LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
AFTER A YEAR
The first year of George Talboys' widowhood passed away, the deep band of crepe about his hat grew brown and dusty, and as the last burning day of another August faded out, he sat smoking cigars in the quiet chambers of Figtree Court, much as he had done the year before, when the horror of his grief was new to him, and every object in life, however trifling or however important, seemed saturated with his one great sorrow.
But the big ex-dragoon had survived his affliction by a twelvemonth, and hard as it may be to have to tell it, he did not look much the worse for it. Heaven knows what wasted agonies of remorse and self-reproach may not have racked George's honest heart, as he lay awake at nights thinking of the wife he had abandoned in the pursuit of a fortune, which she never lived to share.
Once, while they were abroad, Robert Audley ventured to congratulate him upon his recovered spirits. He burst into a bitter laugh.
"Do you know, Bob," he said, "that when some of our fellows were wounded in India, they came home, bringing bullets inside them. They did not talk of them, and they were stout and hearty, and looked as well, perhaps, as you or I; but every change in the weather, however slight, every variation of the atmosphere, however trifling, brought back the old agony of their wounds as sharp as ever they had felt it on the battle-field. I've had my wound, Bob; I carry the bullet still, and I shall carry it into my coffin."
The travelers returned from St. Petersburg in the spring, and George again took up his quarters at his old friend's chambers, only leaving them now and then to run down to Southampton and take a look at his little boy. He always went loaded with toys and sweetmeats to give to the child; but, for all this, Georgey would not become very familiar with his papa, and the young man's heart sickened as he began to fancy that even his child was lost to him.
"What can I do?" he thought. "If I take him away from his grandfather, I shall break his heart; if I let him remain, he will grow up a stranger to me, and care more for that drunken old hypocrite than for his own father. But then, what could an ignorant, heavy dragoon like me do with such a child? What could I teach him, except to smoke cigars and idle around all day with his hands in his pockets?"
So the anniversary of that 30th of August, upon which George had seen the advertisement of his wife's death in the Times newspaper, came round for the first time, and the young man put off his black clothes and the shabby crape from his hat, and laid his mournful garments in a trunk in which he kept a packet of his wife's letters, her portrait, and that lock of hair which had been cut from her head after death. Robert Audley had never seen either the letters, the portrait, or the long tress of silky hair; nor, indeed, had George ever mentioned the name of his dead wife after that one day at Ventnor, on which he learned the full particulars of her decease.
"I shall write to my cousin Alicia to-day, George," the young barrister said, upon this very 30th of August. "Do you know that the day after to-morrow is the 1st of September? I shall write and tell her that we will both run down to the Court for a week's shooting."
"No, no, Bob; go by yourself; they don't want me, and I'd rather—"
"Bury yourself in Figtree Court, with no company but my dogs and canaries! No, George, you shall do nothing of the kind."
"But I don't care for shooting."
"And do you suppose I care for it?" cried Robert, with charming naivete. "Why, man, I don't know a partridge from a pigeon, and it might be the 1st of April, instead of the 1st of September, for aught I care. I never hurt a bird in my life, but I have hurt my own shoulder with the weight of my gun. I only go down to Essex for the change of air, the good dinners, and the sight of my uncle's honest, handsome face. Besides, this time I've another inducement, as I want to see this fair-haired paragon—my new aunt. You'll go with me, George?"
"Yes, if you really wish it."
The quiet form his grief had taken after its first brief violence, left him as submissive as a child to the will of his friend; ready to go anywhere or do anything; never enjoying himself, or originating any enjoyment, but joining in the pleasures of others with a hopeless, uncomplaining, unobtrusive resignation peculiar to his simple nature. But the return of post brought a letter from Alicia Audley, to say that the two young men could not be received at the Court.
"There are seventeen spare bed-rooms," wrote the young lady, in an indignant running hand, "but for all that, my dear Robert, you can't come; for my lady has taken it into her silly head that she is too ill to entertain visitors (there is no more the matter with her than there is with me), and she cannot have gentlemen (great, rough men, she says) in the house. Please apologize to your friend Mr. Talboys, and tell him that papa expects to see you both in the hunting season."
"My lady's airs and graces shan't keep us out of Essex for all that," said Robert, as he twisted the letter into a pipe-light for his big meerschaum. "I'll tell you what we'll do, George: there's a glorious inn at Audley, and plenty of fishing in the neighborhood; we'll go there and have a week's sport. Fishing is much better than shooting; you've only to lie on a bank and stare at your line; I don't find that you often catch anything, but it's very pleasant."
He held the twisted letter to the feeble spark of fire glimmering in the grate, as he spoke, and then changing his mind, deliberately unfolded it, and smoothed the crumpled paper with his hand.
"Poor little Alicia!" he said, thoughtfully; "it's rather hard to treat her letter so cavalierly—I'll keep it;" upon which Mr. Robert Audley put the note back into its envelope, and afterward thrust it into a pigeon-hole in his office desk, marked important. Heaven knows what wonderful documents there were in this particular pigeon-hole, but I do not think it likely to have contained anything of great judicial value. If any one could at that moment have told the young barrister that so simple a thing as his cousin's brief letter would one day come to be a link in that terrible chain of evidence afterward to be slowly forged in the only criminal case in which he was ever to be concerned, perhaps Mr. Robert Audley would have lifted his eyebrows a little higher than usual.
So the two young men left London the next day, with one portmanteau and a rod and tackle between them, and reached the straggling, old-fashioned, fast-decaying village of Audley, in time to order a good dinner at the Sun Inn.
Audley Court was about three-quarters of a mile from the village, lying, as I have said, deep down in the hollow, shut in by luxuriant timber. You could only reach it by a cross-road bordered by trees, and as trimly kept as the avenues in a gentleman's park. It was a lonely place enough, even in all its rustic beauty, for so bright a creature as the late Miss Lucy Graham, but the generous baronet had transformed the interior of the gray old mansion into a little palace for his young wife, and Lady Audley seemed as happy as a child surrounded by new and costly toys.
In her better fortunes, as in her old days of dependence, wherever she went she seemed to take sunshine and gladness with her. In spite of Miss Alicia's undisguised contempt for her step-mother's childishness and frivolity, Lucy was better loved and more admired than the baronet's daughter. That very childishness had a charm which few could resist. The innocence and candor of an infant beamed in Lady Audley's fair face, and shone out of her large and liquid blue eyes. The rosy lips, the delicate nose, the profusion of fair ringlets, all contributed to preserve to her beauty the character of extreme youth and freshness. She owned to twenty years of age, but it was hard to believe her more than seventeen. Her fragile figure, which she loved to dress in heavy velvets, and stiff, rustling silks, till she looked like a child tricked out for a masquerade, was as girlish as if she had just left the nursery. All her amusements were childish. She hated reading, or study of any kind, and loved society. Rather than be alone, she would admit Phoebe Marks into her confidence, and loll on one of the sofas in her luxurious dressing-room, discussing a new costume for some coming dinner-party; or sit chattering to the girl with her jewel-box beside her, upon the satin cushions, and Sir Michael's presents spread out in her lap, while she counted and admired her treasures.
She had appeared at several public balls at Chelmsford and Colchester, and was immediately established as the belle of the county. Pleased with her high position and her handsome house; with every caprice gratified, every whim indulged; admired and caressed wherever she went; fond of her generous husband; rich in a noble allowance of pin-money; with no poor relations to worry her with claims upon her purse or patronage; it would have been hard to find in the County of Essex a more fortunate creature than Lucy, Lady Audley.
The two young men loitered over the dinner-table in the private sitting-room at the Sun Inn. The windows were thrown wide open, and the fresh country air blew in upon them as they dined. The weather was lovely; the foliage of the woods touched here and there with faint gleams of the earliest tints of autumn; the yellow corn still standing in some of the fields, in others just falling under the shining sickle; while in the narrow lanes you met great wagons drawn by broad-chested cart-horses, carrying home the rich golden store. To any one who has been, during the hot summer months, pent up in London, there is in the first taste of rustic life a kind of sensuous rapture scarcely to be described. George Talboys felt this, and in this he experienced the nearest approach to enjoyment that he had ever known since his wife's death.
The clock struck five as they finished dinner.
"Put on your hat, George," said Robert Audley; "they don't dine at the Court till seven; we shall have time to stroll down and see the old place and its inhabitants."
The landlord, who had come into the room with a bottle of wine, looked up as the young man spoke.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Audley," he said, "but if you want to see your uncle, you'll lose your time by going to the Court just now. Sir Michael and my lady and Miss Alicia have all gone to the races up at Chorley, and they won't be back till nigh upon eight o'clock, most likely. They must pass by here to go home."
Under these circumstances of course it was no use going to the Court, so the two young men strolled through the village and looked at the old church, and then went and reconnoitered the streams in which they were to fish the next day, and by such means beguiled the time until after seven o'clock. At about a quarter past that hour they returned to the inn, and seating themselves in the open window, lit their cigars and looked out at the peaceful prospect.
We hear every day of murders committed in the country. Brutal and treacherous murders; slow, protracted agonies from poisons administered by some kindred hand; sudden and violent deaths by cruel blows, inflicted with a stake cut from some spreading oak, whose every shadow promised—peace. In the county of which I write, I have been shown a meadow in which, on a quiet summer Sunday evening, a young farmer murdered the girl who had loved and trusted him; and yet, even now, with the stain of that foul deed upon it, the aspect of the spot is—peace. No species of crime has ever been committed in the worst rookeries about Seven Dials that has not been also done in the face of that rustic calm which still, in spite of all, we look on with a tender, half-mournful yearning, and associate with—peace.
It was dusk when gigs and chaises, dog-carts and clumsy farmers' phaetons, began to rattle through the village street, and under the windows of the Sun Inn; deeper dusk still when an open carriage and four drew suddenly up beneath the rocking sign-post.
It was Sir Michael Audley's barouche which came to so sudden a stop before the little inn. The harness of one of the leaders had become out of order, and the foremost postillion dismounted to set it right.
"Why, it's my uncle," cried Robert Audley, as the carriage stopped. "I'll run down and speak to him."
George lit another cigar, and, sheltered by the window-curtains, looked out at the little party. Alicia sat with her back to the horses, and he could perceive, even in the dusk, that she was a handsome brunette; but Lady Audley was seated on the side of the carriage furthest from the inn, and he could see nothing of the fair-haired paragon of whom he had heard so much.
"Why, Robert," exclaimed Sir Michael, as his nephew emerged from the inn, "this is a surprise!"
"I have not come to intrude upon you at the Court, my dear uncle," said the young man, as the baronet shook him by the hand in his own hearty fashion. "Essex is my native county, you know, and about this time of year I generally have a touch of homesickness; so George and I have come down to the inn for two or three day's fishing."
"What, has he come?" cried Alicia. "I'm so glad; for I'm dying to see this handsome young widower."
"Are you, Alicia?" said her cousin, "Then egad, I'll run and fetch him, and introduce you to him at once."
Now, so complete was the dominion which Lady Audley had, in her own childish, unthinking way, obtained over her devoted husband, that it was very rarely that the baronet's eyes were long removed from his wife's pretty face. When Robert, therefore, was about to re-enter the inn, it needed but the faintest elevation of Lucy's eyebrows, with a charming expression of weariness and terror, to make her husband aware that she did not want to be bored by an introduction to Mr. George Talboys.
"Never mind to-night, Bob," he said. "My wife is a little tired after our long day's pleasure. Bring your friend to dinner to-morrow, and then he and Alicia can make each other's acquaintance. Come round and speak to Lady Audley, and then we'll drive home."
My lady was so terribly fatigued that she could only smile sweetly, and hold out a tiny gloved hand to her nephew by marriage.
"You will come and dine with us to-morrow, and bring your interesting friend?" she said, in a low and tired voice. She had been the chief attraction of the race-course, and was wearied out by the exertion of fascinating half the county.
"It's a wonder she didn't treat you to her never-ending laugh," whispered Alicia, as she leaned over the carriage-door to bid Robert good-night; "but I dare say she reserves that for your delectation to-morrow. I suppose you are fascinated as well as everybody else?" added the young lady, rather snappishly.
"She is a lovely creature, certainly," murmured Robert, with placid admiration.
"Oh, of course! Now, she is the first woman of whom I ever heard you say a civil word, Robert Audley. I'm sorry to find you can only admire wax dolls."
Poor Alicia had had many skirmishes with her cousin upon that particular temperament of his, which, while it enabled him to go through life with perfect content and tacit enjoyment, entirely precluded his feeling one spark of enthusiasm upon any subject whatever.
"As to his ever falling in love," thought the young lady sometimes, "the idea is preposterous. If all the divinities on earth were ranged before him, waiting for his sultanship to throw the handkerchief, he would only lift his eyebrows to the middle of his forehead, and tell them to scramble for it."
But, for once in his life, Robert was almost enthusiastic.
"She's the prettiest little creature you ever saw in your life, George," he cried, when the carriage had driven off and he returned to his friend. "Such blue eyes, such ringlets, such a ravishing smile, such a fairy-like bonnet—all of a-tremble with heart's-ease and dewy spangles, shining out of a cloud of gauze. George Talboys, I feel like the hero of a French novel: I am falling in love with my aunt."
The widower only sighed and puffed his cigar fiercely out of the open window. Perhaps he was thinking of that far-away time—little better than five years ago, in fact; but such an age gone by to him—when he first met the woman for whom he had worn crape round his hat three days before. They returned, all those old unforgotten feelings; they came back, with the scene of their birth-place. Again he lounged with his brother officers upon the shabby pier at the shabby watering-place, listening to a dreary band with a cornet that was a note and a half flat. Again he heard the old operatic airs, and again she came tripping toward him, leaning on her old father's arm, and pretending (with such a charming, delicious, serio-comic pretense) to be listening to the music, and quite unaware of the admiration of half a dozen open-mouthed cavalry officers. Again the old fancy came back that she was something too beautiful for earth, or earthly uses, and that to approach her was to walk in a higher atmosphere and to breathe a purer air. And since this she had been his wife, and the mother of his child. She lay in the little churchyard at Ventnor, and only a year ago he had given the order for her tombstone. A few slow, silent tears dropped upon his waistcoat as he thought of these things in the quiet and darkening room.
Lady Audley was so exhausted when she reached home, that she excused herself from the dinner-table, and retired at once to her dressing-room, attended by her maid, Phoebe Marks.
She was a little capricious in her conduct to this maid—sometimes very confidential, sometimes rather reserved; but she was a liberal mistress, and the girl had every reason to be satisfied with her situation.
This evening, in spite of her fatigue, she was in extremely high spirits, and gave an animated account of the races, and the company present at them.
"I am tired to death, though, Phoebe," she said, by-and-by. "I am afraid I must look a perfect fright, after a day in the hot sun."
There were lighted candles on each side of the glass before which Lady Audley was standing unfastening her dress. She looked full at her maid as she spoke, her blue eyes clear and bright, and the rosy childish lips puckered into an arch smile.
"You are a little pale, my lady," answered the girl, "but you look as pretty as ever."
"That's right, Phoebe," she said, flinging herself into a chair, and throwing back her curls at the maid, who stood, brush in hand, ready to arrange the luxuriant hair for the night. "Do you know, Phoebe, I have heard some people say that you and I are alike?"
"I have heard them say so, too, my lady," said the girl, quietly "but they must be very stupid to say it, for your ladyship is a beauty, and I am a poor, plain creature."
"Not at all, Phoebe," said the little lady, superbly; "you are like me, and your features are very nice; it is only color that you want. My hair is pale yellow shot with gold, and yours is drab; my eyebrows and eyelashes are dark brown, and yours are almost—I scarcely like to say it, but they're almost white, my dear Phoebe. Your complexion is sallow, and mine is pink and rosy. Why, with a bottle of hair-dye, such as we see advertised in the papers, and a pot of rouge, you'd be as good-looking as I, any day, Phoebe."
She prattled on in this way for a long time, talking of a hundred different subjects, and ridiculing the people she had met at the races, for her maid's amusement. Her step-daughter came into the dressing-room to bid her good-night, and found the maid and mistress laughing aloud over one of the day's adventures. Alicia, who was never familiar with her servants, withdrew in disgust at my lady's frivolity.
"Go on brushing my hair, Phoebe," Lady Audley said, every time the girl was about to complete her task, "I quite enjoy a chat with you."
At last, just as she had dismissed her maid, she suddenly called her back. "Phoebe Marks," she said, "I want you to do me a favor."
"Yes, my lady."
"I want you to go to London by the first train to-morrow morning to execute a little commission for me. You may take a day's holiday afterward, as I know you have friends in town; and I shall give you a five-pound note if you do what I want, and keep your own counsel about it."
"Yes, my lady."
"See that that door is securely shut, and come and sit on this stool at my feet."
The girl obeyed. Lady Audley smoothed her maid's neutral-tinted hair with her plump, white, and bejeweled hand as she reflected for a few moments.
"And now listen, Phoebe. What I want you to do is very simple."
It was so simple that it was told in five minutes, and then Lady Audley retired into her bed-room, and curled herself up cozily under the eider-down quilt. She was a chilly creature, and loved to bury herself in soft wrappings of satin and fur.
"Kiss me, Phoebe," she said, as the girl arranged the curtains. "I hear Sir Michael's step in the anteroom; you will meet him as you go out, and you may as well tell him that you are going up by the first train to-morrow morning to get my dress from Madam Frederick for the dinner at Morton Abbey."
It was late the next morning when Lady Audley went down to breakfast—past ten o'clock. While she was sipping her coffee a servant brought her a sealed packet, and a book for her to sign.
"A telegraphic message!" she cried; for the convenient word telegram had not yet been invented. "What can be the matter?"
She looked up at her husband with wide-open, terrified eyes, and seemed half afraid to break the seal. The envelope was addressed to Miss Lucy Graham, at Mr. Dawson's, and had been sent on from the village.
"Read it, my darling," he said, "and do not be alarmed; it may be nothing of any importance."
It came from a Mrs. Vincent, the schoolmistress with whom she had lived before entering Mr. Dawson's family. The lady was dangerously ill, and implored her old pupil to go and see her.
"Poor soul! she always meant to leave me her money," said Lucy, with a mournful smile. "She has never heard of the change in my fortunes. Dear Sir Michael, I must go to her."
"To be sure you must, dearest. If she was kind to my poor girl in her adversity, she has a claim upon her prosperity that shall never be forgotten. Put on your bonnet, Lucy; we shall be in time to catch the express."
"You will go with me?"
"Of course, my darling. Do you suppose I would let you go alone?"
"I was sure you would go with me," she said, thoughtfully.
"Does your friend send any address?"
"No; but she always lived at Crescent Villa, West Brompton; and no doubt she lives there still."
There was only time for Lady Audley to hurry on her bonnet and shawl before she heard the carriage drive round to the door, and Sir Michael calling to her at the foot of the staircase.
Her suite of rooms, as I have said, opened one out of another, and terminated in an octagon antechamber hung with oil-paintings. Even in her haste she paused deliberately at the door of this room, double-locked it, and dropped the key into her pocket. This door once locked cut off all access to my lady's apartments.