Upon the 31st of June, the eve of Edward Arundel’s wedding-day, Olivia Marchmont sat in her own room — the room that she had chiefly occupied ever since her husband’s death — the study looking out into the quadrangle. She sat alone in that dismal chamber, dimly lighted by a pair of wax-candles, in tall tarnished silver candlesticks. There could be no greater contrast than that between this desolate woman and the master of the house. All about him was bright and fresh, and glittering and splendid; around her there was only ruin and decay, thickening dust and gathering cobwebs — outward evidences of an inner wreck. John Marchmont’s widow was of no importance in that household. The servants did not care to trouble themselves about her whims or wishes, nor to put her rooms in order. They no longer curtseyed to her when they met her, wandering — with a purposeless step and listless feet that dragged along the ground — up and down the corridor, or out in the dreary quadrangle. What was to be gained by any show of respect to her, whose brain was too weak to hold the memory of their conduct for five minutes together?
Barbara Simmons only was faithful to her mistress with an unvarying fidelity. She made no boast of her devotion; she expected neither fee nor reward for her self-abnegation. That rigid religion of discipline which had not been strong enough to preserve Olivia’s stormy soul from danger and ruin was at least all-sufficient for this lower type of woman. Barbara Simmons had been taught to do her duty, and she did it without question or complaint. As she went through rain, snow, hail, or sunshine twice every Sunday to Kemberling church — as she sat upon a cushionless seat in an uncomfortable angle of the servants’ pew, with the sharp edges of the woodwork cutting her thin shoulders, to listen patiently to dull rambling sermons upon the hardest texts of St. Paul — so she attended upon her mistress, submitting to every caprice, putting up with every hardship; because it was her duty so to do. The only relief she allowed herself was an hour’s gossip now and then in the housekeeper’s room; but she never alluded to her mistress’s infirmities, nor would it have been safe for any other servant to have spoken lightly of Mrs. John Marchmont in stern Barbara’s presence.
Upon this summer evening, when happy people were still lingering amongst the wild flowers in shady lanes, or in the dusky pathways by the quiet river, Olivia sat alone, staring at the candles.
Was there anything in her mind; or was she only a human automaton, slowly decaying into dust? There was no speculation in those large lustreless eyes, fixed upon the dim light of the candles. But, for all that, the mind was not a blank. The pictures of the past, for ever changing like the scenes in some magic panorama, revolved before her. She had no memory of that which had happened a quarter of an hour ago; but she could remember every word that Edward Arundel had said to her in the Rectory-garden at Swampington — every intonation of the voice in which those words had been spoken.
There was a tea-service on the table: an attenuated little silver teapot; a lopsided cream-jug, with thin worn edges and one dumpy little foot missing; and an antique dragon china cup and saucer with the gilding washed off. That meal, which is generally called social, has but a dismal aspect when it is only prepared for one. The solitary teacup, half filled with cold, stagnant tea, with a leaf or two floating upon the top, like weeds on the surface of a tideless pond; the teaspoon, thrown askew across a little pool of spilt milk in the tea-tray — looked as dreary as the ruins of a deserted city.
In the western drawing-room Paul was strolling backwards and forwards, talking to his mother and sisters, and admiring his pictures. He had spent a great deal of money upon art since taking possession of the Towers, and the western drawing-room was quite a different place to what it had been in John Marchmont’s lifetime.
Etty’s divinities smiled through hazy draperies, more transparent than the summer vapours that float before the moon. Pearly-complexioned nymphs, with faces archly peeping round the corner of soft rosy shoulders, frolicked amidst the silver spray of classic fountains. Turner’s Grecian temples glimmered through sultry summer mists; while glimpses of ocean sparkled here and there, and were as beautiful as if the artist’s brush had been dipped in melted opals. Stanfield’s breezy beaches made cool spots of freshness on the wall, and sturdy sailor-boys, with their hands up to their mouths and their loose hair blowing in the wind, shouted to their comrades upon the decks of brown-sailed fishing-smacks. Panting deer upon dizzy crags, amid the misty Highlands, testified to the hand of Landseer. Low down, in the corners of the room, there lurked quaint cottage-scenes by Faed and Nichol. Ward’s patched and powdered beaux and beauties — a Rochester, in a light perriwig; a Nell Gwynne, showing her white teeth across a basket of oranges; a group of Incroyables, with bunches of ribbons hanging from their low topboots, and two sets of dangling seals at their waists — made a blaze of colour upon the walls: and amongst all these glories of to-day there were prim Madonnas and stiff-necked angels by Raphael and Tintoretto; a brown-faced grinning boy by Murillo (no collection ever was complete without that inevitable brown-faced boy); an obese Venus, by the great Peter Paul; and a pale Charles the First, with martyrdom foreshadowed in his pensive face, by Vandyke.
Paul Marchmont contemplated his treasures complacently, as he strolled about the room, with his coffee-cup in his hand; while his mother watched him admiringly from her comfortable cushioned nest at one end of a luxurious sofa.
“Well, mother,” Mr. Marchmont said presently, “let people say what they may of me, they can never say that I have used my money badly. When I am dead and gone, these pictures will remain to speak for me; posterity will say, ‘At any rate the fellow was a man of taste.’ Now what, in Heaven’s name, could that miserable little Mary have done with eleven thousand a year, if — if she had lived to enjoy it?”
The minute-hand of the little clock in Mrs. John Marchmont’s study was creeping slowly towards the quarter before eleven, when Olivia was aroused suddenly from that long reverie, in which the images of the past had shone upon her across the dull stagnation of the present like the domes and minarets in a Phantasm City gleaming athwart the barren desert-sands.
She was aroused by a cautious tap upon the outside of her window. She got up, opened the window, and looked out. The night was dark and starless, and there was a faint whisper of wind among the trees.
“Don’t be frightened,” whispered a timid voice; “it’s only me, George Weston. I want to talk to you, Mrs. John. I’ve got something particular to tell you — awful particular; but they mustn’t hear it; they mustn’t know I’m here. I came round this way on purpose. You can let me in at the little door in the lobby, can’t you, Mrs. John? I tell you, I must tell you what I’ve got to tell you,” cried Mr. Weston, indifferent to tautology in his excitement. “Do let me in, there’s a dear good soul. The little door in the lobby, you know; it’s locked, you know, but I dessay the key’s there.”
“The door in the lobby?” repeated Olivia, in a dreamy voice.
“Yes, you know. Do let me in now, that’s a good creature. It’s awful particular, I tell you. It’s about Edward Arundel.”
Edward Arundel! The sound of that name seemed to act upon the woman’s shattered nerves like a stroke of electricity. The drooping head reared itself erect. The eyes, so lustreless before, flashed fire from their sombre depths. Comprehension, animation, energy returned; as suddenly as if the wand of an enchanter had summoned the dead back to life.
“Edward Arundel!” she cried, in a clear voice, which was utterly unlike the dull deadness of her usual tones.
“Hush,” whispered Mr. Weston; “don’t speak loud, for goodness gracious sake. I dessay there’s all manner of spies about. Let me in, and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Yes, yes; I’ll let you in. The door by the lobby — I understand; come, come.”
Olivia disappeared from the window. The lobby of which the surgeon had spoken was close to her own apartment. She found the key in the lock of the door. The place was dark; she opened the door almost noiselessly, and Mr. Weston crept in on tiptoe. He followed Olivia into the study, closed the door behind him, and drew a long breath.
“I’ve got in,” he said; “and now I am in, wild horses shouldn’t hold me from speaking my mind, much less Paul Marchmont.”
He turned the key in the door as he spoke, and even as he did so glanced rather suspiciously towards the window. To his mind the very atmosphere of that house was pervaded by the presence of his brother-in-law.
“O Mrs. John!” exclaimed the surgeon, in piteous accents, “the way that I’ve been trampled upon. You’ve been trampled upon, Mrs. John, but you don’t seem to mind it; and perhaps it’s better to bring oneself to that, if one can; but I can’t. I’ve tried to bring myself to it; I’ve even taken to drinking, Mrs. John, much as it goes against me; and I’ve tried to drown my feelings as a man in rum-and-water. But the more spirits I consume, Mrs. John, the more of a man I feel.”
Mr. Weston struck the top of his hat with his clenched fist, and stared fiercely at Olivia, breathing very hard, and breathing rum-and-water with a faint odour of lemon-peel.
“Edward Arundel! — what about Edward Arundel?” said Olivia, in a low eager voice.
“I’m coming to that, Mrs. John, in due c’course,” returned Mr. Weston, with an air of dignity that was superior even to hiccough. “What I say, Mrs. John,” he added, in a confidential and argumentative tone, “is this: I won’t be trampled upon!” Here his voice sank to an awful whisper. “Of course it’s pleasant enough to have one’s rent provided for, and not to be kept awake by poor’s-rates, Mrs. John; but, good gracious me! I’d rather have the Queen’s taxes and the poor-rates following me up day and night, and a man in possession to provide for at every meal — and you don’t know how contemptuous a man in possession can look at you if you offer him salt butter, or your table in a general way don’t meet his views — than the conscience I’ve had since Paul Marchmont came into Lincolnshire. I feel, Mrs. John, as if I’d committed oceans of murders. It’s a miracle to me that my hair hasn’t turned white before this; and it would have done it, Mrs. J., if it wasn’t of that stubborn nature which is too wiry to give expression to a man’s sufferings. O Mrs. John, when I think how my pangs of conscience have been made game of — when I remember the insulting names I have been called, because my heart didn’t happen to be made of adamant — my blood boils; it boils, Mrs. John, to that degree, that I feel the time has come for action. I have been put upon until the spirit of manliness within me blazes up like a fiery furnace. I have been trodden upon, Mrs. John; but I’m not the worm they took me for. To-day they’ve put the finisher upon it.” The surgeon paused to take breath. His mild and rather sheep-like countenance was flushed; his fluffy eyebrows twitched convulsively in his endeavours to give expression to the violence of his feelings. “To-day they’ve put the finisher upon it,” he repeated. “I’m to go to Australia, am I? Ha! ha! we’ll see about that. There’s a nice opening in the medical line, is there? and dear Paul will provide the funds to start me! Ha! ha! two can play at that game. It’s all brotherly kindness, of course, and friendly interest in my welfare — that’s what it’s called, Mrs. J. Shall I tell you what it is? I’m to be got rid of, at any price, for fear my conscience should get the better of me, and I should speak. I’ve been made a tool of, and I’ve been trampled upon; but they’ve been obliged to trust me. I’ve got a conscience, and I don’t suit their views. If I hadn’t got a conscience, I might stop here and have my rent and taxes provided for, and riot in rum-and-water to the end of my days. But I’ve a conscience that all the pineapple rum in Jamaica wouldn’t drown, and they’re frightened of me.”
Olivia listened to all this with an impatient frown upon her face. I doubt if she knew the meaning of Mr. Weston’s complaints. She had been listening only for the one name that had power to transform her from a breathing automaton into a living, thinking, reasoning woman. She grasped the surgeon’s wrist fiercely.
“You told me you came here to speak about Edward Arundel,” she said. “Have you been only trying to make a fool of me.”
“No, Mrs. John; I have come to speak about him, and I come to you, because I think you’re not so bad as Paul Marchmont. I think that you’ve been a tool, like myself; and they’ve led you on, step by step, from bad to worse, pretty much as they have led me. You’re Edward Arundel’s blood-relation, and it’s your business to look to any wrong that’s done him, more than it is mine. But if you don’t speak, Mrs. John, I will. Edward Arundel is going to be married.”
“Going to be married!” The words burst from Olivia’s lips in a kind of shriek, and she stood glaring hideously at the surgeon, with her lips apart and her eyes dilated. Mr. Weston was fascinated by the horror of that gaze, and stared at her in silence for some moments. “You are a madman!” she exclaimed, after a pause; “you are a madman! Why do you come here with your idiotic fancies? Surely my life is miserable enough without this!”
“I ain’t mad, Mrs. John, any more than”— Mr. Weston was going to say, “than you are;” but it struck him that, under existing circumstances, the comparison might be ill-advised —“I ain’t any madder than other people,” he said, presently. “Edward Arundel is going to be married. I have seen the young lady in Kemberling with her pa; and she’s a very sweet young woman to look at; and her name is Belinda Lawford; and the wedding is to be at eleven o’clock to-morrow morning at Hillingsworth church.”
Olivia slowly lifted her hands to her head, and swept the loose hair away from her brow. All the mists that had obscured her brain melted slowly away, and showed her the past as it had really been in all its naked horror. Yes; step by step the cruel hand had urged her on from bad to worse; from bad to worse; until it had driven her here.
It was for this that she had sold her soul to the powers of hell. It was for this that she had helped to torture that innocent girl whom a dying father had given into her pitiless hand. For this! for this! To find at last that all her iniquity had been wasted, and that Edward Arundel had chosen another bride — fairer, perhaps, than the first. The mad, unholy jealousy of her nature awoke from the obscurity of mental decay, a fierce ungovernable spirit. But another spirit arose in the next moment. CONSCIENCE, which so long had slumbered, awoke and cried to her, in an awful voice, “Sinner, whose sin has been wasted, repent! restore! It is not yet too late.”
The stern precepts of her religion came back to her. She had rebelled against those rigid laws, she had cast off those iron fetters, only to fall into a worse bondage; only to submit to a stronger tyranny. She had been a servant of the God of Sacrifice, and had rebelled when an offering was demanded of her. She had cast off the yoke of her Master, and had yielded herself up the slave of sin. And now, when she discovered whither her chains had dragged her, she was seized with a sudden panic, and wanted to go back to her old master.
She stood for some minutes with her open palms pressed upon her forehead, and her chest heaving as if a stormy sea had raged in her bosom.
“This marriage must not take place,” she cried, at last.
“Of course it mustn’t,” answered Mr. Weston; “didn’t I say so just now? And if you don’t speak to Paul and prevent it, I will. I’d rather you spoke to him, though,” added the surgeon thoughtfully, “because, you see, it would come better from you, wouldn’t it now?”
Olivia Marchmont did not answer. Her hands had dropped from her head, and she was standing looking at the floor.
“There shall be no marriage,” she muttered, with a wild laugh. “There’s another heart to be broken — that’s all. Stand aside, man,” she cried; “stand aside, and let me go to him; let me go to him.”
She pushed the terrified surgeon out of her pathway, and locked the door, hurried along the passage and across the hall. She opened the door of the western drawing-room, and went in.
Mr. Weston stood in the corridor looking after her. He waited for a few minutes, listening for any sound that might come from the western drawing-room. But the wide stone hall was between him and that apartment; and however loudly the voices might have been uplifted, no breath of them could have reached the surgeon’s ear. He waited for about five minutes, and then crept into the lobby and let himself out into the quadrangle.
“At any rate, nobody can say that I’m a coward,” he thought complacently, as he went under a stone archway that led into the park. “But what a whirlwind that woman is! O my gracious, what a perfect whirlwind she is!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05