John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

The Return of the Wanderer.

The March winds were blowing amongst the oaks in Dangerfield Park, when Edward Arundel went back to the house which had never been his home since his boyhood. He went back because he had grown weary of lonely wanderings in that strange Breton country. He had grown weary of himself and of his own thoughts. He was worn out by the eager desire that devoured him by day and by night — the passionate yearning to be far away beyond that low Eastern horizon line; away amid the carnage and riot of an Indian battle-field.

So he went back at last to his mother, who had written to him again and again, imploring him to return to her, and to rest, and to be happy in the familiar household where he was beloved. He left his luggage at the little inn where the coach that had brought him from Exeter stopped, and then he walked quietly homewards in the gloaming. The early spring evening was bleak and chill. The blacksmith’s fire roared at him as he went by the smithy. All the lights in the queer latticed windows twinkled and blinked at him, as if in friendly welcome to the wanderer. He remembered them all: the quaint, misshapen, lopsided roofs; the tumble-down chimneys; the low doorways, that had sunk down below the level of the village street, until all the front parlours became cellars, and strange pedestrians butted their heads against the flower-pots in the bedroom windows; the withered iron frame and pitiful oil-lamp hung out at the corner of the street, and making a faint spot of feeble light upon the rugged pavement; mysterious little shops in diamond-paned parlour windows, where Dutch dolls and stationery, stale gingerbread and pickled cabbage, were mixed up with wooden pegtops, squares of yellow soap, rickety paper kites, green apples, and string; they were all familiar to him.

It had been a fine thing once to come into this village with Letitia, and buy stale gingerbread and rickety kites of a snuffy old pensioner of his mother’s. The kites had always stuck in the upper branches of the oaks, and the gingerbread had invariably choked him; but with the memory of the kites and gingerbread came back all the freshness of his youth, and he looked with a pensive tenderness at the homely little shops, the merchandise flickering in the red firelight, that filled each quaint interior with a genial glow of warmth and colour.

He passed unquestioned by a wicket at the side of the great gates. The firelight was rosy in the windows of the lodge, and he heard a woman’s voice singing a monotonous song to a sleepy child. Everywhere in this pleasant England there seemed to be the glow of cottage-fires, and friendliness, and love, and home. The young man sighed as he remembered that great stone mansion far away in dismal Lincolnshire, and thought how happy he might have been in this bleak spring twilight, if he could have sat by Mary Marchmont’s side in the western drawing-room, watching the firelight and the shadows trembling on her fair young face.

It never had been; and it never was to be. The happiness of a home; the sweet sense of ownership; the delight of dispensing pleasure to others; all the simple domestic joys which make life beautiful — had never been known to John Marchmont’s daughter, since that early time in which she shared her father’s lodging in Oakley Street, and went out in the cold December morning to buy rolls for Edward Arundel’s breakfast. From the bay-window of his mother’s favourite sitting-room the same red light that he had seen in every lattice in the village streamed out upon the growing darkness of the lawn. There was a half-glass door leading into a little lobby near this sitting-room. Edward Arundel opened it and went in, very quietly. He expected to find his mother and his sister in the room with the bay-window.

The door of this familiar apartment was ajar; he pushed it open, and went in. It was a very pretty room, and all the womanly litter of open books and music, needlework and drawing materials, made it homelike. The firelight flickered upon everything — on the pictures and picture-frames, the black oak paneling, the open piano, a cluster of snowdrops in a tall glass on the table, the scattered worsteds by the embroidery-frame, the sleepy dogs upon the hearth-rug. A young lady stood in the bay-window with her back to the fire. Edward Arundel crept softly up to her, and put his arm round her waist.

“Letty!”

It was not Letitia, but a young lady with very blue eyes, who blushed scarlet, and turned upon the young man rather fiercely; and then recognising him, dropped into the nearest chair and began to tremble and grow pale.

“I am sorry I startled you, Miss Lawford,” Edward said, gently; “I really thought you were my sister. I did not even know that you were here.”

“No, of course not. I— you didn’t startle me much, Mr. Arundel; only you were not expected home. I thought you were far away in Brittany. I had no idea that there was any chance of your returning. I thought you meant to be away all the summer — Mrs. Arundel told me so.”

Belinda Lawford said all this in that fresh girlish voice which was familiar to Mr. Arundel; but she was still very pale, and she still trembled a little, and there was something almost apologetic in the way in which she assured Edward that she had believed he would be abroad throughout the summer. It seemed almost as if she had said: “I did not come here because I thought I should see you. I had no thought or hope of meeting you.”

But Edward Arundel was not a coxcomb, and he was very slow to understand any such signs as these. He saw that he had startled the young lady, and that she had turned pale and trembled as she recognised him; and he looked at her with a half-wondering, half-pensive expression in his face.

She blushed as he looked at her. She went to the table and began to gather together the silks and worsteds, as if the arrangement of her workbasket were a matter of vital importance, to be achieved at any sacrifice of politeness. Then, suddenly remembering that she ought to say something to Mr. Arundel, she gave evidence of the originality of her intellect by the following remark:

“How surprised Mrs. Arundel and Letitia will be to see you!”

Even as she said this her eyes were still bent upon the skeins of worsted in her hand.

“Yes; I think they will be surprised. I did not mean to come home until the autumn. But I got so tired of wandering about a strange country alone. Where are they — my mother and Letitia?”

“They have gone down the village, to the school. They will be back to tea. Your brother is away; and we dine at three o’clock, and drink tea at eight. It is so much pleasanter than dining late.”

This was quite an effort of genius; and Miss Lawford went on sorting the skeins of worsted in the firelight. Edward Arundel had been standing all this time with his hat in his hand, almost as if he had been a visitor making a late morning call upon Belinda; but he put his hat down now, and seated himself near the table by which the young lady stood, busy with the arrangement of her workbasket.

Her heart was beating very fast, and she was straining her arithmetical powers to the uttermost, in the endeavour to make a very abstruse calculation as to the time in which Mrs. Arundel and Letitia could walk to the village schoolhouse and back to Dangerfield, and the delay that might arise by reason of sundry interruptions from obsequious gaffers and respectful goodies, eager for a word of friendly salutation from their patroness.

The arrangement of the workbasket could not last for ever. It had become the most pitiful pretence by the time Miss Lawford shut down the wicker lid, and seated herself primly in a low chair by the fireplace. She sat looking down at the fire, and twisting a slender gold chain in and out between her smooth white fingers. She looked very pretty in that fitful firelight, with her waving brown hair pushed off her forehead, and her white eyelids hiding the tender blue eyes. She sat twisting the chain in her fingers, and dared not lift her eyes to Mr. Arundel’s face; and if there had been a whole flock of geese in the room, she could not have said “Bo!” to one of them.

And yet she was not a stupid girl. Her father could have indignantly refuted any such slander as that against the azure-eyed Hebe who made his home pleasant to him. To the Major’s mind Belinda was all that man could desire in the woman of his choice, whether as daughter or wife. She was the bright genius of the old man’s home, and he loved her with that chivalrous devotion which is common to brave soldiers, who are the simplest and gentlest of men when you chain them to their firesides, and keep them away from the din of the camp and the confusion of the transport-ship.

Belinda Lawford was clever; but only just clever enough to be charming. I don’t think she could have got through “Paradise Lost,” or Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall,” or a volume by Adam Smith or McCulloch, though you had promised her a diamond necklace when she came conscientiously to “Finis.” But she could read Shakespeare for the hour together, and did read him aloud to her father in a fresh, clear voice, that was like music on the water. And she read Macaulay’s “History of England,” with eyes that kindled with indignation against cowardly, obstinate James, or melted with pity for poor weak foolish Monmouth, as the case might be. She could play Mendelssohn and Beethoven — plaintive sonatas; tender songs, that had no need of words to expound the mystic meaning of the music. She could sing old ballads and Irish melodies, that thrilled the souls of those who heard her, and made hard men pitiful to brazen Hibernian beggars in the London streets for the memory of that pensive music. She could read the leaders in the “Times,” with no false quantities in the Latin quotations, and knew what she was reading about; and had her favourites at St. Stephen’s; and adored Lord Palmerston, and was liberal to the core of her tender young heart. She was as brave as a true Englishwoman should be, and would have gone to the wars with her old father, and served him as his page; or would have followed him into captivity, and tended him in prison, if she had lived in the days when there was such work for a high-spirited girl to do.

But she sat opposite Mr. Edward Arundel, and twisted her chain round her fingers, and listened for the footsteps of the returning mistress of the house. She was like a bashful schoolgirl who has danced with an officer at her first ball. And yet amidst her shy confusion, her fears that she should seem agitated and embarrassed, her struggles to appear at her ease, there was a sort of pleasure in being seated there by the low fire with Edward Arundel opposite to her. There was a strange pleasure, an almost painful pleasure, mingled with her feelings in those quiet moments. She was acutely conscious of every sound that broke the stillness — the sighing of the wind in the wide chimney; the falling of the cinders on the hearth; the occasional snort of one of the sleeping dogs; and the beating of her own restless heart. And though she dared not lift her eyelids to the young soldier’s face, that handsome, earnest countenance, with the chestnut hair lit up with gleams of gold, the firm lips shaded by a brown moustache, the pensive smile, the broad white forehead, the dark-blue handkerchief tied loosely under a white collar, the careless grey travelling-dress, even the attitude of the hand and arm, the bent head drooping a little over the fire — were as present to her inner sight as if her eyes had kept watch all this time, and had never wavered in their steady gaze.

There is a second-sight that is not recognised by grave professors of magic — a second-sight which common people call Love.

But by-and-by Edward began to talk, and then Miss Lawford found courage, and took heart to question him about his wanderings in Brittany. She had only been a few weeks in Devonshire, she said. Her thoughts went back to the dreary autumn in Lincolnshire as she spoke; and she remembered the dull October day upon which her father had come into the girl’s morning-room at the Grange with Edward’s farewell letter in his hand. She remembered this, and all the talk that there had been about the horsewhipping of Mr. Paul Marchmont upon his own threshold. She remembered all the warm discussions, the speculations, the ignorant conjectures, the praise, the blame; and how it had been her business to sit by and listen and hold her peace, except upon that one never-to-be-forgotten night at the Rectory, when Paul Marchmont had hinted at something whose perfect meaning she had never dared to imagine, but which had, somehow or other, mingled vaguely with all her day-dreams ever since.

Was there any truth in that which Paul Marchmont had said to her? Was it true that Edward Arundel had never really loved his young bride?

Letitia had said as much, not once, but twenty times.

“It’s quite ridiculous to suppose that he could have ever been in love with the poor, dear, sickly thing,” Miss Arundel had exclaimed; “it was only the absurd romance of the business that captivated him; for Edward is really ridiculously romantic, and her father having been a supernumer —(it’s no use, I don’t think anybody ever did know how many syllables there are in that word)— and having lived in Oakley Street, and having written a pitiful letter to Edward, about this motherless daughter and all that sort of thing, just like one of those tiresome old novels with a baby left at a cottage-door, and all the s’s looking like f’s, and the last word of one page repeated at the top of the next page, and printed upon thick yellow-looking ribbed paper, you know. That was why my brother married Miss Marchmont, you may depend upon it, Linda; and all I hope is, that he’ll be sensible enough to marry again soon, and to have a Christianlike wedding, with carriages, and a breakfast, and two clergymen; and I should wear white glacé silk, with tulle puffings, and a tulle bonnet (I suppose I must wear a bonnet, being only a bridesmaid?), all showered over with clematis, as if I’d stood under a clematis-bush when the wind was blowing, you know, Linda.”

With such discourse as this Miss Arundel had frequently entertained her friend; and she had indulged in numerous inuendoes of an embarrassing nature as to the propriety of old friends and schoolfellows being united by the endearing tie of sister-in-lawhood, and other observations to the like effect.

Belinda knew that if Edward ever came to love her — whenever she did venture to speculate upon such a chance, she never dared to come at all near it, but thought of it as a thing that might come to pass in half a century or so — if he should choose her for his second wife, she knew that she would be gladly and tenderly welcomed at Dangerfield. Mrs. Arundel had hinted as much as this. Belinda knew how anxiously that loving mother hoped that her son might, by-and-by, form new ties, and cease to lead a purposeless life, wasting his brightest years in lamentations for his lost bride: she knew all this; and sitting opposite to the young man in the firelight, there was a dull pain at her heart; for there was something in the soldier’s sombre face that told her he had not yet ceased to lament that irrevocable past.

But Mrs. Arundel and Letitia came in presently, and gave utterance to loud rejoicings; and preparations were made for the physical comfort of the wanderer — bells were rung, lighted wax-candles and a glittering tea-service were brought in, a cloth was laid, and cold meats and other comestibles spread forth, with that profusion which has made the west country as proverbial as the north for its hospitality. I think Miss Lawford would have sat opposite the traveller for a week without asking any such commonplace question as to whether Mr. Arundel required refreshment. She had read in her Hort’s “Pantheon” that the gods sometimes ate and drank like ordinary mortals; yet it had never entered into her mind that Edward could be hungry. But she now had the satisfaction of seeing Mr. Arundel eat a very good dinner; while she herself poured out the tea, to oblige Letitia, who was in the middle of the third volume of a new novel, and went on reading it as coolly as if there had been no such person as that handsome young soldier in the world.

“The books must go back to the club to-morrow morning, you know, mamma dear, or I wouldn’t read at tea-time,” the young lady remarked apologetically. “I want to know whether he’ll marry Theodora or that nasty Miss St. Ledger. Linda thinks he’ll marry Miss St. Ledger, and be miserable, and Theodora will die. I believe Linda likes love-stories to end unhappily. I don’t. I hope if he does marry Miss St. Ledger — and he’ll be a wicked wretch if he does, after the things he has said to Theodora — I hope, if he does, she’ll die — catch cold at a déjeuner at Twickenham, or something of that kind, you know; and then he’ll marry Theodora afterwards, and all will end happily. Do you know, Linda, I always fancy that you’re like Theodora, and that Edward’s like him.”

After which speech Miss Arundel went back to her book, and Edward helped himself to a slice of tongue rather awkwardly, and Belinda Lawford, who had her hand upon the urn, suffered the teapot to overflow amongst the cups and saucers.

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