LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
ROBERT RECEIVES A VISITOR WHOM
HE HAD SCARCELY EXPECTED
Eleven o'clock struck the next morning, and found Mr. Robert Audley still
lounging over the well ordered little breakfast table, with one of his dogs at
each side of his arm-chair, regarding him with watchful eyes and opened mouths,
awaiting the expected morsel of ham or toast. Robert had a county paper on his
knees, and made a feeble effort now and then to read the first page, which was
filled with advertisements of farming stock, quack medicines, and other
The weather had changed, and the snow, which had for the last few days been
looming blackly in the frosty sky, fell in great feathery flakes against the
windows, and lay piled in the little bit of garden-ground without.
The long, lonely road leading toward Audley seemed untrodden by a footstep,
as Robert Audley looked out at the wintry landscape.
"Lively," he said, "for a man used to the fascinations of Temple Bar."
As he watched the snow-flakes falling every moment thicker and faster upon
the lonely road, he was surprised by seeing a brougham driving slowly up the
"I wonder what unhappy wretch has too restless a spirit to stop at home on
such a morning as this," he muttered, as he returned to the arm-chair by the
He had only reseated himself a few moments when Phoebe Marks entered the room
to announce Lady Audley.
"Lady Audley! Pray beg her to come in," said Robert; and then, as Phoebe left
the room to usher in this unexpected visitor, he muttered between his teeth—"A
false move, my lady, and one I never looked for from you."
Lucy Audley was radiant on this cold and snowy January morning. Other
people's noses are rudely assailed by the sharp fingers of the grim ice-king,
but not my lady's; other people's lips turn pale and blue with the chilling
influence of the bitter weather, but my lady's pretty little rosebud of a mouth
retained its brightest coloring and cheeriest freshness.
She was wrapped in the very sables which Robert Audley had brought from
Russia, and carried a muff that the young man thought seemed almost as big as
She looked a childish, helpless, babyfied little creature; and Robert looked
down upon her with some touch of pity in his eyes, as she came up to the hearth
by which he was standing, and warmed her tiny gloved hands at the blaze.
"What a morning, Mr. Audley!" she said, "what a morning!"
"Yes, indeed! Why did you come out in such weather?"
"Because I wished to see you—particularly."
"Yes," said my lady, with an air of considerable embarrassment, playing with
the button of her glove, and almost wrenching it off in her restlessness—"yes,
Mr. Audley, I felt that you had not been well treated; that—that you had, in
short, reason to complain; and that an apology was due to you."
"I do not wish for any apology, Lady Audley."
"But you are entitled to one," answered my lady, quietly. "Why, my dear
Robert, should we be so ceremonious toward each other? You were very comfortable
at Audley; we were very glad to have you there; but, my dear, silly husband must
needs take it into his foolish head that it is dangerous for his poor little
wife's peace of mind to have a nephew of eight or nine and twenty smoking his
cigars in her boudoir, and, behold! our pleasant little family circle is broken
Lucy Audley spoke with that peculiar childish vivacity which seemed so
natural to her, Robert looking down almost sadly at her bright, animated face.
"Lady Audley," he said, "Heaven forbid that either you or I should ever bring
grief or dishonor upon my uncle's generous heart! Better, perhaps, that I should
be out of the house—better, perhaps, that I had never entered it!"
My lady had been looking at the fire while her nephew spoke, but at his last
words she lifted her head suddenly, and looked him full in the face with a
wondering expression—an earnest, questioning gaze, whose full meaning the young
"Oh, pray do not be alarmed, Lady Audley," he said, gravely. "You have no
sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas
fils, to fear from me. The benchers of the Inner Temple will tell you
that Robert Audley is troubled with none of the epidemics whose outward signs
are turn-down collars and Byronic neckties. I say that I wish I had never
entered my uncle's house during the last year; but I say it with a far more
solemn meaning than any sentimental one."
My lady shrugged her shoulders.
"If you insist on talking in enigmas, Mr. Audley," she said, "you must
forgive a poor little woman if she declines to answer them."
Robert made no reply to this speech.
"But tell me," said my lady, with an entire change of tone, "what could have
induced you to come up to this dismal place?"
"Yes; I felt an interest in that bull-necked man, with the dark-red hair and
wicked gray eyes. A dangerous man, my lady—a man in whose power I should not
like to be."
A sudden change came over Lady Audley's face; the pretty, roseate flush faded
out from her cheeks, and left them waxen white, and angry flashes lightened in
her blue eyes.
"What have I done to you, Robert Audley," she cried, passionately—"what have
I done to you that you should hate me so?"
He answered her very gravely:
"I had a friend, Lady Audley, whom I loved very dearly, and since I have lost
him I fear that my feelings toward other people are strangely embittered."
"You mean the Mr. Talboys who went to Australia?"
"Yes, I mean the Mr. Talboys who I was told set out for Liverpool with the
idea of going to Australia."
"And you do not believe in his having sailed for Australia?"
"I do not."
"But why not?"
"Forgive me, Lady Audley, if I decline to answer that question."
"As you please," she said, carelessly.
"A week after my friend disappeared," continued Robert, "I posted an
advertisement to the Sydney and Melbourne papers, calling upon him if he was in
either city when the advertisement appeared, to write and tell me of his
whereabouts, and also calling on any one who had met him, either in the colonies
or on the voyage out, to give me any information respecting him. George Talboys
left Essex, or disappeared from Essex, on the 6th of September last. I ought to
receive some answer to this advertisement by the end of this month. To-day is
the 27th; the time draws very near."
"And if you receive no answer?" asked Lady Audley.
"If I receive no answer I shall think that my fears have been not unfounded,
and I shall do my best to act."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Ah, Lady Audley, you remind me how very powerless I am in this matter. My
friend might have been made away with in this very inn, and I might stay here
for a twelvemonth, and go away at the last as ignorant of his fate as if I had
never crossed the threshold. What do we know of the mysteries that may hang
about the houses we enter? If I were to go to-morrow into that commonplace,
plebeian, eight-roomed house in which Maria Manning and her husband murdered
their guest, I should have no awful prescience of that bygone horror. Foul deeds
have been done under the most hospitable roofs; terrible crimes have been
committed amid the fairest scenes, and have left no trace upon the spot where
they were done. I do not believe in mandrake, or in bloodstains that no time can
efface. I believe rather that we may walk unconsciously in an atmosphere of
crime, and breathe none the less freely. I believe that we may look into the
smiling face of a murderer, and admire its tranquil beauty."
My lady laughed at Robert's earnestness.
"You seem to have quite a taste for discussing these horrible subjects," she
said, rather scornfully; "you ought to have been a detective police officer."
"I sometimes think I should have been a good one."
"Because I am patient."
"But to return to Mr. George Talboys, whom we lost sight of in your eloquent
discussion. What if you receive no answer to your advertisements?"
"I shall then consider myself justified in concluding my friend is dead."
"Yes, and then—?"
"I shall examine the effects he left at my chambers."
"Indeed! and what are they? Coats, waistcoats, varnished boots, and
meerschaum pipes, I suppose," said Lady Audley, laughing.
"No; letters—letters from his friends, his old schoolfellows, his father, his
"Letters, too, from his wife."
My lady was silent for some few moments, looking thoughtfully at the fire.
"Have you ever seen any of the letters written by the late Mrs. Talboys?" she
"Never. Poor soul! her letters are not likely to throw much light upon my
friend's fate. I dare say she wrote the usual womanly scrawl. There are very few
who write so charming and uncommon a hand as yours, Lady Audley."
"Ah, you know my hand, of course."
"Yes, I know it very well indeed."
My lady warmed her hands once more, and then taking up the big muff which she
had laid aside upon a chair, prepared to take her departure.
"You have refused to accept my apology, Mr. Audley," she said; "but I trust
you are not the less assured of my feelings toward you."
"Perfectly assured, Lady Audley."
"Then good-by, and let me recommend you not to stay long in this miserable
draughty place, if you do not wish to take rheumatism back to Figtree Court."
"I shall return to town to-morrow morning to see after my letters."
"Then once more good-by."
She held out her hand; he took it loosely in his own. It seemed such a feeble
little hand that he might have crushed it in his strong grasp, had he chosen to
be so pitiless.
He attended her to her carriage, and watched it as it drove off, not toward
Audley, but in the direction of Brentwood, which was about six miles from Mount
About an hour and a half after this, as Robert stood at the door of the inn,
smoking a cigar and watching the snow falling in the whitened fields opposite,
he saw the brougham drive back, empty this time, to the door of the inn.
"Have you taken Lady Audley back to the Court?" he said to the coachman, who
had stopped to call for a mug of hot spiced ale.
"No, sir; I've just come from the Brentwood station. My lady started for
London by the 12.40 train."
"My lady gone to London!" said Robert, as he returned to the little
sitting-room. "Then I'll follow her by the next train; and if I'm not very much
mistaken, I know where to find her."
He packed his portmanteau, paid his bill, fastened his dogs together with a
couple of leathern collars and a chain, and stepped into the rumbling fly kept
by the Castle Inn for the convenience of Mount Stanning. He caught an express
that left Brentwood at three o'clock, and settled himself comfortably in a
corner of an empty first-class carriage, coiled up in a couple of railway rugs,
and smoking a cigar in mild defiance of the authorities.