Wrecked in Port/Book III, Chapter II

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Chapter II.Riding at Anchor.

The intention, one of the first which Marian Creswell had expressed after her marriage, and one which had so incensed Gertrude, of converting the girls' music-room into a boudoir, had long since been carried ont. Almost immediately after he had returned from his wedding trip, Mr. Creswell had sent to London for decorators and upholsterers. An army of foreign artists, much given to beard and pantomimical gesture, to humming scraps of operas over their work, and to furtively smoking cigarettes in the shrubberies whenever they could evade the stern eye of the overseer, had arrived upon the scene; and when they returned to town they left the music-room, which had been a bleak, gaunt, cheerless apartment enough, a miracle of brightness and cosiness, elegance and comfort. Everybody was astonished at the change, and the young ladies themselves were compelled to confess that the boudoir, as it then appeared, was perfectly charming, and that really, perhaps, after all, Mrs. Creswell might have been actuated, apart from mere malevolence and spite, by some sense and appreciation of the capabilities of the room in the selection she had made. There was a good deal of actual truth in this judgment; Marian had determined to take the earliest opportunity of asserting herself against the girls and letting them know the superiority of her position; she had also intended, if ever she were able, to gratify the wish to have a room of her own, where she might be absolute mistress, surrounded by her books, pictures, and other belongings; and by the acquisition of the music-room she was able to accomplish both these intentions. Moreover the windows of the music-room looked out towards Helmingham. Half-way towards the dim distance stood the old school-house, where she had been born, where all her childhood had been spent, and where she had been comparatively innocent and unworldly; for though the worship of wealth had probably been innate in her, and had grown with her growth and strengthened with her strength, she had not then sacrificed others to her own avarice, nor forfeited her self-respect for the gratification of her overwhelming passion. In a person differently constituted, the constant contemplation of such views might have had an irritating or a depressing effect, but Marian's strength of mind rendered her independent of any such feeling. She never thought with regret of the step she had taken; she never had the remotest twinge of conscience as to the manner in which she had behaved to Walter Joyce; she was frequently in the habit of passing all the circumstances in review in her mind, and invariably came to the conclusion that she had acted wisely, and that, were she placed in a similar position again, she should do exactly the same. No; she was able to think over all the passages of her first and only love—that love which she had deliberately cast from the pedestal of her heart, and trampled under foot—without an extra pulsation of excitement or regret. She would pass hour after hour in gazing from her window on distant places where, far removed from the chance of intrusion by the prying villagers—who, however, were profoundly ignorant of what was going on—she would have stolen interviews with her lover, listening to his fond words, and experiencing a kind of pleasure such as she had hitherto thought nothing but the acquisition of money could create. Very tranquilly she thought of the bygone time, and looked across the landscape at the well-known places. She had slipped so easily into her present position, and settled herself so firmly there, that she could scarcely believe there had been a time when she had been poor and dependent, when she had been unable to exercise her every whim and fancy, and when she had been without an elderly grey-haired gentleman in constant attendance upon her, and eager to anticipate her very slightest wish.

One afternoon, about eight months after her mother's death, Marian was sitting at the window of her boudoir, gazing vacantly at the landscape before her. She did not see the trees, erst so glorious in their russet garments, now half- stripped and shivering in the bitter autumnal wind that came booming over the distant hills, and moaned wearily over the plain; she did not see the little stream that lately flashed so merrily in the summer sunlight, but had now become a brown and swollen foaming torrent, roaring where it had softly sung, and bursting over its broad banks instead of coyly slipping through its pebbly shallows; she did not see the birds now skimming over the surface of the ground, now rising, but with no lofty flight, the harbingers of coming storm; she did not see the dun clouds banking up to windward; nor did she note any of the outward characteristics of the scene. She was feeling dull and bored, and it was a relief when she heard the handle of the door turned, and, looking round, saw her husband in the room.

There was nothing of palpable uxoriousness—that most unpleasant of displayed qualities, especially in elderly people—in the manner in which Mr. Creswell advanced and, bending over his wife, took her face in his hands and kissed her cheek; nor in the way in which he sat down beside her and passed his hands over her shining hair; nor in the words of tenderness with which he addressed her. All was relieved by a touch of dignity, by an evidence of earnest sincerity, and the veriest cynic and scoffer at the domesticity and what Charles Lamb called the "behaviour of married people," would have found nothing to ridicule in the undisguised love and admiration of the old man for his young wife, so quietly were they exhibited.

"What made you fly away in that hurry from the library just now, darling?" said he. "You just peeped in, and were off again, never heeding my calling to you to remain."

"I had no notion you were engaged, or that anybody was here!" said Marian.

"I am never engaged when you want me, and there is never anybody here whose business is of equal importance with your pleasure."

"When did you cultivate the art of saying pretty things?" asked Marian, smiling. "Is it a recent acquisition, or one of old standing, which had only rusted from disuse?"

"I never had occasion to try whether I possessed the power until you came to me," said Mr. Creswell, with an old-fashioned bow. "There, oddly enough, I was talking about speaking in public, and the trick of pleasing people by public speaking, to those two men when you looked into the room."

"Indeed. Who were your visitors?"

"I thought you would have recognised old Croke, of Brocksopp; he seemed a little hurt at your running away without speaking to him; but I put him right. The other gentleman has corresponded with you, but never seen you before—Mr. Gould, of London. You wrote to him just after poor Tom's death, you recollect, about that sale."

"I recollect perfectly," said Marian. (She remembered in an instant Joyce's allusion to the man in his first memorable letter.) "But what brought him here at this time? There is no question of the sale now?"

"No, dearest; but Mr. Gould has a very large practice as a parliamentary agent and lawyer, and he has come down here about the election."

"The election? I thought that was all put off!"

"Put off?" repeated Mr. Creswell."Indefinitely? For ever?"

"I'm sure you told me so."

"Now that is so like a woman! The idea of an election being quietly put aside in that way! No, child, no; it was postponed merely; it is expected to come off very shortly."

"And what have these two men to do with it?"

"These two men, as you call them, have a great deal to do with it. Mr. Croke is a leading man amongst the Conservative party—that is my party, you understand, child—in Brocksopp, and Mr. Gould is to be my London agent, having Mr. Teesdale, whom you know, as his lieutenant, on the spot."

"You speak of 'my party,' and 'my agent,' as though you had fully made up your mind to go in for the election. Is it so?"

"I had promised to do so," said Mr. Creswell, again with the old-fashioned bow, "before you did me the honour to accept the position which you so worthily fill; and I fear, even had you objected, that I should scarcely have been able to retract. But when I mentioned it to you, you said nothing to lead me to believe that you did object."

"Nor do I in the very smallest degree. On the contrary, I think it most advisable and most important. What are your chances of success?"

"Well, on the whole, good; though it struck me that our friends who have just gone were a little too sanguine, and—at least, so far as Mr. Croke was concerned—a little too much disposed to underrate the strength of the enemy."

"The enemy? Ah!—I forgot. Who is our opponent?" Mr. Creswell heard the change in the pronoun, and was delighted.

"A certain young Mr. Bokenham, son of an old friend and contemporary of mine, who was launched in life about the same time that I was, and seemed to progress step by step with me. I am the younger man by some years, I believe; but," continued the old gentleman, with an odd, half-sheepish look, "it seems curious to find myself running a tilt with Tommy Bokenham, who was not born when I was a grown man!"

"The position is one with which age has very little to do," said Marian, with a slight hardening of her voice. "No, if anything, I should imagine that a man of experience and knowledge of the world had a better chance than a young and necessarily unformed man, such as Mr. Bokenham. You say that your friends seemed confident?"

"A little too confident. Old Croke is a Tory to the backbone, and will not believe in the possibility of a Liberal being returned for the borough; and Mr. Gould seems to depend very much on the local reports which he has had from men of the Croke stamp, and which are all of the most roseate hue."

"Over-certainty is the almost infallible precursor of failure. And we must not fail in this matter. Don't you think you yourself had better look into it more closely than you have done?"

"My darling one, you give me an interest in the matter which previously it never possessed to me! I will turn my attention to it at once, go into the details as a matter of business, and take care that, if winning is possible, we shall win. No trouble or expense shall be spared about it, child, you may depend; though what has given you this sudden start I cannot imagine. I should have thought that the ambition of being a member's wife was one which had never entered your head."

"My head is always ready to serve as a receptacle for schemes for my husband's advancement, whether they be of my own, or his, or other people's prompting," said Marian, demurely. And the old gentleman bent over her again, and kissed her on the forehead.

What was this sudden interest in these election proceedings on Marian's part, and whence did it arise? Was it mere verbiage, pleasant talk to flatter her husband, showing feigned excitement about his prospects to hide the real carelessness and insouciance which she could not choose but feel? Was she tired of his perpetual presence in waiting upon her, and did she long to be rid of her patient slave, untiring both in eye and ear in attention to her wants, almost before they were expressed? There are many women who weary very speedily of suit and service perpetually paid them, who sicken of compliments and attentions, as the pastry-cooks' boys are said to do, after the unrestricted gratification of their tart-appetites, in the early days of their apprenticeship. Did she talk at random with the mere idea of making things pleasant to her husband, and with the knowledge that the mere fact of any expression of interest on her part in any action of his would be more than appreciated? Not one whit. Marian never talked at random, and knew her power sufficiently to be aware that there was no need for the expression of any forced feeling where Mr. Creswell was concerned. The fact was—and it was not the first time she had acknowledged it to herself, though she had never before seen her way clearly to effect any alteration—the fact was that she was bored out of her life. The golden apples of the Hesperides, gained after so much trouble, so much lulling of the dragon of conscience, had a smack of the Dead Sea fruit in them, after all! The money had been obtained, and the position had been compassed, it was true; but what were they? What good had she gathered from the money, beyond the fact of the mere material comforts of house, and dress, and equipage? What was the position, but that of wife of the leading man in the very narrow circle in which she had always lived? She was the centre of the circle, truly; but the circle itself had not enlarged. The elegant carriage, and the champing horses, and the obsequious servants were gratifying in their way; but there was but little satisfaction in thinking that the sight of her enjoyment of them was confined to Jack Forman, sunning himself at the alehouse door, and vacantly doffing his cap as homage to her as she swept by, or to the villagers amongst whom she had been reared, who ran to their doors as they heard the rumbling of the wheels, and returned to their back parlours, envying her her state, it is true, but congratulating themselves with the recollection of the ultimate fate of Dives in the parable, and assuring each other that the difference of sex would have no material effect on the great result. Dull, cruelly dull, that was all she could make of it, look at it how she would. To people of their social status society in that neighbourhood was infinitely more limited than to those in lower grades. An occasional visit from, and an occasional dinner with, Sir Thomas and Lady Churchill at the Park, or some of the richer and more influential Brocksopp commercial magnates, comprised all their attempts at society. The rector of Helmingham was a studious man, who cared little for heavy dinner parties, and a proud man, who would accept no hospitality which he could not return in an equal way; and as for Dr. Osborne, he had been remarkably sparing of his visits to Woolgreaves since his passage of arms with Mrs. Creswell. When he did call he invariably addressed himself to Mr. Creswell, and did not in the least attempt to conceal that his feelings had been wounded by Marian in a manner which no lapse of time could heal.

No! the fact was there! the money had been gained, but what it had brought was utterly insufficient to Marian's requirements. The evil passion of ambition, which had always been dormant in her, overpowered by the evil passion of avarice, began, now that the cravings of its sister vice were appeased, to clamour aloud and make itself heard. What good to a savage is the possession of the gem of purest ray serene, when by his comrades a bit of glass or tinsel would be equally prized and appreciated? What good was the possession of wealth among the inhabitants of Helmingham and Brocksopp, by whom the Churchills of the Park were held in far greater honour, as being—a statement which, though religiously believed, was utterly devoid of foundation—of the "raal owd stock?" The notion of her husband's election to parliament gave Marian new hopes, and new ideas. Unconsciously throughout her life she had lived upon excitement, and she required it still. In what she had imagined were merely humdrum days in the bygone times she had had her excitement of plotting and scheming how to make both ends meet, and of dreaming of the possible riches; then she had her love affair, and there had flashed into her mind the great idea of her life, the intention of establishing herself as mistress of Woolgreaves. All these things were now played out; the riches had come, the old love was buried beneath them, the position was attained. But the necessity for excitement remained, and there was a chance for gratifying it. Marian was pining for society. What was the use of her being clever, as she had always been considered, if the candle of her talent were always to be hidden under the Brocksopp bushel? She longed to mix with clever people, amongst whom she would be able to hold her own by her natural gifts, and more than her own by her wealth. To be known in the London world, with the entry into it which her husband's position would secure to her, and then to distinguish herself there, that was the new excitement which Marian Creswell craved, and day by day she recurred to the subject of the election, and discussed its details with her husband, delighting him with the interest which she showed in the scheme, and by the shrewd practical common sense which she brought to bear upon it.

Meanwhile the relations existing between Mrs. Creswell and her recently acquired connexions, Maud and Gertrude, had not been placed on any more satisfactory footing. They lived together under an armed truce rather than a state of peace, seeing as little of each other as possible, Marian ignoring the girls in every possible way, except when they were perforce brought under her notice, and the girls studiously acting without reference to any supposed wishes or ideas of Mrs. Creswell's. Mr. Creswell followed his wife's lead exactly; he was so entirely wrapped up in her and her doings that he had no eye nor ear for any one else, and he would probably have been very much astonished if he had been told that a complete estrangement had taken place between him and the other members of his family, and would positively have denied it. Such, however, was the case. The girls, beyond seeing their uncle at meals, were left entirely to their own devices, and it was, under the circumstances, fortunate for their future that their past training had been such as it had been. Gertrude, indeed, was perfectly happy; for although Mr. Benthall had not actually proposed to her, there was a tacit understanding of engagement between them. He occasionally visited at Woolgreaves, and during the summer they had met frequently at various garden parties in the neighbourhood. And Maud was as quiet and earnest and self-contained as ever, busied in her work, delighting in her music, and, oddly enough, having one thing in common with Mrs. Creswell—an interest in the forthcoming election, of which she had heard from Mr. Benthall, who was a violent politician of the Liberal school.

One day the girls were sitting in the room which had been assigned to them on the establishment of the boudoir, and which was a huge, lofty, and by no means uncomfortable room, rendered additionally bright and cheerful by Gertrude's tasty handiwork and clever arrangement. It was one of those close warm days which come upon us suddenly sometimes, when the autumn has been deepening into winter, and the reign of fires has commenced. The sun had been shining with much of his old summer power, and the girls had been enjoying its warmth, and had let the fire out, and left the door open, and had just suspended their occupations—Maud had been copying music, and Gertrude letter-writing—owing to the want of light, and were chatting previous to the summons of the dressing-bell.

"Where is madam, this afternoon, Maud?" asked Gertrude, after a little silence.

"Shut up in the library with uncle and Mr. Gould, that man who comes from London about the election. I heard uncle send for her!"

"Lor, now, how odd!" said unsophisticated Gertrude; "she seems all of a sudden to have taken great interest in this election thing!"

"Naturally enough, Gerty," said Maud. "Mrs. Creswell is one of the most ambitious women in the world, and this 'election thing,' as you call it, is to do her more good and gain her higher position than she ever dreamed of until she heard of it."

"What a curious girl you are, Maud! How you do think of things! What makes you think that?"

"Think it—I'm sure of it. I've noticed the difference in her manner, and the way in which she has thrown herself into this question more than any other since her marriage, and brought all her brains—and she has plenty—to uncle's help—poor, dear uncle!"

"Ah, poor, dear uncle! Do you think madam really cares for him?"

"Cares for him? Yes, as a stepping-stone for herself, as a means to the end she requires!"

"Ah, Maud, how dreadful! but you know what I mean—do you think she loves him—you know?"

"My dear Gerty, Marian Ashurst never loved anybody but one, and——"

"Ah, I know who you mean, that man who kept the school—no, not kept the school, was usher to Mr. Ashurst. Mr.—Joyce. That was it! She was fond of him, wasn't she?"

"She was engaged to him, if the report we heard was true, but as to fond of him! The only person Marian Ashurst ever cared for was—Marian Ashurst! Who's there?"

A figure glided past the open door, dimly seen in the waning light. But there was no response, and Gertrude's remark of "Only one of the servants" was almost drowned in the clanging summons of the dinner-bell.