Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 14

‘Not Yet.’

Lady Kirkbank carried off Lesbia early next day, the girl radiant at the idea of seeing life under new conditions. She had a few minutes’ serious talk with her grandmother before she went.

‘Lesbia, you are going into the world,’ said Lady Maulevrier; ‘yes, even a country house is the world in little. You will have many admirers instead of one; but I think, I believe, that you will be true to me and to yourself.’

‘You need not fear, grandmother. I have been an idiot; but — but it was only a passing folly, and I shall never be so weak again.’

Lesbia’s scornful lips and kindling eyes gave intensity to her speech. It was evident that she despised herself for that one touch of womanly softness which had made her as ready to fall in love with her first wooer as any peasant girl in Grasmere Vale.

‘I am delighted to hear you speak thus, dearest,’ said Lady Maulevrier. ‘And if Mr. Hamilton — Hammond, I mean — should have the audacity to follow you to Kirkbank, and to intrude himself upon you there — perhaps to persecute you with clandestine addresses ——’

‘I do not believe he would do anything clandestine,’ said Lesbia, drawing herself up. ‘He is quite above that.’

‘My dear child, we know absolutely nothing about him. He has his way to make in the world unaided by family or connections. He is clever — daring. Such a man cannot help being an adventurer; and an adventurer is capable of anything. I warn you to beware of him.’

‘I don’t suppose I shall ever see his face again,’ retorted Lesbia, irritably.

She had made up her mind that her life was not to be spoiled, her brilliant future sacrificed, for the sake of John Hammond; but the wound which she had suffered in renouncing him was still fresh, her feelings were still sore. Any contemptuous mention of him stung her to the quick.

‘I hope not. And you will beware of other adventurers, Lesbia, men of a worse stamp than Mr. Hammond, more experienced in ruse and iniquity, men steeped to the lips in worldly knowledge, men who look upon women as mere counters in the game of life. The world thinks that I am rich, and you will no doubt take rank as an heiress. You will therefore be a mark for every spendthrift, noble or otherwise, who wants to restore his broken fortunes by a wealthy marriage. And now, my dearest, good-bye. Half my heart goes with you. Nothing could induce me to part with you, even for a few weeks, except the conviction that it is for your good.’

‘But we shall not be parted next year, I hope, grandmother,’ said Lesbia, affectionately. ‘You said something about presenting me, and then leaving me in Lady Kirkbank’s care for the season. I should not like that at all. I want you to go everywhere with me, to teach me all the mysteries of the great world. You have always promised me that it should be so.’

‘And I have always intended that it should be so. I hope that it will be so,’ answered her grandmother, with a sigh; ‘but I am an old woman, Lesbia, and I am rooted to this place.’

‘But why should you be rooted here? What charm can keep you here, when you are so fitted to shine in society? You are old in nothing but years, and not even old in years in comparison with women whom we hear of, going everywhere and mixing in every fashionable amusement. You are full of fire and energy, and as active as a girl. Why should you not enjoy a London season, grandmother?’ pleaded Lesbia, nestling her head lovingly against Lady Maulevrier’s shoulder.

‘I should enjoy it, dearest, with you. It would be a renewal of my youth to see you shine and conquer. I should be as proud as if the glory were all my own. Yes, dear, I hope that I shall be a spectator of your triumphs. But do not let us plan the future. Life is so full of changes. Remember what Horace says ——’

‘Horace is a bore,’ said Lesbia. ‘I hate a poet who is always harping upon change and death.’

The carriage, which was to take the travellers to Windermere Station, was announced at this moment, and Lesbia and her grandmother gave each other the farewell embrace.

‘You like Lady Kirkbank, I hope?’ said Lady Maulevrier, as they went towards the ball, where that lady was waiting for them, with Lady Mary and Fräulein Müller in attendance upon her.

‘She seems very kind, but I should like her better if she did not paint — or if she painted better.’

‘My dear child I’m afraid it is the fashion of the day, just as it was in Pope’s time, and we ought to think nothing about it.’

‘Well, I suppose I shall get hardened in time.’

‘My dearest Lesbia,’ shrieked Lady Kirkbank from below, ‘remember we have to catch a train.’

Lesbia hurried downstairs, followed by Lady Maulevrier, who had to bid her friend adieu. The luggage had been sent on in a cart, Lesbia’s trunks and dress baskets forming no small item. She was so well furnished with pretty gowns of all kinds that there had been no difficulty in getting her ready for this sudden visit. Her maid was on the box beside the coachman. Lady Kirkbank’s attendant, a Frenchwoman of five-and-thirty, who looked as if she had graduated at Mabille, was to occupy the back seat of the landau.

Lady Mary looked after her sister longingly, as the carriage drove down the hill. She was going into a new world, to see all kinds of people — clever people — distinguished people — musical, artistic, political people — hunting and shooting people — while Mary was to stay at home all the winter among the old familiar faces. Dearly as she loved these hills and vales her heart sank a little at the thought of those long lonely months, days and evenings that would be all alike, and which must be spent without sympathetic companionship. And there would be dreary days on which the weather would keep her a prisoner in her luxurious gaol, when the mountains, and the rugged paths beside the mountain streams, would be inaccessible, when she would be restricted to Fräulein’s phlegmatic society, that lady being stout and lazy, fond of her meals, and given to afternoon slumbers. Lesbia and Mary were not by any means sympathetic; yet, after all, blood is thicker than water; and Lesbia was intelligent, and could talk of the things Mary loved, which was better than total dumbness, even if she generally took an antagonistic view of them.

‘I shall miss her dreadfully,’ thought Mary, as she strolled listlessly in the gardens, where the leaves where falling and the flowers fading.

‘I wonder if she will see Mr. Hammond at Lady Kirkbank’s?’ mused Mary. ‘If he were anything like a lover he would find out all about her visit, and seize the opportunity of her being away from grandmother. But then if he had been much of a lover he would have followed her to St. Bees.’

Lady Maulevrier sorely missed her favourite grandchild. In a life spent in such profound seclusion, so remote from the busy interests of the world, this beloved companionship had become a necessity to her. She had concentrated her affections upon Lesbia, and the girl’s absence made a fearful blank. But her ladyship’s dignity was not compromised by any outward signs of trouble or loss.

She spent her mornings in her own room, reading and writing and musing at her leisure; she drove or walked every fine afternoon, sometimes alone, sometimes attended by Mary, who hated these stately drives and walks. She dined tête-à-tête with Mary, except on those rare occasions when there were visitors — the Vicar and his wife, or some wandering star from other worlds Mary lived in profound awe of her grandmother, but was of far too frank a nature to be able to adapt her speech or her manners to her ladyship’s idea of feminine perfection. She was silent and shy under those falcon eyes; but she was still the same Mary, the girl to whom pretence or simulation of any kind was impossible.

Letters came almost every day from Kirkbank Castle, letters from Lesbia describing the bright gay life she was living at that hospitable abode, the excursions, the rides, the picnic luncheons after the morning’s sport, the dinner parties, the dances.

‘It is the most delightful house you can imagine,’ wrote Lesbia; ‘and Lady Kirkbank is an admirable hostess. I have quite forgiven her for wearing false eyebrows; for after all, you know, one must have eyebrows; they are a necessity; but why does she not have the two arches alike? They are never a pair, and I really think that French maid of hers does it on purpose.

‘By-the-bye, Lady Kirkbank is going to write to you to beseech you to let me go to Cannes and Monte Carlo with her. Sir George insists upon it. He says they both like young society, and will be horribly vexed if I refuse to go with them. And Lady Kirkbank thinks my chest is just a little weak — I almost broke down the other night in that lovely little song of Jensen’s — and that a winter in the south is just what I want. But, of course, dear grandmother, I won’t ask you to let me be away so long if you think you will miss me.’

‘If I think I shall miss her!’ repeated Lady Maulevrier. ‘Has the girl no heart, that she can ask such a question? But can I wonder at that? Of what account was I or my love to her father, although I sacrificed myself for his good name? Can I expect that she should be of a different clay?’

And then, meditating upon the events of the summer that was gone, Lady Maulevrier thought —

She renounced her first lover at my bidding; she renounces her love for me at the bidding of the world. Or was it not rather self-interest, the fear of making a bad marriage, which influenced her in her renunciation of Mr. Hammond. It was not obedience to me, it was not love for me which made her give him up. It was the selfishness engrained in her race. Well, I have heaped my love upon her, because she is fair and sweet, and reminds me of my own youth. I must let her go, and try to be happy in the knowledge that she is enjoying her life far away from me.’

Lady Maulevrier wrote her consent to the extension of Lesbia’s visit, and by return of post came a letter from Lesbia which seemed brimming over with love, and which comforted the grandmother’s wounded heart.

‘Lady Kirkbank and I are both agreed, dearest, that you must join us at Cannes,’ wrote Lesbia. ‘At your age it is very wrong of you to spend a winter in our horrible climate. You can travel with Steadman and your maid. Lady Kirkbank will secure you a charming suite of rooms at the hotel, or she would like it still better if you would stay at her own villa. Do consent to this plan, dear grandmother, and then we shall not be parted for a long winter. Of course Mary would be quite happy at home running wild.’

Lady Maulevrier sighed as she read this letter, sighed again, and heavily, as she put it back into the envelope. Alas, how many and many a year had gone, long, monotonous, colourless years, since she had seen that bright southern world which she was now urged to revisit. In fancy she saw it again to-day, the tideless sea of deepest sapphire blue, the little wavelets breaking on a yellow beach, the white triangular sails, the woods full of asphodel and great purple and white lilies, the atmosphere steeped in warmth and light and perfume, the glare of white houses in the sun, the red and yellow blinds, the pots of green and orange and crimson clay, with oleanders abloom, the wonderful glow of colour everywhere and upon all things. And then as the eyes of the mind recalled these vivid images her bodily eyes looked out upon the rain-blotted scene, the mountains rising in a dark and dismal circle round that sombre pool below, walling her in from the outer world.

‘I am at the bottom of a grave,’ she said to herself. ‘I am in a living tomb, from which there is no escape. Forty years! Forty years of patience and hope, for what? For dreams which may never be realised; for descendants who may never give me the price of my labours. Yes, I should like to go to my dear one. I should like to revisit the South of France, to go on to Italy. I should feel young again amidst that eternal, unchangeable loveliness. I should forget all I have suffered. But it cannot be. Not yet, not yet!’

Presently with a smile of concentrated bitterness she repeated the words ‘Not yet!’

‘Surely at my age it must be folly to dream of the future; and yet I feel as if there were half a century of life in me, as if I had lost nothing in either mental or bodily vigour since I came here forty years ago.’

She rose as she said these words, and began to pace the room, with quiet, firm step, erect, stately, beautiful in her advanced years as she had been in her bloom and freshness, only with another kind of beauty — an empress among women. The boast that she had made to herself was no idle boast. At sixty-seven years of age her physical powers showed no signs of decay, her mental qualities were at their best and brightest. Long years of thought and study had ripened and widened her mind. She was a woman fit to be the friend and counsellor of statesmen, the companion and confidant of her sovereign: and yet fate willed that she should be buried alive in a Westmoreland valley, seeing the same hills and streams, the same rustic faces, from year’s end to year’s end. Surely it was a hard fate, a heavy penance, albeit self-imposed.

Lesbia went straight from Scotland to Paris with Sir George and Lady Kirkbank. Here they stayed at the Bristol for just two days, during which her hostess went all over the fashionable quarter buying clothes for the Cannes campaign, and assisting Lesbia to spend the hundred pounds which her grandmother had sent her for the replenishment of her well-provided wardrobe. It is astonishing how little way a hundred pounds goes among the dressmakers, corset-makers, and shoemakers of Lutetia.

‘I had no notion that clothes were so dear,’ said Lesbia, when she saw how little she had got for her money.

‘My dear, you have two gowns which are absolutely chien,’ replied Lady Kirkbank, ‘and you have a corset which gives you a figure, which you must forgive me for saying you never had before.’

Lady Kirkbank had to explain that chien as applied to a gown or bonnet was the same thing as chic, only a little more so.

‘I hope my gowns will always be chien,’ said Lesbia meekly.

Next evening they were dining at Cannes, with the blue sea in front of their windows, dining at a table all abloom with orange flowers, tea roses, mignonette, waxen camellias, and pale Parma violets, while Lady Maulevrier and Mary dined tête-à-tête at Fellside, with the feathery snow flakes falling outside, and the world whitening all around them.

Next day the world was all white, and Mary’s beloved hills were inaccessible.

Who could tell how long they might be covered; the winding tracks hidden; the narrow forces looking like black water or molten iron against that glittering whiteness? Mary could only walk along the road by Loughrigg to the bench called ‘Rest and be thankful,’ from which she looked with longing eyes across towards the Langdale Pikes, and to the sharp cone-shaped peak, known as Coniston Old Man, just visible above the nearer hills. Fräulein Müller suggested that it was in just such weather as this that a well brought up young lady, a young lady with Vernunft and Anstand, should devote herself to the improvement of her mind.

‘Let us read German this abscheulich afternoon,’ said the Fräulein. ‘Suppose we go on with the “Sorrows of Werther.”’

‘Werther was a fool,’ cried Mary; ‘any book but that.’

‘Will you choose your own book?’

‘Let me read Heine.’

Fräulein looked doubtful. There were things in Heine — an all-pervading tone — which rendered him hardly an appropriate poet for ‘the young person.’ But Fräulein compromised the matter by letting Mary read Atta Troll, the exact bearing of which neither of them understood.

‘How beautifully Mr. Hammond read Heine that morning!’ said Mary, breaking off suddenly from a perfectly automatic reading.

‘You did not hear him, did you? You were not there,’ said the Fräulein.

‘I was not there, but I heard him. I— I was sitting on the bank among the pine trees.’

‘Why did you not come and sit with us? It would have been more ladylike than to hide yourself behind the trees.’

Mary blushed crimson.

‘I had been in the kennels with Maulevrier; I was not fit to be seen,’ she said.

‘Hardly a ladylike admission,’ replied the Fräulein, who felt that with Lady Mary her chief duty was to reprove.

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