LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
Two years have passed since the May twilight in which Robert found his old friend; and Mr. Audley's dream of a fairy cottage has been realized between Teddington Locks and Hampton Bridge, where, amid a little forest of foliage, there is a fantastical dwelling place of rustic woodwork, whose latticed windows look out upon the river. Here, among the lilies and the rushes on the sloping bank, a brave boy of eight years old plays with a toddling baby, who peers wonderingly from his nurse's arms at that other baby in the purple depth of the quiet water.
Mr. Audley is a rising man upon the home circuit by this time, and has distinguished himself in the great breach of promise case of Hobbs v. Nobbs, and has convulsed the court by his deliciously comic rendering of the faithless Nobb's amatory correspondence. The handsome dark-eyed boy is Master George Talboys, who declines musa at Eton, and fishes for tadpoles in the clear water under the spreading umbrage beyond the ivied walls of the academy. But he comes very often to the fairy cottage to see his father, who lives there with his sister and his sister's husband; and he is very happy with his Uncle Robert, his Aunt Clara, and the pretty baby who has just begun to toddle on the smooth lawn that slopes down to the water's brink, upon which there is a little Swiss boat-house and landing-stage where Robert and George moor their slender wherries.
Other people come to the cottage near Teddington. A bright, merry-hearted girl, and a gray-bearded gentleman, who has survived he trouble of his life, and battled with it as a Christian should.
It is more than a year since a black-edged letter, written upon foreign paper, came to Robert Audley, to announce the death of a certain Madame Taylor, who had expired peacefully at Villebrumeuse, dying after a long illness, which Monsieur Val describes as a maladie de langueur.
Another visitor comes to the cottage in this bright summer of 1861—a frank, generous hearted young man, who tosses the baby and plays with Georgey, and is especially great in the management of the boats, which are never idle when Sir Harry Towers is at Teddington.
There is a pretty rustic smoking-room over the Swiss boat-house, in which the gentlemen sit and smoke in the summer evenings, and whence they are summoned by Clara and Alicia to drink tea, and eat strawberries and cream upon the lawn.
Audley Court is shut up, and a grim old housekeeper reigns paramount in the mansion which my lady's ringing laughter once made musical. A curtain hangs before the pre-Raphaelite portrait; and the blue mold which artists dread gathers upon the Wouvermans and Poussins, the Cuyps and Tintorettis. The house is often shown to inquisitive visitors, though the baronet is not informed of that fact, and people admire my lady's rooms, and ask many questions about the pretty, fair-haired woman who died abroad.
Sir Michael has no fancy to return to the familiar dwelling-place in which he once dreamed a brief dream of impossible happiness. He remains in London until Alicia shall be Lady Towers, when he is to remove to a house he has lately bought in Hertfordshire, on the borders of his son-in-law's estate. George Talboys is very happy with his sister and his old friend. He is a young man yet, remember, and it is not quite impossible that he may, by-and-by, find some one who will console him for the past. That dark story of the past fades little by little every day, and there may come a time in which the shadow my lady's wickedness has cast upon the young man's life will utterly vanish away.
The meerschaum and the French novels have been presented to a young Templar with whom Robert Audley had been friendly in his bachelor days; and Mrs. Maloney has a little pension, paid her quarterly, for her care of the canaries and geraniums.
I hope no one will take objection to my story because the end of it leaves the good people all happy and at peace. If my experience of life has not been very long, it has at least been manifold; and I can safely subscribe to that which a mighty king and a great philosopher declared, when he said, that neither the experience of his youth nor of his age had ever shown him "the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread."