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The Contract Part II

2

“Charge, Chester, charge! On, Stanley, on!
Were the last words of Marmion — ”

“And they would have been your first —” said Lady Horatia Dumblaine as she threw aside her splendid album, and gave both her hands to her nephew, new from the land of laurels.

“A Chevy-chase and I not there!” he answered. “To hear of Vittoria and not to have seen it, is enough to lay my blushing honours thick upon me!”

“Well, Stewart, you have been pouring wine and oil upon your wounds among beautiful Samaritans. And so the Lady of Mornay is dead, leaving one daughter and a rich heiress, and her stepdaughter what the Scotch law pleases?”

“Custom, Madam,” interposed Lord Frederick Dumblaine in the tone of an English husband accustomed to think civility a virtue too good for use at home: “call it custom — a law not written, but enough to make parents ridiculous and their children enemies.”

“Solemnly true, my lord; but these half or reputed sisters are too inequal to be rivals. Emilia has her father’s estate, Marianne only his name, eighteen innocent years, and one or two friends. We shall see no romantic contest between Wallace Dumblaine’s school-day love and his manly estimate of gold. I beg your pardon, Stewart! That face rebukes me, but nobody can ever remember that Wallace is your cousin.”

“He has so much wit, fashion, and success, your want of remembrance is a rebuke to me.”

“We must all have our amusements, you know; a French philosopher has his cat — and Englishman his twelve pipes — Wallace chooses a clever coquette as fit to purr softly and raise agreeable clouds about him as Montaigne’s pet or Hobbes’s pipe. But by what name is the disinherited to be known?”

“By mine, if she pleases.”

The dry and cool simplicity of this answer, spoken in a tone which admitted no dispute, made Lady Horatia laugh heartily. Her husband might have frowned if he had not fallen asleep over a folio volume of heraldry.

“I rejoice to hear this change,” said the lady lowering her voice. “My husband is dazzled by his new ward Emilia, and I must obey him. Marianne could not return to this place, once her expected home and heritage, to be a dependent on the courtesy, certainly not the friendship of Scotch relatives. But her stepmother’s sister, Aunt Barbara as you always called her, is of the rough cocoa-nut kind — full of the milk or cream of human nature. Let her be the Bride-maid.”

Lady Barbara Dumblaine, a gaunt hard-featured Scotchwoman whose saffron skin and hair seemed her only recommendation for a handmaiden to “yellow-robed Hyman,” entered as her name was spoken.

“Could ye not have thought of the stramash this war would cause a lone woman! Fine kinsfolk at a spa; and you, Stewart, my gude brother’s son! I might have been taken for a conscrip if Wallace had na brought me here safe. Where have ye left the bonnie bride? And what would she have been fit for when Scotch women cut bread with the axe which beheaded an enemy or their own dresser?”

“Fit to polish the axe and spread honey on the bread!” he answered laughing.

“And hang like a cobweb in some proud brother’s kitchen!” added the maiden-sister with a sharp glance at the laird’s wife. “So the byrewoman died a Countess! Weel as she used to say, Chayhorse is come again! — And her lassie is a Yerl’s heiress! A bonnie tow to spin from the chance-bairn’s cradle to the castle top!”

“And Wallace Dumblaine will take that tow to darn his ravelled fortune.”

“Sweep awa’ auld hanks first, or he may tangle yours. Dinna ye mind how he and Marianne played at wedding when ye were bairns, and she ca’d him husband and he ca’d her his wee wifie? Did na ye fell him like a windle-straw when he said it was a fiction of Scotch law? And so it was — ay, ay — see to it — it’s ill sifting sand agains the wind.”

Stewart thanked the oracle for her second-sight and departed, sincerely resolved to escape the buzz and stings of this northern hive of relatives by remaining on the continent. The sudden cessation of hostilities and his own circumstances excused any change or abruptness in his arrangements. Preferring the safety of truth to shadowy delicacies, he repeated to Marianne the rumour concerning Wallace and Emilia. She answered by half-dropping her scarf and discovering the scar left on her neck by the blow he had intended for Wallace when the familiar title of “Wee Wifie” seemed too audaciously applied. He understood this mute reference to the fact, and hastened to reply, “I see nothing in this to alarm or pain you. But we will not wake the demons of rumour and defamation in Scotland. We will linger on these southern shores or cross the Apennines and shun odious intruders.”

“But till Wallace himself surrenders all claim —”

“His proposed marriage with Emilia seems a recognizance that he has none — unless. . . .”

Stewart felt her sudden recoil — the tremor of her whole frame, and the stony dampness of the hand she durst not withdraw. “Marianne,” he added in a very low and calm voice, “we met early, but our separation has been long. You have lived in your quiet loneliness and in the world. Ten years may have changed us both; but one change has not yet begun and shall not. You are absolute mistress of yourself — your safety and comfort are all I intend or consider. Preserve them both by trusting me!”

He did not expect or receive and immediate reply. She had often seen his anger without dismay, but this calmness was awful. The repose of a proud temper is more solemn than the sudden fire of a meek one. We are touched by the flute-tones of a powerful organ deeper than by a reed’s. She could not force herself to express or even hint the limits of her present trust, but she was too conscious of her defenceless state and his own power to abuse either, and he left her right, admirably right both in act and motive, wrong in manner, for she saw he deemed her dread of Wallace’s pretensions extreme and frivolous and held his own in too high esteem to obtrude them.

* * *

The travellers pursued their way to a convenient haven on the shores of Provence and reached its medicinal baths without mischance. There they rested, as the short campaign near Baronne had terminated and the triumphant entry of the Allies into Paris already permitted English visitors to assemble in or near France. Many were surprised to see Marianne accompanied by Emilia Douglas. The successful claimant of her birthright, and the rival she had deep reason to fear of a more important interest in her husband’s affections. But the heiress accosted her relatives with such bland and cordial gaiety, and so earnestly pursued the opportunities offered by a southern spa to re-establish intimacy, that without manifesting useless aversion, Marianne could not escape their force. The extreme though secret difficulty of her position compelled her to suppress those indications of chagrin which more perfect unreserve with Stewart would have permitted. But he had carefully implied his intention was only to secure her from calumny by a residence on the continent sufficiently long to allow the ordinary death of idle rumours, yet secluded enough to permit a gradual separation of it should be proved fittest. The sparkling, fearless, and incessant vivacity of Emilia aided by high accomplishments and long knowledge of the world, rendered her a most successful occupant of those hours which a southern summer condemns to languor and ennui. Though the blandishments she practised and the notice they obtained from Stewart were strictly, even cautiously restrained within the limits of sisterly and courteous frankness, the timid and deject spirit of half-renounced affection shrunk from its approach. Perhaps in less embarrassing circumstances she would have shewn herself far more than equal to her sister in rich conversation and graceful talents; but her thoughts, words and movements seemed arrested, as by that withering spell which converted some princess to stone while her heart and eyes were allowed their powers. When they reached Marseilles Emilia made no scruple to display her readiness to exchange a sick chaperone’s route in quest of health, for a visit to Languedoc with her brother and sister, as she styled them with frequent and familiar emphasis. This plan seemed to be arranged almost without a reference to Marianne, except when Stewart said with quiet decision, “Your sister will amuse you in my frequent absences, and as her marriage with my nearest relative seems fixed, we owe her this courtesy.” That calm and courteous indifference, which as she had once been told, is the most insupportable because the most unmentionable evil, compelled her to receive this command without complaint or visible vexation. Of whom and what could she express jealousy without confessing too anxious fondness to preserve an unacknowledged and precarious tie? [Perhaps as she now often told herself with bitter and vain regret, her own conduct seen through a jaundiced medium, might have appeared a needless extreme of wavering distrust, or a mean device to screen real aversion under a pretence of the most unanswerable kind.] The ice between two persons thus miserably divided, soon becomes strong enough to bear the steps of a third.

Such thoughts were not likely to produce more cheerful or more cordial ease in her demeanour, and when they reached the beautiful villa hired on the banks of the Garonne, she almost loathed the paradise into which a serpent had intruded. Even Stewart’s absence would have been relief, but peace was now proclaimed, there was no legation to afford and excuse or a motive for his visits to Vienna which had been included in his first project, and the lingering consequences of half-cured wounds rendered this rest and retirement almost indispensable. Emilia rallied, advised, and at last ridiculed her sister, not in her brother-in-law’s presence, but in the many moments which home affords to that worst pest, a home-intruder. She preserved before Stewart the most gracious and adroit forbearance, therefore Marianne’s coldness had the disadvantage of contrast and apparent injustice. In private, she taxed her with perverse neglect of her talents and beauty, criticised her dress and complained of her indolent indifference to her husband’s health and amusements. When he was a spectator, all the small delicate cares which form the “wicker bridge” between hearts, were practised as by a privileged sister. She gradually assumed authority in the household, alleging her experience in continental lief, and the strength of spirit which as she said, a disengaged damsel enjoys while domestic anxieties devour a wife. This was said with charming grace to her “dear brother” and with ironical significance to Marianne, who yielded perhaps unwisely the precedence she felt ashamed to dispute. Servants, always the most close and critical observers, soon discovered that their lord and lady’s politeness and exact observance of each other was unmingled with sincere cordiality. They observed her brief and constrained conversation, her faded figure, and the irrepressible anguish she betrayed when she believed herself unseen. No remedy could be found for this anguish except to part, without any ostensible cause, not even one she could assign to herself except his kindness to her sister who had given no offence except her better claim to inheritance! A sad alternative, yet preferable to this lingering misery. How to open the subject to Stewart was the most painful difficulty. If she hinted at some whispers which had circulated to Emilia’s prejudice at Aix-la-Chapelle, he might justly despise the unsisterly desire to credit them, and refuse to believe that their protection was unwisely bestowed. The retirement in which his health and other circumstances detained them was at least a prudent choice in Emilia, even if she shared it from motives merely selfish. Happily it afforded one method of approaching Marianne’s purpose and she seized it by urging her regret that his stay with her should deprive him of the society afforded by Barèges or Pisa, or the many medicinal baths still nearer their retreat.

“I have not complained of solitude,” he answered drily, “if you regret or are weary of this arrangement of our establishment here, I mean, it may be most readily changed.”

“By a tour to Rome or Naples?”

“Sorrento has its recommendations if health alone was in question. But you should have wider society. Or you wish perhaps to return to Britain with Wallace and Emilia?”

“Wallace and Emilia!” She repeated the first name with a sudden rush of blood to her brow and bosom, sent by surprise at his announcement of their union.

“Such guests,” he added, only give two parties another to hate.”

“I cannot hate my father’s daughter or one you think fit to treat as if her father had been yours. I cannot answer an insult from a guest you choose; but she is gone, and as you have said, this picture is her warning that — that I have lost — that —”

She could not finish the sentence, and stung by the passion of unspeakable anguish, threw into the flames Emilia’s sketches of herself, Stewart and Wallace.

“And what do I lose?” he asked with equal ire but more calmness. “I whom you compel to view this heartless, worthless, audacious coxcomb as my heir and future representative? Why did you not accept him since his interest stands so high in your regard? You placed an air-drawn dagger between us and make it like Macbeth’s, a means to open a succession for my cousin Banquo’s race, not mine.”

He spoke with the most emphatic energy of truth while he adopted the poet’s fiction to enforce it. Marianne, thunder-struck by this strange yet not improbable inference from her conduct, perceived as when fire bursts forth in a mansion, many points and small fragments to which it gives a hideous and dazzling mightiness.

“Say all!” she said, “let me know all. But it is impossible that you should believe this — you only seek to excuse the disrespect — the mockery —”

She hesitated and paused, doubting what phrase could express the coldness she resented without implying that its removal would be welcome. Stewart caught her meaning from her want of speech.

“Disrespect and mockery, I confess, are the fittest words while we live on these terms. You imposed them on a pretext now absolutely cancelled, and began only by the whisper of a vulgar woman — a trafficker in vile secrets, made by chance during that mysterious walk —”

“Was it mysterious,” interrupted Marianne, not unwilling to arrest the most disputable word, “because the cause was so simply and instantly told?”

“Call it ill-timed, then, or unfortunate. We lose temper by arguing when we might act. Let us be wise enough to own we may grow wiser. I admit my share of blame if you will end the cause, and it can be ended best in another residence. Your birthday is in May — let us celebrate it at home — in our own home and country, and date a new life from that day.”

Marianne assented to this amnesty by silence, cold almost ungracious silence, for the thrill of feelings too deep for words or tears, might have resembled the shudder of repugnance. But the subject once decided was dismissed, and Stewart quietly pursued and completed his plan of removal from the Mediterranean shore to Britain, trusting the silver cord which had been loosened, might be knit again during the lapse of a few pleasant weeks in scenes continually changing, better than by another sudden trial of skill. Unless both parties could have seen themselves with each other’s eyes, they could not judge of their own demeanour. The small soft kindnesses which form the threads of that fine cord, cannot be woven by unpractised hands. Conscious of effort and design, the husband’s ordinary language became constrained, and advances half-made were repelled or retracted by the pride of womanhood. And thus like icebergs, they were divided and driven asunder by the current which secretly melted and subdued them.