It was past two o’clock in the morning of the day which had been appointed for Edward Arundel’s wedding, when Paul Marchmont drew rein before the white gate that divided Major Lawford’s garden from the high-road. There was no lodge, no pretence of grandeur here. An old-fashioned garden surrounded an old-fashioned red-brick house. There was an apple-orchard upon one side of the low white gate, and a flower-garden, with a lawn and fish-pond, upon the other. The carriage-drive wound sharply round to a shallow flight of steps, and a broad door with a narrow window upon each side of it.
Paul got off his horse at the gate, and went in, leading the animal by the bridle. He was a Cockney, heart and soul, and had no sense of any enjoyments that were not of a Cockney nature. So the horse he had selected for himself was anything but a fiery creature. He liked plenty of bone and very little blood in the steed he rode, and was contented to go at a comfortable, jog-trot, seven-miles-an-hour pace, along the wretched country roads.
There was a row of old-fashioned wooden posts, with iron chains swinging between them, upon both sides of the doorway. Paul fastened the horse’s bridle to one of these, and went up the steps. He rang a bell that went clanging and jangling through the house in the stillness of the summer night. All the way along the road he had looked right and left, expecting to pass Olivia; but he had seen no sign of her. This was nothing, however; for there were byways by which she might come from Marchmont Towers to Lawford Grange.
“I must be before her, at any rate,” Paul thought to himself, as he waited patiently for an answer to his summons.
The time seemed very long to him, of course; but at last he saw a light glimmering through the mansion windows, and heard a shuffling foot in the hall. Then the door was opened very cautiously, and a woman’s scared face peered out at Mr. Marchmont through the opening.
“What is it?” the woman asked, in a frightened voice.
“It is I, Mr. Marchmont, of Marchmont Towers. Your master knows me. Mr. Arundel is here, is he not?”
“Yes, and Mrs. Arundel too; but they’re all abed.”
“Never mind that; I must see Major Lawford immediately.”
“But they’re all abed.”
“Never mind that, my good woman; I tell you I must see him.”
“But won’t to-morrow mornin’ do? It’s near three o’clock, and to-morrow’s our eldest miss’s weddin’-day; and they’re all abed.”
“I must see your master. For mercy’s sake, my good woman, do what I tell you! Go and call up Major Lawford — you can do it quietly — and tell him I must speak to him at once.”
The woman, with the chain of the door still between her and Mr. Marchmont, took a timid survey of Paul’s face. She had heard of him often enough, but had never seen him before, and she was rather doubtful as to his identity. She knew that thieves and robbers resorted to all sorts of tricks in the course of their evil vocation. Mightn’t this application for admittance in the dead of the night be only a part of some burglarious plot against the spoons and forks, and that hereditary silver urn with lions’ heads holding rings in their mouths for handles, the fame of which had no doubt circulated throughout all Lincolnshire? Mr. Marchmont had neither a black mask nor a dark-lantern, and to Martha Philpot’s mind these were essential attributes of the legitimate burglar; but he might be burglariously disposed, nevertheless, and it would be well to be on the safe side.
“I’ll go and tell ’em,” the discreet Martha said civilly; “but perhaps you won’t mind my leaving the chain oop. It ain’t like as if it was winter,” she added apologetically.
“You may shut the door, if you like,” answered Paul; “only be quick and wake your master. You can tell him that I want to see him upon a matter of life and death.”
Martha hurried away, and Paul stood upon the broad stone steps waiting for her return. Every moment was precious to him, for he wanted to be beforehand with Olivia. He had no thought except that she would come straight to the Grange to see Edward Arundel; unless, indeed, she was by any chance ignorant of his whereabouts.
Presently the light appeared again in the narrow windows, and this time a man’s foot sounded upon the stone-flagged hall. This time, too, Martha let down the chain, and opened the door wide enough for Mr. Marchmont to enter. She had no fear of burglarious marauders now that the valiant Major was at her elbow.
“Mr. Marchmont,” exclaimed the old soldier, opening a door leading into a little study, “you will excuse me if I seem rather bewildered by your visit. When an old fellow like me is called up in the middle of the night, he can’t be expected to have his wits about him just at first. (Martha, bring us a light.) Sit down, Mr. Marchmont; there’s a chair at your elbow. And now may I ask the reason ——?”
“The reason I have disturbed you in this abrupt manner. The occasion that brings me here is a very painful one; but I believe that my coming may save you and yours from much annoyance.”
“Save us from annoyance! Really, my dear sir, you ——”
“I mystify you for the moment, no doubt,” Paul interposed blandly; “but if you will have a little patience with me, Major Lawford, I think I can make everything very clear — only too painfully clear. You have heard of my relative, Mrs. John Marchmont — my cousin’s widow?”
“I have,” answered the Major, gravely.
The dark scandals that had been current about wretched Olivia Marchmont came into his mind with the mention of her name, and the memory of those miserable slanders overshadowed his frank face.
Paul waited while Martha brought in a smoky lamp, with the half-lighted wick sputtering and struggling in its oily socket. Then he went on, in a calm, dispassionate voice, which seemed the voice of a benevolent Christian, sublimely remote from other people’s sorrows, but tenderly pitiful of suffering humanity, nevertheless.
“You have heard of my unhappy cousin. You have no doubt heard that she is — mad?”
He dropped his voice into so low a whisper, that he only seemed to shape this last word with his thin flexible lips.
“I have heard some rumour to that effect,” the Major answered; “that is to say, I have heard that Mrs. John Marchmont has lately become eccentric in her habits.”
“It has been my dismal task to watch the slow decay of a very powerful intellect,” continued Paul. “When I first came to Marchmont Towers, about the time of my cousin Mary’s unfortunate elopement with Mr. Arundel, that mental decay had already set in. Already the compass of Olivia Marchmont’s mind had become reduced to a monotone, and the one dominant thought was doing its ruinous work. It was my fate to find the clue to that sad decay; it was my fate very speedily to discover the nature of that all-absorbing thought which, little by little, had grown into monomania.”
Major Lawford stared at his visitor’s face. He was a plain-spoken man, and could scarcely see his way clearly through all this obscurity of fine words.
“You mean to say you found out what had driven your cousin’s widow mad?” he said bluntly.
“You put the question very plainly, Major Lawford. Yes; I discovered the secret of my unhappy relative’s morbid state of mind. That secret lies in the fact, that for the last ten years Olivia Marchmont has cherished a hopeless affection for her cousin, Mr. Edward Arundel.”
The Major almost bounded off his chair in horrified surprise.
“Good gracious!” he exclaimed; “you surprise me, Mr. Marchmont, and — and — rather unpleasantly.”
“I should never have revealed this secret to you or to any other living creature, Major Lawford, had not circumstances compelled me to do so. As far as Mr. Arundel is concerned, I can set your mind quite at ease. He has chosen to insult me very grossly; but let that pass. I must do him the justice to state that I believe him to have been from first to last utterly ignorant of the state of his cousin’s mind.”
“I hope so, sir; egad, I hope so!” exclaimed the Major, rather fiercely. “If I thought that this young man had trifled with the lady’s affection; if I thought ——”
“You need think nothing to the detriment of Mr. Arundel,” answered Paul, with placid politeness, “except that he is hot-headed, obstinate, and foolish. He is a young man of excellent principles, and has never fathomed the secret of his cousin’s conduct towards him. I am rather a close observer — something of a student of human nature — and I have watched this unhappy woman. She loves, and has loved, her cousin Edward Arundel; and hers is one of those concentrative natures in which a great passion is nearly akin to a monomania. It was this hopeless, unreturned affection that embittered her character, and made her a harsh stepmother to my poor cousin Mary. For a long time this wretched woman has been very quiet; but her tranquillity has been only a deceitful calm. To-night the storm broke. Olivia Marchmont heard of the marriage that is to take place to-morrow; and, for the first time, a state of melancholy mania developed into absolute violence. She came to me, and attacked me upon the subject of this intended marriage. She accused me of having plotted to give Edward Arundel another bride; and then, after exhausting herself by a torrent of passionate invective against me, against her cousin Edward, your daughter — every one concerned in to-morrow’s event — this wretched woman rushed out of the house in a jealous fury, declaring that she would do something — no matter what — to hinder the celebration of Edward Arundel’s second marriage.”
“Good Heavens!” gasped the Major. “And you mean to say ——”
“I mean to say, that there is no knowing what may be attempted by a madwoman, driven mad by a jealousy in itself almost as terrible as madness. Olivia Marchmont has sworn to hinder your daughter’s marriage. What has not been done by unhappy creatures in this woman’s state of mind? Every day we read of such things in the newspapers — deeds of horror at which the blood grows cold in our veins; and we wonder that Heaven can permit such misery. It is not any frivolous motive that brings me here in the dead of the night, Major Lawford. I come to tell you that a desperate woman has sworn to hinder to-morrow’s marriage. Heaven knows what she may do in her jealous frenzy! She may attack your daughter.”
The father’s face grew pale. His Linda, his darling, exposed to the fury of a madwoman! He could conjure up the scene: the fair girl clinging to her lover’s breast, and desperate Olivia Marchmont swooping down upon her like an angry tigress.
“For mercy’s sake, tell me what I am to do, Mr. Marchmont!” cried the Major. “God bless you, sir, for bringing me this warning! But what am I to do? What do you advise? Shall we postpone the wedding?”
“On no account. All you have to do is to keep this wretched woman at bay. Shut your doors upon her. Do not let her be admitted to this house upon any pretence whatever. Get the wedding over an hour earlier than has been intended, if it is possible for you to do so, and hurry the bride and bridegroom away upon the first stage of their wedding-tour. If you wish to escape all the wretchedness of a public scandal, avoid seeing this woman.”
“I will, I will,” answered the bewildered Major. “It’s a most awful situation. My poor Belinda! Her wedding-day! And a mad woman to attempt — Upon my word, Mr. Marchmont, I don’t know how to thank you for the trouble you have taken.”
“Don’t speak of that. This woman is my cousin’s widow: any shame of hers is disgrace to me. Avoid seeing her. If by any chance she does contrive to force herself upon you, turn a deaf ear to all she may say. She horrified me to-night by her mad assertions. Be prepared for anything she may declare. She is possessed by all manner of delusions, remember, and may make the most ridiculous assertions. There is no limit to her hallucinations. She may offer to bring Edward Arundel’s dead wife from the grave, perhaps. But you will not, on any account, allow her to obtain access to your daughter.”
“No, no — on no account. My poor Belinda! I am very grateful to you, Mr. Marchmont, for this warning. You’ll stop here for the rest of the night? Martha’s beds are always aired. You’ll accept the shelter of our spare room until to-morrow morning?”
“You are very good, Major Lawford; but I must hurry away directly. Remember that I am quite ignorant as to where my unhappy relative may be wandering at this hour of the night. She may have returned to the Towers. Her jealous fury may have exhausted itself; and in that case I have exaggerated the danger. But, at any rate I thought it best to give you this warning.”
“Most decidedly, my dear sir; I thank you from the bottom of my heart. But you’ll take something — wine, tea, brandy-and-water — eh?”
Paul had put on his hat and made his way into the hall by this time. There was no affectation in his eagerness to be away. He glanced uneasily towards the door every now and then while the Major was offering hospitable hindrance to his departure. He was very pale, with a haggard, ashen pallor that betrayed his anxiety, in spite of his bland calmness of manner.
“You are very kind. No; I will get away at once. I have done my duty here; I must now try and do what I can for this wretched woman. Good night. Remember; shut your doors upon her.”
He unfastened the bridle of his horse, mounted, and rode away slowly, so long as there was any chance of the horse’s tread being heard at the Grange. But when he was a quarter of a mile away from Major Lawford’s house, he urged the horse into a gallop. He had no spurs; but he used his whip with a ruthless hand, and went off at a tearing pace along a narrow lane, where the ruts were deep.
He rode for fifteen miles; and it was grey morning when he drew rein at a dilapidated five-barred gate leading into the great, tenantless yard of an uninhabited farmhouse. The place had been unlet for some years; and the land was in the charge of a hind in Mr. Marchmont’s service. The hind lived in a cottage at the other extremity of the farm; and Paul had erected new buildings, with engine-houses and complicated machinery for pumping the water off the low-lying lands. Thus it was that the old farmhouse and the old farmyard were suffered to fall into decay. The empty sties, the ruined barns and outhouses, the rotting straw, and pools of rank corruption, made this tenantless farmyard the very abomination of desolation. Paul Marchmont opened the gate and went in. He picked his way very cautiously through the mud and filth, leading his horse by the bridle till he came to an outhouse, where he secured the animal. Then he crossed the yard, lifted the rusty latch of a narrow wooden door set in a plastered wall, and went into a dismal stone court, where one lonely hen was moulting in miserable solitude.
Long rank grass grew in the interstices of the flags. The lonely hen set up a roopy cackle, and fluttered into a corner at sight of Paul Marchmont. There were some rabbit-hutches, tenantless; a dovecote, empty; a dog-kennel, and a broken chain rusting slowly in a pool of water, but no dog. The courtyard was at the back of the house, looked down upon by a range of latticed windows, some with closed shutters, others with shutters swinging in the wind, as if they had been fain to beat themselves to death in very desolation of spirit.
Mr. Marchmont opened a door and went into the house. There were empty cellars and pantries, dairies and sculleries, right and left of him. The rats and mice scuttled away at sound of the intruder’s footfall. The spiders ran upon the damp-stained walls, and the disturbed cobwebs floated slowly down from the cracked ceilings and tickled Mr. Marchmont’s face.
Farther on in the interior of the gloomy habitation Paul found a great stone-paved kitchen, at the darkest end of which there was a rusty grate, in which a minimum of flame struggled feebly with a maximum of smoke. An open oven-door revealed a dreary black cavern; and the very manner of the rusty door, and loose, half-broken handle, was an advertisement of incapacity for any homely hospitable use. Pale, sickly fungi had sprung up in clusters at the corners of the damp hearthstone. Spiders and rats, damp and cobwebs, every sign by which Decay writes its name upon the dwelling man has deserted, had set its separate mark upon this ruined place.
Paul Marchmont looked round him with a contemptuous shudder. He called “Mrs. Brown! Mrs. Brown!” two or three times, each time waiting for an answer; but none came, and Mr. Marchmont passed on into another room.
Here at least there was some poor pretence of comfort. The room was in the front of the house, and the low latticed window looked out upon a neglected garden, where some tall foxgloves reared their gaudy heads amongst the weeds. At the end of the garden there was a high brick wall, with pear-trees trained against it, and dragon’s-mouth and wallflower waving in the morning-breeze.
There was a bed in this room, empty; an easy-chair near the window; near that a little table, and a set of Indian chessmen. Upon the bed there were some garments scattered, as if but lately flung there; and on the floor, near the fireplace, there were the fragments of a child’s first toys — a tiny trumpet, bought at some village fair, a baby’s rattle, and a broken horse.
Paul Marchmont looked about him — a little puzzled at first; then with a vague dread in his haggard face.
“Mrs. Brown!” he cried, in a loud voice, hurrying across the room towards an inner door as he spoke.
The inner door was opened before Paul could reach it, and a woman appeared; a tall, gaunt-looking woman, with a hard face and bare, brawny arms.
“Where, in Heaven’s name, have you been hiding yourself, woman?” Paul cried impatiently. “And where’s — your patient?”
“With her stepmamma, Mrs. Marchmont — not half an hour ago. As it was your wish I should stop behind to clear up, I’ve done so, sir; but I did think it would have been better for me to have gone with ——”
Paul clutched the woman by the arm, and dragged her towards him.
“Are you mad?” he cried, with an oath. “Are you mad, or drunk? Who gave you leave to let that woman go? Who ——?”
He couldn’t finish the sentence. His throat grew dry, and he gasped for breath; while all the blood in his body seemed to rush into his swollen forehead.
“You sent Mrs. Marchmont to fetch my patient away, sir,” exclaimed the woman, looking frightened. “You did, didn’t you? She said so!”
“She is a liar; and you are a fool or a cheat. She paid you, I dare say! Can’t you speak, woman? Has the person I left in your care, whom you were paid, and paid well, to take care of — have you let her go? Answer me that.”
“I have, sir,” the woman faltered — she was big and brawny, but there was that in Paul Marchmont’s face that frightened her notwithstanding — “seeing as it was your orders.”
“That will do,” cried Paul Marchmont, holding up his hand and looking at the woman with a ghastly smile; “that will do. You have ruined me; do you hear? You have undone a work that has cost me — O my God! why do I waste my breath in talking to such a creature as this? All my plots, my difficulties, my struggles and victories, my long sleepless nights, my bad dreams — has it all come to this? Ruin, unutterable ruin, brought upon me by a madwoman!”
He sat down in the chair by the window, and leaned upon the table, scattering the Indian chessmen with his elbow. He did not weep. That relief — terrible relief though it be for a man’s breast — was denied him. He sat there with his face covered, moaning aloud. That helpless moan was scarcely like the complaint of a man; it was rather like the hopeless, dreary utterance of a brute’s anguish; it sounded like the miserable howling of a beaten cur.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05