Maud Ruthyn spends a lonely childhood in the great old house at Knowl. Her mother dies when she is very young, and her father, Austin Ruthyn, becomes a recluse who seldom leaves the grounds of his estate. Disappointed in Parliament many years earlier, he retires from public life to devote himself to scientific and literary studies. These lead him to Swedenborgianism, a doctrine suited to his eccentric and moral tastes. Maud knows him as a kindly but solitary and taciturn man.
For this reason, she never questions him about her uncle Silas, her father’s younger brother, who lives at Bartram-Haugh, a Derbyshire estate owned by Austin. His portrait as a handsome young man hangs in the oak room at Knowl, but from vague hints and whispers of the servants, she knows that there is a mystery surrounding this relative whom she never met, and that the scandal clouds her father’s life as well.
One of the few visitors at Knowl is Dr. Bryerly, a tall, ungainly man who always dresses in black and wears an untidy scratch wig. Like Maud’s father, he is a Swedenborgian. The girl is greatly in awe of him, but she knows that he has her father’s confidence. One day, Austin shows her the key to a locked cabinet in his study. He is soon to go on a journey, he says, and after his departure she is to give the key to Dr. Bryerly.
Maud is a little past seventeen years old when her father employs a new governess, Madame de la Rougierre, a tall, masculine-looking woman with sly, smirking manners. Maud dislikes her from the start. On every possible occasion, the governess questions her charge about Austin’s will and business affairs; sometimes Maud thinks the woman is deliberately spying on the household. One day, Madame de la Rougierre and her pupil walk to a ruined abbey near Knowl, where a strange young man accosts Maud. The girl is frightened by his coarse appearance and offensive manner, but Madame de la Rougierre ignores the incident.
Maud forgets the whole affair in her excitement over the arrival of Lady Monica Knollys, her father’s cousin from Derbyshire and a brisk, sensible noblewoman. During the visit, Madame de la Rougierre pretends to be ill, and it turns out that she and Lady Monica knew each other in the past. When Lady Monica tells Austin that the governess is not a suitable companion for his daughter, he accuses her of prejudice, and they have a terrible argument, as a result of which Lady Monica leaves Knowl abruptly. Before leaving, she warns Maud against Madame de la Rougierre and cautions her always to be on guard against her. Lady Monica also tells Maud that at one time her uncle Silas, whom she clearly does not like, was suspected of murder, but that nothing was charged. Later, Silas becomes interested in religion.
A short time later, while Maud is walking with Madame de la Rougierre in the park, they see on an unfrequented road a carriage with one woman as its only passenger. They continue on their way and meet three men, among them the coarse young stranger who approached Maud near the ruins of the abbey. All are tipsy and address the governess with rough familiarity. When one of the men tries to seize Maud, her screams attract two gamekeepers. In a scuffle with the intruders, one of the gamekeepers is shot. Austin and the servants try to intercept the strangers at the park gates, but the men and their woman companion disappear.
Madame de la Rougierre is given notice not long afterward. One night, Maud falls asleep in her father’s study. She awakens to find the governess going through his private papers. Informed of the midnight search, Austin discharges the woman immediately.
When Austin dies suddenly of a heart attack, Maud understands at last to which journey he was referring. She also learns that Dr. Bryerly was her father’s physician as well as his friend. With the key she gives him, the doctor unlocks the cabinet that contains Austin’s will. Its provisions disturb Dr. Bryerly and fill Lady Monica with dismay. After varying bequests to relatives, friends, and servants, the remainder of Austin’s great estate is given to Maud, under the trusteeship of Dr. Bryerly, Lord Ilbury, Sir William Aylmer, and Mr. Penrose Cresswell. Silas Ruthyn is appointed Maud’s guardian, with the stipulation that the girl is to live with him at Bartram-Haugh until her twenty-first birthday. Lady Monica immediately recalls the strange circumstances under which Mr. Charke, a turfman to whom Silas owed large gambling debts, was found dead at Bartram-Haugh; only the fact that the body was discovered in a bedroom locked from the inside kept Silas from being charged with murder. In turn, Dr. Bryerly is disturbed by the knowledge that Silas would inherit her fortune if Maud dies before her majority, and he advises that an attempt be made to have the...
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