A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 22.

That evening I went to Mrs. Poyntz’s; it was one of her ordinary “reception nights,” and I felt that she would naturally expect my attendance as “a proper attention.”

I joined a group engaged in general conversation, of which Mrs. Poyntz herself made the centre, knitting as usual — rapidly while she talked, slowly when she listened.

Without mentioning the visit I had paid that morning, I turned the conversation on the different country places in the neighbourhood, and then incidentally asked, “What sort of a man is Sir Philip Derval? Is it not strange that he should suffer so fine a place to fall into decay?” The answers I received added little to the information I had already obtained. Mrs. Poyntz knew nothing of Sir Philip Derval, except as a man of large estates, whose rental had been greatly increased by a rise in the value of property he possessed in the town of L— — and which lay contiguous to that of her husband. Two or three of the older inhabitants of the Hill had remembered Sir Philip in his early days, when he was gay, high-spirited, hospitable, lavish. One observed that the only person in L—— whom he had admitted to his subsequent seclusion was Dr. Lloyd, who was then without practice, and whom he had employed as an assistant in certain chemical experiments.

Here a gentleman struck into the conversation. He was a stranger to me and to L— — a visitor to one of the dwellers on the Hill, who had asked leave to present him to its queen as a great traveller and an accomplished antiquary.

Said this gentleman: “Sir Philip Derval? I know him. I met him in the East. He was then still, I believe, very fond of chemical science; a clever, odd, philanthropical man; had studied medicine, or at least practised it; was said to have made many marvellous cures. I became acquainted with him in Aleppo. He had come to that town, not much frequented by English travellers, in order to inquire into the murder of two men, of whom one was his friend and the other his countryman.”

“This is interesting,” said Mrs. Poyntz, dryly. “We who live on this innocent Hill all love stories of crime; murder is the pleasantest subject you could have hit on. Pray give us the details.”

“So encouraged,” said the traveller, good-humouredly, “I will not hesitate to communicate the little I know. In Aleppo there had lived for some years a man who was held by the natives in great reverence. He had the reputation of extraordinary wisdom, but was difficult of access; the lively imagination of the Orientals invested his character with the fascinations of fable — in short, Haroun of Aleppo was popularly considered a magician. Wild stories were told of his powers, of his preternatural age, of his hoarded treasures. Apart from such disputable titles to homage, there seemed no question, from all I heard, that his learning was considerable, his charities extensive, his manner of life irreproachably ascetic. He appears to have resembled those Arabian sages of the Gothic age to whom modern science is largely indebted — a mystic enthusiast, but an earnest scholar. A wealthy and singular Englishman, long resident in another part of the East, afflicted by some languishing disease, took a journey to Aleppo to consult this sage, who, among his other acquirements, was held to have discovered rare secrets in medicine — his countrymen said in ‘charms.’ One morning, not long after the Englishman’s arrival, Haroun was found dead in his bed, apparently strangled, and the Englishman, who lodged in another part of the town, had disappeared; but some of his clothes, and a crutch on which he habitually supported himself, were found a few miles distant from Aleppo, near the roadside. There appeared no doubt that he, too, had been murdered, but his corpse could not be discovered. Sir Philip Derval had been a loving disciple of this Sage of Aleppo, to whom he assured me he owed not only that knowledge of medicine which, by report, Sir Philip possessed, but the insight into various truths of nature, on the promulgation of which, it was evident, Sir Philip cherished the ambition to found a philosophical celebrity for himself.”

“Of what description were those truths of nature?” I asked, somewhat sarcastically.

“Sir, I am unable to tell you, for Sir Philip did not inform me, nor did I much care to ask; for what may be revered as truths in Asia are usually despised as dreams in Europe. To return to my story: Sir Philip had been in Aleppo a little time before the murder; had left the Englishman under the care of Haroun. He returned to Aleppo on hearing the tragic events I have related, and was busy in collecting such evidence as could be gleaned, and instituting inquiries after our missing countryman at the time I myself chanced to arrive in the city. I assisted in his researches, but without avail. The assassins remained undiscovered. I do not myself doubt that they were mere vulgar robbers. Sir Philip had a darker suspicion of which he made no secret to me; but as I confess that I thought the suspicion groundless, you will pardon me if I do not repeat it. Whether since I left the East the Englishman’s remains have been discovered, I know not. Very probably; for I understand that his heirs have got hold of what fortune he left — less than was generally supposed. But it was reported that he had buried great treasures, a rumour, however absurd, not altogether inconsistent with his character.”

“What was his character?” asked Mrs. Poyntz.

“One of evil and sinister repute. He was regarded with terror by the attendants who had accompanied him to Aleppo. But he had lived in a very remote part of the East, little known to Europeans, and, from all I could learn, had there established an extraordinary power, strengthened by superstitious awe. He was said to have studied deeply that knowledge which the philosophers of old called ‘occult,’ not, like the Sage of Aleppo, for benevolent, but for malignant ends. He was accused of conferring with evil spirits, and filling his barbaric court (for he lived in a kind of savage royalty) with charmers and sorcerers. I suspect, after all, that he was only, like myself, an ardent antiquary, and cunningly made use of the fear he inspired in order to secure his authority, and prosecute in safety researches into ancient sepulchres or temples. His great passion was, indeed, in excavating such remains, in his neighbourhood; with what result I know not, never having penetrated so far into regions infested by robbers and pestiferous with malaria. He wore the Eastern dress, and always carried jewels about him. I came to the conclusion that for the sake of these jewels he was murdered, perhaps by some of his own servants (and, indeed, two at least of his suite were missing), who then at once buried his body, and kept their own secret. He was old, very infirm; could never have got far from the town without assistance.”

“You have not yet told us his name,” said Mrs. Poyntz.

“His name was Grayle.”

“Grayle!” exclaimed Mrs. Poyntz, dropping her work. “Louis Grayle?”

“Yes; Louis Grayle. You could not have known him?”

“Known him! No; but I have often heard my father speak of him. Such, then, was the tragic end of that strong dark creature, for whom, as a young girl in the nursery, I used to feel a kind of fearful admiring interest?”

“It is your turn to narrate now,” said the traveller.

And we all drew closer round our hostess, who remained silent some moments, her brow thoughtful, her work suspended.

“Well,” said she at last, looking round us with a lofty air, which seemed half defying, “force and courage are always fascinating, even when they are quite in the wrong. I go with the world, because the world goes with me; if it did not —” Here she stopped for a moment, clenched the firm white hand, and then scornfully waved it, left the sentence unfinished, and broke into another.

“Going with the world, of course we must march over those who stand against it. But when one man stands single-handed against our march, we do not despise him; it is enough to crush. I am very glad I did not see Louis Grayle when I was a girl of sixteen.” Again she paused a moment, and resumed: “Louis Grayle was the only son of a usurer, infamous for the rapacity with which he had acquired enormous wealth. Old Grayle desired to rear his heir as a gentleman; sent him to Eton. Boys are always aristocratic; his birth was soon thrown in his teeth; he was fierce; he struck boys bigger than himself — fought till he was half killed. My father was at school with him; described him as a tiger-whelp. One day he — still a fag — struck a sixth-form boy. Sixth-form boys do not fight fags; they punish them. Louis Grayle was ordered to hold out his hand to the cane; he received the blow, drew forth his schoolboy knife, and stabbed the punisher. After that, he left Eton. I don’t think he was publicly expelled — too mere a child for that honour — but he was taken or sent away; educated with great care under the first masters at home. When he was of age to enter the University, old Grayle was dead. Louis was sent by his guardians to Cambridge, with acquirements far exceeding the average of young men, and with unlimited command of money. My father was at the same college, and described him again — haughty, quarrelsome, reckless, handsome, aspiring, brave. Does that kind of creature interest you, my dears?” (appealing to the ladies).

“La!” said Miss Brabazon; “a horrid usurer’s son!”

“Ay, true; the vulgar proverb says it is good to be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth: so it is when one has one’s own family crest on it; ut when it is a spoon on which people recognize their family crest, and cry out, ‘Stolen from our plate chest,’ it is a heritage that outlaws a babe in his cradle. However, young men at college who want money are less scrupulous about descent than boys at Eton are. Louis Grayle found, while at college, plenty of wellborn acquaintances willing to recover from him some of the plunder his father had extorted from theirs. He was too wild to distinguish himself by academical honours, but my father said that the tutors of the college declared there were not six undergraduates in the University who knew as much hard and dry science as wild Louis Grayle. He went into the world, no doubt, hoping to shine; but his father’s name was too notorious to admit the son into good society. The Polite World, it is true, does not examine a scutcheon with the nice eye of a herald, nor look upon riches with the stately contempt of a stoic; still the Polite World has its family pride and its moral sentiment. It does not like to be cheated — I mean, in money matters; and when the son of a man who has emptied its purse and foreclosed on its acres rides by its club-windows, hand on haunch, and head in the air, no lion has a scowl more awful, no hyena a laugh more dread, than that same easy, good-tempered, tolerant, polite, well-bred World which is so pleasant an acquaintance, so languid a friend, and — so remorseless an — enemy. In short, Louis Grayle claimed the right to be courted — he was shunned; to be admired — he was loathed. Even his old college acquaintances were shamed out of knowing him. Perhaps he could have lived through all this had he sought to glide quietly into position; but he wanted the tact of the well-bred, and strove to storm his way, not to steal it. Reduced for companions to needy parasites, he braved and he shocked all decorous opinion by that ostentation of excess, which made Richelieus and Lauzuns the rage. But then Richelieus and Lauzuns were dukes! He now very naturally took the Polite World into hate — gave it scorn for scorn. He would ally himself with Democracy; his wealth could not get him into a club, but it would buy him into parliament; he could not be a Lauzun, nor, perhaps, a Mirabeau, but he might be a Danton. He had plenty of knowledge and audacity, and with knowledge and audacity a good hater is sure to be eloquent. Possibly, then, this poor Louis Grayle might have made a great figure, left his mark on his age and his name in history; but in contesting the borough, which he was sure to carry, he had to face an opponent in a real fine gentleman whom his father had ruined, cool and highbred, with a tongue like a rapier, a sneer like an adder. A quarrel of course; Louis Grayle sent a challenge. The fine gentleman, known to be no coward (fine gentlemen never are), was at first disposed to refuse with contempt. But Grayle had made himself the idol of the mob; and at a word from Grayle, the fine gentleman might have been ducked at a pump, or tossed in a blanket — that would have made him ridiculous; to be shot at is a trifle, to be laughed at is serious. He therefore condescended to accept the challenge, and my father was his second.

“It was settled, of course, according to English custom, that both combatants should fire at the same time, and by signal. The antagonist fired at the right moment; his ball grazed Louis Grayle’s temple. Louis Grayle had not fired. He now seemed to the seconds to take slow and deliberate aim. They called out to him not to fire; they were rushing to prevent him, when the trigger was pulled, and his opponent fell dead on the field. The fight was, therefore, considered unfair; Louis Grayle was tried for his life: he did not stand the trial in person.10 He escaped to the Continent; hurried on to some distant uncivilized lands; could not be traced; reappeared in England no more. The lawyer who conducted his defence pleaded skilfully. He argued that the delay in firing was not intentional, therefore not criminal — the effect of the stun which the wound in the temple had occasioned. The judge was a gentleman, and summed up the evidence so as to direct the jury to a verdict against the low wretch who had murdered a gentleman; but the jurors were not gentlemen, and Grayle’s advocate had of course excited their sympathy for a son of the people, whom a gentleman had wantonly insulted. The verdict was manslaughter; but the sentence emphatically marked the aggravated nature of the homicide — three years’ imprisonment. Grayle eluded the prison, but he was a man disgraced and an exile — his ambition blasted, his career an outlaw’s, and his age not yet twenty-three. My father said that he was supposed to have changed his name; none knew what had become of him. And so this creature, brilliant and daring, whom if born under better auspices we might now be all fawning on, cringing to — after living to old age, no one knows how — dies murdered at Aleppo, no one, you say, knows by whom.”

“I saw some account of his death in the papers about three years ago,” said one of the party; “but the name was misspelled, and I had no idea that it was the same man who had fought the duel which Mrs. Colonel Poyntz has so graphically described. I have a very vague recollection of the trial; it took place when I was a boy, more than forty years since. The affair made a stir at the time, but was soon forgotten.”

“Soon forgotten,” said Mrs. Poyntz; “ay, what is not? Leave your place in the world for ten minutes, and when you come back somebody else has taken it; but when you leave the world for good, who remembers that you had ever a place even in the parish register?”

“Nevertheless,” said I, “a great poet has said, finely and truly,

“‘The sun of Homer shines upon us still.’”

“But it does not shine upon Homer; and learned folks tell me that we know no more who and what Homer was, if there was ever a single Homer at all, or rather, a whole herd of Homers, than we know about the man in the moon — if there be one man there, or millions of men. Now, my dear Miss Brabazon, it will be very kind in you to divert our thoughts into channels less gloomy. Some pretty French air — Dr. Fenwick, I have something to say to you.” She drew me towards the window. “So Annie Ashleigh writes me word that I am not to mention your engagement. Do you think it quite prudent to keep it a secret?”

“I do not see how prudence is concerned in keeping it secret one way or the other — it is a mere matter of feeling. Most people wish to abridge, as far as they can, the time in which their private arrangements are the topic of public gossip.”

“Public gossip is sometimes the best security for the due completion of private arrangements. As long as a girl is not known to be engaged, her betrothed must be prepared for rivals. Announce the engagement, and rivals are warned off.”

“I fear no rivals.”

“Do you not? Bold man! I suppose you will write to Lilian?”

“Certainly.”

“Do so, and constantly. By-the-way, Mrs. Ashleigh, before she went, asked me to send her back Lady Haughton’s letter of invitation. What for — to show to you?”

“Very likely. Have you the letter still? May I see it?”

“Not just at present. When Lilian or Mrs. Ashleigh writes to you, come and tell me how they like their visit, and what other guests form the party.”

Therewith she turned away and conversed apart with the traveller.

Her words disquieted me, and I felt that they were meant to do so, wherefore I could not guess. But there is no language on earth which has more words with a double meaning than that spoken by the Clever Woman, who is never so guarded as when she appears to be frank.

As I walked home thoughtfully, I was accosted by a young man, the son of one of the wealthiest merchants in the town. I had attended him with success some months before, in a rheumatic fever: he and his family were much attached to me.

“Ah, my dear Fenwick, I am so glad to see you; I owe you an obligation of which you are not aware — an exceedingly pleasant travelling-companion. I came with him today from London, where I have been sight-seeing and holidaymaking for the last fortnight.”

“I suppose you mean that you kindly bring me a patient?”

“No, only an admirer. I was staying at Fenton’s Hotel. It so happened one day that I had left in the coffee-room your last work on the Vital Principle, which, by the by, the bookseller assures me is selling immensely among readers as non-professional as myself. Coming into the coffee-room again, I found a gentleman reading the book. I claimed it politely; he as politely tendered his excuse for taking it. We made acquaintance on the spot. The next day we were intimate. He expressed great interest and curiosity about your theory and your experiments. I told him I knew you. You may guess if I described you as less clever in your practice than you are in your writings; and, in short, he came with me to L— — partly to see our flourishing town, principally on my promise to introduce him to you. My mother, you know, has what she calls a dejeuner tomorrow — dejeuner and dance. You will be there?”

“Thank you for reminding me of her invitation. I will avail myself of it if I can. Your new friend will be present? Who and what is he — a medical student?”

“No, a mere gentleman at ease, but seems to have a good deal of general information. Very young, apparently very rich, wonderfully good-looking. I am sure you will like him; everybody must.”

“It is quite enough to prepare me to like him that he is a friend of yours.” And so we shook hands and parted.

10 Mrs. Poyntz here makes a mistake in law which, though very evident, her listeners do not seem to have noticed. Her mistake will be referred to later.

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