John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

Olivia.

While busy workmen were employed at Marchmont Towers, hammering at the fragile wooden walls of the tennis-court — while Mary Marchmont and Edward Arundel wandered, with the dogs at their heels, amongst the rustle of the fallen leaves in the wood behind the great gaunt Lincolnshire mansion — Olivia, the Rector’s daughter, sat in her father’s quiet study, or walked to and fro in the gloomy streets of Swampington, doing her duty day by day.

Yes, the life of this woman is told in these few words: she did her duty. From the earliest age at which responsibility can begin, she had done her duty, uncomplainingly, unswervingly, as it seemed to those who watched her.

She was a good woman. The bishop of the diocese had specially complimented her for her active devotion to that holy work which falls somewhat heavily upon the only daughter of a widowed rector. All the stately dowagers about Swampington were loud in their praises of Olivia Arundel. Such devotion, such untiring zeal in a young person of three-and-twenty years of age, were really most laudable, these solemn elders said, in tones of supreme patronage; for the young saint of whom they spoke wore shabby gowns, and was the portionless daughter of a poor man who had let the world slip by him, and who sat now amid the dreary ruins of a wasted life, looking yearningly backward, with hollow regretful eyes, and bewailing the chances he had lost. Hubert Arundel loved his daughter; loved her with that sorrowful affection we feel for those who suffer for our sins, whose lives have been blighted by our follies.

Every shabby garment which Olivia wore was a separate reproach to her father; every deprivation she endured stung him as cruelly as if she had turned upon him and loudly upbraided him for his wasted life and his squandered patrimony. He loved her; and he watched her day after day, doing her duty to him as to all others; doing her duty for ever and for ever; but when he most yearned to take her to his heart, her own cold perfections arose, and separated him from the child he loved. What was he but a poor, vacillating, erring creature; weak, supine, idle, epicurean; unworthy to approach this girl, who never seemed to sicken of the hardness of her life, who never grew weary of well-doing?

But how was it that, for all her goodness, Olivia Arundel won so small a share of earthly reward? I do not allude to the gold and jewels and other worldly benefits with which the fairies in our children’s story-books reward the benevolent mortals who take compassion upon them when they experimentalise with human nature in the guise of old women; but I speak rather of the love and gratitude, the tenderness and blessings, which usually wait upon the footsteps of those who do good deeds. Olivia Arundel’s charities were never ceasing; her life was one perpetual sacrifice to her father’s parishioners. There was no natural womanly vanity, no simple girlish fancy, which this woman had not trodden under foot, and trampled out in the hard pathway she had chosen for herself.

The poor people knew this. Rheumatic men and women, crippled and bed-ridden, knew that the blankets which covered them had been bought out of money that would have purchased silk dresses for the Rector’s handsome daughter, or luxuries for the frugal table at the Rectory. They knew this. They knew that, through frost and snow, through storm and rain, Olivia Arundel would come to sit beside their dreary hearths, their desolate sick-beds, and read holy books to them; sublimely indifferent to the foul weather without, to the stifling atmosphere within, to dirt, discomfort, poverty, inconvenience; heedless of all, except the performance of the task she had set herself.

People knew this; and they were grateful to Miss Arundel, and submissive and attentive in her presence; they gave her such return as they were able to give for the benefits, spiritual and temporal, which she bestowed upon them: but they did not love her.

They spoke of her in reverential accents, and praised her whenever her name was mentioned; but they spoke with tearless eyes and unfaltering voices. Her virtues were beautiful, of course, as virtue in the abstract must always be; but I think there was a want of individuality in her goodness, a lack of personal tenderness in her kindness, which separated her from the people she benefited.

Perhaps there was something almost chilling in the dull monotony of Miss Arundel’s benevolence. There was no blemish of mortal weakness upon the good deeds she performed; and the recipients of her bounties, seeing her so far off, grew afraid of her, even by reason of her goodness, and could not love her.

She made no favourites amongst her father’s parishioners. Of all the school-children she had taught, she had never chosen one curly-headed urchin for a pet. She had no good days and bad days; she was never foolishly indulgent or extravagantly cordial. She was always the same — Church-of-England charity personified; meting out all mercies by line and rule; doing good with a note-book and a pencil in her hand; looking on every side with calm, scrutinising eyes; rigidly just, terribly perfect.

It was a fearfully monotonous, narrow, and uneventful life which Olivia Arundel led at Swampington Rectory. At three-and-twenty years of age she could have written her history upon a few pages. The world outside that dull Lincolnshire town might be shaken by convulsions, and made irrecognisable by repeated change; but all those outer changes and revolutions made themselves but little felt in the quiet grass-grown streets, and the flat surrounding swamps, within whose narrow boundary Olivia Arundel had lived from infancy to womanhood; performing and repeating the same duties from day to day, with no other progress to mark the lapse of her existence than the slow alternation of the seasons, and the dark hollow circles which had lately deepened beneath her grey eyes, and the depressed lines about the corners of her firm lower-lip.

These outward tokens, beyond her own control, alone betrayed this woman’s secret. She was weary of her life. She sickened under the dull burden which she had borne so long, and carried so patiently. The slow round of duty was loathsome to her. The horrible, narrow, unchanging existence, shut in by cruel walls, which bounded her on every side and kept her prisoner to herself, was odious to her. The powerful intellect revolted against the fetters that bound and galled it. The proud heart beat with murderous violence against the bonds that kept it captive.

“Is my life always to be this — always, always, always?” The passionate nature burst forth sometimes, and the voice that had so long been stifled cried aloud in the black stillness of the night, “Is it to go on for ever and for ever; like the slow river that creeps under the broken wall? O my God! is the lot of other women never to be mine? Am I never to be loved and admired; never to be sought and chosen? Is my life to be all of one dull, grey, colourless monotony; without one sudden gleam of sunshine, without one burst of rainbow-light?”

How shall I anatomise this woman, who, gifted with no womanly tenderness of nature, unendowed with that pitiful and unreasoning affection which makes womanhood beautiful, yet tried, and tried unceasingly, to do her duty, and to be good; clinging, in the very blindness of her soul, to the rigid formulas of her faith, but unable to seize upon its spirit? Some latent comprehension of the want in her nature made her only the more scrupulous in the performance of those duties which she had meted out for herself. The holy sentences she had heard, Sunday after Sunday, feebly read by her father, haunted her perpetually, and would not be put away from her. The tenderness in every word of those familiar gospels was a reproach to the want of tenderness in her own heart. She could be good to her father’s parishioners, and she could make sacrifices for them; but she could not love them, any more than they could love her.

That divine and universal pity, that spontaneous and boundless affection, which is the chief loveliness of womanhood and Christianity, had no part in her nature. She could understand Judith with the Assyrian general’s gory head held aloft in her uplifted hand; but she could not comprehend that diviner mystery of sinful Magdalene sitting at her Master’s feet, with the shame and love in her face half hidden by a veil of drooping hair.

No; Olivia Arundel was not a good woman, in the commoner sense we attach to the phrase. It was not natural to her to be gentle and tender, to be beneficent, compassionate, and kind, as it is to the women we are accustomed to call “good.” She was a woman who was for ever fighting against her nature; who was for ever striving to do right; for ever walking painfully upon the difficult road mapped out for her; for ever measuring herself by the standard she had set up for her self-abasement. And who shall say that such a woman as this, if she persevere unto the end, shall not wear a brighter crown than her more gentle sisters — the starry circlet of a martyr?

If she persevere unto the end! But was Olivia Arundel the woman to do this? The deepening circles about her eyes, the hollowing cheeks, and the feverish restlessness of manner which she could not always control, told how terrible the long struggle had become to her. If she could have died then — if she had fallen beneath the weight of her burden — what a record of sin and anguish might have remained unwritten in the history of woman’s life! But this woman was one of those who can suffer, and yet not die. She bore her burden a little longer; only to fling it down by-and-by, and to abandon herself to the eager devils who had been watching for her so untiringly.

Hubert Arundel was afraid of his daughter. The knowledge that he had wronged her — wronged her even before her birth by the foolish waste of his patrimony, and wronged her through life by his lack of energy in seeking such advancement as a more ambitious man might have won — the knowledge of this, and of his daughter’s superior virtues, combined to render the father ashamed and humiliated by the presence of his only child. The struggle between this fear and his remorseful love of her was a very painful one; but fear had the mastery, and the Rector of Swampington was content to stand aloof, mutely watchful of his daughter, wondering feebly whether she was happy, striving vainly to discover that one secret, that keystone of the soul, which must exist in every nature, however outwardly commonplace.

Mr. Arundel had hoped that his daughter would marry, and marry well, even at Swampington; for there were rich young landowners who visited at the Rectory. But Olivia’s handsome face won her few admirers, and at three-and-twenty Miss Arundel had received no offer of marriage. The father reproached himself for this. It was he who had blighted the life of his penniless girl; it was his fault that no suitors came to woo his motherless child. Yet many dowerless maidens have been sought and loved; and I do not think it was Olivia’s lack of fortune which kept admirers at bay. I believe it was rather that inherent want of tenderness which chilled and dispirited the timid young Lincolnshire squires.

Had Olivia ever been in love? Hubert Arundel constantly asked himself this question. He did so because he saw that some blighting influence, even beyond the poverty and dulness of her home, had fallen upon the life of his only child. What was it? What was it? Was it some hopeless attachment, some secret tenderness, which had never won the sweet return of love for love?

He would no more have ventured to question his daughter upon this subject than he would have dared to ask his fair young Queen, newly married in those days, whether she was happy with her handsome husband.

Miss Arundel stood by the Rectory gate in the early September evening, watching the western sunlight on the low sea-line beyond the marshes. She was wearied and worn out by a long day devoted to visiting amongst her parishioners; and she stood with her elbow leaning on the gate, and her head resting on her hand, in an attitude peculiarly expressive of fatigue. She had thrown off her bonnet, and her black hair was pushed carelessly from her forehead. Those masses of hair had not that purple lustre, nor yet that wandering glimmer of red gold, which gives peculiar beauty to some raven tresses. Olivia’s hair was long and luxuriant; but it was of that dead, inky blackness, which is all shadow. It was dark, fathomless, inscrutable, like herself. The cold grey eyes looked thoughtfully seaward. Another day’s duty had been done. Long chapters of Holy Writ had been read to troublesome old women afflicted with perpetual coughs; stifling, airless cottages had been visited; the dull, unvarying track had been beaten by the patient feet, and the yellow sun was going down upon another joyless day. But did the still evening hour bring peace to that restless spirit? No; by the rigid compression of the lips, by the feverish lustre in the eyes, by the faint hectic flush in the oval cheeks, by every outward sign of inward unrest, Olivia Arundel was not at peace! The listlessness of her attitude was merely the listlessness of physical fatigue. The mental struggle was not finished with the close of the day’s work.

The young lady looked up suddenly as the tramp of a horse’s hoofs, slow and lazy-sounding on the smooth road, met her ear. Her eyes dilated, and her breath went and came more rapidly; but she did not stir from her weary attitude.

The horse was from the stables at Marchmont Towers, and the rider was Mr. Arundel. He came smiling to the Rectory gate, with the low sunshine glittering in his chesnut hair, and the light of careless, indifferent happiness irradiating his handsome face.

“You must have thought I’d forgotten you and my uncle, my dear Livy,” he said, as he sprang lightly from his horse. “We’ve been so busy with the tennis-court, and the boat-house, and the partridges, and goodness knows what besides at the Towers, that I couldn’t get the time to ride over till this evening. But to-day we dined early, on purpose that I might have the chance of getting here. I come upon an important mission, Livy, I assure you.”

“What do you mean?”

There was no change in Miss Arundel’s voice when she spoke to her cousin; but there was a change, not easily to be defined, in her face when she looked at him. It seemed as if that weary hopelessness of expression which had settled on her countenance lately grew more weary, more hopeless, as she turned towards this bright young soldier, glorious in the beauty of his own light-heartedness. It may have been merely the sharpness of contrast which produced this effect. It may have been an actual change arising out of some secret hidden in Olivia’s breast.

“What do you mean by an important mission, Edward?” she said.

She had need to repeat the question; for the young man’s attention had wandered from her, and he was watching his horse as the animal cropped the tangled herbage about the Rectory gate.

“Why, I’ve come with an invitation to a dinner at Marchmont Towers. There’s to be a dinner-party; and, in point of fact, it’s to be given on purpose for you and my uncle. John and Polly are full of it. You’ll come, won’t you, Livy?”

Miss Arundel shrugged her shoulders, with an impatient sigh.

“I hate dinner-parties,” she said; “but, of course, if papa accepts Mr. Marchmont’s invitation, I cannot refuse to go. Papa must choose for himself.”

There had been some interchange of civilities between Marchmont Towers and Swampington Rectory during the six weeks which had passed since Mary’s introduction to Olivia Arundel; and this dinner-party was the result of John’s simple desire to do honour to his friend’s kindred.

“Oh, you must come, Livy,” Mr. Arundel exclaimed. “The tennis-court is going on capitally. I want you to give us your opinion again. Shall I take my horse round to the stables? I am going to stop an hour or two, and ride back by moonlight.”

Edward Arundel took the bridle in his hand, and the cousins walked slowly round by the low garden-wall to a dismal and rather dilapidated stable-yard at the back of the Rectory, where Hubert Arundel kept a wall-eyed white horse, long-legged, shallow-chested, and large-headed, and a fearfully and wonderfully made phaëton, with high wheels and a mouldy leathern hood.

Olivia walked by the young soldier’s side with that air of hopeless indifference that had so grown upon her very lately. Her eyelids drooped with a look of sullen disdain; but the grey eyes glanced furtively now and again at her companion’s handsome face. He was very handsome. The glitter of reddish gold in his hair, and the light in his fearless blue eyes; the careless grace peculiar to the kind of man we call “a swell;” the gay insouciance of an easy, candid, generous nature — all combined to make Edward Arundel singularly attractive. These spoiled children of nature demand our admiration, in very spite of ourselves. These beautiful, useless creatures call upon us to rejoice in their valueless beauty, like the flaunting poppies in the cornfield, and the gaudy wild-flowers in the grass.

The darkness of Olivia’s face deepened after each furtive glance she cast at her cousin. Could it be that this girl, to whom nature had given strength but denied grace, envied the superficial attractions of the young man at her side? She did envy him; she envied him that sunny temperament which was so unlike her own; she envied him that wondrous power of taking life lightly. Why should existence be so bright and careless to him; while to her it was a terrible fever-dream, a long sickness, a never-ceasing battle?

“Is my uncle in the house?” Mr. Arundel asked, as he strolled from the stable into the garden with his cousin by his side.

“No; he has been out since dinner,” Olivia answered; “but I expect him back every minute. I came out into the garden — the house seemed so hot and stifling to-night, and I have been sitting in close cottages all day.”

“Sitting in close cottages!” repeated Edward. “Ah, to be sure; visiting your rheumatic old pensioners, I suppose. How good you are, Olivia!”

“Good!”

She echoed the word in the very bitterness of a scorn that could not be repressed.

“Yes; everybody says so. The Millwards were at Marchmont Towers the other day, and they were talking of you, and praising your goodness, and speaking of your schools, and your blanket-associations, and your invalid-societies, and your mutual-help clubs, and all your plans for the parish. Why, you must work as hard as a prime-minister, Livy, by their account; you, who are only a few years older than I.”

Only a few years! She started at the phrase, and bit her lip.

“I was three-and-twenty last month,” she said.

“Ah, yes; to be sure. And I’m one-and-twenty. Then you’re only two years older than I, Livy. But, then, you see, you’re so clever, that you seem much older than you are. You’d make a fellow feel rather afraid of you, you know. Upon my word you do, Livy.”

Miss Arundel did not reply to this speech of her cousin’s. She was walking by his side up and down a narrow gravelled pathway, bordered by a hazel-hedge; she had gathered one of the slender twigs, and was idly stripping away the fluffy buds.

“What do you think, Livy?” cried Edward suddenly, bursting out laughing at the end of the question. “What do you think? It’s my belief you’ve made a conquest.”

“What do you mean?”

“There you go; turning upon a fellow as if you could eat him. Yes, Livy; it’s no use your looking savage. You’ve made a conquest; and of one of the best fellows in the world, too. John Marchmont’s in love with you.”

Olivia Arundel’s face flushed a vivid crimson to the roots of her black hair.

“How dare you come here to insult me, Edward Arundel?” she cried passionately.

“Insult you? Now, Livy dear, that’s too bad, upon my word,” remonstrated the young man. “I come and tell you that as good a man as ever breathed is over head and ears in love with you, and that you may be mistress of one of the finest estates in Lincolnshire if you please, and you turn round upon me like no end of furies.”

“Because I hate to hear you talk nonsense,” answered Olivia, her bosom still heaving with that first outburst of emotion, but her voice suppressed and cold. “Am I so beautiful, or so admired or beloved, that a man who has not seen me half a dozen times should fall in love with me? Do those who know me estimate me so much, or prize me so highly, that a stranger should think of me? You do insult me, Edward Arundel, when you talk as you have talked to-night.”

She looked out towards the low yellow light in the sky with a black gloom upon her face, which no reflected glimmer of the sinking sun could illumine; a settled darkness, near akin to the utter blackness of despair.

“But, good heavens, Olivia, what do you mean?” cried the young man. “I tell you something that I think a good joke, and you go and make a tragedy out of it. If I’d told Letitia that a rich widower had fallen in love with her, she’d think it the finest fun in the world.”

“I’m not your sister Letitia.”

“No; but I wish you’d half as good a temper as she has, Livy. However, never mind; I’ll say no more. If poor old Marchmont has fallen in love with you, that’s his look-out. Poor dear old boy, he’s let out the secret of his weakness half a dozen ways within these last few days. It’s Miss Arundel this, and Miss Arundel the other; so unselfish, so accomplished, so ladylike, so good! That’s the way he goes on, poor simple old dear; without having the remotest notion that he’s making a confounded fool of himself.”

Olivia tossed the rumpled hair from her forehead with an impatient gesture of her hand.

“Why should this Mr. Marchmont think all this of me?” she said, “when —” she stopped abruptly.

“When — what, Livy?”

“When other people don’t think it.”

“How do you know what other people think? You haven’t asked them, I suppose?”

The young soldier treated his cousin in very much the same free-and-easy manner which he displayed towards his sister Letitia. It would have been almost difficult for him to recognise any degree in his relationship to the two girls. He loved Letitia better than Olivia; but his affection for both was of exactly the same character.

Hubert Arundel came into the garden, wearied out, like his daughter, while the two cousins were walking under the shadow of the neglected hazels. He declared his willingness to accept the invitation to Marchmont Towers, and promised to answer John’s ceremonious note the next day.

“Cookson, from Kemberling, will be there, I suppose,” he said, alluding to a brother parson, “and the usual set? Well, I’ll come, Ned, if you wish it. You’d like to go, Olivia?”

“If you like, papa.”

There was a duty to be performed now — the duty of placid obedience to her father; and Miss Arundel’s manner changed from angry impatience to grave respect. She owed no special duty, be it remembered, to her cousin. She had no line or rule by which to measure her conduct to him.

She stood at the gate nearly an hour later, and watched the young man ride away in the dim moonlight. If every separate tramp of his horse’s hoofs had struck upon her heart, it could scarcely have given her more pain than she felt as the sound of those slow footfalls died away in the distance.

“O my God,” she cried, “is this madness to undo all that I have done? Is this folly to be the climax of my dismal life? Am I to die for the love of a frivolous, fair-haired boy, who laughs in my face when he tells me that his friend has pleased to ‘take a fancy to me’?”

She walked away towards the house; then stopping, with a sudden shiver, she turned, and went back to the hazel-alley she had paced with Edward Arundel.

“Oh, my narrow life!” she muttered between her set teeth; “my narrow life! It is that which has made me the slave of this madness. I love him because he is the brightest and fairest thing I have ever seen. I love him because he brings me all I have ever known of a more beautiful world than that I live in. Bah! why do I reason with myself?” she cried, with a sudden change of manner. “I love him because I am mad.”

She paced up and down the hazel-shaded pathway till the moonlight grew broad and full, and every ivy-grown gable of the Rectory stood sharply out against the vivid purple of the sky. She paced up and down, trying to trample the folly within her under her feet as she went; a fierce, passionate, impulsive woman, fighting against her mad love for a bright-faced boy.

“Two years older — only two years!” she said; “but he spoke of the difference between us as if it had been half a century. And then I am so clever, that I seem older than I am; and he is afraid of me! Is it for this that I have sat night after night in my father’s study, poring over the books that were too difficult for him? What have I made of myself in my pride of intellect? What reward have I won for my patience?”

Olivia Arundel looked back at her long life of duty — a dull, dead level, unbroken by one of those monuments which mark the desert of the past; a desolate flat, unlovely as the marshes between the low Rectory wall and the shimmering grey sea.

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