LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
The division between Lady Audley and her step-daughter had not become any narrower in the two months which had elapsed since the pleasant Christmas holiday time had been kept at Audley Court. There was no open warfare between the two women; there was only an armed neutrality, broken every now and then by brief feminine skirmishes and transient wordy tempests. I am sorry to say that Alicia would very much have preferred a hearty pitched battle to this silent and undemonstrative disunion; but it was not very easy to quarrel with my lady. She had soft answers for the turning away of wrath. She could smile bewitchingly at her step-daughter's open petulance, and laugh merrily at the young lady's ill-temper. Perhaps had she been less amiable, had she been more like Alicia in disposition, the two ladies might have expended their enmity in one tremendous quarrel, and might ever afterward have been affectionate and friendly. But Lucy Audley would not make war. She carried forward the sum of her dislike, and put it out at a steady rate of interest, until the breach between her step-daughter and herself, widening a little every day, became a great gulf, utterly impassable by olive-branch-bearing doves from either side of the abyss. There can be no reconciliation where there is no open warfare. There must be a battle, a brave, boisterous battle, with pennants waving and cannon roaring, before there can be peaceful treaties and enthusiastic shaking of hands. Perhaps the union between France and England owes its greatest force to the recollection of Cressy and Waterloo, Navarino and Trafalgar. We have hated each other and licked each other and had it out, as the common phrase goes; and we can afford now to fall into each others' arms and vow eternal friendship and everlasting brotherhood. Let us hope that when Northern Yankeedom has decimated and been decimated, blustering Jonathan may fling himself upon his Southern brother's breast, forgiving and forgiven.
Alicia Audley and her father's pretty wife had plenty of room for the comfortable indulgence of their dislike in the spacious old mansion. My lady had her own apartments, as we know—luxurious chambers, in which all conceivable elegancies had been gathered for the comfort of their occupant. Alicia had her own rooms in another part of the large house. She had her favorite mare, her Newfoundland dog, and her drawing materials, and she made herself tolerably happy. She was not very happy, this frank, generous-hearted girl, for it was scarcely possible that she could be altogether at ease in the constrained atmosphere of the Court. Her father was changed; that dear father over whom she had once reigned supreme with the boundless authority of a spoiled child, had accepted another ruler and submitted to a new dynasty. Little by little my lady's petty power made itself felt in that narrow household; and Alicia saw her father gradually lured across the gulf that divided Lady Audley from her step-daughter, until he stood at last quite upon the other side of the abyss, and looked coldly upon his only child across that widening chasm.
Poor Alicia saw all this, and bore her burden as well as she could. It seemed very hard to be a handsome, gray-eyed heiress, with dogs and horses and servants at her command, and yet to be so much alone in the world as to know of not one friendly ear into which she might pour her sorrows.
"If Bob was good for anything I could have told him how unhappy I am," thought Miss Audley; "but I may just as well tell Caesar my troubles for any consolation I should get from Cousin Robert."
Sir Michael Audley obeyed his pretty nurse, and went to bed a little after nine o'clock upon this bleak March evening. Perhaps the baronet's bedroom was about the pleasantest retreat that an invalid could have chosen in such cold and cheerless weather. The dark-green velvet curtains were drawn before the windows and about the ponderous bed. The wood fire burned redly upon the broad hearth. The reading lamp was lighted upon a delicious little table close to Sir Michael's pillow, and a heap of magazines and newspapers had been arranged by my lady's own fair hands for the pleasure of the invalid.
Lady Audley sat by the bedside for about ten minutes, talking to her husband, talking very seriously, about this strange and awful question—Robert Audley's lunacy; but at the end of that time she rose and bade her husband good-night.
She lowered the green silk shade before the reading lamp, adjusting it carefully for the repose of the baronet's eyes.
"I shall leave you, dear," she said. "If you can sleep, so much the better. If you wish to read, the books and papers are close to you. I will leave the doors between the rooms open, and I shall hear your voice if you call me."
Lady Audley went through her dressing-room into the boudoir, where she had sat with her husband since dinner.
Every evidence of womanly refinement was visible in the elegant chamber. My lady's piano was open, covered with scattered sheets of music and exquisitely-bound collections of scenas and fantasias which no master need have disdained to study. My lady's easel stood near the window, bearing witness to my lady's artistic talent, in the shape of a water-colored sketch of the Court and gardens. My lady's fairy-like embroideries of lace and muslin, rainbow-hued silks, and delicately-tinted wools littered the luxurious apartment; while the looking-glasses, cunningly placed at angles and opposite corners by an artistic upholsterer, multiplied my lady's image, and in that image reflected the most beautiful object in the enchanted chamber.
Amid all this lamplight, gilding, color, wealth, and beauty, Lucy Audley sat down on a low seat by the fire to think.
If Mr. Holman Hunt could have peeped into the pretty boudoir, I think the picture would have been photographed upon his brain to be reproduced by-and-by upon a bishop's half-length for the glorification of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. My lady in that half-recumbent attitude, with her elbow resting on one knee, and her perfect chin supported by her hand, the rich folds of drapery falling away in long undulating lines from the exquisite outline of her figure, and the luminous, rose-colored firelight enveloping her in a soft haze, only broken by the golden glitter of her yellow hair—beautiful in herself, but made bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings which adorn the shrine of her loveliness. Drinking-cups of gold and ivory, chiseled by Benvenuto Cellini; cabinets of buhl and porcelain, bearing the cipher of Austrain Marie-Antoinette, amid devices of rosebuds and true-lovers' knots, birds and butterflies, cupidons and shepherdesses, goddesses, courtiers, cottagers, and milkmaids; statuettes of Parian marble and biscuit china; gilded baskets of hothouse flowers; fantastical caskets of Indian filigree-work; fragile tea-cups of turquoise china, adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier: cabinet pictures and gilded mirrors, shimmering satin and diaphanous lace; all that gold can buy or art devise had been gathered together for the beautification of this quiet chamber in which my lady sat listening to the mourning of the shrill March wind, and the flapping of the ivy leaves against the casements, and looking into the red chasms in the burning coals.
I should be preaching a very stale sermon, and harping upon a very familiar moral, if I were to seize this opportunity of declaiming against art and beauty, because my lady was more wretched in this elegant apartment than many a half-starved seamstress in her dreary garret. She was wretched by reason of a wound which lay too deep for the possibility of any solace from such plasters as wealth and luxury; but her wretchedness was of an abnormal nature, and I can see no occasion for seizing upon the fact of her misery as an argument in favor of poverty and discomfort as opposed to opulence. The Benvenuto Cellini carvings and the Sevres porcelain could not give her happiness, because she had passed out of their region. She was no longer innocent; and the pleasure we take in art and loveliness being an innocent pleasure, had passed beyond her reach. Six or seven years before, she would have been happy in the possession of this little Aladdin's palace; but she had wandered out of the circle of careless, pleasure seeking creatures, she had strayed far away into a desolate labyrinth of guilt and treachery, terror and crime, and all the treasures that had been collected for her could have given her no pleasure but one, the pleasure of flinging them into a heap beneath her feet and trampling upon them and destroying them in her cruel despair.
There were some things that would have inspired her with an awful joy, a horrible rejoicing. If Robert Audley, her pitiless enemy, her unrelenting pursuer, had lain dead in the adjoining chamber, she would have exulted over his bier.
What pleasures could have remained for Lucretia Borgia and Catharine de Medici, when the dreadful boundary line between innocence and guilt was passed, and the lost creatures stood upon the lonely outer side? Only horrible, vengeful joys, and treacherous delights were left for these miserable women. With what disdainful bitterness they must have watched the frivolous vanities, the petty deceptions, the paltry sins of ordinary offenders. Perhaps they took a horrible pride in the enormity of their wickedness; in this "Divinity of Hell," which made them greatest among sinful creatures.
My lady, brooding by the fire in her lonely chamber, with her large, clear blue eyes fixed upon the yawning gulfs of lurid crimson in the burning coals, may have thought of many things very far away from the terribly silent struggle in which she was engaged. She may have thought of long-ago years of childish innocence, childish follies and selfishness, of frivolous, feminine sins that had weighed very lightly upon her conscience. Perhaps in that retrospective revery she recalled that early time in which she had first looked in the glass and discovered that she was beautiful; that fatal early time in which she had first begun to look upon her loveliness as a right divine, a boundless possession which was to be a set-off against all girlish shortcomings, a counterbalance of every youthful sin. Did she remember the day in which that fairy dower of beauty had first taught her to be selfish and cruel, indifferent to the joys and sorrows of others, cold-hearted and capricious, greedy of admiration, exacting and tyrannical with that petty woman's tyranny which is the worst of despotism? Did she trace every sin of her life back to its true source? and did she discover that poisoned fountain in her own exaggerated estimate of the value of a pretty face? Surely, if her thoughts wandered so far along the backward current of her life, she must have repented in bitterness and despair of that first day in which the master-passions of her life had become her rulers, and the three demons of Vanity, Selfishness, and Ambition, had joined hands and said, "This woman is our slave, let us see what she will become under our guidance."
How small those first youthful errors seemed as my lady looked back upon them in that long revery by the lonely hearth! What small vanities, what petty cruelties! A triumph over a schoolfellow; a flirtation with the lover of a friend; an assertion of the right divine invested in blue eyes and shimmering golden-tinted hair. But how terribly that narrow pathway had widened out into the broad highroad of sin, and how swift the footsteps had become upon the now familiar way!
My lady twisted her fingers in her loose amber curls, and made as if she would have torn them from her head. But even in that moment of mute despair the unyielding dominion of beauty asserted itself, and she released the poor tangled glitter of ringlets, leaving them to make a halo round her head in the dim firelight.
"I was not wicked when I was young," she thought, as she stared gloomingly at the fire, "I was only thoughtless. I never did any harm—at least, wilfully. Have I ever been really wicked, I wonder?" she mused. "My worst wickednesses have bean the result of wild impulses, and not of deeply-laid plots. I am not like the women I have read of, who have lain night after night in the horrible darkness and stillness, planning out treacherous deeds, and arranging every circumstance of an appointed crime. I wonder whether they suffered—those women—whether they ever suffered as—"
Her thoughts wandered away into a weary maze of confusion. Suddenly she drew herself up with a proud, defiant gesture, and her eyes glittered with a light that was not entirely reflected from the fire.
"You are mad, Mr. Robert Audley," she said, "you are mad, and your fancies are a madman's fancies. I know what madness is. I know its signs and tokens, and I say that you are mad."
She put her hand to her head, as if thinking of something which confused and bewildered her, and which she found it difficult to contemplate with calmness.
"Dare I defy him?" she muttered. "Dare I? dare I? Will he stop, now that he has once gone so far? Will he stop for fear of me? Will he stop for fear of me, when the thought of what his uncle must suffer has not stopped him? Will anything stop him—but death?"
She pronounced the last words in an awful whisper; and with her head bent forward, her eyes dilated, and her lips still parted as they had been parted in her utterance of that final word "death," she sat blankly staring at the fire.
"I can't plot horrible things," she muttered, presently; "my brain isn't strong enough, or I'm not wicked enough, or brave enough. If I met Robert Audley in those lonely gardens, as I—"
The current of her thoughts was interrupted by a cautious knocking at her door. She rose suddenly, startled by any sound in the stillness of her room. She rose, and threw herself into a low chair near the fire. She flung her beautiful head back upon the soft cushions, and took a book from the table near her. Insignificant as this action was, it spoke very plainly. It spoke very plainly of ever-recurring fears—of fatal necessities for concealment—of a mind that in its silent agonies was ever alive to the importance of outward effect. It told more plainly than anything else could have told how complete an actress my lady had been made by the awful necessity of her life.
The modest rap at the door was repeated.
"Come in," cried Lady Audley, in her liveliest tone.
The door was opened with that respectful noiselessness peculiar to a well-bred servant, and a young woman, plainly dressed, and carrying some of the cold March winds in the folds of her garments, crossed the threshold of the apartment and lingered near the door, waiting permission to approach the inner regions of my lady's retreat.
It was Phoebe Marks, the pale-faced wife of the Mount Stanning innkeeper.
"I beg pardon, my lady, for intruding without leave," she said; "but I thought I might venture to come straight up without waiting for permission."
"Yes, yes, Phoebe, to be sure. Take off your bonnet, you wretched, cold-looking creature, and come sit down here."
Lady Audley pointed to the low ottoman upon which she had herself been seated a few minutes before. The lady's maid had often sat upon it listening to her mistress' prattle in the old days, when she had been my lady's chief companion and confidante,
"Sit down here, Phoebe," Lady Audley repeated; "sit down here and talk to me; I'm very glad you came here to-night. I was horribly lonely in this dreary place."
My lady shivered and looked round at the bright collection of bric-a-brac, as if the Sevres and bronze, the buhl and ormolu, had been the moldering adornments of some ruined castle. The dreary wretchedness of her thoughts had communicated itself to every object about her, and all outer things took their color from that weary inner life which held its slow course of secret anguish in her breast. She had spoken the entire truth in saying that she was glad of her lady's maid's visit. Her frivolous nature clung to this weak shelter in the hour of her fear and suffering. There were sympathies between her and this girl, who was like herself, inwardly as well as outwardly—like herself, selfish, and cold, and cruel, eager for her own advancement, and greedy of opulence and elegance; angry with the lot that had been cast her, and weary of dull dependence. My lady hated Alicia for her frank, passionate, generous, daring nature; she hated her step-daughter, and clung to this pale-faced, pale-haired girl, whom she thought neither better nor worse than herself.
Phoebe Marks obeyed her late mistress' commands, and took off her bonnet before seating herself on the ottoman at Lady Audley's feet. Her smooth bands of light hair were unruffled by the March winds; her trimly-made drab dress and linen collar were as neatly arranged as they could have been had she only that moment completed her toilet.
"Sir Michael is better, I hope, my lady," she said.
"Yes, Phoebe, much better. He is asleep. You may close that door," added Lady Audley, with a motion of her head toward the door of communication between the rooms, which had been left open.
Mrs. Marks obeyed submissively, and then returned to her seat.
"I am very, very unhappy, Phoebe," my lady said, fretfully; "wretchedly miserable."
"About the—secret?" asked Mrs. Marks, in a half whisper.
My lady did not notice that question. She resumed in the same complaining tone. She was glad to be able to complain even to this lady's maid. She had brooded over her fears, and had suffered in secret so long, that it was an inexpressible relief to her to bemoan her fate aloud.
"I am cruelly persecuted and harassed, Phoebe Marks," she said. "I am pursued and tormented by a man whom I never injured, whom I have never wished to injure. I am never suffered to rest by this relentless tormentor, and—"
She paused, staring at the fire again, as she had done in her loneliness. Lost again in the dark intricacies of thoughts which wandered hither and thither in a dreadful chaos of terrified bewilderments, she could not come to any fixed conclusion.
Phoebe Marks watched my lady's face, looking upward at her late mistress with pale, anxious eyes, that only relaxed their watchfulness when Lady Audley's glance met that of her companion.
"I think I know whom you mean, my lady," said the innkeeper's wife, after a pause; "I think I know who it is who is so cruel to you."
"Oh, of course," answered my lady, bitterly; "my secrets are everybody's secrets. You know all about it, no doubt."
"The person is a gentleman—is he not, my lady?"
"A gentleman who came to the Castle Inn two months ago, when I warned you—"
"Yes, yes," answered my lady, impatiently.
"I thought so. The same gentleman is at our place to-night, my lady."
Lady Audley started up from her chair—started up as if she would have done something desperate in her despairing fury; but she sank back again with a weary, querulous sigh. What warfare could such a feeble creature wage against her fate? What could she do but wind like a hunted hare till she found her way back to the starting-point of the cruel chase, to be there trampled down by her pursuers?
"At the Castle Inn?" she cried. "I might have known as much. He has gone there to wring my secrets from your husband. Fool!" she exclaimed, suddenly turning upon Phoebe Marks in a transport of anger, "do you want to destroy me that you have left those two men together?"
Mrs. Marks clasped her hands piteously.
"I didn't come away of my own free will, my lady," she said; "no one could have been more unwilling to leave the house than I was this night. I was sent here."
"Who sent you here?"
"Luke, my lady. You can't tell how hard he can be upon me if I go against him."
"Why did he send you?"
The innkeeper's wife dropped her eyelids under Lady Audley's angry glances, and hesitated confusedly before she answered this question.
"Indeed, my lady," she stammered, "I didn't want to come. I told Luke that it was too bad for us to worry you, first asking this favor, and then asking that, and never leaving you alone for a month together; but—but—he bore me down with his loud, blustering talk, and he made me come."
"Yes, yes," cried Lady Audley, impatiently. "I know that. I want to know why you have come."
"Why, you know, my lady," answered Phoebe, half reluctantly, "Luke is very extravagant; and all I can say to him, I can't get him to be careful or steady. He's not sober; and when he's drinking with a lot of rough countrymen, and drinking, perhaps even more than they do, it isn't likely that his head can be very clear for accounts. If it hadn't been for me we should have been ruined before this; and hard as I've tried, I haven't been able to keep the ruin off. You remember giving me the money for the brewer's bill, my lady?"
"Yes, I remember very well," answered Lady Audley, with a bitter laugh, "for I wanted that money to pay my own bills."
"I know you did, my lady, and it was very, very hard for me to have to come and ask you for it, after all that we'd received from you before. But that isn't the worst: when Luke sent me down here to beg the favor of that help he never told me that the Christmas rent was still owing; but it was, my lady, and it's owing now, and—and there's a bailiff in the house to-night, and we're to be sold up to-morrow unless—"
"Unless I pay your rent, I suppose," cried Lucy Audley. "I might have guessed what was coming."
"Indeed, indeed, my lady, I wouldn't have asked it," sobbed Phoebe Marks, "but he made me come."
"Yes," answered my lady, bitterly, "he made you come; and he will make you come whenever he pleases, and whenever he wants money for the gratification of his low vices; and you and he are my pensioners as long as I live, or as long as I have any money to give; for I suppose when my purse is empty and my credit ruined, you and your husband will turn upon me and sell me to the highest bidder. Do you know, Phoebe Marks, that my jewel-case has been half emptied to meet your claims? Do you know that my pin-money, which I thought such a princely allowance when my marriage settlement was made, and when I was a poor governess at Mr. Dawson's, Heaven help me! my pin-money has been overdrawn half a year to satisfy your demands? What can I do to appease you? Shall I sell my Marie Antoinette cabinet, or my pompadour china, Leroy's and Benson's ormolu clocks, or my Gobelin tapestried chairs and ottomans? How shall I satisfy you next?"
"Oh, my lady, my lady," cried Phoebe, piteously, "don't be so cruel to me; you know, you know that it isn't I who want to impose upon you."
"I know nothing," exclaimed Lady Audley, "except that I am the most miserable of women. Let me think," she cried, silencing Phoebe's consolatory murmurs with an imperious gesture. "Hold your tongue, girl, and let me think of this business, if I can."
She put her hands to her forehead, clasping her slender fingers across her brow, as if she would have controlled the action of her brain by their convulsive pressure.
"Robert Audley is with your husband," she said, slowly, speaking to herself rather than to her companion. "These two men are together, and there are bailiffs in the house, and your brutal husband is no doubt brutally drunk by this time, and brutally obstinate and ferocious in his drunkenness. If I refuse to pay this money his ferocity will be multiplied by a hundredfold. There's little use in discussing that matter. The money must be paid."
"But if you do pay it," said Phoebe, earnestly, "I hope you will impress upon Luke that it is the last money you will ever give him while he stops in that house."
"Why?" asked Lady Audley, letting her hands fall on her lap, and looking inquiringly at Mrs. Marks.
"Because I want Luke to leave the Castle."
"But why do you want him to leave?"
"Oh, for ever so many reasons, my lady," answered Phoebe. "He's not fit to be the landlord of a public-house. I didn't know that when I married him, or I would have gone against the business, and tried to persuade him to take to the farming line. Not that I suppose he'd have given up his own fancy, either; for he's obstinate enough, as you know, my lady. He's not fit for his present business. He's scarcely ever sober after dark; and when he's drunk he gets almost wild, and doesn't seem to know what he does. We've had two or three narrow escapes with him already."
"Narrow escapes!" repeated Lady Audley. "What do you mean?"
"Why, we've run the risk of being burnt in our beds through his carelessness."
"Burnt in your beds through his carelessness! Why, how was that?" asked my lady, rather listlessly. She was too selfish, and too deeply absorbed in her own troubles to take much interest in any danger which had befallen her some-time lady's-maid.
"You know what a queer old place the Castle is, my lady; all tumble-down wood-work, and rotten rafters, and such like. The Chelmsford Insurance Company won't insure it; for they say if the place did happen to catch fire of a windy night it would blaze away like so much tinder, and nothing in the world could save it. Well, Luke knows this; and the landlord has warned him of it times and often, for he lives close against us, and he keeps a pretty sharp eye upon all my husband's goings on; but when Luke's tipsy he doesn't know what he's about, and only a week ago he left a candle burning in one of the out-houses, and the flame caught one of the rafters of the sloping roof, and if it hadn't been for me finding it out when I went round the house the last thing, we should have all been burnt to death, perhaps. And that's the third time the same kind of thing has happened in the six months we've had the place, and you can't wonder that I'm frightened, can you, my lady?"
My lady had not wondered, she had not thought about the business at all. She had scarcely listened to these commonplace details; why should she care for this low-born waiting-woman's perils and troubles? Had she not her own terrors, her own soul-absorbing perplexities to usurp every thought of which her brain was capable?
She did not make any remark upon that which poor Phoebe just told her; she scarcely comprehended what had been said, until some moments after the girl had finished speaking, when the words assumed their full meaning, as some words do after they have been heard without being heeded.
"Burnt in your beds," said the young lady, at last. "It would have been a good thing for me if that precious creature, your husband, had been burnt in his bed before to-night."
A vivid picture had flashed upon her as she spoke. The picture of that frail wooden tenement, the Castle Inn, reduced to a roofless chaos of lath and plaster, vomiting flames from its black mouth, and spitting blazing sparks upward toward the cold night sky.
She gave a weary sigh as she dismissed this image from her restless brain. She would be no better off even if this enemy should be for ever silenced. She had another and far more dangerous foe—a foe who was not to be bribed or bought off, though she had been as rich as an empress.
"I'll give you the money to send this bailiff away," my lady said, after a pause. "I must give you the last sovereign in my purse, but what of that? you know as well as I do that I dare not refuse you."
Lady Audley rose and took the lighted lamp from her writing-table. "The money is in my dressing-room," she said; "I will go and fetch it."
"Oh, my lady," exclaimed Phoebe, suddenly, "I forgot something; I was in such a way about this business that I quite forgot it."
"Quite forgot what?"
"A letter that was given me to bring to you, my lady, just before I left home."
"A letter from Mr. Audley. He heard my husband mention that I was coming down here, and he asked me to carry this letter."
Lady Audley set the lamp down upon the table nearest to her, and held out her hand to receive the letter. Phoebe Marks could scarcely fail to observe that the little jeweled hand shook like a leaf.
"Give it me—give it me," she cried; "let me see what more he has to say."
Lady Audley almost snatched the letter from Phoebe's hand in her wild impatience. She tore open the envelope and flung it from her; she could scarcely unfold the sheet of note-paper in her eager excitement.
The letter was very brief. It contained only these words:
"Should Mrs. George Talboys really have survived the date of her supposed death, as recorded in the public prints, and upon the tombstone in Ventnor churchyard, and should she exist in the person of the lady suspected and accused by the writer of this, there can be no great difficulty in finding some one able and willing to identify her. Mrs. Barkamb, the owner of North Cottages, Wildernsea, would no doubt consent to throw some light upon this matter; either to dispel a delusion or to confirm a suspicion.
"March 3, 1859.
"The Castle Inn, Mount Stanning."