John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

A Widower’s Proposal.

For some time after his return Edward Arundel was very restless and gloomy: roaming about the country by himself, under the influence of a pretended passion for pedestrianism; reading hard for the first time in his life, shutting himself in his dead father’s library, and sitting hour after hour in a great easy-chair, reading the histories of all the wars that have ever ravaged this earth — from the days in which the elephants of a Carthaginian ruler trampled upon the soldiery of Rome, to the era of that Corsican barrister’s wonderful son, who came out of his simple island home to conquer the civilised half of a world.

Edward Arundel showed himself a very indifferent brother; for, do what she would, Letitia could not induce him to join in any of her pursuits. She caused a butt to be set up upon the lawn; but all she could say about Belinda’s “best gold” could not bring the young man out upon the grass to watch the two girls shooting. He looked at them by stealth sometimes through the window of the library, and sighed as he thought of the blight upon his manhood, and of all the things that might have been.

Might not these things even yet come to pass? Had he not done his duty to the dead; and was he not free now to begin a fresh life? His mother was perpetually hinting at some bright prospect that lay smiling before him, if he chose to take the blossom-bestrewn path that led to that fair country. His sister told him still more plainly of a prize that was within his reach, if he were but brave enough to stretch out his hand and claim the precious treasure for his own. But when he thought of all this — when he pondered whether it would not be wise to drop the dense curtain of forgetfulness over that sad picture of the past — whether it would not be well to let the dead bury their dead, and to accept that other blessing which the same Providence that had blighted his first hope seemed to offer to him now — the shadowy phantom of John Marchmont arose out of the mystic realms of the dead, and a ghostly voice cried to him, “I charged you with my daughter’s safe keeping; I trusted you with her innocent love; I gave you the custody of her helplessness. What have you done to show yourself worthy of my faith in you?”

These thoughts tormented the young widower perpetually, and deprived him of all pleasure in the congenial society of his sister and Belinda Lawford; or infused so sharp a flavour of remorse into his cup of enjoyment, that pleasure was akin to pain.

So I don’t know how it was that, in the dusky twilight of a bright day in early May, nearly two months after his return to Dangerfield, Edward Arundel, coming by chance upon Miss Lawford as she sat alone in the deep bay-window where he had found her on his first coming, confessed to her the terrible struggle of feeling that made the great trouble of his life, and asked her if she was willing to accept a love which, in its warmest fervour, was not quite unclouded by the shadows of the sorrowful past.

“I love you dearly, Linda,” he said; “I love, I esteem, I admire you; and I know that it is in your power to give me the happiest future that ever a man imagined in his youngest, brightest dreams. But if you do accept my love, dear, you must take my memory with it. I cannot forget, Linda. I have tried to forget. I have prayed that God, in His mercy, might give me forgetfulness of that irrevocable past. But the prayer has never been granted; the boon has never been bestowed. I think that love for the living and remorse for the dead must for ever reign side by side in my heart. It is no falsehood to you that makes me remember her; it is no forgetfulness of her that makes me love you. I offer my brighter and happier self to you, Belinda; I consecrate my sorrow and my tears to her. I love you with all my heart, Belinda; but even for the sake of your love I will not pretend that I can forget her. If John Marchmont’s daughter had died with her head upon my breast, and a prayer on her lips, I might have regretted her as other men regret their wives; and I might have learned by-and-by to look back upon my grief with only a tender and natural regret, that would have left my future life unclouded. But it can never be so. The poison of remorse is blended with that sorrowful memory. If I had done otherwise — if I had been wiser and more thoughtful — my darling need never have suffered; my darling need never have sinned. It is the thought that her death may have been a sinful one, that is most cruel to me, Belinda. I have seen her pray, with her pale earnest face uplifted, and the light of faith shining in her gentle eyes; I have seen the inspiration of God upon her face; and I cannot bear to think that, in the darkness that came down upon her young life, that holy light was quenched; I cannot bear to think that Heaven was ever deaf to the pitiful cry of my innocent lamb.”

And here Mr. Arundel paused, and sat silently, looking out at the long shadows of the trees upon the darkening lawn; and I fear that, for the time being, he forgot that he had just made Miss Lawford an offer of his hand, and so much of his heart as a widower may be supposed to have at his disposal.

Ah me! we can only live and die once. There are some things, and those the most beautiful of all things, that can never be renewed: the bloom on a butterfly’s wing; the morning dew upon a newly-blown rose; our first view of the ocean; our first pantomime, when all the fairies were fairies for ever, and when the imprudent consumption of the contents of a pewter quart-measure in sight of the stage-box could not disenchant us with that elfin creature, Harlequin the graceful, faithful betrothed of Columbine the fair. The firstlings of life are most precious. When the black wing of the angel of death swept over agonised Egypt, and the children were smitten, offended Heaven, eager for a sacrifice, took the firstborn. The young mothers would have other children, perhaps; but between those others and the mother’s love there would be the pale shadow of that lost darling whose tiny hands first drew undreamed-of melodies from the sleeping chords, first evoked the slumbering spirit of maternal love. Amongst the later lines — the most passionate, the most sorrowful — that George Gordon Noel Byron wrote, are some brief verses that breathed a lament for the lost freshness, the never-to-be-recovered youth.

“Oh, could I feel as I have felt; or be what I have been;

Or weep as I could once have wept!”

cried the poet, when he complained of that “mortal coldness of the soul,” which is “like death itself.” It is a pity certainly that so great a man should die in the prime of life; but if Byron had survived to old age after writing these lines, he would have been a living anticlimax. When a man writes that sort of poetry he pledges himself to die young.

Edward Arundel had grown to love Belinda Lawford unconsciously, and in spite of himself; but the first love of his heart, the first fruit of his youth, had perished. He could not feel quite the same devotion, the same boyish chivalry, that he had felt for the innocent bride who had wandered beside him in the sheltered meadows near Winchester. He might begin a new life, but he could not live the old life over again. He must wear his rue with a difference this time. But he loved Belinda very dearly, nevertheless; and he told her so, and by-and-by won from her a tearful avowal of affection.

Alas! she had no power to question the manner of his wooing. He loved her — he had said as much; and all the good she had desired in this universe became hers from the moment of Edward Arundel’s utterance of those words. He loved her; that was enough. That he should cherish a remorseful sorrow for that lost wife, made him only the truer, nobler, and dearer in Belinda’s sight. She was not vain, or exacting, or selfish. It was not in her nature to begrudge poor dead Mary the tender thoughts of her husband. She was generous, impulsive, believing; and she had no more inclination to doubt Edward’s love for her, after he had once avowed such a sentiment, than to disbelieve in the light of heaven when she saw the sun shining. Unquestioning, and unutterably happy, she received her lover’s betrothal kiss, and went with him to his mother, blushing and trembling, to receive that lady’s blessing.

“Ah, if you knew how I have prayed for this, Linda!” Mrs. Arundel exclaimed, as she folded the girl’s slight figure in her arms.

“And I shall wear white glacé with pinked flounces, instead of tulle puffings, you sly Linda,” cried Letitia.

“And I’ll give Ted the home-farm, and the white house to live in, if he likes to try his hand at the new system of farming,” said Reginald Arundel, who had come home from the Continent, and had amused himself for the last week by strolling about his estate and staring at his timber, and almost wishing that there was a necessity for cutting down all the oaks in the avenue, so that he might have something to occupy him until the 12th of August.

Never was promised bride more welcome to a household than bright Belinda Lawford; and as for the young lady herself, I must confess that she was almost childishly happy, and that it was all that she could do to prevent her light step from falling into a dance as she floated hither and thither through the house at Dangerfield — a fresh young Hebe in crisp muslin robes; a gentle goddess, with smiles upon her face and happiness in her heart.

“I loved you from the first, Edward,” she whispered one day to her lover. “I knew that you were good, and brave, and noble; and I loved you because of that.”

And a little for the golden glimmer in his clustering curls; and a little for his handsome profile, his flashing eyes, and that distinguished air peculiar to the defenders of their country; more especially peculiar, perhaps, to those who ride on horseback when they sally forth to defend her. Once a soldier for ever a soldier, I think. You may rob the noble warrior of his uniform, if you will; but the je ne sais quoi, the nameless air of the “long-sword, saddle, bridle,” will hang round him still.

Mrs. Arundel and Letitia took matters quite out of the hands of the two lovers. The elderly lady fixed the wedding-day, by agreement with Major Lawford, and sketched out the route for the wedding-tour. The younger lady chose the fabrics for the dresses of the bride and her attendants; and all was done before Edward and Belinda well knew what their friends were about. I think that Mrs. Arundel feared her son might change his mind if matters were not brought swiftly to a climax, and that she hurried on the irrevocable day in order that he might have no breathing time until the vows had been spoken and Belinda Lawford was his wedded wife. It had been arranged that Edward should escort Belinda back to Lincolnshire, and that his mother and Letitia, who was to be chief bridesmaid, should go with them. The marriage was to be solemnised at Hillingsworth church, which was within a mile and a half of the Grange.

The 1st of July was the day appointed by agreement between Major and Mrs. Lawford and Mrs. Arundel; and on the 18th of June Edward was to accompany his mother, Letitia, and Belinda to London. They were to break the journey by stopping in town for a few days, in order to make a great many purchases necessary for Miss Lawford’s wedding paraphernalia, for which the Major had sent a bouncing cheque to his favourite daughter.

And all this time the only person at all unsettled, the only person whose mind was ill at ease, was Edward Arundel, the young widower who was about to take to himself a second wife. His mother, who watched him with a maternal comprehension of every change in his face, saw this, and trembled for her son’s happiness.

“And yet he cannot be otherwise than happy with Belinda Lawford,” Mrs. Arundel thought to herself.

But upon the eve of that journey to London Edward sat alone with his mother in the drawing-room at Dangerfield, after the two younger ladies had retired for the night. They slept in adjoining apartments, these two young ladies; and I regret to say that a great deal of their conversation was about Valenciennes lace, and flounces cut upon the cross, moire antique, mull muslin, glacé silk, and the last “sweet thing” in bonnets. It was only when loquacious Letitia was shut out that Miss Lawford knelt alone in the still moonlight, and prayed that she might be a good wife to the man who had chosen her. I don’t think she ever prayed that she might be faithful and true and pure; for it never entered into her mind that any creature bearing the sacred name of wife could be otherwise. She only prayed for the mysterious power to preserve her husband’s affection, and make his life happy.

Mrs. Arundel, sitting tête-à-tête with her younger son in the lamp-lit drawing-room, was startled by hearing the young man breathe a deep sigh. She looked up from her work to see a sadder expression in his face than perhaps ever clouded the countenance of an expectant bridegroom.

“Edward!” she exclaimed.

“What, mother?”

“How heavily you sighed just now!”

“Did I?” said Mr. Arundel, abstractedly. Then, after a brief pause, he said, in a different tone, “It is no use trying to hide these things from you, mother. The truth is, I am not happy.”

“Not happy, Edward!” cried Mrs. Arundel; “but surely you ——?”

“I know what you are going to say, mother. Yes, mother, I love this dear girl Linda with all my heart; I love her most sincerely; and I could look forward to a life of unalloyed happiness with her, if — if there was not some inexplicable dread, some vague and most miserable feeling always coming between me and my hopes. I have tried to look forward to the future, mother; I have tried to think of what my life may be with Belinda; but I cannot, I cannot. I cannot look forward; all is dark to me. I try to build up a bright palace, and an unknown hand shatters it. I try to turn away from the memory of my old sorrows; but the same hand plucks me back, and chains me to the past. If I could retract what I have done; if I could, with any show of honour, draw back, even now, and not go upon this journey to Lincolnshire; if I could break my faith to this poor girl who loves me, and whom I love, as God knows, with all truth and earnestness, I would do so — I would do so.”

“Edward!”

“Yes, mother; I would do it. It is not in me to forget. My dead wife haunts me by night and day. I hear her voice crying to me, ‘False, false, false; cruel and false; heartless and forgetful!’ There is never a night that I do not dream of that dark sluggish river down in Lincolnshire. There is never a dream that I have — however purposeless, however inconsistent in all its other details — in which I do not see her dead face looking up at me through the murky waters. Even when I am talking to Linda, when words of love for her are on my lips, my mind wanders away, back — always back — to the sunset by the boat-house, when my little wife gave me her hand; to the trout-stream in the meadow, where we sat side by side and talked about the future.”

For a few minutes Mrs. Arundel was quite silent. She abandoned herself for that brief interval to complete despair. It was all over. The bridegroom would cry off; insulted Major Lawford would come post-haste to Dangerfield, to annihilate this dismal widower, who did not know his own mind. All the shimmering fabrics — the gauzes, and laces, and silks, and velvets — that were in course of preparation in the upper chambers would become so much useless finery, to be hidden in out-of-the-way cupboards, and devoured by misanthropical moths — insect iconoclasts, who take a delight in destroying the decorations of the human temple.

Poor Mrs. Arundel took a mental photograph of all the complicated horrors of the situation. An offended father; a gentle, loving girl crushed like some broken lily; gossip, slander; misery of all kinds. And then the lady plucked up courage and gave her recreant son a sound lecture, to the effect that this conduct was atrociously wicked; and that if this trusting young bride, this fair young second wife, were to be taken away from him as the first had been, such a calamity would only be a fitting judgment upon him for his folly.

But Edward told his mother, very quietly, that he had no intention of being false to his newly-plighted troth.

“I love Belinda,” he said; “and I will be true to her, mother. But I cannot forget the past; it hangs about me like a bad dream.”

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