John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Little Mary.

Poor John Marchmont had given his address unwillingly enough to his old pupil. The lodging in Oakley Street was a wretched back-room upon the second-floor of a house whose lower regions were devoted to that species of establishment commonly called a “ladies’ wardrobe.” The poor gentleman, the teacher of mathematics, the law-writer, the Drury–Lane supernumerary, had shrunk from any exposure of his poverty; but his pupil’s imperious good-nature had overridden every objection, and John Marchmont awoke upon the morning after the meeting at Drury–Lane to the rather embarrassing recollection that he was to expect a visitor to breakfast with him.

How was he to entertain this dashing, high-spirited young schoolboy, whose lot was cast in the pleasant pathways of life, and who was no doubt accustomed to see at his matutinal meal such luxuries as John Marchmont had only beheld in the fairy-like realms of comestible beauty exhibited to hungry foot-passengers behind the plate-glass windows of Italian warehouses?

“He has hams stewed in Madeira, and Perigord pies, I dare say, at his Aunt Mostyn’s,” John thought, despairingly. “What can I give him to eat?”

But John Marchmont, after the manner of the poor, was apt to over-estimate the extravagance of the rich. If he could have seen the Mostyn breakfast then preparing in the lower regions of Montague Square, he might have been considerably relieved; for he would have only beheld mild infusions of tea and coffee — in silver vessels, certainly — four French rolls hidden under a glistening damask napkin, six triangular fragments of dry toast, cut from a stale half-quartern, four new-laid eggs, and about half a pound of bacon cut into rashers of transcendental delicacy. Widow ladies who have daughters to marry do not plunge very deep into the books of Messrs. Fortnum and Mason.

“He used to like hot rolls when I was at Vernon’s,” John thought, rather more hopefully; “I wonder whether he likes hot rolls still?”

Pondering thus, Mr. Marchmont dressed himself — very neatly, very carefully; for he was one of those men whom even poverty cannot rob of man’s proudest attribute, his individuality. He made no noisy protest against the humiliations to which he was compelled to submit; he uttered no boisterous assertions of his own merit; he urged no clamorous demand to be treated as a gentleman in his day of misfortune; but in his own mild, undemonstrative way he did assert himself, quite as effectually as if he had raved all day upon the hardship of his lot, and drunk himself mad and blind under the pressure of his calamities. He never abandoned the habits which had been peculiar to him from his childhood. He was as neat and orderly in his second-floor-back as he had been seven or eight years before in his simple apartments at Cambridge. He did not recognise that association which most men perceive between poverty and shirt-sleeves, or poverty and beer. He was content to wear threadbare cloth, but adhered most obstinately to a prejudice in favour of clean linen. He never acquired those lounging vagabond habits peculiar to some men in the day of trouble. Even amongst the supernumeraries of Drury Lane, he contrived to preserve his self-respect; if they nicknamed him Barking Jeremiah, they took care only to pronounce that playful sobriquet when the gentleman-super was safely out of hearing. He was so polite in the midst of his reserve, that the person who could wilfully have offended him must have been more unkindly than any of her Majesty’s servants. It is true, that the great tragedian, on more than one occasion, apostrophised the weak-kneed banner-holder as “BEAST” when the super’s cough had peculiarly disturbed his composure; but the same great man gave poor John Marchmont a letter to a distinguished physician, compassionately desiring the relief of the same pulmonary affection. If John Marchmont had not been prompted by his own instincts to struggle against the evil influences of poverty, he would have done battle sturdily for the sake of one who was ten times dearer to him than himself.

If he could have become a swindler or a reprobate — it would have been about as easy for him to become either as to have burst at once, and without an hour’s practice, into a full-blown Léotard or Olmar — his daughter’s influence would have held him back as securely as if the slender arms twined tenderly about him had been chains of adamant forged by an enchanter’s power.

How could he be false to his little one, this helpless child, who had been confided to him in the darkest hour of his existence; the hour in which his wife had yielded to the many forces arrayed against her in life’s battle, and had left him alone in the world to fight for his little girl?

“If I were to die, I think Arundel’s mother would be kind to her,” John Marchmont thought, as he finished his careful toilet. “Heaven knows, I have no right to ask or expect such a thing; but Polly will be rich by-and-by, perhaps, and will be able to repay them.”

A little hand knocked lightly at the door of his room while he was thinking this, and a childish voice said,

“May I come in, papa?”

The little girl slept with one of the landlady’s children, in a room above her father’s. John opened the door, and let her in. The pale wintry sunshine, creeping in at the curtainless window near which Mr. Marchmont sat, shone full upon the child’s face as she came towards him. It was a small, pale face, with singularly delicate features, a tiny straight nose, a pensive mouth, and large thoughtful hazel eyes. The child’s hair fell loosely upon her shoulders; not in those corkscrew curls so much affected by mothers in the humbler walks of life, nor yet in those crisp undulations lately adopted in Belgravian nurseries; but in soft silken masses, only curling at the extreme end of each tress. Miss Marchmont — she was always called Miss Marchmont in that Oakley Street household — wore her brown-stuff frock and scanty diaper pinafore as neatly as her father wore his threadbare coat and darned linen. She was very pretty, very lady-like, very interesting; but it was impossible to look at her without a vague feeling of pain, that was difficult to understand. You knew, by-and-by, why you were sorry for this little girl. She had never been a child. That divine period of perfect innocence — innocence of all sorrow and trouble, falsehood and wrong — that bright holiday-time of the soul, had never been hers. The ruthless hand of poverty had snatched away from her the gift which God had given her in her cradle; and at eight years old she was a woman — a woman invested with all that is most beautiful amongst womanly attributes — love, tenderness, compassion, carefulness for others, unselfish devotion, uncomplaining patience, heroic endurance. She was a woman by reason of all these virtues; but she was no longer a child. At three years old she had bidden farewell for ever to the ignorant selfishness, the animal enjoyment of childhood, and had learned what it was to be sorry for poor papa and mamma; and from that first time of awakening to the sense of pity and love, she had never ceased to be the comforter of the helpless young husband who was so soon to be left wifeless.

John had been compelled to leave his child, in order to get a living for her and for himself in the hard service of Mr. Laurence Vernon, the principal of the highly select and expensive academy at which Edward Arundel and Martin Mostyn had been educated. But he had left her in good hands; and when the bitter day of his dismissal came, he was scarcely as sorry as he ought to have been for the calamity which brought him back to his little Mary. It is impossible for any words of mine to tell how much he loved the child; but take into consideration his hopeless poverty, his sensitive and reserved nature, his utter loneliness, the bereavement that had cast a shadow upon his youth, and you will perhaps understand an affection that was almost morbid in its intensity, and which was reciprocated most fully by its object. The little girl loved her father too much. When he was with her, she was content to sit by his side, watching him as he wrote; proud to help him, if even by so much as wiping his pens or handing him his blotting-paper; happy to wait upon him, to go out marketing for him, to prepare his scanty meals, to make his tea, and arrange and re-arrange every object in the slenderly furnished second-floor back-room. They talked sometimes of the Lincolnshire fortune — the fortune which might come to Mr. Marchmont, if three people, whose lives when Mary’s father had last heard of them, were each worth three times his own feeble existence, would be so obliging as to clear the way for the heir-at-law, by taking an early departure to the churchyard. A more practical man than John Marchmont would have kept a sharp eye upon these three lives, and by some means or other contrived to find out whether number one was consumptive, or number two dropsical, or number three apoplectic; but John was utterly incapable of any such Machiavellian proceeding. I think he sometimes beguiled his weary walks between Oakley Street and Drury Lane by the dreaming of such childish day-dreams as I should be almost ashamed to set down upon this sober page. The three lives might all happen to be riding in the same express upon the occasion of a terrible collision; but the poor fellow’s gentle nature shrank appalled before the vision he had invoked. He could not sacrifice a whole train-full of victims, even for little Mary. He contented himself with borrowing a “Times” newspaper now and then, and looking at the top of the second column, with the faint hope that he should see his own name in large capitals, coupled with the announcement that by applying somewhere he might hear of something to his advantage. He contented himself with this, and with talking about the future to little Mary in the dim firelight. They spent long hours in the shadowy room, only lighted by the faint flicker of a pitiful handful of coals; for the commonest dip-candles are sevenpence-halfpenny a pound, and were dearer, I dare say, in the year ‘38. Heaven knows what splendid castles in the air these two simple-hearted creatures built for each other’s pleasure by that comfortless hearth. I believe that, though the father made a pretence of talking of these things only for the amusement of his child, he was actually the more childish of the two. It was only when he left that fire-lit room, and went back into the hard, reasonable, commonplace world, that he remembered how foolish the talk was, and how it was impossible — yes, impossible — that he, the law-writer and supernumerary, could ever come to be master of Marchmont Towers.

Poor little Mary was in this less practical than her father. She carried her day-dreams into the street, until all Lambeth was made glorious by their supernal radiance. Her imagination ran riot in a vision of a happy future, in which her father would be rich and powerful. I am sorry to say that she derived most of her ideas of grandeur from the New Cut. She furnished the drawing-room at Marchmont Towers from the splendid stores of an upholsterer in that thoroughfare. She laid flaming Brussels carpets upon the polished oaken floors which her father had described to her, and hung cheap satin damask of gorgeous colours before the great oriel windows. She put gilded vases of gaudy artificial flowers on the high carved mantel-pieces in the old rooms, and hung a disreputable gray parrot — for sale at a greengrocer’s, and given to the use of bad language — under the stone colonnnade at the end of the western wing. She appointed the tradespeople who should serve the far-away Lincolnshire household; the small matter of distance would, of course, never stand in the way of her gratitude and benevolence. Her papa would employ the civil greengrocer who gave such excellent halfpennyworths of watercresses; the kind butterman who took such pains to wrap up a quarter of a pound of the best eighteenpenny fresh butter for the customer whom he always called “little lady;” the considerate butcher who never cut more than the three-quarters of a pound of rump-steak, which made an excellent dinner for Mr. Marchmont and his little girl. Yes, all these people should be rewarded when the Lincolnshire property came to Mary’s papa. Miss Marchmont had some thoughts of building a shop close to Marchmont Towers for the accommodating butcher, and of adopting the greengrocer’s eldest daughter for her confidante and companion. Heaven knows how many times the little girl narrowly escaped being run over while walking the material streets in some ecstatic reverie such as this; but Providence was very careful of the motherless girl, and she always returned safely to Oakley Street with her pitiful little purchases of tea and sugar, butter and meat. You will say, perhaps, that at least these foolish day-dreams were childish; but I maintain still, that Mary’s soul had long ago bade adieu to infancy, and that even in these visions she was womanly; for she was always thoughtful of others rather than of herself, and there was a great deal more of the practical business of life mingled with the silvery web of her fancies than there should have been so soon after her eighth birthday. At times, too, an awful horror would quicken the pulses of her loving heart as she heard the hacking sound of her father’s cough; and a terrible dread would seize her — the fear that John Marchmont might never live to inherit the Lincolnshire fortune. The child never said her prayers without adding a little extempore supplication, that she might die when her father died. It was a wicked prayer, perhaps; and a clergyman might have taught her that her life was in the hands of Providence; and that it might please Him who had created her to doom her to many desolate years of loneliness; and that it was not for her, in her wretched and helpless ignorance, to rebel against His divine will. I think if the Archbishop of Canterbury had driven from Lambeth Palace to Oakley Street to tell little Mary this, he would have taught her in vain; and that she would have fallen asleep that night with the old prayer upon her lips, the fond foolish prayer that the bonds which love had woven so firmly might never be roughly broken by death.

Miss Marchmont heard the story of last night’s meeting with great pleasure, though it must be owned she looked a little grave when she was told that the generous-hearted school-boy was coming to breakfast; but her gravity was only that of a thoughtful housekeeper, who ponders ways and means, and even while you are telling her the number and quality of your guests, sketches out a rough ground-plan of her dishes, considers the fish in season, and the soups most fitting to precede them, and balances the contending advantages of Palestine and Julienne or Hare and Italian.

“A ‘nice’ breakfast you say, papa,” she said, when her father had finished speaking; “then we must have watercresses, of course.”

“And hot rolls, Polly dear. Arundel was always fond of hot rolls.”

“And hot rolls, four for threepence-halfpenny in the Cut.”—(I am ashamed to say that this benighted child talked as deliberately of the “Cut” as she might have done of the “Row.”)—“There’ll be one left for tea, papa; for we could never eat four rolls. They’ll take such a lot of butter, though.”

The little housekeeper took out an antediluvian bead-purse, and began to examine her treasury. Her father handed all his money to her, as he would have done to his wife; and Mary doled him out the little sums he wanted — money for half an ounce of tobacco, money for a pint of beer. There were no penny papers in those days, or what a treat an occasional “Telegraph” would have been to poor John Marchmont!

Mary had only one personal extravagance. She read novels — dirty, bloated, ungainly volumes — which she borrowed from a snuffy old woman in a little back street, who charged her the smallest hire ever known in the circulating-library business, and who admired her as a wonder of precocious erudition. The only pleasure the child knew in her father’s absence was the perusal of these dingy pages; she neglected no duty, she forgot no tender office of ministering care for the loved one who was absent; but when all the little duties had been finished, how delicious it was to sit down to “Madeleine the Deserted,” or “Cosmo the Pirate,” and to lose herself far away in illimitable regions, peopled by wandering princesses in white satin, and gentlemanly bandits, who had been stolen from their royal fathers’ halls by vengeful hordes of gipsies. During these early years of poverty and loneliness, John Marchmont’s daughter stored up, in a mind that was morbidly sensitive rather than strong, a terrible amount of dim poetic sentiment; the possession of which is scarcely, perhaps, the best or safest dower for a young lady who has life’s journey all before her.

At half-past nine o’clock, all the simple preparations necessary for the reception of a visitor had been completed by Mr. Marchmont and his daughter. All vestiges of John’s bed had disappeared; leaving, it is true, rather a suspicious-looking mahogany chest of drawers to mark the spot where once a bed had been. The window had been opened, the room aired and dusted, a bright little fire burned in the shining grate, and the most brilliant of tin tea-kettles hissed upon the hob. The white table-cloth was darned in several places; but it was a remnant of the small stock of linen with which John had begun married life; and the Irish damask asserted its superior quality, in spite of many darns, as positively as Mr. Marchmont’s good blood asserted itself in spite of his shabby coat. A brown teapot full of strong tea, a plate of French rolls, a pat of fresh butter, and a broiled haddock, do not compose a very epicurean repast; but Mary Marchmont looked at the humble breakfast as a prospective success.

“We could have haddocks every day at Marchmont Towers, couldn’t we, papa?” she said naïvely.

But the little girl was more than delighted when Edward Arundel dashed up the narrow staircase, and burst into the room, fresh, radiant, noisy, splendid, better dressed even than the waxen preparations of elegant young gentlemen exhibited at the portal of a great outfitter in the New Cut, and yet not at all like either of those red-lipped types of fashion. How delighted the boy declared himself with every thing! He had driven over in a cabriolet, and he was awfully hungry, he informed his host. The rolls and watercresses disappeared before him as if by magic; little Mary shivered at the slashing cuts he made at the butter; the haddock had scarcely left the gridiron before it was no more.

“This is ten times better than Aunt Mostyn’s skinny breakfasts,” the young gentleman observed candidly. “You never get enough with her. Why does she say, ‘You won’t take another egg, will you, Edward?’ if she wants me to have one? You should see our hunting-breakfasts at Dangerfield, Marchmont. Four sorts of claret, and no end of Moselle and champagne. You shall go to Dangerfield some day, to see my mother, Miss Mary.”

He called her “Miss Mary,” and seemed rather shy of speaking to her. Her womanliness impressed him in spite of himself. He had a fancy that she was old enough to feel the humiliation of her father’s position, and to be sensitive upon the matter of the two-pair back; and he was sorry the moment after he had spoken of Dangerfield.

“What a snob I am!” he thought; “always bragging of home.”

But Mr. Arundel was not able to stop very long in Oakley Street, for the supernumerary had to attend a rehearsal at twelve o’clock; so at half-past eleven John Marchmont and his pupil went out together, and little Mary was left alone to clear away the breakfast, and perform the rest of her household duties.

She had plenty of time before her, so she did not begin at once, but sat upon a stool near the fender, gazing dreamily at the low fire.

“How good and kind he is!” she thought; “just like Cosmo — only Cosmo was dark; or like Reginald Ravenscroft — but then he was dark too. I wonder why the people in novels are always dark? How kind he is to papa! Shall we ever go to Dangerfield, I wonder, papa and I? Of course I wouldn’t go without papa.”

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