out of the fire in time to give the alarm and to save the
servant girl and the poor drunken wretch, who was very much burnt in
spite of efforts, and who now lies in a precarious state at his mother's
cottage. It was from him and from his wife that I learned who had
visited the Castle Inn in the dead of the night. The woman was almost
distracted when she saw me, and from her I discovered the particulars of
last night. Heaven knows what other secrets of yours she may hold, my
lady, or how easily they might be extorted from her if I wanted her aid,
which I do not. My path lies very straight before me. I have sworn to
bring the murderer of George Talboys to justice, and I will keep my
oath. I say that it was by your agency my friend met with his death. If
I have wondered sometimes, as it was only natural I should, whether I
was not the victim of some horrible hallucination, whether such an
alternative was not more probable than that a young and lovely woman
should be capable of so foul and treacherous a murder, all wonder is
past. After last night's deed of horror, there is no crime you could
commit, however vast and unnatural, which could make me wonder.
Henceforth you must seem to me no longer a woman, a guilty woman with a
heart which in its worst wickedness has yet some latent power to suffer
and feel; I look upon you henceforth as the demoniac incarnation of some
evil principle. But you shall no longer pollute this place by your
presence. Unless you will confess what you are and who you are in the
presence of the man you have deceived so long, and accept from him and
from me such mercy as we may be inclined to extend to you, I will gather
together the witnesses who shall swear to your identity, and at peril of
any shame to myself and those I love, I will bring upon you the just and
awful punishment of your crime."
The woman rose suddenly and stood before him erect and resolute, with
her hair dashed away from her face and her eyes glittering.
"Bring Sir Michael!" she cried; "bring him here, and I will confess
anything--everything. What do I care? God knows I have struggled hard
enough against you, and fought the battle patiently enough; but you have
conquered, Mr. Robert Audley. It is a great triumph, is it not--a
wonderful victory? You have used your cool, calculating, frigid,
luminous intellect to a noble purpose. You have conquered--a MAD WOMAN!"
"A mad woman!" cried Mr. Audley.
"Yes, a mad woman. When you say that I killed George Talboys, you say
the truth. When you say that I murdered him treacherously and foully,
you lie. I killed him because I AM MAD! because my intellect is a little
way upon the wrong side of that narrow boundary-line between sanity and
insanity; because, when George Talboys goaded me, as you have goaded me,
and reproached me, and threatened me, my mind, never properly balanced,
utterly lost its balance, and _I was mad_! Bring Sir Michael; and bring
him quickly. If he is to be told one thing let him be told everything;
let him hear the secret of my life!"
Robert Audley left the room to look for his uncle. He went in search of
that honored kinsman with God knows how heavy a weight of anguish at his
heart, for he knew he was about to shatter the day-dream of his uncle's
life; and he knew that our dreams are none the less terrible to lose,
because they have never been the realities for which we have mistaken
them. But even in the midst of his sorrow for Sir Michael, he could not
help wondering at my lady's last words--"the secret of my life." He
remembered those lines in the letter written by Helen Talboys upon the
eve of her flight from Wildernsea, which had so puzzled him. He
remembered those appealing sentences--"You should forgive me, for you
know _why_ I have been so. You know the _secret_ of my life."
He met Sir Michael in the hall. He made no attempt to prepare the way
for the terrible revelation which the baronet was to hear. He only drew
him into the fire-lit library, and there for the first time addressed
him quietly thus: "Lady Audley has a confession to make to you, sir--a
confession which I know will be a most cruel surprise, a most bitter
grief. But it is necessary for your present honor, and for your future
peace, that you should hear it. She has deceived you, I regret to say,
most basely; but it is only right that you should hear from her own lips
any excuses which she may have to offer for her wickedness. May God
soften this blow for you!" sobbed the young man, suddenly breaking down;
Sir Michael lifted his hand as if he would command his nephew to be
silent, but that imperious hand dropped feeble and impotent at his side.
He stood in the center of the fire-lit room rigid and immovable.
"Lucy!" he cried, in a voice whose anguish struck like a blow upon the
jarred nerves of those who heard it, as the cry of a wounded animal
pains the listener--"Lucy, tell me that this man is a madman! tell me
so, my love, or I shall kill him!"
There was a sudden fury in his voice as he turned upon Robert, as if he
could indeed have felled his wife's accuser to the earth with the
strength of his uplifted arm.
But my lady fell upon her knees at his feet, interposing herself between
the baronet and his nephew, who stood leaning on the back of an
easy-chair, with his face hidden by his hand.
"He has told you the truth," said my lady, "and he is not mad! I have
sent him for you that I may confess everything to you. I should be sorry
for you if I could, for you have been very, very good to me, much better
to me than I ever deserved; but I can't, I can't--I can feel nothing but
my own misery. I told you long ago that I was selfish; I am selfish
still--more selfish than ever in my misery. Happy, prosperous people may
feel for others. I laugh at other people's sufferings; they seem so
small compared to my own."
When first my lady had fallen on her knees, Sir Michael had attempted to
raise her, and had remonstrated with her; but as she spoke he dropped
into a chair close to the spot upon which she knelt, and with his hands
clasped together, and with his head bent to catch every syllable of
those horrible words, he listened as if his whole being had been
resolved into that one sense of hearing.
"I must tell you the story of my life, in order to tell you why I have
become the miserable wretch who has no better hope than to be allowed to
run away and hide in some desolate corner of the earth. I must tell you
the story of my life," repeated my lady, "but you need not fear that I
shall dwell long upon it. It has not been so pleasant to me that I
should wish to remember it. When I was a very little child I remember
asking a question which it was natural enough that I should ask, God
help me! I asked where my mother was. I had a faint remembrance of a
face, like what my own is now, looking at me when I was very little
better than a baby; but I had missed the face suddenly, and had never
seen it since. They told me that mother was away. I was not happy, for
the woman who had charge of me was a disagreeable woman and the place in
which we lived was a lonely place, a village upon the Hampshire coast,
about seven miles from Portsmouth. My father, who was in the navy, only
came now and then to see me; and I was left almost entirely to the
charge of this woman, who was irregularly paid, and who vented her rage
upon me when my father was behindhand in remitting her money. So you see
that at a very early age I found out what it was to be poor.
"Perhaps it was more from being discontented with my dreary life than
from any wonderful impulse of affection, that I asked very often the
same question about my mother. I always received the same answer--she
was away. When I asked where, I was told that that was a secret. When I
grew old enough to understand the meaning of the word death, I asked if
my mother was dead, and I was told--'No, she was not dead; she was ill,
and she was away.' I asked how long she had been ill, and I was told
that she had been so some years, ever since I was a baby.
"At last the secret came out. I worried my foster-mother with the old
question one day when the remittances had fallen very much in arrear,
and her temper had been unusually tried. She flew into a passion, and
told me that my mother was a mad woman, and that she was in a madhouse
forty miles away. She had scarcely said this when she repented, and told
me that it was not the truth, and that I was not to believe it, or to
say that she had told me such a thing. I discovered afterward that my
father had made her promise most solemnly never to tell me the secret of
my mother's fate.
"I brooded horribly upon the thought of my mother's madness. It haunted
me by day and night. I was always picturing to myself this mad woman
pacing up and down some prison cell, in a hideous garment that bound her
tortured limbs. I had exaggerated ideas of the horror of her situation.
I had no knowledge of the different degrees of madness, and the image
that haunted me was that of a distraught and violent creature, who would
fall upon me and kill me if I came within her reach. This idea grew upon
me until I used to awake in the dead of night, screaming aloud in an
agony of terror, from a dream in which I had felt my mother's icy grasp
upon my throat, and heard her ravings in my ear.
"When I was ten years old my father came to pay up the arrears due to my
protectress, and to take me to school. He had left me in Hampshire
longer than he had intended, from his inability to pay this money; so
there again I felt the bitterness of poverty, and ran the risk of
growing up an ignorant creature among coarse rustic children, because my
father was poor."
My lady paused for a moment, but only to take breath, for she had spoken
rapidly, as if eager to tell this hated story, and to have done with it.
She was still on her knees, but Sir Michael made no effort to raise her.
He sat silent and immovable. What was this story that he was listening
to? Whose was it, and to what was it to lead? It could not be his
wife's; he had heard her simple account of her youth, and had believed
it as he had believed in the Gospel. She had told him a very brief story
of an early orphanage, and a long, quiet, colorless youth spent in the
conventional seclusion of an English boarding-school.
"My father came at last, and I told him what I had discovered. He was
very much affected when I spoke of my mother. He was not what the world
generally calls a good man, but I learned afterward that he had loved
his wife very dearly, and that he would have willingly sacrificed his
life to her, and constituted himself her guardian, had he not been
compelled to earn the daily bread of the mad woman and her child by the
exercise of his profession. So here again I beheld what a bitter thing
it is to be poor. My mother, who might have been tended by a devoted
husband, was given over to the care of hired nurses.
"Before my father sent me to school at Torquay, he took me to see my
mother. This visit served at least to dispel the idea which had so often
terrified me. I saw no raving, straight-waist-coated maniac, guarded by
zealous jailers, but a golden-haired, blue-eyed, girlish creature, who
seemed as frivolous as a butterfly, and who skipped toward us with her
yellow curls decorated with natural flowers, and saluted us with radiant
smiles, and gay, ceaseless chatter.
"But she didn't know us. She would have spoken in the same manner to any
stranger who had entered the gates of the garden about her prison-house.
Her madness was an hereditary disease transmitted to her from her
mother, who had died mad. She, my mother, had been, or had appeared sane
up to the hour of my birth, but from that hour her intellect had
decayed, and she had become what I saw her.
"I went away with the knowledge of this, and with the knowledge that the
only inheritance I had to expect from my mother was--insanity!
"I went away with this knowledge in my mind, and with something more--a
secret to keep. I was a child of ten years only, but I felt all the
weight of that burden. I was to keep the secret of my mother's madness;
for it was a secret that might affect me injuriously in after-life. I
was to remember this.
"I did remember this; and it was, perhaps, this that made me selfish and
heartless, for I suppose I am heartless. As I grew older I was told that
I was pretty--beautiful--lovely--bewitching. I heard all these things at
first indifferently, but by-and-by I listened to them greedily, and
began to think that in spite of the secret of my life I might be more
successful in the world's great lottery than my companions. I had learnt
that which in some indefinite manner or other every school-girl learns
sooner or later--I learned that my ultimate fate in life depended upon
my marriage, and I concluded that if I was indeed prettier than my
schoolfellows, I ought to marry better than any one of them.
"I left school before I was seventeen years of age, with this thought in
my mind, and I went to live at the other extremity of England with my
father, who had retired upon his half-pay, and had established himself
at Wildernsea, with the idea that the place was cheap and select.
"The place was indeed select. I had not been there a month before I
discovered that even the prettiest girl might wait a long time for a
rich husband. I wish to hurry over this part of my life. I dare say I
was very despicable. You and your nephew, Sir Michael, have been rich
all your lives, and can very well afford to despise me; but I knew how
far poverty can affect a life, and I looked forward with a sickening
dread to a life so affected. At last the rich suitor, the wandering
She paused for a moment, and shuddered convulsively. It was impossible
to see any of the changes in her countenance, for her face was
obstinately bent toward the floor. Throughout her long confession she
never lifted it; throughout her long confession her voice was never
broken by a tear. What she had to tell she told in a cold, hard tone,
very much the tone in which some criminal, dogged and sullen to the
last, might have confessed to a jail chaplain.
"The wandering prince came," she repeated; "he was called George
For the first time since his wife's confession had begun, Sir Michael
Audley started. He began to understand it all now. A crowd of unheeded
words and forgotten circumstances that had seemed too insignificant for
remark or recollection, flashed back upon him as vividly as if they had
been the leading incidents of his past life.
"Mr. George Talboys was a cornet in a dragoon regiment. He was the only
son of a rich country gentleman. He fell in love with me, and married me
three months after my seventeenth birthday. I think I loved him as much
as it was in my power to love anybody; not more than I have loved you,
Sir Michael--not so much, for when you married me you elevated me to a
position that he could never have given me."
The dream was broken. Sir Michael Audley remembered that summer's
evening, nearly two years ago, when he had first declared his love for
Mr. Dawson's governess; he remembered the sick, half-shuddering
sensation of regret and disappointment that had come over him then, and
he felt as if it had in some manner dimly foreshadowed the agony of
But I do not believe that even in his misery he felt that entire and
unmitigated surprise, that utter revulsion of feeling that is felt when
a good woman wanders away from herself and becomes the lost creature
whom her husband is bound in honor to abjure. I do not believe that Sir
Michael Audley had ever _really_ believed in his wife. He had loved her
and admired her; he had been bewitched by her beauty and bewildered by
her charms; but that sense of something wanting, that vague feeling of
loss and disappointment which had come upon him on the summer's night of
his betrothal had been with him more or less distinctly ever since. I
cannot believe that an honest man, however pure and single may be his
mind, however simply trustful his nature, is ever really deceived by
falsehood. There is beneath the voluntary confidence an involuntary
distrust, not to be conquered by any effort of the will.
"We were married," my lady continued, "and I loved him very well, quite
well enough to be happy with him as long as his money lasted, and while
we were on the Continent, traveling in the best style and always staying
at the best hotels. But when we came back to Wildernsea and lived with
papa, and all the money was gone, and George grew gloomy and wretched,
and was always thinking of his troubles, and appeared to neglect me, I
was very unhappy, and it seemed as if this fine marriage had only given
me a twelvemonth's gayety and extravagance after all. I begged George to
appeal to his father, but he refused. I persuaded him to try and get
employment, and he failed. My baby was born, and the crisis which had
been fatal to my mother arose for me. I escaped, but I was more
irritable perhaps after my recovery, less inclined to fight the hard
battle of the world, more disposed to complain of poverty and neglect. I
did complain one day, loudly and bitterly; I upbraided George Talboys
for his cruelty in having allied a helpless girl to poverty and misery,
and he flew into a passion with me and ran out of the house. When I
awoke the next morning, I found a letter lying on the table by my bed,
telling me that he was going to the antipodes to seek his fortune, and
that he would never see me again until he was a rich man.
"I looked upon this as a desertion, and I resented it bitterly--resented
it by hating the man who had left me with no protector but a weak, tipsy
father, and with a child to support. I had to work hard for my living,
and in every hour of labor--and what labor is more wearisome than the
dull slavery of a governess?--I recognized a separate wrong done me by
George Talboys. His father was rich, his sister was living in luxury and
respectability, and I, his wife, and the mother of his son, was a slave
allied to beggary and obscurity. People pitied me, and I hated them for
their pity. I did not love the child, for he had been left a burden upon
my hands. The hereditary taint that was in my blood had never until this
time showed itself by any one sign or token; but at this time I became
subject to fits of violence and despair. At this time I think my mind
first lost its balance, and for the first time I crossed that invisible
line which separates reason from madness. I have seen my father's eyes
fixed upon me in horror and alarm. I have known him soothe me as only
mad people and children are soothed, and I have chafed against his petty
devices, I have resented even his indulgence.
"At last these fits of desperation resolved themselves into a desperate
purpose. I determined to run away from this wretched home which my
slavery supported. I determined to desert this father who had more fear
of me than love for me. I determined to go to London and lose myself in
that great chaos of humanity.
"I had seen an advertisement in the _Times_ while I was at Wildernsea,
and I presented myself to Mrs. Vincent, the advertiser, under a feigned
name. She accepted me, waiving all questions as to my antecedents. You
know the rest. I came here, and you made me an offer, the acceptance of
which would lift me at once into the sphere to which my ambition had
pointed ever since I was a school-girl, and heard for the first time
that I was pretty.
"Three years had passed, and I had received no token of my husband's
existence; for, I argued, that if he had returned to England, he would
have succeeded in finding me under any name and in any place. I knew the
energy of his character well enough to know this.
"I said 'I have a right to think that he is dead, or that he wishes me
to believe him dead, and his shadow shall not stand between me and
prosperity.' I said this, and I became your wife, Sir Michael, with
every resolution to be as good a wife as it was in my nature to be. The
common temptations that assail and shipwreck some women had no terror
for me. I would have been your true and pure wife to the end of time,
though I had been surrounded by a legion of tempters. The mad folly that
the world calls love had never had any part in my madness, and here at
least extremes met, and the vice of heartlessness became the virtue of
"I was very happy in the first triumph and grandeur of my new position,
very grateful to the hand that had lifted me to it. In the sunshine of
my own happiness I felt, for the first time in my life, for the miseries
of others. I had been poor myself, and I was now rich, and could afford
to pity and relieve the poverty of my neighbors. I took pleasure in acts
of kindness and benevolence. I found out my father's address and sent
him large sums of money, anonymously, for I did not wish him to discover
what had become of me. I availed myself to the full of the privilege
your generosity afforded me. I dispensed happiness on every side. I saw
myself loved as well as admired, and I think I might have been a good
woman for the rest of my life, if fate would have allowed me to be so.
"I believe that at this time my mind regained its just balance. I had
watched myself very closely since leaving Wildernsea; I had held a check
upon myself. I had often wondered while sitting in the surgeon's quiet
family circle whether any suspicion of that invisible, hereditary taint
had ever occurred to Mr. Dawson.
"Fate would not suffer me to be good. My destiny compelled me to be a
wretch. Within a month of my marriage, I read in one of the Essex papers
of the return of a certain Mr. Talboys, a fortunate gold-seeker, from
Australia. The ship had sailed at the time I read the paragraph. What
was to be done?
"I said just now that I knew the energy of George's character. I knew
that the man who had gone to the antipodes and won a fortune for his
wife would leave no stone unturned in his efforts to find her. It was
hopeless to think of hiding myself from him.
"Unless he could be induced to believe that I was dead, he would never
cease in his search for me.
"My brain was dazed as I thought of my peril. Again the balance
trembled, again the invisible boundary was passed, again I was mad.
"I went down to Southampton and found my father, who was living there
with my child. You remember how Mrs. Vincent's name was used as an
excuse for this hurried journey, and how it was contrived I should go
with no other escort than Phoebe Marks, whom I left at the hotel while I
went to my father's house.
"I confided to my father the whole secret of my peril. He was not very
much shocked at what I had done, for poverty had perhaps blunted his
sense of honor and principle. He was not very much shocked, but he was
frightened, and he promised to do all in his power to assist me in my
"He had received a letter addressed to me at Wildernsea, by George, and
forwarded from there to my father. This letter had been written within a
few days of the sailing of the _Argus_, and it announced the probable
date of the ship's arrival at Liverpool. This letter gave us, therefore,
data upon which to act.
"We decided at once upon the first step. This was that on the date of
the probable arrival of the _Argus_, or a few days later, an
advertisement of my death should be inserted in the _Times_.
"But almost immediately after deciding upon this, we saw that there were
fearful difficulties in the carrying out of such a simple plan. The date
of the death, and the place in which I died, must be announced, as well
as the death itself. George would immediately hurry to that place,
however distant it might be, however comparatively inaccessible, and the
shallow falsehood would be discovered.
"I knew enough of his sanguine temperament, his courage and
determination, his readiness to hope against hope, to know that unless
he saw the grave in which I was buried, and the register of my death, he
would never believe that I was lost to him.
"My father was utterly dumfounded and helpless. He could only shed
childish tears of despair and terror. He was of no use to me in this
"I was hopeless of any issue out of my difficulties. I began to think
that I must trust to the chapter of accidents, and hope that among other
obscure corners of the earth, Audley Court might be undreamt of by my
"I sat with my father, drinking tea with him in his miserable hovel, and
playing with the child, who was pleased with my dress and jewels, but
quite unconscious that I was anything but a stranger to him. I had the
boy in my arms, when a woman who attended him came to fetch him that she
might make him more fit to be seen by the lady, as she said.
"I was anxious to know how the boy was treated, and I detained this
woman in conversation with me while my father dozed over the tea-table.
"She was a pale-faced, sandy-haired woman of about five-and-forty and
she seemed very glad to get the chance of talking to me as long as I
pleased to allow her. She soon left off talking of the boy, however, to
tell me of her own troubles. She was in very great trouble, she told me.
Her eldest daughter had been obliged to leave her situation from
ill-health; in fact, the doctor said the girl was in a decline; and it
was a hard thing for a poor widow who had seen better days to have a
sick daughter to support, as well as a family of young children.
"I let the woman run on for a long time in this manner, telling me the
girl's ailments, and the girl's age, and the girl's doctor's stuff, and
piety, and sufferings, and a great deal more. But I neither listened to
her nor heeded her. I heard her, but only in a far-away manner, as I
heard the traffic in the street, or the ripple of the stream at the
bottom of it. What were this woman's troubles to me? I had miseries of
my own, and worse miseries than her coarse nature could ever have to
endure. These sort of people always had sick husbands or sick children,
and expected to be helped in their illness by the rich. It was nothing
out of the common. I was thinking this, and I was just going to dismiss
the woman with a sovereign for her sick daughter, when an idea flashed
upon me with such painful suddenness that it sent the blood surging up
to my brain, and set my heart beating, as it only beats when I am mad.
"I asked the woman her name. She was a Mrs. Plowson, and she kept a
small general shop, she said, and only ran in now and then to look after
Georgey, and to see that the little maid-of-all-work took care of him.
Her daughter's name was Matilda. I asked her several questions about
this girl Matilda, and I ascertained that she was four-and-twenty, that
she had always been consumptive, and that she was now, as the doctor
said, going off in a rapid decline. He had declared that she could not
last much more than a fortnight.
"It was in three weeks that the ship that carried George Talboys was
expected to anchor in the Mersey.
"I need not dwell upon this business. I visited the sick girl. She was
fair and slender. Her description, carelessly given, might tally nearly
enough with my own, though she bore no shadow of resemblance to me,
except in these two particulars. I was received by the girl as a rich
lady who wished to do her a service. I bought the mother, who was poor
and greedy, and who for a gift of money, more money than she had ever
before received, consented to submit to anything I wished. Upon the
second day after my introduction to this Mrs. Plowson, my father went
over to Ventnor, and hired lodgings for his invalid daughter and her
little boy. Early the next morning he carried over the dying girl and
Georgey, who had been bribed to call her 'mamma.' She entered the house
as Mrs. Talboys; she was attended by a Ventnor medical man as Mrs.
Talboys; she died, and her death and burial were registered in that
"The advertisement was inserted in the _Times_, and upon the second day
after its insertion George Talboys visited Ventnor, and ordered the
tombstone which at this hour records the death of his wife, Helen
Sir Michael Audley rose slowly, and with a stiff, constrained action, as
if every physical sense had been benumbed by that one sense of misery.
"I cannot hear any more," he said, in a hoarse whisper; "if there is
anything more to be told I cannot hear it. Robert, it is you who have
brought about this discovery, as I understand. I want to know nothing
more. Will you take upon yourself the duty of providing for the safety
and comfort of this lady whom I have thought my wife? I need not ask you
to remember in all you do, that I have loved her very dearly and truly.
I cannot say farewell to her. I will not say it until I can think of her
without bitterness--until I can pity her, as I now pray that God may
pity her this night."
Sir Michael walked slowly from the room. He did not trust himself to
look at that crouching figure. He did not wish to see the creature whom
he had cherished. He went straight to his dressing-room, rung for his
valet, and ordered him to pack a portmanteau, and make all necessary
arrangements for accompanying his master by the last up-train.
THE HUSH THAT SUCCEEDS THE TEMPEST.
Robert Audley followed his uncle into the vestibule after Sir Michael
had spoken those few quiet words which sounded the death-knell of his
hope and love. Heaven knows how much the young man had feared the coming
of this day. It had come; and though there had been no great outburst of
despair, no whirlwind of stormy grief, no loud tempest of anguish and
tears, Robert took no comforting thought from the unnatural stillness.
He knew enough to know that Sir Michael Audley went away with the barbed
arrow, which his nephew's hand had sent home to its aim, rankling in his
tortured heart; he knew that this strange and icy calm was the first
numbness of a heart stricken by grief so unexpected as for a time to be
rendered almost incomprehensible by a blank stupor of astonishment; he
knew that when this dull quiet had passed away, when little by little,
and one by one, each horrible feature of the sufferer's sorrow became
first dimly apparent and then terribly familiar to him, the storm would
burst in fatal fury, and tempests of tears and cruel thunder-claps of
agony would rend that generous heart.
Robert had heard of cases in which men of his uncle's age had borne some
great grief, as Sir Michael had borne this, with a strange quiet; and
had gone away from those who would have comforted them, and whose
anxieties have been relieved by this patient stillness, to fall down
upon the ground and die under the blow which at first had only stunned
him. He remembered cases in which paralysis and apoplexy had stricken
men as strong as his uncle in the first hour of the horrible affliction;
and he lingered in the lamp-lit vestibule, wondering whether it was not
his duty to be with Sir Michael--to be near him, in case of any
emergency, and to accompany him wherever he went.
Yet would it be wise to force himself upon that gray-headed sufferer in
this cruel hour, in which he had been awakened from the one delusion of
a blameless life to discover that he had been the dupe of a false face,
and the fool of a nature which was too coldly mercenary, too cruelly
heartless, to be sensible of its own infamy?
"No," thought Robert Audley, "I will not intrude upon the anguish of
this wounded heart. There is humiliation mingled with this bitter grief.
It is better he should fight the battle alone. I have done what I
believe to have been my solemn duty, yet I should scarcely wonder if I
had rendered myself forever hateful to him. It is better he should fight
the battle alone. _I_ can do nothing to make the strife less terrible.
Better that it should be fought alone."
While the young man stood with his hand upon the library door, still
half-doubtful whether he should follow his uncle or re-enter the room in
which he had left that more wretched creature whom it had been his
business to unmask, Alicia Audley opened the dining-room door, and
revealed to him the old-fashioned oak-paneled apartment, the long table
covered with showy damask, and bright with a cheerful glitter of glass
"Is papa coming to dinner?" asked Miss Audley. "I'm so hungry; and poor
Tomlins has sent up three times to say the fish will be spoiled. It must
be reduced to a species of isinglass soup, by this time, I should
think," added the young lady, as she came out into the vestibule with
the _Times_ newspaper in her hand.