- CHAPTER XVII. DISCLOSES SOME OF THEIR PLANS.
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DISCLOSES SOME OF THEIR PLANS.
IT was perfectly true that Mrs. Arundel had made an offer to retain Caroline Wilson in her service after she had settled at Weybridge, and that the woman's refusal of the same had greatly annoyed her, although it is difficult to imagine to what account, at this time, the mistress thought of turning the servant's talent for deception. Perhaps her wish to keep her in her pay arose simply from a fear that she might repeat more in the regiment than it was at present convenient for Mrs. Arundel to have known; and therefore, until the design she had it in her heart to execute was accomplished, it was as well to have one who knew and had heard so much under her own surveillance. For that Eliza Arundel had made up her mind to marry Cecil Craven needs scarcely here to be publicly registered. What mattered it that it was scarcely a month since her poor, blundering, forbearing husband had been swept off the deck of the homeward-bound transport, and hurried into eternity without a farewell word to her or any one? As she had had it in her possible nature to dream of this contingency long before there was any chance of its happening, so she found no difficulty in rejoicing in its occurrence even in the first blush of her freedom. She was too cunning to let the world guess this, as she had been too cunning in the days of her married life to let it solve the riddle of the change in her manner towards Cecil Craven, and her jealousy of Rachel Norreys. She had hated to see these two | | 183 together in their walks and rides, to mark their pleasure at meeting, their whispered confidences, and mutual understanding; and yet she had furthered it all, and appeared to take a delight in furthering it, as if she rejoiced in nursing her jealousy, and in haying as substantial a cause as possible against Cecil Craven for her reproachful glances and sighs. For the days had been when that gentleman had affected the company of his major's wife far more than he did at present; days that he now looked back upon with unmitigated surprise at the bad taste of his youth, but which the object of his then passion had never forgotten. Cecil had passed through the ordeal like many another junior of the 3rd Royal Bays before him, fiercely for the time, but soon cured, and ready to question, before three months were over, what on earth could have so infatuated him as to make him fancy he was in love with Eliza Arundel. But though the lady herself was used to that sort of thing, and had stood fire against a score of lovesick boys before, who had only amused her by their openly-expressed admiration of her white shoulders, flaxen hair, and china blue eyes—no less than by the rapid fading away of their arduous attentions, somehow, the same compliments from Cecil Craven's mouth had not sounded quite so hackneyed in her ears, and she missed them sadly when they ceased to be. There was something in the suave, gentlemanly manners of the boy of eighteen—something perhaps, too, in the handsome, fair face, and graceful figure of the stripling which went home wonderfully to the heart of this woman of the world—for that, although only four years his senior, Eliza Arundel, when he first met her, already was. He would have broken through her meshes as other birds had done before him, as soon as he had tired of his fancy (for no one, however young, could associate with her, and not discover how artificial she could be), but once trapped, the major's wife would not let him go. He tried hard to escape, but she held on to him with too powerful a hand; and what man under two-and-twenty can resist being made love to by a tolerable-looking woman, even though she be one of whom he is already a little tired? "She's all very well." used Cecil Craven to say to himself, "when there's nobody better to make love to," and with this sort of compulsory homage was Eliza Arundel obliged to satisfy her | | 184 penchant for the young Adonis who lorded it over her. For several years he was known to be fetcher and carrier to Mrs. Arundel; and during these years it was that the scandal concerning them, which has already been alluded to in this story, rose up, was commented upon, and extinguished.
But a day came when Rachel Norreys left her finishing school for the last time, and accompanied her father to Gibraltar with the 3rd Royal Bays. The intimacy which had subsisted between these two as children drew them closer together than the usages of society would have done, particularly as Rachel was a married woman; and Dr. Browne had always appeared desirous of cementing their friendship as much as lay in his power, for we know now that he had loved the mother of the young man, and cherished her remembrance. Then it was that the demon of jealousy took possession of Mrs. Arundel, even at the very time that she was fawning upon and caressing Rachel Norreys, and worming all her secrets from out the bosom of the young unsuspecting girl. Rachel commenced by thinking Mrs. Arundel very kind and friendly, went on by wondering what she could find so attractive in herself, and ended by imagining that she cared for the friend who always swore she loved her, and had got possession of some of her most private opinions. But the last few months had opened Rachel's eyes in a slight degree to the character of her confidante. She would rather have kept them closed; she bore the light badly, blinking at it, and laying the fault of the sun upon her own powers of vision; but to one or two particulars she could be no longer blind. She knew that Eliza Arundel was not perfectly sincere; she almost believed that she had not been so in everything, even to herself.
Cecil Craven guessed the state of feeling which his ci-devant flame was entertaining for him, but he did not care about it. His eyes were fully open now, and had been for some time past, and his only desire was to keep Rachel Norreys from too great an intimacy with Mrs. Arundel; but in that he had been unsuccessful, because he found, for his warnings to have any effect with the former, that he must be more explicit than behoved him, as a gentleman, to speak of one lady to another. He had been subjected to a great deal of reproach on Mrs. Arundel's part when he first forswore | | 185 his allegiance to her; he had been forced to be the witness of a great many tears; to feel himself the cause of whole days of seclusion, from which she would issue with heavy eyes and pallid features; but though these circumstances annoyed and irritated him, her fascination over him had lost its power to make him feel more, and gradually his tormentor had dropped her futile attempts to win him back, although she only bided her opportunity. But at this time when she resolved, against the wishes of both her own family and that of her late husband, to take Laburnum Cottage, and settle near the Court, it must not be imagined that love for Cecil Craven influenced her decision. Even the brief passion she had entertained for him in former days, and to which she had given that sacred name, was no more love than she was Venus; and that had long since died away, and in its place, and for the sake of what her vanity had suffered in losing his admiration, she longed for her revenge. She would like to settle near his home; to see him when there were no calls of duty to distract his attention from her; to revive the old days, the old recollections; in one word, to supersede Rachel Norreys in his affections; to cast her chains about him again, and to induce him to make her his wife. She knew the temperament of the man she was about to work on; she had read his soft, yielding disposition only too well, and she believed that, with fair play, the game would be in her own hands.
But ductile as he was, she had not quite fathomed the depth of Cecil's long-rooted aversion to herself. When he heard, a few days after his interview with Rachel Norreys in the lodgings at Farnborough, that Laburnum Cottage had been certainly taken on a long lease by Mrs. Arundel, his disgust knew no bounds; but he did not like to say too much to his mother against her coming neighbour. In the first place, the same obstacle which had opposed itself to his attempts at dissuading Rachel from being too intimate with the lady in question, the impossibility of giving a good reason for his own dislike of her, rose up whenever he tried to speak on the subject with Mrs. Craven. And, after all, she was a woman, and a woman he had once professed to like, and Weybridge was open to her as to the world; and he trusted a great deal to his mother's powers of discernment, | | 186 which he hoped would very soon make her aware how far the new comer was to be relied upon as a friend But in this he was too confident; for although Mrs. Craven was a far cleverer woman than Mrs. Arundel, her cleverness stood no chance against the other's craftiness. Mrs. Craven was quick at understanding a subject or in managing an affair, but she was foolishly hasty on occasions, often led away by her fancy, and very open to flattery, as who is not? Mrs. Arundel, on the contrary, was not quick, but she was cunning, which often answers better in this world when the purpose is bad. The one woman possessed a rash impetuosity which might hurry her into any crime, and dexterity enough to accomplish it; but there her cleverness ended. She had no power to go happily through life afterwards, and to sit down smiling, under concealment; no art or sophistry wherewith to reason herself out of the remembrance of a committed wrong; whilst the other, without the same excitement to urge her forward, sinned her sins, and only regretted them if they failed of success, and was perfectly contented so long as her own subtlety could hide them from the world. No ghost of an unredeemed past ever come by night to startle Eliza Arundel from uneasy sleep, to remind her of the lying looks and words which were the daily coinage she passed amongst her friends. She had used them so long; she had so familiarized herself with deception, that it was doubtful if she could really distinguish between what was truth and what falsehood. Therefore it was that Cecil Craven showed his usual mediocrity of judgment when he compared his mother's intellect with Mrs. Arundel's guile, and thought it was a fair case of "diamond cut diamond." He did go so far as to say, when the news reached Craven Court that the widow had really taken the cottage—
"I'm sorry to hear it. Don't let her get too intimate here, mother; we don't want a lot of women popping in at any hour of the day."But his mother had laughed, and said she supposed he was afraid of his tête-à-têtes with Lady Frances Morgan being interrupted (which tête-à-têtes, indeed, were becoming very frequent, and decidedly warmer upon each repetition); but that he must remember that his old mother wanted a companion now and then as well as himself. "And | | 187 indeed," Mrs. Craven concluded by saying, "it will be quite a blessing for me if Mrs. Arundel prove a nice acquaintance, for a quiet lady friend to run in and talk to me sometimes is just what I want. Besides, poor thing! she must be badly off to have decided upon taking the cottage, which is an extra reason that we should be kind to her, Cecil, since you seem to have received a great deal of hospitality at her hands."
Cecil bit his lip and was silent. He could just imagine how "quiet" Mrs. Arundel would pretend to be as long as it gained her the entrée of the Court; how sympathetic, how exemplary, how woe-begone! and how very kindly she would take to "running in" at every hour of the day, and appearing at every meal that graced their table. And yet, how could he object to his mother choosing her own friends, or showing attention to the widow of the major of his regiment? Poor Cecil was in a quandary, and he was not clever enough to pick his way out again, and so he directed his attention to Lady Frances as a pleasanter subject, and tried to forget that the other existed.
The "quiet, unhappy, and badly off " appearance was exactly the line of action that Mrs. Arundel had elected to take up, as being the one most calculated to prove interesting to the mistress of Craven Court, to whom the character could prove no rival; and with that idea in view, she had, like a good general, reviewed her forces, examined her ammunition, and settled on her point of attack. With regard to the last requisition, nothing could have suited her better in every respect than the little house which went by the name of Laburnum Cottage. It was a tiny place, of not more than four rooms besides the kitchen offices, and had originally been built for a lodge to Craven Court; but when a portion of that property was parted with to form a public road, had been sold, and a fresh lodge erected close to the new boundaries of the estate. The purchaser of Laburnum Cottage, when he had concluded his bargain, had scarcely known what to do with it: it was too small for the permanent occupancy of gentlepeople, and too far from the town for the convenience of the poor; and so he had surrounded it with a tasteful little garden, furnished it in a cheap style, and let it for the summer months to people desirous of a few weeks' change | | 188 into the country. Thus, year after year, an advertisement very similar to the following had appeared in the columns of the daily papers:—
"WEYBRIDGE.—To be let, furnished, near this charming locality, for a long or short period, a cottage ornée, containing every convenience for a family, with large shubbery and pleasure-garden, extensive lawn, and trout-stream running through the premises. Rent, if taken by the week, three guineas.—Address, 'A. B.,' Laburnum Cottage, Weybridge."
Heads of families who had made up their minds to pass the hot weather out of town, and give all the little Browns, Joneses, or Tomkinsons the benefit of country air whilst they could enjoy it, were wont to snatch at this advertisement, and say to materfamilias, "Weybridge! Let's see, my dear, Ah! close to Walton-on-Thames. The very thing for us! And fancy how pleasant having the large shrubbery and garden for the dear children, and a trout-stream actually in the grounds—the very thing for Tom and Dick!—convenience itself!. I'll write at once, and ascertain the veracity of the advertisement." And, after writing, the head of the family had been used to run down to Weybridge by train to see the place he had already determined in his heart to call for the summer his own, and was generally disappointed at finding that the cottage ornée contained only four rooms—that the shrubbery, extensive lawn, and pleasure-garden consisted of a circular plot of grass surrounded by a small carriage-drive and belted by a few clumps of laurustinus and arbor vitæ—and that the trout-stream was a ditch running through the tiny back garden, which, whatever it might be in the days of winter, was, at the time when fishing is a desirable occupation, invariably dried up or stagnant. If there is one thing above another that John Bull hates, it is being taken in; and the general consequence of viewing Laburnum Cottage was that honest men were made to swear a great deal more than was needful; but some there were, with small families, who, sickened of many similar newspaper lies, and after much searching, having nowhere to lay their heads, would, almost against their own conscience, come to an understanding with the landlord of Laburnum Cottage, and, after beating him down to half the rent he asked for it, establish themselves as | | 189 summer inmates of the little place. By this means Craven Court had had strange neighbours, and most of the lodgers at the cottage were of such questionable birth, that Mrs. Craven was glad to think that a gentlewoman was to be its permanent inmate. Mrs. Arundel had shown great adroitness by the manner in which she had wheedled the owner of the cottage to let her have it upon lease on her own terms; and although he was rather tired of the constant trouble which his former plan of letting and re-letting had imposed upon him, a woman with less blandishment in her voice and smoothness on her tongue would scarcely have persuaded him to accept her terms so readily. But he was persuaded somehow, and had agreed to let her hold the cottage, furnished as it was, upon a very low rent for a lease of seven years. And thus provided with precisely the house she had wished for, her two boys, placed at school by her husband's family, and only little Emily left upon her hands, the sole thing wanting to Mrs. Arundel had been the securing of Caroline Wilson as her aide-de-camp; and when that worthy, after the conversation held with her daughter in Mrs. Bennett's kitchen, expressed herself ready and willing to accompany her mistress on her new life, Elise Arundel felt, as she transferred herself and baggage to Laburnum Cottage, as if she had all that for the present she could wish for.
Caroline Wilson had a double reason, when the time for starting came, for being agreeable to accompany her mistress to Weybridge, for her daughter was actually settled there before her. Not many days after Martha's expulsion from the barracks her mother had read an advertisement in the county paper for an under-housemaid, with application to be made to the housekeeper at Craven Court—the fact being that Mrs. Craven left everything connected with household affairs to the management of the housekeeper, who had been with her many years; and the old dame, not being blessed with the sweetest of tempers, changed her underlings pretty often in the course of a twelvemonth; and an advertisement for some one or other wanted at Craven Court was almost as familiar to the eyes of the subscribers to the "County Chronicle" as the title itself.
It was the very thing, however, that Caroline had desired | | 190 for her daughter, and she was as pleased at lighting upon it as her mistress had been at finding Laburnum Cottage. She waited upon Major Craven at once with the paper in her hand, and a supplication that he would write a few lines of recommendation of her daughter to his mother's housekeeper, as she was very anxious to procure the situation for her. Cecil saw no harm in the proceeding; he knew that Rachel disliked Mrs. Wilson, but daughters did not always take after their mothers, and it was nothing to him who was under-housemaid at Craven Court, and so he scratched off a note to Mrs. Watson to intimate that the bearer was the daughter of one of the sergeants of his regiment, &c, which note had a magic effect upon the old housekeeper, and Martha was installed at the Court almost as soon as she appeared there. And whilst her elders and betters were plotting and scheming to attain the fruition of their wishes, this girl, young and uneducated though she was, had also her cherished secret, her planned-out hope for the future, to attain which she had acted so as to bring in view the end which she desired. For though her sojourn at the barracks had been broken short rather sooner than she expected, she had never contemplated staying there long from the first day that she had entered them. She had been left very much to herself during her girlhood, as all dressmakers' apprentices in London are. She had been fed and housed and worked hard through the entire weeks, and on Sundays she had been turned adrift, told to go where she chose and do what she chose, but to shelter and keep herself until nightfall. Sunday was the only holiday that the mistress of the establishment herself enjoyed—that was the only day she had to drive down with her husband or friends to Richmond, or Greenwich, or to make one of a boating-party or a pic-nic. And therefore on Sundays, the sixty or seventy pairs of hands—(ah, would they had been only hands!)—the sixty or seventy hearts in her employment were turned abroad to do what they liked, so as they did not prove any further trouble to herself. And what should girls do in London; young, untaught, inexperienced creatures, with their week's salary in their hands, and the world before them, where to choose? They did far better than we should imagine, and no worse | | 191 than those had a right to expect who threw them thus into the way of temptation. Some, a very few, went to morning church; others strolled in groups about the parks and public gardens, ready to giggle and talk with any stranger who chose to address them. Such as were happy enough to have friends in town, who asked them home for those errant Sundays, gladly took advantage of the invitation; and those who had what they termed a "young man," would go in his company wheresoever he chose to take them. Amongst the last was Martha Wilson. She was a fine, showy girl, with a tolerable amount of conversation in her, and had unfortunately attracted the attention of one of those anomalous creatures who, writing themselves down "gentleman," still take a greater pleasure in associating with people beneath them in rank than with their equals. The man, however, who had condescended occasionally to take notice of Martha Wilson (for in truth his attentions were nothing more), was really one of the upper classes, although from his companions and appearance, it would have been difficult to tell at a glance to what grade he belonged. He had met the girl accidentally, and almost accidentally continued his acquaintance with her. He found her smart, voluble, and not more forward than he admired; and he very soon discovered that where he had simply intended having a "lark," he had contrived to make a very deep impression. Martha was of a very susceptible nature, and the mystery connected with her friend (for she knew that the name he gave her of Tom White was an assumed one), combined with her knowledge that he was a gentleman, all served to heighten the interest she felt in him. For had he not taken her down the river in a boat, in company with other gentlemen, one of whom called him by some long name that she could scarcely remember, and to which he had replied, "Hush! hold your tongue, Cavendish!" And had she not been once—poor Martha! with nothing but her own wishes to guide her—to see him at his chambers in the Albany, where everything was fit for a prince, and when she asked for Mr. White, had not the hall-porter who opened the door said there was no one there of that name, until he came himself in a beautiful flowered silk dressing-gown, and called over the banisters that it was | | 192 "all right," and then she had been allowed to go up and see him? And had he not (the girl's cheeks would burn afresh at the remembrance) called her his "own Martha," and said he would make a lady of her, or she deserved to be a lady, or words to that effect? And had he not—oh, heavens!—kissed her, not once, but dozens of times? As she thought of it she could feel the touch of his silky moustache even. now, and seem to smell the scented fixature he used to control its wayward qualities. Poor Martha! untutored in every particular except in the one great universal lesson which comes instinctively to us all, she thoroughly loved and worshipped this mysterious hero of her imagination, this prince of gentlemen, this nobleman in disguise. She felt for him as a dog feels for his master, that to lie at his feet alone would be happiness too great for her. She seldom indulged in any dreams of his marrying her, or indeed of his marrying at all. He seemed too high and lofty for anything so common. She would have been blissfully content could she have known for certain that until her dying day, or his, she might have the privilege of waiting upon him incessantly, of ministering to all his necessities, of blacking his boots and making his bed, and receiving in return one of those smiles he was wont to bestow upon her when she said anything that pleased him. In reality, the gentleman in question was a very dissipated individual, not only in appearance but by disposition, as was shown by his carelessly drawing a young, unprotected girl into an acquaintanceship which could lead to no good for either of them. But Martha knew nothing of this—saw nothing of it. To be within hail of this divinity of her imagination—to see him sometimes, to hear his voice, and know that he was well and happy, was all that her infatuation demanded. She loved him blindly, like a dumb animal that knows not the name of esteem, but she loved him well. And to gain her liberty sometimes for this purpose, Martha was willing to go into service, else it was not the kind of life that best suited the inclinations of a girl who had been left so much to herself. It was a note from him which had taken her to London on the morning she quarrelled with her mother's husband, simply a wish expressed to see her from the worldly man who had no better amusement for the | | 193 day in view; but it had had the effect of taking her into his presence as quickly as train would do it, and was the consequence, as has been seen, of her being turned out of her mother's home. Well, she was in service now, as under-housemaid at the Court, and although she did not much like Mrs. Watson's tone of authority, nor the strictness of her rules, she must make the best of it for the sake of those "Sundays out" which came round once in three weeks, when she would have the happiness and glorification of breathing the same air as her idol, if she never had a penny left to spend upon herself for the whole of -the rest of the year.
And in the meanwhile her mother arrived at Laburnum Cottage, in the service of Mrs. Arundel, and constituted, with the exception of a woman who came in daily to do the cooking and dirty work, the whole of the ménage of that bower of artlessness and truth.
Eliza Arundel was very much indeed the forlorn and broken-spirited widow for the first few weeks that she was the mistress of the cottage. Bereft of her husband by such a cruel and sudden shock; bereft of her children, her dear boys, from the fact of her means not permitting her to keep them by her, reduced to this (the preposition intimating Laburnum Cottage and its surroundings), with only her sweet little daughter to bear her company, the widow did indeed appear a creature to be made much of, and pitied, and consoled, in the stranger eyes of Mrs. Craven. Indeed, she was so greatly taken upon first sight with her new acquaintance, that she openly condemned the unfeeling manner in which Cecil had spoken of his poor friend; and thought that it was impossible that she could do too much to show her sympathy in such an affliction, and her gratitude for the past kindness her son had received at Mrs. Arundel's hands.
The gardener at Craven Court was directed, much against his will, to send a man to stock and put in order the little garden of Laburnum Cottage; and scarcely a day passed but fruit, vegetables, and flowers found their way from the amply stocked conversatories and hot-houses of the Court into its tiny kitchen.
Mrs. Arundel wept over the offerings, and said they were | | 194 too much, and she felt she was a burden, hut took them nevertheless, and inveigled herself more, day by day, into the confidence of Mrs. Craven. Cecil saw the growing friendship and hated it, but he avoided the presence of the widow whilst she kept to her own house, and part of her plan, at first, was to vote herself unfit for any society, and only anxious to be buried in solitude, and thus excite the further admiration of her new acquaintance. By-and-by she intended to be forcibly dragged from her seclusion by the entreaties of Mrs. Craven, so that her entry into the Court should not appear to be of her own seeking. In the meanwhile she was a great deal too deep to mention Cecil to his mother, unless the latter introduced his name, when she would scientifically turn the conversation in his praise, but still always professed to smile (sadly of course, Mrs. Arundel could only smile sadly in those days) at the idea of his coming to visit her in her new home, a project which his mother (anxious to screen his apparent impoliteness), used frequently to mention as likely to take place.
"Me! dear Mrs. Craven—what should the dear boy want to come and see me for? and at such a time. Ah! the days have been when we were all very happy together, but they are past! Youth and cheerfulness choose similiar qualities in their associates, and, but for such as you, dear Mrs. Craven, I am best alone."
Indeed if the mother of Eliza Arundel was at this time existent (a fact not necessary for my story's sake to be unravelled),or if, swallowed up of mortality, she could yet have returned to have a peep at all that went on at this period inside Laburnum Cottage, I doubt if she would have known her own daughter in the new character she had assumed, so new a character indeed to her, that it is an additional proof of her sharpness and aptitude for deception that she could have kept it up as she did, even before a stranger.
And so, both high and low, they each had their closets in which they hid away their skeletons and mysteries wherewith to deceive and mislead their friends; and if the secret machinations of one half the world could only be laid bare to the other half, as this chapter has done those of Mrs. Arundel and Martha Wilson, what a hornet's nest we should live and breathe in!
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