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 wind.

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 Horace.

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—

“Take some!”

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—

“Take some!”

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 day.

“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 plays, somewhere).

“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 her delusion.”

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 Master.”