A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 55.

It seemed incredible that Lilian could wander far without being observed. I soon ascertained that she had not gone away by the railway — by any public conveyance — had hired no carriage; she must therefore be still in the town, or have left it on foot. The greater part of the day was consumed in unsuccessful inquiries, and faint hopes that she would return; meanwhile the news of her disappearance had spread: how could such news fail to do so?

An acquaintance of mine met me under the archway of Monks’ Gate. He wrung my hand and looked at me with great compassion.

“I fear,” said he, “that we were all deceived in that young Margrave. He seemed so well conducted, in spite of his lively manners. But —”

“But what?”

“Mrs. Ashleigh was, perhaps, imprudent to admit him into her house so familiarly. He was certainly very handsome. Young ladies will be romantic.”

“How dare you, sir!” I cried, choked with rage. “And without any colouring to so calumnious a suggestion! Margrave has not been in the town for many days. No one knows even where he is.”

“Oh, yes, it is known where he is. He wrote to order the effects which he had left here to be sent to Penrith.”

“When?”

“The letter arrived the day before yesterday. I happened to be calling at the house where he last lodged, when at L— — the house opposite Mrs. Ashleigh’s garden. No doubt the servants in both houses gossip with each other. Miss Ashleigh could scarcely fail to hear of Mr. Margrave’s address from her maid; and since servants will exchange gossip, they may also convey letters. Pardon me, you know I am your friend.”

“Not from the moment you breathe a word against my betrothed wife,” said I, fiercely.

I wrenched myself from the clasp of the man’s hand, but his words still rang in my ears. I mounted my horse; I rode into the adjoining suburbs, the neighbouring villages; there, however, I learned nothing, till, just at nightfall, in a hamlet about ten miles from L— — a labourer declared he had seen a young lady dressed as I described, who passed by him in a path through the fields a little before noon; that he was surprised to see one so young, so well dressed, and a stranger to the neighbourhood (for he knew by sight the ladies of the few families scattered around) walking alone; that as he stepped out of the path to make way for her, he looked hard into her face, and she did not heed him — seemed to gaze right before her, into space. If her expression had been less quiet and gentle, he should have thought, he could scarcely say why, that she was not quite right in her mind; there was a strange unconscious stare in her eyes, as if she were walking in her sleep. Her pace was very steady — neither quick nor slow. He had watched her till she passed out of sight, amidst a wood through which the path wound its way to a village at some distance.

I followed up this clew. I arrived at the village to which my informant directed me, but night had set in. Most of the houses were closed, so I could glean no further information from the cottages or at the inn. But the police superintendent of the district lived in the village, and to him I gave instructions which I had not given, and, indeed, would have been disinclined to give, to the police at L——. He was intelligent and kindly; he promised to communicate at once with the different police-stations for miles round, and with all delicacy and privacy. It was not probable that Lilian could have wandered in one day much farther than the place at which I then was; it was scarcely to be conceived that she could baffle my pursuit and the practised skill of the police. I rested but a few hours, at a small public-house, and was on horseback again at dawn. A little after sunrise I again heard of the wanderer. At a lonely cottage, by a brick-kiln, in the midst of a wide common, she had stopped the previous evening, and asked for a draught of milk. The woman who gave it to her inquired if she had lost her way. She said “No;” and, only tarrying a few minutes, had gone across the common; and the woman supposed she was a visitor at a gentleman’s house which was at the farther end of the waste, for the path she took led to no town, no village. It occurred to me then that Lilian avoided all high-roads, all places, even the humblest, where men congregated together. But where could she have passed the night? Not to fatigue the reader with the fruitless result of frequent inquiries, I will but say that at the end of the second day I had succeeded in ascertaining that I was still on her track; and though I had ridden to and fro nearly double the distance — coming back again to places I had left behind — it was at the distance of forty miles from L—— that I last heard of her that second day. She had been sitting alone by a little brook only an hour before. I was led to the very spot by a woodman — it was at the hour of twilight when he beheld her; she was leaning her face on her hand, and seemed weary. He spoke to her; she did not answer, but rose and resumed her way along the banks of the streamlet. That night I put up at no inn; I followed the course of the brook for miles, then struck into every path that I could conceive her to have taken — in vain. Thus I consumed the night on foot, tying my horse to a tree, for he was tired out, and returning to him at sunrise. At noon, the third day, I again heard of her, and in a remote, savage part of the country. The features of the landscape were changed; there was little foliage and little culture, but the ground was broken into moulds and hollows, and covered with patches of heath and stunted brushwood. She had been seen by a shepherd, and he made the same observation as the first who had guided me on her track — she looked to him “like some one walking in her sleep.” An hour or two later, in a dell, amongst the furze-bushes, I chanced on a knot of ribbon. I recognized the colour Lilian habitually wore; I felt certain that the ribbon was hers. Calculating the utmost speed I could ascribe to her, she could not be far off, yet still I failed to discover her. The scene now was as solitary as a desert. I met no one on my way. At length, a little after sunset, I found myself in view of the sea. A small town nestled below the cliffs, on which I was guiding my weary horse. I entered the town, and while my horse was baiting went in search of the resident policeman. The information I had directed to be sent round the country had reached him; he had acted on it, but without result. I was surprised to hear him address me by name, and looking at him more narrowly, I recognized him for the policeman Waby. This young man had always expressed so grateful a sense of my attendance on his sister, and had, indeed, so notably evinced his gratitude in prosecuting with Margrave the inquiries which terminated in the discovery of Sir Philip Derval’s murderer, that I confided to him the name of the wanderer, of which he had not been previously informed; but which it would be, indeed, impossible to conceal from him should the search in which his aid was asked prove successful — as he knew Miss Ashleigh by sight. His face immediately became thoughtful. He paused a minute or two, and then said —

“I think I have it, but I do not like to say; I may pain you, sir.”

“Not by confidence; you pain me by concealment.”

The man hesitated still: I encouraged him, and then he spoke out frankly.

“Sir, did you never think it strange that Mr. Margrave should move from his handsome rooms in the hotel to a somewhat uncomfortable lodging, from the window of which he could look down on Mrs. Ashleigh’s garden? I have seen him at night in the balcony of that window, and when I noticed him going so frequently into Mrs. Ashleigh’s house during your unjust detention, I own, sir, I felt for you —”

“Nonsense! Mr. Margrave went to Mrs. Ashleigh’s house as my friend. He has left L—— weeks ago. What has all this to do with —”

“Patience, sir; hear me out. I was sent from L—— to this station (on promotion, sir) a fortnight since last Friday, for there has been a good deal of crime hereabouts; it is a bad neighbourhood, and full of smugglers. Some days ago, in watching quietly near a lonely house, of which the owner is a suspicious character down in my books, I saw, to my amazement, Mr. Margrave come out of that house — come out of a private door in it, which belongs to a part of the building not inhabited by the owner, but which used formerly, when the house was a sort of inn, to be let to night lodgers of the humblest description. I followed him; he went down to the seashore, walked about, singing to himself; then returned to the house, and reentered by the same door. I soon learned that he lodged in the house — had lodged there for several days. The next morning, a fine yacht arrived at a tolerably convenient creek about a mile from the house, and there anchored. Sailors came ashore, rambling down to this town. The yacht belonged to Mr. Margrave; he had purchased it by commission in London. It is stored for a long voyage. He had directed it to come to him in this out-of-the-way place, where no gentleman’s yacht ever put in before, though the creek or bay is handy enough for such craft. Well, sir, is it not strange that a rich young gentleman should come to this unfrequented seashore, put up with accommodation that must be of the rudest kind, in the house of a man known as a desperate smuggler, suspected to be worse; order a yacht to meet him here; is not all this strange? But would it be strange if he were waiting for a young lady? And if a young lady has fled at night from her home, and has come secretly along bypaths, which must have been very fully explained to her beforehand, and is now near that young gentleman’s lodging, if not actually in it — if this be so, why, the affair is not so very strange after all. And now do you forgive me, sir?”

“Where is this house? Lead me to it.”

“You can hardly get to it except on foot; rough walking, sir, and about seven miles off by the shortest cut.”

“Come, and at once; come quickly. We must be there before — before —”

“Before the young lady can get to the place. Well, from what you say of the spot in which she was last seen, I think, on reflection, we may easily do that. I am at your service, sir. But I should warn you that the owners of the house, man and wife, are both of villanous character — would do anything for money. Mr. Margrave, no doubt, has money enough; and if the young lady chooses to go away with Mr. Margrave, you know I have no power to help it.”

“Leave all that to me; all I ask of you is to show me the house.”

We were soon out of the town; the night had closed in; it was very dark, in spite of a few stars; the path was rugged and precipitous, sometimes skirting the very brink of perilous cliffs, sometimes delving down to the seashore — there stopped by rock or wave — and painfully rewinding up the ascent.

“It is an ugly path, sir, but it saves four miles; and anyhow the road is a bad one.”

We came, at last, to a few wretched fishermen’s huts. The moon had now risen, and revealed the squalor of poverty-stricken ruinous hovels; a couple of boats moored to the shore, a moaning, fretful sea; and at a distance a vessel, with lights on board, lying perfectly still at anchor in a sheltered curve of the bold rude shore. The policeman pointed to the vessel.

“The yacht, sir; the wind will be in her favour if she sails tonight.”

We quickened our pace as well as the nature of the path would permit, left the huts behind us, and about a mile farther on came to a solitary house, larger than, from the policeman’s description of Margrave’s lodgement, I should have presupposed: a house that in the wilder parts of Scotland might be almost a laird’s; but even in the moonlight it looked very dilapidated and desolate. Most of the windows were closed, some with panes broken, stuffed with wisps of straw; there were the remains of a wall round the house; it was broken in some parts (only its foundation left). On approaching the house I observed two doors — one on the side fronting the sea, one on the other side, facing a patch of broken ground that might once have been a garden, and lay waste within the enclosure of the ruined wall, encumbered with various litter; heaps of rubbish, a ruined shed, the carcass of a worn-out boat. This latter door stood wide open — the other was closed. The house was still and dark, as if either deserted, or all within it retired to rest.

“I think that open door leads at once to the rooms Mr. Margrave hires; he can go in and out without disturbing the other inmates. They used to keep, on the side which they inhabit, a beer-house, but the magistrates shut it up; still, it is a resort for bad characters. Now, sir, what shall we do?

“Watch separately. You wait within the enclosure of the wall, hid by those heaps of rubbish, near the door; none can enter but what you will observe them. If you see her, you will accost and stop her, and call aloud for me; I shall be in hearing. I will go back to the high part of the ground yonder — it seems to me that she must pass that way; and I would desire, if possible, to save her from the humiliation, the — the shame of coming within the precincts of that man’s abode. I feel I may trust you now and hereafter. It is a great thing for the happiness and honour of this poor young lady and her mother, that I may be able to declare that I did not take her from that man, from any man — from that house, from any house. You comprehend me, and will obey? I speak to you as a confidant — a friend.”

“I thank you with my whole heart, sir, for so doing. You saved my sister’s life, and the least I can do is to keep secret all that would pain your life if blabbed abroad. I know what mischief folks’ tongues can make. I will wait by the door, never fear, and will rather lose my place than not strain all the legal power I possess to keep the young lady back from sorrow.”

This dialogue was interchanged in close hurried whisper behind the broken wall, and out of all hearing. Waby now crept through a wide gap into the inclosure, and nestled himself silently amidst the wrecks of the broken boat, not six feet from the open door, and close to the wall of the house itself. I went back some thirty yards up the road, to the rising ground which I had pointed out to him. According to the best calculation I could make — considering the pace at which I had cleared the precipitous pathway, and reckoning from the place and time at which Lilian had been last seen-she could not possibly have yet entered that house. I might presume it would be more than half an hour before she could arrive; I was in hopes that, during the interval, Margrave might show himself, perhaps at the door, or from the windows, or I might even by some light from the latter be guided to the room in which to find him. If, after waiting a reasonable time, Lilian should fail to appear, I had formed my plan of action; but it was important for the success of that plan that I should not lose myself in the strange house, nor bring its owners to Margrave’s aid — that I should surprise him alone and unawares. Half an hour, three quarters, a whole hour thus passed. No sign of my poor wanderer; but signs there were of the enemy from whom I resolved, at whatever risk, to free and to save her. A window on the ground-floor, to the left of the door, which had long fixed my attention because I had seen light through the chinks of the shutters, slowly unclosed, the shutters fell back, the casement opened, and I beheld Margrave distinctly; he held something in his hand that gleamed in the moonlight, directed not towards the mound on which I stood, nor towards the path I had taken, but towards an open space beyond the ruined wall to the right. Hid by a cluster of stunted shrubs I watched him with a heart that beat with rage, not with terror. He seemed so intent in his own gaze as to be unheeding or unconscious of all else. I stole from my post, and, still under cover, sometimes of the broken wall, sometimes of the shaggy ridges that skirted the path, crept on, on till I reached the side of the house itself; then, there secure from his eyes, should he turn them, I stepped over the ruined wall, scarcely two feet high in that place, on — on towards the door. I passed the spot on which the policeman had shrouded himself; he was seated, his back against the ribs of the broken boat. I put my hand to his mouth that he might not cry out in surprise, and whispered in his ear; he stirred not. I shook him by the arm: still he stirred not. A ray of the moon fell on his face. I saw that he was in a profound slumber. Persuaded that it was no natural sleep, and that he had become useless to me, I passed him by. I was at the threshold of the open door, the light from the window close by falling on the ground; I was in the passage; a glimmer came through the chinks of a door to the left; I turned the handle noiselessly, and, the next moment, Margrave was locked in my grasp.

“Call out,” I hissed in his ear, “and I strangle you before any one can come to your help.”

He did not call out; his eye, fixed on mine as he writhed round, saw, perhaps, his peril if he did. His countenance betrayed fear, but as I tightened my grasp that expression gave way to one of wrath and fierceness; and as, in turn, I felt the grip of his hand, I knew that the struggle between us would be that of two strong men, each equally bent on the mastery of the other.

I was, as I have said before, endowed with an unusual degree of physical power, disciplined in early youth by athletic exercise and contest. In height and in muscle I had greatly the advantage over my antagonist; but such was the nervous vigour, the elastic energy of his incomparable frame, in which sinews seemed springs of steel, that had our encounter been one in which my strength was less heightened by rage, I believe that I could no more have coped with him than the bison can cope with the boa; but I was animated by that passion which trebles for a time all our forces — which makes even the weak man a match for the strong. I felt that if I were worsted, disabled, stricken down, Lilian might be lost in losing her sole protector; and on the other hand, Margrave had been taken at the disadvantage of that surprise which will half unnerve the fiercest of the wild beasts; while as we grappled, reeling and rocking to and fro in our struggle, I soon observed that his attention was distracted — that his eye was turned towards an object which he had dropped involuntarily when I first seized him. He sought to drag me towards that object, and when near it stooped to seize. It was a bright, slender, short wand of steel. I remembered when and where I had seen it, whether in my waking state or in vision; and as his hand stole down to take it from the floor, I set on the wand my strong foot. I cannot tell by what rapid process of thought and association I came to the belief that the possession of a little piece of blunted steel would decide the conflict in favor of the possessor; but the struggle now was concentred on the attainment of that seemingly idle weapon. I was becoming breathless and exhausted, while Margrave seemed every moment to gather up new force, when collecting all my strength for one final effort, I lifted him suddenly high in the air, and hurled him to the farthest end of the cramped arena to which our contest was confined. He fell, and with a force by which most men would have been stunned; but he recovered himself with a quick rebound, and, as he stood facing me, there was something grand as well as terrible in his aspect. His eyes literally flamed, as those of a tiger; his rich hair, flung back from his knitted forehead, seemed to erect itself as an angry mane; his lips, slightly parted, showed the glitter of his set teeth; his whole frame seemed larger in the tension of the muscles, and as, gradually relaxing his first defying and haughty attitude, he crouched as the panther crouches for its deadly spring, I felt as if it were a wild beast, whose rush was coming upon me — wild beast, but still Man, the king of the animals, fashioned forth from no mixture of humbler races by the slow revolutions of time, but his royalty stamped on his form when the earth became fit for his coming.26

At that moment I snatched up the wand, directed it towards him, and advancing with a fearless stride, cried —

“Down to my feet, miserable sorcerer!”

To my own amaze, the effect was instantaneous. My terrible antagonist dropped to the floor as a dog drops at the word of his master. The muscles of his frowning countenance relaxed, the glare of his wrathful eyes grew dull and rayless; his limbs lay prostrate and unnerved, his head rested against the wall, his arms limp and drooping by his side. I approached him slowly and cautiously; he seemed cast into a profound slumber.

“You are at my mercy now!” said I.

He moved his head as in sign of deprecating submission.

“You hear and understand me? Speak!”

His lips faintly muttered, “Yes.”

“I command you to answer truly the questions I shall address to you.”

“I must, while yet sensible of the power that has passed to your hand.”

“Is it by some occult magnetic property in this wand that you have exercised so demoniac an influence over a creature so pure as Lilian Ashleigh?”

“By that wand and by other arts which you could not comprehend.”

“And for what infamous object — her seduction, her dishonour?”

“No! I sought in her the aid of a gift which would cease did she cease to be pure. At first I but cast my influence upon her that through her I might influence yourself. I needed your help to discover a secret. Circumstances steeled your mind against me. I could no longer hope that you would voluntarily lend yourself to my will. Meanwhile, I had found in her the light of a loftier knowledge than that of your science; through that knowledge, duly heeded and cultivated, I hoped to divine what I cannot of myself discover. Therefore I deepened over her mind the spells I command; therefore I have drawn her hither as the loadstone draws the steel, and therefore I would have borne her with me to the shores to which I was about this night to sail. I had cast the inmates of the house and all around it into slumber, in order that none might witness her departure; had I not done so, I should have summoned others to my aid, in spite of your threat.”

“And would Lilian Ashleigh have passively accompanied you, to her own irretrievable disgrace?”

“She could not have helped it; she would have been unconscious of her acts; she was, and is, in a trance; nor, had she gone with me, would she have waked from that state while she lived; that would not have been long.”

“Wretch! and for what object of unhallowed curiosity do you exert an influence which withers away the life of its victim?”

“Not curiosity, but the instinct of self-preservation. I count on no life beyond the grave. I would defy the grave, and live on.”

“And was it to learn, through some ghastly agencies, the secret of renewing existence, that you lured me by the shadow of your own image on the night when we met last?”

The voice of Margrave here became very faint as he answered me, and his countenance began to exhibit the signs of an exhaustion almost mortal.

“Be quick,” he murmured, “or I die. The fluid which emanates from that wand, in the hand of one who envenoms that fluid with his own hatred and rage, will prove fatal to my life. Lower the wand from my forehead! low — low — lower still!”

“What was the nature of that rite in which you constrained me to share?”

“I cannot say. You are killing me. Enough that you were saved from a great danger by the apparition of the protecting image vouchsafed to your eye; otherwise you would — you would — Oh, release me! Away! away!”

The foam gathered to his lips; his limbs became fearfully convulsed.

“One question more: where is Lilian at this moment? Answer that question, and I depart.”

He raised his head, made a visible effort to rally his strength, and gasped out —

“Yonder. Pass through the open space up the cliff, beside a thorn-tree; you will find her there, where she halted when the wand dropped from my hand. But — but — beware! Ha! you will serve me yet, and through her! They said so that night, though you heard them not. They said it!” Here his face became death-like; he pressed his hand on his heart, and shrieked out, “Away! away! or you are my murderer!”

I retreated to the other end of the room, turning the wand from him, and when I gained the door, looked back; his convulsions had ceased, but he seemed locked in a profound swoon.

I left the room — the house — paused by Waby; he was still sleeping. “Awake!” I said, and touched him with the wand. He started up at once, rubbed his eyes, began stammering out excuses. I checked them, and bade him follow me. I took the way up the open ground towards which Margrave had pointed the wand, and there, motionless, beside a gnarled fantastic thorn-tree, stood Lilian. Her arms were folded across her breast; her face, seen by the moonlight, looked so innocent and so infantine, that I needed no other evidence to tell me how unconscious she was of the peril to which her steps had been drawn. I took her gently by the hand. “Come with me,” I said in a whisper, and she obeyed me silently, and with a placid smile.

Rough though the way, she seemed unconscious of fatigue. I placed her arm in mine, but she did not lean on it. We got back to the town. I obtained there an old chaise and a pair of horses. At morning Lilian was under her mother’s roof. About the noon of that day fever seized her; she became rapidly worse, and, to all appearance, in imminent danger. Delirium set in; I watched beside her night and day, supported by an inward conviction of her recovery, but tortured by the sight of her sufferings. On the third day a change for the better became visible; her sleep was calm, her breathing regular.

Shortly afterwards she woke out of danger. Her eyes fell at once on me, with all their old ineffable tender sweetness.

“Oh, Allen, beloved, have I not been very ill? But I am almost well now. Do not weep; I shall live for you — for your sake.” And she bent forward, drawing my hand from my streaming eyes, and kissed me with a child’s guileless kiss on my burning forehead.

26 And yet, even if we entirely omit the consideration of the soul, that immaterial and immortal principle which is for a time united to his body, and view him only in his merely animal character, man is still the most excellent of animals. — Dr. Kidd, On the Adaptation of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man (Sect. iii. p. 18).

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