LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
PREPARING THE GROUND
Lady Audley went from the garden to the library, a pleasant, oak-paneled, homely apartment in which Sir Michael liked to sit reading or writing, or arranging the business of his estate with his steward, a stalwart countryman, half agriculturalist, half lawyer, who rented a small farm a few miles from the Court.
The baronet was seated in a capacious easy-chair near the hearth. The bright blaze of the fire rose and fell, flashing now upon the polished carvings of the black-oak bookcase, now upon the gold and scarlet bindings of the books; sometimes glimmering upon the Athenian helmet of a marble Pallas, sometimes lighting up the forehead of Sir Robert Peel.
The lamp upon the reading-table had not yet been lighted, and Sir Michael sat in the firelight waiting for the coming of his young wife.
It is impossible for me ever to tell the purity of his generous love—it is impossible to describe that affection which was as tender as the love of a young mother for her first born, as brave and chivalrous as the heroic passion of a Bayard for his liege mistress.
The door opened while he was thinking of this fondly-loved wife, and looking up, the baronet saw the slender form standing in the doorway.
"Why, my darling!" he exclaimed, as my lady closed the door behind her, and came toward his chair, "I have been thinking of you and waiting for you for an hour. Where have you been, and what have you been doing?"
My lady, standing in the shadow rather than the light, paused a few moments before replying to this question.
"I have been to Chelmsford," she said, "shopping; and—"
She hesitated—twisting her bonnet strings in her thin white fingers with an air of pretty embarrassment.
"And what, my dear?" asked the baronet—"what have you been doing since you came from Chelmsford? I heard a carriage stop at the door an hour ago. It was yours, was it not?"
"Yes, I came home an hour ago," answered my lady, with the same air of embarrassment.
"And what have you been doing since you came home?"
Sir Michael Audley asked this question with a slightly reproachful accent. His young wife's presence made the sunshine of his life; and though he could not bear to chain her to his side, it grieved him to think that she could willingly remain unnecessarily absent from him, frittering away her time in some childish talk or frivolous occupation.
"What have you been doing since you came home, my dear?" he repeated. "What has kept you so long away from me?"
"I have been—talking—to—Mr. Robert Audley."
She still twisted her bonnet-string round and round her fingers.
She still spoke with the same air of embarrassment.
"Robert!" exclaimed the baronet; "is Robert here?"
"He was here a little while ago."
"And is here still, I suppose?"
"No, he has gone away."
"Gone away!" cried Sir Michael. "What do you mean, my darling?"
"I mean that your nephew came to the Court this afternoon. Alicia and I found him idling about the gardens. He stayed here till about a quarter of an hour ago talking to me, and then he hurried off without a word of explanation; except, indeed, some ridiculous excuse about business at Mount Stanning."
"Business at Mount Stanning! Why, what business can he possibly have in that out-of-the-way place? He has gone to sleep at Mount Stanning, then, I suppose?
"Yes; I think he said something to that effect."
"Upon my word," exclaimed the baronet, "I think that boy is half mad."
My lady's face was so much in shadow, that Sir Michael Audley was unaware of the bright change that came over its sickly pallor as he made this very commonplace observation. A triumphant smile illuminated Lucy Audley's countenance, a smile that plainly said, "It is coming—it is coming; I can twist him which way I like. I can put black before him, and if I say it is white, he will believe me."
But Sir Michael Audley in declaring that his nephew's wits were disordered, merely uttered that commonplace ejaculation which is well-known to have very little meaning. The baronet had, it is true, no very great estimate of Robert's faculty for the business of this everyday life. He was in the habit of looking upon his nephew as a good-natured nonentity—a man whose heart had been amply stocked by liberal Nature with all the best things the generous goddess had to bestow, but whose brain had been somewhat overlooked in the distribution of intellectual gifts. Sir Michael Audley made that mistake which is very commonly made by easy-going, well-to-do-observers, who have no occasion to look below the surface. He mistook laziness for incapacity. He thought because his nephew was idle, he must necessarily be stupid. He concluded that if Robert did not distinguish himself, it was because he could not.
He forgot the mute inglorious Miltons, who die voiceless and inarticulate for want of that dogged perseverance, that blind courage, which the poet must possess before he can find a publisher; he forgot the Cromwells, who see the noble vessels of the state floundering upon a sea of confusion, and going down in a tempest of noisy bewilderment, and who yet are powerless to get at the helm; forbidden even to send out a life-boat to the sinking ship. Surely it is a mistake to judge of what a man can do by that which he has done.
The world's Valhalla is a close borough, and perhaps the greatest men may be those who perish silently far away from the sacred portal. Perhaps the purest and brightest spirits are those who shrink from the turmoil of the race-course—the tumult and confusion of the struggle. The game of life is something like the game of ecarte, and it may be that the very best cards are sometimes left in the pack.
My lady threw off her bonnet, and seated herself upon a velvet-covered footstool at Sir Michael's feet. There was nothing studied or affected in this girlish action. It was so natural to Lucy Audley to be childish, that no one would have wished to see her otherwise. It would have seemed as foolish to expect dignified reserve or womanly gravity from this amber-haired siren, as to wish for rich basses amid the clear treble of a sky-lark's song.
She sat with her pale face turned away from the firelight, and with her hands locked together upon the arm of her husband's easy-chair. They were very restless, these slender white hands. My lady twisted the jeweled fingers in and out of each other as she talked to her husband.
"I wanted to come to you, you know, dear," said she—"I wanted to come to you directly I got home, but Mr. Audley insisted upon my stopping to talk to him."
"But what about, my love?" asked the baronet. "What could Robert have to say to you?"
My lady did not answer this question. Her fair head dropped upon her husband's knee, her rippling, yellow curls fell over her face.
Sir Michael lifted that beautiful head with his strong hands, and raised my lady's face. The firelight shining on that pale face lit up the large, soft blue eyes and showed them drowned in tears.
"Lucy, Lucy!" cried the baronet, "what is the meaning of this? My love, my love! what has happened to distress you in this manner?"
Lady Audley tried to speak, but the words died inarticulately upon her trembling lips. A choking sensation in her throat seemed to strangle those false and plausible words, her only armor against her enemies. She could not speak. The agony she had endured silently in the dismal lime-walk had grown too strong for her, and she broke into a tempest of hysterical sobbing. It was no simulated grief that shook her slender frame and tore at her like some ravenous beast that would have rent her piecemeal with its horrible strength. It was a storm of real anguish and terror, of remorse and misery. It was the one wild outcry, in which the woman's feebler nature got the better of the siren's art.
It was not thus that she had meant to fight her terrible duel with Robert Audley. Those were not the weapons which she had intended to use; but perhaps no artifice which she could have devised would have served her so well as this one outburst of natural grief. It shook her husband to the very soul. It bewildered and terrified him. It reduced the strong intellect of the man to helpless confusion and perplexity. It struck at the one weak point in a good man's nature. It appealed straight to Sir Michael Audley's affection for his wife.
Ah, Heaven help a strong man's tender weakness for the woman he loves! Heaven pity him when the guilty creature has deceived him and comes with her tears and lamentations to throw herself at his feet in self-abandonment and remorse; torturing him with the sight of her agony; rending his heart with her sobs, lacerating his breast with her groans—multiplying her sufferings into a great anguish for him to bear! multiplying them by twenty-fold; multiplying them in a ratio of a brave man's capacity for endurance. Heaven forgive him, if maddened by that cruel agony, the balance wavers for a moment, and he is ready to forgive anything; ready to take this wretched one to the shelter of his breast, and to pardon that which the stern voice of manly honor urges must not be pardoned. Pity him, pity him! The wife's worst remorse when she stands without the threshold of the home she may never enter more is not equal to the agony of the husband who closes the portal on that familiar and entreating face. The anguish of the mother who may never look again upon her children is less than the torment of the father who has to say to those little ones, "My darlings, you are henceforth motherless."
Sir Michael Audley rose from his chair, trembling with indignation, and ready to do immediate battle with the person who had caused his wife's grief.
"Lucy," he said, "Lucy, I insist upon your telling me what and who has distressed you. I insist upon it. Whoever has annoyed you shall answer to me for your grief. Come, my love, tell me directly what it is."
He seated himself and bent over the drooping figure at his feet, calming his own agitation in his desire to soothe his wife's distress.
"Tell me what it is, my dear," he whispered, tenderly.
The sharp paroxysm had passed away, and my lady looked up. A glittering light shone through the tears in her eyes, and the lines about her pretty rosy mouth, those hard and cruel lines which Robert Audley had observed in the pre-Raphaelite portrait, were plainly visible in the firelight.
"I am very silly," she said; "but really he has made me quite hysterical."
"Who—who has made you hysterical?"
"Your nephew—Mr. Robert Audley."
"Robert," cried the baronet. "Lucy, what do you mean?"
"I told you that Mr. Audley insisted upon my going into the lime-walk, dear," said my lady. "He wanted to talk to me, he said, and I went, and he said such horrible things that—"
"What horrible things, Lucy?"
Lady Audley shuddered, and clung with convulsive fingers to the strong hand that had rested caressingly upon her shoulder.
"What did he say, Lucy?"
"Oh, my dear love, how can I tell you?" cried my lady. "I know that I shall distress you—or you will laugh at me, and then—"
"Laugh at you? no, Lucy."
Lady Audley was silent for a moment. She sat looking straight before her into the fire, with her fingers still locked about her husband's hand.
"My dear," she said, slowly, hesitating now and then between her words, as if she almost shrunk from uttering them, "have you ever—I am so afraid of vexing you—have you ever thought Mr. Audley a little—a little—"
"A little what, my darling?"
"A little out of his mind?" faltered Lady Audley.
"Out of his mind!" cried Sir Michael. "My dear girl, what are you thinking of?"
"You said just now, dear, that you thought he was half mad."
"Did I, my love?" said the baronet, laughing. "I don't remember saying it, and it was a mere façon de parler, that meant nothing whatever. Robert may be a little eccentric—a little stupid, perhaps—he mayn't be overburdened with wits, but I don't think he has brains enough for madness. I believe it's generally your great intellects that get out of order."
"But madness is sometimes hereditary," said my lady. "Mr. Audley may have inherited—"
"He has inherited no madness from his father's family," interrupted Sir Michael. "The Audleys have never peopled private lunatic asylums or feed mad doctors."
"Nor from his mother's family?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"People generally keep these things a secret," said my lady, gravely. "There may have been madness in your sister-in-law's family."
"I don't think so, my dear," replied Sir Michael. "But, Lucy, tell me what, in Heaven's name, has put this idea into your head."
"I have been trying to account for your nephew's conduct. I can account for it in no other manner. If you had heard the things he said to me to-night, Sir Michael, you too might have thought him mad."
"But what did he say, Lucy?"
"I can scarcely tell you. You can see how much he has stupefied and bewildered me. I believe he has lived too long alone in those solitary Temple chambers. Perhaps he reads too much, or smokes too much. You know that some physicians declare madness to be a mere illness of the brain—an illness to which any one is subject, and which may be produced by given causes, and cured by given means."
Lady Audley's eyes were still fixed upon the burning coals in the wide grate. She spoke as if she had been discussing a subject that she had often heard discussed before. She spoke as if her mind had almost wandered away from the thought of her husband's nephew to the wider question of madness in the abstract.
"Why should he not be mad?" resumed my lady. "People are insane for years and years before their insanity is found out. They know that they are mad, but they know how to keep their secret; and, perhaps, they may sometimes keep it till they die. Sometimes a paroxysm seizes them, and in an evil hour they betray themselves. They commit a crime, perhaps. The horrible temptation of opportunity assails them; the knife is in their hand, and the unconscious victim by their side. They may conquer the restless demon and go away and die innocent of any violent deed; but they may yield to the horrible temptation—the frightful, passionate, hungry craving for violence and horror. They sometimes yield and are lost."
Lady Audley's voice rose as she argued this dreadful question, The hysterical excitement from which she had only just recovered had left its effects upon her, but she controlled herself, and her tone grew calmer as she resumed:
"Robert Audley is mad," she said, decisively. "What is one of the strangest diagnostics of madness—what is the first appalling sign of mental aberration? The mind becomes stationary; the brain stagnates; the even current of reflection is interrupted; the thinking power of the brain resolves itself into a monotone. As the waters of a tideless pool putrefy by reason of their stagnation, the mind becomes turbid and corrupt through lack of action; and the perpetual reflection upon one subject resolves itself into monomania. Robert Audley is a monomaniac. The disappearance of his friend, George Talboys, grieved and bewildered him. He dwelt upon this one idea until he lost the power of thinking of anything else. The one idea looked at perpetually became distorted to his mental vision. Repeat the commonest word in the English language twenty times, and before the twentieth repetition you will have begun to wonder whether the word which you repeat is really the word you mean to utter. Robert Audley has thought of his friend's disappearance until the one idea has done its fatal and unhealthy work. He looks at a common event with a vision that is diseased, and he distorts it into a gloomy horror engendered of his own monomania. If you do not want to make me as mad as he is, you must never let me see him again. He declared to-night that George Talboys was murdered in this place, and that he will root up every tree in the garden, and pull down every brick in the house in search for—"
My lady paused. The words died away upon her lips. She had exhausted herself by the strange energy with which she had spoken. She had been transformed from a frivolous, childish beauty into a woman, strong to argue her own cause and plead her own defense.
"Pull down this house?" cried the baronet. "George Talboys murdered at Audley Court! Did Robert say this, Lucy?"
"He said something of that kind—something that frightened me very much."
"Then he must be mad," said Sir Michael, gravely. "I'm bewildered by what you tell me. Did he really say this, Lucy, or did you misunderstand him?"
"I—I—don't think I did," faltered my lady. "You saw how frightened I was when I first came in. I should not have been so much agitated if he hadn't said something horrible."
Lady Audley had availed herself of the very strongest arguments by which she could help her cause.
"To be sure, my darling, to be sure," answered the baronet. "What could have put such a horrible fancy into the unhappy boy's head. This Mr. Talboys—a perfect stranger to all of us—murdered at Audley Court! I'll go to Mount Stanning to-night, and see Robert. I have known him ever since he was a baby, and I cannot be deceived in him. If there is really anything wrong, he will not be able to conceal it from me."
My lady shrugged her shoulders.
"That is rather an open question," she said. "It is generally a stranger who is the first to observe any psychological peculiarity."
The big words sounded strange from my lady's rosy lips; but her newly-adopted wisdom had a certain quaint prettiness about it, which charmed and bewildered her husband.
"But you must not go to Mount Stanning, my dear darling," she said, tenderly. "Remember that you are under strict orders to stay in doors until the weather is milder, and the sun shines upon this cruel ice-bound country."
Sir Michael Audley sank back in his capacious chair with a sigh of resignation.
"That's true, Lucy," he said; "we must obey Mr. Dawson. I suppose Robert will come to see me to-morrow."
"Yes, dear. I think he said he would."
"Then we must wait till to-morrow, my darling. I can't believe that there really is anything wrong with the poor boy—I can't believe it, Lucy."
"Then how do you account for this extraordinary delusion about this Mr. Talboys?" asked my lady.
Sir Michael shook his head.
"I don't know, Lucy—I don't know," he answered. "It is always so difficult to believe that any one of the calamities that continually befall our fellow-men will ever happen to us. I can't believe that my nephew's mind is impaired—I can't believe it. I—I'll get him to stop here, Lucy, and I'll watch him closely. I tell you, my love, if there is anything wrong I am sure to find it out. I can't be mistaken in a young man who has always been the same to me as my own son. But, my darling, why were you so frightened by Robert's wild talk? It could not affect you."
My lady sighed piteously.
"You must think me very strong-minded, Sir Michael," she said, with rather an injured air, "if you imagine I can hear of these sort of things indifferently. I know I shall never be able to see Mr. Audley again."
"And you shall not, my dear—you shall not."
"You said just now you would have him here," murmured Lady Audley.
"But I will not, my darling girl, if his presence annoys you. Good Heaven! Lucy, can you imagine for a moment that I have any higher wish than to promote your happiness? I will consult some London physician about Robert, and let him discover if there is really anything the matter with my poor brother's only son. You shall not be annoyed, Lucy."
"You must think me very unkind, dear," said my lady, "and I know I ought not to be annoyed by the poor fellow; but he really seems to have taken some absurd notion into his head about me."
"About you, Lucy!" cried Sir Michael.
"Yes, dear. He seems to connect me in some vague manner—which I cannot quite understand—with the disappearance of this Mr. Talboys."
"Impossible, Lucy! You must have misunderstood him."
"I don't think so."
"Then he must be mad," said the baronet—"he must be mad. I will wait till he goes back to town, and then send some one to his chambers to talk to him. Good Heaven! what a mysterious business this is."
"I fear I have distressed you, darling," murmured Lady Audley.
"Yes, my dear, I am very much distressed by what you have told me; but you were quite right to talk to me frankly about this dreadful business. I must think it over, dearest, and try and decide what is best to be done."
My lady rose from the low ottoman on which she had been seated. The fire had burned down, and there was only a faint glow of red light in the room. Lucy Audley bent over her husband's chair, and put her lips to his broad forehead.
"How good you have always been to me, dear," she whispered softly. "You would never let any one influence you against me, would you, dear?"
"Influence me against you?" repeated the baronet. "No, my love."
"Because you know, dear," pursued my lady, "there are wicked people as well as mad people in the world, and there may be some persons to whose interest it would be to injure me."
"They had better not try it, then, my dear," answered Sir Michael; "they would find themselves in rather a dangerous position if they did."
Lady Audley laughed aloud, with a gay, triumphant, silvery peal of laughter that vibrated through the quiet room.
"My own dear darling," she said, "I know you love me. And now I must run away, dear, for it's past seven o'clock. I was engaged to dine at Mrs. Montford's, but I must send a groom with a message of apology, for Mr. Audley has made me quite unfit for company. I shall stay at home and nurse you, dear. You'll go to bed very early, won't you, and take great care of yourself?"
My lady tripped out of the room to give her orders about the message that was to be carried to the house at which she was to have dined. She paused for a moment as she closed the library door—she paused, and laid her hand upon her breast to check the rapid throbbing of her heart.
"I have been afraid of you, Mr. Robert Audley," she thought; "but perhaps the time may come in which you will have cause to be afraid of me."