LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
"Mr. George Talboys.—Any person who has met this gentleman since the 7th inst., or who possesses any information respecting him subsequent to that date, will be liberally rewarded on communicating with A.Z., 14 Chancery Lane."
Sir Michael Audley read the above advertisement in the second column of the Times, as he sat at breakfast with my lady and Alicia two or three days after Robert's return to town.
"Robert's friend has not yet been heard of, then," said the baronet, after reading the advertisement to his wife and daughter.
"As for that," replied my lady, "I cannot help wondering that any one can be silly enough to advertise for him. The young man was evidently of a restless, roving disposition—a sort of Bamfyld Moore Carew of modern life, whom no attraction could ever keep in one spot."
Though the advertisement appeared three successive times, the party at the Court attached very little importance to Mr. Talboys disappearance; and after this one occasion his name was never again mentioned by either Sir Michael, my lady, or Alicia.
Alicia Audley and her pretty stepmother were by no means any better friends after that quiet evening on which the young barrister had dined at the Court.
"She is a vain, frivolous, heartless little coquette," said Alicia, addressing herself to her Newfoundland dog Caesar, who was the sole recipient of the young lady's confidences; "she is a practiced and consummate flirt, Caesar; and not contented with setting her yellow ringlets and her silly giggle at half the men in Essex, she must needs make that stupid cousin of mine dance attendance upon her. I haven't common patience with her."
In proof of which last assertion Miss Alice Audley treated her stepmother with such very palpable impertinence that Sir Michael felt himself called upon to remonstrate with his only daughter.
"The poor little woman is very sensitive, you know, Alicia," the baronet said, gravely, "and she feels your conduct most acutely."
"I don't believe it a bit, papa," answered Alicia, stoutly. "You think her sensitive because she has soft little white hands, and big blue eyes with long lashes, and all manner of affected, fantastical ways, which you stupid men call fascinating. Sensitive! Why, I've seen her do cruel things with those slender white fingers, and laugh at the pain she inflicted. I'm very sorry, papa," she added, softened a little by her father's look of distress; "though she has come between us, and robbed poor Alicia of the love of that dear, generous heart, I wish I could like her for your sake; but I can't, I can't, and no more can Caesar. She came up to him once with her red lips apart, and her little white teeth glistening between them, and stroked his great head with her soft hand; but if I had not had hold of his collar, he would have flown at her throat and strangled her. She may bewitch every man in Essex, but she'd never make friends with my dog."
"Your dog shall be shot," answered Sir Michael angrily, "if his vicious temper ever endangers Lucy."
The Newfoundland rolled his eyes slowly round in the direction of the speaker, as if he understood every word that had been said. Lady Audley happened to enter the room at this very moment, and the animal cowered down by the side of his mistress with a suppressed growl. There was something in the manner of the dog which was, if anything, more indicative of terror than of fury; incredible as it appears that Caesar should be frightened by so fragile a creature as Lucy Audley.
Amicable as was my lady's nature, she could not live long at the Court without discovering Alicia's dislike to her. She never alluded to it but once; then, shrugging her graceful white shoulders, she said, with a sigh:
"It seems very hard that you cannot love me, Alicia, for I have never been used to make enemies; but since it seems that it must be so, I cannot help it. If we cannot be friends, let us be neutral. You won't try to injure me?"
"Injure you!" exclaimed Alicia; "how should I injure you?"
"You'll not try to deprive me of your father's affection?"
"I may not be as amiable as you are, my lady, and I may not have the same sweet smiles and pretty words for every stranger I meet, but I am not capable of a contemptible meanness; and even if I were, I think you are so secure of my father's love, that nothing but your own act will ever deprive you of it."
"What a severe creature you are, Alicia!" said my lady, making a little grimace. "I suppose you mean to infer by all that, that I'm deceitful. Why, I can't help smiling at people, and speaking prettily to them. I know I'm no better than the rest of the world; but I can't help it if I'm pleasanter. It's constitutional."
Alicia having thus entirely shut the door upon all intimacy between Lady Audley and herself, and Sir Michael being chiefly occupied in agricultural pursuits and manly sports, which kept him away from home, it was perhaps natural that my lady, being of an eminently social disposition, should find herself thrown a good deal upon her white-eyelashed maid for society.
Phoebe Marks was exactly the sort of a girl who is generally promoted from the post of lady's maid to that of companion. She had just sufficient education to enable her to understand her mistress when Lucy chose to allow herself to run riot in a species of intellectual tarantella, in which her tongue went mad to the sound of its own rattle, as the Spanish dancer at the noise of his castanets. Phoebe knew enough of the French language to be able to dip into the yellow-paper-covered novels which my lady ordered from the Burlington Arcade, and to discourse with her mistress upon the questionable subjects of these romances. The likeness which the lady's maid bore to Lucy Audley was, perhaps, a point of sympathy between the two women. It was not to be called a striking likeness; a stranger might have seen them both together, and yet have failed to remark it. But there were certain dim and shadowy lights in which, meeting Phoebe Marks gliding softly through the dark oak passages of the Court, or under the shrouded avenues in the garden, you might have easily mistaken her for my lady.
Sharp October winds were sweeping the leaves from the limes in the long avenue, and driving them in withered heaps with a ghostly rustling noise along the dry gravel walks. The old well must have been half choked up with the leaves that drifted about it, and whirled in eddying circles into its black, broken mouth. On the still bosom of the fish-pond the same withered leaves slowly rotted away, mixing themselves with the tangled weeds that discolored the surface of the water. All the gardeners Sir Michael could employ could not keep the impress of autumn's destroying hand from the grounds about the Court.
"How I hate this desolate month!" my lady said, as she walked about the garden, shivering beneath her sable mantle. "Every thing dropping to ruin and decay, and the cold flicker of the sun lighting up the ugliness of the earth, as the glare of gas-lamps lights the wrinkles of an old woman. Shall I ever grow old, Phoebe? Will my hair ever drop off as the leaves are falling from those trees, and leave me wan and bare like them? What is to become of me when I grow old?"
She shivered at the thought of this more than she had done at the cold, wintry breeze, and muffling herself closely in her fur, walked so fast that her maid had some difficulty in keeping up with her.
"Do you remember, Phoebe," she said, presently, relaxing her pace, "do you remember that French story we read—the story of a beautiful woman who had committed some crime—I forget what—in the zenith of her power and loveliness, when all Paris drank to her every night, and when the people ran away from the carriage of the king to flock about hers, and get a peep at her face? Do you remember how she kept the secret of what she had done for nearly half a century, spending her old age in her family chateau, beloved and honored by all the province as an uncanonized saint and benefactress to the poor; and how, when her hair was white, and her eyes almost blind with age, the secret was revealed through one of those strange accidents by which such secrets always are revealed in romances, and she was tried, found guilty, and condemned to be burned alive? The king who had worn her colors was dead and gone; the court of which she had been a star had passed away; powerful functionaries and great magistrates, who might perhaps have helped her, were moldering in the graves; brave young cavaliers, who would have died for her, had fallen upon distant battle-fields; she had lived to see the age to which she had belonged fade like a dream; and she went to the stake, followed by only a few ignorant country people, who forgot all her bounties, and hooted at her for a wicked sorceress."
"I don't care for such dismal stories, my lady," said Phoebe Marks with a shudder. "One has no need to read books to give one the horrors in this dull place."
Lady Audley shrugged her shoulders and laughed at her maid's candor.
"It is a dull place, Phoebe," she said, "though it doesn't do to say so to my dear old husband. Though I am the wife of one of the most influential men in the county, I don't know that I wasn't nearly as well off at Mr. Dawson's; and yet it's something to wear sables that cost sixty guineas, and have a thousand pounds spent on the decoration of one's apartments."
Treated as a companion by her mistress, in the receipt of the most liberal wages, and with perquisites such as perhaps lady's maid never had before, it was strange that Phoebe Marks should wish to leave her situation; but it was not the less a fact that she was anxious to exchange all the advantages of Audley Court for the very unpromising prospect which awaited her as the wife of her Cousin Luke.
The young man had contrived in some manner to associate himself with the improved fortunes of his sweetheart. He had never allowed Phoebe any peace till she had obtained for him, by the aid of my lady's interference, a situation as undergroom of the Court.
He never rode out with either Alicia or Sir Michael; but on one of the few occasions upon which my lady mounted the pretty little gray thoroughbred reserved for her use, he contrived to attend her in her ride. He saw enough, in the very first half hour they were out, to discover that, graceful as Lucy Audley might look in her long blue cloth habit, she was a timid horsewoman, and utterly unable to manage the animal she rode.
Lady Audley remonstrated with her maid upon her folly in wishing to marry the uncouth groom.
The two women were seated together over the fire in my lady's dressing-room, the gray sky closing in upon the October afternoon, and the black tracery of ivy darkening the casement windows.
"You surely are not in love with the awkward, ugly creature are you, Phoebe?" asked my lady sharply.
The girl was sitting on a low stool at her mistress feet. She did not answer my lady's question immediately, but sat for some time looking vacantly into the red abyss in the hollow fire.
Presently she said, rather as if she had been thinking aloud than answering Lucy's question:
"I don't think I can love him. We have been together from children, and I promised, when I was little better than fifteen, that I'd be his wife. I daren't break that promise now. There have been times when I've made up the very sentence I meant to say to him, telling him that I couldn't keep my faith with him; but the words have died upon my lips, and I've sat looking at him, with a choking sensation, in my throat that wouldn't let me speak. I daren't refuse to marry him. I've often watched and watched him, as he has sat slicing away at a hedge-stake with his great clasp-knife, till I have thought that it is just such men as he who have decoyed their sweethearts into lonely places, and murdered them for being false to their word. When he was a boy he was always violent and revengeful. I saw him once take up that very knife in a quarrel with his mother. I tell you, my lady, I must marry him."
"You silly girl, you shall do nothing of the kind!" answered Lucy. "You think he'll murder you, do you? Do you think, then, if murder is in him, you would be any safer as his wife? If you thwarted him, or made him jealous; if he wanted to marry another woman, or to get hold of some poor, pitiful bit of money of yours, couldn't he murder you then? I tell you you sha'n't marry him, Phoebe. In the first place I hate the man; and, in the next place I can't afford to part with you. We'll give him a few pounds and send him about his business."
Phoebe Marks caught my lady's hand in hers, and clasped them convulsively.
"My lady—my good, kind mistress!" she cried, vehemently, "don't try to thwart me in this—don't ask me to thwart him. I tell you I must marry him. You don't know what he is. It will be my ruin, and the ruin of others, if I break my word. I must marry him!"
"Very well, then, Phoebe," answered her mistress, "I can't oppose you. There must be some secret at the bottom of all this." "There is, my lady," said the girl, with her face turned away from Lucy.
"I shall be very sorry to lose you; but I have promised to stand your friend in all things. What does your cousin mean to do for a living when, you are married?"
"He would like to take a public house."
"Then he shall take a public house, and the sooner he drinks himself to death the better. Sir Michael dines at a bachelor's party at Major Margrave's this evening, and my step-daughter is away with her friends at the Grange. You can bring your cousin into the drawing-room after dinner, and I'll tell him what I mean to do for him."
"You are very good, my lady," Phoebe answered with a sigh.
Lady Audley sat in the glow of firelight and wax candles in the luxurious drawing-room; the amber damask cushions of the sofa contrasting with her dark violet velvet dress, and her rippling hair falling about her neck in a golden haze. Everywhere around her were the evidences of wealth and splendor; while in strange contrast to all this, and to her own beauty; the awkward groom stood rubbing his bullet head as my lady explained to him what she intended to do for her confidential maid. Lucy's promises were very liberal, and she had expected that, uncouth as the man was, he would, in his own rough manner, have expressed his gratitude.
To her surprise he stood staring at the floor without uttering a word in answer to her offer. Phoebe was standing close to his elbow, and seemed distressed at the man's rudeness.
"Tell my lady how thankful you are, Luke," she said.
"But I'm not so over and above thankful," answered her lover, savagely. "Fifty pound ain't much to start a public. You'll make it a hundred, my lady?"
"I shall do nothing of the kind," said Lady Audley, her clear blue eyes flashing with indignation, "and I wonder at your impertinence in asking it."
"Oh, yes, you will, though," answered Luke, with quiet insolence that had a hidden meaning. "You'll make it a hundred, my lady."
Lady Audley rose from her seat, looked the man steadfastly in the face till his determined gaze sunk under hers; then walking straight up to her maid, she said in a high, piercing voice, peculiar to her in moments of intense agitation:
"Phoebe Marks, you have told this man!"
The girl fell on her knees at my lady's feet.
"Oh, forgive me, forgive me!" she cried. "He forced it from me, or I would never, never have told!"