Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 21

On the Dark Brow of Helvellyn.

While these plans were being settled, and while Lesbia’s future was the all-absorbing subject of Lady Maulevrier’s thoughts, Mary contrived to be happier than she had ever been in her life before. It was happiness that grew and strengthened with every day; and yet there was no obvious reason for this deep joy. Her life ran in the same familiar groove. She walked and rode on the old pathways; she rowed on the lake she had known from babyhood; she visited her cottagers, and taught in the village school, just the same as of old. The change was only that she was no longer alone; and of late the solitude of her life, the ever-present consciousness that nobody shared her pleasures or sympathised with her upon any point, had weighed upon her like an actual burden. Now she had Maulevrier, who was always kind, who understood and shared almost all her tastes, and Maulevrier’s friend, who, although not given to saying smooth things, seemed warmly interested in her pursuits and opinions. He encouraged her to talk, although he generally took the opposite side in every argument; and she no longer felt oppressed or irritated by the idea that he despised her.

Indeed, although he never flattered or even praised her, Mr. Hammond let her see that he liked her society. She had gone out of her way to avoid him, very fearful lest he should think her bold or masculine; but he had taken pains to frustrate all her efforts in that direction; he had refused to go upon excursions which she could not share. ‘Lady Mary must come with us,’ he said, when they were planning a morning’s ramble. Thus it happened that Mary was his guide and companion in all his walks, and roamed with him bamboo in hand, over every one of those mountainous paths she knew and loved so well. Distance was as nothing to them — sometimes a boat helped them, and they went over wintry Windermere to climb the picturesque heights above Bowness. Sometimes they took ponies, and a groom, and left their steeds to perform the wilder part of the way on foot. In this wise John Hammond saw all that was to be seen within a day’s journey of Grasmere, except the top of Helvellyn. Maulevrier had shirked the expedition, had always put off Mary and Mr. Hammond when they proposed it. The season was not advanced enough — the rugged pathway by the Tongue Ghyll would be as slippery as glass — no pony could get up there in such weather.

‘We have not had any frost to speak of for the last fortnight,’ pleaded Mary, who was particularly anxious to do the honours of Helvellyn, as the real lion of the neighbourhood.

‘What a simpleton you are, Molly!’ cried Maulevrier. ‘Do you suppose because there is no frost in your grandmother’s garden — and if you were to ask Staples about his peaches he would tell you a very different story — that there’s a tropical atmosphere on Dolly Waggon Pike? Why, I’d wager the ice on Grisdale Tarn is thick enough for skating. Helvellyn won’t run away, child. You and Hammond can dance the Highland Schottische on Striding Edge in June, if you like.’

‘Mr. Hammond won’t be here in June,’ said Mary.

‘Who knows? — the train service is pretty fair between London and Windermere. Hammond and I would think nothing of putting ourselves in the mail on a Friday night, and coming down to spend Saturday and Sunday with you — if you are good.’

There came a sunny morning soon after Easter which seemed mild enough for June; and when Hammond suggested that this was the very day for Helvellyn, Maulevrier had not a word to say against the truth of that proposition. The weather had been exceptionally warm for the last week, and they had played tennis and sat in the garden just as if it had been actually summer. Patches of snow might still linger on the crests of the hills — but the approach to those bleak heights could hardly be glacial.

Mary clasped her hands delightedly.

‘Dear old Maulevrier!’ she exclaimed, ‘you are always good to me. And now I shall be able to show you the Red Tarn, the highest pool of water in England,’ she said, turning to Hammond. ‘And you will see Windermere winding like a silvery serpent between the hills, and Grasmere shining like a jewel in the depth of the valley, and the sea glittering like a line of white light between the edges of earth and heaven, and the dark Scotch hills like couchant lions far away to the north.’

‘That is to say these things are all supposed to be on view from the top of the mountain; but as a peculiar and altogether exceptional state of the atmosphere is essential to their being seen, I need not tell you that they are rarely visible,’ said Maulevrier. ‘You are talking to old mountaineers, Molly. Hammond has done Cotapaxi and had his little clamber on the equatorial Andes, and I— well, child, I have done my Righi, and I have always found the boasted panorama enveloped in dense fog.’

‘It won’t be foggy to-day,’ said Mary. ‘Shall we do the whole thing on foot, or shall I order the ponies?’

Mr. Hammond inquired the distance up and down, and being told that it involved only a matter of eight miles, decided upon walking.

‘I’ll walk, and lead your pony,’ he said to Mary, but Mary declared herself quite capable of going on foot, so the ponies were dispensed with as a possible encumbrance.

This was planned and discussed in the garden before breakfast. Fräulein was told that Mary was going for a long walk with her brother and Mr. Hammond; a walk which might last over the usual luncheon hour; so Fräulein was not to wait luncheon. Mary went to her grandmother’s room to pay her duty visit. There were no letters for her to write that morning, so she was perfectly free.

The three pedestrians started an hour after breakfast, in light marching order. The two young men wore their Argyleshire shooting clothes — homespun knickerbockers and jackets, thick-ribbed hose knitted by Highland lasses in Inverness. They carried a couple of hunting flasks filled with claret, and a couple of sandwich boxes, and that was all. Mary wore her substantial tailor-gown of olive tweed, and a little toque to match, with a silver mounted grouse-claw for her only ornament.

It was a delicious morning, the air fresh and sweet, the sun comfortably warm, a little too warm, perhaps, presently, when they had trodden the narrow path by the Tongue Ghyll, and were beginning to wind slowly upwards over rough boulders and last year’s bracken, tough and brown and tangled, towards that rugged wall of earth and stone tufted with rank grasses, which calls itself Dolly Waggon Pike. Here they all came to a stand-still, and wiped the dews of honest labour from their foreheads; and here Maulevrier flung himself down upon a big boulder, with the soles of his stout shooting boots in running water, and took out his cigar case.

‘How do you like it?’ he asked his friend, when he had lighted his cigarette. ‘I hope you are enjoying yourself.’

‘I never was happier in my life,’ answered Hammond.

He was standing on higher ground, with Mary at his elbow, pointing out and expatiating upon the details of the prospect. There were the lakes — Grasmere, a disk of shining blue; Rydal, a patch of silver; and Windermere winding amidst a labyrinth of wooded hills.

‘Aren’t you tired?’ asked Maulevrier.

‘Not a whit.’

‘Oh, I forgot you had done Cotapaxi, or as much of Cotapaxi as living mortal ever has done. That makes a difference. I am going home.’

‘Oh, Maulevrier!’ exclaimed Mary, piteously.

‘I am going home. You two can go to the top. You are both hardened mountaineers, and I am not in it with either of you. When I rashly consented to a pedestrian ascent of Helvellyn I had forgotten what the gentleman was like; and as to Dolly Waggon I had actually forgotten her existence. But now I see the lady — as steep as the side of a house, and as stony — no, naught but herself can be her parallel in stoniness. No, Molly, I will go no further.’

‘But we shall go down on the other side,’ urged Mary. ‘It is a little steeper on the Cumberland side, but not nearly so far.’

‘A little steeper! I Can anything be steeper than Dolly Waggon? Yes, you are right. It is steeper on the Cumberland side. I remember coming down a sheer descent, like an exaggerated sugar-loaf; but I was on a pony, and it was the brute’s look-out. I will not go down the Cumberland side on my own legs. No, Molly, not even for you. But if you and Hammond want to go to the top, there is nothing to prevent you. He is a skilled mountaineer. I’ll trust you with him.’

Mary blushed, and made no reply. Of all things in the world she least wanted to abandon the expedition. Yet to climb Helvellyn alone with her brother’s friend would no doubt be a terrible violation of those laws of maidenly propriety which Fräulein was always expounding. If Mary were to do this thing, which she longed to do, she must hazard a lecture from her governess, and probably a biting reproof from her grandmother.

‘Will you trust yourself with me, Lady Mary?’ asked Hammond, looking at her with a gaze so earnest — so much more earnest than the occasion required — that her blushes deepened and her eyelids fell. ‘I have done a good deal of climbing in my day, and I am not afraid of anything Helvellyn can do to me. I promise to take great care of you if you will come.’

How could she refuse? How could she for one moment pretend that she did not trust him, that her heart did not yearn to go with him. She would have climbed the shingly steep of Cotapaxi with him — or crossed the great Sahara with him — and feared nothing. Her trust in him was infinite — as infinite as her reverence and love.

‘I am afraid Fräulein would make a fuss,’ she faltered, after a pause.

‘Hang Fräulein,’ cried Maulevrier, puffing at his cigarette, and kicking about the stones in the clear running water. ‘I’ll square it with Fräulein. I’ll give her a pint of fiz with her lunch, and make her see everything in a rosy hue. The good soul is fond of her Heidseck. You will be back by afternoon tea. Why should there be any fuss about the matter? Hammond wants to see the Red Tarn, and you are dying to show him the way. Go, and joy go with you both. Climbing a stony hill is a form of pleasure to which I have not yet risen. I shall stroll home at my leisure, and spend the afternoon on the billiard-room sofa reading Mudie’s last contribution to the comforts of home.’

‘What a Sybarite,’ said Hammond. ‘Come, Lady Mary, we mustn’t loiter, if we are to be back at Fellside by five o’clock.’

Mary looked at her brother doubtfully, and he gave her a little nod which seemed to say, ‘Go, by all means;’ so she dug the end of her staff into Dolly’s rugged breast, and mounted cheerily, stepping lightly from boulder to boulder.

The sun was not so warm as it had been ten minutes ago, when Maulevrier flung himself down to rest. The sky had clouded over a little, and a cooler wind was blowing across the breast of the hill. Fairfield yonder, that long smooth slope of verdure which a little while ago looked emerald green in the sunlight, now wore a soft and shadowy hue. All the world was greyer and dimmer in a moment, as it were, and Coniston Lake in its distant valley disappeared beneath a veil of mist, while the shimmering sea-line upon the verge of the horizon melted and vanished among the clouds that overhung it. The weather changes very quickly in this part of the world. Sharp drops of rain came spitting at Hammond and Mary as they climbed the crest of the Pike, and stopped, somewhat breathless, to look back at Maulevrier. He was trudging blithely down the winding way, and seemed to have done wonders while they had been doing very little.

‘How fast he is going!’ said Mary.

‘Easy is the descent of Avernus. He is going down-hill, and we are going upwards. That makes all the difference in life, you see,’ answered Hammond.

Mary looked at him with divine compassion. She thought that for him the hill of life would be harder than Helvellyn. He was brave, honest, clever; but her grandmother had impressed upon her that modern civilisation hardly has room for a young man who wants to get on in the world, without either fortune or powerful connexions. He had better go to Australia and keep sheep, than attempt the impossible at home.

The rain was a passing shower, hardly worth speaking of, but the glory of the day was over. The sky was grey, and there were dark clouds creeping up from the sea-line. Silvery Windermere had taken a leaden hue; and now they turned their last fond look upon the Westmoreland valley, and set their faces steadily towards Cumberland, and the fine grassy plateau on the top of the hill.

All this was not done in a flash. It took them some time to scale Dolly’s stubborn breast, and it took them another hour to reach Seat Sandal; and by the time they came to the iron gate in the fence, which at this point divides the two counties, the atmosphere had thickened ominously, and dark wreaths of fog were floating about and around them, whirled here and there by a boisterous wind which shrieked and roared at them with savage fury, as if it were the voice of some Titan monarch of the mountain protesting against this intrusion upon his domain.

‘I’m afraid you won’t see the Scottish hills,’ shouted Mary, holding on her little cloth hat.

She was obliged to shout at the top of her voice, though she was close to Mr. Hammond’s elbow, for that shrill screaming wind would have drowned the voice of a stentor.

‘Never mind the view,’ replied Hammond in the same fortissimo, ‘but I really wish I hadn’t brought you up here. If this fog should get any worse, it may be dangerous.’

‘The fog is sure to get worse,’ said Mary, in a brief lull of the hurly-burly, ‘but there is no danger. I know every inch of the hill, and I am not a bit afraid. I can guide you, if you will trust me.’

‘My bravest of girls,’ he exclaimed, looking down at her. ‘Trust you! Yes, I would trust my life to you — my soul — my honour — secure in your purity and good faith.’

Never had eyes of living man or woman looked down upon her with such tenderness, such fervent love. She looked up at him; looked with eyes which, at first bewildered, then grew bold, and lost themselves, as it were, in the dark grey depths of the eyes they met. The savage wind, hustling and howling, blew her nearer to him, as a reed is blown against a rock. Dark grey mists were rising round them like a sea; but had that ever-thickening, ever-darkening vapour been the sea itself, and death inevitable, Mary Haselden would have hardly cared. For in this moment the one precious gift for which her soul had long been yearning had been freely given to her. She knew all at once, that she was fondly loved by that one man whom she had chosen for her idol and her hero.

What matter that he was fortuneless, a nobody, with but the poorest chances of success in the world? What if he must needs, only to win the bare means of existence, go to Australia and keep sheep, or to the Bed River valley and grow corn? What if he must labour, as the peasants laboured on the sides of this rude hill? Gladly would she go with him to a strange country, and keep his log cabin, and work for him, and share his toilsome life, rough or smooth. No loss of social rank could lessen her pride in him, her belief in him.

They were standing side by side a little way from the edge of the sheer descent, below which the Bed Tarn showed black in a basin scooped out of the naked hill, like water held in the hollow of a giant’s hand.

‘Look,’ cried Mary, pointing downward, ‘you must see the Red Tarn, the highest water in England?’

But just at this moment there came a blast which shook even Hammond’s strong frame, and with a cry of fear he snatched Mary in his arms and carried her away from the edge of the hill. He folded her in his arms and held her there, thirty yards away from the precipice, safely sheltered against his breast, while the wind raved round them, blowing her hair from the broad, white brow, and showing him that noble forehead in all its power and beauty; while the darkness deepened round them so that they could see hardly anything except each other’s eyes.

‘My love, my own dear love,’ he murmured fondly; ‘I will trust you with my life. Will you accept the trust? I am hardly worthy; for less than a year ago I offered myself to your sister, and I thought she was the only woman in this wide world who could make me happy. And when she refused me I was in despair, Mary; and I left Fellside in the full belief that I had done with life and happiness. And then I came back, only to oblige Maulevrier, and determined to be utterly miserable at Fellside. I was miserable for the first two hours. Memories of dead and gone joys and disappointed hopes were very bitter. And I tried honestly to keep up my feeling of wretchedness for the first few days. But it was no use, Molly. There was a genial spirit in the place, a laughing fairy who would not let me be sad; and I found myself becoming most unromantically happy, eating my breakfast with a hearty appetite, thinking my cup of afternoon tea nectar for love of the dear hand that gave it. And so, and so, till the new love, the purer and better love, grew and grew into a mighty tree, which was as an oak to an orchid, compared with that passion flower of earlier growth. Mary, will you trust your life to me, as I trust mine to you. I say to you almost in the words I spoke last year to Lesbia,’ and here his tone grew grave almost to solemnity, ‘trust me, and I will make your life free from the shadow of care — trust me, for I have a brave spirit and a strong arm to fight the battle of life — trust me, and I will win for you the position you have a right to occupy — trust me, and you shall never repent your trust.’

She looked up at him with eyes which told of infinite faith, child-like, unquestioning faith.

‘I will trust you in all things, and for ever,’ she said. ‘I am not afraid to face evil fortune. I do not care how poor you are — how hard our lives may be — if — if you are sure you love me.’

‘Sure! There is not a beat of my heart or a thought of my mind that does not belong to you. I am yours to the very depths of my soul. My innocent love, my clear-eyed, clear-souled angel! I have studied you and watched you and thought of you, and sounded the depths of your lovely nature, and the result is that you are for me earth’s one woman. I will have no other, Mary, no other love, no other wife.’

‘Lady Maulevrier will be dreadfully angry,’ faltered Mary.

‘Are you afraid of her anger?’

‘No; I am afraid of nothing, for your sake.’

He lifted her hand to his lips, and kissed it reverently, and there was a touch of chivalry in that reverential kiss. His eyes clouded with tears as he looked down into the trustful face. The fog had darkened to a denser blackness, and it was almost as if they were engulfed in sudden night.

‘If we are never to find our way down the hill; if this were to be the last hour of our lives, Mary, would you be content?’

‘Quite content,’ she answered, simply. ‘I think I have lived long enough, if you really love me — if you are not making fun.’

‘What, Molly, do you still doubt? Is it strange that I love you?’

‘Very strange. I am so different from Lesbia.’

‘Yes, very different, and the difference is your highest charm. And now, love, we had better go down whichever side of the hill is easiest, for this fog is rather appalling. I forgive the wind, because it blew you against my heart just now, and that is where I want you to dwell for ever!’

‘Don’t be frightened,’ said Mary. ‘I know every step of the way.’

So, leaning on her lover, and yet guiding him, slowly, step by step, groping their way through the darkness, Lady Mary led Mr. Hammond down the winding track along which the ponies and the guides travel so often in the summer season. And soon they began to descend out of that canopy of fog which enveloped the brow of Helvellyn, and to see the whole world smiling beneath them, a world of green pastures and sheepfolds, with a white homestead here and there amidst the fields, looking so human and so comfortable after that gloomy mountain top, round which the tempest howled so outrageously. Beyond those pastures stretched the dark waters of Thirlmere, looking like a broad river.

The descent was passing steep, but Hammond’s strong arm and steady steps made Mary’s progress very easy, while she had in no wise exaggerated her familiarity with the windings and twistings of the track. Yet as they had need to travel very slowly so long as the fog still surrounded them, the journey downward lasted a considerable time, and it was past five when they arrived at the little roadside inn at the foot of the hill.

Here Mr. Hammond insisted that Mary should rest at least long enough to take a cup of tea. She was very white and tired. She had been profoundly agitated, and looked on the point of fainting, although she protested that she was quite ready to walk on.

‘You are not going to walk another step,’ said Hammond. ‘While you are taking your tea I will get you a carriage.’

‘Indeed, I had rather hurry on at once,’ urged Mary. ‘We are so late already.’

‘You will get home all the sooner if you obey me. It is your duty to obey me now,’ said Hammond, in a lowered voice.

She smiled at him, but it was a weak, wan little smile, for that descent in the wind and the fog had quite exhausted her. Mr. Hammond took her into a snug little parlour where there was a cheerful fire, and saw her comfortably seated in an arm chair by the hearth, before he went to look after a carriage.

There was no such thing as a conveyance to be had, but the Windermere coach would pass in about half an hour, and for this they must wait. It would take them back to Grasmere sooner than they could get there on foot, in Mary’s exhausted condition.

The tea-tray was brought in presently, and Hammond poured out the tea and waited upon Lady Mary. It was a reversal of the usual formula but it was very pleasant to Mary to sit with her feet on the low brass fender and be waited upon by her lover. That fog on the brow of Helvellyn — that piercing wind — had chilled her to the bone, and there was unspeakable comfort in the glow and warmth of the fire, in the refreshment of a good cup of tea.

‘Mary, you are my own property now, remember,’ said Hammond, watching her tenderly as she sipped her tea.

She glanced up at him shyly, now and then, with eyes full of innocent wonder. It was so strange to her, as strange as sweet, to know that he loved her; such a marvellous thing that she had pledged herself to be his wife.

‘You are my very own — mine to guard and cherish, mine to think and work for,’ he went on, ‘and you will have to trust me, sweet one, even if the beginning of things is not altogether free from trouble.’

‘I am not afraid of trouble.’

‘Bravely spoken! First and foremost, then, you will have to announce your engagement to Lady Maulevrier. She will take it ill, no doubt; will do her utmost to persuade you to give me up. Have you courage and resolution, do you think, to stand against her arguments? Can you hold to your purpose bravely, and cry, no surrender?’

‘There shall be no surrender,’ answered Mary, ‘I promise you that. No doubt grandmother will be very angry. But she has never cared for me very much. It will not hurt her for me to make a bad match, as it would have done in Lesbia’s case. She has had no day-dreams — no grand ambition about me!’

‘So much the better, my wayside flower! When you have said all that is sweet and dutiful to her, and have let her know at the same time that you mean to be my wife, come weal come woe, I will see her, and will have my say. I will not promise her a grand career for my darling: but I will pledge myself that nothing of that kind which the world calls evil — no penury, or shabbiness of surroundings — shall ever touch Mary Haselden after she is Mary Hammond. I can promise at least so much as that.’

‘It is more than enough,’ said Mary. ‘I have told you that I would gladly share poverty with you.’

‘Sweet! it is good of you to say as much, but I would not take you at your word. You don’t know what poverty is.’

‘Do you think I am a coward, or self-indulgent? You are wrong, Jack. May I call you Jack, as Maulevrier does?’

‘May you?’

The question evoked such a gush of tenderness that he was fain to kneel beside her chair and kiss the little hand holding the cup, before he considered he had answered properly.

‘You are wrong, Jack. I do know what poverty means. I have studied the ways of the poor, tried to console them, and help them a little in their troubles; and I know there is no pain that want of money can bring which I would not share willingly with you. Do you suppose my happiness is dependent on a fine house and powdered footmen? I should like to go to the Red River with you, and wear cotton gowns, and tuck up my sleeves and clean our cottage.’

‘Very pretty sport, dear, for a summer day; but my Mary shall have a sweeter life, and shall occasionally walk in silk attire.’

That tea-drinking by the fireside in the inn parlour was the most delicious thing within John Hammond’s experience. Mary was a bewitching compound of earnestness and simplicity, so humble, so confiding, so perplexed and astounded at her own bliss.

‘Confess, now, in the summer, when you were in love with Lesbia, you thought me a horrid kind of girl,’ she said, presently, when they were standing side by side at the window, waiting for the coach.

‘Never, Mary. My crime is to have thought very little about you in those days. I was so dazzled by Lesbia’s beauty, so charmed by her accomplishments and girlish graces, that I forgot to take notice of anything else in the world. If I thought of you at all it was as another Maulevrier — a younger Maulevrier in petticoats, very gay, and good-humoured, and nice.’

‘But when you saw me rushing about with the terriers — I must have seemed utterly horrid.’

‘Why, dearest There is nothing essentially horrible in terriers, or in a bright lively girl running races with them. You made a very pretty picture in the sunlight, with your hat hanging on your shoulder, and your curly brown hair and dancing hazel eyes. If I had not been deep in love with Lesbia’s peerless complexion and Grecian features, I should have looked below the surface of that Gainsborough picture, and discovered what treasures of goodness, and courage, and truth and purity those frank brown eyes and that wide forehead betokened. I was sowing my wild oats last summer, Mary, and they brought me a crop of sorrow But I am wiser now — wiser and happier.

‘But if you were to see Lesbia again would not the old love revive?’

‘The old love is dead, Mary. There is nothing left of it but a handful of ashes, which I scatter thus to the four winds,’ with a wave of his hand towards the open casement. ‘The new love absorbs and masters my being. If Lesbia were to re-appear at Fellside this evening, I could offer her my hand in all brotherly frankness, and ask her to accept me as a brother. Here comes the coach. We shall be at Fellside just in time for dinner.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/phantom_fortune/chapter21.html

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