John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

The Painting-Room by the River.

Edward Arundel lay awake through the best part of that November night, listening to the ceaseless dripping of the rain upon the terrace, and thinking of Paul Marchmont. It was of this man that he must demand an account of his wife. Nothing that Olivia had told him had in any way lessened this determination. The little slipper found by the water’s edge; the placard flapping on the moss-grown pillar at the entrance to the park; the story of a possible suicide, or a more probable accident; — all these things were as nothing beside the young man’s suspicion of Paul Marchmont. He had pooh-poohed John’s dread of his kinsman as weak and unreasonable; and now, with the same unreason, he was ready to condemn this man, whom he had never seen, as a traitor and a plotter against his young wife.

He lay tossing from side to side all that night, weak and feverish, with great drops of cold perspiration rolling down his pale face, sometimes falling into a fitful sleep, in whose distorted dreams Paul Marchmont was for ever present, now one man, now another. There was no sense of fitness in these dreams; for sometimes Edward Arundel and the artist were wrestling together with newly-sharpened daggers in their eager hands, each thirsting for the other’s blood; and in the next moment they were friends, and had been friendly — as it seemed — for years.

The young man woke from one of these last dreams, with words of good-fellowship upon his lips, to find the morning light gleaming through the narrow openings in the damask window-curtains, and Mr. Morrison laying out his master’s dressing apparatus upon the carved oak toilette-table.

Captain Arundel dressed himself as fast as he could, with the assistance of the valet, and then made his way down the broad staircase, with the help of his cane, upon which he had need to lean pretty heavily, for he was as weak as a child.

“You had better give me the brandy-flask, Morrison,” he said. “I am going out before breakfast. You may as well come with me, by-the-by; for I doubt if I could walk as far as I want to go, without the help of your arm.”

In the hall Captain Arundel found one of the servants. The western door was open, and the man was standing on the threshold looking out at the morning. The rain had ceased; but the day did not yet promise to be very bright, for the sun gleamed like a ball of burnished copper through a pale November mist.

“Do you know if Mr. Paul Marchmont has gone down to the boat-house?” Edward asked.

“Yes, sir,” the man answered; “I met him just now in the quadrangle. He’d been having a cup of coffee with my mistress.”

Edward started. They were friends, then, Paul Marchmont and Olivia! — friends, but surely not allies! Whatever villany this man might be capable of committing, Olivia must at least be guiltless of any deliberate treachery?

Captain Arundel took his servant’s arm and walked out into the quadrangle, and from the quadrangle to the low-lying woody swamp, where the stunted trees looked grim and weird-like in their leafless ugliness. Weak as the young man was, he walked rapidly across the sloppy ground, which had been almost flooded by the continual rains. He was borne up by his fierce desire to be face to face with Paul Marchmont. The savage energy of his mind was stronger than any physical debility. He dismissed Mr. Morrison as soon as he was within sight of the boat-house, and went on alone, leaning on his stick, and pausing now and then to draw breath, angry with himself for his weakness.

The boat-house, and the pavilion above it, had been patched up by some country workmen. A handful of plaster here and there, a little new brickwork, and a mended window-frame bore witness of this. The ponderous old-fashioned wooden shutters had been repaired, and a good deal of the work which had been begun in John Marchmont’s lifetime had now, in a certain rough manner, been completed. The place, which had hitherto appeared likely to fall into utter decay, had been rendered weather-tight and habitable; the black smoke creeping slowly upward from the ivy-covered chimney, gave evidence of occupation. Beyond this, a large wooden shed, with a wide window fronting the north, had been erected close against the boat-house. This rough shed Edward Arundel at once understood to be the painting-room which the artist had built for himself.

He paused a moment outside the door of this shed. A man’s voice — a tenor voice, rather thin and metallic in quality — was singing a scrap of Rossini upon the other side of the frail woodwork.

Edward Arundel knocked with the handle of his stick upon the door. The voice left off singing, to say “Come in.”

The soldier opened the door, crossed the threshold, and stood face to face with Paul Marchmont in the bare wooden shed. The painter had dressed himself for his work. His coat and waistcoat lay upon a chair near the door. He had put on a canvas jacket, and had drawn a loose pair of linen trousers over those which belonged to his usual costume. So far as this paint-besmeared coat and trousers went, nothing could have been more slovenly than Paul Marchmont’s appearance; but some tincture of foppery exhibited itself in the black velvet smoking-cap, which contrasted with and set off the silvery whiteness of his hair, as well as in the delicate curve of his amber moustache. A moustache was not a very common adornment in the year 1848. It was rather an eccentricity affected by artists, and permitted as the wild caprice of irresponsible beings, not amenable to the laws that govern rational and respectable people.

Edward Arundel sharply scrutinised the face and figure of the artist. He cast a rapid glance round the bare whitewashed walls of the shed, trying to read even in those bare walls some chance clue to the painter’s character. But there was not much to be gleaned from the details of that almost empty chamber. A dismal, black-looking iron stove, with a crooked chimney, stood in one corner. A great easel occupied the centre of the room. A sheet of tin, nailed upon a wooden shutter, swung backwards and forwards against the northern window, blown to and fro by the damp wind that crept in through the crevices in the framework of the roughly-fashioned casement. A heap of canvases were piled against the walls, and here and there a half-finished picture — a lurid Turneresque landscape; a black stormy sky; or a rocky mountain-pass, dyed blood-red by the setting sun — was propped up against the whitewashed background. Scattered scraps of water-colour, crayon, old engravings, sketches torn and tumbled, bits of rockwork and foliage, lay littered about the floor; and on a paint-stained deal-table of the roughest and plainest fashion were gathered the colour-tubes and palettes, the brushes and sponges and dirty cloths, the greasy and sticky tin-cans, which form the paraphernalia of an artist. Opposite the northern window was the moss-grown stone-staircase leading up to the pavilion over the boat-house. Mr. Marchmont had built his painting-room against the side of the pavilion, in such a manner as to shut in the staircase and doorway which formed the only entrance to it. His excuse for the awkwardness of this piece of architecture was the impossibility of otherwise getting the all-desirable northern light for the illumination of his rough studio.

This was the chamber in which Edward Arundel found the man from whom he came to demand an account of his wife’s disappearance. The artist was evidently quite prepared to receive his visitor. He made no pretence of being taken off his guard, as a meaner pretender might have done. One of Paul Marchmont’s theories was, that as it is only a fool who would use brass where he could as easily employ gold, so it is only a fool who tells a lie when he can conveniently tell the truth.

“Captain Arundel, I believe?” he said, pushing a chair forward for his visitor. “I am sorry to say I recognise you by your appearance of ill health. Mrs. Marchmont told me you wanted to see me. Does my meerschaum annoy you? I’ll put it out if it does. No? Then, if you’ll allow me, I’ll go on smoking. Some people say tobacco-smoke gives a tone to one’s pictures. If so, mine ought to be Rembrandts in depth of colour.”

Edward Arundel dropped into the chair that had been offered to him. If he could by any possibility have rejected even this amount of hospitality from Paul Marchmont, he would have done so; but he was a great deal too weak to stand, and he knew that his interview with the artist must be a long one.

“Mr. Marchmont,” he said, “if my cousin Olivia told you that you might expect to see me here to-day, she most likely told you a great deal more. Did she tell you that I looked to you to account to me for the disappearance of my wife?”

Paul Marchmont shrugged his shoulders, as who should say, “This young man is an invalid. I must not suffer myself to be aggravated by his absurdity.” Then taking his meerschaum from his lips, he set it down, and seated himself at a few paces from Edward Arundel on the lowest of the moss-grown steps leading up to the pavilion.

“My dear Captain Arundel,” he said, very gravely, “your cousin did repeat to me a great deal of last night’s conversation. She told me that you had spoken of me with a degree of violence, natural enough perhaps to a hot-tempered young soldier, but in no manner justified by our relations. When you call upon me to account for the disappearance of Mary Marchmont, you act about as rationally as if you declared me answerable for the pulmonary complaint that carried away her father. If, on the other hand, you call upon me to assist you in the endeavour to fathom the mystery of her disappearance, you will find me ready and willing to aid you to the very uttermost. It is to my interest as much as to yours that this mystery should be cleared up.”

“And in the meantime you take possession of this estate?”

“No, Captain Arundel. The law would allow me to do so; but I decline to touch one farthing of the revenue which this estate yields, or to commit one act of ownership, until the mystery of Mary Marchmont’s disappearance, or of her death, is cleared up.”

“The mystery of her death?” said Edward Arundel; “you believe, then, that she is dead?”

“I anticipate nothing; I think nothing,” answered the artist; “I only wait. The mysteries of life are so many and so incomprehensible — the stories, which are every day to be read by any man who takes the trouble to look through a newspaper, are so strange, and savour so much of the improbabilities of a novel-writer’s first wild fiction — that I am ready to believe everything and anything. Mary Marchmont struck me, from the first moment in which I saw her, as sadly deficient in mental power. Nothing she could do would astonish me. She may be hiding herself away from us, prompted only by some eccentric fancy of her own. She may have fallen into the power of designing people. She may have purposely placed her slipper by the water-side, in order to give the idea of an accident or a suicide; or she may have dropped it there by chance, and walked barefoot to the nearest railway-station. She acted unreasonably before when she ran away from Marchmont Towers; she may have acted unreasonably again.”

“You do not think, then, that she is dead?”

“I hesitate to form any opinion; I positively decline to express one.”

Edward Arundel gnawed savagely at the ends of his moustache. This man’s cool imperturbability, which had none of the studied smoothness of hypocrisy, but which seemed rather the plain candour of a thorough man of the world, who had no wish to pretend to any sentiment he did not feel, baffled and infuriated the passionate young soldier. Was it possible that this man, who met him with such cool self-assertion, who in no manner avoided any discussion of Mary Marchmont’s disappearance — was it possible that he could have had any treacherous and guilty part in that calamity? Olivia’s manner looked like guilt; but Paul Marchmont’s seemed the personification of innocence. Not angry innocence, indignant that its purity should have been suspected; but the matter-of-fact, commonplace innocence of a man of the world, who is a great deal too clever to play any hazardous and villanous game.

“You can perhaps answer me this question, Mr. Marchmont,” said Edward Arundel. “Why was my wife doubted when she told the story of her marriage?”

The artist smiled, and rising from his seat upon the stone step, took a pocket-book from one of the pockets of the coat that he had been wearing.

“I can answer that question,” he said, selecting a paper from amongst others in the pocket-book. “This will answer it.”

He handed Edward Arundel the paper, which was a letter folded lengthways, and indorsed, “From Mrs. Arundel, August 31st.” Within this letter was another paper, indorsed, “Copy of letter to Mrs. Arundel, August 28th.”

“You had better read the copy first,” Mr. Marchmont said, as Edward looked doubtfully at the inner paper.

The copy was very brief, and ran thus:

“Marchmont Towers, August 28, 1848.

“MADAM— I have been given to understand that your son, Captain Arundel, within a fortnight of his sad accident, contracted a secret marriage with a young lady, whose name I, for several reasons, prefer to withhold. If you can oblige me by informing me whether there is any foundation for this statement, you will confer a very great favour upon

“Your obedient servant,

“PAUL MARCHMONT.”

The answer to this letter, in the hand of Edward Arundel’s mother, was equally brief:

“Dangerfield Park, August 31, 1848.

“SIR— In reply to your inquiry, I beg to state that there can be no foundation whatever for the report to which you allude. My son is too honourable to contract a secret marriage; and although his present unhappy state renders it impossible for me to receive the assurance from his own lips, my confidence in his high principles justifies me in contradicting any such report as that which forms the subject of your letter.

“I am, sir,

“Yours obediently,

“LETITIA ARUNDEL.”

The soldier stood, mute and confounded, with his mother’s letter in his hand. It seemed as if every creature had been against the helpless girl whom he had made his wife. Every hand had been lifted to drive her from the house that was her own; to drive her out upon the world, of which she was ignorant, a wanderer and an outcast; perhaps to drive her to a cruel death.

“You can scarcely wonder if the receipt of that letter confirmed me in my previous belief that Mary Marchmont’s story of a marriage arose out of the weakness of a brain, never too strong, and at that time very much enfeebled by the effect of a fever.”

Edward Arundel was silent. He crushed his mother’s letter in his hand. Even his mother — even his mother — that tender and compassionate woman, whose protection he had so freely promised, ten years before, in the lobby of Drury Lane, to John Marchmont’s motherless child — even she, by some hideous fatality, had helped to bring grief and shame upon the lonely girl. All this story of his young wife’s disappearance seemed enveloped in a wretched obscurity, through whose thick darkness he could not penetrate. He felt himself encompassed by a web of mystery, athwart which it was impossible to cut his way to the truth. He asked question after question, and received answers which seemed freely given; but the story remained as dark as ever. What did it all mean? What was the clue to the mystery? Was this man, Paul Marchmont — busy amongst his unfinished pictures, and bearing in his every action, in his every word, the stamp of an easy-going, free-spoken soldier of fortune — likely to have been guilty of any dark and subtle villany against the missing girl? He had disbelieved in the marriage; but he had had some reason for his doubt of a fact that could not very well be welcome to him.

The young man rose from his chair, and stood irresolute, brooding over these things.

“Come, Captain Arundel,” cried Paul Marchmont, heartily, “believe me, though I have not much superfluous sentimentality left in my composition after a pretty long encounter with the world, still I can truly sympathise with your regret for this poor silly child. I hope, for your sake, that she still lives, and is foolishly hiding herself from us all. Perhaps, now you are able to act in the business, there may be a better chance of finding her. I am old enough to be your father, and am ready to give you the help of any knowledge of the world which I may have gathered in the experience of a lifetime. Will you accept my help?”

Edward Arundel paused for a moment, with his head still bent, and his eyes fixed upon the ground. Then suddenly lifting his head, he looked full in the artist’s face as he answered him.

“No!” he cried. “Your offer may be made in all good faith, and if so, I thank you for it; but no one loves this missing girl as I love her; no one has so good a right as I have to protect and shelter her. I will look for my wife, alone, unaided; except by such help as I pray that God may give me.”

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