Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 35

Bought with a Price.

Ellen Carley was not allowed any time to take back the promise given to her father, had she been inclined to do so. Mr. Whitelaw made his appearance at the Grange early in the evening of the 2nd of January, with a triumphant simper upon his insipid countenance, which was inexpressibly provoking to the unhappy girl. It was clear to her, at first sight of him, that her father had been at Wyncomb that afternoon, and her hateful suitor came secure of success. His wooing was not a very romantic episode in his commonplace existence. He did not even attempt to see Ellen alone; but after he had been seated for about half-an-hour in the chimney-corner, nestling close to the fire in a manner he much affected, being of a particularly chilly temperament, given to shiver and turn blue on the smallest provocation, he delivered himself solemnly of the following address:—

“I make no doubt, Miss Carley, that you have taken notice for some time past of my sentiments towards yourself. I have never made any secret of those sentiments, neither have I talked much about them, not being a man of many words. I used to fancy myself the very reverse of a marrying man, and I don’t say but what at this moment I think the man who lives and dies a bachelor does the wisest for his own comfort and his own prosperity. But we are not the masters of our feelings, Miss Carley. You have growed upon me lately somehow, so that I’ve got not to care for my life without you. Ask Mrs. Tadman if my appetite hasn’t fell off within this last six months to a degree that has frightened her; and a man of my regular habits must be very far gone in love, Miss Carley, when his appetite forsakes him. From the time I came to know you as a young woman, in the bloom of a young woman’s beauty, I said to myself, ‘That’s the girl I’ll marry, and no other.’ Your father can bear me out in that, for I said the same to him. And finding that I had his approval, I was satisfied to bide my time, and wait till you came round to the same way of thinking. Your father tells me yesterday afternoon, and again this afternoon, that you have come round to that way of feeling. I hope he hasn’t deceived me, Miss Carley.”

This was a very long speech for Stephen Whitelaw. It was uttered in little gasps or snatches of speech, the speaker stopping at the end of every sentence to take breath.

Ellen Carley sat on that side of the comfortable round table most remote from Mr. Whitelaw, deadly pale, with her hands clasped before her. Once she lifted her eyes with a piteous look to her father’s face; but he was smoking his pipe solemnly, with his gaze fixed upon the blazing logs in the grate, and contrived not to see that mute despairing appeal. He had not looked at his daughter once since Stephen Whitelaw’s arrival, nor had he made any attempt to prepare her for this visit, this rapid consummation of the sacrifice.

“Come, Miss Carley,” said the former rather impatiently, after there had been a dead silence of some minutes, “I want to get an answer direct from your own lips. Your father hasn’t been deceiving me, has he?”

“No,” Ellen said in a low voice, almost as if the reply were dragged from her by some physical torture. “If my father has given you a promise for me, I will keep it. But I don’t want to deceive you, on my part, Mr. Whitelaw,” she went on in a somewhat firmer tone. “I will be your wife, since you and my father have settled that it must be so; but I can promise no more than that. I will be dutiful and submissive to you as a wife, you may be sure — only ——”

Mr. Whitelaw smiled a very significant smile, which implied that it would be his care to insure his wife’s obedience, and that he was troubled by no doubts upon that head.

The bailiff broke-in abruptly at this juncture.

“Lord bless the girl, what need is there of all this talk about what she will be and what she won’t be? She’ll be as good a wife as any woman in England, I’ll stake my life upon that. She’s been a good daughter, as all the world knows, and a good daughter is bound to make a good wife. Say no more about it, Nell. Stephen Whitelaw knows he’ll make no bad bargain in marrying you.”

The farmer received this remark with a loud sniff, expressive of offended dignity.

“Very likely not, William Carley,” he said; “but it isn’t every man that can make your daughter mistress of such a place as Wyncomb; and such men as could do it would look for money with a wife, however young and pretty she might be. There’s two sides to a bargain, you see, William, and I should like things to be looked at in that light between you and me.”

“You’ve no call to take offence, Steph,” answered the bailiff with a conciliating grin. “I never said you wasn’t a good match for my girl; but a pretty girl and a prudent clever housekeeper like Nell is a fortune in herself to any man.”

“Then the matter’s settled, I suppose,” said Mr. Whitelaw; “and the sooner the wedding comes off the better, to my mind. If my wife that is to be wants anything in the way of new clothes, I shall be happy to put down a twenty-pound note — or I’d go as far as thirty — towards ’em.”

Ellen shook her head impatiently.

“I want nothing new,” she said; “I have as many things as I care to have.”

“Nonsense, Nell,” cried her father, frowning at her in a significant manner to express his disapproval of this folly, and in so doing looking at her for the first time since her suitor’s advent. “Every young woman likes new gowns, and of course you’ll take Steph’s friendly offer, and thank him kindly for it. He knows that I’m pretty hard-up just now, and won’t be able to do much for you; and it wouldn’t do for Mrs. Whitelaw of Wyncomb to begin the world with a shabby turn-out.”

“Of course not,” replied the farmer; “I’ll bring you the cash to-morrow evening, Nell; and the sooner you buy your wedding-gown the better. There’s nothing to wait for, you see. I’ve got a good home to take you to. Mother Tadman will march, of course, between this and my wedding-day. I sha’n’t want her when I’ve a wife to keep house for me.”

“Of course not,” said the bailiff. “Relations are always dangerous about a place — ready to make mischief at every hand’s turn.”

“O, Mr. Whitelaw, you won’t turn her out, surely — your own flesh and blood, and after so many years of service. She told me how hard she had worked for you.”

“Ah, that’s just like her,” growled the farmer. “I give her a comfortable home for all these years, and then she grumbles about the work.”

“She didn’t grumble,” said Ellen hastily. “She only told me how faithfully she had served you.”

“Yes; that comes to the same thing. I should have thought you would have liked to be mistress of your house, Nell, without any one to interfere with you.”

“Mrs. Tadman is nothing to me,” answered Ellen, who had been by no means prepossessed by that worthy matron; “but I shouldn’t like her to be unfairly treated on my account.”

“Well, we’ll think about it, Nell; there’s no hurry. She’s worth her salt, I daresay.”

Mr. Whitelaw seemed to derive a kind of satisfaction from the utterance of his newly-betrothed’s Christian name, which came as near the rapture of a lover as such a sluggish nature might be supposed capable of. To Ellen there was something hideous in the sound of her own name spoken by those hateful lips; but he had a sovereign right so to address her, now and for evermore. Was she not his goods, his chattels, bought with a price, as much as a horse at a fair?

That nothing might be wanting to remind her of the sordid bargain, Mr. Whitelaw drew a small canvas bag from his pocket presently — a bag which gave forth that pleasant chinking sound that is sweet to the ears of so many as the music of gold — and handed it across the hearth to William Carley.

“I’m as good as my word, you see,” he said with a complacent air of patronage. “There’s the favour you asked me for; I’ll take your IOU for it presently, if it’s all the same to you — as a matter of form — and to be given back to you upon my wedding-day.”

The bailiff nodded assent, and dropped the bag into his pocket with a sigh of relief. And then the two men went on smoking their pipes in the usual stolid way, dropping out a few words now and then by way of social converse; and there was nothing in Mr. Whitelaw’s manner to remind Ellen that she had bound herself to the awful apprenticeship of marriage without love. But when he took his leave that night he approached her with such an evident intention of kissing her as could not be mistaken by the most inexperienced of maidens. Poor Ellen indulged in no girlish resistance, no pretty little comedy of alarm and surprise, but surrendered her pale lips to the hateful salute with the resignation of a martyr. It was better that she should suffer this than that her father should go to gaol. That thought was never absent from her mind. Nor was this sacrifice to filial duty quite free from the leaven of selfishness. For her own sake, as much as for her father’s, Ellen Carley would have submitted to any penalty rather than disgrace. To have him branded as a thief must needs be worse suffering than any life-long penance she might endure in matrimony. To lose Frank Randall’s love was less than to let him learn her father’s guilt.

“The daughter of a thief!” she said to herself. “How he would despise himself for having ever loved me, if he knew me to be that!”

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