Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

The Last Stage.

The post-horses — which had been well fed, but accommodated somewhat poorly in stable and barn — were quite ready to go on next morning; but Lord Maulevrier was not able to leave his room, where her ladyship remained in close attendance upon him. The hills and valleys were white with snow, but there was none falling, and Mr. Evans, the elderly surgeon from Ambleside, rode over to Great Langdale on his elderly cob to look at Robert Haswell, and was called in to see Lord Maulevrier. Her ladyship had spoken lightly of his skill on the previous evening, but any doctor is better than none, so this feeble little personage was allowed to feel his lordship’s pulse, and look at his lordship’s tongue.

His opinion, never too decidedly given, was a little more hazy than usual on this occasion, perhaps because of a certain awfulness, to unaccustomed eyes, in Lady Maulevrier’s proud bearing. He said that his lordship was low, very low, and that the pulse was more irregular than he liked, but he committed himself no further than this, and went away, promising to send such pills and potions as were appropriate to the patient’s condition.

A boy rode the same pony over to Langdale later in the afternoon with the promised medicines.

Throughout the short winter day, which seemed terribly long in the stillness and solitude of Great Langdale, Lady Maulevrier kept watch in the sick-room, Steadman going in and out in constant attendance upon his master — save for one half-hour only, which her ladyship passed in the parlour below, in conversation with the landlady, a very serious conversation, as indicated by Mrs. Smithson’s grave and somewhat troubled looks when she left her ladyship; but a good deal of her trouble may have been caused by her anxiety about her brother, who was pronounced by the doctor to be ‘much the same.’

At eleven o’clock that night a mounted messenger was sent off to Ambleside in hot haste to fetch Mr. Evans, who came to the inn to find Lady Maulevrier kneeling beside her husband’s bed, while Steadman stood with a troubled countenance at a respectful distance.

The room was dimly lighted by a pair of candles burning on a table near the window, and at some distance from the old four-post bedstead, shaded by dark moreen curtains. The surgeon looked round the room, and then fumbled in his pockets for his spectacles, without the aid of which the outside world presented itself to him under a blurred and uncertain aspect.

He put on his spectacles, and moved towards the bed; but the first glance in that direction showed him what had happened. The outline of the rigid figure under the coverlet looked like a sculptured effigy upon a tomb. A sheet was drawn over the face of death.

‘You are too late to be of any use, Mr. Evans,’ murmured Steadman, laying his hand upon the doctor’s sleeve and drawing him away towards the door.

They went softly on to the landing, off which opened the door of that other sick-room where the landlady’s brother was lying.

‘When did this happen?’

‘A quarter of an hour after the messenger rode off to fetch you,’ answered Steadman. ‘His lordship lay all the afternoon in a heavy sleep, and we thought he was going on well; but after dark there was a difficulty in his breathing which alarmed her ladyship, and she insisted upon you being sent for. The messenger had hardly been gone a quarter of an hour when his lordship woke suddenly, muttured to himself in a curious way, gave just one long drawn sigh, and — and all was over. It was a terrible shock for her ladyship.’

‘Indeed it must have been,’ murmured the village doctor. ‘It is a great surprise to me. I knew Lord Maulevrier was low, very low, the pulse feeble and intermittent; but I had no fear of anything of this kind. It is very sudden.’

‘Yes, it is awfully sudden,’ said Steadman, and then he murmured in the doctor’s ear, ‘You will give the necessary certificate, I hope, with as little trouble to her ladyship as possible. This is a dreadful blow, and she ——’

‘She shall not be troubled. The body will be removed to-morrow, I suppose.’

‘Yes. He must be buried from his own house. I sent a second messenger to Ambleside for the undertaker. He will be here very soon, no doubt, and if the shell is ready by noon to-morrow, the body can be removed then. I have arranged to get her ladyship away to-night.’

‘So late? After midnight?’

‘Why not? She cannot stay in this small house — so near the dead. There is a moon, and there is no snow falling, and we are within seven miles of Fellside.’

The doctor had nothing further to say against the arrangement, although such a drive seemed to him a somewhat wild and reckless proceeding. Mr. Steadman’s grave, self-possessed manner answered all doubts. Mr. Evans filled in the certificate for the undertaker, drank a glass of hot brandy and water, and remounted his nag, in nowise relishing his midnight ride, but consoling himself with the reflection that he would be handsomely paid for his trouble.

An hour later Lady Maulevrier’s travelling carriage stood ready in the stable yard, in the deep shadow of wall and gables. It was at Steadman’s order that the carriage waited for her ladyship at an obscure side door, rather than in front of the inn. An east wind was blowing keenly along the mountain road, and the careful Steadman was anxious his mistress should not be exposed to that chilly blast.

There was some delay, and the four horses jingled their bits impatiently, and then the door of the inn opened, a feeble light gleamed in the narrow passage within, Steadman stood ready to assist her ladyship, there was a bustle, a confusion of dark figures on the threshold, a huddled mass of cloaks and fur wraps was lifted into the carriage, the door was clapped to, the horses went clattering out of the yard, turned sharply into the snowy road, and started at a swinging pace towards the dark sullen bulk of Loughrigg Fell.

The moon was shining upon Elterwater in the valley yonder — the mountain ridges, the deep gorges below those sullen heights, looked back where the shadow of night enfolded them, but all along the snow-white road the silver light shone full and clear, and the mountain way looked like a path through fairyland.

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