When Robert Audley returns to Audley Court after receiving a letter from Alicia describing Sir Michael’s sudden illness, he remarks upon his sinister surroundings as he walks the path to the mansion: “The over-arching trees stretched their leafless branches above his head, bare and weird in the dusky light. A low moaning wind swept across the flat meadowland, and tossed those rugged branches hither and thither against the dark grey sky. They looked like the ghostly arms of shrunken and withered giants beckoning Robert to his uncle’s house. They looked like threatening phantoms in the chill winter twilight, gesticulating to him to hasten upon his journey. The long avenue, so bright and pleasant when the perfumed limes scattered their light bloom upon the pathway, and the dog-rose leaves floated on the summer air, was terribly bleak and desolate in the cheerless interregnum that divides the homely joys of Christmas from the pale blush of coming spring – a dead pause in the year, in which Nature seems to lie in a tranced sleep, awaiting the wondrous signal for the budding of the tree, and the bursting of the flower” (Braddon 213).
At first read, this passage seems to be yet another obnoxiously detailed account of the spooky lime tree walk, which is so beautiful and bright during the day but dark and evil in the nighttime hours. Indeed, Braddon does use this moment as another excuse to emphasize the dual nature of the infamous lime tree walk, but this time she takes a step deeper into the mystery. The vocabulary used in this paragraph evokes an atmosphere that is not just dark, but eerily haunted. Words such as “bare,” “withered,” “bleak,” and “desolate” are familiar descriptions of wintertime, but new words such as “moaning,” “ghostly,” “phantoms,” “tranced,” and “dead” conjure a truly ominous image. The lime trees are not just dark shapes casting shadows upon the hidden path, they are ghosts reaching out to whoever passes by, guiding them on their way. An interesting aspect of the syntax in this passage is the repetition of the phrase “they looked like…” The third and fourth sentences both begin with the observational words and continue to describe the spectral appearance of the trees. The two sentences are very similar, as they both paint the image of the trees “leading” Robert along the path to the house.
Ghostly imagery has been teased at in other points of the book, and their egregious use in this moment leads the reader to imagine there may be some supernatural aspect to the story. Perhaps the phantasmal trees are moved by the spirit of the lost George Talboys, and it is no coincidence that it was from the lime tree walk that he disappeared. Perhaps the trees are “beckoning Robert to his uncle’s house” and “gesticulating to him to hasten upon his journey” to hurry him forth on his quest for truth and justice. At the beginning of the novel, it is insinuated that countless secrets have been divulged and kept under the shadow of the lime tree walk, so perhaps there are more spirits than just poor George haunting the pathway. Throughout the story, Robert makes several references to an unknown hand guiding him along his journey. These sentiments largely seem to be in reference to God, but perhaps this helping force is a different sort of spirit. To take it one step further, I would make the claim, however far-fetched, that it is this omnipotent spirit, either of George in particular or of every spirit wronged at Audley Court, who narrates the novel.