A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 48.

Not till the law had completed its proceedings, and satisfied the public mind as to the murder of Sir Philip Derval, were the remains of the deceased consigned to the family mausoleum. The funeral was, as may be supposed, strictly private, and when it was over, the excitement caused by an event so tragical and singular subsided. New topics engaged the public talk, and — in my presence, at least — the delicate consideration due to one whose name had been so painfully mixed up in the dismal story forbore a topic which I could not be expected to hear without distressful emotion. Mrs. Ashleigh I saw frequently at my own house; she honestly confessed that Lilian had not shown that grief at the cancelling of our engagement which would alone justify Mrs. Ashleigh in asking me again to see her daughter, and retract my conclusions against our union. She said that Lilian was quiet, not uncheerful, never spoke of me nor of Margrave, but seemed absent and preoccupied as before, taking pleasure in nothing that had been wont to please her; not in music, nor books, nor that tranquil pastime which women call work, and in which they find excuse to meditate, in idleness, their own fancies. She rarely stirred out, even in the garden; when she did, her eyes seemed to avoid the house in which Margrave had lodged, and her steps the old favourite haunt by the Monks’ Well. She would remain silent for long hours together, but the silence did not appear melancholy. For the rest, her health was more than usually good. Still Mrs. Ashleigh persisted in her belief that, sooner or later, Lilian would return to her former self, her former sentiments for me; and she entreated me not, as yet, to let the world know that our engagement was broken off. “For if,” she said, with good sense, “if it should prove not to be broken off, only suspended, and afterwards happily renewed, there will be two stories to tell when no story be needed. Besides, I should dread the effect on Lilian, if offensive gossips babbled to her on a matter that would excite so much curiosity as the rupture of a union in which our neighbours have taken so general an interest.”

I had no reason to refuse acquiescence in Mrs. Ashleigh’s request, but I did not share in her hopes; I felt that the fair prospects of my life were blasted; I could never love another, never wed another; I resigned myself to a solitary hearth, rejoiced, at least, that Margrave had not revisited at Mrs. Ashleigh’s — had not, indeed, reappeared in the town. He was still staying with Strahan, who told me that his guest had ensconced himself in Forman’s old study, and amused himself with reading — though not for long at a time — the curious old books and manuscripts found in the library, or climbing trees like a schoolboy, and familiarizing himself with the deer and the cattle, which would group round him quite tame, and feed from his hand. Was this the description of a criminal? But if Sir Philip’s assertion were really true; if the criminal were man without soul; if without soul, man would have no conscience, never be troubled by repentance, and the vague dread of a future world — why, then, should not the criminal be gay despite his crimes, as the white bear gambols as friskly after his meal on human flesh? These questions would haunt me, despite my determination to accept as the right solution of all marvels the construction put on my narrative by Julius Faber.

Days passed; I saw and heard nothing of Margrave. I began half to hope that, in the desultory and rapid changes of mood and mind which characterized his restless nature, he had forgotten my existence.

One morning I went out early on my rounds, when I met Straban unexpectedly.

“I was in search of you,” he said, “for more than one person has told me that you are looking ill and jaded. So you are! And the town now is hot and unhealthy. You must come to Derval Court for a week or so. You can ride into town every day to see your patients. Don’t refuse. Margrave, who is still with me, sends all kind messages, and bade me say that he entreats you to come to the house at which he also is a guest!”

I started. What had the Scin–Laeca required of me, and obtained to that condition my promise? “If you are asked to the house at which I also am a guest, you will come; you will meet and converse with me as guest speaks to guest in the house of a host!” Was this one of the coincidences which my reason was bound to accept as coincidences, and nothing more? Tut, tut! Was I returning again to my “hallucinations”? Granting that Faber and common-sense were in the right, what was this Margrave? A man to whose friendship, acuteness, and energy I was under the deepest obligations — to whom I was indebted for active services that had saved my life from a serious danger, acquitted my honour of a horrible suspicion. “I thank you,” I said to Strahan, “I will come; not, indeed, for a week, but, at all events, for a day or two.”

“That’s right; I will call for you in the carriage at six o’clock. You will have done your day’s work by then?”

“Yes; I will so arrange.”

On our way to Derval Court that evening, Strahan talked much about Margrave, of whom, nevertheless, he seemed to be growing weary.

“His high spirits are too much for one,” said he; “and then so restless — so incapable of sustained quiet conversation. And, clever though he is, he can’t help me in the least about the new house I shall build. He has no notion of construction. I don’t think he could build a barn.”

“I thought you did not like to demolish the old house, and would content yourself with pulling down the more ancient part of it?”

“True. At first it seemed a pity to destroy so handsome a mansion; but you see, since poor Sir Philip’s manuscript, on which he set such store, has been too mutilated, I fear, to allow me to effect his wish with regard to it, I think I ought at least scrupulously to obey his other whims. And, besides, I don’t know, there are odd noises about the old house. I don’t believe in haunted houses; still there is something dreary in strange sounds at the dead of night, even if made by rats, or winds through decaying rafters. You, I remember at college, had a taste for architecture, and can draw plans. I wish to follow out Sir Philip’s design, but on a smaller scale, and with more attention to comfort.”

Thus he continued to run on, satisfied to find me a silent and attentive listener. We arrived at the mansion an hour before sunset, the westering light shining full against the many windows cased in mouldering pilasters, and making the general dilapidation of the old place yet more mournfully evident.

It was but a few minutes to the dinner-hour. I went up at once to the room appropriated to me — not the one I had before occupied. Strahan had already got together a new establishment. I was glad to find in the servant who attended me an old acquaintance. He had been in my own employ when I first settled at L— — and left me to get married. He and his wife were now both in Strahan’s service. He spoke warmly of his new master and his contentment with his situation, while he unpacked my carpet-bag and assisted me to change my dress. But the chief object of his talk and his praise was Mr. Margrave.

“Such a bright young gentleman, like the first fine day in May!”

When I entered the drawing-room, Margrave and Strahan were both there. The former was blithe and genial, as usual, in his welcome. At dinner, and during the whole evening till we retired severally to our own rooms, he was the principal talker — recounting incidents of travel, always very loosely strung together, jesting, good-humouredly enough, at Strahan’s sudden hobby for building, then putting questions to me about mutual acquaintances, but never waiting for an answer; and every now and then, as if at random, startling us with some brilliant aphorism, or some suggestion drawn from abstract science or unfamiliar erudition. The whole effect was sparkling, but I could well understand that, if long continued, it would become oppressive. The soul has need of pauses of repose — intervals of escape, not only from the flesh, but even from the mind. A man of the loftiest intellect will experience times when mere intellect not only fatigues him, but amidst its most original conceptions, amidst its proudest triumphs, has a something trite and commonplace compared with one of those vague intimations of a spiritual destiny which are not within the ordinary domain of reason; and, gazing abstractedly into space, will leave suspended some problem of severest thought, or uncompleted some golden palace of imperial poetry, to indulge in hazy reveries, that do not differ from those of an innocent, quiet child! The soul has a long road to travel — from time through eternity. It demands its halting hours of contemplation. Contemplation is serene. But with such wants of an immortal immaterial spirit, Margrave had no fellowship, no sympathy; and for myself, I need scarcely add that the lines I have just traced I should not have written at the date at which my narrative has now arrived.

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