LADY AUDREY'S SECRET
AFTER THE STORM
Sir Michael was mistaken in his prophecy upon the weather. The storm did not hold off until next day, but burst with terrible fury over the village of Audley about half an hour before midnight.
Robert Audley took the thunder and lightning with the same composure with which he accepted all the other ills of life. He lay on a sofa in the sitting-room, ostensibly reading the five-days-old Chelmsford paper, and regaling himself occasionally with a few sips from a large tumbler of cold punch. But the storm had quite a different effect upon George Talboys. His friend was startled when he looked at the young man's white face as he sat opposite the open window listening to the thunder, and staring at the black sky, rent every now and then by forked streaks of steel-blue lightning.
"George," said Robert, after watching him for some time, "are you frightened of the lightning?"
"No," he answered, curtly.
"But, dear boy, some of the most courageous men have been frightened of it. It is scarcely to be called a fear: it is constitutional. I am sure you are frightened of it."
"No, I am not."
"But, George, if you could see yourself, white and haggard, with your great hollow eyes staring out at the sky as if they were fixed upon a ghost. I tell you I know that you are frightened."
"And I tell you that I am not."
"George Talboys, you are not only afraid of the lightning, but you are savage with yourself for being afraid, and with me for telling you of your fear."
"Robert Audley, if you say another word to me, I shall knock you down," cried George, furiously; having said which, Mr. Talboys strode out of the room, banging the door after him with a violence that shook the house. Those inky clouds, which had shut in the sultry earth as if with a roof of hot iron, poured out their blackness in a sudden deluge as George left the room; but if the young man was afraid of the lightning, he certainly was not afraid of the rain; for he walked straight down-stairs to the inn door, and went out into the wet high road. He walked up and down, up and down, in the soaking shower for about twenty minutes, and then, re-entering the inn, strode up to his bedroom.
Robert Audley met him on the landing, with his hair beaten about his white face, and his garments dripping wet.
"Are you going to bed, George?"
"But you have no candle."
"I don't want one."
"But look at your clothes, man! Do you see the wet streaming down your coat-sleeves? What on earth made you go out upon such a night?"
"I am tired, and want to go to bed—don't bother me."
"You'll take some hot brandy-and-water, George?"
Robert Audley stood in his friend's way as he spoke, anxious to prevent his going to bed in the state he was in; but George pushed him fiercely aside, and, striding past him, said, in the same hoarse voice Robert had noticed at the Court:
"Let me alone, Robert Audley, and keep clear of me if you can."
Robert followed George to his bedroom, but the young man banged the door in his face, so there was nothing for it but to leave Mr. Talboys to himself, to recover his temper as best he might.
"He was irritated at my noticing his terror of the lightning," though Robert, as he calmly retired to rest, serenely indifferent to the thunder, which seemed to shake him in his bed, and the lightning playing fitfully round the razors in his open dressing-case.
The storm rolled away from the quiet village of Audley, and when Robert awoke the next morning it was to see bright sunshine, and a peep of cloudless sky between the white curtains of his bedroom window.
It was one of those serene and lovely mornings that sometimes succeed a storm. The birds sung loud and cheerily, the yellow corn uplifted itself in the broad fields, and waved proudly after its sharp tussle with the tempest, which had done its best to beat down the heavy ears with cruel wind and driving rain half the night through. The vine-leaves clustering round Robert's window fluttered with a joyous rustling, shaking the rain-drops in diamond showers from every spray and tendril.
Robert Audley found his friend waiting for him at the breakfast-table.
George was very pale, but perfectly tranquil—if anything, indeed, more cheerful than usual.
He shook Robert by the hand with something of that hearty manner for which he had been distinguished before the one affliction of his life overtook and shipwrecked him.
"Forgive me, Bob," he said, frankly, "for my surly temper of last night. You were quite correct in your assertion; the thunderstorm did upset me. It always had the same effect upon me in my youth."
"Poor old boy! Shall we go up by the express, or shall we stop here and dine with my uncle to-night?" asked Robert.
"To tell the truth, Bob, I would rather do neither. It's a glorious morning. Suppose we stroll about all day, take another turn with the rod and line, and go up to town by the train that leaves here at 6.15 in the evening?"
Robert Audley would have assented to a far more disagreeable proposition than this, rather than have taken the trouble to oppose his friend, so the matter was immediately agreed upon; and after they had finished their breakfast, and ordered a four o'clock dinner, George Talboys took the fishing-rod across his broad shoulders, and strode out of the house with his friend and companion.
But if the equable temperament of Mr. Robert Audley had been undisturbed by the crackling peals of thunder that shook the very foundations of the Sun Inn, it had not been so with the more delicate sensibilties of his uncle's young wife. Lady Audley confessed herself terribly frightened of the lightning. She had her bedstead wheeled into a corner of the room, and with the heavy curtains drawn tightly round her, she lay with her face buried in the pillow, shuddering convulsively at every sound of the tempest without. Sir Michael, whose stout heart had never known a fear, almost trembled for this fragile creature, whom it was his happy privilege to protect and defend. My lady would not consent to undress till nearly three o'clock in the morning, when the last lingering peal of thunder had died away among the distant hills. Until that hour she lay in the handsome silk dress in which she had traveled, huddled together among the bedclothes, only looking up now and then with a scared face to ask if the storm was over.
Toward four o'clock her husband, who spent the night in watching by her bedside, saw her drop off into a deep sleep, from which she did not awake for nearly five hours.
But she came into the breakfast-room, at half-past nine o'clock, singing a little Scotch melody, her cheeks tinged with as delicate a pink as the pale hue of her muslin morning dress. Like the birds and the flowers, she seemed to recover her beauty and joyousness in the morning sunshine. She tripped lightly out onto the lawn, gathering a last lingering rosebud here and there, and a sprig or two of geranium, and returning through the dewy grass, warbling long cadences for very happiness of heart, and looking as fresh and radiant as the flowers in her hands. The baronet caught her in his strong arms as she came in through the open window.
"My pretty one," he said, "my darling, what happiness to see you your own merry self again! Do you know, Lucy, that once last night, when you looked out through the dark-green bed-curtains, with your poor, white face, and the purple rims round your hollow eyes, I had almost a difficulty to recognize my little wife in that terrified, agonized-looking creature, crying out about the storm. Thank God for the morning sun, which has brought back the rosy cheeks and bright smile! I hope to Heaven, Lucy, I shall never again see you look as you did last night."
She stood on tiptoe to kiss him, and then was only tall enough to reach his white beard. She told him, laughing, that she had always been a silly, frightened creature—frightened of dogs, frightened of cattle, frightened of a thunderstorm, frightened of a rough sea. "Frightened of everything and everybody but my dear, noble, handsome husband," she said.
She had found the carpet in her dressing-room disarranged, and had inquired into the mystery of the secret passage. She chid Miss Alicia in a playful, laughing way, for her boldness in introducing two great men into my lady's rooms.
"And they had the audacity to look at my picture, Alicia," she said, with mock indignation. "I found the baize thrown on the ground, and a great man's glove on the carpet. Look!"
"She held up a thick driving glove as she spoke. It was George's, which he had dropped looking at the picture.
"I shall go up to the Sun, and ask those boys to dinner," Sir Michael said, as he left the Court upon his morning walk around his farm.
Lady Audley flitted from room to room in the bright September sunshine—now sitting down to the piano to trill out a ballad, or the first page of an Italian bravura, or running with rapid fingers through a brilliant waltz—now hovering about a stand of hot-house flowers, doing amateur gardening with a pair of fairy-like, silver-mounted embroidery scissors—now strolling into her dressing-room to talk to Phoebe Marks, and have her curls rearranged for the third or fourth time; for the ringlets were always getting into disorder, and gave no little trouble to Lady Audley's maid.
My dear lady seemed, on this particular September day, restless from very joyousness of spirit, and unable to stay long in one place, or occupy herself with one thing.
While Lady Audley amused herself in her own frivolous fashion, the two young men strolled slowly along the margin of the stream until they reached a shady corner where the water was deep and still, and the long branches of the willows trailed into the brook.
George Talboys took the fishing-rod, while Robert stretched himself at full length on a railway rug, and balancing his hat upon his nose as a screen from the sunshine, fell fast asleep.
Those were happy fish in the stream on the banks of which Mr. Talboys was seated. They might have amused themselves to their hearts' content with timid nibbles at this gentleman's bait without in any manner endangering their safety; for George only stared vacantly in the water, holding his rod in a loose, listless hand, and with a strange, far-away look in his eyes. As the church clock struck two he threw down his rod, and, striding away along the bank, left Robert Audley to enjoy a nap which, according to that gentleman's habits, was by no means unlikely to last for two or three hours. About a quarter of a mile further on George crossed a rustic bridge, and struck into the meadows which led to Audley Court.
The birds had sung so much all the morning, that they had, perhaps, by this time grown tired; the lazy cattle were asleep in the meadows; Sir Michael was still away on his morning's ramble; Miss Alicia had scampered off an hour before on her chestnut mare; the servants were all at dinner in the back part of the house; and my lady had strolled, book in hand, into the shadowy lime-walk; so the gray old building had never worn a more peaceful aspect than on that bright afternoon when George Talboys walked across the lawn to ring a sonorous peal at the sturdy, iron-bound oak door.
The servant who answered his summons told him that Sir Michael was out, and my lady walking in the lime-tree avenue.
He looked a little disappointed at this intelligence, and muttering something about wishing to see my lady, or going to look for my lady (the servant did not clearly distinguish his words), strode away from the door without leaving either card or message for the family.
It was full an hour and a half after this when Lady Audley returned to the house, not coming from the lime-walk, but from exactly the opposite direction, carrying her open book in her hand, and singing as she came. Alicia had just dismounted from her mare, and stood in the low-arched doorway, with her great Newfoundland dog by her side.
The dog, which had never liked my lady, showed his teeth with a suppressed growl.
"Send that horrid animal away, Alicia," Lady Audley said, impatiently. "The brute knows that I am frightened of him, and takes advantage of my terror. And yet they call the creatures generous and noble-hearted! Bah, Caesar! I hate you, and you hate me; and if you met me in the dark in some narrow passage you would fly at my throat and strangle me, wouldn't you?"
My lady, safely sheltered behind her step-daughter, shook her yellow curls at the angry animal, and defied him maliciously.
"Do you know, Lady Audley, that Mr. Talboys, the young widower, has been here asking for Sir Michael and you?"
Lucy Audley lifted her penciled eyebrows. "I thought they were coming to dinner," she said. "Surely we shall have enough of them then."
She had a heap of wild autumn flowers in the skirt of her muslin dress. She had come through the fields at the back of the Court, gathering the hedge-row blossoms in her way. She ran lightly up the broad staircase to her own rooms. George's glove lay on her boudoir table. Lady Audley rung the bell violently, and it was answered by Phoebe Marks. "Take that litter away," she said, sharply. The girl collected the glove and a few withered flowers and torn papers lying on the table into her apron.
"What have you been doing all this morning?" asked my lady. "Not wasting your time, I hope?"
"No, my lady, I have been altering the blue dress. It is rather dark on this side of the house, so I took it up to my own room, and worked at the window."
The girl was leaving the room as she spoke, but she turned around and looked at Lady Audley as if waiting for further orders.
Lucy looked up at the same moment, and the eyes of the two women met.
"Phoebe Marks," said my lady, throwing herself into an easy-chair, and trifling with the wild flowers in her lap, "you are a good, industrious girl, and while I live and am prosperous, you shall never want a firm friend or a twenty-pound note."