The life which Mary and her stepmother led at Marchmont Towers after poor John’s death was one of those tranquil and monotonous existences that leave very little to be recorded, except the slow progress of the weeks and months, the gradual changes of the seasons. Mary bore her sorrows quietly, as it was her nature to bear all things. The doctor’s advice was taken, and Olivia removed her stepdaughter to Scarborough soon after the funeral. But the change of scene was slow to effect any change in the state of dull despairing sorrow into which the girl had fallen. The sea-breezes brought no colour into her pale cheeks. She obeyed her stepmother’s behests unmurmuringly, and wandered wearily by the dreary seashore in the dismal November weather, in search of health and strength. But wherever she went, she carried with her the awful burden of her grief; and in every changing cadence of the low winter winds, in every varying murmur of the moaning waves, she seemed to hear her dead father’s funeral dirge.
I think that, young as Mary Marchmont was, this mournful period was the grand crisis of her life. The past, with its one great affection, had been swept away from her, and as yet there was no friendly figure to fill the dismal blank of the future. Had any kindly matron, any gentle Christian creature been ready to stretch out her arms to the desolate orphan, Mary’s heart would have melted, and she would have crept to the shelter of that womanly embrace, to nestle there for ever. But there was no one. Olivia Marchmont obeyed the letter of her husband’s solemn appeal, as she had obeyed the letter of those Gospel sentences that had been familiar to her from her childhood, but was utterly unable to comprehend its spirit. She accepted the charge intrusted to her. She was unflinching in the performance of her duty; but no one glimmer of the holy light of motherly love and tenderness, the semi-divine compassion of womanhood, ever illumined the dark chambers of her heart. Every night she questioned herself upon her knees as to her rigid performance of the level round of duty she had allotted to herself; every night — scrupulous and relentless as the hardest judge who ever pronounced sentence upon a criminal — she took note of her own shortcomings, and acknowledged her deficiencies.
But, unhappily, this self-devotion of Olivia’s pressed no less heavily upon Mary than on the widow herself. The more rigidly Mrs. Marchmont performed the duties which she understood to be laid upon her by her dead husband’s last will and testament, the harder became the orphan’s life. The weary treadmill of education worked on, when the young student was well-nigh fainting upon every step in that hopeless revolving ladder of knowledge. If Olivia, on communing with herself at night, found that the day just done had been too easy for both mistress and pupil, the morrow’s allowance of Roman emperors and French grammar was made to do penance for yesterday’s shortcomings.
“This girl has been intrusted to my care, and one of my first duties is to give her a good education,” Olivia Marchmont thought. “She is inclined to be idle; but I must fight against her inclination, whatever trouble the struggle entails upon myself. The harder the battle, the better for me if I am conqueror.”
It was only thus that Olivia Marchmont could hope to be a good woman. It was only by the rigid performance of hard duties, the patient practice of tedious rites, that she could hope to attain that eternal crown which simpler Christians seem to win so easily.
Morning and night the widow and her stepdaughter read the Bible together; morning and night they knelt side by side to join in the same familiar prayers; yet all these readings and all these prayers failed to bring them any nearer together. No tender sentence of inspiration, not the words of Christ himself, ever struck the same chord in these two women’s hearts, bringing both into sudden unison. They went to church three times upon every dreary Sunday — dreary from the terrible uniformity which made one day a mechanical repetition of another — and sat together in the same pew; and there were times when some solemn word, some sublime injunction, seemed to fall with a new meaning upon the orphan girl’s heart; but if she looked at her stepmother’s face, thinking to see some ray of that sudden light which had newly shone into her own mind reflected there, the blank gloom of Olivia’s countenance seemed like a dead wall, across which no glimmer of radiance ever shone.
They went back to Marchmont Towers in the early spring. People imagined that the young widow would cultivate the society of her husband’s old friends, and that morning callers would be welcome at the Towers, and the stately dinner-parties would begin again, when Mrs. Marchmont’s year of mourning was over. But it was not so; Olivia closed her doors upon almost all society, and devoted herself entirely to the education of her stepdaughter. The gossips of Swampington and Kemberling, the county gentry who had talked of her piety and patience, her unflinching devotion to the poor of her father’s parish, talked now of her self-abnegation, the sacrifices she made for her stepdaughter’s sake, the noble manner in which she justified John Marchmont’s confidence in her goodness. Other women would have intrusted the heiress’s education to some hired governess, people said; other women would have been upon the look-out for a second husband; other women would have grown weary of the dulness of that lonely Lincolnshire mansion, the monotonous society of a girl of sixteen. They were never tired of lauding Mrs. Marchmont as a model for all stepmothers in time to come.
Did she sacrifice much, this woman, whose spirit was a raging fire, who had the ambition of a Semiramis, the courage of a Boadicea, the resolution of a Lady Macbeth? Did she sacrifice much in resigning such provincial gaieties as might have adorned her life — a few dinner-parties, an occasional county ball, a flirtation with some ponderous landed gentleman or hunting squire?
No; these things would very soon have grown odious to her — more odious than the monotony of her empty life, more wearisome even than the perpetual weariness of her own spirit. I said, that when she accepted a new life by becoming the wife of John Marchmont, she acted in the spirit of a prisoner, who is glad to exchange his old dungeon for a new one. But, alas! the novelty of the prison-house had very speedily worn off, and that which Olivia Arundel had been at Swampington Rectory, Olivia Marchmont was now in the gaunt country mansion — a wretched woman, weary of herself and all the world, devoured by a slow-consuming and perpetual fire.
This woman was, for two long melancholy years, Mary Marchmont’s sole companion and instructress. I say sole companion advisedly; for the girl was not allowed to become intimate with the younger members of such few county families as still called occasionally at the Towers, lest she should become empty-headed and frivolous by their companionship. Alas, there was little fear of Mary becoming empty-headed! As she grew taller, and more slender, she seemed to get weaker and paler; and her heavy head drooped wearily under the load of knowledge which it had been made to carry, like some poor sickly flower oppressed by the weight of the dew-drops, which would have revivified a hardier blossom.
Heaven knows to what end Mrs. Marchmont educated her stepdaughter! Poor Mary could have told the precise date of any event in universal history, ancient or modern; she could have named the exact latitude and longitude of the remotest island in the least navigable ocean, and might have given an accurate account of the manners and customs of its inhabitants, had she been called upon to do so. She was alarmingly learned upon the subject of tertiary and old red sandstone, and could have told you almost as much as Mr. Charles Kingsley himself about the history of a gravel-pit — though I doubt if she could have conveyed her information in quite such a pleasant manner; she could have pointed out every star in the broad heavens above Lincolnshire, and could have told the history of its discovery; she knew the hardest names that science had given to the familiar field-flowers she met in her daily walks; — yet I cannot say that her conversation was any the more brilliant because of this, or that her spirits grew lighter under the influence of this general mental illumination.
But Mrs. Marchmont did most earnestly believe that this laborious educationary process was one of the duties she owed her stepdaughter; and when, at seventeen years of age, Mary emerged from the struggle, laden with such intellectual spoils as I have described above, the widow felt a quiet satisfaction as she contemplated her work, and said to herself, “In this, at least, I have done my duty.”
Amongst all the dreary mass of instruction beneath which her health had very nearly succumbed, the girl had learned one thing that was a source of pleasure to herself; she had learned to become a very brilliant musician. She was not a musical genius, remember; for no such vivid flame as the fire of genius had ever burned in her gentle breast; but all the tenderness of her nature, all the poetry of a hyper-poetical mind, centred in this one accomplishment, and, condemned to perpetual silence in every other tongue, found a new and glorious language here. The girl had been forbidden to read Byron and Scott; but she was not forbidden to sit at her piano, when the day’s toils were over, and the twilight was dusky in her quiet room, playing dreamy melodies by Beethoven and Mozart, and making her own poetry to Mendelssohn’s wordless songs. I think her soul must have shrunk and withered away altogether had it not been for this one resource, this one refuge, in which her mind regained its elasticity, springing up, like a trampled flower, into new life and beauty.
Olivia was well pleased to see the girl sit hour after hour at her piano. She had learned to play well and brilliantly herself, mastering all difficulties with the proud determination which was a part of her strong nature; but she had no special love for music. All things that compose the poetry and beauty of life had been denied to this woman, in common with the tenderness which makes the chief loveliness of womankind. She sat by the piano and listened while Mary’s slight hands wandered over the keys, carrying the player’s soul away into trackless regions of dream-land and beauty; but she heard nothing in the music except so many chords, so many tones and semitones, played in such or such a time.
It would have been scarcely natural for Mary Marchmont, reserved and self-contained though she had been ever since her father’s death, to have had no yearning for more genial companionship than that of her stepmother. The girl who had kept watch in her room, by the doctor’s suggestion, was the one friend and confidante whom the young mistress of Marchmont Towers fain would have chosen. But here Olivia interposed, sternly forbidding any intimacy between the two girls. Hester Pollard was the daughter of a small tenant-farmer, and no fit associate for Mrs. Marchmont’s stepdaughter. Olivia thought that this taste for obscure company was the fruit of Mary’s early training — the taint left by those bitter, debasing days of poverty, in which John Marchmont and his daughter had lived in some wretched Lambeth lodging.
“But Hester Pollard is fond of me, mamma,” the girl pleaded; “and I feel so happy at the old farm house! They are all so kind to me when I go there — Hester’s father and mother, and little brothers and sisters, you know; and the poultry-yard, and the pigs and horses, and the green pond, with the geese cackling round it, remind me of my aunt’s, in Berkshire. I went there once with poor papa for a day or two; it was such a change after Oakley Street.”
But Mrs. Marchmont was inflexible upon this point. She would allow her stepdaughter to pay a ceremonial visit now and then to Farmer Pollard’s, and to be entertained with cowslip-wine and pound-cake in the low, old-fashioned parlour, where all the polished mahogany chairs were so shining and slippery that it was a marvel how anybody ever contrived to sit down upon them. Olivia allowed such solemn visits as these now and then, and she permitted Mary to renew the farmer’s lease upon sufficiently advantageous terms, and to make occasional presents to her favourite, Hester. But all stolen visits to the farmyard, all evening rambles with the farmer’s daughter in the apple orchard at the back of the low white farmhouse, were sternly interdicted; and though Mary and Hester were friends still, they were fain to be content with a chance meeting once in the course of a dreary interval of months, and a silent pressure of the hand.
“You mustn’t think that I am proud of my money, Hester,” Mary said to her friend, “or that I forget you now that we see each other so seldom. Papa used to let me come to the farm whenever I liked; but papa had seen a great deal of poverty. Mamma keeps me almost always at home at my studies; but she is very good to me, and of course I am bound to obey her; papa wished me to obey her.”
The orphan girl never for a moment forgot the terms of her father’s will. He had wished her to obey; what should she do, then, but be obedient? Her submission to Olivia’s lightest wish was only a part of the homage which she paid to that beloved father’s memory.
It was thus she grew to early womanhood; a child in gentle obedience and docility; a woman by reason of that grave and thoughtful character which had been peculiar to her from her very infancy. It was in a life such as this, narrow, monotonous, joyless, that her seventeenth birthday came and went, scarcely noticed, scarcely remembered, in the dull uniformity of the days which left no track behind them; and Mary Marchmont was a woman — a woman with all the tragedy of life before her; infantine in her innocence and inexperience of the world outside Marchmont Towers.
The passage of time had been so long unmarked by any break in its tranquil course, the dull routine of life had been so long undisturbed by change, that I believe the two women thought their lives would go on for ever and ever. Mary, at least, had never looked beyond the dull horizon of the present. Her habit of castle-building had died out with her father’s death. What need had she to build castles, now that he could no longer inhabit them? Edward Arundel, the bright boy she remembered in Oakley Street, the dashing young officer who had come to Marchmont Towers, had dropped back into the chaos of the past. Her father had been the keystone in the arch of Mary’s existence: he was gone, and a mass of chaotic ruins alone remained of the familiar visions which had once beguiled her. The world had ended with John Marchmont’s death, and his daughter’s life since that great sorrow had been at best only a passive endurance of existence. They had heard very little of the young soldier at Marchmont Towers. Now and then a letter from some member of the family at Dangerfield had come to the Rector of Swampington. The warfare was still raging far away in the East, cruel and desperate battles were being fought, and brave Englishmen were winning loot and laurels, or perishing under the scimitars of Sikhs and Affghans, as the case might be. Squire Arundel’s youngest son was not doing less than his duty, the letters said. He had gained his captaincy, and was well spoken of by great soldiers, whose very names were like the sound of the war-trumpet to English ears.
Olivia heard all this. She sat by her father, sometimes looking over his shoulder at the crumpled letter, as he read aloud to her of her cousin’s exploits. The familiar name seemed to be all ablaze with lurid light as the widow’s greedy eyes devoured it. How commonplace the letters were! What frivolous nonsense Letitia Arundel intermingled with the news of her brother! —“You’ll be glad to hear that my grey pony has got the better of his lameness. Papa gave a hunting-breakfast on Tuesday week. Lord Mountlitchcombe was present; but the hunting-men are very much aggravated about the frost, and I fear we shall have no crocuses. Edward has got his captaincy, papa told me to tell you. Sir Charles Napier and Major Outram have spoken very highly of him; but he — Edward, I mean — got a sabre-cut on his left arm, besides a wound on his forehead, and was laid up for nearly a month. I daresay you remember old Colonel Tollesly, at Halburton Lodge? He died last November; and has left all his money to ——” and the young lady ran on thus, with such gossip as she thought might be pleasing to her uncle; and there were no more tidings of the young soldier, whose life-blood had so nearly been spilt for his country’s glory.
Olivia thought of him as she rode back to Marchmont Towers. She thought of the sabre-cut upon his arm, and pictured him wounded and bleeding, lying beneath the canvass-shelter of a tent, comfortless, lonely, forsaken.
“Better for me if he had died,” she thought; “better for me if I were to hear of his death to-morrow!”
And with the idea the picture of such a calamity arose before her so vividly and hideously distinct, that she thought for one brief moment of agony, “This is not a fancy, it is a presentiment; it is second sight; the thing will occur.”
She imagined herself going to see her father as she had gone that morning. All would be the same: the low grey garden-wall of the Rectory; the ceaseless surging of the sea; the prim servant-maid; the familiar study, with its litter of books and papers; the smell of stale cigar-smoke; the chintz curtains flapping in the open window; the dry leaves fluttering in the garden without. There would be nothing changed except her father’s face, which would be a little graver than usual. And then, after a little hesitation — after a brief preamble about the uncertainty of life, the necessity for looking always beyond this world, the horrors of war — the dreadful words would be upon his lips, when she would read all the hideous truth in his face, and fall prone to the ground, before he could say, “Edward Arundel is dead!”
Yes; she felt all the anguish. It would be this — this sudden paralysis of black despair. She tested the strength of her endurance by this imaginary torture — scarcely imaginary, surely, when it seemed so real — and asked herself a strange question: “Am I strong enough to bear this, or would it be less terrible to go on, suffering for ever — for ever abased and humiliated by the degradation of my love for a man who does not care for me?”
So long as John Marchmont had lived, this woman would have been true to the terrible victory she had won upon the eve of her bridal. She would have been true to herself and to her marriage-vow; but her husband’s death, in setting her free, had cast her back upon the madness of her youth. It was no longer a sin to think of Edward Arundel. Having once suffered this idea to arise in her mind, her idol grew too strong for her, and she thought of him by night and day.
Yes; she thought of him for ever and ever. The narrow life to which she doomed herself, the self-immolation which she called duty, left her a prey to this one thought. Her work was not enough for her. Her powerful mind wasted and shrivelled for want of worthy employment. It was like one vast roll of parchment whereon half the wisdom of the world might have been inscribed, but on which was only written over and over again, in maddening repetition, the name of Edward Arundel. If Olivia Marchmont could have gone to America, and entered herself amongst the feminine professors of law or medicine — if she could have turned field-preacher, like simple Dinah Morris, or set up a printing-press in Bloomsbury, or even written a novel — I think she might have been saved. The superabundant energy of her mind would have found a new object. As it was, she did none of these things. She had only dreamt one dream, and by force of perpetual repetition the dream had become a madness.
But the monotonous life was not to go on for ever. The dull, grey, leaden sky was to be illumined by sudden bursts of sunshine, and swept by black thunder-clouds, whose stormy violence was to shake the very universe for these two solitary women.
John Marchmont had been dead nearly three years. Mary’s humble friend, the farmer’s daughter, had married a young tradesman in the village of Kemberling, a mile and a half from the Towers. Mary was a woman now, and had seen the last of the Roman emperors and all the dry-as-dust studies of her early girlhood. She had nothing to do but accompany her stepmother hither and thither amongst the poor cottagers about Kemberling and two or three other small parishes within a drive of the Towers, “doing good,” after Olivia’s fashion, by line and rule. At home the young lady did what she pleased, sitting for hours together at her piano, or wading through gigantic achievements in the way of embroidery-work. She was even allowed to read novels now, but only such novels as were especially recommended to Olivia, who was one of the patronesses of a book-club at Swampington: novels in which young ladies fell in love with curates, and didn’t marry them: novels in which everybody suffered all manner of misery, and rather liked it: novels in which, if the heroine did marry the man she loved — and this happy conclusion was the exception, and not the rule — the smallpox swept away her beauty, or a fatal accident deprived him of his legs, or eyes, or arms before the wedding-day.
The two women went to Kemberling Church together three times every Sunday. It was rather monotonous — the same church, the same rector and curate, the same clerk, the same congregation, the same old organ-tunes and droning voices of Lincolnshire charity-children, the same sermons very often. But Mary had grown accustomed to monotony. She had ceased to hope or care for anything since her father’s death, and was very well contented to be let alone, and allowed to dawdle through a dreary life which was utterly without aim or purpose. She sat opposite her stepmother on one particular afternoon in the state-pew at Kemberling, which was lined with faded red baize, and raised a little above the pews of meaner worshippers; she was sitting with her listless hands lying in her lap, looking thoughtfully at her stepmother’s stony face, and listening to the dull droning of the rector’s voice above her head. It was a sunny afternoon in early June, and the church was bright with a warm yellow radiance; one of the old diamond-paned windows was open, and the tinkling of a sheep-bell far away in the distance, and the hum of bees in the churchyard, sounded pleasantly in the quiet of the hot atmosphere.
The young mistress of Marchmont Towers felt the drowsy influence of that tranquil summer weather creeping stealthily upon her. The heavy eyelids drooped over her soft brown eyes, those wistful eyes which had so long looked wearily out upon a world in which there seemed so little joy. The rector’s sermon was a very long one this warm afternoon, and there was a low sound of snoring somewhere in one of the shadowy and sheltered pews beneath the galleries. Mary tried very hard to keep herself awake. Mrs. Marchmont had frowned darkly at her once or twice already, for to fall asleep in church was a dire iniquity in Olivia’s rigid creed; but the drowsiness was not easily to be conquered, and the girl was sinking into a peaceful slumber in spite of her stepmother’s menacing frowns, when the sound of a sharp footfall on one of the gravel pathways in the churchyard aroused her attention.
Heaven knows why she should have been awoke out of her sleep by the sound of that step. It was different, perhaps, to the footsteps of the Kemberling congregation. The brisk, sharp sound of the tread striking lightly but firmly on the gravel was not compatible with the shuffling gait of the tradespeople and farmers’ men who formed the greater part of the worshippers at that quiet Lincolnshire church. Again, it would have been a monstrous sin in that tranquil place for any one member of the congregation to disturb the devotions of the rest by entering at such a time as this. It was a stranger, then, evidently. What did it matter? Miss Marchmont scarcely cared to lift her eyelids to see who or what the stranger was; but the intruder let in such a flood of June sunshine when he pushed open the ponderous oaken door under the church-porch, that she was dazzled by that sudden burst of light, and involuntarily opened her eyes.
The stranger let the door swing softly to behind him, and stood beneath the shadow of the porch, not caring to advance any further, or to disturb the congregation by his presence.
Mary could not see him very plainly at first. She could only dimly define the outline of his tall figure, the waving masses of chestnut hair tinged with gleams of gold; but little by little his face seemed to grow out of the shadow, until she saw it all — the handsome patrician features, the luminous blue eyes, the amber moustache — the face which, in Oakley Street eight years ago, she had elected as her type of all manly perfection, her ideal of heroic grace.
Yes; it was Edward Arundel. Her eyes lighted up with an unwonted rapture as she looked at him; her lips parted; and her breath came in faint gasps. All the monotonous years, the terrible agonies of sorrow, dropped away into the past; and Mary Marchmont was conscious of nothing except the unutterable happiness of the present.
The one friend of her childhood had come back. The one link, the almost forgotten link, that bound her to every day-dream of those foolish early days, was united once more by the presence of the young soldier. All that happy time, nearly five years ago — that happy time in which the tennis-court had been built, and the boat-house by the river restored — those sunny autumn days before her father’s second marriage — returned to her. There was pleasure and joy in the world, after all; and then the memory of her father came back to her mind, and her eyes filled with tears. How sorry Edward would be to see his old friend’s empty place in the western drawing-room; how sorry for her, and for her loss! Olivia Marchmont saw the change in her stepdaughter’s face, and looked at her with stern amazement. But, after the first shock of that delicious surprise, Mary’s training asserted itself. She folded her hands — they trembled a little, but Olivia did not see that — and waited patiently, with her eyes cast down and a faint flush lighting up her pale cheeks, until the sermon was finished, and the congregation began to disperse. She was not impatient. She felt as if she could have waited thus peacefully and contentedly for ever, knowing that the only friend she had on earth was near her.
Olivia was slow to leave her pew; but at last she opened the door and went out into the quiet aisle, followed by Mary, out under the shadowy porch and into the gravel-walk in the churchyard, where Edward Arundel was waiting for the two ladies.
John Marchmont’s widow uttered no cry of surprise when she saw her cousin standing a little way apart from the slowly-dispersing Kemberling congregation. Her dark face faded a little, and her heart seemed to stop its pulsation suddenly, as if she had been turned into stone; but this was only for a moment. She held out her hand to Mr. Arundel in the next instant, and bade him welcome to Lincolnshire.
“I did not know you were in England,” she said.
“Scarcely any one knows it yet,” the young man answered; “and I have not even been home. I came to Marchmont Towers at once.”
He turned from his cousin to Mary, who was standing a little behind her stepmother.
“Dear Polly,” he said, taking both her hands in his, “I was so sorry for you, when I heard ——”
He stopped, for he saw the tears welling up to her eyes. It was not his allusion to her father’s death that had distressed her. He had called her Polly, the old familiar name, which she had never heard since that dead father’s lips had last spoken it.
The carriage was waiting at the gate of the churchyard, and Edward Arundel went back to Marchmont Towers with the two ladies. He had reached the house a quarter of an hour after they had left it for afternoon church, and had walked over to Kemberling.
“I was so anxious to see you, Polly,” he said, “after all this long time, that I had no patience to wait until you and Livy came back from church.”
Olivia started as the young man said this. It was Mary Marchmont whom he had come to see, then — not herself. Was she never to be anything? Was she to be for ever insulted by this humiliating indifference? A dark flush came over her face, as she drew her head up with the air of an offended empress, and looked angrily at her cousin. Alas! he did not even see that indignant glance. He was bending over Mary, telling her, in a low tender voice, of the grief he had felt at learning the news of her father’s death.
Olivia Marchmont looked with an eager, scrutinising gaze at her stepdaughter. Could it be possible that Edward Arundel might ever come to love this girl? Could such a thing be possible? A hideous depth of horror and confusion seemed to open before her with the thought. In all the past, amongst all things she had imagined, amongst all the calamities she had pictured to herself, she had never thought of anything like this. Would such a thing ever come to pass? Would she ever grow to hate this girl — this girl, who had been intrusted to her by her dead husband — with the most terrible hatred that one woman can feel towards another?
In the next moment she was angry with herself for the abject folly of this new terror. She had never yet learned to think of Mary as a woman. She had never thought of her otherwise than as the pale childlike girl who had come to her meekly, day after day, to recite difficult lessons, standing in a submissive attitude before her, and rendering obedience to her in all things. Was it likely, was it possible, that this pale-faced girl would enter into the lists against her in the great battle of her life? Was it likely that she was to find her adversary and her conqueror here, in the meek child who had been committed to her charge?
She watched her stepdaughter’s face with a jealous, hungry gaze. Was it beautiful? No! The features were delicate; the brown eyes soft and dovelike, almost lovely, now that they were irradiated by a new light, as they looked shyly up at Edward Arundel. But the girl’s face was wan and colourless. It lacked the splendour of beauty. It was only after you had looked at Mary for a very long time that you began to think her rather pretty.
The five years during which Edward Arundel had been away had made little alteration in him. He was rather taller, perhaps; his amber moustache thicker; his manner more dashing than of old. The mark of a sabre-cut under the clustering chestnut curls upon the temple gave him a certain soldierly dignity. He seemed a man of the world now, and Mary Marchmont was rather afraid of him. He was so different to the Lincolnshire squires, the bashful younger sons who were to be educated for the Church: he was so dashing, so elegant, so splendid! From the waving grace of his hair to the tip of the polished boot peeping out of his well-cut trouser (there were no pegtops in 1847, and it was le genre to show very little of the boot), he was a creature to be wondered at, to be almost reverenced, Mary thought. She could not help admiring the cut of his coat, the easy nonchalance of his manner, the waxed ends of his curved moustache, the dangling toys of gold and enamel that jingled at his watch-chain, the waves of perfume that floated away from his cambric handkerchief. She was childish enough to worship all these external attributes in her hero.
“Shall I invite him to Marchmont Towers?” Olivia thought; and while she was deliberating upon this question, Mary Marchmont cried out, “You will stop at the Towers, won’t you, Mr. Arundel, as you did when poor papa was alive?”
“Most decidedly, Miss Marchmont,” the young man answered. “I mean to throw myself upon your hospitality as confidingly as I did a long time ago in Oakley Street, when you gave me hot rolls for my breakfast.”
Mary laughed aloud — perhaps for the first time since her father’s death. Olivia bit her lip. She was of so little account, then, she thought, that they did not care to consult her. A gloomy shadow spread itself over her face. Already, already she began to hate this pale-faced, childish orphan girl, who seemed to be transformed into a new being under the spell of Edward Arundel’s presence.
But she made no attempt to prevent his stopping at the Towers, though a word from her would have effectually hindered his coming. A dull torpor of despair took possession of her; a black apprehension paralysed her mind. She felt that a pit of horror was opening before her ignorant feet. All that she had suffered was as nothing to what she was about to suffer. Let it be, then! What could she do to keep this torture away from her? Let it come, since it seemed that it must come in some shape or other.
She thought all this, while she sat back in a corner of the carriage watching the two faces opposite to her, as Edward and Mary, seated with their backs to the horses, talked together in low confidential tones, which scarcely reached her ear. She thought all this during the short drive between Kemberling and Marchmont Towers; and when the carriage drew up before the low Tudor portico, the dark shadow had settled on her face. Her mind was made up. Let Edward Arundel come; let the worst come. She had struggled; she had tried to do her duty; she had striven to be good. But her destiny was stronger than herself, and had brought this young soldier over land and sea, safe out of every danger, rescued from every peril, to be her destruction. I think that in this crisis of her life the last faint ray of Christian light faded out of this lost woman’s soul, leaving utter darkness and desolation. The old landmarks, dimly descried in the weary desert, sank for ever down into the quicksands, and she was left alone — alone with her despair. Her jealous soul prophesied the evil which she dreaded. This man, whose indifference to her was almost an insult, would fall in love with Mary Marchmont — with Mary Marchmont, whose eyes lit up into new beauty under the glances of his, whose pale face blushed into faint bloom as he talked to her. The girl’s undisguised admiration would flatter the young man’s vanity, and he would fall in love with her out of very frivolity and weakness of purpose.
“He is weak and vain, and foolish and frivolous, I daresay,” Olivia thought; “and if I were to fling myself upon my knees at his feet, and tell him that I loved him, he would be flattered and grateful, and would be ready to return my affection. If I could tell him what this girl tells him in every look and word, he would be as pleased with me as he is with her.”
Her lip curled with unutterable scorn as she thought this. She was so despicable to herself by the deep humiliation of her wasted love, that the object of that foolish passion seemed despicable also. She was for ever weighing Edward Arundel against all the tortures she had endured for his sake, and for ever finding him wanting. He must have been a demigod if his perfections could have outweighed so much misery; and for this reason she was unjust to her cousin, and could not accept him for that which he really was — a generous-hearted, candid, honourable young man (not a great man or a wonderful man) — a brave and honest-minded soldier, very well worthy of a good woman’s love.
Mr. Arundel stayed at the Towers, occupying the room which had been his in John Marchmont’s lifetime; and a new existence began for Mary. The young man was delighted with his old friend’s daughter. Among all the Calcutta belles whom he had danced with at Government–House balls and flirted with upon the Indian racecourse, he could remember no one as fascinating as this girl, who seemed as childlike now, in her early womanhood, as she had been womanly while she was a child. Her naïve tenderness for himself bewitched and enraptured him. Who could have avoided being charmed by that pure and innocent affection, which was as freely given by the girl of eighteen as it had been by the child, and was unchanged in character by the lapse of years? The young officer had been so much admired and caressed in Calcutta, that perhaps, by reason of his successes, he had returned to England heart-whole; and he abandoned himself, without any arrière-pensée, to the quiet happiness which he felt in Mary Marchmont’s society. I do not say that he was intoxicated by her beauty, which was by no means of the intoxicating order, or that he was madly in love with her. The gentle fascination of her society crept upon him before he was aware of its influence. He had never taken the trouble to examine his own feelings; they were disengaged — as free as butterflies to settle upon which flower might seem the fairest; and he had therefore no need to put himself under a course of rigorous self-examination. As yet he believed that the pleasure he now felt in Mary’s society was the same order of enjoyment he had experienced five years before, when he had taught her chess, and promised her long rambles by the seashore.
They had no long rambles now in solitary lanes and under flowering hedgerows beside the waving green corn. Olivia watched them with untiring eyes. The tortures to which a jealous woman may condemn herself are not much greater than those she can inflict upon others. Mrs. Marchmont took good care that her ward and her cousin were not too happy. Wherever they went, she went also; whenever they spoke, she listened; whatever arrangement was most likely to please them was opposed by her. Edward was not coxcomb enough to have any suspicion of the reason of this conduct on his cousin’s part. He only smiled and shrugged his shoulders; and attributed her watchfulness to an overstrained sense of her responsibility, and the necessity of surveillance.
“Does she think me such a villain and a traitor,” he thought, “that she fears to leave me alone with my dead friend’s orphan daughter, lest I should whisper corruption into her innocent ear? How little these good women know of us, after all! What vulgar suspicions and narrow-minded fears influence them against us! Are they honourable and honest towards one another, I wonder, that they can entertain such pitiful doubts of our honour and honesty?”
So, hour after hour, and day after day, Olivia Marchmont kept watch and ward over Edward and Mary. It seems strange that love could blossom in such an atmosphere; it seems strange that the cruel gaze of those hard grey eyes did not chill the two innocent hearts, and prevent their free expansion. But it was not so; the egotism of love was all-omnipotent. Neither Edward nor Mary was conscious of the evil light in the glance that so often rested upon them. The universe narrowed itself to the one spot of earth upon which these two stood side by side.
Edward Arundel had been more than a month at Marchmont Towers when Olivia went, upon a hot July evening, to Swampington, on a brief visit to the Rector — a visit of duty. She would doubtless have taken Mary Marchmont with her; but the girl had been suffering from a violent headache throughout the burning summer day, and had kept her room. Edward Arundel had gone out early in the morning upon a fishing excursion to a famous trout-stream seven or eight miles from the Towers, and was not likely to return until after nightfall. There was no chance, therefore, of a meeting between Mary and the young officer, Olivia thought — no chance of any confidential talk which she would not be by to hear.
Did Edward Arundel love the pale-faced girl, who revealed her devotion to him with such childlike unconsciousness? Olivia Marchmont had not been able to answer that question. She had sounded the young man several times upon his feelings towards her stepdaughter; but he had met her hints and insinuations with perfect frankness, declaring that Mary seemed as much a child to him now as she had appeared nearly nine years before in Oakley Street, and that the pleasure he took in her society was only such as he might have felt in that of any innocent and confiding child.
“Her simplicity is so bewitching, you know, Livy,” he said; “she looks up in my face, and trusts me with all her little secrets, and tells me her dreams about her dead father, and all her foolish, innocent fancies, as confidingly as if I were some playfellow of her own age and sex. She’s so refreshing after the artificial belles of a Calcutta ballroom, with their stereotyped fascinations and their complete manual of flirtation, the same for ever and ever. She is such a pretty little spontaneous darling, with her soft, shy, brown eyes, and her low voice, which always sounds to me like the cooing of the doves in the poultry-yard.”
I think that Olivia, in the depth of her gloomy despair, took some comfort from such speeches as these. Was this frank expression of regard for Mary Marchmont a token of love? No; not as the widow understood the stormy madness. Love to her had been a dark and terrible passion, a thing to be concealed, as monomaniacs have sometimes contrived to keep the secret of their mania, until it burst forth at last, fatal and irrepressible, in some direful work of wreck and ruin.
So Olivia Marchmont took an early dinner alone, and drove away from the Towers at four o’clock on a blazing summer afternoon, more at peace perhaps than she had been since Edward Arundel’s coming. She paid her dutiful visit to her father, sat with him for some time, talked to the two old servants who waited upon him, walked two or three times up and down the neglected garden, and then drove back to the Towers.
The first object upon which her eyes fell as she entered the hall was Edward Arundel’s fishing-tackle lying in disorder upon an oaken bench near the broad arched door that opened out into the quadrangle. An angry flush mounted to her face as she turned upon the servant near her.
“Mr. Arundel has come home?” she said.
“Yes, ma’am, he came in half an hour ago; but he went out again almost directly with Miss Marchmont.”
“Indeed! I thought Miss Marchmont was in her room?”
“No, ma’am; she came down to the drawing-room about an hour after you left. Her head was better, ma’am, she said.”
“And she went out with Mr. Arundel? Do you know which way they went?”
“Yes, ma’am; I heard Mr. Arundel say he wanted to look at the old boat-house by the river.”
“And they have gone there?”
“I think so, ma’am.”
“Very good; I will go down to them. Miss Marchmont must not stop out in the night-air. The dew is falling already.”
The door leading into the quadrangle was open; and Olivia swept across the broad threshold, haughty and self-possessed, very stately-looking in her long black garments. She still wore mourning for her dead husband. What inducement had she ever had to cast off that sombre attire; what need had she to trick herself out in gay colours? What loving eyes would be charmed by her splendour? She went out of the door, across the quadrangle, under a stone archway, and into the low stunted wood, which was gloomy even in the summer-time. The setting sun was shining upon the western front of the Towers; but here all seemed cold and desolate. The damp mists were rising from the sodden ground beneath the tree; the frogs were croaking down by the river-side. With her small white teeth set, and her breath coming in fitful gasps, Olivia Marchmont hurried to the water’s edge, winding in and out between the trees, tearing her black dress amongst the brambles, scorning all beaten paths, heedless where she trod, so long as she made her way speedily to the spot she wanted to reach.
At last the black sluggish river and the old boat-house came in sight, between a long vista of ugly distorted trunks and gnarled branches of pollard oak and willow. The building was dreary and dilapidated-looking, for the improvements commenced by Edward Arundel five years ago had never been fully carried out; but it was sufficiently substantial, and bore no traces of positive decay. Down by the water’s edge there was a great cavernous recess for the shelter of the boats, and above this there was a pavilion, built of brick and stone, containing two decent-sized chambers, with latticed windows overlooking the river. A flight of stone steps with an iron balustrade led up to the door of this pavilion, which was supported upon the solid side-walls of the boat-house below.
In the stillness of the summer twilight Olivia heard the voices of those whom she came to seek. They were standing down by the edge of the water, upon a narrow pathway that ran along by the sedgy brink of the river, and only a few paces from the pavilion. The door of the boat-house was open; a long-disused wherry lay rotting upon the damp and mossy flags. Olivia crept into the shadowy recess. The door that faced the river had fallen from its rusty hinges, and the slimy woodwork lay in ruins upon the shore. Sheltered by the stone archway that had once been closed by this door, Olivia listened to the voices beside the still water.
Mary Marchmont was standing close to the river’s edge; Edward stood beside her, leaning against the trunk of a willow that hung over the water.
“My childish darling,” the young man murmured, as if in reply to something his companion had said, “and so you think, because you are simple-minded and innocent, I am not to love you. It is your innocence I love, Polly dear — let me call you Polly, as I used five years ago — and I wouldn’t have you otherwise for all the world. Do you know that sometimes I am almost sorry I ever came back to Marchmont Towers?”
“Sorry you came back?” cried Mary, in a tone of alarm. “Oh, why do you say that, Mr. Arundel?”
“Because you are heiress to eleven thousand a year, Mary, and the Moated Grange behind us; and this dreary wood, and the river — the river is yours, I daresay, Miss Marchmont; — and I wish you joy of the possession of so much sluggish water and so many square miles of swamp and fen.”
“But what then?” Mary asked wonderingly.
“What then? Do you know, Polly darling, that if I ask you to marry me people will call me a fortune-hunter, and declare that I came to Marchmont Towers bent upon stealing its heiress’s innocent heart, before she had learned the value of the estate that must go along with it? God knows they’d wrong me, Polly, as cruelly as ever an honest man was wronged; for, so long as I have money to pay my tailor and tobacconist — and I’ve more than enough for both of them — I want nothing further of the world’s wealth. What should I do with all this swamp and fen, Miss Marchmont — with all that horrible complication of expired leases to be renewed, and income-taxes to be appealed against, that rich people have to endure? If you were not rich, Polly, I——”
He stopped and laughed, striking the toe of his boot amongst the weeds, and knocking the pebbles into the water. The woman crouching in the shadow of the archway listened with whitened cheeks and glaring eyes; listened as she might have listened to the sentence of her death, drinking in every syllable, in her ravenous desire to lose no breath that told her of her anguish.
“If I were not rich!” murmured Mary; “what if I were not rich?”
“I should tell you how dearly I love you, Polly, and ask you to be my wife by-and-by.”
The girl looked up at him for a few moments in silence, shyly at first, and then more boldly, with a beautiful light kindling in her eyes.
“I love you dearly too, Mr. Arundel,” she said at last; “and I would rather you had my money than any one else in the world; and there was something in papa’s will that made me think —”
“There was something that made you think he would wish this, Polly,” cried the young man, clasping the trembling little figure to his breast. “Mr. Paulette sent me a copy of the will, Polly, when he sent my diamond-ring; and I think there were some words in it that hinted at such a wish. Your father said he left me this legacy, darling — I have his letter still — the legacy of a helpless girl. God knows I will try to be worthy of such a trust, Mary dearest; God knows I will be faithful to my promise, made nine years ago.”
The woman listening in the dark archway sank down upon the damp flags at her feet, amongst the slimy rotten wood and rusty iron nails and broken bolts and hinges. She sat there for a long time, not unconscious, but quite motionless, her white face leaning against the moss-grown arch, staring blankly out of the black shadows. She sat there and listened, while the lovers talked in low tender murmurs of the sorrowful past and of the unknown future; that beautiful untrodden region, in which they were to go hand in hand through all the long years of quiet happiness between the present moment and the grave. She sat and listened till the moonlight faintly shimmered upon the water, and the footsteps of the lovers died away upon the narrow pathway by which they went back to the house.
Olivia Marchmont did not move until an hour after they had gone. Then she raised herself with an effort, and walked with stiffened limbs slowly and painfully to the house, and to her own room, where she locked her door, and flung herself upon the ground in the darkness.
Mary came to her to ask why she did not come to the drawing-room, and Mrs. Marchmont answered, with a hoarse voice, that she was ill, and wished to be alone. Neither Mary, nor the old woman-servant who had been Olivia’s nurse long ago, and who had some little influence over her, could get any other answer than this.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05