Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 18

‘And Come Agen Be it by Night or Day.’

Those winter months were unutterably dreary for Lady Mary Haselden. She felt weighed down by a sense of death and woe near at hand. The horror of that dreadful moment in which she found her grandmother lying senseless on the ground, the terror of that distorted countenance, those starting eyes, that stertorous breathing, was not easily banished from a vivid girlish imagination; seeing how few distractions there were to divert Mary’s thoughts, and how the sun sank and rose again upon the same inevitable surroundings, to the same monotonous routine.

Her grandmother was kinder than she had been in days gone by, less inclined to find fault; but Mary knew that her society gave Lady Maulevrier very little pleasure, that she could do hardly anything towards filling the gap made by Lesbia’s absence. There was no one to scold her, no one to quarrel with her. Fräulein Müller lectured her mildly from time to time; but that stout German was too lazy to put any force or fire into her lectures. Her reproofs were like the fall of waterdrops on a stone, and infinite ages would have been needed to cause any positive impression.

February came to an end without sign or token from the outer world to disturb the even tenor of life at Fellside. Mary read, and read, and read, till she felt she was made up of the contents of books, crammed with other people’s ideas. She read history, or natural science, or travels, or German poetry in the morning, and novels or English poetry in the evening. She had pledged herself to devote her morning indoor hours to instructive literature, and to accomplish some portion of study in every day. She was carrying on her education on parole, as before stated; and she was too honourable to do less than was expected from her.

March came in with its most leonine aspect, howling and blustering; north-east winds shrieking along the gorges and wailing from height to height.

‘I wonder the lion and the lamb are not blown into the lake,’ said Mary, looking at Helm Crag from the library window.

She scampered about the gardens in the very teeth of those bitter blasts, and took her shivering terriers for runs on the green slopes of the Fell. The snow had gradually melted from the tides of the lowermost range of hills, but the mountain peaks were still white and ghostly, the ground was still hard and slippery in the early mornings. Mary had to take her walks alone in this bleak weather. Fräulein had a convenient bronchial affection which forbade her to venture so much as the point of her nose outside the house in an east wind, and which justified her in occasionally taking her breakfast in bed. She spent her days for the most part in her arm-chair, drawn close to the fireplace, which she still insisted upon calling the oven, knitting diligently, or reading the Rundschau. Even music, which had once been her strong point, was neglected in this trying weather. It was such a cold journey from the oven to the piano.

Mary played a good deal in her desultory manner, now that she had the drawing-room all to herself, and no fear of Lady Maulevrier’s critical ear or Lesbia’s superior smile. The Fräulein was pleased to hear her pupil ramble on with her favourite bits from Raff, and Hensel, and Schubert, and Mendelssohn, and Mozart, and was very well content to let her play just what she liked, and to escape the trouble of training her to that exquisite perfection into which Lady Lesbia had been drilled. Lesbia was not a genius, and the training process had been quite as hard for the governess as for the pupil.

Thus the slow days wore on till the first week in March, and on one bleak bitter afternoon, when Fräulein Müller stuck to the oven even a little closer than usual, Mary felt she must go out, in the face of the east wind, which was tossing the leafless branches in the valley below until the trees looked like an angry crowd, hurling its arms in the air, fighting, struggling, writhing. She must leave that dreary house for a little while, were it even to be lashed and bruised and broken by that fierce wind. So she told Fräulein that she really must have her constitutional; and after a feeble remonstrance Fräulein let her go, and subsided luxuriously into the pillowed depth of her arm-chair.

There had been a hard frost, and all the mountain ways were perilous, so Mary set out upon a steady tramp along the road leading towards the Langdales. The wind seemed to assail her from every side, but she had accustomed herself to defy the elements, and she only hugged her sealskin jacket closer to her, and quickened her pace, chirruping and whistling to Ahab and Ariadne, the two fox-terriers which she had selected for the privilege of a walk.

The terriers raced along the road, and Mary, seeing that she had the road all to herself, raced after them. A light snow-shower, large feathery flakes flying wide apart, fell from the steel-grey sky; but Mary minded the snow no more than she minded the wind. She raced on, the terriers scampering, rushing, flying before her, until, just where the road took a curve, she almost ran into a horse, which was stepping along at a tremendous pace, with a light, high dogcart behind him.

‘Hi!’ cried the driver, ‘where are you coming, young woman? Have you never seen a horse till to-day?’

Some one beside the driver leapt out, and ran to see if Mary was hurt. The horse had swerved to one side, reared a little, and then spun on for a few yards, leaving her standing in the middle of the road.

‘Why, it’s Molly!’ cried the driver, who was no less distinguished a whip than Lord Maulevrier, and who had recognised the terriers.

‘I hope you are not hurt,’ said the gentleman who had alighted, Maulevrier’s friend and shadow, John Hammond.

Mary was covered with confusion by her exploit, and could hardly answer Mr. Hammond’s very simple question.

She looked up at him piteously, trying to speak, and he took alarm at her scared expression.

‘I am sure you are hurt,’ he said earnestly, ‘the horse must have struck you, or the shaft perhaps, which was worse. Is it your shoulder that is hurt, or your chest? Lean on me, if you feel faint or giddy. Maulevrier, you had better drive your sister home, and get her looked after.’

‘Indeed, I am not hurt; not the least little bit,’ gasped Mary, who had recovered her senses by this time. ‘I was only frightened, and it was such a surprise to see you and Maulevrier.’

A surprise — yes — a surprise which had set her heart throbbing so violently as to render her speechless. Had horse or shaft-point struck her ever so, she would have hardly been more tremulous than she felt at this moment. Never had she hoped to see him again. He had set his all upon one cast — loved, wooed, and lost her sister. Why should he ever come again? What was there at Fellside worth coming for? And then she remembered what her grandmother thought of him. He was a hanger-on, a sponge, a led captain. He was Maulevrier’s Umbra, and must go where his patron went. It was a hard thing so to think of him, and Mary’s heart sank at the thought that Lady Maulevrier’s worldly wisdom might have reckoned aright.

‘It was very foolish of me to run into the horse,’ said Mary, while Mr. Hammond stood waiting for her to recover herself.

‘It was very foolish of Maulevrier to run into you. If he didn’t drive at such a break-neck pace it wouldn’t have happened.’

Umbra was very plain-spoken, at any rate.

‘There’s rank ingratitude,’ cried Maulevrier, who had turned back, and was looking down at them from his elevated perch. ‘After my coming all the way round by Langdale to oblige you with a view of Elterwater. Molly’s all safe and sound. She wouldn’t have minded if I’d run over her. Come along, child, get up beside me, Hammond will take the back seat.’

This was easier said than done, for the back of the dogcart was piled with Gladstone bags, fishing rods, and hat-boxes; but Umbra was ready to oblige. He handed Mary up to the seat by the driver, and clambered up at the back, when he hooked himself on somehow among the luggage.

‘Dear Maulevrier, how delicious of you to come!’ said Mary, when they were rattling on towards Fellside; ‘I hope you are going to stay for ages.’

‘Well, I dare say, if you make yourself very agreeable, I may stay till after Easter.’

Mary’s countenance fell.

‘Easter is in three weeks,’ she said, despondingly.

‘And isn’t three weeks an age, at such a place as Fellside? I don’t know that I should have come at all on this side of the August sports, only as the grandmother was ill, I thought it a duty to come and see her. A fellow mayn’t care much for ancestors when they’re well, you know; but when a poor old lady is down on her luck, her people ought to look after her. So, here I am; and as I knew I should be moped to death here ——’

‘Thank you for the compliment,’ said Mary.

‘I brought Hammond along with me. Of course, I knew Lesbia was safe out of the way,’ added Maulevrier in an undertone.

‘It is very obliging of Mr. Hammond always to go where you wish,’ returned Mary, who could not help a bitter feeling when she remembered her grandmother’s cruel suggestion. ‘Has he no tastes or inclinations of his own?’

‘Yes, he has, plenty of them, and much loftier tastes than mine, I can tell you. But he’s kind enough to let me hang on to him, and to put up with my frivolity. There never were two men more different than he and I are; and I suppose that’s why we get on so well together. When we were in Paris he was always up to his eyes in serious work — lectures, public libraries, workmen’s syndicates, Mary Anne, the International — heaven knows what, making himself master of the political situation in France; while I was rigolant and chaloupant at the Bal Bullier.’

It was generous of Maulevrier to speak of his hanger-on thus; and no doubt the society of a well-informed earnest young man was a great good for Maulevrier, a good far above the price of those pounds, shillings, and pence which the Earl might spend for his dependent’s benefit; but when a girl of Mary’s ardent temper has made a hero of a man, it galls her to think that her hero’s dignity should be sacrificed, his honour impeached, were it by the merest tittle.

Maulevrier made a good many inquiries about his grandmother, and seemed really full of kindness and sympathy; but it was with a feeling of profound awe, nay, of involuntary reluctance and shrinking, that he presently entered her ladyship’s sitting-room, ushered in by Mary, who had been to her grandmother beforehand to announce the grandson’s arrival.

The young man had hardly ever been in a sick room before. He half expected to see Lady Maulevrier in bed, with a crowd of medicine bottles and a cut orange on a table by her side, and a sick nurse of the ancient-crone species cowering over the fire. It was an infinite relief to him to find his grandmother lying on a sofa by the fire in her pretty morning room. A little tea-table was drawn close up to her sofa, and she was taking her afternoon tea. It was rather painful to see her lifting her tea-cup slowly and carefully with her left hand, but that was all. The dark eyes still flashed with the old eagle glance, the lines of the lips were as proud and firm as ever. All sign of contraction or distortion had passed away. In hours of calm her ladyship’s beauty was unimpaired; but with any strong emotion there came a convulsive working of the features, and the face was momentarily drawn and distorted, as it had been at the time of the seizure.

Maulevrier’s presence had not an unduly agitating effect on her ladyship. She received him with tranquil graciousness, and thanked him for his coming.

‘I hope you have spent your winter profitably in Paris,’ she said. ‘There is a great deal to be learnt there if you go into the right circles.’

Maulevrier told her that he had found much to learn, and that he had gone into circles where almost everything was new to him. Whereupon his grandmother questioned him about certain noble families in the Faubourg Saint Germain who had been known to her in her own day of power, and whose movements she had observed from a distance since that time; but here she found her grandson dark. He had not happened to meet any of the people she spoke about: the plain truth being that he had lived altogether as a Bohemian, and had not used one of the letters of introduction that had been given to him.

‘Your friend Mr. Hammond is with you, I am told,’ said Lady Maulevrier, not altogether with delight.

‘Yes, I made him come; but he is quite safe. He will bolt like a shot at the least hint of Lesbia’s return. He doesn’t want to meet that young lady again, I can assure you.’

‘Pray don’t talk in that injured tone. Mr. Hammond is a gentlemanlike person, very well informed, very agreeable. I have never denied that. But you could not expect me to allow my granddaughter to throw herself away upon the first adventurer who made her an offer.’

‘Hammond is not an adventurer.’

‘Very well, I will not call him so, if the term offends you. But Mr. Hammond is — Mr. Hammond, and I cannot allow Lesbia to marry Mr. Hammond or Mr. Anybody, and I am very sorry you have brought him here again. There is Mary, a silly, romantic girl. I am very much afraid he has made an impression upon her. She colours absurdly when she talks of him, and flew into a passion with me the other day when I ventured to hint that he is not a Rothschild, and that his society must be expensive to you.’

‘His society does not cost me anything. Hammond is the soul of independence. He worked as a blacksmith in Canada for three months, just to see what life was like in a wild district. There never was such a fellow to rough it. And as for Molly, well, now, really, if he happened to take a fancy to her, and if she happened to like him, I wouldn’t bosh the business, if I were you, grandmother. Take my word for it, Molly might do worse.’

‘Of course. She might marry a chimney sweep. There is no answering for a girl of her erratic nature. She is silly enough and romantic enough for anything; but I shall not countenance her if she wants to throw herself away on a person without prospects or connections; and I look to you, Maulevrier, to take care of her, now that I am a wretched log chained to this room.’

‘You may rely upon me, grandmother, Molly shall come to no harm, if I can help it.’

‘Thank you,’ said her ladyship, touching her bell twice.

The two clear silvery strokes were a summons for Halcott, the maid, who appeared immediately.

‘Tell Mrs. Power to get his lordship’s room ready immediately, and to give Mr. Hammond the room he had last summer,’ said Lady Maulevrier, with a sigh of resignation.

While Maulevrier was with his grandmother John Hammond was smoking a solitary cigar on the terrace, contemplating the mountain landscape in its cold March greyness, and wondering very much to find himself again at Fellside. He had gone forth from that house full of passionate indignation, shaking off the dust from his feet, sternly resolved never again to cross the threshold of that fateful cave, where he had met his cold-hearted Circe. And now, because Circe was safe out of the way, he had come back to the cavern; and he was feeling all the pain that a man feels who beholds again the scene of a great past sorrow.

Was this the old love and the old pain again, he wondered, or was it only the sharp thrust of a bitter memory? He had believed himself cured of his useless love — a great and noble love, wasted on a smaller nature than his own. He had thought that because his eyes were opened, and he understood the character of the girl he loved, his cure must needs be complete. Yet now, face to face with the well-remembered landscape, looking down upon that dull grey lake which he had seen smiling in the sunshine, he began to doubt the completeness of his cure. He recalled the lovely face, the graceful form, the sweet, low voice — the perfection of gracious womanhood, manner, dress, movements, tones, smiles, all faultless; and in the absence of that one figure, it seemed to him as if he had come back to a tenantless, dismantled house, where there was nothing that made life worth living.

The red sun went down — a fierce and lurid face that seemed to scowl through the grey — and Mr. Hammond felt that it was time to arouse himself from gloomy meditation and go in and dress for dinner. Maulevrier’s valet was to arrive by the coach with the heavier part of the luggage, and Maulevrier’s valet did that very small portion of valeting which was ever required by Mr. Hammond. A man who has worked at a forge in the backwoods is not likely to be finicking in his ways, or dependent upon servants for looking after his raiment.

Despite Mr. Hammond’s gloomy memories of past joys and disillusions, he contrived to make himself very agreeable, by-and-by, at dinner, and in the drawing-room after dinner, and the evening was altogether gay and sprightly. Maulevrier was in high spirits, full of his Parisian experiences, and talking slang as glibly as a student of the Quartier Latin. He would talk nothing but French, protesting that he had almost forgotten his native tongue, and his French was the language of Larchey’s Dictionary of Argot, in which nothing is called by its right name. Mary was enchanted with this new vocabulary, and wanted to have every word explained to her; but Maulevrier confessed that there was a good deal that was unexplainable.

The evening was much livelier than those summer evenings when the dowager and Lady Lesbia were present. There was something less of refinement, perhaps, and Fräulein remonstrated now and then about some small violation of the unwritten laws of ‘Anstand,’ but there was more mirth. Maulevrier felt for the first time as if he were master at Fellside. They all went to the billiard room soon after dinner, and Fräulein and Mary sat by the fire looking on, while the two young men played. In such an evening there was no time for bitter memories: and John Hammond was surprised to find how little he had missed that enchantress whose absence had made the house seem desolate to him when he re-entered it.

He was tired with his journey and the varying emotions of the day, for it was not without strong emotion that he had consented to return to Fellside — and he slept soundly for the earlier part of the night. But he had trained himself long ago to do with a very moderate portion of sleep, and he was up and dressed while the dawn was still slowly creeping along the edges of the hills. He went quietly down to the hall, took one of the bamboos from a collection of canes and mountain sticks, and set out upon a morning ramble over the snowy slopes. The snow showers of yesterday had only sprinkled the greensward upon the lower ground, but in the upper regions the winter snows still lingered, giving an Alpine character to the landscape.

John Hammond was too experienced a mountaineer to be deterred by a little snow. He went up Silver Howe, and from the rugged breast of the mountain saw the sun leap up from amidst a chaos of hill and crag, in all his majesty, while the grey mists of night slowly floated up from the valley that had lain hidden below them, and Grasmere Lake sparkled and flashed in the light of the newly-risen sun.

The church clock was striking eight as Hammond came at a brisk pace down to the valley. There was still an hour before breakfast, so he took a circuitous path to Fellside, and descended upon the house from the Fell, as he had done that summer morning when he saw James Steadman sauntering about in his garden.

Within about a quarter of a mile of Lady Maulevrier’s shrubberies Mr. Hammond encountered a pedestrian, who, like himself, was evidently taking a constitutional ramble in the morning air, but on a much less extended scale, for this person did not look capable of going far afield.

He was an old man, something under middle height, but looking as if he had once been taller; for his shoulders were much bent, and his head was sunk on his chest. His whole form looked wasted and shrunken, and John Hammond thought he had never seen so old a man — or at any rate any man who was so deeply marked with all the signs of extreme age; and yet in the backwoods of America he had met ancient settlers who remembered Franklin, and who had been boys when the battle of Bunker’s Hill was fresh in the memory of their fathers and mothers.

The little old man was clad in a thick grey overcoat of some shaggy kind of cloth which looked like homespun. He wore a felt hat, and carried a thick oak stick, and there was nothing in his appearance to indicate that he belonged to any higher grade than that of the shepherds and guides with whom Hammond had made himself familiar during his previous visit. And yet there was something distinctive about the man, Hammond thought, something wild and uncanny, which made him unlike any of those hale and hearty-looking dalesmen on whom old age sate so lightly. No, John Hammond could not fancy this man, with his pallid countenance and pale crafty eyes, to be of the same race as those rugged and honest-looking descendants of the Norsemen.

Perhaps it was the man’s exceeding age, for John Hammond made up his mind that he must be a centenarian, which gave him so strange and unholy an air. He had the aspect of a man who had been buried and brought back to life again.

So might look one of those Indian Fakirs who have the power to suspend life by some mysterious process, and to lie in the darkness of the grave for a given period, and then at their own will to resume the functions of the living. His long white hair fell upon the collar of his grey coat, and would have given him a patriarchal appearance had the face possessed the dignity of age: but it was a countenance without dignity, a face deeply scored with the lines of evil passions and guilty memories — the face of the vulture, with a touch of the ferret — altogether a most unpleasant face, Mr. Hammond thought.

And yet there was a kind of fascination about that bent and shrunken figure, those feeble movements, and shuffling gait. John Hammond turned to look after the old man when he had passed him, and stood to watch him as he went slowly up the Fell, plant his crutch stick upon the ground before every footstep, as if it were a third leg, and more serviceable than either of the other two.

Mr. Hammond watched him for two or three minutes, but, as the old man’s movements had an automatic regularity, the occupation soon palled, and he turned and walked toward Fellside. A few yards nearer the grounds he met James Steadman, walking briskly, and smoking his morning pipe.

‘You are out early this morning,’ said Hammond, by way of civility.

‘I am always pretty early, sir. I like a mouthful of morning air.’

‘So do I. By-the-bye, can you tell me anything about a queer-looking old man I passed just now a little higher up the Fell? Such an old, old man, with long white hair.’

‘Yes, sir. I believe I know him.’

‘Who is he? Does he live in Grasmere?’

Steadman looked puzzled.

‘Well, you see, sir, your description might apply to a good many; but if it’s the man I think you mean he lives in one of the cottages behind the church. Old Barlow, they call him.’

‘There can’t be two such men — he must be at least a century old. If any one told me he were a hundred and twenty I shouldn’t be inclined to doubt the fact. I never saw such a shrivelled, wrinkled visage, bloodless, too, as if the poor old wretch never felt your fresh mountain air upon his hollow cheeks. A dreadful face. It will haunt me for a month.’

‘It must be old Barlow,’ replied Steadman. ‘Good day, sir.’

He walked on with his swinging step, and at such a pace that he was up the side of the Fell and close upon old Barlow’s heels when Hammond turned to look after him five minutes later.

‘There’s a man who shows few traces of age, at any rate,’ thought Hammond. ‘Yet her ladyship told me that he is over seventy.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/phantom_fortune/chapter18.html

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