Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 15

‘Of All Men Else i have Avoided Thee.’

It was afternoon. The white hills yonder and all the length of the valley were touched here and there with gleams of wintry sunlight, and Lady Maulevrier was taking her solitary walk in the terrace in front of her house, a stately figure wrapped in a furred mantle, tall, erect, moving with measured pace up and down the smooth gravel path. Now and then at the end of the walk the dowager stopped for a minute or so, and stood as if in deep thought, with her eyes dreamily contemplating the landscape. An intense melancholy shadowed her face, as she thus gazed with brooding eyes on the naked monotony of those wintry hills. So had she looked in many and many a winter, and it seemed to her that her life was of a piece with those bleak hills, where in the dismal winter time nothing living trod. She stood gazing at the sinking sun, a fiery ball shining at the end of a long gallery of crag and rock, like a lamp at the end of a corridor; and as she gazed the red round orb dropped suddenly behind the edge of a crag, as if she had been an enchantress and had dismissed it with a wave of her wand.

‘O Lord, how long, how long?’ she said. ‘How many times have I seen that sun go down from this spot, in winter and summer, in spring and autumn! And now that the one being I loved and cared for is far away, I feel all the weariness and emptiness of my life.’

As she turned to resume her walk she heard the muffled sound of wheels in the road below, that road which was completely hidden by foliage in summer, but which was now visible here and there between the leafless trees. A carriage with a pair of horses was coming along the road from Ambleside.

Lady Maulevrier stood and watched until the carriage drew up at the lodge gate, and then, when the gate had been opened, slowly ascended the winding drive to the house.

She expected no visitor; indeed, there was no one likely to come to her from the direction of Ambleside. Her heart began to beat heavily, with the apprehension of coming evil. What kind of evil she knew not. Bad news about her granddaughter, perhaps, or about Maulevrier. And yet that could hardly be. Evil tidings of that kind would have reached her by telegram.

Perhaps it was Maulevrier himself. His movements were generally erratic.

Lady Maulevrier hurried back to the house. She went through the conservatory, where the warm whiteness of azalia, and spirea, and arum lilies contrasted curiously with the cold white snow out of doors, to the hall, where a stranger was standing talking to the butler.

He was a man of foreign appearance, wearing a cloak lined with sables, and a sable cap, which he removed as Lady Maulevrier approached. He was thin and small, with a clear olive complexion, olive inclining to pale bronze, sleek raven hair, and black almond-shaped eyes. At the first glance Lady Maulevrier knew that he was an Oriental. Her heart sank within her, and seemed to grow chill as death at sight of him. Anything associated with India was horrible to her.

The stranger came forward to meet her, bowing deferentially. He had those lithe, gliding movements which she remembered of old, when she had seen princes and dignitaries of the East creeping shoeless to her husband’s feet.

‘Will your ladyship do me the honour to grant me an interview?’ he said in very good English. ‘I have travelled from London expressly for that privilege.’

‘Then I fear you have wasted your time, sir, whatever your mission may be,’ the dowager answered, haughtily. ‘However, I am willing to hear anything you may have to say, if you will be good enough to come this way.’

She moved towards the library, the butler preceding her to open the door, and the stranger followed her into the spacious room, where coals and logs were heaped high upon the wide dog stove, deeply recessed beneath the old English mantelpiece.

It was one of the handsomest rooms of the house, furnished with oak bookcases about seven feet high, above which vases of Oriental ware and varied colouring stood boldly out against the dark oak wall. Richly bound books in infinite variety testified to the wealth and taste of the owner; while one side of the room was absorbed by a wide Gothic window, beyond which appeared the panorama of lake and mountain, beautiful in every season. A tawny velvet curtain divided this room from the drawing-room; but there was also a strong oak door behind the curtain, which was generally closed in cold weather.

Lady Maulevrier went over to this door, and took the precaution to draw the bolt, before she seated herself in her arm-chair by the hearth. She had her own particular chair in all the rooms she occupied — a chair which was sacred as a throne.

She drew off her sealskin gloves, and motioned with a slender white hand to the stranger to be seated.

‘To whom have I the honour of speaking?’ she asked, looking; him through and through with an unflinching gaze, as she would have looked at Death himself, had the grim skeleton figure come to beckon her.

He handed her a visiting card on which was engraved —

‘Louis Asoph, Rajah of Bisnagar.’

‘If my memory does not deceive me as to the history of modern India, the territory from which you take your title has been absorbed into the English dominion?’ said Lady Maulevrier.

‘It was trafficked away forty-three years ago, stolen, filched from my father! but so long as I have power to think and to act I will maintain my claim to that land; yes, if only by the empty mockery of a name on a visiting card. It is a duty I owe to myself as a man, which I owe still more to my murdered father.’

‘Have you come all the way from London, and in such weather, only to tell me this story?’

She had twisted his card between her fingers as she listened to him, and now, with an action at once careless and contemptuous, she flung it upon the burning logs. Slight as the action was it was eloquent of scorn for the man.

‘No, Lady Maulevrier, my mention of this story, with which you are no doubt perfectly familiar, is only a preliminary. I have come to claim my own, and to appeal to you as a woman of honour to do me justice. Nay, I will say as a woman of common honesty; since there is no nice point of honour in question, only the plain laws of mine and thine, which I believe are the same among all nations and creeds. I come to you, Lady Maulevrier, to ask you to restore to me the wealth which your husband stole from my father.’

‘You come to my house, to me, an old woman, helpless, defenceless, in the absence of my grandson, the present Earl, to insult me, and insult the dead,’ said Lady Maulevrier, white as statuary marble, and as cold and calm. ‘You come to rake up old lies, and to fling them in the face of a solitary woman, old enough to be your mother. Do you think that is a noble thing to do? Even in your barbarous Eastern code of morals and manners is that the act of a gentleman?’

‘We are no barbarians in the East, Lady Maulevrier. I come from the cradle of civilisation, the original fount of learning. We were scholars and gentleman, priests and soldiers, two thousand years before your British ancestors ran wild in their woods, and sacrificed to their unknown gods or rocky altars reeking with human blood! I know the errand upon which I have come is not a pleasant one, either for you or for me; but I come to you strong in the right of a son to claim the heritage which was stolen from him by an infamous mother and her more infamous paramour ——’

‘I will not hear another word!’ cried Lady Maulevrier, starting to her feet, livid with passion. ‘Do not dare to pronounce that name in my hearing — the name of that abominable woman who brought disgrace and dishonour upon my husband and his race.’

‘And who brought your husband the wealth of my murdered father,’ answered the Indian, defiantly. ‘Do not ignore that fact, Lady Maulevrier. What has become of that fortune — two hundred thousand pounds in money and jewels. It was known to have passed into Lord Maulevrier’s possession after my father was put away by his paid instruments.

‘How dare you bring that vile charge against the dead?’

‘There are men living in India who know the truth of that charge: men who were at Bisnagar when my father, sick and heartbroken, was shut up in his deserted harem, hemmed in by spies and traitors, men with murder in their faces. There are those who know tint he was strangled by one of those wretches, that a grave was dug for him under the marble floor of his zenana, a grave in which his bones were found less than a year ago, in my presence, and fitly entombed at my bidding. He was said to have disappeared of his own free will — to have left his palace under cover of night, and sought refuge from possible treachery in another province; but there were those, and not a few, who knew the real history of his disappearance — who knew, and at the time were ready to testify in any court of justice, that he had been got rid of by the Ranee’s agents, and at Lord Maulevrier’s instigation, and that his possessions in money and jewels had been conveyed in the palankins that carried the Ranee and her women to his lordship’s summer retreat near Madras. The Ranee died at that retreat six months after her husband’s murder, not without suspicion of poison, and the wealth which she carried with her when she left Bisnagar passed into his lordship’s possession. Had your husband lived, Lady Maulevrier, this story must have been brought to light. There were too many people in Madras interested in sifting the facts. There must have been a public inquiry. It was a happy thing for you and your race that Lord Maulevrier died before that inquiry had been instituted, and that many animosities died with him. Lucky too for you that I was a helpless infant at the time, and that the Mahratta adventurer to whom my father’s territory had been transferred in the shuffling of cards at the end of the war was deeply concerned in hushing up the story.’

‘And pray, why have you nursed your wrath in all these years? Why do you intrude on me after nearly half a century, with this legend of rapine and murder?’

‘Because for nearly half a century I have been kept in profound ignorance of my father’s fate — in ignorance of my race. Lord Maulevrier’s jealousy banished me from my mother’s arms shortly after my father’s death. I was sent to the South of France under the care of an ayah. My first memories are of a monastery near Marseilles, where I was reared and educated by a Jesuit community, where I was baptised and brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. By the influence of the Jesuit Fathers I was placed in a house of commerce at Marseilles. Funds to provide for my education and establishment in life, under very modest conditions, were sent periodically by an agent at Madras. It was known that I was of East Indian birth, but little more was known about me. It was only when years had gone by and I was a merchant on my own account and could afford to go to India on a voyage of discovery — yes, as much a voyage of discovery as that of Vasco de Gama or of Drake — that I got from the Madras agent the clue which enabled me, at the cost of infinite patience and infinite labour, to unravel the mystery of my birth. There is no need to enter now upon the details of that story. I have overwhelming documentary evidence — a cloud of witnesses — to convince the most sceptical as to who and what I am. The documents are some of them in my valise, at your ladyship’s service. Others are at my hotel in London, ready for the inspection of your ladyship’s lawyers. I do not think you will desire to invite a public inquiry, or force me to recover my birthright in a court of justice. I believe that you will take a broader and nobler view of the case, and that you will restore to the wronged and abandoned son the fortune stolen from his murdered father.’

‘How dare you come to me with this tissue of lies? How dare you look me in the face and charge my dead husband with treachery and dishonour? I believe neither in your story nor in you, and I defy you to the proof of this vile charge against the dead!’

‘In other words you mean that you will keep the money and jewels which Lord Maulevrier stole from my father?’

‘I deny the fact that any such jewels or money ever passed into his lordship’s possession. That vile woman, your mother, whose infamy cast a dark cloud over Lord Maulevrier’s honour, may have robbed her husband, may have emptied the public treasury. But not a rupee or a jewel belonging to her ever came into my possession. I will not bear the burden of her crimes. Her existence spoiled my life — banished me from India, a widow in all but the name, and more desolate than many widows.’

‘Lord Maulevrier was known to leave India carrying with him two large chests — supposed to contain books — but actually containing treasure. A man who was in the Governor’s confidence, and who had been the go-between in his intrigues, confessed on his death-bed that he had assisted in removing the treasure. Now, Lady Maulevrier, since your husband died immediately after his arrival in England, and before he could have had any opportunity of converting or making away with the valuables so appropriated, it stands to reason that those valuables must have passed into your possession, and it is from your honour and good feeling that I claim their restitution. If you deny the claim so advanced, there remains but one course open to me, and that is to make my wrongs public, and claim my right from the law of the land.’

‘And do you suppose that any English judge or English jury would believe so wild a story — or countenance so vile an accusation against the defenceless?’ demanded Lady Maulevrier, standing up before him, tall, stately, with flashing eye and scornful lip, the image of proud defiance. ‘Bring forward your claim, produce your documents, your witnesses, your death-bed confessions. I defy you to injure my dead husband or me by your wild lies, your foul charges! Go to an English lawyer, and see what an English law court will do for you — and your claim. I will hear no more of either.’

She rang the bell once, twice, thrice, with passionate hand, and a servant flew to answer that impatient summons.

‘Show this gentlemen to his carriage,’ she said, imperiously.

The gentleman who called himself Louis Asoph bowed, and retired without another word.

As the door closed upon him, Lady Maulevrier stood, with clenched hands and frowning brow, staring into vacancy. Her right arm was outstretched, as if she would have waved the intruder away. Suddenly, a strange numbness crept over that uplifted arm, and it fell to her side. From her shoulder down to her foot, that proud form grew cold and feelingless and dead, and she, who had so long carried herself as a queen among women, sank in a senseless heap upon the floor.

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