John Marchmont's Legacy, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Miss Lawford Speaks Her Mind.

Major Lawford and his blue-eyed daughters were not amongst those guests who accepted Paul Marchmont’s princely hospitalities. Belinda Lawford had never heard the story of Edward’s lost bride as he himself could have told it; but she had heard an imperfect version of the sorrowful history from Letitia, and that young lady had informed her friend of Edward’s animus against the new master of the Towers.

“The poor dear foolish boy will insist upon thinking that Mr. Marchmont was at the bottom of it all,” she had said in a confidential chat with Belinda, “somehow or other; but whether he was, or whether he wasn’t, I’m sure I can’t say. But if one attempts to take Mr. Marchmont’s part with Edward, he does get so violent and go on so, that one’s obliged to say all sorts of dreadful things about Mary’s cousin for the sake of peace. But really, when I saw him one day in Kemberling, with a black velvet shooting-coat, and his beautiful smooth white hair and auburn moustache, I thought him most interesting. And so would you, Belinda, if you weren’t so wrapped up in that doleful brother of mine.”

Whereupon, of course, Miss Lawford had been compelled to declare that she was not “wrapped up” in Edward, whatever state of feeling that obscure phrase might signify; and to express, by the vehemence of her denial, that, if anything, she rather detested Miss Arundel’s brother. By-the-by, did you ever know a young lady who could understand the admiration aroused in the breast of other young ladies for that most uninteresting object, a brother? Or a gentleman who could enter with any warmth of sympathy into his friend’s feelings respecting the auburn tresses or the Grecian nose of “a sister”? Belinda Lawford, I say, knew something of the story of Mary Arundel’s death, and she implored her father to reject all hospitalities offered by Paul Marchmont.

“You won’t go to the Towers, papa dear?” she said, with her hands clasped upon her father’s arm, her cheeks kindling, and her eyes filling with tears as she spoke to him; “you won’t go and sit at Paul Marchmont’s table, and drink his wine, and shake hands with him? I know that he had something to do with Mary Arundel’s death. He had indeed, papa. I don’t mean anything that the world calls crime; I don’t mean any act of open violence. But he was cruel to her, papa; he was cruel to her. He tortured her and tormented her until she —” The girl paused for a moment, and her voice faltered a little. “Oh, how I wish that I had known her, papa,” she cried presently, “that I might have stood by her, and comforted her, all through that sad time!”

The Major looked down at his daughter with a tender smile — a smile that was a little significant, perhaps, but full of love and admiration.

“You would have stood by Arundel’s poor little wife, my dear?” he said. “You would stand by her now, if she were alive, and needed your friendship?”

“I would indeed, papa,” Miss Lawford answered resolutely.

“I believe it, my dear; I believe it with all my heart. You are a good girl, my Linda; you are a noble girl. You are as good as a son to me, my dear.”

Major Lawford was silent for a few moments, holding his daughter in his arms and pressing his lips upon her broad forehead.

“You are fit to be a soldier’s daughter, my darling,” he said, “or — or a soldier’s wife.”

He kissed her once more, and then left her, sighing thoughtfully as he went away.

This is how it was that neither Major Lawford nor any of his family were present at those splendid entertainments which Paul Marchmont gave to his new friends. Mr. Marchmont knew almost as well as the Lawfords themselves why they did not come, and the absence of them at his glittering board made his bread bitter to him and his wine tasteless. He wanted these people as much as the others — more than the others, perhaps, for they had been Edward Arundel’s friends; and he wanted them to turn their backs upon the young man, and join in the general outcry against his violence and brutality. The absence of Major Lawford at the lighted banquet-table tormented this modern rich man as the presence of Mordecai at the gate tormented Haman. It was not enough that all the others should come if these stayed away, and by their absence tacitly testified to their contempt for the master of the Towers.

He met Belinda sometimes on horseback with the old grey-headed groom behind her, a fearless young amazon, breasting the January winds, with her blue eyes sparkling, and her auburn hair blowing away from her candid face: he met her, and looked out at her from the luxurious barouche in which it was his pleasure to loll by his mother’s side, half-buried amongst soft furry rugs and sleek leopard-skins, making the chilly atmosphere through which he rode odorous with the scent of perfumed hair, and smiling over cruelly delicious criticisms in newly-cut reviews. He looked out at this fearless girl whose friends so obstinately stood by Edward Arundel; and the cold contempt upon Miss Lawford’s face cut him more keenly than the sharpest wind of that bitter January.

Then he took counsel with his womankind; not telling them his thoughts, fears, doubts, or wishes — it was not his habit to do that — but taking their ideas, and only telling them so much as it was necessary for them to know in order that they might be useful to him. Paul Marchmont’s life was regulated by a few rules, so simple that a child might have learned them; indeed I regret to say that some children are very apt pupils in that school of philosophy to which the master of Marchmont Towers belonged, and cause astonishment to their elders by the precocity of their intelligence. Mr. Marchmont might have inscribed upon a very small scrap of parchment the moral maxims by which he regulated his dealings with mankind.

“Always conciliate,” said this philosopher. “Never tell an unnecessary lie. Be agreeable and generous to those who serve you. N.B. No good carpenter would allow his tools to get rusty. Make yourself master of the opinions of others, but hold your own tongue. Seek to obtain the maximum of enjoyment with the minimum of risk.”

Such golden saws as these did Mr. Marchmont make for his own especial guidance; and he hoped to pass smoothly onwards upon the railway of life, riding in a first-class carriage, on the greased wheels of a very easy conscience. As for any unfortunate fellow-travellers pitched out of the carriage-window in the course of the journey, or left lonely and helpless at desolate stations on the way, Providence, and not Mr. Marchmont, was responsible for their welfare. Paul had a high appreciation of Providence, and was fond of talking — very piously, as some people said; very impiously, as others secretly thought — about the inestimable Wisdom which governed all the affairs of this lower world. Nowhere, according to the artist, had the hand of Providence been more clearly visible than in this matter about Paul’s poor little cousin Mary. If Providence had intended John Marchmont’s daughter to be a happy bride, a happy wife, the prosperous mistress of that stately habitation, why all that sad business of old Mr. Arundel’s sudden illness, Edward’s hurried journey, the railway accident, and all the complications that had thereupon arisen? Nothing would have been easier than for Providence to have prevented all this; and then he, Paul, would have been still in Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, patiently waiting for a friendly lift upon the high-road of life. Nobody could say that he had ever been otherwise than patient. Nobody could say that he had ever intruded himself upon his rich cousins at the Towers, or had been heard to speculate upon his possible inheritance of the estate; or that he had, in short, done any thing but that which the best, truest, most conscientious and disinterested of mankind should do.

In the course of that bleak, frosty January, Mr. Marchmont sent his mother and his sister Lavinia to make a call at the Grange. The Grange people had never called upon Mrs. Marchmont; but Paul did not allow any flimsy ceremonial law to stand in his way when he had a purpose to achieve. So the ladies went to the Grange, and were politely received; for Miss Lawford and her mother were a great deal too innocent and noble-minded to imagine that these pale-faced, delicate-looking women could have had any part, either directly or indirectly, in that cruel treatment which had driven Edward’s young wife from her home. Mrs. Marchmont and Mrs. Weston were kindly received, therefore; and in a little conversation with Belinda about birds, and dahlias, and worsted work, and the most innocent subjects imaginable, the wily Lavinia contrived to lead up to Miss Letitia Arundel, and thence, by the easiest conversational short-cut, to Edward and his lost wife. Mrs. Weston was obliged to bring her cambric handkerchief out of her muff when she talked about her cousin Mary; but she was a clever woman, and she had taken to heart Paul’s pet maxim about the folly of unnecessary lies; and she was so candid as to entirely disarm Miss Lawford, who had a schoolgirlish notion that every kind of hypocrisy and falsehood was outwardly visible in a servile and slavish manner. She was not upon her guard against those practised adepts in the art of deception, who have learnt to make that subtle admixture of truth and falsehood which defies detection; like some fabrics in whose woof silk and cotton are so cunningly blended that only a practised eye can discover the inferior material.

So when Lavinia dried her eyes and put her handkerchief back in her muff, and said, betwixt laughing and crying —

“Now you know, my dear Miss Lawford, you mustn’t think that I would for a moment pretend to be sorry that my brother has come into this fortune. Of course any such pretence as that would be ridiculous, and quite useless into the bargain, as it isn’t likely anybody would believe me. Paul is a dear, kind creature, the best of brothers, the most affectionate of sons, and deserves any good fortune that could fall to his lot; but I am truly sorry for that poor little girl. I am truly sorry, believe me, Miss Lawford; and I only regret that Mr. Weston and I did not come to Kemberling sooner, so that I might have been a friend to the poor little thing; for then, you know, I might have prevented that foolish runaway match, out of which almost all the poor child’s troubles arose. Yes, Miss Lawford; I wish I had been able to befriend that unhappy child, although by my so doing Paul would have been kept out of the fortune he now enjoys — for some time, at any rate. I say for some time, because I do not believe that Mary Marchmont would have lived to be old, under the happiest circumstances. Her mother died very young; and her father, and her father’s father, were consumptive.”

Then Mrs. Weston took occasion, incidentally of course, to allude to her brother’s goodness; but even then she was on her guard, and took care not to say too much.

“The worst actors are those who over-act their parts.” That was another of Paul Marchmont’s golden maxims.

“I don’t know what my brother may be to the rest of the world,” Lavinia said; “but I know how good he is to those who belong to him. I should be ashamed to tell you all he has done for Mr. Weston and me. He gave me this cashmere shawl at the beginning of the winter, and a set of sables fit for a duchess; though I told him they were not at all the thing for a village surgeon’s wife, who keeps only one servant, and dusts her own best parlour.”

And Mrs. Marchmont talked of her son; with no loud enthusiasm, but with a tone of quiet conviction that was worth any money to Paul. To have an innocent person, some one not in the secret, to play a small part in the comedy of his life, was a desideratum with the artist. His mother had always been this person, this unconscious performer, instinctively falling into the action of the play, and shedding real tears, and smiling actual smiles — the most useful assistant to a great schemer.

But during the whole of the visit nothing was said as to Paul’s conduct towards his unhappy cousin; nothing was said either to praise or to exculpate; and when Mrs. Marchmont and her daughter drove away, in one of the new equipages which Paul had selected for his mother, they left only a vague impression in Belinda’s breast. She didn’t quite know what to think. These people were so frank and candid, they had spoken of Paul with such real affection, that it was almost impossible to doubt them. Paul Marchmont might be a bad man, but his mother and sister loved him, and surely they were ignorant of his wickedness.

Mrs. Lawford troubled herself very little about this unexpected morning call. She was an excellent, warm-hearted, domestic creature, and thought a great deal more about the grand question as to whether she should have new damask curtains for the drawing-room, or send the old ones to be dyed; or whether she should withdraw her custom from the Kemberling grocer, whose “best black” at four-and-sixpence was really now so very inferior; or whether Belinda’s summer silk dress could be cut down into a frock for Isabella to wear in the winter evenings — than about the rights or wrongs of that story of the horsewhipping which had been administered to Mr. Marchmont.

“I’m sure those Marchmont–Towers people seem very nice, my dear,” the lady said to Belinda; “and I really wish your papa would go and dine there. You know I like him to dine out a good deal in the winter, Linda; not that I want to save the housekeeping money — only it is so difficult to vary the side-dishes for a man who has been accustomed to mess-dinners, and a French cook.”

But Belinda stuck fast to her colours. She was a soldier’s daughter, as her father said, and she was almost as good as a son. The Major meant this latter remark for very high praise; for the great grief of his life had been the want of a boy’s brave face at his fireside. She was as good as a son; that is to say, she was braver and more outspoken than most women; although she was feminine and gentle withal, and by no means strong-minded. She would have fainted, perhaps, at the first sight of blood upon a battle-field; but she would have bled to death with the calm heroism of a martyr, rather than have been false to a noble cause.

“I think papa is quite right not to go to Marchmont Towers, mamma,” she said; the artful minx omitted to state that it was by reason of her entreaties her father had stayed away. “I think he is quite right. Mrs. Marchmont and Mrs. Weston may be very nice, and of course it isn’t likely they would be cruel to poor young Mrs. Arundel; but I know that Mr. Marchmont must have been unkind to that poor girl, or Mr. Arundel would never have done what he did.”

It is in the nature of good and brave men to lay down their masculine rights when they leave their hats in the hall, and to submit themselves meekly to feminine government. It is only the whippersnapper, the sneak, the coward out of doors who is a tyrant at home. See how meekly the Conqueror of Italy went home to his charming Creole wife! See how pleasantly the Liberator of Italy lolls in the carriage of his golden-haired Empress, when the young trees in that fair wood beyond the triumphal arch are green in the bright spring weather, and all the hired vehicles in Paris are making towards the cascade! Major Lawford’s wife was too gentle, and too busy with her store-room and her domestic cares, to tyrannise over her lord and master; but the Major was duly henpecked by his blue-eyed daughters, and went here and there as they dictated.

So he stayed away from Marchmont Towers to please Belinda; and only said, “Haw,” “Yes,” “‘Pon my honour, now!” “Bless my soul!” when his friends told him of the magnificence of Paul’s dinners.

But although the Major and his eldest daughter did not encounter Mr. Marchmont in his own house, they met him sometimes on the neutral ground of other people’s dining-rooms, and upon one especial evening at a pleasant little dinner-party given by the rector of the parish in which the Grange was situated.

Paul made himself particularly agreeable upon this occasion; but in the brief interval before dinner he was absorbed in a conversation with Mr. Davenant, the rector, upon the subject of ecclesiastical architecture — he knew everything, and could talk about everything, this dear Paul — and made no attempt to approach Miss Lawford. He only looked at her now and then, with a furtive, oblique glance out of his almond-shaped, pale-grey eyes; a glance that was wisely hidden by the light auburn lashes, for it had an unpleasant resemblance to the leer of an evil-natured sprite. Mr. Marchmont contented himself with keeping this furtive watch upon Belinda, while she talked gaily with the Rector’s two daughters in a pleasant corner near the piano. And as the artist took Mrs. Davenant down to the dining-room, and sat next her at dinner, he had no opportunity of fraternising with Belinda during that meal; for the young lady was divided from him by the whole length of the table and, moreover, very much occupied by the exclusive attentions of two callow-looking officers from the nearest garrison-town, who were afflicted with extreme youth, and were painfully conscious of their degraded state, but tried notwithstanding to carry it off with a high hand, and affected the opinions of used-up fifty.

Mr. Marchmont had none of his womankind with him at this dinner; for his mother and invalid sister had neither of them felt strong enough to come, and Mr. and Mrs. Weston had not been invited. The artist’s special object in coming to this dinner was the conquest of Miss Belinda Lawford: she sided with Edward Arundel against him: she must be made to believe Edward wrong, and himself right; or she might go about spreading her opinions, and doing him mischief. Beyond that, he had another idea about Belinda; and he looked to this dinner as likely to afford him an opportunity of laying the foundation of a very diplomatic scheme, in which Miss Lawford should unconsciously become his tool. He was vexed at being placed apart from her at the dinner-table, but he concealed his vexation; and he was aggravated by the Rector’s old-fashioned hospitality, which detained the gentlemen over their wine for some time after the ladies left the dining-room. But the opportunity that he wanted came nevertheless, and in a manner that he had not anticipated.

The two callow defenders of their country had sneaked out of the dining-room, and rejoined the ladies in the cosy countrified drawing-rooms. They had stolen away, these two young men; for they were oppressed by the weight of a fearful secret. They couldn’t drink claret! No; they had tried to like it; they had smacked their lips and winked their eyes — both at once, for even winking with one eye is an accomplishment scarcely compatible with extreme youth — over vintages that had seemed to them like a happy admixture of red ink and green-gooseberry juice. They had perjured their boyish souls with hideous falsehoods as to their appreciation of pale tawny port, light dry wines, ‘42-ports, ‘45-ports, Kopke Roriz, Thompson and Croft’s, and Sandemann’s; when, in the secret recesses of their minds, they affected sweet and “slab” compounds, sold by publicans, and facetiously called “Our prime old port, at four-and-sixpence.” They were very young, these beardless soldiers. They liked strawberry ices, and were on the verge of insolvency from a predilection for clammy bath-buns, jam-tarts, and cherry-brandy. They liked gorgeous waistcoats; and varnished boots in a state of virgin brilliancy; and little bouquets in their button-holes; and a deluge of millefleurs upon their flimsy handkerchiefs. They were very young. The men they met at dinner-parties to-day had tipped them at Eton or Woolwich only yesterday, as it seemed, and remembered it and despised them. It was only a few months since they had been snubbed for calling the Douro a mountain in Switzerland, and the Himalayas a cluster of islands in the Pacific, at horrible examinations, in which the cold perspiration had bedewed their pallid young cheeks. They were delighted to get away from those elderly creatures in the Rector’s dining-room to the snug little back drawing-room, where Belinda Lawford and the two Misses Davenant were murmuring softly in the firelight, like young turtles in a sheltered dove-cote; while the matrons in the larger apartment sipped their coffee, and conversed in low awful voices about the iniquities of housemaids, and the insubordination of gardeners and grooms.

Belinda and her two companions were very polite to the helpless young wanderers from the dining-room; and they talked pleasantly enough of all manner of things; until somehow or other the conversation came round to the Marchmont–Towers scandal, and Edward’s treatment of his lost wife’s kinsman.

One of the young men had been present at the hunting-breakfast on that bright October morning, and he was not a little proud of his superior acquaintance with the whole business.

“I was the-aw, Miss Lawford,” he said. “I was on the tew-wace after bweakfast — and a vewy excellent bweakfast it was, I ass-haw you; the still Moselle was weally admiwable, and Marchmont has some Medewa that immeasuwably surpasses anything I can indooce my wine-merchant to send me; — I was on the tew-wace, and I saw Awundel comin’ up the steps, awful pale, and gwasping his whip; and I was a witness of all the west that occurred; and if I had been Marchmont I should have shot Awundel befaw he left the pawk, if I’d had to swing for it, Miss Lawford; for I should have felt, b’Jove, that my own sense of honaw demanded the sacwifice. Howevaw, Marchmont seems a vewy good fella; so I suppose it’s all wight as far as he goes; but it was a bwutal business altogethaw, and that fella Awundel must be a scoundwel.”

Belinda could not bear this. She had borne a great deal already. She had been obliged to sit by very often, and hear Edward Arundel’s conduct discussed by Thomas, Richard, and Henry, or anybody else who chose to talk about it; and she had been patient, and had held her peace, with her heart bumping indignantly in her breast, and passionate crimson blushes burning her cheeks. But she could not submit to hear a beardless, pale-faced, and rather weak-eyed young ensign — who had never done any greater service for his Queen and country than to cry “SHUDDRUPH!” to a detachment of raw recruits in a barrack-yard, in the early bleakness of a winter’s morning — take upon himself to blame Edward Arundel, the brave soldier, the noble Indian hero, the devoted lover and husband, the valiant avenger of his dead wife’s wrongs.

“I don’t think you know anything of the real story, Mr. Palliser,” Belinda said boldly to the half-fledged ensign. “If you did, I’m sure you would admire Mr. Arundel’s conduct instead of blaming it. Mr. Marchmont fully deserved the disgrace which Edward — which Mr. Arundel inflicted upon him.”

The words were still upon her lips, when Paul Marchmont himself came softly through the flickering firelight to the low chair upon which Belinda sat. He came behind her, and laying his hand lightly upon the scroll-work at the back of her chair, bent over her, and said, in a low confidential voice —

“You are a noble girl, Miss Lawford. I am sorry that you should think ill of me: but I like you for having spoken so frankly. You are a most noble girl. You are worthy to be your father’s daughter.”

This was said with a tone of suppressed emotion; but it was quite a random shot. Paul didn’t know anything about the Major, except that he had a comfortable income, drove a neat dog-cart, and was often seen riding on the flat Lincolnshire roads with his eldest daughter. For all Paul knew to the contrary, Major Lawford might have been the veriest bully and coward who ever made those about him miserable; but Mr. Marchmont’s tone as good as expressed that he was intimately acquainted with the old soldier’s career, and had long admired and loved him. It was one of Paul’s happy inspirations, this allusion to Belinda’s father; one of those bright touches of colour laid on with a skilful recklessness, and giving sudden brightness to the whole picture; a little spot of vermilion dabbed upon the canvas with the point of the palette-knife, and lighting up all the landscape with sunshine.

“You know my father?” said Belinda, surprised.

“Who does not know him?” cried the artist. “Do you think, Miss Lawford, that it is necessary to sit at a man’s dinner-table before you know what he is? I know your father to be a good man and a brave soldier, as well as I know that the Duke of Wellington is a great general, though I never dined at Apsley House. I respect your father, Miss Lawford; and I have been very much distressed by his evident avoidance of me and mine.”

This was coming to the point at once. Mr. Marchmont’s manner was candour itself. Belinda looked at him with widely-opened, wondering eyes. She was looking for the evidence of his wickedness in his face. I think she half-expected that Mr. Marchmont would have corked eyebrows, and a slouched hat, like a stage ruffian. She was so innocent, this simple young Belinda, that she imagined wicked people must necessarily look wicked.

Paul Marchmont saw the wavering of her mind in that half-puzzled expression, and he went on boldly.

“I like your father, Miss Lawford,” he said; “I like him, and I respect him; and I want to know him. Other people may misunderstand me, if they please. I can’t help their opinions. The truth is generally strongest in the end; and I can afford to wait. But I cannot afford to forfeit the friendship of a man I esteem; I cannot afford to be misunderstood by your father, Miss Lawford; and I have been very much pained — yes, very much pained — by the manner in which the Major has repelled my little attempts at friendliness.”

Belinda’s heart smote her. She knew that it was her influence that had kept her father away from Marchmont Towers. This young lady was very conscientious. She was a Christian, too; and a certain sentence touching wrongful judgments rose up against her while Mr. Marchmont was speaking. If she had wronged this man; if Edward Arundel has been misled by his passionate grief for Mary; if she had been deluded by Edward’s error — how very badly Mr. Marchmont had been treated between them! She didn’t say anything, but sat looking thoughtfully at the fire; and Paul saw that she was more and more perplexed. This was just what the artist wanted. To talk his antagonist into a state of intellectual fog was almost always his manner of commencing an argument.

Belinda was silent, and Paul seated himself in a chair close to hers. The callow ensigns had gone into the lamp-lit front drawing-room, and were busy turning over the leaves — and never turning them over at the right moment — of a thundering duet which the Misses Davenant were performing for the edification of their papa’s visitors. Miss Lawford and Mr. Marchmont were alone, therefore, in that cosy inner chamber, and a very pretty picture they made: the rosy-cheeked girl and the pale, sentimental-looking artist sitting side by side in the glow of the low fire, with a background of crimson curtains and gleaming picture-frames; winter flowers piled in grim Indian jars; the fitful light flickering now and then upon one sharp angle of the high carved mantelpiece, with all its litter of antique china; and the rest of the room in sombre shadow. Paul had the field all to himself, and felt that victory would be easy. He began to talk about Edward Arundel.

If he had said one word against the young soldier, I think this impetuous girl, who had not yet learned to count the cost of what she did, would have been passionately eloquent in defence of her friend’s brother — for no other reason than that he was the brother of her friend, of course; what other reason should she have for defending Mr. Arundel?

But Paul Marchmont did not give her any occasion for indignation. On the contrary, he spoke in praise of the hot-headed young soldier who had assaulted him, making all manner of excuses for the young man’s violence, and using that tone of calm superiority with which a man of the world might naturally talk about a foolish boy.

“He has been very unreasonable, Miss Lawford,” Paul said by-and-by; “he has been very unreasonable, and has most grossly insulted me. But, in spite of all, I believe him to be a very noble young fellow, and I cannot find it in my heart to be really angry with him. What his particular grievance against me may be, I really do not know.”

The furtive glance from the long narrow grey eyes kept close watch upon Belinda’s face as Paul said this. Mr. Marchmont wanted to ascertain exactly how much Belinda knew of that grievance of Edward’s; but he could see only perplexity in her face. She knew nothing definite, therefore; she had only heard Edward talk vaguely of his wrongs. Paul Marchmont was convinced of this; and he went on boldly now, for he felt that the ground was all clear before him.

“This foolish young soldier chooses to be angry with me because of a calamity which I was as powerless to avert, as to prevent that accident upon the South–Western Railway by which Mr. Arundel so nearly lost his life. I cannot tell you how sincerely I regret the misconception that has arisen in his mind. Because I have profited by the death of John Marchmont’s daughter, this impetuous young husband imagines — what? I cannot answer that question; nor can he himself, it seems, since he has made no definite statement of his wrongs to any living being.”

The artist looked more sharply than ever at Belinda’s listening face. There was no change in its expression; the same wondering look, the same perplexity — that was all.

“When I say that I regret the young man’s folly, Miss Lawford,” Paul continued, “believe me, it is chiefly on his account rather than my own. Any insult which he can inflict upon me can only rebound upon himself, since everybody in Lincolnshire knows that I am in the right, and he in the wrong.”

Mr. Marchmont was going on very smoothly; but at this point Miss Lawford, who had by no means deserted her colours, interrupted his easy progress.

“It remains to be proved who is right and who wrong, Mr. Marchmont,” she said. “Mr. Arundel is the brother of my friend. I cannot easily believe him to have done wrong.”

Paul looked at her with a smile — a smile that brought hot blushes to her face; but she returned his look without flinching. The brave girl looked full into the narrow grey eyes sheltered under pale auburn lashes, and her steadfast gaze did not waver.

“Ah, Miss Lawford,” said the artist, still smiling, “when a young man is handsome, chivalrous, and generous-hearted, it is very difficult to convince a woman that he can do wrong. Edward Arundel has done wrong. His ultra-quixotism has made him blind to the folly of his own acts. I can afford to forgive him. But I repeat that I regret his infatuation about this poor lost girl far more upon his account than on my own; for I know — at least I venture to think — that a way lies open to him of a happier and a better life than he could ever have known with my poor childish cousin Mary Marchmont. I have reason to know that he has formed another attachment, and that it is only a chivalrous delusion about that poor girl — whom he was never really in love with, and whom he only married because of some romantic notion inspired by my cousin John — that withholds him from that other and brighter prospect.”

He was silent for a few moments, and then he said hastily —

“Pardon me, Miss Lawford; I have been betrayed into saying much that I had better have left unsaid, more especially to you. I——”

He hesitated a little, as if embarrassed; and then rose and looked into the next room, where the duet had been followed by a solo.

One of the Rector’s daughters came towards the inner drawing-room, followed by a callow ensign.

“We want Belinda to sing,” exclaimed Miss Davenant. “We want you to sing, you tiresome Belinda, instead of hiding yourself in that dark room all the evening.”

Belinda came out of the darkness, with her cheeks flushed and her eyelids drooping. Her heart was beating so fast as to make it quite impossible to speak just yet, or to sing either. But she sat down before the piano, and, with hands that trembled in spite of herself, began to play one of her pet sonatas.

Unhappily, Beethoven requires precision of touch in the pianist who is bold enough to seek to interpret him; and upon this occasion I am compelled to admit that Miss Lawford’s fingering was eccentric, not to say ridiculous — in common parlance, she made a mess of it; and just as she was going to break down, friendly Clara Davenant cried out —

“That won’t do, Belinda! We want you to sing, not to play. You are trying to cheat us. We would rather have one of Moore’s melodies than all Beethoven’s sonatas.”

So Miss Lawford, still blushing, with her eyelids still drooping, played Sir John Stevenson’s simple symphony, and in a fresh swelling voice, that filled the room with melody, began:

“Oh, the days are gone when beauty bright

My heart’s chain wove;

When my dream of life, from morn till night,

Was love, still love!”

And Paul Marchmont, sitting at the other end of the room turning over Miss Davenant’s scrap-book, looked up through his auburn lashes, and smiled at the beaming face of the singer. He felt that he had improved the occasion.

“I am not afraid of Miss Lawford now,” he thought to himself.

This candid, fervent girl was only another piece in the schemer’s game of chess; and he saw a way of making her useful in the attainment of that great end which, in the strange simplicity of cunning, he believed to be the one purpose of every man’s life — Self–Aggrandisement.

It never for a moment entered into his mind that Edward Arundel was any more real than he was himself. There can be no perfect comprehension where there is no sympathy. Paul believed that Edward had tried to become master of Mary Marchmont’s heritage; and had failed; and was angry because of his failure. He believed this passionate young man to be a schemer like himself; only a little more impetuous and blundering in his manner of going to work.

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