A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 16.

It was with a wrath suppressed in the presence of the fair ambassadress, that Mr. Vigors had received from Mrs. Poyntz the intelligence that I had replaced Dr. Jones at Abbots’ House not less abruptly than Dr. Jones had previously supplanted me. As Mrs. Poyntz took upon herself the whole responsibility of this change, Mr. Vigors did not venture to condemn it to her face; for the Administrator of Laws was at heart no little in awe of the Autocrat of Proprieties; as Authority, howsoever established, is in awe of Opinion, howsoever capricious.

To the mild Mrs. Ashleigh the magistrate’s anger was more decidedly manifested. He ceased his visits; and in answer to a long and deprecatory letter with which she endeavoured to soften his resentment and win him back to the house, he replied by an elaborate combination of homily and satire. He began by excusing himself from accepting her invitations, on the ground that his time was valuable, his habits domestic; and though ever willing to sacrifice both time and habits where he could do good, he owed it to himself and to mankind to sacrifice neither where his advice was rejected and his opinion contemned. He glanced briefly, but not hastily, at the respect with which her late husband had deferred to his judgment, and the benefits which that deference had enabled him to bestow. He contrasted the husband’s deference with the widow’s contumely, and hinted at the evils which the contumely would not permit him to prevent. He could not presume to say what women of the world might think due to deceased husbands, but even women of the world generally allowed the claims of living children, and did not act with levity where their interests were concerned, still less where their lives were at stake. As to Dr. Jones, he, Mr. Vigors, had the fullest confidence in his skill. Mrs. Ashleigh must judge for herself whether Mrs. Poyntz was as good an authority upon medical science as he had no doubt she was upon shawls and ribbons. Dr. Jones was a man of caution and modesty; he did not indulge in the hollow boasts by which charlatans decoy their dupes; but Dr. Jones had privately assured him that though the case was one that admitted of no rash experiments, he had no fear of the result if his own prudent system were persevered in. What might be the consequences of any other system, Dr. Jones would not say, because he was too high-minded to express his distrust of the rival who had made use of underhand arts to supplant him. But Mr. Vigors was convinced, from other sources of information (meaning, I presume, the oracular prescience of his clairvoyants), that the time would come when the poor young lady would herself insist on discarding Dr. Fenwick, and when “that person” would appear in a very different light to many who now so fondly admired and so reverentially trusted him. When that time arrived, he, Mr. Vigors, might again be of use; but, meanwhile, though he declined to renew his intimacy at Abbots’ House, or to pay unavailing visits of mere ceremony, his interest in the daughter of his old friend remained undiminished, nay, was rather increased by compassion; that he should silently keep his eye upon her; and whenever anything to her advantage suggested itself to him, he should not be deterred by the slight with which Mrs. Ashleigh had treated his judgment from calling on her, and placing before her conscience as a mother his ideas for her child’s benefit, leaving to herself then, as now, the entire responsibility of rejecting the advice which he might say, without vanity, was deemed of some value by those who could distinguish between sterling qualities and specious pretences.

Mrs. Ashleigh’s was that thoroughly womanly nature which instinctively leans upon others. She was diffident, trustful, meek, affectionate. Not quite justly had Mrs. Poyntz described her as “commonplace weak,” for though she might be called weak, it was not because she was commonplace; she had a goodness of heart, a sweetness of disposition, to which that disparaging definition could not apply. She could only be called commonplace inasmuch as in the ordinary daily affairs of life she had a great deal of ordinary daily commonplace good-sense. Give her a routine to follow, and no routine could be better adhered to. In the allotted sphere of a woman’s duties she never seemed in fault. No household, not even Mrs. Poyntz’s, was more happily managed. The old Abbots’ House had merged its original antique gloom in the softer character of pleasing repose. All her servants adored Mrs. Ashleigh; all found it a pleasure to please her; her establishment had the harmony of clockwork; comfort diffused itself round her like quiet sunshine round a sheltered spot. To gaze on her pleasing countenance, to listen to the simple talk that lapsed from her guileless lips, in even, slow, and lulling murmur, was in itself a respite from “eating cares.” She was to the mind what the colour of green is to the eye. She had, therefore, excellent sense in all that relates to every-day life. There, she needed not to consult another; there, the wisest might have consulted her with profit. But the moment anything, however trivial in itself, jarred on the routine to which her mind had grown wedded, the moment an incident hurried her out of the beaten track of woman’s daily life, then her confidence forsook her; then she needed a confidant, an adviser; and by that confidant or adviser she could be credulously lured or submissively controlled. Therefore, when she lost, in Mr. Vigors, the guide she had been accustomed to consult whenever she needed guidance, she turned; helplessly and piteously, first to Mrs. Poyntz, and then yet more imploringly to me, because a woman of that character is never quite satisfied without the advice of a man; and where an intimacy more familiar than that of his formal visits is once established with a physician, confidence in him grows fearless and rapid, as the natural result of sympathy concentrated on an object of anxiety in common between himself and the home which opens its sacred recess to his observant but tender eye. Thus Mrs. Ashleigh had shown me Mr. Vigors’s letter, and, forgetting that I might not be as amiable as herself, besought me to counsel her how to conciliate and soften her lost husband’s friend and connection. That character clothed him with dignity and awe in her soft forgiving eyes. So, smothering my own resentment, less perhaps at the tone of offensive insinuation against myself than at the arrogance with which this prejudiced intermeddler implied to a mother the necessity of his guardian watch over a child under her own care, I sketched a reply which seemed to me both dignified and placatory, abstaining from all discussion, and conveying the assurance that Mrs. Ashleigh would be at all times glad to hear, and disposed to respect, whatever suggestion so esteemed a friend of her husband would kindly submit to her for the welfare of her daughter.

There all communication had stopped for about a month since the date of my reintroduction to Abbots’ House. One afternoon I unexpectedly met Mr. Vigors at the entrance of the blind lane, I on my way to Abbots’ House, and my first glance at his face told me that he was coming from it, for the expression of that face was more than usually sinister; the sullen scowl was lit into significant menace by a sneer of unmistakable triumph. I felt at once that he had succeeded in some machination against me, and with ominous misgivings quickened my steps.

I found Mrs. Ashleigh seated alone in front of the house, under a large cedar-tree that formed a natural arbour in the centre of the sunny lawn. She was perceptibly embarrassed as I took my seat beside her.

“I hope,” said I, forcing a smile, “that Mr. Vigors has not been telling you that I shall kill my patient, or that she looks much worse than she did under Dr. Jones’s care?”

“No,” she said. “He owned cheerfully that Lilian had grown quite strong, and said, without any displeasure, that he had heard how gay she had been, riding out and even dancing — which is very kind in him, for he disapproves of dancing, on principle.”

“But still I can see he has said something to vex or annoy you; and, to judge by his countenance when I met him in the lane, I should conjecture that that something was intended to lower the confidence you so kindly repose in me.”

“I assure you not; he did not mention your name, either to me or to Lilian. I never knew him more friendly; quite like old times. He is a good man at heart, very, and was much attached to my poor husband.”

“Did Mr. Ashleigh profess a very high opinion of Mr. Vigors?”

“Well, I don’t quite know that, because my dear Gilbert never spoke to me much about him. Gilbert was naturally very silent. But he shrank from all trouble — all worldly affairs — and Mr. Vigors managed his estate, and inspected his steward’s books, and protected him through a long lawsuit which he had inherited from his father. It killed his father. I don’t know what we should have done without Mr. Vigors, and I am so glad he has forgiven me.”

“Hem! Where is Miss Ashleigh? Indoors?”

“No; somewhere in the grounds. But, my dear Dr. Fenwick, do not leave me yet; you are so very, very kind, and somehow I have grown to look upon you quite as an old friend. Something has happened which has put me out, quite put me out.”

She said this wearily and feebly, closing her eyes as if she were indeed put out in the sense of extinguished.

“The feeling of friendship you express,” said I, with earnestness, “is reciprocal. On my side it is accompanied by a peculiar gratitude. I am a lonely man, by a lonely fireside, no parents, no near kindred, and in this town, since Dr. Faber left it, without cordial intimacy till I knew you. In admitting me so familiarly to your hearth, you have given me what I have never known before since I came to man’s estate — a glimpse of the happy domestic life; the charm and relief to eye, heart, and spirit which is never known but in households cheered by the face of woman. Thus my sentiment for you and yours is indeed that of an old friend; and in any private confidence you show me, I feel as if I were no longer a lonely man, without kindred, without home.”

Mrs. Ashleigh seemed much moved by these words, which my heart had forced from my lips; and, after replying to me with simple unaffected warmth of kindness, she rose, took my arm, and continued thus as we walked slowly to and fro the lawn: “You know, perhaps, that my poor husband left a sister, now a widow like myself, Lady Haughton.”

“I remember that Mrs. Poyntz said you had such a sister-in-law, but I never heard you mention Lady Haughton till now. Well!”

“Well, Mr. Vigors has brought me a letter from her, and it is that which has put me out. I dare say you have not heard me speak before of Lady Haughton, for I am ashamed to say I had almost forgotten her existence. She is many years older than my husband was; of a very different character. Only came once to see him after our marriage. Hurt me by ridiculing him as a bookworm; offended him by looking a little down on me, as a nobody without spirit and fashion, which was quite true. And, except by a cold and unfeeling letter of formal condolence after I lost my dear Gilbert, I have never heard from her since I have been a widow, till today. But, after all, she is my poor husband’s sister, and his eldest sister, and Lilian’s aunt; and, as Mr. Vigors says, ‘Duty is duty.’”

Had Mrs. Ashleigh said “Duty is torture,” she could not have uttered the maxim with more mournful and despondent resignation.

“And what does this lady require of you, which Mr. Vigors deems it your duty to comply with?”

“Dear me! What penetration! You have guessed the exact truth. But I think you will agree with Mr. Vigors. Certainly I have no option; yes, I must do it.”

“My penetration is in fault now. Do what? Pray explain.”

“Poor Lady Haughton, six months ago, lost her only son, Sir James. Mr. Vigors says he was a very fine young man, of whom any mother would have been proud. I had heard he was wild; Mr. Vigors says, however, that he was just going to reform, and marry a young lady whom his mother chose for him, when, unluckily, he would ride a steeplechase, not being quite sober at the time, and broke his neck. Lady Haughton has been, of course, in great grief. She has retired to Brighton; and she wrote to me from thence, and Mr. Vigors brought the letter. He will go back to her today.”

“Will go back to Lady Haughton? What! Has he been to her? Is he, then, as intimate with Lady Haughton as he was with her brother?”

“No; but there has been a long and constant correspondence. She had a settlement on the Kirby Estate — a sum which was not paid off during Gilbert’s life; and a very small part of the property went to Sir James, which part Mr. Ashleigh Sumner, the heir-at-law to the rest of the estate, wished Mr. Vigors, as his guardian, to buy during his minority, and as it was mixed up with Lady Haughton’s settlement her consent was necessary as well as Sir James’s. So there was much negotiation, and, since then, Ashleigh Sumner has come into the Haughton property, on poor Sir James’s decease; so that complicated all affairs between Mr. Vigors and Lady Haughton, and he has just been to Brighton to see her. And poor Lady Haughton, in short, wants me and Lilian to go and visit her. I don’t like it at all. But you said the other day you thought sea air might be good for Lilian during the heat of the summer, and she seems well enough now for the change. What do you think?”

“She is well enough, certainly. But Brighton is not the place I would recommend for the summer; it wants shade, and is much hotter than L——”

“Yes; but unluckily Lady Haughton foresaw that objection, and she has a jointure-house some miles from Brighton, and near the sea. She says the grounds are well wooded, and the place is proverbially cool and healthy, not far from St. Leonard’s Forest. And, in short, I have written to say we will come. So we must, unless, indeed, you positively forbid it.”

“When do you think of going?”

“Next Monday. Mr. Vigors would make me fix the day. If you knew how I dislike moving when I am once settled; and I do so dread Lady Haughton, she is so fine, and so satirical! But Mr. Vigors says she is very much altered, poor thing! I should like to show you her letter, but I bad just sent it to Margaret — Mrs. Poyntz — a minute or two before you came. She knows something of Lady Haughton. Margaret knows everybody. And we shall have to go in mourning for poor Sir James, I suppose; and Margaret will choose it, for I am sure I can’t guess to what extent we should be supposed to mourn. I ought to have gone in mourning before — poor Gilbert’s nephew — but I am so stupid, and I had never seen him. And — But oh, this is kind! Margaret herself — my dear Margaret!”

We had just turned away from the house, in our up-and-down walk; and Mrs. Poyntz stood immediately fronting us. “So, Anne, you have actually accepted this invitation — and for Monday next?”

“Yes. Did I do wrong?”

“What does Dr. Fenwick say? Can Lilian go with safety?”

I could not honestly say she might not go with safety, but my heart sank like lead as I answered —

“Miss Ashleigh does not now need merely medical care; but more than half her cure has depended on keeping her spirits free from depression. She may miss the cheerful companionship of your daughter, and other young ladies of her own age. A very melancholy house, saddened by a recent bereavement, without other guests; a hostess to whom she is a stranger, and whom Mrs. Ashleigh herself appears to deem formidable — certainly these do not make that change of scene which a physician would recommend. When I spoke of sea air being good for Miss Ashleigh, I thought of our own northern coasts at a later time of the year, when I could escape myself for a few weeks and attend her. The journey to a northern watering-place would be also shorter and less fatiguing; the air there more invigorating.”

“No doubt that would be better,” said Mrs. Poyntz, dryly; “but so far as your objections to visiting Lady Haughton have been stated, they are groundless. Her house will not be melancholy; she will have other guests, and Lilian will find companions, young like herself — young ladies — and young gentlemen too!”

There was something ominous, something compassionate, in the look which Mrs. Poyntz cast upon me, in concluding her speech, which in itself was calculated to rouse the fears of a lover. Lilian away from me, in the house of a worldly-fine lady — such as I judged Lady Haughton to be-surrounded by young gentlemen, as well as young ladies, by admirers, no doubt, of a higher rank and more brilliant fashion than she had yet known! I closed my eyes, and with strong effort suppressed a groan.

“My dear Annie, let me satisfy myself that Dr. Fenwick really does consent to this journey. He will say to me what he may not to you. Pardon me, then, if I take him aside for a few minutes. Let me find you here again under this cedar-tree.”

Placing her arm in mine, and without waiting for Mrs. Ashleigh’s answer, Mrs. Poyntz drew me into the more sequestered walk that belted the lawn; and when we were out of Mrs. Ashleigh’s sight and hearing, said —

“From what you have now seen of Lilian Ashleigh, do you still desire to gain her as your wife?”

“Still? Ob, with an intensity proportioned to the fear with which I now dread that she is about to pass away from my eyes — from my life!”

“Does your judgment confirm the choice of your heart? Reflect before you answer.”

“Such selfish judgment as I had before I knew her would not confirm but oppose it. The nobler judgment that now expands all my reasonings, approves and seconds my heart. No, no; do not smile so sarcastically. This is not the voice of a blind and egotistical passion. Let me explain myself if I can. I concede to you that Lilian’s character is undeveloped; I concede to you, that amidst the childlike freshness and innocence of her nature, there is at times a strangeness, a mystery, which I have not yet traced to its cause. But I am certain that the intellect is organically as sound as the heart, and that intellect and heart will ultimately — if under happy auspices — blend in that felicitous union which constitutes the perfection of woman. But it is because she does, and may for years, may perhaps always, need a more devoted, thoughtful care than natures less tremulously sensitive, that my judgment sanctions my choice; for whatever is best for her is best for me. And who would watch over her as I should?”

“You have never yet spoken to Lilian as lovers speak?”

“Oh, no, indeed.”

“And, nevertheless, you believe that your affection would not be unreturned?”

“I thought so once; I doubt now — yet, in doubting, hope. But why do you alarm me with these questions? You, too, forebode that in this visit I may lose her forever?”

“If you fear that, tell her so, and perhaps her answer may dispel your fear.”

“What! now, already, when she has scarcely known me a month. Might I not risk all if too premature?”

“There is no almanac for love. With many women love is born the moment they know they are beloved. All wisdom tells us that a moment once gone is irrevocable. Were I in your place, I should feel that I approached a moment that I must not lose. I have said enough; now I shall rejoin Mrs. Ashleigh.”

“Stay — tell me first what Lady Haughton’s letter really contains to prompt the advice with which you so transport, and yet so daunt, me when you proffer it.”

“Not now; later, perhaps — not now. If you wish to see Lilian alone, she is by the Old Monk’s Well; I saw her seated there as I passed that way to the house.”

“One word more — only one. Answer this question frankly, for it is one of honour. Do you still believe that my suit to her daughter would not be disapproved of by Mrs. Ashleigh?”

“At this moment I am sure it would not; a week hence I might not give you the same answer.”

So she passed on with her quick but measured tread, back through the shady walk, on to the open lawn, till the last glimpse of her pale gray robe disappeared under the boughs of the cedar-tree. Then, with a start, I broke the irresolute, tremulous suspense in which I had vainly endeavoured to analyze my own mind, solve my own doubts, concentrate my own will, and went the opposite way, skirting the circle of that haunted ground — as now, on one side its lofty terrace, the houses of the neighbouring city came full and close into view, divided from my fairy-land of life but by the trodden murmurous thoroughfare winding low beneath the ivied parapets; and as now, again, the world of men abruptly vanished behind the screening foliage of luxuriant June.

At last the enchanted glade opened out from the verdure, its borders fragrant with syringa and rose and woodbine; and there, by the gray memorial of the gone Gothic age, my eyes seemed to close their unquiet wanderings, resting spell-bound on that image which had become to me the incarnation of earth’s bloom and youth.

She stood amidst the Past, backed by the fragments of walls which man had raised to seclude him from human passion, locking, under those lids so downcast, the secret of the only knowledge I asked from the boundless Future.

Ah! what mockery there is in that grand word, the world’s fierce war-cry — Freedom! Who has not known one period of life, and that so solemn that its shadows may rest over all life hereafter, when one human creature has over him a sovereignty more supreme and absolute than Orient servitude adores in the symbols of diadem and sceptre? What crest so haughty that has not bowed before a hand which could exalt or humble! What heart so dauntless that has not trembled to call forth the voice at whose sound open the gates of rapture or despair! That life alone is free which rules, and suffices for itself. That life we forfeit when we love!

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