Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 40

A Note of Alarm.

That strange scene in the old house at Fellside made a profound impression upon Lord Hartfield. He tried to disguise his trouble, and did all in his power to seem gay and at perfect ease in his wife’s company; but his mind was full of anxiety, and Mary loved him too well to be for a moment in doubt as to his feelings.

‘There is something wrong, Jack,’ she said, while they were breakfasting at a table in the verandah, with the lake and the bills in front of them and the sweet morning air around them. ‘You try to talk and to be lively, but there is a little perpendicular wrinkle in your forehead which I know as well as the letters of the alphabet, and that little line means worry. I used to see it in the old days, when you were breaking your heart for Lesbia. Why cannot you be frank and confide in me. It is your duty, sir, as my husband.’

‘Is it my duty to halve my burdens as well as my joys? How do I know if those girlish shoulders are strong enough to bear the weight of them?’

‘I can bear anything you can bear, and I won’t be cheated out of my share in your worries. If you were obliged to have a tooth out, I would have one out too, for company.’

‘I hope the dentist would be too conscientious to allow that.’

‘Tell me your trouble, Hartfield,’ she said, earnestly, leaning across the table, bringing her grave intelligent face near to him.

They were quite alone, he and she. The servants had done their ministering. Behind them there was the empty dining-room, in front of them the sunlit panorama of lake and hill. There could not be a safer place for telling secrets.

‘Tell me what it is that worries you,’ Mary pleaded again.

‘I will, dear. After all perfect trust is the best; nay, it is your due, for you are brave enough and true enough to be trusted with secrets that mean life and death. In a word, then, Mary, the cause of my trouble is that old man we saw the other night.’

‘Steadman’s uncle?’

‘Do you really believe that he is Steadman’s uncle?’

‘My grandmother told me so,’ answered Mary, reddening to the roots of her hair.

To this girl, who was the soul of truth, there was deepest shame in the idea that her kinswoman, the woman whom of all the world she most owed reverence and honour, could be deemed capable of falsehood.

‘Do you think my grandmother would tell me an untruth?’

‘I do not believe that man is a poor dependent, an old servant’s kinsman, sheltered and cared for in this house for charity’s sake. Forgive me, Mary, if I doubt the word of one you love; but there are positions in life in which a man must judge for himself. Would Mr. Steadman’s kinsman be lodged as that old man is lodged; would he talk as that old man talks; and last and greatest perplexity of all, would he possess a treasure of gold and jewels which must be worth many thousands?’

‘But you cannot know for certain that those things are valuable; they may be rubbish that this poor old man has scraped together and hoarded for years, glass jewels bought at country fairs. Those rouleaux may contain lead or coppers.’

‘I do not think so, Mary. The stones had all the brilliancy of valuable gems, and then there were others in the finest filagree settings — goldsmith’s work which bore the stamp of an Eastern world. Take my word for it, that treasure came from India; and it must have been brought to England by Lord Maulevrier. It may have existed all these years without your grandmother’s knowledge. That is quite possible; but it seems to me impossible that such wealth should be within the knowledge and the power of a pauper lunatic.’

‘But if that unhappy old man is not a relation of Steadman’s supported here by my grandmother’s benevolence, who can he be, and why is he here?’ asked Mary.

‘Oh, Molly dear, these are two questions which I cannot answer, and which yet ought to be answered somehow. Since that night I have felt as if there were a dark cloud lowering over this house — a cloud almost as terrible in its menace of danger as the forshadowing of fate in a Greek legend. For your sake, for the honour of your race, for my own self-respect as your husband, I feel that this mystery ought to be solved, and all dark things made light before your grandmother’s death. When she is gone the master-key to the past will be lost.’

‘But she will be spared for many years, I hope, spared to sympathise with my happiness, and with Lesbia’s.’

My dearest girl, we cannot hope that. The thread of her life is worn very thin. It may snap at any moment. You cannot look seriously in your grandmother’s face, and yet delude yourself with the hope that she has years of life before her.’

‘It will be very hard to part, just as she has begun to care for me,’ said Mary, with her eyes full of tears.

‘All such partings are hard, and your grandmother’s life has been so lonely and joyless that the memory of it must always have a touch of pain. One cannot say of her as we can of the happy; she has lived her life — all things have been given to her, and she falls asleep at the close of a long and glorious day. For some reason which I cannot understand, Lady Maulevrier’s life has been a prolonged sacrifice.’

‘She has always given us to understand that she was fond of Fellside, and that this secluded life suited her,’ said Mary, meditatively.

‘I cannot help doubting her sincerity on that point. Lady Maulevrier is too clever a woman, and forgive me, dear, if I add too worldly a woman, to be content to live out of the world. The bird must have chafed its breast against the bars of the cage many and many a time when you thought that all was peace. Be sure, Mary, that your grandmother had a powerful motive for spending all her days in this place, and I can but think that the old man we saw the other night had some part in that motive. Do you remember telling me of her ladyship’s vehement anger when she heard you had made the acquaintance of her pensioner?’

‘Yes, she was very angry,’ Mary answered, with a troubled look. ‘I never saw her so angry — she was almost beside herself — said the harshest things to me — talked as if I had done some dreadful mischief.’

‘Would she have been so moved, do you think, unless there was some fatal secret involved in that man’s presence here?’

‘I hardly know what to think. Tell me everything. What is it that you fear? — what is it that you suspect?’

‘To tell you my fears and suspicions is to tell you a family secret that has been kept from you out of kindness all the years of your life — and I hardly think I could bring myself to that if I did not know what the world is, and how many good-natured friends Lady Hartfield will meet in society, by-and-by, ready to tell her, by hints and inuendoes, that her grandfather, the Governor of Madras, came back to England under a cloud of disgrace.’

‘My poor grandfather! How dreadful!’ exclaimed Mary, pale with pity and shame. ‘Did he deserve his disgrace, poor unhappy creature — or was he the victim of false accusation?’

‘I can hardly tell you that, Mary, any more than I can tell whether Warren Hastings deserved the abuse that was wreaked upon him at one time, or the acquittal that gave the lie to his slanderers in after years. The events occurred forty years ago — the story was only half known then, and like all such stories formed the basis for every kind of exaggeration and perversion.’

‘Does Maulevrier know?’ faltered Mary.

‘Maulevrier knows all that is known by the general public, and no more.’

‘And you have married the granddaughter of a disgraced man,’ said Mary, with a piteous look. ‘Did you know — when you married me?’

‘As much as I know now, dear love. If you had been Jonathan Wild’s granddaughter you would have been just as dear to me. I married you, dearest; I love you; I believe in you. All the grandfathers in Christendom would not shake my faith by one tittle.’

She threw herself into his arms, and sobbed upon his breast. But sweet as this assurance of his love was to her, she was not the less stricken by shame at the thought of possible infamy in the past, a shameful memory for ever brooding over her name in the present.

‘Society never forgets a scandal,’ she said: ‘I have heard Maulevrier say that.’

‘Society has a long memory for other people’s sins, but it only avenges its own wrongs. Give the wicked fairy Society a bad dinner, or leave her out of your invitation list for a ball, and she will twit you with the crimes or the misfortunes of a remote ancestor — she will go about talking of your grandfather the leper, or your great aunt who ran away with her footman. But so long as the wicked fairy gets all she wants out of you, she cares not a straw for the misdeeds of past generations.’

He spoke lightly, laughingly almost, and then he ordered the dogcart to be brought round immediately, and he drove Mary across the hills towards Langdale, to bring the colour back to her blanched cheeks. He brought her home in time to give her grandmother an hour for letter-writing before luncheon, while he walked up and down the terrace below Lady Maulevrier’s windows, meditating the course he was to take.

He was to leave Westmoreland next day to take his place in the House of Lords during the last important debate of the session. He made up his mind that before he left he would seek an interview with Lady Maulevrier, and boldly ask her to explain the mystery of that old man’s presence at Fellside. He was her kinsman by marriage, and he had sworn to honour her and to care for her as a son; and as a son he would urge her to confide in him, to unburden her conscience of any dark secret, and to make the crooked things straight, before she was called away.

While he was forecasting this interview, meeting imaginary objections, arguing points which might have to be argued, a servant came out to him with an ochre envelope on a little silver tray — that unpleasant-looking envelope which seems always a presage of trouble, great or small.

‘Lord Maulevrier, Albany, to Lord Hartfield, Fellside, Grasmere.

‘For God’s sake come to me at once. I am in great trouble; not on my own account, but about a relation.’

A relation — except his grandmother and his two sisters Maulevrier had no relations for whom he cared a straw. This message must have relation to Lesbia. Was she ill — dying, the victim of some fatal accident, runaway horses, boat upset, train smashed? There was something; and Maulevrier appealed to his nearest and best friend. There was no withstanding such an appeal. It must be answered, and immediately.

Lord Hartfield went into the library and wrote his reply message, which consisted of six words.

‘Going to you by first train.’

The next train left Windermere at three. There was just time to get a fresh horse put in the dogcart, and a Gladstone bag packed.

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