Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

There is Always a Skeleton.

The two young men strolled through the village, Maulevrier pausing to exchange greetings with almost everyone he met, and so to the rustic churchyard, above the beck.

The beck was swollen with late rains, and was brawling merrily over its stony bed; the churchyard grass was deep and cool and shadowy under the clustering branches. The poet’s tomb was disappointing in its unlovely simplicity, its stern, slatey hue. The plainest granite cross would have satisfied Mr. Hammond, or a cross in pure white marble, with a sculptured lamb at the base. Surely the lamb, emblem at once pastoral and sacred, ought to enter into any monument to Wordsworth; but that gray headstone, with its catalogue of dates, those stern iron railings — were these fit memorials of one whose soul so loved nature’s loveliness?

After Mr. Hammond had seen the little old, old church, and the medallion portrait inside, had seen all that Maulevrier could show him, in fact, the two young men went back to the place of graves, and sat on the low parapet above the beck, smoking their cigarettes, and talking with that perfect unreserve which can only obtain between men who are old and tried friends. They talked, as it was only natural they should talk, of that household at Fellside, where all things were new to John Hammond.

‘You like my sister Lesbia?’ said Maulevrier.

‘Like her! well, yes. The difficulty with most men must be not to worship her.’

‘Ah, she’s not my style. And she’s beastly proud.’

‘A little hauteur gives piquancy to her beauty; I admire a grand woman.’

‘So do I in a picture. Titian’s Queen of Cyprus, or any party of that kind; but for flesh and blood I like humility — a woman who knows she is human, and not infallible, and only just a little better than you or me. When I choose a wife, she will be no such example of cultivated perfection as my sister Lesbia. I want no goddess, but a nice little womanly woman, to jog along the rough and tumble road of life with me.’

‘Lady Maulevrier’s influence, no doubt, has in a great measure determined the bent of your sister’s character: and from what you have told me about her ladyship, I should think a fixed idea of her own superiority would be inevitable in any girl trained by her.’

‘Yes, she is a proud woman — a proud, hard woman — and she has steeped Lesbia’s mind in all her own pet ideas and prejudices. Yet, God knows, we have little reason to hold our heads high,’ said Maulevrier, with a gloomy look.

John Hammond did not reply to this remark: perhaps there was some difficulty for a man situated as he was in finding a fit reply. He smoked in silence, looking down at the pure swift waters of the Rotha tumbling over the crags and boulders below.

‘Doesn’t somebody say there is always a skeleton in the cupboard, and the nobler and more ancient the race the bigger the skeleton?’ said Maulevrier, with a philosophical air.

‘Yes, your family secret is an attribute of a fine old race. The Pelopidae, for instance — in their case it was not a single skeleton, but a whole charnel house. I don’t think your skeleton need trouble you, Maulevrier. It belongs to the remote past.’

‘Those things never belong to the past,’ said the young man. ‘If it were any other kind of taint — profligacy — madness, even — the story of a duel that went very near murder — a runaway wife — a rebellious son — a cruel husband. I have heard such stories hinted at in the records of families. But our story means disgrace. I seldom see strangers putting their heads together at the club without fancying they are telling each other about my grandfather, and pointing me out as the grandson and heir of a thief.’

‘Why use unduly hard words?’

‘Why should I stoop to sophistication, with you, my friend. Dishonesty is dishonesty all the world over; and to plunder Rajahs on a large scale is no less vile than to pick a pocket on Ludgate Hill.’

‘Nothing was ever proved against your grandfather.’

‘No, he died in the nick of time, and the inquiry was squashed, thanks to the Angersthorpe interest, and my grandmother’s cleverness. But if he had lived a few weeks longer England would have rung with the story of his profligacy and dishonour. Some people say he committed suicide in order to escape the inquiry; but I have heard my mother emphatically deny this. My father told her that he had often talked with the people who kept the little inn where his father died, and they were clear enough in their assertion that the death was a natural death — the sudden collapse of an exhausted constitution.’

‘Was it on account of this scandal that your father spent the best part of his life away from England?’ Hammond asked, feeling that it was a relief to Maulevrier to talk about this secret burden of his.

The young Earl was light-hearted and frivolous by nature, yet even he had his graver moments; and upon this subject of the old Maulevrier scandal he was peculiarly sensitive, perhaps all the more so because his grandmother had never allowed him to speak to her about it, had never satisfied his curiosity upon any details of that painful story.

‘I have very little doubt it was so — though I wasn’t old enough when he died to hear as much from his own lips. My father went straight from the University to Vienna, where he began his career in the diplomatic service, and where he soon afterwards married a dowerless English girl of good family. He went to Rio as first secretary, and died of fever within seven years of his marriage, leaving a widow and three babies, the youngest in long clothes. Mother and babies all came over to England, and were at once established at Fellside. I can remember the voyage — and I can remember my poor mother who never recovered the blow of my father’s death, and who died in yonder house, after five years of broken health and broken spirits. We had no one but the dowager to look to as children — hardly another friend in the world. She did what she liked with us; she kept the girls as close as nuns, so they have never heard a hint of the old history; no breach of scandal has reached their ears. But she could not shut me up in a country house for ever, though she did succeed in keeping me away from a public school. The time came when I had to go to the University, and there I heard all that had been said about Lord Maulevrier. The men who told me about the old scandal in a friendly way pretended not to believe it; but one night, when I had got into a row at a wine-party with a tailor’s son, he told me that if his father was a snip my grandfather was a thief, and so he thought himself the better bred of the two. I smashed his nose for him, but as it was a decided pug before the row began, that hardly squared the matter.’

‘Did you ever hear the exact story?’

‘I have heard a dozen stories; and if only a quarter of them are true my grandfather was a scoundrel. It seems that he was immensely popular for the first year or so of his government, gave more splendid entertainments than had been given at Madras for half a century before his time, lavished his wealth upon his favourites. Then arose a rumour that the governor was insolvent and harassed by his creditors, and then a new source of wealth seemed to be at his command; he was more reckless, more princely than ever; and then, little by little, there arose the suspicion that he was trafficking in English interests, selling his influence to petty princes, winking at those mysterious crimes by which rightful heirs are pushed aside to make room for usurpers. Lastly it became notorious that he was the slave of a wicked woman, false wife, suspected murderess, whose husband, a native prince, disappeared from the scene just when his existence became perilous to the governor’s reputation. According to one version of the story, the scandal of this Rajah’s mysterious disappearance, followed not long after by the Ranee’s equally mysterious death, was the immediate cause of my grandfather’s recall. How much, or how little of this story — or other dark stories of the same kind — is true, whether my grandfather was a consummate scoundrel, or the victim of a baseless slander — whether he left India a rich man or a poor man, is known to no mortal except Lady Maulevrier, and compared with her the Theban Sphinx was a communicative individual.’

‘Let the dead bury their dead,’ said Hammond. ‘Neither you nor your sisters can be the worse for this ancient slander. No doubt every part of the story has been distorted and exaggerated in the telling; and a great deal of it may be pure invention, evolved from the inner consciousness of the slanderer. God forbid that any whisper of scandal should ever reach Lady Lesbia’s ears.’

He ignored poor Mary. It was to him as if there were no such person. Her feeble light was extinguished by the radiance of her sister’s beauty; her very individuality was annihilated.

‘As for you, dear old fellow,’ he said, with warm affection, ‘no one will ever think the worse of you on account of your grandfather’s peccadilloes.’

‘Yes, they will. Hereditary genius is one of our modern crazes. When a man’s grandfather was a rogue, there must be a taint in his blood. People don’t believe in spontaneous generation, moral or physical, now-a-days. Typhoid breeds typhoid, and typhus breeds typhus, just as dog breeds dog; and who will believe that a cheat and a liar can be the father of honest men?’

‘In that case, knowing what kind of man the grandson is, I will never believe that the grandfather was a rogue,’ said Hammond, heartily.

Maulevrier put out his hand without a word, and it was warmly grasped by his friend.

‘As for her ladyship, I respect and honour her as a woman who has led a life of self-sacrifice, and has worn her pride as an armour,’ continued Hammond.

‘Yes, I believe the dowager’s character is rather fine,’ said Maulevrier; ‘but she and I have never hit our horses very well together. She would have liked such a fellow as you for a grandson, Jack — a man who took high honours at Oxford, and could hold his own against all comers. Such a grandson would have gratified her pride, and would have repaid her for the trouble she had taken in nursing the Maulevrier estate; for however poor a property it was when her husband went to India there is no doubt that it is a very fine estate now, and that the dowager has been the making of it.’

The two young men strolled up to Easedale Tarn before they went back to Fellside, where Lady Maulevrier received them with a stately graciousness, and where Lady Lesbia unbent considerably at luncheon, and condescended to an animated conversation with her brother’s friend. It was such a new thing to have a stranger at the family board, a man whose information was well abreast with the march of progress, who could talk eloquently upon every subject which people care to talk about. In this new and animated society Lesbia seemed like an enchanted princess suddenly awakened from a spell-bound slumber. Molly looked at her sister with absolute astonishment. Never had she seen her so bright, so beautiful — no longer a picture or a statue, but a woman warm with the glow of life.

‘No wonder Mr. Hammond admires her,’ thought poor Molly, who was quite acute enough to see the stranger’s keen appreciation of her sister’s charms, and positive indifference towards herself.

There are some things which women find out by instinct, just as the needle turns towards the magnet. Shut a girl up in a tower till she is eighteen years old, and on the day of her release introduce her to the first man her eyes have ever looked upon, and she will know at a glance whether he admires her.

After luncheon the four young people started for Rydal Mount; with Fräulein as chaperon and watch-dog. The girls were both good walkers. Lady Lesbia even, though she looked like a hot-house flower, had been trained to active habits, could walk and ride, and play tennis, and climb a hill as became a mountain-bred damsel. Molly, feeling that her conversational powers were not appreciated by her brother’s friend, took half a dozen dogs for company, and with three fox-terriers, a little Yorkshire dog, a colley and an otter-hound, was at no loss for society on the road, more especially as Maulevrier gave her most of his company, and entertained her with an account of his Black Forest adventures, and all the fine things he had said to the fair-haired, blue-eyed Baden girls, who had sold him photographs or wild strawberries, or had awakened the echoes of the hills with the music of their rustic flutes.

Fräulein was perfectly aware that her mission upon this particular afternoon was not to let Lady Lesbia out of her sight for an instant, to hear every word the young lady said, and every word Mr. Hammond addressed to her. She had received no specific instructions from Lady Maulevrier. They were not necessary, for the Fräulein knew her ladyship’s intentions with regard to her elder granddaughter — knew them, at least, so far as that Lesbia was intended to make a brilliant marriage; and she knew, therefore, that the presence of this handsome and altogether attractive young man was to the last degree obnoxious to the dowager. She was obliged to be civil to him for her nephew’s sake, and she was too wise to let Lesbia imagine him dangerous: but the fact that he was dangerous was obvious, and it was Fräulein’s duty to protect her employer’s interests.

Everybody knew Lord Maulevrier, so there was no difficulty about getting admission to Wordsworth’s garden and Wordsworth’s house, and after Mr. Hammond and his companions had explored these, they went back to the shores of the little lake, and climbed that rocky eminence upon which the poet used to sit, above the placid waters of silvery Rydal. It is a lovely spot, and that narrow lake, so poor a thing were magnitude the gauge of beauty, had a soft and pensive loveliness in the clear afternoon light.

‘Poor Wordsworth’ sighed Lesbia, as she stood on the grassy crag looking down on the shining water, broken in the foreground by fringes of rushes, and the rich luxuriance of water-lilies. ‘Is it not pitiable to think of the years he spent in this monotonous place, without any society worth speaking of, with only the shabbiest collection of books, with hardly any interest in life except the sky, and the hills, and the peasantry?’

‘I think Wordsworth’s was an essentially happy life, in spite of his narrow range,’ answered Hammond. ‘You, with your ardent youth and vivid desire for a life of action, cannot imagine the calm blisses of reverie and constant communion with nature. Wordsworth had a thousand companions you and I would never dream of; for him every flower that grows was an individual existence — almost a soul.’

‘It was a mild kind of lunacy, an everlasting opium dream without the opium; but I am grateful to him for living such a life, since it has bequeathed us some exquisite poetry,’ said Lesbia, who had been too carefully cultured to fleer or flout at Wordsworth.

‘I do believe there’s an otter just under that bank,’ cried Molly, who had been watching the obvious excitement of her bandy-legged hound; and she rushed down to the brink of the water, leaping lightly from stone to stone, and inciting the hound to business.

‘Let him alone, can’t you?’ roared Maulevrier; ‘leave him in peace till he’s wanted. If you disturb him now he’ll desert his holt, and we may have a blank day. The hounds are to be out to-morrow.’

‘I may go with you?’ asked Mary, eagerly.

‘Well, yes, I suppose you’ll want to be in it.’ Molly and her brother went on an exploring ramble along the edge of the water towards Ambleside, leaving John Hammond in Lesbia’s company, but closely guarded by Miss Müller. These three went to look at Nab Cottage, where poor Hartley Coleridge ended his brief and clouded days; and they had gone some way upon their homeward walk before they were rejoined by Maulevrier and Mary, the damsel’s kilted skirt considerably the worse for mud and mire.

‘What would grandmother say if she were to see you!’ exclaimed Lesbia, looking contemptuously at the muddy petticoat.

‘I am not going to let her see me, so she will say nothing,’ cried Mary, and then she called to the dogs, ‘Ammon, Agag, Angelina;’ and the three fox terriers flew along the road, falling over themselves in the swiftness of their flight, darting, and leaping, and scrambling over each other, and offering the spectators the most intense example of joyous animal life.

The colley was far up on the hill-side, and the otter-hound was still hunting the water, but the terriers never went out of Mary’s sight. They looked to her to take the initiative in all their sports.

They were back at Fellside in time for a very late tea. Lady Maulevrier was waiting for them in the drawing-room.

‘Oh, grandmother, why did you not take your tea!’ exclaimed Lesbia, looking really distressed. ‘It is six o’clock.’

‘I am used to have you at home to hand me my cup,’ replied the dowager, with a touch of reproachfulness.

‘I am so sorry,’ said Lesbia, sitting down before the tea-table, and beginning her accustomed duty. ‘Indeed, dear grandmother, I had no idea it was so late; but it was such a lovely afternoon, and Mr. Hammond is so interested in everything connected with Wordsworth —’

She was looking her loveliest at this moment, all that was softest in her nature called forth by her desire to please her grandmother, whom she really loved. She hung over Lady Maulevrier’s chair, attending to her small wants, and seeming scarcely to remember the existence of anyone else. In this phase of her character she seemed to Mr. Hammond the perfection of womanly grace.

Mary had rushed off to her room to change her muddy gown, and came in presently, dressed for dinner, looking the picture of innocence.

John Hammond received his tea-cup from Lesbia’s hand, and lingered in the drawing-room talking to the dowager and her granddaughters till it was time to dress. Lady Maulevrier found herself favourably impressed by him in spite of her prejudices. It was very provoking of Maulevrier to have brought such a man to Fellside. His very merits were objectionable. She tried with exquisite art to draw him into some revealment as to his family and antecedents: but he evaded every attempt of that kind. It was too evident that he was a self-made man, whose intellect and good looks were his only fortune. It was criminal in Maulevrier to have brought such a person to Fellside. Her ladyship began to think seriously of sending the two girls to St. Bees or Tynemouth for change of air, in charge of Fräulein. But any sudden proceeding of that kind would inevitably awaken Lesbia’s suspicions; and there is nothing so fatal to a woman’s peace as this idea of danger. No, the peril must be faced. She could only hope that Maulevrier would soon tire of Fellside. A week’s Westmoreland weather — gray skies and long rainy days, would send these young men away.

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