A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 43.

I was just outside the garden door, when I felt an arm thrown round me, my cheek kissed and wetted with tears. Could it be Lilian? Alas, no! It was her mother’s voice, that, between laughing and crying, exclaimed hysterically: “This is joy, to see you again, and on these thresholds. I have just come from your house; I went there on purpose to congratulate you, and to talk to you about Lilian. But you have seen her?”

“Yes; I have but this moment left her. Come this way.” I drew Mrs. Ashleigh back into the garden, along the old winding walk, which the shrubs concealed from view of the house. We sat down on a rustic seat where I had often sat with Lilian, midway between the house and the Monks’ Well. I told the mother what had passed between me and her daughter; I made no complaint of Lilian’s coldness and change; I did not hint at its cause. “Girls of her age will change,” said I, “and all that now remains is for us two to agree on such a tale to our curious neighbours as may rest the whole blame on me. Man’s name is of robust fibre; it could not push its way to a place in the world, if it could not bear, without sinking, the load idle tongues may lay on it. Not so Woman’s Name: what is but gossip against Man, is scandal against Woman.”

“Do not be rash, my dear Allen,” said Mrs. Ashleigh, in great distress. “I feel for you, I understand you; in your case I might act as you do. I cannot blame you. Lilian is changed — changed unaccountably. Yet sure I am that the change is only on the surface, that her heart is really yours, as entirely and as faithfully as ever it was; and that later, when she recovers from the strange, dreamy kind of torpor which appears to have come over all her faculties and all her affections, she would awake with a despair which you cannot conjecture to the knowledge that you had renounced her.”

“I have not renounced her,” said I, impatiently; “I did but restore her freedom of choice. But pass by this now, and explain to me more fully the change in your daughter, which I gather from your words is not confined to me.”

“I wished to speak of it before you saw her, and for that reason came to your house. It was on the morning in which we left her aunt’s to return hither that I first noticed some thing peculiar in her look and manner. She seemed absorbed and absent, so much so that I asked her several times to tell me what made her so grave; but I could only get from her that she had had a confused dream which she could not recall distinctly enough to relate, but that she was sure it boded evil. During the journey she became gradually more herself, and began to look forward with delight to the idea of seeing you again. Well, you came that evening. What passed between you and her you know best. You complained that she slighted your request to shun all acquaintance with Mr. Margrave. I was surprised that, whether your wish were reasonable or not, she could have hesitated to comply with it. I spoke to her about it after you had gone, and she wept bitterly at thinking she had displeased you.”

“She wept! You amaze me. Yet the next day what a note she returned to mine!”

“The next day the change in her became very visible to me. She told me, in an excited manner, that she was convinced she ought not to marry you. Then came, the following day, the news of your committal. I heard of it, but dared not break it to her. I went to our friend the mayor, to consult with him what to say, what to do; and to learn more distinctly than I had done from terrified, incoherent servants, the rights of so dreadful a story. When I returned, I found, to my amazement, a young stranger in the drawing-room; it was Mr. Margrave — Miss Brabazon had brought him at his request. Lilian was in the room, too, and my astonishment was increased, when she said to me with a singular smile, vague but tranquil: ‘I know all about Allen Fenwick; Mr. Margrave has told me all. He is a friend of Allen’s. He says there is no cause for fear.’ Mr. Margrave then apologized to me for his intrusion in a caressing, kindly manner, as if one of the family. He said he was so intimate with you that he felt that he could best break to Miss Ashleigh information she might receive elsewhere, for that he was the only man in the town who treated the charge with ridicule. You know the wonderful charm of this young man’s manner. I cannot explain to you how it was, but in a few moments I was as much at home with him as if he had been your brother. To be brief, having once come, he came constantly. He had moved, two days before you went to Derval Court, from his hotel to apartments in Mr. ——‘s house, just opposite. We could see him on his balcony from our terrace; he would smile to us and come across. I did wrong in slighting your injunction, and suffering Lilian to do so. I could not help it, he was such a comfort to me — to her, too — in her tribulation. He alone had no doleful words, wore no long face; he alone was invariably cheerful. ‘Everything,’ he said, ‘would come right in a day or two.’”

“And Lilian could not but admire this young man, he is so beautiful.”

“Beautiful? Well, perhaps. But if you have a jealous feeling, you were never more mistaken. Lilian, I am convinced, does more than dislike him; he has inspired her with repugnance, with terror. And much as I own I like him, in his wild, joyous, careless, harmless way, do not think I flatter you if I say that Mr. Margrave is not the man to make any girl untrue to you — untrue to a lover with infinitely less advantages than you may pretend to. He would be a universal favourite, I grant; but there is something in him, or a something wanting in him, which makes liking and admiration stop short of love. I know not why; perhaps, because, with all his good humour, he is so absorbed in himself, so intensely egotistical, so light; were he less clever, I should say so frivolous. He could not make love, he could not say in the serious tone of a man in earnest, ‘I love you.’ He owned as much to me, and owned, too, that he knew not even what love was. As to myself, Mr. Margrave appears rich; no whisper against his character or his honour ever reached me. Yet were you out of the question, and were there no stain on his birth, nay, were he as high in rank and wealth as he is favoured by Nature in personal advantages, I confess I could never consent to trust him with my daughter’s fate. A voice at my heart would cry, ‘No!’ It may be an unreasonable prejudice, but I could not bear to see him touch Lilian’s hand!”

“Did she never, then — never suffer him even to take her hand?”

“Never. Do not think so meanly of her as to suppose that she could be caught by a fair face, a graceful manner. Reflect: just before she had refused, for your sake, Ashleigh Sumner, whom Lady Haughton said ‘no girl in her senses could refuse;’ and this change in Lilian really began before we returned to L—— — before she had even seen Mr. Margrave. I am convinced it is something in the reach of your skill as physician — it is on the nerves, the system. I will give you a proof of what I say, only do not betray me to her. It was during your imprisonment, the night before your release, that I was awakened by her coming to my bedside. She was sobbing as if her heart would break. ‘O mother, mother!’ she cried, ‘pity me, help me! I am so wretched.’ ‘What is the matter, darling?’ ‘I have been so cruel to Allen, and I know I shall be so again. I cannot help it. Do not question me; only if we are separated, if he cast me off, or I reject him, tell him some day perhaps when I am in my grave — not to believe appearances; and that I, in my heart of hearts, never ceased to love him!’”

“She said that! You are not deceiving me?”

“Oh, no! how can you think so?”

“There is hope still,” I murmured; and I bowed my head upon my hands, hot tears forcing their way through the clasped fingers.

“One word more,” said I; “you tell me that Lilian has a repugnance to this Margrave, and yet that she found comfort in his visits — a comfort that could not be wholly ascribed to cheering words he might say about myself, since it is all but certain that I was not, at that time, uppermost in her mind. Can you explain this apparent contradiction?”

“I cannot, otherwise than by a conjecture which you would ridicule.”

“I can ridicule nothing now. What is your conjecture?”

“I know how much you disbelieve in the stories one hears of animal magnetism and electro-biology, otherwise —”

“You think that Margrave exercises some power of that kind over Lilian? Has he spoken of such a power?”

“Not exactly; but he said that he was sure Lilian possessed a faculty that he called by some hard name, not clairvoyance, but a faculty, which he said, when I asked him to explain, was akin to prevision — to second sight. Then he talked of the Priestesses who had administered the ancient oracles. Lilian, he said, reminded him of them, with her deep eyes and mysterious smile.”

“And Lilian heard him? What said she?”

“Nothing; she seemed in fear while she listened.”

“He did not offer to try any of those arts practised by professional mesmerists and other charlatans?”

“I thought he was about to do so, but I forestalled him, saying I never would consent to any experiment of that kind, either on myself or my daughter.”

“And he replied —”

“With his gay laugh, ‘that I was very foolish; that a person possessed of such a faculty as he attributed to Lilian would, if the faculty were developed, be an invaluable adviser.’ He would have said more, but I begged him to desist. Still I fancy at times — do not be angry — that he does somehow or other bewitch her, unconsciously to herself; for she always knows when he is coming. Indeed, I am not sure that he does not bewitch myself, for I by no means justify my conduct in admitting him to an intimacy so familiar, and in spite of your wish; I have reproached myself, resolved to shut my door on him, or to show by my manner that his visits were unwelcome; yet when Lilian has said, in the drowsy lethargic tone which has come into her voice (her voice naturally earnest and impressive, though always low), ‘Mother, he will be here in two minutes; I wish to leave the room and cannot,’ I, too, have felt as if something constrained me against my will; as if, in short, I were under that influence which Mr. Vigors — whom I will never forgive for his conduct to you — would ascribe to mesmerism. But will you not come in and see Lilian again?”

“No, not to-night; but watch and heed her, and if you see aught to make you honestly believe that she regrets the rupture of the old tic from which I have released her — why, you know, Mrs. Ashleigh, that — that —” My voice failed; I wrung the good woman’s hand, and went my way.

I had always till then considered Mrs. Ashleigh — if not as Mrs. Poyntz described her —“commonplace weak”— still of an intelligence somewhat below mediocrity. I now regarded her with respect as well as grateful tenderness; her plain sense had divined what all my boasted knowledge had failed to detect in my earlier intimacy with Margrave — namely, that in him there was a something present, or a something wanting, which forbade love and excited fear. Young, beautiful, wealthy, seemingly blameless in life as he was, she would not have given her daughter’s hand to him!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bulwer-lytton/edward/strange-story/chapter43.html

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