Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 32

The Red Light in the Sky.

My lady crushed the letter fiercely in her hand, and flung it from her into the flames.

“If he stood before me now, and I could kill him,” she muttered in a strange, inward whisper, “I would do it — I would do it!” She snatched up the lamp and rushed into the adjoining room. She shut the door behind her. She could not endure any witness of her horrible despair — she could endure nothing, neither herself nor her surroundings.

The door between my lady’s dressing-room and the bed-chamber in which Sir Michael lay, had been left open. The baronet slept peacefully, his noble face plainly visible in the subdued lamplight. His breathing was low and regular, his lips curved into a half smile — a smile of tender happiness which he often wore when he looked at his beautiful wife, the smile of an all-indulgent father, who looks admiringly at his favorite child.

Some touch of womanly feeling, some sentiment of compassion softened Lady Audley’s glance as it fell upon that noble, reposing figure. For a moment the horrible egotism of her own misery yielded to her pitying tenderness for another. It was perhaps only a semi-selfish tenderness after all, in which pity for herself was as powerful as pity for her husband; but for once in a way, her thoughts ran out of the narrow groove of her own terrors and her own troubles to dwell with prophetic grief upon the coming sorrows of another.

“If they make him believe, how wretched he will be,” she thought. But intermingled with that thought there was another — there was the thought of her lovely face, her bewitching manner, her arch smile, her low, musical laugh, which was like a peal of silvery bells ringing across a broad expanse of flat meadow-land and a rippling river in the misty summer evening. She thought of all these things with a transient thrill of triumph, which was stronger even than her terror.

If Sir Michael Audley lived to be a hundred years old, whatever he might learn to believe of her, however he might grow to despise her, would he ever be able to disassociate her from these attributes? No; a thousand times no. To the last hour of his life his memory would present her to him invested with the loveliness that had first won his enthusiastic admiration, his devoted affection. Her worst enemies could not rob her of that fairy dower which had been so fatal in its influence upon her frivolous mind.

She paced up and down the dressing-room in the silvery lamplight, pondering upon the strange letter which she had received from Robert Audley. She walked backward and forward in that monotonous wandering for some time before she was able to steady her thoughts — before she was able to bring the scattered forces of her narrow intellect to bear upon the one all-important subject of the threat contained in the barrister’s letter.

“He will do it,” she said, between her set teeth —“he will do it, unless I get him into a lunatic-asylum first; or unless —”

She did not finish the thought in words. She did not even think out the sentence; but some new and unnatural impulse in her heart seemed to beat each syllable against her breast.

The thought was this: “He will do it, unless some strange calamity befalls him, and silences him for ever.” The red blood flashed up into my lady’s face with as sudden and transient a blaze as the flickering flame of a fire, and died as suddenly away, leaving her more pale than winter snow. Her hands, which had before been locked convulsively together, fell apart and dropped heavily at her sides. She stopped in her rapid pacing to and fro — stopped as Lot’s wife may have stopped, after that fatal backward glance at the perishing city — with every pulse slackening, with every drop of blood congealing in her veins, in the terrible process that was to transform her from a woman into a statue.

Lady Audley stood still for about five minutes in that strangely statuesque attitude, her head erect, her eyes staring straight before her — staring far beyond the narrow boundary of her chamber wall, into dark distances of peril and horror.

But by-and-by she started from that rigid attitude almost as abruptly as she had fallen into it. She roused herself from that semi-lethargy. She walked rapidly to her dressing-table, and, seating herself before it, pushed away the litter of golden-stoppered bottles and delicate china essence-boxes, and looked at her reflection in the large, oval glass. She was very pale; but there was no other trace of agitation visible in her girlish face. The lines of her exquisitely molded lips were so beautiful, that it was only a very close observer who could have perceived a certain rigidity that was unusual to them. She saw this herself, and tried to smile away that statue-like immobility: but to-night the rosy lips refused to obey her; they were firmly locked, and were no longer the slaves of her will and pleasure. All the latent forces of her character concentrated themselves in this one feature. She might command her eyes, but she could not control the muscles of her mouth. She rose from before her dressing-table, and took a dark velvet cloak and bonnet from the recesses of her wardrobe, and dressed herself for walking. The little ormolu clock on the chimney-piece struck the quarter after eleven while Lady Audley was employed in this manner; five minutes afterward she re-entered the room in which she had left Phoebe Marks.

The innkeeper’s wife was sitting before the low fender very much in the same attitude as that in which her late mistress had brooded over that lonely hearth earlier in the evening. Phoebe had replenished the fire, and had reassumed her bonnet and shawl. She was anxious to get home to that brutal husband, who was only too apt to fall into some mischief in her absence. She looked up as Lady Audley entered the room, and uttered an exclamation of surprise at seeing her late mistress in a walking-costume.

“My lady,” she cried, “you are not going out to-night?”

“Yes, I am, Phoebe,” Lady Audley answered, very quietly. “I am going to Mount Stanning with you to see this bailiff, and to pay and dismiss him myself.”

“But, my lady, you forget what the time is; you can’t go out at such an hour.”

Lady Audley did not answer. She stood with her finger resting lightly upon the handle of the bell, meditating quietly.

“The stables are always locked, and the men in bed by ten o’clock,” she murmured, “when we are at home. It will make a terrible hubbub to get a carriage ready; but yet I dare say one of the servants could manage the matter quietly for me.”

“But why should you go to-night, my lady?” cried Phoebe Marks. “To-morrow will do quite as well. A week hence will do as well. Our landlord would take the man away if he had your promise to settle the debt.”

Lady Audley took no notice of this interruption. She went hastily into the dressing-room, and flung off her bonnet and cloak, and then returned to the boudoir, in her simple dinner-costume, with her curls brushed carelessly away from her face.

“Now, Phoebe Marks, listen to me,” she said, grasping her confidante’s wrist, and speaking in a low, earnest voice, but with a certain imperious air that challenged contradiction and commanded obedience. “Listen to me, Phoebe,” she repeated. “I am going to the Castle Inn to-night; whether it is early or late is of very little consequence to me; I have set my mind upon going, and I shall go. You have asked me why, and I have told you. I am going in order that I may pay this debt myself; and that I may see for myself that the money I give is applied to the purpose for which I give it. There is nothing out of the common course of life in my doing this. I am going to do what other women in my position very often do. I am going to assist a favorite servant.”

“But it’s getting on for twelve o’clock, my lady,” pleaded Phoebe.

Lady Audley frowned impatiently at this interruption.

“If my going to your house to pay this man should be known,” she continued, still retaining her hold of Phoebe’s wrist, “I am ready to answer for my conduct; but I would rather that the business should be kept quiet. I think that I can leave this house without being seen by any living creature, if you will do as I tell you.”

“I will do anything you wish, my lady,” answered Phoebe, submissively.

“Then you will wish me good-night presently, when my maid comes into the room, and you will suffer her to show you out of the house. You will cross the courtyard and wait for me in the avenue upon the other side of the archway. It may be half an hour before I am able to join you, for I must not leave my room till the servants have all gone to bed, but you may wait for me patiently, for come what may I will join you.”

Lady Audley’s face was no longer pale. An unnatural luster gleamed in her great blue eyes. She spoke with an unnatural rapidity. She had altogether the appearance and manner of a person who has yielded to the dominant influence of some overpowering excitement. Phoebe Marks stared at her late mistress in mute bewilderment. She began to fear that my lady was going mad.

The bell which Lady Audley rang was answered by the smart lady’s-maid who wore rose-colored ribbons, and black silk gowns, and other adornments which were unknown to the humble people who sat below the salt in the good old days when servants wore linsey-woolsey.

“I did not know that it was so late, Martin,” said my lady, in that gentle tone which always won for her the willing service of her inferiors. “I have been talking with Mrs. Marks and have let the time slip by me. I sha’n’t want anything to-night, so you may go to bed when you please.”

“Thank you, my lady,” answered the girl, who looked very sleepy, and had some difficulty in repressing a yawn even in her mistress’ presence, for the Audley household usually kept very early hours. “I’d better show Mrs. Marks out, my lady, hadn’t I?” asked the maid, “before I go to bed?”

“Oh, yes, to be sure; you can let Phoebe out. All the other servants have gone to bed, then, I suppose?”

“Yes, my lady.”

Lady Audley laughed as she glanced at the timepiece.

“We have been terrible dissipated up here, Phoebe,” she said. “Good-night. You may tell your husband that his rent shall be paid.”

“Thank you very much, my lady, and good-night,” murmured Phoebe as she backed out of the room, followed by the lady’s maid.

Lady Audley listened at the door, waiting till the muffled sounds of their footsteps died away in the octagon chamber and on the carpeted staircase.

“Martin sleeps at the top of the house,” she said, “half a mile away from this room. In ten minutes I may safely make my escape.”

She went back into her dressing-room, and put on her cloak and bonnet for the second time. The unnatural color still burnt like a flame in her cheeks; the unnatural light still glittered in her eyes. The excitement which she was under held her in so strong a spell that neither her mind nor her body seemed to have any consciousness of fatigue. However verbose I may be in my description of her feelings, I can never describe a tithe of her thoughts or her sufferings. She suffered agonies that would fill closely printed volumes, bulky with a thousand pages, in that one horrible night. She underwent volumes of anguish, and doubt, and perplexity; sometimes repeating the same chapters of her torments over and over again; sometimes hurrying through a thousand pages of her misery without one pause, without one moment of breathing time. She stood by the low fender in her boudoir, watching the minute-hand of the clock, and waiting till it should be time for her to leave the house in safety.

“I will wait ten minutes,” she said, “not a moment beyond, before I enter on my new peril.”

She listened to the wild roaring of the March wind, which seemed to have risen with the stillness and darkness of the night.

The hand slowly made its inevitable way to the figures which told that the ten minutes were past. It was exactly a quarter to twelve when my lady took her lamp in her hand, and stole softly from the room. Her footfall was as light as that of some graceful wild animal, and there was no fear of that airy step awakening any echo upon the carpeted stone corridors and staircase. She did not pause until she reached the vestibule upon the ground floor. Several doors opened out of the vestibule, which was octagon, like my lady’s ante-chamber. One of these doors led into the library, and it was this door which Lady Audley opened softly and cautiously.

To have attempted to leave the house secretly by any of the principal outlets would have been simple madness, for the housekeeper herself superintended the barricading of the great doors, back and front. The secrets of the bolts, and bars, and chains, and bells which secured these doors, and provided for the safety of Sir Michael Audley’s plate-room, the door of which was lined with sheet-iron, were known only to the servants who had to deal with them. But although all these precautions were taken with the principal entrances to the citadel, a wooden shutter and a slender iron bar, light enough to be lifted by a child, were considered sufficient safeguard for the half-glass door which opened out of the breakfast-room into the graveled pathway and smooth turf in the courtyard.

It was by this outlet that Lady Audley meant to make her escape. She could easily remove the bar and unfasten the shutter, and she might safely venture to leave the window ajar while she was absent. There was little fear of Sir Michael’s awaking for some time, as he was a heavy sleeper in the early part of the night, and had slept more heavily than usual since his illness.

Lady Audley crossed the library, and opened the door of the breakfast-room, which communicated with it. This latter apartment was one of the later additions to the Court. It was a simple, cheerful chamber, with brightly papered walls and pretty maple furniture, and was more occupied by Alicia than any one else. The paraphernalia of that young lady’s favorite pursuits were scattered about the room — drawing-materials, unfinished scraps of work, tangled skeins of silk, and all the other tokens of a careless damsel’s presence; while Miss Audley’s picture — a pretty crayon sketch of a rosy-faced hoyden in a riding-habit and hat — hung over the quaint Wedgewood ornaments on the chimneypiece. My lady looked upon these familiar objects with scornful hatred flaming in her blue eyes.

“How glad she will be if any disgrace befalls me,” she thought; “how she will rejoice if I am driven out of this house!”

Lady Audley set the lamp upon a table near the fireplace, and went to the window. She removed the iron-bar and the light wooden shutter, and then opened the glass-door. The March night was black and moonless, and a gust of wind blew in upon her as she opened this door, and filled the room with its chilly breath, extinguishing the lamp upon the table.

“No matter,” my lady muttered, “I could not have left it burning. I shall know how to find my way through the house when I come back. I have left all the doors ajar.”

She stepped quickly out upon the smooth gravel, and closed the glass-door behind her. She was afraid lest that treacherous wind should blow-to the door opening into the library, and thus betray her.

She was in the quadrangle now, with that chill wind sweeping against her, and swirling her silken garments round her with a shrill, rustling noise, like the whistling of a sharp breeze against the sails of a yacht. She crossed the quadrangle and looked back — looked back for a moment at the firelight gleaming between the rosy-tinted curtains in her boudoir, and the dim gleam of the lamp through the mullioned windows in the room where Sir Michael Audley lay asleep.

“I feel as if I were running away,” she thought; “I feel as if I were running away secretly in the dead of the night, to lose myself and be forgotten. Perhaps it would be wiser in me to run away, to take this man’s warning, and escape out of his power forever. If I were to run away and disappear as — as George Talboys disappeared. But where could I go? what would become of me? I have no money; my jewels are not worth a couple of hundred pounds, now that I have got rid of the best part of them. What could I do? I must go back to the old life, the old, hard, cruel, wretched life — the life of poverty, and humiliation, and vexation, and discontent. I should have to go back and wear myself out in that long struggle, and die — as my mother died, perhaps!”

My lady stood still for a moment on the smooth lawn between the quadrangle and the archway, with her head drooping upon her breast and her hands locked together, debating this question in the unnatural activity of her mind. Her attitude reflected the state of that mind — it expressed irresolution and perplexity. But presently a sudden change came over her; she lifted her head — lifted it with an action of defiance and determination.

“No! Mr. Robert Audley,” she said, aloud, in a low, clear voice; “I will not go back — I will not go back. If the struggle between us is to be a duel to the death, you shall not find me drop my weapon.”

She walked with a firm and rapid step under the archway. As she passed under that massive arch, it seemed as if she disappeared into some black gulf that had waited open to receive her. The stupid clock struck twelve, and the whole archway seemed to vibrate under its heavy strokes, as Lady Audley emerged upon the other side and joined Phoebe Marks, who had waited for her late mistress very near the gateway of the Court.

“Now, Phoebe,” she said, “it is three miles from here to Mount Stanning, isn’t it?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Then we can walk the distance in an hour and a half.”

Lady Audley had not stopped to say this; she was walking quickly along the avenue with her humble companion by her side. Fragile and delicate as she was in appearance, she was a very good walker. She had been in the habit of taking long country rambles with Mr. Dawson’s children in her old days of dependence, and she thought very little of a distance of three miles.

“Your beautiful husband will sit up for you, I suppose, Phoebe?” she said, as they struck across an open field that was used as a short cut from Audley Court to the high-road.

“Oh, yes, my lady; he’s sure to sit up. He’ll be drinking with the man, I dare say.”

“The man! What man?”

“The man that’s in possession, my lady.”

“Ah, to be sure,” said Lady Audley, indifferently.

It was strange that Phoebe’s domestic troubles should seem so very far away from her thoughts at the time she was taking such an extraordinary step toward setting things right at the Castle Inn.

The two women crossed the field and turned into the high road. The way to Mount Stanning was all up hill, and the long road looked black and dreary in the dark night; but my lady walked on with a desperate courage, which was no common constituent in her selfish sensuous nature, but a strange faculty born out of her great despair. She did not speak again to her companion until they were close upon the glimmering lights at the top of the hill. One of these village lights, glaring redly through a crimson curtain, marked out the particular window behind which it was likely that Luke Marks sat nodding drowsily over his liquor, and waiting for the coming of his wife.

“He has not gone to bed, Phoebe,” said my lady, eagerly. “But there is no other light burning at the inn. I suppose Mr. Audley is in bed and asleep.”

“Yes, my lady, I suppose so.”

“You are sure he was going to stay at the Castle to night?”

“Oh, yes, my lady. I helped the girl to get his room ready before I came away.”

The wind, boisterous everywhere, was even shriller and more pitiless in the neighborhood of that bleak hill-top upon which the Castle Inn reared its rickety walls. The cruel blasts raved wildly round that frail erection. They disported themselves with the shattered pigeon-house, the broken weathercock, the loose tiles, and unshapely chimneys; they rattled at the window-panes, and whistled in the crevices; they mocked the feeble building from foundation to roof, and battered, and banged, and tormented it in their fierce gambols, until it trembled and rocked with the force of their rough play.

Mr. Luke Marks had not troubled himself to secure the door of his dwelling-house before sitting down to booze with the man who held provisional possession of his goods and chattels. The landlord of the Castle Inn was a lazy, sensual brute, who had no thought higher than a selfish concern for his own enjoyments, and a virulent hatred for anybody who stood in the way of his gratification.

Phoebe pushed open the door with her hand, and went into the house, followed by my lady. The gas was flaring in the bar, and smoking the low plastered ceiling. The door of the bar-parlor was half open, and Lady Audley heard the brutal laughter of Mr. Marks as she crossed the threshold of the inn.

“I’ll tell him you’re here, my lady,” whispered Phoebe to her late mistress. “I know he’ll be tipsy. You — you won’t be offended, my lady, if he should say anything rude? You know it wasn’t my wish that you should come.”

“Yes, yes,” answered Lady Audley, impatiently, “I know that. What should I care for his rudeness! Let him say what he likes.”

Phoebe Marks pushed open the parlor door, leaving my lady in the bar close behind her.

Luke sat with his clumsy legs stretched out upon the hearth. He held a glass of gin-and-water in one hand and the poker in the other. He had just thrust the poker into a heap of black coals, and was scattering them to make a blaze, when his wife appeared upon the threshold of the room.

He snatched the poker from between the bars, and made a half drunken, half threatening motion with it as he saw her.

“So you’ve condescended to come home at last, ma’am,” he said; “I thought you was never coming no more.”

He spoke in a thick and drunken voice, and was by no means too intelligible. He was steeped to the very lips in alcohol. His eyes were dim and watery; his hands were unsteady; his voice was choked and muffled with drink. A brute, even when most sober; a brute, even on his best behavior, he was ten times more brutal in his drunkenness, when the few restraints which held his ignorant, every day brutality in check were flung aside in the indolent recklessness of intoxication.

“I— I’ve been longer than I intended to be, Luke,” Phoebe answered, in her most conciliatory manner; “but I’ve seen my lady, and she’s been very kind, and — and she’ll settle this business for us.”

“She’s been very kind, has she?” muttered Mr. Marks, with a drunken laugh; “thank her for nothing. I know the vally of her kindness. She’d be oncommon kind, I dessay, if she warn’t obligated to be it.”

The man in possession, who had fallen into a maudlin and semi-unconscious state of intoxication upon about a third of the liquor that Mr. Marks had consumed, only stared in feeble wonderment at his host and hostess. He sat near the table. Indeed, he had hooked himself on to it with his elbows, as a safeguard against sliding under it, and he was making imbecile attempts to light his pipe at the flame of a guttering tallow candle near him.

“My lady has promised to settle the business for us, Luke,” Phoebe repeated, without noticing Luke’s remarks. She knew her husband’s dogged nature well enough by this time to know that it was worse than useless to try to stop him from doing or saying anything which his own stubborn will led him to do or say. “My lady will settle it,” she said, “and she’s come down here to see about it to-night,” she added.

The poker dropped from the landlord’s hand, and fell clattering among the cinders on the hearth.

“My Lady Audley come here to-night!” he said.

“Yes, Luke.”

My lady appeared upon the threshold of the door as Phoebe spoke.

“Yes, Luke Marks,” she said, “I have come to pay this man, and to send him about his business.”

Lady Audley said these words in a strange, semi-mechanical manner; very much as if she had learned the sentence by rote, and were repeating it without knowing what she said.

Mr. Marks gave a discontented growl, and set his empty glass down upon the table with an impatient gesture.

“You might have given the money to Phoebe,” he said, “as well as have brought it yourself. We don’t want no fine ladies up here, pryin’ and pokin’ their precious noses into everythink.”

“Luke, Luke!” remonstrated Phoebe, “when my lady has been so kind!”

“Oh, damn her kindness!” cried Mr. Marks; “it ain’t her kindness as we want, gal, it’s her money. She won’t get no snivelin’ gratitood from me. Whatever she does for us she does because she is obliged; and if she wasn’t obliged she wouldn’t do it —”

Heaven knows how much more Luke Marks might have said, had not my lady turned upon him suddenly and awed him into silence by the unearthly glitter of her beauty. Her hair had been blown away from her face, and being of a light, feathery quality, had spread itself into a tangled mass that surrounded her forehead like a yellow flame. There was another flame in her eyes — a greenish light, such as might flash from the changing-hued orbs of an angry mermaid.

“Stop,” she cried. “I didn’t come up here in the dead of night to listen to your insolence. How much is this debt?”

“Nine pound.”

Lady Audley produced her purse — a toy of ivory, silver, and turquoise — she took from it a note and four sovereigns. She laid these upon the table.

“Let that man give me a receipt for the money,” she said, “before I go.”

It was some time before the man could be roused into sufficient consciousness for the performance of this simple duty, and it was only by dipping a pen into the ink and pushing it between his clumsy fingers, that he was at last made to comprehend that his autograph was wanted at the bottom of the receipt which had been made out by Phoebe Marks. Lady Audley took the document as soon as the ink was dry, and turned to leave the parlor. Phoebe followed her.

“You mustn’t go home alone, my lady,” she said. “You’ll let me go with you?”

“Yes, yes; you shall go home with me.”

The two women were standing near the door of the inn as my lady said this. Phoebe stared wonderingly at her patroness. She had expected that Lady Audley would be in a hurry to return home after settling this business which she had capriciously taken upon herself; but it was not so; my lady stood leaning against the inn door and staring into vacancy, and again Mrs. Marks began to fear that trouble had driven her late mistress mad.

A little Dutch clock in the bar struck two while Lady Audley lingered in this irresolute, absent manner. She started at the sound and began to tremble violently.

“I think I am going to faint, Phoebe,” she said; “where can I get some cold water?”

“The pump is in the wash-house, my lady; I’ll run and get you a glass of cold water.”

“No, no, no,” cried my lady, clutching Phoebe’s arm as she was about to run away upon this errand; “I’ll get it myself. I must dip my head in a basin of water if I want to save myself from fainting. In which room does Mr. Audley sleep?”

There was something so irrelevant in this question that Phoebe Marks stared aghast at her mistress before she answered it.

“It was number three that I got ready, my lady — the front room — the room next to ours,” she replied, after that pause of astonishment.

“Give me a candle,” said my lady. “I’ll go into your room, and get some water for my head; stay where you are, and see that that brute of a husband of yours does not follow me!”

She snatched the candle which Phoebe had lighted from the girl’s hand and ran up the rickety, winding staircase which led to the narrow corridor upon the upper floor. Five bed-rooms opened out of this low-ceilinged, close-smelling corridor; the numbers of these rooms were indicated by squat black figures painted upon the panels of the doors. Lady Audley had driven up to Mount Stanning to inspect the house when she bought the business for her servant’s bridegroom, and she knew her way about the dilapidated old place; she knew where to find Phoebe’s bedroom, but she stopped before the door of that other chamber which had been prepared for Mr. Robert Audley.

She stopped and looked at the number on the door. The key was in the lock, and her hand dropped upon it as if unconsciously. But presently she suddenly began to tremble again, as she had trembled a few minutes before at the striking of the clock. She stood for a few moments trembling thus, with her hand still upon the key; then a horrible expression came over her face, and she turned the key in the lock. She turned it twice, double locking the door.

There was no sound from within; the occupant of the chamber made no sign of having heard that ominous creaking of the rusty key in the rusty lock.

Lady Audley hurried into the next room. She set the candle on the dressing-table, flung off her bonnet and slung it loosely across her arm; then she went to the wash-stand and filled the basin with water. She plunged her golden hair into this water, and then stood for a few moments in the center of the room looking about her, with a white, earnest face, and an eager gaze that seemed to take in every object in the poorly furnished chamber. Phoebe’s bedroom was certainly very shabbily furnished; she had been compelled to select all the most decent things for those best bedrooms which were set apart for any chance traveler who might stop for a night’s lodging at the Castle Inn; but Phoebe Marks had done her best to atone for the lack of substantial furniture in her apartment by a superabundance of drapery. Crisp curtains of cheap chintz hung from the tent-bedstead; festooned drapery of the same material shrouded the narrow window shutting out the light of day, and affording a pleasant harbor for tribes of flies and predatory bands of spiders. Even the looking-glass, a miserably cheap construction which distorted every face whose owner had the hardihood to look into it, stood upon a draperied altar of starched muslin and pink glazed calico, and was adorned with frills of lace and knitted work.

My lady smiled as she looked at the festoons and furbelows which met her eyes upon every side. She had reason, perhaps, to smile, remembering the costly elegance of her own apartments; but there was something in that sardonic smile that seemed to have a deeper meaning than any natural contempt for Phoebe’s attempts at decoration. She went to the dressing-table and, smoothed her wet hair before the looking-glass, and then put on her bonnet. She was obliged to place the flaming tallow candle very close to the lace furbelows about the glass; so close that the starched muslin seemed to draw the flame toward it by some power of attraction in its fragile tissue.

Phoebe waited anxiously by the inn door for my lady’s coming She watched the minute hand of the little Dutch clock, wondering at the slowness of its progress. It was only ten minutes past two when Lady Audley came down-stairs, with her bonnet on and her hair still wet, but without the candle.

Phoebe was immediately anxious about this missing candle.

“The light, my lady,” she said, “you have left it up-stairs!”

“The wind blew it out as I was leaving your room,” Lady Audley answered, quietly. “I left it there.”

“In my room, my lady?”

“Yes.”

“And it was quite out?”

“Yes, I tell you; why do you worry me about your candle? It is past two o’clock. Come.”

She took the girl’s arm, and half led, half dragged her from the house. The convulsive pressure of her slight hand held her firmly as an iron vise could have held her. The fierce March wind banged to the door of the house, and left the two women standing outside it. The long, black road lay bleak and desolate before them, dimly visible between straight lines of leafless hedges.

A walk of three miles’ length upon a lonely country road, between the hours of two and four on a cold winter’s morning, is scarcely a pleasant task for a delicate woman — a woman whose inclinations lean toward ease and luxury. But my lady hurried along the hard, dry highway, dragging her companion with her as if she had been impelled by some horrible demoniac force which knew no abatement. With the black night above them — with the fierce wind howling around them, sweeping across a broad expanse of hidden country, blowing as if it had arisen simultaneously from every point of the compass, and making those wanderers the focus of its ferocity — the two women walked through the darkness down the hill upon which Mount Stanning stood, along a mile and a half of flat road, and then up another hill, on the western side of which Audley Court lay in that sheltered valley, which seemed to shut in the old house from all the clamor and hubbub of the everyday world.

My lady stopped upon the summit of this hill to draw breath and to clasp her hands upon her heart, in the vain hope that she might still its cruel beating. They were now within three-quarters of a mile of the Court, and they had been walking for nearly an hour since they had left the Castle Inn.

Lady Audley stopped to rest, with her face still turned toward the place of her destination. Phoebe Marks, stopping also, and very glad of a moment’s pause in that hurried journey, looked back into the far darkness beneath which lay that dreary shelter that had given her so much uneasiness. And she did so, she uttered a shrill cry of horror, and clutched wildly at her companion’s cloak.

The night sky was no longer all dark. The thick blackness was broken by one patch of lurid light.

“My lady, my lady!” cried Phoebe, pointing to this lurid patch; “do you see?”

“Yes, child, I see,” answered Lady Audley, trying to shake the clinging hands from her garments. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s a fire — a fire, my lady!”

“Yes, I am afraid it is a fire. At Brentwood, most likely. Let me go, Phoebe; it’s nothing to us.”

“Yes, yes, my lady; it’s nearer than Brentwood — much nearer; it’s at Mount Stanning.”

Lady Audley did not answer. She was trembling again, with the cold perhaps, for the wind had torn her heavy cloak from her shoulders, and had left her slender figure exposed to the blast.

“It’s at Mount Stanning, my lady!” cried Phoebe Marks. “It’s the Castle that’s on fire — I know it is, I know it is! I thought of fire to-night, and I was fidgety and uneasy, for I knew this would happen some day. I wouldn’t mind if it was only the wretched place, but there’ll be life lost, there’ll be life lost!” sobbed the girl, distractedly. “There’s Luke, too tipsy to help himself, unless others help him; there’s Mr. Audley asleep —”

Phoebe Marks stopped suddenly at the mention of Robert’s name, and fell upon her knees, clasping her uplifted hands, and appealing wildly to Lady Audley.

“Oh, my God!” she cried. “Say it’s not true, my lady, say it’s not true! It’s too horrible, it’s too horrible, it’s too horrible!”

“What’s too horrible?”

“The thought that’s in my mind; the terrible thought that’s in my mind.”

“What do you mean, girl?” cried my lady, fiercely.

“Oh, God forgive me if I’m wrong!” the kneeling woman gasped in detached sentences, “and God grant I may be. Why did you go up to the Castle, my lady? Why were you so set on going against all I could say — you who are so bitter against Mr. Audley and against Luke, and who knew they were both under that roof? Oh, tell me that I do you a cruel wrong, my lady; tell me so — tell me! for as there is a Heaven above me I think that you went to that place to-night on purpose to set fire to it. Tell me that I’m wrong, my lady; tell me that I’m doing you a wicked wrong.”

“I will tell you nothing, except that you are a mad woman,” answered Lady Audley; in a cold, hard voice. “Get up; fool, idiot, coward! Is your husband such a precious bargain that you should be groveling there, lamenting and groaning for him? What is Robert Audley to you, that you behave like a maniac, because you think he is in danger? How do you know the fire is at Mount Stanning? You see a red patch in the sky, and you cry out directly that your own paltry hovel is in flames, as if there were no place in the world that could burn except that. The fire may be at Brentwood, or further away — at Romford, or still further away, on the eastern side of London, perhaps. Get up, mad woman, and go back and look after your goods and chattels, and your husband and your lodger. Get up and go: I don’t want you.”

“Oh! my lady, my lady, forgive me,” sobbed Phoebe; “there’s nothing you can say to me that’s hard enough for having done you such a wrong, even in my thoughts. I don’t mind your cruel words — I don’t mind anything if I’m wrong.”

“Go back and see for yourself,” answered Lady Audley, sternly. “I tell you again, I don’t want you.”

She walked away in the darkness, leaving Phoebe Marks still kneeling upon the hard road, where she had cast herself in that agony of supplication. Sir Michael’s wife walked toward the house in which her husband slept with the red blaze lighting up the skies behind her, and with nothing but the blackness of the night before.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/lady_audley_s_secret/chapter32.html

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