A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 6.

Mrs. Poyntz was seated on the sofa; at her right sat fat Mrs. Bruce, who was a Scotch lord’s grand-daughter; at her left thin Miss Brabazon, who was an Irish baronet’s niece. Around her — a few seated, many standing — had grouped all the guests, save two old gentlemen, who had remained aloof with Colonel Poyntz near the whist-table, waiting for the fourth old gentleman who was to make up the rubber, but who was at that moment spell-bound in the magic circle which curiosity, that strongest of social demons, had attracted round the hostess.

“Taken Abbots’ House? I will tell you. — Ah, Dr. Fenwick, charmed to see you. You know Abbots’ House is let at last? Well, Miss Brabazon, dear, you ask who has taken it. I will inform you — a particular friend of mine.”

“Indeed! Dear me!” said Miss Brabazon, looking confused. “I hope I did not say anything to —”

“Wound my feelings. Not in the least. You said your uncle Sir Phelim employed a coachmaker named Ashleigh, that Ashleigh was an uncommon name, though Ashley was a common one; you intimated an appalling suspicion that the Mrs. Ashleigh who had come to the Hill was the coach maker’s widow. I relieve your mind — she is not; she is the widow of Gilbert Ashleigh, of Kirby Hall.”

“Gilbert Ashleigh,” said one of the guests, a bachelor, whose parents had reared him for the Church, but who, like poor Goldsmith, did not think himself good enough for it, a mistake of over-modesty, for he matured into a very harmless creature. “Gilbert Ashleigh? I was at Oxford with him — a gentleman commoner of Christ Church. Good-looking man, very; sapped —”

“Sapped! what’s that? — Oh, studied. That he did all his life. He married young — Anne Chaloner; she and I were girls together; married the same year. They settled at Kirby Hall — nice place, but dull. Poyntz and I spent a Christmas there. Ashleigh when he talked was charming, but he talked very little. Anne, when she talked, was commonplace, and she talked very much. Naturally, poor thing — — she was so happy. Poyntz and I did not spend another Christmas there. Friendship is long, but life is short. Gilbert Ashleigh’s life was short indeed; he died in the seventh year of his marriage, leaving only one child, a girl. Since then, though I never spent another Christmas at Kirby Hall, I have frequently spent a day there, doing my best to cheer up Anne. She was no longer talkative, poor dear. Wrapped up in her child, who has now grown into a beautiful girl of eighteen — such eyes, her father’s — the real dark blue — rare; sweet creature, but delicate; not, I hope, consumptive, but delicate; quiet, wants life. My girl Jane adores her. Jane has life enough for two.”

“Is Miss Ashleigh the heiress to Kirby Hall?” asked Mrs. Bruce, who had an unmarried son.

“No. Kirby Hall passed to Ashleigh Sumner, the male heir, a cousin. And the luckiest of cousins! Gilbert’s sister, showy woman (indeed all show), had contrived to marry her kinsman, Sir Walter Ashleigh Haughton, the head of the Ashleigh family — just the man made to be the reflector of a showy woman! He died years ago, leaving an only son, Sir James, who was killed last winter, by a fall from his horse. And here, again, Ashleigh Summer proved to be the male heir-at-law. During the minority of this fortunate youth, Mrs. Ashleigh had rented Kirby Hall of his guardian. He is now just coming of age, and that is why she leaves. Lilian Ashleigh will have, however, a very good fortune — is what we genteel paupers call an heiress. Is there anything more you want to know?”

Said thin Miss Brabazon, who took advantage of her thinness to wedge herself into every one’s affairs, “A most interesting account. What a nice place Abbots’ House could be made with a little taste! So aristocratic! Just what I should like if I could afford it! The drawing-room should be done up in the Moorish style, with geranium-coloured silk curtains, like dear Lady L——‘s boudoir at Twickenham. And Mrs. Ashleigh has taken the house on lease too, I suppose!” Here Miss Brabazon fluttered her fan angrily, and then exclaimed, “But what on earth brings Mrs. Ashleigh here?”

Answered Mrs. Colonel Poyntz, with the military frankness by which she kept her company in good humour, as well as awe —

“Why do any of us come here? Can any one tell me?”

There was a blank silence, which the hostess herself was the first to break.

“None of us present can say why we came here. I can tell you why Mrs. Ashleigh came. Our neighbour, Mr. Vigors, is a distant connection of the late Gilbert Ashleigh, one of the executors to his will, and the guardian to the heir-at-law. About ten days ago Mr. Vigors called on me, for the first time since I felt it my duty to express my disapprobation of the strange vagaries so unhappily conceived by our poor dear friend Dr. Lloyd. And when he had taken his chair, just where you now sit, Dr. Fenwick, he said in a sepulchral voice, stretching out two fingers, so — as if I were one of the what-do-you-call-‘ems who go to sleep when he bids them, ‘Marm, you know Mrs. Ashleigh? You correspond with her?’ ‘Yes, Mr. Vigors; is there any crime in that? You look as if there were.’ ‘No crime, marm,’ said the man, quite seriously. ‘Mrs. Ashleigh is a lady of amiable temper, and you are a woman of masculine understanding.’”

Here there was a general titter. Mrs. Colonel Poyntz hushed it with a look of severe surprise. “What is there to laugh at? All women would be men if they could. If my understanding is masculine, so much the better for me. I thanked Mr. Vigors for his very handsome compliment, and he then went on to say that though Mrs. Ashleigh would now have to leave Kirby Hall in a very few weeks, she seemed quite unable to make up her mind where to go; that it had occurred to him that, as Miss Ashleigh was of an age to see a little of the world, she ought not to remain buried in the country; while, being of quiet mind, she recoiled from the dissipation of London. Between the seclusion of the one and the turmoil of the other, the society of L—— was a happy medium. He should be glad of my opinion. He had put off asking for it, because he owned his belief that I had behaved unkindly to his lamented friend, Dr. Lloyd; but he now found himself in rather an awkward position. His ward, young Sumner, had prudently resolved on fixing his country residence at Kirby Hall, rather than at Haughton Park, the much larger seat which had so suddenly passed to his inheritance, and which he could not occupy without a vast establishment, that to a single man, so young, would be but a cumbersome and costly trouble. Mr. Vigors was pledged to his ward to obtain him possession of Kirby Hall, the precise day agreed upon, but Mrs. Ashleigh did not seem disposed to stir — could not decide where else to go. Mr. Vigors was loth to press hard on his old friend’s widow and child. It was a thousand pities Mrs Ashleigh could not make up her mind; she had had ample time for preparation. A word from me at this moment would be an effective kindness. Abbots’ House was vacant, with a garden so extensive that the ladies would not miss the country. Another party was after it, but —‘Say no more,’ I cried; ‘no party but my dear old friend Anne Ashleigh shall have Abbots’ House. So that question is settled.’ I dismissed Mr. Vigors, sent for my carriage, that is, for Mr. Barker’s yellow fly and his best horses — and drove that very day to Kirby Hall, which, though not in this county, is only twenty-five miles distant. I slept there that night. By nine o’clock the next morning I had secured Mrs. Ashleigh’s consent, on the promise to save her all trouble; came back, sent for the landlord, settled the rent, lease, agreement; engaged Forbes’ vans to remove the furniture from Kirby Hall; told Forbes to begin with the beds. When her own bed came, which was last night, Anne Ashleigh came too. I have seen her this morning. She likes the place, so does Lilian. I asked them to meet you all here to-night; but Mrs. Ashleigh was tired. The last of the furniture was to arrive today; and though dear Mrs. Ashleigh is an undecided character, she is not inactive. But it is not only the planning where to put tables and chairs that would have tried her today: she has had Mr. Vigors on her hands all the afternoon, and he has been — here’s her little note — what are the words? No doubt ‘most overpowering and oppressive;’ no, ‘most kind and attentive,’— different words, but, as applied to Mr. Vigors, they mean the same thing.

“And now, next Monday —— we must leave them in peace till then — you will all call on the Ashleighs. The Hill knows what is due to itself; it cannot delegate to Mr. Vigors, a respectable man indeed, but who does not belong to its set, its own proper course of action towards those who would shelter themselves on its bosom. The Hill cannot be kind and attentive, overpowering or oppressive by proxy. To those newborn into its family circle it cannot be an indifferent godmother; it has towards them all the feelings of a mother — or of a stepmother, as the case may be. Where it says ‘This can be no child of mine,’ it is a stepmother indeed; but in all those whom I have presented to its arms, it has hitherto, I am proud to say, recognized desirable acquaintances, and to them the Hill has been a mother. And now, my dear Mr. Sloman, go to your rubber; Poyntz is impatient, though he don’t show it. Miss Brabazon, love, we all long to see you seated at the piano — you play so divinely! Something gay, if you please; something gay, but not very noisy — Mr. Leopold Symthe will turn the leaves for you. Mrs. Bruce, your own favourite set at vingt-un, with four new recruits. Dr. Fenwick, you are like me, don’t play cards, and don’t care for music; sit here, and talk or not, as you please, while I knit.”

The other guests thus disposed of, some at the card-tables, some round the piano, I placed myself at Mrs. Poyntz’s side, on a seat niched in the recess of a window which an evening unusually warm for the month of May permitted to be left open. I was next to one who had known Lilian as a child, one from whom I had learned by what sweet name to call the image which my thoughts had already shrined. How much that I still longed to know she could tell me! But in what form of question could I lead to the subject, yet not betray my absorbing interest in it? Longing to speak, I felt as if stricken dumb; stealing an unquiet glance towards the face beside me, and deeply impressed with that truth which the Hill had long ago reverently acknowledged — namely, that Mrs. Colonel Poyntz was a very superior woman, a very powerful creature.

And there she sat knitting, rapidly, firmly; a woman somewhat on the other side of forty, complexion a bronze paleness, hair a bronze brown, in strong ringlets cropped short behind — handsome hair for a man; lips that, when closed, showed inflexible decision, when speaking, became supple and flexible with an easy humour and a vigilant finesse; eyes of a red hazel, quick but steady — observing, piercing, dauntless eyes; altogether a fine countenance — would have been a very fine countenance in a man; profile sharp, straight, clear-cut, with an expression, when in repose, like that of a sphinx; a frame robust, not corpulent; of middle height, but with an air and carriage that made her appear tall; peculiarly white firm hands, indicative of vigorous health, not a vein visible on the surface.

There she sat knitting, knitting, and I by her side, gazing now on herself, now on her work, with a vague idea that the threads in the skein of my own web of love or of life were passing quick through those noiseless fingers. And, indeed, in every web of romance, the fondest, one of the Parcae is sure to be some matter-of-fact She, Social Destiny, as little akin to romance herself as was this worldly Queen of the Hill.

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