John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

In the Dark.

Edward Arundel walked slowly back to the Towers, shaken in body, perplexed in mind, baffled, disappointed, and most miserable; the young husband, whose married life had been shut within the compass of a brief honeymoon, went back to that dark and gloomy mansion within whose encircling walls Mary had pined and despaired.

“Why did she stop here?” he thought; “why didn’t she come to me? I thought her first impulse would have brought her to me. I thought my poor childish love would have set out on foot to seek her husband, if need were.”

He groped his way feebly and wearily amidst the leafless wood, and through the rotting vegetation decaying in oozy slime beneath the black shelter of the naked trees. He groped his way towards the dismal eastern front of the great stone dwelling-house, his face always turned towards the blank windows, that stared down at him from the discoloured walls.

“Oh, if they could speak!” he exclaimed, almost beside himself in his perplexity and desperation; “if they could speak! If those cruel walls could find a voice, and tell me what my darling suffered within their shadow! If they could tell me why she despaired, and ran away to hide herself from her husband and protector! If they could speak!”

He ground his teeth in a passion of sorrowful rage.

“I should gain as much by questioning yonder stone wall as by talking to my cousin, Olivia Marchmont,” he thought, presently. “Why is that woman so venomous a creature in her hatred of my innocent wife? Why is it that, whether I threaten, or whether I appeal, I can gain nothing from her — nothing? She baffles me as completely by her measured answers, which seem to reply to my questions, and which yet tell me nothing, as if she were a brazen image set up by the dark ignorance of a heathen people, and dumb in the absence of an impostor-priest. She baffles me, question her how I will. And Paul Marchmont, again — what have I learned from him? Am I a fool, that people can prevaricate and lie to me like this? Has my brain no sense, and my arm no strength, that I cannot wring the truth from the false throats of these wretches?”

The young man gnashed his teeth again in the violence of his rage.

Yes, it was like a dream; it was like nothing but a dream. In dreams he had often felt this terrible sense of impotence wrestling with a mad desire to achieve something or other. But never before in his waking hours had the young soldier experienced such a sensation.

He stopped, irresolute, almost bewildered, looking back at the boat-house, a black spot far away down by the sedgy brink of the slow river, and then again turning his face towards the monotonous lines of windows in the eastern frontage of Marchmont Towers.

“I let that man play with me to-day,” he thought; “but our reckoning is to come. We have not done with each other yet.”

He walked on towards the low archway leading into the quadrangle.

The room which had been John Marchmont’s study, and which his widow had been wont to occupy since his death, looked into this quadrangle. Edward Arundel saw his cousin’s dark head bending over a book, or a desk perhaps, behind the window.

“Let her beware of me, if she has done any wrong to my wife!” he thought. “To which of these people am I to look for an account of my poor lost girl? To which of these two am I to look! Heaven guide me to find the guilty one; and Heaven have mercy upon that wretched creature when the hour of reckoning comes; for I will have none.”

Olivia Marchmont, looking through the window, saw her kinsman’s face while this thought was in his mind. The expression which she saw there was so terrible, so merciless, so sublime in its grand and vengeful beauty, that her own face blanched even to a paler hue than that which had lately become habitual to it.

“Am I afraid of him?” she thought, as she pressed her forehead against the cold glass, and by a physical effort restrained the convulsive trembling that had suddenly shaken her frame. “Am I afraid of him? No; what injury can he inflict upon me worse than that which he has done me from the very first? If he could drag me to a scaffold, and deliver me with his own hands into the grasp of the hangman, he would do me no deeper wrong than he has done me from the hour of my earliest remembrance of him. He could inflict no new pangs, no sharper tortures, than I have been accustomed to suffer at his hands. He does not love me. He has never loved me. He never will love me. That is my wrong; and it is for that I take my revenge!”

She lifted her head, which had rested in a sullen attitude against the glass, and looked at the soldier’s figure slowly advancing towards the western side of the house.

Then, with a smile — the same horrible smile which Edward Arundel had seen light up her face on the previous night — she muttered between her set teeth:—

“Shall I be sorry because this vengeance has fallen across my pathway? Shall I repent, and try to undo what I have done? Shall I thrust myself between others and Mr. Edward Arundel? Shall I make myself the ally and champion of this gallant soldier, who seldom speaks to me except to insult and upbraid me? Shall I take justice into my hands, and interfere for my kinsman’s benefit? No; he has chosen to threaten me; he has chosen to believe vile things of me. From the first his indifference has been next kin to insolence. Let him take care of himself.”

Edward Arundel took no heed of the grey eyes that watched him with such a vengeful light in their fixed gaze. He was still thinking of his missing wife, still feeling, to a degree that was intolerably painful, that miserable dream-like sense of helplessness and prostration.

“What am I to do?” he thought. “Shall I be for ever going backwards and forwards between my Cousin Olivia and Paul Marchmont; for ever questioning them, first one and then the other, and never getting any nearer to the truth?”

He asked himself this question, because the extreme anguish, the intense anxiety, which he had endured, seemed to have magnified the smallest events, and to have multiplied a hundred-fold the lapse of time. It seemed as if he had already spent half a lifetime in his search after John Marchmont’s lost daughter.

“O my friend, my friend!” he thought, as some faint link of association, some memory thrust upon him by the aspect of the place in which he was, brought back the simple-minded tutor who had taught him mathematics eighteen years before — “my poor friend, if this girl had not been my love and my wife, surely the memory of your trust in me would be enough to make me a desperate and merciless avenger of her wrongs.”

He went into the hall, and from the hall to the tenantless western drawing-room — a dreary chamber, with its grim and faded splendour, its stiff, old-fashioned furniture; a chamber which, unadorned by the presence of youth and innocence, had the aspect of belonging to a day that was gone, and people that were dead. So might have looked one of those sealed-up chambers in the buried cities of Italy, when the doors were opened, and eager living eyes first looked in upon the habitations of the dead.

Edward Arundel walked up and down the empty drawing-room. There were the ivory chessmen that he had brought from India, under a glass shade on an inlaid table in a window. How often he and Mary had played together in that very window; and how she had always lost her pawns, and left bishops and knights undefended, while trying to execute impossible manoeuvres with her queen! The young man paced slowly backwards and forwards across the old-fashioned bordered carpet, trying to think what he should do. He must form some plan of action in his own mind, he thought. There was foul work somewhere, he most implicitly believed; and it was for him to discover the motive of the treachery, and the person of the traitor.

Paul Marchmont! Paul Marchmont!

His mind always travelled back to this point. Paul Marchmont was Mary’s natural enemy. Paul Marchmont was therefore surely the man to be suspected, the man to be found out and defeated.

And yet, if there was any truth in appearances, it was Olivia who was most inimical to the missing girl; it was Olivia whom Mary had feared; it was Olivia who had driven John Marchmont’s orphan-child from her home once, and who might, by the same power to tyrannise and torture a weak and yielding nature, have so banished her again.

Or these two, Paul and Olivia, might both hate the defenceless girl, and might have between them plotted a wrong against her.

“Who will tell me the truth about my lost darling?” cried Edward Arundel. “Who will help me to look for my missing love?”

His lost darling; his missing love. It was thus that the young man spoke of his wife. That dark thought which had been suggested to him by the words of Olivia, by the mute evidence of the little bronze slipper picked up near the river-brink, had never taken root, or held even a temporary place in his breast. He would not — nay, more, he could not — think that his wife was dead. In all his confused and miserable dreams that dreary November night, no dream had ever shown him that. No image of death had mingled itself with the distorted shadows that had tormented his sleep. No still white face had looked up at him through a veil of murky waters. No moaning sob of a rushing stream had mixed its dismal sound with the many voices of his slumbers. No; he feared all manner of unknown sorrows; he looked vaguely forward to a sea of difficulty, to be waded across in blindness and bewilderment before he could clasp his rescued wife in his arms; but he never thought that she was dead.

Presently the idea came to him that it was outside Marchmont Towers — away, beyond the walls of this grim, enchanted castle, where evil spirits seemed to hold possession — that he should seek for the clue to his wife’s hiding-place.

“There is Hester, that girl who was fond of Mary,” he thought; “she may be able to tell me something, perhaps. I will go to her.”

He went out into the hall to look for his servant, the faithful Morrison, who had been eating a very substantial breakfast with the domestics of the Towers —“the sauce to meat” being a prolonged discussion of the facts connected with Mary Marchmont’s disappearance and her relations with Edward Arundel — and who came, radiant and greasy from the enjoyment of hot buttered cakes and Lincolnshire bacon, at the sound of his master’s voice.

“I want you to get me some vehicle, and a lad who will drive me a few miles, Morrison,” the young soldier said; “or you can drive me yourself, perhaps?”

“Certainly, Master Edward; I have driven your pa often, when we was travellin’ together. I’ll go and see if there’s a phee-aton or a shay that will suit you, sir; something that goes easy on its springs.”

“Get anything,” muttered Captain Arundel, “so long as you can get it without loss of time.”

All fuss and anxiety upon the subject of his health worried the young man. He felt his head dizzied with weakness and excitement; his arm — that muscular right arm, which had done him good service two years before in an encounter with a tigress — was weaker than the jewel-bound wrist of a woman. But he chafed against anything like consideration of his weakness; he rebelled against anything that seemed likely to hinder him in that one object upon which all the powers of his mind were bent.

Mr. Morrison went away with some show of briskness, but dropped into a very leisurely pace as soon as he was fairly out of his master’s sight. He went straight to the stables, where he had a pleasant gossip with the grooms and hangers-on, and amused himself further by inspecting every bit of horseflesh in the Marchmont stables, prior to selecting a quiet grey cob which he felt himself capable of driving, and an old-fashioned gig with a yellow body and black and yellow wheels, bearing a strong resemblance to a monstrous wooden wasp.

While the faithful attendant to whom Mrs. Arundel had delegated the care of her son was thus employed, the soldier stood in the stone hall, looking out at the dreary wintry landscape, and pining to hurry away across the dismal swamps to the village in which he hoped to hear tidings of her he sought. He was lounging in a deep oaken window-seat, looking hopelessly at that barren prospect, that monotonous expanse of flat morass and leaden sky, when he heard a footstep behind him; and turning round saw Olivia’s confidential servant, Barbara Simmons, the woman who had watched by his wife’s sick-bed — the woman whom he had compared to a ghoule.

She was walking slowly across the hall towards Olivia’s room, whither a bell had just summoned her. Mrs. Marchmont had lately grown fretful and capricious, and did not care to be waited upon by any one except this woman, who had known her from her childhood, and was no stranger to her darkest moods.

Edward Arundel had determined to appeal to every living creature who was likely to know anything of his wife’s disappearance, and he snatched the first opportunity of questioning this woman.

“Stop, Mrs. Simmons,” he said, moving away from the window; “I want to speak to you; I want to talk to you about my wife.”

The woman turned to him with a blank face, whose expressionless stare might mean either genuine surprise or an obstinate determination not to understand anything that might be said to her.

“Your wife, Captain Arundel!” she said, in cold measured tones, but with an accent of astonishment.

“Yes; my wife. Mary Marchmont, my lawfully-wedded wife. Look here, woman,” cried Edward Arundel; “if you cannot accept the word of a soldier, and an honourable man, you can perhaps believe the evidence of your eyes.”

He took a morocco memorandum-book from his breast-pocket. It was full of letters, cards, bank-notes, and miscellaneous scraps of paper carelessly stuffed into it, and amongst them Captain Arundel found the certificate of his marriage, which he had put away at random upon his wedding morning, and which had lain unheeded in his pocket-book ever since.

“Look here,” he cried, spreading the document before the waiting-woman’s eyes, and pointing, with a shaking hand, to the lines. “You believe that, I suppose?”

“O yes, sir,” Barbara Simmons answered, after deliberately reading the certificate. “I have no reason to disbelieve it; no wish to disbelieve it.”

“No; I suppose not,” muttered Edward Arundel, “unless you too are leagued with Paul Marchmont.”

The woman did not flinch at this hinted accusation, but answered the young man in that slow and emotionless manner which no change of circumstance seemed to have power to alter.

“I am leagued with no one, sir,” she said, coldly. “I serve no one except my mistress, Miss Olivia — I mean Mrs. Marchmont.”

The study-bell rang for the second time while she was speaking.

“I must go to my mistress now, sir,” she said. “You heard her ringing for me.”

“Go, then, and let me see you as you come back. I tell you I must and will speak to you. Everybody in this house tries to avoid me. It seems as if I was not to get a straight answer from any one of you. But I will know all that is to be known about my lost wife. Do you hear, woman? I will know!”

“I will come back to you directly, sir,” Barbara Simmons answered quietly.

The leaden calmness of this woman’s manner irritated Edward Arundel beyond all power of expression. Before his cousin Olivia’s gloomy coldness he had been flung back upon himself as before an iceberg; but every now and then some sudden glow of fiery emotion had shot up amid that frigid mass, lurid and blazing, and the iceberg had been transformed into an angry and passionate woman, who might, in that moment of fierce emotion, betray the dark secrets of her soul. But this woman’s manner presented a passive barrier, athwart which the young soldier was as powerless to penetrate as he would have been to walk through a block of solid stone.

Olivia was like some black and stony castle, whose barred windows bade defiance to the besieger, but behind whose narrow casements transient flashes of light gleamed fitfully upon the watchers without, hinting at the mysteries that were hidden within the citadel.

Barbara Simmons resembled a blank stone wall, grimly confronting the eager traveller, and giving no indication whatever of the unknown country on the other side.

She came back almost immediately, after being only a few moments in Olivia’s room — certainly not long enough to consult with her mistress as to what she was to say or to leave unsaid — and presented herself before Captain Arundel.

“If you have any questions to ask, sir, about Miss Marchmont — about your wife — I shall be happy to answer them,” she said.

“I have a hundred questions to ask,” exclaimed the young man; “but first answer me this one plainly and truthfully — Where do you think my wife has gone? What do you think has become of her?”

The woman was silent for a few moments, and then answered very gravely —

“I would rather not say what I think, sir.”

“Why not?”

“Because I might say that which would make you unhappy.”

“Can anything be more miserable to me than the prevarication which I meet with on every side?” cried Edward Arundel. “If you or any one else will be straightforward with me — remembering that I come to this place like a man who has risen from the grave, depending wholly on the word of others for the knowledge of that which is more vital to me than anything upon this earth — that person will be the best friend I have found since I rose from my sick-bed to come hither. You can have had no motive — if you are not in Paul Marchmont’s pay — for being cruel to my poor girl. Tell me the truth, then; speak, and speak fearlessly.”

“I have no reason to fear, sir,” answered Barbara Simmons, lifting her faded eyes to the young man’s eager face, with a gaze that seemed to say, “I have done no wrong, and I do not shrink from justifying myself.” “I have no reason to fear, sir; I was piously brought up, and have done my best always to do my duty in the state of life in which Providence has been pleased to place me. I have not had a particularly happy life, sir; for thirty years ago I lost all that made me happy, in them that loved me, and had a claim to love me. I have attached myself to my mistress; but it isn’t for me to expect a lady like her would stoop to make me more to her or nearer to her than I have a right to be as a servant.”

There was no accent of hypocrisy or cant in any one of these deliberately-spoken words. It seemed as if in this speech the woman had told the history of her life; a brief, unvarnished history of a barren life, out of which all love and sunlight had been early swept away, leaving behind a desolate blank, that was not destined to be filled up by any affection from the young mistress so long and patiently served.

“I am faithful to my mistress, sir,” Barbara Simmons added, presently; “and I try my best to do my duty to her. I owe no duty to any one else.”

“You owe a duty to humanity,” answered Edward Arundel. “Woman, do you think duty is a thing to be measured by line and rule? Christ came to save the lost sheep of the children of Israel; but was He less pitiful to the Canaanitish woman when she carried her sorrows to His feet? You and your mistress have made hard precepts for yourselves, and have tried to live by them. You try to circumscribe the area of your Christian charity, and to do good within given limits. The traveller who fell among thieves would have died of his wounds, for any help he might have had from you, if he had lain beyond your radius. Have you yet to learn that Christianity is cosmopolitan, illimitable, inexhaustible, subject to no laws of time or space? The duty you owe to your mistress is a duty that she buys and pays for — a matter of sordid barter, to be settled when you take your wages; the duty you owe to every miserable creature in your pathway is a sacred debt, to be accounted for to God.”

As the young soldier spoke thus, carried away by his passionate agitation, suddenly eloquent by reason of the intensity of his feeling, a change came over Barbara’s face. There was no very palpable evidence of emotion in that stolid countenance; but across the wooden blankness of the woman’s face flitted a transient shadow, which was like the shadow of fear.

“I tried to do my duty to Miss Marchmont as well as to my mistress,” she said. “I waited on her faithfully while she was ill. I sat up with her six nights running; I didn’t take my clothes off for a week. There are folks in the house who can tell you as much.”

“God knows I am grateful to you, and will reward you for any pity you may have shown my poor darling,” the young man answered, in a more subdued tone; “only, if you pity me, and wish to help me, speak out, and speak plainly. What do you think has become of my lost girl?”

“I cannot tell you, sir. As God looks down upon me and judges me, I declare to you that I know no more than you know. But I think ——”

“You think what?”

“That you will never see Miss Marchmont again.”

Edward Arundel started as violently as if, of all sentences, this was the last he had expected to hear pronounced. His sanguine temperament, fresh in its vigorous and untainted youth, could not grasp the thought of despair. He could be mad with passionate anger against the obstacles that separated him from his wife; but he could not believe those obstacles to be insurmountable. He could not doubt the power of his own devotion and courage to bring him back his lost love.

“Never — see her — again!”

He repeated these words as if they had belonged to a strange language, and he were trying to make out their meaning.

“You think,” he gasped hoarsely, after a long pause — “you think — that — she is — dead?”

“I think that she went out of this house in a desperate state of mind. She was seen — not by me, for I should have thought it my duty to stop her if I had seen her so — she was seen by one of the servants crying and sobbing awfully as she went away upon that last afternoon.”

“And she was never seen again?”

“Never by me.”

“And — you — you think she went out of this house with the intention of — of — destroying herself?”

The words died away in a hoarse whisper, and it was by the motion of his white lips that Barbara Simmons perceived what the young man meant.

“I do, sir.”

“Have you any — particular reason for thinking so?”

“No reason beyond what I have told you, sir.”

Edward Arundel bent his head, and walked away to hide his blanched face. He tried instinctively to conceal this mental suffering, as he had sometimes hidden physical torture in an Indian hospital, prompted by the involuntary impulse of a brave man. But though the woman’s words had come upon him like a thunderbolt, he had no belief in the opinion they expressed. No; his young spirit wrestled against and rejected the awful conclusion. Other people might think what they chose; but he knew better than they. His wife was not dead. His life had been so smooth, so happy, so prosperous, so unclouded and successful, that it was scarcely strange he should be sceptical of calamity — that his mind should be incapable of grasping the idea of a catastrophe so terrible as Mary’s suicide.

“She was intrusted to me by her father,” he thought. “She gave her faith to me before God’s altar. She cannot have perished body and soul; she cannot have gone down to destruction for want of my arm outstretched to save her. God is too good to permit such misery.”

The young soldier’s piety was of the simplest and most unquestioning order, and involved an implicit belief that a right cause must always be ultimately victorious. With the same blind faith in which he had often muttered a hurried prayer before plunging in amidst the mad havoc of an Indian battle-field, confident that the justice of Heaven would never permit heathenish Affghans to triumph over Christian British gentlemen, he now believed that, in the darkest hour of Mary Marchmont’s life, God’s arm had held her back from the dread horror — the unatonable offence — of self-destruction.

“I thank you for having spoken frankly to me,” he said to Barbara Simmons; “I believe that you have spoken in good faith. But I do not think my darling is for ever lost to me. I anticipate trouble and anxiety, disappointment, defeat for a time — for a long time, perhaps; but I know that I shall find her in the end. The business of my life henceforth is to look for her.”

Barbara’s dull eyes held earnest watch upon the young man’s countenance as he spoke. Anxiety and even fear were in that gaze, palpable to those who knew how to read the faint indications of the woman’s stolid face.

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