Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

The Cloven Foot, volume II, an electronic edition

by M.E. Braddon [Braddon, M.E. (Mary Elizabeth), 1837-1915]

date: [187?]
source publisher: John and Robert Maxwell
collection: Genre Fiction

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IT was summer time again, the beginning of June, the time when summer is fairest and freshest, the young leaves in the woods tender and transparent enough to let the sunlight through, the ferns just unfurling their broad feathers, the roses just opening, the patches of common land and fuzzy corners of meadows ablaze with gold, the sky an Italian blue, the day so long that one almost forgets there is such a thing as night in the world

It was a season that Laura had always loved, and even now, gloomy as was the outlook of her young life, she felt her Spirits lightened with the brightness of the land. Her cheerfulness astonished Celia, who was in a state of chronic indignation against John Treverton, which was all the more intense because she was forbidden to talk of him.

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'I never knew any one take things so lightly as you do, Laura,' she exclaimed, one afternoon when she found Mrs. Treverton just returned from a, long ramble in the little wood that adjoined the Manor House grounds.

'Why should I make the most of my troubles? Earth seems so fill of gladness and hope at this season that one cannot help hoping.'

'You cannot, perhaps. Don't say one cannot,' Celia retorted, snappishly, 'if you mean to include me. I left off hoping before I was eighteen. What is there to hope for in a parish where there are only two eligible bachelors, one of the two as ugly as sin, and the other an incorrigible flirt, a man who seems always on the brink of proposing, yet never proposes?'

'You have not counted your devoted admirer, Mr. Sampson. He makes a third.'

'Sandy-haired, and a village solicitor. Thank you, Laura. I have not sunk so low as that. If I married him I should have to marry his sister Eliza, and that would be quite too dreadful. No, dear, I can manage to exist as I am, 'in maiden | | 81 meditation, fancy free.' When I change my situation I shall expect to better myself. As for you, Laura, you are a perfect wonder. I never saw you looking so well. Yet in your position I am sure I should have cried my eyes out.'

'That wouldn't have made the position better. I have not left off hoping, Celia, and when I feel low-spirited I set myself to work to forget my own troubles. There is so much to be looked after on an estate like this—the house, the grounds, the poor people—I can always find something to do.'

'You are a paragon of industry. I never saw the garden as pretty its it is this year.'

'I like everything to look its best,' said Laura, blushing at her own thoughts.

The one solace of her life of late had been to preserve and beautify the good old house and its surroundings. The secret hope that John Treverton would come back some day, and that life would be fair and sweet for her again, was the hidden spring of all her actions. Every morning she said to herself. 'He may come to-day;' every | | 82 night she consoled herself' with the fancy that he might come to-morrow.

'I may have to wait for years,' She said in her graver moments, 'but let him come when he will, he shall find that I have been a faithful steward.'

She had never left the Manor House since she came back from her lonely honeymoon. She had received various hospitable invitations from the county families, who were anxious to be civil to her now that she was firmly established among them as a landowner; but she refused all such invitations, excusing herself because of her husband's enforced absence, When he returned to England she would be delighted to visit with him, and so oil; whereby the county people were given to understand that there was nothing extraordinary or unwarrantable in Mr. Treverton's non-appearance at the Manor House.

'His wife seems to approve of his conduct, so one can only suppose that it's all right,' said people; notwithstanding which the majority clung affectionately to the supposition that it was gill wrong.

Despite Laura's hopefulness, and that sweetness | | 83 of temper and gaiety of mind which preserved the youthful beauty of her face, there were hours—one hour, perhaps, in every day—when her spirits drooped, and hope seemed to sicken. She had pored over John Treverton's last letter until the paper upon which it was written had grown thin and worn with frequent handling; but at the best, dear as the letter was to her, she could not extract melt hope from it. The tone of the writer was not utterly hopeless. Yet he spoke of a parting that might be for life; of a tie that might last for ever; a tie that bound him in honour, if not in fact, to some other woman.

He had wronged her deeply by that broken marriage—wronged her by supposing that the possession of Jasper Treverton's estate could in any wise compensate her for the false position in which that marriage had placed her; and yet she could not find it in her heart to be angry with him. She loved him too well. And this letter, whatever guilt it vaguely confessed, overflowed with love for her. She forgave hint all things for the sake of that love.

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When had she begun to love him, she asked herself sometimes in a sad reverie. She had questioned him closely as to the growth of his love, but had been slow to make her own confession.

How well she remembered his pale, tired face that winter night, just a year and a half ago, when he came into the lamp-lit room and took his seat on the opposite side of the hearth, a stranger and half an enemy.

She had liked and admired him from the very first, knowing that he was prejudiced against her. The pale, clear cut face, the grey eyes with their black lashes, which made them look black in some lights, hazel in others; the thoughtful mouth, and that all-pervading expression of melancholy which had at once enlisted her sympathy; all these had pleased her.

'I must have been dreadfully weak-minded,' she said to herself, 'for I really think I fell in love with him at first sight.'

That little wood behind the Manor House grounds was Laura's favourite resort in this early summer | | 85 time. It was the most picturesque of woods, for the ground sloped steeply to a narrow river, on the further side of which there was a rugged bank, topped by a grove of fir-trees. The stream ran brawling over a rocky bed; and the bold masses of rock, here shining purple, or changeful grey, there green with moss; the fringe of ferns upon the river brink, the old half-ruined wooden bridge that spanned the torrent; the background of beech and oak, mingled with the darker foliage of old Scotch firs; and towering darkly above all, the lofty ridge of moorland, made a picture that Laura fondly loved. Here she came when the prim gardens of the Manor House seemed too small to hold her thoughts and cares. Here she seemed to breathe a freer air.

She came to this spot one evening in June, after a day of sunny weather which had seemed longer and wearier and altogether harder to bear than the generality of her days. Celia had been with her all day, and Celia's small talk bad been drearier than solitude. Laura was thankful to be alone, in this quiet shelter, where the indefatigable labours of the woodpecker and the babble of the stream | | 86 were the only sounds that stirred the summer silence.

All day long the beat had been hardly endurable; now there was a breath of coolness in the air, and nothing left of that fierce stuff but a soft yellow light in the western sky.

Laura had a volume of Shelley in her pocket, taken up from among the books on the table in her favourite room. It was one of the looks she loved best, and had been the companion of many a ramble. She seated herself on a fallen trunk of oak beside the river, and opened the volume haphazard at 'Rosalind and Helen,' and she read on till she came to those lovely lines which picture such a spot as that where she was sitting.

To a deep lawny dell they came,
To a stone seat beside a spring,
O'er which the column'd wood did frame.
A roofless temple, like the fane,
Where, ere new creeds could faith obtain
Man's early race once knelt beneath
The overhanging Deity.'

She read on. The scene suited the poem, and its sleep melancholy harmonised but too well with her | | 87 own feelings. A story of love the fondest, truest, most unworldly, ending in hopeless sorrow. Never had the gloom of that poem sunk so heavily upon her spirit.

She closed the book suddenly, with a half-stifled sob. The moon was rising, silver pale, above the dark ridge of moorland. The last streak of golden light had faded behind the red trunks of the firs. The low, melancholy cry of an owl sounded far off in the dark heart of the wood. It was indeed as if—

'The owls had all fled far away
In a merrier glen to hoot and play.'

In such a spot a mind attuned to melancholy might easily shape spectral forms out of the evening shadows, and call up the ghosts of the loved and lost. Laura looked up from her book with a strange uncanny feeling, as if, indeed, some ghostly presence were near. Her eyes wandered slowly across the rocky bed of the river, and there, on the opposite bank, half in shadow, half in the tender light of the big round moon, she saw a tall figure and a pale face looking at her. She rose | | 88 with a half-stifled cry of fear. That face looked so spectral in the mystical light. And their she clashed her hands joyously and cried, 'I knew you would come back!'

This was the deserter's welcome. No frown, no upbraidings—a sweet face beaming with delight, a happy voice full of fondest welcome.

'Humph,' cries the woman-hater, 'what fools these women are!'

John Treverton came, stepping lightly across the rocks, at some risk of measuring his length in the stony bed of the river, and in less than a minute was by his wife's side.

Not a word did he say for the first moment or so. His greeting was dumb. He took her to his heart, and kissed her as he had never kissed her yet.

'My own one, my wife! ' he cried. 'You are all mine now. Love, I have been patient. Don't be hard with me.'

This last remonstrance was because she had drawn herself away from his arms, and was looking at hint with a smile which was no longer tender, but ironical.

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'Have you come back to Hazlehurst to spend an evening?' she asked, 'or can you prolong your visit for a week?'

'I have come back to spend my life with you—I have come back to stay for ever! They may begin to build me a vault to-morrow in Hazlehurst churchyard. I shall be here to occupy it, when my time comes—if you will have me. That is the question, Laura. It all depends on you. Oh, love, love, answer me quickly. If you but knew how I have longed for this moment. Tell me, sweet, have I quite worn out your love? Has my conduct forfeited your esteem for ever?'

'You have behaved very unkindly to me,' she answered, slowly, gravely, her voice trembling a. little. 'You have used me in a manner which I think a woman with proper womanly pride could hardly forgive.'

'Laura,' he cried, piteously.

'But I fear I am not possessed of proper womanly pride: for I have forgiven you,' she said, innocently.

'My treasure, my delight!'

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'But it would have been so much easier to for give if you lead trusted me, if you had told me, all the truth. Oh, John, husband and yet no husband, you have treated me very cruelly.'

'Here she forgot her unreasoning joy at seeing him again, and suddenly remembered herself and her wrongs.

'I know, love' he said, on his knees beside her, 'I seem to have acted vilely, and yet, believe me, dearest, any sole motive was the desire to protect your interests.'

'Your conduct has put me to shame before all mankind,' urged Laura, meaning the village of Hazlehurst. 'You have no right to approach me, no right to look me in the face. Have you not confessed in that cruel letter that you were not free to marry me, that you belong in some way to another woman.'

'That other woman is dead. I am free as the air.'

'What was she? Your wife?'

There was a look of infinite pain in John Treverton's face. His lips moved as if about to speak, | | 91 but he was silent. There are some truths difficult of utterance; and it is not easy to all men to lie.

'It is too painful a story,' he began, at last, speaking hurriedly, as if he wanted to make a speedy end of a hateful subject. 'A good many years ago, when I was very young, and a most consummate fool—I got myself entrapped into a Scotch marriage. You have heard of the peculiarities of the marriage law in Scotland.'

'Yes, I have heard and read about them.'

'Of course. Well, it was a marriage and no marriage—a, reckless, half-jesting promise, tortured, by false witnesses, into a legal undertaking. I found myself, unawares, a married man—a millstone tied round my neck. I will tell you no more of that wretched entanglement, dearest. It would not be good for you to hear. I will only say that I bore my burthen more patiently than most men would have borne it, and now I thank God with all my heart and soul for my freedom. And I come to you, dear love, to implore your forgiveness, and to ask you to join me, three weeks hence, in some quiet place thirty or forty miles from here, where no one will know | | 92 us, and where we may be married again some fine summer morning; so that, if that Scotch marriage of mine were really binding, and our former marriage illegal, we may tie the knot securely, and for ever.'

'You should have trusted me at first, John,' Laura said reproachfully.

'I ought to have done so, love, but I so feared to lose you. Oh, my darling, grant all I ask, and you shall never have cause to regret your goodness. Forgive me, and forget all that I have told you tonight. Let it be as if it had never been. The second marriage which I ask for is a precautionary act—needless, perhaps—but it will make me feel more secure in my happiness. My beloved, will you do what I ask?'

She had dried her tears. Her heart was welling over with gladness and love for this sinner, still kneeling by her side as she sat on the ferny river bank, in the brightening moonlight, holding both her hands in his, looking up pleadingly as he made his prayer. There was no thought of denying him in her mind. She only wanted to yield with good grace, not to humiliate herself too deeply.

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'It must be as you wish,' she said. 'When you have arranged this second marriage you can write to me and tell me where and when it is to be. I will come to the place you appoint with my maid. She is a good girl, and I can trust her. She can be one of the witnesses of our wedding.'

'Are you sure she will not talk about it afterwards?'

'I have proved her already, and I know she is trustworthy.'

'Be it so, love. See here.' He took a Cornish guide book from his pocket, and opened it at the map of the county. 'I have been thinking that we might go farther west, to some remote parish. Here is Camelot, for instance. I never heard of any one living at Camelot, or going to Camelot, since the time of King Arthur. Surely there we should be safe from observation. The guide book acknowledges that there is nothing particular to be seen at Camelot. It has not even a good word for the inns. The place is miles away from everything. It is an anomaly in towns, for though it has a town hall and a | | 94 market place, it has no church that it can call its own, but hooks itself on to a brace of outlying churches, each a mile and a half away. Let us be married at one of those out-of-the-way churches, Laura, and I shall love Camelot all the days of my life, as one loves the plain face of a friend who has done one a great service.'

Laura had nothing to say against Camelot; so it was finally resolved that John Treverton should get there as quickly as rail and coach would carry him, and that he should have the banns put up at one of the churches, and that he should meet Laura at Didford Junction three weeks from that day, and escort her by coach across the wild moors and under the shadow of giant brown tors, to the little town of Camelot, where a modest population of six or seven hundred souls seemed to have lost themselves among the hills, and got somehow left behind in the march of time and progress.

John Treverton and his wife lingered for a dung time beside the brawling river, walking arm in arm along the narrow woodland path, half in | | 95 moonshine half in shadow, talking of the future; both supremely happy, and one of them, at least, tasting pure and perfect happiness for the first time in his life.

'Shall we go to Penzance after our wedding, love, and then cross to the Scilly Isles for our honeymoon. It will be so sweet to inhabit a little rock-bound world of our own, circled by the Atlantic.'

Laura assented that it would be sweet. Her world was henceforth to be small, John Treverton its sun and centre, and all things outside him and beyond him a mere elementary universe.

He looked at his watch presently when they came out of the pinewood into the broad moonlight.

'By Jove, dearest, I shall have no more than time to see you as far as the orchard gate, and then run off to catch the last train for Didford. I shall sleep at the hotel there, to-night. I don't want to be seen within twenty miles of Hazlehurst till you and I come buck from the Scilly Isles, sunburnt and happy, to take up, our abode | | 96 at the clear old Manor House. Oh, Laura, how I shall love that good, honest, respectable old home; how earnestly I shall thank God night and morning for my blissful life. Ah, love, you can never filly understand what a kicked-about waif I have been for the last seven years of my worthless existence. You can never fully know how thrice, blessed is a tranquil haven after stormy seas.

They had opened their hearts and minds fully to each other in that long talk beside the river; she withholding nothing, he entering into no details of his life-history, but frankly admitting his unworthiness. She told him how she had borne her life at Hazlehurst after her solitary return from a supposed honeymoon; how she had hidden the truth from all her little world. It would seem the most natural thing for her to go away to meet her husband on his return from abroad, and then for them both to come home together.

They parted at the orchard gate hurriedly, for John had three miles to walk to the station, and and only three-quarters of an hour for the walk. There was but one hasty kiss at parting, but, oh, | | 97 the blissfulness of such a kiss on the threshold of so fair a future. Laura threaded her way slowly through the moonlit orchard, where the old apple trees cast their crooked shadows on the soft deep turf, and happy tears poured down her flushed cheeks as she went.

'God is hood to us, God is very good,' she kept repeating inwardly. 'Oh, how can we ever be grateful enough, how can we ever be earnest enough in doing our duty?'

In all her talk with John Treverton she had not said a word about the settlement. She had not praised him or thanked him for his generosity. All thought of Jasper Treverton's fortune was as remote from her mind as if the old man had died a pauper, and there had been not a shilling of loss or gain contingent upon her marriage with his kinsman.

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