A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 28.

The conversation with Mrs. Poyntz left my mind restless and disquieted. I had no doubt, indeed, of Lilian’s truth; but could I be sure that the attentions of a young man, with advantages of fortune so brilliant, would not force on her thoughts the contrast of the humbler lot and the duller walk of life in which she had accepted as companion a man removed from her romantic youth less by disparity of years than by gravity of pursuits? And would my suit now be as welcomed as it had been by a mother even so unworldly as Mrs. Ashleigh? Why, too, should both mother and daughter have left me so unprepared to hear that I had a rival; why not have implied some consoling assurance that such rivalry need not cause me alarm? Lilian’s letters, it is true, touched but little on any of the persons round her; they were filled with the outpourings of an ingenuous heart, coloured by the glow of a golden fancy. They were written as if in the wide world we two stood apart alone, consecrated from the crowd by the love that, in linking us together, had hallowed each to the other. Mrs. Ashleigh’s letters were more general and diffusive — detailed the habits of the household, sketched the guests, intimated her continued fear of Lady Haughton, but had said nothing more of Mr. Ashleigh Sumner than I had repeated to Mrs. Poyntz. However, in my letter to Lilian I related the intelligence that had reached me, and impatiently I awaited her reply.

Three days after the interview with Mrs. Poyntz, and two days before the long-anticipated event of the mayor’s ball, I was summoned to attend a nobleman who had lately been added to my list of patients, and whose residence was about twelve miles from L——. The nearest way was through Sir Philip Derval’s park. I went on horseback, and proposed to stop on the way to inquire after the steward, whom I had seen but once since his fit, and that was two days after it, when he called himself at my house to thank me for my attendance, and to declare that he was quite recovered.

As I rode somewhat fast through the park, I came, however, upon the steward, just in front of the house. I reined in my horse and accosted him. He looked very cheerful.

“Sir,” said he, in a whisper, “I have heard from Sir Philip; his letter is dated since — since-my good woman told you what I saw — well, since then. So that it must have been all a delusion of mine, as you told her. And yet, well — well — we will not talk of it, doctor; but I hope you have kept the secret. Sir Philip would not like to hear of it, if he comes back.”

“Your secret is quite safe with me. But is Sir Philip likely to come back?”

“I hope so, doctor. His letter is dated Paris, and that’s nearer home than he has been for many years; and — but bless me! some one is coming out of the house — a young gentleman! Who can it be?”

I looked, and to my surprise I saw Margrave descending the stately stairs that led from the front door. The steward turned towards him, and I mechanically followed, for I was curious to know what had brought Margrave to the house of the long-absent traveller.

It was easily explained. Mr. Margrave had heard at L—— much of the pictures and internal decorations of the mansion. He had, by dint of coaxing (he said, with his enchanting laugh), persuaded the old housekeeper to show him the rooms.

“It is against Sir Philip’s positive orders to show the house to any stranger, sir; and the housekeeper has done very wrong,” said the steward.

“Pray don’t scold her. I dare say Sir Philip would not have refused me a permission he might not give to every idle sightseer. Fellow-travellers have a freemasonry with each other; and I have been much in the same far countries as himself. I heard of him there, and could tell you more about him, I dare say, than you know yourself.”

“You, sir! pray do then.”

“The next time I come,” said Margrave, gayly; and, with a nod to me, he glided off through the trees of the neighbouring grove, along the winding footpath that led to the lodge.

“A very cool gentleman,” muttered the steward; “but what pleasant ways he has! You seem to know him, sir. Who is he, may I ask?”

“Mr. Margrave — a visitor at L— — and he has been a great traveller, as he says; perhaps he met Sir Philip abroad.”

“I must go and hear what he said to Mrs. Gates; excuse me, sir, but I am so anxious about Sir Philip.”

“If it be not too great a favour, may I be allowed the same privilege granted to Mr. Margrave? To judge by the outside of the house, the inside must be worth seeing; still, if it be against Sir Philip’s positive orders —”

“His orders were, not to let the Court become a show-house — to admit none without my consent; but I should be ungrateful indeed, doctor, if I refused that consent to you.”

I tied my horse to the rusty gate of the terrace-walk, and followed the steward up the broad stairs of the terrace. The great doors were unlocked. We entered a lofty hall with a domed ceiling; at the back of the hall the grand staircase ascended by a double flight. The design was undoubtedly Vanbrugh’s — an architect who, beyond all others, sought the effect of grandeur less in space than in proportion; but Vanbrugh’s designs need the relief of costume and movement, and the forms of a more pompous generation, in the bravery of velvets and laces, glancing amid those gilded columns, or descending with stately tread those broad palatial stairs. His halls and chambers are so made for festival and throng, that they become like deserted theatres, inexpressibly desolate, as we miss the glitter of the lamps and the movement of the actors.

The housekeeper had now appeared — a quiet, timid old woman. She excused herself for admitting Margrave — not very intelligibly. It was plain to see that she had, in truth, been unable to resist what the steward termed his “pleasant ways.”

As if to escape from a scolding, she talked volubly all the time, bustling nervously through the rooms, along which I followed her guidance with a hushed footstep. The principal apartments were on the ground-floor, or rather, a floor raised some ten or fifteen feet above the ground; they had not been modernized since the date in which they were built. Hangings of faded silk; tables of rare marble, and mouldered gilding; comfortless chairs at drill against the walls; pictures, of which connoisseurs alone could estimate the value, darkened by dust or blistered by sun and damp, made a general character of discomfort. On not one room, on not one nook, still lingered some old smile of home.

Meanwhile, I gathered from the housekeeper’s rambling answers to questions put to her by the steward, as I moved on, glancing at the pictures, that Margrave’s visit that day was not his first. He had been to the house twice before — his ostensible excuse that he was an amateur in pictures (though, as I had before observed, for that department of art he had no taste); but each time he had talked much of Sir Philip. He said that though not personally known to him, he had resided in the same towns abroad, and had friends equally intimate with Sir Philip; but when the steward inquired if the visitor had given any information as to the absentee, it became very clear that Margrave had been rather asking questions than volunteering intelligence.

We had now come to the end of the state apartments, the last of which was a library. “And,” said the old woman, “I don’t wonder the gentleman knew Sir Philip, for he seemed a scholar, and looked very hard over the books, especially those old ones by the fireplace, which Sir Philip, Heaven bless him, was always poring into.”

Mechanically I turned to the shelves by the fireplace, and examined the volumes ranged in that department. I found they contained the works of those writers whom we may class together under the title of mystics — Iamblichus and Plotinus; Swedenborg and Behmen; Sandivogius, Van Helmont, Paracelsus, Cardan. Works, too, were there, by writers less renowned, on astrology, geomancy, chiromancy, etc. I began to understand among what class of authors Margrave had picked up the strange notions with which he was apt to interpolate the doctrines of practical philosophy.

“I suppose this library was Sir Philip’s usual sitting-room?” said I.

“No, sir; he seldom sat here. This was his study;” and the old woman opened a small door, masked by false book backs. I followed her into a room of moderate size, and evidently of much earlier date than the rest of the house. “It is the only room left of an older mansion,” said the steward in answer to my remark. “I have heard it was spared on account of the chimneypiece. But there is a Latin inscription which will tell you all about it. I don’t know Latin myself.”

The chimneypiece reached to the ceiling. The frieze of the lower part rested on rude stone caryatides; the upper part was formed of oak panels very curiously carved in the geometrical designs favoured by the taste prevalent in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, but different from any I had ever seen in the drawings of old houses — and I was not quite unlearned in such matters, for my poor father was a passionate antiquary in all that relates to mediaeval art. The design in the oak panels was composed of triangles interlaced with varied ingenuity, and enclosed in circular bands inscribed with the signs of the Zodiac.

On the stone frieze supported by the caryatides, immediately under the woodwork, was inserted a metal plate, on which was written, in Latin, a few lines to the effect that “in this room, Simon Forman, the seeker of hidden truth, taking refuge from unjust persecution, made those discoveries in nature which he committed, for the benefit of a wiser age, to the charge of his protector and patron, the worshipful Sir Miles Derval, knight.”

Forman! The name was not quite unfamiliar to me; but it was not without an effort that my memory enabled me to assign it to one of the most notorious of those astrologers or soothsayers whom the superstition of an earlier age alternately persecuted and honoured.

The general character of the room was more cheerful than the statelier chambers I had hitherto passed through, for it had still the look of habitation — the armchair by the fireplace; the kneehole writing-table beside it; the sofa near the recess of a large bay-window, with book-prop and candlestick screwed to its back; maps, coiled in their cylinders, ranged under the cornice; low strong safes, skirting two sides of the room, and apparently intended to hold papers and title-deeds, seals carefully affixed to their jealous locks. Placed on the top of these old-fashioned receptacles were articles familiar to modern use — a fowling-piece here, fishing-rods there, two or three simple flower-vases, a pile of music books, a box of crayons. All in this room seemed to speak of residence and ownership — of the idiosyncrasies of a lone single man, it is true, but of a man of one’s own time — a country gentleman of plain habits but not uncultivated tastes.

I moved to the window; it opened by a sash upon a large balcony, from which a wooden stair wound to a little garden, not visible in front of the house, surrounded by a thick grove of evergreens, through which one broad vista was cut, and that vista was closed by a view of the mausoleum.

I stepped out into the garden — a patch of sward with a fountain in the centre, and parterres, now more filled with weeds than flowers. At the left corner was a tall wooden summer-house or pavilion — its door wide open. “Oh, that’s where Sir Philip used to study many a long summer’s night,” said the steward.

“What! in that damp pavilion?”

“It was a pretty place enough then, sir; but it is very old — they say as old as the room you have just left.”

“Indeed, I must look at it, then.”

The walls of this summer-house had once been painted in the arabesques of the Renaissance period; but the figures were now scarcely traceable. The woodwork had started in some places, and the sunbeams stole through the chinks and played on the floor, which was formed from old tiles quaintly tessellated and in triangular patterns; similar to those I had observed in the chimneypiece. The room in the pavilion was large, furnished with old worm-eaten tables and settles. “It was not only here that Sir Philip studied, but sometimes in the room above,” said the steward.

“How do you get to the room above? Oh, I see; a stair case in the angle.” I ascended the stairs with some caution, for they were crooked and decayed; and, on entering the room above, comprehended at once why Sir Philip had favoured it.

The cornice of the ceiling rested on pilasters, within which the compartments were formed into open unglazed arches, surrounded by a railed balcony. Through these arches, on three sides of the room, the eye commanded a magnificent extent of prospect. On the fourth side the view was bounded by the mausoleum. In this room was a large telescope; and on stepping into the balcony, I saw that a winding stair mounted thence to a platform on the top of the pavilion — perhaps once used as an observatory by Forman himself.

“The gentleman who was here today was very much pleased with this look-out, sir,” said the housekeeper. “Who would not be? I suppose Sir Philip has a taste for astronomy.”

“I dare say, sir,” said the steward, looking grave; “he likes most out-of-the-way things.”

The position of the sun now warned me that my time pressed, and that I should have to ride fast to reach my new patient at the hour appointed. I therefore hastened back to my horse, and spurred on, wondering whether, in the chain of association which so subtly links our pursuits in manhood to our impressions in childhood, it was the Latin inscription on the chimneypiece that had originally biassed Sir Philip Derval’s literary taste towards the mystic jargon of the books at which I had contemptuously glanced.

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