Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 22

Wiser than Lesbia.

Lady Mary and Mr. Hammond were back at Fellside at a quarter before eight, by which time the stars were shining on pine woods and Fell. They managed to be in the drawing-room when dinner was announced, after the hastiest of toilets; yet her lover thought Mary had never looked prettier than she looked that night, in her limp white cashmere gown, and with her brown hair brushed into a largo loose knot on the top of her head. There had been great uneasiness about them at Fellside when evening began to draw in, and the expected hour of their return had gone by. Scouts had been sent in quest of them, but in the wrong direction.

‘I did not think you would be such idiots as to come down the north side of the hill in a tempest,’ said Maulevrier; ‘we could see the clouds racing over the crest of Seat Sandal, and knew it was blowing pretty hard up there, though it was calm enough down here.’

‘Blowing pretty hard;’ echoed Hammond, ‘I don’t think I was ever out in a worse gale; and yet I have been across the Bay of Biscay when the waves struck the side of the steamer like battering rams, and when the whole surface of the sea was white with seething foam.’

‘It was a most imprudent thing to go up Helvellyn in such weather,’ said Fräulein Müller, shaking her head gloomily as she ate her fish.

Mary felt that the Fräulein’s manner boded ill. There was a storm brewing. A scolding was inevitable. Mary felt quite capable of doing battle with the Fräulein; but her feelings were altogether different when she thought of facing that stern old lady upstairs, and of the confession she had to make. It was not that her courage faltered. So far as resolutions went she was as firm as a rock. But she felt that there was a terrible ordeal to be gone through; and it seemed a mockery to be sitting there and pretending to eat her dinner and take things lightly, with that ordeal before her.

‘We did not go up the hill in bad weather, Miss Müller,’ said Mr. Hammond. ‘The sun was shining and the sky was blue when we started. We could not foresee darkness and storm at the top of the hill. That was the fortune of war.’

‘I am very sorry Lady Mary had not more good sense,’ replied Fräulein with unabated gloom; but on this Maulevrier took up the cudgels.

‘If there was any want of sense in the business, that’s my look-out, Fräulein,’ he said, glaring angrily at the governess. ‘It was I who advised Hammond and Lady Mary to climb the hill. And here they are, safe and sound after their journey I see no reason why there should be any fuss about it.’

‘People have different ways of looking at things, replied Fräulein, plodding steadily on with her dinner. Mary rose directly the dessert had been handed round, and marched out of the room: like a warrior going to a battle in which the chances of defeat were strong. Fräulein Müller shuffled after her.

‘Will you be kind enough to go to her ladyship’s room at once, Lady Mary,’ she said. ‘She wants to speak to you.’

‘And I want to speak to her,’ said Mary.

She ran quickly upstairs and arrived in the morning room, a little out of breath. The room was lighted by one low moderator lamp, under a dark red velvet shade, and there was the glow of the wood fire, which gave a more cheerful light than the lamp. Lady Maulevrier was lying on her couch in a loose brocade tea-gown, with old Brussels collar and ruffles. She was as well dressed in her day of affliction and helplessness as she had been in her day of strength; for she knew the value of surroundings, and that her stateliness and power were in some manner dependent on details of this kind. The one hand which she could use glittered with diamonds, as she waved it with a little imperious gesture towards the chair on which she desired Lady Mary to seat herself; and Mary sat down meekly, knowing that this chair represented the felon’s dock.

‘Mary,’ began her grandmother, with freezing gravity, ‘I have been surprised and shocked by your conduct to-day. Yes, surprised at such conduct even in you.’

‘I do not think I have done anything very wrong, grandmother.’

‘Not wrong! You have done nothing wrong? You have done something absolutely outrageous. You, my granddaughter, well born, well bred, reared under my roof, to go up Helvellyn and lose yourself in a fog alone with a young man. You could hardly have done worse if you were a Cockney tourist,’ concluded her ladyship, with ineffable disgust.

‘I could not help the fog,’ said Mary, quietly. The battle had to be fought, and she was not going to flinch. ‘I had no intention of going up Helvellyn alone with Mr. Hammond. Maulevrier was to have gone with us; but when we got to Dolly Waggon he was tired, and would not go any further. He told me to go on with Mr. Hammond.’

He told you! Maulevrier! — a young man who has spent some of the best hours of his youth in the company of jockeys and trainers — who hasn’t the faintest idea of the fitness of things. You allow Maulevrier to be your guide in a matter in which your own instinct should have guided you — your womanly instinct! But you have always been an unwomanly girl. You have put me to shame many a time by your hoydenish tricks; but I bore with you, believing that your madcap follies were at least harmless. To-day you have gone a step too far, and have been guilty of absolute impropriety, which I shall be very slow to pardon.’

‘Perhaps you will be still more angry when you know all, grandmother,’ said Mary.

Lady Maulevrier flashed her dark eyes at the girl with a look which would have almost killed a nervous subject; but Mary faced her steadfastly, very pale, but as resolute as her ladyship.

‘When I know all! What more is there for me to know?’

‘Only that while we were on the top of Helvellyn, in the fog and the wind, Mr. Hammond asked me to be his wife.’

‘I am not surprised to hear it,’ retorted her ladyship, with a harsh laugh. ‘A girl who could act so boldly and flirtingly was a natural mark for an adventurer. Mr. Hammond no doubt has been told that you will have a little money by-and-by, and thinks he might do worse than marry you. And seeing how you have flung yourself at his head, he naturally concludes that you will not be too proud to accept your sister’s leavings.’

‘There is nothing gained by making cruel speeches, grandmother,’ said Mary, firmly. ‘I have promised to be John Hammond’s wife, and there is nothing you nor anyone else can say which will make me alter my mind. I wish to act dutifully to you, if I can, and I hope you will be good to me and consent to this marriage. But if you will not consent, I shall marry him all the same. I shall be full of sorrow at having to disobey you, but I have promised, and I will keep my promise.’

‘You will act in open rebellion against me — against the kinswoman who has reared you, and educated you, and cared for you in all these years!’

‘But you have never loved me,’ answered Mary, sadly. ‘Perhaps if you had given me some portion of that affection which you lavished on my sister I might be willing to sacrifice this now deep love for your sake — to lay down my broken heart as a sacrifice on the altar of gratitude. But you never loved me. You have tolerated me, endured my presence as a disagreeable necessity of your life, because I am my father’s daughter. You and Lesbia have been all the world to each other; and I have stood aloof, outside your charmed circle, almost a stranger to you. Can you wonder, grandmother, recalling this, that I am unwilling to surrender the love that has been given me to-day — the true heart of a brave and good man!’

Lady Maulevrier looked at her for some moments in scornful wonderment; looked at her with a slow, deliberate smile.

‘Poor child!’ she said; ‘poor ignorant, inexperienced baby! For what a Will-o-the-wisp are you ready to sacrifice my regard, and all the privileges of your position as my granddaughter! No doubt this Mr. Hammond has said all manner of fine things to you; but can you be weak enough to believe that he who half a year ago was sighing and dying at the feet of your sister can have one spark of genuine regard for you? The thing is not in nature; it is an obvious absurdity. But it is easy enough to understand that Mr. Hammond without a penny in his pocket, and with his way to make in the world, would be very glad to secure Lady Mary Haselden and her five hundred a year, and to have Lord Maulevrier for his brother in-law?’

‘Have I really five hundred a year? Shall I have five hundred a year when I marry?’ asked Mary, suddenly radiant.

‘Yes; if you marry with your brother’s consent.’

‘I am so glad — for his sake. He could hardly starve if I had five hundred a year. He need not be obliged to emigrate.’

‘Has he been offering you the prospect of emigration as an additional inducement?’

‘Oh, no, he does not say that he is very poor, but since you say he is penniless I thought we might be obliged to emigrate. But as I have five hundred a year —’

‘You will stay at home, and set up a lodging-house, I suppose,’ sneered Lady Maulevrier.

‘I will do anything my husband pleases. We can live in a humble way in some quiet part of London, while Mr. Hammond works at literature or politics. I am not afraid of poverty or trouble, I am willing to endure both for his sake.’

‘You are a fool!’ said her grandmother sternly. ‘And I have nothing more to say to you. Go away, and send Maulevrier to me.’

Mary did not obey immediately. She went over to her grandmother’s couch and knelt by her side, and kissed the poor maimed hand which lay on the velvet cushion.

‘Dear grandmother,’ she said gently. ‘I am very sorry to rebel against you. But this is a question of life or death with me. I am not like Lesbia. I cannot barter love and truth for worldly advantage — for pride of race. Do not think me so weak or so vain as to be won by a few fine speeches from an adventurer. Mr. Hammond is no adventurer, he has made no fine speeches — but, I will tell you a secret, grandmother. I have liked and admired him from the first time he came here. I have looked up to him and reverenced him; and I must be a very foolish girl if my judgment is so poor that I can respect a worthless man.’

‘You are a very foolish girl,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, more kindly than she had spoken before, ‘but you have been very good and dutiful to me since I have been ill, and I don’t wish to forget that. I never said that Mr. Hammond was worthless; but I say that he is no fit husband for you. If you were as yielding and obedient as Lesbia it would be all the better for you; for then I should provide for your establishment in life in a becoming manner. But as you are wilful, and bent upon taking your own way — well — my dear, you must take the consequence; and when you are a struggling wife and mother, old before your time, weighed down with the weary burden of petty cares, do not say, “My grandmother might have saved me from this martyrdom.”’

‘I will run the risk, grandmother. I will be answerable for my own fate.’

‘So be it, Mary. And now send Maulevrier to me.’

Mary went down to the billiard room, where she found her brother and her lover engaged in a hundred game.

‘Take my cue and beat him if you can, Molly,’ said Maulevrier, when he had heard Mary’s message. ‘I’m fifteen ahead of him, for he has been falling asleep over his shots. I suppose I am going to get a lecture.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Mary.

‘Well, my dearest, how did you fare in the encounter?’ asked Hammond, directly Maulevrier was gone.

‘Oh, it was dreadful! I made the most rebellious speeches to poor grandmother, and then I remembered her affliction, and I asked her to forgive me, and just at the last she was ever so much kinder, and I think that she will let me marry you, now she knows I have made up my mind to be your wife — in spite of Fate.’

‘My bravest and best.’

‘And do you know, Jack’— she blushed tremendously as she uttered this familiar name —‘I have made a discovery!’

‘Indeed!’

‘I find that I am to have five hundred a year when I am married. It is not much. But I suppose it will help, won’t it? We can’t exactly starve if we have five hundred a year. Let me see. It is more than a pound a day. A sovereign ought to go a long way in a small house; and, of course, we shall begin in a very wee house, like De Quincey’s cottage over there, only in London.’

‘Yes, dear, there are plenty of such cottages in London. In Mayfair, for instance, or Belgravia.’

‘Now, you are laughing at my rustic ignorance. But the five hundred pounds will be a help, won’t it?’

‘Yes, dear, a great help.’

‘I’m so glad.’

She had chalked her cue while she was talking, but after taking her aim, she dropped her arm irresolutely.

‘Do you know I’m afraid I can’t play to-night,’ she said.

‘Helvellyn and the fog and the wind have quite spoilt my nerve. Shall we go to the drawing-room, and see if Fräulein has recovered from her gloomy fit?’

‘I would rather stay here, where we are free to talk; but I’ll do whatever you like best.’

Mary preferred the drawing-room. It was very sweet to be alone with her lover, but she was weighed down with confusion in his presence. The novelty, the wonderment of her position overpowered her. She yearned for the shelter of Fräulein Müller’s wing, albeit the company of that most prosaic person was certain death to romance.

Miss Müller was in her accustomed seat by the fire, knitting her customary muffler. She had appropriated Lady Maulevrier’s place, much to Mary’s disgust. It irked the girl to see that stout, clumsy figure in the chair which had been filled by her grandmother’s imperial form. The very room seemed vulgarised by the change.

Fräulein looked up with a surprised air when Mary and Hammond entered together, the girl smiling and happy. She had expected that Mary would have left her ladyship’s room in tears, and would have retired to her own apartment to hide her swollen eyelids and humiliated aspect. But here she was, after the fiery ordeal of an interview with her offended grandmother, not in the least crestfallen.

‘Are we not to have any tea to-night?’ asked Mary, looking round the room.

‘I think you are unconscious of the progress of time, Lady Mary,’ answered Fräulein, stiffly. ‘The tea has been brought in and taken out again.’

‘Then it must be brought again, if Lady Mary wants some,’ said Hammond, ringing the bell in the coolest manner.

Fräulein felt that things were coming to a pretty pass, if Maulevrier’s humble friend was going to give orders in the house. Quiet and commonplace as the Hanoverian was, she had her ambition, and that was to grasp the household sceptre which Lady Maulevrier must needs in some wise resign, now that she was a prisoner to her rooms. But so far Fräulein had met with but small success in this endeavour. Her ladyship’s authority still ruled the house. Her ladyship’s keen intellect took cognisance even of trifles: and it was only in the most insignificant details that Fräulein felt herself a power.

‘Well, your ladyship, what’s the row?’ said Maulevrier marching into his grandmother’s room with a free and easy air. He was prepared for a skirmish, and he meant to take the bull by the horns.

‘I suppose you know what has happened to-day?’ said her ladyship.

‘Molly and Hammond’s expedition, yes, of course. I went part of the way with them, but I was out of training, got pumped out after a couple of miles, and wasn’t such a fool as to go to the top.’

‘Do you know that Mr. Hammond made Mary an offer, while they were on the hill, and that she accepted him?’

‘A queer place for a proposal, wasn’t it? The wind blowing great guns all the time. I should have chosen a more tranquil spot.’

‘Maulevrier, cannot you be serious? Do you forget that this business of to-day must affect your sister’s welfare for the rest of her life?’

‘No, I do not. I will be as serious as a judge after he has put on the black cap,’ said Maulevrier, seating himself near his grandmother’s couch, and altering his tone altogether. ‘Seriously I am very glad that Hammond has asked Mary to be his wife, and still more glad that she is tremendously in love with him. I told you some time ago not to put your spoke in that wheel. There could not be a happier or a better marriage for Mary.’

‘You must have rather a poor opinion, of your sister’s attractions, personal or otherwise, if you consider a penniless young man — of no family — good enough for her.’

‘I do not consider my sister a piece of merchandise to be sold to the highest bidder. Granted that Hammond is poor and a nobody. He is an honourable man, highly gifted, brave as a lion, and he is my dearest friend. Can you wonder that I rejoice at my sister’s having won him for her adoring lover?’

‘Can he really care for her, after having loved Lesbia?’

‘That was the desire of the eye, this is the love of the heart. I know that he loves Mary ever so much better than he loved Lesbia. I can assure your ladyship that I am not such a fool as I look. I am very fond of my sister Mary, and I have not been blind to her interests. I tell you on my honour that she ought to be very happy as John Hammond’s wife.’

‘I am obliged to believe what you say about his character,’ said Lady Maulevrier. ‘And I am willing to admit that the husband’s character has a great deal to do with the wife’s happiness, from a moral point of view; but still there are material questions to be considered. Has your friend any means of supporting a wife?’

‘Yes, he has means; quite sufficient means for Mary’s views, which are very simple.’

‘You mean to say he would keep her in decent poverty? Cannot you be explicit, Maulevrier, and say what means the man has, whether an income or none? If you cannot tell me I must question Mr. Hammond himself.’

‘Pray do not do that,’ exclaimed her grandson urgently. ‘Do not take all the flavour of romance out of Molly’s love story, by going into pounds, shillings, and pence. She is very young. You would hardly wish her to marry immediately?’

‘Not for the next year, at the very least.’

‘Then why enter upon this sordid question of ways and means. Make Hammond and Mary happy by consenting to their engagement, and trust the rest to Providence, and to me. Take my word for it, Hammond is not a beggar, and he is a man likely to make his mark in the world. If a year hence his income is not enough to allow of his marrying, I will double Mary’s allowance out of my own purse. Hammond’s friendship has steadied me, and saved me a good deal more than five hundred a year.’

‘I can quite believe that. I believe Mr. Hammond is a worthy man, and that his influence has been very good for you; but that does not make him a good match for Mary. However, you seem to have settled the business among you, and I suppose I must submit. You had better all drink tea with me to morrow afternoon; and I will receive your friend as Mary’s future husband.’

‘That is the best and kindest of grandmothers.’

‘But I should like to know more of his antecedents and his relations.’

‘His antecedents are altogether creditable. He took honours at the University; he has been liked and respected everywhere. He is an orphan, and it is better not to talk to him of his family. He is sensitive on that point, like most men who stand alone in the world.’

‘Well, I will hold my peace. You have taken this business into your hands, Maulevrier; and you must be responsible for the result.’

Maulevrier left his grandmother soon after this, and went downstairs, whistling for very joyousness. Finding the billiard-room deserted he repaired to the drawing-room, where he found Mary playing scraps of melody to her lover at the shadowy end of the room, while Fräulein sat by the fire weaving her web as steadily as one of the Fatal Sisters, and with a brow prophetic of evil.

Maulevrier crept up to the piano, and came stealthily behind the lovers.

‘Bless you, my children,’ he said, hovering over them with outspread hands. ‘I am the dove coming back to the ark. I am the bearer of happy tidings. Lady Maulevrier consents to your acquiring the legal right to make each other miserable for the rest of your lives.’

‘God bless you, Maulevrier,’ said Hammond, clasping him by the hand.

‘Only as this sister of mine is hardly out of the nursery you will have to wait for her at least a year. So says the dowager, whose word is like the law of the Modes and Persians, and altereth not.’

‘I would wait for her twice seven years, as Jacob waited, and toil for her, as Jacob toiled,’ answered Hammond, ‘but I should like to call her my own to-morrow, if it were possible.’

Nothing could be happier or gayer than the tea-drinking in Lady Maulevrier’s room on the following afternoon. Her ladyship having once given way upon a point knew how to make her concession gracefully. She extended her hand to Mr. Hammond as frankly as if he had been her own particular choice.

‘I cannot refuse my granddaughter to her brother’s dearest friend,’ she said, ‘but I think you are two most imprudent young people.’

‘Providence takes care of imprudent lovers, just as it does of the birds in their nests,’ answered Hammond, smiling.

‘Just as much and no more, I fear. Providence does not keep off the cat or the tax-gatherer.’

‘Birds must take care of their nests, and husbands must work for their homes,’ argued Hammond. ‘Heaven gives sweet air and sunlight, and a beautiful world to live in.’

‘I think,’ said Lady Maulevrier, looking at him critically, ‘you are just the kind of person who ought to emigrate. You have ideas that would do for the Bush or the Yosemite Valley, but which are too primitive for an over-crowded country.’

‘No, Lady Maulevrier, I am not going to steal your granddaughter. When she is my wife she shall live within call. I know she loves her native land, and I don’t think either of us would care to put an ocean between us and rugged old Helvellyn.’

‘Of course having made idiots of yourselves up there in the fog and the storm you are going to worship the mountain for ever afterwards,’ said her ladyship laughing.

Never had she seemed gayer or brighter. Perhaps in her heart of hearts she rejoiced at getting Mary engaged, even to so humble a suitor as fortuneless John Hammond. Ever since the visit of the so-called Rajah she had lived as Damocles lived, with the sword of destiny — the avenging sword — hanging over her by the finest hair. Every time she heard carriage wheels in the drive — every time the hall-door bell rang a little louder than usual, her heart seemed to stop beating and her whole being to hang suspended on a thread. If the thread were to snap, there would come darkness and death. The blow that had paralysed one side of her body must needs, if repeated, bring total extinction. She who believed in no after life saw in her maimed and wasting arm the beginning of death. She who recognised only the life of the body felt that one half of her was already dead. But months had gone by, and Louis Asoph had made no sign. She began to hope that his boasted documents and witnesses were altogether mythical. And yet the engines of the law are slow to put in motion. He might be working up his case, line upon line, with some hard-headed London lawyer; arranging and marshalling his facts; preparing his witnesses; waiting for affidavits from India; working slowly but surely, underground like the mole; and all at once, in an hour, his case might be before the law courts. His story and the story of Lord Maulevrier’s infamy might be town talk again; as it had been forty years ago, when the true story of that crime had been happily unknown.

Yes, with the present fear of this Louis Asoph’s revelations, of a new scandal, if not a calamity, Lady Maulevrier felt that it was a good thing to have her younger granddaughter’s future in some measure secured. John Hammond had said of himself to Lesbia that he was not the kind of man to fail, and looking at him critically to-day Lady Maulevrier saw the stamp of power and dauntless courage in his countenance and bearing. It is the inner mind of a man which moulds the lines of his face and figure; and a man’s character may be read in the way he walks and holds himself, the action of his hand, his smile, his frown, his general outlook, as clearly as in any phrenological development. John Hammond had a noble outlook: bold, without impudence or self-assertion; self-possessed, without vanity. Yes, assuredly a man to wrestle with difficulty, and to conquer fate.

When that little tea-drinking was over and Maulevrier and his friend were going away to dress for dinner, Lady Maulevrier detained Mary for a minute or two by her couch. She took her by the hand with unaccustomed tenderness.

‘My child, I congratulate you,’ she said. ‘Last night I thought you a fool, but I begin to think that you are wiser than Lesbia. You have won the heart of a noble young man.’

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