chapter twenty nine
Rayleigh Abbey in the county of Hants, was as a city set on a hill, conspicuous near and far, taking the eye of the wayfarer from sea and plain, by valley and down. Its massive towers apparently betokened reverend age. Its gateways of rough hewn stone were fitted to withstand the battering elements of a thousand years. A square Norman keep rose in the centre, indented dark and solemn against the sky, a cliff-like wall of stone and lime like those of Loches or Threave. Battlements and towers cinctured it about, vast in their proportions, built apparently of overawing and pretentious masonry. Thus shone Rayleigh Abbey from a distance.
A nearer view, however, showed all this magnificence to be but the "insubstantial pageant of a dream."
The massive walls were relatively no thicker than pasteboard, the flanking towers mere shells, the grand square of the lofty keep was iron-framed with windows uncompromising as those of a factory. While from an interior view the great castle, cynosure of travellers' eyes and a landmark from afar, became a mere "Crystal Palace" set-piece, involving only so many thousand square feet of frontage and a wilderness of ungainly props and struts behind. Its future owner, Marcus Hardy, for once happily inspired with words, had named it Castle Gimcrack. In the meantime, it was life-rented by his mother, Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, and Marcus and his wife were received only as guests, little more favoured indeed than countless others who flocked thither like unclean birds from the four quarters of heaven.
Rayleigh Abbey had been designed, founded, and completed— so far at least as so gaunt a jest in iron and stone can ever be said to be completed — by one Theophrastus Wiseman Hardy, the grandfather of Marcus, and the inventor of the Body-and-Soul Water-and-Mustard-Plaster Mind Cure, applicable to all diseases that flesh is heir to.
Theophrastus Hardy had made a fortune in slave-running from the Gold Coast to the Southern States of America early in the century, and, while yet comparatively a young man, had retired upon an ample competence, an uncomfortable conscience — and a new religion. His only son, Aldebaran January Hardy, had sunk into a too early grave under the unjust burdens of his name and of the wife imposed upon him by his father. Soon after assisting at the preliminary horoscope of his only son Marcus, he laid down the double burden, and became indeed but a name, a bust, and an inscription in carven marble on the chapel wall of Rayleigh Abbey. Thus ran his memorial: --
Here does not lie aught that is mortal of
ALDEBARAN JANUARY HARDY,
only son of
THEOPHRASTUS WISEMAN HARDY
and Beloved Co-partner of
MARTYRIA EVICTA LUCRETIA FORSAKER-HARDY
of Rayleigh Abbey, Hants.
His Ashes, being passed through the Fire, were
Scattered over the Wide Sea.
His Soul, recomposed and reinvested,
as Angel or Jelly-fish,
SOMEWHERE AWAITS THE ETERNAL
No one could deny a certain extraordinary eclectic vigour to Theophrastus Wiseman Hardy, the original inventor of the Body-and-Soul Water-and-Mustard-Plaster Mind Cure, nor yet a striking executive capacity to Martyria Evicta Lucretia, his daughter-in-law and successor in that thriving curative establishment. All creeds had gone to the making of the Psychophysical Regenerative Religion, as, alternatively, its founder delighted to call it. Theophrastus, a white-haired, keen-faced, venerable man, mostly attired sailor-wise in a blue coat and a stemmed officer's cap like that of a mate in the mercantile marine, had long been dead; but he lived on nevertheless in various pictures and engravings generously dispersed throughout almost every room of the Abbey. Theophrastus had been a man without culture, lacking even (to begin with) the elements of an ordinary education. Yet afterwards he had read all manner of books at first hand, without any of that scholastic piloting which polarises their meaning to most of us. Then, with the assistance of scissors and paste, he had selected and arranged from each what seemed best suited to his purpose, as ruthlessly as in his time he had taken the finest buck negroes out of the slave pens of Bonny, in spite of the wailing of forsaken wives and the desperately clinging arms of orphaned children.
Theophrastus Hardy possessed a vast library in the square halls of the keep, stored mostly according to subject, and the marks of his scissors were through them all. Here and there pages had been riven clean out. Further on a paragraph had been neatly snipped away. Blue, red, and yellow underscorings ran across the pages, and radiated in all directions to the desecrated margins, like the railway map of a flat country or Signor Schiaparelli's chart of the Martian canals. One of the most characteristic volumes was a copy of the Christian scriptures, Grangerised, "improved," and spiced to the taste of Theophrastus Hardy by additions from the astrology and black-stone scrying of Dr. Dee, and from the word-cunning, wet-bandaging, and primitive leechdom of the Elizabethan herbalists.
It is said that when searching for a catchword to give some unity and coherence to his olla, Theophrastus hesitated long between Christ and Buddha, and only decided upon the Nazarene on account of the rooted ignorance of a public which (in these pre-Theosophist days) declined to distinguish between Buddha and Confucius, and was apt to take it for granted that all such curious names represented different varieties of tea.
But under the new dispensation of Martyria Evicta Lucretia, the elastic system of the founder had suddenly become mawkishly spiritualistic, and now manifested itself chiefly in the Healing of the Hands of Faith, the Anointing with Oil, the Presence and Manifestations of Spirits good and Spirits evil — and, above all, in the necessity for all mankind to conform to the gospel (as it happened to be at the time) according to Martyria Lucretia, decked in the apocalyptic red shawl, and spiced by an extempore prayer sandwiched between each course at dinner.
All this made the English Mecca of the new eclectic religion a strange place for Ione and Keith to build up their bodies in, and "minister to minds diseased."
But at least the air was pure at Rayleigh Abbey. It stood on the coast at a lonely spot overlooking the waters of the English Channel, set high above the crumbling gravel banks of the southern coast line. Opposite, the purple-grey cliffs of the Needles stood up like shadowy ninepins deserted after a stirring game by dead giants. From the misty water, ten miles away, the Isle of Wight heaved its blue shoulders out of the brine. While to the left the long curlew's beak of Hurst Castle promontory pecked perpetually at the tawny breakers of the Solent.
"You don't need to mind the mater" pleaded Marcus; "there’ll be no end of rum people about, but you can always get a quiet smoke behind the stables."
So with this to look forward to, Ione agreed willingly enough to accompany them, especially as Keith Harford, being now convalescent, was soon to follow; and, in the meanwhile, could very well be left to the motherly care of Mrs. Adair and the tart and caustic encouragements of Jane Allen. For Ione had been insensibly drifting into a condition of constant severe headaches, accompanied by strange lassitude, which often ended in vertigo and chronic dizziness. This had begun so subtly that she could not recall any particular time as the beginning of her illness, the more serious developments of which, however, probably dated from the shock of her father's death.
After Keith Harford's return to consciousness, Ione had but seldom gone into his room, leaving the actual nursing to the capable kindly hands of Mrs. Adair. Indeed, she straitly charged both of her friends that they were on no account to divulge her share in Keith Harford's transference to Audley Street; and both, with the natural alacrity of women to guard each other's secrecies, faithfully promised what she asked.
It was in the dusk of a November evening that Ione and Idalia, with Marcus carrying wraps and dressing bags, found themselves at the little wayside station upon whose platform they had been dropped off the Bournborough express, with an immense pile of buildings looming dimly up above them, and crowning the seaward cliff.
To Ione, looking upward from beneath, Rayleigh Abbey seemed to rise into the very skies. Along the south and west the chill yellow of the sunset still lingered, and as they rumbled dully through the bedraggled woods, the Channel wind drove in their faces in gusts which sent the blood stirring sharper through the veins, and whipped the tingling cheeks of the three voyagers as with tangible thongs of bitter air.
They were driven by an immobile ancient coachman, who had indeed saluted with the well-bred passivity of his race when his young master came out of the station, but who afterwards had devoted himself entirely to watching his horses' ears and to the maintenance of his personal self-respect.
Marcus cast his eye knowingly along the horses' legs from the right front.
"Grey's near fore going rather stiff, Caleb?" he said.
"Yessur — I daresay, sir," returned the coachman with a slight cough of apology. "It's that hold Hadmiral, sir! Well, 'tis a wonder as all the grey's legs ain't broke to flinders — 'im ride to meet!"
"Any more up at the house?"
"Lor', Lor' — such a mixed pack they do be, Master Marcus, begging your pardon! There's two o' them broadcloth gypsies — making so bold, as we calls them 'ere mediums — tellin' fortin's an' a-pourin' oil an' a-holding of their hands afore folk's eyes to make 'em better o' what they never was took ill o'! Just the same old gammon done in a new way, interferin' wi' proper doctors and decent droogists wi' licenses from the Queen — God bless 'er! And some there is, that thinks no more o' theirselves than to pertend they's got a summat the matter wi' their insides, and be took into chapel to get anointed all over wi' a slobber o' hoil. And then they sucks up to the Hadmiral and let's on as how they have got the Healing Blessing! Hup there, will 'ee!"
All this Caleb the coachman delivered with his eyes and his whip directed between his horses' heads, and without a muscle of his face altering or (apparently) his lips moving. He did not so much seem to answer Marcus as to confide the matter in hand to his horses, which all the while stood perfectly well drilled and gently restive, with ears alternately laid back to ascertain Caleb's intentions and set forward to be ready for the wild-whooping, incomprehensible stallions which went ramping past upon the iron way.
"We’ll have a fine time, Ide; Bedlam ain't in it," Marcus said to his wife as he swung after them into the front seat of the open victoria, and the horses settled into their long, clean, eight-mile-an-hour gait. "There's just packs and packs of lunatics up there. You’ll have to learn to smoke, Ide. The back of the stable's the only place I know of."
"Oh, shoot!" cried his wife, turning up her nose, "I guess, if it comes to that, I can smoke just as well as the next man. Why, when I was — I mean, there was once a handsome young Spaniard on board the Aurania who made the most lovely cigarettes - "
Ione turned upon her quickly with inflated nostril.
"And you don't mean to say, Idalia, that the Spaniard was another?"
"No, I don't — not any more than usual, that is," answered Mrs. Marcus Hardy calmly. "I only mean that he taught Astoria to smoke, and — well, I got not to mind it so very much!"
"I see," said Ione, seeing very clearly indeed, for with marriage had come discretion, and the pith of Idalia's remarks lay not so much in what she said as in what she omitted.
Caleb, sitting square and immovable aloft as one of the towers of the Abbey itself, at this moment drove through a great gate across an open space within high bounding walls, and finally stayed the horses within a covered courtyard exactly like a railway terminus with the rails left out.
Glimpses of brilliantly lighted staircases were seen on either hand, but no monk of orders grey or brown came forth to bid welcome to the arriving guests at this curious Abbey.
"So long, Caleb!" cried Marcus; "take our traps round. We’ll be at the garden house for dinner in an hour, and then I’ll get you to coach me as to the particular breed of vampire we are hatching now. You are the only soul in this mad place who has got his head screwed on straight. Lord, won't I just make a clearance here if ever - Ah!"
And Marcus ground his teeth as he looked about him at the ghastly, glass-roofed cave of the winds which served for an entrance hall.
"Well, come on, girls," he cried, affecting a more cheerful tone. "Let's find the mater and get it over!" he said. "There's all the marks of a big carnival on to-night. We're in luck, Idalia. On the first night of our coming to Bedlam, to drop in for a boss A1 Tarantella show of bounding idiots!"
The journey had somehow given Ione little singing pains in her head, and now the feeling that all this huge bulk about her could be no more than a hollow painted masque came over her. There was a curious smell on the staircase and through all the lower corridors which she could not account for — an odour apparently compounded of stale wet straw and paraffin oil. Marcus explained it in one word, which, however, failed to bring any satisfaction to the girls, who after that walked on tiptoe, lifting contumelious skirts.
"Cockroaches! Millions on 'em!" he said unctuously. "Wait till night, though; then they come out in earnest to guard the palace from the enemy. Napoleon himself dare not charge over their prostrate bodies."
Idalia gripped her husband's arm.
"Marcus," she cried in a horrified tone, "I shan't sleep a wink in this place. You must take me away this very instant! I’ll have hysterics on the spot — I feel them coming on — if I so much as catch a sight of one of the horrid beasts."
"They don't come upstairs, Idalia," said Marcus, soothingly; "and in a day or two you won't mind the smell or even think of it, except as the attar of all true Body-and-Soul Water-and-Mustard-Plaster religionaries."
After this explanation Idalia and Ione lifted their skirts yet a little higher, and walked more gingerly and with still more delicate particularity. At the top of the wide iron stairs they came upon a long array of lights in shaded lamps. They heard also the distant sound of voices, but no human beings appeared either to stay or welcome them. They seemed, however, to leave the musty underground smell of wet straw and paraffin altogether beneath them as soon as they reached this upper floor.
"The recreation hall is to the right, the chapel to the left," said Marcus. "I guess, if it's a big 'do,' it will be held in the chapel. Let's draw that cover first."
The walls of the passage were covered with a curious kind of decoration. Patches of paper faintly yellow occupied the centre of the panels. Ione looked narrowly at one. It seemed to be an ordinary print covered with some kind of varnish, and the whole decorated with garish colours, like a child's first attempt at painting.
"That's English history," said Marcus, with the air of a showman. "We are somewhere about the Wars of the Roses here, I think. My grandfather used to stick up pictures like that out of histories issued in sixpenny numbers. The worse the pictures were, the better they pleased him. He used to work at colouring them himself on wet days, and say that the Spirit revealed to him exactly what the people were like. For instance, Warwick the Kingmaker was always dressed in green with a red nose, and Queen Elizabeth habitually came out all over different coloured spots, like those you see when you look too long at the sun. As for Adam and Eve, you should look in the dining-room behind the sofa - "
"Marcus!" cried Idalia, warningly.
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First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.