The division between Lady Audley and her step-daughter had not become any narrower in the two months which had elapsed since the pleasant Christmas holiday time had been kept at Audley Court. There was no open warfare between the two women; there was only an armed neutrality, broken every now and then by brief feminine skirmishes and transient wordy tempests. I am sorry to say that Alicia would very much have preferred a hearty pitched battle to this silent and undemonstrative disunion; but it was not very easy to quarrel with my lady. She had soft answers for the turning away of wrath. She could smile bewitchingly at her step-daughter's open petulance, and laugh merrily at the young lady's ill-temper. Perhaps had she been less amiable, had she been more like Alicia in disposition, the two ladies might have expended their enmity in one tremendous quarrel, and might ever afterward have been affectionate and friendly. But Lucy Audley would not make war. She carried forward the sum of her dislike, and put it out at a steady rate of interest, until the breach between her step-daughter and herself, widening a little every day, became a great gulf, utterly impassable by olive-branch-bearing doves from either side of the abyss. There can be no reconciliation where there is no open warfare. There must be a battle, a brave, boisterous battle, with pennants waving and cannon roaring, before there can be peaceful treaties and enthusiastic shaking of hands. Perhaps the union between France and England owes its greatest force to the recollection of Cressy and Waterloo, Navarino and Trafalgar. We have hated each other and licked each other and _had it out_, as the common phrase goes; and we can afford now to fall into each others' arms and vow eternal friendship and everlasting brotherhood. Let us hope that when Northern Yankeedom has decimated and been decimated, blustering Jonathan may fling himself upon his Southern brother's breast, forgiving and forgiven.
Alicia Audley and her father's pretty wife had plenty of room for the comfortable indulgence of their dislike in the spacious old mansion. My lady had her own apartments, as we know--luxurious chambers, in which all conceivable elegancies had been gathered for the comfort of their occupant. Alicia had her own rooms in another part of the large house. She had her favorite mare, her Newfoundland dog, and her drawing materials, and she made herself tolerably happy. She was not very happy, this frank, generous-hearted girl, for it was scarcely possible that she could be altogether at ease in the constrained atmosphere of the Court. Her father was changed; that dear father over whom she had once reigned supreme with the boundless authority of a spoiled child, had accepted another ruler and submitted to a new dynasty. Little by little my lady's petty power made itself felt in that narrow household; and Alicia saw her father gradually lured across the gulf that divided Lady Audley from her step-daughter, until he stood at last quite upon the other side of the abyss, and looked coldly upon his only child across that widening chasm.
Alicia felt that he was lost to her. My lady's beaming smiles, my lady's winning words, my lady's radiant glances and bewitching graces had done their work of enchantment, and Sir Michael had grown to look upon his daughter as a somewhat wilful and capricious young person who had behaved with determined unkindness to the wife he loved.
Poor Alicia saw all this, and bore her burden as well as she could. It seemed very hard to be a handsome, gray-eyed heiress, with dogs and horses and servants at her command, and yet to be so much alone in the world as to know of not one friendly ear into which she might pour her sorrows.
"If Bob was good for anything I could have told him how unhappy I am," thought Miss Audley; "but I may just as well tell Caesar my troubles for any consolation I should get from Cousin Robert."
Sir Michael Audley obeyed his pretty nurse, and went to bed a little after nine o'clock upon this bleak March evening. Perhaps the baronet's bedroom was about the pleasantest retreat that an invalid could have chosen in such cold and cheerless weather. The dark-green velvet curtains were drawn before the windows and about the ponderous bed. The wood fire burned redly upon the broad hearth. The reading lamp was lighted upon a delicious little table close to Sir Michael's pillow, and a heap of magazines and newspapers had been arranged by my lady's own fair hands for the pleasure of the invalid.
Lady Audley sat by the bedside for about ten minutes, talking to her husband, talking very seriously, about this strange and awful question--Robert Audley's lunacy; but at the end of that time she rose and bade her husband good-night.
She lowered the green silk shade before the reading lamp, adjusting it carefully for the repose of the baronet's eyes.
"I shall leave you, dear," she said. "If you can sleep, so much the better. If you wish to read, the books and papers are close to you. I will leave the doors between the rooms open, and I shall hear your voice if you call me."
Lady Audley went through her dressing-room into the boudoir, where she had sat with her husband since dinner.
Every evidence of womanly refinement was visible in the elegant chamber. My lady's piano was open, covered with scattered sheets of music and exquisitely-bound collections of scenas and fantasias which no master need have disdained to study. My lady's easel stood near the window, bearing witness to my lady's artistic talent, in the shape of a water-colored sketch of the Court and gardens. My lady's fairy-like embroideries of lace and muslin, rainbow-hued silks, and delicately-tinted wools littered the luxurious apartment; while the looking-glasses, cunningly placed at angles and opposite corners by an artistic upholsterer, multiplied my lady's image, and in that image reflected the most beautiful object in the enchanted chamber.
Amid all this lamplight, gilding, color, wealth, and beauty, Lucy Audley sat down on a low seat by the fire to think.
If Mr. Holman Hunt could have peeped into the pretty boudoir, I think the picture would have been photographed upon his brain to be reproduced by-and-by upon a bishop's half-length for the glorification of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. My lady in that half-recumbent attitude, with her elbow resting on one knee, and her perfect chin supported by her hand, the rich folds of drapery falling away in long undulating lines from the exquisite outline of her figure, and the luminous, rose-colored firelight enveloping her in a soft haze, only broken by the golden glitter of her yellow hair--beautiful in herself, but made bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings which adorn the shrine of her loveliness. Drinking-cups of gold and ivory, chiseled by Benvenuto Cellini; cabinets of buhl and porcelain, bearing the cipher of Austrain Marie-Antoinette, amid devices of rosebuds and true-lovers' knots, birds and butterflies, cupidons and shepherdesses, goddesses, courtiers, cottagers, and milkmaids; statuettes of Parian marble and biscuit china; gilded baskets of hothouse flowers; fantastical caskets of Indian filigree-work; fragile tea-cups of turquoise china, adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier: cabinet pictures and gilded mirrors, shimmering satin and diaphanous lace; all that gold can buy or art devise had been gathered together for the beautification of this quiet chamber in which my lady sat listening to the mourning of the shrill March wind, and the flapping of the ivy leaves against the casements, and looking into the red chasms in the burning coals.
I should be preaching a very stale sermon, and harping upon a very familiar moral, if I were to seize this opportunity of declaiming against art and beauty, because my lady was more wretched in this elegant apartment than many a half-starved seamstress in her dreary garret. She was wretched by reason of a wound which lay too deep for the possibility of any solace from such plasters as wealth and luxury; but her wretchedness was of an abnormal nature, and I can see no occasion for seizing upon the fact of her misery as an argument in favor of poverty and discomfort as opposed to opulence. The Benvenuto Cellini carvings and the Sevres porcelain could not give her happiness, because she had passed out of their region. She was no longer innocent; and the pleasure we take in art and loveliness being an innocent pleasure, had passed beyond her reach. Six or seven years before, she would have been happy in the possession of this little Aladdin's palace; but she had wandered out of the circle of careless, pleasure seeking creatures, she had strayed far away into a desolate labyrinth of guilt and treachery, terror and crime, and all the treasures that had been collected for her could have given her no pleasure but one, the pleasure of flinging them into a heap beneath her feet and trampling upon them and destroying them in her cruel despair.
There were some things that would have inspired her with an awful joy, a horrible rejoicing. If Robert Audley, her pitiless enemy, her unrelenting pursuer, had lain dead in the adjoining chamber, she would have exulted over his bier.
What pleasures could have remained for Lucretia Borgia and Catharine de Medici, when the dreadful boundary line between innocence and guilt was passed, and the lost creatures stood upon the lonely outer side? Only horrible, vengeful joys, and treacherous delights were left for these miserable women. With what disdainful bitterness they must have watched the frivolous vanities, the petty deceptions, the paltry sins of ordinary offenders. Perhaps they took a horrible pride in the enormity of their wickedness; in this "Divinity of Hell," which made them greatest among sinful creatures.
My lady, brooding by the fire in her lonely chamber, with her large, clear blue eyes fixed upon the yawning gulfs of lurid crimson in the burning coals, may have thought of many things very far away from the terribly silent struggle in which she was engaged. She may have thought of long-ago years of childish innocence, childish follies and selfishness, of frivolous, feminine sins that had weighed very lightly upon her conscience. Perhaps in that retrospective revery she recalled that early time in which she had first looked in the glass and discovered that she was beautiful; that fatal early time in which she had first begun to look upon her loveliness as a right divine, a boundless possession which was to be a set-off against all girlish shortcomings, a counterbalance of every youthful sin. Did she remember the day in which that fairy dower of beauty had first taught her to be selfish and cruel, indifferent to the joys and sorrows of others, cold-hearted and capricious, greedy of admiration, exacting and tyrannical with that petty woman's tyranny which is the worst of despotism? Did she trace every sin of her life back to its true source? and did she discover that poisoned fountain in her own exaggerated estimate of the value of a pretty face? Surely, if her thoughts wandered so far along the backward current of her life, she must have repented in bitterness and despair of that first day in which the master-passions of her life had become her rulers, and the three demons of Vanity, Selfishness, and Ambition, had joined hands and said, "This woman is our slave, let us see what she will become under our guidance."
How small those first youthful errors seemed as my lady looked back upon them in that long revery by the lonely hearth! What small vanities, what petty cruelties! A triumph over a schoolfellow; a flirtation with the lover of a friend; an assertion of the right divine invested in blue eyes and shimmering golden-tinted hair. But how terribly that narrow pathway had widened out into the broad highroad of sin, and how swift the footsteps had become upon the now familiar way!
My lady twisted her fingers in her loose amber curls, and made as if she would have torn them from her head. But even in that moment of mute despair the unyielding dominion of beauty asserted itself, and she released the poor tangled glitter of ringlets, leaving them to make a halo round her head in the dim firelight.
"I was not wicked when I was young," she thought, as she stared gloomingly at the fire, "I was only thoughtless. I never did any harm--at least, wilfully. Have I ever been really _wicked_, I wonder?" she mused. "My worst wickednesses have bean the result of wild impulses, and not of deeply-laid plots. I am not like the women I have read of, who have lain night after night in the horrible darkness and stillness, planning out treacherous deeds, and arranging every circumstance of an appointed crime. I wonder whether they suffered--those women--whether they ever suffered as--"
Her thoughts wandered away into a weary maze of confusion. Suddenly she drew herself up with a proud, defiant gesture, and her eyes glittered with a light that was not entirely reflected from the fire.
"You are mad, Mr. Robert Audley," she said, "you are mad, and your fancies are a madman's fancies. I know what madness is. I know its signs and tokens, and I say that you are mad."
She put her hand to her head, as if thinking of something which confused and bewildered her, and which she found it difficult to contemplate with calmness.
"Dare I defy him?" she muttered. "Dare I? dare I? Will he stop, now that he has once gone so far? Will he stop for fear of me? Will he stop for fear of me, when the thought of what his uncle must suffer has not stopped him? Will anything stop him--but death?"
She pronounced the last words in an awful whisper; and with her head bent forward, her eyes dilated, and her lips still parted as they had been parted in her utterance of that final word "death," she sat blankly staring at the fire.
"I can't plot horrible things," she muttered, presently; "my brain isn't strong enough, or I'm not wicked enough, or brave enough. If I met Robert Audley in those lonely gardens, as I--"
The current of her thoughts was interrupted by a cautious knocking at her door. She rose suddenly, startled by any sound in the stillness of her room. She rose, and threw herself into a low chair near the fire. She flung her beautiful head back upon the soft cushions, and took a book from the table near her. Insignificant as this action was, it spoke very plainly. It spoke very plainly of ever-recurring fears--of fatal necessities for concealment--of a mind that in its silent agonies was ever alive to the importance of outward effect. It told more plainly than anything else could have told how complete an actress my lady had been made by the awful necessity of her life.
The modest rap at the door was repeated.
"Come in," cried Lady Audley, in her liveliest tone.
The door was opened with that respectful noiselessness peculiar to a well-bred servant, and a young woman, plainly dressed, and carrying some of the cold March winds in the folds of her garments, crossed the threshold of the apartment and lingered near the door, waiting permission to approach the inner regions of my lady's retreat.
It was Phoebe Marks, the pale-faced wife of the Mount Stanning innkeeper.
"I beg pardon, my lady, for intruding without leave," she said; "but I thought I might venture to come straight up without waiting for permission."
"Yes, yes, Phoebe, to be sure. Take off your bonnet, you wretched, cold-looking creature, and come sit down here."
Lady Audley pointed to the low ottoman upon which she had herself been seated a few minutes before. The lady's maid had often sat upon it listening to her mistress' prattle in the old days, when she had been my lady's chief companion and _confidante_,
"Sit down here, Phoebe," Lady Audley repeated; "sit down here and talk to me; I'm very glad you came here to-night. I was horribly lonely in this dreary place."
My lady shivered and looked round at the bright collection of _bric-a-brac_, as if the Sevres and bronze, the buhl and ormolu, had been the moldering adornments of some ruined castle. The dreary wretchedness of her thoughts had communicated itself to every object about her, and all outer things took their color from that weary inner life which held its slow course of secret anguish in her breast. She had spoken the entire truth in saying that she was glad of her lady's maid's visit. Her frivolous nature clung to this weak shelter in the hour of her fear and suffering. There were sympathies between her and this girl, who was like herself, inwardly as well as outwardly--like herself, selfish, and cold, and cruel, eager for her own advancement, and greedy of opulence and elegance; angry with the lot that had been cast her, and weary of dull dependence. My lady hated Alicia for her frank, passionate, generous, daring nature; she hated her step-daughter, and clung to this pale-faced, pale-haired girl, whom she thought neither better nor worse than herself.
Phoebe Marks obeyed her late mistress' commands, and took off her bonnet before seating herself on the ottoman at Lady Audley's feet. Her smooth bands of light hair were unruffled by the March winds; her trimly-made drab dress and linen collar were as neatly arranged as they could have been had she only that moment completed her toilet.
"Sir Michael is better, I hope, my lady," she said.
"Yes, Phoebe, much better. He is asleep. You may close that door," added Lady Audley, with a motion of her head toward the door of communication between the rooms, which had been left open.
Mrs. Marks obeyed submissively, and then returned to her seat.
"I am very, very unhappy, Phoebe," my lady said, fretfully; "wretchedly miserable."
"About the--secret?" asked Mrs. Marks, in a half whisper.
My lady did not notice that question. She resumed in the same complaining tone. She was glad to be able to complain even to this lady's maid. She had brooded over her fears, and had suffered in secret so long, that it was an inexpressible relief to her to bemoan her fate aloud.
"I am cruelly persecuted and harassed, Phoebe Marks," she said. "I am pursued and tormented by a man whom I never injured, whom I have never wished to injure. I am never suffered to rest by this relentless tormentor, and--"
She paused, staring at the fire again, as she had done in her loneliness. Lost again in the dark intricacies of thoughts which wandered hither and thither in a dreadful chaos of terrified bewilderments, she could not come to any fixed conclusion.
Phoebe Marks watched my lady's face, looking upward at her late mistress with pale, anxious eyes, that only relaxed their watchfulness when Lady Audley's glance met that of her companion.
"I think I know whom you mean, my lady," said the innkeeper's wife, after a pause; "I think I know who it is who is so cruel to you."
"Oh, of course," answered my lady, bitterly; "my secrets are everybody's secrets. You know all about it, no doubt."
"The person is a gentleman--is he not, my lady?"
"A gentleman who came to the Castle Inn two months ago, when I warned you--"
"Yes, yes," answered my lady, impatiently.
"I thought so. The same gentleman is at our place to-night, my lady."
Lady Audley started up from her chair--started up as if she would have done something desperate in her despairing fury; but she sank back again with a weary, querulous sigh. What warfare could such a feeble creature wage against her fate? What could she do but wind like a hunted hare till she found her way back to the starting-point of the cruel chase, to be there trampled down by her pursuers?
"At the Castle Inn?" she cried. "I might have known as much. He has gone there to wring my secrets from your husband. Fool!" she exclaimed, suddenly turning upon Phoebe Marks in a transport of anger, "do you want to destroy me that you have left those two men together?"
Mrs. Marks clasped her hands piteously.
"I didn't come away of my own free will, my lady," she said; "no one could have been more unwilling to leave the house than I was this night. I was sent here."
"Who sent you here?"
"Luke, my lady. You can't tell how hard he can be upon me if I go against him."
"Why did he send you?"
The innkeeper's wife dropped her eyelids under Lady Audley's angry glances, and hesitated confusedly before she answered this question.
"Indeed, my lady," she stammered, "I didn't want to come. I told Luke that it was too bad for us to worry you, first asking this favor, and then asking that, and never leaving you alone for a month together; but--but--he bore me down with his loud, blustering talk, and he made me come."
"Yes, yes," cried Lady Audley, impatiently. "I know that. I want to know why you have come."
"Why, you know, my lady," answered Phoebe, half reluctantly, "Luke is very extravagant; and all I can say to him, I can't get him to be careful or steady. He's not sober; and when he's drinking with a lot of rough countrymen, and drinking, perhaps even more than they do, it isn't likely that his head can be very clear for accounts. If it hadn't been for me we should have been ruined before this; and hard as I've tried, I haven't been able to keep the ruin off. You remember giving me the money for the brewer's bill, my lady?"
"Yes, I remember very well," answered Lady Audley, with a bitter laugh, "for I wanted that money to pay my own bills."
"I know you did, my lady, and it was very, very hard for me to have to come and ask you for it, after all that we'd received from you before. But that isn't the worst: when Luke sent me down here to beg the favor of that help he never told me that the Christmas rent was still owing; but it was, my lady, and it's owing now, and--and there's a bailiff in the house to-night, and we're to be sold up to-morrow unless--"
"Unless I pay your rent, I suppose," cried Lucy Audley. "I might have guessed what was coming."
"Indeed, indeed, my lady, I wouldn't have asked it," sobbed Phoebe Marks, "but he made me come."
"Yes," answered my lady, bitterly, "he made you come; and he will make you come whenever he pleases, and whenever he wants money for the gratification of his low vices; and you and he are my pensioners as long as I live, or as long as I have any money to give; for I suppose when my purse is empty and my credit ruined, you and your husband will turn upon me and sell me to the highest bidder. Do you know, Phoebe Marks, that my jewel-case has been half emptied to meet your claims? Do you know that my pin-money, which I thought such a princely allowance when my marriage settlement was made, and when I was a poor governess at Mr. Dawson's, Heaven help me! my pin-money has been overdrawn half a year to satisfy your demands? What can I do to appease you? Shall I sell my Marie Antoinette cabinet, or my pompadour china, Leroy's and Benson's ormolu clocks, or my Gobelin tapestried chairs and ottomans? How shall I satisfy you next?"
"Oh, my lady, my lady," cried Phoebe, piteously, "don't be so cruel to me; you know, you know that it isn't I who want to impose upon you."
"I know nothing," exclaimed Lady Audley, "except that I am the most miserable of women. Let me think," she cried, silencing Phoebe's consolatory murmurs with an imperious gesture. "Hold your tongue, girl, and let me think of this business, if I can."
She put her hands to her forehead, clasping her slender fingers across her brow, as if she would have controlled the action of her brain by their convulsive pressure.
"Robert Audley is with your husband," she said, slowly, speaking to herself rather than to her companion. "These two men are together, and there are bailiffs in the house, and your brutal husband is no doubt brutally drunk by this time, and brutally obstinate and ferocious in his drunkenness. If I refuse to pay this money his ferocity will be multiplied by a hundredfold. There's little use in discussing that matter. The money must be paid."
"But if you do pay it," said Phoebe, earnestly, "I hope you will impress upon Luke that it is the last money you will ever give him while he stops in that house."
"Why?" asked Lady Audley, letting her hands fall on her lap, and looking inquiringly at Mrs. Marks.
"Because I want Luke to leave the Castle."
"But why do you want him to leave?"
"Oh, for ever so many reasons, my lady," answered Phoebe. "He's not fit to be the landlord of a public-house. I didn't know that when I married him, or I would have gone against the business, and tried to persuade him to take to the farming line. Not that I suppose he'd have given up his own fancy, either; for he's obstinate enough, as you know, my lady. He's not fit for his present business. He's scarcely ever sober after dark; and when he's drunk he gets almost wild, and doesn't seem to know what he does. We've had two or three narrow escapes with him already."
"Narrow escapes!" repeated Lady Audley. "What do you mean?"
"Why, we've run the risk of being burnt in our beds through his carelessness."
"Burnt in your beds through his carelessness! Why, how was that?" asked my lady, rather listlessly. She was too selfish, and too deeply absorbed in her own troubles to take much interest in any danger which had befallen her some-time lady's-maid.
"You know what a queer old place the Castle is, my lady; all tumble-down wood-work, and rotten rafters, and such like. The Chelmsford Insurance Company won't insure it; for they say if the place did happen to catch fire of a windy night it would blaze away like so much tinder, and nothing in the world could save it. Well, Luke knows this; and the landlord has warned him of it times and often, for he lives close against us, and he keeps a pretty sharp eye upon all my husband's goings on; but when Luke's tipsy he doesn't know what he's about, and only a week ago he left a candle burning in one of the out-houses, and the flame caught one of the rafters of the sloping roof, and if it hadn't been for me finding it out when I went round the house the last thing, we should have all been burnt to death, perhaps. And that's the third time the same kind of thing has happened in the six months we've had the place, and you can't wonder that I'm frightened, can you, my lady?"
My lady had not wondered, she had not thought about the business at all. She had scarcely listened to these commonplace details; why should she care for this low-born waiting-woman's perils and troubles? Had she not her own terrors, her own soul-absorbing perplexities to usurp every thought of which her brain was capable?
She did not make any remark upon that which poor Phoebe just told her; she scarcely comprehended what had been said, until some moments after the girl had finished speaking, when the words assumed their full meaning, as some words do after they have been heard without being heeded.
"Burnt in your beds," said the young lady, at last. "It would have been a good thing for me if that precious creature, your husband, had been burnt in his bed before to-night."
A vivid picture had flashed upon her as she spoke. The picture of that frail wooden tenement, the Castle Inn, reduced to a roofless chaos of lath and plaster, vomiting flames from its black mouth, and spitting blazing sparks upward toward the cold night sky.
She gave a weary sigh as she dismissed this image from her restless brain. She would be no better off even if this enemy should be for ever silenced. She had another and far more dangerous foe--a foe who was not to be bribed or bought off, though she had been as rich as an empress.
"I'll give you the money to send this bailiff away," my lady said, after a pause. "I must give you the last sovereign in my purse, but what of that? you know as well as I do that I dare not refuse you."
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 home."
"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 say."
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 child.
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 frivolous mind.
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 letter.
"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 Marks.
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 walking-costume.
"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 myself."
"But, my lady, you forget what the time is; you can't go out at such an hour."
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 debt."
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 you please."
"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 bed?"
"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 staircase.
"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 safety.
"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 and determination.
"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, isn't it?"
"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 three miles.
"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 asleep."
"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 away."
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 should come."
"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 room.
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 you?"
"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 mistress mad.
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 tremble violently.
"I think I am going to faint, Phoebe," she said; "where can I get some cold water?"
"The pump is in the wash-house, my lady; I'll run and get you a glass of cold water."
"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 lock.
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 candle.
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 o'clock. Come."
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 see?"
"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 Mount Stanning."
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. Audley asleep--"
Phoebe Marks stopped suddenly at the mention of Robert's name, and fell upon her knees, clasping her uplifted hands, and appealing wildly to Lady Audley.
"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 I'm wrong."
"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.