Mary Marchmont and Edward Arundel were happy. They were happy; and how should they guess the tortures of that desperate woman, whose benighted soul was plunged in a black gulf of horror by reason of their innocent love? How should these two — very children in their ignorance of all stormy passions, all direful emotions — know that in the darkened chamber where Olivia Marchmont lay, suffering under some vague illness, for which the Swampington doctor was fain to prescribe quinine, in utter unconsciousness as to the real nature of the disease which he was called upon to cure — how should they know that in that gloomy chamber a wicked heart was abandoning itself to all the devils that had so long held patient watch for this day?
Yes; the struggle was over. Olivia Marchmont flung aside the cross she had borne in dull, mechanical obedience, rather than in Christian love and truth. Better to have been sorrowful Magdalene, forgiven for her love and tears, than this cold, haughty, stainless woman, who had never been able to learn the sublime lessons which so many sinners have taken meekly to heart. The religion which was wanting in the vital principle of Christianity, the faith which showed itself only in dogged obedience, failed this woman in the hour of her agony. Her pride arose; the defiant spirit of the fallen angel asserted its gloomy grandeur.
“What have I done that I should suffer like this?” she thought. “What am I that an empty-headed soldier should despise me, and that I should go mad because of his indifference? Is this the recompense for my long years of obedience? Is this the reward Heaven bestows upon me for my life of duty!”
She remembered the histories of other women — women who had gone their own way and had been happy; and a darker question arose in her mind; almost the question which Job asked in his agony.
“Is there neither truth nor justice in the dealings of God?” she thought. “Is it useless to be obedient and submissive, patient and untiring? Has all my life been a great mistake, which is to end in confusion and despair?”
And then she pictured to herself the life that might have been hers if Edward Arundel had loved her. How good she would have been! The hardness of her iron nature would have teen melted and subdued. By force of her love and tenderness for him, she would have learned to be loving and tender to others. Her wealth of affection for him would have overflowed in gentleness and consideration for every creature in the universe. The lurking bitterness which had lain hidden in her heart ever since she had first loved Edward Arundel, and first discovered his indifference to her; and the poisonous envy of happier women, who had loved and were beloved — would have been blotted away. Her whole nature would have undergone a wondrous transfiguration, purified and exalted by the strength of her affection. All this might have come to pass if he had loved her — if he had only loved her. But a pale-faced child had come between her and this redemption; and there was nothing left for her but despair.
Nothing but despair? Yes; perhaps something further — revenge.
But this last idea took no tangible shape. She only knew that, in the black darkness of the gulf into which her soul had gone down, there was, far away somewhere, one ray of lurid light. She only knew this as yet, and that she hated Mary Marchmont with a mad and wicked hatred. If she could have thought meanly of Edward Arundel — if she could have believed him to be actuated by mercenary motives in his choice of the orphan girl — she might have taken some comfort from the thought of his unworthiness, and of Mary’s probable sorrow in the days to come. But she could not think this. Little as the young soldier had said in the summer twilight beside the river, there had been that in his tones and looks which had convinced the wretched watcher of his truth. Mary might have been deceived by the shallowest pretender; but Olivia’s eyes devoured every glance; Olivia’s greedy ears drank in every tone; and she knew that Edward Arundel loved her stepdaughter.
She knew this, and she hated Mary Marchmont. What had she done, this girl, who had never known what it was to fight a battle with her own rebellious heart? what had she done, that all this wealth of love and happiness should drop into her lap unsought — comparatively unvalued, perhaps?
John Marchmont’s widow lay in her darkened chamber thinking over these things; no longer fighting the battle with her own heart, but utterly abandoning herself to her desperation — reckless, hardened, impenitent.
Edward Arundel could not very well remain at the Towers while the reputed illness of his hostess kept her to her room. He went over to Swampington, therefore, upon a dutiful visit to his uncle; but rode to the Towers every day to inquire very particularly after his cousin’s progress, and to dawdle on the sunny western terrace with Mary Marchmont.
Their innocent happiness needs little description. Edward Arundel retained a good deal of that boyish chivalry which had made him so eager to become the little girl’s champion in the days gone by. Contact with the world had not much sullied the freshness of the young man’s spirit. He loved his innocent, childish companion with the purest and truest devotion; and he was proud of the recollection that in the day of his poverty John Marchmont had chosen him as the future shelterer of this tender blossom.
“You must never grow any older or more womanly, Polly,” he said sometimes to the young mistress of Marchmont Towers. “Remember that I always love you best when I think of you as the little girl in the shabby pinafore, who poured out my tea for me one bleak December morning in Oakley Street.”
They talked a great deal of John Marchmont. It was such a happiness to Mary to be able to talk unreservedly of her father to some one who had loved and comprehended him.
“My stepmamma was very good to poor papa, you know, Edward,” she said, “and of course he was very grateful to her; but I don’t think he ever loved her quite as he loved you. You were the friend of his poverty, Edward; he never forgot that.”
Once, as they strolled side by side together upon the terrace in the warm summer noontide, Mary Marchmont put her little hand through her lover’s arm, and looked up shyly in his face.
“Did papa say that, Edward?” she whispered; “did he really say that?”
“Did he really say what, darling?”
“That he left me to you as a legacy?”
“He did indeed, Polly,” answered the young man. “I’ll bring you the letter to-morrow.”
And the next day he showed Mary Marchmont the yellow sheet of letter-paper and the faded writing, which had once been black and wet under her dead father’s hand. Mary looked through her tears at the old familiar Oakley-street address, and the date of the very day upon which Edward Arundel had breakfasted in the shabby lodging. Yes — there were the words: “The legacy of a child’s helplessness is the only bequest I can leave to the only friend I have.”
“And you shall never know what it is to be helpless while I am near you, Polly darling,” the soldier said, as he refolded his dead friend’s epistle. “You may defy your enemies henceforward, Mary — if you have any enemies. O, by-the-bye, you have never heard any thing of that Paul Marchmont, I suppose?”
“Papa’s cousin — Mr Marchmont the artist?”
“He came to the reading of papa’s will.”
“Indeed! and did you see much of him?”
“Oh, no, very little. I was ill, you know,” the girl added, the tears rising to her eyes at the recollection of that bitter time — “I was ill, and I didn’t notice any thing. I know that Mr. Marchmont talked to me a little; but I can’t remember what he said.”
“And he has never been here since?”
Edward Arundel shrugged his shoulders. This Paul Marchmont could not be such a designing villain, after all, or surely he would have tried to push his acquaintance with his rich cousin!
“I dare say John’s suspicion of him was only one of the poor fellow’s morbid fancies,” he thought. “He was always full of morbid fancies.”
Mrs. Marchmont’s rooms were in the western front of the house; and through her open windows she heard the fresh young voices of the lovers as they strolled up and down the terrace. The cavalry officer was content to carry a watering-pot full of water, for the refreshment of his young mistress’s geraniums in the stone vases on the balustrade, and to do other under-gardener’s work for her pleasure. He talked to her of the Indian campaign; and she asked a hundred questions about midnight marches and solitary encampments, fainting camels, lurking tigers in the darkness of the jungle, intercepted supplies of provisions, stolen ammunition, and all the other details of the war.
Olivia arose at last, before the Swampington surgeon’s saline draughts and quinine mixtures had subdued the fiery light in her eyes, or cooled the raging fever that devoured her. She arose because she could no longer lie still in her desolation knowing that, for two hours in each long summer’s day, Edward Arundel and Mary Marchmont could be happy together in spite of her. She came down stairs, therefore, and renewed her watch — chaining her stepdaughter to her side, and interposing herself for ever between the lovers.
The widow arose from her sick-bed an altered woman, as it appeared to all who knew her. A mad excitement seemed to have taken sudden possession of her. She flung off her mourning garments, and ordered silks and laces, velvets and satins, from a London milliner; she complained of the absence of society, the monotonous dulness of her Lincolnshire life; and, to the surprise of every one, sent out cards of invitation for a ball at the Towers in honour of Edward Arundel’s return to England. She seemed to be seized with a desire to do something, she scarcely cared what, to disturb the even current of her days.
During the brief interval between Mrs. Marchmont’s leaving her room and the evening appointed for the ball, Edward Arundel found no very convenient opportunity of informing his cousin of the engagement entered into between himself and Mary. He had no wish to hurry this disclosure; for there was something in the orphan girl’s childishness and innocence that kept all definite ideas of an early marriage very far away from her lover’s mind. He wanted to go back to India, and win more laurels, to lay at the feet of the mistress of Marchmont Towers. He wanted to make a name for himself, which should cause the world to forget that he was a younger son — a name that the vilest tongue would never dare to blacken with the epithet of fortune-hunter.
The young man was silent therefore, waiting for a fitting opportunity in which to speak to Mary’s stepmother. Perhaps he rather dreaded the idea of discussing his attachment with Olivia; for she had looked at him with cold angry eyes, and a brow as black as thunder, upon those occasions on which she had sounded him as to his feelings for Mary.
“She wants poor Polly to marry some grandee, I dare say,” he thought, “and will do all she can to oppose my suit. But her trust will cease with Mary’s majority; and I don’t want my confiding little darling to marry me until she is old enough to choose for herself, and to choose wisely. She will be one-and-twenty in three years; and what are three years? I would wait as long as Jacob for my pet, and serve my fourteen years’ apprenticeship under Sir Charles Napier, and be true to her all the time.”
Olivia Marchmont hated her stepdaughter. Mary was not slow to perceive the change in the widow’s manner towards her. It had always been cold, and sometimes severe; but it was now almost abhorrent. The girl shrank appalled from the sinister light in her stepmother’s gray eyes, as they followed her unceasingly, dogging her footsteps with a hungry and evil gaze. The gentle girl wondered what she had done to offend her guardian, and then, being unable to think of any possible delinquency by which she might have incurred Mrs. Marchmont’s displeasure, was fain to attribute the change in Olivia’s manner to the irritation consequent upon her illness, and was thus more gentle and more submissive than of old; enduring cruel looks, returning no answer to bitter speeches, but striving to conciliate the supposed invalid by her sweetness and obedience.
But the girl’s amiability only irritated the despairing woman. Her jealousy fed upon every charm of the rival who had supplanted her. That fatal passion fed upon Edward Arundel’s every look and tone, upon the quiet smile which rested on Mary’s face as the girl sat over her embroidery, in meek silence, thinking of her lover. The self-tortures which Olivia Marchmont inflicted upon herself were so horrible to bear, that she turned, with a mad desire for relief, upon those she had the power to torture. Day by day, and hour by hour, she contrived to distress the gentle girl, who had so long obeyed her, now by a word, now by a look, but always with that subtle power of aggravation which some women possess in such an eminent degree — until Mary Marchmont’s life became a burden to her, or would have so become, but for that inexpressible happiness, of which her tormentor could not deprive her — the joy she felt in her knowledge of Edward Arundel’s love.
She was very careful to keep the secret of her stepmother’s altered manner from the young soldier. Olivia was his cousin, and he had said long ago that she was to love her. Heaven knows she had tried to do so, and had failed most miserably; but her belief in Olivia’s goodness was still unshaken. If Mrs. Marchmont was now irritable, capricious, and even cruel, there was doubtless some good reason for the alteration in her conduct; and it was Mary’s duty to be patient. The orphan girl had learned to suffer quietly when the great affliction of her father’s death had fallen upon her; and she suffered so quietly now, that even her lover failed to perceive any symptoms of her distress. How could she grieve him by telling him of her sorrows, when his very presence brought such unutterable joy to her?
So, on the morning of the ball at Marchmont Towers — the first entertainment of the kind that had been given in that grim Lincolnshire mansion since young Arthur Marchmont’s untimely death — Mary sat in her room, with her old friend Farmer Pollard’s daughter, who was now Mrs. Jobson, the wife of the most prosperous carpenter in Kemberling. Hester had come up to the Towers to pay a dutiful visit to her young patroness; and upon this particular occasion Olivia had not cared to prevent Mary and her humble friend spending half an hour together. Mrs. Marchmont roamed from room to room upon this day, with a perpetual restlessness. Edward Arundel was to dine at the Towers, and was to sleep there after the ball. He was to drive his uncle over from Swampington, as the Rector had promised to show himself for an hour or two at his daughter’s entertainment. Mary had met her stepmother several times that morning, in the corridors and on the staircase; but the widow had passed her in silence, with a dark face, and a shivering, almost abhorrent gesture.
The bright July day dragged itself out at last, with hideous slowness for the desperate woman, who could not find peace or rest in all those splendid rooms, on all that grassy flat, dry and burning under the blazing summer sun. She had wandered out upon the waste of barren turf, with her head bared to the hot sky, and had loitered here and there by the still pools, looking gloomily at the black tideless water, and wondering what the agony of drowning was like. Not that she had any thought of killing herself. No: the idea of death was horrible to her; for after her death Edward and Mary would be happy. Could she ever find rest in the grave, knowing this? Could there be any possible extinction that would blot out her jealous fury? Surely the fire of her hate — it was no longer love, but hate, that raged in her heart — would defy annihilation, eternal by reason of its intensity. When the dinner-hour came, and Edward and his uncle arrived at the Towers, Olivia Marchmont’s pale face was lit up with eyes that flamed like fire; but she took her accustomed place very quietly, with her father opposite to her, and Mary and Edward upon either side.
“I’m sure you’re ill, Livy,” the young man said; “you’re as pale as death, and your hand is dry and burning. I’m afraid you’ve not been obedient to the Swampington doctor.”
Mrs. Marchmont shrugged her shoulders with a short contemptuous laugh.
“I am well enough,” she said. “Who cares whether I am well or ill?”
Her father looked up at her in mute surprise. The bitterness of her tone startled and alarmed him; but Mary never lifted her eyes. It was in such a tone as this that her stepmother had spoken constantly of late.
But two or three hours afterwards, when the flats before the house were silvered by the moonlight, and the long ranges of windows glittered with the lamps within, Mrs. Marchmont emerged from her dressing-room another creature, as it seemed.
Edward and his uncle were walking up and down the great oaken banqueting-hall, which had been decorated and fitted up as a ballroom for the occasion, when Olivia crossed the wide threshold of the chamber. The young officer looked up with an involuntary expression of surprise. In all his acquaintance with his cousin, he had never seen her thus. The gloomy black-robed woman was transformed into a Semiramis. She wore a voluminous dress of a deep claret-coloured velvet, that glowed with the warm hues of rich wine in the lamplight. Her massive hair was coiled in a knot at the back of her head, and diamonds glittered amidst the thick bands that framed her broad white brow. Her stern classical beauty was lit up by the unwonted splendour of her dress, and asserted itself as obviously as if she had said, “Am I a woman to be despised for the love of a pale-faced child?”
Mary Marchmont came into the room a few minutes after her stepmother. Her lover ran to welcome her, and looked fondly at her simple dress of shadowy white crape, and the pearl circlet that crowned her soft brown hair. The pearls she wore upon this night had been given to her by her father on her fourteenth birthday.
Olivia watched the young man as he bent over Mary Marchmont.
He wore his uniform to-night for the special gratification of his young mistress, and he was looking down with a tender smile at her childish admiration of the bullion ornaments upon his coat, and the decoration he had won in India.
The widow looked from the two lovers to an antique glass upon an ebony bureau in a niche opposite to her, which reflected her own face — her own face, more beautiful than she had ever seen it before, with a feverish glow of vivid crimson lighting up her hollow cheeks.
“I might have been beautiful if he had loved me,” she thought; and then she turned to her father, and began to talk to him of his parishioners, the old pensioners upon her bounty, whose little histories were so hatefully familiar to her. Once more she made a feeble effort to tread the old hackneyed pathway, which she had toiled upon with such weary feet; but she could not — she could not. After a few minutes she turned abruptly from the Rector, and seated herself in a recess of the window, from which she could see Edward and Mary.
But Mrs. Marchmont’s duties as hostess soon demanded her attention. The county families began to arrive; the sound of carriage-wheels seemed perpetual upon the crisp gravel-drive before the western front; the names of half the great people in Lincolnshire were shouted by the old servants in the hall. The band in the music-gallery struck up a quadrille, and Edward Arundel led the youthful mistress of the mansion to her place in the dance.
To Olivia that long night seemed all glare and noise and confusion. She did the honours of the ballroom, she received her guests, she meted out due attention to all; for she had been accustomed from her earliest girlhood to the stereotyped round of country society. She neglected no duty; but she did all mechanically, scarcely knowing what she said or did in the feverish tumult of her soul.
Yet, amidst all the bewilderment of her senses, in all the confusion of her thoughts, two figures were always before her. Wherever Edward Arundel and Mary Marchmont went, her eyes followed them — her fevered imagination pursued them. Once, and once only, in the course of that long night she spoke to her stepdaughter.
“How often do you mean to dance with Captain Arundel, Miss Marchmont?” she said.
But before Mary could answer, her stepmother had moved away upon the arm of a portly country squire, and the girl was left in sorrowful wonderment as to the reason of Mrs. Marchmont’s angry tone.
Edward and Mary were standing in one of the deep embayed windows of the banqueting-hall, when the dancers began to disperse, long after supper. The girl had been very happy that evening, in spite of her stepmother’s bitter words and disdainful glances. For almost the first time in her life, the young mistress of Marchmont Towers had felt the contagious influence of other people’s happiness. The brilliantly-lighted ballroom, the fluttering dresses of the dancers, the joyous music, the low sound of suppressed laughter, the bright faces which smiled at each other upon every side, were as new as any thing in fairyland to this girl, whose narrow life had been overshadowed by the gloomy figure of her stepmother, for ever interposed between her and the outer world. The young spirit arose and shook off its fetters, fresh and radiant as the butterfly that escapes from its chrysalis. The new light of happiness illumined the orphan’s delicate face, until Edward Arundel began to wonder at her loveliness, as he had wondered once before that night at the fiery splendour of his cousin Olivia.
“I had no idea that Olivia was so handsome, or you so pretty, my darling,” he said, as he stood with Mary in the embrasure of the window. “You look like Titania, the queen of the fairies, Polly, with your cloudy draperies and crown of pearls.”
The window was open, and Captain Arundel looked wistfully at the broad flagged quadrangle beautified by the light of the full summer moon. He glanced back into the room; it was nearly empty now; and Mrs. Marchmont was standing near the principal doorway, bidding the last of her guests goodnight.
“Come into the quadrangle, Polly,” he said, “and take a turn with me under the colonnade. It was a cloister once, I dare say, in the good old days before Harry the Eighth was king; and cowled monks have paced up and down under its shadow, muttering mechanical aves and paternosters, as the beads of their rosaries dropped slowly through their shrivelled old fingers. Come out into the quadrangle, Polly; all the people we know or case about are gone; and we’ll go out and walk in the moonlight as true lovers ought.”
The soldier led his young companion across the threshold of the window, and out into a cloister-like colonnade that ran along one side of the house. The shadows of the Gothic pillars were black upon the moonlit flags of the quadrangle, which was as light now as in the day; but a pleasant obscurity reigned in the sheltered colonnade.
“I think this little bit of pre-Lutheran masonry is the best of all your possessions, Polly,” the young man said, laughing. “By-and-by, when I come home from India a general — as I mean to do, Miss Marchmont, before I ask you to become Mrs. Arundel — I shall stroll up and down here in the still summer evenings, smoking my cheroots. You will let me smoke out of doors, won’t you, Polly? But suppose I should leave some of my limbs on the banks of the Sutlej, and come limping home to you with a wooden leg, would you have me then, Mary; or would you dismiss me with ignominy from your sweet presence, and shut the doors of your stony mansion upon myself and my calamities? I’m afraid, from your admiration of my gold epaulettes and silk sash, that glory in the abstract would have very little attraction for you.”
Mary Marchmont looked up at her lover with widely-opened and wondering eyes, and the clasp of her hand tightened a little upon his arm.
“There is nothing that could ever happen to you that would make me love you less now,” she said naïvely. “I dare say at first I liked you a little because you were handsome, and different to every one else I had ever seen. You were so very handsome, you know,” she added apologetically; “but it was not because of that only that I loved you. I loved you because papa told me you were good and generous, and his true friend when he was in cruel need of a friend. Yes; you were his friend at school, when your cousin, Martin Mostyn, and the other pupils sneered at him and ridiculed him. How can I ever forget that, Edward? How can I ever love you enough to repay you for that?” In the enthusiasm of her innocent devotion, she lifted her pure young brow, and the soldier bent down and kissed that white throne of all virginal thoughts, as the lovers stood side by side; half in the moonlight, half in the shadow.
Olivia Marchmont came into the embrasure of the open window, and took her place there to watch them.
She came again to the torture. From the remotest end of the long banqueting-room she had seen the two figures glide out into the moonlight. She had seen them, and had gone on with her courteous speeches, and had repeated her formula of hospitality, with the fire in her heart devouring and consuming her. She came again, to watch and to listen, and to endure her self-imposed agonies — as mad and foolish in her fatal passion as some besotted wretch who should come willingly to the wheel upon which his limbs had been well-nigh broken, and supplicate for a renewal of the torture. She stood rigid and motionless in the shadow of the arched window, hiding herself, as she had hidden in the dark cavernous recess by the river; she stood and listened to all the childish babble of the lovers as they loitered up and down the vaulted cloister. How she despised them, in the haughty superiority of an intellect which might have planned a revolution, or saved a sinking state! What bitter scorn curled her lip, as their foolish talk fell upon her ear! They talked like Florizel and Perdita, like Romeo and Juliet, like Paul and Virginia; and they talked a great deal of nonsense, no doubt — soft harmonious foolishness, with little more meaning in it than there is in the cooing of doves, but tender and musical, and more than beautiful, to each other’s ears. A tigress, famished and desolate, and but lately robbed of her whelps, would not be likely to listen very patiently to the communing of a pair of prosperous ringdoves. Olivia Marchmont listened with her brain on fire, and the spirit of a murderess raging in her breast. What was she that she should be patient? All the world was lost to her. She was thirty years of age, and she had never yet won the love of any human being. She was thirty years of age, and all the sublime world of affection was a dismal blank for her. From the outer darkness in which she stood, she looked with wild and ignorant yearning into that bright region which her accursed foot had never trodden, and saw Mary Marchmont wandering hand-in-hand with the only man she could have loved — the only creature who had ever had the power to awake the instinct of womanhood in her soul.
She stood and waited until the clock in the quadrangle struck the first quarter after three: the moon was fading out, and the colder light of early morning glimmered in the eastern sky.
“I mustn’t keep you out here any longer, Polly,” Captain Arundel said, pausing near the window. “It’s getting cold, my dear, and it’s high time the mistress of Marchmont should retire to her stony bower. Good-night, and God bless you, my darling! I’ll stop in the quadrangle and smoke a cheroot before I go to my room. Your stepmamma will be wondering what has become of you, Mary, and we shall have a lecture upon the proprieties to-morrow; so, once more, good-night.”
He kissed the fair young brow under the coronal of pearls, stopped to watch Mary while she crossed the threshold of the open window, and then strolled away into the flagged court, with his cigar-case in his hand.
Olivia Marchmont stood a few paces from the window when her stepdaughter entered the room, and Mary paused involuntarily, terrified by the cruel aspect of the face that frowned upon her: terrified by something that she had never seen before — the horrible darkness that overshadows the souls of the lost.
“Mamma!” the girl cried, clasping her hands in sudden affright —“mamma! why do you look at me like that? Why have you been so changed to me lately? I cannot tell you how unhappy I have been. Mamma, mamma! what have I done to offend you?”
Olivia Marchmont grasped the trembling hands uplifted entreatingly to her, and held them in her own — held them as if in a vice. She stood thus, with her stepdaughter pinioned in her grasp, and her eyes fixed upon the girl’s face. Two streams of lurid light seemed to emanate from those dilated gray eyes; two spots of crimson blazed in the widow’s hollow cheeks.
“What have you done?” she cried. “Do you think I have toiled for nothing to do the duty which I promised my dead husband to perform for your sake? Has all my care of you been so little, that I am to stand by now and be silent, when I see what you are? Do you think that I am blind, or deaf, or besotted; that you defy me and outrage me, day by day, and hour by hour, by your conduct?”
“Mamma, mamma! what do you mean?”
“Heaven knows how rigidly you have been educated; how carefully you have been secluded from all society, and sheltered from every influence, lest harm or danger should come to you. I have done my duty, and I wash my hands of you. The debasing taint of your mother’s low breeding reveals itself in your every action. You run after my cousin Edward Arundel, and advertise your admiration of him, to himself, and every creature who knows you. You fling yourself into his arms, and offer him yourself and your fortune: and in your low cunning you try to keep the secret from me, your protectress and guardian, appointed by the dead father whom you pretend to have loved so dearly.”
Olivia Marchmont still held her stepdaughter’s wrists in her iron grasp. The girl stared wildly at her with her trembling lips apart. She began to think that the widow had gone mad.
“I blush for you — I am ashamed of you!” cried Olivia. It seemed as if the torrent of her words burst forth almost in spite of herself. “There is not a village girl in Kemberling, there is not a scullerymaid in this house, who would have behaved as you have done. I have watched you, Mary Marchmont, remember, and I know all. I know your wanderings down by the river-side. I heard you — yes, by the Heaven above me! — I heard you offer yourself to my cousin.”
Mary drew herself up with an indignant gesture, and over the whiteness of her face there swept a sudden glow of vivid crimson that faded as quickly as it came. Her submissive nature revolted against her stepmother’s horrible tyranny. The dignity of innocence arose and asserted itself against Olivia’s shameful upbraiding.
“If I offered myself to Edward Arundel, mamma,” she said, “it was because we love each other very truly, and because I think and believe papa wished me to marry his old friend.”
“Because we love each other very truly!” Olivia echoed in a tone of unmitigated scorn. “You can answer for Captain Arundel’s heart, I suppose, then, as well as for your own? You must have a tolerably good opinion of yourself, Miss Marchmont, to be able to venture so much. Bah!” she cried suddenly, with a disdainful gesture of her head; “do you think your pitiful face has won Edward Arundel? Do you think he has not had women fifty times your superior, in every quality of mind and body, at his feet out yonder in India? Are you idiotic and besotted enough to believe that it is anything but your fortune this man cares for? Do you know the vile things people will do, the lies they will tell, the base comedies of guilt and falsehood they will act, for the love of eleven thousand a year? And you think that he loves you! Child, dupe, fool! are you weak enough to be deluded by a fortune-hunter’s pretty pastoral flatteries? Are you weak enough to be duped by a man of the world, worn out and jaded, no doubt, as to the world’s pleasures — in debt perhaps, and in pressing need of money, who comes here to try and redeem his fortunes by a marriage with a semi-imbecile heiress?”
Olivia Marchmont released her hold of the shrinking girl, who seemed to have become transfixed to the spot upon which she stood, a pale statue of horror and despair.
The iron will of the strong and resolute woman rode roughshod over the simple confidence of the ignorant girl. Until this moment, Mary Marchmont had believed in Edward Arundel as implicitly as she had trusted in her dead father. But now, for the first time, a dreadful region of doubt opened before her; the foundations of her world reeled beneath her feet. Edward Arundel a fortune-hunter! This woman, whom she had obeyed for five weary years, and who had acquired that ascendancy over her which a determined and vigorous nature must always exercise over a morbidly sensitive disposition, told her that she had been deluded. This woman laughed aloud in bitter scorn of her credulity. This woman, who could have no possible motive for torturing her, and who was known to be scrupulously conscientious in all her dealings, told her, as plainly as the most cruel words could tell a cruel truth, that her own charms could not have won Edward Arundel’s affection.
All the beautiful day-dreams of her life melted away from her. She had never questioned herself as to her worthiness of her lover’s devotion. She had accepted it as she accepted the sunshine and the starlight — as something beautiful and incomprehensible, that came to her by the beneficence of God, and not through any merits of her own. But as the fabric of her happiness dwindled away, the fatal spell exercised over the girl’s weak nature by Olivia’s violent words evoked a hundred doubts. How should he love her? why should he love her in preference to every other woman in the world? Set any woman to ask herself this question, and you fill her mind with a thousand suspicions, a thousand jealous doubts of her lover, though he were the truest and noblest in the universe.
Olivia Marchmont stood a few paces from her stepdaughter, watching her while the black shadow of doubt blotted every joy from her heart, and utter despair crept slowly into her innocent breast. The widow expected that the girl’s self-esteem would assert itself — that she would contradict and defy the traducer of her lover’s truth; but it was not so. When Mary spoke again, her voice was low and subdued, her manner as submissive as it had been two or three years before, when she had stood before her stepmother, waiting to repeat some difficult lesson.
“I dare say you are right, mamma,” she said in a low dreamy tone, looking not at her stepmother, but straight before her into vacancy, as if her tearless eyes ware transfixed by the vision of all her shattered hopes, filling with wreck and ruin the desolate foreground of a blank future. “I dare say you are right, mamma; it was very foolish of me to think that Edward — that Captain Arundel could care for me, for — for — my own sake; but if — if he wants my fortune, I should wish him to have it. The money will never be any good to me, you know, mamma; and he was so kind to papa in his poverty — so kind! I will never, never believe anything against him; — but I couldn’t expect him to love me. I shouldn’t have offered to be his wife; I ought only to have offered him my fortune.”
She heard her lover’s footstep in the quadrangle without, in the stillness of the summer morning, and shivered at the sound. It was less than a quarter of an hour since she had been walking with him up and down that cloistered way, in which his footsteps were echoing with a hollow sound; and now ——. Even in the confusion of her anguish, Mary Marchmont could not help wondering, as she thought in how short a time the happiness of a future might be swept away into chaos.
“Good-night, mamma,” she said presently, with an accent of weariness. She did not look at her stepmother (who had turned away from her now, and had walked towards the open window), but stole quietly from the room, crossed the hall, and went up the broad staircase to her own lonely chamber. Heiress though she was, she had no special attendant of her own: she had the privilege of summoning Olivia’s maid whenever she had need of assistance; but she retained the simple habits of her early life, and very rarely troubled Mrs. Marchmont’s grim and elderly Abigail.
Olivia stood looking out into the stony quadrangle. It was broad daylight now; the cocks were crowing in the distance, and a skylark singing somewhere in the blue heaven, high up above Marchmont Towers. The faded garlands in the banqueting-room looked wan in the morning sunshine; the lamps were burning still, for the servants waited until Mrs. Marchmont should have retired, before they entered the room. Edward Arundel was walking up and down the cloister, smoking his second cigar.
He stopped presently, seeing his cousin at the window.
“What, Livy!” he cried, “not gone to bed yet?”
“No; I am going directly.”
“Mary has gone, I hope?”
“Yes; she has gone. Good-night.”
“Good morning, my dear Mrs. Marchmont,” the young man answered, laughing. “If the partridges were in, I should be going out shooting, this lovely morning, instead of crawling ignominiously to bed, like a worn-out reveller who has drunk too much sparkling hock. I like the still best, by-the-bye — the Johannisberger, that poor John’s predecessor imported from the Rhine. But I suppose there is no help for it, and I must go to bed in the face of all that eastern glory. I should be mounting for a gallop on the race-course, if I were in Calcutta. But I’ll go to bed, Mrs Marchmont, and humbly await your breakfast-hour. They’re stacking the new hay in the meadows beyond the park. Don’t you smell it?”
Olivia shrugged her shoulders with an impatient frown. Good heavens! how frivolous and senseless this man’s talk seemed to her! She was plunging her soul into an abyss of sin and ruin for his sake; and she hated him, and rebelled against him, because he was so little worthy of the sacrifice.
“Good morning,” she said abruptly; “I’m tired to death.”
She moved away, and left him.
Five minutes afterwards, he went up the great oak-staircase after her, whistling a serenade from Fra Diavolo as he went. He was one of those people to whom life seems all holiday. Younger son though he was, he had never known any of the pitfalls of debt and difficulty into which the junior members of rich families are so apt to plunge headlong in early youth, and from which they emerge enfeebled and crippled, to endure an after-life embittered by all the shabby miseries which wait upon aristocratic pauperism. Brave, honourable, and simple-minded, Edward Arundel had fought the battle of life like a good soldier, and had carried a stainless shield when the fight was thickest, and victory hard to win. His sunshiny nature won him friends, and his better qualities kept them. Young men trusted and respected him; and old men, gray in the service of their country, spoke well of him. His handsome face was a pleasant decoration at any festival; his kindly voice and hearty laugh at a dinner-table were as good as music in the gallery at the end of the banqueting-chamber.
He had that freshness of spirit which is the peculiar gift of some natures; and he had as yet never known sorrow, except, indeed, such tender and compassionate sympathy as he had often felt for the calamities of others.
Olivia Marchmont heard her cousin’s cheery tenor voice as he passed her chamber. “How happy he is!” she thought. “His very happiness is one insult the more to me.”
The widow paced up and down her room in the morning sunshine, thinking of the things she had said in the banqueting-hall below, and of her stepdaughter’s white despairing face. What had she done? What was the extent of the sin she had committed? Olivia Marchmont asked herself these two questions. The old habit of self-examination was not quite abandoned yet. She sinned, and then set herself to work to try and justify her sin.
“How should he love her?” she thought. “What is there in her pale unmeaning face that should win the love of a man who despises me?”
She stopped before a cheval-glass, and surveyed herself from head to foot, frowning angrily at her handsome image, hating herself for her despised beauty. Her white shoulders looked like stainless marble against the rich ruby darkness of her velvet dress. She had snatched the diamond ornaments from her head, and her long black hair fell about her bosom in thick waveless tresses.
“I am handsomer than she is, and cleverer; and I love him better, ten thousand times, than she loves him,” Olivia Marchmont thought, as she turned contemptuously from the glass. “Is it likely, then, that he cares for anything but her fortune? Any other woman in the world would have argued as I argued to-night. Any woman would have believed that she did her duty in warning this besotted girl against her folly. What do I know of Edward Arundel that should lead me to think him better or nobler than other men? and how many men sell themselves for the love of a woman’s wealth! Perhaps good may come of my mad folly, after all; and I may have saved this girl from a life of misery by the words I have spoken to-night.”
The devils — for ever lying in wait for this woman, whose gloomy pride rendered her in some manner akin to themselves — may have laughed at her as she argued thus with herself.
She lay down at last to sleep, worn out by the excitement of the long night, and to dream horrible dreams. The servants, with the exception of one who rose betimes to open the great house, slept long after the unwonted festival. Edward Arundel slumbered as heavily as any member of that wearied household; and thus it was that there was no one in the way to see a shrinking, trembling figure creep down the sunlit-staircase, and steal across the threshold of the wide hall door.
There was no one to see Mary Marchmont’s silent flight from the gaunt Lincolnshire mansion in which she had known so little real happiness. There was no one to comfort the sorrow-stricken girl in her despair and desolation of spirit. She crept away, like some escaped prisoner, in the early morning, from the house which the law called her own.
And the hand of the woman whom John Marchmont had chosen to be his daughter’s friend and counsellor was the hand which drove that daughter from the shelter of her home. The voice of her whom the weak father had trusted in, fearful to confide his child into the hand of God, but blindly confident in his own judgment — was the voice which had uttered the lying words, whose every syllable had been as a separate dagger thrust in the orphan girl’s lacerated heart. It was her father — her father, who had placed this woman over her, and had entailed upon her the awful agony that drove her out into an unknown world, careless whither she went in her despair.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05