M.E. Braddon.

Phantom Fortune, a Novel online

. (page 4 of 42)
Online LibraryM.E. BraddonPhantom Fortune, a Novel → online text (page 4 of 42)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


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 _protégés_.

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. He 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 _blasé_. 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 _début_ 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 were no more idle repinings.

Her ladyship gave no reason for the postponement of Lesbia's
presentation. She was far too diplomatic to breathe a word of her ideas
with regard to Lord Hartfield. Anything like a matrimonial scheme would
have been revolting to Lesbia, who had grand, but not sordid views about
matrimony. She thought it her mission to appear and to conquer. A crowd
of suitors would sigh around her, like the loves and graces round that
fair Belinda whose story she had read so often; and it would be her part
to choose the most worthy. The days are gone when a girl would so much
as look at such a fribble as Sir Plume. Her virgin fancy demands the
Tennysonian ideal, the grave and knightly Arthur.

But when Lesbia thought of the most worthy, it was always of the
worthiest in her own particular sphere; and he of course would be titled
and wealthy, and altogether fitted to be her husband. He would take her
by the hand and lead her to a higher seat on the dais, and place upon
her head, or at least upon her letter-paper and the panels of her
carriage, a coronet in which the strawberry leaves should stand out more
prominently than in her brother's emblazonment. Lesbia's mind could not
conceive an ignoble marriage, or the possibility of the most worthy
happening to be found in a lower circle than her own.

And now it was the end of July, and the season which should have been
glorified by Lady Lesbia's _début_ was over and done with. She had read
in the society papers of all the balls, and birthdays, and race
meetings, and regattas, and cricket matches, and gowns, and parasols,
and bonnets - what this beauty wore on such an occasion, and how that
other beauty looked on another occasion - and she felt as she read like a
spell-bound princess in a fairy tale, mewed up in a battlemented tower,
and deprived of her legitimate share in all the pleasures of earth. She
had no patience with Mary - that wild, unkempt, ungraceful creature, who
could be as happy as summer days are long, racing about the hills with
her bamboo alpenstock, rioting with a pack of fox-terriers, practising
long losers, rowing on the lake, doing all things unbecoming Lady
Maulevrier's granddaughter.

That long rainy day dragged its slow length to a close; and then came fine
days, in which Molly and her fox-terriers went wandering over the sunlit
hills, skipping and dancing across the mountain streamlets - gills, as they
were called in this particular world - almost as gaily as the shadows of
fleecy cloudlets dancing up yonder in the windy sky. Molly spent half her
days among the hills, stealing off from governess and grandmother and the
stately beauty sister, and sometimes hardly being missed by them, so ill
did her young exuberance harmonise with their calmer life.

'One can tell when Mary is at home by a perpetual banging of doors,'
said Lesbia, which was a sisterly exaggeration founded upon fact, for
Molly was given to impetuous rushing in and out of rooms when that eager
spirit of hers impelled the light lithe body upon some new expedition.
Nor is the society of fox-terriers conducive to repose or stateliness of
movement; and Maulevrier's terriers, although strictly forbidden the
house, were for ever breaking bonds and leaping in upon Molly's
retirement at all unreasonable hours. She and they were enchanted to get
away from the beautiful luxurious rooms, and to go roving by hill-side
and force, away to Easedale Tarn, to bask for hours on the grassy margin
of the deep still water, or to row round and round the mountain lake in
a rotten boat. It was here, or in some kindred spot, that Molly got
through most of her reading - here that she read Shakespeare, Byron, and
Shelley, and Wordsworth - dwelling lingeringly and lovingly upon every
line in which that good old man spoke of her native land. Sometimes she
climbed to higher ground, and felt herself ever so much nearer heaven
upon the crest of Silver Howe, or upon the rugged stony steep of Dolly
Waggon pike, half way up the dark brow of Helvellyn; sometimes she
disappeared for hours, and climbed to the summit of the hill, and
wandered in perilous pathways on Striding Edge, or by the dark still
water of the Red Tarn. This had been her life ever since she had been
old enough to have an independent existence; and the hills and the
lakes, and the books of her own choosing, had done a great deal more in
ripening her mind than Fräulein Müller and that admirable series of
educational works which has been provided for the tuition of modern
youth. Grammars and geographies, primers and elementary works of all
kinds, were Mary's detestation; but she loved books that touched her
heart and filled her mind with thoughts wide and deep enough to reach
into the infinite of time and space, the mystery of mind and matter,
life and death.

Nothing occurred to break the placid monotony of life at Fellside for
three long days after that rainy morning; and then came an event which,
although commonplace enough in itself, marked the beginning of a new era
in the existence of Lady Maulevrier's granddaughters.

It was evening, and the two girls were dawdling about on the sloping
lawn before the drawing-room windows, where Lady Maulevrier read the
newspapers in her own particular chair by one of those broad Tudor
windows, according to her infallible custom. Remote as her life had been
from the busy world, her ladyship had never allowed her knowledge of
public life and the bent of modern thought to fall into arrear. She took
a keen interest in politics, in progress of all kinds. She was a staunch
Conservative, and looked upon every Liberal politician as her personal
enemy; but she took care to keep herself informed of everything that was
being said or done in the enemy's camp. She had an intense respect for
Lord Bacon's maxim: Knowledge is power. It was a kind of power secondary
to the power of wealth, perhaps; but wealth unprotected by wisdom would
soon dwindle into poverty.

Lady Lesbia sauntered about the lawn, looking very elegant in her
cream-coloured Indian silk gown, very listless, very tired of her lovely
surroundings. Neither lake nor mountain possessed any charm for her. She
had had too much of them. Mary roamed about with a swifter footstep,
looking at the roses, plucking off a dead leaf, or a cankered bud here
and there. Presently she tore across the lawn to the shrubbery which
screened the lawn and flower gardens from the winding carriage drive
sunk many feet below, and disappeared in a thicket of arbutus and Irish
yew.

'What terribly hoydenish manners!' murmured Lesbia, with a languid shrug
of her shoulders, as she strolled back to the drawing-room.

She cared very little for the newspapers, for politics not at all; but
anything was better than everlasting contemplation of the blue still
water, and the rugged crest of Helm Crag.

'What was the matter with Mary that she rushed off like a mad woman?'
inquired Lady Maulevrier, looking up from the _Times_.

'I haven't the least idea. Mary's movements are quite beyond the limits
of my comprehension. Perhaps she has gone after a bird's-nest.'

Mary was intent upon no bird's-nest. Her quick ear had caught the sound
of manly voices in the winding drive under the pine wood; and surely,
yes, surely one was a clear and familiar voice, which heralded the
coming of happiness. In such a moment she seemed to have wings. She
became unconscious that she touched the earth; she went skimming
bird-like over the lawn, and in and out, with fluttering muslin frock,
among arbutus and bay, yew and laurel, till she stood poised lightly on
the top of the wooded bank which bordered the steep ascent to Lady
Maulevrier's gate, looking down at two figures which were sauntering up
the drive.

They were both young men, both tall, broad-shouldered, manly, walking
with the easy swinging movement of men accustomed to active exercise.
One, the handsomer of the two in Mary's eyes, since she thought him
simply perfection, was fair-haired, blue-eyed, the typical Saxon. This
was Lord Maulevrier. The other was dark, bronzed by foreign travel,
perhaps, with black hair, cut very close to an intelligent-looking head,
bared to the evening breeze.

'Hulloa!' cried Maulevrier. 'There's Molly. How d'ye do, old girl?'

The two men looked up, and Molly looked down. Delight at her brother's
return so filled her heart and mind that there was no room left for
embarrassment at the appearance of a stranger.

'O, Maulevrier, I am so glad! I have been pining for you. Why didn't you
write to say you were coming? It would have been something to look
forward to.'

'Couldn't. Never knew from day to day what I was going to be up to;
besides, I knew I should find you at home.'

'Of course. We are always at home,' said Mary; 'go up to the house as
fast as ever you can. I'll go and tell grandmother.'

'And tell them to get us some dinner,' said Maulevrier.

Mary's fluttering figure dipped and was gone, vanishing in the dark



Online LibraryM.E. BraddonPhantom Fortune, a Novel → online text (page 4 of 42)