A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 57.

Mrs. Poyntz was on her favourite seat by the window, and for a wonder, not knitting — that classic task seemed done; but she was smoothing and folding the completed work with her white comely hand, and smiling over it, as if in complacent approval, when I entered the room. At the fire-side sat the he-colonel inspecting a newly-invented barometer; at another window, in the farthest recess of the room, stood Miss Jane Poyntz, with a young gentleman whom I had never before seen, but who turned his eyes full upon me with a haughty look as the servant announced my name. He was tall, well proportioned, decidedly handsome, but with that expression of cold and concentred self-esteem in his very attitude, as well as his countenance, which makes a man of merit unpopular, a man without merit ridiculous.

The he-colonel, always punctiliously civil, rose from his seat, shook hands with me cordially, and said, “Coldish weather today; but we shall have rain tomorrow. Rainy seasons come in cycles. We are about to commence a cycle of them with heavy showers.” He sighed, and returned to his barometer.

Miss Jane bowed to me graciously enough, but was evidently a little confused — a circumstance which might well attract my notice, for I had never before seen that high-bred young lady deviate a hairsbreadth from the even tenor of a manner admirable for a cheerful and courteous ease, which, one felt convinced, would be unaltered to those around her if an earthquake swallowed one up an inch before her feet.

The young gentleman continued to eye me loftily, as the heir-apparent to some celestial planet might eye an inferior creature from a half-formed nebula suddenly dropped upon his sublime and perfected, star.

Mrs. Poyntz extended to me two fingers, and said frigidly, “Delighted to see you again! How kind to attend so soon to my note!”

Motioning me to a seat beside her, she here turned to her husband, and said, “Poyntz, since a cycle of rain begins tomorrow, better secure your ride today. Take these young people with you. I want to talk with Dr. Fenwick.”

The colonel carefully put away his barometer, and saying to his daughter, “Come!” went forth. Jane followed her father; the young gentleman followed Jane.

The reception I had met chilled and disappointed me. I felt that Mrs. Poyntz was changed, and in her change the whole house seemed changed. The very chairs looked civilly unfriendly, as if preparing to turn their backs on me. However, I was not in the false position of an intruder; I had been summoned; it was for Mrs. Poyntz to speak first, and I waited quietly for her to do so.

She finished the careful folding of her work, and then laid it at rest in the drawer of the table at which she sat. Having so done, she turned to me, and said —

“By the way, I ought to have introduced to you my young guest, Mr. Ashleigh Sumner. You would like him. He has talents — not showy, but solid. He will succeed in public life.”

“So that young man is Mr. Ashleigh Sumner? I do not wonder that Miss Ashleigh rejected him.”

I said this, for I was nettled, as well as surprised, at the coolness with which a lady who had professed a friendship for me mentioned that fortunate young gentleman, with so complete an oblivion of all the antecedents that had once made his name painful to my ear.

In turn, my answer seemed to nettle Mrs. Poyntz.

“I am not so sure that she did reject; perhaps she rather misunderstood him; gallant compliments are not always proposals of marriage. However that be, his spirits were not much damped by Miss Ashleigh’s disdain, nor his heart deeply smitten by her charms; for he is now very happy, very much attached to another young lady, to whom he proposed three days ago, at Lady Delafield’s, and not to make a mystery of what all our little world will know before tomorrow, that young lady is my daughter Jane.”

“Were I acquainted with Mr. Sumner, I should offer to him my sincere congratulations.”

Mrs. Poyntz resumed, without heeding a reply more complimentary to Miss Jane than to the object of her choice —

“I told you that I meant Jane to marry a rich country gentleman, and Ashleigh Sumner is the very country gentleman I had then in my thoughts. He is cleverer and more ambitious than I could have hoped; he will be a minister some day, in right of his talents, and a peer, if he wishes it, in right of his lands. So that matter is settled.”

There was a pause, during which my mind passed rapidly through links of reminiscence and reasoning, which led me to a mingled sentiment of admiration for Mrs. Poyntz as a diplomatist and of distrust for Mrs. Poyntz as a friend. It was now clear why Mrs. Poyntz, before so little disposed to approve my love, had urged me at once to offer my hand to Lilian, in order that she might depart affianced and engaged to the house in which she would meet Mr. Ashleigh Sumner. Hence Mrs. Poyntz’s anxiety to obtain all the information I could afford her of the sayings and doings at Lady Haughton’s; hence, the publicity she had so suddenly given to my engagement; hence, when Mr. Sumner had gone away a rejected suitor, her own departure from L——; she had seized the very moment when a vain and proud man, piqued by the mortification received from one lady, falls the easier prey to the arts which allure his suit to another. All was so far clear to me. And I— was my self-conceit less egregious and less readily duped than that of yon glided popinjay’s! How skilfully this woman had knitted me into her work with the noiseless turn of her white hands! and yet, forsooth, I must vaunt the superior scope of my intellect, and plumb all the fountains of Nature — I, who could not fathom the little pool of this female schemer’s mind!

But that was no time for resentment to her or rebuke to myself. She was now the woman who could best protect and save from slander my innocent, beloved Lilian. But how approach that perplexing subject?

Mrs. Poyntz approached it, and with her usual decision of purpose, which bore so deceitful a likeness to candour of mind.

“But it was not to talk of my affairs that I asked you to call, Allen Fenwick.” As she uttered my name, her voice softened, and her manner took that maternal, caressing tenderness which had sometimes amused and sometimes misled me. “No, I do not forget that you asked me to be your friend, and I take without scruple the license of friendship. What are these stories that I have heard already about Lilian Ashleigh, to whom you were once engaged?”

“To whom I am still engaged.”

“Is it possible? Oh, then, of course the stories I have heard are all false. Very likely; no fiction in scandal ever surprises me. Poor dear Lilian, then, never ran away from her mother’s house?”

I smothered the angry pain which this mode of questioning caused me; I knew how important it was to Lilian to secure to her the countenance and support of this absolute autocrat; I spoke of Lilian’s long previous distemper of mind; I accounted for it as any intelligent physician, unacquainted with all that I could not reveal, would account. Heaven forgive me for the venial falsehood, but I spoke of the terrible charge against myself as enough to unhinge for a time the intellect of a girl so acutely sensitive as Lilian; I sought to create that impression as to the origin of all that might otherwise seem strange; and in this state of cerebral excitement she had wandered from home — but alone. I had tracked every step of her way; I had found and restored her to her home. A critical delirium had followed, from which she now rose, cured in health, unsuspicious that there could be a whisper against her name. And then, with all the eloquence I could command, and in words as adapted as I could frame them to soften the heart of a woman, herself a mother, I implored Mrs. Poyntz’s aid to silence all the cruelties of calumny, and extend her shield over the child of her own early friend.

When I came to an end, I had taken, with caressing force, Mrs. Poyntz’s reluctant hands in mine. There were tears in my voice, tears in my eyes. And the sound of her voice in reply gave me hope, for it was unusually gentle. She was evidently moved. The hope was soon quelled.

“Allen Fenwick,” she said, “you have a noble heart; I grieve to see how it abuses your reason. I cannot aid Lilian Ashleigh in the way you ask. Do not start back so indignantly. Listen to me as patiently as I have listened to you. That when you brought back the unfortunate young woman to her poor mother, her mind was disordered, and became yet more dangerously so, I can well believe; that she is now recovered, and thinks with shame, or refuses to think at all, of her imprudent flight, I can believe also; but I do not believe, the World cannot believe, that she did not, knowingly and purposely, quit her mother’s roof, and in quest of that young stranger so incautiously, so unfeelingly admitted to her mother’s house during the very time you were detained on the most awful of human accusations. Every one in the town knows that Mr. Margrave visited daily at Mrs. Ashleigh’s during that painful period; every one in the town knows in what strange out-of-the-way place this young man had niched himself; and that a yacht was bought, and lying in wait there. What for? It is said that the chaise in which you brought Miss Ashleigh back to her home was hired in a village within an easy reach of Mr. Margrave’s lodging — of Mr. Margrave’s yacht. I rejoice that you saved the poor girl from ruin; but her good name is tarnished; and if Anne Ashleigh, whom I sincerely pity, asks me my advice, I can but give her this: ‘Leave L— — take your daughter abroad; and if she is not to marry Mr. Margrave, marry her as quietly and as quickly as possible to some foreigner.’”

“Madam! madam! this, then, is your friendship to her — to me! Oh, shame on you to insult thus an affianced husband! Shame on me ever to have thought you had a heart!”

“A heart, man!” she exclaimed, almost fiercely, springing up, and startling me with the change in her countenance and voice. “And little you would have valued, and pitilessly have crushed this heart, if I had suffered myself to show it to you! What right have you to reproach me? I felt a warm interest in your career, an unusual attraction in your conversation and society. Do you blame me for that, or should I blame myself? Condemned to live amongst brainless puppets, my dull occupation to pull the strings that moved them, it was a new charm to my life to establish friendship and intercourse with intellect and spirit and courage. Ah! I understand that look, half incredulous, half inquisitive.”

“Inquisitive, no; incredulous, yes! You desired my friendship, and how does your harsh judgment of my betrothed wife prove either to me or to her mother, whom you have known from your girlhood, the first duty of a friend — which is surely not that of leaving a friend’s side the moment that he needs countenance in calumny, succour in trouble!”

“It is a better duty to prevent the calumny and avert the trouble. Leave aside Anne Ashleigh, a cipher that I can add or abstract from my sum of life as I please. What is my duty to yourself? It is plain. It is to tell you that your honour commands you to abandon all thoughts of Lilian Ashleigh as your wife. Ungrateful that you are! Do you suppose it was no mortification to my pride of woman and friend, that you never approached me in confidence except to ask my good offices in promoting your courtship to another; no shock to the quiet plans I had formed as to our familiar though harmless intimacy, to hear that you were bent on a marriage in which my friend would be lost to me?”

“Not lost! not lost! On the contrary, the regard I must suppose you had for Lilian would have been a new link between our homes.”

“Pooh! Between me and that dreamy girl there could have been no sympathy, there could have grown up no regard. You would have been chained to your fireside, and — and — but no matter. I stifled my disappointment as soon as I felt it — stifled it, as all my life I have stifled that which either destiny or duty — duty to myself as to others — forbids me to indulge. Ah, do not fancy me one of the weak criminals who can suffer a worthy liking to grow into a debasing love! I was not in love with you, Allen Fenwick.”

“Do you think I was ever so presumptuous a coxcomb as to fancy it?”

“No,” she said, more softly; “I was not so false to my household ties and to my own nature. But there are some friendships which are as jealous as love. I could have cheerfully aided you in any choice which my sense could have approved for you as wise; I should have been pleased to have found in such a wife my most intimate companion. But that silly child! — absurd! Nevertheless, the freshness and enthusiasm of your love touched me; you asked my aid, and I gave it. Perhaps I did believe that when you saw more of Lilian Ashleigh you would be cured of a fancy conceived by the eye — I should have known better what dupes the wisest men can be to the witcheries of a fair face and eighteen! When I found your illusion obstinate, I wrenched myself away from a vain regret, turned to my own schemes and my own ambition, and smiled bitterly to think that, in pressing you to propose so hastily to Lilian, I made your blind passion an agent in my own plans. Enough of this. I speak thus openly and boldly to you now, because now I have not a sentiment that can interfere with the dispassionate soundness of my counsels. I repeat, you cannot now marry Lilian Ashleigh; I cannot take my daughter to visit her; I cannot destroy the social laws that I myself have set in my petty kingdom.”

“Be it as you will. I have pleaded for her while she is still Lilian Ashleigh. I plead for no one to whom I have once given my name. Before the woman whom I have taken from the altar, I can place, as a shield sufficient, my strong breast of man. Who has so deep an interest in Lilian’s purity as I have? Who is so fitted to know the exact truth of every whisper against her? Yet when I, whom you admit to have some reputation for shrewd intelligence — I, who tracked her way — I, who restored her to her home — when I, Allen Fenwick, am so assured of her inviolable innocence in thought as in deed, that I trust my honour to her keeping — surely, surely, I confute the scandal which you yourself do not believe, though you refuse to reject and to annul it?”

“Do not deceive yourself, Allen Fenwick,” said she, still standing beside me, her countenance now hard and stern. “Look where I stand, I am the World! The World, not as satirists depreciate, or as optimists extol its immutable properties, its all-persuasive authority. I am the World! And my voice is the World’s voice when it thus warns you. Should you make this marriage, your dignity of character and position would be gone! If you look only to lucre and professional success, possibly they may not ultimately suffer. You have skill, which men need; their need may still draw patients to your door and pour guineas into your purse. But you have the pride, as well as the birth of a gentleman, and the wounds to that pride will be hourly chafed and never healed. Your strong breast of man has no shelter to the frail name of woman. The World, in its health, will look down on your wife, though its sick may look up to you. This is not all. The World, in its gentlest mood of indulgence, will say compassionately, ‘Poor man! how weak, and how deceived! What an unfortunate marriage!’ But the World is not often indulgent — it looks most to the motives most seen on the surface. And the World will more frequently say, ‘No; much too clever a man to be duped! Miss Ashleigh had money. A good match to the man who liked gold better than honour.’”

I sprang to my feet, with difficulty suppressing my rage; and, remembering it was a woman who spoke to me, “Farewell, madam,” said I, through my grinded teeth. “Were you, indeed, the Personation of The World, whose mean notions you mouth so calmly, I could not disdain you more.” I turned to the door, and left her still standing erect and menacing, the hard sneer on her resolute lip, the red glitter in her remorseless eye.

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