IN THE LIME-WALK.
Robert Audley was loitering upon the broad grass-plat in front of the Court as the carriage containing my lady and Alicia drove under the archway, and drew up at the low turret-door. Mr. Audley presented himself in time to hand the ladies out of the vehicle.
My lady looked very pretty in a delicate blue bonnet and the sables which her nephew had bought for her at St. Petersburg. She seemed very well pleased to see Robert, and smiled most bewitchingly as she gave him her exquisitely gloved little hand.
"So you have come back to us, truant?" she said, laughing. "And now that you have returned, we shall keep you prisoner. We won't let him run away again, will we, Alicia?"
Miss Audley gave her head a scornful toss that shook the heavy curls under her cavalier hat.
"I have nothing to do with the movements of so erratic an individual," she said. "Since Robert Audley has taken it into his head to conduct himself like some ghost-haunted hero in a German story, I have given up attempting to understand him."
Mr. Audley looked at his cousin with an expression of serio-comic perplexity. "She's a nice girl," he thought, "but she's a nuisance. I don't know how it is, but she seems more a nuisance than she used to be."
He pulled his mustaches reflectively as he considered this question. His mind wandered away for a few moments from the great trouble of his life to dwell upon this minor perplexity.
"She's a dear girl," he thought; "a generous-hearted, bouncing, noble English lassie; and yet--" He lost himself in a quagmire of doubt and difficulty. There was some hitch in his mind which he could not understand; some change in himself, beyond the change made in him by his anxiety about George Talboys, which mystified and bewildered him.
"And pray where have you been wandering during the last day or two, Mr. Audley?" asked my lady, as she lingered with her step-daughter upon the threshold of the turret-door, waiting until Robert should be pleased to stand aside and allow them to pass. The young man started as she asked this question and looked up at her suddenly. Something in the aspect of her bright young beauty, something in the childish innocence of her expression, seemed to smite him to the heart, and his face grew ghastly pale as he looked at her.
"I have been--in Yorkshire," he said; "at the little watering place where my poor friend George Talboys lived at the time of his marriage."
The white change in my lady's face was the only sign of her having heard these words. She smiled, a faint, sickly smile, and tried to pass her husband's nephew.
"I must dress for dinner," she said. "I am going to a dinner-party, Mr. Audley; please let me go in."
"I must ask you to spare me half an hour, Lady Audley," Robert answered, in a low voice. "I came down to Essex on purpose to speak to you."
"What about?" asked my lady.
She had recovered herself from any shock which she might have sustained a few moments before, and it was in her usual manner that she asked this question. Her face expressed the mingled bewilderment and curiosity of a puzzled child, rather than the serious surprise of a woman.
"What can you want to talk to me about, Mr. Audley?" she repeated.
"I will tell you when we are alone," Robert said, glancing at his cousin, who stood a little way behind my lady, watching this confidential little dialogue.
"He is in love with my step-mother's wax-doll beauty," thought Alicia, "and it is for her sake he has become such a disconsolate object. He's just the sort of person to fall in love with his aunt."
Miss Audley walked away to the grass-plat, turning her back upon Robert and my lady.
"The absurd creature turned as white as a sheet when he saw her," she thought. "So he can be in love, after all. That slow lump of torpidity he calls his heart can beat, I suppose, once in a quarter of a century; but it seems that nothing but a blue-eyed wax-doll can set it going. I should have given him up long ago if I'd known that his idea of beauty was to be found in a toy-shop."
Poor Alicia crossed the grass-plat and disappeared upon the opposite side of the quadrangle, where there was a Gothic gate that communicated with the stables. I am sorry to say that Sir Michael Audley's daughter went to seek consolation from her dog Caesar and her chestnut mare Atalanta, whose loose box the young lady was in the habit of visiting every day.
"Will you come into the lime-walk, Lady Audley?" said Robert, as his cousin left the garden. "I wish to talk to you without fear of interruption or observation. I think we could choose no safer place than that. Will you come there with me?"
"If you please," answered my lady. Mr. Audley could see that she was trembling, and that she glanced from side to side as if looking for some outlet by which she might escape him.
"You are shivering, Lady Audley," he said.
"Yes, I am very cold. I would rather speak to you some other day, please. Let it be to-morrow, if you will. I have to dress for dinner, and I want to see Sir Michael; I have not seen him since ten o'clock this morning. Please let it be to-morrow."
There was a painful piteousness in her tone. Heaven knows how painful to Robert's heart. Heaven knows what horrible images arose in his mind as he looked down at that fair young face and thought of the task that lay before him.
"I _must_ speak to you, Lady Audley," he said. "If I am cruel, it is you who have made me cruel. You might have escaped this ordeal. You might have avoided me. I gave you fair warning. But you have chosen to defy me, and it is your own folly which is to blame if I no longer spare you. Come with me. I tell you again I must speak to you."
There was a cold determination in his tone which silenced my lady's objections. She followed him submissively to the little iron gate which communicated with the long garden behind the house--the garden in which a little rustic wooden bridge led across the quiet fish-pond into the lime-walk.
The early winter twilight was closing in, and the intricate tracery of the leafless branches that overarched the lonely pathway looked black against the cold gray of the evening sky. The lime-walk seemed like some cloister in this uncertain light.
"Why do you bring me to this horrible place to frighten me out of my poor wits?" cried my lady, peevishly. "You ought to know how nervous I am."
"You are nervous, my lady?"
"Yes, dreadfully nervous. I am worth a fortune to poor Mr. Dawson. He is always sending me camphor, and sal volatile, and red lavender, and all kinds of abominable mixtures, but he can't cure me."
"Do you remember what Macbeth tells his physician, my lady?" asked Robert, gravely. "Mr. Dawson may be very much more clever than the
Scottish leech, but I doubt if even _he_ can minister to the mind that is diseased."
"Who said that my mind was diseased?" exclaimed Lady Audley.
"I say so, my lady," answered Robert. "You tell me that you are nervous, and that all the medicines your doctor can prescribe are only so much physic that might as well be thrown to the dogs. Let me be the physician to strike to the root of your malady, Lady Audley. Heaven knows that I wish to be merciful--that I would spare you as far as it is in my power to spare you in doing justice to others--but justice must be done. Shall I tell you why you are nervous in this house, my lady?"
"If you can," she answered, with a little laugh.
"Because for you this house is haunted."
"Yes, haunted by the ghost of George Talboys."
Robert Audley heard my lady's quickened breathing, he fancied he could almost hear the loud beating of her heart as she walked by his side, shivering now and then, and with her sable cloak wrapped tightly around her.
"What do you mean?" she cried suddenly, after a pause of some moments. "Why do you torment me about this George Talboys, who happens to have taken it into his head to keep out of your way for a few months? Are you going mad, Mr. Audley, and do you select me as the victim of your monomania? What is George Talboys to me that you should worry me about him?"
"He was a stranger to you, my lady, was he not?"
"Of course!" answered Lady Audley. "What should he be but a stranger?"
"Shall I tell you the story of my friend's disappearance as I read that story, my lady?" asked Robert.
"No," cried Lady Audley; "I wish to know nothing of your friend. If he is dead, I am sorry for him. If he lives, I have no wish either to see him or to hear of him. Let me go in to see my husband, if you please, Mr. Audley, unless you wish to detain me in this gloomy place until I catch my death of cold."
"I wish to detain you until you have heard what I have to say, Lady Audley," answered Robert, resolutely. "I will detain you no longer than is necessary, and when you have heard me you shall take your own course of action."
"Very well, then; pray lose no time in saying what you have to say," replied my lady, carelessly. "I promise you to attend very patiently."
"When my friend, George Talboys, returned to England," Robert began, gravely, "the thought which was uppermost in his mind was the thought of his wife."
"Whom he had deserted," said my lady, quickly. "At least," she added, more deliberately, "I remember your telling us something to that effect when you first told us your friend's story."
Robert Audley did not notice this observation.
"The thought that was uppermost in his mind was the thought of his wife," he repeated. "His fairest hope in the future was the hope of making her happy, and lavishing upon her the pittance which he had won by the force of his own strong arm in the gold-fields of Australia. I saw him within a few hours of his reaching England, and I was a witness to the joyful pride with which he looked forward to his re-union with his wife. I was also a witness to the blow which struck him to the very heart--which changed him from the man he had been to a creature as unlike that former self as one human being can be unlike another. The blow which made that cruel change was the announcement of his wife's death in the _Times_ newspaper. I now believe that that announcement was a black and bitter lie."
"Indeed!" said my lady; "and what reason could any one have for announcing the death of Mrs. Talboys, if Mrs. Talboys had been alive?"
"The lady herself might have had a reason," Robert answered, quietly.
"How if she had taken advantage of George's absence to win a richer husband? How if she had married again, and wished to throw my poor friend off the scent by this false announcement?"
Lady Audley shrugged her shoulders.
"Your suppositions are rather ridiculous, Mr. Audley," she said; "it is to be hoped that you have some reasonable grounds for them."
"I have examined a file of each of the newspapers published in Chelmsford and Colchester," continued Robert, without replying to my lady's last observation, "and I find in one of the Colchester papers, dated July the 2d, 1850, a brief paragraph among numerous miscellaneous scraps of information copied from other newspapers, to the effect that a Mr. George Talboys, an English gentleman, had arrived at Sydney from the gold-fields, carrying with him nuggets and gold-dust to the amount of twenty thousand pounds, and that he had realized his property and sailed for Liverpool in the fast-sailing clipper _Argus_. This is a very small fact, of course, Lady Audley, but it is enough to prove that any person residing in Essex in the July of the year fifty-seven, was likely to become aware of George Talboys' return from Australia. Do you follow me?"
"Not very clearly," said my lady. "What have the Essex papers to do with the death of Mrs. Talboys?"
"We will come to that by-and-by, Lady Audley. I say that I believe the announcement in the _Times_ to have been a false announcement, and a part of the conspiracy which was carried out by Helen Talboys and Lieutenant Maldon against my poor friend."
"Yes, a conspiracy concocted by an artful woman, who had speculated upon the chances of her husband's death, and had secured a splendid position at the risk of committing a crime; a bold woman, my lady, who thought to play her comedy out to the end without fear of detection; a wicked woman, who did not care what misery she might inflict upon the honest heart of the man she betrayed; but a foolish woman, who looked at life as a game of chance, in which the best player was likely to hold the winning cards, forgetting that there is a Providence above the pitiful speculators, and that wicked secrets are never permitted to remain long hidden. If this woman of whom I speak had never been guilty of any blacker sin than the publication of that lying announcement in the _Times_ newspaper, I should still hold her as the most detestable and despicable of her sex--the most pitiless and calculating of human creatures. That cruel lie was a base and cowardly blow in the dark; it was the treacherous dagger-thrust of an infamous assassin."
"But how do you know that the announcement was a false one?" asked my lady. "You told us that you had been to Ventnor with Mr. Talboys to see his wife's grave. Who was it who died at Ventnor if it was not Mrs. Talboys?"
"Ah, Lady Audley," said Robert, "that is a question which only two or three people can answer, and one or other of those persons shall answer it to me before long. I tell you, my lady, that I am determined to unravel the mystery of George Talboy's death. Do you think I am to be put off by feminine prevarication--by womanly trickery? No! Link by link I have put together the chain of evidence, which wants but a link here and there to be complete in its terrible strength. Do you think I will suffer myself to be baffled? Do you think I shall fail to discover those missing links? No, Lady Audley, I shall not fail, for _I know where to look for them!_ There is a fair-haired woman at Southampton--a woman called Plowson, who has some share in the secrets of the father of my friend's wife. I have an idea that she can help me to discover the history of the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard, and I will spare no trouble in making that discovery, unless--"
"Unless what?" asked my lady, eagerly.
"Unless the woman I wish to save from degradation and punishment accepts the mercy I offer her, and takes warning while there is still time."
My lady shrugged her graceful shoulders, and flashed bright defiance out of her blue eyes.
"She would be a very foolish woman if she suffered herself to be influenced by any such absurdity," she said. "You are hypochondriacal, Mr. Audley, and you must take camphor, or red lavender, or sal volatile. What can be more ridiculous than this idea which you have taken into your head? You lose your friend George Talboys in rather a mysterious manner--that is to say, that gentleman chooses to leave England without giving you due notice. What of that? You confess that he became an altered man after his wife's death. He grew eccentric and misanthropical; he affected an utter indifference as to what became of him. What more likely, then, than that he grew tired of the monotony of civilized life, and ran away to those savage gold-fields to find a distraction for his grief? It is rather a romantic story, but by no means an uncommon one. But you are not satisfied with this simple interpretation of your friend's disappearance, and you build up some absurd theory of a conspiracy which has no existence except in your own overheated brain. Helen Talboys is dead. The _Times_ newspaper declares she is dead. Her own father tells you that she is dead. The headstone of the grave in Ventnor churchyard bears record of her death. By what right," cried my lady, her voice rising to that shrill and piercing tone peculiar to her when affected by any intense agitation--"by what right, Mr. Audley, do you come to me, and torment me about George Talboys--by what right do you dare to say that his wife is still alive?"
"By the right of circumstantial evidence, Lady Audley," answered Robert--"by the right of that circumstantial evidence which will sometimes fix the guilt of a man's murder upon that person who, on the first hearing of the case, seems of all other men the most unlikely to be guilty."
"What circumstantial evidence?"
"The evidence of time and place. The evidence of handwriting. When Helen Talboys left her father's at Wildernsea, she left a letter behind her--a letter in which she declared that she was weary of her old life, and that she wished to seek a new home and a new fortune. That letter is in my possession."
"Shall I tell you whose handwriting resembles that of Helen Talboys so closely, that the most dexterous expert could perceive no distinction between the two?"
"A resemblance between the handwriting of two women is no very uncommon circumstance now-a-days," replied my lady carelessly. "I could show you the caligraphies of half-a-dozen female correspondents, and defy you to discover any great difference in them."
"But what if the handwriting is a very uncommon one, presenting marked peculiarities by which it may be recognized among a hundred?"
"Why, in that case the coincidence is rather curious," answered my lady; "but it is nothing more than a coincidence. You cannot deny the fact of Helen Talboys death on the ground that her handwriting resembles that of some surviving person."
"But if a series of such coincidences lead up to the same point," said Robert. "Helen Talboys left her father's house, according to the declaration in her own handwriting, because she was weary of her old life, and wished to begin a new one. Do you know what I infer from this?"
My lady shrugged her shoulders.
"I have not the least idea," she said; "and as you have detained me in this gloomy place nearly half-an-hour, I must beg that you will release me, and let me go and dress for dinner."
"No, Lady Audley," answered Robert, with a cold sternness that was so strange to him as to transform him into another creature--a pitiless embodiment of justice, a cruel instrument of retribution--"no, Lady Audley," he repeated, "I have told you that womanly prevarication will not help you; I tell you now that defiance will not serve you. I have dealt fairly with you, and have given you fair warning. I gave you indirect notice of your danger two months ago."
"What do you mean?" asked my lady, suddenly.
"You did not choose to take that warning, Lady Audley," pursued Robert, "and the time has come in which I must speak very plainly to you. Do you think the gifts which you have played against fortune are to hold you exempt from retribution? No, my lady, your youth and beauty, your grace and refinement, only make the horrible secret of your life more horrible. I tell you that the evidence against you wants only one link to be strong enough for your condemnation, and that link shall be added. Helen Talboys never returned to her father's house. When she deserted that poor old father, she went away from his humble shelter with the declared intention of washing her hands of that old life. What do people generally do when they wish to begin a new existence--to start for a second time in the race of life, free from the incumbrances that had fettered their first journey. _They change their names_, Lady Audley. Helen Talboys deserted her infant son--she went away from Wildernsea with the predetermination of sinking her identity. She disappeared as Helen Talboys upon the 16th of August, 1854, and upon the 17th of that month she reappeared as Lucy Graham, the friendless girl who undertook a profitless duty in consideration of a home in which she was asked no questions."
"You are mad, Mr. Audley!" cried my lady. "You are mad, and my husband shall protect me from your insolence. What if this Helen Talboys ran away from her home upon one day, and I entered my employer's house upon the next, what does that prove?"
"By itself, very little," replied Robert Audley; "but with the help of other evidence--"
"The evidence of two labels, pasted one over the other, upon a box left by you in possession of Mrs. Vincent, the upper label bearing the name of Miss Graham, the lower that of Mrs. George Talboys."
My lady was silent. Robert Audley could not see her face in the dusk, but he could see that her two small hands were clasped convulsively over her heart, and he knew that the shot had gone home to its mark.
"God help her, poor, wretched creature," he thought. "She knows now that she is lost. I wonder if the judges of the land feel as I do now when they put on the black cap and pass sentence of death upon some poor, shivering wretch, who has never done them any wrong. Do they feel a heroic fervor of virtuous indignation, or do they suffer this dull anguish which gnaws my vitals as I talk to this helpless woman?"
He walked by my lady's side, silently, for some minutes. They had been pacing up and down the dim avenue, and they were now drawing near the leafless shrubbery at one end of the lime-walk--the shrubbery in which the ruined well sheltered its unheeded decay among the tangled masses of briery underwood.
A winding pathway, neglected and half-choked with weeds, led toward this well. Robert left the lime-walk, and struck into this pathway. There was more light in the shrubbery than in the avenue, and Mr. Audley wished to see my lady's face.
He did not speak until they reached the patch of rank grass beside the well. The massive brickwork had fallen away here and there, and loose fragments of masonry lay buried amidst weeds and briars. The heavy posts which had supported the wooden roller still remained, but the iron spindle had been dragged from its socket and lay a few paces from the well, rusty, discolored, and forgotten.
Robert Audley leaned against one of the moss-grown posts and looked down at my lady's face, very pale in the chill winter twilight. The moon had newly risen, a feebly luminous crescent in the gray heavens, and a faint, ghostly light mingled with the misty shadows of the declining day. My lady's face seemed like that face which Robert Audley had seen in his dreams looking out of the white foam-flakes on the green sea waves and luring his uncle to destruction.
"Those two labels are in my possession, Lady Audley," he resumed. "I took them from the box left by you at Crescent Villas. I took them in the presence of Mrs. Vincent and Miss Tonks. Have you any proofs to offer against this evidence? You say to me, 'I am Lucy Graham and I have nothing whatever to do with Helen Talboys.' In that case you will produce witnesses who will declare your antecedents. Where had you been living prior to your appearance at Crescent Villas? You must have friends, relations, connections, who can come forward to prove as much as this for you? If you were the most desolate creature upon this earth, you would be able to point to someone who could identify you with the past."
"Yes," cried my lady, "if I were placed in a criminal dock I could, no doubt, bring forward witnesses to refute your absurd accusation. But I am not in a criminal dock, Mr. Audley, and I do not choose to do anything but laugh at your ridiculous folly. I tell you that you are mad! If you please to say that Helen Talboys is not dead, and that I am Helen Talboys, you may do so. If you choose to go wandering about in the places in which I have lived, and to the places in which this Mrs. Talboys has lived, you must follow the bent of your own inclination, but I would warn you that such fancies have sometimes conducted people, as apparently sane as yourself, to the life-long imprisonment of a private lunatic-asylum."
Robert Audley started and recoiled a few paces among the weeds and brushwood as my lady said this.
"She would be capable of any new crime to shield her from the consequences of the old one," he thought. "She would be capable of using her influence with my uncle to place me in a mad-house."
I do not say that Robert Audley was a coward, but I will admit that a shiver of horror, something akin to fear, chilled him to the heart as he remembered the horrible things that have been done by women since that day upon which Eve was created to be Adam's companion and help-meet in the garden of Eden. "What if this woman's hellish power of dissimulation should be stronger than the truth, and crush him? She had not spared George Talboys when he stood in her way and menaced her with a certain peril; would she spare him who threatened her with a far greater danger? Are women merciful, or loving, or kind in proportion to their beauty and grace? Was there not a certain Monsieur Mazers de Latude, who had the bad fortune to offend the all-accomplished Madam de Pompadour, who expiated his youthful indiscretion by a life-long imprisonment; who twice escaped from prison, to be twice cast back into captivity; who, trusting in the tardy generosity of his beautiful foe, betrayed himself to an implacable fiend? Robert Audley looked at the pale face of the woman standing by his side; that fair and beautiful face, illumined by starry-blue eyes, that had a strange and surely a dangerous light in them; and remembering a hundred stories of womanly perfidy, shuddered as he thought how unequal the struggle might be between himself and his uncle's wife.
"I have shown her my cards," he thought, "but she has kept hers hidden from me. The mask that she wears is not to be plucked away. My uncle would rather think me mad than believe her guilty."
The pale face of Clara Talboys--that grave and earnest face, so different in its character to my lady's fragile beauty--arose before him.
"What a coward I am to think of myself or my own danger," he thought. "The more I see of this woman the more reason I have to dread her influence upon others; the more reason to wish her far away from this house."
He looked about him in the dusky obscurity. The lonely garden was as quiet as some solitary grave-yard, walled in and hidden away from the world of the living.
"It was somewhere in this garden that she met George Talboys upon the day of his disappearance," he thought. "I wonder where it was they met; I wonder where it was that he looked into her cruel face and taxed her with her falsehood?"
My lady, with her little hand resting lightly upon the opposite post to that against which Robert leaned, toyed with her pretty foot among the long weeds, but kept a furtive watch upon her enemy's face.
"It is to be a duel to the death, then, my lady," said Robert Audley, solemnly. "You refuse to accept my warning. You refuse to run away and repent of your wickedness in some foreign place, far from the generous gentleman you have deceived and fooled by your false witcheries. You choose to remain here and defy me."
"I do," answered Lady Audley, lifting her head and looking full at the young barrister. "It is no fault of mine if my husband's nephew goes mad, and chooses me for the victim of his monomania."
"So be it, then, my lady," answered Robert. "My friend George Talboys was last seen entering these gardens by the little iron gate by which we came in to-night. He was last heard inquiring for you. He was seen to enter these gardens, but he was never seen to leave them. I believe that he met his death within the boundary of these grounds; and that his body lies hidden below some quiet water, or in some forgotten corner of this place. I will have such a search made as shall level that house to the earth and root up every tree in these gardens, rather than I will fail in finding the grave of my murdered friend."
Lucy Audley uttered a long, low, wailing cry, and threw up her arms above her head with a wild gesture of despair, but she made no answer to the ghastly charge of her accuser. Her arms slowly dropped, and she stood staring at Robert Audley, her white face gleaming through the dusk, her blue eyes glittering and dilated.
"You shall never live to do this," she said. "_I will kill you first_. Why have you tormented me so? Why could you not let me alone? What harm had I ever done you that you should make yourself my persecutor, and dog my steps, and watch my looks, and play the spy upon me? Do you want to drive me mad? Do you know what it is to wrestle with a mad-woman? No," cried my lady, with a laugh, "you do not, or you would never--"
She stopped abruptly and drew herself suddenly to her fullest hight. It was the same action which Robert had seen in the old half-drunken lieutenant; and it had that same dignity--the sublimity of extreme misery.
"Go away, Mr. Audley," she said. "You are mad, I tell you, you are mad."
"I am going, my lady," answered Robert, quietly. "I would have condoned your crimes out of pity to your wretcheness. You have refused to accept my mercy. I wished to have pity upon the living. I shall henceforth only remember my duty to the dead."
He walked away from the lonely well under the shadow of the limes. My lady followed him slowly down that long, gloomy avenue, and across the rustic bridge to the iron gate. As he passed through the gate, Alicia came out of a little half-glass door that opened from an oak-paneled breakfast-room at one angle of the house, and met her cousin upon the threshold of the gateway.
"I have been looking for you everywhere, Robert," she said. "Papa has come down to the library, and will be glad to see you."
The young man started at the sound of his cousin's fresh young voice. "Good Heaven!" he thought, "can these two women be of the same clay? Can this frank, generous-hearted girl, who cannot conceal any impulse of her innocent nature, be of the same flesh and blood as that wretched creature whose shadow falls upon the path beside me!"
He looked from his cousin to Lady Audley, who stood near the gateway, waiting for him to stand aside and let her pass him.
"I don't know what has come to your cousin, my dear Alicia," said my lady. "He is so absent-minded and eccentric as to be quite beyond my comprehension."
"Indeed," exclaimed Miss Audley; "and yet I should imagine, from the length of your _tete-a-tete_, that you had made some effort to understand him."
"Oh, yes," said Robert, quietly, "my lady and I understand each other very well; but as it is growing late I will wish you good-evening, ladies. I shall sleep to-night at Mount Stanning, as I have some business to attend to up there, and I will come down and see my uncle to-morrow."
"What, Robert," cried Alicia, "you surely won't go away without seeing papa?"
"Yes, my dear," answered the young man. "I am a little disturbed by some disagreeable business in which I am very much concerned, and I would rather not see my uncle. Good-night, Alicia. I will come or write to-morrow."
He pressed his cousin's hand, bowed to Lady Audley, and walked away under the black shadows of the archway, and out into the quiet avenue beyond the Court.
My lady and Alicia stood watching him until he was out of sight.
"What in goodness' name is the matter with my Cousin Robert?" exclaimed Miss Audley, impatiently, as the barrister disappeared. "What does he mean by these absurd goings-on? Some disagreeable business that disturbs him, indeed! I suppose the unhappy creature has had a brief forced upon him by some evil-starred attorney, and is sinking into a state of imbecility from a dim consciousness of his own incompetence."
"Have you ever studied your cousin's character, Alicia?" asked my lady, very seriously, after a pause.
"Studied his character! No, Lady Audley. Why should I study his character?" said Alicia. "There is very little study required to convince anybody that he is a lazy, selfish Sybarite, who cares for nothing in the world except his own ease and comfort."
"But have you never thought him eccentric?"
"Eccentric!" repeated Alicia, pursing up her red lips and shrugging up her shoulders. "Well, yes--I believe that is the excuse generally made for such people. I suppose Bob is eccentric."
"I have never heard you speak of his father and mother," said my lady, thoughtfully. "Do you remember them?"
"I never saw his mother. She was a Miss Dalrymple, a very dashing girl, who ran away with my uncle, and lost a very handsome fortune in consequence. She died at Nice when poor Bob was five years old."
"Did you ever hear anything particular about her?"
"How do you mean 'particular?'" asked Alicia.
"Did you ever hear that she was eccentric--what people call 'odd?'"
"Oh, no," said Alicia, laughing. "My aunt was a very reasonable woman, I believe, though she did marry for love. But you must remember that she died before I was born, and I have not, therefore, felt very much curiosity about her."
"But you recollect your uncle, I suppose."
"My Uncle Robert?" said Alicia. "Oh, yes, I remember him very well, indeed."
"Was _he_ eccentric--I mean to say, peculiar in his habits, like your cousin?"
"Yes, I believe Robert inherits all his absurdities from his father. My uncle expressed the same indifference for his fellow-creatures as my cousin, but as he was a good husband, an affectionate father, and a kind master, nobody ever challenged his opinions."
"But he _was_ eccentric?"
"Yes; I suppose he was generally thought a little eccentric."
"Ah," said my lady, gravely, "I thought as much. Do you know, Alicia, that madness is more often transmitted from father to daughter, and from mother to daughter than from mother to son? Your cousin, Robert Audley, is a very handsome young man, and I believe, a very good-hearted young man, but he must be watched, Alicia, for he is _mad_!"
"Mad!" cried Miss Audley, indignantly; "you are dreaming, my lady, or--or--you are trying to frighten me," added the young lady, with considerable alarm.
"I only wish to put you on your guard, Alicia," answered my lady. "Mr. Audley may be as you say, merely eccentric; but he has talked to me this evening in a manner that has filled me with absolute terror, and I believe that he is going mad? I shall speak very seriously to Sir Michael this very night."
"Speak to papa," exclaimed Alicia; "you surely won't distress papa by suggesting such a possibility!"
"I shall only put him on his guard, my dear Alicia."
"But he'll never believe you," said Miss Audley; "he will laugh at such an idea."
"No, Alicia; he will believe anything that I tell him," answered my lady, with a quiet smile.
PREPARING THE GROUND.
Lady Audley went from the garden to the library, a pleasant, oak-paneled, homely apartment in which Sir Michael liked to sit reading or writing, or arranging the business of his estate with his steward, a stalwart countryman, half agriculturalist, half lawyer, who rented a small farm a few miles from the Court.
The baronet was seated in a capacious easy-chair near the hearth. The bright blaze of the fire rose and fell, flashing now upon the polished carvings of the black-oak bookcase, now upon the gold and scarlet bindings of the books; sometimes glimmering upon the Athenian helmet of a marble Pallas, sometimes lighting up the forehead of Sir Robert Peel.
The lamp upon the reading-table had not yet been lighted, and Sir Michael sat in the firelight waiting for the coming of his young wife.
It is impossible for me ever to tell the purity of his generous love--it is impossible to describe that affection which was as tender as the love of a young mother for her first born, as brave and chivalrous as the heroic passion of a Bayard for his liege mistress.
The door opened while he was thinking of this fondly-loved wife, and looking up, the baronet saw the slender form standing in the doorway.
"Why, my darling!" he exclaimed, as my lady closed the door behind her, and came toward his chair, "I have been thinking of you and waiting for you for an hour. Where have you been, and what have you been doing?"
My lady, standing in the shadow rather than the light, paused a few moments before replying to this question.
"I have been to Chelmsford," she said, "shopping; and--"
She hesitated--twisting her bonnet strings in her thin white fingers with an air of pretty embarrassment.
"And what, my dear?" asked the baronet--"what have you been doing since you came from Chelmsford? I heard a carriage stop at the door an hour ago. It was yours, was it not?"
"Yes, I came home an hour ago," answered my lady, with the same air of embarrassment.
"And what have you been doing since you came home?"
Sir Michael Audley asked this question with a slightly reproachful accent. His young wife's presence made the sunshine of his life; and though he could not bear to chain her to his side, it grieved him to think that she could willingly remain unnecessarily absent from him, frittering away her time in some childish talk or frivolous occupation.
"What have you been doing since you came home, my dear?" he repeated. "What has kept you so long away from me?"
"I have been--talking--to--Mr. Robert Audley."
She still twisted her bonnet-string round and round her fingers.
She still spoke with the same air of embarrassment.
"Robert!" exclaimed the baronet; "is Robert here?"
"He was here a little while ago."
"And is here still, I suppose?"
"No, he has gone away."
"Gone away!" cried Sir Michael. "What do you mean, my darling?"
"I mean that your nephew came to the Court this afternoon. Alicia and I found him idling about the gardens. He stayed here till about a quarter of an hour ago talking to me, and then he hurried off without a word of explanation; except, indeed, some ridiculous excuse about business at Mount Stanning."
"Business at Mount Stanning! Why, what business can he possibly have in that out-of-the-way place? He has gone to sleep at Mount Stanning, then, I suppose?
"Yes; I think he said something to that effect."
"Upon my word," exclaimed the baronet, "I think that boy is half mad."
My lady's face was so much in shadow, that Sir Michael Audley was unaware of the bright change that came over its sickly pallor as he made this very commonplace observation. A triumphant smile illuminated Lucy Audley's countenance, a smile that plainly said, "It is coming--it is coming; I can twist him which way I like. I can put black before him, and if I say it is white, he will believe me."
But Sir Michael Audley in declaring that his nephew's wits were disordered, merely uttered that commonplace ejaculation which is well-known to have very little meaning. The baronet had, it is true, no very great estimate of Robert's faculty for the business of this everyday life. He was in the habit of looking upon his nephew as a good-natured nonentity--a man whose heart had been amply stocked by liberal Nature with all the best things the generous goddess had to bestow, but whose brain had been somewhat overlooked in the distribution of intellectual gifts. Sir Michael Audley made that mistake which is very commonly made by easy-going, well-to-do-observers, who have no occasion to look below the surface. He mistook laziness for incapacity. He thought because his nephew was idle, he must necessarily be stupid. He concluded that if Robert did not distinguish himself, it was because he could not.
He forgot the mute inglorious Miltons, who die voiceless and inarticulate for want of that dogged perseverance, that blind courage, which the poet must possess before he can find a publisher; he forgot the Cromwells, who see the noble vessels of the state floundering upon a sea of confusion, and going down in a tempest of noisy bewilderment, and who yet are powerless to get at the helm; forbidden even to send out a life-boat to the sinking ship. Surely it is a mistake to judge of what a man can do by that which he has done.
The world's Valhalla is a close borough, and perhaps the greatest men may be those who perish silently far away from the sacred portal. Perhaps the purest and brightest spirits are those who shrink from the turmoil of the race-course--the tumult and confusion of the struggle. The game of life is something like the game of _ecarte_, and it may be that the very best cards are sometimes left in the pack.
My lady threw off her bonnet, and seated herself upon a velvet-covered footstool at Sir Michael's feet. There was nothing studied or affected in this girlish action. It was so natural to Lucy Audley to be childish, that no one would have wished to see her otherwise. It would have seemed as foolish to expect dignified reserve or womanly gravity from this amber-haired siren, as to wish for rich basses amid the clear treble of a sky-lark's song.
She sat with her pale face turned away from the firelight, and with her hands locked together upon the arm of her husband's easy-chair. They were very restless, these slender white hands. My lady twisted the jeweled fingers in and out of each other as she talked to her husband.
"I wanted to come to you, you know, dear," said she--"I wanted to come to you directly I got home, but Mr. Audley insisted upon my stopping to talk to him."
"But what about, my love?" asked the baronet. "What could Robert have to say to you?"
My lady did not answer this question. Her fair head dropped upon her husband's knee, her rippling, yellow curls fell over her face.
Sir Michael lifted that beautiful head with his strong hands, and raised my lady's face. The firelight shining on that pale face lit up the large, soft blue eyes and showed them drowned in tears.
"Lucy, Lucy!" cried the baronet, "what is the meaning of this? My love, my love! what has happened to distress you in this manner?"
Lady Audley tried to speak, but the words died inarticulately upon her trembling lips. A choking sensation in her throat seemed to strangle those false and plausible words, her only armor against her enemies. She could not speak. The agony she had endured silently in the dismal lime-walk had grown too strong for her, and she broke into a tempest of hysterical sobbing. It was no simulated grief that shook her slender frame and tore at her like some ravenous beast that would have rent her piecemeal with its horrible strength. It was a storm of real anguish and terror, of remorse and misery. It was the one wild outcry, in which the woman's feebler nature got the better of the siren's art.
It was not thus that she had meant to fight her terrible duel with Robert Audley. Those were not the weapons which she had intended to use; but perhaps no artifice which she could have devised would have served her so well as this one outburst of natural grief. It shook her husband to the very soul. It bewildered and terrified him. It reduced the strong intellect of the man to helpless confusion and perplexity. It struck at the one weak point in a good man's nature. It appealed straight to Sir Michael Audley's affection for his wife.
Ah, Heaven help a strong man's tender weakness for the woman he loves! Heaven pity him when the guilty creature has deceived him and comes with her tears and lamentations to throw herself at his feet in self-abandonment and remorse; torturing him with the sight of her agony; rending _his_ heart with her sobs, lacerating _his_ breast with her groans--multiplying her sufferings into a great anguish for him to bear! multiplying them by twenty-fold; multiplying them in a ratio of a brave man's capacity for endurance. Heaven forgive him, if maddened by that cruel agony, the balance wavers for a moment, and he is ready to forgive _anything_; ready to take this wretched one to the shelter of his breast, and to pardon that which the stern voice of manly honor urges must not be pardoned. Pity him, pity him! The wife's worst remorse when she stands without the threshold of the home she may never enter more is not equal to the agony of the husband who closes the portal on that familiar and entreating face. The anguish of the mother who may never look again upon her children is less than the torment of the father who has to say to those little ones, "My darlings, you are henceforth motherless."
Sir Michael Audley rose from his chair, trembling with indignation, and ready to do immediate battle with the person who had caused his wife's grief.
"Lucy," he said, "Lucy, I insist upon your telling me what and who has distressed you. I insist upon it. Whoever has annoyed you shall answer to me for your grief. Come, my love, tell me directly what it is."
He seated himself and bent over the drooping figure at his feet, calming his own agitation in his desire to soothe his wife's distress.
"Tell me what it is, my dear," he whispered, tenderly.
The sharp paroxysm had passed away, and my lady looked up. A glittering light shone through the tears in her eyes, and the lines about her pretty rosy mouth, those hard and cruel lines which Robert Audley had observed in the pre-Raphaelite portrait, were plainly visible in the firelight.
"I am very silly," she said; "but really he has made me quite hysterical."
"Who--who has made you hysterical?"
"Your nephew--Mr. Robert Audley."
"Robert," cried the baronet. "Lucy, what do you mean?"
"I told you that Mr. Audley insisted upon my going into the lime-walk, dear," said my lady. "He wanted to talk to me, he said, and I went, and he said such horrible things that--"
"What horrible things, Lucy?"
Lady Audley shuddered, and clung with convulsive fingers to the strong hand that had rested caressingly upon her shoulder.
"What did he say, Lucy?"
"Oh, my dear love, how can I tell you?" cried my lady. "I know that I shall distress you--or you will laugh at me, and then--"
"Laugh at you? no, Lucy."
Lady Audley was silent for a moment. She sat looking straight before her into the fire, with her fingers still locked about her husband's hand.
"My dear," she said, slowly, hesitating now and then between her words, as if she almost shrunk from uttering them, "have you ever--I am so afraid of vexing you--have you ever thought Mr. Audley a little--a little--"
"A little what, my darling?"
"A little out of his mind?" faltered Lady Audley.
"Out of his mind!" cried Sir Michael. "My dear girl, what are you thinking of?"
"You said just now, dear, that you thought he was half mad."
"Did I, my love?" said the baronet, laughing. "I don't remember saying it, and it was a mere _facon de parler_, that meant nothing whatever. Robert may be a little eccentric--a little stupid, perhaps--he mayn't be overburdened with wits, but I don't think he has brains enough for madness. I believe it's generally your great intellects that get out of order."
"But madness is sometimes hereditary," said my lady. "Mr. Audley may have inherited--"
"He has inherited no madness from his father's family," interrupted Sir Michael. "The Audleys have never peopled private lunatic asylums or feed mad doctors."
"Nor from his mother's family?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"People generally keep these things a secret," said my lady, gravely. "There may have been madness in your sister-in-law's family."
"I don't think so, my dear," replied Sir Michael. "But, Lucy, tell me what, in Heaven's name, has put this idea into your head."
"I have been trying to account for your nephew's conduct. I can account for it in no other manner. If you had heard the things he said to me to-night, Sir Michael, you too might have thought him mad."
"But what did he say, Lucy?"
"I can scarcely tell you. You can see how much he has stupefied and bewildered me. I believe he has lived too long alone in those solitary Temple chambers. Perhaps he reads too much, or smokes too much. You know that some physicians declare madness to be a mere illness of the brain--an illness to which any one is subject, and which may be produced by given causes, and cured by given means."
Lady Audley's eyes were still fixed upon the burning coals in the wide grate. She spoke as if she had been discussing a subject that she had often heard discussed before. She spoke as if her mind had almost wandered away from the thought of her husband's nephew to the wider question of madness in the abstract.
"Why should he not be mad?" resumed my lady. "People are insane for years and years before their insanity is found out. _They_ know that they are mad, but they know how to keep their secret; and, perhaps, they may sometimes keep it till they die. Sometimes a paroxysm seizes them, and in an evil hour they betray themselves. They commit a crime, perhaps. The horrible temptation of opportunity assails them; the knife is in their hand, and the unconscious victim by their side. They may conquer the restless demon and go away and die innocent of any violent deed; but they _may_ yield to the horrible temptation--the frightful, passionate, hungry craving for violence and horror. They sometimes yield and are lost."
Lady Audley's voice rose as she argued this dreadful question, The hysterical excitement from which she had only just recovered had left its effects upon her, but she controlled herself, and her tone grew calmer as she resumed:
"Robert Audley is mad," she said, decisively. "What is one of the strangest diagnostics of madness--what is the first appalling sign of mental aberration? The mind becomes stationary; the brain stagnates; the even current of reflection is interrupted; the thinking power of the brain resolves itself into a monotone. As the waters of a tideless pool putrefy by reason of their stagnation, the mind becomes turbid and corrupt through lack of action; and the perpetual reflection upon one subject resolves itself into monomania. Robert Audley is a monomaniac. The disappearance of his friend, George Talboys, grieved and bewildered him. He dwelt upon this one idea until he lost the power of thinking of anything else. The one idea looked at perpetually became distorted to his mental vision. Repeat the commonest word in the English language twenty times, and before the twentieth repetition you will have begun to wonder whether the word which you repeat is really the word you mean to utter. Robert Audley has thought of his friend's disappearance until the one idea has done its fatal and unhealthy work. He looks at a common event with a vision that is diseased, and he distorts it into a gloomy horror engendered of his own monomania. If you do not want to make me as mad as he is, you must never let me see him again. He declared to-night that George Talboys was murdered in this place, and that he will root up every tree in the garden, and pull down every brick in the house in search for--"
My lady paused. The words died away upon her lips. She had exhausted herself by the strange energy with which she had spoken. She had been transformed from a frivolous, childish beauty into a woman, strong to argue her own cause and plead her own defense.
"Pull down this house?" cried the baronet. "George Talboys murdered at Audley Court! Did Robert say this, Lucy?"
"He said something of that kind--something that frightened me very much."
"Then he must be mad," said Sir Michael, gravely. "I'm bewildered by what you tell me. Did he really say this, Lucy, or did you misunderstand him?"
"I--I--don't think I did," faltered my lady. "You saw how frightened I was when I first came in. I should not have been so much agitated if he hadn't said something horrible."
Lady Audley had availed herself of the very strongest arguments by which she could help her cause.
"To be sure, my darling, to be sure," answered the baronet. "What could have put such a horrible fancy into the unhappy boy's head. This Mr. Talboys--a perfect stranger to all of us--murdered at Audley Court! I'll go to Mount Stanning to-night, and see Robert. I have known him ever since he was a baby, and I cannot be deceived in him. If there is really anything wrong, he will not be able to conceal it from me."
My lady shrugged her shoulders.
"That is rather an open question," she said. "It is generally a stranger who is the first to observe any psychological peculiarity."
The big words sounded strange from my lady's rosy lips; but her newly-adopted wisdom had a certain quaint prettiness about it, which charmed and bewildered her husband.
"But you must not go to Mount Stanning, my dear darling," she said, tenderly. "Remember that you are under strict orders to stay in doors until the weather is milder, and the sun shines upon this cruel ice-bound country."
Sir Michael Audley sank back in his capacious chair with a sigh of resignation.
"That's true, Lucy," he said; "we must obey Mr. Dawson. I suppose Robert will come to see me to-morrow."
"Yes, dear. I think he said he would."
"Then we must wait till to-morrow, my darling. I can't believe that there really is anything wrong with the poor boy--I can't believe it, Lucy."
"Then how do you account for this extraordinary delusion about this Mr. Talboys?" asked my lady.
Sir Michael shook his head.
"I don't know, Lucy--I don't know," he answered. "It is always so difficult to believe that any one of the calamities that continually befall our fellow-men will ever happen to us. I can't believe that my nephew's mind is impaired--I can't believe it. I--I'll get him to stop here, Lucy, and I'll watch him closely. I tell you, my love, if there is anything wrong I am sure to find it out. I can't be mistaken in a young man who has always been the same to me as my own son. But, my darling, why were you so frightened by Robert's wild talk? It could not affect you."
My lady sighed piteously.
"You must think me very strong-minded, Sir Michael," she said, with rather an injured air, "if you imagine I can hear of these sort of things indifferently. I know I shall never be able to see Mr. Audley again."
"And you shall not, my dear--you shall not."
"You said just now you would have him here," murmured Lady Audley.
"But I will not, my darling girl, if his presence annoys you. Good Heaven! Lucy, can you imagine for a moment that I have any higher wish than to promote your happiness? I will consult some London physician about Robert, and let him discover if there is really anything the matter with my poor brother's only son. _You_ shall not be annoyed, Lucy."
"You must think me very unkind, dear," said my lady, "and I know I _ought_ not to be annoyed by the poor fellow; but he really seems to have taken some absurd notion into his head about me."
"About _you_, Lucy!" cried Sir Michael.
"Yes, dear. He seems to connect me in some vague manner--which I cannot quite understand--with the disappearance of this Mr. Talboys."
"Impossible, Lucy! You must have misunderstood him."
"I don't think so."
"Then he must be mad," said the baronet--"he must be mad. I will wait till he goes back to town, and then send some one to his chambers to talk to him. Good Heaven! what a mysterious business this is."
"I fear I have distressed you, darling," murmured Lady Audley.
"Yes, my dear, I am very much distressed by what you have told me; but you were quite right to talk to me frankly about this dreadful business. I must think it over, dearest, and try and decide what is best to be done."
My lady rose from the low ottoman on which she had been seated. The fire had burned down, and there was only a faint glow of red light in the room. Lucy Audley bent over her husband's chair, and put her lips to his broad forehead.
"How good you have always been to me, dear," she whispered softly. "You would never let any one influence you against me, would you, dear?"
"Influence me against you?" repeated the baronet. "No, my love."
"Because you know, dear," pursued my lady, "there are wicked people as well as mad people in the world, and there may be some persons to whose interest it would be to injure me."
"They had better not try it, then, my dear," answered Sir Michael; "they would find themselves in rather a dangerous position if they did."
Lady Audley laughed aloud, with a gay, triumphant, silvery peal of laughter that vibrated through the quiet room.
"My own dear darling," she said, "I know you love me. And now I must run away, dear, for it's past seven o'clock. I was engaged to dine at Mrs. Montford's, but I must send a groom with a message of apology, for Mr. Audley has made me quite unfit for company. I shall stay at home and nurse you, dear. You'll go to bed very early, won't you, and take great care of yourself?"
My lady tripped out of the room to give her orders about the message that was to be carried to the house at which she was to have dined. She paused for a moment as she closed the library door--she paused, and laid her hand upon her breast to check the rapid throbbing of her heart.
"I have been afraid of you, Mr. Robert Audley," she thought; "but perhaps the time may come in which you will have cause to be afraid of me."