“After we have been in the drawing-room, I should like to show these gentlemen Lady Audley’s rooms. Are they in good order, Phoebe?”
“Yes, miss; but the door of the anteroom is locked, and I fancy that my lady has taken the key to London.”
“Taken the key! Impossible!” cried Alicia.
“Indeed, miss, I think she has. I cannot find it, and it always used to be in the door.”
“I declare,” said Alicia, impatiently, “that is not at all unlike my lady to have taken this silly freak into her head. I dare say she was afraid we should go into her rooms, and pry about among her pretty dresses, and meddle with her jewelry. It is very provoking, for the best pictures in the house are in that antechamber. There is her own portrait, too, unfinished but wonderfully like.”
“Her portrait!” exclaimed Robert Audley. “I would give anything to see it, for I have only an imperfect notion of her face. Is there no other way of getting into the room, Alicia?”
“Yes; is there any door, leading through some of the other rooms, by which we can contrive to get into hers?”
His cousin shook her head, and conducted them into a corridor where there were some family portraits. She showed them a tapestried chamber, the large figures upon the faded canvas looking threatening in the dusky light.
“That fellow with the battle-ax looks as if he wanted to split George’s head open,” said Mr. Audley, pointing to a fierce warrior, whose uplifted arm appeared above George Talboys’ dark hair.
“Come out of this room, Alicia,” added the young man, nervously; “I believe it’s damp, or else haunted. Indeed, I believe all ghosts to be the result of damp or dyspepsia. You sleep in a damp bed—you awake suddenly in the dead of the night with a cold shiver, and see an old lady in the court costume of George the First’s time, sitting at the foot of the bed. The old lady’s indigestion, and the cold shiver is a damp sheet.”
There were lighted candles in the drawing-room. No new-fangled lamps had ever made their appearance at Audley Court. Sir Michael’s rooms were lighted by honest, thick, yellow-looking wax candles, in massive silver candlesticks, and in sconces against the walls.
There was very little to see in the drawing-room; and George Talboys soon grew tired of staring at the handsome modern furniture, and at a few pictures of some of the Academicians.
“Isn’t there a secret passage, or an old oak chest, or something of that kind, somewhere about the place, Alicia?” asked Robert.
“To be sure!” cried Miss Audley, with a vehemence that startled her cousin; “of course. Why didn’t I think of it before? How stupid of me, to be sure!”
“Because, if you don’t mind crawling upon your hands and knees, you can see my lady’s apartments, for that passage communicates with her dressing-room. She doesn’t know of it herself, I believe. How astonished she’d be if some black-visored burglar, with a dark-lantern, were to rise through the floor some night as she sat before her looking-glass, having her hair dressed for a party!”
“Shall we try the secret passage, George?” asked Mr. Audley.
“Yes, if you wish it.”
Alicia led them into the room which had once been her nursery. It was now disused, except on very rare occasions when the house was full of company.
Robert Audley lifted a corner of the carpet, according to his cousin’s directions, and disclosed a rudely-cut trap-door in the oak flooring.
“Now listen to me,” said Alicia. “You must let yourself down by the hands into the passage, which is about four feet high; stoop your head, walk straight along it till you come to a sharp turn which will take you to the left, and at the extreme end of it you will find a short ladder below a trap-door like this, which you will have to unbolt; that door opens into the flooring of my lady’s dressing-room, which is only covered with a square Persian carpet that you can easily manage to raise. You understand me?”
“Then take the light; Mr. Talboys will follow you. I give you twenty minutes for your inspection of the paintings—that is, about a minute apiece—and at the end of that time I shall expect to see you return.”
Robert obeyed her implicitly, and George submissively following his friend, found himself, in five minutes, standing amidst the elegant disorder of Lady Audley’s dressing-room.
She had left the house in a hurry on her unlooked-for journey to London, and the whole of her glittering toilette apparatus lay about on the marble dressing-table. The atmosphere of the room was almost oppressive for the rich odors of perfumes in bottles whose gold stoppers had not been replaced. A bunch of hot-house flowers was withering upon a tiny writing-table. Two or three handsome dresses lay in a heap upon the ground, and the open doors of a wardrobe revealed the treasures within. Jewelry, ivory-backed hair-brushes, and exquisite china were scattered here and there about the apartment. George Talboys saw his bearded face and tall, gaunt figure reflected in the glass, and wondered to see how out of place he seemed among all these womanly luxuries.
They went from the dressing-room to the boudoir, and through the boudoir into the ante-chamber, in which there were, as Alicia had said, about twenty valuable paintings, besides my lady’s portrait.
My lady’s portrait stood on an easel, covered with a green baize in the center of the octagonal chamber. It had been a fancy of the artist to paint her standing in this very room, and to make his background a faithful reproduction of the pictured walls. I am afraid the young man belonged to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for he had spent a most unconscionable time upon the accessories of this picture—upon my lady’s crispy ringlets and the heavy folds of her crimson velvet dress.
The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne bouche.
By this time it was dark, the candle carried by Robert only making one nucleus of light as he moved about holding it before the pictures one by one. The broad, bare window looked out upon the pale sky, tinged with the last cold flicker of the twilight. The ivy rustled against the glass with the same ominous shiver as that which agitated every leaf in the garden, prophetic of the storm that was to come.
“There are our friend’s eternal white horses,” said Robert, standing beside a Wouvermans. “Nicholas Poussin—Salvator—ha—hum! Now for the portrait.”
He paused with his hand on the baize, and solemnly addressed his friend.
“George Talboys,” he said, “we have between us only one wax candle, a very inadequate light with which to look at a painting. Let me, therefore, request that you will suffer us to look at it one at a time; if there is one thing more disagreeable than another, it is to have a person dodging behind your back and peering over your shoulder, when you’re trying to see what a picture’s made of.”
George fell back immediately. He took no more interest in any lady’s picture than in all the other wearinesses of this troublesome world. He fell back, and leaning his forehead against the window-panes, looked out at the night.
When he turned round he saw that Robert had arranged the easel very conveniently, and that he had seated himself on a chair before it for the purpose of contemplating the painting at his leisure.
He rose as George turned round.
“Now, then, for your turn, Talboys,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary picture.”
He took George’s place at the window, and George seated himself in the chair before the easel.
Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.
It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.
Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.
But strange as the picture was, it could not have made any great impression on George Talboys, for he sat before it for about a quarter of an hour without uttering a word—only staring blankly at the painted canvas, with the candlestick grasped in his strong right hand, and his left arm hanging loosely by his side. He sat so long in this attitude, that Robert turned round at last.
“Why, George, I thought you had gone to sleep!”
“I had almost.”
“You’ve caught a cold from standing in that damp tapestried room. Mark my words, George Talboys, you’ve caught a cold; you’re as hoarse as a raven. But come along.”
Robert Audley took the candle from his friend’s hand, and crept back through the secret passage, followed by George—very quiet, but scarcely more quiet than usual.
They found Alicia in the nursery waiting for them.
“Well?” she said, interrogatively.
“We managed it capitally. But I don’t like the portrait; there’s something odd about it.”
“There is,” said Alicia; “I’ve a strange fancy on that point. I think that sometimes a painter is in a manner inspired, and is able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes. We have never seen my lady look as she does in that picture; but I think that she could look so.”
“Alicia,” said Robert Audley, imploringly, “don’t be German!”
“Don’t be German, Alicia, if you love me. The picture is—the picture: and my lady is—my lady. That’s my way of taking things, and I’m not metaphysical; don’t unsettle me.”
Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 1835-1915. Lady Audley’s Secret, 1862. Chapter VIII. Before the Storm.
Image: D.G. Rossetti, 1828-1882. Aurelia (Fazio’s Mistress), 1863-1873. Oil paint on mahagony. 432 x 368mm. ©Tate Gallery, London. The model was Fanny Cornforth,