Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 38

An ill-Omened Wedding.

After that promise wrung from her by such a cruel agony, that fatal bond made between her and Stephen Whitelaw, Ellen Carley’s life seemed to travel past her as if by some enchantment. Time lost its familiar sluggishness; the long industrious days, that had been so slow of old, flew by the bailiff’s daughter like the shadows from a magic-lantern. At the first, after that desperate miserable day upon which the hateful words were uttered that were to bind her for life to a detested master, the girl had told herself that something must happen to prevent the carrying out of this abhorrent bargain. Something would happen. She had a vague faith that Providence would interfere somehow to save her. Day after day she looked into her father’s face, thinking that from him, perhaps, might come some sign of wavering, some hint of possible release. Vain hope. The bailiff having exacted the sacrifice, pretended to think his daughter’s welfare secured by that very act. He did not hesitate to congratulate her on her good fortune, and to protest, with an accustomed oath, that there was not a sensible woman in England who would not envy her so excellent a match. Once poor Ellen, always impetuous and plain-spoken, lost all patience with him, and asked how he dared to say such things.

“You know that I hate this man, father!” she cried passionately; “and that I hate myself for what I am going to do. You know that I have promised to be his wife for your sake, for your sake only; and that if I could have saved you from disgrace by giving you my life, I should have done it gladly to escape this much greater sacrifice. Never speak to me about Stephen Whitelaw again, father, unless you want to drive me mad. Let me forget what sin I am going to commit, if I can; let me go on blindfold.”

It was to be observed that from the hour, of her betrothal. Ellen Carley as far as possible avoided her father’s companionship. She worked more busily than ever about the big old house, was never tired of polishing the little-used furniture and dusting the tenantless bed-chambers; she seemed, indeed, to be infected with Mrs. Tadman’s passion for superhuman cleanliness. To her dairy duties also she devoted much more time than of old; anything to escape the parlour, where her father sat idle for a considerable portion of the day, smoking his pipe, and drinking rather more than was good for him. Nor did Mr. Carley, for his part, appear to dislike this tacit severance between his daughter and himself. As the foolish young woman chose to accept good fortune in a perverse spirit, it was well that they two should see as little of each other as possible. Every evening found Mr. Whitelaw a punctual visitor in the snug panelled parlour, and at such times the bailiff insisted upon his daughter’s presence; she was obliged to sit there night after night, stitching monotonously at some unknown calico garment — which might well from the state of mind of the worker have been her winding-sheet; or darning one of an inexhaustible basket of woollen stockings belonging to her father. It was her irksome duty to be there, ready to receive any awkward compliment of her silent lover’s, ready to acquiesce meekly in his talk of their approaching wedding. But at all other times Mr. Carley was more than content with her absence.

At first the bailiff had made a feeble attempt to reconcile his daughter to her position by the common bribe of fine clothes. He had extorted a sum of money from Stephen Whitelaw for this purpose, and had given that sum, or a considerable part of it, to his daughter, bidding her expend it upon her wedding finery. The girl took the money, and spent a few pounds upon the furbishing-up of her wardrobe, which was by no means an extensive one; but the remaining ten-pound note she laid by in a secret place, determined on no account to break in upon it.

“The time may come when all my life will depend upon the possession of a few pounds,” she said to herself; “when I may have some chance of setting myself free from that man.”

She had begun to contemplate such a possibility already, before her wedding-day. It was for her father’s sake she was going to sell her liberty, to take upon herself a bondage most odious to her. The time might come when her father would be beyond the reach of shame and disgrace, when she might find some manner of escape from her slavery.

In the meantime the days hurried on, and Providence offered her no present means of rescue. The day of doom came nearer and nearer; for the bailiff took part with his future son-in-law, and would hear of no reasons which Ellen could offer for delay. He was eager to squeeze the farmer’s well-filled purse a little tighter, and he fancied he might do this when his daughter was Stephen Whitelaw’s wife. So suitor and father were alike pitiless, and the wedding was fixed for the 10th of March. There were no preparations to be made at Wyncomb Farmhouse. Mr. Whitelaw did not mean to waste so much as a five-pound note upon the embellishment of those barely-furnished rooms in honour of his bright young bride; although Mrs. Tadman urged upon him the necessity of new muslin curtains here, and new dimity there, a coat or so of paint and new whitewash in such and such rooms, and other small revivals of the same character; not sorry to be able to remind him in this indirect manner that marriage was an expensive thing.

“A young woman like that will expect to see things bright and cheerful about her,” said Mrs. Tadman, in her most plausible tone, and rubbing her thin hands with an air of suppressed enjoyment. “If you were going to marry a person of your own age, it would be different, of course; but young women have such extravagant notions. I could see Miss Carley did not think much of the furniture when I took her over the house on new-year’s-day. She said the rooms looked gloomy, and that some of them gave her the horrors, and so on. If you don’t have the place done up a bit at first, you’ll have to get it done at last, depend upon it; a young wife like that will make the money spin, you may be sure.”

“Will she?” said Mr. Whitelaw, with a satisfied grin. “That’s my look-out. I don’t think you’ve had very much chance of making my money spin, eh, Mrs. Tadman?”

The widow cast up her hands and eyes towards the ceiling of the parlour where they were sitting.

“Goodness knows I’ve had precious little chance of doing that, Stephen Whitelaw,” she replied.

“I should reckon not; and my wife will have about as much.”

There was some cold comfort in this. Mrs. Tadman had once hoped that if her cousin ever exalted any woman to the proud position of mistress of Wyncomb, she herself would be that favoured individual; and it was a hard thing to see a young person, who had nothing but a certain amount of good looks to recommend her, raised to that post of honour in her stead. It was some consolation, therefore, to discover that the interloper was to reign with very limited powers, and that none of the privileges or indulgences usually granted to youthful brides by elderly bridegrooms were to be hers. It was something, too, for Mrs. Tadman to be allowed to remain beneath the familiar shelter of that gloomy old house, and this boon had been granted to her at Ellen’s express request.

“I suppose she’s going to turn lazy as soon as she’s married, or she wouldn’t have wanted to keep you,” the farmer said in rather a sulky manner, after he had given Mrs. Tadman his gracious permission to remain in his service. “But if she is, we must find some way of curing her of that. I don’t want a fine lady about my place. There’s the dairy, now; we might do more in that way, I should think, and get more profit out of butter-making than we do by sending part of the milk up to London. Butter fetches a good price now-a-days from year’s end to year’s end, and Ellen is a rare hand at a dairy; I know that for certain.”

Thus did Mr. Whitelaw devote his pretty young wife to an endless prospect of butter-making. He had no intention that the alliance should be an unprofitable one, and he was already scheming how he might obtain some indirect kind of interest for that awful sum of two hundred pounds advanced to William Carley.

Sir David Forster had not come to make that threatened investigation of things at the Grange. Careless always in the management of his affairs, the receipt of a handsome sum of money from the bailiff had satisfied him, and he had suffered his suspicions to be lulled to rest for the time being, not caring to undertake the trouble of a journey to Hampshire, and an examination of dry business details.

It was very lucky for Mr. Carley that his employer was so easy and indolent a master; for there were many small matters at the Grange which would have hardly borne inspection, and it would have been difficult for Sir David to come there without making some discovery to his bailiff’s disadvantage. The evil day had been warded off, however, by means of Stephen Whitelaw’s money, and William Carley meant to act more cautiously, more honestly even, in future. He would keep clear of race-courses and gambling booths, he told himself, and of the kind of men who had beguiled him into dishonourable dealing.

“I have had an uncommon narrow squeak of it,” he muttered to himself occasionally, as he smoked a meditative pipe, “and have been as near seeing the inside of Portland prison as ever a man was. But it’ll be a warning to me in future. And yet who could have thought that things would have gone against me as they did? There was Sir Philip Christopher’s bay colt Pigskin, for instance; that brute was bound to win.”

February came to an end; and when March once began, there seemed no pause or breathing-time for Ellen Carley till the 10th. And yet she had little business to occupy her during those bleak days of early spring. It was the horror of that rapid flight of time, which seemed independent of her own life in its hideous swiftness. Idle or busy, it was all the same. The days would not linger for her; the dreaded 10th was close at hand.

Frank Randall was still in London, in that solicitor’s office — a firm of some standing in the City — to which he had gone on leaving his father. He had written two or three times to Ellen since he left Hampshire, and she had answered his letters secretly; but pleasant though it was to her to hear from him, she begged him not to write, as her father’s anger would be extreme if a letter should by any evil chance fall into his hands. So within the last few months there had been no tidings of Ellen’s absent lover, and the girl was glad that it was so. What could she have said to him if she had been compelled to tell him of her engagement to Stephen Whitelaw? What excuse could she have made for marrying a man about whom she had been wont to express herself to Frank Randall in most unequivocal terms? Excuse there was none, since she could not betray her father. It was better, therefore, that young Randall should hear of her marriage in the common course of things, and that he should think of her just as badly as he pleased. This was only one more poisoned drop in a cup that was all bitterness.

“He will believe that I was a hypocrite at heart always,” the unhappy girl said to herself, “and that I value Stephen Whitelaw’s money more than his true heart — that I can marry a man I despise and dislike for the sake of being rich. What can he think worse of me than that? and how can he help thinking that? He knows that I have a good spirit of my own, and that my father could not make me do anything against my will. He will never believe that this marriage has been all my father’s doing.”

The wedding morning came at last, bright and spring-like, with a sun that shone as gaily as if it had been lighting the happiest union that was ever recorded in the hymeneal register. There were the first rare primroses gleaming star-like amidst the early greenery of high grassy banks in solitary lanes about Crosber, and here and there the tender blue of a violet. It would have seemed a very fair morning upon which to begin the first page in the mystic volume of a new life, if Ellen Carley had been going to marry a man she loved; but no hapless condemned wretch who ever woke to see the sun shining upon the day of his execution could have been more profoundly wretched than the bailiff’s daughter, as she dressed herself mechanically in her one smart silk gown, and stood in a kind of waking trance before the quaint old-fashioned looking-glass which reflected her pale hopeless face. She had no girlish companion to assist in that dismal toilet. Long ago there had been promises exchanged between Ellen Carley and her chosen friend, the daughter of a miller who lived a little way on the other side of Crosber, to the effect that whichever was first to marry should call upon the other to perform the office of bridesmaid; and Sarah Peters, the miller’s daughter, was still single and eligible for the function. But there was to be no bridesmaid at this blighted wedding. Ellen had pleaded urgently that things might be arranged as quietly as possible; and the master of Wyncomb, who hated spending money, and who apprehended that the expenses of any festivity would in all probability fall upon his own shoulders, was very well pleased to assent to this request of his betrothed.

“Quite right, Nell,” he said; “we don’t want any foolish fuss, or a pack of people making themselves drunk at our expense. You and your father can come quietly to Crosber church, and Mrs. Tadman and me will meet you there, and the thing’s done. The marriage wouldn’t be any the tighter if we had a hundred people looking on, and the Bishop of Winchester to read the service.”

It was arranged in this manner, therefore; and on that pleasant spring morning William Carley and his daughter walked to the quiet village where Gilbert Fenton had discovered the secret of Marian’s retreat. The face under the bride’s little straw bonnet was deadly pale, and the features had a rigid look that was new to them. The bailiff glanced at his daughter in a furtive way every now and then, with an uneasy sense of this strange look in her face. Even in his brute nature there were some faint twinges of compunction, now that the deed he had been so eager to compass was well-nigh done — some vague consciousness that he had been a hard and cruel father.

“And yet it’s all for her own good,” he told himself, “quite as much as for mine. Better to marry a rich man than a pauper any day; and to take a dislike to a man’s age or a man’s looks is nothing but a girl’s nonsense. The best husband is the one that can keep his wife best; and if I hadn’t forced on this business, she’d have taken up with lawyer Randall’s son, who’s no better than a beggar, and a pretty life she’d have had of it with him.”

By such reasoning as this William Carley contrived to set his conscience at rest during that silent walk along the rustic lane between the Grange and Crosber church. It was not a conscience very difficult to appease. And as for his daughter’s pallid looks, those of course were only natural to the occasion.

Mr. Whitelaw and Mrs. Tadman were at the church when the bailiff and his daughter arrived. The farmer had made a scarecrow of himself in a new suit of clothes, which he had ordered in honour of this important event, after a great deal of vacillation, and more than one countermand to the Malsham tailor who made the garments. At the last he was not quite clear in his mind as to whether he wanted the clothes, and the outlay was a serious one. Mrs. Tadman had need to hold his every-day coat up to the light to convince him that the collar was threadbare, and that the sleeves shone as if purposely polished by some ingenious process.

“Marriage is an expensive thing,” she told him again, with a sigh; “and young girls expect to see a man dressed ever so smart on his wedding-day.”

“I don’t care for her expectations,” Mr. Whitelaw muttered, in reply to this remark; “and if I don’t want the clothes, I won’t have ’em. Do you think I could get over next Christmas with them as I’ve got?”

Mrs. Tadman said “No” in a most decisive manner. Perhaps she derived a malicious pleasure from the infliction of that tailor’s bill upon her cousin Whitelaw. So the new suit had been finally ordered; and Stephen stood arrayed therein before the altar-rails in the gray old church at Crosber, a far more grotesque and outrageous figure to contemplate than any knight templar, or bearded cavalier of the days of the first English James, whose effigies were to be seen in the chancel. Mrs. Tadman stood a little way behind him, in a merino gown, and a new bonnet, extorted somehow from the reluctant Stephen. She was full of smiles and cordial greetings for the bride, who did not even see her. Neither did Ellen Carley see the awkward figure of her bridegroom. A mist was before her eyes, as if there had been an atmosphere of summer blight or fog in the village church. She knelt, or rose, as her prayer-book taught her, and went through the solemn service as placidly as if she had been a wondrous piece of mechanism constructed to perform such movements; and then, like a creature in a dream, she found herself walking out of the church presently, with her hand on Stephen Whitelaw’s arm. She had a faint consciousness of some ceremony in the vestry, where it had taken Stephen a long time to sign his name in the register, and where the clergyman had congratulated him upon his good fortune in having won for himself such a pretty young wife; but it was all more or less like a dreadful oppressive dream. Mr. Whitelaw’s chaise-cart was waiting for them; and they all four got in, and drove at once to Wyncomb; where there was another ponderous dinner, very much like the banquet of new-year’s-day, and where the bailiff drank freely, after his wont, and grew somewhat uproarious towards tea-time, though Mr. Whitelaw’s selections of port and sherry were not of a kind to tempt a connoisseur.

There was to be no honeymoon trip. Stephen Whitelaw did not understand the philosophy of running away from a comfortable home to spend money in furnished lodgings; and he had said as much, when the officious Tadman suggested a run to Weymouth, or Bournemouth, or a fortnight in the Isle of Wight. To Ellen it was all the same where the rest of her life should be spent. It could not be otherwise than wretched henceforward, and the scene of her misery mattered nothing. So she uttered no complaint because her husband brought her straight home to Wyncomb Farmhouse, and her wedded life began in that dreary dwelling-place.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50