Olivia Marchmont sat in her late husband’s study while John’s funeral train was moving slowly along under the misty October sky. A long stream of carriages followed the stately hearse, with its four black horses, and its voluminous draperies of rich velvet, and nodding plumes that were damp and heavy with the autumn atmosphere. The unassuming master of Marchmont Towers had won for himself a quiet popularity amongst the simple country gentry, and the best families in Lincolnshire had sent their chiefs to do honour to his burial, or at the least their empty carriages to represent them at that mournful ceremonial. Olivia sat in her dead husband’s favourite chamber. Her head lay back upon the cushion of the roomy morocco-covered arm-chair in which he had so often sat. She had been working hard that morning, and indeed every morning since John Marchmont’s death, sorting and arranging papers, with the aid of Richard Paulette, the Lincoln’s Inn solicitor, and James Gormby, the land-steward. She knew that she had been left sole guardian of her stepdaughter, and executrix to her husband’s will; and she had lost no time in making herself acquainted with the business details of the estate, and the full nature of the responsibilities intrusted to her.
She was resting now. She had done all that could be done until after the reading of the will. She had attended to her stepdaughter. She had stood in one of the windows of the western drawing-room, watching the departure of the funeral cortège; and now she abandoned herself for a brief space to that idleness which was so unusual to her.
A fire burned in the low grate at her feet, and a rough cur — half shepherd’s dog, half Scotch deer-hound, who had been fond of John, but was not fond of Olivia — lay at the further extremity of the hearth-rug, watching her suspiciously.
Mrs. Marchmont’s personal appearance had not altered during the two years of her married life. Her face was thin and haggard; but it had been thin and haggard before her marriage. And yet no one could deny that the face was handsome, and the features beautifully chiselled. But the grey eyes were hard and cold, the line of the faultless eyebrows gave a stern expression to the countenance; the thin lips were rigid and compressed. The face wanted both light and colour. A sculptor copying it line by line would have produced a beautiful head. A painter must have lent his own glowing tints if he wished to represent Olivia Marchmont as a lovely woman.
Her pale face looked paler, and her dead black hair blacker, against the blank whiteness of her widow’s cap. Her mourning dress clung closely to her tall, slender figure. She was little more than twenty-five, but she looked a woman of thirty. It had been her misfortune to look older than she was from a very early period in her life.
She had not loved her husband when she married him, nor had she ever felt for him that love which in most womanly natures grows out of custom and duty. It was not in her nature to love. Her passionate idolatry of her boyish cousin had been the one solitary affection that had ever held a place in her cold heart. All the fire of her nature had been concentrated in this one folly, this one passion, against which only heroic endurance had been able to prevail.
Mrs. Marchmont felt no grief, therefore, at her husband’s loss. She had felt the shock of his death, and the painful oppression of his dead presence in the house. She had faithfully nursed him through many illnesses; she had patiently tended him until the very last; she had done her duty. And now, for the first time, she had leisure to contemplate the past, and look forward to the future.
So far this woman had fulfilled the task which she had taken upon herself; she had been true and loyal to the vow she had made before God’s altar, in the church of Swampington. And now she was free. No, not quite free; for she had a heavy burden yet upon her hands; the solemn charge of her stepdaughter during the girl’s minority. But as regarded marriage-vows and marriage-ties she was free.
She was free to love Edward Arundel again.
The thought came upon her with a rush and an impetus, wild and strong as the sudden uprising of a whirlwind, or the loosing of a mountain-torrent that had long been bound. She was a wife no longer. It was no longer a sin to think of the bright-haired soldier, fighting far away. She was free. When Edward returned to England by-and-by, he would find her free once more; a young widow — young, handsome, and rich enough to be no bad prize for a younger son. He would come back and find her thus; and then — and then —!
She flung one of her clenched hands up into the air, and struck it on her forehead in a sudden paroxysm of rage. What then? Would he love her any better then than he had loved her two years ago? No; he would treat her with the same cruel indifference, the same commonplace cousinly friendliness, with which he had mocked and tortured her before. Oh, shame! Oh, misery! Was there no pride in women, that there could be one among them fallen so low as her; ready to grovel at the feet of a fair-haired boy, and to cry aloud, “Love me, love me! or be pitiful, and strike me dead!”
Better that John Marchmont should have lived for ever, better that Edward Arundel should die far away upon some Eastern battle-field, before some Affghan fortress, than that he should return to inflict upon her the same tortures she had writhed under two years before.
“God grant that he may never come back!” she thought. “God grant that he may marry out yonder, and live and die there! God keep him from me for ever and far ever in this weary world!”
And yet in the next moment, with the inconsistency which is the chief attribute of that madness we call love, her thoughts wandered away dreamily into visions of the future; and she pictured Edward Arundel back again at Swampington, at Marchmont Towers. Her soul burst its bonds and expanded, and drank in the sunlight of gladness: and she dared to think that it might be so — there might be happiness yet for her. He had been a boy when he went back to India — careless, indifferent. He would return a man — graver, wiser, altogether changed: changed so much as to love her perhaps.
She knew that, at least, no rival had shut her cousin’s heart against her, when she and he had been together two years before. He had been indifferent to her; but he had been indifferent to others also. There was comfort in that recollection. She had questioned him very sharply as to his life in India and at Dangerfield, and she had discovered no trace of any tender memory of the past, no hint of a cherished dream of the future. His heart had been empty: a boyish, unawakened heart: a temple in which the niches were untenanted, the shrine unhallowed by the presence of a goddess.
Olivia Marchmont thought of these things. For a few moments, if only for a few moments, she abandoned herself to such thoughts as these. She let herself go. She released the stern hold which it was her habit to keep upon her own mind; and in those bright moments of delicious abandonment the glorious sunshine streamed in upon her narrow life, and visions of a possible future expanded before her like a fairy panorama, stretching away into realms of vague light and splendour. It was possible; it was at least possible.
But, again, in the next moment the magical panorama collapsed and shrivelled away, like a burning scroll; the fairy picture, whose gorgeous colouring she had looked upon with dazzled eyes, almost blinded by its overpowering glory, shrank into a handful of black ashes, and was gone. The woman’s strong nature reasserted itself; the iron will rose up, ready to do battle with the foolish heart.
“I will not be fooled a second time,” she cried. “Did I suffer so little when I blotted that image out of my heart? Did the destruction of my cruel Juggernaut cost me so small an agony that I must needs be ready to elevate the false god again, and crush out my heart once more under the brazen wheels of his chariot? He will never love me!”
She writhed; this self-sustained and resolute woman writhed in her anguish as she uttered those five words, “He will never love me!” She knew that they were true; that of all the changes that Time could bring to pass, it would never bring such a change as that. There was not one element of sympathy between herself and the young soldier; they had not one thought in common. Nay, more; there was an absolute antagonism between them, which, in spite of her love, Olivia fully recognised. Over the gulf that separated them no coincidence of thought or fancy, no sympathetic emotion, ever stretched its electric chain to draw them together in mysterious union. They stood aloof, divided by the width of an intellectual universe. The woman knew this, and hated herself for her folly, scorning alike her love and its object; but her love was not the less because of her scorn. It was a madness, an isolated madness, which stood alone in her soul, and fought for mastery over her better aspirations, her wiser thoughts. We are all familiar with strange stories of wise and great minds which have been ridden by some hobgoblin fancy, some one horrible monomania; a bleeding head upon a dish, a grinning skeleton playing hide-and-seek in the folds of the bed-curtains; some devilry or other before which the master-spirit shrank and dwindled until the body withered and the victim died.
Had Olivia Marchmont lived a couple of centuries before, she would have gone straight to the nearest old crone, and would have boldly accused the wretched woman of being the author of her misery.
“You harbour a black cat and other noisome vermin, and you prowl about muttering to yourself o’ nights” she might have said. “You have been seen to gather herbs, and you make strange and uncanny signs with your palsied old fingers. The black cat is the devil, your colleague; and the rats under your tumble-down roof are his imps, your associates. It is you who have instilled this horrible madness into my soul; for it could not come of itself.”
And Olivia Marchmont, being resolute and strong-minded, would not have rested until her tormentor had paid the penalty of her foul work at a stake in the nearest market-place.
And indeed some of our madnesses are so mad, some of our follies are so foolish, that we might almost be forgiven if we believed that there was a company of horrible crones meeting somewhere on an invisible Brocken, and making incantations for our destruction. Take up a newspaper and read its hideous revelations of crime and folly; and it will be scarcely strange if you involuntarily wonder whether witchcraft is a dark fable of the middle ages, or a dreadful truth of the nineteenth century. Must not some of these miserable creatures whose stories we read be possessed; possessed by eager, relentless demons, who lash and goad them onward, until no black abyss of vice, no hideous gulf of crime, is black or hideous enough to content them?
Olivia Marchmont might have been a good and great woman. She had all the elements of greatness. She had genius, resolution, an indomitable courage, an iron will, perseverance, self-denial, temperance, chastity. But against all these qualities was set a fatal and foolish love for a boy’s handsome face and frank and genial manner. If Edward Arundel had never crossed her path, her unfettered soul might have taken the highest and grandest flight; but, chained down, bound, trammelled by her love for him, she grovelled on the earth like some maimed and wounded eagle, who sees his fellows afar off, high in the purple empyrean, and loathes himself for his impotence.
“What do I love him for?” she thought. “Is it because he has blue eyes and chestnut hair, with wandering gleams of golden light in it? Is it because he has gentlemanly manners, and is easy and pleasant, genial and light-hearted? Is it because he has a dashing walk, and the air of a man of fashion? It must be for some of these attributes, surely; for I know nothing more in him. Of all the things he has ever said, I can remember nothing — and I remember his smallest words, Heaven help me! — that any sensible person could think worth repeating. He is brave, I dare say, and generous; but what of that? He is neither braver nor more generous than other men of his rank and position.”
She sat lost in such a reverie as this while her dead husband was being carried to the roomy vault set apart for the owners of Marchmont Towers and their kindred; she was absorbed in some such thoughts as these, when one of the grave, grey-headed old servants brought her a card upon a heavy salver emblazoned with the Marchmont arms.
Olivia took the card almost mechanically. There are some thoughts which carry us a long way from the ordinary occupations of every-day life, and it is not always easy to return to the dull jog-trot routine. The widow passed her left hand across her brow before she looked at the name inscribed upon the card in her right.
“Mr. Paul Marchmont.”
She started as she read the name. Paul Marchmont! She remembered what her husband had told her of this man. It was not much; for John’s feelings on the subject of his cousin had been of so vague a nature that he had shrunk from expounding them to his stern, practical wife. He had told her, therefore, that he did not very much care for Paul, and that he wished no intimacy ever to arise between the artist and Mary; but he had said nothing more than this.
“The gentleman is waiting to see me, I suppose?” Mrs. Marchmont said.
“Yes, ma’am. The gentleman came to Kemberling by the 11.5 train from London, and has driven over here in one of Harris’s flys.”
“Tell him I will come to him immediately. Is he in the drawing-room?”
The man bowed and left the room. Olivia rose from her chair and lingered by the fireplace with her foot on the fender, her elbow resting on the carved oak chimneypiece.
“Paul Marchmont! He has come to the funeral, I suppose. And he expects to find himself mentioned in the will, I dare say. I think, from what my husband told me, he will be disappointed in that. Paul Marchmont! If Mary were to die unmarried, this man or his sisters would inherit Marchmont Towers.”
There was a looking-glass over the mantelpiece; a narrow, oblong glass, in an old-fashioned carved ebony frame, which was inclined forward. Olivia looked musingly in this glass, and smoothed the heavy bands of dead-black hair under her cap.
“There are people who would call me handsome,” she thought, as she looked with a moody frown at her image in the glass; “and yet I have seen Edward Arundel’s eyes wander away from my face, even while I have been talking to him, to watch the swallows skimming by in the sun, or the ivy-leaves flapping against the wall.”
She turned from the glass with a sigh, and went out into a dusky corridor. The shutters of all the principal rooms and the windows upon the grand staircase were still closed; the wide hall was dark and gloomy, and drops of rain spattered every now and then upon the logs that smouldered on the wide old-fashioned hearth. The misty October morning had heralded a wet day.
Paul Marchmont was sitting in a low easy-chair before a blazing fire in the western drawing-room, the red light full upon his face. It was a handsome face, or perhaps, to speak more exactly, it was one of those faces that are generally called “interesting.” The features were very delicate and refined, the pale greyish-blue eyes were shaded by long brown lashes, and the small and rather feminine mouth was overshadowed by a slender auburn moustache, under which the rosy tint of the lips was very visible. But it was Paul Marchmont’s hair which gave a peculiarity to a personal appearance that might otherwise have been in no way out of the common. This hair, fine, silky, and luxuriant, was white, although its owner could not have been more than thirty-seven years of age.
The uninvited guest rose as Olivia Marchmont entered the room.
“I have the honour of speaking to my cousin’s widow?” he said, with a courteous smile.
“Yes, I am Mrs. Marchmont.”
Olivia seated herself near the fire. The wet day was cold and cheerless. Mrs. Marchmont shivered as she extended her long thin hand to the blaze.
“And you are doubtless surprised to see me here, Mrs. Marchmont?” the artist said, leaning upon the back of his chair in the easy attitude of a man who means to make himself at home. “But believe me, that although I never took advantage of a very friendly letter written to me by poor John ——”
Paul Marchmont paused for a moment, keeping sharp watch upon the widow’s face; but no sorrowful expression, no evidence of emotion, was visible in that inflexible countenance.
“Although, I repeat, I never availed myself of a sort of general invitation to come and shoot his partridges, or borrow money of him, or take advantage of any of those other little privileges generally claimed by a man’s poor relations, it is not to be supposed, my dear Mrs. Marchmont, that I was altogether forgetful of either Marchmont Towers or its owner, my cousin. I did not come here, because I am a hard-working man, and the idleness of a country house would have been ruin to me. But I heard sometimes of my cousin from neighbours of his.”
“Neighbours!” repeated Olivia, in a tone of surprise.
“Yes; people near enough to be called neighbours in the country. My sister lives at Stanfield. She is married to a surgeon who practises in that delightful town. You know Stanfield, of course?”
“No, I have never been there. It is five-and-twenty miles from here.”
“Indeed! too far for a drive, then. Yes, my sister lives at Stanfield. John never knew much of her in his adversity; and therefore may be forgiven if he forgot her in his prosperity. But she did not forget him. We poor relations have excellent memories. The Stanfield people have so little to talk about, that it is scarcely any wonder if they are inquisitive about the affairs of the grand country gentry round about them. I heard of John through my sister; I heard of his marriage through her,”— he bowed to Olivia as he said this — “and I wrote immediately to congratulate him upon that happy event,”— he bowed again here; —“and it was through Lavinia Weston, my sister, that I heard of poor John’s death; one day before the announcement appeared in the columns of the ‘Times.’ I am sorry to find that I am too late for the funeral. I could have wished to have paid my cousin the last tribute of esteem that one man can pay another.”
“You would wish to hear the reading of the will?” Olivia said, interrogatively.
Paul Marchmont shrugged his shoulders, with a low, careless laugh; not an indecorous laugh — nothing that this man did or said ever appeared ill-advised or out of place. The people who disliked him were compelled to acknowledge that they disliked him unreasonably, and very much on the Doctor–Fell principle; for it was impossible to take objection to either his manners or his actions.
“That important legal document can have very little interest for me, my dear Mrs. Marchmont,” he said gaily. “John can have had nothing to leave me. I am too well acquainted with the terms of my grandfather’s will to have any mercenary hopes in coming to Marchmont Towers.”
He stopped, and looked at Olivia’s impassible face.
“What on earth could have induced this woman to marry my cousin?” he thought. “John could have had very little to leave his widow.”
He played with the ornaments at his watch-chain, looking reflectively at the fire for some moments.
“Miss Marchmont — my cousin, Mary Marchmont, I should say — bears her loss pretty well, I hope?”
Olivia shrugged her shoulders.
“I am sorry to say that my stepdaughter displays very little Christian resignation,” she said.
And then a spirit within her arose and whispered, with a mocking voice, “What resignation do you show beneath your affliction — you, who should be so good a Christian? How have you learned to school your rebellious heart?”
“My cousin is very young,” Paul Marchmont said, presently.
“She was fifteen last July.”
“Fifteen! Very young to be the owner of Marchmont Towers and an income of eleven thousand a year,” returned the artist. He walked to one of the long windows, and drawing aside the edge of the blind, looked out upon the terrace and the wide flats before the mansion. The rain dripped and splashed upon the stone steps; the rain-drops hung upon the grim adornments of the carved balustrade, soaking into moss-grown escutcheons and half-obliterated coats-of-arms. The weird willows by the pools far away, and a group of poplars near the house, looked gaunt and black against the dismal grey sky.
Paul Marchmont dropped the blind, and turned away from the gloomy landscape with a half-contemptuous gesture. “I don’t know that I envy my cousin, after all,” he said: “the place is as dreary as Tennyson’s Moated Grange.”
There was the sound of wheels on the carriage-drive before the terrace, and presently a subdued murmur of hushed voices in the hall. Mr. Richard Paulette, and the two medical men who had attended John Marchmont, had returned to the Towers, for the reading of the will. Hubert Arundel had returned with them; but the other followers in the funeral train had departed to their several homes. The undertaker and his men had come back to the house by the side-entrance, and were making themselves very comfortable in the servants’-hall after the fulfilment of their mournful duties.
The will was to be read in the dining-room; and Mr. Paulette and the clerk who had accompanied him to Marchmont Towers were already seated at one end of the long carved-oak table, busy with their papers and pens and ink, assuming an importance the occasion did not require. Olivia went out into the hall to speak to her father.
“You will find Mr. Marchmont’s solicitor in the dining-room,” she said to Paul, who was looking at some of the old pictures on the drawing-room walls.
A large fire was blazing in the wide grate at the end of the dining-room. The blinds had been drawn up. There was no longer need that the house should be wrapped in darkness. The Awful Presence had departed; and such light as there was in the gloomy October sky was free to enter the rooms, which the death of one quiet, unobtrusive creature had made for a time desolate.
There was no sound in the room but the low voice of the two doctors talking of their late patient in undertones near the fireplace, and the occasional fluttering of the papers under the lawyer’s hand. The clerk, who sat respectfully a little way behind his master, and upon the very edge of his ponderous morocco-covered chair, had been wont to give John Marchmont his orders, and to lecture him for being tardy with his work a few years before, in the Lincoln’s Inn office. He was wondering now whether he should find himself remembered in the dead man’s will, to the extent of a mourning ring or an old-fashioned silver snuff-box.
Richard Paulette looked up as Olivia and her father entered the room, followed at a little distance by Paul Marchmont, who walked at a leisurely pace, looking at the carved doorways and the pictures against the wainscot, and appearing, as he had declared himself, very little concerned in the important business about to be transacted.
“We shall want Miss Marchmont here, if you please,” Mr. Paulette said, as he looked up from his papers.
“Is it necessary that she should be present?” Olivia asked.
“But she is ill; she is in bed.”
“It is most important that she should be here when the will is read. Perhaps Mr. Bolton”— the lawyer looked towards one of the medical men —“will see. He will be able to tell us whether Miss Marchmont can safely come downstairs.”
Mr. Bolton, the Swampington surgeon who had attended Mary that morning, left the room with Olivia. The lawyer rose and warmed his hands at the blaze, talking to Hubert Arundel and the London physician as he did so. Paul Marchmont, who had not been introduced to any one, occupied himself entirely with the pictures for a little time; and then, strolling over to the fireplace, fell into conversation with the three gentlemen, contriving, adroitly enough, to let them know who he was. The lawyer looked at him with some interest — a professional interest, no doubt; for Mr. Paulette had a copy of old Philip Marchmont’s will in one of the japanned deed-boxes inscribed with poor John’s name. He knew that this easy-going, pleasant-mannered, white-haired gentleman was the Paul Marchmont named in that document, and stood next in succession to Mary. Mary might die unmarried, and it was as well to be friendly and civil to a man who was at least a possible client.
The four gentlemen stood upon the broad Turkey hearth-rug for some time, talking of the dead man, the wet weather, the cold autumn, the dearth of partridges, and other very safe topics of conversation. Olivia and the Swampington doctor were a long time absent; and Richard Paulette, who stood with his back to the fire, glanced every now and then towards the door.
It opened at last, and Mary Marchmont came into the room, followed by her stepmother.
Paul Marchmont turned at the sound of the opening of that ponderous oaken door, and for the first time saw his second cousin, the young mistress of Marchmont Towers. He started as he looked at her, though with a scarcely perceptible movement, and a change came over his face. The feminine pinky hue in his cheeks faded suddenly, and left them white. It had been a peculiarity of Paul Marchmont’s, from his boyhood, always to turn pale with every acute emotion.
What was the emotion which had now blanched his cheeks? Was he thinking, “Is this fragile creature the mistress of Marchmont Towers? Is this frail life all that stands between me and eleven thousand a year?”
The light which shone out of that feeble earthly tabernacle did indeed seem a frail and fitful flame, likely to be extinguished by any rude breath from the coarse outer world. Mary Marchmont was deadly pale; black shadows encircled her wistful hazel eyes. Her new mourning-dress, with its heavy trimmings of lustreless crape, seemed to hang loose upon her slender figure; her soft brown hair, damp with the water with which her burning forehead had been bathed, fell in straight lank tresses about her shoulders. Her eyes were tearless, her mouth terribly compressed. The rigidity of her face betokened the struggle by which her sorrow was repressed. She sat in an easy-chair which Olivia indicated to her, and with her hands lying on the white handkerchief in her lap, and her swollen eyelids drooping over her eyes, waited for the reading of her father’s will. It would be the last, the very last, she would ever hear of that dear father’s words. She remembered this, and was ready to listen attentively; but she remembered nothing else. What was it to her that she was sole heiress of that great mansion, and of eleven thousand a year? She had never in her life thought of the Lincolnshire fortune with any reference to herself or her own pleasures; and she thought of it less than ever now.
The will was dated February 4th, 1844, exactly two months after John’s marriage. It had been made by the master of Marchmont Towers without the aid of a lawyer, and was only witnessed by John’s housekeeper, and by Corson the old valet, a confidential servant who had attended upon Mr. Marchmont’s predecessor.
Richard Paulette began to read; and Mary, for the first time since she had taken her seat near the fire, lifted her eyes, and listened breathlessly, with faintly tremulous lips. Olivia sat near her stepdaughter; and Paul Marchmont stood in a careless attitude at one corner of the fireplace, with his shoulders resting against the massive oaken chimneypiece. The dead man’s will ran thus:
“I John Marchmont of Marchmont Towers declare this to be my last will and testament Being persuaded that my end is approaching I feel my dear little daughter Mary will be left unprotected by any natural guardian My young friend Edward Arundel I had hoped when in my poverty would have been a friend and adviser to her if not a protector but her tender years and his position in life must place this now out of the question and I may die before a fond hope which I have long cherished can be realised and which may now never be realised I now desire to make my will more particularly to provide as well as I am permitted for the guardianship and care of my dear little Mary during her minority Now I will and desire that my wife Olivia shall act as guardian adviser and mother to my dear little Mary and that she place herself under the charge and guardianship of my wife And as she will be an heiress of very considerable property I would wish her to be guided by the advice of my said wife in the management of her property and particularly in the choice of a husband As my dear little Mary will be amply provided for on my death I make no provision for her by this my will but I direct my executrix to present to her a diamond-ring which I wish her to wear in memory of her loving father so that she may always have me in her thoughts and particularly of these my wishes as to her future life until she shall be of age and capable of acting on her own judgment. I also request my executrix to present my young friend Edward Arundel also with a diamond-ring of the value of at least one hundred guineas as a slight tribute of the regard and esteem which I have ever entertained for him. . . . As to all the property as well real as personal over which I may at the time of my death have any control and capable of claiming or bequeathing I give devise and bequeath to my wife Olivia absolutely And I appoint my said wife sole executrix of this my will and guardian of my dear little Mary.”
There were a few very small legacies, including a mourning-ring to the expectant clerk; and this was all. Paul Marchmont had been quite right; nobody could be less interested than himself in this will.
But he was apparently very much interested in John’s widow and daughter. He tried to enter into conversation with Mary, but the girl’s piteous manner seemed to implore him to leave her unmolested; and Mr. Bolton approached his patient almost immediately after the reading of the will, and in a manner took possession of her. Mary was very glad to leave the room once more, and to return to the dim chamber where Hester Pollard sat at needlework. Olivia left her stepdaughter to the care of this humble companion, and went back to the long dining-room, where the gentlemen still hung listlessly over the fire, not knowing very well what to do with themselves.
Mrs. Marchmont could not do less than invite Paul to stay a few days at the Towers. She was virtually mistress of the house during Mary’s minority, and on her devolved all the troubles, duties, and responsibilities attendant on such a position. Her father was going to stay with her till the end of the week; and he therefore would be able to entertain Mr. Marchmont. Paul unhesitatingly accepted the widow’s hospitality. The old place was picturesque and interesting, he said; there were some genuine Holbeins in the hall and dining-room, and one good Lely in the drawing-room. He would give himself a couple of days’ holiday, and go to Stanfield by an early train on Saturday.
“I have not seen my sister for a long time,” he said; “her life is dull enough and hard enough, Heaven knows, and she will be glad to see me upon my way back to London.”
Olivia bowed. She did not persuade Mr. Marchmont to extend his visit. The common courtesy she offered him was kept within the narrowest limits. She spent the best part of the time in the dead man’s study during Paul’s two-days’ stay, and left the artist almost entirely to her father’s companionship.
But she was compelled to appear at dinner, and she took her accustomed place at the head of the table. Paul therefore had some opportunity of sounding the depths of the strangest nature he had ever tried to fathom. He talked to her very much, listening with unvarying attention to every word she uttered. He watched her — but with no obtrusive gaze — almost incessantly; and when he went away from Marchmont Towers, without having seen Mary since the reading of the will, it was of Olivia he thought; it was the recollection of Olivia which interested as much as it perplexed him.
The few people waiting for the London train looked at the artist as he strolled up and down the quiet platform at Kemberling Station, with his head bent and his eyebrows slightly contracted. He had a certain easy, careless grace of dress and carriage, which harmonised well with his delicate face, his silken silvery hair, his carefully-trained auburn moustache, and rosy, womanish mouth. He was a romantic-looking man. He was the beau-ideal of the hero in a young lady’s novel. He was a man whom schoolgirls would have called “a dear.” But it had been better, I think, for any helpless wretch to be in the bull-dog hold of the sturdiest Bill Sykes ever loosed upon society by right of his ticket-of-leave, than in the power of Paul Marchmont, artist and teacher of drawing, of Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square.
He was thinking of Olivia as he walked slowly up and down the bare platform, only separated by a rough wooden paling from the flat open fields on the outskirts of Kemberling.
“The little girl is as feeble as a pale February butterfly.” he thought; “a puff of frosty wind might wither her away. But that woman, that woman — how handsome she is, with her accurate profile and iron mouth; but what a raging fire there is hidden somewhere in her breast, and devouring her beauty by day and night! If I wanted to paint the sleeping scene in Macbeth, I’d ask her to sit for the Thane’s wicked wife. Perhaps she has some bloody secret as deadly as the murder of a grey-headed Duncan upon her conscience, and leaves her bedchamber in the stillness of the night to walk up and down those long oaken corridors at the Towers, and wring her hands and wail aloud in her sleep. Why did she marry John Marchmont? His life gave her little more than a fine house to live in; his death leaves her with nothing but ten or twelve thousand pounds in the Three per Cents. What is her mystery — what is her secret, I wonder? for she must surely have one.”
Such thoughts as these filled his mind as the train carried him away from the lonely little station, and away from the neighbourhood of Marchmont Towers, within whose stony walls Mary lay in her quiet chamber, weeping for her dead father, and wishing — God knows in what utter singleness of heart! — that she had been buried in the vault by his side.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50