Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

On the Wrong Road.

Lord and Lady Maulevrier left Southampton next morning, posting. They took two servants in the rumble, Steadman and the footman. Steadman was to valet his lordship, the footman to be useful in all emergencies of the journey. The maid and the valet were to travel by heavy coach, with the luggage — her ladyship dispensing with all personal attendance during the journey.

The first day took them to Rugby, whither they travelled across country by Wallingford and Oxford. The second day took them to Lichfield. Lord Maulevrier was out of health and feeble, and grumbled a good deal about the fatigue of the journey, the badness of the weather, which was dull and cold, east winds all day, and a light frost morning and night. As they progressed northward the sky looked grayer, the air became more biting. His lordship insisted upon the stages being shortened. He lay in bed at his hotel till noon, and was seldom ready to start till two o’clock. He could see no reason for haste; the winter would be long enough in all conscience at Fellside. He complained of mysterious aches and pains, described himself in the presence of hotel-keepers and headwaiters as a mass of maladies. He was nervous, irritable, intensely disagreeable. Lady Maulevrier bore his humours with unwavering patience, and won golden opinions from all sorts of people by her devotion to a husband whose blighted name was the common talk of England. Everybody, even in distant provincial towns, had heard of the scandal against the Governor of Madras; and everybody looked at the sallow, faded Anglo–Indian with morbid curiosity. His lordship, sensitive on all points touching his own ease and comfort, was keenly conscious of this unflattering inquisitiveness.

The journey, protracted by Lord Maulevrier’s languor and ill-health, dragged its slow length along for nearly a fortnight; until it seemed to Lady Maulevrier as if they had been travelling upon those dismal, flat, unpicturesque roads for months. Each day was so horribly like yesterday. The same hedgerows and flat fields, and passing glimpse of river or canal. The same absence of all beauty in the landscape — the same formal hotel rooms, and smirking landladies — and so on till they came to Lancaster, after which the country became more interesting — hills arose in the background. Even the smoky manufacturing towns through which they passed without stopping, were less abominable than the level monotony of the Midland counties.

But now as they drew nearer the hills the weather grew colder, snow was spoken of, and when they got into Westmoreland the mountain-peaks gleamed whitely against a lead-coloured sky.

‘You ought not to have brought me here in such weather,’ complained the Earl, shivering in his sables, as he sat in his corner of the travelling chariot, looking discontentedly at the gloomy landscape. ‘What is to become of us if we are caught in a snowstorm?’

‘We shall have no snow worth talking about before we are safely housed at Fellside, and then we can defy the elements,’ said Lady Maulevrier, coolly.

They slept that night at Oxenholme, and started next morning, under a clean, bright sky, intending to take luncheon at Windermere, and to be at home by nightfall.

But by the time they got to Windermere the sky had changed to a dark grey, and the people at the hotel prophesied a heavy fall before night, and urged the Earl and Countess to go no further that day. The latter part of the road to Fellside was rough and hilly. If there should be a snowstorm the horses would never be able to drag the carriage up the steepest bit of the way. Here, however, Lord Maulevrier’s obstinacy came into play. He would not endure another night at an hotel so near his own house. He was sick to death of travelling, and wanted to be at rest among comfortable surroundings.

‘It was murder to bring me here,’ he said to his wife. ‘If I had gone to Hastings I should have been a new man by this time. As it is I am a great deal worse than when I landed.’

Everyone at the hotel noticed his lordship’s white and haggard looks. He had been known there as a young man in the bloom of health and strength, and his decay was particularly obvious to these people.

‘I saw death in his face,’ the landlord said, afterwards.

Every one, even her ladyship’s firmness and good sense, gave way before the invalid’s impatience. At three in the afternoon they left the hotel, with four horses, to make the remaining nineteen miles of the way in one stage. They had not been on the road half an hour before the snow began to fall thickly, whitening everything around them, except the lake, which showed a dark leaden surface at the bottom of the slope along the edge of which they were travelling. Too sullen for speech, Lord Maulevrier sat back in his corner, with his sable cloak drawn up to his chin, his travelling cap covering head and ears, his eyes contemplating the whitening world with a weary anger. His wife watched the landscape as long as she could, but the snow soon began to darken all the air, and she could see nothing save that blank blinding fall.

Half-way to Fellside there was a point where two roads met, one leading towards Grasmere, the other towards the village of Great Langdale, a cluster of humble habitations in the heart of the hills. When the horses had struggled as far as this point, the snow was six inches deep on the road, and made a thick curtain around them as it fell. By this time the Earl had dozed off to sleep.

He woke an hour after, let down the window, which let in a snow-laden gust, and tried to pierce the gloom without.

‘As black as Erebus!’ he exclaimed, ‘but we ought to be close at home by this time. Yes, thank God, there are the lights.’

The carriage drew up a minute afterwards, and Steadman came to the door.

‘Very sorry, my lord. The horses must have taken a wrong turn after we crossed the bridge. And now the men say they can’t go back to Fellside unless we can get fresh horses; and I’m afraid there’s no chance of that here.’

‘Here!’ exclaimed the Earl, ‘what do you mean by here? Where the devil are we?’

‘Great Langdale, my lord.’

A door opened and let out a flood of light — the red light of a wood fire, the pale flame of a candle — upon the snowy darkness, revealing the panelled hall of a neat little rustic inn: an eight-day clock ticking in the corner, a black and white sheep-dog coming out at his master’s heels to investigate the travellers. To the right of the door showed the light of a window, sheltered by a red curtain, behind which the chiefs of the village were enjoying their evening.

‘Have you any post-horses?’ asked the Earl, discontentedly, as the landlord stood on the threshold, shading the candle with his hand. ‘No, sir. We don’t keep post-horses.’

‘Of course not. I knew as much before I asked,’ said the Earl.

‘We are fixed in this dismal hole for the night, I suppose. How far are we from Fellside?’

‘Seven miles,’ answered the landlord. ‘I beg your pardon, my lord; I didn’t know it was your lordship,’ he added, hurriedly. ‘We’re in sore trouble, and it makes a man daft-like; but if there’s anything we can do ——’

‘Is there no hope of getting on, Steadman?’ asked the Earl, cutting short these civilities.

‘Not with these horses, my lord.’

‘And you hear we can’t get any others. Is there any farmer about here who could lend us a pair of carriage horses?’

The landlord knew of no such person.

‘Then we must stop here till to-morrow morning. What infernal fools those post-boys must be,’ protested Lord Maulevrier.

James Steadman apologised for the postilions, explaining that when they came to the critical point of their journey, where the road branched off to the Langdales, the snow was falling so thickly, the whole country was so hidden in all-pervading whiteness, that even he, who knew the way so well, could give no help to the drivers. He could only trust to the instinct of local postilions and local horses; and instinct had proved wrong.

The travellers alighted, and were ushered into a not uncomfortable-looking parlour; very low as to the ceiling, very old-fashioned as to the furniture, but spotlessly clean, and enlivened by a good fire, to which his lordship drew near, shivering and muttering discontentedly to himself.

‘We might be worse off,’ said her ladyship, looking round the bright little room, which pleased her better than many a state apartment in the large hotels at which they had stopped.

‘Hardly, unless we were out on the moor,’ grumbled her husband. ‘I am sick to death of this ill-advised, unreasonable journey. I am at a loss to imagine your motive in bringing me here. You must have had a motive.’

‘I had,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, with a freezing look. ‘I wanted to get you out of the way. I told you that plainly enough at Southampton.’

‘I don’t see why I should be hurried away and hidden,’ said Lord Maulevrier. ‘I must face my accusers, sooner or later.’

‘Of course. The day of reckoning must come. But in the meantime have you no delicacy? Do you want to be pointed at everywhere?’

‘All I know is that I am very ill,’ answered her husband, ‘and that this wretched journey has made me twenty years older.’

‘We shall be safe at home before noon to-morrow, and you can have Horton to set you right again. You know you always believed in his skill.’

‘Horton is a clever fellow enough, as country doctors go; but at Hastings I could have had the best physicians in London to see me,’ grumbled his lordship.

The rustic maid-servant came in to lay the table, assisted by her ladyship’s footman, who looked a good deal too tall for the room.

‘I shan’t dine,’ said the Earl. ‘I am a great deal too ill and cold. Light a fire in my room, girl, and send Steadman to me’— this to the footman, who hastened to obey. ‘You can send me up a basin of soup presently. I shall go to bed at once.’

He left the room without another word to his wife, who sat by the hearth staring thoughtfully at the cheery wood fire. Presently she looked up, and saw that the man and maid were going on with their preparations for dinner.

‘I do not care about dining alone,’ said her ladyship. ‘We lunched at Windermere, and I have no appetite. You can clear away those things, and bring me some tea.’

When the table furniture had been cleared, and a neat little tea-tray set upon the white cloth, Lady Maulevrier drew her chair to the table, and took out her pocket-book, from which she produced a letter. This she read more than once, meditating profoundly upon its contents.

‘I am very sorry he has come home,’ wrote her correspondent, ‘and yet if he had stayed in India there must have been an investigation on the spot. A public inquiry is inevitable, and the knowledge of his arrival in the country will precipitate matters. From all I hear I much fear that there is no chance of the result being favourable to him. You have asked me to write the unvarnished truth, to be brutal even, remember. His delinquencies are painfully notorious, and I apprehend that the last sixpence he owns will be answerable. His landed estate I am told can also be confiscated, in the event of an impeachment at the bar of the House of Lords, as in the Warren Hastings case. But as yet nobody seems clear as to the form which the investigation will take. In reply to your inquiry as to what would have happened if his lordship had died on the passage home, I believe I am justified in saying the scandal would have been allowed to die with him. He has contrived to provoke powerful animosities both in the Cabinet and at the India House, and there is, I fear, an intention to pursue the inquiry to the bitter end.’

Assurances of the writer’s sympathy followed these harsh truths. But to this polite commonplace her ladyship paid no attention. Her mind was intent on hard facts, the dismal probabilities of the near future.

‘If he had died upon the passage home!’ she repeated. ‘Would to God that he had so died, and that my son’s name and fortune could be saved.’

The innocent child who had never given her an hour’s care; the one creature she loved with all the strength of her proud nature — his future was to be blighted by his father’s misdoings-overshadowed by shame and dishonour in the very dawn of life. It was a wicked wish — an unnatural wish to find room in a woman’s breast; but the wish was there. Would to God he had died before the ship touched an English port.

But he was living, and would have to face his accusers — and she, his wife, must give him all the help she could.

She sat long by the waning fire. She took nothing but a cup of tea, although the landlady had sent in substantial accompaniments to the tea-tray in the shape of broiled ham, new-laid eggs, and hot cakes, arguing that a traveller on such a night must be hungry, albeit disinclined for a ceremonious dinner. She had been sitting for nearly an hour in almost the same attitude, when there came a knock at the door, and, on being bidden to enter, the landlady came in, with some logs in her apron, under pretence of replenishing the fire.

‘I was afraid your fire must be getting low, and that you’d be amost starved, my lady,’ she said, as she put on the logs, and swept up the ashes on the hearth. ‘Such a dreadful night. So early in the year, too. I’m thinking we shall have a gay hard winter.’

‘That does not always follow,’ said Lady Maulevrier. ‘Has Steadman come downstairs?’

‘Yes, my lady. He told me to tell your ladyship that his lordship is pretty comfortable, and hopes to pass a good night.’

‘I am glad to hear it. You can give me another room, I suppose. It would be better for his lordship not to be disturbed, as he is very much out of health.’

‘There is another room, my lady, but it’s very small.’

‘I don’t mind how small, if it is clean and airy.’

‘Yes, my lady. I am thankful to say you won’t find dirt or stuffiness anywhere in this house. His lordship do look mortal badly,’ added the landlady, shaking her head dolefully; ‘and I remember him such a fine young gentleman, when he used to come down the Rothay with the otter hounds, running along the bank — joomping in and out of the beck — up to his knees in the water — and now to see him, so white and mashiated, and broken-down like, in the very prime of life, all along of living out in a hot country, among blackamoors, which is used to it — poor, ignorant creatures — and never knew no better. It must be a hard trial for you, my lady.’

‘It is a hard trial.’

‘Ah! we all have our trials, rich and poor,’ sighed the woman, who desired nothing better than to be allowed to unbosom her woes to the grand looking lady in the fur-bordered cloth pelisse, with beautiful dark hair piled up in clustering masses above a broad white forehead, and slender white hands on which diamonds flashed and glittered in the firelight, an unaccustomed figure by that rustic hearth.

‘We all have our trials — high and low.’

‘That reminds me,’ said Lady Maulevrier, looking up at her, ‘your husband said you were in trouble. What did that mean?’

‘Sickness in the house, my lady. A brother of mine that went to America to make his fortune, and seemed to be doing so well for the first five or six years, and wrote home such beautiful letters, and then left off writing all at once, and we made sure as he was dead, and never got a word from him for ten years, and just three weeks ago he drops in upon us as we was sitting over our tea between the lights, looking as white as a ghost. I gave a shriek when I saw him, for I was regular scared out of my senses. “Robert’s ghost!” I cried; but it was Robert himself, come home to us to die. And he’s lying upstairs now, with so little life in him that I expect every breath to be his last.’

‘What is his complaint?’

‘Apathy, my lady. Dear, dear, that’s not it. I never do remember the doctor’s foreign names.’

‘Atrophy,’ perhaps.

‘Yes, my lady, that was it. Happen such crack-jaw words come easy to a scholar like your ladyship.’

‘Does the doctor give no hope?’

‘Well, no, my lady. He don’t go so far as to say there’s no hope, though Robert has been badly so long. It all depends, he says, upon the rallying power of the constitution. The lungs are not gone, and the heart is not diseased. If there’s rallying power, Robert will come round, and if there isn’t he’ll sink. But the doctor says nature will have to make an effort. But I have my own idea about the case,’ added the landlady, with a sigh.

‘What is your idea?’

‘That our Robert was marked for death when he came into this house, and that he meant what he said when he spoke of coming home to die. Things had gone against him for the last ten years in America. He married and took his wife out to a farm in the Bush, and thought to make a good thing out of farming with the bit of brass he’d saved at heeam. But America isn’t Gert Langdale, you see, my lady, and his knowledge stood him in no stead in the Bush; and first he lost his money, and he fashed himself terrible about that, and then he lost a child or two, and then he lost his wife, and he came back to us a broken-hearted man, with no wish to live. The doctor may call it atrophy, but I will call it what the Scripture calls it, a broken and a wounded spirit.’

‘Who is your doctor?’

‘Mr. Evans, of Ambleside.’

‘That little half-blind old man!’ exclaimed her ladyship. ‘Surely you have no confidence in him?’

‘Not much, my lady. But I don’t believe all the doctors in London could do anything for Robert. Good nursing will bring him round if anything can; and he gets that, I can assure your ladyship. He’s my only brother, the only kith and kin that’s left to me, and he and I were gay fond of each other when he was young. You may be sure I don’t spare any trouble, and my good man thinks the best of his larder or his celler hardly good enough for Robert.’

‘I am sure you are kind good people,’ replied her ladyship gently; ‘but I should have thought Mr. Horton, of Grasmere, could have done more than old Evans. However, you know best. I hope his lordship is not going to add to your cares by being laid up here, but he looked very ill this evening.’

‘He did, my lady, mortal bad.’

‘However, we must hope for the best. Steadman is a splendid servant in illness. He nursed my father for years. Will you tell him to come to me, if you please? I want to hear what he thinks of his lordship, and to discuss the chances of our getting home early to-morrow.’

The landlady retired, and summoned Mr. Steadman, who was enjoying his modest glass of grog in front of the kitchen fire. He had taught himself to dispense with the consolations of tobacco, lest he should at any time make himself obnoxious to her ladyship.

Steadman was closeted with Lady Maulevrier for the next half-hour, during which his lordship’s condition was gravely discussed. When he left the sitting-room he told the landlord to be sure and feed the post-horses well, and make them comfortable for the night, so that they might be ready for the drive to Fellside early next morning.

‘Do you think his lordship will be well enough to travel?’ asked the landlord.

‘He has made up his mind to get home — ill or well,’ answered Steadman. ‘He has wasted about a week by his dawdling ways on the road; and now he’s in a fever to get to Fellside.’

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