John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

“When Shall i Cease to Be All Alone?”

Hubert Arundel was not so much surprised as might have been anticipated at the proposal made him by his wealthy neighbour. Edward had prepared his uncle for the possibility of such a proposal by sundry jocose allusions and arch hints upon the subject of John Marchmont’s admiration for Olivia. The frank and rather frivolous young man thought it was his cousin’s handsome face that had captivated the master of Marchmont Towers, and was quite unable to fathom the hidden motive underlying all John’s talk about Miss Arundel.

The Rector of Swampington, being a simple-hearted and not very far-seeing man, thanked God heartily for the chance that had befallen his daughter. She would be well off and well cared for, then, by the mercy of Providence, in spite of his own shortcomings, which had left her with no better provision for the future than a pitiful Policy of Assurance upon her father’s life. She would be well provided for henceforward, and would live in a handsome house; and all those noble qualities which had been dwarfed and crippled in a narrow sphere would now expand, and display themselves in unlooked-for grandeur.

“People have called her a good girl,” he thought; “but how could they ever know her goodness, unless they had seen, as I have, the deprivations she has borne so uncomplainingly?”

John Marchmont, being newly instructed by his lawyer, was able to give Mr. Arundel a very clear statement of the provision he could make for his wife’s future. He could settle upon her the nine thousand pounds left him by Philip Marchmont. He would allow her five hundred a year pin-money during his lifetime; he would leave her his savings at his death; and he would effect an insurance upon his life for her benefit. The amount of these savings would, of course, depend upon the length of John’s life; but the money would accumulate very quickly, as his income was eleven thousand a year, and his expenditure was not likely to exceed three.

The Swampington living was worth little more than three hundred and fifty pounds a year; and out of that sum Hubert Arundel and his daughter had done treble as much good for the numerous poor of the parish as ever had been achieved by any previous Rector or his family. Hubert and his daughter had patiently endured the most grinding poverty, the burden ever falling heavier on Olivia, who had the heroic faculty of endurance as regards all physical discomfort. Can it be wondered, then, that the Rector of Swampington thought the prospect offered to his child a very brilliant one? Can it be wondered that he urged his daughter to accept this altered lot?

He did urge her, pleading John Marchmont’s cause a great deal more warmly than the widower had himself pleaded.

“My darling,” he said, “my darling girl! if I can live to see you mistress of Marchmont Towers, I shall go to my grave contented and happy. Think, my dear, of the misery from which this marriage will save you. Oh, my dear girl, I can tell you now what I never dared tell you before; I can tell you of the long, sleepless nights I have passed thinking of you, and of the wicked wrongs I have done you. Not wilful wrongs, my love,” the Rector added, with the tears gathering in his eyes; “for you know how dearly I have always loved you. But a father’s responsibility towards his children is a very heavy burden. I have only looked at it in this light lately, my dear — now that I’ve let the time slip by, and it is too late to redeem the past. I’ve suffered very much, Olivia; and all this has seemed to separate us, somehow. But that’s past now, isn’t it, my dear? and you’ll marry this Mr. Marchmont. He appears to be a very good, conscientious man, and I think he’ll make you happy.”

The father and daughter were sitting together after dinner in the dusky November twilight, the room only lighted by the fire, which was low and dim. Hubert Arundel could not see his daughter’s face as he talked to her; he could only see the black outline of her figure sharply defined against the grey window behind her, as she sat opposite to him. He could see by her attitude that she was listening to him, with her head drooping and her hands lying idle in her lap.

She was silent for some little time after he had finished speaking; so silent that he feared his words might have touched her too painfully, and that she was crying.

Heaven help this simple-hearted father! She had scarcely heard three consecutive words that he had spoken, but had only gathered dimly from his speech that he wanted her to accept John Marchmont’s offer.

Every great passion is a supreme egotism. It is not the object which we hug so determinedly; it is not the object which coils itself about our weak hearts: it is our own madness we worship and cleave to, our own pitiable folly which we refuse to put away from us. What is Bill Sykes’ broken nose or bull-dog visage to Nancy? The creature she loves and will not part from is not Bill, but her own love for Bill — the one delusion of a barren life; the one grand selfishness of a feeble nature.

Olivia Arundel’s thoughts had wandered far away while her father had spoken so piteously to her. She had been thinking of her cousin Edward, and had been asking herself the same question over and over again. Would he be sorry? would he be sorry if she married John Marchmont?

But she understood presently that her father was waiting for her to speak; and, rising from her chair, she went towards him, and laid her hand upon his shoulder.

“I am afraid I have not done my duty to you, papa,” she said.

Latterly she had been for ever harping upon this one theme — her duty! That word was the keynote of her life; and her existence had latterly seemed to her so inharmonious, that it was scarcely strange she should repeatedly strike that leading note in the scale.

“My darling,” cried Mr. Arundel, “you have been all that is good!”

“No, no, papa; I have been cold, reserved, silent.”

“A little silent, my dear,” the Rector answered meekly; “but you have not been happy. I have watched you, my love, and I know you have not been happy. But that is not strange. This place is so dull, and your life has been so fatiguing. How different that would all be at Marchmont Towers!”

“You wish me to many Mr. Marchmont, then, papa?”

“I do, indeed, my love. For your own sake, of course,” the Rector added deprecatingly.

“You really wish it?”

“Very, very much, my dear.”

“Then I will marry him, papa.”

She took her hand from the Rector’s shoulder, and walked away from him to the uncurtained window, against which she stood with her back to her father, looking out into the grey obscurity.

I have said that Hubert Arundel was not a very clever or far-seeing person; but he vaguely felt that this was not exactly the way in which a brilliant offer of marriage should be accepted by a young lady who was entirely fancy-free, and he had an uncomfortable apprehension that there was something hidden under his daughter’s quiet manner.

“But, my dear Olivia,” he said nervously, “you must not for a moment suppose that I would force you into this marriage, if it is in any way repugnant to yourself. You — you may have formed some prior attachment — or, there may be somebody who loves you, and has loved you longer than Mr. Marchmont, who —”

His daughter turned upon him sharply as he rambled on.

“Somebody who loves me!” she echoed. “What have you ever seen that should make you think any one loved me?”

The harshness of her tone jarred upon Mr. Arundel, and made him still more nervous.

“My love, I beg your pardon, I have seen nothing. I—”

“Nobody loves me, or has ever loved me — but you,” resumed Olivia, taking no heed of her father’s feeble interruption. “I am not the sort of woman to be loved; I feel and know that. I have an aquiline nose, and a clear skin, and dark eyes, and people call me handsome; but nobody loves me, or ever will, so long as I live.”

“But Mr. Marchmont, my dear — surely he loves and admires you?” remonstrated the Rector.

“Mr. Marchmont wants a governess and chaperone for his daughter, and thinks me a suitable person to fill such a post; that is all the love Mr. Marchmont has for me. No, papa; there is no reason I should shrink from this marriage. There is no one who will be sorry for it; no one! I am asked to perform a duty towards this little girl, and I am prepared to perform it faithfully. That is my part of the bargain. Do I commit a sin in marrying John Marchmont in this spirit, papa?”

She asked the question eagerly, almost breathlessly; as if her decision depended upon her father’s answer.

“A sin, my dear! How can you ask such a question?”

“Very well, then; if I commit no sin in accepting this offer, I will accept it.”

It was thus Olivia paltered with her conscience, holding back half the truth. The question she should have asked was this, “Do I commit a sin in marrying one man, while my heart is racked by a mad passion for another?”

Miss Arundel could not visit her poor upon the day after this interview with her father. Her monotonous round of duty seemed more than ever abhorrent to her. She wandered across the dreary marshes, down by the lonely seashore, in the grey November fog.

She stood for a long time, shivering with the cold dampness of the atmosphere, but not even conscious that she was cold, looking at a dilapidated boat that lay upon the rugged beach. The waters before her and the land behind her were hidden by a dense veil of mist. It seemed as if she stood alone in the world — utterly isolated, utterly forgotten.

“O my God!” she murmured, “if this boat at my feet could drift me away to some desert island, I could never be more desolate than I am, amongst the people who do not love me.”

Dim lights in distant windows were gleaming across the flats when she returned to Swampington, to find her father sitting alone and dispirited at his frugal dinner. Miss Arundel took her place quietly at the bottom of the table, no trace of emotion upon her face.

“I am sorry I stayed out so long, papa” she said; “I had no idea it was so late.”

“Never mind, my dear, I know you have always enough to occupy you. Mr. Marchmont called while you were out. He seemed very anxious to hear your decision, and was delighted when he found that it was favourable to himself.”

Olivia dropped her knife and fork, and rose from her chair suddenly, with a strange look, which was almost terror, in her face.

“It is quite decided, then?” she said.

“Yes, my love. But you are not sorry, are you?”

“Sorry! No; I am glad.”

She sank back into her chair with a sigh of relief. She was glad. The prospect of this strange marriage offered a relief from the horrible oppression of her life.

“Henceforward to think of Edward Arundel will be a sin,” she thought. “I have not won another man’s love; but I shall be another man’s wife.”

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