LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
ROBERT AUDLEY GETS HIS CONGE
The Christmas week was over, and one by one the country visitors dropped away from Audley Court. The fat squire and his wife abandoned the gray, tapestried chamber, and left the black-browed warriors looming from the wall to scowl upon and threaten new guests, or to glare vengefully upon vacancy. The merry girls on the second story packed, or caused to be packed, their trunks and imperials, and tumbled gauze ball-dresses were taken home that had been brought fresh to Audley. Blundering old family chariots, with horses whose untrimmed fetlocks told of rougher work than even country roads, were brought round to the broad space before the grim oak door, and laden with chaotic heaps of womanly luggage. Pretty rosy faces peeped out of carriage windows to smile the last farewell upon the group at the hall door, as the vehicle rattled and rumbled under the ivied archway. Sir Michael was in request everywhere. Shaking hands with the young sportsmen; kissing the rosy-cheeked girls; sometimes even embracing portly matrons who came to thank him for their pleasant visit; everywhere genial, hospitable, generous, happy, and beloved, the baronet hurried from room to room, from the hall to the stables, from the stables to the court-yard, from the court-yard to the arched gateway to speed the parting guest.
My lady's yellow curls flashed hither and thither like wandering gleams of sunshine on these busy days of farewell. Her great blue eyes had a pretty, mournful look, in charming unison with the soft pressure of her little hand, and that friendly, though perhaps rather stereotyped speech, in which she told her visitors how she was so sorry to lose them, and how she didn't know what she should do till they came once more to enliven the court by their charming society.
But however sorry my lady might be to lose her visitors, there was at least one guest whose society she was not deprived of. Robert Audley showed no intention of leaving his uncle's house. He had no professional duties, he said; Figtree Court was delightfully shady in hot weather, but there was a sharp corner round which the wind came in the summer months, armed with avenging rheumatisms and influenzas. Everybody was so good to him at the Court, that really he had no inclination to hurry away.
Sir Michael had but one answer to this: "Stay, my dear boy; stay, my dear Bob, as long as ever you like. I have no son, and you stand to me in the place of one. Make yourself agreeable to Lucy, and make the Court your home as long as you live."
To which Robert would merely reply by grasping his uncle's hand vehemently, and muttering something about "a jolly old prince."
It was to be observed that there was sometimes a certain vague sadness in the young man's tone when he called Sir Michael "a jolly old prince;" some shadow of affectionate regret that brought a mist into Robert's eyes, as he sat in a corner of the room looking thoughtfully at the white-bearded baronet.
Before the last of the young sportsmen departed, Sir Harry Towers demanded and obtained an interview with Miss Alicia Audley in the oak library—an interview in which considerable emotion was displayed by the stalwart young fox-hunter; so much emotion, indeed, and of such a genuine and honest character, that Alicia fairly broke down as she told him she should forever esteem and respect him for his true and noble heart, but that he must never, never, unless he wished to cause her the most cruel distress, ask more from her than this esteem and respect.
Sir Harry left the library by the French window opening into the pond-garden. He strolled into that very lime-walk which George Talboys had compared to an avenue in a churchyard, and under the leafless trees fought the battle of his brave young heart.
"What a fool I am to feel it like this!" he cried, stamping his foot upon the frosty ground. "I always knew it would be so; I always knew that she was a hundred times too good for me. God bless her! How nobly and tenderly she spoke; how beautiful she looked with the crimson blushes under her brown skin, and the tears in her big, gray eyes—almost as handsome as the day she took the sunk fence, and let me put the brush in her hat as we rode home! God bless her! I can get over anything as long as she doesn't care for that sneaking lawyer. But I couldn't stand that."
That sneaking lawyer, by which appellation Sir Harry alluded to Mr. Robert Audley, was standing in the hall, looking at a map of the midland counties, when Alicia came out of the library, with red eyes, after her interview with the fox-hunting baronet.
Robert, who was short-sighted, had his eyes within half an inch of the surface of the map as the young lady approached him.
"Yes," he said, "Norwich is in Norfolk, and that fool, young Vincent, said it was in Herefordshire. Ha, Alicia, is that you?"
He turned round so as to intercept Miss Audley on her way to the staircase.
"Yes," replied his cousin curtly, trying to pass him.
"Alicia, you have been crying."
The young lady did not condescend to reply.
"You have been crying, Alicia. Sir Harry Towers, of Towers Park, in the county of Herts, has been making you an offer of his hand, eh?"
"Have you been listening at the door, Mr. Audley?"
"I have not, Miss Audley. On principle, I object to listen, and in practice I believe it to be a very troublesome proceeding; but I am a barrister, Miss Alicia, and able to draw a conclusion by induction. Do you know what inductive evidence is, Miss Audley?"
"No," replied Alicia, looking at her cousin as a handsome young panther might look at its daring tormentor.
"I thought not. I dare say Sir Harry would ask if it was a new kind of horse-ball. I knew by induction that the baronet was going to make you an offer; first, because he came downstairs with his hair parted on the wrong side, and his face as pale as a tablecloth; secondly, because he couldn't eat any breakfast, and let his coffee go the wrong way; and, thirdly, because he asked for an interview with you before he left the Court. Well, how's it to be, Alicia? Do we marry the baronet, and is poor Cousin Bob to be the best man at the wedding?"
"Sir Harry Towers is a noble-hearted young man," said Alicia, still trying to pass her cousin.
"But do we accept him—yes or no? Are we to be Lady Towers, with a superb estate in Hertfordshire, summer quarters for our hunters, and a drag with outriders to drive us across to papa's place in Essex? Is it to be so, Alicia, or not?"
"What is that to you, Mr. Robert Audley?" cried Alicia, passionately. "What do you care what becomes of me, or whom I marry? If I married a chimney-sweep you'd only lift up your eyebrows and say, 'Bless my soul, she was always eccentric.' I have refused Sir Harry Towers; but when I think of his generous and unselfish affection, and compare it with the heartless, lazy, selfish, supercilious indifference of other men, I've a good mind to run after him and tell him—"
"That you'll retract, and be my Lady Towers?"
"Then don't, Alicia, don't," said Robert Audley, grasping his cousin's slender little wrist, and leading her up-stairs. "Come into the drawing-room with me, Alicia, my poor little cousin; my charming, impetuous, alarming little cousin. Sit down here in this mullioned window, and let us talk seriously and leave off quarreling if we can."
The cousins had the drawing-room all to themselves. Sir Michael was out, my lady in her own apartments, and poor Sir Harry Towers walking up and down upon the gravel walk, darkened with the flickering shadows of the leafless branches in the cold winter sunshine.
"My poor little Alicia," said Robert, as tenderly as if he had been addressing some spoiled child, "do you suppose that because people don't wear vinegar tops, or part their hair on the wrong side, or conduct themselves altogether after the manner of well-meaning maniacs, by way of proving the vehemence of their passion—do you suppose because of this, Alicia Audley, that they may not be just as sensible of the merits of a dear little warm-hearted and affectionate girl as ever their neighbors can be? Life is such a very troublesome matter, when all is said and done, that it's as well even to take its blessings quietly. I don't make a great howling because I can get good cigars one door from the corner of Chancery Lane, and have a dear, good girl for my cousin; but I am not the less grateful to Providence that it is so."
Alicia opened her gray eyes to their widest extent, looking her cousin full in the face with a bewildered stare. Robert had picked up the ugliest and leanest of his attendant curs, and was placidly stroking the animal's ears.
"Is this all you have to say to me, Robert?" asked Miss Audley, meekly.
"Well, yes, I think so," replied her cousin, after considerable deliberation. "I fancy that what I wanted to say was this—don't marry the fox-hunting baronet if you like anybody else better; for if you'll only be patient and take life easily, and try and reform yourself of banging doors, bouncing in and out rooms, talking of the stables, and riding across country, I've no doubt the person you prefer will make you a very excellent husband."
"Thank you, cousin," said Miss Audley, crimsoning with bright, indignant blushes up to the roots of her waving brown hair; "but as you may not know the person I prefer, I think you had better not take upon yourself to answer for him."
Robert pulled the dog's ears thoughtfully for some moments.
"No, to be sure," he said, after a pause. "Of course, if I don't know him—I thought I did."
"Did you?" exclaimed Alicia; and opening the door with a violence that made her cousin shiver, she bounced out of the drawing-room.
"I only said I thought I knew him," Robert called after her; and, then, as he sunk into an easy-chair, he murmured thoughtfully: "Such a nice girl, too, if she didn't bounce."
So poor Sir Harry Towers rode away from Audley Court, looking very crestfallen and dismal.
He had very little pleasure in returning to the stately mansion, hidden among sheltering oaks and venerable beeches. The square, red brick house, gleaming at the end of a long arcade of leafless trees was to be forever desolate, he thought, since Alicia would not come to be its mistress.
A hundred improvements planned and thought of were dismissed from his mind as useless now. The hunter that Jim the trainer was breaking in for a lady; the two pointer pups that were being reared for the next shooting season; the big black retriever that would have carried Alicia's parasol; the pavilion in the garden, disused since his mother's death, but which he had meant to have restored for Miss Audley—all these things were now so much vanity and vexation of spirit.
"What's the good of being rich if one has no one to help spend one's money?" said the young baronet. "One only grows a selfish beggar, and takes to drinking too much port. It's a hard thing that a girl can refuse a true heart and such stables as we've got at the park. It unsettles a man somehow."
Indeed, this unlooked for rejection had very much unsettled the few ideas which made up the small sum of the baronet's mind.
He had been desperately in love with Alicia ever since the last hunting season, when he had met her at the county ball. His passion, cherished through the slow monotony of a summer, had broken out afresh in the merry winter months, and the young man's mauvaise honte alone had delayed the offer of his hand. But he had never for a moment supposed that he would be refused; he was so used to the adulation of mothers who had daughters to marry, and of even the daughters themselves; he had been so accustomed to feel himself the leading personage in an assembly, although half the wits of the age had been there, and he could only say "Haw, to be sure!" and "By Jove—hum!" he had been so spoiled by the flatteries of bright eyes that looked, or seemed to look, the brighter when he drew near, that without being possessed of one shadow of personal vanity, he had yet come to think that he had only to make an offer to the prettiest girl in Essex to behold himself immediately accepted.
"Yes," he would say complacently to some admiring satellite, "I know I'm a good match, and I know what makes the gals so civil. They're very pretty, and they're very friendly to a fellow; but I don't care about 'em. They're all alike—they can only drop their eyes and say, 'Lor', Sir Harry, why do you call that curly black dog a retriever?' or 'Oh Sir Harry, and did the poor mare really sprain her pastern shoulder-blade?' I haven't got much brains myself, I know," the baronet would add deprecatingly; "and I don't want a strong-minded woman, who writes books and wears green spectacles; but, hang it! I like a gal who knows what she's talking about."
So when Alicia said "No," or rather made that pretty speech about esteem and respect, which well-bred young ladies substitute for the obnoxious monosyllable, Sir Harry Towers felt that the whole fabric of the future he had built so complacently was shivered into a heap of dingy ruins.
Sir Michael grasped him warmly by the hand just before the young man mounted his horse in the court-yard.
"I'm very sorry, Towers," he said. "You're as good a fellow as ever breathed, and would have made my girl an excellent husband; but you know there's a cousin, and I think that—"
"Don't say that, Sir Michael," interrupted the fox-hunter, energetically. "I can get over anything but that. A fellow whose hand upon the curb weighs half a ton (why, he pulled the Cavalier's mouth to pieces, sir, the day you let him ride the horse); a fellow who turns his collars down, and eats bread and marmalade! No, no, Sir Michael; it's a queer world, but I can't think that of Miss Audley. There must be some one in the background, sir; it can't be the cousin."
Sir Michael shook his head as the rejected suitor rode away.
"I don't know about that," he muttered. "Bob's a good lad, and the girl might do worse; but he hangs back as if he didn't care for her. There's some mystery—there's some mystery!"
The old baronet said this in that semi-thoughtful tone with which we speak of other people's affairs. The shadows of the early winter twilight, gathering thickest under the low oak ceiling of the hall, and the quaint curve of the arched doorway, fell darkly round his handsome head; but the light of his declining life, his beautiful and beloved young wife, was near him, and he could see no shadows when she was by.
She came skipping through the hall to meet him, and, shaking her golden ringlets, buried her bright head on her husband's breast.
"So the last of our visitors is gone, dear, and we're all alone," she said. "Isn't that nice?"
"Yes, darling," he answered fondly, stroking her bright hair.
"Except Mr. Robert Audley. How long is that nephew of yours going to stay here?"
"As long as he likes, my pet; he's always welcome," said the baronet; and then, as if remembering himself, he added, tenderly: "But not unless his visit is agreeable to you, darling; not if his lazy habits, or his smoking, or his dogs, or anything about him is displeasing to you."
Lady Audley pursed up her rosy lips and looked thoughtfully at the ground.
"It isn't that," she said, hesitatingly. "Mr. Audley is a very agreeable young man, and a very honorable young man; but you know, Sir Michael, I'm rather a young aunt for such a nephew, and—"
"And what, Lucy?" asked the baronet, fiercely.
"Poor Alicia is rather jealous of any attention Mr. Audley pays me, and—and—I think it would be better for her happiness if your nephew were to bring his visit to a close."
"He shall go to-night, Lucy," exclaimed Sir Michael. "I am a blind, neglectful fool not to have thought of this before. My lovely little darling, it was scarcely just to Bob to expose the poor lad to your fascinations. I know him to be as good and true-hearted a fellow as ever breathed, but—but—he shall go tonight."
"But you won't be too abrupt, dear? You won't be rude?"
"Rude! No, Lucy. I left him smoking in the lime-walk. I'll go and tell him that he must get out of the house in an hour."
So in that leafless avenue, under whose gloomy shade George Talboys had stood on that thunderous evening before the day of his disappearance, Sir Michael Audley told his nephew that the Court was no home for him, and that my lady was too young and pretty to accept the attentions of a handsome nephew of eight-and-twenty.
Robert only shrugged his shoulders and elevated his thick, black eyebrows as Sir Michael delicately hinted all this.
"I have been attentive to my lady," he said. "She interests me;" and then, with a change in his voice, and an emotion not common to him, he turned to the baronet, and grasping his hand, exclaimed, "God forbid, my dear uncle, that I should ever bring trouble upon such a noble heart as yours! God forbid that the slightest shadow of dishonor should ever fall upon your honored head—least of all through agency of mine."
The young man uttered these few words in a broken and disjointed fashion in which Sir Michael had never heard him speak, before, and then turning away his head, fairly broke down.
He left the court that night, but he did not go far. Instead of taking the evening train for London, he went straight up to the little village of Mount Stanning, and walking into the neatly-kept inn, asked Phoebe Marks if he could be accommodated with apartments.