Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 19

The Old Man on the Fell.

Having made up his mind to stay at Fellside until after Easter, Maulevrier settled down very quietly — for him. He rode a good deal, fished a little, looked after his dogs, played billiards, made a devout appearance in the big square pew at St. Oswald’s on Sunday mornings, and behaved altogether as a reformed character. Even his grandmother was fain to admit that Maulevrier was improved, and that Mr. Hammond’s influence upon him must be exercised for good and not for evil.

‘I plunged awfully last year, and the year before that,’ said Maulevrier, sitting at tea in her ladyship’s morning room one afternoon about a week after his return, when she had expressed her gracious desire that the two young men should take tea with her.

Mary was in charge of the tea-pot and brass kettle, and looked as radiant and as fresh as a summer morning. A regular Gainsborough girl, Hammond called her, when he praised her to her brother; a true English beauty, unsophisticated, a little rustic, but full of youthful sweetness.

‘You see, I didn’t know what a racing stable meant,’ continued Maulevrier, mildly apologetic —‘in fact, I thought it was an easy way for a nobleman to make as good a living as your City swells, with their soft goods or their Brummagem ware, a respectable trade for a gentleman to engage in. And it was only when I was half ruined that I began to understand the business; and as soon as I did understand it I made up my mind to get out of it; and I am happy to say that I sold the very last of my stud in February, and Tony Lumpkin is his own man again. So you may welcome the prodigal grandson, and order the fatted calf to be slain, grandmother!’

Lady Maulevrier stretched out her left hand to him, and the young man bent over it and kissed it affectionately. He felt really touched by her misfortunes, and was fonder of her than he had ever been before. She had been somewhat hard with him in his boyhood, but she had always cared for his dignity and protected his interests: and, after all, she was a noble old woman, a grandmother of whom a man might be justly proud. He thought of the painted harridans, the bare-shouldered skeletons, whom some of his young friends were obliged to own in the same capacity, and he was thankful that he could reverence his father’s mother.

‘That is the best news I have heard for a long time, Maulevrier,’ said her ladyship graciously; ‘better medicine for my nerves than any of Mr. Horton’s preparations. If Mr. Hammond’s advice has influenced you to get rid of your stable I am deeply grateful to Mr. Hammond.’

Hammond smiled as he sipped his tea, sitting close to Mary’s tray, ready to fly to her assistance on the instant should the brazen kettle become troublesome. It had a threatening way of hissing and bubbling over its spirit lamp.

‘Oh, you have no idea what a fellow Hammond is to lecture,’ answered Maulevrier. ‘He is a tremendous Radical, and he thinks that every young man in my position ought to be a reformer, and devote the greater part of his time and trouble to turning out the dirty corners of the world, upsetting those poor dear families who like to pig together in one room, ordering all the children off to school, marrying the fathers and mothers, thrusting himself between free labour and free beer, and interfering with the liberty of the subject in every direction.’

‘All that may sound like Radicalism, but I think it is the true Conservatism, and that every young man ought to do as much, if he wants this timeworn old country to maintain its power and prosperity,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, with an approving glance at John Hammond’s thoughtful face.

‘Right you are, grandmother,’ returned Maulevrier, ‘and I believe Hammond calls himself a Conservative, and means to vote with the Conservatives.’

Means to vote! An idle phrase, surely, thought her ladyship, where the young man’s chance of getting into Parliament was so remote.

That afternoon tea in Lady Maulevrier’s room was almost as cheerful as the tea-drinkings in the drawing-room, unrestrained by her ladyship’s presence. She was pleased with her grandson’s conduct, and was therefore inclined to be friendly to his friend. She could see an improvement in Mary, too. The girl was more feminine, more subdued, graver, sweeter; more like that ideal woman of Wordsworth’s, whose image embodies all that is purest and fairest in womanhood.

Mary had not forgotten that unlucky story about the fox-hunt, and ever since Hammond’s return she had been as it were on her best behaviour, refraining from her races with the terriers, and holding herself aloof from Maulevrier’s masculine pursuits. She sheltered herself a good deal under the Fräulein’s substantial wing, and took care never to intrude herself upon the amusements of her brother and his friend. She was not one of those young women who think a brother’s presence an excuse for a perpetual tête-à-tête with a young man. Yet when Maulevrier came in quest of her, and entreated her to join them in a ramble, she was not too prudish to refuse the pleasure she so thoroughly enjoyed. But afternoon tea was her privileged hour — the time at which she wore her prettiest frock, and forgot to regret her inferiority to Lesbia in all the graces of womanhood.

One afternoon, when they had all three walked to Easedale Tarn, and were coming back by the side of the force, picking their way among the grey stones and the narrow threads of silvery water, it suddenly occurred to Hammond to ask Mary about that queer old man he had seen on the Fell nearly a fortnight before. He had often thought of making the inquiry when he was away from Mary, but had always forgotten the thing when he was with her. Indeed, Mary had a wonderful knack of making him forget everything but herself.

‘You seem to know every creature in Grasmere, down to the two-year-old babies,’ said Hammond, Mary having just stopped to converse with an infantine group, straggling and struggling over the boulders. ‘Pray, do you happen to know a man called Barlow, a very old man?’

‘Old Sam Barlow,’ exclaimed Mary; ‘why, of course I know him.’

She said it as if he were a near relative, and the question palpably absurd.

‘He is an old man, a hundred, at least, I should think,’ said Hammond.

‘Poor old Sam, not much on the wrong side of eighty. I go to see him every week, and take him his week’s tobacco, poor old dear. It is his only comfort.’

‘Is it?’ asked Hammond. ‘I should have doubted his having so humanising a taste as tobacco. He looks too evil a creature ever to have yielded to the softening influence of a pipe.’

‘An evil creature! What, old Sam? Why he is the most genial old thing, and as cheery — loves to hear the newspaper read to him — the murders and railway accidents. He doesn’t care for politics. Everybody likes old Sam Barlow.’

‘I fancy the Grasmere idea of reverend and amiable age must be strictly local. I can only say that I never saw a more unholy countenance.’

‘You must have been dreaming when you saw him,’ said Mary. ‘Where did you meet him?’

‘On the Fell, about a quarter of a mile from the shrubbery gate.’

Did you? I shouldn’t have thought he could have got so far. I’ve a good mind to take you to see him, this very afternoon, before we go home.’

‘Do,’ exclaimed Hammond, ‘I should like it immensely. I thought him a hateful-looking old person; but there was something so thoroughly uncanny about him that he exercised an absolute fascination upon me: he magnetised me, I think, as the green-eyed cat magnetises the bird. I have been positively longing to see him again. He is a kind of human monster, and I hope some one will have a big bottle made ready for him and preserve him in spirits when he dies.’

‘What a horrid idea! No, sir, dear old Barlow shall lie beside the Rotha, under the trees Wordsworth planted. He is such a man as Wordsworth would have loved.’

Mr. Hammond shrugged his shoulders, and said no more. Mary’s little vehement ways, her enthusiasm, her love of that valley, which might be called her native place, albeit her eyes had opened upon heaven’s light far away, her humility, were all very delightful in their way. She was not a perfect beauty, like Lesbia; but she was a fresh, pure-minded English girl, frank as the day, and if he had had a brother he would have recommended that brother to choose just such a girl for his wife.

Mr. Samuel Barlow occupied a little old cottage, which seemed to consist chiefly of a gable end and a chimney stack, in that cluster of dwellings behind St. Oswald’s church, which was once known as the Kirk Town. Visitors went downstairs to get to Mr. Barlow’s ground-floor, for the influence of time and advancing civilisation had raised the pathway in front of Mr. Barlow’s cottage until his parlour had become of a cellar-like aspect. Yet it was a very nice little parlour when one got down to it, and it enjoyed winter and summer a perpetual twilight, since the light that crept through the leaded casement was tempered by a screen of flowerpots, which were old Barlow’s particular care. There were no finer geraniums in all Grasmere than Barlow’s, no bigger carnations or picotees, asters or arums.

It was about five o’clock in the March afternoon, when Mary ushered John Hammond into Mr. Barlow’s dwelling, and, in the dim glow of a cheery little fire and the faint light that filtered through the screen of geranium leaves, the visitor looked for a moment or so doubtfully at the owner of the cottage. But only for a moment. Those bright blue eyes and apple cheeks, that benevolent expression, bore no likeness to the strange old man he had seen on the Fell. Mr. Barlow was toothless and nut-cracker like of outline; he was thin and shrunken, and bent with the burden of long years, but his healthy visage had none of those deep lines, those cross markings and hollows which made the pallid countenance of that other old man as ghastly as would be the abstract idea of life’s last stage embodied by the bitter pencil of a Hogarth.

‘I have brought a gentleman from London to see you, Sam,’ said Mary. ‘He fancied he met you on the Fell the other morning.’

Barlow rose and quavered a cheery welcome, but protested against the idea of his having got so far as the Fell.

‘With my blessed rheumatics, you know it isn’t in me, Lady Mary. I shall never get no further than the churchyard; but I likes to sit on the wall hard by Wordsworth’s tomb in a warm afternoon, and to see the folks pass over the bridge; and I can potter about looking after my flowers, I can. But it would be a dull life, now the poor old missus is gone and the bairns all out at service, if it wasn’t for some one dropping in to have a chat, or read me a bit of the news sometimes. And there isn’t anybody in Grasmere, gentle or simple, that’s kinder to me than you, Lady Mary. Lord bless you, I do look forward to my newspaper. Any more of them dreadful smashes?’

‘No, Sam, thank Heaven, there have been no railway accidents.’

‘Ah, we shall have ’em in August and September,’ said the old man, cheerily. ‘They’re bound to come then. There’s a time for all things, as Solomon says. When the season comes t’smashes all coom. And no more of these mysterious murders, I suppose, which baffle t’police and keep me awake o’ nights thinking of ’em.’

‘Surely you do not take delight in murder, Mr. Barlow?’ said Hammond.

‘No, sir, I do not wish my fellow-creatures to mak’ awa’ wi’ each other; but if there is a murder going in the papers I like to get the benefit of it. I like to sit in front of my fire of an evening and wonder about it while I smoke my pipe, and fancy I can see the murderer hiding in a garret in an out-of-the-way alley, or as a stowaway on board a gert ship, or as a miner deep down in a coalpit, and never thinking that even there t’police can track him. Did you ever hear tell o’ Mr. de Quincey, sir?’

‘I believe I have read every line he ever wrote.’

‘Ah, you should have heard him talk about murders. It would have made you dream queer dreams, just as he did. He lived for years in the white cottage that Wordsworth once lived in, just behind the street yonder — a nice, neat, lile gentleman, in a houseful of books. I’ve had many a talk with him when I was a young man.’

‘And how old may you he now, Mr. Barlow?’

‘Getting on for eighty four, sir.’

‘But you are not the oldest man in Grasmere, I should say, by twenty years?’

‘I don’t think there’s many much older than me, sir.’

‘The man I saw on the Fell looked at least a hundred. I wish you could tell me who he is; I feel a morbid curiosity about him.’

He went on to describe the old man in the grey coat, as minutely as he could, dwelling on every characteristic of that singular-looking old person; but Samuel Barlow could not identify the description with any one in Grasmere. Yet a man of that age, seen walking on the hill-side at eight in the morning, could hardly have come from far afield.

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