The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXXVI

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXXVI
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXXVI.

CONJUNCTIONS.

As the days passed on and Florimel heard nothing of Lenorme, the uneasiness that came with the thought of him gradually diminished, and all the associations of opposite complexion returned. Untrammelled by fear, the path into a scaring future seeming to be cut off, her imagination began to work in the quarry of her late experience, shaping its dazzling material into gorgeous castles, with foundations deep dug in the air, wherein lorded the person and gifts and devotion of the painter. When lost in such blissful reveries not seldom moments arrived in which she imagined herself — even felt as if she were capable, if not of marrying Lenorme in the flushed face of outraged society, yet of fleeing with him from the judgment of the all but all-potent divinity to the friendly bosom of some blessed isle of the southern seas, whose empty luxuriance they might change into luxury, and there living a long harmonious idyll of wedded love, in which old age and death should be provided against by never taking them into account. This mere fancy — which, poor in courage as it was in invention, she was far from capable of carrying into effect — yet seemed to herself the outcome and sign of a whole world of devotion in her bosom. If one of the meanest of human conditions is conscious heroism, paltrier yet is heroism before the fact, incapable of self-realization. But even the poorest dreaming has its influences, and the result of hers was that the attentions of Liftore became again distasteful to her. And no wonder, for indeed his lordship's presence in the actual world made a poor show beside that of the painter in the ideal world of the woman who, if she could not with truth be said to love him, yet certainly had a powerful fancy for him: the mean phrase is good enough, even although the phantom of Lenorme roused in her all the twilight poetry of her nature, and the presence of Liftore set her whole consciousness in the perpendicular shadowless gaslight of prudence and self-protection.

The pleasure of her castle-building was but seldom interrupted by any thought of the shamefulness of her behavior to him. That did not matter much. She could so easily make up for all he had suffered! Her selfishness closed her eyes to her own falsehood. Had she meant it truly, she would have been right both for him and for herself. To have repented and become as noble a creature as Lenorme was capable of imagining her — not to say as God had designed her — would indeed have been to make up for all he had suffered. But the poor blandishment she contemplated as amends could render him blessed only while its intoxication blinded him to the fact that it meant nothing of what it ought to mean — that behind it was no entire heart-filled woman. Meantime, as the past, with its delightful imprudences, its trembling joys glided away, swiftly widening the space between her and her false fears and shames, and seeming to draw with it the very facts themselves, promising to obliterate at length all traces of them, she gathered courage; and as the feeling of exposure that had made the covert of Liftore's attentions acceptable began to yield, her variableness began to reappear and his lordship to find her uncertain as ever. Assuredly, as his aunt said, she was yet but a girl incapable of knowing her own mind, and he must not press his suit. Nor had he the spur of jealousy or fear to urge him; society regarded her as his, and the shadowy repute of the boldfaced countess intercepted some favorable rays which would otherwise have fallen upon the young and beautiful marchioness from fairer luminaries even than Liftore.

But there was one good process, by herself little regarded, going on in Florimel: notwithstanding the moral discomfort oftener than once occasioned her by Malcolm, her confidence in him was increasing; and now that the kind of danger threatening her seemed altered, she leaned her mind upon him not a little, and more than she could well have accounted for to herself on the only grounds she could have adduced — namely, that he was an attendant authorized by her father, and, like herself, loyal to his memory and will; and that, faithful as a dog, he would fly at the throat of any one who dared touch her; of which she had had late proof, supplemented by his silent endurance of consequent suffering. Demon sometimes looked angry when she teased him — had even gone so far as to bare his teeth — but Malcolm had never shown temper. In a matter of imagined duty, he might presume, but that was a small thing beside the sense of safety his very presence brought with it. She shuddered, indeed, at the remembrance of one look he had given her, but that had been for no behavior to himself; and now that the painter was gone, she was clear of all temptation to the sort of thing that had caused it, and never, never more would she permit herself to be drawn into circumstances the least equivocal. If only Lenorme would come back and allow her to be his friend, his best friend, his only young lady friend, leaving her at perfect liberty to do just as she liked, then all would be well, absolutely comfortable! In the mean time, life was endurable without him, and would be, provided Liftore did not make himself disagreeable. If he did, there were other gentlemen who might be induced to keep him in check: she would punish him: she knew how. She liked him better, however, than any of those.

It was out of pure kindness to Malcolm, upon Liftore's representation of how he had punished him, that for the rest of the week she dispensed with his attendance upon herself. But he, unaware of the lies Liftore had told her, and knowing nothing, therefore, of her reason for doing so, supposed she resented the liberty he had taken in warning her against Caley, feared the breach would go on widening, and went about, if not quite downcast, yet less hopeful still. Everything seemed going counter to his desires. A whole world of work lay before him — a harbor to build; a numerous fisher-clan to house as they ought to be housed; justice to do on all sides; righteous servants to appoint in place of oppressors; and, all over, the heavens to show more just than his family had in the past allowed them to appear; he had mortgages and other debts to pay off, clearing his feet from fetters and his hands from manacles, that he might be the true lord of his people; he had Miss Horn to thank, and the schoolmaster to restore to the souls and hearts of Portlossie; and, next of all to his sister, he had old Duncan, his first friend and father, to find and minister to. Not a day passed, not a night did he lay down his head, without thinking of him. But the old man, whatever his hardships, and even the fishermen, with no harbor to run home to from the wild elements, were in no dangers to compare with such as threatened his sister. To set her free was his first business, and that business as yet refused to be done. Hence he was hemmed in, shut up, incarcerated in stubborn circumstance, from a long-reaching range of duties calling aloud upon his conscience and heart to hasten with the first that he might reach the second. What rendered it the more disheartening was, that, having discovered, as he hoped, how to compass his first end, the whole possibility had by his sister's behavior, and the consequent disappearance of Lenorme, been swept from him, leaving him more resourceless than ever.

When Sunday evening came he found his way to Hope Chapel, and, walking in, was shown to a seat by the grimy-faced pew-opener. It was with strange feelings he sat there, thinking of the past and looking for the appearance of his friend on the pulpit stair. But his feelings would have been stranger still had he seen who sat in the pew immediately behind him, watching him like a cat watching a mouse, or rather like a half-grown kitten watching a rat, for she was a little frightened at him, even while resolved to have him. But how could she doubt her final success when her plans were already affording her so much more than she had expected? Who would have looked for the great red stag himself to come browsing so soon about the scarecrow? He was too large game, however, to be stalked without due foresight.

When the congregation was dismissed, after a sermon the power of whose utterance astonished Malcolm, accustomed as he was to the schoolmaster's best moods, he waited until the preacher was at liberty from the unwelcome attentions and vulgar congratulations of the richer and more forward of his hearers, and then joined him to walk home with him. He was followed to the schoolmaster's lodging, and thence, an hour after, to his own, by a little boy — far too little to excite suspicion — the grandson of Mrs. Catanach's friend, the herb-doctor.

Until now the woman had not known that Malcolm was in London. When she learned that he was lodged so near Portland Place, she concluded that he was watching his sister, and chuckled over the idea of his being watched in turn by herself.

Every day for weeks after her declaration concerning the birth of Malcolm had the mind of Mrs. Catanach been exercised to the utmost to invent some mode of undoing her own testimony. She would have had no scruples, no sense of moral disgust, in eating every one of her words; but a magistrate and a lawyer had both been present at the uttering of them, and she feared the risk. Malcolm's behavior to her after his father's death had embittered the unfriendly feelings she had cherished toward him for many years. While she believed him base-born, and was even ignorant as to his father, she had thought to secure power over him for the annoyance of the blind old man to whom she had committed him, and whom she hated with the hatred of a wife with whom for the best of reasons he had refused to live; but she had found in the boy a rectitude over which, although she had assailed it from his childhood, she could gain no influence. Either a blind repugnance in Malcolm's soul, or a childish instinct of and revulsion from embodied evil, had held them apart. Even then it had added to her vile indignation that she regarded him as owing her gratitude for not having murdered him at the instigation of his uncle; and when, at length, to her endless chagrin, she had herself unwittingly supplied the only lacking link in the testimony that should raise him to rank and wealth, she imagined that by making affidavit to the facts she had already divulged she enlarged the obligation infinitely, and might henceforth hold him in her hand a tool for further operations. When, thereupon, he banished her from Lossie House, and sought to bind her to silence as to his rank by the conditional promise of a small annuity, she hated him with her whole huge power of hating. And now she must make speed, for his incognito in a great city afforded a thousandfold facility for doing him a mischief. And first she must draw closer a certain loose tie she had already looped betwixt herself and the household of Lady Bellair. This tie was the conjunction of her lying influence with the credulous confidence of a certain very ignorant and rather wickedly romantic scullery-maid, with whom, having in espial seen her come from the house, she had scraped acquaintance, and to whom, for the securing of power over her through her imagination, she had made the strangest and most appalling disclosures. Amongst other secret favors, she had promised to compound for her a horrible mixture — some of whose disgusting ingredients, as potent as hard to procure, she named in her awe-stricken hearing — which, administered under certain conditions and with certain precautions, one of which was absolute secrecy in regard to the person who provided it, must infallibly secure for her the affections of any man on whom she might cast a loving eye, and whom she could, either with or without his consent, contrive to cause partake of the same. This girl she now sought, and from her learned all she knew about Malcolm. Pursuing her inquiries into the nature and composition of the household, however, Mrs. Catanach soon discovered a far more capable and indeed less scrupulous associate and instrument in Caley. I will not introduce my reader to any of their evil councils, although, for the sake of my own credit, it might be well to be less considerate, seeing that many, notwithstanding the superabundant evidence of history, find it all but impossible to believe in the existence of such moral abandonment as theirs. I will merely state concerning them, and all the relations of the two women, that Mrs. Catanach assumed and retained the upper hand in virtue of her superior knowledge, invention, and experience, gathering from Caley, as she had hoped, much valuable information, full of reactions and tending to organic development of scheme in the brain of the arch-plotter. But their designs were so mutually favorable as to promise from the first a final coalescence in some common plan for their attainment.

Those who knew that Miss Campbell, as Portlossie regarded her, had been in reality Lady Lossie and was the mother of Malcolm, knew as well that Florimel had no legal title even to the family cognomen; but if his mother, and therefore the time of his mother's death, remained unknown, the legitimacy of his sister would remain unsuspected even upon his appearance as the heir. Now, there were but three besides Mrs. Catanach and Malcolm who did know who was his mother — namely, Miss Horn, Mr. Graham, and a certain Mr. Morrison, a laird and magistrate near Portlossie, an elderly man, and of late in feeble health. The lawyers the marquis had employed on his death-bed did not know: he had, for Florimel's sake, taken care that they should not. Upon what she knew and what she guessed of these facts, regarded in all their relations according to her own theories of human nature, the midwife would found a scheme of action. Doubtless she saw, and prepared for it, that after a certain point should be reached the very similarity of their designs must cause a rupture between her and Caley: neither could expect the other to endure such a rival near her hidden throne of influence; for the aim of both was power in a great family, with consequent money, and consideration, and midnight councils, and the wielding of all the weapons of hint and threat and insinuation. There was this difference, indeed, that in Caley's eye money was the chief thing, while power itself was the Swedenborgian hell of the midwife's bliss.