LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
DR. MOSGRAVE'S ADVICE
My lady slept. Through that long winter night she slept soundly. Criminals have often so slept their last sleep upon earth; and have been found in the gray morning slumbering peacefully, by the jailer who came to wake them.
The game had been played and lost. I do not think that my lady had thrown away a card, or missed the making of a trick which she might by any possibility have made; but her opponent's hand had been too powerful for her, and he had won.
She looked upon herself as a species of state prisoner, who would have to be taken good care of. A second Iron Mask, who must be provided for in some comfortable place of confinement. She abandoned herself to a dull indifference. She had lived a hundred lives within the space of the last few days of her existence, and she had worn out her capacity for suffering—for a time at least.
She ate her breakfast, and took her morning bath, and emerged, with perfumed hair and in the most exquisitely careless of morning toilets, from her luxurious dressing-room. She looked at herself in the cheval-glass before she left the room. A long night's rest had brought back the delicate rose-tints of her complexion, and the natural luster of her blue eyes. That unnatural light which had burned so fearfully the day before had gone, and my lady smiled triumphantly as she contemplated the reflection of her beauty. The days were gone in which her enemies could have branded her with white-hot irons, and burned away the loveliness which had done such mischief. Whatever they did to her they must leave her her beauty, she thought. At the worst, they were powerless to rob her of that.
The March day was bright and sunny, with a cheerless sunshine certainly. My lady wrapped herself in an Indian shawl; a shawl that had cost Sir Michael a hundred guineas. I think she had an idea that it would be well to wear this costly garment; so that if hustled suddenly away, she might carry at least one of her possessions with her. Remember how much she had periled for a fine house and gorgeous furniture, for carriages and horses, jewels and laces; and do not wonder if she clings with a desperate tenacity to gauds and gew-gaws, in the hour of her despair. If she had been Judas, she would have held to her thirty pieces of silver to the last moment of her shameful life.
Mr. Robert Audley breakfasted in the library. He sat long over his solitary cup of tea, smoking his meerschaum pipe, and meditating darkly upon the task that lay before him.
"I will appeal to the experience of this Dr. Mosgrave," he though; "physicians and lawyers are the confessors of this prosaic nineteenth century. Surely, he will be able to help me."
The first fast train from London arrived at Audley at half-past ten o'clock, and at five minutes before eleven, Richards, the grave servant, announced Dr. Alwyn Mosgrave.
The physician from Saville Row was a tall man of about fifty years of age. He was thin and sallow, with lantern jaws, and eyes of a pale, feeble gray, that seemed as if they had once been blue, and had faded by the progress of time to their present neutral shade. However powerful the science of medicine as wielded by Dr. Alwyn Mosgrave, it had not been strong enough to put flesh upon his bones, or brightness into his face. He had a strangely expressionless, and yet strangely attentive countenance. He had the face of a man who had spent the greater part of his life in listening to other people, and who had parted with his own individuality and his own passions at the very outset of his career.
He bowed to Robert Audley, took the opposite seat indicated by him, and addressed his attentive face to the young barrister. Robert saw that the physician's glance for a moment lost its quiet look of attention, and became earnest and searching.
"He is wondering whether I am the patient," thought Mr. Audley, "and is looking for the diagnoses of madness in my face."
Dr. Mosgrave spoke as if in answer to this thought.
"Is it not about your own—health—that you wish to consult me?" he said, interrogatively.
Dr. Mosgrave looked at his watch, a fifty-guinea Benson-made chronometer, which he carried loose in his waistcoat pocket as carelessly as if it had been a potato.
"I need not remind you that my time is precious," he said; "your telegram informed me that my services were required in a case of—danger—as I apprehend, or I should not be here this morning."
Robert Audley had sat looking gloomily at the fire, wondering how he should begin the conversation, and had needed this reminder of the physician's presence.
"You are very good, Dr. Mosgrave," he said, rousing himself by an effort, "and I thank you very much for having responded to my summons. I am about to appeal to you upon a subject which is more painful to me than words can describe. I am about to implore your advice in a most difficult case, and I trust almost blindly to your experience to rescue me, and others who are very dear to me, from a cruel and complicated position."
The business-like attention in Dr. Mosgrave's face grew into a look of interest as he listened to Robert Audley.
"The revelation made by the patient to the physician is, I believe, as sacred as the confession of a penitent to his priest?" Robert asked, gravely.
"Quite as sacred."
"A solemn confidence, to be violated under no circumstances?"
Robert Audley looked at the fire again. How much should he tell, or how little, of the dark history of his uncle's second wife?
"I have been given to understand, Dr. Mosgrave, that you have devoted much of your attention to the treatment of insanity."
"Yes, my practice is almost confined to the treatment of mental diseases."
"Such being the case, I think I may venture to conclude that you sometimes receive strange, and even terrible, revelations."
Dr. Mosgrave bowed.
He looked like a man who could have carried, safely locked in his passionless breast, the secrets of a nation, and who would have suffered no inconvenience from the weight of such a burden.
"The story which I am about to tell you is not my own story," said Robert, after a pause; "you will forgive me, therefore, if I once more remind you that I can only reveal it upon the understanding that under no circumstances, or upon no apparent justification, is that confidence to be betrayed."
Dr. Mosgrave bowed again. A little sternly, perhaps, this time.
"I am all attention, Mr. Audley," he said coldly.
Robert Audley drew his chair nearer to that of the physician, and in a low voice began the story which my lady had told upon her knees in that same chamber upon the previous night. Dr. Mosgrave's listening face, turned always toward the speaker, betrayed no surprise at that strange revelation. He smiled once, a grave, quiet smile, when Mr. Audley came to that part of the story which told of the conspiracy at Ventnor; but he was not surprised. Robert Audley ended his story at the point at which Sir Michael Audley had interrupted my lady's confession. He told nothing of the disappearance of George Talboys, nor of the horrible suspicions that had grown out of that disappearance. He told nothing of the fire at the Castle Inn.
Dr. Mosgrave shook his head, gravely, when Mr. Audley came to the end of his story.
"You have nothing further to tell me?" he said.
"No. I do not think there is anything more that need be told," Robert answered, rather evasively.
"You would wish to prove that this lady is mad, and therefore irresponsible for her actions, Mr. Audley?" said the physician.
Robert Audley stared, wondering at the mad doctor. By what process had he so rapidly arrived at the young man's secret desire?
"Yes, I would rather, if possible, think her mad; I should be glad to find that excuse for her."
"And to save the esclandre of a Chancery suit, I suppose, Mr, Audley," said Dr. Mosgrave.
Robert shuddered as he bowed an assent to this remark. It was something worse than a Chancery suit that he dreaded with a horrible fear. It was a trial for murder that had so long haunted his dreams. How often he had awoke, in an agony of shame, from a vision of a crowded court-house, and his uncle's wife in a criminal dock, hemmed in on every side by a sea of eager faces.
"I fear that I shall not be of any use to you," the physician said, quietly; "I will see the lady, if you please, but I do not believe that she is mad."
"Because there is no evidence of madness in anything she has done. She ran away from her home, because her home was not a pleasant one, and she left in the hope of finding a better. There is no madness in that. She committed the crime of bigamy, because by that crime she obtained fortune and position. There is no madness there. When she found herself in a desperate position, she did not grow desperate. She employed intelligent means, and she carried out a conspiracy which required coolness and deliberation in its execution. There is no madness in that."
"But the traits of hereditary insanity—"
"May descend to the third generation, and appear in the lady's children, if she have any. Madness is not necessarily transmitted from mother to daughter. I should be glad to help you, if I could, Mr. Audley, but I do not think there is any proof of insanity in the story you have told me. I do not think any jury in England would accept the plea of insanity in such a case as this. The best thing you can do with this lady is to send her back to her first husband; if he will have her."
Robert started at this sudden mention of his friend.
"Her first husband is dead," he answered, "at least, he has been missing for some time—and I have reason to believe that he is dead."
Dr. Mosgrave saw the startled movement, and heard the embarrassment in Robert Audley's voice as he spoke of George Talboys.
"The lady's first husband is missing," he said, with a strange emphasis on the word—"you think that he is dead?"
He paused for a few moments and looked at the fire, as Robert had looked before.
"Mr. Audley," he said, presently, "there must be no half-confidences between us. You have not told me all."
Robert, looking up suddenly, plainly expressed in his face the surprise he felt at these words.
"I should be very poorly able to meet the contingencies of my professional experience," said Dr. Mosgrave, "if I could not perceive where confidence ends and reservation begins. You have only told me half this lady's story, Mr. Audley. You must tell me more before I can offer you any advice. What has become of the first husband?"
He asked this question in a decisive tone, as if he knew it to be the key-stone of an arch.
"I have already told you, Dr. Mosgrave, that I do not know."
"Yes," answered the physician, "but your face has told me what you have withheld from me; it has told me that you suspect."
Robert Audley was silent.
"If I am to be of use to you, you must trust me, Mr. Audley," said the physician. "The first husband disappeared—how and when? I want to know the history of his disappearance."
Robert paused for some time before he replied to this speech; but, by and by, he lifted his head, which had been bent in an attitude of earnest thought, and addressed the physician.
"I will trust you, Dr. Mosgrave," he said. "I will confide entirely in your honor and goodness. I do not ask you to do any wrong to society; but I ask you to save our stainless name from degradation and shame, if you can do so conscientiously."
He told the story of George's disappearance, and of his own doubts and fears, Heaven knows how reluctantly.
Dr. Mosgrave listened as quietly as he had listened before. Robert concluded with an earnest appeal to the physician's best feelings. He implored him to spare the generous old man whose fatal confidence in a wicked woman had brought much misery upon his declining years.
It was impossible to draw any conclusion, either favorable or otherwise, from Dr. Mosgrave's attentive face. He rose, when Robert had finished speaking, and looked at his watch once more.
"I can only spare you twenty minutes," he said. "I will see the lady, if you please. You say her mother died in a madhouse?"
"She did. Will you see Lady Audley alone?"
"Yes, alone, if you please."
Robert rung for my lady's maid, and under convoy of that smart young damsel the physician found his way to the octagon antechamber, and the fairy boudoir with which it communicated.
Ten minutes afterward, he returned to the library, in which Robert sat waiting for him.
"I have talked to the lady," he said, quietly, "and we understand each other very well. There is latent insanity! Insanity which might never appear; or which might appear only once or twice in a lifetime. It would be a dementia in its worst phase, perhaps; acute mania; but its duration would be very brief, and it would only arise under extreme mental pressure. The lady is not mad; but she has the hereditary taint in her blood. She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence. I will tell you what she is, Mr. Audley. She is dangerous!"
Dr. Mosgrave walked up and down the room once or twice before he spoke again.
"I will not discuss the probabilities of the suspicion which distresses you, Mr. Audley," he said, presently, "but I will tell you this much, I do not advise any esclandre. This Mr. George Talboys has disappeared, but you have no evidence of his death. If you could produce evidence of his death, you could produce no evidence against this lady, beyond the one fact that she had a powerful motive for getting rid of him. No jury in the United Kingdom would condemn her upon such evidence as that."
Robert Audley interrupted Dr. Mosgrave, hastily.
"I assure you, my dear sir," he said, "that my greatest fear is the necessity of any exposure—any disgrace."
"Certainly, Mr. Audley," answered the physician, coolly, "but you cannot expect me to assist you to condone one of the worst offenses against society. If I saw adequate reason for believing that a murder had been committed by this woman, I should refuse to assist you in smuggling her away out of the reach of justice, although the honor of a hundred noble families might be saved by my doing so. But I do not see adequate reason for your suspicions; and I will do my best to help you."
Robert Audley grasped the physician's hands in both his own.
"I will thank you when I am better able to do so," he said, with emotion; "I will thank you in my uncle's name as well as in my own."
"I have only five minutes more, and I have a letter to write," said Dr. Mosgrave, smiling at the young man's energy.
He seated himself at a writing-table in the window, dipped his pen in the ink, and wrote rapidly for about seven minutes. He had filled three sides of a sheet of note-paper, when he threw down his pen and folded his letter.
He put this letter into an envelope, and delivered it, unsealed, to Robert Audley.
The address which it bore was:
Mr. Audley looked rather doubtfully from this address to the doctor, who was putting on his gloves as deliberately as if his life had never known a more solemn purpose than the proper adjustment of them.
"That letter," he said, in answer to Robert Audley's inquiring look, "is written to my friend Monsieur Val, the proprietor and medical superintendent of a very excellent maison de sante in the town of Villebrumeuse. We have known each other for many years, and he will no doubt willingly receive Lady Audley into his establishment, and charge himself with the full responsibility of her future life; it will not be a very eventful one!"
Robert Audley would have spoken, he would have once more expressed his gratitude for the help which had been given to him, but Dr. Mosgrave checked him with an authoritative gesture.
"From the moment in which Lady Audley enters that house," he said, "her life, so far as life is made up of action and variety, will be finished. Whatever secrets she may have will be secrets forever! Whatever crimes she may have committed she will be able to commit no more. If you were to dig a grave for her in the nearest churchyard and bury her alive in it, you could not more safely shut her from the world and all worldly associations. But as a physiologist and as an honest man, I believe you could do no better service to society than by doing this; for physiology is a lie if the woman I saw ten minutes ago is a woman to be trusted at large. If she could have sprung at my throat and strangled me with her little hands, as I sat talking to her just now, she would have done it."
"She suspected your purpose, then!"
"She knew it. 'You think I am mad like my mother, and you have come to question me,' she said. 'You are watching for some sign of the dreadful taint in my blood.' Good-day to you, Mr. Audley," the physician added hurriedly, "my time was up ten minutes ago; it is as much as I shall do to catch the train."