Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 44

‘Oh, Sad Kissed Mouth, How Sorrowful it is!’

They all went down to the saloon, where Lady Kirkbank sat, looking the image of despair, which changed to delighted surprise at sight of Lord Hartfield and his friend.

‘Did you give your consent to my sister’s elopement with this man, Lady Kirkbank?’ Maulevrier asked, brusquely.

‘I give my consent! Good gracious! no. He has eloped with me ever so much more than with your sister. She knew all about it, I’ve no doubt: but the wretch ran away with me in my sleep.’

‘I am glad, for your own self-respect, that you had no hand in this disgraceful business,’ replied Maulevrier; and then turning to Lord Hartfield, he said, ‘Hartfield, will you tell my sister who and what this man is? Will you make her understand what kind of pitfall she has escaped? Upon my soul, I cannot speak of it.’

‘I recognise no right of Lord Hartfield’s to interfere with my actions, and I will hear nothing that he may have to say,’ said Lesbia, standing by her lover’s side, with head erect and eyes dark with anger.

‘Your sister’s husband has the strongest right to control your actions, Lady Lesbia, when the family honour is at stake,’ answered Hartfield, with grave authority. ‘Accept me at least as a member of your family, if you will not accept me as your disinterested and devoted friend.’

‘Friend!’ echoed Lesbia, scornfully. ‘You might have been my friend once. Your friendship then would have been of some value to me, if you had told me the truth, instead of approaching me with a lie upon your lips. You talk of honour, Lord Hartfield; you, who came to my grandmother’s house as an impostor, under a false name!’

‘I went there as a man standing on his own merits, assuming no rank save that which God gave him among his fellow-men, claiming to be possessed of no fortune except intellect and industry. If I could not win a wife with such credentials, it were better for me never to marry at all, Lady Lesbia. But we have no time to speak of the past. I am here as your brother’s friend, here to save you.’

‘To part me from the man to whom I have given my heart. That you cannot do. Gomez, why do you not speak? Tell him, tell him!’ cried Lesbia, with a voice strangled by sobs; ‘tell him that I am to be your wife to-morrow, at Havre. Your wife!’

‘Dear Lady Lesbia, that cannot be,’ said Lord Hartfield, sorrowfully, pitying her in her helplessness, as he might have pitied a young bird in the fowler’s net. ‘I am assured upon undeniable authority that Señor Montesma has a wife living at Cuba; and even were this not so — were he free to marry you — his character and antecedents would for ever forbid such a marriage.’

‘A wife! No, no, no!’ shrieked Lesbia, looking wildly from one to the other. ‘It is a lie — a lie, invented by my brother, who always hated me — by you, who fooled and deceived me! It is a lie, an infamous invention! Don Gomez, speak to them: for pity’s sake answer them! Don’t you see that they are driving me mad?’

She flung herself into his arms, she buried her dishevelled head upon his breast; she clung to him with hands that writhed convulsively in her agony.

Maulevrier sprang across the cabin and wrenched her from her lover’s grasp.

‘You shall not pollute her with your touch,’ he cried; ‘you have poisoned her mind already. Scoundrel, seducer, slave-dealer! Do you hear, Lesbia? Shall I tell you what this man is — what trade he followed yonder, on his native island — this Spanish hidalgo — this all-accomplished gentleman — lineal descendant of the Cid — fine flower of Andalusian chivalry? It was not enough for him to cheat at cards, to float bubble companies, bogus lotteries. His profligate extravagance, his love of sybarite luxury, required a larger resource than the petty schemes which enrich smaller men. A slave ship, which could earn nearly twenty thousand pounds on every voyage, and which could make two runs in a year — that was the trade for Don Gomez de Montesma, and he carried it on merrily for six or seven years, till the British cruisers got too keen for him, and the good old game was played out. You see that scar upon the hilalgo’s forehead, Lesbia — a token of knightly prowess, you think, perhaps. No, my girl, that is the mark of an English cutlass in a scuffle on board a slaver. A merry trade, Lesbia — the living cargo stowed close under hatches have rather a bad time of it now and then — short rations of food and water, yellow Jack. They die like rotten sheep sometimes — bad then for the dealer. But if he can land the bulk of his human wares safe and sound the profits are enormous. The Captain–General takes his capitation fee, the blackies are drafted off to the sugar plantations, and everybody is satisfied; but I think, Lesbia, that your British prejudices would go against marriage with a slave-trader, were he ever so free to make you his wife, which this particular dealer in blackamoors is not.’

‘Is this true, this part of their vile story?’ demanded Lesbia, looking at her lover, who stood apart from them all now, his arms folded, his face deadly pale, the lower lip quivering under the grinding of his strong white teeth.

‘There is some truth in it,’ he answered, hoarsely. ‘Everybody in Cuba had a finger in the African trade, before your British philanthropy spoiled it. Mr. Smithson made sixty thousand pounds in that line. It was the foundation of his fortune. And yet he had his misfortunes in running his cargo — a ship burnt, a freight roasted alive. There are some very black stories in Cuba against poor Smithson. He will never go there again.’

‘Mr. Smithson may be a scoundrel; indeed, I believe he is a pretty bad specimen in that line,’ said Lord Hartfield. ‘But I doubt if there is any story that can be told of him quite so bad as the history of your marriage, and the events that went before it. I have been told the story of the beautiful Octoroon, who loved and trusted you, who shared your good and evil fortunes for the most desperate years of your life, was almost accepted as your wife, and whose strangled corpse was found in the harbour while the bells were ringing for your marriage with a rich planter’s heiress — the lady who, no doubt, now patiently awaits your return to her native island.’

‘She will wait a long time,’ said Montesma, ‘or fare ill if I go back to her. Lesbia, his lordship’s story of the Octoroon is a fable — an invention of my Cuban enemies, who hate us old Spaniards with a poisonous hatred. But this much is true. I am a married man — bound, fettered by a tie which I abhor. Our Havre marriage would have been bigamy on my part, a delusion on yours. I could not have taken you to Cuba. I had planned our life in a fairer, more civilised world. I am rich enough to have surrounded you with all that makes life worth living. I would have given you love as true and as deep as ever man gave to woman. All that would have been wanting would have been the legality of the tie: and as law never yet made a marriage happy which lacked the elements of bliss, our lawless union need not have missed happiness. Lesbia, you said that you would hold by me, come what might. The worst has come, love; but it leaves me not the less your true lover.’

She looked at him with wild despairing eyes, and then, with a hoarse strange cry, rushed from the cabin, and up the companion, with a desperate swiftness which seemed like the flight of a bird. Montesma, Hartfield, Maulevrier, all followed her, heedless of everything except the dire necessity of arresting her flight. Each in his own mind had divined her purpose.

They were not too late. It was Hartfield’s strong arm that caught her, held her as in a vice, dragged her away from the edge of the deck, just where there was a space open to the waves. Another instant and she would have flung herself overboard. She fell back into Lord Hartfield’s arms, with a wild choking cry: ‘Let me go! Let me go!’ Another moment, and a flood of crimson stained his shirt-front, as she lay upon his breast, with closed eyelids and blood-bedabbled lips, in blessed unconsciousness.

They carried her on to the steam-yacht, and down to the cabin, where there was ample accommodation and some luxury, although not the elegance of Bond Street upholstery. Rilboche, Lady Kirkbank, Kibble, luggage of all kinds were transferred from one yacht to the other, even to the vellum bound Keats which lay face downwards on the deck, just where Lesbia had flung it when the Cayman was boarded. The crew of the steam-yacht Philomel helped in the transfer: there were plenty of hands, and the work was done quickly; while the Meztizoes, Yucatekes, Caribs, or whatever they were, looked on and grinned; and while Montesma stood leaning against the mast, with folded arms and sombre brow, a cigarette between his lips.

When the women and all their belongings were on board the Philomel, Lord Hartfield addressed himself to Montesma.

‘If you consider yourself entitled to call me to account for this evening’s work you know where to find me,’ he said.

Montesma shrugged his shoulders, and threw away his cigarette with a contemptuous gesture.

’Ce n’est pas la peine,‘ he said; ‘I am a dead shot, and should be pretty sure to send a bullet through you if you gave me the chance; but I should not be any nearer winning her if I killed you: and it is she and she only that I want. You may think me an adventurer — swindler — gambler — slave-dealer — what you will — but I love her as I never thought to love a woman, and I should have been true as steel, if she had been plucky enough to trust me. But, as I told her an hour ago, women have not lion hearts. They can talk tall while the sky is clear and the sun shines, but at the first crack of thunder —va te promener.’

‘If you have killed her —’ began Hartfield.

‘Killed her! No. Some small bloodvessel burst in the agitation of that terrible scene. She will be well in a week, and she will forget me. But I shall not forget her. She is the one flower that has sprung on the barren plain of my life. She was my Picciola.’

He turned his back on Lord Hartfield and walked to the other end of the deck. Something in his face, in the vibration of his deep voice, convinced Hartfield of his truth. A bad man undoubtedly — steeped to the lips in evil — and yet so far true that he had passionately, deeply, devotedly loved this one woman.

It was the dead of night when Lesbia recovered consciousness, and even then she lay silent, taking no heed of those around her, in a state of utter prostration. Kibble nursed her carefully, tenderly, all through the night; Maulevrier hardly left the cabin, and Lady Kirkbank, always more or less a victim to the agonies of sea-sickness, still found time to utter lamentations and wailings over the ruin of her protégée’s fortune.

‘Never had a girl such a chance,’ she moaned. ‘Quite the best match in society. The house in Park Lane alone cost a fortune. Her diamonds would have been the finest in London.’

‘They would have been stained with the blood of the niggers he traded in out yonder,’ answered Maulevrier. ‘Do you think I would have let my sister marry a slave-dealer?’

‘I don’t believe a syllable of it,’ protested Lady Kirkbank, dabbing her brow with a handkerchief steeped in eau de Cologne. ‘A vile fabrication of Montesma’s, who wanted to blacken poor Smithson’s character in order to extenuate his own crimes.’

‘Well, we won’t go into that question,’ said Maulevrier wearily. ‘The Smithson match is off, anyhow; and it matters very little to us whether he made most money out of niggers or bubble companies, or lotteries or gaming hells.’

‘I am convinced that Smithson made his fortune in a thoroughly gentlemanlike manner,’ argued Lady Kirkbank. ‘Look at the people who visit him, and the houses he goes to. And I don’t see why the match need be off. I’m sure, if Lesbia plays her cards properly, he will look over this — this — little escapade.’

Maulevrier contemplated the worldly old face with infinite scorn.

‘Does she look like a girl who will play her cards in your fashion?’ he asked, pointing to his sister, whose white face upon the pillow seemed like a mask cut out of marble. ‘Upon my soul, Lady Kirkbank, I consider my sister’s elopement with this Spanish adventurer, with whom she was over head and ears in love, a far more respectable act than her engagement to Smithson, for whom she cared not a straw.’

‘Well, I hope if you so approve of her conduct you will help her to pay her dressmaker, and the rest of them,’ retorted Lady Kirkbank. ‘She has been plunging rather deeply, I believe, under the impression that Smithson would pay all her bills when she was married. Your grandmother may not quite like the budget.’

‘I will do all I can for her,’ answered Maulevrier. ‘I would do a great deal to save her from the degradation to which your teaching has brought her.’

Lady Kirkbank looked at him for a moment or so with reproachful eyes, and then shrugged her shoulders contemptuously.

‘If I ever expected gratitude from people I might feel the injustice — the insolence — of your last remark,’ she said; ‘but as I never do expect gratitude, I am not disappointed in this case. And now I think if there is a cabin which I can have to myself I should like to retire to it,’ she added. ‘My cares are thrown away here.’

There was a cabin at Lady Kirkbank’s disposal. It had been already appropriated by Rilboche, and smelt of cognac; but Rilboche resigned her berth to her mistress, and laid herself meekly on the floor for the rest of the voyage.

They were in Cowes Roads at eight o’clock next morning, and Lord Hartfield went on shore for a doctor, whom he brought back before nine, and who pronounced Lady Lesbia to be in a very weak and prostrate condition, and forbade her being moved within the next two days. Happily Lord Hartfield had borrowed the Philomel and her crew from a friend who had given him carte blanche as to the use he made of her, and who freely left her at his disposal so long as he and his party should need the accommodation. Lesbia could nowhere be better off than on the yacht, where she was away from the gossip and tittle-tattle of the town.

The roadstead was quiet enough now. All the racing yachts had melted away like a dream, and most of the pleasure yachts were off to Ryde. Lady Lesbia lay in her curtained cabin, with Kibble keeping watch beside her bed, while Maulevrier came in every half-hour to see how she was — sitting by her a little now and then, and talking of indifferent things in a low kind voice, which was full of comfort.

She seemed grateful for his kindness, and smiled at him once in a way, with a piteous little smile; but she had the air of one in whom the mainspring of life is broken. The pallid face and heavy violet eyes, the semi-transparent hands which lay so listlessly upon the crimson coverlet, conveyed an impression of supreme despair. Hartfield, looking down at her for the last time when he came to say good-bye before leaving for London, was reminded of the story of one whose life had been thus rudely broken, who had loved as foolishly and even more fondly, and for whom the world held nothing when that tie was severed.

‘She looked on many a face with vacant eye,

  On many a token without knowing what;

She saw them watch her, without asking why,

  And recked not who around her pillow sat.’

But Lesbia Haselden belonged to a wider and more sophisticated world than that of the daughter of the Grecian Isle, and for her existence offered wider horizons. It might be prophesied that for her the dark ending of a girlish dream would not be a life-long despair. The passionate love had been at fever point; the passionate grief must have its fever too, and burn itself out.

‘Do all you can to cheer her,’ said Lord Hartfield to Maulevrier, ‘and bring her to Fellside as soon as ever she is strong enough to bear the journey. You and Kibble, with your own man, will be able to do all that is necessary.’

‘Quite able.’

‘That’s right. I must be in the House for the expected division to-night, and I shall go back to Grasmere to-morrow morning. Poor Mary is horribly lonely.’

Lord Hartfield went off in the boat to catch the Southampton steamer; and Maulevrier was now sole custodian of the yacht and of his sister. He and the doctor had agreed to keep her on board, in the fresh sea air, till she was equal to the fatigue of the journey to Grasmere. There was nothing to be gained by taking her on to the island or by carrying her to London. The yacht was well found, provided with all things needful for comfort, and Lesbia could be nowhere better off until she was safe in her old home:— that home she had left so gaily, in the freshness of her youthful inexperience, nearly a year ago, and to which she would return so battered and broken, so deeply degraded by the knowledge of evil.

Lady Kirkbank had started for London on the previous day.

‘I am evidently not wanted here,’ she said, with an offended air; ‘and I must have everything at Kirkbank ready for a house full of people before the twelfth of August, so the sooner I get to Scotland the better. I shall make a détour in order to go and see Lady Maulevrier on my way down. It is due to myself that I should let her know that I am entirely blameless in this most uncomfortable business.’

‘You can tell her ladyship what you please,’ answered Maulevrier, bluntly. ‘I shall not gainsay you, so long as you do not slander my sister; but as long as I live I shall regret that I, knowing something of London society, did not interfere to prevent Lesbia being given over to your keeping.’

‘If I had known the kind of girl she is I would have had nothing to do with her,’ retorted Lady Kirkbank with exasperation; and so they parted.

The Philomel had been lying off Cowes three days before Mr. Smithson appeared upon the scene. He had got wind somehow from a sailor, who had talked with one of the foreign crew, of the destination of the Cayman, and he had crossed from Southampton to Havre on the steamer Wolf during that night in which Lesbia had been carried back to Cowes on the Philomel.

He was at Havre when the Cayman arrived, with Montesma and his tawny-visaged crew on board, no one else.

‘You may examine every corner of your ship,’ Montesma cried, scornfully, when Smithson came on board and swore that Lesbia must be hidden somewhere in the vessel. ‘The bird has flown: she will shelter in neither your nest nor in mine, Smithson. You have lost her — and so have I. We may as well be friends in misfortune.’

He was haggard, livid with grief and anger. He looked ten years older than he had looked the other night at the ball, when his dash and swagger, and handsome Spanish head had been the admiration of the room.

Smithson was very angry, but he was not a fighting man. He had enjoyed various opportunities for distinguishing himself in that line in the island of Cuba; but he had always avoided such opportunities. So now, after a good deal of bluster and violent language, which Montesma took as lightly as if it had been the whistling of the wind in the shrouds, poor Smithson calmed down, and allowed Gomez de Montesma to leave the yacht, with his portmanteaux, unharmed. He meant to take the first steamer for the Spanish Main, he told Smithson. He had had quite enough of Europe.

‘I daresay it will end in your marrying her,’ he said, at the last moment. ‘If you do, be kind to her.’

His voice faltered, choked by a sob, at those last words. After all, it is possible for a man without principle, without morality, to begin to make love to a woman in a mere spirit of adventure, in sheer devilry, and to be rather hard hit at the last.

Horace Smithson sailed his yacht back to Cowes without loss of time, and sent his card to Lord Maulevrier on board the Philomel. His lordship replied that he would wait upon Mr. Smithson that afternoon at four o’clock, and at that hour Maulevrier again boarded the Cayman; but this time very quietly, as an expected guest.

The interview that followed was very painful. Mr. Smithson was willing that this unhappy episode in the life of his betrothed, this folly into which she had been beguiled by a man of infinite treachery, a man of all other men fatal to women, should be forgotten, should be as if it had never been.

‘It was her very innocence which made her a victim to that scoundrel,’ said Smithson, ‘her girlish simplicity and Lady Kirkbank’s folly. But I love your sister too well to sacrifice her lightly, Lord Maulevrier; and if she can forget this midsummer madness, why, so can I.’

‘She cannot forget, Mr. Smithson,’ answered Maulevrier, gravely. ‘She has done you a great wrong by listening to your false friend’s addresses; but she did you a still greater wrong when she accepted you as her husband without one spark of love for you. She and you are both happy in having escaped the degradation, the deep misery of a loveless union. I am glad — yes, glad even of this shameful escapade with Montesma — though it has dragged her good name through the gutter — glad of the catastrophe that has saved her from such a marriage. You are very generous in your willingness to forget my sister’s folly. Let your forgetfulness go a step further, and forget that you ever met her.’

‘That cannot be, Lord Maulevrier. She has ruined my life.’

‘Not at all. An affair of a season,’ answered Maulevrier, lightly. ‘Next year I shall hear of you as the accepted husband of some new beauty. A man of Mr. Smithson’s wealth — and good nature — need not languish in single blessedness.’

With this civil speech Lord Maulevrier went back to the Philomel’s gig, and this was his last meeting with Mr. Smithson, until they met a year later in the beaten tracks of society.

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