John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 15

“Dear is the Memory of Our Wedded Lives.”

Mary and Edward Arundel saw the awful light in the sky, and heard the voices of the people shouting in the street below, and calling to one another that Marchmont Towers was on fire.

The young mistress of the burning pile had very little concern for her property. She only kept saying, again and again, “O Edward! I hope there is no one in the house. God grant there may be no one in the house!”

And when the flames were highest, and it seemed by the light in the sky as if all Lincolnshire had been blazing, Edward Arundel’s wife flung herself upon her knees, and prayed aloud for any unhappy creature that might be in peril.

Oh, if we could dare to think that this innocent girl’s prayer was heard before the throne of an Awful Judge, pleading for the soul of a wicked man!

Early the next morning Mrs. Arundel came from Lawford Grange with her confidential maid, and carried off her daughter-in-law and the baby, on the first stage of the journey into Devonshire. Before she left Kemberling, Mary was told that no dead body had been found amongst the ruins of the Towers; and this assertion deluded her into the belief that no unhappy creature had perished. So she went to Dangerfield happier than she had ever been since the sunny days of her honeymoon, to wait there for the coming of Edward Arundel, who was to stay behind to see Richard Paulette and Mr. Gormby, and to secure the testimony of Mr. Weston and Betsy Murrel with a view to the identification of Mary’s little son, who had been neither registered nor christened.

I have no need to dwell upon this process of identification, registration, and christening, through which Master Edward Arundel had to pass in the course of the next month. I had rather skip this dry-as-dust business, and go on to that happy time which Edward and his young wife spent together under the oaks at Dangerfield — that bright second honeymoon season, while they were as yet houseless; for a pretty villa-like mansion was being built on the Marchmont property, far away from the dank wood and the dismal river, in a pretty pastoral little nook, which was a fair oasis amidst the general dreariness of Lincolnshire.

I need scarcely say that the grand feature of this happy time was THE BABY. It will be of course easily understood that this child stood alone amongst babies. There never had been another such infant; it was more than probable there would never again be such a one. In every attribute of babyhood he was a twelvemonth in advance of the rest of his race. Prospective greatness was stamped upon his brow. He would be a Clive or a Wellington, unless indeed he should have a fancy for the Bar and the Woolsack, in which case he would be a little more erudite than Lyndhurst, a trifle more eloquent than Brougham. All this was palpable to the meanest capacity in the very manner in which this child crowed in his nurse’s arms, or choked himself with farinaceous food, or smiled recognition at his young father, or performed the simplest act common to infancy.

I think Mr. Sant would have been pleased to paint one of those summer scenes at Dangerfield — the proud soldier-father; the pale young wife; the handsome, matronly grandmother; and, as the mystic centre of that magic circle, the toddling flaxen-haired baby, held up by his father’s hands, and taking caricature strides in imitation of papa’s big steps.

To my mind, it is a great pity that children are not children for ever — that the pretty baby-boy by Sant, all rosy and flaxen and blue-eyed, should ever grow into a great angular pre-Raphaelite hobadahoy, horribly big and out of drawing. But neither Edward nor Mary nor, above all, Mrs. Arundel were of this opinion. They were as eager for the child to grow up and enter for the great races of this life, as some speculative turf magnate who has given a fancy price for a yearling, and is pining to see the animal a far-famed three-year-old, and winner of the double event.

Before the child had cut a double-tooth Mrs. Arundel senior had decided in favour of Eton as opposed to Harrow, and was balancing the conflicting advantages of classical Oxford and mathematical Cambridge; while Edward could not see the baby-boy rolling on the grass, with blue ribbons and sashes fluttering in the breeze, without thinking of his son’s future appearance in the uniform of his own regiment, gorgeous in the splendid crush of a levee at St. James’s.

How many airy castles were erected in that happy time, with the baby for the foundation-stone of all of them! The BABY! Why, that definite article alone expresses an infinity of foolish love and admiration. Nobody says the father, the husband, the mother; it is “my” father, my husband, as the case may be. But every baby, from St. Giles’s to Belgravia, from Tyburnia to St. Luke’s, is “the” baby. The infant’s reign is short, but his royalty is supreme, and no one presumes to question his despotic rule.

Edward Arundel almost worshipped the little child whose feeble cry he had heard in the October twilight, and had not recognised. He was never tired of reproaching himself for this omission. That baby-voice ought to have awakened a strange thrill in the young father’s breast.

That time at Dangerfield was the happiest period of Mary’s life. All her sorrows had melted away. They did not tell her of Paul Marchmont’s suspected fate; they only told her that her enemy had disappeared, and that no one knew whither he had gone. Mary asked once, and once only, about her stepmother; and she was told that Olivia was at Swampington Rectory, living with her father, and that people said she was mad. George Weston had emigrated to Australia, with his wife, and his wife’s mother and sister. There had been no prosecution for conspiracy; the disappearance of the principal criminal had rendered that unnecessary.

This was all that Mary ever heard of her persecutors. She did not wish to hear of them; she had forgiven them long ago. I think that in the inner depths of her innocent heart she had forgiven them from the moment she had fallen on her husband’s breast in Hester’s parlour at Kemberling, and had felt his strong arms clasped about her, sheltering her from all harm for evermore.

She was very happy; and her nature, always gentle, seemed sublimated by the sufferings she had endured, and already akin to that of the angels. Alas, this was Edward Arundel’s chief sorrow! This young wife, so precious to him in her fading loveliness, was slipping away from him, even in the hour when they were happiest together — was separated from him even when they were most united. She was separated from him by that unconquerable sadness in his heart, which was prophetic of a great sorrow to come.

Sometimes, when Mary saw her husband looking at her with a mournful tenderness, an almost despairing love in his eyes, she would throw herself into his arms, and say to him:

“You must remember how happy I have been, Edward. O my darling! promise me always to remember how happy I have been.”

When the first chill breezes of autumn blew among the Dangerfield oaks, Edward Arundel took his wife southwards, with his mother and the inevitable baby in her train. They went to Nice, and they were very quiet, very happy, in the pretty southern town, with snow-clad mountains behind them, and the purple Mediterranean before.

The villa was building all this time in Lincolnshire. Edward’s agent sent him plans and sketches for Mrs. Arundel’s approval; and every evening there was some fresh talk about the arrangement of the rooms, and the laying-out of gardens. Mary was always pleased to see the plans and drawings, and to discuss the progress of the work with her husband. She would talk of the billiard-room, and the cosy little smoking-room, and the nurseries for the baby, which were to have a southern aspect, and every advantage calculated to assist the development of that rare and marvellous blossom; and she would plan the comfortable apartments that were to be specially kept for dear grandmamma, who would of course spend a great deal of her time at the Sycamores — the new place was to be called the Sycamores. But Edward could never get his wife to talk of a certain boudoir opening into a tiny conservatory, which he himself had added on to the original architect’s plan. He could never get Mary to speak of this particular chamber; and once, when he asked her some question about the colour of the draperies, she said to him, very gently —

“I would rather you would not think of that room, darling.”

“Why, my pet?”

“Because it will make you sorry afterwards.”

“Mary, my darling ——”

“O Edward! you know — you must know, dearest — that I shall never see that place?”

But her husband took her in his arms, and declared that this was only a morbid fancy, and that she was getting better and stronger every day, and would live to see her grandchildren playing under the maples that sheltered the northern side of the new villa. Edward told his wife this, and he believed in the truth of what he said. He could not believe that he was to lose this young wife, restored to him after so many trials. Mary did not contradict him just then; but that night, when he was sitting in her room reading by the light of a shaded lamp after she had gone to bed — Mary went to bed very early, by order of the doctors, and indeed lived altogether according to medical régime — she called her husband to her.

“I want to speak to you, dear,” she said; “there is something that I must say to you.”

The young man knelt down by his wife’s bed.

“What is it, darling?” he asked.

“You know what we said to-day, Edward?”

“What, darling? We say so many things every day — we are so happy together, and have so much to talk about.”

“But you remember, Edward — you remember what I said about never seeing the Sycamores? Ah! don’t stop me, dear love,” Mary said reproachfully, for Edward put his lips to hers to stay the current of mournful words — “don’t stop me, dear, for I must speak to you. I want you to know that it must be, Edward darling. I want you to remember how happy I have been, and how willing I am to part with you, dear, since it is God’s will that we should be parted. And there is something else that I want to say, Edward. Grandmamma told me something — all about Belinda. I want you to promise me that Belinda shall be happy by-and-by; for she has suffered so much, poor girl! And you will love her, and she will love the baby. But you won’t love her quite the same way that you loved me, will you, dear? because you never knew her when she was a little child, and very poor. She has never been an orphan, and quite lonely, as I have been. You have never been all the world to her.”

The Sycamores was finished by the following midsummer, but no one took possession of the newly-built house; no brisk upholsterer’s men came, with three-foot rules and pencils and memorandum-books, to take measurements of windows and floors; no wagons of splendid furniture made havoc of the gravel-drive before the principal entrance. The only person who came to the new house was a snuff-taking crone from Stanfield, who brought a turn-up bedstead, a Dutch clock, and a few minor articles of furniture, and encamped in a corner of the best bedroom.

Edward Arundel, senior, was away in India, fighting under Napier and Outram; and Edward Arundel, junior, was at Dangerfield, under the charge of his grandmother.

Perhaps the most beautiful monument in one of the English cemeteries at Nice is that tall white marble cross and kneeling figure, before which strangers pause to read an inscription to the memory of Mary, the beloved wife of Edward Dangerfield Arundel.

THE EPILOGUE.

Four years after the completion of that pretty stuccoed villa, which seemed destined never to be inhabited, Belinda Lawford walked alone up and down the sheltered shrubbery-walk in the Grange garden in the fading September daylight.

Miss Lawford was taller and more womanly-looking than she had been on the day of her interrupted wedding. The vivid bloom had left her cheeks; but I think she was all the prettier because of that delicate pallor, which gave a pensive cast to her countenance. She was very grave and gentle and good; but she had never forgotten the shock of that broken bridal ceremonial in Hillingsworth Church.

The Major had taken his eldest daughter abroad almost immediately after that July day; and Belinda and her father had travelled together very peacefully, exploring quiet Belgian cities, looking at celebrated altar-pieces in dusky cathedrals, and wandering round battle-fields, which the intermingled blood of rival nations had once made one crimson swamp. They had been nearly a twelvemonth absent, and then Belinda returned to assist at the marriage of a younger sister, and to hear that Edward Arundel’s wife had died of a lingering pulmonary complaint at Nice.

She was told this: and she was told how Olivia Marchmont still lived with her father at Swampington, and how day by day she went the same round from cottage to cottage, visiting the sick; teaching little children, or sometimes rough-bearded men, to read and write and cipher; reading to old decrepid pensioners; listening to long histories of sickness and trial, and exhibiting an unwearying patience that was akin to sublimity. Passion had burnt itself out in this woman’s breast, and there was nothing in her mind now but remorse, and the desire to perform a long penance, by reason of which she might in the end be forgiven.

But Mrs. Marchmont never visited anyone alone. Wherever she went, Barbara Simmons accompanied her, constant as her shadow. The Swampington people said this was because the Rector’s daughter was not quite right in her mind; and there were times when she forgot where she was, and would have wandered away in a purposeless manner, Heaven knows where, had she not been accompanied by her faithful servant. Clever as the Swampington people and the Kemberling people might be in finding out the business of their neighbours, they never knew that Olivia Marchmont had been consentient to the hiding-away of her stepdaughter. They looked upon her, indeed, with considerable respect, as a heroine by whose exertions Paul Marchmont’s villany had been discovered. In the hurry and confusion of the scene at Hillingsworth Church, nobody had taken heed of Olivia’s incoherent self-accusations: Hubert Arundel was therefore spared the misery of knowing the extent of his daughter’s sin.

Belinda Lawford came home in order to be present at her sister’s wedding; and the old life began again for her, with all the old duties that had once been so pleasant. She went about them very cheerfully now. She worked for her poor pensioners, and took the chief burden of the housekeeping off her mother’s hands. But though she jingled her keys with a cheery music as she went about the house, and though she often sang to herself over her work, the old happy smile rarely lit up her face. She went about her duties rather like some widowed matron who had lived her life, than a girl before whom the future lies, mysterious and unknown.

It has been said that happiness comes to the sleeper — the meaning of which proverb I take to be, that Joy generally comes to us when we least look for her lovely face. And it was on this September afternoon, when Belinda loitered in the garden after her round of small duties was finished, and she was free to think or dream at her leisure, that happiness came to her — unexpected, unhoped-for, supreme; for, turning at one end of the sheltered alley, she saw Edward Arundel standing at the other end, with his hat in his hand, and the summer wind blowing amongst his hair.

Miss Lawford stopped quite still. The old-fashioned garden reeled before her eyes, and the hard-gravelled path seemed to become a quaking bog. She could not move; she stood still, and waited while Edward came towards her.

“Letitia has told me about you, Linda,” he said; “she has told me how true and noble you have been; and she sent me here to look for a wife, to make new sunshine in my empty home — a young mother to smile upon my motherless boy.”

Edward and Belinda walked up and down the sheltered alley for a long time, talking a great deal of the sad past, a little of the fair-seeming future. It was growing dusk before they went in at the old-fashioned half-glass door leading into the drawing-room, where Mrs. Lawford and her younger daughters were sitting, and where Lydia, who was next to Belinda, and had been three years married to the Curate of Hillingsworth, was nursing her second baby.

“Has she said ‘yes’?” this young matron cried directly; for she had been told of Edward’s errand to the Grange. “But of course she has. What else should she say, after refusing all manner of people, and giving herself the airs of an old-maid? Yes, um pressus Pops, um Aunty Lindy’s going to be marriedy-pariedy,” concluded the Curate’s wife, addressing her three-months-old baby in that peculiar patois which is supposed to be intelligible to infants by reason of being unintelligible to everybody else.

“I suppose you are not aware that my future brother-in-law is a major?” said Belinda’s third sister, who had been struggling with a variation by Thalberg, all octaves and accidentals, and who twisted herself round upon her music-stool to address her sister. “I suppose you are not aware that you have been talking to Major Arundel, who has done all manner of splendid things in the Punjaub? Papa told us all about it five minutes ago.”

It was as much as Belinda could do to support the clamorous felicitations of her sisters, especially the unmarried damsels, who were eager to exhibit themselves in the capacity of bridesmaids; but by-and-by, after dinner, the Curate’s wife drew her sisters away from that shadowy window in which Edward Arundel and Belinda were sitting, and the lovers were left to themselves.

That evening was very peaceful, very happy, and there were many other evenings like it before Edward and Belinda completed that ceremonial which they had left unfinished more than five years before.

The Sycamores was very prettily furnished, under Belinda’s superintendence; and as Reginald Arundel had lately married, Edward’s mother came to live with her younger son, and brought with her the idolised grandchild, who was now a tall, yellow-haired boy of six years old.

There was only one room in the Sycamores which was never tenanted by any one of that little household except Edward himself, who kept the key of the little chamber in his writing-desk, and only allowed the servants to go in at stated intervals to keep everything bright and orderly in the apartment.

The shut-up chamber was the boudoir which Edward Arundel had planned for his first wife. He had ordered it to be furnished with the very furniture which he had intended for Mary. The rosebuds and butterflies on the walls, the guipure curtains lined with pale blush-rose silk, the few chosen books in the little cabinet near the fireplace, the Dresden breakfast-service, the statuettes and pictures, were things he had fixed upon long ago in his own mind as the decorations for his wife’s apartment. He went into the room now and then, and looked at his first wife’s picture — a crayon sketch taken in London before Mary and her husband started for the South of France. He looked a little wistfully at this picture, even when he was happiest in the new ties that bound him to life, and all that is brightest in life.

Major Arundel took his eldest son into this room one day, when young Edward was eight or nine years old, and showed the boy his mother’s portrait.

“When you are a man, this place will be yours, Edward,” the father said. “You can give your wife this room, although I have never given it to mine. You will tell her that it was built for your mother, and that it was built for her by a husband who, even when most grateful to God for every new blessing he enjoyed, never ceased to be sorry for the loss of his first love.”

And so I leave my soldier-hero, to repose upon laurels that have been hardly won, and secure in that modified happiness which is chastened by the memory of sorrow. I leave him with bright children crowding round his knees, a loving wife smiling at him across those fair childish heads. I leave him happy and good and useful, filling his place in the world, and bringing up his children to be wise and virtuous men and women in the days that are to come. I leave him, above all, with the serene lamp of faith for ever burning in his soul, lighting the image of that other world in which there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, and where his dead wife will smile upon him from amidst the vast throng of angel faces — a child for ever and ever before the throne of God!

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