Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

‘If i Were to Do as Iseult Did.’

Lady Maulevrier rarely appeared at luncheon. She took some slight refection in her morning-room, among her books and papers, and in the society of her canine favourites, whose company suited her better at certain hours than the noisier companionship of her grandchildren. She was a studious woman, loving the silent life of books better than the inane chatter of everyday humanity. She was a woman who thought much and read much, and who lived more in the past than the present. She lived also in the future, counting much upon the splendid career of her beautiful granddaughter, which should be in a manner a lengthening out, a renewal of her own life. She looked forward to the day when Lesbia should reign supreme in the great world, a famous beauty and leader of fashion, her every act and word inspired and directed by her grandmother, who would be the shadow behind the throne. It was possible — nay, probable — that in those days Lady Maulevrier would herself re-appear in society, establish her salon, and draw around her closing years all that is wittiest, best, and wisest in the great world.

Her ladyship was reposing in her low reading-chair, with a volume of Tyndall on the book-stand before her, when the door was opened softly and Lesbia came gliding in, and seated herself without a word on the hassock at her grandmother’s feet. Lady Maulevrier passed her hand caressingly over the girl’s soft brown hair, without looking up from her book.

‘You are a late visitor,’ she said; ‘why did you not come to me after breakfast?’

‘It was such a lovely morning, we went straight from the breakfast table to the garden; I did not think you wanted me.’

‘I did not want you; but I am always glad to see my pet. What were you doing in the garden all the morning? I did not hear you playing tennis.’

Lady Maulevrier had already interrogated the German governess upon this very subject, but she had her own reasons for wishing to hear Lesbia’s account.

‘No, it was too warm for tennis. Fräulein and I sat and worked, and Mr. Hammond read to us.’

‘What did he read?’

‘Heine’s ballads. He reads German beautifully.

‘Indeed! I daresay he was at school in Germany. There are cheap schools there to which middle-class people send their boys.’

This was like a thrust from a rusty knife.

‘Mr. Hammond was at Oxford,’ Lesbia said, reproachfully; and then, after a longish pause, she clasped her hands upon the arm of Lady Maulevrier’s chair, and said, in a pleading voice, ‘Grandmother, Mr. Hammond has asked me to marry him.’

‘Indeed! Only that? And pray, did he tell you what are his means of maintaining Lord Maulevrier’s sister in the position to which her birth entitles her?’ inquired the dowager, with crushing calmness.

‘He is not rich; indeed, I believe, he is poor; but he is brave and clever, and he is full of confidence in his power to conquer fortune.’

‘No doubt; that is your true adventurer’s style. He confides implicitly in his own talents, and in somebody else’s banker. Mr. Hammond would make a tremendous figure in the world, I daresay, and while he was making it your brother would have to keep him. Well, my dear Lesbia, I hope you gave this gentleman the answer his insolence deserved; or that you did better, and referred him to me. I should be glad to give him my opinion of his conduct — a person admitted to this house as your brother’s hanger-on — tolerated only on your brother’s account; such a person, nameless, penniless, friendless (except for Maulevrier’s too facile patronage), to dare to lift his eyes to my granddaughter! It is ineffable insolence!’

Lesbia crouched by her grandmother’s chair, her face hidden from Lady Maulevrier’s falcon eye. Every word uttered by her ladyship stung like the knotted cords of a knout. She knew not whether to be most ashamed of her lover or of herself — of her lover for his obscure position, his hopeless poverty; of herself for her folly in loving such a man. And she did love him, and would fain have pleaded his cause, had she not been cowed by the authority that had ruled her all her life.

‘Lesbia, if I thought you had been silly enough, degraded enough, to give this young man encouragement, to have justified his audacity of to-day by any act or word of yours, I should despise, I should detest you,’ said Lady Maulevrier, sternly. ‘What could be more contemptible, more hateful in a girl reared as you have been than to give encouragement to the first comer — to listen greedily to the first adventurer who had the insolence to make love to you, to be eager to throw yourself into the arms of the first man who asked you. That my granddaughter, a girl reared and taught and watched and guarded by me, should have no more dignity, no more modesty, or womanly feeling, than a barmaid at an inn!’

Lesbia began to cry.

‘I don’t see why a barmaid, should not be a good woman, or why it should be a crime to fall in love,’ she said, in a voice broken by sobs. ‘You need not speak to me so unkindly. I am not going to marry Mr. Hammond.’

‘Oh, you are not? that is very good of you. I am deeply grateful for such an assurance.’

‘But I like him better than anyone I ever saw in my life before.’

‘You have seen to many people. You have had such a wide area for choice.’

‘No; I know I have been kept like a nun in a convent: but I don’t think when I go into the world I shall ever see anyone I should like better than Mr. Hammond.’

‘Wait till you have seen the world before you make up your mind about that. And now, Lesbia, leave off talking and thinking like a child; look me in the face and listen to me, for I am going to speak seriously; and with me, when I am in earnest, what is said once is said for ever.’

Lady Maulevrier grasped her granddaughter’s arm with long slender fingers which held it as tightly as the grasp of a vice. She drew the girl’s slim figure round till they were face to face, looking into each other’s eyes, the dowager’s eagle countenance lit up with impassioned feeling, severe, awful as the face of one of the fatal sisters, the avengers of blood, the harbingers of doom.

‘Lesbia, I think I have been good to you, and kind to you,’ she said.

‘You have been all that is kind and dear,’ faltered Lesbia.

‘Then give me measure for measure. My life has been a hard one, child; hard and lonely, and loveless and joyless. My son, to whom I devoted myself in the vigour of youth and in the prime of life, never loved me, never repaid me for my love. He spent his days far away from me, when his presence would have gladdened my difficult life. He died in a strange land. Of his three children, you are the one I took into my heart. I did my duty to the others; I lavished my love upon you. Do not give me cursing instead of blessing. Do not give me a stone instead of bread. I have built every hope of happiness or pleasure in this world upon you and your obedience. Obey me, be true to me, and I will make you a queen, and I will sit in the shadow of your throne. I will toil for you, and be wise for you. You shall have only to shine, and dazzle, and enjoy the glory of life. My beautiful darling, for pity’s sake do not give yourself over to folly.’

‘Did not you marry for love, grandmother?’

‘No, Lesbia. Lord Maulevrier and I got on very well together, but ours was no love-match.’

‘Does nobody in our rank ever marry for love? are all marriages a mere exchange and barter?’

‘No, there are love-matches now and then, which often turn out badly. But, my darling, I am not asking you to marry for rank or for money. I am only asking you to wait till you find your mate among the noblest in the land. He may be the handsomest and most accomplished of men, a man born to win women’s hearts; and you may love him as fervently as ever a village girl loved her first lover. I am not going to sacrifice you, or to barter you, dearest. I mean to marry you to the best and noblest young man of his day. You shall never be asked to stoop to the unworthy, not even if worthlessness wore strawberry leaves in his cap, and owned the greatest estate in the land.’

‘And if — instead of waiting-for this King Arthur of yours — I were to do as Iseult did — as Guinevere did — choose for myself ——’

‘Iseult and Guinevere were wantons. I wonder that you can name them in comparison with yourself.’

‘If I were to marry a good and honourable man who has his place to make in the world, would you never forgive me?’

‘You mean Mr. Hammond? You may just as well speak plainly,’ said Lady Maulevrier, freezingly. ‘If you were capable of such idiocy as that, Lesbia, I would pluck you out of my heart like a foul weed. I would never look upon you, or hear your name spoken, or think of you again as long as I lived. My life would not last very long after that blow. Old age cannot bear such shocks. Oh, Lesbia, I have been father and mother to you; do not bring my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave.’

Lesbia gave a deep sigh, and brushed the tears from her cheeks. Yes, the very idea of such a marriage was foolishness. Just now, in the pine wood, carried away by the force of her lover’s passion, by her own softer feelings, it had seemed to her as if she could count the world well lost for his sake; but now, at Lady Maulevrier’s feet, she became again true to her training, and the world was too much to lose.

‘What can I do, grandmother?’ she asked, submissively, despairingly. ‘He loves me, and I love him. How can I tell him that he and I can never be anything to each other in this world?’

‘Refer him to me. I will give him his answer.’

‘No, no; that will not do. I have promised to answer him myself. He has gone for a walk on the hills, and will come back at four o’clock for my answer.’

‘Sit down at that table, and write as I dictate.’

‘But a letter will be so formal.’

‘It is the only way in which you can answer him. When he comes back from his walk you will have left Fellside. I shall send you off to St. Bees with Fräulein. You must never look upon that man’s face again.’

Lesbia brushed away a few more tears, and obeyed. She had been too well trained to attempt resistance. Defiance was out of the question.

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