John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 13

One More Sacrifice.

Letitia Arundel kept her word, and came very often to Kemberling Retreat; sometimes on horseback, sometimes in a little pony-carriage; sometimes accompanied by Belinda Lawford, sometimes accompanied by a younger sister of Belinda’s, as chestnut-haired and blue-eyed as Belinda herself, but at the school-room and bread-and-butter period of life, and not particularly interesting. Major Lawford came one day with his daughter and her friend, and Edward and the half-pay officer walked together up and down the grass-plat, smoking and talking of the Indian war, while the two girls roamed about the garden amidst the roses and butterflies, tearing the skirts of their riding-habits every now and then amongst the briers and gooseberry-bushes. It was scarcely strange after this visit that Edward Arundel should consent to accept Major Lawford’s invitation to name a day for dining at the Grange; he could not, with a very good grace, have refused. And yet — and yet — it seemed to him almost a treason against his lost love, his poor pensive Mary — whose face, with the very look it had worn upon that last day, was ever present with him — to mix with happy people who had never known sorrow. But he went to the Grange nevertheless, and grew more and more friendly with the Major, and walked in the gardens — which were very large and old-fashioned, but most beautifully kept — with his sister and Belinda Lawford; with Belinda Lawford, who knew his story and was sorry for him. He always remembered that as he looked at her bright face, whose varying expression gave perpetual evidence of a compassionate and sympathetic nature.

“If my poor darling had had this girl for a friend,” he thought sometimes, “how much happier she might have been!”

I dare say there have been many lovelier women in this world than Belinda Lawford; many women whose faces, considered artistically, came nearer perfection; many noses more exquisitely chiselled, and scores of mouths bearing a closer affinity to Cupid’s bow; but I doubt if any face was ever more pleasant to look upon than the face of this blooming English maiden. She had a beauty that is sometimes wanting in perfect faces, and, lacking which, the most splendid loveliness will pall at last upon eyes that have grown weary of admiring; she had a charm for want of which the most rigidly classical profiles, the most exquisitely statuesque faces, have seemed colder and harder than the marble it was their highest merit to resemble. She had the beauty of goodness, and to admire her was to do homage to the purest and brightest attributes of womanhood. It was not only that her pretty little nose was straight and well-shaped, that her lips were rosy red, that her eyes were bluer than the summer heavens, and her chestnut hair tinged with the golden light of a setting sun; above and beyond such commonplace beauties as these, the beauties of tenderness, truth, faith, earnestness, hope and charity, were enthroned upon her broad white brow, and crowned her queen by right divine of womanly perfection. A loving and devoted daughter, an affectionate sister, a true and faithful friend, an untiring benefactress to the poor, a gentle mistress, a well-bred Christian lady; in every duty and in every position she bore out and sustained the impression which her beauty made on the minds of those who looked upon her. She was only nineteen years of age, and no sorrow had ever altered the brightness of her nature. She lived a happy life with a father who was proud of her, and with a mother who resembled her in almost every attribute. She led a happy but a busy life, and did her duty to the poor about her as scrupulously as even Olivia had done in the old days at Swampington Rectory; but in such a genial and cheerful spirit as to win, not cold thankfulness, but heartfelt love and devotion from all who partook of her benefits.

Upon the Egyptian darkness of Edward Arundel’s life this girl arose as a star, and by-and-by all the horizon brightened under her influence. The soldier had been very little in the society of women. His mother, his sister Letitia, his cousin Olivia, and John Marchmont’s gentle daughter were the only women whom he had ever known in the familiar freedom of domestic intercourse; and he trusted himself in the presence of this beautiful and noble-minded girl in utter ignorance of any danger to his own peace of mind. He suffered himself to be happy at Lawford Grange; and in those quiet hours which he spent there he put away his old life, and forgot the stern purpose that alone held him a prisoner in England.

But when he went back to his lonely dwelling-place, he reproached himself bitterly for that which he considered a treason against his love.

“What right have I to be happy amongst these people?” he thought; “what right have I to take life easily, even for an hour, while my darling lies in her unhallowed grave, and the man who drove her to her death remains unpunished? I will never go to Lawford Grange again.”

It seemed, however, as if everybody, except Belinda, was in a plot against this idle soldier; for sometimes Letitia coaxed him to ride back with her after one of her visits to Kemberling Retreat, and very often the Major himself insisted, in a hearty military fashion, upon the young man’s taking the empty seat in his dog-cart, to be driven over to the Grange. Edward Arundel had never once mentioned Mary’s name to any member of this hospitable and friendly family. They were very good to him, and were prepared, he knew, to sympathise with him; but he could not bring himself to talk of his lost wife. The thought of that rash and desperate act which had ended her short life was too cruel to him. He would not speak of her, because he would have had to plead excuses for that one guilty act; and her image to him was so stainless and pure, that he could not bear to plead for her as for a sinner who had need of men’s pity, rather than a claim to their reverence.

“Her life had been so sinless,” he cried sometimes; “and to think that it should have ended in sin! If I could forgive Paul Marchmont for all the rest — if I could forgive him for my loss of her, I would never forgive him for that.”

The young widower kept silence, therefore, upon the subject which occupied so large a share of his thoughts, which was every day and every night the theme of his most earnest prayers; and Mary’s name was never spoken in his presence at Lawford Grange.

But in Edward Arundel’s absence the two girls sometimes talked of the sad story.

“Do you really think, Letitia, that your brother’s wife committed suicide?” Belinda asked her friend.

“Oh, as for that, there can’t be any doubt about it, dear,” answered Miss Arundel, who was of a lively, not to say a flippant, disposition, and had no very great reverence for solemn things; “the poor dear creature drowned herself. I think she must have been a little wrong in her head. I don’t say so to Edward, you know; at least, I did say so once when he was at Dangerfield, and he flew into an awful passion, and called me hard-hearted and cruel, and all sorts of shocking things; so, of course, I have never said so since. But really, the poor dear thing’s goings-on were so eccentric: first she ran away from her stepmother and went and hid herself in a horrid lodging; and then she married Edward at a nasty church in Lambeth, without so much as a wedding-dress, or a creature to give her away, or a cake, or cards, or anything Christian-like; and then she ran away again; and as her father had been a super — what’s its name? — a man who carries banners in pantomimes, and all that — I dare say she’d seen Mr. Macready as Hamlet, and had Ophelia’s death in her head when she ran down to the river-side and drowned herself. I’m sure it’s a very sad story; and, of course, I’m awfully sorry for Edward.”

The young lady said no more than this; but Belinda brooded over the story of that early marriage — the stolen honeymoon, the sudden parting. How dearly they must have loved each other, the young bride and bridegroom, absorbed in their own happiness, and forgetful of all the outer world! She pictured Edward Arundel’s face as it must have been before care and sorrow had blotted out the brightest attribute of his beauty. She thought of him, and pitied him, with such tender sympathy, that by-and-by the thought of this young man’s sorrow seemed to shut almost every idea out of her mind. She went about all her duties still, cheerfully and pleasantly, as it was her nature to do everything; but the zest with which she had performed every loving office — every act of sweet benevolence, seemed lost to her now.

Remember that she was a simple country damsel, leading a quiet life, whose peaceful course was almost as calm and eventless as the existence of a cloister; a life so quiet that a decently-written romance from the Swampington book-club was a thing to be looked forward to with impatience, to read with breathless excitement, and to brood upon afterwards for months. Was it strange, then, that this romance in real life — this sweet story of love and devotion, with its sad climax — this story, the scene of which lay within a few miles of her home, the hero of which was her father’s constant guest — was it strange that this story, whose saddest charm was its truth, should make a strong impression upon the mind of an innocent and unworldly woman, and that day by day and hour by hour she should, all unconsciously to herself, feel a stronger interest in the hero of the tale?

She was interested in him. Alas! the truth must be set down, even if it has to be in the plain old commonplace words. She fell in love with him. But love in this innocent and womanly nature was so different a sentiment to that which had raged in Olivia’s stormy breast, that even she who felt it was unconscious of its gradual birth. It was not “an Adam at its birth,” by-the-by. It did not leap, Minerva-like, from the brain; for I believe that love is born of the brain oftener than of the heart, being a strange compound of ideality, benevolence, and veneration. It came rather like the gradual dawning of a summer’s day — first a little patch of light far away in the east, very faint and feeble; then a slow widening of the rosy brightness; and at last a great blaze of splendour over all the width of the vast heavens. And then Miss Lawford grew more reserved in her intercourse with her friend’s brother. Her frank good-nature gave place to a timid, shrinking bashfulness, that made her ten times more fascinating than she had been before. She was so very young, and had mixed so little with the world, that she had yet to learn the comedy of life. She had yet to learn to smile when she was sorry, or to look sorrowful when she was pleased, as prudence might dictate — to blush at will, or to grow pale when it was politic to sport the lily tint. She was a natural, artless, spontaneous creature; and she was utterly powerless to conceal her emotions, or to pretend a sentiment she did not feel. She blushed rosy red when Edward Arundel spoke to her suddenly. She betrayed herself by a hundred signs; mutely confessing her love almost as artlessly as Mary had revealed her affection a twelvemonth before. But if Edward saw this, he gave no sign of having made the discovery. His voice, perhaps, grew a little lower and softer in its tone when he spoke to Belinda; but there was a sad cadence in that low voice, which was too mournful for the accent of a lover. Sometimes, when his eyes rested for a moment on the girl’s blushing face, a shadow would darken his own, and a faint quiver of emotion stir his lower lip; but it is impossible to say what this emotion may have been. Belinda hoped nothing, expected nothing. I repeat, that she was unconscious of the nature of her own feeling; and she had never for a moment thought of Edward otherwise than as a man who would go to his grave faithful to that sad love-story which had blighted the promise of his youth. She never thought of him otherwise than as Mary’s constant mourner; she never hoped that time would alter his feelings or wear out his constancy; yet she loved him, notwithstanding.

All through July and August the young man visited at the Grange, and at the beginning of September Letitia Arundel went back to Dangerfield. But even then Edward was still a frequent guest at Major Lawford’s; for his enthusiasm upon all military matters had made him a favourite with the old officer. But towards the end of September Mr. Arundel’s visits suddenly were restricted to an occasional call upon the Major; he left off dining at the Grange; his evening rambles in the gardens with Mrs. Lawford and her blooming daughters — Belinda had no less than four blue-eyed sisters, all more or less resembling herself — ceased altogether, to the wonderment of every one in the old-fashioned country-house.

Edward Arundel shut out the new light which had dawned upon his life, and withdrew into the darkness. He went back to the stagnant monotony, the hopeless despondency, the bitter regret of his old existence.

“While my sister was at the Grange, I had an excuse for going there,” he said to himself sternly. “I have no excuse now.”

But the old monotonous life was somehow or other a great deal more difficult to bear than it had been before. Nothing seemed to interest the young man now. Even the records of Indian victories were “flat, stale, and unprofitable.” He wondered as he remembered with what eager impatience he had once pined for the coming of the newspapers, with what frantic haste he had devoured every syllable of the Indian news. All his old feelings seemed to have gone away, leaving nothing in his mind but a blank waste, a weary sickness of life and all belonging to it. Leaving nothing else — positively nothing? “No!” he answered, in reply to these mute questionings of his own spirit — “no,” he repeated doggedly, “nothing.”

It was strange to find what a blank was left in his life by reason of his abandonment of the Grange. It seemed as if he had suddenly retired from an existence full of pleasure and delight into the gloomy solitude of La Trappe. And yet what was it that he had lost, after all? A quiet dinner at a country-house, and an evening spent half in the leafy silence of an old-fashioned garden, half in a pleasant drawing-room amongst a group of well-bred girls, and only enlivened by simple English ballads, or pensive melodies by Mendelssohn. It was not much to forego, surely. And yet Edward Arundel felt, in sacrificing these new acquaintances at the Grange to the stern purpose of his life, almost as if he had resigned a second captaincy for Mary’s sake.

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