Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Ulysses.

October was ending drearily with north-east winds, dust, drifting dead leaves, and a steel-grey sky; and the Dolphin Hotel at Southampton was glorified by the presence of Lady Maulevrier and suite. Her ladyship’s suite was on this occasion limited to three servants — her French maid, a footman, and a kind of factotum, a man of no distinct and arbitrary signification in her ladyship’s household, neither butler nor steward, but that privileged being, an old and trusted servant, and a person who was supposed to enjoy more of Lady Maulevrier’s confidence than any other member of her establishment.

This James Steadman had been valet to her ladyship’s father, Lord Peverill, during the declining years of that nobleman. The narrow limits of a sick room had brought the master and servant into a closer companionship than is common to that relation. Lady Diana Angersthorpe was a devoted daughter, and in her attendance upon the Earl during the last three years of his life — a life which closed more than a year before her own marriage — she saw a great deal of James Steadman, and learned to trust him as servants are not often trusted. He was not more than twenty years of age at the beginning of his service, but he was a man of extraordinary gravity, much in advance of his years; a man of shrewd common-sense and clear, sharp intellect. Not a reading man, or a man in any way superior to his station and belongings, but a man who could think quickly, and understand quickly, and who always seemed to think rightly. Prompt in action, yet steady as a rock, and to all appearance recognising no earthly interest, no human tie, beyond or above the interests of his master. As a nurse Steadman showed himself invaluable. Lord Peverill left him a hundred pounds in acknowledgment of his services, which was something for Lord Peverill, who had very little ready cash wherewith to endow his only daughter. After his death the title and the estates went to a distant cousin; Lady Diana Angersthorpe was taken in hand by her aunt, the Dowager Marchioness of Carrisbrook; and James Steadman would have had to find employment among strangers, if Lady Diana had not pleaded so urgently with her aunt as to secure him a somewhat insignificant post in her ladyship’s establishment.

‘If ever I have a house, of my own, you shall have a better place in it, Steadman,’ said Lady Diana.

She kept her word, and on her marriage with Lord Maulevrier, which happened about eighteen months afterwards, Steadman passed into that nobleman’s service. He was a member of her ladyship’s bodyguard, and his employment seemed to consist chiefly in poking fires, cutting the leaves of books and newspapers, superintending the footman’s attendance upon her ladyship’s household pets, and conveying her sentiments to the other servants. He was in a manner Lady Maulevrier’s mouthpiece, and although treated with a respect that verged upon awe, he was not a favourite with the household.

And now the house in Mayfair was given over to the charge of caretakers. All the other servants had been despatched by coach to her ladyship’s favourite retreat in Westmoreland, within a few miles of the Laureate’s home at Rydal Mount, and James Steadman was charged with the whole responsibility of her ladyship’s travelling arrangements.

Penelope had come to Southampton to wait for Ulysses, whose ship had been due for more than a week, and whose white sails might be expected above the horizon at any moment. James Steadman spent a good deal of his time waiting about at the docks for the earliest news of Greene’s ship, the Hypermnestra; while Lady Maulevrier waited patiently in her sitting-room at the Dolphin, whose three long French windows commanded a full view of the High Street, with all those various distractions afforded by the chief thoroughfare of a provincial town. Her ladyship was provided with a large box of books, from Ebers’ in Bond Street, a basket of fancy work, and her favourite Blenheim spaniel, Lalla Rookh; but even these sources of amusement did not prevent the involuntary expression of weariness in occasional yawns, and frequent pacings up and down the room, where the formal hotel furniture had a comfortless and chilly look.

Fellside, her ladyship’s place in Westmoreland, was the pleasure house which, among all her possessions, she most valued; but it had hitherto been reserved for summer occupation, or for perhaps two or three weeks at Easter, when the spring was exceptionally fine. The sudden determination to spend the coming winter in the house near Grasmere was considered a curious freak of Lady Maulevrier’s, and she was constrained to explain her motives to her friends.

‘His lordship is out of health,’ she said, ‘and wants perfect rest and retirement. Now, Fellside is the only place we have in which he is likely to get perfect rest. Anywhere else we should have to entertain. Fellside is out of the world. There is no one to be entertained.’

‘Except your neighbour, Wordsworth. I suppose you see him sometimes?’

‘Dear simple-minded old soul, he gives nobody any trouble,’ said her ladyship.

‘But is not Westmoreland very cold in winter?’ asked her friend.

Lady Maulevrier smiled benignly, as at an inoffensive ignorance.

‘So sheltered,’ she murmured. ‘We are at the base of the Fell. Loughrigg rises up like a cyclopean wall between us and the wind.’

‘But when the wind is in the either direction?’

‘We have Nabb Scar. You do not know how we are girdled and defended by hills.’

‘Very pleasant,’ agreed the friend; ‘but for my own part I would rather winter in the south.’

Those terrible rumours which had first come upon the world of London last June, had been growing darker and more defined ever since, but still Lady Maulevrier made believe to ignore them; and she acted her part of unconsciousness with such consummate skill that nobody in her circle could be sure where the acting began and where the ignorance left off. The astute Lord Denyer declared that she was a wonderful woman, and knew more about the real state of the case than anybody else.

Meanwhile it was said by those who were supposed to be well-informed that a mass of evidence was accumulating against Lord Maulevrier. The India House, it was rumoured, was busy with the secret investigation of his case, prior to that public inquiry which was to come on during the next session. His private fortune would be made answerable for his misdemeanours — his life, said the alarmists, might pay the penalty of his treason. On all sides it was agreed that the case against Lord Maulevrier was black as Erebus; and still Lady Maulevrier looked society in the face with an unshaken courage, and was ready with smiles and gracious words for all comers.

But now came a harder trial, which was to receive the man who had disgraced her, lowered her pride to the dust, degraded the name she bore. She had married him, not loving him — nay, plucking another love out of her heart in order that she might give herself to him. She had married him for position and fortune; and now by his follies, by his extravagance, and by that greed of gold which is inevitable in the spendthrift and profligate, he had gone near to cheat her out of both name and fortune. Yet she so commanded herself as to receive him with a friendly air when he arrived at the Dolphin, on a dull grey autumn afternoon, after she had waited for him nearly a fortnight.

James Steadman ushered in his lordship, a frail attenuated looking figure, of middle height, wrapped in a furred cloak, yet shivering, a pale sickly face, light auburn whiskers, light blue eyes, full and large, but with no intellectual power in them. Lady Maulevrier was sitting by the fire, in a melancholy attitude, with the Blenheim spaniel on her lap. Her son was at Hastings with his nurses. She had nothing nearer and dearer than the spaniel.

She rose and went over to her husband, and let him kiss her. It would have been too much to say that she kissed him; but she submitted her lips unresistingly to his, and then they sat down on opposite sides of the hearth.

‘A wretched afternoon,’ said his lordship, shivering, and drawing his chair closer to the fire. Steadman had taken away his fur-lined cloak. ‘I had really underrated the disagreeableness of the English climate. It is abominable!’

‘To-day is not a fair sample,’ answered her ladyship, trying to be cheerful; ‘we have had some pleasant autumn days.’

‘I detest autumn!’ exclaimed Lord Maulevrier. ‘a season of dead leaves, damp, and dreariness. I should like to get away to Montpellier or Nice as soon as we can.’

Her ladyship gave him a scathing look, half-scornful, half-incredulous.

‘You surely would not dream of leaving the country,’ she said, ‘under present circumstances. So long as you are here to answer all charges no one will interfere with your liberty; but if you were to cross the Channel —’

‘My slanderers might insinuate that I was running away,’ interrupted Maulevrier, ‘although the very fact of my return ought to prove to every one that I am able to meet and face this cabal.’

‘Is it a cabal?’ asked her ladyship, looking at him with a gaze that searched his soul. ‘Can you meet their charges? Can you live down this hideous accusation, and hold up your head as a man of honour?’

The sensualist’s blue eyes nervously shunned that look of earnest interrogation. His lips answered the wife’s spoken question with a lie, a lie made manifest by the expression of his countenance.

‘I am not afraid,’ he said.

His wife answered not a word. She was assured that the charges were true, and that the battered rake who shivered over the fire had neither courage nor ability to face his accusers. She saw the whole fabric of her life in ruins, her son the penniless successor to a tarnished name. There was silence for some minutes. Lady Maulevrier sat with lowered eyelids looking at the fire, deep in painful thought. Two perpendicular wrinkles upon her broad white forehead — so calm, so unclouded in society — told of gnawing cares. Then she stole a look at her husband, as he reclined in his arm-chair, his head lying back against the cushions in listless repose, his eyes looking vacantly at the window, whence he could see only the rain-blurred fronts of opposite houses, blank, dull windows, grey slated roofs, against a leaden sky.

He had been a handsome man, and he was handsome still, albeit premature decay, the result of an evil life, was distinctly marked in his faded face. The dull, yellow tint of the complexion, the tarnished dimness of the large blue eyes, the discontented droop of the lips, the languor of the attitude, the pallid transparency of the wasted hands, all told of a life worn threadbare, energies exhausted, chances thrown away, a mind abandoned to despair.

‘You look very ill,’ said his wife, after that long blank interval, which marked so unnatural an apathy between husband and wife meeting after so long a severance.

‘I am very ill. I have been worried to death — surrounded by rogues and liars — the victim of a most infernal conspiracy.’ He spoke hurriedly, growing whiter and more tremulous as he went on.

‘Don’t talk about it. You agitate yourself to no purpose,’ said Lady Maulevrier, with a tranquillity which seemed heartless yet which might be the result of suppressed feeling. ‘If you are to face this scandal firmly and boldly next January, you must try to recover physical strength in the meanwhile. Mental energy may come with better health.’

‘I shall never be any better,’ said Lord Maulevrier, testily; ‘that infernal climate has shattered my constitution.’

‘Two or three months of perfect rest and good nursing will make a new man of you. I have arranged that we shall go straight from here to Fellside. No one can plague you there with that disguised impertinence called sympathy. You can give all your thoughts to the ordeal before you, and be ready to meet your accusers. Fortunately, you have no Burke against you.’

‘Fellside? You think of going to Fellside?’

‘Yes. You know how fond I am of that place. I little thought when you settled it upon me — a cottage in Westmoreland with fifty acres of garden and meadow — so utterly insignificant — that I should ever like it better than any of your places.’

‘A charming retreat in summer; but we have never wintered there? What put it into your head to go there at such a season as this? Why, I daresay the snow is on the tops of the hills already.’

‘It is the only place I know where you will not be watched and talked about,’ replied Lady Maulevrier. ‘You will be out of the eye of the world. I should think that consideration would weigh more with you than two or three degrees of the thermometer.’

‘I detest cold,’ said the Earl, ‘and in my weak health ——’

‘We will take care of you,’ answered her ladyship; and in the discussion which followed she bore herself so firmly that her husband was fain to give way.

How could a disgraced and ruined man, broken in health and spirits, contest the mere details of life with a high-spirited woman ten years his junior?

The Earl wanted to go to London, and remain there at least a week, but this her ladyship strenuously opposed. He must see his lawyer, he urged; there were steps to be taken which could be taken only under legal advice — counsel to be retained. If this lying invention of Satan were really destined to take the form of a public trial, he must be prepared to fight his foes on their own ground.

‘You can make all your preparations at Fellside,’ answered his wife, resolutely. ‘I have seen Messrs. Rigby and Rider, and your own particular ally, Rigby, will go to you at Fellside whenever you want him.’

‘That is not like my being on the spot,’ said his lordship, nervously, evidently much disconcerted by her ladyship’s firmness, but too feeble in mind and body for a prolonged contest.

‘I ought to be on the spot. I am not without influence; I have friends, men in power.’

‘Surely you are not going to appeal to friendship in order to vindicate your honour. These charges are true or false. If they are false your own manhood, your own rectitude, can face them and trample upon them, unaided by back-stairs influence. If they are true, no one can help you.’

‘I think you, at least, ought to know that they are as false as hell,’ retorted the Earl, with an attempt to maintain his dignity.

‘I have acted as if I so believed,’ replied his wife. ‘I have lived as if there were no such slanders in the air. I have steadily ignored every report, every insinuation — have held my head as high as if I knew you were immaculate.’

‘I expected as much from you,’ answered the Earl, coolly. ‘If I had not known you were a woman of sense I should not have married you.’

This was his utmost expression of gratitude. His next remarks had reference solely to his own comfort. Where were his rooms? at what hour were they to dine? And hereupon he rang for his valet, a German Swiss, and a servant out of a thousand.

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