John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 12

Edward’s Visitors.

Perhaps no greater sacrifice had ever been made by an English gentleman than that which Edward Arundel willingly offered up as an atonement for his broken trust, as a tribute to his lost wife. Brave, ardent, generous, and sanguine, this young soldier saw before him a brilliant career in the profession which he loved. He saw glory and distinction beckoning to him from afar, and turned his back upon those shining sirens. He gave up all, in the vague hope of, sooner or later, avenging Mary’s wrongs upon Paul Marchmont.

He made no boast, even to himself, of that which he had done. Again and again memory brought back to him the day upon which he breakfasted in Oakley Street, and walked across Waterloo Bridge with the Drury Lane supernumerary. Every word that John Marchmont had spoken; every look of the meek and trusting eyes, the pale and thoughtful face; every pressure of the thin hand which had grasped his in grateful affection, in friendly confidence — came back to Edward Arundel after an interval of nearly ten years, and brought with it a bitter sense of self-reproach.

“He trusted his daughter to me,” the young man thought. “Those last words in the poor fellow’s letter are always in my mind: ‘The only bequest which I can leave to the only friend I have is the legacy of a child’s helplessness.’ And I have slighted his solemn warning: and I have been false to my trust.”

In his scrupulous sense of honour, the soldier reproached himself as bitterly for that imprudence, out of which so much evil had arisen, as another man might have done after a wilful betrayal of his trust. He could not forgive himself. He was for ever and ever repeating in his own mind that one brief phase which is the universal chorus of erring men’s regret: “If I had acted differently, if I had done otherwise, this or that would not have come to pass.” We are perpetually wandering amid the hopeless deviations of a maze, finding pitfalls and precipices, quicksands and morasses, at every turn in the painful way; and we look back at the end of our journey to discover a straight and pleasant roadway by which, had we been wise enough to choose it, we might have travelled safely and comfortably to our destination.

But Wisdom waits for us at the goal instead of accompanying us upon our journey. She is a divinity whom we meet very late in life; when we are too near the end of our troublesome march to derive much profit from her counsels. We can only retail them to our juniors, who, not getting them from the fountain-head, have very small appreciation of their value.

The young captain of East Indian cavalry suffered very cruelly from the sacrifice which he had made. Day after day, day after day, the slow, dreary, changeless, eventless, and unbroken life dragged itself out; and nothing happened to bring him any nearer to the purpose of this monotonous existence; no promise of even ultimate success rewarded his heroic self-devotion. Afar, he heard of the rush and clamour of war, of dangers and terror, of conquest and glory. His own regiment was in the thick of the strife, his brothers in arms were doing wonders. Every mail brought some new record of triumph and glory.

The soldier’s heart sickened as he read the story of each new encounter; his heart sickened with that terrible yearning — that yearning which seems physically palpable in its perpetual pain; the yearning with which a child at a hard school, lying broad awake in the long, gloomy, rush-lit bedchamber in the dead of the silent night, remembers the soft resting-place of his mother’s bosom; the yearning with which a faithful husband far away from home sighs for the presence of the wife he loves. Even with such a heart-sickness as this Edward Arundel pined to be amongst the familiar faces yonder in the East — to hear the triumphant yell of his men as they swarmed after him through the breach in an Affghan wall — to see the dark heathens blanch under the terror of Christian swords.

He read the records of the war again and again, again and again, till every scene arose before him — a picture, flaming and lurid, grandly beautiful, horribly sublime. The very words of those newspaper reports seemed to blaze upon the paper on which they were written, so palpable were the images which they evoked in the soldier’s mind. He was frantic in his eager impatience for the arrival of every mail, for the coming of every new record of that Indian warfare. He was like a devourer of romances, who reads a thrilling story link by link, and who is impatient for every new chapter of the fiction. His dreams were of nothing but battle and victory, danger, triumph, and death; and he often woke in the morning exhausted by the excitement of those visionary struggles, those phantom terrors.

His sabre hung over the chimney-piece in his simple bedchamber. He took it down sometimes, and drew it from the sheath. He could have almost wept aloud over that idle sword. He raised his arm, and the weapon vibrated with a whirring noise as he swept the glittering steel in a wide circle through the empty air. An infidel’s head should have been swept from his vile carcass in that rapid circle of the keen-edged blade. The soldier’s arm was as strong as ever, his wrist as supple, his muscular force unwasted by mental suffering. Thank Heaven for that! But after that brief thanksgiving his arm dropped inertly, and the idle sword fell out of his relaxing grasp.

“I seem a craven to myself,” he cried; “I have no right to be here — I have no right to be here while those other fellows are fighting for their lives out yonder. O God, have mercy upon me! My brain gets dazed sometimes; and I begin to wonder whether I am most bound to remain here and watch Paul Marchmont, or to go yonder and fight for my country and my Queen.”

There were many phases in this mental fever. At one time the young man was seized with a savage jealousy of the officer who had succeeded to his captaincy. He watched this man’s name, and every record of his movements, and was constantly taking objection to his conduct. He was grudgingly envious of this particular officer’s triumphs, however small. He could not feel generously towards this happy successor, in the bitterness of his own enforced idleness.

“What opportunities this man has!” he thought; “I never had such chances.”

It is almost impossible for me to faithfully describe the tortures which this monotonous existence inflicted upon the impetuous young man. It is the speciality of a soldier’s career that it unfits most men for any other life. They cannot throw off the old habitudes. They cannot turn from the noisy stir of war to the tame quiet of every-day life; and even when they fancy themselves wearied and worn out, and willingly retire from service, their souls are stirred by every sound of the distant contest, as the war-steed is aroused by the blast of a trumpet. But Edward Arundel’s career had been cut suddenly short at the very hour in which it was brightest with the promise of future glory. It was as if a torrent rushing madly down a mountain-side had been dammed up, and its waters bidden to stagnate upon a level plain. The rebellious waters boiled and foamed in a sullen fury. The soldier could not submit himself contentedly to his fate. He might strip off his uniform, and accept sordid coin as the price of the epaulettes he had won so dearly; but he was at heart a soldier still. When he received the sum which had been raised amongst his juniors as the price of his captaincy, it seemed to him almost as if he had sold his brother’s blood.

It was summer-time now. Ten months had elapsed since his marriage with Mary Marchmont, and no new light had been thrown upon the disappearance of his young wife. No one could feel a moment’s doubt as to her fate. She had perished in that lonely river which flowed behind Marchmont Towers, and far away down to the sea.

The artist had kept his word, and had as yet taken no step towards entering into possession of the estate which he inherited by his cousin’s death. But Mr. Paul Marchmont spent a great deal of time at the Towers, and a great deal more time in the painting-room by the river-side, sometimes accompanied by his sister, sometimes alone.

The Kemberling gossips had grown by no means less talkative upon the subject of Olivia and the new owner of Marchmont Towers. On the contrary, the voices that discussed Mrs. Marchmont’s conduct were a great deal more numerous than heretofore; in other words, John Marchmont’s widow was “talked about.” Everything is said in this phrase. It was scarcely that people said bad things of her; it was rather that they talked more about her than any woman can suffer to be talked of with safety to her fair fame. They began by saying that she was going to marry Paul Marchmont; they went on to wonder whether she was going to marry him; then they wondered why she didn’t marry him. From this they changed the venue, and began to wonder whether Paul Marchmont meant to marry her — there was an essential difference in this new wonderment — and next, why Paul Marchmont didn’t marry her. And by this time Olivia’s reputation was overshadowed by a terrible cloud, which had arisen no bigger than a man’s hand, in the first conjecturings of a few ignorant villagers.

People made it their business first to wonder about Mrs. Marchmont, and then to set up their own theories about her; to which theories they clung with a stupid persistence, forgetting, as people generally do forget, that there might be some hidden clue, some secret key, to the widow’s conduct, for want of which the cleverest reasoning respecting her was only so much groping in the dark.

Edward Arundel heard of the cloud which shadowed his cousin’s name. Her father heard of it, and went to remonstrate with her, imploring her to come to him at Swampington, and to leave Marchmont Towers to the new lord of the mansion. But she only answered him with gloomy, obstinate reiteration, and almost in the same terms as she had answered Edward Arundel; declaring that she would stay at the Towers till her death; that she would never leave the place till she was carried thence in her coffin.

Hubert Arundel, always afraid of his daughter, was more than ever afraid of her now; and he was as powerless to contend against her sullen determination as he would have been to float up the stream of a rushing river.

So Olivia was talked about. She had scared away all visitors, after the ball at the Towers, by the strangeness of her manner and the settled gloom in her face; and she lived unvisited and alone in the gaunt stony mansion; and people said that Paul Marchmont was almost perpetually with her, and that she went to meet him in the painting-room by the river.

Edward Arundel sickened of his wearisome life, and no one helped him to endure his sufferings. His mother wrote to him imploring him to resign himself to the loss of his young wife, to return to Dangerfield, to begin a new existence, and to blot out the memory of the past.

“You have done all that the most devoted affection could prompt you to do,” Mrs. Arundel wrote. “Come back to me, my dearest boy. I gave you up to the service of your country because it was my duty to resign you then. But I cannot afford to lose you now; I cannot bear to see you sacrificing yourself to a chimera. Return to me; and let me see you make a new and happier choice. Let me see my son the father of little children who will gather round my knees when I grow old and feeble.”

“A new and happier choice!” Edward Arundel repeated the words with a melancholy bitterness. “No, my poor lost girl; no, my blighted wife; I will not be false to you. The smiles of happy women can have no sunlight for me while I cherish the memory of the sad eyes that watched me when I drove away from Milldale, the sweet sorrowful face that I was never to look upon again.”

The dull empty days succeeded each other, and did resemble each other, with a wearisome similitude that well-nigh exhausted the patience of the impetuous young man. His fiery nature chafed against this miserable delay. It was so hard to have to wait for his vengeance. Sometimes he could scarcely refrain from planting himself somewhere in Paul Marchmont’s way, with the idea of a hand-to-hand struggle in which either he or his enemy must perish.

Once he wrote the artist a desperate letter, denouncing him as an arch-plotter and villain; calling upon him, if his evil nature was redeemed by one spark of manliness, to fight as men had been in the habit of fighting only a few years before, with a hundred times less reason than these two men had for their quarrel.

“I have called you a villain and traitor; in India we fellows would kill each other for smaller words than those,” wrote the soldier. “But I have no wish to take any advantage of my military experience. I may be a better shot than you. Let us have only one pistol, and draw lots for it. Let us fire at each other across a dinner-table. Let us do anything; so that we bring this miserable business to an end.”

Mr. Marchmont read this letter slowly and thoughtfully, more than once; smiling as he read.

“He’s getting tired,” thought the artist. “Poor young man, I thought he would be the first to grow tired of this sort of work.”

He wrote Edward Arundel a long letter; a friendly but rather facetious letter; such as he might have written to a child who had asked him to jump over the moon. He ridiculed the idea of a duel, as something utterly Quixotic and absurd.

“I am fifteen years older than you, my dear Mr. Arundel,” he wrote, “and a great deal too old to have any inclination to fight with windmills; or to represent the windmill which a high-spirited young Quixote may choose to mistake for a villanous knight, and run his hot head against in that delusion. I am not offended with you for calling me bad names, and I take your anger merely as a kind of romantic manner you have of showing your love for my poor cousin. We are not enemies, and we never shall be enemies; for I will never suffer myself to be so foolish as to get into a passion with a brave and generous-hearted young soldier, whose only error is an unfortunate hallucination with regard to

“Your very humble servant,

“PAUL MARCHMONT.”

Edward ground his teeth with savage fury as he read this letter.

“Is there no making this man answer for his infamy?” he muttered. “Is there no way of making him suffer?”

June was nearly over, and the year was wearing round to the anniversary of Edward’s wedding-day, the anniversaries of those bright days which the young bride and bridegroom had loitered away by the trout-streams in the Hampshire meadows, when some most unlooked-for visitors made their appearance at Kemberling Retreat.

The cottage lay back behind a pleasant garden, and was hidden from the dusty high road by a hedge of lilacs and laburnums which grew within the wooden fence. It was Edward’s habit, in this hot summer-time, to spend a great deal of his time in the garden; walking up and down the neglected paths, with a cigar in his mouth; or lolling in an easy chair on the lawn reading the papers. Perhaps the garden was almost prettier, by reason of the long neglect which it had suffered, than it would have been if kept in the trimmest order by the industrious hands of a skilful gardener. Everything grew in a wild and wanton luxuriance, that was very beautiful in this summer-time, when the earth was gorgeous with all manner of blossoms. Trailing branches from the espaliered apple-trees hung across the pathways, intermingled with roses that had run wild; and made “bits” that a landscape-painter might have delighted to copy. Even the weeds, which a gardener would have looked upon with horror, were beautiful. The wild convolvulus flung its tendrils into fantastic wreaths about the bushes of sweetbrier; the honeysuckle, untutored by the pruning-knife, mixed its tall branches with seringa and clematis; the jasmine that crept about the house had mounted to the very chimney-pots, and strayed in through the open windows; even the stable-roof was half hidden by hardy monthly roses that had clambered up to the thatch. But the young soldier took very little interest in this disorderly garden. He pined to be far away in the thick jungle, or on the burning plain. He hated the quiet and repose of an existence which seemed little better than the living death of a cloister.

The sun was low in the west at the close of a long midsummer day, when Mr. Arundel strolled up and down the neglected pathways, backwards and forwards amid the long tangled grass of the lawn, smoking a cigar, and brooding over his sorrows.

He was beginning to despair. He had defied Paul Marchmont, and no good had come of his defiance. He had watched him, and there had been no result of his watching. Day after day he had wandered down to the lonely pathway by the river side; again and again he had reconnoitered the boat-house, only to hear Paul Marchmont’s treble voice singing scraps out of modern operas as he worked at his easel; or on one or two occasions to see Mr. George Weston, the surgeon, or Lavinia his wife, emerge from the artist’s painting-room.

Upon one of these occasions Edward Arundel had accosted the surgeon of Kemberling, and had tried to enter into conversation with him. But Mr. Weston had exhibited such utterly hopeless stupidity, mingled with a very evident terror of his brother-in-law’s foe, that Edward had been fain to abandon all hope of any assistance from this quarter.

“I’m sure I’m very sorry for you, Mr. Arundel,” the surgeon said, looking, not at Edward, but about and around him, in a hopeless, wandering manner, like some hunted animal that looks far and near for a means of escape from his pursuer — “I’m very sorry for you — and for all your trouble — and I was when I attended you at the Black Bull — and you were the first patient I ever had there — and it led to my having many more — as I may say — though that’s neither here nor there. And I’m very sorry for you, and for the poor young woman too — particularly for the poor young woman — and I always tell Paul so — and — and Paul —”

And at this juncture Mr. Weston stopped abruptly, as if appalled by the hopeless entanglement of his own ideas, and with a brief “Good evening, Mr. Arundel,” shot off in the direction of the Towers, leaving Edward at a loss to understand his manner.

So, on this midsummer evening, the soldier walked up and down the neglected grass-plat, thinking of the men who had been his comrades, and of the career which he had abandoned for the love of his lost wife.

He was aroused from his gloomy reverie by the sound of a fresh girlish voice calling to him by his name.

“Edward! Edward!”

Who could there be in Lincolnshire with the right to call to him thus by his Christian name? He was not long left in doubt. While he was asking himself the question, the same feminine voice cried out again.

“Edward! Edward! Will you come and open the gate for me, please? Or do you mean to keep me out here for ever?”

This time Mr. Arundel had no difficulty in recognising the familiar tones of his sister Letitia, whom he had believed, until that moment, to be safe under the maternal wing at Dangerfield. And lo, here she was, on horseback at his own gate; with a cavalier hat and feathers overshadowing her girlish face; and with another young Amazon on a thorough-bred chestnut, and an elderly groom on a thorough-bred bay, in the background.

Edward Arundel, utterly confounded by the advent of such visitors, flung away his cigar, and went to the low wooden gate beyond which his sister’s steed was pawing the dusty road, impatient of this stupid delay, and eager to be cantering stablewards through the scented summer air.

“Why, Letitia!” cried the young man, “what, in mercy’s name, has brought you here?”

Miss Arundel laughed aloud at her brother’s look of surprise.

“You didn’t know I was in Lincolnshire, did you?” she asked; and then answered her own question in the same breath: “Of course you didn’t, because I wouldn’t let mamma tell you I was coming; for I wanted to surprise you, you know. And I think I have surprised you, haven’t I? I never saw such a scared-looking creature in all my life. If I were a ghost coming here in the gloaming, you couldn’t look more frightened than you did just now. I only came the day before yesterday — and I’m staying at Major Lawford’s, twelve miles away from here — and this is Miss Lawford, who was at school with me at Bath. You’ve heard me talk of Belinda Lawford, my dearest, dearest friend? Miss Lawford, my brother; my brother, Miss Lawford. Are you going to open the gate and let us in, or do you mean to keep your citadel closed upon us altogether, Mr. Edward Arundel?”

At this juncture the young lady in the background drew a little nearer to her friend, and murmured a remonstrance to the effect that it was very late, and that they were expected home before dark; but Miss Arundel refused to hear the voice of wisdom.

“Why, we’ve only an hour’s ride back,” she cried; “and if it should be dark, which I don’t think it will be, for it’s scarcely dark all night through at this time of year, we’ve got Hoskins with us, and Hoskins will take care of us. Won’t you, Hoskins?” demanded the young lady, turning to the elderly groom.

Of course Hoskins declared that he was ready to achieve all that man could do or dare in the defence of his liege ladies, or something pretty nearly to that effect; but delivered in a vile Lincolnshire patois, not easily rendered in printer’s ink.

Miss Arundel waited for no further discussion, but gave her hand to her brother, and vaulted lightly from her saddle.

Then, of course, Edward Arundel offered his services to his sister’s companion, and then for the first time he looked in Belinda Lawford’s face, and even in that one first glance saw that she was a good and beautiful creature, and that her hair, of which she had a great quantity, was of the colour of her horse’s chestnut coat; that her eyes were the bluest he had ever seen, and that her cheeks were like the neglected roses in his garden. He held out his hand to her. She took it with a frank smile, and dismounted, and came in amongst the grass-grown pathways, amid the confusion of trailing branches and bright garden-flowers growing wild.

In that moment began the second volume of Edward Arundel’s life. The first volume had begun upon the Christmas night on which the boy of seventeen went to see the pantomime at Drury Lane Theatre. The old story had been a long, sad story, fall of tenderness and pathos, but with a cruel and dismal ending. The new story began to-night, in this fading western sunshine, in this atmosphere of balmy perfume, amidst these dew-laden garden-flowers growing wild.

But, as I think I observed before at the outset of this story, we are rarely ourselves aware of the commencement of any new section in our lives. It is only after the fact that we recognise the awful importance which actions, in themselves most trivial, assume by reason of their consequences; and when the action, in itself so unimportant, in its consequences so fatal, has been in any way a deviation from the right, how bitterly we reproach ourselves for that false step!

“I am so glad to see you, Edward!” Miss Arundel exclaimed, as she looked about her, criticising her brother’s domain; “but you don’t seem a bit glad to see me, you poor gloomy old dear. And how much better you look than you did when you left Dangerfield! only a little careworn, you know, still. And to think of your coming and burying yourself here, away from all the people who love you, you silly old darling! And Belinda knows the story, and she’s so sorry for you. Ain’t you, Linda? I call her Linda for short, and because it’s prettier than Be-linda,” added the young lady aside to her brother, and with a contemptuous emphasis upon the first syllable of her friend’s name.

Miss Lawford, thus abruptly appealed to, blushed, and said nothing.

If Edward Arundel had been told that any other young lady was acquainted with the sad story of his married life, I think he would have been inclined to revolt against the very idea of her pity. But although he had only looked once at Belinda Lawford, that one look seemed to have told him a great deal. He felt instinctively that she was as good as she was beautiful, and that her pity must be a most genuine and tender emotion, not to be despised by the proudest man upon earth.

The two ladies seated themselves upon a dilapidated rustic bench amid the long grass, and Mr. Arundel sat in the low basket-chair in which he was wont to lounge a great deal of his time away.

“Why don’t you have a gardener, Ned?” Letitia Arundel asked, after looking rather contemptuously at the flowery luxuriance around her.

Her brother shrugged his shoulders with a despondent gesture.

“Why should I take any care of the place?” he said. “I only took it because it was near the spot where — where my poor girl — where I wanted to be. I have no object in beautifying it. I wish to Heaven I could leave it, and go back to India.”

He turned his face eastward as he spoke, and the two girls saw that half-eager, half-despairing yearning that was always visible in his face when he looked to the east. It was over yonder, the scene of strife, the red field of glory, only separated from him by a patch of purple ocean and a strip of yellow sand. It was yonder. He could almost feel the hot blast of the burning air. He could almost hear the shouts of victory. And he was a prisoner here, bound by a sacred duty — by a duty which he owed to the dead.

“Major Lawford — Major Lawford is Belinda’s papa; 33rd Foot — Major Lawford knew that we were coming here, and he begged me to ask you to dinner; but I said you wouldn’t come, for I knew you had shut yourself out of all society — though the Major’s the dearest creature, and the Grange is a most delightful place to stay at. I was down here in the midsummer holidays once, you know, while you were in India. But I give the message as the Major gave it to me; and you are to come to dinner whenever you like.”

Edward Arundel murmured a few polite words of refusal. No; he saw no society; he was in Lincolnshire to achieve a certain object; he should remain there no longer than was necessary in order for him to do so.

“And you don’t even say that you’re glad to see me!” exclaimed Miss Arundel, with an offended air, “though it’s six months since you were last at Dangerfield! Upon my word, you’re a nice brother for an unfortunate girl to waste her affections upon!”

Edward smiled faintly at his sister’s complaint.

“I am very glad to see you, Letitia,” he said; “very, very glad.”

And indeed the young hermit could not but confess to himself that those two innocent young faces seemed to bring light and brightness with them, and to shed a certain transitory glimmer of sunshine upon the horrible gloom of his life. Mr. Morrison had come out to offer his duty to the young lady — whom he had been intimate with from a very early period of her existence, and had carried upon his shoulder some fifteen years before — under the pretence of bringing wine for the visitors; and the stable-lad had been sent to a distant corner of the garden to search for strawberries for their refreshment. Even the solitary maid-servant had crept into the parlour fronting the lawn, and had shrouded herself behind the window-curtains, whence she could peep out at the two Amazons, and gladden her eyes with the sight of something that was happy and beautiful.

But the young ladies would not stop to drink any wine, though Mr. Morrison informed Letitia that the sherry was from the Dangerfield cellar, and had been sent to Master Edward by his ma; nor to eat any strawberries, though the stable-boy, who made the air odorous with the scent of hay and oats, brought a little heap of freshly-gathered fruit piled upon a cabbage-leaf, and surmounted by a rampant caterpillar of the woolly species. They could not stay any longer, they both declared, lest there should be terror at Lawford Grange because of their absence. So they went back to the gate, escorted by Edward and his confidential servant; and after Letitia had given her brother a kiss, which resounded almost like the report of a pistol through the still evening air, the two ladies mounted their horses, and cantered away in the twilight.

“I shall come and see you again, Ned,” Miss Arundel cried, as she shook the reins upon her horse’s neck; “and so will Belinda — won’t you, Belinda?”

Miss Lawford’s reply, if she spoke at all, was quite inaudible amidst the clattering of the horses’ hoofs upon the hard highroad.

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