LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
THE HUSH THAT SUCCEEDS THE TEMPEST
Robert Audley followed his uncle into the vestibule after Sir Michael had spoken those few quiet words which sounded the death-knell of his hope and love. Heaven knows how much the young man had feared the coming of this day. It had come; and though there had been no great outburst of despair, no whirlwind of stormy grief, no loud tempest of anguish and tears, Robert took no comforting thought from the unnatural stillness. He knew enough to know that Sir Michael Audley went away with the barbed arrow, which his nephew's hand had sent home to its aim, rankling in his tortured heart; he knew that this strange and icy calm was the first numbness of a heart stricken by grief so unexpected as for a time to be rendered almost incomprehensible by a blank stupor of astonishment; he knew that when this dull quiet had passed away, when little by little, and one by one, each horrible feature of the sufferer's sorrow became first dimly apparent and then terribly familiar to him, the storm would burst in fatal fury, and tempests of tears and cruel thunder-claps of agony would rend that generous heart.
Robert had heard of cases in which men of his uncle's age had borne some great grief, as Sir Michael had borne this, with a strange quiet; and had gone away from those who would have comforted them, and whose anxieties have been relieved by this patient stillness, to fall down upon the ground and die under the blow which at first had only stunned him. He remembered cases in which paralysis and apoplexy had stricken men as strong as his uncle in the first hour of the horrible affliction; and he lingered in the lamp-lit vestibule, wondering whether it was not his duty to be with Sir Michael—to be near him, in case of any emergency, and to accompany him wherever he went.
Yet would it be wise to force himself upon that gray-headed sufferer in this cruel hour, in which he had been awakened from the one delusion of a blameless life to discover that he had been the dupe of a false face, and the fool of a nature which was too coldly mercenary, too cruelly heartless, to be sensible of its own infamy?
"No," thought Robert Audley, "I will not intrude upon the anguish of this wounded heart. There is humiliation mingled with this bitter grief. It is better he should fight the battle alone. I have done what I believe to have been my solemn duty, yet I should scarcely wonder if I had rendered myself forever hateful to him. It is better he should fight the battle alone. I can do nothing to make the strife less terrible. Better that it should be fought alone."
While the young man stood with his hand upon the library door, still half-doubtful whether he should follow his uncle or re-enter the room in which he had left that more wretched creature whom it had been his business to unmask, Alicia Audley opened the dining-room door, and revealed to him the old-fashioned oak-paneled apartment, the long table covered with showy damask, and bright with a cheerful glitter of glass and silver.
"Is papa coming to dinner?" asked Miss Audley. "I'm so hungry; and poor Tomlins has sent up three times to say the fish will be spoiled. It must be reduced to a species of isinglass soup, by this time, I should think," added the young lady, as she came out into the vestibule with the Times newspaper in her hand.
She had been sitting by the fire reading the paper, and waiting for her seniors to join her at the dinner table.
"Oh, it's you, Mr. Robert Audley." she remarked, indifferently. "You dine with us of course. Pray go and find papa. It must be nearly eight o'clock, and we are supposed to dine at six."
Mr. Audley answered his cousin rather sternly. Her frivolous manner jarred upon him, and he forgot in his irrational displeasure that Miss Audley had known nothing of the terrible drama which had been so long enacting under her very nose.
"Your papa has just endured a very great grief, Alicia," the young man said, gravely.
The girl's arch, laughing face changed in a moment to a tenderly earnest look of sorrow and anxiety. Alicia Audley loved her father very dearly.
"A grief?" she exclaimed; "papa grieved! Oh! Robert, what has happened?"
"I can tell you nothing yet, Alicia," Robert answered in a low voice.
He took his cousin by the wrist, and drew her into the dining-room as he spoke. He closed the door carefully behind him before he continued:
"Alicia, can I trust you?" he asked, earnestly.
"Trust me to do what?"
"To be a comfort and a friend to your poor father under a very heavy affliction."
"Yes!" cried Alicia, passionately. "How can you ask me such a question? Do you think there is anything I would not do to lighten any sorrow of my father's? Do you think there is anything I would not suffer if my suffering could lighten his?"
The rushing tears rose to Miss Audley's bright gray eyes as she spoke.
"Oh, Robert! Robert! could you think so badly of me as to think I would not try to be a comfort to my father in his grief?" she said, reproachfully.
"No, no, my dear," answered the young man, quietly; "I never doubted your affection, I only doubted your discretion. May I rely upon that?"
"You may, Robert," said Alicia, resolutely.
"Very well, then, my dear girl, I will trust you. Your father is going to leave the Court, for a time at least. The grief which he has just endured—a sudden and unlooked-for sorrow, remember—has no doubt made this place hateful to him. He is going away; but he must not go alone, must he, Alicia?"
"Alone? no! no! But I suppose my lady—"
"Lady Audley will not go with him," said Robert, gravely; "he is about to separate himself from her."
"For a time?"
"Separate himself from her forever!" exclaimed Alicia. "Then this grief—"
"Is connected with Lady Audley. Lady Audley is the cause of your father's sorrow."
Alicia's face, which had been pale before, flushed crimson. Sorrow, of which my lady was the cause—a sorrow which was to separate Sir Michael forever from his wife! There had been no quarrel between them—there had never been anything but harmony and sunshine between Lady Audley and her generous husband. This sorrow must surely then have arisen from some sudden discovery; it was, no doubt, a sorrow associated with disgrace. Robert Audley understood the meaning of that vivid blush.
"You will offer to accompany your father wherever he may choose to go, Alicia," he said. "You are his natural comforter at such a time as this, but you will best befriend him in this hour of trial by avoiding all intrusion upon his grief. Your very ignorance of the particulars of that grief will be a security for your discretion. Say nothing to your father that you might not have said to him two years ago, before he married a second wife. Try and be to him what you were before the woman in yonder room came between you and your father's love."
"I will," murmured Alicia, "I will."
"You will naturally avoid all mention of Lady Audley's name. If your father is often silent, be patient; if it sometimes seems to you that the shadow of this great sorrow will never pass away from his life, be patient still; and remember that there can be no better hope of a cure of his grief than the hope that his daughter's devotion may lead him to remember there is one woman upon this earth who will love him truly and purely until the last."
"Yes—yes, Robert, dear cousin, I will remember."
Mr. Audley, for the first time since he had been a schoolboy, took his cousin in his arms and kissed her broad forehead.
"My dear Alicia," he said, "do this and you will make me happy. I have been in some measure the means of bringing this sorrow upon your father. Let me hope that it is not an enduring one. Try and restore my uncle to happiness, Alicia, and I will love you more dearly than brother ever loved a noble-hearted sister; and a brotherly affection may be worth having, perhaps, after all, my dear, though it is very different to poor Sir Harry's enthusiastic worship."
Alicia's head was bent and her face hidden from her cousin while he spoke, but she lifted her head when he had finished, and looked him full in the face with a smile that was only the brighter for her eyes being filled with tears.
"You are a good fellow, Bob," she said; "and I've been very foolish and wicked to feel angry with you because—"
The young lady stopped suddenly.
"Because what, my dear?" asked Mr. Audley.
"Because I'm silly, Cousin Robert," Alicia said, quickly; "never mind that, Bob, I'll do all you wish, and it shall not be my fault if my dearest father doesn't forget his troubles before long. I'd go to the end of the world with him, poor darling, if I thought there was any comfort to be found for him in the journey. I'll go and get ready directly. Do you think papa will go to-night?"
"Yes, my dear; I don't think Sir Michael will rest another night under this roof yet awhile."
"The mail goes at twenty minutes past nine," said Alicia; "we must leave the house in an hour if we are to travel by it. I shall see you again before we go, Robert?"
Miss Audley ran off to her room to summon her maid, and make all necessary preparations for the sudden journey, of whose ultimate destination she was as yet quite ignorant.
She went heart and soul into the carrying out of the duty which Robert had dictated to her. She assisted in the packing of her portmanteaus, and hopelessly bewildered her maid by stuffing silk dresses into her bonnet-boxes and satin shoes into her dressing-case. She roamed about her rooms, gathering together drawing-materials, music-books, needle-work, hair-brushes, jewelry, and perfume-bottles, very much as she might have done had she been about to sail for some savage country, devoid of all civilized resources. She was thinking all the time of her father's unknown grief, and perhaps a little of the serious face and earnest voice which had that night revealed her Cousin Robert to her in a new character.
Mr. Audley went up-stairs after his cousin, and found his way to Sir Michael's dressing-room. He knocked at the door and listened, Heaven knows how anxiously, for the expected answer. There was a moment's pause, during which the young man's heart beat loud and fast, and then the door was opened by the baronet himself. Robert saw that his uncle's valet was already hard at work preparing for his master's hurried journey.
Sir Michael came out into the corridor.
"Have you anything more to say to me, Robert?" he asked, quietly.
"I only came to ascertain if I could assist in any of your arrangements. You go to London by the mail?"
"Have you any idea of where you will stay."
"Yes, I shall stop at the Clarendon; I am known there. Is that all you have to say?"
"Yes; except that Alicia will accompany you?"
"She could not very well stay here, you know, just now. It would be best for her to leave the Court until—"
"Yes, yes, I understand," interrupted the baronet; "but is there nowhere else that she could go—must she be with me?"
"She could go nowhere else so immediately, and she would not be happy anywhere else."
"Let her come, then," said Sir Michael, "let her come."
He spoke in a strange, subdued voice, and with an apparent effort, as if it were painful to him to have to speak at all; as if all this ordinary business of life were a cruel torture to him, and jarred so much upon his grief as to be almost worse to bear than that grief itself.
"Very well, my dear uncle, then all is arranged; Alicia will be ready to start at nine o'clock."
"Very good, very good," muttered the baronet; "let her come if she pleases, poor child, let her come."
He sighed heavily as he spoke in that half pitying tone of his daughter. He was thinking how comparatively indifferent he had been toward that only child for the sake of the woman now shut in the fire-lit room below.
"I shall see you again before you go, sir," said Robert; "I will leave you till then."
"Stay!" said Sir Michael, suddenly; "have you told Alicia?"
"I have told her nothing, except that you are about to leave the Court for some time."
"You are very good, my boy, you are very good," the baronet murmured in a broken voice.
He stretched out his hand. His nephew took it in both his own, and pressed it to his lips.
"Oh, sir! how can I ever forgive myself?" he said; "how can I ever cease to hate myself for having brought this grief upon you?"
"No, no, Robert, you did right; I wish that God had been so merciful to me as to take my miserable life before this night; but you did right."
Sir Michael re-entered his dressing-room, and Robert slowly returned to the vestibule. He paused upon the threshold of that chamber in which he had left Lucy—Lady Audley, otherwise Helen Talboys, the wife of his lost friend.
She was lying upon the floor, upon the very spot in which she had crouched at her husband's feet telling her guilty story. Whether she was in a swoon, or whether she lay there in the utter helplessness of her misery, Robert scarcely cared to know. He went out into the vestibule, and sent one of the servants to look for her maid, the smart, be-ribboned damsel who was loud in wonder and consternation at the sight of her mistress.
"Lady Audley is very ill," he said; "take her to her room and see that she does not leave it to-night. You will be good enough to remain near her, but do not either talk to her or suffer her to excite herself by talking."
My lady had not fainted; she allowed the girl to assist her, and rose from the ground upon which she had groveled. Her golden hair fell in loose, disheveled masses about her ivory throat and shoulders, her face and lips were colorless, her eyes terrible in their unnatural light.
"Take me away," she said, "and let me sleep! Let me sleep, for my brain is on fire!"
As she was leaving the room with her maid, she turned and looked at Robert. "Is Sir Michael gone?" she asked.
"He will leave in half an hour."
"There were no lives lost in the fire at Mount Stanning?"
"I am glad of that."
"The landlord of the house, Marks, was very terribly burned, and lies in a precarious state at his mother's cottage; but he may recover."
"I am glad of that—I am glad no life was lost. Good-night, Mr. Audley."
"I shall ask to see you for half an hour's conversation in the course of to-morrow, my lady."
"Whenever you please. Good night."
She went away quietly leaning upon her maid's shoulder, and leaving Robert with a sense of strange bewilderment that was very painful to him.
He sat down by the broad hearth upon which the red embers were fading, and wondered at the change in that old house which, until the day of his friend's disappearance, had been so pleasant a home for all who sheltered beneath its hospitable roof. He sat brooding over the desolate hearth, and trying to decide upon what must be done in this sudden crisis. He sat helpless and powerless to determine upon any course of action, lost in a dull revery, from which he was aroused by the sound of carriage-wheels driving up to the little turret entrance.
The clock in the vestibule struck nine as Robert opened the library door. Alicia had just descended the stairs with her maid; a rosy-faced country girl.
"Good-by, Robert," said Miss Audley, holding out her hand to her cousin; "good-by, and God bless you! You may trust me to take care of papa."
"I am sure I may. God bless you, my dear."
For the second time that night Robert Audley pressed his lips to his cousin's candid forehead, and for the second time the embrace was of a brotherly or paternal character, rather than the rapturous proceeding which it would have been had Sir Harry Towers been the privileged performer.
It was five minutes past nine when Sir Michael came down-stairs, followed by his valet, grave and gray-haired like himself. The baronet was pale, but calm and self-possessed. The hand which he gave to his nephew was as cold as ice, but it was with a steady voice that he bade the young man good-by.
"I leave all in your hands, Robert," he said, as he turned to leave the house in which he had lived so long. "I may not have heard the end, but I have heard enough. Heaven knows I have no need to hear more. I leave all to you, but you will not be cruel—you will remember how much I loved—"
His voice broke huskily before he could finish the sentence.
"I will remember you in everything, sir," the young man answered. "I will do everything for the best."
A treacherous mist of tears blinded him and shut out his uncle's face, and in another minute the carriage had driven away, and Robert Audley sat alone in the dark library, where only one red spark glowed among the pale gray ashes. He sat alone, trying to think what he ought to do, and with the awful responsibility of a wicked woman's fate upon his shoulders.
"Good Heaven!" he thought; "surely this must be God's judgment upon the purposeless, vacillating life I led up to the seventh day of last September. Surely this awful responsibility has been forced upon me in order that I may humble myself to an offended Providence, and confess that a man cannot choose his own life. He cannot say, 'I will take existence lightly, and keep out of the way of the wretched, mistaken, energetic creatures, who fight so heartily in the great battle.' He cannot say, 'I will stop in the tents while the strife is fought, and laugh at the fools who are trampled down in the useless struggle.' He cannot do this. He can only do, humbly and fearfully, that which the Maker who created him has appointed for him to do. If he has a battle to fight, let him fight it faithfully; but woe betide him if he skulks when his name is called in the mighty muster-roll, woe betide him if he hides in the tents when the tocsin summons him to the scene of war!"
One of the servants brought candles into the library and relighted the fire, but Robert Audley did not stir from his seat by the hearth. He sat as he had often sat in his chambers in Figtree Court, with his elbows resting upon the arms of his chair, and his chin upon his hand.
But he lifted his head as the servant was about to leave the room.
"Can I send a message from here to London?" he asked.
"It can be sent from Brentwood, sir—not from here."
Mr. Audley looked at his watch thoughtfully.
"One of the men can ride over to Brentwood, sir, if you wish any message to be sent."
"I do wish to send a message; will you manage it for me, Richards?"
"You can wait, then, while I write the message."
The man brought writing materials from one of the side-tables, and placed them before Mr. Audley.
Robert dipped a pen in the ink, and stared thoughtfully at one of the candles for a few moments before he began to write.
The message ran thus:
"From Robert Audley, of Audley Court, Essex, to Francis Wilmington, of Paper-buildings, Temple.
"DEAR WILMINGTON—If you know any physician experienced in cases of mania, and to be trusted with a secret, be so good as to send me his address by telegraph."
Mr. Audley sealed this document in a stout envelope, and handed it to the man, with a sovereign.
"You will see that this is given to a trustworthy person, Richards," he said, "and let the man wait at the station for the return message. He ought to get it in an hour and a half."
Mr. Richards, who had known Robert Audley in jackets and turn-down collars, departed to execute his commission. Heaven forbid that we should follow him into the comfortable servants' hall at the Court, where the household sat round the blazing fire, discussing in utter bewilderment the events of the day.
Nothing could be wider from the truth than the speculations of these worthy people. What clew had they to the mystery of that firelit room in which a guilty woman had knelt at their master's feet to tell the story of her sinful life? They only knew that which Sir Michael's valet had told them of this sudden journey. How his master was as pale as a sheet, and spoke in a strange voice that didn't sound like his own, somehow, and how you might have knocked him—Mr. Parsons, the valet—down with a feather, if you had been minded to prostrate him by the aid of so feeble a weapon.
The wiseheads of the servants' hall decided that Sir Michael had received sudden intelligence through Mr. Robert—they were wise enough to connect the young man with the catastrophe—either of the death of some near and dear relation—the elder servants decimated the Audley family in their endeavors to find a likely relation—or of some alarming fall in the funds, or of the failure of some speculation or bank in which the greater part of the baronet's money was invested. The general leaning was toward the failure of a bank, and every member of the assembly seemed to take a dismal and raven-like delight in the fancy, though such a supposition involved their own ruin in the general destruction of that liberal household.
Robert sat by the dreary hearth, which seemed dreary even now when the blaze of a great wood-fire roared in the wide chimney, and listened to the low wail of the March wind moaning round the house and lifting the shivering ivy from the walls it sheltered. He was tired and worn out, for remember that he had been awakened from his sleep at two o'clock that morning by the hot breath of blazing timber and the sharp crackling of burning woodwork. But for his presence of mind and cool decision, Mr. Luke Marks would have died a dreadful death. He still bore the traces of the night's peril, for the dark hair had been singed upon one side of his forehead, and his left hand was red and inflamed, from the effect of the scorching atmosphere out of which he had dragged the landlord of the Castle Inn. He was thoroughly exhausted with fatigue and excitement, and he fell into a heavy sleep in his easy-chair before the bright fire, from which he was only awakened by the entrance of Mr. Richards with the return message.
This return message was very brief.
"DEAR AUDLEY—Always glad to oblige. Alwyn Mosgrave, M.D., 12 Saville Row. Safe."
This with names and addresses, was all that it contained.
"I shall want another message taken to Brentwood to-morrow morning, Richards," said Mr. Audley, as he folded the telegram. "I should be glad if the man would ride over with it before breakfast. He shall have half a sovereign for his trouble."
Mr. Richards bowed.
"Thank you, sir—not necessary, sir; but as you please, of course, sir," he murmured. "At what hour might you wish the man to go?"
Mr. Audley might wish the man to go as early as he could, so it was decided that he should go at six.
"My room is ready, I suppose, Richards?" said Robert.
"Yes, sir—your old room."
"Very good. I shall go to bed at once. Bring me a glass of brandy and water as hot as you can make it, and wait for the telegram."
This second message was only a very earnest request to Doctor Mosgrave to pay an immediate visit to Audley Court on a matter of serious moment.
Having written this message, Mr. Audley felt that he had done all that he could do. He drank his brandy and water. He had actual need of the diluted alcohol, for he had been chilled to the bone by his adventures during the fire. He slowly sipped the pale golden liquid and thought of Clara Talboys, of that earnest girl whose brother's memory was now avenged, whose brother's destroyer was humiliated in the dust. Had she heard of the fire at the Castle Inn? How could she have done otherwise than hear of it in such a place as Mount Stanning? But had she heard that he had been in danger, and that he had distinguished himself by the rescue of a drunken boor? I fear that, even sitting by that desolate hearth, and beneath the roof whose noble was an exile from his own house, Robert Audley was weak enough to think of these things—weak enough to let his fancy wander away to the dismal fir-trees under the cold March sky, and the dark-brown eyes that were so like the eyes of his lost friend.