LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
ON THE WATCH
Upon a lowering morning late in November, with the yellow fog low upon the flat meadows, and the blinded cattle groping their way through the dim obscurity, and blundering stupidly against black and leafless hedges, or stumbling into ditches, undistinguishable in the hazy atmosphere; with the village church looming brown and dingy through the uncertain light; with every winding path and cottage door, every gable end and gray old chimney, every village child and straggling cur seeming strange and weird of aspect in the semi-darkness, Phoebe Marks and her Cousin Luke made their way through the churchyard of Audley, and presented themselves before a shivering curate, whose surplice hung in damp folds, soddened by the morning mist, and whose temper was not improved by his having waited five minutes for the bride and bridegroom.
Luke Marks, dressed in his ill-fitting Sunday clothes, looked by no means handsomer than in his every-day apparel; but Phoebe, arrayed in a rustling silk of delicate gray, that had been worn about half a dozen times by her mistress, looked, as the few spectators of the ceremony remarked, "quite the lady."
A very dim and shadowy lady, vague of outline, and faint of coloring, with eyes, hair, complexion and dress all melting into such pale and uncertain shades that, in the obscure light of the foggy November morning a superstitious stranger might have mistaken the bride for the ghost of some other bride, dead and buried in the vault below the church.
Mr. Luke Marks, the hero of the occasion, thought very little of all this. He had secured the wife of his choice, and the object of his life-long ambition—a public house. My lady had provided the seventy-five pounds necessary for the purchase of the good-will and fixtures, with the stock of ales and spirits, of a small inn in the center of a lonely little village, perched on the summit of a hill, and called Mount Stanning. It was not a very pretty house to look at; it had something of a tumble-down, weather-beaten appearance, standing, as it did, upon high ground, sheltered only by four or five bare and overgrown poplars, that had shot up too rapidly for their strength, and had a blighted, forlorn look in consequence. The wind had had its own way with the Castle Inn, and had sometimes made cruel use of its power. It was the wind that battered and bent the low, thatched roofs of outhouses and stables, till they hung over and lurched forward, as a slouched hat hangs over the low forehead of some village ruffian; it was the wind that shook and rattled the wooden shutters before the narrow casements, till they hung broken and dilapidated upon their rusty hinges; it was the wind that overthrew the pigeon house, and broke the vane that had been imprudently set up to tell the movements of its mightiness; it, was the wind that made light of any little bit of wooden trellis-work, or creeping plant, or tiny balcony, or any modest decoration whatsoever, and tore and scattered it in its scornful fury; it was the wind that left mossy secretions on the discolored surface of the plaster walls; it was the wind, in short, that shattered, and ruined, and rent, and trampled upon the tottering pile of buildings, and then flew shrieking off, to riot and glory in its destroying strength. The dispirited proprietor grew tired of his long struggle with this mighty enemy; so the wind was left to work its own will, and the Castle Inn fell slowly to decay. But for all that it suffered without, it was not the less prosperous within doors. Sturdy drovers stopped to drink at the little bar; well-to-do farmers spent their evenings and talked politics in the low, wainscoted parlor, while their horses munched some suspicious mixture of moldy hay and tolerable beans in the tumble-down stables. Sometimes even the members of the Audley hunt stopped to drink and bait their horses at the Castle Inn; while, on one grand and never-to-be-forgotten occasion, a dinner had been ordered by the master of the hounds for some thirty gentlemen, and the proprietor driven nearly mad by the importance of the demand.
So Luke Marks, who was by no means troubled with an eye for the beautiful, thought himself very fortunate in becoming the landlord of the Castle Inn, Mount Stanning.
A chaise-cart was waiting in the fog to convey the bride and bridegroom to their new home; and a few of the villagers, who had known Phoebe from a child, were lingering around the churchyard gate to bid her good-by. Her pale eyes were still paler from the tears she had shed, and the red rims which surrounded them. The bridegroom was annoyed at this exhibition of emotion.
"What are you blubbering for, lass?" he said, fiercely. "If you didn't want to marry me you should have told me so. I ain't going to murder you, am I?"
The lady's maid shivered as he spoke to her, and dragged her little silk mantle closely around her.
"You're cold in all this here finery," said Luke, staring at her costly dress with no expression of good-will. "Why can't women dress according to their station? You won't have no silk gownds out of my pocket, I can tell you."
He lifted the shivering girl into the chaise, wrapped a rough great-coat about her, and drove off through the yellow fog, followed by a feeble cheer from two or three urchins clustered around the gate.
A new maid was brought from London to replace Phoebe Marks about the person of my lady—a very showy damsel, who wore a black satin gown, and rose-colored ribbons in her cap, and complained bitterly of the dullness of Audley Court.
But Christmas brought visitors to the rambling old mansion. A country squire and his fat wife occupied the tapestried chamber; merry girls scampered up and down the long passages, and young men stared out of the latticed windows, watching for southerly winds and cloudy skies; there was not an empty stall in the roomy old stables; an extempore forge had been set up in the yard for the shoeing of hunters; yelping dogs made the place noisy with their perpetual clamor; strange servants herded together on the garret story; and every little casement hidden away under some pointed gable, and every dormer window in the quaint old roof, glimmered upon the winter's night with its separate taper, till, coming suddenly upon Audley Court, the benighted stranger, misled by the light, and noise, and bustle of the place, might have easily fallen into young Marlowe's error, and have mistaken the hospitable mansion for a good, old-fashioned inn, such as have faded from this earth since the last mail coach and prancing tits took their last melancholy journey to the knacker's yard.
Among other visitors Mr. Robert Audley came down to Essex for the hunting season, with half a dozen French novels, a case of cigars, and three pounds of Turkish tobacco in his portmanteau.
The honest young country squires, who talked all breakfast time of Flying Dutchman fillies and Voltigeur colts; of glorious runs of seven hours' hard riding over three counties, and a midnight homeward ride of thirty miles upon their covert hacks; and who ran away from the well-spread table with their mouths full of cold sirloin, to look at that off pastern, or that sprained forearm, or the colt that had just come back from the veterinary surgeon's, set down Robert Audley, dawdling over a slice of bread and marmalade, as a person utterly unworthy of any remark whatsoever.
The young barrister had brought a couple of dogs with him; and the country gentleman who gave fifty pounds for a pointer; and traveled a couple of hundred miles to look at a leash of setters before be struck a bargain, laughed aloud at the two miserable curs, one of which had followed Robert Audley through Chancery Lane, and half the length of Holborn; while his companion had been taken by the barrister vi et armis from a coster-monger who was ill-using him. And as Robert furthermore insisted on having these two deplorable animals under his easy-chair in the drawing-room, much to the annoyance of my lady, who, as we know, hated all dogs, the visitors at Audley Court looked upon the baronet's nephew as an inoffensive species of maniac.
During other visits to the Court Robert Audley had made a feeble show of joining in the sports of the merry assembly. He had jogged across half a dozen ploughed fields on a quiet gray pony of Sir Michael's, and drawing up breathless and panting at door of some farm-house, had expressed his intention of following the hounds no further that morning. He had even gone so far as to put on, with great labor, a pair of skates, with a view to taking a turn on the frozen surface of the fishpond, and had fallen ignominously at the first attempt, lying placidly extended on the flat of his back until such time as the bystanders should think fit to pick him up. He had occupied the back seat in a dog-cart during a pleasant morning drive, vehemently protesting against being taken up hill, and requiring the vehicle to be stopped every ten minutes in order to readjust the cushions. But this year he showed no inclination for any of these outdoor amusements, and he spent his time entirely in lounging in the drawing-room, and making himself agreeable, after his own lazy fashion, to my lady and Alicia.
Lady Audley received her nephew's attentions in that graceful half-childish fashion which her admirers found so charming; but Alicia was indignant at the change in her cousin's conduct.
"You were always a poor, spiritless fellow, Bob," said the young lady, contemptuously, as she bounced into the drawing-room in her riding-habit, after a hunting breakfast, from which Robert had absented himself, preferring a cup of tea in my lady's boudoir; "but this year I don't know what has come to you. You are good for nothing but to hold a skein of silk or read Tennyson to Lady Audley."
"My dear, hasty, impetuous Alicia, don't be violent," said the young man imploringly. "A conclusion isn't a five-barred gate; and you needn't give your judgment its head, as you give your mare Atalanta hers, when you're flying across country at the heels of an unfortunate fox. Lady Audley interests me, and my uncle's county friends do not. Is that a sufficient answer, Alicia?"
Miss Audley gave her head a little scornful toss.
"It's as good an answer as I shall ever get from, you, Bob," she said, impatiently; "but pray amuse yourself in your own way; loll in an easy-chair all day, with those two absurd dogs asleep on your knees; spoil my lady's window-curtains with your cigars and annoy everybody in the house with your stupid, inanimate countenance."
Mr. Robert Audley opened his handsome gray eyes to their widest extent at this tirade, and looked helplessly at Miss Alicia.
The young lady was walking up and down the room, slashing the skirt of her habit with her riding-whip. Her eyes sparkled with an angry flash, and a crimson glow burned under her clear brown skin. The young barrister knew very well, by these diagnostics, that his cousin was in a passion.
"Yes," she repeated, "your stupid, inanimate countenance. Do you know, Robert Audley, that with all your mock amiability, you are brimful of conceit and superciliousness. You look down upon our amusements; you lift up your eyebrows, and shrug your shoulders, and throw yourself back in your chair, and wash your hands of us and our pleasures. You are a selfish, cold-hearted Sybarite—"
The morning paper dropped out of his hands, and he sat feebly staring at his assailant.
"Yes, selfish, Robert Audley! You take home half-starved dogs, because you like half-starved dogs. You stoop down, and pat the head of every good-for-nothing cur in the village street, because you like good-for-nothing curs. You notice little children, and give them halfpence, because it amuses you to do so. But you lift your eyebrows a quarter of a yard when poor Sir Harry Towers tells a stupid story, and stare the poor fellow out of countenance with your lazy insolence. As to your amiability, you would let a man hit you, and say 'Thank you' for the blow, rather than take the trouble to hit him again; but you wouldn't go half a mile out of your way to serve your dearest friend. Sir Harry is worth twenty of you, though he did write to ask if my m-a-i-r Atalanta had recovered from the sprain. He can't spell, or lift his eyebrows to the roots of his hair; but he would go through fire and water for the girl he loves; while you—"
At this very point, when Robert was most prepared to encounter his cousin's violence, and when Miss Alicia seemed about to make her strongest attack, the young lady broke down altogether, and burst into tears.
Robert sprang from his easy-chair, upsetting his dogs on the carpet.
"Alicia, my darling, what is it?"
"It's—it's—it's the feather of my hat that got into my eyes," sobbed his cousin; and before he could investigate the truth of this assertion Alicia had darted out of the room.
Robert Audley was preparing to follow her, when he heard her voice in the court-yard below, amidst the tramping of horses and the clamor of visitors, dogs, and grooms. Sir Harry Towers, the most aristocratic young sportsman in the neighborhood, had just taken her little foot in his hand as she sprung into her saddle.
"Good Heaven!" exclaimed Robert, as he watched the merry party of equestrians until they disappeared under the archway. "What does all this mean? How charmingly she sits her horse! What a pretty figure, too, and a fine, candid, brown, rosy face: but to fly at a fellow like that, without the least provocation! That's the consequence of letting a girl follow the hounds. She learns to look at everything in life as she does at six feet of timber or a sunk fence; she goes through the world as she goes across country—straight ahead, and over everything. Such a nice girl as she might have been, too, if she'd been brought up in Figtree Court! If ever I marry, and have daughters (which remote contingency may Heaven forefend!) they shall be educated in Paper Buildings, take their sole exercise in the Temple Gardens, and they shall never go beyond the gates till they are marriageable, when I will walk them straight across Fleet street to St. Dunstan's church, and deliver them into the hands of their husbands."
With such reflections as these did Mr. Robert Audley beguile the time until my lady re-entered the drawing-room, fresh and radiant in her elegant morning costume, her yellow curls glistening with the perfumed waters in which she had bathed, and her velvet-covered sketch-book in her arms. She planted a little easel upon a table by the window, seated herself before it, and began to mix the colors upon her palette, Robert watching her out of his half-closed eyes.
"You are sure my cigar does not annoy you, Lady Audley?"
"Oh, no indeed; I am quite used to the smell of tobacco. Mr. Dawson, the surgeon, smoked all the evening when I lived in his house."
"Dawson is a good fellow, isn't he?" Robert asked, carelessly.
My lady burst into her pretty, gushing laugh.
"The dearest of good creatures," she said. "He paid me five-and-twenty pounds a year—only fancy, five-and-twenty pounds! That made six pounds five a quarter. How well I remember receiving the money—six dingy old sovereigns, and a little heap of untidy, dirty silver, that came straight from the till in the surgery! And then how glad I was to get it! While now—I can't help laughing while I think of it—these colors I am using cost a guinea each at Winsor & Newton's—the carmine and ultramarine thirty shillings. I gave Mrs. Dawson one of my silk dresses the other day, and the poor thing kissed me, and the surgeon carried the bundle home under his cloak."
My lady laughed long and joyously at the thought. Her colors were mixed; she was copying a water-colored sketch of an impossibly Turneresque atmosphere. The sketch was nearly finished, and she had only to put in some critical little touches with the most delicate of her sable pencils. She prepared herself daintily for the work, looking sideways at the painting.
All this time Mr. Robert Audley's eyes were fixed intently on her pretty face.
"It is a change," he said, after so long a pause that my lady might have forgotten what she had been talking of, "it is a change! Some women would do a great deal to accomplish such a change as that."
Lady Audley's clear blue eyes dilated as she fixed them suddenly on the young barrister. The wintry sunlight, gleaming full upon her face from a side window, lit up the azure of those beautiful eyes, till their color seemed to flicker and tremble betwixt blue and green, as the opal tints of the sea change upon a summer's day. The small brush fell from her hand, and blotted out the peasant's face under a widening circle of crimson lake.
Robert Audley was tenderly coaxing the crumbled leaf of his cigar with cautious fingers.
"My friend at the corner of Chancery Lane has not given me such good Manillas as usual," he murmured. "If ever you smoke, my dear aunt (and I am told that many women take a quiet weed under the rose), be very careful how you choose your cigars."
My lady drew a long breath, picked up her brush, and laughed aloud at Robert's advice.
"What an eccentric creature you are, Mr. Audley I Do you know that you sometimes puzzle me—"
"Not more than you puzzle me, dear aunt."
My lady put away her colors and sketch book, and seating herself in the deep recess of another window, at a considerable distance from Robert Audley, settled to a large piece of Berlin-wool work—a piece of embroidery which the Penelopes of ten or twelve years ago were very fond of exercising their ingenuity upon—the Olden Time at Bolton Abbey.
Seated in the embrasure of this window, my lady was separated from Robert Audley by the whole length of the room, and the young man could only catch an occasional glimpse of her fair face, surrounded by its bright aureole of hazy, golden hair.
Robert Audley had been a week at the Court, but as yet neither he nor my lady had mentioned the name of George Talboys.
This morning, however, after exhausting the usual topics of conversation, Lady Audley made an inquiry about her nephew's friend; "That Mr. George—George—" she said, hesitating.
"Talboys," suggested Robert.
"Yes, to be sure—Mr. George Talboys. Rather a singular name, by-the-by, and certainly, by all accounts, a very singular person. Have you seen him lately?"
"I have not seen him since the 7th of September last—the day upon which he left me asleep in the meadows on the other side of the village."
"Dear me!" exclaimed my lady, "what a very strange young man this Mr. George Talboys must be! Pray tell me all about it."
Robert told, in a few words, of his visit to Southampton and his journey to Liverpool, with their different results, my lady listening very attentively.
In order to tell this story to better advantage, the young man left his chair, and, crossing the room, took up his place opposite to Lady Audley, in the embrasure of the window.
"And what do you infer from all this?" asked my lady, after a pause.
"It is so great a mystery to me," he answered, "that I scarcely dare to draw any conclusion whatever; but in the obscurity I think I can grope my way to two suppositions, which to me seem almost certainties."
"And they are—"
"First, that George Talboys never went beyond Southampton. Second, that he never went to Southampton at all."
"But you traced him there. His father-in-law had seen him."
"I have reason to doubt his father-in-law's integrity."
"Good gracious me!" cried my lady, piteously. "What do you mean by all this?"
"Lady Audley," answered the young man, gravely, "I have never practiced as a barrister. I have enrolled myself in the ranks of a profession, the members of which hold solemn responsibilities and have sacred duties to perform; and I have shrunk from those responsibilities and duties, as I have from all the fatigues of this troublesome life. But we are sometimes forced into the very position we have most avoided, and I have found myself lately compelled to think of these things. Lady Audley, did you ever study the theory of circumstantial evidence?"
"How can you ask a poor little woman about such horrid things?" exclaimed my lady.
"Circumstantial evidence," continued the young man, as if he scarcely heard Lady Audley's interruption—"that wonderful fabric which is built out of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet strong enough to hang a man. Upon what infinitesimal trifles may sometimes hang the whole secret of some wicked mystery, inexplicable heretofore to the wisest upon the earth! A scrap of paper, a shred of some torn garment, the button off a coat, a word dropped incautiously from the overcautious lips of guilt, the fragment of a letter, the shutting or opening of a door, a shadow on a window-blind, the accuracy of a moment tested by one of Benson's watches—a thousand circumstances so slight as to be forgotten by the criminal, but links of iron in the wonderful chain forged by the science of the detective officer; and lo! the gallows is built up; the solemn bell tolls through the dismal gray of the early morning, the drop creaks under the guilty feet, and the penalty of crime is paid."
Faint shadows of green and crimson fell upon my lady's face from the painted escutcheons in the mullioned window by which she sat; but every trace of the natural color of that face had faded out, leaving it a ghastly ashen gray.
Sitting quietly in her chair, her head fallen back upon the amber damask cushions, and her little hands lying powerless in her lap, Lady Audley had fainted away.
"The radius grows narrower day by day," said Robert Audley. "George Talboys never reached Southampton."