Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 31

Ellen Carley’s Trials.

Christmas came in the old farm-house near Crosber; and Ellen Carley, who had no idea of making any troubled thoughts of her own an excuse for neglect of her household duties, made the sombre panelled rooms bright with holly and ivy, laurel and fir, and busied herself briskly in the confection of such pies and puddings as Hampshire considered necessary to the due honour of that pious festival. There were not many people to see the greenery and bright holly-berries which embellished the grave old rooms, not many whom Ellen very much cared for to taste the pies and puddings; but duty must be done, and the bailiff’s daughter did her work with a steady industry which knew no wavering.

Her life had been a hard one of late, very lonely since Mrs. Holbrook’s disappearance, and haunted with a presence which was most hateful to her. Stephen Whitelaw had taken to coming to the Grange much oftener than of old. There was seldom an evening now on which his insignificant figure was not to be seen planted by the hearth in the snug little oak-parlour, smoking his pipe in that dull silent way of his, which was calculated to aggravate a lively person like Ellen Carley into some open expression of disgust or dislike. Of late, too, his attentions had been of a more pronounced character; he took to dropping sly hints of his pretensions, and it was impossible for Ellen any longer to doubt that he wanted her to be his wife. More than this, there was a tone of assurance about the man, quiet as he was, which exasperated Miss Carley beyond all measure. He had the air of being certain of success, and on more than one occasion spoke of the day when Ellen would be mistress of Wyncomb Farm.

On his repetition of this offensive speech one evening, the girl took him up sharply:—

“Not quite so fast, if you please, Mr. Whitelaw,” she said; “it takes two to make a bargain of that kind, just the same as it takes two to quarrel. There’s many curious changes may come in a person’s life, no doubt, and folks never know what’s going to happen to them; but whatever changes may come upon me, that isn’t one of them. I may live to see the inside of the workhouse, perhaps, when I’m too old for service; but I shall never sleep under the roof of Wyncomb Farmhouse.”

Mr. Whitelaw gave a spiteful little laugh.

“What a spirited one she is, ain’t she, now?” he said with a sneer. “O, you won’t, won’t you, my lass; you turn up that pretty little nose of yours — it do turn up a bit of itself, don’t it, though? — at Wyncomb Farm and Stephen Whitelaw; your father tells a different story, Nell.”

“Then my father tells a lying story,” answered the girl, blushing crimson with indignation; “and it isn’t for want o’ knowing the truth. He knows that, if it was put upon me to choose between your house and the union, I’d go to the union — and with a light heart too, to be free of you. I didn’t want to be rude, Mr. Whitelaw; for you’ve been civil-spoken enough to me, and I daresay you’re a good friend to my father; but I can’t help speaking the truth, and you’ve brought it on yourself with your nonsense.”

“She’s got a devil of a tongue of her own, you see, Whitelaw,” said the bailiff, with a savage glance at his daughter; “but she don’t mean above a quarter what she says — and when her time comes, she’ll do as she’s bid, or she’s no child of mine.”

“O, I forgive her,” replied Mr. Whitelaw, with a placid air of superiority; “I’m not the man to bear malice against a pretty woman, and to my mind a pretty woman looks all the prettier when she’s in a passion. I’m not in a hurry, you see, Carley; I can bide my time; but I shall never take a mistress to Wyncomb unless I can take the one I like.”

After this particular evening, Mr. Whitelaw’s presence seemed more than ever disagreeable to poor Ellen. He had the air of her fate somehow, sitting rooted to the hearth night after night, and she grew to regard him with a half superstitious horror, as if he possessed some occult power over her, and could bend her to his wishes in spite of herself. The very quietude of the man became appalling to her. Such a man seemed capable of accomplishing anything by the mere force of persistence, by the negative power that lay in his silent nature.

“I suppose he means to sit in that room night after night, smoking his pipe and staring with those pale stupid eyes of his, till I change my mind and promise to marry him,” Ellen said to herself, as she meditated angrily on the annoyance of Mr. Whitelaw’s courtship. “He may sit there till his hair turns gray — if ever such red hair does turn to anything better than itself — and he’ll find no change in me. I wish Frank were here to keep up my courage. I think if he were to ask me to run away with him, I should be tempted to say yes, at the risk of bringing ruin upon both of us; anything to escape out of the power of that man. But come what may, I won’t endure it much longer. I’ll run away to service soon after Christmas, and father will only have himself to thank for the loss of me.”

It was Mr. Whitelaw who appeared as principal guest at the Grange on Christmas-day; Mr. Whitelaw, supported on this occasion by a widowed cousin of his who had kept house for him for some years, and who bore a strong family likeness to him both in person and manner, and Ellen Carley thought that it was impossible for the world to contain a more disagreeable pair. These were the guests who consumed great quantities of Ellen’s pies and puddings, and who sat under her festal garlands of holly and laurel. She had been especially careful to hang no scrap of mistletoe, which might have afforded Mr. Whitelaw an excuse for a practical display of his gallantry; a fact which did not escape the playful observation of his cousin, Mrs. Tadman.

“Young ladies don’t often forget to put up a bit of mistletoe,” said this matron, “when there’s a chance of them they like being by;” and she glanced in a meaning way from Ellen to the master of Wyncomb Farm.

“Miss Carley isn’t like the generality of young ladies,” Mr. Whitelaw answered with a glum look, and his kinswoman was fain to drop the subject.

Alone with Ellen, sly Mrs. Tadman took occasion to launch out into enthusiastic praises of her cousin; to which the girl listened in profound silence, closely watched all the time by the woman’s sharp gray eyes. And then by degrees her tone changed ever so little, and she owned that her kinsman was not altogether faultless; indeed it was curious to perceive what numerous shortcomings were coexistent with those shining merits of his.

“He has been a good friend to me,” continued the matron; “that I never have denied and never shall deny. But I have been a good servant to him; ah! there isn’t a hired servant as would toil and drudge, and watch and pinch, as I have done to please him, and never have had payment from him more than a new gown at Christmas, or a five-pound note after harvest. And of course, if ever he marries, I shall have to look for a new home; for I know too much of his ways, I daresay, for a wife to like to have me about her — and me of an age when it seem a hard to have to go among strangers — and not having saved sixpence, where I might have put by a hundred pounds easy, if I hadn’t been working without wages for a relation. But I’ve not been called a servant, you see; and I suppose Stephen thinks that’s payment enough for my trouble. Goodness knows I’ve saved him many a pound, and that he’ll know when I’m gone; for he’s near, is Stephen, and it goes to his heart to part with a shilling.”

“But why should you ever leave him, Mrs. Tadman?” Ellen asked kindly. “I shouldn’t think he could have a better housekeeper.”

“Perhaps not,” answered the widow, shaking her head with mysterious significance; “but his wife won’t think that; and when he’s got a wife he’ll want her to be his housekeeper, and to pinch and scrape as I’ve pinched and scraped for him. Lord help her!” concluded Mrs. Tadman, with a faint groan, which was far from complimentary to her relative’s character.

“But perhaps he never will marry,” argued Ellen coolly.

“O, yes, he will, Miss Carley,” replied Mrs. Tadman, with another significant movement of her head; “he’s set his heart on that, and he’s set his heart on the young woman he means to marry.”

“He can’t marry her unless she’s willing to be his wife, any how,” said Ellen, reddening a little.

“O, he’ll find a way to make her consent, Miss Carley, depend upon that. Whatever Stephen Whitelaw sets his mind upon, he’ll do. But I don’t envy that poor young woman; for she’ll have a hard life of it at Wyncomb, and a hard master in my cousin Stephen.”

“She must be a very weak-minded young woman if she marries him against her will,” Ellen said laughing; and then ran off to get the tea ready, leaving Mrs. Tadman to her meditations, which were not of a lively nature at the best of times.

That Christmas-day came to an end at last, after a long evening in the oak parlour enlivened by a solemn game at whist and a ponderous supper of cold sirloin and mince pies; and looking out at the wintry moonlight, and the shadowy garden and flat waste of farm-land from the narrow casement in her own room. Ellen Carley wondered what those she loved best in the world were doing and thinking of under that moonlit sky. Where was Marian Holbrook, that new-found friend whom she had loved so well, and whose fate remained so profound a mystery? and what was Frank Randall doing, far away in London, where he had gone to fill a responsible position in a large City firm of solicitors, and whence he had promised to return faithful to his first love, as soon as he found himself fairly on the road to a competence wherewith to endow her?

Thus it was that poor Ellen kept the close of her Christmas-day, looking out over the cold moonlit fields, and wondering how she was to escape from the persecution of Stephen Whitelaw.

That obnoxious individual had invited Mr. Carley and his daughter to spend New-year’s-day at Wyncomb; a display of hospitality so foreign to his character, that it was scarcely strange that Mrs. Tadman opened her eyes and stared aghast as she heard the invitation given. It had been accepted too, much to Ellen’s disgust; and her father told her more than once in the course of the ensuing week that she was to put on her best gown, and smarten herself up a bit, on New-year’s-day.

“And if you want a new gown, Nell, I don’t mind giving it you,” said the bailiff, in a burst of generosity, and with the prevailing masculine idea that a new gown was a panacea for all feminine griefs. “You can walk over to Malsham and buy it any afternoon you like.”

But Ellen did not care for a new gown, and told her father so, with a word or two of thanks for his offer. She did not desire fine dresses; she had indeed been looking over and furbishing up her wardrobe of late, with a view to that possible flight of hers, and it was to her cotton working gowns that she had paid most attention: looking forward to begin a harder life in some stranger’s service — ready to endure anything rather than to marry Stephen Whitelaw. And of late the conviction had grown upon her that her father was very much in earnest, and that before long it would be a question whether she should obey him, or be turned out of doors. She had seen his dealings with other people, and she knew him to be a passionate determined man, hard as iron in his anger.

“I won’t give him the trouble to turn me out of doors,” Ellen said to herself. “When I know his mind, and that there’s no hope of turning him, I’ll get away quietly, and find some new home. He has no real power over me, and I have but to earn my own living to be independent of him. And I don’t suppose Frank will think any the worse of me for having been a servant,” thought the girl, with something like a sob. It seemed hard that she must needs sink lower in her lover’s eyes, when she was so far beneath him already; he a lawyer’s son, a gentleman by education, and she an untaught country girl.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31