John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 14

The Child’s Voice in the Pavilion by the Water.

The year wore slowly on. Letitia Arundel wrote very long letters to her friend and confidante, Belinda Lawford, and in each letter demanded particular intelligence of her brother’s doings. Had he been to the Grange? how had he looked? what had he talked about? &c., &c. But to these questions Miss Lawford could only return one monotonous reply: Mr. Arundel had not been to the Grange; or Mr. Arundel had called on papa one morning, but had only stayed a quarter of an hour, and had not been seen by any female member of the family.

The year wore slowly on. Edward endured his self-appointed solitude, and waited, waited, with a vengeful hatred for ever brooding in his breast, for the day of retribution. The year wore on, and the anniversary of the day upon which Mary ran away from the Towers, the 17th of October, came at last.

Paul Marchmont had declared his intention of taking possession of the Towers upon the day following this. The twelvemonth’s probation which he had imposed upon himself had expired; every voice was loud in praise of his conscientious and honourable conduct. He had grown very popular during his residence at Kemberling. Tenant farmers looked forward to halcyon days under his dominion; to leases renewed on favourable terms; to repairs liberally executed; to everything that is delightful between landlord and tenant. Edward Arundel heard all this through his faithful servitor, Mr. Morrison, and chafed bitterly at the news. This traitor was to be happy and prosperous, and to have the good word of honest men; while Mary lay in her unhallowed grave, and people shrugged their shoulders, half compassionately, half contemptuously, as they spoke of the mad heiress who had committed suicide.

Mr. Morrison brought his master tidings of all Paul Marchmont’s doings about this time. He was to take possession of the Towers on the 19th. He had already made several alterations in the arrangement of the different rooms. He had ordered new furniture from Swampington — another man would have ordered it from London; but Mr. Marchmont was bent upon being popular, and did not despise even the good opinion of a local tradesman — and by several other acts, insignificant enough in themselves, had asserted his ownership of the mansion which had been the airy castle of Mary Marchmont’s day-dreams ten years before.

The coming-in of the new master of Marchmont Towers was to be, take it altogether, a very grand affair. The Chorley–Castle foxhounds were to meet at eleven o’clock, upon the great grass-flat, or lawn, as it was popularly called, before the western front. The county gentry from far and near had been invited to a hunting breakfast. Open house was to be kept all day for rich and poor. Every male inhabitant of the district who could muster anything in the way of a mount was likely to join the friendly gathering. Poor Reynard is decidedly England’s most powerful leveller. All differences of rank and station, all distinctions which Mammon raises in every other quarter, melt away before the friendly contact of the hunting-field. The man who rides best is the best man; and the young butcher who makes light of sunk fences, and skims, bird-like, over bullfinches and timber, may hold his own with the dandy heir to half the country-side. The cook at Marchmont Towers had enough to do to prepare for this great day. It was the first meet of the season, and in itself a solemn festival. Paul Marchmont knew this; and though the Cockney artist of Fitzroy Square knew about as much of fox-hunting as he did of the source of the Nile, he seized upon the opportunity of making himself popular, and determined to give such a hunting-breakfast as had never been given within the walls of Marchmont Towers since the time of a certain rackety Hugh Marchmont, who had drunk himself to death early in the reign of George III. He spent the morning of the 17th in the steward’s room, looking through the cellar-book with the old butler, selecting the wines that were to be drunk the following day, and planning the arrangements for the mass of visitors, who were to be entertained in the great stone entrance-hall, in the kitchens, in the housekeeper’s room, in the servants’ hall, in almost every chamber that afforded accommodation for a guest.

“You will take care that people get placed according to their rank,” Paul said to the grey-haired servant. “You know everybody about here, I dare say, and will be able to manage so that we may give no offence.”

The gentry were to breakfast in the long dining-room and in the western drawing-room. Sparkling hocks and Burgundies, fragrant Moselles, champagnes of choicest brand and rarest bouquet, were to flow like water for the benefit of the country gentlemen who should come to do honour to Paul Marchmont’s installation. Great cases of comestibles had been sent by rail from Fortnum and Mason’s; and the science of the cook at the Towers had been taxed to the utmost, in the struggles which she made to prove herself equal to the occasion. Twenty-one casks of ale, every cask containing twenty-one gallons, had been brewed long ago, at the birth of Arthur Marchmont, and had been laid in the cellar ever since, waiting for the majority of the young heir who was never to come of age. This very ale, with a certain sense of triumph, Paul Marchmont ordered to be brought forth for the refreshment of the commoners.

“Poor young Arthur!” he thought, after he had given this order. “I saw him once when he was a pretty boy with fair ringlets, dressed in a suit of black velvet. His father brought him to my studio one day, when he came to patronise me and buy a picture of me — out of sheer charity, of course, for he cared as much for pictures as I care for foxhounds. I was a poor relation then, and never thought to see the inside of Marchmont Towers. It was a lucky September morning that swept that bright-faced boy out of my pathway, and left only sickly John Marchmont and his daughter between me and fortune.”

Yes; Mr. Paul Marchmont’s year of probation was past. He had asserted himself to Messrs. Paulette, Paulette, and Mathewson, and before the face of all Lincolnshire, in the character of an honourable and high-minded man; slow to seize upon the fortune that had fallen to him, conscientious, punctilious, generous, and unselfish. He had done all this; and now the trial was over, and the day of triumph had come.

There has been a race of villains of late years very popular with the novel-writer and the dramatist, but not, I think, quite indigenous to this honest British soil; a race of pale-faced, dark-eyed, and all-accomplished scoundrels, whose chiefest attribute is imperturbability. The imperturbable villain has been guilty of every iniquity in the black catalogue of crimes; but he has never been guilty of an emotion. He wins a million of money at trente et quarante, to the terror and astonishment of all Homburg; and by not so much as one twinkle of his eye or one quiver of his lip does that imperturbable creature betray a sentiment of satisfaction. Ruin or glory, shame or triumph, defeat, disgrace, or death — all are alike to the callous ruffian of the Anglo–Gallic novel. He smiles, and murders while he smiles, and smiles while he murders. He kills his adversary, unfairly, in a duel, and wipes his sword on a cambric handkerchief; and withal he is so elegant, so fascinating, and so handsome, that the young hero of the novel has a very poor chance against him; and the reader can scarcely help being sorry when retribution comes with the last chapter, and some crushing catastrophe annihilates the well-bred scoundrel.

Paul Marchmont was not this sort of man. He was a hypocrite when it was essential to his own safety to practice hypocrisy; but he did not accept life as a drama, in which he was for ever to be acting a part. Life would scarcely be worth the having to any man upon such terms. It is all very well to wear heavy plate armour, and a casque that weighs fourteen pounds or so, when we go into the thick of the fight. But to wear the armour always, to live in it, to sleep in it, to carry the ponderous protection about us for ever and ever! Safety would be too dear if purchased by such a sacrifice of all personal ease. Paul Marchmont, therefore, being a selfish and self-indulgent man, only wore his armour of hypocrisy occasionally, and when it was vitally necessary for his preservation. He had imposed upon himself a penance, and acted a part in holding back for a year from the enjoyment of a splendid fortune; and he had made this one great sacrifice in order to give the lie to Edward Arundel’s vague accusations, which might have had an awkward effect upon the minds of other people, had the artist grasped too eagerly at his missing cousin’s wealth. Paul Marchmont had made this sacrifice; but he did not intend to act a part all his life. He meant to enjoy himself, and to get the fullest possible benefit out of his good fortune. He meant to do this; and upon the 17th of October he made no effort to restrain his spirits, but laughed and talked joyously with whoever came in his way, winning golden opinions from all sorts of men; for happiness is contagious, and everybody likes happy people.

Forty years of poverty is a long apprenticeship to the very hardest of masters — an apprenticeship calculated to give the keenest possible zest to newly-acquired wealth. Paul Marchmont rejoiced in his wealth with an almost delirious sense of delight. It was his at last. At last! He had waited, and waited patiently; and at last, while his powers of enjoyment were still in their zenith, it had come. How often he had dreamed of this; how often he had dreamed of that which was to take place to-morrow! How often in his dreams he had seen the stone-built mansion, and heard the voices of the crowd doing him honour. He had felt all the pride and delight of possession, to awake suddenly in the midst of his triumph, and gnash his teeth at the remembrance of his poverty. And now the poverty was a thing to be dreamt about, and the wealth was his. He had always been a good son and a kind brother; and his mother and sister were to arrive upon the eve of his installation, and were to witness his triumph. The rooms that had been altered were those chosen by Paul for his mother and maiden sister, and the new furniture had been ordered for their comfort. It was one of his many pleasures upon this day to inspect these apartments, to see that all his directions had been faithfully carried out, and to speculate upon the effect which these spacious and luxurious chambers would have upon the minds of Mrs. Marchmont and her daughter, newly come from shabby lodgings in Charlotte Street.

“My poor mother!” thought the artist, as he looked round the pretty sitting-room. This sitting-room opened into a noble bedchamber, beyond which there was a dressing-room. “My poor mother!” he thought; “she has suffered a long time, and she has been patient. She has never ceased to believe in me; and she will see now that there was some reason for that belief. I told her long ago, when our fortunes were at the lowest ebb, when I was painting landscapes for the furniture-brokers at a pound a-piece — I told her I was meant for something better than a tradesman’s hack; and I have proved it — I have proved it.”

He walked about the room, arranging the furniture with his own hands; walking a few paces backwards now and then to contemplate such and such an effect from an artistic point of view; flinging the rich stuff of the curtains into graceful folds; admiring and examining everything, always with a smile on his face. He seemed thoroughly happy. If he had done any wrong; if by any act of treachery he had hastened Mary Arundel’s death, no recollection of that foul work arose in his breast to disturb the pleasant current of his thoughts. Selfish and self-indulgent, only attached to those who were necessary to his own happiness, his thoughts rarely wandered beyond the narrow circle of his own cares or his own pleasures. He was thoroughly selfish. He could have sat at a Lord Mayor’s feast with a famine-stricken population clamouring at the door of the banquet-chamber. He believed in himself as his mother and sister had believed; and he considered that he had a right to be happy and prosperous, whosoever suffered sorrow or adversity.

Upon this 17th of October Olivia Marchmont sat in the little study looking out upon the quadrangle, while the household was busied with the preparations for the festival of the following day. She was to remain at Marchmont Towers as a guest of the new master of the mansion. She would be protected from all scandal, Paul had said, by the presence of his mother and sister. She could retain the apartments she had been accustomed to occupy; she could pursue her old mode of life. He himself was not likely to be very much at the Towers. He was going to travel and to enjoy life now that he was a rich man.

These were the arguments which Mr. Marchmont used when openly discussing the widow’s residence in his house. But in a private conversation between Olivia and himself he had only said a very few words upon the subject.

“You must remain,” he said; and Olivia submitted, obeying him with a sullen indifference that was almost like the mechanical submission of an irresponsible being.

John Marchmont’s widow seemed entirely under the dominion of the new master of the Towers. It was as if the stormy passions which had arisen out of a slighted love had worn out this woman’s mind, and had left her helpless to stand against the force of Paul Marchmont’s keen and vigorous intellect. A remarkable change had come over Olivia’s character. A dull apathy had succeeded that fiery energy of soul which had enfeebled and well-nigh worn out her body. There were no outbursts of passion now. She bore the miserable monotony of her life uncomplainingly. Day after day, week after week, month after month, idle and apathetic, she sat in her lonely room, or wandered slowly in the grounds about the Towers. She very rarely went beyond those grounds. She was seldom seen now in her old pew at Kemberling Church; and when her father went to her and remonstrated with her for her non-attendance, she told him sullenly that she was too ill to go. She was ill. George Weston attended her constantly; but he found it very difficult to administer to such a sickness as hers, and he could only shake his head despondently when he felt her feeble pulse, or listened to the slow beating of her heart. Sometimes she would shut herself up in her room for a month at a time, and see no one but her faithful servant Barbara, and Mr. Weston — whom, in her utter indifference, she seemed to regard as a kind of domestic animal, whose going or coming were alike unimportant.

This stolid, silent Barbara waited upon her mistress with untiring patience. She bore with every change of Olivia’s gloomy temper; she was a perpetual shield and protection to her. Even upon this day of preparation and disorder Mrs. Simmons kept guard over the passage leading to the study, and took care that no one intruded upon her mistress. At about four o’clock all Paul Marchmont’s orders had been given, and the new master of the house dined for the first time by himself at the head of the long carved-oak dining-table, waited upon in solemn state by the old butler. His mother and sister were to arrive by a train that would reach Swampington at ten o’clock, and one of the carriages from the Towers was to meet them at the station. The artist had leisure in the meantime for any other business he might have to transact.

He ate his dinner slowly, thinking deeply all the time. He did not stop to drink any wine after dinner; but, as soon as the cloth was removed, rose from the table, and went straight to Olivia’s room.

“I am going down to the painting-room,” he said. “Will you come there presently? I want very much to say a few words to you.”

Olivia was sitting near the window, with her hands lying idle in her lap. She rarely opened a book now, rarely wrote a letter, or occupied herself in any manner. She scarcely raised her eyes as she answered him.

“Yes,” she said; “I will come.”

“Don’t be long, then. It will be dark very soon. I am not going down there to paint; I am going to fetch a landscape that I want to hang in my mother’s room, and to say a few words about —”

He closed the door without stopping to finish the sentence, and went out into the quadrangle.

Ten minutes afterwards Olivia Marchmont rose, and taking a heavy woollen shawl from a chair near her, wrapped it loosely about her head and shoulders.

“I am his slave and his prisoner,” she muttered to herself. “I must do as he bids me.”

A cold wind was blowing in the quadrangle, and the stone pavement was wet with a drizzling rain. The sun had just gone down, and the dull autumn sky was darkening. The fallen leaves in the wood were sodden with damp, and rotted slowly on the swampy ground.

Olivia took her way mechanically along the narrow pathway leading to the river. Half-way between Marchmont Towers and the boat-house she came suddenly upon the figure of a man walking towards her through the dusk. This man was Edward Arundel.

The two cousins had not met since the March evening upon which Edward had gone to seek the widow in Paul Marchmont’s painting-room. Olivia’s pale face grew whiter as she recognised the soldier.

“I was coming to the house to speak to you, Mrs. Marchmont,” Edward said sternly. “I am lucky in meeting you here, for I don’t want any one to overhear what I’ve got to say.”

He had turned in the direction in which Olivia had been walking; but she made a dead stop, and stood looking at him.

“You were going to the boat-house,” he said. “I will go there with you.”

She looked at him for a moment, as if doubtful what to do, and then said,

“Very well. You can say what you have to say to me, and then leave me. There is no sympathy between us, there is no regard between us; we are only antagonists.”

“I hope not, Olivia. I hope there is some spark of regard still, in spite of all. I separate you in my own mind from Paul Marchmont. I pity you; for I believe you to be his tool.”

“Is this what you have to say to me?”

“No; I came here, as your kinsman, to ask you what you mean to do now that Paul Marchmont has taken possession of the Towers?”

“I mean to stay there.”

“In spite of the gossip that your remaining will give rise to amongst these country-people!”

“In spite of everything. Mr. Marchmont wishes me to stay. It suits me to stay. What does it matter what people say of me? What do I care for any one’s opinion — now?”

“Olivia,” cried the young man, “are you mad?”

“Perhaps I am,” she answered, coldly.

“Why is it that you shut yourself from the sympathy of those who have a right to care for you? What is the mystery of your life?”

His cousin laughed bitterly.

“Would you like to know, Edward Arundel?” she said. “You shall know, perhaps, some day. You have despised me all my life; you will despise me more then.”

They had reached Paul Marchmont’s painting-room by this time. Olivia opened the door and walked in, followed by Edward. Paul was not there. There was a picture covered with green-baize upon the easel, and the artist’s hat stood upon the table amidst the litter of brushes and palettes; but the room was empty. The door at the top of the stone steps leading to the pavilion was ajar.

“Have you anything more to say to me?” Olivia asked, turning upon her cousin as if she would have demanded why he had followed her.

“Only this: I want to know your determination; whether you will be advised by me — and by your father — I saw my uncle Hubert this morning, and his opinion exactly coincides with mine — or whether you mean obstinately to take your own course in defiance of everybody?”

“I do,” Olivia answered. “I shall take my own course. I defy everybody. I have not been gifted with the power of winning people’s affection. Other women possess that power, and trifle with it, and turn it to bad account. I have prayed, Edward Arundel — yes, I have prayed upon my knees to the God who made me, that He would give me some poor measure of that gift which Nature has lavished upon other women; but He would not hear me, He would not hear me! I was not made to be loved. Why, then, should I make myself a slave for the sake of winning people’s esteem? If they have despised me, I can despise them.”

“Who has despised you, Olivia?” Edward asked, perplexed by his cousin’s manner.

“YOU HAVE!” she cried, with flashing eyes; “you have! From first to last — from first to last!” She turned away from him impatiently. “Go,” she said; “why should we keep up a mockery of friendliness and cousinship? We are nothing to each other.”

Edward walked towards the door; but he paused upon the threshold, with his hat in his hand, undecided as to what he ought to do.

As he stood thus, perplexed and irresolute, a cry, the feeble cry of a child, sounded within the pavilion.

The young man started, and looked at his cousin. Even in the dusk he could see that her face had suddenly grown livid.

“There is a child in that place,” he said pointing to the door at the top of the steps.

The cry was repeated as he spoke — the low, complaining wail of a child. There was no other voice to be heard — no mother’s voice soothing a helpless little one. The cry of the child was followed by a dead silence.

“There is a child in that pavilion,” Edward Arundel repeated.

“There is,” Olivia answered.

“Whose child?”

“What does it matter to you?”

“Whose child?”

“I cannot tell you, Edward Arundel.”

The soldier strode towards the steps, but before he could reach them, Olivia flung herself across his pathway.

“I will see whose child is hidden in that place,” he said. “Scandalous things have been said of you, Olivia. I will know the reason of your visits to this place.”

She clung about his knees, and hindered him from moving; half kneeling, half crouching on the lowest of the stone steps, she blocked his pathway, and prevented him from reaching the door of the pavilion. It had been ajar a few minutes ago; it was shut now. But Edward had not noticed this.

“No, no, no!” shrieked Olivia; “you shall trample me to death before you enter that place. You shall walk over my corpse before you cross that threshold.”

The young man struggled with her for a few moments; then he suddenly flung her from him; not violently, but with a contemptuous gesture.

“You are a wicked woman, Olivia Marchmont,” he said; “and it matters very little to me what you do, or what becomes of you. I know now the secret of the mystery between you and Paul Marchmont. I can guess your motive for perpetually haunting this place.”

He left the solitary building by the river, and walked slowly back through the wood.

His mind — predisposed to think ill of Olivia by the dark rumours he had heard through his servant, and which had had a certain amount of influence upon him, as all scandals have, however baseless — could imagine only one solution to the mystery of a child’s presence in the lonely building by the river. Outraged and indignant at the discovery he had made, he turned his back upon Marchmont Towers.

“I will stay in this hateful place no longer,” he thought, as he went back to his solitary home; “but before I leave Lincolnshire the whole county shall know what I think of Paul Marchmont.”

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