Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Maulevrier’s Humble Friend.

That faint interest which Lady Lesbia had felt in the advent of a stranger dwindled to nothing after Mr. Hammond’s frank avowal of his insignificance. At the very beginning of her career, with the world waiting to be conquered by her, a high-born beauty could not be expected to feel any interest in nobodies. Lesbia shook hands with her brother, honoured the stranger with a stately bend of her beautiful throat, and then withdrew herself from their society altogether as it were, and began to explore her basket of crewels, at a distant table, by the soft light of a shaded lamp, while Maulevrier answered his grandmother’s questions, and Mary stood watching him, hanging on his words, as if unconscious of any other presence.

Mr. Hammond went over to the window and looked out at the view. The moon was rising above the amphitheatre of hills, and her rays were silvering the placid bosom of the lake. Lights were dotted here and there about the valley, telling of village life. The Prince of Wales’s hotel yonder sparkled with its many lights, like a castle in a fairy tale. The stranger had looked upon many a grander scene, but on none more lovely. Here were lake and mountain in little, without the snow-peaks and awful inaccessible regions of solitude and peril; homely hills that one might climb, placid English vales in which English poets have lived and died.

‘Hammond and I mean to spend a month or six weeks with you, if you can make us comfortable,’ said Maulevrier.

‘I am delighted to hear that you can contemplate staying a month anywhere,’ replied her ladyship. ‘Your usual habits are as restless as if your life were a disease. It shall not be my fault if you and Mr. Hammond are uncomfortable at Fellside.’

There was courtesy, but no cordiality in the reply. If Mr. Hammond was a sensitive man, touchily conscious of his own obscurity, he must have felt that he was not wanted at Fellside — that he was an excrescence, matter in the wrong place.

Nobody had presented the stranger to Lady Mary. It never entered into Maulevrier’s mind to be ceremonious about his sister Molly. She was so much a part of himself that it seemed as if anyone who knew him must needs know her. Molly sat a little way from the window by which Mr. Hammond was standing, and looked at him doubtfully, wonderingly, with not altogether a friendly eye, as he stood with his profile turned to her, and his eyes upon the landscape. She was inclined to be jealous of her brother’s friend, who would most likely deprive her of much of that beloved society. Hitherto she had been Maulevrier’s chosen companion, at Fellside — indeed, his sole companion after the dismissal of his tutor. Now this brown, bearded stranger would usurp her privileges — those two young men would go roaming over the hills, fishing, otter-hunting, going to distant wrestling matches and leaving her at home. It was a hard thing, and she was prepared to detest the interloper. Even to-night she would be a loser by his presence. Under ordinary circumstances she would have gone to the dining-room with Maulevrier, and sat by him and waited upon him as he ate. But she dared not intrude herself upon a meal that was to be shared with a stranger.

She looked at John Hammond critically, eager to find fault with his appearence; but unluckily for her present humour there was not much room for fault-finding.

He was tall, broad-shouldered, well-built. His enemies would hardly deny that he was good-looking — nay, even handsome. The massive regular features were irreproachable. He was more sunburnt than a gentleman ought to be, Mary thought. She told herself that his good looks were of a vulgar quality, like those of Charles Ford, the champion wrestler, whom she saw at the sports the other day. Why did Maulevrier pick up a companion who was evidently not of his own sphere? Hoydenish, plain-spoken, frank and affectionate as Mary Haselden was, she knew that she belonged to a race apart, that there were circles beneath circles, below her own world, circles which hers could never touch, and she supposed Mr. Hammond to be some waif from one of those nethermost worlds — a village doctor’s son, perhaps, or even a tradesman’s — sent to the University by some benevolent busybody, and placed at a disadvantage ever afterwards, an unfortunate anomaly, suspended between two worlds like Mahomet’s coffin.

The butler announced that his lordship’s dinner was served.

‘Come along, Molly,’ said Maulevrier; ‘come and tell me about the terriers, while I eat my dinner.’

Mary hesitated, glanced doubtfully at her grandmother, who made no sign, and then slipped out of the room, hanging fondly on her brother’s arm, and almost forgetting that there was any such person as Mr. Hammond in existence.

When these three were gone Lady Lesbia expressed herself strongly upon Maulevrier’s folly in bringing such a person as Mr. Hammond to Fellside.

‘What are we to do with him, grandmother?’ she said, pettishly. ‘Is he to live with us, and be one of us, a person of whose belongings we know positively nothing, who owns that his people are common?’

‘My dear, he is your brother’s friend, and we have the right to suppose he is a gentleman.’

‘Not on that account,’ said Lesbia, more sharply than her wont. ‘Didn’t he make a friend, or almost a friend of Jack Howell, the huntsman, and of Ford, the wrestler. I have no confidence in Maulevrier’s ideas of fitness.’

‘We shall find out all about this Mr. Hamleigh — no Hammond — in a day or two,’ replied her ladyship, placidly; ‘and in the meantime we must tolerate him, and be grateful to him if he reconcile Maulevrier to remaining at Fellside for the next six weeks.’

Lesbia was silent. She did not consider Maulevrier’s presence at Fellside an unmitigated advantage, or, indeed, his presence anywhere. Those two were not sympathetic. Maulevrier made fun of his elder sister’s perfections, chaffed her intolerably about the great man she was going to captivate, in her first season, the great houses in which she was going to reign. Lesbia despised him for that neglect of all his opportunities of culture which had left him, after the most orthodox and costly curriculum, almost as ignorant as a ploughboy. She despised a man whose only delight was in horse and hound, gun and fishing-tackle. Molly would have cared very little for the guns or the fishing-tackle perhaps in the abstract; but she cared for everything that interested Maulevrier, even to the bagful of rats which were let loose in the stable-yard sometimes, for the education of a particularly game fox-terrier.

There was plenty of talk and laughter at the dinner-table, while the Countess and Lady Lesbia conversed gravely and languidly in the dimly-lighted drawing-room. The dinner was excellent, and both travellers were ravenous. They had eaten nothing since breakfast, and had driven from Windermere on the top of the coach in the keen evening air. When the sharp edge of the appetite was blunted, Maulevrier began to talk of his adventures since he and Molly had last met. He had not being dissipating in London all the time — or, indeed, any great part of the time of his absence from Fellside; but Molly had been left in Cimmerian, darkness as to his proceedings. He never wrote a letter if he could possibly avoid doing so. If it became a vital necessity to him to communicate with anyone he telegraphed, or, in his own language, ‘wired’ to that person; but to sit down at a desk and labour with pen and ink was not within his capacities or his views of his mission in life.

‘If a fellow is to write letters he might as well be a clerk in an office,’ he said, ‘and sit on a high stool.’

Thus it happened that when Maulevrier was away from Fellside, no fair châtelaine of the Middle Ages could be more ignorant of the movements or whereabouts of her crusader knight than Mary was of her brother’s goings on. She could but pray for him with fond and faithful prayer, and wait and hope for his return. And now he told her that things had gone badly with him at Epsom, and worse at Ascot, that he had been, as he expressed it, ‘up a tree,’ and that he had gone off to the Black Forest directly the Ascot week was over, and at Rippoldsau he had met his old friend and fellow traveller, Hammond, and they had gone for a walking tour together among the homely villages, the watchmakers, the timber cutters, the pretty peasant girls. They had danced at fairs — and shot at village sports — and had altogether enjoyed the thing. Hammond, who was something of an artist, had sketched a good deal. Maulevrier had done nothing but smoke his German pipe and enjoy himself.

‘I was glad to find myself in a world where a horse was an exception and not the rule,’ he said.

‘Oh, how I should love to see the Black Forest!’ cried Mary, who knew the first part of Faust by heart, albeit she had never been given permission to read it, ‘the gnomes and the witches — der Freischütz — all that is lovely. Of course, you went up the Brocken?’

‘Of course,’ answered Mr. Hammond; ‘Mephistopheles was our valet de place, and we went up among a company of witches riding on broomsticks.’ And then quoted,

‘Seh’ die Bäume hinter Bäumen,

Wie sie schnell vorüberrücken,

Und die Klippen, die sich bücken,

Und die langen Felsennasen,

Wie sie schnarchen, wie sie blasen!’

This was the first time he had addressed himself directly to Mary, who sat close to her brother’s side, and never took her eyes from his face, ready to pour out his wine or to change his plate, for the serving-men had been dismissed at the beginning of this unceremonious meal.

Mary looked at the stranger almost as superciliously as Lesbia might have done. She was not inclined to be friendly to her brother’s friend.

‘Do you read German?’ she inquired, with a touch of surprise.

‘You had better ask him what language he does not read or speak,’ said her brother. ‘Hammond is an admirable Crichton, my dear — by-the-by, who was admirable Crichton? — knows everything, can twist your little head the right way upon any subject.’

‘Oh,’ thought Mary, ‘highly cultivated, is he? Very proper in a man who was educated on charity to have worked his hardest at the University.’

She was not prepared to think very kindly of young men who had been successful in their college career, since poor Maulevrier had made such a dismal failure of his, had been gated and sent down, and ploughed, and had everything ignominious done to him that could be done, which ignominy had involved an expenditure of money that Lady Maulevrier bemoaned and lamented until this day. Because her brother had not been virtuous, Mary grudged virtuous young men their triumphs and their honours. Great, raw-boned fellows, who have taken their degrees at Scotch Universities, come to Oxford and Cambridge and sweep the board, Maulevrier had told her, when his own failures demanded explanation. Perhaps this Mr. Hammond had graduated north of the Tweed, and had come southward to rob the native. Mary was not any more inclined to be civil to him because he was a linguist. He had a pleasant manner, frank and easy, a good voice, a cheery laugh. But she had not yet made up her mind that he was a gentleman.

‘If some benevolent old person were to take a fancy to Charles Ford, the wrestler, and send him to a Scotch University, I daresay he would turn out just as fine a fellow,’ she thought, Ford being somewhat of a favourite as a local hero.

The two young men went off to the billiard-room after they had dined. It was half-past ten by this time, and, of course, Mary did not go with them. She bade her brother good-night at the dining-room door.

‘Good-night, Molly; be sure you are up early to show me the dogs,’ said Maulevrier, after an affectionate kiss.

‘Good-night, Lady Mary,’ said Mr. Hammond, holding out his hand, albeit she had no idea of shaking hands with him.

She allowed her hand to rest for an instant in that strong, friendly grasp. She had not risen to giving a couple of fingers to a person whom she considered her inferior; but she was inclined to snub Mr. Hammond as rather a presuming young man.

‘Well, Jack, what do you think of my beauty sister?’ asked his lordship, as he chose his cue from the well-filled rack.

The lamps were lighted, the table uncovered and ready, Carambole in his place, albeit it was months since any player had entered the room. Everything which concerned Maulevrier’s comfort or pleasure was done as if by magic at Fellside; and Mary was the household fairy whose influence secured this happy state of things.

‘What can any man think except that she is as lovely as the finest of Reynold’s portraits, as that Lady Diana Beauclerk of Colonel Aldridge’s, or the Kitty Fisher, or any example you please to name of womanly loveliness?’

‘Glad to hear it,’ answered Maulevrier, chalking his cue; ‘can’t say I admire her myself — not my style, don’t you know. Too much of my lady Di — too little of poor Kitty. But still, of course, it always pleases a fellow to know that his people are admired; and I know that my grandmother has views, grand views,’ smiling down at his cue. ‘Shall I break?’ and he began with the usual miss in baulk.

‘Thank you,’ said Mr. Hammond, beginning to play. ‘Matrimonial views, of course. Very natural that her ladyship should expect such a lovely creature to make a great match. Is there no one in view? Has there been no family conclave — no secret treaty? Is the young lady fancy free?’

‘Perfectly. She has been buried alive here; except parsons and a few decent people whom she is allowed to meet now and then at the houses about here, she has seen nothing of the world. My grandmother has kept Lesbia as close as a nun. She is not so fond of Molly, and that young person has wild ways of her own, and gives everybody the slip. By-the-by, how do you like my little Moll?’

The adjective was hardly accurate about a young lady who measured five feet six, but Maulevrier had not yet grown out of the ideas belonging to that period when Mary was really his little sister, a girl of twelve, with long hair and short petticoats.

Mr. Hammond was slow to reply. Mary had not made a very strong impression upon him. Dazzled by her sister’s pure and classical beauty, he had no eyes for Mary’s homelier charms. She seemed to him a frank, affectionate girl, not too well-mannered; and that was all he thought of her.

‘I’m afraid Lady Mary does not like me,’ he said, after his shot, which gave him time for reflection.

‘Oh, Molly is rather farouche in her manners; never would train fine, don’t you know. Her ladyship lectured till she was tired, and now Mary runs wild, and I suppose will be left at grass till six months before her presentation, and then they’ll put her on the pillar-reins a bit to give her a better mouth. Good shot, by Jove!’

John Hammond was used to his lordship’s style of conversation, and understood his friend at all times. Maulevrier was not an intellectual companion, and the distance was wide between the two men; but his lordship’s gaiety, good-nature, and acuteness made amends for all shortcomings in culture. And then Mr. Hammond may have been one of those good Conservatives who do not expect very much intellectual power in an hereditary legislator.

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