Robert Audley was loitering upon the broad grass-plat in front of the Court as the carriage containing my lady and Alicia drove under the archway, and drew up at the low turret-door. Mr. Audley presented himself in time to hand the ladies out of the vehicle.
My lady looked very pretty in a delicate blue bonnet and the sables which her nephew had bought for her at St. Petersburg. She seemed very well pleased to see Robert, and smiled most bewitchingly as she gave him her exquisitely gloved little hand.
“So you have come back to us, truant?” she said, laughing. “And now that you have returned, we shall keep you prisoner. We won’t let him run away again, will we, Alicia?”
Miss Audley gave her head a scornful toss that shook the heavy curls under her cavalier hat.
“I have nothing to do with the movements of so erratic an individual,” she said. “Since Robert Audley has taken it into his head to conduct himself like some ghost-haunted hero in a German story, I have given up attempting to understand him.”
Mr. Audley looked at his cousin with an expression of serio-comic perplexity. “She’s a nice girl,” he thought, “but she’s a nuisance. I don’t know how it is, but she seems more a nuisance than she used to be.”
He pulled his mustaches reflectively as he considered this question. His mind wandered away for a few moments from the great trouble of his life to dwell upon this minor perplexity.
“She’s a dear girl,” he thought; “a generous-hearted, bouncing, noble English lassie; and yet —” He lost himself in a quagmire of doubt and difficulty. There was some hitch in his mind which he could not understand; some change in himself, beyond the change made in him by his anxiety about George Talboys, which mystified and bewildered him.
“And pray where have you been wandering during the last day or two, Mr. Audley?” asked my lady, as she lingered with her step-daughter upon the threshold of the turret-door, waiting until Robert should be pleased to stand aside and allow them to pass. The young man started as she asked this question and looked up at her suddenly. Something in the aspect of her bright young beauty, something in the childish innocence of her expression, seemed to smite him to the heart, and his face grew ghastly pale as he looked at her.
“I have been — in Yorkshire,” he said; “at the little watering place where my poor friend George Talboys lived at the time of his marriage.”
The white change in my lady’s face was the only sign of her having heard these words. She smiled, a faint, sickly smile, and tried to pass her husband’s nephew.
“I must dress for dinner,” she said. “I am going to a dinner-party, Mr. Audley; please let me go in.”
“I must ask you to spare me half an hour, Lady Audley,” Robert answered, in a low voice. “I came down to Essex on purpose to speak to you.”
“What about?” asked my lady.
She had recovered herself from any shock which she might have sustained a few moments before, and it was in her usual manner that she asked this question. Her face expressed the mingled bewilderment and curiosity of a puzzled child, rather than the serious surprise of a woman.
“What can you want to talk to me about, Mr. Audley?” she repeated.
“I will tell you when we are alone,” Robert said, glancing at his cousin, who stood a little way behind my lady, watching this confidential little dialogue.
“He is in love with my step-mother’s wax-doll beauty,” thought Alicia, “and it is for her sake he has become such a disconsolate object. He’s just the sort of person to fall in love with his aunt.”
Miss Audley walked away to the grass-plat, turning her back upon Robert and my lady.
“The absurd creature turned as white as a sheet when he saw her,” she thought. “So he can be in love, after all. That slow lump of torpidity he calls his heart can beat, I suppose, once in a quarter of a century; but it seems that nothing but a blue-eyed wax-doll can set it going. I should have given him up long ago if I’d known that his idea of beauty was to be found in a toy-shop.”
Poor Alicia crossed the grass-plat and disappeared upon the opposite side of the quadrangle, where there was a Gothic gate that communicated with the stables. I am sorry to say that Sir Michael Audley’s daughter went to seek consolation from her dog Caesar and her chestnut mare Atalanta, whose loose box the young lady was in the habit of visiting every day.
“Will you come into the lime-walk, Lady Audley?” said Robert, as his cousin left the garden. “I wish to talk to you without fear of interruption or observation. I think we could choose no safer place than that. Will you come there with me?”
“If you please,” answered my lady. Mr. Audley could see that she was trembling, and that she glanced from side to side as if looking for some outlet by which she might escape him.
“You are shivering, Lady Audley,” he said.
“Yes, I am very cold. I would rather speak to you some other day, please. Let it be to-morrow, if you will. I have to dress for dinner, and I want to see Sir Michael; I have not seen him since ten o’clock this morning. Please let it be to-morrow.”
There was a painful piteousness in her tone. Heaven knows how painful to Robert’s heart. Heaven knows what horrible images arose in his mind as he looked down at that fair young face and thought of the task that lay before him.
“I must speak to you, Lady Audley,” he said. “If I am cruel, it is you who have made me cruel. You might have escaped this ordeal. You might have avoided me. I gave you fair warning. But you have chosen to defy me, and it is your own folly which is to blame if I no longer spare you. Come with me. I tell you again I must speak to you.”
There was a cold determination in his tone which silenced my lady’s objections. She followed him submissively to the little iron gate which communicated with the long garden behind the house — the garden in which a little rustic wooden bridge led across the quiet fish-pond into the lime-walk.
The early winter twilight was closing in, and the intricate tracery of the leafless branches that overarched the lonely pathway looked black against the cold gray of the evening sky. The lime-walk seemed like some cloister in this uncertain light.
“Why do you bring me to this horrible place to frighten me out of my poor wits?” cried my lady, peevishly. “You ought to know how nervous I am.”
“You are nervous, my lady?”
“Yes, dreadfully nervous. I am worth a fortune to poor Mr. Dawson. He is always sending me camphor, and sal volatile, and red lavender, and all kinds of abominable mixtures, but he can’t cure me.”
“Do you remember what Macbeth tells his physician, my lady?” asked Robert, gravely. “Mr. Dawson may be very much more clever than the Scottish leech, but I doubt if even he can minister to the mind that is diseased.”
“Who said that my mind was diseased?” exclaimed Lady Audley.
“I say so, my lady,” answered Robert. “You tell me that you are nervous, and that all the medicines your doctor can prescribe are only so much physic that might as well be thrown to the dogs. Let me be the physician to strike to the root of your malady, Lady Audley. Heaven knows that I wish to be merciful — that I would spare you as far as it is in my power to spare you in doing justice to others — but justice must be done. Shall I tell you why you are nervous in this house, my lady?”
“If you can,” she answered, with a little laugh.
“Because for you this house is haunted.”
“Yes, haunted by the ghost of George Talboys.”
Robert Audley heard my lady’s quickened breathing, he fancied he could almost hear the loud beating of her heart as she walked by his side, shivering now and then, and with her sable cloak wrapped tightly around her.
“What do you mean?” she cried suddenly, after a pause of some moments. “Why do you torment me about this George Talboys, who happens to have taken it into his head to keep out of your way for a few months? Are you going mad, Mr. Audley, and do you select me as the victim of your monomania? What is George Talboys to me that you should worry me about him?”
“He was a stranger to you, my lady, was he not?”
“Of course!” answered Lady Audley. “What should he be but a stranger?”
“Shall I tell you the story of my friend’s disappearance as I read that story, my lady?” asked Robert.
“No,” cried Lady Audley; “I wish to know nothing of your friend. If he is dead, I am sorry for him. If he lives, I have no wish either to see him or to hear of him. Let me go in to see my husband, if you please, Mr. Audley, unless you wish to detain me in this gloomy place until I catch my death of cold.”
“I wish to detain you until you have heard what I have to say, Lady Audley,” answered Robert, resolutely. “I will detain you no longer than is necessary, and when you have heard me you shall take your own course of action.”
“Very well, then; pray lose no time in saying what you have to say,” replied my lady, carelessly. “I promise you to attend very patiently.”
“When my friend, George Talboys, returned to England,” Robert began, gravely, “the thought which was uppermost in his mind was the thought of his wife.”
“Whom he had deserted,” said my lady, quickly. “At least,” she added, more deliberately, “I remember your telling us something to that effect when you first told us your friend’s story.”
Robert Audley did not notice this observation.
“The thought that was uppermost in his mind was the thought of his wife,” he repeated. “His fairest hope in the future was the hope of making her happy, and lavishing upon her the pittance which he had won by the force of his own strong arm in the gold-fields of Australia. I saw him within a few hours of his reaching England, and I was a witness to the joyful pride with which he looked forward to his re-union with his wife. I was also a witness to the blow which struck him to the very heart — which changed him from the man he had been to a creature as unlike that former self as one human being can be unlike another. The blow which made that cruel change was the announcement of his wife’s death in the Times newspaper. I now believe that that announcement was a black and bitter lie.”
“Indeed!” said my lady; “and what reason could any one have for announcing the death of Mrs. Talboys, if Mrs. Talboys had been alive?”
“The lady herself might have had a reason,” Robert answered, quietly.
“How if she had taken advantage of George’s absence to win a richer husband? How if she had married again, and wished to throw my poor friend off the scent by this false announcement?”
Lady Audley shrugged her shoulders.
“Your suppositions are rather ridiculous, Mr. Audley,” she said; “it is to be hoped that you have some reasonable grounds for them.”
“I have examined a file of each of the newspapers published in Chelmsford and Colchester,” continued Robert, without replying to my lady’s last observation, “and I find in one of the Colchester papers, dated July the 2d, 1850, a brief paragraph among numerous miscellaneous scraps of information copied from other newspapers, to the effect that a Mr. George Talboys, an English gentleman, had arrived at Sydney from the gold-fields, carrying with him nuggets and gold-dust to the amount of twenty thousand pounds, and that he had realized his property and sailed for Liverpool in the fast-sailing clipper Argus. This is a very small fact, of course, Lady Audley, but it is enough to prove that any person residing in Essex in the July of the year fifty-seven, was likely to become aware of George Talboys’ return from Australia. Do you follow me?”
“Not very clearly,” said my lady. “What have the Essex papers to do with the death of Mrs. Talboys?”
“We will come to that by-and-by, Lady Audley. I say that I believe the announcement in the Times to have been a false announcement, and a part of the conspiracy which was carried out by Helen Talboys and Lieutenant Maldon against my poor friend.”
“Yes, a conspiracy concocted by an artful woman, who had speculated upon the chances of her husband’s death, and had secured a splendid position at the risk of committing a crime; a bold woman, my lady, who thought to play her comedy out to the end without fear of detection; a wicked woman, who did not care what misery she might inflict upon the honest heart of the man she betrayed; but a foolish woman, who looked at life as a game of chance, in which the best player was likely to hold the winning cards, forgetting that there is a Providence above the pitiful speculators, and that wicked secrets are never permitted to remain long hidden. If this woman of whom I speak had never been guilty of any blacker sin than the publication of that lying announcement in the Times newspaper, I should still hold her as the most detestable and despicable of her sex — the most pitiless and calculating of human creatures. That cruel lie was a base and cowardly blow in the dark; it was the treacherous dagger-thrust of an infamous assassin.”
“But how do you know that the announcement was a false one?” asked my lady. “You told us that you had been to Ventnor with Mr. Talboys to see his wife’s grave. Who was it who died at Ventnor if it was not Mrs. Talboys?”
“Ah, Lady Audley,” said Robert, “that is a question which only two or three people can answer, and one or other of those persons shall answer it to me before long. I tell you, my lady, that I am determined to unravel the mystery of George Talboy’s death. Do you think I am to be put off by feminine prevarication — by womanly trickery? No! Link by link I have put together the chain of evidence, which wants but a link here and there to be complete in its terrible strength. Do you think I will suffer myself to be baffled? Do you think I shall fail to discover those missing links? No, Lady Audley, I shall not fail, for I know where to look for them! There is a fair-haired woman at Southampton — a woman called Plowson, who has some share in the secrets of the father of my friend’s wife. I have an idea that she can help me to discover the history of the woman who lies buried in Ventnor churchyard, and I will spare no trouble in making that discovery, unless —”
“Unless what?” asked my lady, eagerly.
“Unless the woman I wish to save from degradation and punishment accepts the mercy I offer her, and takes warning while there is still time.”
My lady shrugged her graceful shoulders, and flashed bright defiance out of her blue eyes.
“She would be a very foolish woman if she suffered herself to be influenced by any such absurdity,” she said. “You are hypochondriacal, Mr. Audley, and you must take camphor, or red lavender, or sal volatile. What can be more ridiculous than this idea which you have taken into your head? You lose your friend George Talboys in rather a mysterious manner — that is to say, that gentleman chooses to leave England without giving you due notice. What of that? You confess that he became an altered man after his wife’s death. He grew eccentric and misanthropical; he affected an utter indifference as to what became of him. What more likely, then, than that he grew tired of the monotony of civilized life, and ran away to those savage gold-fields to find a distraction for his grief? It is rather a romantic story, but by no means an uncommon one. But you are not satisfied with this simple interpretation of your friend’s disappearance, and you build up some absurd theory of a conspiracy which has no existence except in your own overheated brain. Helen Talboys is dead. The Times newspaper declares she is dead. Her own father tells you that she is dead. The headstone of the grave in Ventnor churchyard bears record of her death. By what right,” cried my lady, her voice rising to that shrill and piercing tone peculiar to her when affected by any intense agitation —“by what right, Mr. Audley, do you come to me, and torment me about George Talboys — by what right do you dare to say that his wife is still alive?”
“By the right of circumstantial evidence, Lady Audley,” answered Robert —“by the right of that circumstantial evidence which will sometimes fix the guilt of a man’s murder upon that person who, on the first hearing of the case, seems of all other men the most unlikely to be guilty.”
“What circumstantial evidence?”
“The evidence of time and place. The evidence of handwriting. When Helen Talboys left her father’s at Wildernsea, she left a letter behind her — a letter in which she declared that she was weary of her old life, and that she wished to seek a new home and a new fortune. That letter is in my possession.”
“Shall I tell you whose handwriting resembles that of Helen Talboys so closely, that the most dexterous expert could perceive no distinction between the two?”
“A resemblance between the handwriting of two women is no very uncommon circumstance now-a-days,” replied my lady carelessly. “I could show you the caligraphies of half-a-dozen female correspondents, and defy you to discover any great difference in them.”
“But what if the handwriting is a very uncommon one, presenting marked peculiarities by which it may be recognized among a hundred?”
“Why, in that case the coincidence is rather curious,” answered my lady; “but it is nothing more than a coincidence. You cannot deny the fact of Helen Talboys death on the ground that her handwriting resembles that of some surviving person.”
“But if a series of such coincidences lead up to the same point,” said Robert. “Helen Talboys left her father’s house, according to the declaration in her own handwriting, because she was weary of her old life, and wished to begin a new one. Do you know what I infer from this?”
My lady shrugged her shoulders.
“I have not the least idea,” she said; “and as you have detained me in this gloomy place nearly half-an-hour, I must beg that you will release me, and let me go and dress for dinner.”
“No, Lady Audley,” answered Robert, with a cold sternness that was so strange to him as to transform him into another creature — a pitiless embodiment of justice, a cruel instrument of retribution —“no, Lady Audley,” he repeated, “I have told you that womanly prevarication will not help you; I tell you now that defiance will not serve you. I have dealt fairly with you, and have given you fair warning. I gave you indirect notice of your danger two months ago.”
“What do you mean?” asked my lady, suddenly.
“You did not choose to take that warning, Lady Audley,” pursued Robert, “and the time has come in which I must speak very plainly to you. Do you think the gifts which you have played against fortune are to hold you exempt from retribution? No, my lady, your youth and beauty, your grace and refinement, only make the horrible secret of your life more horrible. I tell you that the evidence against you wants only one link to be strong enough for your condemnation, and that link shall be added. Helen Talboys never returned to her father’s house. When she deserted that poor old father, she went away from his humble shelter with the declared intention of washing her hands of that old life. What do people generally do when they wish to begin a new existence — to start for a second time in the race of life, free from the incumbrances that had fettered their first journey. They change their names, Lady Audley. Helen Talboys deserted her infant son — she went away from Wildernsea with the predetermination of sinking her identity. She disappeared as Helen Talboys upon the 16th of August, 1854, and upon the 17th of that month she reappeared as Lucy Graham, the friendless girl who undertook a profitless duty in consideration of a home in which she was asked no questions.”
“You are mad, Mr. Audley!” cried my lady. “You are mad, and my husband shall protect me from your insolence. What if this Helen Talboys ran away from her home upon one day, and I entered my employer’s house upon the next, what does that prove?”
“By itself, very little,” replied Robert Audley; “but with the help of other evidence —”
“The evidence of two labels, pasted one over the other, upon a box left by you in possession of Mrs. Vincent, the upper label bearing the name of Miss Graham, the lower that of Mrs. George Talboys.”
My lady was silent. Robert Audley could not see her face in the dusk, but he could see that her two small hands were clasped convulsively over her heart, and he knew that the shot had gone home to its mark.
“God help her, poor, wretched creature,” he thought. “She knows now that she is lost. I wonder if the judges of the land feel as I do now when they put on the black cap and pass sentence of death upon some poor, shivering wretch, who has never done them any wrong. Do they feel a heroic fervor of virtuous indignation, or do they suffer this dull anguish which gnaws my vitals as I talk to this helpless woman?”
He walked by my lady’s side, silently, for some minutes. They had been pacing up and down the dim avenue, and they were now drawing near the leafless shrubbery at one end of the lime-walk — the shrubbery in which the ruined well sheltered its unheeded decay among the tangled masses of briery underwood.
A winding pathway, neglected and half-choked with weeds, led toward this well. Robert left the lime-walk, and struck into this pathway. There was more light in the shrubbery than in the avenue, and Mr. Audley wished to see my lady’s face.
He did not speak until they reached the patch of rank grass beside the well. The massive brickwork had fallen away here and there, and loose fragments of masonry lay buried amidst weeds and briars. The heavy posts which had supported the wooden roller still remained, but the iron spindle had been dragged from its socket and lay a few paces from the well, rusty, discolored, and forgotten.
Robert Audley leaned against one of the moss-grown posts and looked down at my lady’s face, very pale in the chill winter twilight. The moon had newly risen, a feebly luminous crescent in the gray heavens, and a faint, ghostly light mingled with the misty shadows of the declining day. My lady’s face seemed like that face which Robert Audley had seen in his dreams looking out of the white foam-flakes on the green sea waves and luring his uncle to destruction.
“Those two labels are in my possession, Lady Audley,” he resumed. “I took them from the box left by you at Crescent Villas. I took them in the presence of Mrs. Vincent and Miss Tonks. Have you any proofs to offer against this evidence? You say to me, ‘I am Lucy Graham and I have nothing whatever to do with Helen Talboys.’ In that case you will produce witnesses who will declare your antecedents. Where had you been living prior to your appearance at Crescent Villas? You must have friends, relations, connections, who can come forward to prove as much as this for you? If you were the most desolate creature upon this earth, you would be able to point to someone who could identify you with the past.”
“Yes,” cried my lady, “if I were placed in a criminal dock I could, no doubt, bring forward witnesses to refute your absurd accusation. But I am not in a criminal dock, Mr. Audley, and I do not choose to do anything but laugh at your ridiculous folly. I tell you that you are mad! If you please to say that Helen Talboys is not dead, and that I am Helen Talboys, you may do so. If you choose to go wandering about in the places in which I have lived, and to the places in which this Mrs. Talboys has lived, you must follow the bent of your own inclination, but I would warn you that such fancies have sometimes conducted people, as apparently sane as yourself, to the life-long imprisonment of a private lunatic-asylum.”
Robert Audley started and recoiled a few paces among the weeds and brushwood as my lady said this.
“She would be capable of any new crime to shield her from the consequences of the old one,” he thought. “She would be capable of using her influence with my uncle to place me in a mad-house.”
I do not say that Robert Audley was a coward, but I will admit that a shiver of horror, something akin to fear, chilled him to the heart as he remembered the horrible things that have been done by women since that day upon which Eve was created to be Adam’s companion and help-meet in the garden of Eden. “What if this woman’s hellish power of dissimulation should be stronger than the truth, and crush him? She had not spared George Talboys when he stood in her way and menaced her with a certain peril; would she spare him who threatened her with a far greater danger? Are women merciful, or loving, or kind in proportion to their beauty and grace? Was there not a certain Monsieur Mazers de Latude, who had the bad fortune to offend the all-accomplished Madam de Pompadour, who expiated his youthful indiscretion by a life-long imprisonment; who twice escaped from prison, to be twice cast back into captivity; who, trusting in the tardy generosity of his beautiful foe, betrayed himself to an implacable fiend? Robert Audley looked at the pale face of the woman standing by his side; that fair and beautiful face, illumined by starry-blue eyes, that had a strange and surely a dangerous light in them; and remembering a hundred stories of womanly perfidy, shuddered as he thought how unequal the struggle might be between himself and his uncle’s wife.
“I have shown her my cards,” he thought, “but she has kept hers hidden from me. The mask that she wears is not to be plucked away. My uncle would rather think me mad than believe her guilty.”
The pale face of Clara Talboys — that grave and earnest face, so different in its character to my lady’s fragile beauty — arose before him.
“What a coward I am to think of myself or my own danger,” he thought. “The more I see of this woman the more reason I have to dread her influence upon others; the more reason to wish her far away from this house.”
He looked about him in the dusky obscurity. The lonely garden was as quiet as some solitary grave-yard, walled in and hidden away from the world of the living.
“It was somewhere in this garden that she met George Talboys upon the day of his disappearance,” he thought. “I wonder where it was they met; I wonder where it was that he looked into her cruel face and taxed her with her falsehood?”
My lady, with her little hand resting lightly upon the opposite post to that against which Robert leaned, toyed with her pretty foot among the long weeds, but kept a furtive watch upon her enemy’s face.
“It is to be a duel to the death, then, my lady,” said Robert Audley, solemnly. “You refuse to accept my warning. You refuse to run away and repent of your wickedness in some foreign place, far from the generous gentleman you have deceived and fooled by your false witcheries. You choose to remain here and defy me.”
“I do,” answered Lady Audley, lifting her head and looking full at the young barrister. “It is no fault of mine if my husband’s nephew goes mad, and chooses me for the victim of his monomania.”
“So be it, then, my lady,” answered Robert. “My friend George Talboys was last seen entering these gardens by the little iron gate by which we came in to-night. He was last heard inquiring for you. He was seen to enter these gardens, but he was never seen to leave them. I believe that he met his death within the boundary of these grounds; and that his body lies hidden below some quiet water, or in some forgotten corner of this place. I will have such a search made as shall level that house to the earth and root up every tree in these gardens, rather than I will fail in finding the grave of my murdered friend.”
Lucy Audley uttered a long, low, wailing cry, and threw up her arms above her head with a wild gesture of despair, but she made no answer to the ghastly charge of her accuser. Her arms slowly dropped, and she stood staring at Robert Audley, her white face gleaming through the dusk, her blue eyes glittering and dilated.
“You shall never live to do this,” she said. “I will kill you first. Why have you tormented me so? Why could you not let me alone? What harm had I ever done you that you should make yourself my persecutor, and dog my steps, and watch my looks, and play the spy upon me? Do you want to drive me mad? Do you know what it is to wrestle with a mad-woman? No,” cried my lady, with a laugh, “you do not, or you would never —”
She stopped abruptly and drew herself suddenly to her fullest hight. It was the same action which Robert had seen in the old half-drunken lieutenant; and it had that same dignity — the sublimity of extreme misery.
“Go away, Mr. Audley,” she said. “You are mad, I tell you, you are mad.”
“I am going, my lady,” answered Robert, quietly. “I would have condoned your crimes out of pity to your wretcheness. You have refused to accept my mercy. I wished to have pity upon the living. I shall henceforth only remember my duty to the dead.”
He walked away from the lonely well under the shadow of the limes. My lady followed him slowly down that long, gloomy avenue, and across the rustic bridge to the iron gate. As he passed through the gate, Alicia came out of a little half-glass door that opened from an oak-paneled breakfast-room at one angle of the house, and met her cousin upon the threshold of the gateway.
“I have been looking for you everywhere, Robert,” she said. “Papa has come down to the library, and will be glad to see you.”
The young man started at the sound of his cousin’s fresh young voice. “Good Heaven!” he thought, “can these two women be of the same clay? Can this frank, generous-hearted girl, who cannot conceal any impulse of her innocent nature, be of the same flesh and blood as that wretched creature whose shadow falls upon the path beside me!”
He looked from his cousin to Lady Audley, who stood near the gateway, waiting for him to stand aside and let her pass him.
“I don’t know what has come to your cousin, my dear Alicia,” said my lady. “He is so absent-minded and eccentric as to be quite beyond my comprehension.”
“Indeed,” exclaimed Miss Audley; “and yet I should imagine, from the length of your tete-a-tete, that you had made some effort to understand him.”
“Oh, yes,” said Robert, quietly, “my lady and I understand each other very well; but as it is growing late I will wish you good-evening, ladies. I shall sleep to-night at Mount Stanning, as I have some business to attend to up there, and I will come down and see my uncle to-morrow.”
“What, Robert,” cried Alicia, “you surely won’t go away without seeing papa?”
“Yes, my dear,” answered the young man. “I am a little disturbed by some disagreeable business in which I am very much concerned, and I would rather not see my uncle. Good-night, Alicia. I will come or write to-morrow.”
He pressed his cousin’s hand, bowed to Lady Audley, and walked away under the black shadows of the archway, and out into the quiet avenue beyond the Court.
My lady and Alicia stood watching him until he was out of sight.
“What in goodness’ name is the matter with my Cousin Robert?” exclaimed Miss Audley, impatiently, as the barrister disappeared. “What does he mean by these absurd goings-on? Some disagreeable business that disturbs him, indeed! I suppose the unhappy creature has had a brief forced upon him by some evil-starred attorney, and is sinking into a state of imbecility from a dim consciousness of his own incompetence.”
“Have you ever studied your cousin’s character, Alicia?” asked my lady, very seriously, after a pause.
“Studied his character! No, Lady Audley. Why should I study his character?” said Alicia. “There is very little study required to convince anybody that he is a lazy, selfish Sybarite, who cares for nothing in the world except his own ease and comfort.”
“But have you never thought him eccentric?”
“Eccentric!” repeated Alicia, pursing up her red lips and shrugging up her shoulders. “Well, yes — I believe that is the excuse generally made for such people. I suppose Bob is eccentric.”
“I have never heard you speak of his father and mother,” said my lady, thoughtfully. “Do you remember them?”
“I never saw his mother. She was a Miss Dalrymple, a very dashing girl, who ran away with my uncle, and lost a very handsome fortune in consequence. She died at Nice when poor Bob was five years old.”
“Did you ever hear anything particular about her?”
“How do you mean ‘particular?’” asked Alicia.
“Did you ever hear that she was eccentric — what people call ‘odd?’”
“Oh, no,” said Alicia, laughing. “My aunt was a very reasonable woman, I believe, though she did marry for love. But you must remember that she died before I was born, and I have not, therefore, felt very much curiosity about her.”
“But you recollect your uncle, I suppose.”
“My Uncle Robert?” said Alicia. “Oh, yes, I remember him very well, indeed.”
“Was he eccentric — I mean to say, peculiar in his habits, like your cousin?”
“Yes, I believe Robert inherits all his absurdities from his father. My uncle expressed the same indifference for his fellow-creatures as my cousin, but as he was a good husband, an affectionate father, and a kind master, nobody ever challenged his opinions.”
“But he was eccentric?”
“Yes; I suppose he was generally thought a little eccentric.”
“Ah,” said my lady, gravely, “I thought as much. Do you know, Alicia, that madness is more often transmitted from father to daughter, and from mother to daughter than from mother to son? Your cousin, Robert Audley, is a very handsome young man, and I believe, a very good-hearted young man, but he must be watched, Alicia, for he is mad!”
“Mad!” cried Miss Audley, indignantly; “you are dreaming, my lady, or — or — you are trying to frighten me,” added the young lady, with considerable alarm.
“I only wish to put you on your guard, Alicia,” answered my lady. “Mr. Audley may be as you say, merely eccentric; but he has talked to me this evening in a manner that has filled me with absolute terror, and I believe that he is going mad? I shall speak very seriously to Sir Michael this very night.”
“Speak to papa,” exclaimed Alicia; “you surely won’t distress papa by suggesting such a possibility!”
“I shall only put him on his guard, my dear Alicia.”
“But he’ll never believe you,” said Miss Audley; “he will laugh at such an idea.”
“No, Alicia; he will believe anything that I tell him,” answered my lady, with a quiet smile.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50