The old man sat looking at Mary in silence for some moments; not a great space of time, perhaps, as marked by the shadow on the dial behind them, but to Mary that gaze was unpleasantly prolonged. He looked at her as if he could read every pulsation in every fibre of her brain, and knew exactly what it meant.
‘Who are you?’ he asked, at last.
‘My name is Mary Haselden.’
‘Haselden,’ he repeated musingly, ‘I have heard that name before.’
And then he resumed his former attitude, his chin resting on the handle of his crutch-stick, his eyes bent upon the gravel path, their unholy brightness hidden under the penthouse brows.
‘Haselden,’ he murmured, and repeated the name over and over again, slowly, dreamily, with a troubled tone, like some one trying to work out a difficult problem. ‘Haselden — when? where?’
And then with a profound sigh he muttered, ‘Harmless, quite harmless. You may trust him anywhere. Memory a blank, a blank, a blank, my lord!’
His head sank lower upon his breast, and again he sighed, the sigh of a spirit in torment, Mary thought. Her vivid imagination was already interested, her quick sympathies were awakened.
She looked at him wonderingly, compassionately. So old, so infirm, and with a mind astray; and yet there were indications in his speech and manner that told of reason struggling against madness, like the light behind storm-clouds. He had tones that spoke of a keen sensitiveness to pain, not the lunatic’s imbecile placidity. She observed him intently, trying to make out what manner of man he was.
He did not belong to the peasant class: of that she felt assured. The shrunken, tapering hand had never worked at peasant’s work. The profile turned towards her was delicate to effeminacy. The man’s clothes were shabby and old-fashioned, but they were a gentleman’s garments, the cloth of a finer texture than she had ever seen worn by her brother. The coat, with its velvet collar, was of an old-world fashion. She remembered having seen just such a coat in an engraved portrait of Count d’Orsay, a print nearly fifty years old. No Dalesman born and bred ever wore such a coat; no tailor in the Dales could have made it.
The old man looked up after a long pause, during which Mary felt afraid to move. He looked at her again with inquiring eyes, as if her presence there had only just become known to him.
‘Who are you?’ he asked again.
‘I told you my name just now. I am Mary Haselden.’
‘Haselden — that is a name I knew — once. Mary? I think my mother’s name was Mary. Yes, yes, I remember that. You have a sweet face, Mary — like my mother’s. She had brown eyes, like yours, and auburn hair. You don’t recollect her, perhaps?’
‘Alas! poor maniac,’ thought Mary, ‘you have lost all count of time. Fifty years to you in the confusion of your distraught brain, are but as yesterday.’
‘No, of course not, of course not,’ he muttered; ‘how should she recollect my mother, who died while I was a boy? Impossible. That must be half a century ago.’
‘Good evening to you,’ said Mary, rising with a great effort, so strong was her feeling of being spellbound by the uncanny old man, ‘I must go indoors now.’
He stretched out his withered old hand, small, semi-transparent, with the blue veins showing darkly under the parchment-coloured skin, and grasped Mary’s arm.
‘Don’t go,’ he pleaded. ‘I like your face, child; I like your voice — I like to have you here. What do you mean by going indoors? Where do you live?’
‘There,’ said Mary, pointing to the dead wall which faced them. ‘In the new part of Fellside House. I suppose you are staying in the old part with James Steadman.’
She had made up her mind that this crazy old man must be a relation of Steadman’s to whom he gave hospitality either with or without her ladyship’s consent. All powerful as Lady Maulevrier had ever been in her own house, it was just possible that now, when she was a prisoner in her own rooms, certain small liberties might be taken, even by so faithful a servant as Steadman.
‘Staying with James Steadman,’ repeated the old man in a meditative tone. ‘Yes, I stay with Steadman. A good servant, a worthy person. It is only for a little while. I shall be leaving Westmoreland next week. And you live in that house, do you?’ pointing to the dead wall. ‘Whose house?’
‘Lady Maulevrier’s. I am Lady Maulevrier’s granddaughter.’
‘Lady Mau-lev-rier.’ He repeated the name in syllables. ‘A good name — an old title — as old as the conquest. A Norman race those Maulevriers. And you are Lady Maulevrier’s granddaughter! You should be proud. The Maulevriers were always a proud race.’
‘Then I am no true Maulevrier,’ answered Mary gaily.
She was beginning to feel more at her ease with the old man. He was evidently mad, as mad as a March hare; but his madness seemed only the harmless lunacy of extreme old age. He had flashes of reason, too. Mary began to feel a friendly interest in him. To youth in its flush of life and vigour there seems something so unspeakably sad and pitiable in feebleness and age — the brief weak remnant of life, the wreck of body and mind, sunning itself in the declining rays of a sun that is so soon to shine upon its grave.
‘What, are you not proud?’ asked the old man.
‘Not at all. I have been taught to consider myself a very insignificant person; and I am going to marry a poor man. It would not become me to be proud.’
‘But you ought not to do that,’ said the old man. ‘You ought not to marry a poor man. Poverty is a bad thing, my dear. You are a pretty girl, and ought to marry a man with a handsome fortune. Poor men have no pleasure in this world — they might just as well be dead. I am poor, as you see. You can tell by this threadbare coat’— he looked down at the sleeve from which the nap was worn in places —‘I am as poor as a church mouse.’
‘But you have kind friends, I dare say,’ Mary said, soothingly. ‘You are well taken care of, I am sure.’
‘Yes, I am well taken care of — very well taken care of. How long is it, I wonder — how many weeks, or months, or years, since they have taken care of me? It seems a long, long time; but it is all like a dream — a long dream. Once I used to try and wake myself. I used to try and struggle out of that weary dream. But that was ages ago. I am satisfied now — I am quite content now — so long as the weather is warm, and I can sit out here in the sun.’
‘It is growing chilly now,’ said Mary, ‘and I think you ought to go indoors. I know that I must go.’
‘Yes, I must go in now — I am getting shivery,’ answered the old man, meekly. ‘But I want to see you again, Mary — I like your face — and I like your voice. It strikes a chord here,’ touching his breast, ‘which has long been silent. Let me see you again, child. When can I see you again?’
‘Do you sit here every afternoon when it is fine?’
‘Yes, every day — all day long sometimes when the sun is warm.’
‘Then I will come here to see you.’
‘You must keep it a secret, then,’ said the old man, with a crafty look. ‘If you don’t they will shut me up in the house, perhaps. They don’t like me to see people, for fear I should talk. I have heard Steadman say so. Yet what should I talk about, heaven help me? Steadman says my memory is quite gone, and that I am childish and harmless — childish and harmless. I have heard him say that. You’ll come again, won’t you, and you’ll keep it a secret?’
Mary deliberated for a few minutes.
‘I don’t like secrets,’ she said, ‘there is generally something dishonourable in them. But this would be an innocent secret, wouldn’t it? Well, I’ll come to see you somehow, poor old man; and if Steadman sees me here I will make everything right with him.’
‘He mustn’t see you here,’ said the old man. ‘If he does he will shut me up in my own rooms again, as he did once, years and years ago.’
‘But you have not been here long, have you?’ Mary asked, wonderingly.
‘A hundred years, at least. That’s what it seems to me sometimes. And yet there are times when it seems only a dream. Be sure you come again to-morrow.’
‘Yes, I promise you to come; good-night.’
Mary went back to the stable. The door was still open, but how could she be sure that it would be open to-morrow? There was no other access that she knew of to the quadrangle, except through the old part of the house, and that was at times inaccessible to her.
She found a key — a big old rusty key — in the inside of the door, so she shut and locked it, and put the key in her pocket. The door she supposed had been left open by accident; at any rate this key made her mistress of the situation. If any question should arise as to her conduct she could have an explanation with Steadman; but she had pledged her word to the poor mad old man, and she meant to keep her promise, if possible.
As she left the stable she saw Steadman riding towards the gate on his grey cob. She passed him as she went back to the house.
Next day, and the day after that, and for many days, Mary used her key, and went into the quadrangle at sundown to sit for half an hour or so with the strange old man, who seemed to take an intense pleasure in her company. The weather was growing warmer as May wore on towards June, and this evening hour, between six and seven, was deliciously bright and balmy. The seat by the sundial was screened on every side by the clipped yew hedge, dense and tall, surrounding the circular, gravelled space, in the centre of which stood the old granite dial, with its octagonal pedestal and moss-grown steps. There, as in a closely-shaded arbour, Lady Mary and her old friend were alone and unobserved. The yew-tree boundary was at least eight feet high, and Mary and her companion could hardly have been seen even from the upper windows of the low, old house.
Mary had fallen into the habit of going for her walk or her ride at five o’clock every day, when she was not in attendance on Lady Maulevrier, and after her walk or ride she slipped through the stable, and joined her ancient friend. Stables and courtyard were generally empty at this hour, the men only appearing at the sound of a big bell, which summoned them from their snuggery when they were wanted. Most of Lady Maulevrier’s servants had arrived at that respectable stage of long service in which fidelity is counted as a substitute for hard work.
The old man was not particularly conversational, and was apt to repeat the same things over and over again, with a sublime unconsciousness of being prosy; but he liked to hear Mary talk, and he listened with seeming intelligence. He questioned her about the world outside his cloistered life — the wars and rumours of wars — and, although the names of the questions and the men of the day seemed utterly strange to him, and he had to have them repeated to him again and again, he seemed to take an intelligent interest in the stirring facts of the time, and listened intently when Mary gave him a synopsis of her last newspaper reading.
When the news was exhausted, Mary hit upon a more childish form of amusement, and that was to tell the story of any novel or poem she had been lately reading. This was so successful that in this manner Mary related the stories of most of Shakespeare’s plays; of Byron’s Bride of Abydos, and Corsair; of Keats’s Lamia; of Tennyson’s Idylls; and of a heterogenous collection of poetry and romance, in all of which stories the old man took a vivid interest.
‘You are better to me than the sunshine,’ he told Mary one day when she was leaving him. ‘The world grows darker when you leave me.’
Once at this parting moment he took both her hands, and drew her nearer to him, peering into her face in the clear evening light.
‘You are like my mother,’ he said. ‘Yes, you are very like her. And who else is it that you are like? There is some one else, I know. Yes, some one else! I remember! It is a face in a picture — a picture at Maulevrier Castle.’
‘What do you know of Maulevrier Castle?’ asked Mary, wonderingly.
Maulevrier was the family seat in Herefordshire, which had not been occupied by the elder branch for the last forty years. Lady Maulevrier had let it during her son’s minority to a younger branch of the family, a branch which had intermarried with the world of successful commerce, and was richer than the heads of the house. This occupation of Maulevrier Castle had continued to the present time, and was likely still to continue, Maulevrier having no desire to set up housekeeping in a feudal castle in the marches.
‘How came you to know Maulevrier Castle?’ repeated Mary.
‘I was there once. There is a picture by Lely, a portrait of a Lady Maulevrier in Charles the Second’s time. The face is yours, my love. I have heard of such hereditary faces. My mother was proud of resembling that portrait.’
‘What did your mother know of Maulevrier Castle?’
The old man did not answer. He had lapsed into that dream-like condition into which he often sank, when his brain was not stimulated to attention and coherency by his interest in Mary’s narrations.
Mary concluded that this man had once been a servant in the Maulevrier household, perhaps at the place in Herefordshire, and that all his old memories ran in one grove — the house of Maulevrier.
The freedom of her intercourse with him was undisturbed for about three weeks; and at the end of that time she came face to face with James Steadman as she emerged from the circle of greenery.
‘You here, Lady Mary?’ he exclaimed with an angry look.
‘Yes, I have been sitting talking to that poor old man,’ Mary answered, cheerily, concluding that Steadman’s look of vexation arose from his being detected in the act of harbouring a contraband relation. ‘He is a very interesting character. A relation of yours, I suppose?’
‘Yes, he is a relation,’ replied Steadman. ‘He is very old, and his mind has long been gone. Her ladyship is kind enough to allow me to give him a home in her house. He is quite harmless, and he is in nobody’s way.’
‘Of course not, poor soul. He is only a burden to himself. He talks as if his life had been very weary. Has he been long in that sad state?’
‘Yes, a long time.’
Steadman’s manner to Lady Mary was curt at the best of times. She had always stood somewhat in awe of him, as a person delegated with authority by her grandmother, a servant who was much more than a servant. But to-day his manner was more abrupt than usual.
‘He spoke of Maulevrier Castle just now,’ said Mary, determined not to be put down too easily. ‘Was he once in service there?’
‘He was. Pray how did you find your way into this garden, Lady Mary?’
‘I came through the stable. As it is my grandmother’s garden I suppose I did not take an unwarrantable liberty in coming,’ said Mary, drawing herself up, and ready for battle.
‘It is Lady Maulevrier’s wish that this garden should be reserved for my use,’ answered Steadman. ‘Her ladyship knows that my uncle walks here of an afternoon, and that, owing to his age and infirmities, he can go nowhere else; and if only on that account, it is well that the garden should be kept private. Lunatics are rather dangerous company, Lady Mary, and I advise you to give them a wide berth wherever you may meet them.’
‘I am not afraid of your uncle,’ said Mary, resolutely. ‘You said yourself just now that he is quite harmless: and I am really interested in him, poor old creature. He likes me to sit with him a little of an afternoon and to talk to him; and if you have no objection I should like to do so, whenever the weather is fine enough for the poor old man to be out in the garden at this hour.’
‘I have a very great objection, Lady Mary, and that objection is chiefly in your interest,’ answered Steadman, firmly. ‘No one who is not experienced in the ways of lunatics can imagine the danger of any association with them — their consummate craftiness, their capacity for crime. Every madman is harmless up to a certain point — mild, inoffensive, perhaps, up to the very moment in which he commits some appalling crime. And then people cry out upon the want of prudence, the want of common-sense which allowed such an act to be possible. No, Lady Mary, I understand the benevolence of your motive, but I cannot permit you to run such a risk.’
‘I am convinced that the poor old creature is perfectly harmless,’ said Mary, with suppressed indignation. ‘I shall certainly ask Lady Maulevrier to speak to you on the subject. Perhaps her influence may induce you to be a little more considerate to your unhappy relation.’
‘Lady Mary, I beg you not to say a word to Lady Maulevrier on this subject. You will do me the greatest injury if you speak of that man. I entreat you —’
But Mary was gone. She passed Steadman with her head held high and her eyes sparkling with anger. All that was generous, compassionate, womanly in her nature was up in arms against her grandmother’s steward. Of all other things, Mary Haselden most detested cruelty; and she could see in Steadman’s opposition to her wish nothing but the most cold-hearted cruelty to a poor dependent on his charity.
She went in at the stable door, shut and locked it, and put the key in her pocket as usual. But she had little hope that this mode of access would be left open to her. She knew enough of James Steadman’s character, from hearsay rather than from experience, to feel sure that he would not easily give way. She was not surprised, therefore, on returning from her ride on the following afternoon, to find the disused harness-room half filled with trusses of straw, and the door of communication completely blocked. It would be impossible for her to remove that barricade without assistance; and then, how could she be sure that the door itself was not nailed up, or secured in some way?
It was a delicious sunny afternoon, and she could picture the lonely old man sitting in his circle of greenery beside the dial, which for him had registered so many dreary and solitary hours, waiting for the little ray of social sunlight which her presence shed over his monotonous life. He had told her that she was like the sunshine to him — better than sunshine — and she had promised not to forsake him. She pictured him waiting, with his hand clasped upon his crutch-stick, his chin resting upon his hands, his eyes poring on the ground, as she had seen him for the first time. And as the stable clock chimed the quarters he would begin to think himself abandoned, forgotten; if, indeed, he took any count of the passage of time of which she was not sure. His mind seemed to have sunk into a condition which was between dreaming and waking, a state to which the outside world seemed only half real — a phase of being in which there was neither past nor future, only the insufferable monotony of an everlasting now.
Pity is so near akin to love that Mary, in her deep compassion for this lonely, joyless, loveless existence, felt a regard which was almost affection for this strange old man, whose very name was unknown to her. True that there was much in his countenance and manner which was sinister and repellant. He was a being calculated to inspire fear rather than love; but the fact that he had courted her presence and looked to her for consolation had touched Mary’s heart, and she had become reconciled to all that was forbidding and disagreeable in the lunatic physiognomy. Was he not the victim of a visitation which entitled him to respect as well as to pity?
For some days Mary held her peace, remembering Steadman’s vehement entreaty that she should not speak of this subject to her grandmother. She was silent, but the image of the old man haunted her at all times and seasons. She saw him even in her dreams — those happy dreams of the girl who loves and is beloved, and before whom the pathway of the future smiles like a vision of Paradise. She heard him calling to her with a piteous cry of distress, and on waking from this troubled dream she fancied that he must be dying, and that this sound in her dreams was one of those ghostly warnings which give notice of death. She was so unhappy about him, altogether so distressed at being compelled to break her word, that she could not prevent her thoughts from dwelling upon him, not even after she had poured out all her trouble to John Hammond in a long letter, in which her garden adventures and her little skirmish with Steadman were graphically described.
To her intense discomforture Hammond replied that he thoroughly approved of Steadman’s conduct in the matter. However agreeable Mary’s society might be to the lunatic, Mary’s life was far too precious to be put within the possibility of peril by any such tête-à-têtes. If the person was the same old man whom Hammond had seen on the Fell, he was a most sinister-looking creature, of whom any evil act might be fairly anticipated. In a word Mr. Hammond took Steadman’s view of the matter, and entreated his dearest Mary to be careful, and not to allow her warm heart to place her in circumstances of peril.
This was most disappointing to Mary, who expected her lover to agree with her upon every point; and if he had been at Fellside the difference of opinion might have given rise to their first quarrel. But as she had a few hours’ leisure for reflection before the post went out, she had time to get over her anger, and to remember that promise of obedience given, half in jest, half in earnest, at the little inn beyond Dunmail Raise. So she wrote submissively enough, only with just a touch of reproach at Jack’s want of compassion for a poor old man who had such strong claims upon everybody’s pity.
The image of the poor old man was not to be banished from her thoughts, and on that very afternoon, when her letter was dispatched, Mary went on a visit of exploration to the stables, to see if by any chance Mr. Steadman’s plans for isolating his unhappy relative might be circumvented.
She went all over the stables — into loose boxes, harness and saddle rooms, sheds for wood, and sheds for roots, but she found no door opening into the quadrangle, save that door by which she had entered, and which was securely defended by a barricade of straw that had been doubled by a fresh delivery of trusses since she first saw it. But while she was prowling about the sweet-scented stable, much disappointed at the result of her investigations, she stumbled against a ladder which led to an open trap-door. Mary mounted the ladder, and found herself amidst the dusty atmosphere of a large hayloft, half in shadow, half in the hot bright sunlight. A large shutter was open in the sloping roof, the roof that sloped towards the quadrangle, an open patch admitting light and air. Mary, light and active as a squirrel, sprang upon a truss of hay, and in another moment had swung herself in the opening of the shutter, and was standing with her feet on the wooden ledge at the bottom of the massive frame, and her figure supported against the slope of thick thatched roof. Perched, or half suspended, thus, she was just high enough to look over the top of the yew-tree hedge into the circle round the sundial.
Yes, there was the unhappy victim of fate, and man’s inhumanity to man. There sat the shrunken figure, with drooping head, and melancholy attitude — the bent shoulders of feeble old age, the patriarchal locks so appealing to pity. There he sat with eyes poring upon the ground just as she had seen him the first time. And while she had sat with him and talked with him he had seemed to awaken out of that dull despondency, gleams of pleasure had lighted up his wrinkled face — he had grown animated, a sentient living instead of a corpse alive. It was very hard that this little interval of life, these stray gleams of gladness should be denied to the poor old creature, at the behest of James Steadman.
Mary would have felt less angrily upon the subject had she believed in Steadman’s supreme carefulness of her own safety; but in this she did not believe. She looked upon the house-steward’s prudence as a hypocritical pretence, an affectation of fidelity and wisdom, by which he contrived to gratify the evil tendencies of his own hard and cruel nature. For some reasons of his own, perhaps constrained thereto by necessity, he had given the old man an asylum for his age and infirmity: but while thus giving him shelter he considered him a burden, and from mere perversity of mind refused him all such consolations as were possible to his afflicted state, mewed him up as a prisoner, cut him off from the companionship of his fellow-men.
Two years ago, before Mary emerged from her Tomboyhood, she would have thought very little of letting herself out of the loft window and clambering down the side of the stable, which was well furnished with those projections in the way of gutters, drain-pipes, and century-old ivy, which make such a descent easy. Two years ago Mary’s light figure would have swung itself down among the ivy leaves, and she would have gloried in the thought of circumventing James Steadman so easily. But now Mary was a young lady — a young lady engaged to be married, and impressed with the responsibilities of her position, deeply sensible of a new dignity, for the preservation of which she was in a manner answerable to her lover.
‘What would he think of me if I went scrambling down the ivy?’ she asked herself; ‘and after he has approved of Steadman’s heartless restrictions, it would be rank rebellion against him if I were to do it. Poor old man, “Thou art so near and yet so far,” as Lesbia’s song says.’
She blew a kiss on the tips of her fingers towards that sad solitary figure, and then dropped back into the dusty duskiness of the loft. But although her new ideas upon the subject of ‘Anstand’— or good behaviour — prevented her getting the better of Steadman by foul means, she was all the more intent upon having her own way by fair means, now that the impression of the old man’s sadness and solitude had been renewed by the sight of the drooping figure by the sundial.
She went back to the house, and walked straight to her grandmother’s room. Lady Maulevrier’s couch had been placed in front of the open window, from which she was watching the westward-sloping sun above the long line of hills, dark Helvellyn, rugged Nabb Scarr, and verdant Fairfield, with its two giant arms stretched out to enfold and shelter the smiling valley.
‘Heavens! child, what an object you are;’ exclaimed her ladyship, as Mary drew near. ‘Why, your gown is all over dust, and your hair is — why your hair is sprinkled with hay and clover. I thought you had learnt to be tidy, since your engagement. What have you been doing with yourself?’
‘I have been up in the hayloft,’ answered Mary, frankly; and, intent on one idea, she said impetuously, ‘Dear grandmother, I want you to do me a favour — a very great favour. There is a poor old man, a relation of Steadman’s, who lives with him, out of his mind, but quite harmless, and he is so sad and lonely, so dreadfully sad, and he likes me to sit with him in the garden, and tell him stories, and recite verses to him, poor soul, just as if he were a child, don’t you know, and it is such a pleasure to me to be a little comfort to him in his lonely wretched life, and James Steadman says I mustn’t go near him, because he may change at any moment into a dangerous lunatic, and do me some kind of harm, and I am not a bit afraid, and I’m sure he won’t do anything of the kind, and, please grandmother, tell Steadman, that I am to be allowed to go and sit with his poor old prisoner half an hour every afternoon.’
Carried along the current of her own impetuous thoughts, Mary had talked very fast, and had not once looked at her grandmother while she was speaking. But now at the end of her speech her eyes sought Lady Maulevrier’s face in gentle entreaty, and she recoiled involuntarily at the sight she saw there.
The classic features were distorted almost as they had been in the worst period of the paralytic seizure. Lady Maulevrier was ghastly pale, and her eyes glared with an awful fire as they gazed at Mary. Her whole frame was convulsed, and she, the cripple, whose right limbs lay numbed and motionless upon the couch, made a struggling motion as she raised herself a little with the left arm, as if, by very force of angry will, she would have lifted herself up erect before the girl who had offended her.
For a few moments her lips moved dumbly; and there was something unspeakably awful in those convulsed features, that livid countenance, and those voiceless syllables trembling upon the white dry lips.
At last speech came.
‘Girl, you were created to torment me;’ she exclaimed.
‘Dear grandmother, what harm have I done?’ faltered Mary.
‘What harm? You are a spy. Your very existence is a torment and a danger. Would to God that you were married. Yes, married to a chimney-sweep, even — and out of my way.’
‘If that is your only difficulty,’ said Mary, haughtily, ‘I dare say Mr. Hammond would be kind enough to marry me to-morrow, and take me out of your ladyship’s way.’
Lady Maulevrier’s head sank back upon her pillows, those velvet and satin pillows, rich with delicate point lace and crewel-work adornment, the labour of Mary and Fräulein, pillows which could not bring peace to the weary head, or deaden the tortures of memory. The pale face recovered its wonted calm, the heavy lips drooped over the weary eyes, and for a few moments there was silence in the room.
Then Lady Maulevrier raised her eyelids, and looked at her granddaughter imploringly, pathetically.
‘Forgive me, Mary,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I was saying just now; but whatever it was, forgive and forget it. I am a wretched old woman, heart sick, heart sore, worn out by pain and weariness. There are times when I am beside myself; moments when I am not much saner than Steadman’s lunatic uncle. This is one of my worst days, and you came bouncing in upon me, and tortured my nerves by your breathless torrent of words. Pray forgive me, if I said anything rude.’
‘If,’ thought Mary: but she tried to be charitable, and to believe that Lady Maulevrier’s attack upon her was a new phase of hysteria, so she murmured meekly, ‘There is nothing for me to forgive, grandmother, and I am very sorry I disturbed you.’
She was going to leave the room, thinking that her absence would be a relief to the invalid, when Lady Maulevrier called her back.
‘You were asking me something — something about that old man of Steadman’s,’ she said with a weary air, half indifference, half the lassitude natural to an invalid who sinks under the burden of monotonous days. ‘What was it all about? I forget.’
Mary repeated her request, but this time in measured tones.
‘My dear, I am sure that Steadman was only properly prudent.’ answered Lady Maulevrier, ‘and that it would never do for me to interfere in this matter. It stands to reason that he must know his old kinsman’s temperament much better than you can, after your half-hour interviews with him in the garden. Pray how long have these garden scenes been going on, by-the-by?’ asked her ladyship, with a searching look at Mary’s downcast face.
The girl had not altogether recovered from the rude shock of her grandmother’s late attack.
‘About three weeks,’ faltered Mary. ‘But it is more than a week now since I was in the garden. It was quite by accident that I first went there. Perhaps I ought to explain.’
And Mary, not being gainsayed, went on to describe that first afternoon when she had seen the old man brooding in the sun. She drew quite a pathetic picture of his joyless solitude, whilst all nature around and about him was looking so glad in the spring sunshine. There was a long silence, a silence of some minutes, when she had done; and Lady Maulevrier lay with lowered eyelids, deep in thought. Mary began to hope that she had touched her grandmother’s heart, and that her request would be granted: but she was soon undeceived.
‘I am sorry to be obliged to refuse you a favour, Mary, but I must stand by Steadman,’ said her ladyship. ‘When I gave Steadman permission to shelter his aged kinsman in my house, I made it a condition that the old man should be kept in the strictest care by himself and his wife, and that nobody in this establishment should be troubled by him. This condition has been so scrupulously adhered to that the old man’s existence is known to no one in this house except you and me; and you have discovered the fact only by accident. I must beg you to keep this secret to yourself. Steadman has particular reasons for wishing to conceal the fact of his uncle’s residence here. The old man is not actually a lunatic. If he were we should be violating the law by keeping him here. He is only imbecile from extreme old age; the body has outlived the mind, that is all. But should any officious functionary come down upon Fellside, this imbecility might be called madness, and the poor old creature whom you regard so compassionately, and whose case you think so pitiable here, would be carried off to a pauper lunatic asylum, which I can assure you would be a much worse imprisonment than Fellside Manor.’
‘Yes, indeed, grandmother,’ exclaimed Mary, whose vivid imagination conjured up a vision of padded cells, strait-waist-coats, murderously-inclined keepers, chains, handcuffs, and bread and water diet, ‘now I understand why the poor old soul has been kept so close — why nobody knows of his existence. I beg Steadman’s pardon with all my heart. He is a much better fellow than I thought him.’
‘Steadman is a thoroughly good fellow, and as true as steel,’ said her ladyship. ‘No one can know that so well as the mistress he has served faithfully for nearly half a century. I hope, Mary, you have not been chattering to Fräulein or any one else about your discovery.’
‘No, grandmother, I have not said a word to a mortal, but ——’
‘Oh, there is a “but,” is there? I understand. You have not been so reticent in your letters to Mr. Hammond.’
‘I tell him all that happens to me. There is very little to write about at Fellside; yet I contrive to send him volumes. I often wonder what poor girls did in the days of Miss Austen’s novels, when letters cost a shilling or eighteen pence for postage, and had to be paid for by the recipient. It must have been such a terrible check upon affection.’
‘And upon twaddle,’ said Lady Maulevrier. ‘Well you told Mr. Hammond about Steadman’s old uncle. What did he say?’
‘He thoroughly approved Steadman’s conduct in forbidding me to go and see him,’ answered Mary. ‘I couldn’t help thinking it rather unkind of him; but, of course, I feel that he must be right,’ concluded Mary, as much as to say that her lover was necessarily infallible.
‘I always thought Mr. Hammond a sensible young man, and I am glad to find that his conduct does not belie my good opinion,’ said Lady Maulevrier. ‘And now, my dear, you had better go and make yourself decent before dinner. I am very weary this afternoon, and even our little talk has exhausted me.’
‘Yes, dear grandmother, I am going this instant. But let me ask one question: What is the poor old man’s name?’
‘His name!’ said her ladyship, looking at Mary with a puzzled air, like a person whose thoughts are far away. ‘His name — oh, Steadman, I suppose, like his nephew’s; but if I ever heard the name I have forgotten it, and I don’t know whether the kinship is on the father’s or the mother’s side. Steadman asked my permission to give shelter to a helpless old relative, and I gave it. That is really all I remember.’
‘Only one other question,’ pleaded Mary, who was brimful of curiosity upon this particular subject. ‘Has he been at Fellside very long?’
‘Oh, I really don’t know; a year, or two, or three, perhaps. Life in this house is all of a piece. I hardly keep count of time.’
‘There is one thing that puzzles me very much,’ said Mary, still lingering near her grandmother’s couch, the balmy evening air caressing her as she leaned against the embrasure of the wide Tudor window, the sun drawing nearer to the edge of the hills, an orb of yellow flame, soon to change to a gigantic disk of lurid fire. ‘I thought from the old man’s talk that he, too, must be an old servant in our family. He talked of Maulevrier Castle, and said that I reminded him of a picture by Lely, a portrait of a Lady Maulevrier.
‘It is quite possible that he may have been in service there, though I do not remember to have heard anything about it,’ answered her ladyship, carelessly. ‘The Steadmans come from that part of the country, and theirs is a hereditary service. Good-night, Mary, I am utterly weary. Look at that glorious light yonder, that mighty world of fire and flame, without which our little world would be dark and dreary. I often think of that speech of Macbeth’s, “I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun.” There comes a time, Mary, when even the sun is a burden.’
‘Only for such a man as Macbeth,’ said Mary, ‘a man steeped in crime. Who can wonder that he wanted to hide himself from the sun? But, dear grandmother, there ought to be plenty of happiness left for you, even if your recovery is slow to come. You are so clever, you have such resources in your own mind and memory, and you have your grandchildren, who love you dearly,’ added Mary, tenderly.
Her nature was so full of pity that an entirely new affection had grown up in her mind for Lady Maulevrier since that terrible evening of the paralytic stroke.
‘Yes, and whose love, as exemplified by Lesbia, is shown in a hurried scrap of a letter scrawled once a week — a bone thrown to a hungry dog,’ said her ladyship, bitterly.
‘Lesbia is so lovely, and she is so surrounded by flatterers and admirers,’ murmured Mary, excusingly.
‘Oh, my dear, if she had a heart she would not forget me, even in the midst of her flatterers. Good-night again, Mary. Don’t try to console me. For some natures consolations and soothing suggestions are like flowers thrown upon a granite tomb. They do just as much and just as little good to the heart that lies under the stone. Good-night.’
Mary stooped to kiss her grandmother’s forehead, and found it cold as marble. She murmured a loving good-night, and left the mistress of Fellside in her loneliness.
A footman would come in and light the lamps, and draw the velvet curtains, presently, and shut out the later glories of sunset. And then the butler himself would come and arrange the little dinner table by her ladyship’s couch, and would himself preside over the invalid’s simple dinner, which would be served exquisitely, with all that is daintiest and most costly in Salviati glass and antique silver. Yet better the dinner of herbs, and love and peace withal, than the choicest fare or the most perfect service.
Before the coming of the servants and the lamps there was a pause of silence and loneliness, an interval during which Lady Maulevrier lay gazing at the declining orb, the lower rim of which now rested on the edge of the hill. It seemed to grow larger and more dazzling as she looked at it.
Suddenly she clasped her left hand across her eyes, and said aloud —
‘Oh, what a hateful life! Almost half a century of lies and hypocricies and prevarications and meannesses! For what? For the glory of an empty name; and for a fortune that may slip from my dead hand to become the prey of rogues and adventurers. Who can forecast the future?’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05