John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

The Young Soldier’s Return.

The rain beats down upon the battlemented roof of Marchmont Towers this July day, as if it had a mind to flood the old mansion. The flat waste of grass, and the lonely clumps of trees, are almost blotted out by the falling rain. The low grey sky shuts out the distance. This part of Lincolnshire — fenny, misty, and flat always — seems flatter and mistier than usual to-day. The rain beats hopelessly upon the leaves in the wood behind Marchmont Towers, and splashes into great pools beneath the trees, until the ground is almost hidden by the fallen water, and the trees seem to be growing out of a black lake. The land is lower behind Marchmont Towers, and slopes down gradually to the bank of a dismal river, which straggles through the Marchmont property at a snail’s pace, to gain an impetus farther on, until it hurries into the sea somewhere northward of Grimsby. The wood is not held in any great favour by the household at the Towers; and it has been a pet project of several Marchmonts to level and drain it, but a project not very easily to be carried out. Marchmont Towers is said to be unhealthy, as a dwelling-house, by reason of this wood, from which miasmas rise in certain states of the weather; and it is on this account that the back of the house — the eastern front, at least, as it is called — looking to the wood is very little used.

Mary Marchmont sits at a window in the western drawing-room, watching the ceaseless falling of the rain upon this dreary summer afternoon. She is little changed since the day upon which Edward Arundel saw her in Oakley Street. She is taller, of course, but her figure is as slender and childish as ever: it is only her face in which the earnestness of premature womanhood reveals itself in a grave and sweet serenity very beautiful to contemplate. Her soft brown eyes have a pensive shadow in their gentle light; her mouth is even more pensive. It has been said of Jane Grey, of Mary Stuart, of Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, and other fated women, that in the gayest hours of their youth they bore upon some feature, or in some expression, the shadow of the End — an impalpable, indescribable presage of an awful future, vaguely felt by those who looked upon them.

Is it thus with Mary Marchmont? Has the solemn hand of Destiny set that shadowy brand upon the face of this child, that even in her prosperity, as in her adversity, she should be so utterly different from all other children? Is she already marked out for some womanly martyrdom — already set apart for more than common suffering?

She sits alone this afternoon, for her father is busy with his agent. Wealth does not mean immunity from all care and trouble; and Mr. Marchmont has plenty of work to get through, in conjunction with his land-steward, a hard-headed Yorkshireman, who lives at Kemberling, and insists on doing his duty with pertinacious honesty.

The large brown eyes looked wistfully out at the dismal waste and the falling rain. There was a wretched equestrian making his way along the carriage-drive.

“Who can come to see us on such a day?” Mary thought. “It must be Mr. Gormby, I suppose;"— the agent’s name was Gormby. “Mr. Gormby never cares about the wet; but then I thought he was with papa. Oh, I hope it isn’t anybody coming to call.”

But Mary forgot all about the struggling equestrian the next moment. She had some morsel of fancy-work upon her lap, and picked it up and went on with it, setting slow stitches, and letting her thoughts wander far away from Marchmont Towers — to India, I am afraid; or to that imaginary India which she had created for herself out of such images as were to be picked up in the “Arabian Nights.” She was roused suddenly by the opening of a door at the farther end of the room, and by the voice of a servant, who mumbled a name which sounded something like Mr. Armenger.

She rose, blushing a little, to do honour to one of her father’s county acquaintance, as she thought; when a fair-haired gentleman dashed in, very much excited and very wet, and made his way towards her.

“I would come, Miss Marchmont,” he said — “I would come, though the day was so wet. Everybody vowed I was mad to think of it, and it was as much as my poor brute of a horse could do to get over the ten miles of swamp between this and my uncle’s house; but I would come! Where’s John? I want to see John. Didn’t I always tell him he’d come into the Lincolnshire property? Didn’t I always say so, now? You should have seen Martin Mostyn’s face — he’s got a capital berth in the War Office, and he’s such a snob! — when I told him the news: it was as long as my arm! But I must see John, dear old fellow! I long to congratulate him.”

Mary stood with her hands clasped, and her breath coming quickly. The blush had quite faded out, and left her unusually pale. But Edward Arundel did not see this: young gentlemen of four-and-twenty are not very attentive to every change of expression in little girls of thirteen.

“Oh, is it you, Mr. Arundel? Is it really you?”

She spoke in a low voice, and it was almost difficult to keep the rushing tears back while she did so. She had pictured him so often in peril, in famine, in sickness, in death, that to see him here, well, happy, light-hearted, cordial, handsome, and brave, as she had seen him four-and-a-half years before in the two-pair back in Oakley Street, was almost too much for her to bear without the relief of tears. But she controlled her emotion as bravely as if she had been a woman of twenty.

“I am so glad to see you,” she said quietly; “and papa will be so glad too! It is the only thing we want, now we are rich; to have you with us. We have talked of you so often; and I— we — have been so unhappy sometimes, thinking that ——”

“That I should be killed, I suppose?”

“Yes; or wounded very, very badly. The battles in India have been dreadful, have they not?”

Mr. Arundel smiled at her earnestness.

“They have not been exactly child’s play,” he said, shaking back his chesnut hair and smoothing his thick moustache. He was a man now, and a very handsome one; something of that type which is known in this year of grace as “swell”; but brave and chivalrous withal, and not afflicted with any impediment in his speech. “The men who talk of the Affghans as a chicken-hearted set of fellows are rather out of their reckoning. The Indians can fight, Miss Mary, and fight like the devil; but we can lick ’em!”

He walked over to the fireplace, where — upon this chilly wet day, there was a fire burning — and began to shake himself dry. Mary, following him with her eyes, wondered if there was such another soldier in all Her Majesty’s dominions, and how soon he would be made General-in-Chief of the Army of the Indus.

“Then you’ve not been wounded at all, Mr. Arundel?” she said, after a pause.

“Oh, yes, I’ve been wounded; I got a bullet in my shoulder from an Affghan musket, and I’m home on sick-leave.”

This time he saw the expression of her face, and interpreted her look of alarm.

“But I’m not ill, you know, Miss Marchmont,” he said, laughing. “Our fellows are very glad of a wound when they feel home-sick. The 8th come home before long, all of ’em; and I’ve a twelvemonth’s leave of absence; and we’re pretty sure to be ordered out again by the end of that time, as I don’t believe there’s much chance of quiet over there.”

“You will go out again! ——”

Edward Arundel smiled at her mournful tone.

“To be sure, Miss Mary. I have my captaincy to win, you know; I’m only a lieutenant, as yet.”

It was only a twelvemonth’s reprieve, after all, then, Mary thought. He would go back again — to suffer, and to be wounded, and to die, perhaps. But then, on the other hand, there was a twelvemonth’s respite; and her father might in that time prevail upon the young soldier to stay at Marchmont Towers. It was such inexpressible happiness to see him once more, to know that he was safe and well, that Mary could scarcely do otherwise than see all things in a sunny light just now.

She ran to John Marchmont’s study to tell him of the coming of this welcome visitor; but she wept upon her father’s shoulder before she could explain who it was whose coming had made her so glad. Very few friendships had broken the monotony of her solitary existence; and Edward Arundel was the only chivalrous image she had ever known, out of her books.

John Marchmont was scarcely less pleased than his child to see the man who had befriended him in his poverty. Never has more heartfelt welcome been given than that which greeted Edward Arundel at Marchmont Towers.

“You will stay with us, of course, my dear Arundel,” John said; “you will stop for September and the shooting. You know you promised you’d make this your shooting-box; and we’ll build the tennis-court. Heaven knows, there’s room enough for it in the great quadrangle; and there’s a billiard-room over this, though I’m afraid the table is out of order. But we can soon set that right, can’t we, Polly?”

“Yes, yes, papa; out of my pocket-money, if you like.”

Mary Marchmont said this in all good faith. It was sometimes difficult for her to remember that her father was really rich, and had no need of help out of her pocket-money. The slender savings in her little purse had often given him some luxury that he would not otherwise have had, in the time gone by.

“You got my letter, then?” John said; “the letter in which I told you ——”

“That Marchmont Towers was yours. Yes, my dear old boy. That letter was amongst a packet my agent brought me half-an-hour before I left Calcutta. God bless you, dear old fellow; how glad I was to hear of it! I’ve only been in England a fortnight. I went straight from Southampton to Dangerfield to see my father and mother, stayed there little over ten days, and then offended them all by running away. I reached Swampington yesterday, slept at my uncle Hubert’s, paid my respects to my cousin Olivia, who is — well, I’ve told you what she is — and rode over here this morning, much to the annoyance of the inhabitants of the Rectory. So, you see, I’ve been doing nothing but offending people for your sake, John; and for yours, Miss Mary. By-the-by, I’ve brought you such a doll!”

A doll! Mary’s pale face flushed a faint crimson. Did he think her still a child, then, this soldier; did he think her only a silly child, with no thought above a doll, when she would have gone out to India, and braved every peril of that cruel country, to be his nurse and comfort in fever and sickness, like the brave Sisters of Mercy she had read of in some of her novels?

Edward Arundel saw that faint crimson glow lighting up in her face.

“I beg your pardon, Miss Marchmont,” he said. “I was only joking; of course you are a young lady now, almost grown up, you know. Can you play chess?”

“No, Mr. Arundel.”

“I am sorry for that; for I have brought you a set of chessmen that once belonged to Dost Mahommed Khan. But I’ll teach you the game, if you like?”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Arundel; I should like it very, very much.”

The young soldier could not help being amused by the little girl’s earnestness. She was about the same age as his sister Letitia; but, oh, how widely different to that bouncing and rather wayward young lady, who tore the pillow-lace upon her muslin frocks, rumpled her long ringlets, rasped the skin off the sharp points of her elbows, by repeated falls upon the gravel-paths at Dangerfield, and tormented a long-suffering Swiss attendant, half-lady’s-maid, half-governess, from morning till night. No fold was awry in Mary Marchmont’s simple black-silk frock; no plait disarranged in the neat cambric tucker that encircled the slender white throat. Intellect here reigned supreme. Instead of the animal spirits of a thoughtless child, there was a woman’s loving carefulness for others, a woman’s unselfishness and devotion.

Edward Arundel did not understand all this, but I think he had a dim comprehension of the greater part of it.

“She is a dear little thing,” he thought, as he watched her clinging to her father’s arm; and then he began to talk about Marchmont Towers, and insisted upon being shown over the house; and, perhaps for the first time since the young heir had shot himself to death upon a bright September morning in a stubble-field within earshot of the park, the sound of merry laughter echoed through the long corridors, and resounded in the unoccupied rooms.

Edward Arundel was in raptures with everything. “There never was such a dear old place,” he said. “‘Gloomy?’ ‘dreary?’ ‘draughty?’ pshaw! Cut a few logs out of that wood at the back there, pile ’em up in the wide chimneys, and set a light to ’em, and Marchmont Towers would be like a baronial mansion at Christmas-time.” He declared that every dingy portrait he looked at was a Rubens or a Velasquez, or a Vandyke, a Holbein, or a Lely.

“Look at that fur border to the old woman’s black-velvet gown, John; look at the colouring of the hands! Do you think anybody but Peter Paul could have painted that? Do you see that girl with the blue-satin stomacher and the flaxen ringlets? — one of your ancestresses, Miss Mary, and very like you. If that isn’t in Sir Peter Lely’s best style — his earlier style, you know, before he was spoiled by royal patronage, and got lazy — I know nothing of painting.”

The young soldier ran on in this manner, as he hurried his host from room to room; now throwing open windows to look out at the wet prospect; now rapping against the wainscot to find secret hiding-places behind sliding panels; now stamping on the oak-flooring in the hope of discovering a trap-door. He pointed out at least ten eligible sites for the building of the tennis-court; he suggested more alterations and improvements than a builder could have completed in a lifetime. The place brightened under the influence of his presence, as a landscape lights up under a burst of sudden sunshine breaking through a dull grey sky.

Mary Marchmont did not wait for the removal of the table-cloth that evening, but dined with her father and his friend in a snug oak-panelled chamber, half-breakfast-room, half-library, which opened out of the western drawing-room. How different Edward Arundel was to all the rest of the world, Miss Marchmont thought; how gay, how bright, how genial, how happy! The county families, mustered in their fullest force, couldn’t make such mirth amongst them as this young soldier created in his single person.

The evening was an evening in fairy-land. Life was sometimes like the last scene in a pantomime, after all, with rose-coloured cloud and golden sunlight.

One of the Marchmont servants went over to Swampington early the next day to fetch Mr. Arundel’s portmanteaus from the Rectory; and after dinner upon that second evening, Mary Marchmont took her seat opposite Edward, and listened reverently while he explained to her the moves upon the chessboard.

“So you don’t know my cousin Olivia?” the young soldier said by-and-by. “That’s odd! I should have thought she would have called upon you long before this.”

Mary Marchmont shook her head.

“No,” she said; “Miss Arundel has never been to see us; and I should so like to have seen her, because she would have told me about you. Mr. Arundel has called one or twice upon papa; but I have never seen him. He is not our clergyman, you know; Marchmont Towers belongs to Kemberling parish.”

“To be sure; and Swampington is ten miles off. But, for all that, I should have thought Olivia would have called upon you. I’ll drive you over to-morrow, if John thinks me whip enough to trust you with me, and you shall see Livy. The Rectory’s such a queer old place!”

Perhaps Mr. Marchmont was rather doubtful as to the propriety of committing his little girl to Edward Arundel’s charioteership for a ten-mile drive upon a wretched road. Be it as it might, a lumbering barouche, with a pair of over-fed horses, was ordered next morning, instead of the high, old-fashioned gig which the soldier had proposed driving; and the safety of the two young people was confided to a sober old coachman, rather sulky at the prospect of a drive to Swampington so soon after the rainy weather.

It does not rain always, even in this part of Lincolnshire; and the July morning was bright and pleasant, the low hedges fragrant with starry opal-tinted wild roses and waxen honeysuckle, the yellowing corn waving in the light summer breeze. Mary assured her companion that she had no objection whatever to the odour of cigar-smoke; so Mr. Arundel lolled upon the comfortable cushions of the barouche, with his back to the horses, smoking cheroots, and talking gaily, while Miss Marchmont sat in the place of state opposite to him. A happy drive; a drive in a fairy chariot through regions of fairyland, for ever and for ever to be remembered by Mary Marchmont.

They left the straggling hedges and the yellowing corn behind them by-and-by, as they drew near the outskirts of Swampington. The town lies lower even than the surrounding country, flat and low as that country is. A narrow river crawls at the base of a half-ruined wall, which once formed part of the defences of the place. Black barges lie at anchor here; and a stone bridge, guarded by a toll-house, spans the river. Mr. Marchmont’s carriage lumbered across this bridge, and under an archway, low, dark, stony, and grim, into a narrow street of solid, well-built houses, low, dark, stony, and grim, like the archway, but bearing the stamp of reputable occupation. I believe the grass grew, and still grows, in this street, as it does in all the other streets and in the market-place of Swampington. They are all pretty much in the same style, these streets — all stony, narrow, dark, and grim; and they wind and twist hither and thither, and in and out, in a manner utterly bewildering to the luckless stranger, who, seeing that they are all alike, has no landmarks for his guidance.

There are two handsome churches, both bearing an early date in the history of Norman supremacy: one crowded into an inconvenient corner of a back street, and choked by the houses built up round about it; the other lying a little out of the town, upon a swampy waste looking towards the sea, which flows within a mile of Swampington. Indeed, there is no lack of water in that Lincolnshire borough. The river winds about the outskirts of the town; unexpected creeks and inlets meet you at every angle; shallow pools lie here and there about the marshy suburbs; and in the dim distance the low line of the grey sea meets the horizon.

But perhaps the positive ugliness of the town is something redeemed by a vague air of romance and old-world mystery which pervades it. It is an exceptional place, and somewhat interesting thereby. The great Norman church upon the swampy waste, the scattered tombstones, bordered by the low and moss-grown walls, make a picture which is apt to dwell in the minds of those who look upon it, although it is by no means a pretty picture. The Rectory lies close to the churchyard; and a wicket-gate opens from Mr. Arundel’s garden into a narrow pathway, leading across a patch of tangled grass and through a lane of sunken and lopsided tombstones, to the low vestry door. The Rectory itself is a long irregular building, to which one incumbent after another has built the additional chamber, or chimney, or porch, or bow-window, necessary for his accommodation. There is very little garden in front of the house, but a patch of lawn and shrubbery and a clump of old trees at the back.

“It’s not a pretty house, is it, Miss Marchmont?” asked Edward, as he lifted his companion out of the carriage.

“No, not very pretty,” Mary answered; “but I don’t think any thing is pretty in Lincolnshire. Oh, there’s the sea!” she cried, looking suddenly across the marshes to the low grey line in the distance. “How I wish we were as near the sea at Marchmont Towers!”

The young lady had something of a romantic passion for the wide-spreading ocean. It was an unknown region, that stretched far away, and was wonderful and beautiful by reason of its solemn mystery. All her Corsair stories were allied to that far, fathomless deep. The white sail in the distance was Conrad’s, perhaps; and he was speeding homeward to find Medora dead in her lonely watch-tower, with fading flowers upon her breast. The black hull yonder, with dirty canvas spread to the faint breeze, was the bark of some terrible pirate bound on rapine and ravage. (She was a coal-barge, I have no doubt, sailing Londonward with her black burden.) Nymphs and Lurleis, Mermaids and Mermen, and tiny water-babies with silvery tails, for ever splashing in the sunshine, were all more or less associated with the long grey line towards which Mary Marchmont looked with solemn, yearning eyes.

“We’ll drive down to the seashore some morning, Polly,” said Mr. Arundel. He was beginning to call her Polly, now and then, in the easy familiarity of their intercourse. “We’ll spend a long day on the sands, and I’ll smoke cheroots while you pick up shells and seaweed.”

Miss Marchmont clasped her hands in silent rapture. Her face was irradiated by the new light of happiness. How good he was to her, this brave soldier, who must undoubtedly be made Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Indus in a year or so!

Edward Arundel led his companion across the flagged way between the iron gate of the Rectory garden and a half-glass door leading into the hall. Out of this simple hall, only furnished with a couple of chairs, a barometer, and an umbrella-stand, they went, without announcement, into a low, old-fashioned room, half-study, half-parlour, where a young lady was sitting at a table writing.

She rose as Edward opened the door, and came to meet him.

“At last!” she said; “I thought your rich friends engrossed all your attention.”

She paused, seeing Mary.

“This is Miss Marchmont, Olivia,” said Edward; “the only daughter of my old friend. You must be very fond of her, please; for she is a dear little girl, and I know she means to love you.”

Mary lifted her soft brown eyes to the face of the young lady, and then dropped her eyelids suddenly, as if half-frightened by what she had seen there.

What was it? What was it in Olivia Arundel’s handsome face from which those who looked at her so often shrank, repelled and disappointed? Every line in those perfectly-modelled features was beautiful to look at; but, as a whole, the face was not beautiful. Perhaps it was too much like a marble mask, exquisitely chiselled, but wanting in variety of expression. The handsome mouth was rigid; the dark grey eyes had a cold light in them. The thick bands of raven-black hair were drawn tightly off a square forehead, which was the brow of an intellectual and determined man rather than of a woman. Yes; womanhood was the something wanted in Olivia Arundel’s face. Intellect, resolution, courage, are rare gifts; but they are not the gifts whose tokens we look for most anxiously in a woman’s face. If Miss Arundel had been a queen, her diadem would have become her nobly; and she might have been a very great queen: but Heaven help the wretched creature who had appealed from minor tribunals to her mercy! Heaven help delinquents of every kind whose last lingering hope had been in her compassion!

Perhaps Mary Marchmont vaguely felt something of all this. At any rate, the enthusiasm with which she had been ready to regard Edward Arundel’s cousin cooled suddenly beneath the winter in that pale, quiet face.

Miss Arundel said a few words to her guest; kindly enough; but rather too much as if she had been addressing a child of six. Mary, who was accustomed to be treated as a woman, was wounded by her manner.

“How different she is from Edward!” thought Miss Marchmont. “I shall never like her as I like him.”

“So this is the pale-faced child who is to have Marchmont Towers by-and-by,” thought Miss Arundel; “and these rich friends are the people for whom Edward stays away from us.”

The lines about the rigid mouth grew harder, the cold light in the grey eyes grew colder, as the young lady thought this.

It was thus that these two women met: while one was but a child in years; while the other was yet in the early bloom of womanhood: these two, who were predestined to hate each other, and inflict suffering upon each other in the days that were to come. It was thus that they thought of one another; each with an unreasonable dread, an undefined aversion gathering in her breast.

Six weeks passed, and Edward Arundel kept his promise of shooting the partridges on the Marchmont preserves. The wood behind the Towers, and the stubbled corn-fields on the home-farm, bristled with game. The young soldier heartily enjoyed himself through that delicious first week in September; and came home every afternoon, with a heavy game-bag and a light heart, to boast of his prowess before Mary and her father.

The young man was by this time familiar with every nook and corner of Marchmont Towers; and the builders were already at work at the tennis-court which John had promised to erect for his friend’s pleasure. The site ultimately chosen was a bleak corner of the eastern front, looking to the wood; but as Edward declared the spot in every way eligible, John had no inclination to find fault with his friend’s choice. There was other work for the builders; for Mr. Arundel had taken a wonderful fancy to a ruined boat-house upon the brink of the river; and this boat-house was to be rebuilt and restored, and made into a delightful pavilion, in the upper chambers of which Mary might sit with her father in the hot summer weather, while Mr. Arundel kept a couple of trim wherries in the recesses below.

So, you see, the young man made himself very much at home, in his own innocent, boyish fashion, at Marchmont Towers. But as he had brought life and light to the old Lincolnshire mansion, nobody was inclined to quarrel with him for any liberties which he might choose to take: and every one looked forward sorrowfully to the dark days before Christmas, at which time he was under a promise to return to Dangerfield Park; there to spend the remainder of his leave of absence.

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