Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972
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...
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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 provisions of the wardship put aside. Silas, however, refuses to relinquish his guardianship. Maud, who interprets the will as her father’s wish that she vindicate her uncle’s name by becoming his ward, announces that she will go to live with Silas in Derbyshire.
With her maid, Mary Quince, Maud travels by carriage to Bartram-Haugh, where she finds the house to be old and rambling; many of the rooms are closed and locked, and the grounds are wild and neglected. Although Silas welcomes his niece courteously and with many pious sentiments, it seems to Maud that at times he is secretly laughing at her. His own rooms are furnished in great luxury. The quarters Maud shares with her cousin Milly, however, are shabby and bare. Milly is a loud, good-humored girl at whom her father sneers because of her hoydenish manners. Maud takes an immediate liking to her young relative. There is also a son, Dudley, but Milly says that her brother is seldom at home.
When Maud and her cousin go for a walk the next morning, they find the gate leading into Bartram Close locked and guarded by Meg Hawkes, the miller’s rough-tongued daughter, who refuses to let them pass. The girls enter the park by a seldom-traveled path that Milly knows, and there they meet a pleasant young gentleman who introduces himself as Mr. Carysbrook, a tenant at the nearby Grange.
Maud’s only companion is Milly, and she sees very little of her uncle, who is addicted to laudanum and passes many of his days in a coma. Sometimes, the girls are summoned to sit in his room while he lies quietly in bed. One day, Dr. Bryerly appears unexpectedly to transact some business with Silas. When the doctor questions her, Maud replies that she is happy at Bartram-Haugh. Dr. Bryerly gives her his address in London and tells her to communicate with him if the need should ever arise.
Early in December, Lady Monica opens her house at nearby Elverston and invites Maud and Milly to visit her. Among the guests at dinner is Mr. Carysbrook. Lady Monica tells Maud that he is really Lord Ilbury, one of her trustees.
When Maud returns to Bartram-Haugh, she meets Dudley Ruthyn, who is the same vulgar young man she encountered twice before at Knowl. When she mentions those meetings, Silas brushes the matter aside. He declares that the spirits of youth run high at times, but that Dudley is a gentleman. Maud is relieved to learn that Milly dislikes and fears her brother, and the girls avoid him as much as possible. When Meg Hawkes becomes ill, Maud brings her medicines and delicacies and wins the strange girl’s devotion.
Lord Ilbury calls at Bartram-Haugh and expresses the hope that Maud will be allowed to visit his sister at the Grange, but Silas refuses his consent. Dr. Bryerly also comes and accuses Silas of misusing his ward’s property. Infuriated, Silas orders him out of the house. A short time later, Milly is sent to study in a French convent. Maud misses her company, but her situation becomes even more unbearable when Dudley begins to persecute her with proposals of marriage. Silas tells her she should consider the matter seriously for a fortnight. Before that time passes, however, Dudley’s unwelcome attentions abruptly end when his secret marriage to Sarah Mangles, a barmaid, is revealed. Sarah is the woman Maud saw in the carriage at Knowl. Silas is furious and sends Dudley and his bride away. Before his departure, Dudley offers to conduct Maud safely to Lady Monica for twenty thousand pounds. Convinced that this is another of his schemes, she refuses. A few days later, she sees in the paper an announcement stating that Dudley and his wife sailed for Melbourne.
Silas confesses to his ward that he faces final and complete ruin. To elude his creditors, he will be forced to send Maud to join Milly in France; he himself will travel by another route to join them there. Maud grows apprehensive, however, when she learns that her companion on the journey is to be Madame de la Rougierre, her former governess. Confined like a prisoner, she tries to communicate her plight to Lady Monica, but the servant she bribes to carry her letter returns the message to his master. With reproaches for her ingratitude and accusations against him, Silas tells her that she is to leave for France immediately with Madame de la Rougierre; Mary Quince, the maid, will follow with him in a few days.
Guarded by her grim companion, Maud is taken to London and spends the night in an obscure hotel. The next night, they take a train to Dover, so Madame de la Rougierre informs her, but when she awakens the next morning, she finds herself in one of the upper chambers at Bartram-Haugh. Madame de la Rougierre says only that there was a change in plans. Maud realizes that her only hope lies in Meg, who unexpectedly appears.
That night, Madame de la Rougierre drinks some drugged wine intended for Maud and falls asleep on the girl’s bed. Crouched in the shadows of an old press, Maud is surprised to see the window of the room swing inward and a man suspended by a rope clamber over the sill. The intruder is Dudley; the announcement of his departure for Australia was another of Silas’s fabrications. Dazed, she sees him raise a spiked hammer and strike at the figure on the bed. When old Silas enters by the doorway and the two begin to open a trunk containing the girl’s jewelry, she takes advantage of the noise and runs from the room. As she leaves the house, she encounters Tom Brice, a servant who is in love with Meg. The man curses his master’s villainy and drives Maud to safety at Elverston.
She is so shaken by her experience that Lady Monica hurries her off to France at once, and two years pass before she learns what happened after her flight. Silas killed himself with an overdose of opium; Dudley disappeared; and Madame de la Rougierre’s body was found buried in the courtyard, its whereabouts disclosed by Meg’s old father. Subsequent investigation revealed that Maud’s room was the chamber in which Charke was found dead; the peculiar construction of the window frame explained how his murderer was able to enter a room locked from the inside.
Eventually, Milly becomes the wife of a worthy clergyman. Meg marries Brice and the two emigrate with money given them by Maud. Dr. Bryerly gives up his practice and undertakes the management of the Ruthyn estates. Maud marries Lord Ilbury and finds new happiness as a wife and mother.