A Duchess’s Secret by Andrew Lang
When I was poor, and honest, and a novelist, I little thought that
I should ever be rich, and something not very unlike a Duke; and, as
to honesty, but an indifferent character. I have had greatness
thrust on me. I am, like Simpcox in the dramatis personæ
of “Henry IV.,” “an impostor;” and yet I scarcely
know how I could have escaped this deplorable (though lucrative) position.
“Love is a great master,” says the “Mort d’Arthur,”
and I perhaps may claim sympathy and pity as a victim of love.
The following unaffected lines (in which only names and dates are disguised)
contain all the apology I can offer to a censorious world.
Two or three years ago I was dependent on literature for my daily
bread. I was a regular man-of-all-work. Having the advantage
of knowing a clerk in the Foreign Office who went into society (he had
been my pupil at the university), I picked up a good deal of scandalous
gossip, which I published in the Pimlico Postboy, a journal of
fashion. I was also engaged as sporting prophet to the Tipster,
and was not less successful than my contemporaries as a vaticinator
of future events. At the same time I was contributing a novel
(anonymously) to the Fleet Street Magazine, a very respectable
publication, though perhaps a little dull. The editor had expressly
requested me to make things rather more lively, and I therefore gave
my imagination free play in the construction of my plot. I introduced
a beautiful girl, daughter of a preacher in the Shaker community.
Her hand was sought in marriage by a sporting baronet, who had seen
her as he pursued the chase through the pathless glens of the New Forest.
This baronet she married after suffering things intolerable from the
opposition of the Shakers. Here I had a good deal of padding about
Shakers and their ways; and, near the end of the sixth chapter my heroine
became the wife of Sir William Buckley. But the baronet proved
a perfect William Rufus for variegated and versatile blackguardism.
Lady Buckley’s life was made impossible by his abominable conduct.
At this juncture my heroine chanced to be obliged to lunch at a railway
refreshment-room. My last chapter had described the poor lady
lunching lonely in the bleak and gritty waiting room of Swilby Junction,
lonely except for the company of her little boy. I showed how
she fell into a strange and morbid vein of reflection suggested by the
qualities of the local sherry. If she was to live, her lord and
master, Sir W. Buckley, must die! And I described how a fiendish
temptation was whispered to her by the glass of local sherry.
“William’s constitution, strong as it is,” she murmured
inwardly, “could never stand a dozen of that sherry. Suppose
he chanced to partake of it—accidentally—rather late in
the evening.” Amidst these reflections I allowed the December
instalment of “The Baronet’s Wife” to come to a conclusion
in the Fleet Street Magazine. Obviously crime was in the
It is my habit to read the “Agony Column” (as it is flippantly
called), the second column in the outer sheet of the Times.
Who knows but he may there see something to his advantage; and, besides,
the mysterious advertisements may suggest ideas for plots. One
day I took up the “Agony Column,” as usual, at my club,
and, to my surprise, read the following advertisement:—
“F. S. M.—SHERRY WINE. WRECK OF THE “JINGO.”—WRETCHED
BOY: Stay your unhallowed hand! Would you expose an erring MOTHER’S
secret? Author will please communicate with Messrs. Mantlepiece
and Co., Solicitors, Upton-on-the-Wold.”
As soon as I saw this advertisement, as soon as my eyes fell on “Sherry
Wine” and “Author,” I felt that here was something
for me. “F. S. M.” puzzled me at first, but I read
it Fleet Street Magazine, by a flash of inspiration. “Wretched
Boy” seemed familiar and unappropriate—I was twenty-nine—but
what of that? Of course I communicated with Messrs. Mantlepiece,
saying that I had reason for supposing that I was the “author”
alluded to in the advertisement. As to the words, “Wreck
of the Jingo” they entirely beat me, but I hoped that some
light would be thrown on their meaning by the respectable firm of solicitors.
It did occur to me that if any one had reasons for communicating with
me, it would have been better and safer to address a letter to me, under
cover, to the editor of the Fleet Street Magazine. But
the public have curious ideas on these matters. Two days after
I wrote to Messrs. Mantlepiece I received a very guarded reply, in which
I was informed that their client wished to make my acquaintance, and
that a carriage would await me, if I presented myself at Upton-on-the-Wold
Station, by the train arriving at 5.45 on Friday. Well, I thought
to myself, I may as well do a “week-ending,” as some people
call it, with my anonymous friend as anywhere else. At the same
time I knew that the “carriage” might be hired by enemies
to convey me to the Pauper Lunatic Asylum or to West Ham, the place
where people disappear mysteriously. I might be the victim of
a rival’s jealousy (and many men, novelists of most horrible imaginings,
envied my talents and success), or a Nihilist plot might have drawn
me into its machinery. But I was young, and I thought I would
see the thing out. My journey was unadventurous, if you except
a row with a German, who refused to let me open the window. But
this has nothing to do with my narrative, and is not a false scent to
make a guileless reader keep his eye on the Teuton. Some novelists
permit themselves these artifices, which I think untradesmanlike and
unworthy. When I arrived at Upton, the station-master made a charge
at my carriage, and asked me if I was “The gentleman for the Towers?”
The whole affair was so mysterious that I thought it better to answer
in the affirmative. My luggage (a Gladstone bag) was borne by
four stately and liveried menials to a roomy and magnificent carriage,
in which everything, from the ducal crown on the silver foot-warmers
to the four splendid bays, breathed of opulence, directed and animated
by culture. I dismissed all thoughts of the Pauper Lunatic Asylum
and the Nihilists, and was whirled through miles of park and up an avenue
lighted by electricity. We reached the baronial gateway of the
Towers, a vast Gothic pile in the later manner of Inigo Jones, and a
seneschal stood at the foot of a magnificent staircase to receive me.
I had never seen a seneschal before, but I recognized him by the peeled
white wand he carried, by his great silver chain, and his black velvet
coat and knee-breeches.
“Your lordship’s room,” says the seneschal (obviously
an old and confidential family servant), “is your old one—the
Tapestried Chamber. Her Grace is waiting anxiously for you.”
Then two menials marched, with my Gladstone bag, to the apartment
thus indicated. For me, I felt in a dream, or like a man caught
up into the fairyland of the “Arabian Nights.” “Her
Grace” was all very well—the aristocracy always admired
my fictitious creations; but “Your Lordship!” Why
your Lordship? Then the chilling idea occurred to me that I had
not been “the gentleman for the Towers;” that I was
in the position of the hero of “Happy Thoughts” when he
went to the Duke’s by mistake for the humble home of the Plyte
Frazers. But I was young. “Her Grace” could
not eat me, and I determined, as I said before, to see it out.
I dressed very deliberately, and that process over, was led by the
worthy seneschal into a singular octagonal boudoir, hung with soft dark
blue arras. The only person in the room was a gaunt, middle-aged
lady, in deep mourning. Though I knew no more of the British aristocracy
than Mr. W. D. Howells, of New York, I recognized her for the Duchess
by her nose, which resembled those worn by the duchesses of Mr. Du Maurier.
As soon as we were alone, she rose, drew me to her bosom, much to my
horror, looked at me long and earnestly, and at last exclaimed, “How
changed you are, Percy!” (My name is Thomas—Thomas
Cobson.) Before I could reply, she was pouring out reproaches
on me for having concealed my existence, and revealed in my novel what
she spoke of as “the secret.”
When she grew, not calm, but fatigued, I ventured to ask why she
had conferred on me the honour of her invitation, and how I had been
unfortunate enough to allude to affairs of which I had certainly no
knowledge. Her reply was given with stately dignity. “You
need not pretend,” she said, “to have forgotten what I told
you in this very room, before you left England for an African tour in
the Jingo. I then revealed to you the secret of my life,
the secret of the Duke’s death. Your horror when you heard
how that most unhappy man compelled me to free myself from his tyranny,
by a method which his habits rendered only too easy—in short,
by a dose of cheap sherry, was deep and natural. Oh, Percy, you
did not kiss your mother before starting on your ill-omened voyage.
As soon as I heard of the wreck of the Jingo, and that you were
the only passenger drowned, I recognized an artifice, un vieux truc,
by which you hoped to escape from a mother of whom you were ashamed.
You had only pretended to be the victim of Ocean’s rage!
People who are drowned in novels always do reappear: and, Percy,
your mother is an old novel-reader! My agents have ever since
been on your track, but it was reserved for me to discover the
last of the Birkenheads in the anonymous author of the ‘Baronet’s
Wife.’ That romance, in which you have had the baseness
to use your knowledge of a mother’s guilt as a motif in
your twopenny plot, unveiled to me the secret of your hidden existence.
You must stop the story, or alter the following numbers; you must give
up your discreditable mode of life. Heavens, that a Birkenhead
should be a literary character! And you must resume your place
in my house and in society.”
Here the Duchess of Stalybridge paused; she had quite recovered that
repose of manner and icy hauteur which, I understand, is the
heritage of the house of Birkenhead. For my part, I had almost
lost the modest confidence which is, I believe, hereditary in the family
of Cobson. It was a scene to make the boldest stand aghast.
Here was an unknown lady of the highest rank confessing a dreadful crime
to a total stranger, and recognizing in that stranger her son, and the
heir to an enormous property and a title as old—as old as British
dukedoms, however old they may be. Ouida would have said “heir
to a title older than a thousand centuries,” but I doubt if the
English duke is so ancient as that, or a direct descendant of the Dukes
of Edom mentioned in Holy Writ. I began pouring out an incoherent
flood of evidence to show that I was only Thomas Cobson, and had never
been any one else, but at that moment a gong sounded, and a young lady
entered the room. She also was dressed in mourning, and the Duchess
introduced her to me as my cousin, Miss Birkenhead. “Gwyneth
was a child, Percy,” said my august hostess, “when you went
to Africa.” I shook hands with my cousin with as much composure
as I could assume, for, to tell the truth, I was not only moved by my
recent adventures, but I had on the spot fallen hopelessly in love with
my new relative. It was le coup de foudre of a French writer
on the affections—M. Stendhal. Miss Birkenhead had won my
heart from the first moment of our meeting. Why should I attempt
to describe a psychological experience as rare as instantaneous conversion,
or more so? Miss Birkenhead was tall and dark, with a proud pale
face, and eyes which unmistakably indicated the possession of a fine
sense of humour. Proud pale people seldom look when they first
meet a total stranger—still more a long-lost cousin—as if
they had some difficulty in refraining from mirth. Miss Birkenhead’s
face was as fixed and almost as pure as marble, but I read sympathy
and amusement and kindness in her eyes.
Presently the door opened again, and an elderly man in the dress
of a priest came in. To him I was presented—
“Your old governor, Percy.”
For a moment my unhappy middle-class association made me suppose
that the elderly ecclesiastic was my “old Guv’nor,”—my
father, the late Duke. But an instant’s reflection proved
to me that her Grace meant “tutor” by governor. I
am ashamed to say that I now entered into the spirit of the scene, shook
the holy man warmly by the hand, and quoted a convenient passage from
He appeared to fall into the trap, and began to speak of old recollections
of my boyhood.
Stately liveried menials now, greatly to my surprise, brought in
tea. I was just declining tea (for I expected dinner in a few
minutes), when a voice (a sweet low voice) whispered—
I took some, providentially, as it turned out. Again, I was
declining tea-cake, when I could have sworn I heard the same voice (so
low that it seemed like the admonition of a passing spirit) say—
I took some, for I was exceedingly hungry; and then the conversation
lapsed, began again vaguely, and lapsed again.
We all know that wretched quarter of an hour, or half hour, which
unpunctual guests make us pass in famine and fatigue while they keep
dinner waiting. Upon my word, we waited till half-past eleven
before dinner was announced. But for the tea, I must have perished;
for, like the butler in Sir George Dasent’s novel, “I likes
my meals regular.”
The Duchess had obviously forgotten all about dinner. There
was a spinning-wheel in the room, and she sat and span like an elderly
Fate. When dinner was announced at last, I began to fear it would
never end. The menu covered both sides of the card.
The Duchess ate little, and “hardly anything was drunk.”
At last the ladies left us, about one in the morning. I saw my
chance, and began judiciously to “draw” the chaplain.
It appeared that the Duchess did not always dine at half-past eleven.
The feast was a movable one, from eight o’clock onwards.
The Duchess and the establishment had got into these habits during the
old Duke’s time. A very strange man the old Duke; rarely
got up till eight in the evening, often prolonged breakfast till next
“But I need not tell you all this, Percy, my old pupil,”
said the chaplain; and he winked as a clergyman ought not to wink.
“My dear sir,” cried I, encouraged by this performance,
“for Heaven’s sake tell me what all this means? In
this so-called nineteenth century, in our boasted age of progress, what
does the Duchess mean by her invitation to me, and by her conduct
at large? Indeed, why is she at large?”
The chaplain drew closer to me. “Did ye ever hear of
a duchess in a madhouse?” said he; and I owned that I never had
met with such an incident in my reading (unless there is one in Webster’s
“Well, then, who is to make a beginning?” asked the priest.
“The Duchess has not a relation in the world but Miss Birkenhead,
the only daughter of a son of the last Duke but one. The late
Duke was a dreadful man, and he turned the poor Duchess’s head
with the life he led her. The drowning of her only son in the
Jingo finished the business. She has got that story about”—(here
he touched the decanter of sherry: I nodded)—“she has got
that story into her head, and she believes her son is alive; otherwise
she is as sane and unimaginative as—as—as Mr. Chaplin,”
said he, with a flash of inspiration. “Happily you are an
honest man, or you seem like one, and won’t take advantage of
This was all I could get out of the chaplain; indeed, there was no
more to be got. I went to bed, but not to sleep. Next day,
and many other days, I spent wrestling in argument with the Duchess.
I brought her my certificate of baptism, my testamurs in Smalls and
Greats, an old passport, a bill of Poole’s, anything I could think
of to prove my identity. She was obdurate, and only said—“If
you are not Percy, how do you know my secret?” I had in
the meantime to alter the intended course of my novel—“The
Baronet’s Wife.” The Baronet was made to become a
reformed character. But in all those days at the lonely Towers,
and in the intervals of arguing with the poor Duchess, I could not but
meet Gwyneth Birkenhead. We met, not as cousins, for Miss Birkenhead
had only too clearly appreciated the situation from the moment she first
met me. The old seneschal, too, was in the secret; I don’t
know what the rest of the menials thought. They were accustomed
to the Duchess. But if Gwyneth and I did not meet as cousins,
we met as light-hearted young people, in a queer situation, and in a
strange, dismal old house.
We could not in the selfsame mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
We could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by.
Indeed I could not sit at meals without being gratefully reminded
of Gwyneth’s advice about “taking some” on the night
of my first arrival at the Towers.
These queer happy times ended.
One day a party of archæologists came to visit the Towers.
They were members of a “Society for Badgering the Proprietors
of Old Houses,” and they had been lunching at Upton-on-the-Wold.
After luncheon they invaded the Towers, personally conducted by Mr.
Bulkin, a very learned historian. Bulkin had nearly plucked me
in Modern History, and when I heard his voice afar off I arose and fled
swiftly. Unluckily the Duchess chanced, by an unprecedented accident,
to be in the library, a room which the family never used, and which
was, therefore, exhibited to curious strangers. Into this library
Bulkin precipitated himself, followed by his admirers, and began to
lecture on the family portraits. Beginning with the Crusaders
(painted by Lorenzo Credi) he soon got down to modern times. He
took no notice of the Duchess, whom he believed to be a housekeeper;
but, posting himself between the unfortunate lady and the door, gave
a full account of the career of the late Duke. This was more than
the Duchess (who knew all about the subject of the lecture) could stand;
but Mr. Bulkin, referring her to his own Appendices, finished his address,
and offered the Duchess half-a-crown as he led his troop to other victories.
From this accident the Duchess never recovered. Her spirits, at
no time high, sank to zero, and she soon passed peacefully away.
She left a will in which her personal property (about £40,000
a year) was bequeathed to Gwyneth, “as my beloved son, Percy,
has enough for his needs,” the revenues of the dukedom of Stalybridge
being about £300,000 per annum before the agricultural depression.
She might well have thought I needed no more. Of course I put
in no claim for these estates, messuages, farms, mines, and so forth,
nor for my hereditary ducal pension of £15,000. But Gwyneth
and I are not uncomfortably provided for, and I no longer contribute
paragraphs of gossip to the Pimlico Postboy, nor yet do I vaticinate
in the columns of the Tipster. Perhaps I ought to have
fled from the Towers the morning after my arrival. And I declare
that I would have fled but for Gwyneth and “Love, that is a great