John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Volume ii.

Chapter 1

Mary’s Letter.

It was past twelve o’clock when Edward Arundel strolled into the dining-room. The windows were open, and the scent of the mignionette upon the terrace was blown in upon the warm summer breeze.

Mrs. Marchmont was sitting at one end of the long table, reading a newspaper. She looked up as Edward entered the room. She was pale, but not much paler than usual. The feverish light had faded out of her eyes, and they looked dim and heavy.

“Good morning, Livy,” the young man said. “Mary is not up yet, I suppose?”

“I believe not.”

“Poor little girl! A long rest will do her good after her first ball. How pretty and fairy-like she looked in her white gauze dress, and with that circlet of pearls round her hair! Your taste, I suppose, Olivia? She looked like a snow-drop among all the other gaudy flowers — the roses and tiger-lilies, and peonies and dahlias. That eldest Miss Hickman is handsome, but she’s so terribly conscious of her attractions. That little girl from Swampington with the black ringlets is rather pretty; and Laura Filmer is a jolly, dashing girl; she looks you full in the face, and talks to you about hunting with as much gusto as an old whipper-in. I don’t think much of Major Hawley’s three tall sandy-haired daughters; but Fred Hawley’s a capital fellow: it’s a pity he’s a civilian. In short, my dear Olivia, take it altogether, I think your ball was a success, and I hope you’ll give us another in the hunting-season.”

Mrs. Marchmont did not condescend to reply to her cousin’s meaningless rattle. She sighed wearily, and began to fill the tea-pot from the old-fashioned silver urn. Edward loitered in one of the windows, whistling to a peacock that was stalking solemnly backwards and forwards upon the stone balustrade.

“I should like to drive you and Mary down to the seashore, Livy, after breakfast. Will you go?”

Mrs. Marchmont shook her head.

“I am a great deal too tired to think of going out to-day,” she said ungraciously.

“And I never felt fresher in my life,” the young man responded, laughing; “last night’s festivities seem to have revivified me. I wish Mary would come down,” he added, with a yawn; “I could give her another lesson in billiards, at any rate. Poor little girl, I am afraid she’ll never make a cannon.”

Captain Arundel sat down to his breakfast, and drank the cup of tea poured out for him by Olivia. Had she been a sinful woman of another type, she would have put arsenic into the cup perhaps, and so have made an end of the young officer and of her own folly. As it was, she only sat by, with her own untasted breakfast before her, and watched him while he ate a plateful of raised pie, and drank his cup of tea, with the healthy appetite which generally accompanies youth and a good conscience. He sprang up from the table directly he had finished his meal, and cried out impatiently, “What can make Mary so lazy this morning? she is usually such an early riser.”

Mrs. Marchmont rose as her cousin said this, and a vague feeling of uneasiness took possession of her mind. She remembered the white face which had blanched beneath the angry glare of her eyes, the blank look of despair that had come over Mary’s countenance a few hours before.

“I will go and call her myself,” she said. “N— no; I’ll send Barbara.” She did not wait to ring the bell, but went into the hall, and called sharply, “Barbara! Barbara!”

A woman came out of a passage leading to the housekeeper’s room, in answer to Mrs. Marchmont’s call; a woman of about fifty years of age, dressed in gray stuff, and with a grave inscrutable face, a wooden countenance that gave no token of its owner’s character. Barbara Simmons might have been the best or the worst of women, a Mrs. Fry or a Mrs. Brownrigg, for any evidence her face afforded against either hypothesis.

“I want you to go up-stairs, Barbara, and call Miss Marchmont,” Olivia said. “Captain Arundel and I have finished breakfast.”

The woman obeyed, and Mrs. Marchmont returned to the dining-room, where Edward was trying to amuse himself with the “Times” of the previous day.

Ten minutes afterwards Barbara Simmons came into the room carrying a letter on a silver waiter. Had the document been a death-warrant, or a telegraphic announcement of the landing of the French at Dover, the well-trained servant would have placed it upon a salver before presenting it to her mistress.

“Miss Marchmont is not in her room, ma’am,” she said; “the bed has not been slept on; and I found this letter, addressed to Captain Arundel, upon the table.”

Olivia’s face grew livid; a horrible dread rushed into her mind. Edward snatched the letter which the servant held towards him.

“Mary not in her room! What, in Heaven’s name, can it mean?” he cried.

He tore open the letter. The writing was not easily decipherable for the tears which the orphan girl had shed over it.

“MY OWN DEAR EDWARD— I have loved you so dearly and so foolishly, and you have been so kind to me, that I have quite forgotten how unworthy I am of your affection. But I am forgetful no longer. Something has happened which has opened my eyes to my own folly — I know now that you did not love me; that I had no claim to your love; no charms or attractions such as so many other women possess, and for which you might have loved me. I know this now, dear Edward, and that all my happiness has been a foolish dream; but do not think that I blame any one but myself for what has happened. Take my fortune: long ago, when I was a little girl, I asked my father to let me share it with you. I ask you now to take it all, dear friend; and I go away for ever from a house in which I have learnt how little happiness riches can give. Do not be unhappy about me. I shall pray for you always — always remembering your goodness to my dead father; always looking back to the day upon which you came to see us in our poor lodging. I am very ignorant of all worldly business, but I hope the law will let me give you Marchmont Towers, and all my fortune, whatever it may be. Let Mr. Paulette see this latter part of my letter, and let him fully understand that I abandon all my rights to you from this day. Good-bye, dear friend; think of me sometimes, but never think of me sorrowfully.

“MARY MARCHMONT.”

This was all. This was the letter which the heart-broken girl had written to her lover. It was in no manner different from the letter she might have written to him nine years before in Oakley Street. It was as childish in its ignorance and inexperience; as womanly in its tender self-abnegation.

Edward Arundel stared at the simple lines like a man in a dream, doubtful of his own identity, doubtful of the reality of the world about him, in his hopeless wonderment. He read the letter line by line again and again, first in dull stupefaction, and muttering the words mechanically as he read them, then with the full light of their meaning dawning gradually upon him.

Her fortune! He had never loved her! She had discovered her own folly! What did it all mean? What was the clue to the mystery of this letter, which had stunned and bewildered him, until the very power of reflection seemed lost? The dawning of that day had seen their parting, and the innocent face had been lifted to his, beaming with love and trust. And now —? The letter dropped from his hand, and fluttered slowly to the ground. Olivia Marchmont stooped to pick it up. Her movement aroused the young man from his stupor, and in that moment he caught the sight of his cousin’s livid face.

He started as if a thunderbolt had burst at his feet. An idea, sudden as some inspired revelation, rushed into his mind.

“Read that letter, Olivia Marchmont!” he said.

The woman obeyed. Slowly and deliberately she read the childish epistle which Mary had written to her lover. In every line, in every word, the widow saw the effect of her own deadly work; she saw how deeply the poison, dropped from her own envenomed tongue, had sunk into the innocent heart of the girl.

Edward Arundel watched her with flaming eyes. His tall soldierly frame trembled in the intensity of his passion. He followed his cousin’s eyes along the lines in Mary Marchmont’s letter, waiting till she should come to the end. Then the tumultuous storm of indignation burst forth, until Olivia cowered beneath the lightning of her cousin’s glance.

Was this the man she had called frivolous? Was this the boyish red-coated dandy she had despised? Was this the curled and perfumed representative of swelldom, whose talk never soared to higher flights than the description of a day’s snipe-shooting, or a run with the Burleigh fox-hounds? The wicked woman’s eyelids drooped over her averted eyes; she turned away, shrinking from this fearless accuser.

“This mischief is some of your work, Olivia Marchmont!” Edward Arundel cried. “It is you who have slandered and traduced me to my dead friend’s daughter! Who else would dare accuse a Dangerfield Arundel of baseness? who else would be vile enough to call my father’s son a liar and a traitor? It is you who have whispered shameful insinuations into this poor child’s innocent ear! I scarcely need the confirmation of your ghastly face to tell me this. It is you who have driven Mary Marchmont from the home in which you should have sheltered and protected her! You envied her, I suppose — envied her the thousands which might have ministered to your wicked pride and ambition; — the pride which has always held you aloof from those who might have loved you; the ambition that has made you a soured and discontented woman, whose gloomy face repels all natural affection. You envied the gentle girl whom your dead husband committed to your care, and who should have been most sacred to you. You envied her, and seized the first occasion upon which you might stab her to the very core of her tender heart. What other motive could you have had for doing this deadly wrong? None, so help me Heaven!”

No other motive! Olivia Marchmont dropped down in a heap on the ground near her cousin’s feet; not kneeling, but grovelling upon the carpeted floor, writhing convulsively, with her hands twisted one in the other, and her head falling forward on her breast. She uttered no syllable of self-justification or denial. The pitiless words rained down upon her provoked no reply. But in the depths of her heart sounded the echo of Edward Arundel’s words: “The pride which has always held you aloof from those who might have loved you; . . . a discontented woman, whose gloomy face repels all natural affection.”

“O God!” she thought, “he might have loved me, then! He might have loved me, if I could have locked my anguish in my own heart, and smiled at him and flattered him.”

And then an icy indifference took possession of her. What did it matter that Edward Arundel repudiated and hated her? He had never loved her. His careless friendliness had made as wide a gulf between them as his bitterest hate could ever make. Perhaps, indeed, his new-born hate would be nearer to love than his indifference had been, for at least he would think of her now, if he thought ever so bitterly.

“Listen to me, Olivia Marchmont,” the young man said, while the woman still crouched upon the ground near his feet, self-confessed in the abandonment of her despair. “Wherever this girl may have gone, driven hence by your wickedness, I will follow her. My answer to the lie you have insinuated against me shall be my immediate marriage with my old friend’s orphan child. He knew me well enough to know how far I was above the baseness of a fortune-hunter, and he wished that I should be his daughter’s husband. I should be a coward and a fool were I to be for one moment influenced by such a slander as that which you have whispered in Mary Marchmont’s ear. It is not the individual only whom you traduce. You slander the cloth I wear, the family to which I belong; and my best justification will be the contempt in which I hold your infamous insinuations. When you hear that I have squandered Mary Marchmont’s fortune, or cheated the children I pray God she may live to bear me, it will be time enough for you to tell the world that your kinsman Edward Dangerfield Arundel is a swindler and a traitor.”

He strode out into the hall, leaving his cousin on the ground; and she heard his voice outside the dining-room door making inquiries of the servants.

They could tell him nothing of Mary’s flight. Her bed had not been slept in; nobody had seen her leave the house; it was most likely, therefore, that she had stolen away very early, before the servants were astir.

Where had she gone? Edward Arundel’s heart beat wildly as he asked himself that question. He remembered how often he had heard of women, as young and innocent as Mary Marchmont, who had rushed to destroy themselves in a tumult of agony and despair. How easily this poor child, who believed that her dream of happiness was for ever broken, might have crept down through the gloomy wood to the edge of the sluggish river, to drop into the weedy stream, and hide her sorrow under the quiet water. He could fancy her, a new Ophelia, pale and pure as the Danish prince’s slighted love, floating past the weird branches of the willows, borne up for a while by the current, to sink in silence amongst the shadows farther down the stream.

He thought of these things in one moment, and in the next dismissed the thought. Mary’s letter breathed the spirit of gentle resignation rather than of wild despair. “I shall always pray for you; I shall always remember you,” she had written. Her lover remembered how much sorrow the orphan girl had endured in her brief life. He looked back to her childish days of poverty and self-denial; her early loss of her mother; her grief at her father’s second marriage; the shock of that beloved father’s death. Her sorrows had followed each other in gloomy succession, with only narrow intervals of peace between them. She was accustomed, therefore, to grief. It is the soul untutored by affliction, the rebellious heart that has never known calamity, which becomes mad and desperate, and breaks under the first blow. Mary Marchmont had learned the habit of endurance in the hard school of sorrow.

Edward Arundel walked out upon the terrace, and re-read the missing girl’s letter. He was calmer now, and able to face the situation with all its difficulties and perplexities. He was losing time perhaps in stopping to deliberate; but it was no use to rush off in reckless haste, undetermined in which direction he should seek for the lost mistress of Marchmont Towers. One of the grooms was busy in the stables saddling Captain Arundel’s horse, and in the mean time the young man went out alone upon the sunny terrace to deliberate upon Mary’s letter.

Complete resignation was expressed in every line of that childish epistle. The heiress spoke most decisively as to her abandonment of her fortune and her home. It was clear, then, that she meant to leave Lincolnshire; for she would know that immediate steps would be taken to discover her hiding-place, and bring her back to Marchmont Towers.

Where was she likely to go in her inexperience of the outer world? where but to those humble relations of her dead mother’s, of whom her father had spoken in his letter to Edward Arundel, and with whom the young man knew she had kept up an occasional correspondence, sending them many little gifts out of her pocket-money. These people were small tenant-farmers, at a place called Marlingford, in Berkshire. Edward knew their name and the name of the farm.

“I’ll make inquiries at the Kemberling station to begin with,” he thought. “There’s a through train from the north that stops at Kemberling at a little before six. My poor darling may have easily caught that, if she left the house at five.”

Captain Arundel went back into the hall, and summoned Barbara Simmons. The woman replied with rather a sulky air to his numerous questions; but she told him that Miss Marchmont had left her ball-dress upon the bed, and had put on a gray cashmere dress trimmed with black ribbon, which she had worn as half-mourning for her father; a black straw bonnet, with a crape veil, and a silk mantle trimmed with crape. She had taken with her a small carpet-bag, some linen — for the linen-drawer of her wardrobe was open, and the things scattered confusedly about — and the little morocco case in which she kept her pearl ornaments, and the diamond ring left her by her father.

“Had she any money?” Edward asked.

“Yes, sir; she was never without money. She spent a good deal amongst the poor people she visited with my mistress; but I dare say she may have had between ten and twenty pounds in her purse.”

“She will go to Berkshire,” Edward Arundel thought: “the idea of going to her humble friends would be the first to present itself to her mind. She will go to her dead mother’s sister, and give her all her jewels, and ask for shelter in the quiet farmhouse. She will act like one of the heroines in the old-fashioned novels she used to read in Oakley Street, the simple-minded damsels of those innocent story-books, who think nothing of resigning a castle and a coronet, and going out into the world to work for their daily bread in a white satin gown, and with a string of pearls to bind their dishevelled locks.”

Captain Arundel’s horse was brought round to the terrace-steps, as he stood with Mary’s letter in his hand, waiting to hurry away to the rescue of his sorrowful love.

“Tell Mrs. Marchmont that I shall not return to the Towers till I bring her stepdaughter with me,” he said to the groom; and then, without stopping to utter another word, he shook the rein on his horse’s neck, and galloped away along the gravelled drive leading to the great iron gates of Marchmont Towers.

Olivia heard his message, which had been spoken in a clear loud voice, like some knightly defiance, sounding trumpet-like at a castle-gate. She stood in one of the windows of the dining-room, hidden by the faded velvet curtain, and watched her cousin ride away, brave and handsome as any knight-errant of the chivalrous past, and as true as Bayard himself.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/john_marchmont_s_legacy/v2.1.html

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