John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Marchmont Towers.

There is a lapse of three years and a half between the acts; and the curtain rises to reveal a widely-different picture:— the picture of a noble mansion in the flat Lincolnshire country; a stately pile of building, standing proudly forth against a background of black woodland; a noble building, supported upon either side by an octagon tower, whose solid masonry is half-hidden by the ivy which clings about the stonework, trailing here and there, and flapping restlessly with every breath of wind against the narrow casements.

A broad stone terrace stretches the entire length of the grim façade, from tower to tower; and three flights of steps lead from the terrace to the broad lawn, which loses itself in a vast grassy flat, only broken by a few clumps of trees and a dismal pool of black water, but called by courtesy a park. Grim stone griffins surmount the terrace-steps, and griffins’ heads and other architectural monstrosities, worn and moss-grown, keep watch and ward over every door and window, every archway and abutment — frowning threat and defiance upon the daring visitor who approaches the great house by this, the formidable chief entrance.

The mansion looks westward: but there is another approach, a low archway on the southern side, which leads into a quadrangle, where there is a quaint little door under a stone portico, ivy-covered like the rest; a comfortable little door of massive oak, studded with knobs of rusty iron — a door generally affected by visitors familiar with the house.

This is Marchmont Towers — a grand and stately mansion, which had been a monastery in the days when England and the Pope were friends and allies; and which had been bestowed upon Hugh Marchmont, gentleman, by his Sovereign Lord and Most Christian Majesty the King Henry VIII, of blessed memory, and by that gentleman-commoner extended and improved at considerable outlay. This is Marchmont Towers — a splendid and a princely habitation truly, but perhaps scarcely the kind of dwelling one would choose for the holy resting-place we call home. The great mansion is a little too dismal in its lonely grandeur: it lacks shelter when the dreary winds come sweeping across the grassy flats in the bleak winter weather; it lacks shade when the western sun blazes on every window-pane in the stifling summer evening. It is at all times rather too stony in its aspect; and is apt to remind one almost painfully of every weird and sorrowful story treasured in the storehouse of memory. Ancient tales of enchantment, dark German legends, wild Scottish fancies, grim fragments of half-forgotten demonology, strange stories of murder, violence, mystery, and wrong, vaguely intermingle in the stranger’s mind as he looks, for the first time, at Marchmont Towers.

But of course these feelings wear off in time. So invincible is the power of custom, that we might make ourselves comfortable in the Castle of Otranto, after a reasonable sojourn within its mysterious walls: familiarity would breed contempt for the giant helmet, and all the other grim apparitions of the haunted dwelling. The commonplace and ignoble wants of every-day life must surely bring disenchantment with them. The ghost and the butcher’s boy cannot well exist contemporaneously; and the avenging shade can scarcely continue to lurk beneath the portal which is visited by the matutinal milkman. Indeed, this is doubtless the reason that the most restless and impatient spirit, bent on early vengeance and immediate retribution, will yet wait until the shades of night have fallen before he reveals himself, rather than run the risk of an ignominious encounter with the postman or the parlour-maid. Be it how it might, the phantoms of Marchmont Towers were not intrusive. They may have perambulated the long tapestried corridors, the tenantless chambers, the broad black staircase of shining oak; but, happily, no dweller in the mansion was ever scared by the sight of their pale faces. All the dead-and-gone beauties, and soldiers, and lawyers, and parsons, and simple country-squires of the Marchmont race may have descended from their picture-frames to hold a witches’ sabbath in the old mansion; but as the Lincolnshire servants were hearty eaters and heavy sleepers, the ghosts had it all to themselves. I believe there was one dismal story attached to the house — the story of a Marchmont of the time of Charles I, who had murdered his coachman in a fit of insensate rage; and it was even asserted, upon the authority of an old housekeeper, that John Marchmont’s grandmother, when a young woman and lately come as a bride to the Towers, had beheld the murdered coachman stalk into her chamber, ghastly and blood-bedabbled, in the dim summer twilight. But as this story was not particularly romantic, and possessed none of the elements likely to insure popularity — such as love, jealousy, revenge, mystery, youth, and beauty — it had never been very widely disseminated.

I should think that the new owner of Marchmont Towers — new within the last six months — was about the last person in Christendom to be hypercritical, or to raise fanciful objections to his dwelling; for inasmuch as he had come straight from a wretched transpontine lodging to this splendid Lincolnshire mansion, and had at the same time exchanged a stipend of thirty shillings a week for an income of eleven thousand a year (derivable from lands that spread far away, over fenny flats and low-lying farms, to the solitary seashore), he had ample reason to be grateful to Providence, and well pleased with his new abode.

Yes; Philip Marchmont, the childless widower, had died six months before, at the close of the year ‘43, of a broken heart — his old servants said, broken by the loss of his only and idolised son; after which loss he had never been known to smile. He was one of those undemonstrative men who can take a great sorrow quietly, and only — die of it. Philip Marchmont lay in a velvet-covered coffin, above his son’s, in the stone recess set apart for them in the Marchmont vault beneath Kemberling Church, three miles from the Towers; and John reigned in his stead. John Marchmont, the supernumerary, the banner-holder of Drury Lane, the patient, conscientious copying and outdoor clerk of Lincoln’s Inn, was now sole owner of the Lincolnshire estate, sole master of a household of well-trained old servants, sole proprietor of a very decent country-gentleman’s stud, and of chariots, barouches, chaises, phaetons, and other vehicles — a little shabby and out of date it may be, but very comfortable to a man for whom an omnibus ride had long been a treat and a rarity. Nothing had been touched or disturbed since Philip Marchmont’s death. The rooms he had used were still the occupied apartments; the chambers he had chosen to shut up were still kept with locked doors; the servants who had served him waited upon his successor, whom they declared to be a quiet, easy gentleman, far too wise to interfere with old servants, every one of whom knew the ways of the house a great deal better than he did, though he was the master of it.

There was, therefore, no shadow of change in the stately mansion. The dinner-bell still rang at the same hour; the same tradespeople left the same species of wares at the low oaken door; the old housekeeper, arranging her simple menu, planned her narrow round of soups and roasts, sweets and made-dishes, exactly as she had been wont to do, and had no new tastes to consult. A grey-haired bachelor, who had been own-man to Philip, was now own-man to John. The carriage which had conveyed the late lord every Sunday to morning and afternoon service at Kemberling conveyed the new lord, who sat in the same seat that his predecessor had occupied in the great family-pew, and read his prayers out of the same book — a noble crimson, morocco-covered volume, in which George, our most gracious King and Governor, and all manner of dead-and-gone princes and princesses were prayed for.

The presence of Mary Marchmont made the only change in the old house; and even that change was a very trifling one. Mary and her father were as closely united at Marchmont Towers as they had been in Oakley Street. The little girl clung to her father as tenderly as ever — more tenderly than ever perhaps; for she knew something of that which the physicians had said, and she knew that John Marchmont’s lease of life was not a long one. Perhaps it would be better to say that he had no lease at all. His soul was a tenant on sufferance in its frail earthly habitation, receiving a respite now and again, when the flicker of the lamp was very low — every chance breath of wind threatening to extinguish it for ever. It was only those who knew John Marchmont very intimately who were fully acquainted with the extent of his danger. He no longer bore any of those fatal outward signs of consumption, which fatigue and deprivation had once made painfully conspicuous. The hectic flush and the unnatural brightness of the eyes had subsided; indeed, John seemed much stronger and heartier than of old; and it is only great medical practitioners who can tell to a nicety what is going on inside a man, when he presents a very fair exterior to the unprofessional eye. But John was decidedly better than he had been. He might live three years, five, seven, possibly even ten years; but he must live the life of a man who holds himself perpetually upon his defence against death; and he must recognise in every bleak current of wind, in every chilling damp, or perilous heat, or over-exertion, or ill-chosen morsel of food, or hasty emotion, or sudden passion, an insidious ally of his dismal enemy.

Mary Marchmont knew all this — or divined it, perhaps, rather than knew it, with the child-woman’s subtle power of divination, which is even stronger than the actual woman’s; for her father had done his best to keep all sorrowful knowledge from her. She knew that he was in danger; and she loved him all the more dearly, as the one precious thing which was in constant peril of being snatched away. The child’s love for her father has not grown any less morbid in its intensity since Edward Arundel’s departure for India; nor has Mary become more childlike since her coming to Marchmont Towers, and her abandonment of all those sordid cares, those pitiful every-day duties, which had made her womanly.

It may be that the last lingering glamour of childhood had for ever faded away with the realisation of the day-dream which she had carried about with her so often in the dingy transpontine thoroughfares around Oakley Street. Marchmont Towers, that fairy palace, whose lighted windows had shone upon her far away across a cruel forest of poverty and trouble, like the enchanted castle which appears to the lost wanderer of the child’s story, was now the home of the father she loved. The grim enchanter Death, the only magician of our modern histories, had waved his skeleton hand, more powerful than the star-gemmed wand of any fairy godmother, and the obstacles which had stood between John Marchmont and his inheritance had one by one been swept away.

But was Marchmont Towers quite as beautiful as that fairy palace of Mary’s day-dream? No, not quite — not quite. The rooms were handsome — handsomer and larger, even, than the rooms she had dreamed of; but perhaps none the better for that. They were grand and gloomy and magnificent; but they were not the sunlit chambers which her fancy had built up, and decorated with such shreds and patches of splendour as her narrow experience enabled her to devise. Perhaps it was rather a disappointment to Miss Marchmont to discover that the mansion was completely furnished, and that there was no room in it for any of those splendours which she had so often contemplated in the New Cut. The parrot at the greengrocer’s was a vulgar bird, and not by any means admissible in Lincolnshire. The carrying away and providing for Mary’s favourite tradespeople was not practicable; and John Marchmont had demurred to her proposal of adopting the butcher’s daughter.

There is always something to be given up even when our brightest visions are realised; there is always some one figure (a low one perhaps) missing in the fullest sum of earthly happiness. I dare say if Alnaschar had married the Vizier’s daughter, he would have found her a shrew, and would have looked back yearningly to the humble days in which he had been an itinerant vendor of crockery-ware.

If, therefore, Mary Marchmont found her sunlit fancies not quite realised by the great stony mansion that frowned upon the fenny countryside, the wide grassy flat, the black pool, with its dismal shelter of weird pollard-willows, whose ugly reflections, distorted on the bosom of the quiet water, looked like the shadows of hump-backed men; — if these things did not compose as beautiful a picture as that which the little girl had carried so long in her mind, she had no more reason to be sorry than the rest of us, and had been no more foolish than other dreamers. I think she had built her airy castle too much after the model of a last scene in a pantomime, and that she expected to find spangled waters twinkling in perpetual sunshine, revolving fountains, ever-expanding sunflowers, and gilded clouds of rose-coloured gauze — every thing except the fairies, in short — at Marchmont Towers. Well, the dream was over: and she was quite a woman now, and very grateful to Providence when she remembered that her father had no longer need to toil for his daily bread, and that he was luxuriously lodged, and could have the first physicians in the land at his beck and call.

“Oh, papa, it is so nice to be rich!” the young lady would exclaim now and then, in a fleeting transport of enthusiasm. “How good we ought to be to the poor people, when we remember how poor we once were!”

And the little girl did not forget to be good to the poor about Kemberling and Marchmont Towers. There were plenty of poor, of course — free-and-easy pensioners, who came to the Towers for brandy, and wine, and milk, and woollen stuffs, and grocery, precisely as they would have gone to a shop, except that there was to be no bill. The housekeeper doled out her bounties with many short homilies upon the depravity and ingratitude of the recipients, and gave tracts of an awful and denunciatory nature to the pitiful petitioners — tracts interrogatory, and tracts fiercely imperative; tracts that asked, “Where are you going?” “Why are you wicked?” “What will become of you?” and other tracts which cried, “Stop, and think!” “Pause, while there is time!” “Sinner, consider!” “Evil-doer, beware!” Perhaps it may not be the wisest possible plan to begin the work of reformation by frightening, threatening, and otherwise disheartening the wretched sinner to be reformed. There is a certain sermon in the New Testament, containing sacred and comforting words which were spoken upon a mountain near at hand to Jerusalem, and spoken to an auditory amongst which there must have been many sinful creatures; but there is more of blessing than cursing in that sublime discourse, and it might be rather a tender father pleading gently with his wayward children than an offended Deity dealing out denunciation upon a stubborn and refractory race. But the authors of the tracts may have never read this sermon, perhaps; and they may take their ideas of composition from that comforting service which we read on Ash–Wednesday, cowering in fear and trembling in our pews, and calling down curses upon ourselves and our neighbours. Be it as it might, the tracts were not popular amongst the pensioners of Marchmont Towers. They infinitely preferred to hear Mary read a chapter in the New Testament, or some pretty patriarchal story of primitive obedience and faith. The little girl would discourse upon the Scripture histories in her simple, old-fashioned manner; and many a stout Lincolnshire farm-labourer was content to sit over his hearth, with a pipe of shag-tobacco and a mug of fettled beer, while Miss Marchmont read and expounded the history of Abraham and Isaac, or Joseph and his brethren.

“It’s joost loike a story-book to hear her,” the man would say to his wife; “and yet she brings it all hoame, too, loike. If she reads about Abraham, she’ll say, maybe, ‘That’s joost how you gave your only son to be a soldier, you know, Muster Moggins;’— she allus says Muster Moggins; —‘you gave un into God’s hands, and you troosted God would take care of un; and whatever cam’ to un would be the best, even if it was death.’ That’s what she’ll say, bless her little heart! so gentle and tender loike. The wust o’ chaps couldn’t but listen to her.”

Mary Marchmont’s morbidly sensitive nature adapted her to all charitable offices. No chance word in her simple talk ever inflicted a wound upon the listener. She had a subtle and intuitive comprehension of other people’s feelings, derived from the extreme susceptibility of her own. She had never been vulgarised by the associations of poverty; for her self-contained nature took no colour from the things that surrounded her, and she was only at Marchmont Towers that which she had been from the age of six — a little lady, grave and gentle, dignified, discreet, and wise.

There was one bright figure missing out of the picture which Mary had been wont of late years to make of the Lincolnshire mansion, and that was the figure of the yellow-haired boy who had breakfasted upon haddocks and hot rolls in Oakley Street. She had imagined Edward Arundel an inhabitant of that fair Utopia. He would live with them; or, if he could not live with them, he would be with them as a visitor — often — almost always. He would leave off being a soldier, for of course her papa could give him more money than he could get by being a soldier —(you see that Mary’s experience of poverty had taught her to take a mercantile and sordid view of military life)— and he would come to Marchmont Towers, and ride, and drive, and play tennis (what was tennis? she wondered), and read three-volume novels all day long. But that part of the dream was at least broken. Marchmont Towers was Mary’s home, but the young soldier was far away; in the Pass of Bolan, perhaps — Mary had a picture of that cruel rocky pass almost always in her mind — or cutting his way through a black jungle, with the yellow eyes of hungry tigers glaring out at him through the rank tropical foliage; or dying of thirst and fever under a scorching sun, with no better pillow than the neck of a dead camel, with no more tender watcher than the impatient vulture flapping her wings above his head, and waiting till he, too, should be carrion. What was the good of wealth, if it could not bring this young soldier home to a safe shelter in his native land? John Marchmont smiled when his daughter asked this question, and implored her father to write to Edward Arundel, recalling him to England.

“God knows how glad I should be to have the boy here, Polly!” John said, as he drew his little girl closer to his breast — she sat on his knee still, though she was thirteen years of age. “But Edward has a career before him, my dear, and could not give it up for an inglorious life in this rambling old house. It isn’t as if I could hold out any inducement to him: you know, Polly, I can’t; for I mustn’t leave any money away from my little girl.”

“But he might have half my money, papa, or all of it,” Mary added piteously. “What could I do with money, if ——?”

She didn’t finish the sentence; she never could complete any such sentence as this; but her father knew what she meant.

So six months had passed since a dreary January day upon which John Marchmont had read, in the second column of the “Times,” that he could hear of something greatly to his advantage by applying to a certain solicitor, whose offices were next door but one to those of Messrs. Paulette, Paulette, and Mathewson’s. His heart began to beat very violently when he read that advertisement in the supplement, which it was one of his duties to air before the fire in the clerks’ office; but he showed no other sign of emotion. He waited until he took the papers to his employer; and as he laid them at Mr. Mathewson’s elbow, murmured a respectful request to be allowed to go out for half-an-hour, upon his own business.

“Good gracious me, Marchmont!” cried the lawyer; “what can you want to go out for at this time in the morning? You’ve only just come; and there’s that agreement between Higgs and Sandyman must be copied before ——”

“Yes, I know, sir. I’ll be back in time to attend to it; but I— I think I’ve come into a fortune, sir; and I should like to go and see about it.”

The solicitor turned in his revolving library-chair, and looked aghast at his clerk. Had this Marchmont — always rather unnaturally reserved and eccentric — gone suddenly mad? No; the copying-clerk stood by his employer’s side, grave, self-possessed as ever, with his forefinger upon the advertisement.

“Marchmont — John — call — Messrs. Tindal and Trollam —” gasped Mr. Mathewson. “Do you mean to tell me it’s you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Egad, I’ll go with you!” cried the solicitor, hooking his arm through that of his clerk, snatching his hat from an adjacent stand, and dashing through the outer office, down the great staircase, and into the next door but one before John Marchmont knew where he was.

John had not deceived his employer. Marchmont Towers was his, with all its appurtenances. Messrs. Paulette, Paulette, and Mathewson took him in hand, much to the chagrin of Messrs. Tindal and Trollam, and proved his identity in less than a week. On a shelf above the high wooden desk at which John had sat, copying law-papers, with a weary hand and an aching spine, appeared two bran-new deed-boxes, inscribed, in white letters, with the name and address of JOHN MARCHMONT, ESQ., MARCHMONT TOWERS. The copying-clerk’s sudden accession to fortune was the talk of all the employés in “The Fields.” Marchmont Towers was exaggerated into half Lincolnshire, and a tidy slice of Yorkshire; eleven thousand a year was expanded into an annual million. Everybody expected largesse from the legatee. How fond people had been of the quiet clerk, and how magnanimously they had concealed their sentiments during his poverty, lest they should wound him, as they urged, “which” they knew he was sensitive; and how expansively they now dilated on their long-suppressed emotions! Of course, under these circumstances, it is hardly likely that everybody could be satisfied; so it is a small thing to say that the dinner which John gave — by his late employers’ suggestion (he was about the last man to think of giving a dinner)— at the “Albion Tavern,” to the legal staff of Messrs. Paulette, Paulette, and Mathewson, and such acquaintance of the legal profession as they should choose to invite, was a failure; and that gentlemen who were pretty well used to dine upon liver and bacon, or beefsteak and onions, or the joint, vegetables, bread, cheese, and celery for a shilling, turned up their noses at the turbot, murmured at the paucity of green fat in the soup, made light of red mullet and ortolans, objected to the flavour of the truffles, and were contemptuous about the wines.

John knew nothing of this. He had lived a separate and secluded existence; and his only thought now was of getting away to Marchmont Towers, which had been familiar to him in his boyhood, when he had been wont to go there on occasional visits to his grandfather. He wanted to get away from the turmoil and confusion of the big, heartless city, in which he had endured so much; he wanted to carry away his little girl to a quiet country home, and live and die there in peace. He liberally rewarded all the good people about Oakley Street who had been kind to little Mary; and there was weeping in the regions of the Ladies’ Wardrobe when Mr. Marchmont and his daughter went away one bitter winter’s morning in a cab, which was to carry them to the hostelry whence the coach started for Lincoln.

It is strange to think how far those Oakley-street days of privation and endurance seem to have receded in the memories of both father and daughter. The impalpable past fades away, and it is difficult for John and his little girl to believe that they were once so poor and desolate. It is Oakley Street now that is visionary and unreal. The stately county families bear down upon Marchmont Towers in great lumbering chariots, with brazen crests upon the hammer-cloths, and sulky coachmen in Brown–George wigs. The county mammas patronise and caress Miss Marchmont — what a match she will be for one of the county sons by-and-by! — the county daughters discourse with Mary about her poor, and her fancy-work, and her piano. She is getting on slowly enough with her piano, poor little girl! under the tuition of the organist of Swampington, who gives lessons to that part of the county. And there are solemn dinners now and then at Marchmont Towers — dinners at which Miss Mary appears when the cloth has been removed, and reflects in silent wonder upon the change that has come to her father and herself. Can it be true that she has ever lived in Oakley Street, whither came no more aristocratic visitors than her Aunt Sophia, who was the wife of a Berkshire farmer, and always brought hogs’ puddings, and butter, and home-made bread, and other rustic delicacies to her brother-in-law; or Mrs. Brigsome, the washer-woman, who made a morning-call every Monday, to fetch John Marchmont’s shabby shirts? The shirts were not shabby now; and it was no longer Mary’s duty to watch them day by day, and manipulate them tenderly when the linen grew frayed at the sharp edges of the folds, or the buttonholes gave signs of weakness. Corson, Mr. Marchmont’s own-man, had care of the shirts now: and John wore diamond-studs and a black-satin waistcoat, when he gave a dinner-party. They were not very lively, those Lincolnshire dinner-parties; though the dessert was a sight to look upon, in Mary’s eyes. The long shining table, the red and gold and purple Indian china, the fluffy woollen d’oyleys, the sparkling cut-glass, the sticky preserved ginger and guava-jelly, and dried orange rings and chips, and all the stereotyped sweetmeats, were very grand and beautiful, no doubt; but Mary had seen livelier desserts in Oakley Street, though there had been nothing better than a brown-paper bag of oranges from the Westminster Road, and a bottle of two-and-twopenny Marsala from a licensed victualler’s in the Borough, to promote conviviality.

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