Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 32

Ways and Means.

The three days that followed were among the happiest days of Mary Haselden’s young life. Lady Maulevrier had become strangely indulgent. A softening influence of some kind had worked upon that haughty spirit, and it seemed as if her whole nature was changed — or it might be, Mary thought, that this softer side of her character had always been turned to Lesbia, while to Mary herself it was altogether new. Lesbia had been the peach on the sunny southern wall, ripening and reddening in a flood of sunshine; Mary had been the stunted fruit growing in a north-east corner, hidden among leaves, blown upon by cold winds green and hard and sour for lack of the warm bright light. And now Mary felt the sunshine, and grew glad and gay in those glowing beams.

‘Dear grandmother, I believe you are beginning to love me,’ she said, bending over to arrange the invalid’s pillows in the July morning, the fresh mountain air blowing in upon old and young from the great open window, like a caress.

‘I am beginning to know you,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, gently.

‘I think it is the magic of love, Mary, that has sweetened and softened your nature, and endeared you to me. I think you have grown ever so much sweeter a girl since your engagement. Or it may be that you were the same always, and it was I who was blind. Lesbia was all in all to me. All in all — and now I am nothing to her,’ she murmured, to herself rather than to Mary.

‘I am so proud to think that you see an improvement in me since my engagement,’ said Mary, modestly. ‘I have tried very hard to improve myself, so that I might be more worthy of him.’

‘You are worthy, Mary, worthy of the best and the highest: and I believe that, although you are making what the world calls a very bad match, you are marrying wisely. You are wedding yourself to a life of obscurity; but what does that matter, if it be a happy life? I have known what it is to pursue the phantom fortune, and to find youth and hope and happiness vanish from the pathway which I followed.’

‘Dear grandmother, I wish you had been able to marry the man of your choice,’ answered Mary, tenderly.

She was ready to weep over that wasted life of her grandmother’s; to weep for that forced parting of true lovers, albeit the tragedy was half a century old.

‘I should have been a happier woman and a better woman if fate had been kind to me, Mary,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, gravely; ‘and now that I am daily drawing nearer the land of shadows, I will not stand in the way of faithful lovers. I have a fancy, Mary, that I have not many months to live.’

‘Only an invalid’s fancy,’ said Mary, stooping down to kiss the pale forehead, so full of thought and care; ‘only a morbid fancy, nursed in the monotony of this quiet room. Maulevrier and Jack and I must find some way of amusing you.’

‘You will never amuse me out of that conviction, my dear. I can see the shadows lengthening and the sands running out. There are but a few grains left in the glass, Mary; and while those last I should like to see you and Mr. Hammond married. I should like to feel that your fate is settled before I go. God knows what confusion and trouble may follow my death.’

This was said with a sharp ring of despair.

‘I am not going to leave you, grandmother,’ said Mary.

‘Not even for the man you love? You are a good girl, Mary. Lesbia has forsaken me for a lesser temptation.’

‘Grandmother, that is hardly fair. It was your own wish to have Lesbia presented this season,’ remonstrated Mary, loyal to the absent.

‘True, my dear. I saw she was very tired of her life here, and I thought it was better. But I’m sorely afraid London has spoiled her. No, Mary, you can stay with me to the end, if you like. There is room enough for you and your husband under this roof. I like this Mr. Hammond. His is the only face that ever recalled the face of the dead. Yes, I like him; and although I know nothing about him except what Maulevrier tells me — and that is of the scantiest — still I feel, somehow, that I can trust him. Send your lover to me, Mary. I want to have a serious talk with him.’

Mary ran off to obey, fluttered, blushing, and trembling. This idea of marriage in the immediate future was to be the last degree startling. A year had seemed a very long time; and she had been told that she and her lover must wait a year at the very least; so that vision of marriage had seemed afar off in the dim shadowland of the future. She had been told nothing by her lover of where she was to live, or what her life was to be like when she was his wife. And now she was told that they were to be married almost immediately, that they were to live in the house where she had been reared, in that familiar land of hills and waters, that they were to roam about the dales and mountains together, they two, as man and wife. The whole thing was wonderful, bewildering, impossible almost.

This was on the first morning after Mr. Hammond’s arrival. Maulevrier had gone off to hunt the Rotha for otters, and was up to his waist in the water, no doubt, by this time. Hammond was strolling up and down the terrace in front of the house, looking at the green expanse of Fairfield, the dark bulk of Seat Sandal, the nearer crests of Helm Crag and Silver Howe.

‘You are to come to her ladyship directly, please,’ said Mary, going up to him.

He took both her hands, drew her nearer to him, smiling down at her. They had been sitting side by side at the breakfast table half-an-hour ago, he waiting upon her as she poured out the tea; yet by his tender greeting and the delight in his face it might have been supposed they had not met for weeks. Such are the sweet inanities of love.

‘What does her ladyship want with me, darling? and why are you blushing?’ he asked.

‘I— I think she is going to talk about — our — marriage,’ faltered Mary.

‘“Why, I will talk to her upon this theme until mine eyelids can no longer wag,”’ quoted Hammond. ‘Take me to her, Mary. I hope her ladyship is growing sensible.’

‘She is very kind, very sweet. She has changed so much of late.’

Mary went with him to the door of her ladyship’s sitting-room, and there left him to go in alone. She went to the library — that room over which a gloomy shadow seemed to have hung ever since that awful winter afternoon when Mary found Lady Maulevrier lying on the floor in the twilight. But it was a noble room, and in her studious hours Mary loved to sit here, walled round with books, and able to consult or dip into as many volumes as she liked. To-day, however, her mind was not attuned to study. She sat with a volume of Macaulay open before her: but her thoughts were not with the author. She was wondering what those two were saying in the room overhead, and finding all attempts at reading futile, she let her head sink back upon the cushion of her deep luxurious chair, and sat with her dreamy eyes fixed on the summer landscape and her thoughts with her lover.

Lady Maulevrier looked very wan and tired in the bright morning light, when Mr. Hammond seated himself beside her sofa. The change in her appearance since the spring was more marked to-day than it had seemed to him last night in the dim lamplight. Yes, there was need hero for a speedy settlement of air earthly matters. The traveller was nearing the mysterious end of the journey. The summons might come at any hour.

‘Mr. Hammond, I feel a confidence in your integrity, your goodness of heart, and high principle which I never thought I could feel for a man of whom I know so little,’ began Lady Maulevrier, gravely. ‘All I know of you or your antecedents is what my grandson has told me — and I must say that the information so given has been very meagre. And yet I believe in you — and yet I am going to trust you, wholly, blindly, implicitly — and I am going to give you my granddaughter, ever so much sooner than I intended to give her to you. Soon, very soon, if you will have her!’

‘I will have her to-morrow, if there is time to get a special licence,’ exclaimed Hammond, bending down to kiss the dowager’s hand, radiant with delight.

‘You shall marry her very soon, if you like, marry her by special licence, in this room. I should like to see your wedding. I have a strange impatience to behold one of my granddaughters happily married, to know that her future is secure, that come weal, come woe, she is safe in the protection of a brave true man. I am not scared by the idea of a little poverty. That is often the best education for youth. But while you and I are alone we may as well talk about ways and means. Perhaps you may hardly feel prepared to take upon yourself the burden of a wife this year.’

‘As well this year as next. I am not afraid.’

‘Young men are so rash. However, as long as I live your responsibilities will be only nominal. This house will be Mary’s home, and yours whenever you are able to occupy it. Of course I should not like to interfere with your professional efforts — but if you are cultivating literature — why books can be written at Fellside better than in London. This lakeland of ours has been the nursery of deathless writers. But I feel that my days are numbered — and when I am dead — well death is always a cause of change and trouble of some kind, and Mary will profit very little by my death. The bulk of my fortune is left to Lesbia. I have taught her to consider herself my heiress; and it would be unjust to alter my will.’

‘Pray do not dream of such a thing — there is no need — Mary will be rich enough,’ exclaimed Hammond, hastily.

‘With five hundred a year and the fruits of your industry,’ said Lady Maulevrier. ‘Yes, yes, with modest aspirations and simple habits, people can live happily, honourably, on a few hundreds a year. And if you really mean to devote yourself to literature, and do not mind burying yourself alive in this lake district until you have made your name as a writer, why the problem of ways and means will be easily solved.’

‘Dear Lady Maulevrier, I am not afraid of ways and means. That is the last question which need trouble you. I told Lesbia when I offered myself to her nearly a year ago, that if she would trust me, if she would cleave to me, poverty should never touch her, sordid care should never come near her dwelling. But she could not believe me. She was like Thomas the twin. I could show her no palpable security for my promise — and she would not believe for the promise’ sake. Mary trusted me; and Mary shall not regret her confidence.’

‘Ah! it was different with Lesbia,’ sighed Lady Maulevrier. ‘I taught her to be ambitious. She had been schooled to set a high price upon herself. I know she cared for you — very much, even. But she could not face poverty; or, if you like, I will say that she could not face an obscure existence — sacrifice her ambition, a justifiable ambition in one so lovely, at the bidding of her first wooer. And then, again, she was told that if she married you, she would for ever forfeit my regard. You must not blame her for obeying me.’

‘I do not blame her; for I have won the peerless pearl — the jewel above all price — a perfect woman. And now, dear Lady Maulevrier, give me but your consent, and I am off to York this afternoon, to interview the Archbishop, and get the special licence, which will allow me to wed my darling here by your couch to-morrow afternoon.’

‘I have no objection to your getting the licence immediately; but you must let me write a cheque before you go. A special licence is expensive — I believe it costs fifty pounds.’

‘If it cost a thousand I should not think it dear. But I have a notion that I shall be able to get the licence — cheap. You have made me wild with happiness.’

‘But you must not refuse my cheque.’

‘Indeed I must, Lady Maulevrier. I am not quite such a pauper as you think me.’

‘But fifty pounds and the expenses of the journey; an outlay altogether unexpected on your part. I begin to fear that you are very reckless. A spendthrift shall never marry my granddaughter, with my consent.’

‘I have never yet spent above half my income.’

Lady Maulevrier looked at him in wonderment and perplexity. Had the young man gone suddenly out of his mind, overwhelmed by the greatness of his bliss?

‘But I thought you were poor,’ she faltered.

‘It has pleased you to think so, dear Lady Maulevrier; but I have more than enough for all my wants, and I shall be able to provide a fitting home for my Mary, when you can spare her to preside over her own establishment.’

‘Establishment’ seemed rather a big word, but Lady Maulevrier supposed that in this case it meant a cook and housemaid, with perhaps later on a boy in buttons, to break windows and block the pantry sink with missing teaspoons.

‘Well, Mr. Hammond, this is quite an agreeable surprise,’ she said, after a brief silence. ‘I really thought you were poor — as poor as a young man of gentlemanlike habits could be, and yet exist. Perhaps you will wonder why, thinking this, I brought myself to consent to your marriage with my granddaughter.’

‘It was a great proof of your confidence in me, or in Providence,’ replied Hammond, smiling.

‘It was no such thing. I was governed by a sentiment — a memory. It was my love for the dead which softened my heart towards you, John Hammond.’

‘Indeed!’ he murmured, softly.

‘There was but one man in this world I ever fondly loved — the love of my youth — my dearest and best, in the days when my heart was fresh and innocent and unambitious. That man was Ronald Hollister, afterwards Lord Hartfield. And yours is the only face that ever recalled his to my mind. It is but a vague likeness — a look now and then; but slight as that likeness is it has been enough to make my heart yearn towards you, as the heart of a mother to her son.’

John Hammond knelt beside the sofa, and bent his handsome face over the pale face on the pillow, imprinting such a kiss as a son might have given. His eyes were full of tears.

‘Dear Lady Maulevrier, think that it is the spirit of the dead which blesses you for your fidelity to old memories,’ he said, tenderly.

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