Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 23

‘A Young Lamb’s Heart Among the Full-Grown Flocks.’

For three most happy days Mary rejoiced in her lover’s society, Maulevrier was with them everywhere, by brookside and fell, on the lake, in the gardens, in the billiard-room, playing propriety with admirable patience. But this could not last for ever. A man who has to win name and fortune and a home for his young wife cannot spend all his days in the primrose path. Fortunes and reputations are not made in dawdling beside a mountain stream, or watching the play of sunlight and shadow on a green hill-side; unless, indeed, one were a new Wordsworth, and even then fortune and renown are not quickly made.

And again, Maulevrier, who had been a marvel of good-nature and contentment for the last eight weeks, was beginning to be tired of this lovely Lakeland. Just when Lakeland was daily developing into new beauty, Maulevrier began to feel an itching for London, where he had a comfortable nest in the Albany, and which was to his mind a metropolis expressly created as a centre or starting point for Newmarket, Epsom, Ascot and Goodwood.

So there came a morning upon which Mary had to say good-bye to those two companions who had so blest and gladdened her life. It was a bright sunshiny morning, and all the world looked gay; which seemed very unkind of Nature, Mary thought. And yet, even in the sadness of this parting, she had much reason to be glad. As she stood with her lover in the library, in the three minutes of tête-à-tête She stolen from the argus-eyed Fräulein, folded in his arms, looking up at his manly face, it seemed to her that the mere knowledge that she belonged to him and was beloved by him ought to sustain and console her even in long years of severance. Yes, even if he were one of the knights of old, going to the Holy Land on a crusade full of peril and uncertainty. Even then a woman ought to be brave, having such a lover.

But her parting was to be only for a few months. Maulevrier promised to come back to Fellside for the August sports, and Hammond was to come with him. Three months — or a little more — and they were to meet again.

Yet in spite of these arguments for courage, Mary’s face blanched and her eyes grew unutterably sad as she looked up at her lover.

‘You will take care of yourself, Jack, for my sake, won’t you, dear?’ she murmured. ‘If you should be ill while you are in London! If you should die —’

‘Life is very uncertain, love, but I don’t feel like sickness or death just at present,’ answered Hammond cheerily. ‘Indeed, I feel that the present is full of sweetness, and the future full of hope. Don’t suppose, dear, that I am not grieved at this good-bye; but before we are a year older I hope the time will have come when there will be no more farewells for you and me. I shall be a very exacting husband, Molly. I shall want to spend all the days and hours of my life with you; to have not a fancy or a pursuit in which you cannot share, or with which you cannot sympathise. I hope you will not grow tired of me!’

‘Tired!’

Then came silence, and a long farewell kiss, and then the voice of Maulevrier shouting in the hall, just in time to warn the lovers, before Miss Müller opened the door and exclaimed,

‘Oh, Mr. Hammond, we have been looking for you everywhere. The luggage is all in the carriage, and Maulevrier says there is only just time to get to Windermere!’

In another minute or so the carriage was driving down the hill; and Mary stood in the porch looking after the travellers.

‘It seems as if it is my fate to stand here and see everybody drive away,’ she said to herself.

And then she looked round at the lovely gardens, bright with spring flowers, the trees glorious with their young, fresh foliage, and the vast panorama of hill and dale, and felt that it was a wicked thing to murmur in the midst of such a world. And she remembered the great unhoped-for bliss that had come to her within the last four days, and the cloud upon her brow vanished, as she clasped her hands in child-like joyousness.

‘God bless you, dear old Helvellyn,’ she exclaimed, looking up at the sombre crest of the mountain. ‘Perhaps if it had not been for you he would have never proposed.’

But she was obliged to dismiss this idea instantly; for to suppose John Hammond’s avowal of his love an accident, the mere impulse of a weak moment, would be despair. Had he not told her how she had grown nearer and nearer to his heart, day by day, and hour by hour, until she had become part of his life? He had told her this — he, in whom she believed as in the very spirit of truth.

She wandered about the gardens for an hour after the carriage had started for Windermere, revisiting every spot where she and her lover had walked together within the last three days, living over again the rapture of those hours, repeating to herself his words, recalling his looks, with the fatuity of a first girlish love. And yet amidst the silliness inseparable from love’s young dream, there was a depth of true womanly feeling, thoughtful, unselfish, forecasting a future which was not to travel always along the primrose path of dalliance — a future in which the roses were not always to be thornless.

John Hammond was going to London to work for a position in the world, to strive and labour among the seething mass of strugglers, all pressing onward for the same goal — independence, wealth, renown. Little as Mary know of the world by experience, she had at least heard the wiseacres talk; and that which she had heard was calculated to depress rather than to inspire industrious youth. She had heard how the professions were all over-crowded: how a mighty army of young men were walking the hospitals, all intent on feeling the pulses and picking the pockets of the rising generation: how at the Bar men were growing old and grey before they saw their first brief: how competitors were elbowing and hustling each other upon every road, thronging at every gate. And while masculine youth strove and wrestled for places in the race, aunts and sisters and cousins were pressing into the same arena, doing their best to crowd out the uncles and the brothers and the nephews.

‘Poor Jack,’ sighed Mary, ‘at the worst we can go to the Red River country and grow corn.’

This was her favourite fancy, that she and her lover should find their first dwelling in the new world, live as humbly as the peasants lived round Grasmere, and patiently wait upon fortune. And yet that would not be happiness, unless Maulevrier were to come and stay with them every autumn. Nothing could reconcile Mary to being separated from Maulevrier for any lengthened period.

There were hours in which she was more hopeful, and defied the wiseacres. Clever young men had succeeded in the past — clever men whose hair was not yet grey had come to the front in the present. Granted that these were the exceptional men, the fine flower of humanity. Did she not know that John Hammond was as far above average youth as Helvellyn was above yonder mound in her grandmother’s shrubbery?

Yes, he would succeed in literature, in politics, in whatever career he had chosen for himself. He was a man to do the thing he set himself to do, were it ever so difficult. To doubt his success would be to doubt his truth and his honesty; for he had sworn to her he would make her life bright and happy, and that evil days should never come to her; and he was not the man to promise that which he was not able to perform.

The house seemed terribly dull now that the two young men were gone. There was an oppressive silence in the rooms which had lately resounded with Maulevrier’s frank, boyish laughter, and with his friend’s deep, manly tones — a silence broken only by the click of Fräulein Müller’s needles.

The Fräulein was not disposed to be sympathetic or agreeable about Lady Mary’s engagement. Firstly, she had not been consulted about it. The thing had been done, she considered, in an underhand manner; and Lady Maulevrier, who had begun by strenuously opposing the match, had been talked over in a way that proved the latent weakness of that great lady’s character. Secondly, Miss Müller, having herself for some reason missed such joys as are involved in being wooed and won, was disposed to look sourly upon all love affairs, and to take a despondent view of all matrimonial engagements.

She did not say anything openly uncivil to Mary Haselden; but she let the damsel see that she pitied her and despised her infatuated condition; and this was so unpleasant that Mary was fain to fall back upon the society of ponies and terriers, and to take up her pilgrim’s staff and go wandering over the hills, carrying her happy thoughts into solitary places, and sitting for hours in a heathery hollow, steeped in a sea of summer light, and trying to paint the mountain side and the rush of the waterfall. Her sketch-book was an excuse for hours of solitude, for the indulgence of an endless day-dream.

Sometimes she went among her humble friends in the Grasmere cottages, or in the villages of Great and Little Langdale; and she had now a new interest in these visits, for she had made up her mind that it was her solemn duty to learn housekeeping — not such housekeeping as might have been learnt at Fellside, supposing she had mustered the courage to ask the dignified upper-servants in that establishment to instruct her; but such domestic arts as are needed in the dwellings of the poor. The art of making a very little money go a great way; the art of giving grace, neatness, prettiness to the smallest rooms and the shabbiest furniture; the art of packing all the ugly appliances and baser necessities of daily life, the pots and kettles and brooms and pails, into the narrowest compass, and hiding them from the aesthetic eye. Mary thought that if she began by learning the homely devices of the villagers — the very A B C of cookery and housewifery — she might gradually enlarge upon this simple basis to suit an income of from five to seven hundred a year. The house-mothers from whom she sought information were puzzled at this sudden curiosity about domestic matters. They looked upon the thing as a freak of girlhood which drifted into eccentricity, from sheer idleness; yet they were not the less ready to teach Mary anything she desired to learn. They told her those secret arts by which coppers and brasses are made things of beauty, and meet adornment for an old oak mantelshelf. They allowed her to look on at the milking of the cow, and at the churning of the butter; and at bread making, and cake making, and pie and pudding making; and some pleasant hours were spent in the acquirement of this useful knowledge. Mary did not neglect the invalid during this new phase of her existence. Lady Maulevrier was a lover of routine, and she liked her granddaughter to go to her at the same hour every day. From eleven to twelve was the time for Mary’s duty as amanuensis. Sometimes there were no letters to be written. Sometimes there were several; but her ladyship rarely allowed the task to go beyond the stroke of noon. At noon Mary was free, and free till five o’clock, when she was generally in attendance, ready to give Lady Maulevrier her afternoon tea, and sit and talk with her, and tell her any scraps of local news which she had gathered in the day.

There were days on which her ladyship preferred to take her tea alone, and Mary was left free to follow her own devices till dinner-time.

‘I do not feel equal even to your society to-day, my dear,’ her ladyship would say; ‘go and enjoy yourself with your dogs and your tennis;’ forgetting that there was very seldom anybody on the premises with whom Lady Mary could play tennis.

But in these lonely days of Mary Haselden’s life there was one crowning bliss which was almost enough to sweeten solitude, and take away the sting of separation; and that was the delight of expecting and receiving her lover’s letters. Busily as Mr. Hammond must be engaged in fighting the battle of life, he was in no way wanting in his duty as a lover. He wrote to Mary every other day; but though his letters were long, they told her hardly anything of himself or his occupation. He wrote about pictures, books, music, such things as he knew must be interesting to her; but of his own struggles not a word.

‘Poor fellow,’ thought Mary. ‘He is afraid to sadden me by telling me how hard the struggle is.’

Her own letters to her betrothed were simple outpourings of girlish love, breathing that too flattering-sweet idolatry which an innocent girl gives to her first lover. Mary wrote as if she herself were of the least possible value among created things.

With one of Mr. Hammond’s earlier letters came the engagement ring; no half-hoop of brilliants or sapphires, rubies or emeralds, no gorgeous triple circlet of red, white, and green; but only a massive band of dead gold, on the inside of which was engraved this posy —‘For ever.’

Mary thought it the loveliest ring she had ever seen in her life.

May was half over and the last patch of snow had vanished from the crest of Helvellyn, from Eagle’s Crag and Raven’s Crag, and Coniston Old Man. Spring — slow to come along these shadowy gorges — had come in real earnest now, spring that was almost summer; and Lady Maulevrier’s gardens were as lovely as dreamland. But it was an unpeopled paradise. Mary had the grounds all to herself, except at those stated times when the Fräulein, who was growing lazier and larger day by day in her leisurely and placid existence, took her morning and afternoon constitutional on the terrace in front of the drawing-room, or solemnly perambulated the shrubberies.

On fine days Mary lived in the garden, save when she was far afield learning the domestic arts from the cottagers. She read French and German, and worked conscientiously at her intellectual education, as well as at domestic economy. For she told herself that accomplishments and culture might be useful to her in her married life. She might be able to increase her husband’s means by giving lessons abroad, or taking pupils at home. She was ready to do anything. She would teach the stupidest children, or scrub floors, or bake bread. There was no service she would deem degrading for his sake. She meant when she married to drop her courtesy title. She would not be Lady Mary Hammond, a poor sprig of nobility, but plain Mrs. Hammond, a working man’s wife.

Lesbia’s presentation was over, and had realised all Lady Kirkbank’s expectations. The Society papers were unanimous in pronouncing Lord Maulevrier’s sister the prettiest débutante of the season. They praised her classical features, the admirable poise of her head, her peerless complexion. They described her dress at the drawing-room; they described her ‘frocks’ in the Park and at Sandown. They expatiated on the impression she had made at great assemblies. They hinted at even Royal admiration. All this, frivolous fribble though it might be, Lady Maulevrier read with delight, and she was still more gratified by Lesbia’s own account of her successes. But as the season advanced Lesbia’s letters to her grandmother grew briefer — mere hurried scrawls dashed off while the carriage was at the door, or while her maid was brushing her hair. Lady Maulevrier divined, with the keen instinct of love, that she counted for very little in Lesbia’s life, now that the whirligig of society, the fret and fever of fashion, had begun.

One afternoon in May, at that hour when Hyde Park is fullest, and the carriages move slowly in triple rank along the Lady’s Mile, and the mounted constables jog up and down with a business-like air which sets every one on the alert for the advent of the Princess of Wales, just at that hour when Lesbia sat in Lady Kirkbank’s barouche, and distributed gracious bows and enthralling smiles to her numerous acquaintance, Mary rode slowly down the Fell, after a rambling ride on the safest and most venerable of mountain ponies. The pony was grey, and Mary was grey, for she wore a neat little homespun habit made by the local tailor, and a neat little felt hat with, a ptarmigan’s feather.

All was very quiet at Fellside as she went in at the stable gate. There was not an underling stirring in the large old stable-yard which had remained almost unaltered for a century and a half; for Lady Maulevrier, whilst spending thousands on the new part of the house, had deemed the existing stables good enough for her stud. They were spacious old stables, built as solidly as a Norman castle, and with all the virtues and all the vices of their age.

Mary looked round her with a sigh. The stillness of the place was oppressive, and within doors she knew there would be the same stillness, made still more oppressive by the society of the Fräulein, who grew duller and duller every day, as it seemed to Mary.

She took her pony into the dusky old stable, where four other ponies began rattling their halters in the gloom, by way of greeting. A bundle of purple tares lay ready in a corner for Mary to feed her favourites; and for the next ten minutes or so she was happily employed going from stall to stall, and gratifying that inordinate appetite for green meat which seems natural to all horses.

Not a groom or stable-boy appeared while she was in the stable; and she was just going away, when her attention was caught by a flood of sunshine streaming into an old disused harness-room at the end of the stable — a room with one small window facing the Fell.

Whence could that glow of western light come? Assuredly not from the low-latticed window which faced eastward, and was generally obscured by a screen of cobwebs. The room was only used as a storehouse for lumber, and it was nobody’s business to clean the window.

Mary looked in, curious to solve the riddle. A door which she had often noticed, but never seen opened, now stood wide open, and the old quadrangular garden, which was James Steadman’s particular care, smiled at her in the golden evening light. Seen thus, this little old Dutch garden seemed to Mary the prettiest thing she had ever looked upon. There were beds of tulips and hyacinths, ranunculus, narcissus, tuberose, making a blaze of colour against the old box borders, a foot high. The crumbling old brick walls of the outbuildings, and that dungeon-like wall which formed the back of the new house, were clothed with clematis and wistaria, woodbine and magnolia. All that loving labour could do had been done day by day for the last forty years to make this confined space a thing of beauty. Mary went out of the dark stable into the sunny garden, and looked round her, full of admiration for James Steadman’s work.

‘If ever Jack and I can afford to have a garden, I hope we shall be able to make it like this,’ she thought. ‘It is such a comfort to know that so small a garden can be pretty: for of course any garden we could afford must be small.’

Lady Mary had no idea that this quadrangle was spacious as compared with the narrow strip allotted to many a suburban villa calling itself ‘an eligible residence.’

In the centre of the garden there was an old sundial, with a stone bench at the base, and, as she came upon an opening in the circular yew tree hedge which environed this sundial, and from which the flower beds radiated in a geometrical pattern, Lady Mary was surprised to see an old man — a very old man — sitting on this bench, and basking in the low light of the westering sun.

His figure was shrunken and bent, and he sat with his chin resting on the handle of a crutched stick, and his head leaning forward. His long white hair fell in thin straggling locks over the collar of his coat. He had an old-fashioned, mummyfied aspect, and Mary thought he must be very, very old.

Very, very old! In a flash there came back upon her the memory of John Hammond’s curiosity about a hoary and withered old man whom he had met on the Fell in the early morning. She remembered how she had taken him to see old Sam Barlow, and how he had protested that Sam in no wise resembled the strange-looking old man of the Fell. And now here, close to the Fell, was a face and figure which in every detail resembled that ancient stranger whom Hammond had described so graphically.

It was very strange. Could this person be the same her lover had seen two months ago? And, if so, had he been living at Fellside all the time; or was he only an occasional visitor of Steadman’s?

While she stood for a few moments meditating thus, the old man raised his head and looked up at her, with eyes that burned like red-hot coals under his shaggy white brows. The look scared her. There was something awful in it, like the gaze of an evil spirit, a soul in torment, and she began to move away, with side-long steps, her eyes riveted on that uncanny countenance.

‘Don’t go,’ said the man, with an authoritative air, rattling his bony fingers upon the bench. ‘Sit down here by my side, and talk to me. Don’t be frightened, child. You wouldn’t, if you knew what they say of me indoors.’ He made a motion of his head towards the windows of the old wing —’“Harmless,” they say, “quite harmless. Let him alone, he’s harmless.” A tiger with his claws cut and his teeth drawn — an old, grey-bearded tiger, ghastly and grim, but harmless — a cobra with the poison-bag plucked out of his jaw! The venom grows again, child — the snake’s venom — but youth never comes back: Old, and helpless, and harmless!’

Again Mary tried to move away, but those evil eyes held her as if she were a bird riveted by the gaze of a serpent.

‘Why do you shrink away?’ asked the old man, frowning at her. ‘Sit down here, and let me talk to you. I am accustomed to be obeyed’

Old and feeble and shrunken as he was, there was a power in his tone of command which Mary was unable to resist. She felt very sure that he was imbecile or mad. She knew that madmen are apt to imagine themselves great personages, and to take upon themselves, with a wonderful power of impersonation, the dignity and authority of their imaginary rank; and she supposed that it must be thus with this strange old man. She struggled against her sense of terror. After all there could be no real danger, in the broad daylight, within the precincts of her own home, within call of the household.

She seated herself on the bench by the unknown, willing to humour him a little; and he turned himself about slowly, as if every bone in his body were stiff with age, and looked at her with a deliberate scrutiny.

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