BY THE AUTHOR OF "LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET," "VIXEN," ETC. ETC. ETC.
I. PENELOPE II. ULYSSES III. ON THE WRONG ROAD IV. THE LAST STAGE V. FORTY YEARS AFTER VI. MAULEVRIER'S HUMBLE FRIEND VII. IN THE SUMMER MORNING VIII. THERE IS ALWAYS A SKELETON IX. A CRY IN THE DARKNESS X. 'O BITTERNESS OF THINGS TOO SWEET' XI. 'IF I WERE TO DO AS ISEULT DID' XII. 'THE GREATER CANTLE OF THE WORLD IS LOST' XIII. 'SINCE PAINTED OR NOT PAINTED ALL SHALL FADE' XIV. 'NOT YET' XV. 'OF ALL MEN ELSE I HAVE AVOIDED THEE' XVI. 'HER FACE RESIGNED TO BLISS OR BALE' XVII. 'AND THE SPRING COMES SLOWLY UP THIS WAY' XVIII. 'AND COME AGEN, BE IT BY NIGHT OR DAY' XIX. THE OLD MAN ON THE FELL XX. LADY MAULEVRIER'S LETTER-BAG XXI. ON THE DARK BROW OF HELVELLYN XXII. WISER THAN LESBIA XXIII. 'A YOUNG LAMB'S HEART AMONG THE FULL-GROWN FLOCKS' XXIV. 'NOW NOTHING LEFT TO LOVE OR HATE' XXV. CARTE BLANCHE XXVI. 'PROUD CAN I NEVER BE OF WHAT I HATE' XXVII. LESBIA CROSSES PICCADILLY XXVIII. 'CLUBS, DIAMONDS, HEARTS, IN WILD DISORDER SEEN' XXIX. 'SWIFT, SUBTLE POST, CARRIER OF GRISLY CARE' XXX. 'ROSES CHOKED AMONG THORNS AND THISTLES' XXXI. 'KIND IS MY LOVE TO-DAY, TO-MORROW KIND' XXXII. WAYS AND MEANS XXXIII. BY SPECIAL LICENCE XXXIV. 'OUR LOVE WAS NEW, AND THEN BUT IN THE SPRING' XXXV. 'ALL FANCY, PRIDE, AND FICKLE MAIDENHOOD' XXXVI. A RASTAQUOUERE XXXVII. LORD HARTFIELD REFUSES A FORTUNE XXXVIII. ON BOARD THE 'CAYMAN' XXXIX. IN STORM AND DARKNESS XL. A NOTE OF ALARM XLI. PRIVILEGED INFORMATION XLII. 'SHALL IT BE?' XLIII. 'ALAS, FOR SORROW IS ALL THE END OF THIS' XLIV. 'OH, SAD KISSED MOUTH, HOW SORROWFUL IT IS!' XLV. 'THAT FELL ARREST WITHOUT ALL BAIL' XLVI. THE DAY OF RECKONING
People dined earlier forty years ago than they do now. Even that salt of the earth, the elect of society, represented by that little great world which lies between the narrow circle bounded by Bryanstone Square on the north and by Birdcage Walk on the south, did not consider seven o'clock too early an hour for a dinner party which was to be followed by routs, drums, concerts, conversazione, as the case might be. It was seven o'clock on a lovely June evening, and the Park was already deserted, and carriages were rolling swiftly along all the Westend squares, carrying rank, fashion, wealth, and beauty, political influence, and intellectual power, to the particular circle in which each was destined to illumine upon that particular evening.
Stateliest among London squares, Grosvenor—in some wise a wonder to the universe as newly lighted with gas—grave Grosvenor, with its heavy old Georgian houses and pompous porticoes, sparkled and shone, not alone with the novel splendour of gas, but with the light of many wax candles, clustering flower-like in silver branches and girandoles, multiplying their flame in numerous mirrors; and of all the houses in that stately square none had a more imposing aspect than Lord Denyer's dark red brick mansion, with stone dressings, and the massive grandeur of an Egyptian mausoleum.
Lord Denyer was an important personage in the political and diplomatic world. He had been ambassador at Constantinople and at Paris, and had now retired on his laurels, an influence still, but no longer an active power in the machine of government. At his house gathered all that was most brilliant in London society. To be seen at Lady Denyer's, evening parties was the guinea stamp of social distinction; to dine with Lord Denyer was an opening in life, almost as valuable as University honours, and more difficult of attainment.
It was during the quarter of an hour before dinner that a group of persons, mostly personages, congregated round Lord Denyer's chimney-piece, naturally trending towards the social hearth, albeit it was the season for roses and lilies rather than of fires, and the hum of the city was floating in upon the breath of the warm June evening through the five tall windows which opened upon Lord Denyer's balcony.
The ten or twelve persons assembled seemed only a sprinkling in the large lofty room, furnished sparsely with amber satin sofas, a pair of Florentine marble tables, and half an acre or so of looking glass. Voluminous amber draperies shrouded the windows, and deadened the sound of rolling wheels, and the voices and footfalls of western London. The drawing rooms of those days were neither artistic nor picturesque—neither Early English nor Low Dutch, nor Renaissance, nor Anglo-Japanese. A stately commonplace distinguished the reception rooms of the great world. Upholstery stagnated at a dead level of fluted legs, gilding, plate glass, and amber satin.
Lady Denyer stood a little way in advance of the group on the hearthrug, fanning herself, with her eye on the door, while she listened languidly to the remarks of a youthful diplomatist, a sprig of a lordly tree, upon the last debut at Her Majesty's Theatre.
'My own idea was that she screamed,' said her ladyship. 'But the new Rosinas generally do scream. Why do we have a new Rosina every year, whom nobody ever hears of afterwards? What becomes of them? Do they die, or do they set up as singing mistresses in second-rate watering-places?' hazarded her ladyship, with her eye always on the door.
She was a large woman in amethyst satin, and a gauze turban with a diamond aigrette, a splendid jewel, which would not have misbeseemed the head-gear of an Indian prince. Lady Denyer was one of the last women who wore a turban, and that Oriental head-dress became her bold and massive features.
Infinitely bored by the whiskerless attache, who had entered upon a disquisition on the genius of Rossini as compared with this new man Meyerbeer, her ladyship made believe to hear, while she listened intently to the confidential murmurs of the group on the hearthrug, the little knot of personages clustered round Lord Denyer. Hi 'Indian mail in this morning,' said one—'nothing else talked of at the club. Very flagrant case! A good deal worse than Warren Hastings. Quite clear there must be a public inquiry—House of Lords—criminal prosecution.'
'I was told on very good authority, that he has been recalled, and is now on his passage home,' said another man.
Lord Denyer shrugged his shoulders, pursed up his lips, and looked ineffably wise, a way he had when he knew very little about the subject under discussion.
'How will she take it, do you think?' inquired Colonel Madison, of the Life Guards, a man about town, and an inveterate gossip, who knew everybody, and everybody's family history, down to the peccadilloes of people's great grandmothers.
'You will have an opportunity of judging,' replied his lordship, coolly. 'She's to be here this evening.'
'But do you think she'll show?' asked the Colonel. 'The mail must have brought the news to her, as well as to other people—supposing she knew nothing about it beforehand. She must know that the storm has burst. Do you think she'll——'
'Come out in the thunder and lightning?' interrupted Lord Denver; 'I'm sure she will. She has the pride of Lucifer and the courage of a lion. Five to one in ponies that she is here before the clock strikes seven!'
'I think you are right. I knew her mother, Constance Talmash. Pluck was a family characteristic of the Talmashes. Wicked as devils, and brave as lions. Old Talmash, the grandfather, shot his valet in a paroxysm of delirium tremens,' said Colonel Madison. 'She's a splendid woman, and she won't flinch. I'd rather back her than bet against her.'
'Lady Maulevrier!' announced the groom of the chambers; and Lady Denyer moved at least three paces forward to meet her guest.
The lady who entered, with slow and stately movements and proudly balanced head, might have served for a model as Juno or the Empress Livia. She was still in the bloom of youth, at most seven-and-twenty, but she had all the calm assurance of middle-age. No dowager, hardened by the varied experiences of a quarter of a century in the great world, could have faced society with more perfect coolness and self-possession. She was beautiful, and she let the world see that she was conscious of her beauty, and the power that went along with it. She was clever, and she used her cleverness with unfailing tact and unscrupulous audacity. She had won her place in the world as an acknowledged beauty, and one of the leaders of fashion. Two years ago she had been the glory and delight of Anglo-Indian society in the city of Madras, ruling that remote and limited kingdom with a despotic power. Then all of a sudden she was ordered, or she ordered her physician to order her, an immediate departure from that perilous climate, and she came back to England with her three-year-old son, two Ayahs, and four European servants, leaving her husband, Lord Maulevrier, Governor of the Madras Presidency, to finish the term of his service in an enforced widowhood.
She returned to be the delight of London society. She threw open the family mansion in Curzon Street to the very best people, but to those only. She went out a great deal, but she was never seen at a second-rate party. She had not a single doubtful acquaintance upon her visiting list. She spent half of every year at the family seat in Scotland, was a miracle of goodness to the poor of her parish, and taught her boy his alphabet.
Lord Denyer came forward while his wife and Lady Maulevrier were shaking hands, and greeted her with more than his usual cordiality. Colonel Madison watched for the privilege of a recognising nod from the divinity. Sir Jasper Paulet, a legal luminary of the first brilliancy, likely to be employed for the Crown if there should be an inquiry into Lord Maulevrier's conduct out yonder, came to press Lady Maulevrier's hand and murmur a tender welcome.
She accepted their friendliness as a matter of course, and not by the faintest extra quiver of the tremulous stars which glittered in a circlet above her raven hair did she betray her consciousness of the cloud that darkened her husband's reputation. Never had she appeared gayer, or more completely satisfied with herself and the world in which she lived. She was ready to talk about anything and everything—the newly-wedded queen, and the fortunate Prince, whose existence among us had all the charm of novelty—of Lord Melbourne's declining health—and Sir Robert Peel's sliding scale—mesmerism—the Oxford Tracts—the latest balloon ascent—the opera—Macready's last production at Drury lane—Bulwer's new novel—that clever little comic paper, just struggling into popularity—what do you call the thing—Punch?—yes, Punch, or the London Charivari—a much more respectable paper than its Parisian prototype.
Seated next Lord Denyer, who was an excellent listener, Lady Maulevrier's vivacity never flagged throughout the dinner, happily not so long as a modern banquet, albeit more ponderous and not less expensive. From the turtle to the pines and strawberries, Lady Maulevrier held her host or her right-hand neighbour in interested conversation. She always knew the particular subjects likely to interest particular people, and was a good listener as well as a good talker. Her right-hand neighbour was Sir Jasper Paulet, who had been allotted to the pompous wife of a court physician, a lady who had begun her married life in the outer darkness of Guildford Street, Bloomsbury, with a household consisting of a maid-of-all-work and a boy in buttons, with an occasional interregnum of charwoman; and for whom all the length and breadth of Harley Street was now much too small.
Sir Jasper was only decently civil to this haughty matron, who on the strength of a card for a ball or a concert at the palace once in a season affected to be on the most intimate terms with Royalty, and knew everything that happened, and every fluctuation of opinion in that charmed circle. The great lawyer's left ear was listening greedily for any word of meaning that might fall from the lips of Lady Maulevrier; but no such word fell. She talked delightfully, with a touch-and-go vivacity which is the highest form of dinner-table talk, not dwelling with a heavy hand upon any one subject, but glancing from theme to theme with airy lightness. But not one word did she say about the governor of Madras; and at this juncture of affairs it would have been the worst possible taste to inquire too closely after his lordship's welfare.
So the dinner wore on to its stately close, and just as the solemn procession of flunkeys, long as the shadowy line of the kings in 'Macbeth,' filed off with the empty ice-dishes, Lady Maulevrier said something which was as if a shell had exploded in the middle of the table.
'Perhaps you are surprised to see me in such good spirits,' she said, beaming upon her host, and speaking in those clear, perfectly finished syllables which are heard further than the louder accents of less polished speakers, 'but you will not wonder when I let you into the secret. Maulevrier is on his way home.'
'Indeed!' said Lord Denyer, with the most benignant smile he could command at such short notice. He felt that the muscles round his eyes and the corners of his mouth were betraying too much of his real sentiments. 'You must be very glad.'
'I am gladder than I can say,' answered Lady Maulevrier, gaily. 'That horried climate—a sky like molten copper—an atmosphere that tastes of red-hot sand—that flat barren coast never suited him. His term of office would expire in little more than a year, but I hardly think he could have lived out the year. However, I am happy to say the mail that came in to-day—I suppose you know the mail is in?' (Lord Denyer bowed)—'brought me a letter from his Lordship, telling me that he has sent in his resignation, and taken his passage by the next big ship that leaves Madras. I imagine he will be home in October.'
'If he have a favourable passage,' said Lord Denyer. 'Favoured by your good wishes the winds and the waves ought to deal gently with him.'
'Ah, we have done with the old days of Greek story, when Neptune was open to feminine influence,' sighed her ladyship. 'My poor Ulysses has no goddess of wisdom to look after him.'
'Perhaps not, but he has the most charming of Penelopes waiting for him at home.'
'A Penelope who goes to dinners, and takes life pleasantly in his absence. That is a new order of things, is it not?' said her ladyship, laughingly. 'I hope my poor Ulysses will not come home thoroughly broken in health, but that our Sutherlandshire breezes will set him up again.'
'Rather an ordeal after India, I should think,' said Lord Denyer.
'It is his native air. He will revel in it.'
'Delicious country, no doubt,' assented, his lordship, who was no sportsman, and who detested Scotland, grouse moors, deer forests, salmon rivers included.
His only idea of a winter residence was Florence or Capri, and of the two he preferred Capri. The island was at that time little frequented by Englishmen. It had hardly been fashionable since the time of Tiberius, but Lord Denyer went there, accompanied by his French chef, and a dozen other servants, and roughed it in a native hotel; while Lady Denyer wintered at the family seat among the hills near Bath, and gave herself over to Low Church devotion, and works of benevolence. She made herself a terror to the neighbourhood by the strictness of her ideas all through the autumn and winter; and in the spring she went up to London, put on her turban and her diamonds, and plunged into the vortex of West-End society, where she revolved among other jewelled matrons for the season, telling herself and her intimates that this sacrifice of inclination was due to his lordship's position. Lady Denyer was not the less serious-minded because she was seen at every aristocratic resort, and wore low gowns with very short sleeves, and a great display of mottled arm and dimpled elbow.
Now came her ladyship's smiling signal for the withdrawal of that fairer half of the assembly which was supposed to be indifferent to Lord Denyer's famous port and Madeira. She had been throwing out her gracious signals unperceived for at least five minutes before Lady Maulevrier responded, so entirely was that lady absorbed in her conversation with Lord Denyer; but she caught the look at last, and rose, as if moved by the same machinery which impelled her hostess, and then, graceful as a swan sailing with the current, she drifted down the room to the distant door, and headed the stately procession of matronly velvet and diamonds, herself at once the most regal and the most graceful figure in that bevy of fair woman.
In the drawing-room nobody could be gayer than Lady Maulevrier, as she marked the time of Signor Paponizzi's saltarello, exquisitely performed on the Signor's famed Amati violin—or talked of the latest scandal—always excepting that latest scandal of all which involved her own husband—in subdued murmurs with one of her intimates. In the dining-room the men drew closer together over their wine, and tore Lord Maulevrier's character to rags. Yea, they rent him with their teeth and gnawed the flesh from his bones, until there was not so much left of him as the dogs left of Jezebel.
He had been a scamp from his cradle, a spendthrift at Eton and Oxford, a blackleg in his manhood. False to men, false to women. Clever? Yes, undoubtedly, just as Satan is clever, and as unscrupulous as that very Satan. This was what his friends said of him over their wine. And now he was rumoured to have sold the British forces in the Carnatic provinces to one of the native Princes. Yes, to have taken gold, gold to an amount which Clive in his most rapacious moments never dreamt of, for his countrymen's blood. Tidings of dark transactions between the Governor and the native Princes had reached the ears of the Government, tidings so vague, so incredible, that the Government might naturally be slow to believe, still slower to act. There were whispers of a woman's influence, a beautiful Ranee, a creature as fascinating and as unscrupulous as Cleopatra. The scandal had been growing for months past, but it was only in the letters received to-day that the rumour had taken a tangible shape, and now it was currently reported that Lord Maulevrier had been recalled, and would have to answer at the bar of the House of Lords for his misdemeanours, which were of a much darker colour than those acts for which Warren Hastings had been called to account fifty years before.
Yet in the face of all this, Lady Maulevrier bore herself as proudly as if her husband's name were spotless, and talked of his return with all the ardour of a fond and trusting wife.
'One of the finest bits of acting I ever saw in my life,' said the court physician. 'Mademoiselle Mars never did anything better.'
'Do you really think it was acting?' inquired Lord Denyer, affecting a youthful candour and trustfulness which at his age, and with his experience, he could hardly be supposed to possess.
'I know it,' replied the doctor. 'I watched her while she was talking of Maulevrier, and I saw just one bead of perspiration break out on her upper lip—an unmistakable sign of the mental struggle.'
October was ending drearily with north-east winds, dust, drifting dead leaves, and a steel-grey sky; and the Dolphin Hotel at Southampton was glorified by the presence of Lady Maulevrier and suite. Her ladyship's suite was on this occasion limited to three servants—her French maid, a footman, and a kind of factotum, a man of no distinct and arbitrary signification in her ladyship's household, neither butler nor steward, but that privileged being, an old and trusted servant, and a person who was supposed to enjoy more of Lady Maulevrier's confidence than any other member of her establishment.
This James Steadman had been valet to her ladyship's father, Lord Peverill, during the declining years of that nobleman. The narrow limits of a sick room had brought the master and servant into a closer companionship than is common to that relation. Lady Diana Angersthorpe was a devoted daughter, and in her attendance upon the Earl during the last three years of his life—a life which closed more than a year before her own marriage—she saw a great deal of James Steadman, and learned to trust him as servants are not often trusted. He was not more than twenty years of age at the beginning of his service, but he was a man of extraordinary gravity, much in advance of his years; a man of shrewd common-sense and clear, sharp intellect. Not a reading man, or a man in any way superior to his station and belongings, but a man who could think quickly, and understand quickly, and who always seemed to think rightly. Prompt in action, yet steady as a rock, and to all appearance recognising no earthly interest, no human tie, beyond or above the interests of his master. As a nurse Steadman showed himself invaluable. Lord Peverill left him a hundred pounds in acknowledgment of his services, which was something for Lord Peverill, who had very little ready cash wherewith to endow his only daughter. After his death the title and the estates went to a distant cousin; Lady Diana Angersthorpe was taken in hand by her aunt, the Dowager Marchioness of Carrisbrook; and James Steadman would have had to find employment among strangers, if Lady Diana had not pleaded so urgently with her aunt as to secure him a somewhat insignificant post in her ladyship's establishment.
'If ever I have a house, of my own, you shall have a better place in it, Steadman,' said Lady Diana.
She kept her word, and on her marriage with Lord Maulevrier, which happened about eighteen months afterwards, Steadman passed into that nobleman's service. He was a member of her ladyship's bodyguard, and his employment seemed to consist chiefly in poking fires, cutting the leaves of books and newspapers, superintending the footman's attendance upon her ladyship's household pets, and conveying her sentiments to the other servants. He was in a manner Lady Maulevrier's mouthpiece, and although treated with a respect that verged upon awe, he was not a favourite with the household.
And now the house in Mayfair was given over to the charge of caretakers. All the other servants had been despatched by coach to her ladyship's favourite retreat in Westmoreland, within a few miles of the Laureate's home at Rydal Mount, and James Steadman was charged with the whole responsibility of her ladyship's travelling arrangements.
Penelope had come to Southampton to wait for Ulysses, whose ship had been due for more than a week, and whose white sails might be expected above the horizon at any moment. James Steadman spent a good deal of his time waiting about at the docks for the earliest news of Greene's ship, the Hypermnestra; while Lady Maulevrier waited patiently in her sitting-room at the Dolphin, whose three long French windows commanded a full view of the High Street, with all those various distractions afforded by the chief thoroughfare of a provincial town. Her ladyship was provided with a large box of books, from Ebers' in Bond Street, a basket of fancy work, and her favourite Blenheim spaniel, Lalla Rookh; but even these sources of amusement did not prevent the involuntary expression of weariness in occasional yawns, and frequent pacings up and down the room, where the formal hotel furniture had a comfortless and chilly look.
Fellside, her ladyship's place in Westmoreland, was the pleasure house which, among all her possessions, she most valued; but it had hitherto been reserved for summer occupation, or for perhaps two or three weeks at Easter, when the spring was exceptionally fine. The sudden determination to spend the coming winter in the house near Grasmere was considered a curious freak of Lady Maulevrier's, and she was constrained to explain her motives to her friends.
'His lordship is out of health,' she said, 'and wants perfect rest and retirement. Now, Fellside is the only place we have in which he is likely to get perfect rest. Anywhere else we should have to entertain. Fellside is out of the world. There is no one to be entertained.'
'Except your neighbour, Wordsworth. I suppose you see him sometimes?'
'Dear simple-minded old soul, he gives nobody any trouble,' said her ladyship.
'But is not Westmoreland very cold in winter?' asked her friend.
Lady Maulevrier smiled benignly, as at an inoffensive ignorance.
'So sheltered,' she murmured. 'We are at the base of the Fell. Loughrigg rises up like a cyclopean wall between us and the wind.'
'But when the wind is in the either direction?'
'We have Nabb Scar. You do not know how we are girdled and defended by hills.'
'Very pleasant,' agreed the friend; 'but for my own part I would rather winter in the south.'
Those terrible rumours which had first come upon the world of London last June, had been growing darker and more defined ever since, but still Lady Maulevrier made believe to ignore them; and she acted her part of unconsciousness with such consummate skill that nobody in her circle could be sure where the acting began and where the ignorance left off. The astute Lord Denyer declared that she was a wonderful woman, and knew more about the real state of the case than anybody else.
Meanwhile it was said by those who were supposed to be well-informed that a mass of evidence was accumulating against Lord Maulevrier. The India House, it was rumoured, was busy with the secret investigation of his case, prior to that public inquiry which was to come on during the next session. His private fortune would be made answerable for his misdemeanours—his life, said the alarmists, might pay the penalty of his treason. On all sides it was agreed that the case against Lord Maulevrier was black as Erebus; and still Lady Maulevrier looked society in the face with an unshaken courage, and was ready with smiles and gracious words for all comers.
But now came a harder trial, which was to receive the man who had disgraced her, lowered her pride to the dust, degraded the name she bore. She had married him, not loving him—nay, plucking another love out of her heart in order that she might give herself to him. She had married him for position and fortune; and now by his follies, by his extravagance, and by that greed of gold which is inevitable in the spendthrift and profligate, he had gone near to cheat her out of both name and fortune. Yet she so commanded herself as to receive him with a friendly air when he arrived at the Dolphin, on a dull grey autumn afternoon, after she had waited for him nearly a fortnight.
James Steadman ushered in his lordship, a frail attenuated looking figure, of middle height, wrapped in a furred cloak, yet shivering, a pale sickly face, light auburn whiskers, light blue eyes, full and large, but with no intellectual power in them. Lady Maulevrier was sitting by the fire, in a melancholy attitude, with the Blenheim spaniel on her lap. Her son was at Hastings with his nurses. She had nothing nearer and dearer than the spaniel.
She rose and went over to her husband, and let him kiss her. It would have been too much to say that she kissed him; but she submitted her lips unresistingly to his, and then they sat down on opposite sides of the hearth.
'A wretched afternoon,' said his lordship, shivering, and drawing his chair closer to the fire. Steadman had taken away his fur-lined cloak. 'I had really underrated the disagreeableness of the English climate. It is abominable!'
'To-day is not a fair sample,' answered her ladyship, trying to be cheerful; 'we have had some pleasant autumn days.'
'I detest autumn!' exclaimed Lord Maulevrier. 'a season of dead leaves, damp, and dreariness. I should like to get away to Montpellier or Nice as soon as we can.'
Her ladyship gave him a scathing look, half-scornful, half-incredulous.
'You surely would not dream of leaving the country,' she said, 'under present circumstances. So long as you are here to answer all charges no one will interfere with your liberty; but if you were to cross the Channel—'
'My slanderers might insinuate that I was running away,' interrupted Maulevrier, 'although the very fact of my return ought to prove to every one that I am able to meet and face this cabal.'
'Is it a cabal?' asked her ladyship, looking at him with a gaze that searched his soul. 'Can you meet their charges? Can you live down this hideous accusation, and hold up your head as a man of honour?'
The sensualist's blue eyes nervously shunned that look of earnest interrogation. His lips answered the wife's spoken question with a lie, a lie made manifest by the expression of his countenance.
'I am not afraid,' he said.
His wife answered not a word. She was assured that the charges were true, and that the battered rake who shivered over the fire had neither courage nor ability to face his accusers. She saw the whole fabric of her life in ruins, her son the penniless successor to a tarnished name. There was silence for some minutes. Lady Maulevrier sat with lowered eyelids looking at the fire, deep in painful thought. Two perpendicular wrinkles upon her broad white forehead—so calm, so unclouded in society—told of gnawing cares. Then she stole a look at her husband, as he reclined in his arm-chair, his head lying back against the cushions in listless repose, his eyes looking vacantly at the window, whence he could see only the rain-blurred fronts of opposite houses, blank, dull windows, grey slated roofs, against a leaden sky.
He had been a handsome man, and he was handsome still, albeit premature decay, the result of an evil life, was distinctly marked in his faded face. The dull, yellow tint of the complexion, the tarnished dimness of the large blue eyes, the discontented droop of the lips, the languor of the attitude, the pallid transparency of the wasted hands, all told of a life worn threadbare, energies exhausted, chances thrown away, a mind abandoned to despair.
'You look very ill,' said his wife, after that long blank interval, which marked so unnatural an apathy between husband and wife meeting after so long a severance.
'I am very ill. I have been worried to death—surrounded by rogues and liars—the victim of a most infernal conspiracy.' He spoke hurriedly, growing whiter and more tremulous as he went on.
'Don't talk about it. You agitate yourself to no purpose,' said Lady Maulevrier, with a tranquillity which seemed heartless yet which might be the result of suppressed feeling. 'If you are to face this scandal firmly and boldly next January, you must try to recover physical strength in the meanwhile. Mental energy may come with better health.'
'I shall never be any better,' said Lord Maulevrier, testily; 'that infernal climate has shattered my constitution.'
'Two or three months of perfect rest and good nursing will make a new man of you. I have arranged that we shall go straight from here to Fellside. No one can plague you there with that disguised impertinence called sympathy. You can give all your thoughts to the ordeal before you, and be ready to meet your accusers. Fortunately, you have no Burke against you.'
'Fellside? You think of going to Fellside?'
'Yes. You know how fond I am of that place. I little thought when you settled it upon me—a cottage in Westmoreland with fifty acres of garden and meadow—so utterly insignificant—that I should ever like it better than any of your places.'
'A charming retreat in summer; but we have never wintered there? What put it into your head to go there at such a season as this? Why, I daresay the snow is on the tops of the hills already.'
'It is the only place I know where you will not be watched and talked about,' replied Lady Maulevrier. 'You will be out of the eye of the world. I should think that consideration would weigh more with you than two or three degrees of the thermometer.'
'I detest cold,' said the Earl, 'and in my weak health——'
'We will take care of you,' answered her ladyship; and in the discussion which followed she bore herself so firmly that her husband was fain to give way.
How could a disgraced and ruined man, broken in health and spirits, contest the mere details of life with a high-spirited woman ten years his junior?
The Earl wanted to go to London, and remain there at least a week, but this her ladyship strenuously opposed. He must see his lawyer, he urged; there were steps to be taken which could be taken only under legal advice—counsel to be retained. If this lying invention of Satan were really destined to take the form of a public trial, he must be prepared to fight his foes on their own ground.
'You can make all your preparations at Fellside,' answered his wife, resolutely. 'I have seen Messrs. Rigby and Rider, and your own particular ally, Rigby, will go to you at Fellside whenever you want him.'
'That is not like my being on the spot,' said his lordship, nervously, evidently much disconcerted by her ladyship's firmness, but too feeble in mind and body for a prolonged contest.
'I ought to be on the spot. I am not without influence; I have friends, men in power.'
'Surely you are not going to appeal to friendship in order to vindicate your honour. These charges are true or false. If they are false your own manhood, your own rectitude, can face them and trample upon them, unaided by back-stairs influence. If they are true, no one can help you.'
'I think you, at least, ought to know that they are as false as hell,' retorted the Earl, with an attempt to maintain his dignity.
'I have acted as if I so believed,' replied his wife. 'I have lived as if there were no such slanders in the air. I have steadily ignored every report, every insinuation—have held my head as high as if I knew you were immaculate.'
'I expected as much from you,' answered the Earl, coolly. 'If I had not known you were a woman of sense I should not have married you.'
This was his utmost expression of gratitude. His next remarks had reference solely to his own comfort. Where were his rooms? at what hour were they to dine? And hereupon he rang for his valet, a German Swiss, and a servant out of a thousand.
ON THE WRONG ROAD.
Lord and Lady Maulevrier left Southampton next morning, posting. They took two servants in the rumble, Steadman and the footman. Steadman was to valet his lordship, the footman to be useful in all emergencies of the journey. The maid and the valet were to travel by heavy coach, with the luggage—her ladyship dispensing with all personal attendance during the journey.
The first day took them to Rugby, whither they travelled across country by Wallingford and Oxford. The second day took them to Lichfield. Lord Maulevrier was out of health and feeble, and grumbled a good deal about the fatigue of the journey, the badness of the weather, which was dull and cold, east winds all day, and a light frost morning and night. As they progressed northward the sky looked grayer, the air became more biting. His lordship insisted upon the stages being shortened. He lay in bed at his hotel till noon, and was seldom ready to start till two o'clock. He could see no reason for haste; the winter would be long enough in all conscience at Fellside. He complained of mysterious aches and pains, described himself in the presence of hotel-keepers and headwaiters as a mass of maladies. He was nervous, irritable, intensely disagreeable. Lady Maulevrier bore his humours with unwavering patience, and won golden opinions from all sorts of people by her devotion to a husband whose blighted name was the common talk of England. Everybody, even in distant provincial towns, had heard of the scandal against the Governor of Madras; and everybody looked at the sallow, faded Anglo-Indian with morbid curiosity. His lordship, sensitive on all points touching his own ease and comfort, was keenly conscious of this unflattering inquisitiveness.
The journey, protracted by Lord Maulevrier's languor and ill-health, dragged its slow length along for nearly a fortnight; until it seemed to Lady Maulevrier as if they had been travelling upon those dismal, flat, unpicturesque roads for months. Each day was so horribly like yesterday. The same hedgerows and flat fields, and passing glimpse of river or canal. The same absence of all beauty in the landscape—the same formal hotel rooms, and smirking landladies—and so on till they came to Lancaster, after which the country became more interesting—hills arose in the background. Even the smoky manufacturing towns through which they passed without stopping, were less abominable than the level monotony of the Midland counties.
But now as they drew nearer the hills the weather grew colder, snow was spoken of, and when they got into Westmoreland the mountain-peaks gleamed whitely against a lead-coloured sky.
'You ought not to have brought me here in such weather,' complained the Earl, shivering in his sables, as he sat in his corner of the travelling chariot, looking discontentedly at the gloomy landscape. 'What is to become of us if we are caught in a snowstorm?'
'We shall have no snow worth talking about before we are safely housed at Fellside, and then we can defy the elements,' said Lady Maulevrier, coolly.
They slept that night at Oxenholme, and started next morning, under a clean, bright sky, intending to take luncheon at Windermere, and to be at home by nightfall.
But by the time they got to Windermere the sky had changed to a dark grey, and the people at the hotel prophesied a heavy fall before night, and urged the Earl and Countess to go no further that day. The latter part of the road to Fellside was rough and hilly. If there should be a snowstorm the horses would never be able to drag the carriage up the steepest bit of the way. Here, however, Lord Maulevrier's obstinacy came into play. He would not endure another night at an hotel so near his own house. He was sick to death of travelling, and wanted to be at rest among comfortable surroundings.
'It was murder to bring me here,' he said to his wife. 'If I had gone to Hastings I should have been a new man by this time. As it is I am a great deal worse than when I landed.'
Everyone at the hotel noticed his lordship's white and haggard looks. He had been known there as a young man in the bloom of health and strength, and his decay was particularly obvious to these people.
'I saw death in his face,' the landlord said, afterwards.
Every one, even her ladyship's firmness and good sense, gave way before the invalid's impatience. At three in the afternoon they left the hotel, with four horses, to make the remaining nineteen miles of the way in one stage. They had not been on the road half an hour before the snow began to fall thickly, whitening everything around them, except the lake, which showed a dark leaden surface at the bottom of the slope along the edge of which they were travelling. Too sullen for speech, Lord Maulevrier sat back in his corner, with his sable cloak drawn up to his chin, his travelling cap covering head and ears, his eyes contemplating the whitening world with a weary anger. His wife watched the landscape as long as she could, but the snow soon began to darken all the air, and she could see nothing save that blank blinding fall.
Half-way to Fellside there was a point where two roads met, one leading towards Grasmere, the other towards the village of Great Langdale, a cluster of humble habitations in the heart of the hills. When the horses had struggled as far as this point, the snow was six inches deep on the road, and made a thick curtain around them as it fell. By this time the Earl had dozed off to sleep.
He woke an hour after, let down the window, which let in a snow-laden gust, and tried to pierce the gloom without.
'As black as Erebus!' he exclaimed, 'but we ought to be close at home by this time. Yes, thank God, there are the lights.'
The carriage drew up a minute afterwards, and Steadman came to the door.
'Very sorry, my lord. The horses must have taken a wrong turn after we crossed the bridge. And now the men say they can't go back to Fellside unless we can get fresh horses; and I'm afraid there's no chance of that here.'
'Here!' exclaimed the Earl, 'what do you mean by here? Where the devil are we?'
'Great Langdale, my lord.'
A door opened and let out a flood of light—the red light of a wood fire, the pale flame of a candle—upon the snowy darkness, revealing the panelled hall of a neat little rustic inn: an eight-day clock ticking in the corner, a black and white sheep-dog coming out at his master's heels to investigate the travellers. To the right of the door showed the light of a window, sheltered by a red curtain, behind which the chiefs of the village were enjoying their evening.
'Have you any post-horses?' asked the Earl, discontentedly, as the landlord stood on the threshold, shading the candle with his hand. 'No, sir. We don't keep post-horses.'
'Of course not. I knew as much before I asked,' said the Earl.
'We are fixed in this dismal hole for the night, I suppose. How far are we from Fellside?'
'Seven miles,' answered the landlord. 'I beg your pardon, my lord; I didn't know it was your lordship,' he added, hurriedly. 'We're in sore trouble, and it makes a man daft-like; but if there's anything we can do——'
'Is there no hope of getting on, Steadman?' asked the Earl, cutting short these civilities.
'Not with these horses, my lord.'
'And you hear we can't get any others. Is there any farmer about here who could lend us a pair of carriage horses?'
The landlord knew of no such person.
'Then we must stop here till to-morrow morning. What infernal fools those post-boys must be,' protested Lord Maulevrier.
James Steadman apologised for the postilions, explaining that when they came to the critical point of their journey, where the road branched off to the Langdales, the snow was falling so thickly, the whole country was so hidden in all-pervading whiteness, that even he, who knew the way so well, could give no help to the drivers. He could only trust to the instinct of local postilions and local horses; and instinct had proved wrong.
The travellers alighted, and were ushered into a not uncomfortable-looking parlour; very low as to the ceiling, very old-fashioned as to the furniture, but spotlessly clean, and enlivened by a good fire, to which his lordship drew near, shivering and muttering discontentedly to himself.
'We might be worse off,' said her ladyship, looking round the bright little room, which pleased her better than many a state apartment in the large hotels at which they had stopped.
'Hardly, unless we were out on the moor,' grumbled her husband. 'I am sick to death of this ill-advised, unreasonable journey. I am at a loss to imagine your motive in bringing me here. You must have had a motive.'
'I had,' answered Lady Maulevrier, with a freezing look. 'I wanted to get you out of the way. I told you that plainly enough at Southampton.'
'I don't see why I should be hurried away and hidden,' said Lord Maulevrier. 'I must face my accusers, sooner or later.'
'Of course. The day of reckoning must come. But in the meantime have you no delicacy? Do you want to be pointed at everywhere?'
'All I know is that I am very ill,' answered her husband, 'and that this wretched journey has made me twenty years older.'
'We shall be safe at home before noon to-morrow, and you can have Horton to set you right again. You know you always believed in his skill.'
'Horton is a clever fellow enough, as country doctors go; but at Hastings I could have had the best physicians in London to see me,' grumbled his lordship.
The rustic maid-servant came in to lay the table, assisted by her ladyship's footman, who looked a good deal too tall for the room.
'I shan't dine,' said the Earl. 'I am a great deal too ill and cold. Light a fire in my room, girl, and send Steadman to me'—this to the footman, who hastened to obey. 'You can send me up a basin of soup presently. I shall go to bed at once.'
He left the room without another word to his wife, who sat by the hearth staring thoughtfully at the cheery wood fire. Presently she looked up, and saw that the man and maid were going on with their preparations for dinner.
'I do not care about dining alone,' said her ladyship. 'We lunched at Windermere, and I have no appetite. You can clear away those things, and bring me some tea.'
When the table furniture had been cleared, and a neat little tea-tray set upon the white cloth, Lady Maulevrier drew her chair to the table, and took out her pocket-book, from which she produced a letter. This she read more than once, meditating profoundly upon its contents.
'I am very sorry he has come home,' wrote her correspondent, 'and yet if he had stayed in India there must have been an investigation on the spot. A public inquiry is inevitable, and the knowledge of his arrival in the country will precipitate matters. From all I hear I much fear that there is no chance of the result being favourable to him. You have asked me to write the unvarnished truth, to be brutal even, remember. His delinquencies are painfully notorious, and I apprehend that the last sixpence he owns will be answerable. His landed estate I am told can also be confiscated, in the event of an impeachment at the bar of the House of Lords, as in the Warren Hastings case. But as yet nobody seems clear as to the form which the investigation will take. In reply to your inquiry as to what would have happened if his lordship had died on the passage home, I believe I am justified in saying the scandal would have been allowed to die with him. He has contrived to provoke powerful animosities both in the Cabinet and at the India House, and there is, I fear, an intention to pursue the inquiry to the bitter end.'
Assurances of the writer's sympathy followed these harsh truths. But to this polite commonplace her ladyship paid no attention. Her mind was intent on hard facts, the dismal probabilities of the near future.
'If he had died upon the passage home!' she repeated. 'Would to God that he had so died, and that my son's name and fortune could be saved.'
The innocent child who had never given her an hour's care; the one creature she loved with all the strength of her proud nature—his future was to be blighted by his father's misdoings-overshadowed by shame and dishonour in the very dawn of life. It was a wicked wish—an unnatural wish to find room in a woman's breast; but the wish was there. Would to God he had died before the ship touched an English port.
But he was living, and would have to face his accusers—and she, his wife, must give him all the help she could.
She sat long by the waning fire. She took nothing but a cup of tea, although the landlady had sent in substantial accompaniments to the tea-tray in the shape of broiled ham, new-laid eggs, and hot cakes, arguing that a traveller on such a night must be hungry, albeit disinclined for a ceremonious dinner. She had been sitting for nearly an hour in almost the same attitude, when there came a knock at the door, and, on being bidden to enter, the landlady came in, with some logs in her apron, under pretence of replenishing the fire.
'I was afraid your fire must be getting low, and that you'd be amost starved, my lady,' she said, as she put on the logs, and swept up the ashes on the hearth. 'Such a dreadful night. So early in the year, too. I'm thinking we shall have a gay hard winter.'
'That does not always follow,' said Lady Maulevrier. 'Has Steadman come downstairs?'
'Yes, my lady. He told me to tell your ladyship that his lordship is pretty comfortable, and hopes to pass a good night.'
'I am glad to hear it. You can give me another room, I suppose. It would be better for his lordship not to be disturbed, as he is very much out of health.'
'There is another room, my lady, but it's very small.'
'I don't mind how small, if it is clean and airy.'
'Yes, my lady. I am thankful to say you won't find dirt or stuffiness anywhere in this house. His lordship do look mortal badly,' added the landlady, shaking her head dolefully; 'and I remember him such a fine young gentleman, when he used to come down the Rothay with the otter hounds, running along the bank—joomping in and out of the beck—up to his knees in the water—and now to see him, so white and mashiated, and broken-down like, in the very prime of life, all along of living out in a hot country, among blackamoors, which is used to it—poor, ignorant creatures—and never knew no better. It must be a hard trial for you, my lady.'
'It is a hard trial.'
'Ah! we all have our trials, rich and poor,' sighed the woman, who desired nothing better than to be allowed to unbosom her woes to the grand looking lady in the fur-bordered cloth pelisse, with beautiful dark hair piled up in clustering masses above a broad white forehead, and slender white hands on which diamonds flashed and glittered in the firelight, an unaccustomed figure by that rustic hearth.
'We all have our trials—high and low.'
'That reminds me,' said Lady Maulevrier, looking up at her, 'your husband said you were in trouble. What did that mean?'
'Sickness in the house, my lady. A brother of mine that went to America to make his fortune, and seemed to be doing so well for the first five or six years, and wrote home such beautiful letters, and then left off writing all at once, and we made sure as he was dead, and never got a word from him for ten years, and just three weeks ago he drops in upon us as we was sitting over our tea between the lights, looking as white as a ghost. I gave a shriek when I saw him, for I was regular scared out of my senses. "Robert's ghost!" I cried; but it was Robert himself, come home to us to die. And he's lying upstairs now, with so little life in him that I expect every breath to be his last.'
'What is his complaint?'
'Apathy, my lady. Dear, dear, that's not it. I never do remember the doctor's foreign names.'
'Yes, my lady, that was it. Happen such crack-jaw words come easy to a scholar like your ladyship.'
'Does the doctor give no hope?'
'Well, no, my lady. He don't go so far as to say there's no hope, though Robert has been badly so long. It all depends, he says, upon the rallying power of the constitution. The lungs are not gone, and the heart is not diseased. If there's rallying power, Robert will come round, and if there isn't he'll sink. But the doctor says nature will have to make an effort. But I have my own idea about the case,' added the landlady, with a sigh.
'What is your idea?'
'That our Robert was marked for death when he came into this house, and that he meant what he said when he spoke of coming home to die. Things had gone against him for the last ten years in America. He married and took his wife out to a farm in the Bush, and thought to make a good thing out of farming with the bit of brass he'd saved at heeam. But America isn't Gert Langdale, you see, my lady, and his knowledge stood him in no stead in the Bush; and first he lost his money, and he fashed himself terrible about that, and then he lost a child or two, and then he lost his wife, and he came back to us a broken-hearted man, with no wish to live. The doctor may call it atrophy, but I will call it what the Scripture calls it, a broken and a wounded spirit.'
'Who is your doctor?'
'Mr. Evans, of Ambleside.'
'That little half-blind old man!' exclaimed her ladyship. 'Surely you have no confidence in him?'
'Not much, my lady. But I don't believe all the doctors in London could do anything for Robert. Good nursing will bring him round if anything can; and he gets that, I can assure your ladyship. He's my only brother, the only kith and kin that's left to me, and he and I were gay fond of each other when he was young. You may be sure I don't spare any trouble, and my good man thinks the best of his larder or his celler hardly good enough for Robert.'
'I am sure you are kind good people,' replied her ladyship gently; 'but I should have thought Mr. Horton, of Grasmere, could have done more than old Evans. However, you know best. I hope his lordship is not going to add to your cares by being laid up here, but he looked very ill this evening.'
'He did, my lady, mortal bad.'
'However, we must hope for the best. Steadman is a splendid servant in illness. He nursed my father for years. Will you tell him to come to me, if you please? I want to hear what he thinks of his lordship, and to discuss the chances of our getting home early to-morrow.'
The landlady retired, and summoned Mr. Steadman, who was enjoying his modest glass of grog in front of the kitchen fire. He had taught himself to dispense with the consolations of tobacco, lest he should at any time make himself obnoxious to her ladyship.
Steadman was closeted with Lady Maulevrier for the next half-hour, during which his lordship's condition was gravely discussed. When he left the sitting-room he told the landlord to be sure and feed the post-horses well, and make them comfortable for the night, so that they might be ready for the drive to Fellside early next morning.
'Do you think his lordship will be well enough to travel?' asked the landlord.
'He has made up his mind to get home—ill or well,' answered Steadman. 'He has wasted about a week by his dawdling ways on the road; and now he's in a fever to get to Fellside.'
THE LAST STAGE.
The post-horses—which had been well fed, but accommodated somewhat poorly in stable and barn—were quite ready to go on next morning; but Lord Maulevrier was not able to leave his room, where her ladyship remained in close attendance upon him. The hills and valleys were white with snow, but there was none falling, and Mr. Evans, the elderly surgeon from Ambleside, rode over to Great Langdale on his elderly cob to look at Robert Haswell, and was called in to see Lord Maulevrier. Her ladyship had spoken lightly of his skill on the previous evening, but any doctor is better than none, so this feeble little personage was allowed to feel his lordship's pulse, and look at his lordship's tongue.
His opinion, never too decidedly given, was a little more hazy than usual on this occasion, perhaps because of a certain awfulness, to unaccustomed eyes, in Lady Maulevrier's proud bearing. He said that his lordship was low, very low, and that the pulse was more irregular than he liked, but he committed himself no further than this, and went away, promising to send such pills and potions as were appropriate to the patient's condition.
A boy rode the same pony over to Langdale later in the afternoon with the promised medicines.
Throughout the short winter day, which seemed terribly long in the stillness and solitude of Great Langdale, Lady Maulevrier kept watch in the sick-room, Steadman going in and out in constant attendance upon his master—save for one half-hour only, which her ladyship passed in the parlour below, in conversation with the landlady, a very serious conversation, as indicated by Mrs. Smithson's grave and somewhat troubled looks when she left her ladyship; but a good deal of her trouble may have been caused by her anxiety about her brother, who was pronounced by the doctor to be 'much the same.'
At eleven o'clock that night a mounted messenger was sent off to Ambleside in hot haste to fetch Mr. Evans, who came to the inn to find Lady Maulevrier kneeling beside her husband's bed, while Steadman stood with a troubled countenance at a respectful distance.
The room was dimly lighted by a pair of candles burning on a table near the window, and at some distance from the old four-post bedstead, shaded by dark moreen curtains. The surgeon looked round the room, and then fumbled in his pockets for his spectacles, without the aid of which the outside world presented itself to him under a blurred and uncertain aspect.
He put on his spectacles, and moved towards the bed; but the first glance in that direction showed him what had happened. The outline of the rigid figure under the coverlet looked like a sculptured effigy upon a tomb. A sheet was drawn over the face of death.
'You are too late to be of any use, Mr. Evans,' murmured Steadman, laying his hand upon the doctor's sleeve and drawing him away towards the door.
They went softly on to the landing, off which opened the door of that other sick-room where the landlady's brother was lying.
'When did this happen?'
'A quarter of an hour after the messenger rode off to fetch you,' answered Steadman. 'His lordship lay all the afternoon in a heavy sleep, and we thought he was going on well; but after dark there was a difficulty in his breathing which alarmed her ladyship, and she insisted upon you being sent for. The messenger had hardly been gone a quarter of an hour when his lordship woke suddenly, muttured to himself in a curious way, gave just one long drawn sigh, and—and all was over. It was a terrible shock for her ladyship.'
'Indeed it must have been,' murmured the village doctor. 'It is a great surprise to me. I knew Lord Maulevrier was low, very low, the pulse feeble and intermittent; but I had no fear of anything of this kind. It is very sudden.'
'Yes, it is awfully sudden,' said Steadman, and then he murmured in the doctor's ear, 'You will give the necessary certificate, I hope, with as little trouble to her ladyship as possible. This is a dreadful blow, and she——'
'She shall not be troubled. The body will be removed to-morrow, I suppose.'
'Yes. He must be buried from his own house. I sent a second messenger to Ambleside for the undertaker. He will be here very soon, no doubt, and if the shell is ready by noon to-morrow, the body can be removed then. I have arranged to get her ladyship away to-night.'
'So late? After midnight?'
'Why not? She cannot stay in this small house—so near the dead. There is a moon, and there is no snow falling, and we are within seven miles of Fellside.'
The doctor had nothing further to say against the arrangement, although such a drive seemed to him a somewhat wild and reckless proceeding. Mr. Steadman's grave, self-possessed manner answered all doubts. Mr. Evans filled in the certificate for the undertaker, drank a glass of hot brandy and water, and remounted his nag, in nowise relishing his midnight ride, but consoling himself with the reflection that he would be handsomely paid for his trouble.
An hour later Lady Maulevrier's travelling carriage stood ready in the stable yard, in the deep shadow of wall and gables. It was at Steadman's order that the carriage waited for her ladyship at an obscure side door, rather than in front of the inn. An east wind was blowing keenly along the mountain road, and the careful Steadman was anxious his mistress should not be exposed to that chilly blast.
There was some delay, and the four horses jingled their bits impatiently, and then the door of the inn opened, a feeble light gleamed in the narrow passage within, Steadman stood ready to assist her ladyship, there was a bustle, a confusion of dark figures on the threshold, a huddled mass of cloaks and fur wraps was lifted into the carriage, the door was clapped to, the horses went clattering out of the yard, turned sharply into the snowy road, and started at a swinging pace towards the dark sullen bulk of Loughrigg Fell.
The moon was shining upon Elterwater in the valley yonder—the mountain ridges, the deep gorges below those sullen heights, looked back where the shadow of night enfolded them, but all along the snow-white road the silver light shone full and clear, and the mountain way looked like a path through fairyland.
FORTY YEARS AFTER.
'What a horrid day!' said Lady Mary, throwing down her book with a yawn, and looking out of the deep bay window into a world of mountain and lake which was clouded over by a dense veil of rain and dull grey mist; such rain as one sees only in a lake district, a curtain of gloom which shuts off sky and distance, and narrows the world to one solitary dwelling, suspended amidst cloud and water, like another ark in a new deluge.
Rain—such rain as makes out-of-door exercise impossible—was always an affliction to Lady Mary Haselden. Her delight was in open air and sunshine—fishing in the lake and rivers—sitting in some sheltered hollow of the hills more fitting for an eagle's nest than for the occupation of a young lady, trying to paint those ever-varying, unpaintable mountain peaks, which change their hues with every change of the sky—swimming, riding, roving far and wide over hill and heather—pleasures all more or less masculine in their nature, and which were a subject of regret with Lady Maulevrier.
Lady Lesbia was of a different temper. She loved ease and elegance, the gracious luxuries of life. She loved art and music, but not to labour hard at either. She played and sang a little—excellently within that narrow compass which she had allotted to herself—played Mendelssohn's 'Lieder' with finished touch and faultless phrasing, sang Heine's ballads with consummate expression. She painted not at all. Why should anyone draw or paint indifferently, she asked, when Providence has furnished the world with so many great painters in the past and present? She could not understand Mary's ardent desire to do the thing herself,—to be able with her own pencil and her own brush to reproduce the lakes and valleys, the wild brown hills she loved so passionately. Lesbia did not care two straws for the lovely lake district amidst which she had been reared,—every pike and force, every beck and gill whereof was distinctly dear to her younger sister. She thought it a very hard thing to have spent so much of her life at Fellside, a trial that would have hardly been endurable if it were not for grandmother. Grandmother and Lesbia adored each other. Lesbia was the one person for whom Lady Maulevrier's stateliness was subjugated by perfect love. To all the rest of the world the Countess was marble, but to Lesbia she was wax. Lesbia could mould her as she pleased; but happily Lesbia was not the kind of young person to take advantage of this privilege; she was thoroughly ductile or docile, and had no desire, at present, which ran counter to her grandmother.
Lesbia was a beauty. In her nineteenth year she was a curious reproduction in face and figure, expression and carriage, of that Lady Diana Angersthorpe who five and forty years ago fluttered the dove-cots of St. James's and Mayfair by her brilliant beauty and her keen intelligence. There in the panelled drawing-room at Fellside hung Harlow's portrait of Lady Diana in her zenith, in a short-waisted, white satin frock, with large puffed gauze sleeves, through which the perfect arm showed dimly. Standing under that picture Lady Lesbia looked as if she had stepped out of the canvas. She was to be painted by Millais next year. Lady Maulevrier said, when she had been introduced, and society was beginning to talk about her: for Lady Maulevrier made up her mind five or six years ago that Lesbia should be the reigning beauty of her season. To this end she had educated and trained her, furnishing her with all those graces best calculated to please and astonish society. She was too clever a woman not to discover Lesbia's shallowness and lack of all great gifts, save that one peerless dower of perfect beauty. She knew exactly what Lesbia could be trained to do; and to this end Lesbia had been educated; and to this end Lady Maulevrier brought down to Fellside the most accomplished of Hanoverian governesses, who had learned French in Paris, and had toiled in the educational mill with profit to herself and her pupils for a quarter of a century. To this lady the Countess entrusted the education of her granddaughters' minds, while for their physical training she provided another teacher in the person of a clever little Parisian dancing mistress, who had set up at the West-End of London as a teacher of dancing and calisthenics, and had utterly failed to find pupils enough to pay her rent and keep her modest pot-au-feu going. Mademoiselle Thiebart was very glad to exchange the uncertainties of a first floor in North Audley Street for the comfort and security of Fellside Manor, with a salary of one hundred and fifty pounds a year.
Both Fraeulein and Mademoiselle had been quick to discover that Lady Lesbia was the apple of her grandmother's eye, while Lady Mary was comparatively an outsider.
So it came about that Mary's education was in somewise a mere picking-up of the crumbs which fell from Lesbia's table, and that she was allowed in a general way to run wild. She was much quicker at any intellectual exercise than Lesbia. She learned the lessons that were given her at railroad speed, and rattled off her exercises with a slap-dash penmanship which horrified the neat and niggling Fraeulein, and then rushed off to the lake or mountain, and by this means grew browner and browner, and more indelibly freckled day by day, thus widening the gulf between herself and her beauty sister.
But it is not to be supposed that because Lesbia was beautiful, Mary was plain. This is very far from the truth. Mary had splendid hazel eyes, with a dancing light in them when she smiled, ruddy auburn hair, white teeth, a deeply-dimpled chin, and a vivacity and archness of expression, which served only in her present state of tutelage for the subjugation of old women and shepherd boys. Mary had been taught to believe that her chances of future promotion were of the smallest; that nobody would ever talk of her, or think of her by-and-by when she in her turn would make her appearance in London society, and that it would be a very happy thing for her if she were so fortunate as to attract the attention of a fashionable physician, a Canon of Westminster or St. Paul's, or a barrister in good practice.
Mary turned up her pert little nose at this humdrum lot.
'I would much rather spend all my life among these dear hills than marry a nobody in London,' she said, fearless of that grand old lady at whose frown so many people shivered. 'If you don't think people will like me and admire me—a little—you had better save yourself the trouble of taking me to London. I don't want to play second fiddle to my sister.'
'You are a very impertinent person, and deserve to be taken at your word,' replied my lady, scowling at her; 'but I have no doubt before you are twenty you will tell another story.'
'Oh!' said Mary, now just turned seventeen, 'then I am not to come out till I am twenty.'
'That will be soon enough,' answered the Countess. 'It will take you as long to get rid of those odious freckles. And no doubt by that time Lesbia will have made a brilliant marriage.'
And now on this rainy July morning these two girls, neither of whom had any serious employment for her life, or any serious purpose in living, wasted the hours, each in her own fashion.
Lesbia reclined upon a cushioned seat in the deep embrasure of a Tudor window, her pose perfection—it was one of many such attitudes which Mademoiselle had taught her, and which by assiduous training had become a second nature. Poor Mademoiselle, having finished her mission and taught Lesbia all she could teach, had now departed to a new and far less luxurious situation in a finishing school at Passy; but Fraeulein Mueller was still retained, as watch-dog and duenna.
Lesbia's pale blue morning gown harmonised exquisitely with a complexion of lilies and roses, violet eyes, and golden-brown hair. Her features were distinguished by that perfect chiselling which gave such a haughty grace to her grandmother's countenance, even at sixty-seven years of age—a loveliness which, like the sculptured marble it resembles, is unalterable by time. Lesbia was reading Keats. It was her habit to read the poets, carefully and deliberately, taking up one at a time, and duly laying a volume aside when she found herself mistress of its contents. She had no passion for poetry, but it was an elegant leisurely kind of reading which suited her languid temperament. Moreover, her grandmother had told her that an easy familiarity with the great poets is of all knowledge that which best qualifies a woman to shine in conversation, without offending the superior sex by any assumption of scholarship.
Mary was a very different class of reader; capricious, omniverous, tearing out the hearts of books, roaming from flower to flower in the fields of literature, loving old and new, romance and reality, novels, travels, plays, poetry, and never dwelling long on any one theme. Perhaps if Mary had lived in the bosom of a particularly sympathetic family she might have been reckoned almost a genius, so much of poetry and originality was there in her free unconventional character; but hitherto it had been Mary's mission in life to be snubbed, whereby she had acquired a very poor opinion of her own talents.
'Oh,' she cried with a desperate yawn, while Lesbia smiled her languid smile over Endymion, 'how I wished something would happen—anything to stir us out of this statuesque, sleeping-beauty state of being. I verily believe the spiders are all asleep in the ivy, and the mice behind the wainscot, and the horses in the stable.'
'What could happen?' asked Lesbia, with a gentle elevation of pencilled brows. 'Are not these lovely lines—
"And coverlids gold-tinted like the peach, Or ripe October's faded marigolds, Fell sleek about him in a thousand folds."
Faded marigolds! Is not that intensely sweet?'
'Very well for your sleepy Keats, but I don't suppose you would have noticed the passage if marigolds were not in fashion,' said Mary, with a touch of scorn. 'What could happen? Why a hundred things—an earthquake, flood, or fire. What could happen, do you say, Lesbia? Why Maulevrier might come home unexpectedly, and charm us out of this death-in-life.'
'He would occasion a good deal of unpleasantness if he did,' answered Lesbia, coldly. 'You know how angry he has made grandmother.'
'Because he keeps race-horses which have an unlucky knack of losing,' said Mary, dubiously. 'I suppose if his horses won, grandmother would rather approve?'
'Not at all. That would make hardly any difference, except that he would not ruin himself quite so quickly. Grandmother says that a young man who goes on the turf is sure to be ruined sooner or later. And then Maulevrier's habits are altogether wild and foolish. It is very hard upon grandmother, who has such noble ambition for all of us.'
'Not for me,' answered Mary smiling. 'Her views about me are very humble. She considers that I shall be most fortunate if a doctor or a lawyer condescend to like me well enough to make me an offer. He might make me the offer without liking me, for the sake of hearing himself and his wife announced as Mr. and Lady Mary Snooks at dinner parties. That would be too horrid! But I daresay such things have happened.'
'Don't talk nonsense, Mary,' said Lesbia, loftily. 'There is no reason why you should not make a really good marriage, if you follow grandmother's advice and don't affect eccentricity.'
'I don't affect eccentricity, but I'm afraid I really am eccentric,' murmured Mary, meekly, 'for I like so many things I ought not to like, and detest so many things which I ought to admire.'
'I daresay you will have tamed down a little before you are presented,' said Lesbia, carelessly.
She could not even affect a profound interest in anyone but herself. She had a narrowness of mental vision which prevented her looking beyond the limited circle of her own pleasures, her own desires, her own dreams and hopes. She was one of those strictly correct young women who was not likely to do much harm in the world but who was just as unlikely to do any good. Mary sighed, and went back to her book, a bulky volume of travels, and tried to lose herself in the sandy wastes of Africa, and to be deeply interested in the sources of the Congo, not, in her heart of hearts, caring a straw whether that far-away river comes from the mountains of the moon, or from the moon itself. To-day she could not pin her mind to pages which might have interested her at another time. Her thoughts were with Lord Maulevrier, that fondly-loved only brother, just seven years her senior, who had taken to race-horses and bad ways, and seemed to be trying his hardest to dissipate the splendid fortune which his grandmother, the dowager Countess, had nursed so judiciously during his long minority. Maulevrier and Mary had always been what the young man called 'no end of chums.'
He called her his own brown-eyed Molly, much to the annoyance of Lady Maulevrier and Lesbia; and Mary's life was all gladness when Maulevrier was at Fellside. She devoted herself wholly to his amusements, rode and drove with him, followed on her pony when he went otter hunting, and very often abandoned the pony to the care of some stray mountain youth in order to join the hunters, and go leaping from stone to stone on the margin of the stream, and occasionally, in moments of wild excitement, when the hounds were in full cry, splashing in and out of the water, like a naiad in a neat little hunting-habit.
Mary looked after Maulevrier's stable when he was away, and had supreme command of a kennel of fox-terriers which cost her brother more money than the Countess would have cared to know; for in the wide area of Lady Maulevrier's ambition there was no room for two hundred guinea fox-terriers, were they never so perfect.
Altogether Mary's life was a different life when her brother was at home; and in his absence the best part of her days were spent in thinking about him and fulfilling the duties of her position as his representative in stable and kennel, and among certain rustics in the district, chiefly of the sporting type, who were Maulevrier's chosen allies or proteges.
Never, perhaps, had two girls of patrician lineage lived a more secluded life than Lady Maulevrier's granddaughters. They had known no pleasures beyond the narrow sphere of home and home friends. They had never travelled—they had seen hardly anything of the outside world. They had never been to London or Paris, or to any city larger than York; and their visits to that centre of dissipation had been of the briefest, a mere flash of mild gaiety, a horticultural show or an oratorio, and back by express train, closely guarded by governess and footmen, to Fellside. In the autumn, when the leaves were falling in the wooded grounds of Fellside, the young ladies were sent, still under guardianship of governesses and footmen, to some quiet seaside resort between Alnwick and Edinburgh, where Mary lived the wild free life she loved, roaming about the beach, boating, shrimping, seaweed-gathering, making hard work for the governesses and footmen who had been sent in charge of her.
Lady Maulevrier never accompanied her granddaughters on these occasions. She was a vigorous old woman, straight as a dart, slim as a girl, active in her degree as any young athlete among those hills, and she declared that she never felt the need of change of air. The sodden shrubberies, the falling leaves, did her no harm. Never within the memory of this generation had she left Fellside. Her love of this mountain retreat was a kind of culte. She had come here broken spirited, perhaps broken hearted, bringing her dead husband from the little inn at Great Langdale forty years ago, and she had hardly left the spot since that day.
In those days Fellside House was a very different kind of dwelling from the gracious modern Tudor mansion which now crowned and beautified the hill-side above Grasmere Lake. It was then an old rambling stone house, with queer little rooms and inconvenient passages, low ceilings, thatched gables, and all manner of strange nooks and corners. Lady Maulevrier was of too strictly conservative a temper to think of pulling down an old house which had been in her husband's family for generations. She left the original cottage undisturbed, and built her new house at right angles with it, connecting the two with a wide passage below and a handsome corridor above, so that access should be perfect in the event of her requiring the accommodation of the old quaint, low ceiled rooms for her family or her guests. During forty years no such necessity had ever arisen; but the old house, known as the south wing, was still left intact, the original furniture undisturbed, although the only occupants of the building were her ladyship's faithful old house-steward, James Steadman, and his elderly wife.
The house which Lady Maulevrier had built for herself and her grandchildren had not been created all at once, though the nucleus dating forty years back was a handsome building. She had added more rooms as necessity or fancy dictated, now a library with bedrooms over it, now a music room for Lady Lesbia and her grand piano—anon a billiard-room, as an agreeable surprise for Maulevrier when he came home after a tour in America. Thus the house had grown into a long low pile of Tudor masonry—steep gables, heavily mullioned casements, grey stone walls, curtained with the rich growth of passion-flower, magnolia, clematis, myrtle and roses—and all those flowers which thrive and flourish in that mild and sheltered spot.
The views from those mullioned casements were perfect. Switzerland could give hardly any more exquisite picture than that lake shut in by hills, grand and bold in their varied outlines, so rich in their colouring that the eye, dazzled with beauty, forgot to calculate the actual height of those craggy peaks and headlands, the mind forgot to despise them because they were not so lofty as Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn. The velvet sward of the hill sloped steeply downward from Lady Maulevrier's drawing-room windows to the road beside the lake, and this road was so hidden by the wooded screen which bounded her ladyship's grounds that the lake seemed to lie in the green heart of her gardens, a lovely, placid lake on summer days, reflecting the emerald hue of the surrounding hills, and looking like a smooth green meadow, which invited the foot passenger to cross it.
The house was approached by a winding carriage drive that led up and up and up from the road beside the lake, so screened and sheltered by shrubberies and pine woods, that the stranger knew not whither he was going, till he came upon an opening in the wood, and the stately Italian garden in front of a massive stone porch, through which he entered a spacious oak-panelled hall, and anon, descending a step or two, he found himself in Lady Maulevrier's drawing-room, and face to face with that divine view of the everlasting hills, the lake shining below him, bathed in sunlight.
Or if it were the stranger's evil fate to come in wet weather, he saw only a rain-blotted landscape—the blurred outlines of grey mountain peaks, scowling at him from the other side of a grey pool. But if the picture without were depressing, the picture within was always good to look upon, for those oak-panelled or tapestried rooms, communicating by richly-curtained doorways from drawing room to library, from library to billiard room, were as perfect as wealth and taste could make them. Lady Maulevrier argued that as there was but one house among all the possessions of her race which she cared to inhabit, she had a right to make that house beautiful, and she had spared nothing upon the beautification of Fellside; and yet she had spent much less than would have been squandered by any pleasure-loving dowager, restlessly roving from Piccadilly to the Engadine, from Pontresina to Nice or Monaco, winding up with Easter in Paris, and then back to Piccadilly. Her ladyship's friends wondered that she could care to bury herself alive in Westmoreland, and expatiated on the eccentricity of such a life; nay, those who had never seen Fellside argued that Lady Maulevrier had taken in her old age to hoarding, and that she pigged at a cottage in the Lake district, in order to swell a fortune which young Maulevrier would set about squandering as soon as she was in her coffin. But here they were wrong. It was not in Lady Maulevrier's nature to lead a sordid life in order to save money. Yet in these quiet years that were gone—starting with that golden nucleus which her husband was supposed to have brought home from India, obtained no one knows how, the Countess had amassed one of the largest fortunes possessed by any dowager in the peerage. She had it, and she held it, with a grasp that nothing but death could loosen; nay, that all-foreseeing mind of hers might contrive to cheat grim death itself, and to scheme a way for protecting this wealth, even when she who had gathered and garnered it should be mouldering in her grave. The entailed estates belonged to Maulevrier, were he never such a fool or spendthrift; but this fortune of the dowager's was her own, to dispose of as she pleased, and not a penny of it was likely to go to the young Earl.
Lady Maulevrier's pride and hopes were concentrated upon her granddaughter Lesbia. She should be the inheritress of this noble fortune—she should spread and widen the power of the Maulevrier race. Lesbia's son should link the family name with the name of his father; and if by any hazard of fate the present Earl should die young and childless, the old Countess's interest should be strained to the uttermost to obtain the title for Lesbia's offspring. Why should she not be Countess of Maulevrier in her own right? But in order to make this future possible the most important factor in the sum was yet to be found in the person of a husband for Lady Lesbia—a husband worthy of peerless beauty and exceptional wealth, a husband whose own fortune should be so important as to make him above suspicion. That was Lady Maulevrier's scheme—to wed wealth to wealth—to double or quadruple the fortune she had built up in the long slow years of her widowhood, and thus to make her granddaughter one of the greatest ladies in the land; for it need hardly be said that the man who was to wed Lady Lesbia must be her equal in wealth and lineage, if not her superior.
Lady Maulevrier was not a miser. She was liberal and benevolent to all who came within the circle of her life. Wealth for its own sake she valued not a jot. But she lived in an age in which wealth is power, and ambition was her ruling passion. As she had been ambitious for her husband in the days that were gone, she was now ambitious for her granddaughter. Time had intensified the keen eagerness of her mind. She had been disappointed, cruelly, bitterly, in the ambition of her youth. She had been made to drink the cup of shame and humiliation. But to this ambition of her old age she held with even greater tenacity. God help her if she should be disappointed here!
It is not to be supposed that so astute a schemer as Lady Maulevrier had not surveyed the marriage market in order to discover that fortunate youth who should be deemed worthy to become the winner of Lesbia's hand. Years ago, when Lesbia was still in the nursery, the dowager had made herself informed of the age, weight, and colours of every likely runner in the matrimonial stakes; or, in plainer words, had kept herself, by her correspondence with a few intimate friends, and her close study of the fashionable newspapers, thoroughly acquainted with the characters and exploits, the dispositions and antecedents, of those half-dozen elder sons, among whom she hoped to find Lesbia's lord and master. She knew her peerage by heart, and she knew the family history of every house recorded therein; the sins and weaknesses, the follies and losses of bygone years; the taints, mental and physical; the lateral branches and intermarriages; the runaway wives and unfaithful husbands; idiot sons or scrofulous daughters. She knew everything that was to be known about that aristocratic world into which she had been born sixty-seven years ago; and the sum-total of her knowledge was that there was one man whom she desired for her granddaughter's husband—one man, and one only, and into whose hands, when earth and sky should fade from her glazing eyes, she could be content to resign the sceptre of power.
There were no doubt half-a-dozen, or more, in the list of elder sons, who were fairly eligible. But this young man was the Achilles in the rank and file of chivalry, and her soul yearned to have him and no other for her darling.
Her soul yearned to him with a tenderness which was not all on Lesbia's account. Forty-nine years ago she had fondly loved his father—loved him and had been fain to renounce him; for Ronald Hollister, afterwards Earl of Hartfield, was then a younger son, and the two families had agreed that marriage between paupers was an impudent flying in the face of Providence, which must be put down with an iron hand. Lord Hartfield sent his son to Turkey in the diplomatic service; and the old dowager Lady Carrisbrook whisked her niece off to London, and kept her there, under watch and ward, till Lord Maulevrier proposed and was accepted by her. There should be no foolishness, no clandestine correspondence. The iron hand crushed two young hearts, and secured a brilliant future for the bodies which survived.
Fifteen years later Ronald's elder brother died unmarried. Ha abandoned that career of vagrant diplomacy which had taken him all over Europe, and as far as Washington, and re-appeared in London, the most elegant man of his era, but thoroughly blase. There were rumours of an unhappy attachment in the Faubourg Saint Germain; of a tragedy at Petersburg. Society protested that Lord Hartfield would die a bachelor, as his brother died before him. The Hollisters are not a marrying family, said society. But six or seven years after his return to England Lord Hartfield married Lady Florence Ilmington, a beauty in her first season, and a very sweet but somewhat prudish young person. The marriage resulted in the birth of an heir, whose appearance upon this mortal stage was followed within a year by his father's exit. Hence the Hartfield property, always a fine estate, had been nursed and fattened during a long minority, and the present Lord Hartfield was reputed one of the richest young men of his time. He was also spoken of as a superior person, inheriting all his father's intellectual gifts, and having the reputation of being singularly free from the vices of profligate youth. He was neither prig nor pedant, and he was very popular in the best society; but he was not ashamed to let it be seen that his ambition soared higher than the fashionable world of turf and stable, cards and pigeon matches.
Though not of the gay world, nor in it, Lady Maulevrier had contrived to keep herself thoroughly en rapport with society. Her few chosen friends, with whom she corresponded on terms of perfect confidence, were among the best people in London—not the circulators of club-house canards, the pickers-up of second-hand gossip from the society papers, but actors in the comedy of high life, arbiters of fashion and taste, born and bred in the purple.
Last season Lord Hartfield's absence had cast a cloud over the matrimonial horizon. He had been a traveller for more than a year—Patagonia, Peru, the Pyramids, Japan, the North Pole—society cared not where—the fact that he was gone was all-sufficient. Bachelors a shade less eligible came to the front in his absence and became first favourites. Lady Maulevrier, well informed in advance, had deferred Lesbia's presentation till next season, when she was told Lord Hartfield would certainly re-appear. His plans had been made for return before Christmas; and it would seem that his scheme of life was laid down with as much precision as if he had been a prince of the blood royal. Thus it happened, to Lesbia's intense disgust, that her debut was deferred till the verge of her twentieth birthday. It would never do, Lady Maulevrier told herself, for the edge to be taken off the effect which Lesbia's beauty was to make on society during Lord Hartfield's absence. He must be there, on the spot, to see this star rise gently and slowly above society's horizon, and to mark how everybody bowed down and worshipped the new light.
'I shall be an old woman before I appear in society,' said Lesbia, petulantly; 'and I shall be like a wild woman of the woods; for I have seen nothing, and know nothing of the civilised world.'
'You will be ever so much more attractive than the young women I hear of, who have seen and known a great deal too much,' answered the dowager; and as her granddaughter knew that Lady Maulevrier's word was a law that altered not, there was no more idle repinings.