John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

Face to Face.

It is not easy to imagine a lion-hearted young cavalry officer, whose soldiership in the Punjaub had won the praises of a Napier and an Outram, fainting away like a heroine of romance at the coming of evil tidings; but Edward Arundel, who had risen from a sick-bed to take a long and fatiguing journey in utter defiance of the doctors, was not strong enough to bear the dreadful welcome that greeted him upon the gate-post at Marchmont Towers.

He staggered, and would have fallen, had not the extended arms of his father’s confidential servant been luckily opened to receive and support him. But he did not lose his senses.

“Get me into the carriage, Morrison,” he cried. “Get me up to that house. They’ve tortured and tormented my wife while I’ve been lying like a log on my bed at Dangerfield. For God’s sake, get me up there as quick as you can!”

Mr. Morrison had read the placard on the gate across his young master’s shoulder. He lifted the Captain into the carriage, shouted to the postillion to drive on, and took his seat by the young man’s side.

“Begging you pardon, Mr. Edward,” he said, gently; “but the young lady may be found by this time. That bill’s been sticking there for upwards of a month, you see, sir, and it isn’t likely but what Miss Marchmont has been found between that time and this.”

The invalid passed his hand across his forehead, down which the cold sweat rolled in great beads.

“Give me some brandy,” he whispered; “pour some brandy down my throat, Morrison, if you’ve any compassion upon me; I must get strength somehow for the struggle that lies before me.”

The valet took a wicker-covered flask from his pocket, and put the neck of it to Edward Arundel’s lips.

“She may be found, Morrison,” muttered the young man, after drinking a long draught of the fiery spirit; he would willingly have drunk living fire itself, in his desire to obtain unnatural strength in this crisis. “Yes; you’re right there. She may be found. But to think that she should have been driven away! To think that my poor, helpless, tender girl should have been driven a second time from the home that is her own! Yes; her own by every law and every right. Oh, the relentless devil, the pitiless devil! — what can be the motive of her conduct? Is it madness, or the infernal cruelty of a fiend incarnate?”

Mr. Morrison thought that his young master’s brain had been disordered by the shock he had just undergone, and that this wild talk was mere delirium.

“Keep your heart up, Mr. Edward,” he murmured, soothingly; “you may rely upon it, the young lady has been found.”

But Edward was in no mind to listen to any mild consolatory remarks from his valet. He had thrust his head out of the carriage-window, and his eyes were fixed upon the dimly-lighted casements of the western drawing-room.

“The room in which John and Polly and I used to sit together when first I came from India,” he murmured. “How happy we were! — how happy we were!”

The carriage stopped before the stone portico, and the young man got out once more, assisted by his servant. His breath came short and quick now that he stood upon the threshold. He pushed aside the servant who opened the familiar door at the summons of the clanging bell, and strode into the hall. A fire burned on the wide hearth; but the atmosphere of the great stone-paved chamber was damp and chilly.

Captain Arundel walked straight to the door of the western drawing-room. It was there that he had seen lights in the windows; it was there that he expected to find Olivia Marchmont.

He was not mistaken. A shaded lamp burnt dimly on a table near the fire. There was a low invalid-chair beside this table, an open book upon the floor, and an Indian shawl, one he had sent to his cousin, flung carelessly upon the pillows. The neglected fire burned low in the old-fashioned grate, and above the dull-red blaze stood the figure of a woman, tall, dark, and gloomy of aspect.

It was Olivia Marchmont, in the mourning-robes that she had worn, with but one brief intermission, ever since her husband’s death. Her profile was turned towards the door by which Edward Arundel entered the room; her eyes were bent steadily upon the low heap of burning ashes in the grate. Even in that doubtful light the young man could see that her features were sharpened, and that a settled frown had contracted her straight black brows.

In her fixed attitude, in her air of deathlike tranquillity, this woman resembled some sinful vestal sister, set, against her will, to watch a sacred fire, and brooding moodily over her crimes.

She did not hear the opening of the door; she had not even heard the trampling of the horses’ hoofs, or the crashing of the wheels upon the gravel before the house. There were times when her sense of external things was, as it were, suspended and absorbed in the intensity of her obstinate despair.

“Olivia!” said the soldier.

Mrs. Marchmont looked up at the sound of that accusing voice, for there was something in Edward Arundel’s simple enunciation of her name which seemed like an accusation or a menace. She looked up, with a great terror in her face, and stared aghast at her unexpected visitor. Her white cheeks, her trembling lips, and dilated eyes could not have more palpably expressed a great and absorbing horror, had the young man standing quietly before her been a corpse newly risen from its grave.

“Olivia Marchmont,” said Captain Arundel, after a brief pause, “I have come here to look for my wife.”

The woman pushed her trembling hands across her forehead, brushing the dead black hair from her temples, and still staring with the same unutterable horror at the face of her cousin. Several times she tried to speak; but the broken syllables died away in her throat in hoarse, inarticulate mutterings. At last, with a great effort, the words came.

“I— I— never expected to see you,” she said; “I heard that you were very ill; I heard that you ——”

“You heard that I was dying,” interrupted Edward Arundel; “or that, if I lived, I should drag out the rest of my existence in hopeless idiocy. The doctors thought as much a week ago, when one of them, cleverer than the rest I suppose, had the courage to perform an operation that restored me to consciousness. Sense and memory came back to me by degrees. The thick veil that had shrouded the past was rent asunder; and the first image that came to me was the image of my young wife, as I had seen her upon the night of our parting. For more than three months I had been dead. I was suddenly restored to life. I asked those about me to give me tidings of my wife. Had she sought me out? — had she followed me to Dangerfield? No! They could tell me nothing. They thought that I was delirious, and tried to soothe me with compassionate speeches, merciful falsehoods, promising me that I should see my darling. But I soon read the secret of their scared looks. I saw pity and wonder mingled in my mother’s face, and I entreated her to be merciful to me, and to tell me the truth. She had compassion upon me, and told me all she knew, which was very little. She had never heard from my wife. She had never heard of any marriage between Mary Marchmont and me. The only communication which she had received from any of her Lincolnshire relations had been a letter from my uncle Hubert, in reply to one of hers telling him of my hopeless state.

“This was the shock that fell upon me when life and memory came back. I could not bear the imprisonment of a sick-bed. I felt that for the second time I must go out into the world to look for my darling; and in defiance of the doctors, in defiance of my poor mother, who thought that my departure from Dangerfield was a suicide, I am here. It is here that I come first to seek for my wife. I might have stopped in London to see Richard Paulette; I might sooner have gained tidings of my darling. But I came here; I came here without stopping by the way, because an uncontrollable instinct and an unreasoning impulse tells me that it is here I ought to seek her. I am here, her husband, her only true and legitimate defender; and woe be to those who stand between me and my wife!”

He had spoken rapidly in his passion; and he stopped, exhausted by his own vehemence, and sank heavily into a chair near the lamplit table.

Then for the first time that night Olivia Marchmont plainly saw her cousin’s face, and saw the terrible change that had transformed the handsome young soldier, since the bright August morning on which he had gone forth from Marchmont Towers. She saw the traces of a long and wearisome illness sadly visible in his waxen-hued complexion, his hollow cheeks, the faded lustre of his eyes, his dry and pallid lips. She saw all this, the woman whose one great sin had been to love this man wickedly and madly, in spite of her better self, in spite of her womanly pride; she saw the change in him that had altered him from a young Apollo to a shattered and broken invalid. And did any revulsion of feeling arise in her breast? Did any corresponding transformation in her own heart bear witness to the baseness of her love?

No; a thousand times, no! There was no thrill of disgust, how transient soever; not so much as one passing shudder of painful surprise, one pang of womanly regret. No! In place of these, a passionate yearning arose in this woman’s haughty soul; a flood of sudden tenderness rushed across the black darkness of her mind. She fain would have flung herself upon her knees, in loving self-abasement, at the sick man’s feet. She fain would have cried aloud, amid a tempest of passionate sobs —

“O my love, my love! you are dearer to me a hundred times by this cruel change. It was not your bright-blue eyes and waving chestnut hair — it was not your handsome face, your brave, soldier-like bearing that I loved. My love was not so base as that. I inflicted a cruel outrage upon myself when I thought that I was the weak fool of a handsome face. Whatever I have been, my love, at least, has been pure. My love is pure, though I am base. I will never slander that again, for I know now that it is immortal.”

In the sudden rush of that flood-tide of love and tenderness, all these thoughts welled into Olivia Marchmont’s mind. In all her sin and desperation she had never been so true a woman as now; she had never, perhaps, been so near being a good woman. But the tender emotion was swept out of her breast the next moment by the first words of Edward Arundel.

“Why do you not answer my question?” he said.

She drew herself up in the erect and rigid attitude that had become almost habitual to her. Every trace of womanly feeling faded out of her face, as the sunlight disappears behind the sudden darkness of a thundercloud.

“What question?” she asked, with icy indifference.

“The question I have come to Lincolnshire to ask — the question I have perilled my life, perhaps, to ask,” cried the young man. “Where is my wife?”

The widow turned upon him with a horrible smile.

“I never heard that you were married,” she said. “Who is your wife?”

“Mary Marchmont, the mistress of this house.”

Olivia opened her eyes, and looked at him in half-sardonic surprise.

“Then it was not a fable?” she said.

“What was not a fable?”

“The unhappy girl spoke the truth when she said that you had married her at some out-of-the-way church in Lambeth.”

“The truth! Yes!” cried Edward Arundel. “Who should dare to say that she spoke other than the truth? Who should dare to disbelieve her?”

Olivia Marchmont smiled again — that same strange smile which was almost too horrible for humanity, and yet had a certain dark and gloomy grandeur of its own. Satan, the star of the morning, may have so smiled despairing defiance upon the Archangel Michael.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “no one believed the poor child. Her story was such a very absurd one, and she could bring forward no shred of evidence in support of it.”

“O my God!” ejaculated Edward Arundel, clasping his hands above his head in a paroxysm of rage and despair. “I see it all — I see it all! My darling has been tortured to death. Woman!” he cried, “are you possessed by a thousand fiends? Is there no one sentiment of womanly compassion left in your breast? If there is one spark of womanhood in your nature, I appeal to that; I ask you what has happened to my wife?”

“My wife! my wife!” The reiteration of that familiar phrase was to Olivia Marchmont like the perpetual thrust of a dagger aimed at an open wound. It struck every time upon the same tortured spot, and inflicted the same agony.

“The placard upon the gates of this place can tell you as much as I can,” she said.

The ghastly whiteness of the soldier’s face told her that he had seen the placard of which she spoke.

“She has not been found, then?” he said, hoarsely.

“No.”

“How did she disappear?”

“As she disappeared upon the morning on which you followed her. She wandered out of the house, this time leaving no letter, nor message, nor explanation of any kind whatever. It was in the middle of the day that she went out; and for some time her absence caused no alarm. But, after some hours, she was waited for and watched for very anxiously. Then a search was made.”

“Where?”

“Wherever she had at any time been in the habit of walking — in the park; in the wood; along the narrow path by the water; at Pollard’s farm; at Hester’s house at Kemberling — in every place where it might be reasonably imagined there was the slightest chance of finding her.”

“And all this was without result?”

“It was.”

Why did she leave this place? God help you, Olivia Marchmont, if it was your cruelty that drove her away!”

The widow took no notice of the threat implied in these words. Was there anything upon earth that she feared now? No — nothing. Had she not endured the worst long ago, in Edward Arundel’s contempt? She had no fear of a battle with this man; or with any other creature in the world; or with the whole world arrayed and banded together against her, if need were. Amongst all the torments of those black depths to which her soul had gone down, there was no such thing as fear. That cowardly baseness is for the happy and prosperous, who have something to lose. This woman was by nature dauntless and resolute as the hero of some classic story; but in her despair she had the desperate and reckless courage of a starving wolf. The hand of death was upon her; what could it matter how she died?

“I am very grateful to you, Edward Arundel,” she said, bitterly, “for the good opinion you have always had of me. The blood of the Dangerfield Arundels must have had some drop of poison intermingled with it, I should think, before it could produce so vile a creature as myself; and yet I have heard people say that my mother was a good woman.”

The young man writhed impatiently beneath the torture of his cousin’s deliberate speech. Was there to be no end to this unendurable delay? Even now — now that he was in this house, face to face with the woman he had come to question — it seemed as if he could not get tidings of his wife.

So, often in his dreams, he had headed a besieging-party against the Affghans, with the scaling-ladders reared against the wall; he had seen the dark faces grinning down upon him — all savage glaring eyes and fierce glistening teeth — and had heard the voices of his men urging him on to the encounter, but had felt himself paralysed and helpless, with his sabre weak as a withered reed in his nerveless hand.

“For God’s sake, let there be no quarrelling with phrases between you and me, Olivia!” he cried. “If you or any other living being have injured my wife, the reckoning between us shall be no light one. But there will be time enough to talk of that by-and-by. I stand before you, newly risen from a grave in which I have lain for more than three months, as dead to the world, and to every creature I have ever loved or hated, as if the Funeral Service had been read over my coffin. I come to demand from you an account of what has happened during that interval. If you palter or prevaricate with me, I shall know that it is because you fear to tell me the truth.”

“Fear!”

“Yes; you have good reason to fear, if you have wronged Mary Arundel. Why did she leave this house?”

“Because she was not happy in it, I suppose. She chose to shut herself up in her own room, and to refuse to be governed, or advised, or consoled. I tried to do my duty to her; yes,” cried Olivia Marchmont, suddenly raising her voice, as if she had been vehemently contradicted; —“yes, I did try to do my duty to her. I urged her to listen to reason; I begged her to abandon her foolish falsehood about a marriage with you in London.”

“You disbelieved in that marriage?”

“I did,” answered Olivia.

“You lie!” cried Edward Arundel. “You knew the poor child had spoken the truth. You knew her — you knew me — well enough to know that I should not have detained her away from her home an hour, except to make her my wife — except to give myself the strongest right to love and defend her.”

“I knew nothing of the kind, Captain Arundel; you and Mary Marchmont had taken good care to keep your secrets from me. I knew nothing of your plots, your intentions. I should have considered that one of the Dangerfield Arundels would have thought his honour sullied by such an act as a stolen marriage with an heiress, considerably under age, and nominally in the guardianship of her stepmother. I did, therefore, disbelieve the story Mary Marchmont told me. Another person, much more experienced than I, also disbelieved the unhappy girl’s account of her absence.”

“Another person! What other person?”

“Mr. Marchmont.”

“Mr. Marchmont!”

“Yes; Paul Marchmont — my husband’s first-cousin.”

A sudden cry of rage and grief broke from Edward Arundel’s lips.

“O my God!” he exclaimed, “there was some foundation for the warning in John Marchmont’s letter, after all. And I laughed at him; I laughed at my poor friend’s fears.”

The widow looked at her kinsman in mute wonder.

“Has Paul Marchmont been in this house?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“When was he here?”

“He has been here often; he comes here constantly. He has been living at Kemberling for the last three months.”

“Why?”

“For his own pleasure, I suppose,” Olivia answered haughtily. “It is no business of mine to pry into Mr. Marchmont’s motives.”

Edward Arundel ground his teeth in an access of ungovernable passion. It was not against Olivia, but against himself this time that he was enraged. He hated himself for the arrogant folly, the obstinate presumption, with which he had ridiculed and slighted John Marchmont’s vague fears of his kinsman Paul.

“So this man has been here — is here constantly,” he muttered. “Of course, it is only natural that he should hang about the place. And you and he are stanch allies, I suppose?” he added, turning upon Olivia.

“Stanch allies! Why?”

“Because you both hate my wife.”

“What do you mean?”

“You both hate her. You, out of a base envy of her wealth; because of her superior rights, which made you a secondary person in this house, perhaps — there is nothing else for which you could hate her. Paul Marchmont, because she stands between him and a fortune. Heaven help her! Heaven help my poor, gentle, guileless darling! Surely Heaven must have had some pity upon her when her husband was not by!”

The young man dashed the blinding tears from his eyes. They were the first that he had shed since he had risen from that which many people had thought his dying-bed, to search for his wife.

But this was no time for tears or lamentations. Stern determination took the place of tender pity and sorrowful love. It was a time for resolution and promptitude.

“Olivia Marchmont,” he said, “there has been some foul play in this business. My wife has been missing a month; yet when I asked my mother what had happened at this house during my illness, she could tell me nothing. Why did you not write to tell her of Mary’s flight?”

“Because Mrs. Arundel has never done me the honour to cultivate any intimacy between us. My father writes to his sister-in-law sometimes; I scarcely ever write to my aunt. On the other hand, your mother had never seen Mary Marchmont, and could not be expected to take any great interest in her proceedings. There was, therefore, no reason for my writing a special letter to announce the trouble that had befallen me.”

“You might have written to my mother about my marriage. You might have applied to her for confirmation of the story which you disbelieved.”

Olivia Marchmont smiled.

“Should I have received that confirmation?” she said. “No. I saw your mother’s letters to my father. There was no mention in those letters of any marriage; no mention whatever of Mary Marchmont. This in itself was enough to confirm my disbelief. Was it reasonable to imagine that you would have married, and yet have left your mother in total ignorance of the fact?”

“O God, help me!” cried Edward Arundel, wringing his hands. “It seems as if my own folly, my own vile procrastination, have brought this trouble upon my wife. Olivia Marchmont, have pity upon me. If you hate this girl, your malice must surely have been satisfied by this time. She has suffered enough. Pity me, and help me; if you have any human feeling in your breast. She left this house because her life here had grown unendurable; because she saw herself doubted, disbelieved, widowed in the first month of her marriage, utterly desolate and friendless. Another woman might have borne up against all this misery. Another woman would have known how to assert herself, and to defend herself, even in the midst of her sorrow and desolation. But my poor darling is a child; a baby in ignorance of the world. How should she protect herself against her enemies? Her only instinct was to run away from her persecutors — to hide herself from those whose pretended doubts flung the horror of dishonour upon her. I can understand all now; I can understand. Olivia Marchmont, this man Paul has a strong reason for being a villain. The motives that have induced you to do wrong must be very small in comparison to his. He plays an infamous game, I believe; but he plays for a high stake.”

A high stake! Had not she perilled her soul upon the casting of this die? Had she not flung down her eternal happiness in that fatal game of hazard?

“Help me, then, Olivia,” said Edward, imploringly; “help me to find my wife; and atone for all that you have ever done amiss in the past. It is not too late.”

His voice softened as he spoke. He turned to her, with his hands clasped, waiting anxiously for her answer. Perhaps this appeal was the last cry of her good angel, pleading against the devils for her redemption. But the devils had too long held possession of this woman’s breast. They arose, arrogant and unpitying, and hardened her heart against that pleading voice.

“How much he loves her!” thought Olivia Marchmont; “how dearly he loves her! For her sake he humiliates himself to me.”

Then, with no show of relenting in her voice or manner, she said deliberately:

“I can only tell you again what I told you before. The placard you saw at the park-gates can tell you as much as I can. Mary Marchmont ran away. She was sought for in every direction, but without success. Mr. Marchmont, who is a man of the world, and better able to suggest what is right in such a case as this, advised that Mr. Paulette should be sent for. He was accordingly communicated with. He came, and instituted a fresh search. He also caused a bill to be printed and distributed through the country. Advertisements were inserted in the ‘Times’ and other papers. For some reason — I forget what reason — Mary Marchmont’s name did not appear in these advertisements. They were so worded as to render the publication of the name unnecessary.”

Edward Arundel pushed his hand across his forehead.

“Richard Paulette has been here?” he murmured, in a low voice.

He had every confidence in the lawyer; and a deadly chill came over him at the thought that the cool, hard-headed solicitor had failed to find the missing girl.

“Yes; he was here two or three days.”

“And he could do nothing?”

“Nothing, except what I have told you.”

The young man thrust his hand into his breast to still the cruel beating of his heart. A sudden terror had taken possession of him — a horrible dread that he should never look upon his young wife’s face again. For some minutes there was a dead silence in the room, only broken once or twice by the falling of some ashes on the hearth. Captain Arundel sat with his face hidden behind his hand. Olivia still stood as she had stood when her cousin entered the room, erect and gloomy, by the old-fashioned chimney-piece.

“There was something in that placard,” the soldier said at last, in a hoarse, altered voice — “there was something about my wife having been seen last by the water-side. Who saw her there?”

“Mr. Weston, a surgeon of Kemberling — Paul Marchmont’s brother-in-law.”

“Was she seen by no one else?”

“Yes; she was seen at about the same time — a little sooner or later, we don’t know which — by one of Farmer Pollard’s men.”

“And she has never been seen since?”

“Never; that is to say, we can hear of no one who has seen her.”

“At what time in the day was she seen by this Mr. Weston?”

“At dusk; between five and six o’clock.”

Edward Arundel put his hand suddenly to his throat, as if to check some choking sensation that prevented his speaking.

“Olivia,” he said, “my wife was last seen by the river-side. Does any one think that, by any unhappy accident, by any terrible fatality, she lost her way after dark, and fell into the water? or that — O God, that would be too horrible! — does any one suspect that she drowned herself?”

“Many things have been said since her disappearance,” Olivia Marchmont answered. “Some people say one thing, some another.”

“And it has been said that she — that she was drowned?”

“Yes; many people have said so. The river was dragged while Mr. Paulette was here, and after he went away. The men were at work with the drags for more than a week.”

“And they found nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Was there any other reason for supposing that — that my wife fell into the river?”

“Only one reason.”

“What was that?”

“I will show you,” Olivia Marchmont answered.

She took a bunch of keys from her pocket, and went to an old-fashioned bureau or cabinet upon the other side of the room. She unlocked the upper part of this bureau, opened one of the drawers, and took from it something which she brought to Edward Arundel.

This something was a little shoe; a little shoe of soft bronzed leather, stained and discoloured with damp and moss, and trodden down upon one side, as if the wearer had walked a weary way in it, and had been unaccustomed to so much walking.

Edward Arundel remembered, in that brief, childishly-happy honeymoon at the little village near Winchester, how often he had laughed at his young wife’s propensity for walking about damp meadows in such delicate little slippers as were better adapted to the requirements of a ballroom. He remembered the slender foot, so small that he could take it in his hand; the feeble little foot that had grown tired in long wanderings by the Hampshire trout-streams, but which had toiled on in heroic self-abnegation so long as it was the will of the sultan to pedestrianise.

“Was this found by the river-side?” he asked, looking piteously at the slipper which Mrs. Marchmont had put into his hand.

“Yes; it was found amongst the rushes on the shore, a mile below the spot at which Mr. Weston saw my step-daughter.”

Edward Arundel put the little shoe into his bosom.

“I’ll not believe it,” he cried suddenly; “I’ll not believe that my darling is lost to me. She was too good, far too good, to think of suicide; and Providence would never suffer my poor lonely child to be led away to a dreary death upon that dismal river-shore. No, no; she fled away from this place because she was too wretched here. She went away to hide herself amongst those whom she could trust, until her husband came to claim her. I will believe anything in the world except that she is lost to me. And I will not believe that, I will never believe that, until I look down at her corpse; until I lay my hand on her cold breast, and feel that her true heart has ceased beating. As I went out of this place four months ago to look for her, I will go again now. My darling, my darling, my innocent pet, my childish bride; I will go to the very end of the world in search of you.”

The widow ground her teeth as she listened to her kinsman’s passionate words. Why did he for ever goad her to blacker wickedness by this parade of his love for Mary? Why did he force her to remember every moment how much cause she had to hate this pale-faced girl?

Captain Arundel rose, and walked a few paces, leaning on his stick as he went.

“You will sleep here to-night, of course?” Olivia Marchmont said.

“Sleep here!”

His tone expressed plainly enough that the place was abhorrent to him.

“Yes; where else should you stay?”

“I meant to have stopped at the nearest inn.”

“The nearest inn is at Kemberling.”

“That would suit me well enough,” the young man answered indifferently; “I must be in Kemberling early to-morrow, for I must see Paul Marchmont. I am no nearer the comprehension of my wife’s flight by anything that you have told me. It is to Paul Marchmont that I must look next. Heaven help him if he tries to keep the truth from me.”

“You will see Mr. Marchmont here as easily as at Kemberling,” Olivia answered; “he comes here every day.”

“What for?”

“He has built a sort of painting-room down by the river-side, and he paints there whenever there is light.”

“Indeed!” cried Edward Arundel; “he makes himself at home at Marchmont Towers, then?”

“He has a right to do so, I suppose,” answered the widow indifferently. “If Mary Marchmont is dead, this place and all belonging to it is his. As it is, I am only here on sufferance.”

“He has taken possession, then?”

“On the contrary, he shrinks from doing so.”

“And, by the Heaven above us, he does wisely,” cried Edward Arundel. “No man shall seize upon that which belongs to my darling. No foul plot of this artist-traitor shall rob her of her own. God knows how little value I set upon her wealth; but I will stand between her and those who try to rob her, until my last gasp. No, Olivia; I’ll not stay here; I’ll accept no hospitality from Mr. Marchmont. I suspect him too much.”

He walked to the door; but before he reached it the widow went to one of the windows, and pushed aside the blind.

“Look at the rain,” she said; “hark at it; don’t you hear it, drip, drip, drip upon the stone? I wouldn’t turn a dog out of doors upon such a night as this; and you — you are so ill — so weak. Edward Arundel, do you hate me so much that you refuse to share the same shelter with me, even for a night?”

There is nothing so difficult of belief to a man, who is not a coxcomb, as the simple fact that he is beloved by a woman whom he does not love, and has never wooed by word or deed. But for this, surely Edward Arundel must, in that sudden burst of tenderness, that one piteous appeal, have discovered a clue to his cousin’s secret.

He discovered nothing; he guessed nothing. But he was touched by her tone, even in spite of his utter ignorance of its meaning, and he replied, in an altered manner,

“Certainly, Olivia, if you really wish it, I will stay. Heaven knows I have no desire that you and I should be ill friends. I want your help; your pity, perhaps. I am quite willing to believe that any cruel things you said to Mary arose from an outbreak of temper. I cannot think that you could be base at heart. I will even attribute your disbelief of the statement made by my poor girl as to our marriage to the narrow prejudices learnt in a small country town. Let us be friends, Olivia.”

He held out his hand. His cousin laid her cold fingers in his open palm, and he shuddered as if he had come in contact with a corpse. There was nothing very cordial in the salutation. The two hands seemed to drop asunder, lifeless and inert; as if to bear mute witness that between these two people there was no possibility of sympathy or union.

But Captain Arundel accepted his cousin’s hospitality. Indeed he had need to do so; for he found that his valet had relied upon his master’s stopping at the Towers, and had sent the carriage back to Swampington. A tray with cold meat and wine was brought into the drawing-room for the young soldier’s refreshment. He drank a glass of Madeira, and made some pretence of eating a few mouthfuls, out of courtesy to Olivia; but he did this almost mechanically. He sat silent and gloomy, brooding over the terrible shock that he had so newly received; brooding over the hidden things that had happened in that dreary interval, during which he had been as powerless to defend his wife from trouble as a dead man.

Again and again the cruel thought returned to him, each time with a fresh agony — that if he had written to his mother, if he had told her the story of his marriage, the things which had happened could never have come to pass. Mary would have been sheltered and protected by a good and loving woman. This thought, this horrible self-reproach, was the bitterest thing the young man had to bear.

“It is too great a punishment,” he thought; “I am too cruelly punished for having forgotten everything in my happiness with my darling.”

The widow sat in her low easy-chair near the fire, with her eyes fixed upon the burning coals; the grate had been replenished, and the light of the red blaze shone full upon Olivia Marchmont’s haggard face. Edward Arundel, aroused for a few moments out of his gloomy abstraction, was surprised at the change which an interval of a few months had made in his cousin. The gloomy shadow which he had often seen on her face had become a fixed expression; every line had deepened, as if by the wear and tear of ten years, rather than by the progress of a few months. Olivia Marchmont had grown old before her time. Nor was this the only change. There was a look, undefined and undefinable, in the large luminous grey eyes, unnaturally luminous now, which filled Edward Arundel with a vague sense of terror; a terror which he would not — which he dared not — attempt to analyse. He remembered Mary’s unreasoning fear of her stepmother, and he now scarcely wondered at that fear. There was something almost weird and unearthly in the aspect of the woman sitting opposite to him by the broad hearth: no vestige of colour in her gloomy face, a strange light burning in her eyes, and her black draperies falling round her in straight, lustreless folds.

“I fear you have been ill, Olivia,” the young man said, presently.

Another sentiment had arisen in his breast side by side with that vague terror — a fancy that perhaps there was some reason why his cousin should be pitied.

“Yes,” she answered indifferently; as if no subject of which Captain Arundel could have spoken would have been of less concern to her — “yes, I have been very ill.”

“I am sorry to hear it.”

Olivia looked up at him and smiled. Her smile was the strangest he had ever seen upon a woman’s face.

“I am very sorry to hear it. What has been the matter with you?”

“Slow fever, Mr. Weston said.”

“Mr. Weston?”

“Yes; Mr. Marchmont’s brother-in-law. He has succeeded to Mr. Dawnfield’s practice at Kemberling. He attended me, and he attended my step-daughter.”

“My wife was ill, then?”

“Yes; she had brain-fever: she recovered from that, but she did not recover strength. Her low spirits alarmed me, and I considered it only right — Mr. Marchmont suggested also — that a medical man should be consulted.”

“And what did this man, this Mr. Weston, say?”

“Very little; there was nothing the matter with Mary, he said. He gave her a little medicine, but only in the desire of strengthening her nervous system. He could give her no medicine that would have any very good effect upon her spirits, while she chose to keep herself obstinately apart from every one.”

The young man’s head sank upon his breast. The image of his desolate young wife arose before him; the image of a pale, sorrowful girl, holding herself apart from her persecutors, abandoned, lonely, despairing. Why had she remained at Marchmont Towers? Why had she ever consented to go there, when she had again and again expressed such terror of her stepmother? Why had she not rather followed her husband down to Devonshire, and thrown herself upon his relatives for protection? Was it like this girl to remain quietly here in Lincolnshire, when the man she loved with such innocent devotion was lying between life and death in the west?

“She is such a child,” he thought — “such a child in her ignorance of the world. I must not reason about her as I would about another woman.”

And then a sudden flush of passionate emotion rose to his face, as a new thought flashed into his mind. What if this helpless girl had been detained by force at Marchmont Towers?

“Olivia,” he cried, “whatever baseness this man, Paul Marchmont, may be capable of, you at least must be superior to any deliberate sin. I have all my life believed in you, and respected you, as a good woman. Tell me the truth, then, for pity’s sake. Nothing that you can tell me will fill up the dead blank that the horrible interval since my accident has made in my life. But you can give me some help. A few words from you may clear away much of this darkness. How did you find my wife? How did you induce her to come back to this place? I know that she had an unreasonable dread of returning here.”

“I found her through the agency of Mr. Marchmont,” Olivia answered, quietly. “I had some difficulty in inducing her to return here; but after hearing of your accident —”

“How was the news of that broken to her?”

“Unfortunately she saw a paper that had happened to be left in her way.”

“By whom?”

“By Mr. Marchmont.”

“Where was this?”

“In Hampshire.”

“Indeed! Then Paul Marchmont went with you to Hampshire?”

“He did. He was of great service to me in this crisis. After seeing the paper, my stepdaughter was seized with brain-fever. She was unconscious when we brought her back to the Towers. She was nursed by my old servant Barbara, and had the highest medical care. I do not think that anything more could have been done for her.”

“No,” answered Edward Arundel, bitterly; “unless you could have loved her.”

“We cannot force our affections,” the widow said, in a hard voice.

Another voice in her breast seemed to whisper, “Why do you reproach me for not having loved this girl? If you had loved me, the whole world would have been different.”

“Olivia Marchmont,” said Captain Arundel, “by your own avowal there has never been any affection for this orphan girl in your heart. It is not my business to dwell upon the fact, as something almost unnatural under the peculiar circumstances through which that helpless child was cast upon your protection. It is needless to try to understand why you have hardened your heart against my poor wife. Enough that it is so. But I may still believe that, whatever your feelings may be towards your dead husband’s daughter, you would not be guilty of any deliberate act of treachery against her. I can afford to believe this of you; but I cannot believe it of Paul Marchmont. That man is my wife’s natural enemy. If he has been here during my illness, he has been here to plot against her. When he came here, he came to attempt her destruction. She stands between him and this estate. Long ago, when I was a careless schoolboy, my poor friend, John Marchmont, told me that, if ever the day came upon which Mary’s interests should be opposed to the interests of her cousin, that man would be a dire and bitter enemy; so much the more terrible because in all appearance her friend. The day came; and I, to whom the orphan girl had been left as a sacred legacy, was not by to defend her. But I have risen from a bed that many have thought a bed of death; and I come to this place with one indomitable resolution paramount in my breast — the determination to find my wife, and to bring condign punishment upon the man who has done her wrong.”

Captain Arundel spoke in a low voice; but his passion was all the more terrible because of the suppression of those common outward evidences by which anger ordinarily betrays itself. He relapsed into thoughtful silence.

Olivia made no answer to anything that he had said. She sat looking at him steadily, with an admiring awe in her face. How splendid he was — this young hero — even in his sickness and feebleness! How splendid, by reason of the grand courage, the chivalrous devotion, that shone out of his blue eyes!

The clock struck eleven while the cousins sat opposite to each other — only divided, physically, by the width of the tapestried hearth-rug; but, oh, how many weary miles asunder in spirit! — and Edward Arundel rose, startled from his sorrowful reverie.

“If I were a strong man,” he said, “I would see Paul Marchmont to-night. But I must wait till to-morrow morning. At what time does he come to his painting-room?”’

“At eight o’clock, when the mornings are bright; but later when the weather is dull.”

“At eight o’clock! I pray Heaven the sun may shine early to-morrow! I pray Heaven I may not have to wait long before I find myself face to face with that man! Good-night, Olivia.”

He took a candle from a table near the door, and lit it almost mechanically. He found Mr. Morrison waiting for him, very sleepy and despondent, in a large bedchamber in which Captain Arundel had never slept before — a dreary apartment, decked out with the faded splendours of the past; a chamber in which the restless sleeper might expect to see a phantom lady in a ghostly sacque, cowering over the embers, and spreading her transparent hands above the red light.

“It isn’t particular comfortable, after Dangerfield,” the valet muttered in a melancholy voice; “and all I ‘ope, Mr. Edward, is, that the sheets are not damp. I’ve been a stirrin’ of the fire and puttin’ on fresh coals for the last hour. There’s a bed for me in the dressin’ room, within call.”

Captain Arundel scarcely heard what his servant said to him. He was standing at the door of the spacious chamber, looking out into a long low-roofed corridor, in which he had just encountered Barbara, Mrs. Marchmont’s confidential attendant — the wooden-faced, inscrutable-looking woman, who, according to Olivia, had watched and ministered to his wife.

“Was that the tenderest face that looked down upon my darling as she lay on her sick-bed?” he thought. “I had almost as soon have had a ghoul to watch by my poor dear’s pillow.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/john_marchmont_s_legacy/v2.7.html

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