Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 46

The Day of Reckoning.

Lord Hartfield stayed with the frightened wife while she knelt beside that awful figure on the hearth, wringing her hands with piteous bewailings and lamentations over the unconscious clay. He had always been a good husband to her, she murmured; hard and stern perhaps, but a good man. And she had obeyed him without a question. Whatever he did or said she had counted right.

‘We have not had a happy life, though there are many who have envied us her ladyship’s favour,’ she said in the midst of her lamentations. ‘No one knows where the shoe pinches but those who have to wear it. Poor James! Early and late, early and late, studying her ladyship’s interests, caring and thinking, in order to keep trouble away from her. Always on the watch always on the listen. That’s what wore him out, poor fellow!’

‘My good soul, your husband was an old man,’ argued Lord Hartfield, in a consolatory tone, ‘and the end must come to all of us somehow.’

‘He might have lived to be a much older man if he had had less worry,’ said the wife, bending her face to kiss the cold dead brow. ‘His days were full of care. We should have been happier in the poorest cottage in Grasmere than we ever were in this big grand house.’

Thus, in broken fragments of speech, Mrs. Steadman lamented over her dead, while the heavy pendulum of the eight-day clock in the hall sounded the slowly-passing moments, until the coming of the doctor broke upon the quiet of the house, with the noise of opening doors and approaching footsteps.

James Steadman was dead. Medicine could do nothing for that lifeless clay, lying on the hearth by which he had sat on so many winter nights, for so many years of faithful unquestioning service. There was nothing to be done for that stiffening form, save the last offices for the dead; and Lord Hartfield left Mr. Horton to arrange with the weeping woman as to the doing of these. He was anxious to go to Lady Maulevrier, to break to her, as gently as might be, the news of her servant’s death.

And what of that strange old man in the upper rooms? Who was to attend upon him, now that the caretaker was laid low?

While Lord Hartfield lingered on the threshold of the door that led from the old house to the new, pondering this question, there came the sound of wheels on the carriage drive, and then a loud ring at the hall door.

It was Maulevrier, just arrived from Scotland, smelling of autumn rain and cool fresh air.

‘Dreadfully bored on the moors,’ he said, as they shook hands. ‘No birds — nobody to talk to — couldn’t stand it any longer. How are the sisters? Lesbia better? Why, man alive, how queer you look! Nothing amiss, I hope?’

‘Yes, there is something very much amiss. Steadman is dead.’

‘Steadman! Her ladyship’s right hand. That’s rather bad. But you will drop into his stewardship. She’ll trust your long head, I know. Much better that she should look to her granddaughter’s husband for advice in all business matters than to a servant When did it happen?’

‘Half an hour ago. I was just going to Lady Maulevrier’s room when you rang the bell. Take off your Inverness, and come with me.’

‘The poor grandmother,’ muttered Maulevrier. ‘I’m afraid it will be a blow.’

He had much less cause for fear than Lord Hartfield, who knew of deep and secret reasons why Steadman’s death should be a calamity of dire import for his mistress, Maulevrier had been told nothing of that scene with the strange old man — the hidden treasures — the Anglo–Indian phrases — which had filled Lord Hartfield’s mind with the darkest doubts.

If that half-lunatic old man, described by Lady Maulevrier as a kinsman of Steadman’s, were verily the person Lord Hartfield believed, his presence under that roof, unguarded by a trust-worthy attendant, was fraught with danger. It would be for Lady Maulevrier, helpless, a prisoner to her sofa, at death’s door, to face that danger. The very thought of it might kill her. And yet it was imperative that the truth should be told her without delay.

The two young men went to her ladyship’s sitting room. She was alone, a volume of her favourite Schopenhauer open before her, under the light of the shaded reading-lamp. Sorry comfort in the hour of trouble!

Maulevrier went over to her and kissed her; and then dropped silently into a chair near at hand, his face in shadow. Hartfield seated himself nearer the sofa, and nearer the lamp.

‘Dear Lady Maulevrier, I have come to tell you some very bad news —’

‘Lesbia?’ exclaimed her ladyship, with a frightened look.

‘No, there is nothing wrong with Lesbia. It is about your old servant Steadman.’

‘Dead?’ faltered Lady Maulevrier, ashy pale, as she looked at him in the lamplight.

He bent his head affirmatively.

‘Yes. He was seized with apoplexy — fell from his chair to the hearth, and never spoke or stirred again.’

Lady Maulevrier uttered no word of sorrow or surprise. She lay, looking straight before her into vacancy, the pale attenuated features rigid as if they had been marble. What was to be done — what must be told — whom could she trust? Those were the questions repeating themselves in her mind as she stared into space. And no answer came to them.

No answer came, except the opening of the door opposite her couch. The handle turned slowly, hesitatingly, as if moved by feeble fingers; and then the door was pushed slowly open, and an old man came with shuffling footsteps towards the one lighted spot in the middle of the room.

It was the old man Lord Hartfield had last seen gloating over his treasury of gold and jewels — the man whom Maulevrier had never seen — whose existence for forty years had been hidden from every creature in that house, except Lady Maulevrier and the Steadmans, until Mary found her way into the old garden.

He came close up to the little table in front of Lady Maulevrier’s couch, and looked down at her, a strange, uncanny being, withered and bent, with pale, faded eyes in which there was a glimmer of unholy light.

‘Good-evening to you, Lady Maulevrier,’ he said in a mocking voice. ‘I shouldn’t have known you if we had met anywhere else. I think, of the two of us, you are more changed than I.’

She looked up at him, her features quivering, her haughty head drawn back; as a bird shrinks from the gaze of a snake, recoiling, but too fascinated to fly. Her eyes met his with a look of unutterable horror. For some moments she was speechless, and then, looking at Lord Hartfield, she said, piteously —

‘Why did you let him come here? He ought to be taken care of — shut up. It is Steadman’s old uncle — a lunatic — I sheltered. Why is he allowed to come to my room?’

‘I am Lord Maulevrier,’ said the old man, drawing himself up and planting his crutch stick upon the floor; ‘I am Lord Maulevrier, and this woman is my wife. Yes, I am mad sometimes, but not always, I have my bad fits, but not often. But I never forget who and what I am, Algernon, Earl of Maulevrier, Governor of Madras.’

‘Lady Maulevrier, is this horrible thing true?’ cried her grandson, vehemently.

‘He is mad, Maulevrier. Don’t you see that he is mad?’ she exclaimed, looking from Hartfield to her grandson, and then with a look of loathing and horror at her accuser.

‘I tell you, young man, I am Maulevrier,’ said the accuser; ‘there is no one else who has a right to be called by that name, while I live. They have shut me up — she and her accomplice — denied my name — hidden me from the world. He is dead, and she lies there — stricken for her sins.’

‘My grandfather died at the inn at Great Langdale, faltered Maulevrier.

‘Your grandfather was brought to this house — ill — out of his wits. All cloud and darkness here,’ said the old man, touching his forehead. ‘How long has it been? Who can tell? A weary time — long, dark nights, full of ghosts. Yes, I have seen him — the Rajah, that copper-faced scoundrel, seen him as she told me he looked when she gave the signal to her slaves to strangle him, there in the hall, where the grave was dug ready for the traitor’s carcass. She too — yes, she has haunted me, calling upon me to give up her treasure, to restore her son.’

‘Yes,’ cried the paralytic woman, suddenly lifted out of herself, as it were, in a paroxysm of fury, every feature convulsed, every nerve strained to its utmost tension; ‘yes, this is Lord Maulevrier. You have heard the truth, and from his own lips. You, his only son’s only son. You his granddaughter’s husband. You hear him avow himself the instigator of a diabolical murder; you hear him confess how his paramour’s husband was strangled at his false wife’s bidding, in his own palace, buried under the Moorish pavement in the hall of many arches. You hear how he inherited the Rajah’s treasures from a mistress who died strangely, swiftly, conveniently, as soon so he had wearied of her, and a new favourite had begun to exercise her influence. Such things are done in the East — dynasties annihilated, kingdoms overthrown, poison or bowstring used at will, to gratify a profligate’s passion, or pay for a spendthrift’s extravagances. Such things were done when that man was Governor of Madras as were never done by an Englishman in India before his time. He went there fettered by no prejudices — he was more Mussulman than the Mussulmen themselves — a deeper, darker traitor. And it was to hide such crimes as these — to interpose the great peacemaker Death between him and the Government which was resolved upon punishing him — to save the honour, the fortune of my son, and the children who were to come after him, the name of a noble race, a name that was ever stainless until he defiled it — it was for this great end I took steps to hide that feeble, useless life of his from the world he had offended; it was for this end that I caused a peasant to be buried in the vault of the Maulevriers, with all the pomp and ceremony that befits the funeral of one of England’s oldest earls. I screened him from his enemies — I saved him from the ignominy of a public trial — from the execration of his countrymen. His only punishment was to eat his heart under this roof, in luxurious seclusion, his comfort studied, his whims gratified so far as they could be by the most faithful of servants. A light penance for the dark infamies of his life in India, I think. His mind was all but gone when he came here, but he had his rational intervals, and in these the burden of his lonely life may have weighed heavily upon him. But it was not such a heavy burden as I have borne — I, his gaoler, I who have devoted my existence to the one task of guarding the family honour.’

He, whom she thus acknowledged as her husband, had sunk exhausted into a chair near her. He took out his gold snuff-box, and refreshed himself with a leisurely pinch of snuff, looking about him curiously all the while, with a senile grin. That flash of passion which for a few minutes had restored him to the full possession of his reason had burnt itself out, and his mind had relapsed into the condition in which it had been when he talked to Mary in the garden.

‘My pipe, Steadman,’ he said, looking towards the door; ‘bring me my pipe,’ and then, impatiently, ‘What has become of Steadman? He has been getting inattentive — very inattentive.’

He got up, and moved slowly to the door, leaning on his crutch-stick, his head sunk upon his breast, muttering to himself as he went; and thus he vanished from them, like the spectre of some terrible ancestor which had returned from the grave to announce the coming of calamity to a doomed race. His grandson looked after him, with an expression of intense displeasure.

‘And so, Lady Maulevrier,’ he exclaimed, turning to his grandmother, ‘I have borne a title that never belonged to me, and enjoyed the possession of another man’s estates all this time, thanks to your pretty little plot. A very respectable position for your grandson to occupy, upon my life!’

Lord Hartfield lifted his hand with a warning gesture.

‘Spare her,’ he said. ‘She is in no condition to endure your reproaches.’

Spare her — yes. Fate had not spared her. The beautiful face — beautiful even in age and decay — changed suddenly as she looked at them — the mouth became distorted, the eyes fixed: and then the heavy head fell back upon the pillow — the paralysed form, wholly paralysed now, lay like a thing of stone. It never moved again. Consciousness was blotted out for ever in that moment. The feeble pulses of heart and brain throbbed with gradually diminishing power for a night and a day; and in the twilight of that dreadful day of nothingness the last glimmer of the light died in the lamp, and Lady Maulevrier and the burden of her sin were beyond the veil.

Viscount Haselden, alias Lord Maulevrier, held a long consultation with Lord Hartfield on the night of his grandmother’s death, as to what steps ought to be taken in relation to the real Earl of Maulevrier: and it was only at the end of a serious and earnest discussion that both young men came to the decision that Lady Maulevrier’s secret ought to be kept faithfully to the end. Assuredly no good purpose could be achieved by letting the world know of old Lord Maulevrier’s existence. A half-lunatic octogenarian could gain nothing by being restored to rights and possessions which he had most justly forfeited. All that justice demanded was that the closing years of his life should be made as comfortable as care and wealth could make them; and Hartfield and Haselden took immediate steps to this end. But their first act was to send the old earl’s treasure chest under safe convoy to the India House, with a letter explaining how this long-hidden wealth, brought from India by Lord Maulevrier, had been discovered among other effects in a lumber-room at Lady Maulevrier’s country house. The money so delivered up might possibly have formed part of his lordship’s private fortune; but, in the absence of any knowledge as to its origin, his grandson, the present Lord Maulevrier, preferred to deliver it up to the authorities of the India House, to be dealt with as they might think fit.

The old earl made no further attempt to assert himself. He seemed content to remain in his own rooms as of old, to potter about the garden, where his solitude was as complete as that of a hermit’s cell. The only moan be made was for James Steadman, whose services he missed sorely. Lord Hartfield replaced that devoted servant by a clever Austrian valet, a new importation from Vienna, who understood very little English, a trained attendant upon mental invalids, and who was quite capable of dealing with old Lord Maulevrier.

Lord Hartfield went a step farther; and within a week of those two funerals of servant and mistress, which cast a gloom over the peaceful valley of Grasmere, he brought down a famous mad-doctor to diagnose his lordship’s case. There was but little risk in so doing, he argued with his friend, and it was their duty so to do. If the old man should assert himself to the doctor as Lord Maulevrier, the declaration would pass as a symptom of his lunacy. But it happened that the physician arrived at Fellside on one of Lord Maulevrier’s bad days, and the patient never emerged from the feeblest phase of imbecility.

‘Brain quite gone,’ pronounced the doctor, ‘bodily health very poor. Take him to the South of France for the winter — Hyères, or any quiet place. He can’t last long.’

To Hyères the old man was taken, with Mrs. Steadman as nurse, and the Austrian valet as body-servant and keeper. Mary, for whom, in his brighter hours he showed a warm affection, went with him under her husband’s wing.

Lord Hartfield rented a chateau on the slope of an olive-clad hill, where he and his young wife, whose health was somewhat delicate at this time, spent a winter in peaceful seclusion; while Lesbia and her brother travelled together in Italy. The old man’s strength improved in that lovely climate. He lived to see the roses and orange blossoms of the early spring, and died in his arm-chair suddenly, without a pang, while Mary sat at his feet reading to him: a quiet end of an evil and troubled life. And now he whom the world had known as Lord Maulevrier was verily the earl, and could hear himself called by his title once more without a touch of shame.

The secret of Lady Maulevrier’s sin had been so faithfully kept by the two young men that neither of her granddaughters knew the true story of that mysterious person whom Mary had first heard of as James Steadman’s uncle. She and Lesbia both knew that there were painful circumstances of some kind connected with this man’s existence, his hidden life in the old house at Fellside; but they were both content to learn no more. Respect for their grandmother’s memory, sorrowful affection for the dead, prevailed over natural curiosity.

Early in February Maulevrier sent decorators and upholsterers into the old house in Curzon Street, which was ready before the middle of May to receive his lordship and his young wife, the girlish daughter of a Florentine nobleman, a gazelle-eyed Italian, with a voice whose every tone was music, and with the gentlest, shyest, most engaging manners of any girl in Florence. Lady Lesbia, strangely subdued and changed by the griefs and humiliations of her last campaign, had been her brother’s counsellor and confidante throughout his wooing of his fair Italian bride. She was to spend the season under her brother’s roof, to help to initiate young Lady Maulevrier in the mysterious rites of London society, and to warn her of those rocks and shoals which had wrecked her own fortunes.

The month of May brought a son and heir to Lord Hartfield; and it was not till after his birth that Mary, Countess of Hartfield, was presented to her sovereign, and began her career as a matron of rank and standing, very much overpowered by the weight of her honours, and looking forward with delight to the end of the season and a flight to Argyleshire with her husband and baby.

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