John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

“My Life is Cold, and Dark, and Dreary.”

Mr. Richard Paulette, of that eminent legal firm, Paulette, Paulette, and Mathewson, coming to Marchmont Towers on business, was surprised to behold the quiet ease with which the sometime copying-clerk received the punctilious country gentry who came to sit at his board and do him honour.

Of all the legal fairy-tales, of all the parchment-recorded romances, of all the poetry run into affidavits, in which the solicitor had ever been concerned, this story seemed the strangest. Not so very strange in itself, for such romances are not uncommon in the history of a lawyer’s experience; but strange by reason of the tranquil manner in which John Marchmont accepted his new position, and did the honours of his house to his late employer.

“Ah, Paulette,” Edward Arundel said, clapping the solicitor on the back, “I don’t suppose you believed me when I told you that my friend here was heir-presumptive to a handsome fortune.”

The dinner-party at the Towers was conducted with that stately grandeur peculiar to such solemnities. There was the usual round of country-talk and parish-talk; the hunting squires leading the former section of the discourse, the rectors and rectors’ wives supporting the latter part of the conversation. You heard on one side that Martha Harris’ husband had left off drinking, and attended church morning and evening; and on the other that the old grey fox that had been hunted nine seasons between Crackbin Bottom and Hollowcraft Gorse had perished ignobly in the poultry-yard of a recusant farmer. While your left ear became conscious of the fact that little Billy Smithers had fallen into a copper of scalding water, your right received the dismal tidings that all the young partridges had been drowned by the rains after St. Swithin, and that there were hardly any of this year’s birds, sir, and it would be a very blue look-out for next season.

Mary Marchmont had listened to gayer talk in Oakley Street than any that was to be heard that night in her father’s drawing-rooms, except indeed when Edward Arundel left off flirting with some pretty girls in blue, and hovered near her side for a little while, quizzing the company. Heaven knows the young soldier’s jokes were commonplace enough; but Mary admired him as the most brilliant and accomplished of wits.

“How do you like my cousin, Polly?” he asked at last.

“Your cousin, Miss Arundel?”

“Yes.”

“She is very handsome.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” the young man answered carelessly. “Everybody says that Livy’s handsome; but it’s rather a cold style of beauty, isn’t it? A little too much of the Pallas Athenë about it for my taste. I like those girls in blue, with the crinkly auburn hair — there’s a touch of red in it in the light — and the dimples. You’ve a dimple, Polly, when you smile.”

Miss Marchmont blushed as she received this information, and her brown eyes wandered away, looking very earnestly at the pretty girls in blue. She looked at them with a strange interest, eager to discover what it was that Edward admired.

“But you haven’t answered my question, Polly,” said Mr. Arundel. “I am afraid you have been drinking too much wine, Miss Marchmont, and muddling that sober little head of yours with the fumes of your papa’s tawny port. I asked you how you liked Olivia.”

Mary blushed again.

“I don’t know Miss Arundel well enough to like her — yet,” she answered timidly.

“But shall you like her when you’ve known her longer? Don’t be jesuitical, Polly. Likings and dislikings are instantaneous and instinctive. I liked you before I’d eaten half a dozen mouthfuls of the roll you buttered for me at that breakfast in Oakley Street, Polly. You don’t like my cousin Olivia, miss; I can see that very plainly. You’re jealous of her.”

“Jealous of her!”

The bright colour faded out of Mary Marchmont’s face, and left her ashy pale.

“Do you like her, then?” she asked.

But Mr. Arundel was not such a coxcomb as to catch at the secret so naïvely betrayed in that breathless question.

“No, Polly,” he said, laughing; “she’s my cousin, you know, and I’ve known her all my life; and cousins are like sisters. One likes to tease and aggravate them, and all that; but one doesn’t fall in love with them. But I think I could mention somebody who thinks a great deal of Olivia.”

“Who?”

“Your papa.”

Mary looked at the young soldier in utter bewilderment.

“Papa!” she echoed.

“Yes, Polly. How would you like a stepmamma? How would you like your papa to marry again?”

Mary Marchmont started to her feet, as if she would have gone to her father in the midst of all those spectators. John was standing near Olivia and her father, talking to them, and playing nervously with his slender watch-chain when he addressed the young lady.

“My papa — marry again!” gasped Mary. “How dare you say such a thing, Mr. Arundel?”

Her childish devotion to her father arose in all its force; a flood of passionate emotion that overwhelmed her sensitive nature. Marry again! marry a woman who would separate him from his only child! Could he ever dream for one brief moment of such a horrible cruelty?

She looked at Olivia’s sternly handsome face, and trembled. She could almost picture that very woman standing between her and her father, and putting her away from him. Her indignation quickly melted into grief. Indignation, however intense, was always short-lived in that gentle nature.

“Oh, Mr Arundel!” she said, piteously appealing to the young man, “papa would never, never, never marry again — would he?”

“Not if it was to grieve you, Polly, I dare say,” Edward answered soothingly.

He had been dumbfounded by Mary’s passionate sorrow. He had expected that she would have been rather pleased, than otherwise, at the idea of a young stepmother — a companion in those vast lonely rooms, an instructress and a friend as she grew to womanhood.

“I was only talking nonsense, Polly darling,” he said. “You mustn’t make yourself unhappy about any absurd fancies of mine. I think your papa admires my cousin Olivia: and I thought, perhaps, you’d be glad to have a stepmother.”

“Glad to have any one who’d take papa’s love away from me?” Mary said plaintively. “Oh, Mr. Arundel, how could you think so?”

In all their familiarity the little girl had never learned to call her father’s friend by his Christian name, though he had often told her to do so. She trembled to pronounce that simple Saxon name, which was so beautiful and wonderful because it was his: but when she read a very stupid novel, in which the hero was a namesake of Mr. Arundel’s, the vapid pages seemed to be phosphorescent with light wherever the name appeared upon them.

I scarcely know why John Marchmont lingered by Miss Arundel’s chair. He had heard her praises from every one. She was a paragon of goodness, an uncanonised saint, for ever sacrificing herself for the benefit of others. Perhaps he was thinking that such a woman as this would be the best friend he could win for his little girl. He turned from the county matrons, the tender, kindly, motherly creatures, who would have been ready to take little Mary to the loving shelter of their arms, and looked to Olivia Arundel — this cold, perfect benefactress of the poor — for help in his difficulty.

“She, who is so good to all her father’s parishioners, could not refuse to be kind to my poor Mary?” he thought.

But how was he to win this woman’s friendship for his darling? He asked himself this question even in the midst of the frivolous people about him, and with the buzz of their conversation in his ears. He was perpetually tormenting himself about his little girl’s future, which seemed more dimly perplexing now than it had ever appeared in Oakley Street, when the Lincolnshire property was a far-away dream, perhaps never to be realised. He felt that his brief lease of life was running out; he felt as if he and Mary had been standing upon a narrow tract of yellow sand; very bright, very pleasant under the sunshine; but with the slow-coming tide rising like a wall about them, and creeping stealthily onward to overwhelm them.

Mary might gather bright-coloured shells and wet seaweed in her childish ignorance; but he, who knew that the flood was coming, could but grow sick at heart with the dull horror of that hastening doom. If the black waters had been doomed to close over them both, the father might have been content to go down under the sullen waves, with his daughter clasped to his breast. But it was not to be so. He was to sink in that unknown stream while she was left upon the tempest-tossed surface, to be beaten hither and thither, feebly battling with the stormy billows.

Could John Marchmont be a Christian, and yet feel this horrible dread of the death which must separate him from his daughter? I fear this frail, consumptive widower loved his child with an intensity of affection that is scarcely reconcilable with Christianity. Such great passions as these must be put away before the cross can be taken up, and the troublesome path followed. In all love and kindness towards his fellow-creatures, in all patient endurance of the pains and troubles that befel himself, it would have been difficult to find a more single-hearted follower of Gospel-teaching than John Marchmont; but in this affection for his motherless child he was a very Pagan. He set up an idol for himself, and bowed down before it. Doubtful and fearful of the future, he looked hopelessly forward. He could not trust his orphan child into the hands of God; and drop away himself into the fathomless darkness, serene in the belief that she would be cared for and protected. No; he could not trust. He could be faithful for himself; simple and confiding as a child; but not for her. He saw the gloomy rocks louring black in the distance; the pitiless waves beating far away yonder, impatient to devour the frail boat that was so soon to be left alone upon the waters. In the thick darkness of the future he could see no ray of light, except one — a new hope that had lately risen in his mind; the hope of winning some noble and perfect woman to be the future friend of his daughter.

The days were past in which, in his simplicity, he had looked to Edward Arundel as the future shelter of his child. The generous boy had grown into a stylish young man, a soldier, whose duty lay far away from Marchmont Towers. No; it was to a good woman’s guardianship the father must leave his child.

Thus the very intensity of his love was the one motive which led John Marchmont to contemplate the step that Mary thought such a cruel and bitter wrong to her.

It was not till long after the dinner-party at Marchmont Towers that these ideas resolved themselves into any positive form, and that John began to think that for his daughter’s sake he might be led to contemplate a second marriage. Edward Arundel had spoken the truth when he told his cousin that John Marchmont had repeatedly mentioned her name; but the careless and impulsive young man had been utterly unable to fathom the feeling lurking in his friend’s mind. It was not Olivia Arundel’s handsome face which had won John’s admiration; it was the constant reiteration of her praises upon every side which had led him to believe that this woman, of all others, was the one whom he would do well to win for his child’s friend and guardian in the dark days that were to come.

The knowledge that Olivia’s intellect was of no common order, together with the somewhat imperious dignity of her manner, strengthened this belief in John Marchmont’s mind. It was not a good woman only whom he must seek in the friend he needed for his child; it was a woman powerful enough to shield her in the lonely path she would have to tread; a woman strong enough to help her, perhaps, by-and-by to do battle with Paul Marchmont.

So, in the blind paganism of his love, John refused to trust his child into the hands of Providence, and chose for himself a friend and guardian who should shelter his darling. He made his choice with so much deliberation, and after such long nights and days of earnest thought, that he may be forgiven if he believed he had chosen wisely.

Thus it was that in the dark November days, while Edward and Mary played chess by the wide fireplace in the western drawing-room, or ball in the newly-erected tennis-court, John Marchmont sat in his study examining his papers, and calculating the amount of money at his own disposal, in serious contemplation of a second marriage.

Did he love Olivia Arundel? No. He admired her and respected her, and he firmly believed her to be the most perfect of women. No impulse of affection had prompted the step he contemplated taking. He had loved his first wife truly and tenderly; but he had never suffered very acutely from any of those torturing emotions which form the several stages of the great tragedy called Love.

But had he ever thought of the likelihood of his deliberate offer being rejected by the young lady who had been the object of such careful consideration? Yes; he had thought of this, and was prepared to abide the issue. He should, at least, have tried his uttermost to secure a friend for his darling.

With such unloverlike feelings as these the owner of Marchmont Towers drove into Swampington one morning, deliberately bent upon offering Olivia Arundel his hand. He had consulted with his land-steward, and with Messrs. Paulette, and had ascertained how far he could endow his bride with the goods of this world. It was not much that he could give her, for the estate was strictly entailed; but there would be his own savings for the brief term of his life, and if he lived only a few years these savings might accumulate to a considerable amount, so limited were the expenses of the quiet Lincolnshire household; and there was a sum of money, something over nine thousand pounds, left him by Philip Marchmont, senior. He had something, then, to offer to the woman he sought to make his wife; and, above all, he had a supreme belief in Olivia Arundel’s utter disinterestedness. He had seen her frequently since the dinner-party, and had always seen her the same — grave, reserved, dignified; patiently employed in the strict performance of her duty.

He found Miss Arundel sitting in her father’s study, busily cutting out coarse garments for her poor. A newly-written sermon lay open on the table. Had Mr. Marchmont looked closely at the manuscript, he would have seen that the ink was wet, and that the writing was Olivia’s. It was a relief to this strange woman to write sermons sometimes — fierce denunciatory protests against the inherent wickedness of the human heart. Can you imagine a woman with a wicked heart steadfastly trying to do good, and to be good? It is a dark and horrible picture; but it is the only true picture of the woman whom John Marchmont sought to win for his wife.

The interview between Mary’s father and Olivia Arundel was not a very sentimental one; but it was certainly the very reverse of commonplace. John was too simple-hearted to disguise the purpose of his wooing. He pleaded, not for a wife for himself, but a mother for his orphan child. He talked of Mary’s helplessness in the future, not of his own love in the present. Carried away by the egotism of his one affection, he let his motives appear in all their nakedness. He spoke long and earnestly; he spoke until the blinding tears in his eyes made the face of her he looked at seem blotted and dim.

Miss Arundel watched him as he pleaded; sternly, unflinchingly. But she uttered no word until he had finished; and then, rising suddenly, with a dusky flush upon her face, she began to pace up and down the narrow room. She had forgotten John Marchmont. In the strength and vigour of her intellect, this weak-minded widower, whose one passion was a pitiful love for his child, appeared to her so utterly insignificant, that for a few moments she had forgotten his presence in that room — his very existence, perhaps. She turned to him presently, and looked him full in the face.

“You do not love me, Mr. Marchmont?” she said.

“Pardon me,” John stammered; “believe me, Miss Arundel, I respect, I esteem you so much, that —”

“That you choose me as a fitting friend for your child. I understand. I am not the sort of woman to be loved. I have long comprehended that. My cousin Edward Arundel has often taken the trouble to tell me as much. And you wish me to be your wife in order that you may have a guardian for your child? It is very much the same thing as engaging a governess; only the engagement is to be more binding.”

“Miss Arundel,” exclaimed John Marchmont, “forgive me! You misunderstand me; indeed you do. Had I thought that I could have offended you —”

“I am not offended. You have spoken the truth where another man would have told a lie. I ought to be flattered by your confidence in me. It pleases me that people should think me good, and worthy of their trust.”

She broke into a sigh as she finished speaking.

“And you will not reject my appeal?”

“I scarcely know what to do,” answered Olivia, pressing her hand to her forehead.

She leaned against the angle of the deep casement window, looking out at the garden, desolate and neglected in the bleak winter weather. She was silent for some minutes. John Marchmont did not interrupt her; he was content to wait patiently until she should choose to speak.

“Mr. Marchmont,” she said at last, turning upon poor John with an abrupt vehemence that almost startled him, “I am three-and-twenty; and in the long, dull memory of the three-and-twenty years that have made my life, I cannot look back upon one joy — no, so help me Heaven, not one!” she cried passionately. “No prisoner in the Bastille, shut in a cell below the level of the Seine, and making companions of rats and spiders in his misery, ever led a life more hopelessly narrow, more pitifully circumscribed, than mine has been. These grass-grown streets have made the boundary of my existence. The flat fenny country round me is not flatter or more dismal than my life. You will say that I should take an interest in the duties which I do; and that they should be enough for me. Heaven knows I have tried to do so; but my life is hard. Do you think there has been nothing in all this to warp my nature? Do you think after hearing this, that I am the woman to be a second mother to your child?”

She sat down as she finished speaking, and her hands dropped listlessly in her lap. The unquiet spirit raging in her breast had been stronger than herself, and had spoken. She had lifted the dull veil through which the outer world beheld her, and had showed John Marchmont her natural face.

“I think you are a good woman, Miss Arundel,” he said earnestly. “If I had thought otherwise, I should not have come here to-day. I want a good woman to be kind to my child; kind to her when I am dead and gone,” he added, in a lower voice.

Olivia Arundel sat silent and motionless, looking straight before her out into the black dulness of the garden. She was trying to think out the dark problem of her life.

Strange as it may seem, there was a certain fascination for her in John Marchmont’s offer. He offered her something, no matter what; it would be a change. She had compared herself to a prisoner in the Bastille; and I think she felt very much as such a prisoner might have felt upon his gaoler’s offering to remove him to Vincennes. The new prison might be worse than the old one, perhaps; but it would be different. Life at Marchmont Towers might be more monotonous, more desolate, than at Swampington; but it would be a new monotony, another desolation. Have you never felt, when suffering the hideous throes of toothache, that it would be a relief to have the earache or the rheumatism; that variety even in torture would be agreeable?

Then, again, Olivia Arundel, though unblest with many of the charms of womanhood, was not entirely without its weaknesses. To marry John Marchmont would be to avenge herself upon Edward Arundel. Alas! she forgot how impossible it is to inflict a dagger-thrust upon him who is guarded by the impenetrable armour of indifference. She saw herself the mistress of Marchmont Towers, waited upon by liveried servants, courted, not patronised by the country gentry; avenged upon the mercenary aunt who had slighted her, who had bade her go out and get her living as a nursery governess. She saw this; and all that was ignoble in her nature arose, and urged her to snatch the chance offered her — the one chance of lifting herself out of the horrible obscurity of her life. The ambition which might have made her an empress lowered its crest, and cried, “Take this; at least it is something.” But, through all, the better voices which she had enlisted to do battle with the natural voice of her soul cried, “This is a temptation of the devil; put it away from thee.”

But this temptation came to her at the very moment when her life had become most intolerable; too intolerable to be borne, she thought. She knew now, fatally, certainly, that Edward Arundel did not love her; that the one only day-dream she had ever made for herself had been a snare and a delusion. The radiance of that foolish dream had been the single light of her life. That taken away from her, the darkness was blacker than the blackness of death; more horrible than the obscurity of the grave.

In all the future she had not one hope: no, not one. She had loved Edward Arundel with all the strength of her soul; she had wasted a world of intellect and passion upon this bright-haired boy. This foolish, grovelling madness had been the blight of her life. But for this, she might have grown out of her natural self by force of her conscientious desire to do right; and might have become, indeed, a good and perfect woman. If her life had been a wider one, this wasted love would, perhaps, have shrunk into its proper insignificance; she would have loved, and suffered, and recovered; as so many of us recover from this common epidemic. But all the volcanic forces of an impetuous nature, concentrated into one narrow focus, wasted themselves upon this one feeling, until that which should have been a sentiment became a madness.

To think that in some far-away future time she might cease to love Edward Arundel, and learn to love somebody else, would have seemed about as reasonable to Olivia as to hope that she could have new legs and arms in that distant period. She could cut away this fatal passion with a desperate stroke, it may be, just as she could cut off her arm; but to believe that a new love would grow in its place was quite as absurd as to believe in the growing of a new arm. Some cork monstrosity might replace the amputated limb; some sham and simulated affection might succeed the old love.

Olivia Arundel thought of all these things, in about ten minutes by the little skeleton clock upon the mantel-piece, and while John Marchmont fidgeted rather nervously, with a pair of gloves in the crown of his hat, and waited for some definite answer to his appeal. Her mind came back at last, after all its passionate wanderings, to the rigid channel she had so laboriously worn for it — the narrow groove of duty. Her first words testified this.

“If I accept this responsibility, I will perform it faithfully,” she said, rather to herself than to Mr. Marchmont.

“I am sure you will, Miss Arundel,” John answered eagerly; “I am sure you will. You mean to undertake it, then? you mean to consider my offer? May I speak to your father? may I tell him that I have spoken to you? may I say that you have given me a hope of your ultimate consent?”

“Yes, yes,” Olivia said, rather impatiently; “speak to my father; tell him anything you please. Let him decide for me; it is my duty to obey him.”

There was a terrible cowardice in this. Olivia Arundel shrank from marrying a man she did not love, prompted by no better desire than the mad wish to wrench herself away from her hated life. She wanted to fling the burden of responsibility in this matter away from her. Let another decide, let another urge her to do this wrong; and let the wrong be called a sacrifice.

So for the first time she set to work deliberately to cheat her own conscience. For the first time she put a false mark upon the standard she had made for the measurement of her moral progress.

She sank into a crouching attitude on a low stool by the fire-place, in utter prostration of body and mind, when John Marchmont had left her. She let her weary head fall heavily against the carved oaken shaft that supported the old-fashioned mantel-piece, heedless that her brow struck sharply against the corner of the wood-work.

If she could have died then, with no more sinful secret than a woman’s natural weakness hidden in her breast; if she could have died then, while yet the first step upon the dark pathway of her life was untrodden — how happy for herself, how happy for others! How miserable a record of sin and suffering might have remained unwritten in the history of woman’s life!

She sat long in the same attitude. Once, and once only, two solitary tears gathered in her eyes, and rolled slowly down her pale cheeks.

“Will you be sorry when I am married, Edward Arundel?” she murmured; “will you be sorry?”

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