Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

A Cry in the Darkness.

The peril had to be faced, for the weather did not favour Lady Maulevrier’s hopes. Westmoreland skies forgot to shed their accustomed showers. Westmoreland hills seemed to have lost their power of drawing down the rain. That August was a lovely month, and the young people at Fellside revelled in ideal weather. Maulevrier took his friend everywhere — by hill and stream and force and gill — to all those chosen spots which make the glory of the Lake country — on Windermere and Thirlmere, away through the bleak pass of Kirkstone to Ullswater — on driving excursions, and on boating excursions, and pedestrian rambles, which latter the homely-minded Hammond seemed to like best of all, for he was a splendid walker, and loved the freedom of a mountain ramble, the liberty to pause and loiter and waste an hour at will, without being accountable to anybody’s coachman, or responsible for the well-being of anybody’s horses.

On some occasions the two girls and Miss Müller were of the party, and then it seemed to John Hammond as if nothing were needed to complete the glory of earth and sky. There were other days — rougher journeys — when the men went alone, and there were days when Lady Mary stole away from her books and music, and all those studies which she was supposed still to be pursuing — no longer closely supervised by her governess, but on parole, as it were — and went with her brother and his friend across the hills and far away. Those were happy days for Mary, for it was always delight to her to be with Maulevrier; yet she had a profound conviction of John Hammond’s indifference, kind and courteous as he was in all his dealings with her, and a sense of her own inferiority, of her own humble charms and little power to please, which was so acute as to be almost pain. One day this keen sense of humiliation broke from her unawares in her talk with her brother, as they two sat on a broad heathy slope face to face with one of the Langdale pikes, and with a deep valley at their feet, while John Hammond was climbing from rock to rock in the gorge on their right, exploring the beauties of Dungeon Ghyll.

‘I wonder whether he thinks me very ugly?’ said Mary, with her hands clasped upon her knees, her eyes fixed on Wetherlam, upon whose steep brow a craggy mass of brown rock clothed with crimson heather stood out from the velvety green of the hill-side.

‘Who thinks you ugly?’

‘Mr. Hammond. I’m sure he does. I am so sunburnt and so horrid!’

‘But you are not ugly. Why, Molly, what are you dreaming about?’

‘Oh, yes, I am ugly. I may not seem so to you, perhaps, because you are used to me, but I know he must think me very plain compared with Lesbia, whom he admires so much.’

‘Yes, he admires Lesbia. There is no doubt of that.’

‘And I know he thinks me plain,’ said Molly, contemplating Wetherlam with sorrowful eyes, as if the sequence were inevitable.

‘My dearest girl, what nonsense! Plain, forsooth? Ugly, quotha? Why, there are not a finer pair of eyes in Westmoreland than my Molly’s, or a prettier smile, or whiter teeth.’

‘But all the rest is horrid,’ said Mary, intensely in earnest. ‘I am sunburnt, freckled, and altogether odious — like a haymaker or a market woman. Grandmother has said so often enough, and I know it is the truth. I can see it in Mr. Hammond’s manner.’

‘What! freckles and sunburn, and the haymaker, and all that?’ cried Maulevrier, laughing. ‘What an expressive manner Jack’s must be, if it can convey all that — like Lord Burleigh’s nod, by Jove. Why, what a goose you are, Mary. Jack thinks you a very nice girl, and a very pretty girl, I’ll be bound; but aren’t you clever enough to understand that when a man is over head and ears in love with one woman, he is apt to seem just a little indifferent to all the other women in the world? and there is no doubt Jack is desperately in love with Lesbia.’

‘You ought not to let him be in love with her,’ protested Mary. ‘You know it can only lead to his unhappiness. You must know what grandmother is, and how she has made up her mind that Lesbia is to marry some great person. You ought not to have brought Mr. Hammond here. It is like letting him into a trap.’

‘Do you think it was wrong?’ asked her brother, smiling at her earnestness. ‘I should be very sorry if poor Jack should come to grief. But still, if Lesbia likes him — which I think she does — we ought to be able to talk over the dowager.’

‘Never,’ cried Mary. ‘Grandmother would never give way. You have no idea how ambitious she is. Why, once when Lesbia was in a poetical mood, and said she would marry the man she liked best in the world, if he were a pauper, her ladyship flew into a terrible passion, and told her she would renounce her, that she would curse her, if she were to marry beneath her, or marry without her grandmother’s consent.’

‘Hard lines for Hammond,’ said Maulevrier, rather lightly. ‘Then I suppose we must give up the idea of a match between him and Lesbia.’

‘You ought not to have brought him here,’ retorted Mary. ‘You had better invent some plan for sending him away. If he stay it will be only to break his heart.’

‘Dear child, men’s hearts do not break so easily. I have fancied that mine was broken more than once in my life, yet it is sound enough, I assure you.’

‘Oh!’ sighed Mary, ‘but you are not like him; wounds do not go so deep with you.’

The subject of their conversation came out of the rocky cleft in the hills as Mary spoke. She saw his hat appearing out of the gorge, and then the man himself emerged, a tall well-built figure, clad in brown tweed, coming towards them, with sketch-book and colour-box in his pocket. He had been making what he called memoranda of the waterfall, a stone or two here, a cluster of ferns there, or a tree torn up by the roots, and yet green and living, hanging across the torrent, a rude natural bridge.

This round by the Langdale Pikes and Dungeon Ghyll was one of their best days; or, at least, Molly and her brother thought so; for to those two the presence of Lesbia and her chaperon was always a restraint.

Mary could walk twice as far as her elder sister, and revelled in hill-side paths and all manner of rough places. They ordered their luncheon at the inn below the waterfall, and had it carried up on to the furzy slope in front of Wetherlam, where they could eat and drink and be merry to the music of the force as it came down from the hills behind them, while the lights and shadows came and went upon yonder rugged brow, now gray in the shadow, now ruddy in the sunshine.

Mary was as gay as a bird during that rough and ready luncheon. No one would have suspected her uneasiness about John Hammond’s peril or her own plainness. She might let her real self appear to her brother, who had been her trusted friend and father confessor from her babyhood; but she was too thorough a woman to let Mr. Hammond discover the depth of her sympathy, the tenderness of her compassion for his woes. Later, as they were walking home across the hills, by Great Langdale and Little Langdale, and Fox Howe and Loughrigg Fell, she fell behind a few paces with Maulevrier, and said to him very earnestly —

‘You won’t tell, will you, dear?’

‘Tell what?’ he asked, staring at her.

‘Don’t tell Mr. Hammond what I said about his thinking me ugly. He might want to apologise to me, and that would be too humiliating. I was very childish to say such a silly thing.’

‘Undoubtedly you were.’

‘And you won’t tell him?’

‘Tell him anything that would degrade my Mary? Assail her dignity by so much as a breath? Sooner would I have this tongue torn out with red-hot pincers.’

On the next day, and the next, sunshine and summer skies still prevailed; but Mr. Hammond did not seem to care for rambling far afield. He preferred loitering about in the village, rowing on the lake, reading in the garden, and playing lawn tennis. He had only inclination for those amusements which kept him within a stone’s throw of Fellside: and Mary knew that this disposition had arisen in his mind since Lesbia had withdrawn herself from all share in their excursions. Lesbia had not been rude to her brother or her brother’s friend; she had declined their invitations with smiles and sweetness; but there was always some reason — a new song to be practised, a new book to be read, a letter to be written — why she should not go for drives or walks or steamboat trips with Maulevrier and his friend.

So Mr. Hammond suddenly found out that he had seen all that was worth seeing in the Lake country, and that there was nothing so enjoyable as the placid idleness of Fellside; and at Fellside Lady Lesbia could not always avoid him without a too-marked intention, so he tasted the sweetness of her society to a much greater extent than was good for his peace, if the case were indeed as hopeless as Lady Mary declared. He strolled about the grounds with her; he drank the sweet melody of her voice in Heine’s tenderest ballads; he read to her on the sunlit lawn in the lazy afternoon hours; he played billiards with her; he was her faithful attendant at afternoon tea; he gave himself up to the study of her character, which, to his charmed eyes, seemed the perfection of pure and placid womanhood. There might, perhaps, be some lack of passion and of force in this nature, a marked absence of that impulsive feeling which is a charm in some women: but this want was atoned for by sweetness of character, and Mr. Hammond argued that in these calm natures there is often an unsuspected depth, a latent force, a grandeur of soul, which only reveals itself in the great ordeals of life.

So John Hammond hung about the luxurious drawing-room at Fellside in a manner which his friend Maulevrier ridiculed as unmanly.

‘I had no idea you were such a tame cat,’ he said: ‘if when we were salmon fishing in Canada anybody had told me you could loll about a drawing-room all day listening to a girl squalling and reading novels, I shouldn’t have believed a word of it.’

‘We had plenty of roughing on the shores of the St. Lawrence,’ answered Hammond. ‘Summer idleness in a drawing-room is an agreeable variety.’

It is not to be supposed that John Hammond’s state of mind could long remain unperceived by the keen eyes of the dowager. She saw the gradual dawning of his love, she saw the glow of its meridian. She was pleased to behold this proof of Lesbia’s power over the heart of man. So would she conquer the man foredoomed to be her husband when the coming time should bring them together. But agreeable as the fact of this first conquest might be, as an evidence of Lesbia’s supremacy among women, the situation was not without its peril; and Lady Maulevrier felt that she could no longer defer the duty of warning her granddaughter. She had wished, if possible, to treat the thing lightly to the very last, so that Lesbia should never know there had been danger. She had told her, a few days ago, that those drives, and walks with the two young men were undignified, even although guarded by the Fräulein’s substantial presence.

‘You are making yourself too much a companion to Maulevrier and his friend,’ said the dowager. ‘If you do not take care you will grow like Mary.’

‘I would do anything in the world to avoid that,’ replied Lesbia. ‘Our walks and drives have been very pleasant. Mr. Hammond is extremely clever, and can talk about everything.’

Her colour heightened ever so little as she spoke of him, an indication duly observed by Lady Maulevrier.

‘No doubt the man is clever; all adventurers are clever; and you have sense enough to see that this man is an adventurer — a mere sponge and toady of Maulevrier’s.’

‘There is nothing of the sponge or the toady in his manner,’ protested Lady Lesbia, with a still deeper blush, the warm glow of angry feeling.

‘My dear child, what do you know of such people — or of the atmosphere in which they are generated? The sponge and toady of to-day is not the clumsy fawning wretch you have read about in old-fashioned novels. He can flatter adroitly, and feed upon his friends, and yet maintain a show of manhood and independence. I’ll wager Mr. Hammond’s trip to Canada did not cost him sixpence, and that he hardly opened his purse all the time he was in Germany.’

‘If my brother wants the company of a friend who is much poorer than himself, he must pay for it,’ argued Lesbia. ‘I think Maulevrier is lucky to have such a companion as Mr. Hammond.’

Yet, even while she so argued, Lady Lesbia felt in some manner humiliated by the idea that this man who so palpably worshipped her was too poor to pay his own travelling expenses.

Poets and philosophers may say what they will about the grandeur of plain living and high thinking; but a young woman thinks better of the plain liver who is not compelled to plainness by want of cash. The idea of narrow means, of dependence upon the capricious generosity of a wealthy friend is not without its humiliating influence. Lesbia was barely civil to Mr. Hammond that evening when he praised her singing; and she refused to join in a four game proposed by Maulevrier, albeit she and Mr. Hammond had beaten Mary and Maulevrier the evening before, with much exultant hilarity.

Hammond had been at Fellside nearly a month, and Maulevrier was beginning to talk about a move further northward. There was a grouse moor in Argyleshire which the two young men talked about as belonging to some unnamed friend of the Earl’s, which they had thought of shooting over before the grouse season was ended.

‘Lord Hartfield has property in Argyleshire,’ said the dowager, when they talked of these shootings. ‘Do you know his estate, Mr. Hammond?’

‘Hammond knows that there is such a place, I daresay,’ replied Maulevrier, replying for his friend.

‘But you do not know Lord Hartfield, perhaps,’ said her ladyship, not arrogantly, but still in a tone which implied her conviction that John Hammond would not be hand-in-glove with earls, in Scotland or elsewhere.

‘Oh, yes! I know him by sight every one in Argyleshire knows him by sight.’

‘Naturally. A young man in his position must be widely known. Is he popular?’

‘Fairly so.’

‘His father and I were friends many years ago,’ said Lady Maulevrier, with a faint sigh. ‘Have you ever heard if he resembles his father?’

‘I believe not. I am told he is like his mother’s family.’

‘Then he ought to be handsome. Lady Florence Ilmington was a famous beauty.’

They were sitting in the drawing-room after dinner, the room dimly lighted by darkly-shaded lamps, the windows wide open to the summer sky and moonlit lake. In that subdued light Lady Maulevrier looked a woman in the prime of life. The classical modelling of her features and the delicacy of her complexion were unimpaired by time, while those traces of thought and care which gave age to her face in the broad light of day were invisible at night. John Hammond contemplated that refined and placid countenance with profound admiration. He remembered how her ladyship’s grandson had compared her with the Sphinx; and it seemed to him to-night, as be studied her proud and tranquil beauty, that there was indeed something of the mysterious, the unreadable in that countenance, and that beneath its heroic calm there might be the ashes of tragic passion, the traces of a life-long struggle with fate. That such a woman, so beautiful, so gifted, so well fitted to shine and govern in the great world, should have been content to live a long life of absolute seclusion in this remote valley was in itself a social mystery which must needs set an observant young man wondering. It was all very well to say that Lady Maulevrier loved a country life, that she had made Fellside her earthly Paradise, and had no desire beyond it. The fact remained that it was not in Lady Maulevrier’s temperament to be satisfied with such an existence; that falcon eye was never meant to gaze for ever upon one narrow range of mountain and lake; that lip was made to speak among the great ones of the world.

Lady Maulevrier was particularly gracious to her grandson’s friend this evening. Maulevrier spoke so decisively about a speedy migration northward, seemed so inclined to regret the time wasted since the twelfth of the month, that she thought the danger was past, and she could afford to be civil. She really liked the young man, had no doubt in her own mind that he was a gentleman in the highest and broadest sense of the word, but not in the sense which made him an eligible husband for either of her granddaughters.

Lesbia was in a pensive mood this evening. She sat in the verandah, looking dreamily at the lake, and at Fairfield yonder, a broad green slope, silvered with moonlight, and seeming to stretch far away into unfathomable distance.

If one could but take one’s lover by the hand and go wandering over those mystic moonlit slopes into some new unreal world where it would not matter whether a man were rich or poor, high-born or low-born, where there should be no such things as rank and state to be won or lost! Lesbia felt to-night as if she would like to live out her life in dreamland. Reality was too hard, too much set round by difficulties and sacrifices.

While Lesbia was losing herself in that dream-world, Lady Maulevrier unbent considerably to John Hammond, and talked to him with more appearance of interest in his actual self, and in his own affairs, than she had manifested hitherto although she had been uniformly courteous.

She asked him his plans for the future — had he chosen a profession?

He told her that he had not. He meant to devote himself to literature and politics.

‘Is not that rather vague?’ inquired her ladyship.

‘Everything is vague at first.’

‘But literature now — as an amusement, no doubt, it is delightful — but as a profession — does literature ever pay?’

‘There have been such cases.’

‘Yes, I suppose so. Walter Scott, Gibbon, Macaulay, Froude, those made money no doubt. But there is a suspicion of hopelessness in the idea of a young man starting in life intending to earn his bread by literature. One remembers Chatterton. I should have thought that in your case the law or the church would have been better. In the latter Maulevrier might have been useful to you. He is patron of three or four livings.’

‘You are too good even to think of such a thing,’ said Hammond; ‘but I have set my heart upon a political career. I must swim or sink in that sea.’

Lady Maulevrier looked at him with a compassionate smile Poor young man! No doubt he thought himself a genius, and that doors which had remained shut to everybody else would turn on their hinges directly he knocked at them. She was sincerely sorry for him. Young, clever, enthusiastic, and doomed to bitterest disappointment.

‘You have parents, perhaps, who are ambitious for you — a mother who thinks her son a heaven-born statesman!’ said her ladyship, kindly.

‘Alas, no! that incentive to ambition is wanting in my case. I have neither father nor mother living.’

‘That is very sad. No doubt that fact has been a bond of sympathy between you and Maulevrier?’

‘I believe it has.’

‘Well, I hope Providence will smile upon your path.’

‘Come what may, I shall never forget the happy weeks I have spent at Fellside,’ said Hammond, ‘or your ladyship’s gracious hospitality.’

He took up the beautiful hand, white to transparency, showing the delicate tracing of blue veins, and pressed his lips upon it in chivalrous worship of age and womanly dignity.

Lady Maulevrier smiled upon him with her calm, grave smile. She would have liked to say, ‘You shall be welcome again at Fellside,’ but she felt that the man was dangerous. Not while Lesbia remained single could she court his company. If Maulevrier brought him she must tolerate his presence, but she would do nothing to invite that danger.

There was no music that evening. Maulevrier and Mary were playing billiards; Fräulein Müller was sitting in her corner working at a high-art counterpane. Lesbia came in from the verandah presently, and sat on a low stool by her grandmother’s arm-chair, and talked to her in soft, cooing accents, inaudible to John Hammond, who sat a little way off turning the leaves of the Contemporary Review: and this went on till eleven o’clock, the regular hour for retiring, when Mary came in from the billiard-room, and told Mr. Hammond that Maulevrier was waiting for a smoke and a talk. Then candles were lighted, and the ladies all departed, leaving John Hammond and his friend with the house to themselves.

They played a fifty game, and smoked and talked till the stroke of midnight, by which time it seemed as if there were not another creature awake in the house. Maulevrier put out the lamps in the billiard-room, and then they went softly up the shadowy staircase, and parted in the gallery, the Earl going one way, and his friend the other.

The house was large and roomy, spread over a good deal of ground, Lady Maulevrier having insisted upon there being only two stories. The servants’ rooms were all in a side wing, corresponding with those older buildings which had been given over to Steadman and his wife, and among the villagers of Grasmere enjoyed the reputation of being haunted. A wide panelled corridor extended from one end of the house to the other. It was lighted from the roof, and served as a gallery for the display of a small and choice collection of modern art, which her ladyship had acquired during her long residence at Fellside. Here, too, in Sheraton cabinets, were those treasures of old English china which Lady Maulevrier had inherited from past generations.

Her ladyship’s rooms were situated at the southern end of this corridor, her bed-chamber being at the extreme end of the house, with windows commanding two magnificent views, one across the lake and the village of Grasmere to the green slopes of Fairfield, the other along the valley towards Rydal Water. This and the adjoining boudoir were the prettiest rooms in the house, and no one wondered that her ladyship should spend so much of her life in the luxurious seclusion of her own apartments.

John Hammond went to his room, which was on the same side of the house as her ladyship’s; but he was in no disposition for sleep. He opened the casement, and stood looking out upon the moonlit lake and the quiet village, where one solitary light shone like a faint star in a cottage window, amidst that little cluster of houses by the old church, once known as Kirktown. Beyond the village rose gentle slopes, crowned with foliage, and above those wooded crests appeared the grand outline of the hills, surrounding and guarding Easedale’s lovely valley, as the hills surrounded Jerusalem of old.

He looked at that delicious landscape with eyes that hardly saw its beauty. The image of a lovely face came between him and all the glory of earth and sky.

‘I think she likes me,’ he was saying to himself. ‘There was a look in her eyes to-night that told me the time was come when ——’

The thought died unfinished in his brain. Through the silent house, across the placid lake, there rang a wild, shrill cry that froze the blood in his veins, or seemed so to freeze it — a shriek of agony, and in a woman’s voice. It rang out from an open window near his own. The sound seemed close to his ear.

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