John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Sounding the Depths.

Lavinia Weston spent the evening after her visit to Marchmont Towers at her writing-desk, which, like everything else appertaining to her, was a model of neatness and propriety; perfect in its way, although it was no marvellous specimen of walnut-wood and burnished gold, no elegant structure of papier-mâché and mother-of-pearl, but simply a schoolgirl’s homely rosewood desk, bought for fifteen shillings or a guinea.

Mrs. Weston had administered the evening refreshment of weak tea, stale bread, and strong butter to her meek husband, and had dismissed him to the surgery, a sunken and rather cellar-like apartment opening out of the prim second-best parlour, and approached from the village street by a side-door. The surgeon was very well content to employ himself with the preparation of such draughts and boluses as were required by the ailing inhabitants of Kemberling, while his wife sat at her desk in the room above him. He left his gallipots and pestle and mortar once or twice in the course of the evening, to clamber ponderously up the three or four stairs leading to the sitting-room, and stare through the keyhole of the door at Mrs. Weston’s thoughtful face, and busy hand gliding softly over the smooth note-paper. He did this in no prying or suspicious spirit, but out of sheer admiration for his wife.

“What a mind she has!” he murmured rapturously, as he went back to his work; “what a mind!”

The letter which Lavinia Weston wrote that evening was a very long one. She was one of those women who write long letters upon every convenient occasion. To-night she covered two sheets of note-paper with her small neat handwriting. Those two sheets contained a detailed account of the interview that had taken place that day between the surgeon’s wife and Olivia; and the letter was addressed to the artist, Paul Marchmont.

Perhaps it was in consequence of the receipt of this letter that Paul Marchmont arrived at his sister’s house at Kemberling two days after Mrs. Weston’s visit to Marchmont Towers. He told the surgeon that he came to Lincolnshire for a few days’ change of air, after a long spell of very hard work; and George Weston, who looked upon his brother-in-law as an intellectual demigod, was very well content to accept any explanation of Mr. Marchmont’s visit.

“Kemberling isn’t a very lively place for you, Mr. Paul,” he said apologetically — he always called his wife’s brother Mr. Paul — “but I dare say Lavinia will contrive to make you comfortable. She persuaded me to come here when old Dawnfield died; but I can’t say she acted with her usual tact, for the business ain’t as good as my Stanfield practice; but I don’t tell Lavinia so.”

Paul Marchmont smiled.

“The business will pick up by-and-by, I daresay,” he said. “You’ll have the Marchmont Towers family to attend to in good time, I suppose.”

“That’s what Lavinia said,” answered the surgeon. “‘Mrs. John Marchmont can’t refuse to employ a relation,’ she says; ‘and, as first-cousin to Mary Marchmont’s father, I ought’— meaning herself, you know —‘to have some influence in that quarter.’ But then, you see, the very week we come here the gal goes and runs away; which rather, as one may say, puts a spoke in our wheel, you know.”

Mr. George Weston rubbed his chin reflectively as he concluded thus. He was a man given to spending his leisure-hours — when he had any leisure, which was not very often — in tavern parlours, where the affairs of the nation were settled and unsettled every evening over sixpenny glasses of hollands and water; and he regretted his removal from Stanfield, which had been as the uprooting of all his dearest associations. He was a solemn man, who never hazarded an opinion lightly — perhaps because he never had an opinion to hazard — and his stolidity won him a good deal of respect from strangers; but in the hands of his wife he was meeker than the doves that cooed in the pigeon-house behind his dwelling, and more plastic than the knob of white wax upon which industrious Mrs. Weston was wont to rub her thread when engaged in the mysteries of that elaborate and terrible science which women paradoxically call plain needlework.

Paul Marchmont presented himself at the Towers upon the day after his arrival at Kemberling. His interview with the widow was a very long one. He had studied every line of his sister’s letter; he had weighed every word that had fallen from Olivia’s lips and had been recorded by Lavinia Weston; and taking the knowledge thus obtained as his starting-point, he took his dissecting-knife and went to work at an intellectual autopsy. He anatomised the wretched woman’s soul. He made her tell her secret, and bare her tortured breast before him; now wringing some hasty word from her impatience, now entrapping her into some admission — if only so much as a defiant look, a sudden lowering of the dark brows, an involuntary compression of the lips. He made her reveal herself to him. Poor Rosencranz and Guildenstern were sorry blunderers in that art which is vulgarly called pumping, and were easily put out by a few quips and quaint retorts from the mad Danish prince; but Paul Marchmont would have played upon Hamlet more deftly than ever mortal musician played upon pipe or recorder, and would have fathomed the remotest depths of that sorrowful and erratic soul. Olivia writhed under the torture of that polite inquisition, for she knew that her secrets were being extorted from her; that her pitiful folly — that folly which she would have denied even to herself, if possible — was being laid bare in all its weak foolishness. She knew this; but she was compelled to smile in the face of her bland inquisitor, to respond to his commonplace expressions of concern about the protracted absence of the missing girl, and meekly to receive his suggestions respecting the course it was her duty to take. He had the air of responding to her suggestions, rather than of himself dictating any particular line of conduct. He affected to believe that he was only agreeing with some understood ideas of hers, while he urged his own views upon her.

“Then we are quite of one mind in this, my dear Mrs. Marchmont,” he said at last; “this unfortunate girl must not be suffered to remain away from her legitimate home any longer than we can help. It is our duty to find and bring her back. I need scarcely say that you, being bound to her by every tie of affection, and having, beyond this, the strongest claim upon her gratitude for your devoted fulfilment of the trust confided in you — one hears of these things, Mrs. Marchmont, in a country village like Kemberling — I need scarcely say that you are the most fitting person to win the poor child back to a sense of her duty — if she can be won to such a sense.” Paul Marchmont added, after a sudden pause and a thoughtful sigh, “I sometimes fear ——”

He stopped abruptly, waiting until Olivia should question him.

“You sometimes fear ——?”

“That — that the error into which Miss Marchmont has fallen is the result of a mental rather than of a moral deficiency.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this, my dear Mrs. Marchmont,” answered the artist, gravely; “one of the most powerful evidences of the soundness of a man’s brain is his capability of assigning a reasonable motive for every action of his life. No matter how unreasonable the action in itself may seem, if the motive for that action can be demonstrated. But the moment a man acts without motive, we begin to take alarm and to watch him. He is eccentric; his conduct is no longer amenable to ordinary rule; and we begin to trace his eccentricities to some weakness or deficiency in his judgment or intellect. Now, I ask you what motive Mary Marchmont can have had for running away from this house?”

Olivia quailed under the piercing scrutiny of the artist’s cold grey eyes, but she did not attempt to reply to his question.

“The answer is very simple,” he continued, after that long scrutiny; “the girl could have had no cause for flight; while, on the other hand, every reasonable motive that can be supposed to actuate a woman’s conduct was arrayed against her. She had a happy home, a kind stepmother. She was within a few years of becoming undisputed mistress of a very large estate. And yet, immediately after having assisted at a festive entertainment, to all appearance as gay and happy as the gayest and happiest there, this girl runs away in the dead of the night, abandoning the mansion which is her own property, and assigning no reason whatever for what she does. Can you wonder, then, if I feel confirmed in an opinion that I formed upon the day on which I heard the reading of my cousin’s will?”

“What opinion?”

“That Mary Marchmont is as feeble in mind as she is fragile in body.”

He launched this sentence boldly, and waited for Olivia’s reply. He had discovered the widow’s secret. He had fathomed the cause of her jealous hatred of Mary Marchmont; but even he did not yet understand the nature of the conflict in the desperate woman’s breast. She could not be wicked all at once. Against every fresh sin she made a fresh struggle, and she would not accept the lie which the artist tried to force upon her.

“I do not think that there is any deficiency in my stepdaughter’s intellect,” she said, resolutely.

She was beginning to understand that Paul Marchmont wanted to ally himself with her against the orphan heiress, but as yet she did not understand why he should do so. She was slow to comprehend feelings that were utterly foreign to her own nature. There was so little of mercenary baseness in this strange woman’s soul, that had the flame of a candle alone stood between her and the possession of Marchmont Towers, I doubt if she would have cared to waste a breath upon its extinction. She had lived away from the world, and out of the world; and it was difficult for her to comprehend the mean and paltry wickedness which arise out of the worship of Baal.

Paul Marchmont recoiled a little before the straight answer which the widow had given him.

“You think Miss Marchmont strong-minded, then, perhaps?” he said.

“No; not strong minded.”

“My dear Mrs. Marchmont, you deal in paradoxes,” exclaimed the artist. “You say that your stepdaughter is neither weak-minded nor strong-minded?”

“Weak enough, perhaps, to be easily influenced by other people; weak enough to believe anything my cousin Edward Arundel might choose to tell her; but not what is generally called deficient in intellect.”

“You think her perfectly able to take care of herself?”

“Yes; I think so.”

“And yet this running away looks almost as if ——. But I have no wish to force any unpleasant belief upon you, my dear madam. I think — as you yourself appear to suggest — that the best thing we can do is to get this poor girl home again as quickly as possible. It will never do for the mistress of Marchmont Towers to be wandering about the world with Mr. Edward Arundel. Pray pardon me, Mrs. Marchmont, if I speak rather disrespectfully of your cousin; but I really cannot think that the gentleman has acted very honourably in this business.”

Olivia was silent. She remembered the passionate indignation of the young soldier, the angry defiance hurled at her, as Edward Arundel galloped away from the gaunt western façade. She remembered these things, and involuntarily contrasted them with the smooth blandness of Paul Marchmont’s talk, and the deadly purpose lurking beneath it — of which deadly purpose some faint suspicion was beginning to dawn upon her.

If she could have thought Mary Marchmont mad — if she could have thought Edward Arundel base, she would have been glad; for then there would have been some excuse for her own wickedness. But she could not think so. She slipped little by little down into the black gulf; now dragged by her own mad passion; now lured yet further downward by Paul Marchmont.

Between this man and eleven thousand a year the life of a fragile girl was the solitary obstacle. For three years it had been so, and for three years Paul Marchmont had waited — patiently, as it was his habit to wait — the hour and the opportunity for action. The hour and opportunity had come, and this woman, Olivia Marchmont, only stood in his way. She must become either his enemy or his tool, to be baffled or to be made useful. He had now sounded the depths of her nature, and he determined to make her his tool.

“It shall be my business to discover this poor child’s hiding-place,” he said; “when that is found I will communicate with you, and I know you will not refuse to fulfil the trust confided to you by your late husband. You will bring your stepdaughter back to this house, and henceforward protect her from the dangerous influence of Edward Arundel.”

Olivia looked at the speaker with an expression which seemed like terror. It was as if she said —

“Are you the devil, that you hold out this temptation to me, and twist my own passions to serve your purpose?”

And then she paltered with her conscience.

“Do you consider that it is my duty to do this?” she asked.

“My dear Mrs. Marchmont, most decidedly.”

“I will do it, then. I— I— wish to do my duty.”

“And you can perform no greater act of charity than by bringing this unhappy girl back to a sense of her duty. Remember, that her reputation, her future happiness, may fall a sacrifice to this foolish conduct, which, I regret to say, is very generally known in the neighbourhood. Forgive me if I express my opinion too freely; but I cannot help thinking, that if Mr. Arundel’s intentions had been strictly honourable, he would have written to you before this, to tell you that his search for the missing girl had failed; or, in the event of his finding her, he would have taken the earliest opportunity of bringing her back to her own home. My poor cousin’s somewhat unprotected position, her wealth, and her inexperience of the world, place her at the mercy of a fortune-hunter; and Mr. Arundel has himself to thank if his conduct gives rise to the belief that he wishes to compromise this girl in the eyes of the scandalous, and thus make sure of your consent to a marriage which would give him command of my cousin’s fortune.”

Olivia Marchmont’s bosom heaved with the stormy beating of her heart. Was she to sit calmly by and hold her peace while this man slandered the brave young soldier, the bold, reckless, generous-hearted lad, who had shone upon her out of the darkness of her life, as the very incarnation of all that is noble and admirable in mankind? Was she to sit quietly by and hear a stranger lie away her kinsman’s honour, truth, and manhood?

Yes, she must do so. This man had offered her a price for her truth and her soul. He was ready to help her to the revenge she longed for. He was ready to give her his aid in separating the innocent young lovers, whose pure affection had poisoned her life, whose happiness was worse than the worst death to her. She kept silent, therefore, and waited for Paul to speak again.

“I will go up to Town to-morrow, and set to work about this business,” the artist said, as he rose to take leave of Mrs. Marchmont. “I do not believe that I shall have much difficulty in finding the young lady’s hiding-place. My first task shall be to look for Mr. Arundel. You can perhaps give me the address of some place in London where your cousin is in the habit of staying?”

“I can.”

“Thank you; that will very much simplify matters. I shall write you immediate word of any discovery I make, and will then leave all the rest to you. My influence over Mary Marchmont as an entire stranger could be nothing. Yours, on the contrary, must be unbounded. It will be for you to act upon my letter.”

Olivia Marchmont waited for two days and nights for the promised letter. Upon the third morning it came. The artist’s epistle was very brief:

“MY DEAR MRS. MARCHMONT— I have made the necessary discovery. Miss Marchmont is to be found at the White Hart Inn, Milldale, near Winchester. May I venture to urge your proceeding there in search of her without delay?

“Yours very faithfully,

“PAUL MARCHMONT.

Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square,Aug. 15th.”

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