Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 16

‘Her Face Resigned to Bliss or Bale.’

Lady Mary and the Fräulein had been sitting in the drawing-room all this time waiting for Lady Maulevrier to come to tea. They heard her come in from the garden; and then the footman told them that she was in the library with a stranger. Not even the muffled sound of voices penetrated the heavy velvet curtain and the thick oak door. It was only by the loud ringing of the bell and the sound of footsteps in the hall that Lady Mary knew of the guest’s departure. She went to the door between the two rooms, and was surprised to find it bolted.

‘Grandmamma, won’t you come to tea?’ she asked timidly, knocking on the oaken panel, but there was no reply.

She knocked again, and louder. Still no reply.

‘Perhaps her ladyship is going to take tea in her own room,’ she said, afraid to be officious.

Attendance upon her grandmother at afternoon tea had been one of Lesbia’s particular duties; but Mary felt that she was an unwelcome substitute for Lesbia. She wanted to get a little nearer her grandmother’s heart if she could; but she knew that her attentions were endured rather than liked.

She went into the hall, where the footman on duty was staring at the light snowflakes dancing past the window, perhaps wishing he were a snowflake himself, and enjoying himself in that white whirligig.

‘Is her ladyship having tea in the morning-room?’ asked Mary.

The footman gave a little start, as if awakened out of a kind of trance. The sheer vacuity of his mind might naturally slide into mesmeric sleep.

He told Lady Mary that her ladyship had not left the library, and Mary went in timidly, wondering why her grandmother had not joined them in the drawing-room when the stranger was gone.

The sky was dark outside the wide windows, white hills and valleys shrouded in the shades of night. The library was only lighted by the glow of the logs on the hearth, and in that ruddy light the spacious room looked empty. Mary was turning to go away, thinking the footman had been mistaken, when her eye suddenly lighted upon a dark figure lying on the ground. And then she heard an awful stertorous breathing, and knew that her grandmother was lying there, stricken and helpless.

Mary shrieked aloud, with a cry that pierced curtains and doors, and brought Fräulein and half-a-dozen servants to her help. One of the men brought a lamp, and among them they lifted the smitten figure. Oh, God! how ghastly the face looked in the lamplight! — the features drawn to one side, the skin livid.

‘Her ladyship has had a stroke,’ said the butler.

‘Is she dying?’ faltered Mary, white as ashes. ‘Oh, grandmother, dear grandmother, don’t look at us like that!’

One of the servants rushed off to the stables to send for the doctor. Of course, being an indoor man, he no more thought of going out himself into the snowy night on such an errand than Noah thought of going out of the ark to explore the face of the waters in person.

They carried Lady Maulevrier to her bed and laid her there, like a figure carved out of stone. She was not unconscious. Her eyes were open, and she moaned every now and then as if in bodily or mental pain. Once she tried to speak, but had no power to shape a syllable aright, and ended with a shuddering sigh. Once she lifted her left arm and waved it in the air, as if waving some one off in fear or anger. The right arm, indeed the whole of the right side, was lifeless, motionless as a stone. It was a piteous sight to see the beautiful features drawn and distorted, the lips so accustomed to command mouthing the broken syllables of an unknown tongue. Lady Mary sat beside the bed with clasped hands, praying dumbly, with her eyes fixed on her grandmother’s altered face.

Mr. Horton came, as soon as his stout mountain pony could bring him. He did not seem surprised at her ladyship’s condition, and accepted the situation with professional calmness.

‘A marked case of hemiplegia,’ he said, when he had observed the symptoms.

‘Will she die?’ asked Mary.

‘Oh, dear, no! She will want great care for a little while, but we shall bring her round easily. A splendid constitution, a noble frame; but I think she has overworked her brain a little, reading Huxley and Darwin, and the German physiologists upon whom Huxley and Darwin have built themselves. Metaphysics too. Schopenhauer, and the rest of them. A wonderful woman! Very few brains could hold what hers has had poured into it in the last thirty years. The conducting nerves between the brain and the spinal marrow have been overworked: too much activity, too constant a strain. Even the rails and sleepers on the railroad wear out, don’t you know, if there’s excessive traffic.’

Mr. Horton had known Mary from her childhood, had given her Gregory’s powder, and seen her safely through measles and other infantine ailments, so he was quite at home with her, and at Fellside generally. Lady Maulevrier had given him a good deal of her confidence during those thirty years in which he had practised as his father’s partner and successor at Grasmere. He used to tell people that he owed the best part of his education to her ladyship, who condescended to talk to him of the new books she read, and generally gave him a volume to put in his pocket when he was leaving her.

‘Don’t be downhearted, Lady Mary,’ he said; ‘I shall come in two or three times a day and see how things are going on, and if I see the slightest difficulty in the case I’ll telegraph for Jenner.’

Mary and the Fräulein sat up with the invalid all that night. Lady Maulevrier’s maid was also in attendance, and one of the menservants slept in his clothes on a couch in the corridor, ready for any emergency. But the night passed peacefully, the patient slept a good deal, and next day there was evident improvement. The stroke which had prostrated the body, which reduced the vigorous, active frame to an awful statue — like stillness — a quietude as of death of itself — had not overclouded the intellect. Lady Maulevrier lay on her bed in her luxurious room, with wide Tudor windows commanding half the circle of the hills, and was still the ruling spirit of the house, albeit powerless to move that slender hand, the lightest wave of which had been as potent to command in her little world as royal sign-manual or sceptre in the great world outside.

Now there remained only one thing unimpaired by that awful shock which had laid the stately frame low, and that was the will and sovereign force of the woman’s nature. Voice was altered, speech was confused and difficult; but the strength of will, the supreme power of mind, seemed undiminished.

When Lady Maulevrier was asked if Lesbia should be telegraphed for, she replied no, not unless she was in danger of sudden death.

‘I should like to see her before I go,’ she said, labouring to pronounce the words.

‘Dear grandmother,’ said Mary, tenderly, ‘Mr. Horton says there is no danger.’

‘Then do not send for her; do not even tell her what has happened; not yet.’

‘But she will miss your letters.’

‘True. You must write twice a week at my dictation. You must tell her that I have hurt my hand, that I am well but cannot use a pen. I would not spoil her pleasure for the world.’

‘Dear grandmother, how unselfish you are! And Maulevrier, shall he be sent for? He is not so far away,’ said Mary, hoping her grandmother would say yes.

What a relief, what an unspeakable solace Maulevrier’s presence would be in that dreary house, smitten to a sudden and awful stillness, as if by the Angel of Death!

‘No, I do not want Maulevrier!’ answered her ladyship impatiently.

‘May I sit here and read to you, grandmother?’ Mary asked, timidly. ‘Mr. Horton said you were to be kept very quiet, and that we were not to let you talk, or talk much to you, but that we might read to you if you like.’

‘I do not wish to be read to. I have my thoughts for company,’ said Lady Maulevrier.

Mary felt that this implied a wish to be alone. She bent over the invalid’s pillow and kissed the pale cheek, feeling as if she were taking a liberty in venturing so much. She would hardly have done it had Lesbia been at home; but she had a feeling that in Lesbia’s absence Lady Maulevrier must want somebody’s love — even hers. And then she crept away, leaving Halcott the maid in attendance, sitting at her work at the window furthest from the bed.

‘Alone with my thoughts,’ mused Lady Maulevrier, looking out at the panorama of wintry hills, white, ghost-like against an iron sky. ‘Pleasant thoughts, truly! Walled in by the hills — walled in and hemmed round for ever. This place has always felt like a grave: and now I know that it is my grave.’

Fräulein, and Lady Mary, and the maid Halcott, a sedate personage of forty summers, had all been instructed by the doctor that Lady Maulevrier was to be kept profoundly quiet. She must not talk much, since speech was likely to be a painful effort with her for some little time; she must not be talked to much by anyone, least of all must she be spoken to upon any agitating topic. Life must be made as smooth and easy for her as for a new-born infant. No rough breath from the outer world must come near her. She was to see no one but her maid and her granddaughter. Mr. Horton, a plain family man, took it for granted that the granddaughter was dear to her heart, and likely to exercise a soothing influence. Thus it happened that although Lady Maulevrier asked repeatedly that James Steadman should be brought to her, she was not allowed to see him. She whose will had been paramount in that house, whose word had been law, was now treated as a little child, while the will was still as strong, the mind as keen as ever.

‘She would talk to him of business,’ said Mr. Horton, when he was told of her ladyship’s desire to see Steadman, ‘and that cannot be allowed, not for some little time at least.’

‘She is very angry with us for refusing to obey her,’ said Lady Mary.

‘Naturally, but it is for her own welfare she is disobeyed. She can have nothing to say to Steadman which will not keep till she is better. This establishment goes by clockwork.’

Mary wished it was a little less like clockwork. Since Lady Maulevrier had been lying upstairs — the voice which had once ruled over the house muffled almost to dumbness — the monotony of life at Fellside had seemed all the more oppressive. The servants crept about with stealthier tread. Mary dared not touch either piano or billiard balls, and was naturally seized with a longing to touch both. The house had a darkened-look, as if the shadow of doom overhung it.

During this regimen of perfect quiet Lady Maulevrier was not allowed to see the newspapers; and Mary was warned that in reading to her grandmother she was to avoid all exciting topics. Thus it happened that the account of a terrible collision between the Scotch express and a luggage train, a little way beyond Preston, an accident in which seven people were killed and about thirty seriously hurt, was not made known to her ladyship; and yet that fact would have been of intense interest and significance to her, since one of those passengers whose injuries were fatal bore the name of Louis Asoph.

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