A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 38.

Letter from Allen Fenwick to Lilian Ashleigh.

“I have promised to go to Derval Court today, and shall not return till tomorrow. I cannot bear the thought that so many hours should pass away with one feeling less kind than usual resting like a cloud upon you and me. Lilian, if I offended you, forgive me! Send me one line to say so! — one line which I can place next to my heart and cover with grateful kisses till we meet again!”

Reply.

“I scarcely know what you mean, nor do I quite understand my own state of mind at this moment. It cannot be that I love you less — and yet — but I will not write more now. I feel glad that we shall not meet for the next day or so, and then I hope to be quite recovered. I am not well at this moment. Do not ask me to forgive you; but if it is I who am in fault, forgive me, oh, forgive me, Allen!”

And with this unsatisfactory note, not worn next to my heart, not covered with kisses, but thrust crumpled into my desk like a creditor’s unwelcome bill, I flung myself on my horse and rode to Derval Court. I am naturally proud; my pride came now to my aid. I felt bitterly indignant against Lilian, so indignant that I resolved on my return to say to her, “If in those words, ‘And yet,’ you implied a doubt whether you loved me less, I cancel your vows, I give you back your freedom.” And I could have passed from her threshold with a firm foot, though with the certainty that I should never smile again.

Does her note seem to you who may read these pages to justify such resentment? Perhaps not. But there is an atmosphere in the letters of the one we love which we alone — we who love — can feel, and in the atmosphere of that letter I felt the chill of the coming winter.

I reached the park lodge of Derval Court late in the day. I had occasion to visit some patients whose houses lay scattered many miles apart, and for that reason, as well as from the desire for some quick bodily exercise which is so natural an effect of irritable perturbation of mind, I had made the journey on horseback instead of using a carriage that I could not have got through the lanes and field-paths by which alone the work set to myself could be accomplished in time.

Just as I entered the park, an uneasy thought seized hold of me with the strength which is ascribed to presentiments. I had passed through my study (which has been so elaborately described) to my stables, as I generally did when I wanted my saddle-horse, and, in so doing, had doubtless left open the gate to the iron palisade, and probably the window of the study itself. I had been in this careless habit for several years, without ever once having cause for self-reproach. As I before said, there was nothing in my study to tempt a thief; the study was shut out from the body of the house, and the servant sure at nightfall both to close the window and lock the gate; yet now, for the first time, I felt an impulse, urgent, keen, and disquieting, to ride back to the town, and see those precautions taken. I could not guess why, but something whispered to me that my neglect had exposed me to some great danger. I even checked my horse and looked at my watch; too late! — already just on the stroke of Strahan’s dinner-hour as fixed in his note; my horse, too, was fatigued and spent: besides, what folly! what bearded man can believe in the warnings of a “presentiment”? I pushed on, and soon halted before the old-fashioned flight of stairs that led up to the Hall. Here I was accosted by the old steward; he had just descended the stairs, and as I dismounted he thrust his arm into mine unceremoniously, and drew me a little aside.

“Doctor, I was right; it was his ghost that I saw by the iron door of the mausoleum. I saw it again at the same place last night, but I had no fit then. Justice on his murderer! Blood for blood!”

“Ay!” said I, sternly; for if I suspected Margrave before, I felt convinced now that the inexpiable deed was his. Wherefore convinced? Simply because I now hated him more, and hate is so easily convinced! “Lilian! Lilian!” I murmured to myself that name; the flame of my hate was fed by my jealousy. “Ay!” said I, sternly, “murder will out.”

“What are the police about?” said the old man, querulously; “days pass on days, and no nearer the truth. But what does the new owner care? He has the rents and acres; what does he care for the dead? I will never serve another master. I have just told Mr. Strahan so. How do I know whether he did not do the deed? Who else had an interest in it?”

“Hush, hush!” I cried; “you do not know how wildly you are talking.”

The old man stared at me, shook his head, released my arm, and strode away.

A labouring man came out of the garden, and having unbuckled the saddle-bags, which contained the few things required for so short a visit, I consigned my horse to his care, and ascended the perron. The old housekeeper met me in the hall, and conducted me up the great staircase, showed me into a bedroom prepared for me, and told me that Mr. Strahan was already waiting dinner for me. I should find him in the study. I hastened to join him. He began apologizing, very unnecessarily, for the state of his establishment. He had as yet engaged no new servants. The housekeeper with the help of a housemaid did all the work.

Richard Strahan at college had been as little distinguishable from other young men as a youth neither rich nor poor, neither clever nor stupid, neither handsome nor ugly, neither audacious sinner nor formal saint, possibly could be.

Yet, to those who understood him well, he was not without some of those moral qualities by which a youth of mediocre intellect often matures into a superior man.

He was, as Sir Philip had been rightly informed, thoroughly honest and upright. But with a strong sense of duty, there was also a certain latent hardness. He was not indulgent. He had outward frankness with acquaintances, but was easily roused to suspicion. He had much of the thriftiness and self-denial of the North countryman, and I have no doubt that he had lived with calm content and systematic economy on an income which made him, as a bachelor, independent of his nominal profession, but would not have sufficed, in itself, for the fitting maintenance of a wife and family. He was, therefore, still single.

It seems to me even during the few minutes in which we conversed before dinner was announced, that his character showed a new phase with his new fortunes. He talked in a grandiose style of the duties of station and the woes of wealth. He seemed to be very much afraid of spending, and still more appalled at the idea of being cheated. His temper, too, was ruffled; the steward had given him notice to quit. Mr. Jeeves, who had spent the morning with him, had said the steward would be a great loss, and a steward at once sharp and honest was not to be easily found.

What trifles can embitter the possession of great goods! Strahan had taken a fancy to the old house; it was conformable to his notions, both of comfort and pomp, and Sir Philip had expressed a desire that the old house should be pulled down. Strahan had inspected the plans for the new mansion to which Sir Philip had referred, and the plans did not please him; on the contrary, they terrified.

“Jeeves says that I could not build such a house under L70,000 or L80,000, and then it will require twice the establishment which will suffice for this. I shall be ruined,” cried the man who had just come into possession of at least ten thousand a year.

“Sir Philip did not enjoin you to pull down the old house; he only advised you to do so. Perhaps he thought the site less healthy than that which he proposes for a new building, or was aware of some other drawback to the house, which you may discover later. Wait a little and see before deciding.”

“But, at all events, I suppose I must pull down this curious old room — the nicest part of the old house!”

Strahan, as he spoke, looked wistfully round at the quaint oak chimneypiece; the carved ceiling; the well-built solid walls, with the large mullion casement, opening so pleasantly on the sequestered gardens. He had ensconced himself in Sir Philip’s study, the chamber in which the once famous mystic, Forman, had found a refuge.

“So cozey a room for a single man!” sighed Strahan. “Near the stables and dog-kennels, too! But I suppose I must pull it down. I am not bound to do so legally; it is no condition of the will. But in honour and gratitude I ought not to disobey poor Sir Philip’s positive injunction.”

“Of that,” said I, gravely, “there cannot be a doubt.” Here our conversation was interrupted by Mrs. Gates, who informed us that dinner was served in the library. Wine of great age was brought from the long neglected cellars; Strahan filled and refilled his glass, and, warmed into hilarity, began to talk of bringing old college friends around him in the winter season, and making the roof-tree ring with laughter and song once more.

Time wore away, and night had long set in, when Strahan at last rose from the table, his speech thick and his tongue unsteady. We returned to the study, and I reminded my host of the special object of my visit to him — namely, the inspection of Sir Philip’s manuscript.

“It is tough reading,” said Strahan; “better put it off till tomorrow. You will stay here two or three days.”

“No; I must return to L—— tomorrow. I cannot absent myself from my patients. And it is the more desirable that no time should be lost before examining the contents of the manuscript, because probably they may give some clew to the detection of the murderer.”

“Why do you think that?” cried Strahan, startled from the drowsiness that was creeping over him.

“Because the manuscript may show that Sir Philip had some enemy, and who but an enemy could have had a motive for such a crime? Come, bring forth the book. You of all men are bound to be alert in every research that may guide the retribution of justice to the assassin of your benefactor.”

“Yes, yes. I will offer a reward of L5,000 for the discovery. Allen, that wretched old steward had the insolence to tell me that I was the only man in the world who could have an interest in the death of his master; and he looked at me as if he thought that I had committed the crime. You are right; it becomes me, of all men, to be alert. The assassin must be found. He must hang.”

While thus speaking, Strahan had risen, unlocked a desk, which stood on one of the safes, and drawn forth a thick volume, the contents of which were protected by a clasp and lock. Strahan proceeded to open this lock by one of a bunch of keys, which he said had been found on Sir Philip’s person.

“There, Allen, this is the memoir. I need not tell you what store I place on it — not, between you and me, that I expect it will warrant poor Sir Philip’s high opinion of his own scientific discoveries; that part of his letter seems to me very queer, and very flighty. But he evidently set his heart on the publication of his work, in part if not in whole; and, naturally, I must desire to comply with a wish so distinctly intimated by one to whom I owe so much. I be, you, therefore, not to be too fastidious. Some valuable hints in medicine, I have reason to believe, the manuscript will contain, and those may help you in your profession, Allen.”

“You have reason to believe! Why?”

“Oh, a charming young fellow, who, with most of the other gentry resident at L— — called on me at my hotel, told me that he had travelled in the East, and had there heard much of Sir Philip’s knowledge of chemistry, and the cures it had enabled him to perform.”

“You speak of Mr. Margrave. He called on you?”

“Yes.”

“You did not, I trust, mention to him the existence of Sir Philip’s manuscript.”

“Indeed I did; and I said you had promised to examine it. He seemed delighted at that, and spoke most highly of your peculiar fitness for the task.”

“Give me the manuscript,” said I, abruptly, “and after I have looked at it to-night, I may have something to say to you tomorrow in reference to Mr. Margrave.”

“There is the book,” said Strahan; “I have just glanced at it, and find much of it written in Latin; and I am ashamed to say that I have so neglected the little Latin I learned in our college days that I could not construe what I looked at.”

I sat down and placed the book before me; Strahan fell into a doze, from which he was wakened by the housekeeper, who brought in the tea-things.

“Well,” said Strahan, languidly, “do you find much in the book that explains the many puzzling riddles in poor Sir Philip’s eccentric life and pursuits?”

“Yes,” said I. “Do not interrupt me.”

Strahan again began to doze, and the housekeeper asked if we should want anything more that night, and if I thought I could find my way to my bedroom.

I dismissed her impatiently, and continued to read. Strahan woke up again as the clock struck eleven, and finding me still absorbed in the manuscript, and disinclined to converse, lighted his candle, and telling me to replace the manuscript in the desk when I had done with it, and be sure to lock the desk and take charge of the key, which he took off the bunch and gave me, went upstairs, yawning.

I was alone in the wizard Forman’s chamber, and bending over a stranger record than had ever excited my infant wonder, or, in later years, provoked my sceptic smile.

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