A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 7.

I have given a sketch of the outward woman of Mrs. Colonel Poyntz. The inner woman was a recondite mystery deep as that of the sphinx, whose features her own resembled. But between the outward and the inward woman there is ever a third woman — the conventional woman — such as the whole human being appears to the world — always mantled, sometimes masked.

I am told that the fine people of London do not recognize the title of “Mrs. Colonel.” If that be true, the fine people of London must be clearly in the wrong, for no people in the universe could be finer than the fine people of Abbey Hill; and they considered their sovereign had as good a right to the title of Mrs. Colonel as the Queen of England has to that of “our Gracious Lady.” But Mrs. Poyntz herself never assumed the title of Mrs. Colonel; it never appeared on her cards — any more than the title of “Gracious Lady” appears on the cards which convey the invitation that a Lord Steward or Lord Chamberlain is commanded by her Majesty to issue. To titles, indeed, Mrs. Poyntz evinced no superstitious reverence. Two peeresses, related to her, not distantly, were in the habit of paying her a yearly visit which lasted two or three days. The Hill considered these visits an honour to its eminence. Mrs. Poyntz never seemed to esteem them an honour to herself; never boasted of them; never sought to show off her grand relations, nor put herself the least out of the way to receive them. Her mode of life was free from ostentation. She had the advantage of being a few hundreds a year richer than any other inhabitant of the Hill; but she did not devote her superior resources to the invidious exhibition of superior splendour. Like a wise sovereign, the revenues of her exchequer were applied to the benefit of her subjects, and not to the vanity of egotistical parade. As no one else on the Hill kept a carriage, she declined to keep one. Her entertainments were simple, but numerous. Twice a week she received the Hill, and was genuinely at home to it. She contrived to make her parties proverbially agreeable. The refreshments were of the same kind as those which the poorest of her old maids of honour might proffer; but they were better of their kind, the best of their kind — the best tea, the best lemonade, the best cakes. Her rooms had an air of comfort, which was peculiar to them. They looked like rooms accustomed to receive, and receive in a friendly way; well warmed, well lighted, card-tables and piano each in the place that made cards and music inviting; on the walls a few old family portraits, and three or four other pictures said to be valuable and certainly pleasing — two Watteaus, a Canaletti, a Weenix; plenty of easy-chairs and settees covered with a cheerful chintz — in the arrangement of the furniture generally an indescribable careless elegance. She herself was studiously plain in dress, more conspicuously free from jewelry and trinkets than any married lady on the Hill. But I have heard from those who were authorities on such a subject that she was never seen in a dress of the last year’s fashion. She adopted the mode as it came out, just enough to show that she was aware it was out; but with a sober reserve, as much as to say, “I adopt the fashion as far as it suits myself; I do not permit the fashion to adopt me.” In short, Mrs. Colonel Poyntz was sometimes rough, sometimes coarse, always masculine, and yet somehow or other masculine in a womanly way; but she was never vulgar because never affected. It was impossible not to allow that she was a thorough gentlewoman, and she could do things that lower other gentlewomen, without any loss of dignity. Thus she was an admirable mimic, certainly in itself the least ladylike condescension of humour. But when she mimicked, it was with so tranquil a gravity, or so royal a good humour, that one could only say, “What talents for society dear Mrs. Colonel has!” As she was a gentlewoman emphatically, so the other colonel, the he-colonel, was emphatically a gentleman; rather shy, but not cold; hating trouble of every kind, pleased to seem a cipher in his own house. If the sole study of Mrs. Colonel had been to make her husband comfortable, she could not have succeeded better than by bringing friends about him and then taking them off his hands. Colonel Poyntz, the he-colonel, had seen, in his youth, actual service; but had retired from his profession many years ago, shortly after his marriage. He was a younger brother of one of the principal squires in the country; inherited the house he lived in, with some other valuable property in and about L— — from an uncle; was considered a good landlord; and popular in Low Town, though he never interfered in its affairs. He was punctiliously neat in his dress; a thin youthful figure, crowned with a thick youthful wig. He never seemed to read anything but the newspapers and the “Meteorological Journal:” was supposed to be the most weatherwise man in all L——. He had another intellectual predilection — whist; but in that he had less reputation for wisdom. Perhaps it requires a rarer combination of mental faculties to win an odd trick than to divine a fall in the glass. For the rest, the he-colonel, many years older than his wife, despite the thin youthful figure, was an admirable aid-decamp to the general in command, Mrs. Colonel; and she could not have found one more obedient, more devoted, or more proud of a distinguished chief.

In giving to Mrs. Colonel Poyntz the appellation of Queen of the Hill, let there be no mistake. She was not a constitutional sovereign; her monarchy was absolute. All her proclamations had the force of laws.

Such ascendancy could not have been attained without considerable talents for acquiring and keeping it. Amidst all her off-hand, brisk, imperious frankness, she had the ineffable discrimination of tact. Whether civil or rude, she was never civil or rude but what she carried public opinion along with her. Her knowledge of general society must have been limited, as must be that of all female sovereigns; but she seemed gifted with an intuitive knowledge of human nature, which she applied to her special ambition of ruling it. I have not a doubt that if she had been suddenly transferred, a perfect stranger, to the world of London, she would have soon forced her way to its selectest circles, and, when once there, held her own against a duchess.

I have said that she was not affected: this might be one cause of her sway over a set in which nearly every other woman was trying rather to seem, than to be, a somebody.

Put if Mrs. Colonel Poyntz was not artificial, she was artful, or perhaps I might more justly say artistic. In all she said and did there were conduct, system, plan. She could be a most serviceable friend, a most damaging enemy; yet I believe she seldom indulged in strong likings or strong hatreds. All was policy — a policy akin to that of a grand party chief, determined to raise up those whom, for any reason of state, it was prudent to favour, and to put down those whom, for any reason of state, it was expedient to humble or to crush.

Ever since the controversy with Dr. Lloyd, this lady had honoured me with her benignest countenance; and nothing could be more adroit than the manner in which, while imposing me on others as an oracular authority, she sought to subject to her will the oracle itself.

She was in the habit of addressing me in a sort of motherly way, as if she had the deepest interest in my welfare, happiness, and reputation. And thus, in every compliment, in every seeming mark of respect, she maintained the superior dignity of one who takes from responsible station the duty to encourage rising merit; so that, somehow or other, despite all that pride which made me believe that I needed no helping and to advance or to clear my way through the world, I could not shake off from my mind the impression that I was mysteriously patronized by Mrs. Colonel Poyntz.

We might have sat together five minutes, side by side in silence as complete as if in the cave of Trophonius — when without looking up from her work, Mrs. Poyntz said abruptly —

“I am thinking about you, Dr. Fenwick. And you — are thinking about some other woman. Ungrateful man!”

“Unjust accusation! My very silence should prove how intently my thoughts were fixed on you, and on the weird web which springs under your hand in meshes that bewilder the gaze and snare the attention.”

Mrs. Poyntz looked up at me for a moment — one rapid glance of the bright red hazel eye — and said —

“Was I really in your thoughts? Answer truly.”

“Truly, I answer, you were.”

“That is strange! Who can it be?”

“Who can it be? What do you mean?”

“If you were thinking of me, it was in connection with some other person — some other person of my own sex. It is certainly not poor dear Miss Brabazon. Who else can it be?”

Again the red eye shot over me, and I felt my cheek redden beneath it.

“Hush!” she said, lowering her voice; “you are in love!”

“In love! — I! Permit me to ask you why you think so?”

“The signs are unmistakable; you are altered in your manner, even in the expression of your face, since I last saw you; your manner is generally quiet and observant — it is now restless and distracted; your expression of face is generally proud and serene — it is now humbled and troubled. You have something on your mind! It is not anxiety for your reputation — that is established; nor for your fortune — that is made; it is not anxiety for a patient or you would scarcely be here. But anxiety it is — an anxiety that is remote from your profession, that touches your heart and is new to it!”

I was startled, almost awed; but I tried to cover my confusion with a forced laugh.

“Profound observer! Subtle analyst! You have convinced me that I must be in love, though I did not suspect it before. But when I strive to conjecture the object, I am as much perplexed as yourself; and with you, I ask, who can it be?”

“Whoever it be,” said Mrs. Poyntz, who had paused, while I spoke, from her knitting, and now resumed it very slowly and very carefully, as if her mind and her knitting worked in unison together — “whoever it be, love in you would be serious; and, with or without love, marriage is a serious thing to us all. It is not every pretty girl that would suit Allen Fenwick.”

“Alas! is there any pretty girl whom Allen Fenwick would suit?”

“Tut! You should be above the fretful vanity that lays traps for a compliment. Yes; the time has come in your life and your career when you would do well to marry. I give my consent to that,” she added with a smile as if in jest, and a slight nod as if in earnest. The knitting here went on more decidedly, more quickly. “But I do not yet see the person. No! ’T is a pity, Allen Fenwick” (whenever Mrs. Poyntz called me by my Christian name, she always assumed her majestic motherly manner) — “a pity that, with your birth, energies, perseverance, talents, and, let me add, your advantages of manner and person — a pity that you did not choose a career that might achieve higher fortunes and louder fame than the most brilliant success can give to a provincial physician. But in that very choice you interest me. My choice has been much thesame — a small circle, but the first in it. Yet, had I been a man, or had my dear Colonel been a man whom it was in the power of a woman’s art to raise one step higher in that metaphorical ladder which is not the ladder of the angels, why, then — what then? No matter! I am contented. I transfer my ambition to Jane. Do you not think her handsome?”

“There can be no doubt of that,” said I, carelessly and naturally.

“I have settled Jane’s lot in my own mind,” resumed Mrs. Poyntz, striking firm into another row of knitting. “She will marry a country gentleman of large estate. He will go into parliament. She will study his advancement as I study Poyntz’s comfort. If he be clever, she will help to make him a minister; if he be not clever, his wealth will make her a personage, and lift him into a personage’s husband. And, now that you see I have no matrimonial designs on you, Allen Fenwick, think if it will be worth while to confide in me. Possibly I may be useful —”

“I know not how to thank you; but, as yet, I have nothing to confide.”

While thus saying, I turned my eyes towards the open window beside which I sat. It was a beautiful soft night, the May moon in all her splendour. The town stretched, far and wide, below with all its numberless lights — below, but somewhat distant; an intervening space was covered, here, by the broad quadrangle (in the midst of which stood, massive and lonely, the grand old church), and, there, by the gardens and scattered cottages or mansions that clothed the sides of the hill.

“Is not that house,” I said, after a short pause, “yonder with the three gables, the one in which — in which poor Dr. Lloyd lived — Abbots’ House?”

I spoke abruptly, as if to intimate my desire to change the subject of conversation. My hostess stopped her knitting, half rose, looked forth.

“Yes. But what a lovely night! How is it that the moon blends into harmony things of which the sun only marks the contrast? That stately old church tower, gray with its thousand years, those vulgar tile-roofs and chimney-pots raw in the freshness of yesterday — now, under the moonlight, all melt into one indivisible charm!”

As my hostess thus spoke, she had left her seat, taking her work with her, and passed from the window into the balcony. It was not often that Mrs. Poyntz condescended to admit what is called “sentiment” into the range of her sharp, practical, worldly talk; but she did so at times — always, when she did, giving me the notion of an intellect much too comprehensive not to allow that sentiment has a place in this life, but keeping it in its proper place, by that mixture of affability and indifference with which some high-born beauty allows the genius, but checks the presumption, of a charming and penniless poet. For a few minutes her eyes roved over the scene in evident enjoyment; then, as they slowly settled upon the three gables of Abbots’ House, her face regained that something of hardness which belonged to its decided character; her fingers again mechanically resumed her knitting, and she said, in her clear, unsoftened, metallic chime of voice, “Can you guess why I took so much trouble to oblige Mr. Vigors and locate Mrs. Ashleigh yonder?”

“You favoured us with a full explanation of your reasons.”

“Some of my reasons; not the main one. People who undertake the task of governing others, as I do, be their rule a kingdom or a hamlet, must adopt a principle of government and adhere to it. The principle that suits best with the Hill is Respect for the Proprieties. We have not much money; entre nous, we have no great rank. Our policy is, then, to set up the Proprieties as an influence which money must court and rank is afraid of. I had learned just before Mr. Vigors called on me that Lady Sarah Bellasis entertained the idea of hiring Abbots’ House. London has set its face against her; a provincial town would be more charitable. An earl’s daughter, with a good income and an awfully bad name, of the best manners and of the worst morals, would have made sad havoc among the Proprieties. How many of our primmest old maids would have deserted tea and Mrs. Poyntz for champagne and her ladyship! The Hill was never in so imminenta danger. Rather than Lady Sarah Bellasis should have had that house, I would have taken it myself, and stocked it with owls.

“Mrs. Ashleigh turned up just in the critical moment. Lady Sarah is foiled, the Proprieties safe, and so that question is settled.”

“And it will be pleasant to have your early friend so near you.”

Mrs. Poyntz lifted her eyes full upon me.

“Do you know Mrs. Ashleigh?”

“Not in the least.”

“She has many virtues and few ideas. She is commonplace weak, as I am commonplace strong. But commonplace weak can be very lovable. Her husband, a man of genius and learning, gave her his whole heart — a heart worth having; but he was not ambitious, and he despised the world.”

“I think you said your daughter was very much attached to Miss Ashleigh? Does her character resemble her mother’s?”

I was afraid while I spoke that I should again meet Mrs. Poyntz’s searching gaze, but she did not this time look up from her work.

“No; Lilian is anything but commonplace.”

“You described her as having delicate health; you implied a hope that she was not consumptive. I trust that there is no serious reason for apprehending a constitutional tendency which at her age would require the most careful watching!”

“I trust not. If she were to die — Dr. Fenwick, what is the matter?”

So terrible had been the picture which this woman’s words had brought before me, that I started as if my own life had received a shock.

“I beg pardon,” I said falteringly, pressing my hand to my heart; “a sudden spasm here — it is over now. You were saying that — that —”

“I was about to say-” and here Mrs. Poyntz laid her hand lightly on mine — “I was about to say that if Lilian Ashleigh were to die, I should mourn for her less than I might for one who valued the things of the earth more. But I believe there is no cause for the alarm my words so inconsiderately excited in you. Her mother is watchful and devoted; and if the least thing ailed Lilian, she would call in medical advice. Mr. Vigors would, I know, recommend Dr. Jones.”

Closing our conference with those stinging words, Mrs. Poyntz here turned back into the drawing-room.

I remained some minutes on the balcony, disconcerted, enraged. With what consummate art had this practised diplomatist wound herself into my secret! That she had read my heart better than myself was evident from that Parthian shaft, barbed with Dr. Jones, which she had shot over her shoulder in retreat. That from the first moment in which she had decoyed me to her side, she had detected “the something” on my mind, was perhaps but the ordinary quickness of female penetration. But it was with no ordinary craft that the whole conversation afterwards had been so shaped as to learn the something, and lead me to reveal the some one to whom the something was linked. For what purpose? What was it to her? What motive could she have beyond the mere gratification of curiosity? Perhaps, at first, she thought I had been caught by her daughter’s showy beauty, and hence the half-friendly, half-cynical frankness with which she had avowed her ambitious projects for that young lady’s matrimonial advancement. Satisfied by my manner that I cherished no presumptuous hopes in that quarter, her scrutiny was doubtless continued from that pleasure in the exercise of a wily intellect which impels schemers and politicians to an activity for which, without that pleasure itself, there would seem no adequate inducement. And besides, the ruling passion of this petty sovereign was power; and if knowledge be power, there is no better instrument of power over a contumacious subject than that hold on his heart which is gained in the knowledge of its secret.

But “secret”! Had it really come to this? Was it possible that the mere sight of a human face, never beheld before, could disturb the whole tenor of my life — a stranger of whose mind and character I knew nothing, whose very voice I had never heard? It was only by the intolerable pang of anguish that had rent my heart in the words, carelessly, abruptly spoken, “if she were to die,” that I had felt how the world would be changed to me, if indeed that face were seen in it no more! Yes, secret it was no longer to myself, I loved! And like all on whom love descends, sometimes softly, slowly, with the gradual wing of the cushat settling down into its nest, sometimes with the swoop of the eagle on his unsuspecting quarry, I believed that none ever before loved as I loved; that such love was an abnormal wonder, made solely for me, and I for it. Then my mind insensibly hushed its angrier and more turbulent thoughts, as my gaze rested upon the roof-tops of Lilian’s home, and the shimmering silver of the moonlit willow, under which I had seen her gazing into the roseate heavens.

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