Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 18

Robert Receives a Visitor Whom he had Scarcely Expected.

Eleven o’clock struck the next morning, and found Mr. Robert Audley still lounging over the well ordered little breakfast table, with one of his dogs at each side of his arm-chair, regarding him with watchful eyes and opened mouths, awaiting the expected morsel of ham or toast. Robert had a county paper on his knees, and made a feeble effort now and then to read the first page, which was filled with advertisements of farming stock, quack medicines, and other interesting matter.

The weather had changed, and the snow, which had for the last few days been looming blackly in the frosty sky, fell in great feathery flakes against the windows, and lay piled in the little bit of garden-ground without.

The long, lonely road leading toward Audley seemed untrodden by a footstep, as Robert Audley looked out at the wintry landscape.

“Lively,” he said, “for a man used to the fascinations of Temple Bar.”

As he watched the snow-flakes falling every moment thicker and faster upon the lonely road, he was surprised by seeing a brougham driving slowly up the hill.

“I wonder what unhappy wretch has too restless a spirit to stop at home on such a morning as this,” he muttered, as he returned to the arm-chair by the fire.

He had only reseated himself a few moments when Phoebe Marks entered the room to announce Lady Audley.

“Lady Audley! Pray beg her to come in,” said Robert; and then, as Phoebe left the room to usher in this unexpected visitor, he muttered between his teeth —“A false move, my lady, and one I never looked for from you.”

Lucy Audley was radiant on this cold and snowy January morning. Other people’s noses are rudely assailed by the sharp fingers of the grim ice-king, but not my lady’s; other people’s lips turn pale and blue with the chilling influence of the bitter weather, but my lady’s pretty little rosebud of a mouth retained its brightest coloring and cheeriest freshness.

She was wrapped in the very sables which Robert Audley had brought from Russia, and carried a muff that the young man thought seemed almost as big as herself.

She looked a childish, helpless, babyfied little creature; and Robert looked down upon her with some touch of pity in his eyes, as she came up to the hearth by which he was standing, and warmed her tiny gloved hands at the blaze.

“What a morning, Mr. Audley!” she said, “what a morning!”

“Yes, indeed! Why did you come out in such weather?”

“Because I wished to see you — particularly.”

“Indeed!”

“Yes,” said my lady, with an air of considerable embarrassment, playing with the button of her glove, and almost wrenching it off in her restlessness —“yes, Mr. Audley, I felt that you had not been well treated; that — that you had, in short, reason to complain; and that an apology was due to you.”

“I do not wish for any apology, Lady Audley.”

“But you are entitled to one,” answered my lady, quietly. “Why, my dear Robert, should we be so ceremonious toward each other? You were very comfortable at Audley; we were very glad to have you there; but, my dear, silly husband must needs take it into his foolish head that it is dangerous for his poor little wife’s peace of mind to have a nephew of eight or nine and twenty smoking his cigars in her boudoir, and, behold! our pleasant little family circle is broken up.”

Lucy Audley spoke with that peculiar childish vivacity which seemed so natural to her, Robert looking down almost sadly at her bright, animated face.

“Lady Audley,” he said, “Heaven forbid that either you or I should ever bring grief or dishonor upon my uncle’s generous heart! Better, perhaps, that I should be out of the house — better, perhaps, that I had never entered it!”

My lady had been looking at the fire while her nephew spoke, but at his last words she lifted her head suddenly, and looked him full in the face with a wondering expression — an earnest, questioning gaze, whose full meaning the young barrister understood.

“Oh, pray do not be alarmed, Lady Audley,” he said, gravely. “You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas fils, to fear from me. The benchers of the Inner Temple will tell you that Robert Audley is troubled with none of the epidemics whose outward signs are turn-down collars and Byronic neckties. I say that I wish I had never entered my uncle’s house during the last year; but I say it with a far more solemn meaning than any sentimental one.”

My lady shrugged her shoulders.

“If you insist on talking in enigmas, Mr. Audley,” she said, “you must forgive a poor little woman if she declines to answer them.”

Robert made no reply to this speech.

“But tell me,” said my lady, with an entire change of tone, “what could have induced you to come up to this dismal place?”

“Curiosity.”

“Curiosity?”

“Yes; I felt an interest in that bull-necked man, with the dark-red hair and wicked gray eyes. A dangerous man, my lady — a man in whose power I should not like to be.”

A sudden change came over Lady Audley’s face; the pretty, roseate flush faded out from her cheeks, and left them waxen white, and angry flashes lightened in her blue eyes.

“What have I done to you, Robert Audley,” she cried, passionately —“what have I done to you that you should hate me so?”

He answered her very gravely:

“I had a friend, Lady Audley, whom I loved very dearly, and since I have lost him I fear that my feelings toward other people are strangely embittered.”

“You mean the Mr. Talboys who went to Australia?”

“Yes, I mean the Mr. Talboys who I was told set out for Liverpool with the idea of going to Australia.”

“And you do not believe in his having sailed for Australia?”

“I do not.”

“But why not?”

“Forgive me, Lady Audley, if I decline to answer that question.”

“As you please,” she said, carelessly.

“A week after my friend disappeared,” continued Robert, “I posted an advertisement to the Sydney and Melbourne papers, calling upon him if he was in either city when the advertisement appeared, to write and tell me of his whereabouts, and also calling on any one who had met him, either in the colonies or on the voyage out, to give me any information respecting him. George Talboys left Essex, or disappeared from Essex, on the 6th of September last. I ought to receive some answer to this advertisement by the end of this month. To-day is the 27th; the time draws very near.”

“And if you receive no answer?” asked Lady Audley.

“If I receive no answer I shall think that my fears have been not unfounded, and I shall do my best to act.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Ah, Lady Audley, you remind me how very powerless I am in this matter. My friend might have been made away with in this very inn, and I might stay here for a twelvemonth, and go away at the last as ignorant of his fate as if I had never crossed the threshold. What do we know of the mysteries that may hang about the houses we enter? If I were to go to-morrow into that commonplace, plebeian, eight-roomed house in which Maria Manning and her husband murdered their guest, I should have no awful prescience of that bygone horror. Foul deeds have been done under the most hospitable roofs; terrible crimes have been committed amid the fairest scenes, and have left no trace upon the spot where they were done. I do not believe in mandrake, or in bloodstains that no time can efface. I believe rather that we may walk unconsciously in an atmosphere of crime, and breathe none the less freely. I believe that we may look into the smiling face of a murderer, and admire its tranquil beauty.”

My lady laughed at Robert’s earnestness.

“You seem to have quite a taste for discussing these horrible subjects,” she said, rather scornfully; “you ought to have been a detective police officer.”

“I sometimes think I should have been a good one.”

“Why?”

“Because I am patient.”

“But to return to Mr. George Talboys, whom we lost sight of in your eloquent discussion. What if you receive no answer to your advertisements?”

“I shall then consider myself justified in concluding my friend is dead.”

“Yes, and then —?”

“I shall examine the effects he left at my chambers.”

“Indeed! and what are they? Coats, waistcoats, varnished boots, and meerschaum pipes, I suppose,” said Lady Audley, laughing.

“No; letters — letters from his friends, his old schoolfellows, his father, his brother officers.”

“Yes?”

“Letters, too, from his wife.”

My lady was silent for some few moments, looking thoughtfully at the fire.

“Have you ever seen any of the letters written by the late Mrs. Talboys?” she asked presently.

“Never. Poor soul! her letters are not likely to throw much light upon my friend’s fate. I dare say she wrote the usual womanly scrawl. There are very few who write so charming and uncommon a hand as yours, Lady Audley.”

“Ah, you know my hand, of course.”

“Yes, I know it very well indeed.”

My lady warmed her hands once more, and then taking up the big muff which she had laid aside upon a chair, prepared to take her departure.

“You have refused to accept my apology, Mr. Audley,” she said; “but I trust you are not the less assured of my feelings toward you.”

“Perfectly assured, Lady Audley.”

“Then good-by, and let me recommend you not to stay long in this miserable draughty place, if you do not wish to take rheumatism back to Figtree Court.”

“I shall return to town to-morrow morning to see after my letters.”

“Then once more good-by.”

She held out her hand; he took it loosely in his own. It seemed such a feeble little hand that he might have crushed it in his strong grasp, had he chosen to be so pitiless.

He attended her to her carriage, and watched it as it drove off, not toward Audley, but in the direction of Brentwood, which was about six miles from Mount Stanning.

About an hour and a half after this, as Robert stood at the door of the inn, smoking a cigar and watching the snow falling in the whitened fields opposite, he saw the brougham drive back, empty this time, to the door of the inn.

“Have you taken Lady Audley back to the Court?” he said to the coachman, who had stopped to call for a mug of hot spiced ale.

“No, sir; I’ve just come from the Brentwood station. My lady started for London by the 12.40 train.”

“For town?”

“Yes, sir.”

“My lady gone to London!” said Robert, as he returned to the little sitting-room. “Then I’ll follow her by the next train; and if I’m not very much mistaken, I know where to find her.”

He packed his portmanteau, paid his bill, fastened his dogs together with a couple of leathern collars and a chain, and stepped into the rumbling fly kept by the Castle Inn for the convenience of Mount Stanning. He caught an express that left Brentwood at three o’clock, and settled himself comfortably in a corner of an empty first-class carriage, coiled up in a couple of railway rugs, and smoking a cigar in mild defiance of the authorities.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31