John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

The Paragraph in the Newspaper.

Mr. Morrison brought the gig and pony to the western porch while Captain Arundel was talking to his cousin’s servant, and presently the invalid was being driven across the flat between the Towers and the high-road to Kemberling.

Mary’s old favourite, Farmer Pollard’s daughter, came out of a low rustic shop as the gig drew up before her husband’s door. This good-natured, tender-hearted Hester, advanced to matronly dignity under the name of Mrs. Jobson, carried a baby in her arms, and wore a white dimity hood, that made a penthouse over her simple rosy face. But at the sight of Captain Arundel nearly all the rosy colour disappeared from the country-woman’s plump cheeks, and she stared aghast at the unlooked-for visitor, almost ready to believe that, if anything so substantial as a pony and gig could belong to the spiritual world, it was the phantom only of the soldier that she looked upon.

“O sir!” she said; “O Captain Arundel, is it really you?”

Edward alighted before Hester could recover from the surprise occasioned by his appearance.

“Yes, Mrs. Jobson,” he said. “May I come into your house? I wish to speak to you.”

Hester curtseyed, and stood aside to allow her visitor to pass her. Her manner was coldly respectful, and she looked at the young officer with a grave, reproachful face, which was strange to him. She ushered her guest into a parlour at the back of the shop; a prim apartment, splendid with varnished mahogany, shell-work boxes — bought during Hester’s honeymoon-trip to a Lincolnshire watering-place — and voluminous achievements in the way of crochet-work; a gorgeous and Sabbath-day chamber, looking across a stand of geraniums into a garden that was orderly and trimly kept even in this dull November weather.

Mrs. Jobson drew forward an uneasy easy-chair, covered with horsehair, and veiled by a crochet-work representation of a peacock embowered among roses. She offered this luxurious seat to Captain Arundel, who, in his weakness, was well content to sit down upon the slippery cushions.

“I have come here to ask you to help me in my search for my wife, Hester,” Edward Arundel said, in a scarcely audible voice.

It is not given to the bravest mind to be utterly independent and defiant of the body; and the soldier was beginning to feel that he had very nearly run the length of his tether, and must soon submit himself to be prostrated by sheer physical weakness.

“Your wife!” cried Hester eagerly. “O sir, is that true?”

“Is what true?”

“That poor Miss Mary was your lawful wedded wife?”

“She was,” replied Edward Arundel sternly, “my true and lawful wife. What else should she have been, Mrs. Jobson?”

The farmer’s daughter burst into tears.

“O sir,” she said, sobbing violently as she spoke — “O sir, the things that was said against that poor dear in this place and all about the Towers! The things that was said! It makes my heart bleed to think of them; it makes my heart ready to break when I think what my poor sweet young lady must have suffered. And it set me against you, sir; and I thought you was a bad and cruel-hearted man!”

“What did they say?” cried Edward. “What did they dare to say against her or against me?”

“They said that you had enticed her away from her home, sir, and that — that — there had been no marriage; and that you had deluded that poor innocent dear to run away with you; and that you’d deserted her afterwards, and the railway accident had come upon you as a punishment like; and that Mrs. Marchmont had found poor Miss Mary all alone at a country inn, and had brought her back to the Towers.”

“But what if people did say this?” exclaimed Captain Arundel. “You could have contradicted their foul slanders; you could have spoken in defence of my poor helpless girl.”

“Me, sir!”

“Yes. You must have heard the truth from my wife’s own lips.”

Hester Jobson burst into a new flood of tears as Edward Arundel said this.

“O no, sir,” she sobbed; “that was the most cruel thing of all. I never could get to see Miss Mary; they wouldn’t let me see her.”

“Who wouldn’t let you?”

“Mrs. Marchmont and Mr. Paul Marchmont. I was laid up, sir, when the report first spread about that Miss Mary had come home. Things was kept very secret, and it was said that Mrs. Marchmont was dreadfully cut up by the disgrace that had come upon her stepdaughter. My baby was born about that time, sir; but as soon as ever I could get about, I went up to the Towers, in the hope of seeing my poor dear miss. But Mrs. Simmons, Mrs. Marchmont’s own maid, told me that Miss Mary was ill, very ill, and that no one was allowed to see her except those that waited upon her and that she was used to. And I begged and prayed that I might be allowed to see her, sir, with the tears in my eyes; for my heart bled for her, poor darling dear, when I thought of the cruel things that was said against her, and thought that, with all her riches and her learning, folks could dare to talk of her as they wouldn’t dare talk of a poor man’s wife like me. And I went again and again, sir; but it was no good; and, the last time I went, Mrs. Marchmont came out into the hall to me, and told me that I was intrusive and impertinent, and that it was me, and such as me, as had set all manner of scandal afloat about her stepdaughter. But I went again, sir, even after that; and I saw Mr. Paul Marchmont, and he was very kind to me, and frank and free-spoken — almost like you, sir; and he told me that Mrs. Marchmont was rather stern and unforgiving towards the poor young lady — he spoke very kind and pitiful of poor Miss Mary — and that he would stand my friend, and he’d contrive that I should see my poor dear as soon as ever she picked up her spirits a bit, and was more fit to see me; and I was to come again in a week’s time, he said.”

“Well; and when you went ——?”

“When I went, sir,” sobbed the carpenter’s wife, “it was the 18th of October, and Miss Mary had run away upon the day before, and every body at the Towers was being sent right and left to look for her. I saw Mrs. Marchmont for a minute that afternoon; and she was as white as a sheet, and all of a tremble from head to foot, and she walked about the place as if she was out of her mind like.”

“Guilt,” thought the young soldier; “guilt of some sort. God only knows what that guilt has been!”

He covered his face with his hands, and waited to hear what more Hester Jobson had to tell him. There was no need of questioning here — no reservation or prevarication. With almost as tender regret as he himself could have felt, the carpenter’s wife told him all that she knew of the sad story of Mary’s disappearance.

“Nobody took much notice of me, sir, in the confusion of the place,” Mrs. Jobson continued; “and there is a parlour-maid at the Towers called Susan Rose, that had been a schoolfellow with me ten years before, and I got her to tell me all about it. And she said that poor dear Miss Mary had been weak and ailing ever since she had recovered from the brain-fever, and that she had shut herself up in her room, and had seen no one except Mrs. Marchmont, and Mr. Paul, and Barbara Simmons; but on the 17th Mrs. Marchmont sent for her, asking her to come to the study. And the poor young lady went; and then Susan Rose thinks that there was high words between Mrs. Marchmont and her stepdaughter; for as Susan was crossing the hall poor Miss came out of the study, and her face was all smothered in tears, and she cried out, as she came into the hall, ‘I can’t bear it any longer. My life is too miserable; my fate is too wretched!’ And then she ran upstairs, and Susan Rose followed up to her room and listened outside the door; and she heard the poor dear sobbing and crying out again and again, ‘O papa, papa! If you knew what I suffer! O papa, papa, papa!’— so pitiful, that if Susan Rose had dared she would have gone in to try and comfort her; but Miss Mary had always been very reserved to all the servants, and Susan didn’t dare intrude upon her. It was late that evening when my poor young lady was missed, and the servants sent out to look for her.”

“And you, Hester — you knew my wife better than any of these people — where do you think she went?”

Hester Jobson looked piteously at the questioner.

“O sir!” she cried; “O Captain Arundel, don’t ask me; pray, pray don’t ask me.”

“You think like these other people — you think that she went away to destroy herself?”

“O sir, what can I think, what can I think except that? She was last seen down by the water-side, and one of her shoes was picked up amongst the rushes; and for all there’s been such a search made after her, and a reward offered, and advertisements in the papers, and everything done that mortal could do to find her, there’s been no news of her, sir — not a trace to tell of her being living; not a creature to come forward and speak to her being seen by them after that day. What can I think, sir, what can I think, except —”

“Except that she threw herself into the river behind Marchmont Towers.”

“I’ve tried to think different, sir; I’ve tried to hope I should see that poor sweet lamb again; but I can’t, I can’t. I’ve worn mourning for these three last Sundays, sir; for I seemed to feel as if it was a sin and a disrespectfulness towards her to wear colours, and sit in the church where I have seen her so often, looking so meek and beautiful, Sunday after Sunday.”

Edward Arundel bowed his head upon his hands and wept silently. This woman’s belief in Mary’s death afflicted him more than he dared confess to himself. He had defied Olivia and Paul Marchmont, as enemies, who tried to force a false conviction upon him; but he could neither doubt nor defy this honest, warm-hearted creature, who wept aloud over the memory of his wife’s sorrows. He could not doubt her sincerity; but he still refused to accept the belief which on every side was pressed upon him. He still refused to think that his wife was dead.

“The river was dragged for more than a week,” he said, presently, “and my wife’s body was never found.”

Hester Jobson shook her head mournfully.

“That’s a poor sign, sir,” she answered; “the river’s full of holes, I’ve heard say. My husband had a fellow-‘prentice who drowned himself in that river seven year ago, and his body was never found.”

Edward Arundel rose and walked towards the door.

“I do not believe that my wife is dead,” he cried. He held out his hand to the carpenter’s wife. “God bless you!” he said. “I thank you from my heart for your tender feeling towards my lost girl.”

He went out to the gig, in which Mr. Morrison waited for him, rather tired of his morning’s work.

“There is an inn a little way farther along the street, Morrison,” Captain Arundel said. “I shall stop there.”

The man stared at his master.

“And not go back to Marchmont Towers, Mr. Edward?”

“No.”

Edward Arundel had held Nature in abeyance for more than four-and-twenty hours, and this outraged Nature now took her revenge by flinging the young man prostrate and powerless upon his bed at the simple Kemberling hostelry, and holding him prisoner there for three dreary days; three miserable days, with long, dark interminable evenings, during which the invalid had no better employment than to lie brooding over his sorrows, while Mr. Morrison read the “Times” newspaper in a monotonous and droning voice, for his sick master’s entertainment.

How that helpless and prostrate prisoner, bound hand and foot in the stern grasp of retaliative Nature, loathed the leading-articles, the foreign correspondence, in the leviathan journal! How he sickened at the fiery English of Printing–House Square, as expounded by Mr. Morrison! The sound of the valet’s voice was like the unbroken flow of a dull river. The great names that surged up every now and then upon that sluggish tide of oratory made no impression upon the sick man’s mind. What was it to him if the glory of England were in danger, the freedom of a mighty people wavering in the balance? What was it to him if famine-stricken Ireland were perishing, and the far-away Indian possessions menaced by contumacious and treacherous Sikhs? What was it to him if the heavens were shrivelled like a blazing scroll, and the earth reeling on its shaken foundations? What had he to do with any catastrophe except that which had fallen upon his innocent young wife?

“O my broken trust!” he muttered sometimes, to the alarm of the confidential servant; “O my broken trust!”

But during the three days in which Captain Arundel lay in the best chamber at the Black Bull — the chief inn of Kemberling, and a very splendid place of public entertainment long ago, when all the northward-bound coaches had passed through that quiet Lincolnshire village — he was not without a medical attendant to give him some feeble help in the way of drugs and doctor’s stuff, in the battle which he was fighting with offended Nature. I don’t know but that the help, however well intended, may have gone rather to strengthen the hand of the enemy; for in those days — the year ‘48 is very long ago when we take the measure of time by science — country practitioners were apt to place themselves upon the side of the disease rather than of the patient, and to assist grim Death in his siege, by lending the professional aid of purgatives and phlebotomy.

On this principle Mr. George Weston, the surgeon of Kemberling, and the submissive and well-tutored husband of Paul Marchmont’s sister, would fain have set to work with the prostrate soldier, on the plea that the patient’s skin was hot and dry, and his white lips parched with fever. But Captain Arundel protested vehemently against any such treatment.

“You shall not take an ounce of blood out of my veins,” he said, “or give me one drop of medicine that will weaken me. What I want is strength; strength to get up and leave this intolerable room, and go about the business that I have to do. As to fever,” he added scornfully, “as long as I have to lie here and am hindered from going about the business of my life, every drop of my blood will boil with a fever that all the drugs in Apothecaries’ Hall would have no power to subdue. Give me something to strengthen me. Patch me up somehow or other, Mr. Weston, if you can. But I warn you that, if you keep me long here, I shall leave this place either a corpse or a madman.”

The surgeon, drinking tea with his wife and brother-in-law half an hour afterwards, related the conversation that had taken place between himself and his patient, breaking up his narrative with a great many “I said’s” and “said he’s,” and with a good deal of rambling commentary upon the text.

Lavinia Weston looked at her brother while the surgeon told his story.

“He is very desperate about his wife, then, this dashing young captain?” Mr. Marchmont said, presently.

“Awful,” answered the surgeon; “regular awful. I never saw anything like it. Really it was enough to cut a man up to hear him go on so. He asked me all sorts of questions about the time when she was ill and I attended upon her, and what did she say to me, and did she seem very unhappy, and all that sort of thing. Upon my word, you know, Mr. Paul — of course I am very glad to think of your coming into the fortune, and I’m very much obliged to you for the kind promises you’ve made to me and Lavinia; but I almost felt as if I could have wished the poor young lady hadn’t drowned herself.”

Mrs. Weston shrugged her shoulders, and looked at her brother.

Imbecile!” she muttered.

She was accustomed to talk to her brother very freely in rather school-girl French before her husband, to whom that language was as the most recondite of tongues, and who heartily admired her for superior knowledge.

He sat staring at her now, and eating bread-and-butter with a simple relish, which in itself was enough to mark him out as a man to be trampled upon.

On the fourth day after his interview with Hester, Edward Arundel was strong enough to leave his chamber at the Black Bull.

“I shall go to London by to-night’s mail, Morrison,” he said to his servant; “but before I leave Lincolnshire, I must pay another visit to Marchmont Towers. You can stop here, and pack my portmanteau while I go.”

A rumbling old fly — looked upon as a splendid equipage by the inhabitants of Kemberling — was furnished for Captain Arundel’s accommodation by the proprietor of the Black Bull; and once more the soldier approached that ill-omened dwelling-place which had been the home of his wife.

He was ushered without any delay to the study in which Olivia spent the greater part of her time.

The dusky afternoon was already closing in. A low fire burned in the old-fashioned grate, and one lighted wax-candle stood upon an open davenport, before which the widow sat amid a confusion of torn papers, cast upon the ground about her.

The open drawers of the davenport, the littered scraps of paper and loosely-tied documents, thrust, without any show of order, into the different compartments of the desk, bore testimony to that state of mental distraction which had been common to Olivia Marchmont for some time past. She herself, the gloomy tenant of the Towers, sat with her elbow resting on her desk, looking hopelessly and absently at the confusion before her.

“I am very tired,” she said, with a sigh, as she motioned her cousin to a chair. “I have been trying to sort my papers, and to look for bills that have to be paid, and receipts. They come to me about everything. I am very tired.”

Her manner was changed from that stern defiance with which she had last confronted her kinsman to an air of almost piteous feebleness. She rested her head on her hand, repeating, in a low voice,

“Yes, I am very tired.”

Edward Arundel looked earnestly at her faded face, so faded from that which he remembered it in its proud young beauty, that, in spite of his doubt of this woman, he could scarcely refrain from some touch of pity for her.

“You are ill, Olivia,” he said.

“Yes, I am ill; I am worn out; I am tired of my life. Why does not God have pity upon me, and take the bitter burden away? I have carried it too long.”

She said this not so much to her cousin as to herself. She was like Job in his despair, and cried aloud to the Supreme Himself in a gloomy protest against her anguish.

“Olivia,” said Edward Arundel very earnestly, “what is it that makes you unhappy? Is the burden that you carry a burden on your conscience? Is the black shadow upon your life a guilty secret? Is the cause of your unhappiness that which I suspect it to be? Is it that, in some hour of passion, you consented to league yourself with Paul Marchmont against my poor innocent girl? For pity’s sake, speak, and undo what you have done. You cannot have been guilty of a crime. There has been some foul play, some conspiracy, some suppression; and my darling has been lured away by the machinations of this man. But he could not have got her into his power without your help. You hated her — Heaven alone knows for what reason — and in an evil hour you helped him, and now you are sorry for what you have done. But it is not too late, Olivia; Olivia, it is surely not too late. Speak, speak, woman, and undo what you have done. As you hope for mercy and forgiveness from God, undo what you have done. I will exact no atonement from you. Paul Marchmont, this smooth traitor, this frank man of the world, who defied me with a smile — he only shall be called upon to answer for the wrong done against my darling. Speak, Olivia, for pity’s sake,” cried the young man, casting himself upon his knees at his cousin’s feet. “You are of my own blood; you must have some spark of regard for me; have compassion upon me, then, or have compassion upon your own guilty soul, which must perish everlastingly if you withhold the truth. Have pity, Olivia, and speak!”

The widow had risen to her feet, recoiling from the soldier as he knelt before her, and looking at him with an awful light in the eyes that alone gave life to her corpse-like face.

Suddenly she flung her arms up above her head, stretching her wasted hands towards the ceiling.

“By the God who has renounced and abandoned me,” she cried, “I have no more knowledge than you have of Mary Marchmont’s fate. From the hour in which she left this house, upon the 17th of October, until this present moment, I have neither seen her nor heard of her. If I have lied to you, Edward Arundel,” she added, dropping her extended arms, and turning quietly to her cousin — “if I have lied to you in saying this, may the tortures which I suffer be doubled to me — if in the infinite of suffering there is any anguish worse than that I now endure.”

Edward Arundel paused for a little while, brooding over this strange reply to his appeal. Could he disbelieve his cousin?

It is common to some people to make forcible and impious asseverations of an untruth shamelessly, in the very face of an insulted Heaven. But Olivia Marchmont was a woman who, in the very darkest hour of her despair, knew no wavering from her faith in the God she had offended.

“I cannot refuse to believe you, Olivia,” Captain Arundel said presently. “I do believe in your solemn protestations, and I no longer look for help from you in my search for my lost love. I absolve you from all suspicion of being aware of her fate after she left this house. But so long as she remained beneath this roof she was in your care, and I hold you responsible for the ills that may have then befallen her. You, Olivia, must have had some hand in driving that unhappy girl away from her home.”

The widow had resumed her seat by the open davenport. She sat with her head bent, her brows contracted, her mouth fixed and rigid, her left hand trifling absently with the scattered papers before her.

“You accused me of this once before, when Mary Marchmont left this house,” she said sullenly.

“And you were guilty then,” answered Edward.

“I cannot hold myself answerable for the actions of others. Mary Marchmont left this time, as she left before, of her own free will.”

“Driven away by your cruel words.”

“She must have been very weak,” answered Olivia, with a sneer, “if a few harsh words were enough to drive her away from her own house.”

“You deny, then, that you were guilty of causing this poor deluded child’s flight from this house?”

Olivia Marchmont sat for some moments in moody silence; then suddenly raising her head, she looked her cousin full in the face.

“I do,” she exclaimed; “if any one except herself is guilty of an act which was her own, I am not that person.”

“I understand,” said Edward Arundel; “it was Paul Marchmont’s hand that drove her out upon the dreary world. It was Paul Marchmont’s brain that plotted against her. You were only a minor instrument; a willing tool, in the hands of a subtle villain. But he shall answer; he shall answer!”

The soldier spoke the last words between his clenched teeth. Then with his chin upon his breast, he sat thinking over what he had just heard.

“How was it?” he muttered; “how was it? He is too consummate a villain to use violence. His manner the other morning told me that the law was on his side. He had done nothing to put himself into my power, and he defied me. How was it, then? By what means did he drive my darling to her despairing flight?”

As Captain Arundel sat thinking of these things, his cousin’s idle fingers still trifled with the papers on the desk; while, with her chin resting on her other hand, and her eyes fixed upon the wall before her, she stared blankly at the reflection of the flame of the candle on the polished oaken panel. Her idle fingers, following no design, strayed here and there among the scattered papers, until a few that lay nearest the edge of the desk slid off the smooth morocco, and fluttered to the ground.

Edward Arundel, as absent-minded as his cousin, stooped involuntarily to pick up the papers. The uppermost of those that had fallen was a slip cut from a country newspaper, to which was pinned an open letter, a few lines only. The paragraph in the newspaper slip was marked by double ink-lines, drawn round it by a neat penman. Again almost involuntarily, Edward Arundel looked at this marked paragraph. It was very brief:

“We regret to be called upon to state that another of the sufferers in the accident which occurred last August on the South–Western Railway has expired from injuries received upon that occasion. Captain Arundel, of the H.E.I.C.S., died on Friday night at Dangerfield Park, Devon, the seat of his elder brother.”

The letter was almost as brief as the paragraph:

“Kemberling, October 17th.

“MY DEAR MRS. MARCHMONT— The enclosed has just come to hand. Let us hope it is not true. But, in case of the worst, it should be shown to Miss Marchmont immediately. Better that she should hear the news from you than from a stranger.

“Yours sincerely,

“PAUL MARCHMONT.”

“I understand everything now,” said Edward Arundel, laying these two papers before his cousin; “it was with this printed lie that you and Paul Marchmont drove my wife to despair — perhaps to death. My darling, my darling,” cried the young man, in a burst of uncontrollable agony, “I refused to believe that you were dead; I refused to believe that you were lost to me. I can believe it now; I can believe it now.”

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