Milly Darrell, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter x.

Changes at Thornleigh.

The autumn and the early winter passed monotonously enough. There was a good deal of company at Thornleigh Manor at first, for Mrs. Darrell hated solitude; but after a little time she grew tired of the people her husband knew, and the dinners and garden parties became less frequent. I had found out, very soon after her return, that she was not happy — that this easy prosperous life was in some manner a burden to her. It was only in her husband’s presence that she made any pretence of being pleased or interested in things. With him she was always the same — always deferential, affectionate, and attentive; while he, on his side, was the devoted slave of her every whim and wish.

She was not unkind to Milly, but those two seemed instinctively to avoid each other.

The winter brought trouble to Thornleigh Manor. It was well for Milly that she had tried to do her duty to her father, and had submitted herself patiently to his will. About a fortnight before Christmas Mr. Darrell went to North Shields to make his annual investigation of the wharves and warehouses, and to take a kind of review of the year’s business. He never returned alive. He was seized with an apoplectic fit in the office, and carried to his hotel speechless. His wife and Milly were summoned by a telegraphic message, and started for Shields by the first train that could convey them there; but they were too late. He expired an hour before their arrival.

I need not dwell upon the details of that sad time. Milly felt the blow severely; and it was long before I saw her smile, after that dark December day on which the fatal summons came. She had lost much of her joyousness and brightness after the disappointment about Angus Egerton, and this new sorrow quite crushed her.

They brought Mr. Darrell’s remains to Thornleigh, and he was buried in the family vault under the noble old church, where his father and mother, his first wife, and a son who died in infancy had been buried before him. He had been very popular in the neighbourhood, and was sincerely regretted by all who had known him.

Julius Stormont was chief-mourner at the unpretentious funeral. He seemed much affected by his uncle’s death; and his manner towards his cousin had an unusual gentleness.

I was present at the reading of the will, which took place in the dining-room immediately after the funeral. Mrs. Darrell, Milly, Mr. Stormont, myself, and the family lawyer were the only persons assembled in the spacious room, which had a dreary look without the chief of the household.

The will had been made a few months after Mr. Darrell’s second marriage. It was very simple in its wording. To Julian Stormont he left a sum of five thousand pounds, to be paid out his funded property; all the rest of this property, with the sum to be realised by the sale of the business at North Shields and its belongings — an amount likely to be very large — was to be divided equally between Mrs. Darrell and her stepdaughter. Thornleigh Manor was left to Mrs. Darrell for her life, but was to revert to Milly, or Milly’s heirs, at her death; and Milly was to be entitled to occupy her old home until her marriage.

In the event of Milly’s dying unmarried, her share of the funded property was to be divided equally between Mrs. Darrell and Julian Stormont, and in this case the Thornleigh estate was to revert to Julian Stormont after the death of Mrs. Darrell. The executors to the will were Mr. Foreman the lawyer and Mrs. Darrell.

Milly’s position was now one of complete independence. Mr. Foreman told her that after the sale of the iron-works she would have an income of something like four thousand a year. She had been of age for more than six months, and there was no one to come between her and perfect independence.

Knowing this, I felt that it was more than probable Mr. Egerton would speedily return to renew his suit; and I had little doubt that it would be successful. I knew how well Milly loved him; and now that her father was gone she could have no motive for refusing him.

‘You will stay with me, won’t you, Mary?’ she said to me as we sat by the fire in mournful silence that afternoon. ‘You are my only comfort now, dear. I suppose I shall remain here — for some time, at any rate. Augusta spoke to me very graciously, and begged that I would make this my home, according to my father’s wish. We should not interfere with each other in any way, she said, and it was indeed more than probable she would go on the Continent with her maid early in the spring, and leave me sole mistress of Thornleigh. She doubted if she could ever endure the place now, she said. She is not like me, Mary. I shall always have a melancholy love for the house in which I have lived so happily with my father.’

So I remained with my dear girl, and life at Thornleigh Manor glided by in a quiet melancholy fashion. If Mrs. Darrell grieved for her dead husband, her sorrow was of a cold tearless kind; but she kept her own rooms a good deal, and we did not see much of her. The Collingwoods were full of sympathy for their ‘darling Milly,’ and their affection had some cheering influence upon her mind. From them she heard occasionally of Mr. Egerton, who was travelling in the wildest regions of Northern Europe. She very rarely spoke of him herself at this time; and once when I mentioned his name she checked me reproachfully.

‘Don’t speak about him, Mary,’ she said; ‘I don’t want to think of him. It seems like a kind of treason against papa. It seems like taking advantage of my dear father’s death.’

‘Would you refuse to marry him, Milly, if he were to come back to you, now that you are your own mistress?’

‘I don’t know that, dear. I think I love him too much to do that. And yet it would seem like a sin against my father.’

The spring months passed, and Milly brightened a little as the days went by. She spent a deal of time amongst the poor; and I think her devotion to that duty helped her to put aside her sorrow more than anything else could have done. I was always with her, sharing in all her work; and I do not believe she had a thought hidden from me at this time.

Mrs. Darrell had not gone abroad yet. She lived a useless, listless life, doing nothing, and caring for nothing, as it seemed. More than once she made preparations for her departure, and then changed her mind at the last moment.

Late in June we heard of Mr. Egerton’s return to Cumber; and a few days after that he came to Thornleigh. Mrs. Darrell was in her own room, Milly and I alone in the drawing-room, when he called. My poor girl turned very pale, and the tears came into her eyes as she and Angus Egerton met. He spoke of her loss with extreme delicacy, and was full of tender sympathy. He had news to tell her of himself. A distant relation of his mother’s had died lately, leaving him six thousand a year. He had come back to restore Cumber to its old splendour, and to take his proper place in the county.

While they were talking together in low confidential tones, not at all embarrassed by my presence, Mrs. Darrell came into the room. She was paler than usual; but there was an animation in her face that had not been there for a long time. She received Mr. Egerton very graciously, and insisted upon his staying to dinner.

The evening passed very pleasantly. I had never seen Augusta Darrell so agreeable, so fascinating, as she was that night. She touched the piano for the first time since her husband’s death, and sang and played with all her old fire, keeping Angus Egerton a prisoner by the side of the piano. Hers was not music to be heard with indifference by the coldest ear.

He came again very soon, and came often. The restorations at Cumber had begun, and he insisted on our driving over to see what he was going to do. We went in compliance with this wish, and I could not but observe how anxiously he questioned Milly as to her opinion of the alterations, and how eagerly he sought for suggestions as to the arrangement and decoration of the different rooms. We spent some hours in this inspection, and stayed to luncheon, in the noble old tapestried drawing-room.

It was not very long before Mr. Egerton had renewed his suit, and had been accepted. Had Mr. Darrell lived, the altered circumstances of the suitor would, in all probability, have made some alteration in his ideas upon this subject. He could no longer have supposed Angus Egerton influenced by mercenary feelings.

My darling seemed perfectly happy in her engagement, and I shared her happiness. I was always to live with her, she said, at Cumber as well as at Thornleigh. She had told Angus this, and he was pleased that it should be so. I thought that she would have no need of me in her wedded days, and that this loving fancy of hers was not likely to be realised; but I allowed her to cherish it — time enough for our parting when it needs must come. My youth had been brightened by her love; and I should be brave enough to face the world alone when she began her new life, assured that in my day of trouble I should always find a haven in her affection.

They were to be married in the following spring. Mr. Egerton had pleaded hard for an earlier date; but Milly would not diminish her year of mourning for her father, and he was fain to submit. The appointed time was advanced from April to February. He was to take his young wife abroad, and to show her all those scenes in which his wandering life had been spent; and then they were to return to Cumber, and Milly was to begin her career as the wife of a country squire.

Julian Stormont came to Thornleigh, and heard of the engagement from Mrs. Darrell. He still occupied his old position in the business at North Shields, which had been bought by a great capitalist in the iron way. He received the news of Milly’s betrothal very quietly; but he proffered her no congratulations upon the subject. I happened to be on the terrace alone with him one morning during his stay, waiting for Milly to join me, when he spoke to me about this business.

‘So my cousin is going to throw herself away upon that man?’ he said.

‘You must not call it throwing herself away, Mr. Stormont,’ I answered; ‘Mr. Egerton is devoted to your cousin, and the change in his circumstances makes him a very good match for her.’

‘The change in his circumstances has not changed the man,’ he returned in an angry tone. ‘No good can come of such a marriage.’

‘You have no right to say that, Mr. Stormont.’

‘I have the right given me by conviction. A happy marriage! — no, it will not be a happy marriage, be sure of that!’

He said this with a vindictive look that startled me, well as I knew that he could not feel very kindly towards Milly’s lover. The words might mean little, but to me they sounded like a threat.

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