John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

The Day of Desolation.

Yes; the terrible day had come. Mary Marchmont roamed hither and thither in the big gaunt rooms, up and down the long dreary corridors, white and ghostlike in her mute anguish, while the undertaker’s men were busy in her father’s chamber, and while John’s widow sat in the study below, writing business letters, and making all necessary arrangements for the funeral.

In those early days no one attempted to comfort the orphan. There was something more terrible than the loudest grief in the awful quiet of the girl’s anguish. The wan eyes, looking wearily out of a white haggard face, that seemed drawn and contracted as if by some hideous physical torture, were tearless. Except the one long wail of despair which had burst from her lips in the awful moment of her father’s death agony, no cry of sorrow, no utterance of pain, had given relief to Mary Marchmont’s suffering.

She suffered, and was still. She shrank away from all human companionship; she seemed specially to avoid the society of her stepmother. She locked the door of her room upon all who would have intruded on her, and flung herself upon the bed, to lie there in a dull stupor for hour after hour. But when the twilight was grey in the desolate corridors, the wretched girl wandered out into the gallery on which her father’s room opened, and hovered near that solemn death-chamber; fearful to go in, fearful to encounter the watchers of the dead, lest they should torture her by their hackneyed expressions of sympathy, lest they should agonise her by their commonplace talk of the lost.

Once during that brief interval, while the coffin still held terrible tenancy of the death-chamber, the girl wandered in the dead of the night, when all but the hired watchers were asleep, to the broad landing of the oaken staircase, and into a deep recess formed by an embayed window that opened over the great stone porch which sheltered the principal entrance to Marchmont Towers.

The window had been left open; for even in the bleak autumn weather the atmosphere of the great house seemed hot and oppressive to its living inmates, whose spirits were weighed down by a vague sense of the Awful Presence in that Lincolnshire mansion. Mary had wandered to this open window, scarcely knowing whither she went, after remaining for a long time on her knees by the threshold of her father’s room, with her head resting against the oaken panel of the door — not praying; why should she pray now, unless her prayers could have restored the dead? She had come out upon the wide staircase, and past the ghostly pictured faces, that looked grimly down upon her from the oaken wainscot against which they hung; she had wandered here in the dim grey light — there was light somewhere in the sky, but only a shadowy and uncertain glimmer of fading starlight or coming dawn — and she stood now with her head resting against one of the angles of the massive stonework, looking out of the open window.

The morning which was already glimmering dimly in the eastern sky behind Marchmont Towers was to witness poor John’s funeral. For nearly six days Mary Marchmont had avoided all human companionship: for nearly six days she had shunned all human sympathy and comfort. During all that time she had never eaten, except when forced to do so by her stepmother; who had visited her from time to time, and had insisted upon sitting by her bedside while she took the food that had been brought to her. Heaven knows how often the girl had slept during those six dreary days; but her feverish slumbers had brought her very little rest or refreshment. They had brought her nothing but cruel dreams, in which her father was still alive; in which she felt his thin arms clasped round her neck, his faint and fitful breath warm upon her cheek.

A great clock in the stables struck five while Mary Marchmont stood looking out of the Tudor window. The broad grey flat before the house stretched far away, melting into the shadowy horizon. The pale stars grew paler as Mary looked at them; the black-water pools began to glimmer faintly under the widening patch of light in the eastern sky. The girl’s senses were bewildered by her suffering, and her head was light and dizzy.

Her father’s death had made so sudden and terrible a break in her existence, that she could scarcely believe the world had not come to an end, with all the joys and sorrows of its inhabitants. Would there be anything more after to-morrow? she thought; would the blank days and nights go monotonously on when the story that had given them a meaning and a purpose had come to its dismal end? Surely not; surely, after those gaunt iron gates, far away across the swampy waste that was called a park, had closed upon her father’s funeral train, the world would come to an end, and there would be no more time or space. I think she really believed this in the semi-delirium into which she had fallen within the last hour. She believed that all would be over; and that she and her despair would melt away into the emptiness that was to engulf the universe after her father’s funeral.

Then suddenly the full reality of her grief flashed upon her with horrible force. She clasped her hands upon her forehead, and a low faint cry broke from her white lips.

It was not all over. Time and space would not be annihilated. The weary, monotonous, workaday world would still go on upon its course. Nothing would be changed. The great gaunt stone mansion would still stand, and the dull machinery of its interior would still go on: the same hours; the same customs; the same inflexible routine. John Marchmont would be carried out of the house that had owned him master, to lie in the dismal vault under Kemberling Church; and the world in which he had made so little stir would go on without him. The easy-chair in which he had been wont to sit would be wheeled away from its corner by the fireplace in the western drawing-room. The papers in his study would be sorted and put away, or taken possession of by strange hands. Cromwells and Napoleons die, and the earth reels for a moment, only to be “alive and bold” again in the next instant, to the astonishment of poets, and the calm satisfaction of philosophers; and ordinary people eat their breakfasts while the telegram lies beside them upon the table, and while the ink in which Mr. Reuter’s message is recorded is still wet from the machine in Printing-house Square.

Anguish and despair more terrible than any of the tortures she had felt yet took possession of Mary Marchmont’s breast. For the first time she looked out at her own future. Until now she had thought only of her father’s death. She had despaired because he was gone; but she had never contemplated the horror of her future life — a life in which she was to exist without him. A sudden agony, that was near akin to madness, seized upon this girl, in whose sensitive nature affection had always had a morbid intensity. She shuddered with a wild dread at the prospect of that blank future; and as she looked out at the wide stone steps below the window from which she was leaning, for the first time in her young life the idea of self-destruction flashed across her mind.

She uttered a cry, a shrill, almost unearthly cry, that was notwithstanding low and feeble, and clambered suddenly upon the broad stone sill of the Tudor casement. She wanted to fling herself down and dash her brains out upon the stone steps below; but in the utter prostration of her state she was too feeble to do this, and she fell backwards and dropped in a heap upon the polished oaken flooring of the recess, striking her forehead as she fell. She lay there unconscious until nearly seven o’clock, when one of the women-servants found her, and carried her off to her own room, where she suffered herself to be undressed and put to bed.

Mary Marchmont did not speak until the good-hearted Lincolnshire housemaid had laid her in her bed, and was going away to tell Olivia of the state in which she had found the orphan girl.

“Don’t tell my stepmother anything about me, Susan,” she said; “I think I was mad last night.”

This speech frightened the housemaid, and she went straight to the widow’s room. Mrs. Marchmont, always an early riser, had been up and dressed for some time, and went at once to look at her stepdaughter.

She found Mary very calm and reasonable. There was no trace of bewilderment or delirium now in her manner; and when the principal doctor of Swampington came a couple of hours afterwards to look at the young heiress, he declared that there was no cause for any alarm. The young lady was sensitive, morbidly sensitive, he said, and must be kept very quiet for a few days, and watched by some one whose presence would not annoy her. If there was any girl of her own age whom she had ever shown a predilection for, that girl would be the fittest companion for her just now. After a few days, it would be advisable that she should have change of air and change of scene. She must not be allowed to brood continuously on her father’s death. The doctor repeated this last injunction more than once. It was most important that she should not give way too perpetually to her grief.

So Mary Marchmont lay in her darkened room while her father’s funeral train was moving slowly away from the western entrance. It happened that the orphan girl’s apartments looked out into the quadrangle; so she heard none of the subdued sounds which attended the departure of that solemn procession. In her weakness she had grown submissive to the will of others. She thought this feebleness and exhaustion gave warning of approaching death. Her prayers would be granted, after all. This anguish and despair would be but of brief duration, and she would ere long be carried to the vault under Kemberling Church, to lie beside her father in the black stillness of that solemn place.

Mrs. Marchmont strictly obeyed the doctor’s injunctions. A girl of seventeen, the daughter of a small tenant farmer near the Towers, had been a special favourite with Mary, who was not apt to make friends amongst strangers. This girl, Hester Pollard, was sent for, and came willingly and gladly to watch her young patroness. She brought her needlework with her, and sat near the window busily employed, while Mary lay shrouded by the curtains of the bed. All active services necessary for the comfort of the invalid were performed by Olivia or her own special attendant — an old servant who had lived with the Rector ever since his daughter’s birth, and had only left him to follow that daughter to Marchmont Towers after her marriage. So Hester Pollard had nothing to do but to keep very quiet, and patiently await the time when Mary might be disposed to talk to her. The farmer’s daughter was a gentle, unobtrusive creature, very well fitted for the duty imposed upon her.

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