It was the beginning of August before Lesbia was pronounced equal to the fatigue of a long journey; and even then it was but the shadow of her former self which returned to Fellside, the pale spectre of joys departed, of trust deceived.
Maulevrier had been very good to her, patient, unselfish as a woman, in his ministering to the broken-hearted girl. That broken heart would be whole again, no doubt, in the future, as many other broken hearts have been; but the grief, the despair, the sense of hopelessness and aimlessness in life were very real in the present. If the picturesque seclusion of Fellside had seemed dull and joyless to Lesbia in days gone by, it was much duller to her now. She was shocked at the change in her grandmother, and she showed a good deal of feeling and affection in her intercourse with the invalid; but once out of her presence Lady Maulevrier was forgotten, and Lesbia’s thoughts drifted back into the old current. They dwelt obstinately, unceasingly upon Montesma, the man whose influence had awakened the slumbering soul from its torpor, had stirred the deeps of a passionate nature.
Slave-dealer, gambler, adventurer, liar — his name blackened by the suspicion of a still darker crime. She shuddered at the thought of the villain from whose snare she had been rescued: and yet, his image as he had been to her in the brief golden time when she believed him noble, and chivalrous, and true, haunted her lonely days, mixed itself with her troubled dreams, came between her and every other thought.
Everybody was good to her. That pale and joyless face, that look of patient, hopeless suffering which she tried to disguise every now and then with a faint forced smile; and silvery little ripple of society laughter, seemed unconsciously to implore pity and pardon. Lady Maulevrier uttered no word of reproach. ‘My dearest, Fate has not been kind to you,’ she said, gently, after telling Lesbia of Lady Kirkbank’s visit. ‘The handsomest women are seldom the happiest. Destiny seems to have a grudge against them. And if things have gone amiss it is I who am most to blame. I ought never to have entrusted you with such a woman as Georgina Kirkbank. But you will be happier next season, I hope, dearest. You can live with Mary and Hartfield. They will take care of you.’
‘Do you think I am going back to the society treadmill?’ she exclaimed. ‘No, I have done with the world. I shall end my days here, or in a convent.’
‘You think so now, dear, but you will change your mind by-and-by. A fancy that has lasted only a few weeks cannot alter your life. It will pass as other dreams have passed. At your age you have the future before you.’
‘No, it is the past that is always before me,’ answered Lesbia. ‘My future is a blank.’
The bills came pouring in; dressmaker, milliner, glover, bootmaker, tailor, stationer, perfumer; awful bills which made Lady Maulevrier’s blood run cold, so degrading was their story of selfish self-indulgence, of senseless extravagance. But she paid them all without a word. She took upon her shoulders the chief burden of Lesbia’s wrongdoing. It was her indulgence, her weak preference which had fostered her granddaughter’s selfishness, trained her to vanity and worldly pride. The result was ignominious, humiliating, bitter beyond all common bitterness; but the cup was of her own brewing, and she drank it without a murmur.
Parliament was prorogued; the season was over; and Lord Hartfield was established at Fellside for the autumn — he and his wife utterly happy in their affection for each other, but not without care as to their surroundings, which were full of trouble. First there was Lesbia’s sorrow. Granted that it was a grief which would inevitably wear itself out, as other such griefs have done from time immemorial; but still the sorrow was there, at their doors. Next, there was the state of Lady Maulevrier’s health, which gave her old medical adviser the gravest fears. At Lord Hartfield’s earnest desire a famous doctor was summoned from London; but the great man could only confirm Mr. Horton’s verdict. The thread of life was wearing thinner every day. It might snap at any hour. In the meantime the only regime was repose of body and mind, an all-pervading calm, the avoidance of all exciting topics. One moment of violent agitation might prove fatal.
Knowing this, how could Lord Hartfield call her ladyship to account for the presence of that mysterious old man under Steadman’s charge? — how venture to touch upon a topic which, by Mary’s showing, had exercised a most disturbing influence upon her ladyship’s mind on that solitary occasion when the girl ventured to approach the subject?
He felt that any attempt at an explanation was impossible. It was not for him to precipitate Lady Maulevrier’s end by prying into her secrets. Granted that shame and dishonour of some kind were involved in the existence of that strange old man, he, Lord Hartfield, must endure his portion in that shame — must be content to leave the dark riddle unsolved.
He resigned himself to this state of things, and tried to forget the cloud that hung over the house of Haselden; but the sense of a mystery, a fatal family secret, which must come to light sooner or later — since all such secrets are known at last — known, sifted, and bandied about from lip to lip, and published in a thousand different newspapers, and cried aloud in the streets — the sense of such a secret, the dread of such a revelation weighed upon him heavily.
Maulevrier, the restless, was off to Argyleshire for the grouse shooting as soon as he had deposited Lady Lesbia comfortably at Fellside.
‘I should only be in your way if I stopped,’ he said, ‘for you and Molly have hardly got over the honeymoon stage yet, though you put on the airs of Darby and Joan. I shall be back in a week or ten days.’
‘In Lady Maulevrier’s state of health I don’t think you ought to stay away very long,’ said Hartfield.
‘Poor Lady Maulevrier! She never cared much for me, don’t you know. But I suppose it would seem unkind if I were to be out of the way when the end comes. The end! Good heavens! how coolly I talk of it; and a year ago I thought she was as immortal as Fairfield yonder.’
He went away, his spirits dashed by that awful thought of death, and Lord and Lady Hartfield had the house to themselves, since Lesbia hardly counted. She seldom left her own rooms, except to sit with her grandmother for an hour. She lay on her sofa — or sat in a low arm-chair by the window, reading Keats or Shelley — or only dreaming — dreaming over the brief golden time of her life, with its fond delusions, its false brightness. Mr. Horton went to see her every day — felt the feeble little pulse which seemed hardly to have force enough to beat — urged her to struggle against apathy and inertia, to walk a little, to go for a long drive every day, to live in the open air — to which instructions she paid not the slightest attention. The desire for life was gone. Disappointed in her ambition, betrayed in her love, humiliated, duped, degraded — a social failure. What had she to live for? She felt as if it would have been a good thing, quite the best thing that could happen, if she could turn her face to the wall and die. All that past season, its triumphs, its pleasures, its varieties, was like a garish dream, a horror to look back upon, hateful to remember.
In vain did Mary and Hartfield urge Lesbia to join in their simple pleasures, their walks and rides and drives, and boating excursions. She always refused.
‘You know I never cared much for roaming about these everlasting hills,’ she told Mary. ‘I never had your passion for Lakeland. It is very good of you to wish to have me, but it is quite impossible. I have hardly strength enough for a little walk in the garden.’
‘You would have more strength if you went out more,’ pleaded Mary, almost with tears. ‘Mr. Horton says sun and wind are the best doctors for you. Lesbia, you frighten me sometimes. You are just letting yourself fade away.’
‘If you knew how I hate the world and the sky, Mary, you wouldn’t urge me to go out of doors,’ Lesbia answered, moodily. ‘Indoors I can read, and get away from my own thoughts somehow, for a little while. But out yonder, face to face with the hills and the lake — the scenes I have known all my life — I feel a heart-sickness that is worse than death. It maddens me to see that old, old picture of mountain and water, the same for ever and ever, no matter what hearts are breaking.’
Mary crept close beside her sister’s couch, put her arm round her neck, laid her cheek — rich in the ruddy bloom of health — against Lesbia’s pallid and sunken cheek, and comforted her as much as she could with tender murmurs and loving kisses. Other comfort, she could give none. All the wisdom in the world will not cure a girl’s heart-sickness when she has flung away the treasures of her love upon a worthless object.
And so the days went by, peacefully, but sadly; for the shadow of doom hung heavily over the house upon the Fell. Nobody who looked upon Lady Maulevrier could doubt that her days were numbered, that the oil was waxing low in the lamp of life. The end, the awful, mysterious end, was drawing near; and she who was called was making no such preparations as the Christian makes to answer the dread summons. As she had lived, she meant to die — an avowed unbeliever. More than once Mary had taken courage, and had talked to her grandmother of the world beyond, the blessed hope of re-union with the friends we have lost, in a new and brighter life, only to be met by the sceptic’s cynical smile, the materialist’s barren creed.
‘My dearest, we know nothing except the immutable laws of material life. All the rest is a dream — a beautiful dream, if you like — a consolation to that kind of temperament which can take comfort from dreams; but for anyone who has read much, and thought much, and kept as far as possible on a level with the scientific intellect of the age — for such an one, Mary, these old fables are too idle. I shall die as I have lived, the victim of an inscrutable destiny, working blindly, evil to some, good to others. Ah! love, life has begun very fairly for you. May the fates be kind always to my gentle and loving girl!’
There was more talk between them on this dark mystery of life and death. Mary brought out her poor little arguments, glorified by the light of perfect faith; but they were of no avail against opinions which had been the gradual growth of a long and joyless life. Time had attuned Lady Maulevrier’s mind to the gospel of Schopenhauer and the Pessimists, and she was contented to see the mystery of life as they had seen it. She had no fear, but she had some anxiety as to the things that were to happen after she was gone. She had taken upon herself a heavy burden, and she had not yet come to the end of the road where her burden might be laid quietly down, her task accomplished. If she fell by the wayside under her load the consequences for the survivors might be full of trouble.
Her anxieties were increased by the fact that her faithful servant and adviser, James Steadman, was no longer the man he had been. The change in him was painfully evident — memory failing, energy gone. He came to his mistress’s room every morning, received her orders, answered her questions; but Lady Maulevrier felt that he went through the old duties in a mechanical way, and that his dull brain but half understood their importance.
One evening at dusk, just as Hartfield and Mary were leaving Lady Maulevrier’s room, after dinner, an appalling shriek ran through the house — a cry almost as terrible as that which Lord Hartfield heard in the summer midnight just a year ago. But this time the sound came from the old part of the house.
‘Something has happened,’ exclaimed Hartfield, rushing to the door of communication.
It was bolted inside. He knocked vehemently; but there was no answer. He ran downstairs, followed by Mary, breathless, in an agony of fear. Just as they approached the lower door, leading to the old house, it was flung open, and Steadman’s wife stood before them pale with terror.
‘The doctor,’ she cried; ‘send for Mr. Horton, somebody, for God’s sake. Oh, my lord,’ with a sudden burst of sobbing, ‘I’m afraid he’s dead.’
‘Mary, despatch some one for Horton,’ said Lord Hartfield. Keeping his wife back with one hand, he closed the door against her, and then followed Mrs. Steadman through the long low corridor to her husband’s sitting-room.
James Steadman was lying upon his back upon the hearth, near the spot were Lord Hartfield had seen him sleeping in his arm-chair a month ago.
One look at the distorted face, dark with injected blood, the dreadful glassy glare of the eyes, the foam-stained lips, told that all was over. The faithful servant had died at his post. Whatever his charge had been, his term of service was ended. There was a vacancy in Lady Maulevrier’s household.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05