Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 17

‘And the Spring Comes Slowly up this Way.’

The wintry weeks glided smoothly by in a dull monotony, and now Lady Maulevrier, still helpless, still compelled to lie on her bed or her invalid couch, motionless as marble, had at least recovered her power of speech, was allowed to read and to talk, and to hear what was going on in that metropolitan world which she seemed unlikely ever to behold again.

Lady Lesbia was still at Cannes, whence she wrote of her pleasures and her triumphs, of flowers and sapphire sea, and azure sky, of all things which were not in the grey bleak mountain world that hemmed in Fellside. She was meeting many of the people whom she was to meet again next season in the London world. She had made an informal début in a very select circle, a circle in which everybody was more or less chic, or chien, or zinc, and she was tasting all the sweets of success. But in none of her letters was there any mention of Lord Hartfield. He was not in the little great world by the blue tideless sea.

There was no talk of Lesbia’s return. She was to stay till the carnival; she was to stay till the week before Easter. Lady Kirkbank insisted upon it; and both Lesbia and Lady Kirkbank upbraided Lady Maulevrier for her cruelty in not joining them at Cannes.

So Lady Maulevrier had to resign herself to that solitude which had become almost the habit of her life, and to the society of Mary and the Fräulein. Mary was eager to be of use, to sit with her grandmother, to read to her, to write for her. The warm young heart was deeply moved by the spectacle of this stately woman stricken into helplessness, chained to her couch, immured within four walls. To Mary, who so loved the hills and the streams, the sun and the wind, this imprisonment seemed unspeakable woe. In her pity for such a martyrdom she would have done anything to give pleasure or solace to her grandmother. Unhappily there was very little Mary could do to increase the invalid’s sum of pleasure. Lady Maulevrier was a woman of strong feeling, not capable of loving many people. She had concentrated her affection upon Lesbia: and she could not open her heart to Mary all at once because Lesbia was out of the way.

‘If I had a dog I loved, and he were to die, I would never have another in his place,’ Lady Maulevrier said once; and that speech was the keynote of her character.

She was very courteous to Mary, and seemed grateful for her attentions; but she did not cultivate the girl’s society. Mary wrote all her letters in a fine bold hand, and with a rapid pen; but when the letter-writing was over Lady Maulevrier always dismissed her.

‘My dear, you want to be out in the air, riding your pony, or scampering about with your dogs,’ she said, kindly. ‘It would be a cruelty to keep you indoors.’

‘No, indeed, dear grandmother, I should like to stay. May I stop and read to you?’

‘No, thank you, Mary. I hate being read to. I like to devour a book. Reading aloud is such slow work.

‘But I am afraid you must sometimes feel lonely,’ faltered Mary.

‘Lonely,’ echoed the dowager, with a sigh. ‘I have been lonely for the last forty years — I have been lonely all my life. Those I loved never gave me back love for love — never — not even your sister. See how lightly she cuts the link that bound her to me. How happy she is among strangers! Yes, there was one who loved me truly, and fate parted us. Does fate part all true lovers, I wonder?’

‘You parted Lesbia and Mr. Hammond,’ said Mary, impetuously. ‘I am sure they loved each other truly.’

‘The old and the worldly-wise are Fate, Mary,’ answered the dowager, not angry at this daring reproach. ‘I know your sister; and I know she is not the kind of woman to be happy in an ignoble life — to bear poverty and deprivation. If it had been you, now, whom Mr. Hammond had chosen, I might have taken the subject into my consideration.’

Mary flamed crimson.

‘Mr. Hammond never gave me a thought,’ she said, ‘unless it was to think me contemptible. He is worlds too good for such a Tomboy. Maulevrier told him about the fox-hunt, and they both laughed at me — at least I have no doubt Mr. Hammond laughed, though I was too much ashamed to look at him.’

‘Poor Mary, you are beginning to find out that a young lady ought to be ladylike,’ said Lady Maulevrier; ‘and now, my dear, you may go. I was only joking with you. Mr. Hammond would be no match for any granddaughter of mine. He is nobody, and has neither friends nor interest. If he had gone into the church Maulevrier could have helped him; but I daresay his ideas are too broad for the church; and he will have to starve at the bar, where nobody can help him. I hope you will bear this in mind, Mary, if Maulevrier should ever bring him here again.’

‘He is never likely to come back again. He suffered too much; he was treated too badly in this house.’

‘Lady Mary, be good enough to remember to whom you are speaking,’ said her ladyship, with a frown. ‘And now please go, and tell some one to send Steadman to me.’

Mary retired without a word, gave Lady Maulevrier’s message to a footman in the corridor, slipped off to her room, put on her sealskin hat and jacket, took her staff and went out for a long ramble. The hills and valleys were still white. It had been a long, cold winter, and spring was still far off — February had only just begun.

Lady Maulevrier’s couch had been wheeled into the morning-room — that luxurious room which was furnished with all things needful to her quiet life, her books, her favourite colours, her favourite flowers, every detail studiously arranged for her pleasure and comfort. She was wheeled into this room every day at noon. When the day was bright and sunny her couch was placed near the window: and when the day was dull and grey the couch was drawn close to the low hearth, which flashed and glittered with brightly coloured tiles and artistic brass.

To-day the sky was dull, and the velvet couch stood beside the hearth. Halcott sat at work in the adjoining bed-chamber, and came in every now and then to replenish the fire: a footman was always on duty in the corridor. A spring bell stood among the elegant trifles upon her ladyship’s table; and the lightest touch of her left hand upon the bell brought her attendants to her side. She resolutely refused to have any one sitting with her all day long. Solitude was a necessity of her being, she told Mr. Horton, when he recommended that she should have some one always in attendance upon her.

As the weeks wore on her features had been restored to their proud, calm beauty, her articulation was almost as clear as of old: yet, now and then, there would be a sudden faltering, the tongue and lips would refuse their office, or she would forget a word, or use a wrong word unconsciously. But there was no recovery of power or movement on that side of the body which had been stricken. The paralysed limbs were still motionless, lifeless as marble; and it was clear that Mr. Horton had begun to lose heart about his patient. There was nothing obscure in the case, but the patient’s importance made the treatment a serious matter, and the surgeon begged to be allowed to summon Sir William Jenner.

This, however, Lady Maulevrier refused.

‘I don’t want any fuss made about me,’ she said. ‘I am content to trust myself to your skill, and I beg that no other doctor may be summoned.’

Mr. Horton understood his patient’s feelings on this point. She had a sense of humiliation in her helplessness, and, like some wounded animal that crawls to its covert to die, she would fain have hidden her misery from the eye of strangers. She had allowed no one, not even Maulevrier, to be informed of the nature of her illness.

‘It will be time enough for him to know all about me when he comes here,’ she said. ‘I shall be obliged to see him whenever he does come.’

Maulevrier had spent Christmas and New Year in Paris, Mr. Hammond still his companion. Her ladyship commented upon this with a touch of scorn.

‘Mr. Hammond is like the Umbra you were reading about the other day in Lord Lytton’s “Last Days of Pompeii,”’ she said to Mary. ‘It must be very nice for him to go about the world with a friend who franks him everywhere.’

‘But we don’t know that Maulevrier franks him,’ protested Mary, blushing. ‘We have no right to suppose that Mr. Hammond does not pay his own expenses.’

‘My dear child, is it possible for a young man who has no private means to go gadding about the world on equal terms with a spendthrift like Maulevrier — to pay for Moors in Scotland and apartments at the Bristol?’

‘But they are not staying at the Bristol,’ exclaimed Mary.

‘They are staying at an old-established French hotel on the left side of the Seine. They are going about amongst the students and the workmen, dining at popular restaurants, hearing people talk. Maulevrier says it is delightfully amusing — ever so much better than the beaten track of life in Anglo–American Paris.’

‘I daresay they are leading a Bohemian life, and will get into trouble before they have done,’ said her ladyship, gloomily.

‘Maulevrier is as wild as a hawk.’

‘He is the dearest boy in the world,’ exclaimed Mary.

She was deeply grateful for her brother’s condescension in writing her a letter of two pages long, letting her into the secrets of his life. She felt as if Mr. Hammond were ever so much nearer to her now she knew where he was, and how he was amusing himself.

‘Hammond is such a queer fellow,’ wrote Maulevrier, ‘the strangest things interest him. He sits and talks to the workmen for hours; he pokes his nose into all sorts of places — hospitals, workshops, poverty-stricken dens — and people are always civil to him. He is what Lesbia calls sympatico. Ah! what a mistake Lesbia and my grandmother made when they rejected Hammond! What a pearl above price they threw away! But, you see, neither my lady nor Lesbia could appreciate a gem, unless it was richly set.’

And now Lady Maulevrier lay on her couch by the fire, waiting for James Steadman. She had seen him several times since the day of her seizure, but never alone. There was an idea that Steadman must necessarily talk to her of business matters, or cause her mind to trouble itself about business matters; so there had been a well-intentioned conspiracy in the house to keep him out of her way; but now she was much better, and her desire to see Steadman need no longer be thwarted.

He came at her bidding, and stood a little way within the door, tall, erect, square-shouldered, resolute-looking, with a quiet force of character expressed in every feature. He was very much the same man that he had been forty years ago, when he went with her ladyship to Southampton, and accompanied his master and mistress on that tedious journey which was destined to be Lord Maulevrier’s last earthly pilgrimage. Time had done little to Steadman in those forty years, except to whiten his hair and beard, and imprint some thoughtful lines upon his sagacious forehead. Time had done something for him mentally, insomuch as he had read a great many books and cultivated his mind in the monotonous quiet of Fellside. Altogether he was a superior man for the passage of those forty years.

He had married within the time, choosing for himself the buxom daughter of a lodgekeeper, whose wife had long been laid at rest in Grasmere churchyard. The buxom girl had grown into a bulky matron, but she was a colourless personage, and her existence made hardly any difference in James Steadman’s life. She had brought him no children, and their fireside was lonely; but Steadman seemed to be one of those self-contained personages to whom a solitary life is no affliction.

‘I hope I see you in better health, my lady,’ he said, standing straight and square, like a soldier on parade.

‘I am better, thank you, Steadman; better, but a poor lifeless log chained to this sofa. I sent for you because the time has come when I must talk to you upon a matter of business. You heard, I suppose, that a stranger called upon me just before I had my attack?’

‘Yes, my lady.’

‘Did you hear who and what he was?’

‘Only that he was a foreigner, my lady.’

‘He is of Indian birth. He claims to be the son of the Ranee of Bisnagar.’

‘He could do you no harm, my lady, if he were twenty times her son.’

‘I hope not. Now, I want to ask you a question. Among those trunks and cases and packages of Lord Maulevrier’s which were sent here by heavy coach, after they were landed at Southampton, do you remember two cases of books?’

‘There are two large cases among the luggage, my lady; very heavy cases, iron clamped. I should not be surprised if they were full of books.’

‘Have they never been opened?’

‘Not to my knowledge.’

‘Are they locked?’

‘Yes, my lady. There are two padlocks on each chest.’

‘And are the keys in your possession?’

‘No, my lady.’

‘Where are the cases?’

‘In the Oak Room, with the rest of the Indian luggage.’

‘Let them remain there. No doubt those cases contain the books of which I have been told. You have not heard that the person calling himself Rajah of Bisnagar has been here since my illness, have you?’

‘No, my lady; I am sure he has not been here.’

Lady Maulevrier gave him a scrutinising look.

‘He might have come, and my people might have kept the knowledge from me, out of consideration for my infirmity,’ she said. ‘I should be very angry if it were so. I should hate to be treated like a child.’

‘You shall not be so treated, my lady, while I am in this house; but I know there is no member of the household who would presume so to treat you.’

‘They might do it out of kindness; but I should loathe such kindness,’ said Lady Maulevrier, impatiently. ‘Though I have been smitten down, though I lie here like a log, I have a mind to think and to plan; and I am not afraid to meet danger, face to face. Are you telling me the truth, Steadman? Have there been no visits concealed from me, no letters kept from me since I have been ill?’

‘I am telling you nothing but the truth, my lady. No letter has been kept from you; no visitor has been to this house whose coming you have not been told of.’

‘Then I am content,’ said her ladyship, with a sigh of relief.

After this there followed some conversation upon business matters. James Steadman was trusted with the entire management of the dowager’s income, the investment of her savings. His honesty was above all suspicion. He was a man of simple habits, his wants few. He had saved money in every year of his service; and for a man of his station was rich enough to be unassailable by the tempter.

He had reconciled his mind to the monotonous course of life at Fellside in the beginning of things; and, as the years glided smoothly by, his character and wants and inclinations had, as it were, moulded themselves to fit that life. He had easy duties, a comfortable home, supreme authority in the household. He was looked up to and made much of in the village whenever he condescended to appear there; and by the rareness of his visits to the Inn or the Reading-room, and his unwillingness to accept hospitality from the tradesmen of Grasmere and Ambleside, he maintained his dignity and exaggerated his importance. He had his books and his newspapers, his evening leisure, which no one ever dared to disturb. He had the old wing of the house for his exclusive occupation; and no one ventured to intrude upon him in his privacy. There was a bell in the corridor which communicated with his rooms, and by this bell he was always summoned. There were servants who had been ten years at Fellside, and who had never crossed the threshold of the red cloth door which was the only communication between the new house and the old one. Steadman’s wife performed all household duties of cooking and cleaning in the south wing, where she and her husband took all their meals, and lived entirely apart from the other servants, an exclusiveness which was secretly resented by the establishment.

‘Mr. Steadman may be a very superior man,’ said the butler ‘and I know that in his own estimation the Premier isn’t in it compared with him; but I never was fond of people who set themselves upon pinnacles, and I’m not fond of the Steadmans.’

‘Mrs. Steadman’s plain and homely enough,’ replied the housekeeper, ‘and I know she’d like to be more sociable, and drop into my room for a cup of tea now and then; but Steadman do so keep her under his thumb: and because he’s a misanthrope she’s obliged to sit and mope alone.’

If Steadman wanted to drive, there was a dogcart and horse at his disposal; but he did not often leave Fellside. He seemed in his humble way to model his life upon Lady Maulevrier’s secluded habits. It was growing dusk when Steadman left his mistress, and she lay for some time looking at the landscape over which twilight shadows were stealing, and thinking of her own life. Over that life, too, the shadows of evening were creeping. She had began to realise the fact that she was an old woman; that for her all personal interest in life was nearly over. She had never felt her age while her activity was unimpaired. She had been obliged to remind herself very often that the afternoon and evening of life had slipped away unawares in that tranquil retirement, and that the night was at hand.

For her the close of earthly life meant actual night. No new dawn, no mysterious after-life shone upon her with magical gleams of an unknown light upon the other side of the dark river. She had accepted the Materialist’s bitter and barren creed, and had taught herself that this little life was all. She had learned to scorn the idea of a great Artificer outside the universe, a mighty spirit riding amidst the clouds, and ruling the course of nature and the fate of man. She had schooled herself to think that the idea of a blind, unconscious Nature, working automatically through infinite time and space, was ever so much grander than the old-world notion of a personal God, a Being of infinite power and inexhaustible beneficence, mighty to devise and direct the universe, with knowledge reaching to the farthest confines of space, with ear to listen to the prayer of His lowest creatures. Her belief stopped short even of the Deist’s faith in an Almighty Will. She saw in creation nothing but the inevitable development of material laws; and it seemed to her that there was quite as much hope of a heavenly world after death for the infusoria in the pool as for man in his pride and power.

She read her Bible as diligently as she read her Shakespeare, and the words of the Royal Preacher in some measure embodied her own dreary creed. And now, in the darkening winter day, she watched the gloomy shadows creep over the rugged breast of Nabb Scar, and she thought how there was a time for all things, and that her day of hope and ambition was past.

Of late years she had lived for Lesbia, looking forward to the day when she was to introduce this beloved grandchild to the great world of London; and now that hope was gone for ever.

What could a helpless cripple do for a fashionable beauty? What good would it be for her to be conveyed to London, and to lie on a couch in Mayfair, while Lesbia rode in the Row and went to three or four parties every night with a more active chaperon?

She had hoped to go everywhere with her darling, to glory in all her successes, to shield her from all possibility of failure. And now Lesbia must stand or fall alone.

It was a hard thing; but perhaps the hardest part of it was that Lesbia seemed so very well able to get on without her. The girl wrote in the highest spirits; and although her letters were most affectionately worded, they were all about self. That note was dominant in every strain. Her triumphs, her admirers, her bonnets, her gowns. She had had more money from her grandmother, and more gowns from Paris.

‘You have no idea how the people dress in this place,’ she wrote. ‘I should have been quite out in the cold without my three new frocks from Worth. The little Princess bonnets I wear are the rage. Worth recommended me to adopt special flowers and colours; so I have worn nothing but primroses since I have been here, and my little primrose bonnets are to be seen everywhere, sometimes on hideous old women. Lady Kirkbank hopes you will be able to go to London directly after Easter. She says I must be presented at the May drawing-room — that is imperative. People have begun to talk about me; and unless I make my début while their interest is fresh I shall be a failure. There is an American beauty here, and I believe she and I are considered rivals, and young men lay wagers about us, as to which will look best at a ball, or a regatta, what colours we shall wear, and so on. It is immense fun. I only wish you were here to enjoy it. The American girl is a most insolent person, but I have had the pleasure of crushing her on several occasions in the calmest way. In the description of the concert in last week’s newspaper I was called l’Anglais de marbre. I certainly had the decency to hold my tongue while Faure was singing. Miss Bolsover’s voice was heard ever so many times above the music. According to our English ideas she has most revolting manners, and the money she spends on her clothes would make your hair stand on end. Now do, dearest grandmother, make all your arrangements for beginning the campaign directly after Easter. You must take a house in the very choicest quarter — Lady Kirkbank suggests Grosvenor-place — and it must be a large house, for of course you will give a ball. Lady K. says we might have Lord Porlock’s house — poor Lady Porlock and her baby died a few weeks ago, and he has gone to Sweden quite broken-hearted. It is one of the new houses, exquisitely furnished, and Lady K. thinks you might have it for a song. Will you get Steadman to write to his lordship’s steward, and see what can be done?

‘I hope the dear hand is better. You have never told me how you hurt it. It is very sweet of Mary to write me such long letters, and quite a pleasant surprise to find she can spell; but I want to see your own dear hand once more.’

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