John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

Belinda’s Wedding-Day.

The sun shone upon Belinda Lawford’s wedding-day. The birds were singing in the garden under her window as she opened her lattice and looked out. The word lattice is not a poetical license in this case; for Miss Lawford’s chamber was a roomy, old-fashioned apartment at the back of the house, with deep window-seats and diamond-paned casements.

The sun shone, and the roses bloomed in all their summer glory. “’Twas in the time of roses,” as gentle-minded Thomas Hood so sweetly sang; surely the time of all others for a bridal morning. The girl looked out into the sunshine with her loose hair falling about her shoulders, and lingered a little looking at the familiar garden, with a half-pensive smile.

“Oh, how often, how often,” she said, “I have walked up and down by those laburnums, Letty!” There were two pretty white-curtained bedsteads in the old-fashioned room, and Miss Arundel had shared her friend’s apartment for the last week. “How often mamma and I have sat under the dear old cedar, making our poor children’s frocks! People say monotonous lives are not happy: mine has been the same thing over and over again; and yet how happy, how happy! And to think that we”— she paused a moment, and the rosy colour in her cheeks deepened by just one shade; it was so sweet to use that simple monosyllable “we” when Edward Arundel was the other half of the pronoun — “to think that we shall be in Paris to-morrow!”

“Driving in the Bois,” exclaimed Miss Arundel; “and dining at the Maison Dorée, or the Café de Paris. Don’t dine at Meurice’s, Linda; it’s dreadfully slow dining at one’s hotel. And you’ll be a young married woman, and can do anything, you know. If I were a young married woman, I’d ask my husband to take me to the Mabille, just for half an hour, with an old bonnet and a thick veil. I knew a girl whose first-cousin married a cornet in the Guards, and they went to the Mabille one night. Come, Belinda, if you mean to have your back-hair done at all, you’d better sit down at once and let me commence operations.”

Miss Arundel had stipulated that, upon this particular morning, she was to dress her friend’s hair; and she turned up the frilled sleeves of her white dressing-gown, and set to work in the orthodox manner, spreading a network of shining tresses about Miss Lawford’s shoulders, prior to the weaving of elaborate plaits that were to make a crown for the fair young bride. Letitia’s tongue went as fast as her fingers; but Belinda was very silent.

She was thinking of the bounteous Providence that had given her the man she loved for her husband. She had been on her knees in the early morning, long before Letitia’s awakening, breathing out innocent thanksgiving for the happiness that overflowed her fresh young heart. A woman had need to be country-bred, and to have been reared in the narrow circle of a happy home, to feel as Belinda Lawford felt. Such love as hers is only given to bright and innocent spirits, untarnished even by the knowledge of sin.

Downstairs Edward Arundel was making a wretched pretence of breakfasting tête-à-tête with his future father-in-law.

The Major had held his peace as to the unlooked-for visitant of the past night. He had given particular orders that no stranger should be admitted to the house, and that was all. But being of a naturally frank, not to say loquacious disposition, the weight of this secret was a very terrible burden to the honest half-pay soldier. He ate his dry toast uneasily, looking at the door every now and then, in the perpetual expectation of beholding that barrier burst open by mad Olivia Marchmont.

The breakfast was not a very cheerful meal, therefore. I don’t suppose any ante-nuptial breakfast ever is very jovial. There was the state banquet —the wedding breakfast — to be eaten by-and-by; and Mrs. Lawford, attended by all the females of the establishment, was engaged in putting the last touches to the groups of fruit and confectionery, the pyramids of flowers, and that crowning glory, the wedding-cake.

“Remember the Madeira and still Hock are to go round first, and then the sparkling; and tell Gogram to be particular about the corks, Martha,” Mrs. Lawford said to her confidential maid, as she gave a nervous last look at the table. “I was at a breakfast once where a champagne-cork hit the bridegroom on the bridge of his nose at the very moment he rose to return thanks; and being a nervous man, poor fellow — in point of fact, he was a curate, and the bride was the rector’s daughter, with two hundred a year of her own — it quite overcame him, and he didn’t get over it all through the breakfast. And now I must run and put on my bonnet.”

There was nothing but putting on bonnets, and pinning lace-shawls, and wild outcries for hair-pins, and interchanging of little feminine services, upon the bedroom floor for the next half-hour.

Major Lawford walked up and down the hall, putting on his white gloves, which were too large for him — elderly men’s white gloves always are too large for them — and watching the door of the citadel. Olivia must pass over a father’s body, the old soldier thought, before she should annoy Belinda on her bridal morning.

By-and-by the carriages came round to the door. The girl bridesmaids came crowding down the stairs, hustling each other’s crisped garments, and disputing a little in a sisterly fashion; then Letitia Arundel, with nine rustling flounces of white silk ebbing and flowing and surging about her, and with a pleased simper upon her face; and then followed Mrs. Arundel, stately in silver-grey moire, and Mrs. Lawford, in violet silk — until the hall was a show of bonnets and bouquets and muslin.

And last of all, Belinda Lawford, robed in cloudlike garments of spotless lace, with bridal flowers trembling round her hair, came slowly down the broad old-fashioned staircase, to see her lover loitering in the hall below.

He looked very grave; but he greeted his bride with a tender smile. He loved her, but he could not forget. Even upon this, his wedding-day, the haunting shadow of the past was with him: not to be shaken off.

He did not wait till Belinda reached the bottom of the staircase. There was a sort of ceremonial law to be observed, and he was not to speak to Miss Lawford upon this special morning until he met her in the vestry at Hillingsworth church; so Letitia and Mrs. Arundel hustled the young man into one of the carriages, while Major Lawford ran to receive his daughter at the foot of the stairs.

The Arundel carriage drove off about five minutes before the vehicle that was to convey Major Lawford, Belinda, and as many of the girl bridesmaids as could be squeezed into it without detriment to lace and muslin. The rest went with Mrs. Lawford in the third and last carriage. Hillingsworth church was about three-quarters of a mile from the Grange. It was a pretty irregular old place, lying in a little nook under the shadow of a great yew-tree. Behind the square Norman tower there was a row of poplars, black against the blue summer sky; and between the low gate of the churchyard and the grey, moss-grown porch, there was an avenue of good old elms. The rooks were calling to each other in the topmost branches of the trees as Major Lawford’s carriage drew up at the churchyard gate.

Belinda was a great favourite amongst the poor of Hillingsworth parish, and the place had put on a gala-day aspect in honour of her wedding. Garlands of honeysuckle and wild clematis were twined about the stout oaken gate-posts. The school-children were gathered in clusters in the churchyard, with their pinafores full of fresh flowers from shadowy lanes and from prim cottage-gardens — bright homely blossoms, with the morning dew still upon them.

The rector and his curate were standing in the porch waiting for the coming of the bride; and there were groups of well-dressed people dotted about here and there in the drowsy-sheltered pews near the altar. There were humbler spectators clustered under the low ceiling of the gallery — tradesmen’s wives and daughters, radiant with new ribbons, and whispering to one another in delighted anticipation of the show.

Everybody round about the Grange loved pretty, genial Belinda Lawford, and there was universal rejoicing because of her happiness.

The wedding party came out of the vestry presently in appointed order: the bride with her head drooping, and her face hidden by her veil; the bridesmaids’ garments making a fluttering noise as they came up the aisle, like the sound of a field of corn faintly stirred by summer breezes.

Then the grave voice of the rector began the service with the brief preliminary exordium; and then, in a tone that grew more solemn with the increasing solemnity of the words, he went on to that awful charge which is addressed especially to the bridegroom and the bride:

“I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it. For be ye well assured ——”

The rector read no further; for a woman’s voice from out the dusky shadows at the further end of the church cried “Stop!”

There was a sudden silence; people stared at each other with scared faces, and then turned in the direction whence the voice had come. The bride lifted her head for the first time since leaving the vestry, and looked round about her, ashy pale and trembling.

“O Edward, Edward!” she cried, “what is it?”

The rector waited, with his hand still upon the open book. He waited, looking towards the other end of the chancel. He had no need to wait long: a woman, with a black veil thrown back from a white, haggard face, and with dusty garments dragging upon the church-floor, came slowly up the aisle.

Her two hands were clasped upon her breast, and her breath came in gasps, as if she had been running.

“Olivia!” cried Edward Arundel, “what, in Heaven’s name —”

But Major Lawford stepped forward, and spoke to the rector.

“Pray let her be got out of the way,” he said, in a low voice. “I was warned of this. I was quite prepared for some such disturbance.” He sank his voice to a whisper. “She is mad!” he said, close in the rector’s ear.

The whisper was like whispering in general — more distinctly audible than the rest of the speech. Olivia Marchmont heard it.

“Mad until to-day,” she cried; “but not mad to-day. O Edward Arundel! a hideous wrong has been done by me and through me. Your wife — your wife —”

“My wife! what of her? She —”

“She is alive!” gasped Olivia; “an hour’s walk from here. I came on foot. I was tired, and I have been long coming. I thought that I should be in time to stop you before you got to the church; but I am very weak. I ran the last part of the way —”

She dropped her hands upon the altar-rails, and seemed as if she would have fallen. The rector put his arm about her to support her, and she went on:

“I thought I should have spared her this,” she said, pointing to Belinda; “but I can’t help it. She must bear her misery as well as others. It can’t be worse for her than it has been for others. She must bear —”

“My wife!” said Edward Arundel; “Mary, my poor sorrowful darling — alive?”

Belinda turned away, and buried her face upon her mother’s shoulder. She could have borne anything better than this.

His heart — that supreme treasure, for which she had rendered up thanks to her God — had never been hers after all. A word, a breath, and she was forgotten; his thoughts went back to that other one. There was unutterable joy, there was unspeakable tenderness in his tone, as he spoke of Mary Marchmont, though she stood by his side, in all her foolish bridal finery, with her heart newly broken.

“O mother,” she cried, “take me away! take me away, before I die!”

Olivia flung herself upon her knees by the altar-rails. Where the pure young bride was to have knelt by her lover’s side this wretched sinner cast herself down, sunk far below all common thoughts in the black depth of her despair.

“O my sin, my sin!” she cried, with clasped hands lifted up above her head. “Will God ever forgive my sin? will God ever have pity upon me? Can He pity, can He forgive, such guilt as mine? Even this work of to-day is no atonement to be reckoned against my wickedness. I was jealous of this other woman; I was jealous! Earthly passion was still predominant in this miserable breast.”

She rose suddenly, as if this outburst had never been, and laid her hand upon Edward Arundel’s arm.

“Come!” she said; “come!”

“To her — to Mary — my wife?”

They had taken Belinda away by this time; but Major Lawford stood looking on. He tried to draw Edward aside; but Olivia’s hand upon the young man’s arm held him like a vice.

“She is mad,” whispered the Major. “Mr. Marchmont came to me last night, and warned me of all this. He told me to be prepared for anything; she has all sorts of delusions. Get her away, if you can, while I go and explain matters to Belinda. Edward, if you have a spark of manly feeling, get this woman away.”

But Olivia held the bridegroom’s arm with a tightening grasp.

“Come!” she said; “come! Are you turned to stone, Edward Arundel? Is your love worth no more than this? I tell you, your wife, Mary Marchmont, is alive. Let those who doubt me come and see for themselves.”

The eager spectators, standing up in the pews or crowding in the narrow aisle, were only too ready to respond to this invitation.

Olivia led her cousin out into the churchyard; she led him to the gate where the carriages were waiting. The crowd flocked after them; and the people outside began to cheer as they came out. That cheer was the signal for which the school-children had waited; and they set to work scattering flowers upon the narrow pathway, before they looked up to see who was coming to trample upon the rosebuds and jessamine, the woodbine and seringa. But they drew back, scared and wondering, as Olivia came along the pathway, sweeping those tender blossoms after her with her trailing black garments, and leading the pale bridegroom by his arm.

She led him to the door of the carriage beside which Major Lawford’s gray-haired groom was waiting, with a big white satin favour pinned upon his breast, and a bunch of roses in his button hole. There were favours in the horses’ ears, and favours upon the breasts of the Hillingsworth tradespeople who supplied bread and butcher’s meat and grocery to the family at the Grange. The bell-ringers up in the church-tower saw the crowd flock out of the porch, and thought the marriage ceremony was over. The jangling bells pealed out upon the hot summer air as Edward stood by the churchyard-gate, with Olivia Marchmont by his side.

“Lend me your carriage,” he said to Major Lawford, “and come with me. I must see the end of this. It may be all a delusion; but I must see the end of it. If there is any truth in instinct, I believe that I shall see my wife — alive.”

He got into the carriage without further ceremony, and Olivia and Major Lawford followed him.

“Where is my wife?” the young man asked, letting down the front window as he spoke.

“At Kemberling, at Hester Jobson’s.”

“Drive to Kemberling,” Edward said to the coachman — “to Kemberling High Street, as fast as you can go.”

The man drove away from the churchyard-gate. The humbler spectators, who were restrained by no niceties of social etiquette, hurried after the vehicle, raising white clouds of dust upon the high road with their eager feet. The higher classes lingered about the churchyard, talking to each other and wondering.

Very few people stopped to think of Belinda Lawford. “Let the stricken deer go weep.” A stricken deer is a very uninteresting object when there are hounds in full cry hard by, and another deer to be hunted.

“Since when has my wife been at Kemberling?” Edward Arundel asked Olivia, as the carriage drove along the high road between the two villages.

“Since daybreak this morning.”

“Where was she before then?”

“At Stony–Stringford Farm.”

“And before then?”

“In the pavilion over the boat-house at Marchmont.”

“My God! And —”

The young man did not finish his sentence. He put his head out of the window, looking towards Kemberling, and straining his eyes to catch the earliest sight of the straggling village street.

“Faster!” he cried every now and then to the coachman; “faster!”

In little more than half an hour from the time at which it had left the churchyard-gate, the carriage stopped before the little carpenter’s shop. Mr. Jobson’s doorway was adorned by a painted representation of two very doleful-looking mutes standing at a door; for Hester’s husband combined the more aristocratic avocation of undertaker with the homely trade of carpenter and joiner.

Olivia Marchmont got out of the carriage before either of the two men could alight to assist her. Power was the supreme attribute of this woman’s mind. Her purpose never faltered; from the moment she had left Marchmont Towers until now, she had known neither rest of body nor wavering of intention.

“Come,” she said to Edward Arundel, looking back as she stood upon the threshold of Mr. Jobson’s door; “and you too,” she added, turning to Major Lawford — “follow us, and see whether I am MAD.”

She passed through the shop, and into that prim, smart parlour in which Edward Arundel had lamented his lost wife.

The latticed windows were wide open, and the warm summer sunshine filled the room.

A girl, with loose tresses of hazel-brown hair falling about her face, was sitting on the floor, looking down at a beautiful fair-haired nursling of a twelvemonth old.

The girl was John Marchmont’s daughter; the child was Edward Arundel’s son. It was his childish cry that the young man had heard upon that October night in the pavilion by the water.

“Mary Arundel,” said Olivia, in a hard voice, “I give you back your husband.”

The young mother got up from the ground with a low cry, tottered forward, and fell into her husband’s arms.

“They told me you were dead! They made me believe that you were dead!” she said, and then fainted on the young man’s breast. Edward carried her to a sofa and laid her down, white and senseless; and then knelt down beside her, crying over her, and sobbing out inarticulate thanksgiving to the God who had given his lost wife back to him.

“Poor sweet lamb!” murmured Hester Jobson; “she’s as weak as a baby; and she’s gone through so much a’ready this morning.”

It was some time before Edward Arundel raised his head from the pillow upon which his wife’s pale face lay, half hidden amid the tangled hair. But when he did look up, he turned to Major Lawford and stretched out his hand.

“Have pity upon me,” he said. “I have been the dupe of a villain. Tell your poor child how much I esteem her, how much I regret that — that — we should have loved each other as we have. The instinct of my heart would have kept me true to the past; but it was impossible to know your daughter and not love her. The villain who has brought this sorrow upon us shall pay dearly for his infamy. Go back to your daughter; tell her everything. Tell her what you have seen here. I know her heart, and I know that she will open her arms to this poor ill-used child.”

The Major went away very downcast. Hester Jobson bustled about bringing restoratives and pillows, stopping every now and then in an outburst of affection by the slippery horsehair couch on which Mary lay.

Mrs. Jobson had prepared her best bedroom for her beloved visitor, and Edward carried his young wife up to the clean, airy chamber. He went back to the parlour to fetch the child. He carried the fair-haired little one up-stairs in his own arms; but I regret to say that the infant showed an inclination to whimper in his newly-found father’s embrace. It is only in the British Drama that newly discovered fathers are greeted with an outburst of ready-made affection. Edward Arundel went back to the sitting-room presently, and sat down, waiting till Hester should bring him fresh tidings of his wife. Olivia Marchmont stood by the window, with her eyes fixed upon Edward.

“Why don’t you speak to me?” she said presently. “Can you find no words that are vile enough to express your hatred of me? Is that why you are silent?”

“No, Olivia,” answered the young man, calmly. “I am silent, because I have nothing to say to you. Why you have acted as you have acted — why you have chosen to be the tool of a black-hearted villain — is an unfathomable mystery to me. I thank God that your conscience was aroused this day, and that you have at least hindered the misery of an innocent girl. But why you have kept my wife hidden from me — why you have been the accomplice of Paul Marchmont’s crime — is more than I can even attempt to guess.”

“Not yet?” said Olivia, looking at him with a strange smile. “Even yet I am a mystery to you?”

“You are, indeed, Olivia.”

She turned away from him with a laugh.

“Then I had better remain so till the end,” she said, looking out into the garden. But after a moment’s silence she turned her head once more towards the young man. “I will speak,” she said; “I will speak, Edward Arundel. I hope and believe that I have not long to live, and that all my shame and misery, my obstinate wickedness, my guilty passion, will come to an end, like a long feverish dream. O God, have mercy on my waking, and make it brighter than this dreadful sleep! I loved you, Edward Arundel. Ah! you start. Thank God at least for that. I kept my secret well. You don’t know what that word ‘love’ means, do you? You think you love that childish girl yonder, perhaps; but I can tell you that you don’t know what love is. I know what it is. I have loved. For ten years — for ten long, dreary, desolate, miserable years, fifty-two weeks in every year, fifty-two Sundays, with long idle hours between the two church services — I have loved you, Edward. Shall I tell you what it is to love? It is to suffer, to hate, yes, to hate even the object of your love, when that love is hopeless; to hate him for the very attributes that have made you love him; to grudge the gifts and graces that have made him dear. It is to hate every creature on whom his eyes look with greater tenderness than they look on you; to watch one face until its familiar lines become a perpetual torment to you, and you cannot sleep because of its eternal presence staring at you in all your dreams. It is to be like some wretched drunkard, who loathes the fiery spirit that is destroying him, body and soul, and yet goes on, madly drinking, till he dies. Love! How many people upon this great earth know the real meaning of that hideous word! I have learnt it until my soul loathes the lesson. They will tell you that I am mad, Edward, and they will tell you something near the truth; but not quite the truth. My madness has been my love. From long ago, when you were little more than a boy — you remember, don’t you, the long days at the Rectory? I remember every word you ever spoke to me, every sentiment you ever expressed, every look of your changing face — you were the first bright thing that came across my barren life; and I loved you. I married John Marchmont — why, do you think? — because I wanted to make a barrier between you and me. I wanted to make my love for you impossible by making it a sin. So long as my husband lived, I shut your image out of my mind as I would have shut out the Prince of Darkness, if he had come to me in a palpable shape. But since then — oh, I hope I have been mad since then; I hope that God may forgive my sins because I have been mad!”

Her thoughts wandered away to that awful question which had been so lately revived in her mind — Could she be forgiven? Was it within the compass of heavenly mercy to forgive such a sin as hers?

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