Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

Before the Storm.

So the dinner at Audley Court was postponed, and Miss Alicia had to wait still longer for an introduction to the handsome young widower, Mr. George Talboys.

I am afraid, if the real truth is to be told, there was, perhaps, something of affectation in the anxiety this young lady expressed to make George’s acquaintance; but if poor Alicia for a moment calculated upon arousing any latent spark of jealousy lurking in her cousin’s breast by this exhibition of interest, she was not so well acquainted with Robert Audley’s disposition as she might have been. Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.

His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, “Robert, please will you marry me?” I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.

Again, had he been in love with her himself, I fancy that the tender passion would, with him, have been so vague and feeble a sentiment that he might have gone down to his grave with a dim sense of some uneasy sensation which might be love or indigestion, and with, beyond this, no knowledge whatever of his state.

So it was not the least use, my poor Alicia, to ride about the lanes around Audley during those three days which the two young men spent in Essex; it was wasted trouble to wear that pretty cavalier hat and plume, and to be always, by the most singular of chances, meeting Robert and his friend. The black curls (nothing like Lady Audley’s feathery ringlets, but heavy clustering locks, that clung about your slender brown throat), the red and pouting lips, the nose inclined to be retrousse, the dark complexion, with its bright crimson flush, always ready to glance up like a signal light in a dusky sky, when you came suddenly upon your apathetic cousin — all this coquettish espiegle, brunette beauty was thrown away upon the dull eyes of Robert Audley, and you might as well have taken your rest in the cool drawing-room at the Court, instead of working your pretty mare to death under the hot September sun.

Now fishing, except to the devoted disciple of Izaak Walton, is not the most lively of occupations; therefore, it is scarcely, perhaps, to be wondered that on the day after Lady Audley’s departure, the two young men (one of whom was disabled by that heart wound which he bore so quietly, from really taking pleasure in anything, and the other of whom looked upon almost all pleasure as a negative kind of trouble) began to grow weary of the shade of the willows overhanging the winding streams about Audley.

“Figtree Court is not gay in the long vacation,” said Robert, reflectively: “but I think, upon the whole, it’s better than this; at any rate, it’s near a tobacconist’s,” he added, puffing resignedly at an execrable cigar procured from the landlord of the Sun Inn.

George Talboys, who had only consented to the Essex expedition in passive submission to his friend, was by no means inclined to object to their immediate return to London. “I shall be glad to get back, Bob,” he said, “for I want to take a run down to Southampton; I haven’t seen the little one for upward of a month.”

He always spoke of his son as “the little one;” always spoke of him mournfully rather than hopefully. He accounted for this by saying that he had a fancy that the child would never learn to love him; and worse even than this fancy, a dim presentiment that he would not live to see his little Georgey reach manhood.

“I’m not a romantic man, Bob,” he would say sometimes, “and I never read a line of poetry in my life that was any more to me than so many words and so much jingle; but a feeling has come over me, since my wife’s death, that I am like a man standing upon a long, low shore, with hideous cliffs frowning down upon him from behind, and the rising tide crawling slowly but surely about his feet. It seems to grow nearer and nearer every day, that black, pitiless tide; not rushing upon me with a great noise and a mighty impetus, but crawling, creeping, stealing, gliding toward me, ready to close in above my head when I am least prepared for the end.”

Robert Audley stared at his friend in silent amazement; and, after a pause of profound deliberation, said solemnly, “George Talboys, I could understand this if you had been eating heavy suppers. Cold pork, now, especially if underdone, might produce this sort of thing. You want change of air, my dear boy; you want the refreshing breezes of Figtree Court, and the soothing air of Fleet street. Or, stay,” he added, suddenly, “I have it! You’ve been smoking our friend the landlord’s cigars; that accounts for everything.”

They met Alicia Audley on her mare about half an hour after they had come to the determination of leaving Essex early the next morning. The young lady was very much surprised and disappointed at hearing her cousin’s determination, and for that very reason pretended to take the matter with supreme indifference.

“You are very soon tired of Audley, Robert,” she said, carelessly; “but of course you have no friends here, except your relations at the Court; while in London, no doubt, you have the most delightful society and —”

“I get good tobacco,” murmured Robert, interrupting his cousin. “Audley is the dearest old place, but when a man has to smoke dried cabbage leaves, you know, Alicia —”

“Then you are really going to-morrow morning?”

“Positively — by the express train that leaves at 10.50.”

“Then Lady Audley will lose an introduction to Mr. Talboys, and Mr. Talboys will lose the chance of seeing the prettiest woman in Essex.”

“Really —” stammered George.

“The prettiest woman in Essex would have a poor chance of getting much admiration out of my friend, George Talboys,” said Robert. “His heart is at Southampton, where he has a curly-headed little urchin, about as high as his knee, who calls him ‘the big gentleman,’ and asks him for sugar-plums.”

“I am going to write to my step-mother by to-night’s post,” said Alicia. “She asked me particularly in her letter how long you were going to stop, and whether there was any chance of her being back in time to receive you.”

Miss Audley took a letter from the pocket of her riding-jacket as she spoke — a pretty, fairy-like note, written on shining paper of a peculiar creamy hue.

“She says in her postcript, ‘Be sure you answer my question about Mr. Audley and his friend, you volatile, forgetful Alicia!’”

“What a pretty hand she writes!” said Robert, as his cousin folded the note.

“Yes, it is pretty, is it not? Look at it, Robert.”

She put the letter into his hand, and he contemplated it lazily for a few minutes, while Alicia patted the graceful neck of her chestnut mare, which was anxious to be off once more.

“Presently, Atalanta, presently. Give me back my note, Bob.”

“It is the prettiest, most coquettish little hand I ever saw. Do you know, Alicia, I have no great belief in those fellows who ask you for thirteen postage stamps, and offer to tell you what you have never been able to find out yourself; but upon my word I think that if I had never seen your aunt, I should know what she was like by this slip of paper. Yes, here it all is — the feathery, gold-shot, flaxen curls, the penciled eyebrows, the tiny, straight nose, the winning, childish smile; all to be guessed in these few graceful up-strokes and down-strokes. George, look here!”

But absent-minded and gloomy George Talboys had strolled away along the margin of the ditch, and stood striking the bulrushes with his cane, half a dozen paces away from Robert and Alicia.

“Nevermind,” said the young lady, impatiently; for she by no means relished this long disquisition upon my lady’s note. “Give me the letter, and let me go; it’s past eight, and I must answer it by to-night’s post. Come, Atalanta! Good-by, Robert — good-by, Mr. Talboys. A pleasant journey to town.”

The chestnut mare cantered briskly through the lane, and Miss Audley was out of sight before those two big, bright tears that stood in her eyes for one moment, before her pride sent them, back again, rose from her angry heart.

“To have only one cousin in the world,” she cried, passionately, “my nearest relation after papa, and for him to care about as much for me as he would for a dog!”

By the merest of accidents, however, Robert and his friend did not go by the 10.50 express on the following morning, for the young barrister awoke with such a splitting headache, that he asked George to send him a cup of the strongest green tea that had ever been made at the Sun, and to be furthermore so good as to defer their journey until the next day. Of course George assented, and Robert Audley spent the forenoon in a darkened room with a five-days’-old Chelmsford paper to entertain himself withal.

“It’s nothing but the cigars, George,” he said, repeatedly. “Get me out of the place without my seeing the landlord; for if that man and I meet there will be bloodshed.”

Fortunately for the peace of Audley, it happened to be market-day at Chelmsford; and the worthy landlord had ridden off in his chaise-cart to purchase supplies for his house — among other things, perhaps, a fresh stock of those very cigars which had been so fatal in their effect upon Robert.

The young men spent a dull, dawdling, stupid, unprofitable day; and toward dusk Mr. Audley proposed that they should stroll down to the Court, and ask Alicia to take them over the house.

“It will kill a couple of hours, you know, George: and it seems a great pity to drag you away from Audley without having shown you the old place, which, I give you my honor, is very well worth seeing.”

The sun was low in the skies as they took a short cut through the meadows, and crossed a stile into the avenue leading to the archway — a lurid, heavy-looking, ominous sunset, and a deathly stillness in the air, which frightened the birds that had a mind to sing, and left the field open to a few captious frogs croaking in the ditches. Still as the atmosphere was, the leaves rustled with that sinister, shivering motion which proceeds from no outer cause, but is rather an instinctive shudder of the frail branches, prescient of a coming storm. That stupid clock, which knew no middle course, and always skipped from one hour to the other, pointed to seven as the young men passed under the archway; but, for all that, it was nearer eight.

They found Alicia in the lime-walk, wandering listlessly up and down under the black shadow of the trees, from which every now and then a withered leaf flapped slowly to the ground.

Strange to say, George Talboys, who very seldom observed anything, took particular notice of this place.

“It ought to be an avenue in a churchyard,” he said. “How peacefully the dead might sleep under this somber shade! I wish the churchyard at Ventnor was like this.”

They walked on to the ruined well; and Alicia told them some old legend connected with the spot — some gloomy story, such as those always attached to an old house, as if the past were one dark page of sorrow and crime.

“We want to see the house before it is dark, Alicia,” said Robert.

“Then we must be quick.” she answered. “Come.”

She led the way through an open French window, modernized a few years before, into the library, and thence to the hall.

In the hall they passed my lady’s pale-faced maid, who looked furtively under her white eyelashes at the two young men.

They were going up-stairs, when Alicia turned and spoke to the girl.

“After we have been in the drawing-room, I should like to show these gentlemen Lady Audley’s rooms. Are they in good order, Phoebe?”

“Yes, miss; but the door of the anteroom is locked, and I fancy that my lady has taken the key to London.”

“Taken the key! Impossible!” cried Alicia.

“Indeed, miss, I think she has. I cannot find it, and it always used to be in the door.”

“I declare,” said Alicia, impatiently, “that is not at all unlike my lady to have taken this silly freak into her head. I dare say she was afraid we should go into her rooms, and pry about among her pretty dresses, and meddle with her jewelry. It is very provoking, for the best pictures in the house are in that antechamber. There is her own portrait, too, unfinished but wonderfully like.”

“Her portrait!” exclaimed Robert Audley. “I would give anything to see it, for I have only an imperfect notion of her face. Is there no other way of getting into the room, Alicia?”

“Another way?”

“Yes; is there any door, leading through some of the other rooms, by which we can contrive to get into hers?”

His cousin shook her head, and conducted them into a corridor where there were some family portraits. She showed them a tapestried chamber, the large figures upon the faded canvas looking threatening in the dusky light.

“That fellow with the battle-ax looks as if he wanted to split George’s head open,” said Mr. Audley, pointing to a fierce warrior, whose uplifted arm appeared above George Talboys’ dark hair.

“Come out of this room, Alicia,” added the young man, nervously; “I believe it’s damp, or else haunted. Indeed, I believe all ghosts to be the result of damp or dyspepsia. You sleep in a damp bed — you awake suddenly in the dead of the night with a cold shiver, and see an old lady in the court costume of George the First’s time, sitting at the foot of the bed. The old lady’s indigestion, and the cold shiver is a damp sheet.”

There were lighted candles in the drawing-room. No new-fangled lamps had ever made their appearance at Audley Court. Sir Michael’s rooms were lighted by honest, thick, yellow-looking wax candles, in massive silver candlesticks, and in sconces against the walls.

There was very little to see in the drawing-room; and George Talboys soon grew tired of staring at the handsome modern furniture, and at a few pictures of some of the Academicians.

“Isn’t there a secret passage, or an old oak chest, or something of that kind, somewhere about the place, Alicia?” asked Robert.

“To be sure!” cried Miss Audley, with a vehemence that startled her cousin; “of course. Why didn’t I think of it before? How stupid of me, to be sure!”

“Why stupid?”

“Because, if you don’t mind crawling upon your hands and knees, you can see my lady’s apartments, for that passage communicates with her dressing-room. She doesn’t know of it herself, I believe. How astonished she’d be if some black-visored burglar, with a dark-lantern, were to rise through the floor some night as she sat before her looking-glass, having her hair dressed for a party!”

“Shall we try the secret passage, George?” asked Mr. Audley.

“Yes, if you wish it.”

Alicia led them into the room which had once been her nursery. It was now disused, except on very rare occasions when the house was full of company.

Robert Audley lifted a corner of the carpet, according to his cousin’s directions, and disclosed a rudely-cut trap-door in the oak flooring.

“Now listen to me,” said Alicia. “You must let yourself down by the hands into the passage, which is about four feet high; stoop your head, walk straight along it till you come to a sharp turn which will take you to the left, and at the extreme end of it you will find a short ladder below a trap-door like this, which you will have to unbolt; that door opens into the flooring of my lady’s dressing-room, which is only covered with a square Persian carpet that you can easily manage to raise. You understand me?”

“Perfectly.”

“Then take the light; Mr. Talboys will follow you. I give you twenty minutes for your inspection of the paintings — that is, about a minute apiece — and at the end of that time I shall expect to see you return.”

Robert obeyed her implicitly, and George submissively following his friend, found himself, in five minutes, standing amidst the elegant disorder of Lady Audley’s dressing-room.

She had left the house in a hurry on her unlooked-for journey to London, and the whole of her glittering toilette apparatus lay about on the marble dressing-table. The atmosphere of the room was almost oppressive for the rich odors of perfumes in bottles whose gold stoppers had not been replaced. A bunch of hot-house flowers was withering upon a tiny writing-table. Two or three handsome dresses lay in a heap upon the ground, and the open doors of a wardrobe revealed the treasures within. Jewelry, ivory-backed hair-brushes, and exquisite china were scattered here and there about the apartment. George Talboys saw his bearded face and tall, gaunt figure reflected in the glass, and wondered to see how out of place he seemed among all these womanly luxuries.

They went from the dressing-room to the boudoir, and through the boudoir into the ante-chamber, in which there were, as Alicia had said, about twenty valuable paintings, besides my lady’s portrait.

My lady’s portrait stood on an easel, covered with a green baize in the center of the octagonal chamber. It had been a fancy of the artist to paint her standing in this very room, and to make his background a faithful reproduction of the pictured walls. I am afraid the young man belonged to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for he had spent a most unconscionable time upon the accessories of this picture — upon my lady’s crispy ringlets and the heavy folds of her crimson velvet dress.

The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne bouche.

By this time it was dark, the candle carried by Robert only making one nucleus of light as he moved about holding it before the pictures one by one. The broad, bare window looked out upon the pale sky, tinged with the last cold flicker of the twilight. The ivy rustled against the glass with the same ominous shiver as that which agitated every leaf in the garden, prophetic of the storm that was to come.

“There are our friend’s eternal white horses,” said Robert, standing beside a Wouvermans. “Nicholas Poussin — Salvator — ha — hum! Now for the portrait.”

He paused with his hand on the baize, and solemnly addressed his friend.

“George Talboys,” he said, “we have between us only one wax candle, a very inadequate light with which to look at a painting. Let me, therefore, request that you will suffer us to look at it one at a time; if there is one thing more disagreeable than another, it is to have a person dodging behind your back and peering over your shoulder, when you’re trying to see what a picture’s made of.”

George fell back immediately. He took no more interest in any lady’s picture than in all the other wearinesses of this troublesome world. He fell back, and leaning his forehead against the window-panes, looked out at the night.

When he turned round he saw that Robert had arranged the easel very conveniently, and that he had seated himself on a chair before it for the purpose of contemplating the painting at his leisure.

He rose as George turned round.

“Now, then, for your turn, Talboys,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary picture.”

He took George’s place at the window, and George seated himself in the chair before the easel.

Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.

Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.

But strange as the picture was, it could not have made any great impression on George Talboys, for he sat before it for about a quarter of an hour without uttering a word — only staring blankly at the painted canvas, with the candlestick grasped in his strong right hand, and his left arm hanging loosely by his side. He sat so long in this attitude, that Robert turned round at last.

“Why, George, I thought you had gone to sleep!”

“I had almost.”

“You’ve caught a cold from standing in that damp tapestried room. Mark my words, George Talboys, you’ve caught a cold; you’re as hoarse as a raven. But come along.”

Robert Audley took the candle from his friend’s hand, and crept back through the secret passage, followed by George — very quiet, but scarcely more quiet than usual.

They found Alicia in the nursery waiting for them.

“Well?” she said, interrogatively.

“We managed it capitally. But I don’t like the portrait; there’s something odd about it.”

“There is,” said Alicia; “I’ve a strange fancy on that point. I think that sometimes a painter is in a manner inspired, and is able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes. We have never seen my lady look as she does in that picture; but I think that she could look so.”

“Alicia,” said Robert Audley, imploringly, “don’t be German!”

“But, Robert —”

“Don’t be German, Alicia, if you love me. The picture is — the picture: and my lady is — my lady. That’s my way of taking things, and I’m not metaphysical; don’t unsettle me.”

He repeated this several times with an air of terror that was perfectly sincere; and then, having borrowed an umbrella in case of being overtaken by the coming storm, left the Court, leading passive George Talboys away with him. The one hand of the stupid clock had skipped to nine by the time they reached the archway; but before they could pass under its shadow they had to step aside to allow a carriage to dash past them. It was a fly from the village, but Lady Audley’s fair face peeped out at the window. Dark as it was, she could see the two figures of the young men black against the dusk.

“Who is that?” she asked, putting out her head. “Is it the gardener?”

“No, my dear aunt,” said Robert, laughing; “it is your most dutiful nephew.”

He and George stopped by the archway while the fly drew up at the door, and the surprised servants came out to welcome their master and mistress.

“I think the storm will hold off to-night,” said the baronet looking up at the sky; “but we shall certainly have it tomorrow.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/lady_audley_s_secret/chapter8.html

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