“My dear Arthur,” said Major Varney, “do you think that if I ever left the course of my life to be directed by accident, I should be the man I am? No, I knew where I was coming and why I was coming; and now you may know it too. I come to claim my share in your winnings, according to the old bargain. I come to exact my rights established by precedent long ago. Whatever amount of your wife’s fortune may fall into your hands, I claim the half of that amount. Whatever of your step-son’s wealth and power can be wrested from him by you, the half of that wealth and power is mine. Whatever comfort, luxury, indolence, and extravagance you may enjoy, I claim my right to enjoy the same. And now get up, dear boy, and come back to the house. Walk on, Arthur Walsingham and Company, but remember your senior partner walks behind you, though he may choose to keep in the shadows.”
Pale and shivering, Arthur Walsingham walked along the avenue, across the bridge, and through the gardens. Some doomed and wretched criminal, stumbling up the steps of the gallows, might have walked as he walked…
While she was spinning out the insanely complicated, year-long penny dreadful, The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight, which ran between July 1861 and June 1862, Mary Elizabeth Braddon was simultaneously writing a second serial, Lady Lisle, which was intended for a more “respectable” audience—but which, for all that, offers plenty of shocking material.
Lady Lisle was serialised in The Welcome Guest between May and September 1861, before appearing in book form during 1862. It is, as these dates suggest, a shorter and less complicated work than its companion-piece, and differs from it in several other ways that offer an intriguing glimpse into Braddon’s own mindset. The thing that was most striking to me upon a first read is the dearth of sympathetic characters. Whereas The Black Band, which has large sections of its narrative set amongst people of the lower-middle class and the working-classes, offers no shortage of interesting, likeable characters, in this novel set amongst the gentry we struggle to find anyone to attach ourselves to…
…at least until the novel’s villain shows up.
Whether this aspect of the novel is to blame or not, Lady Lisle remains one of the more difficult of Braddon’s novels to obtain, at least in English: a modern edition was reissued a few ago, but only in French. (Sacré bleu! J’étais tellement énervé…) However, I was fortunate in eventually gaining access to a copy through one of our academic libraries; though, mind you, when I say “fortunate”— Mary Elizabeth Braddon was insanely popular in Australia, with book after book achieving best-seller status here, so it is less surprising than it might otherwise be that our older libraries do hold copies of her works. (Whether it was her focus upon crime, or her frequent assertion that “nice” people are often secretly terrible, that was the secret of her success, well, I wouldn’t like to say…)
Lady Lisle opens with a startling confrontation between the young widow of the title and Captain Arthur Walsingham, just returned from service in India. A wild, one-sided exhortation from the latter ends in a proposal, or rather a demand, of marriage, which is accepted.
The narrative then steps back some nine years to tell the story of the obsessive love of the dashing young Arthur Walsingham for the beautiful Miss Claribel Merton; of the intervention in his frantic courtship of her friends; and of her subsequent marriage to the wealthy Sir Reginald Lisle—with whom Walsingham was staying during his pursuit of Miss Merton, and had considered his best friend…
Braddon’s scorn for all three points of this romantic triangle is evident from the outset; so too is her personal exasperation with the persistent English taste for “doll-like” blue-eyed blondes, pretty on the outside but empty on the inside (with her irritation shortly to find its fullest expression in her breakthrough novel, Lady Audley’s Secret). Though Lady Lisle opens in company with its title character, it is soon evident that we are not to regard her as the novel’s heroine:
“You must think me a fool, because I am going mad for a wax doll!” Arthur Walsingham cried out one night at Lislewood Park, when he had been drinking more than usual, and the baronet and his other companions had rallied him upon his silly passion. “I know, as well as you, what a foolish school-boy’s fever it is; but that makes it no better for me, if I die of it.”
But if Miss Claribel Merton had, as her enemies declared, many attributes in common with a pretty, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired, waxen image fashioned by the toy-maker, she was not the less a beautiful woman and an heiress…
Too much of an heiress to be allowed to bestow herself upon an impecunious army officer; at the same time, beautiful and fashionable enough to catch the tepid interest of Sir Reginald, with the added appeal of cutting out his friend:
She was the rage; and, eight weeks after the Captain’s arrival, Sir Reginald Lisle—who rarely in the whole course of his brief and useless existence had desired to possess himself of anything, except for the pleasure of taking it away from somebody else—proposed for her hand, and, after a brief delay, was, at the instigation of her aunt, duly accepted.
There is, of course, an appalling scene between Walsingham and his erstwhile friend, but when Sir Reginald coolly refuses to be duelled with, the shattered officer shakes the dust of England from his boots and returns to his duties in India, dividing his time between reckless pleasure-seeking and trying to get himself killed in action.
As for the bride:
As usual, they could discover nothing from her face. It was at all times a face which revealed no secrets. Perfect in feature, most delicate in colouring, but inscrutable, enigmatic, almost expressionless. She married Sir Reginald Lisle without loving him, as passively as she had taken her music-lessons without having an ear for harmony, and her drawing-lessons without being blessed with an eye for form. Whatever other people bade her do, she did. She would have married the Captain at his command, being utterly incapable to resist the influence of a stronger mind than her own, had she not been restrained by the counter-influence of her aunt, which, from the force of long habit, was more powerful still. She was entirely at the mercy of those who controlled or counselled her. She saw with their eyes, thought with their thoughts, and spoke with their words…
The marriage works out about as well as you’d expect, although Lady Lisle is not long troubled with her disinterested husband. The Lisles are not a long-lived race, but have a history of dying young; though in spite of this, having acquired the habit of marrying young for obvious reasons, they have as yet managed to propagate the line and pass on the baronetcy. Such is again the case, with Lady Lisle a widow after eight years of marriage, and the title and estate inherited by her boy, Rupert. The child is an unfortunate combination of his father’s weakness of constitution, and his mother’s lack of personality (“…like her, unblest with brilliant talents or energy of character…”); yet from somewhere he has acquired a certain spirit which makes him quite a physically intrepid little boy: a quality which causes his mother endless distress as, far from nursing his health as she wishes, Rupert is given to overtaxing his fragile strength.
Mother and son are playing together on a hillside overlooking Lislewood Park when Lady Lisle is confronted by the ghost from her past—who has left India for England immediately upon seeing the death-notice for Sir Reginald. Before she knows it, Lady Lisle has been overpowered into another engagement; although to her credit, as she gazes once again upon Arthur Walsingham, she finds more genuine feeling in her heart than was ever there for her first husband.
Walsingham, meanwhile, has no illusions about the step he is taking:
“Listen to me, then. I hate you as much as I love you. My heart was rent asunder by these two passions, and I scarcely know which of these two has brought me from India, and to your feet to-night. It was a murder which you committed by your treachery of eight years ago; and it is the ghost of the Arthur Walsingham whom you killed that stands by your side at this moment. For your sake, and through your treachery, I have been a gamester, a drunkard, and a rogue. The memory of you, pursuing me in every hour of my life, has driven me to the brandy-bottle, the hazard-table, and the smiles of artless women, for relief from its cruel torture…”
Despite the unpropitious signs, the two are married; a quiet, private wedding, quite different from the bride’s first; and after a six-week honeymoon, the couple settle at Lislewood Park. There, awake to the bitter irony, Arthur Walsingham finds himself smothering in his bride’s wealth and his step-son’s grandeur: the house, indeed, has not changed at all since the night of the terrible scene between himself and Reginald Lisle.
To the world at large, however, Walsingham is a damned lucky man; so lucky, he is not without enemies. One of these is Gilbert Arnold, the husband of the Park’s lodge-keeper. Once a poacher, with a prison-sentence behind him, Arnold was supposedly reformed by the efforts of an evangelical chaplain, and at that time married the hard-working, God-fearing Rachel; but in fact all Arnold learned was a prevailing hypocrisy. Now, living upon his wife, his habitual discontent has escalated into a passionate hatred of anyone more comfortably situated than himself; and although he expresses this in terms of an unjust social inequality (and often uses the language of the evangelical tracts given to him by the still-deceived chaplain), at base it is a combination of selfishness, laziness and envy.
Arnold’s most bitter hatred has always been directed at the Lisles—because, not in spite of, all they have given to himself and his wife; why should they be able to give?—and in particular at the young Sir Rupert, who is almost the same age as the Arnolds’ child, James, and, as it happens, rather like him in general appearance, but with one boy having so much while much the other has so little. That his own son tends to cry and run in the face of any sort of danger or confrontation, while the small baronet displays a definite pugnacity, is another source of grievance for Arnold, feeling obscurely that some sort of cosmic injustice has been committed with respect to the two children, and hating Sir Rupert all the more as a consequence. Now, however, the focus of his anger redirects itself towards Arthur Walsingham, married to a fortune and an estate.
Be all this as it may, things are fairly serene at Lislewood Park six months after the wedding, when Walsingham opens the Brighton Gazette—and almost instantly proposes to his wife that they leave Lislewood for a time—go travelling—and do it immediately. Mrs Walsingham is bewildered but acquiescent, and only the need for packing and making arrangements with the servants prevents their departure that very night. While these preparations are underway, the Walsinghams walk out—and come home to find that two visitors have called, and are waiting to see them:
“Why, Arthur, nothing ever was so strange, I think; they are the very people whose names we saw this morning in the Brighton paper. Your Indian friends, Major and Mrs Granville Varney.”
The Major is a big, bluff, laughing man with auburn hair and moustaches; Mrs Varney is dark, quiet and very beautiful. Both are friendly, the Major almost effusively so. If Arthur Walsingham is not exactly delighted to see them, he at least does not repulse them; and before much time has passed, the Continental trip has been postponed, and the Varneys installed in the best guest-rooms. Over dinner, the Major exerts himself to captivate Mrs Walsingham, and succeeds very well.
Afterwards, as the others talk, Arthur Walsingham goes out for a walk, finding one of the loneliest and most secluded spots on the estate—but before he can take the action he intends, the pistol is snatched from his hand: he is not getting off that easily…
And then the two men talk over old times:
“Some years ago, Arthur, you were in such a hobble, that, but for the assistance of a kind friend, it’s exceedingly unlikely that you would ever have got out of it.”
“Granted,” said the Captain.
“Dear boy, if you will only show an amiable and conciliating spirit, we shall get on as well as ever. Well, the friend did help you, and by his aid you were extricated from the hobble. As might be reasonably expected, a very lively attachment sprang up between you and the friend in question. People in Calcutta began to talk about Damon and Pythias. It was something more than friendship. It was a mysterious and masonic fellowship, which nothing but death could destroy. Was it not, Arthur?”
“If you ask me whether we were useful to each other,—I shall say yes,” answered the Captain.
Graceful badinage and innuendo are the Major’s stock-in-trade, but here he is provoked into stripping off his gloves; and it is a chastened, indeed thoroughly frightened, Arthur Walsingham who eventually staggers back to his house. No more is heard about the Walsinghams’ departure for the Continent…
We are in a curious position at this early point of Lady Lisle: on one hand, Major Varney is clearly revealed as a thorough villain; on the other, we have been given no reason at all to sympathise with either of the Walsinghams, but on the contrary plenty of reason to think that both of them are getting what they deserve. It becomes, in fact, increasingly difficult for the reader not to start siding with the Major, if only because he is interesting in a way that his victims are not—in the same way, I suppose, that we hope that the criminals in a heist movie will succeed, for the pleasure associated with watching highly-skilled people working together to pull off a complex plan. The Major is a schemer and a plotter, a master-manipulator; a man of few if any scruples, for whom other people’s secrets and weaknesses are a ready source of income; yet he does what he does with such panache—hardly ever stooping to the blunt talking just felt necessary in the case of Arthur Walsingham—while maintaining all the while such an air of invincible good-humour, that it becomes harder and harder not to feel some sneaking sympathy with his proceedings, even when they take an honestly shocking turn.
Moreover, Braddon has enormous fun with the contrast between the Major’s bright appearance, all golden hair and blue eyes and genial expression, and the darkness of his deeds (at the same time, of course, making a serious point about the infuriating tendency of some writers to equate “beautiful” and “good”). Whenever we find the Major in the very depths of his plotting, there is sure to be a pull-away to his physical appearance at the time, and the effect if that appearance upon the people being, inevitably, taken in by him.
One of the Major’s many talents is planning for the future. He is a man who is capable of biding his time with great patience, and for a period of years, if the eventual reward is great enough…
The Varneys remain at Lislewood Park for a further five weeks, during which time the Major captivates Mrs Walsingham, quietly bleeds Arthur Walsingham, and looks around for more grist for his mill. His interest is caught by Arnolds—angry, glowering husband, unhappy wife, cringing little boy. As a guest of the Walsinghams, Major Varney has come in for his share of Arnold’s hatred; while the experienced eye of the Major, in turn, has noticed certain significant signs that point to a secret in Arnold’s past.
It is unfortunate to note that in Lady Lisle we find Braddon pandering to her readers’ prejudices, and in a way peculiar to the time of her writing: Major Varney’s valet and right-hand man is repeatedly described, not as Jewish, but as Jewish-looking—I suppose this approach was meant to imply an extra layer of deceit, since the only thing worse than a Jew was someone pretending he wasn’t one. This particular side-stereotype shows up again and again in novels of this period (half of the plot of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister turns on precisely this is-he-or-isn’t-he? sort of characterisation, if you can call it characterisation), but it is disappointing to find the usually broadminded Braddon playing this nasty game. It is worth noting, however, that it is a tactic that seems associated only with her writing for “nice” people, not that meant for the working-classes. Make of that what you will.
But whatever else Mr Alfred Salamons may or not be, it seems that despite being in a position of servitude with respect to Major Varney, he is nothing more or less than the Major’s brother-in-law—the beautiful Mrs Varney escaping with a descriptor of “oriental” rather than “Jewish-looking”. How exactly this ménage works is left largely to our imaginations, but we do see that Salamons is not only entirely in his employer’s confidence, but a vital cog in his various activities. To him the Major confides his suspicions about Gilbert Arnold, sending him away to hunt into the lodge-keeper’s past. A scheme of vastly greater magnitude than anything he has attempted before, and with the potential for a yield so rich he can retire upon it, has suggested itself to the Major’s vivid imagination:
The Major finished his toilette, and dismissed his servant. The door of the inner room opened, and Mrs Varney, dressed in white, with natural flowers in her dark hair, stood upon the threshold.
“You look very lovely tonight, my soul’s idol,” said the Major, tenderly. “Those flowers have an air of innocence that becomes you admirably. Ada, otherwise Adeline Varney, how would you like to be mistress of Lislewood Park?”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Granville!” said the lady; “but come downstairs. I thought you would never have finished dressing.”
“Ada, this train must be a very long one that would undermine this house, and we should begin to lay the gunpowder a great way off, should we not? But don’t you disturb yourself, my darling. The grand system is at work. Alfred Salamons has received his instructions. Great things may be done yet, and all with a clear conscience—with a clear conscience, and no fear of prison dress from first to last.”
That nothing can ever be brought home to him that could result in a prison sentence is the Major’s great pride and boast, although we gather from this that his ideas and ours about what constitutes a “clear conscience” may not be quite the same.
On the day of the Varneys’ intended departure from Lislewood Park, the Major takes a moment to drop a sovereign into Gilbert Arnold’s hand, adjuring him to take very good care of his boy, before insisting upon Arthur Walsingham accompanying him on a last walk. The two are joined by the young Sir Rupert Lisle, who is mounted on his pony. The three take the winding path up the steep hills overlooking Lislewood Park where, with the boy safely out of hearing, the Major makes one last blunt demand for money. When Walsingham digs his heels in, the Major produces a packet of letters, threatening to send them to Mrs Walsingham if five thousand pounds aren’t forthcoming.
Somewhat to the Major’s surprise, Walsingham calls his bluff. He is momentarily disconcerted by this rebellion, but is not a man to let the grass grow. If one scheme fails, why then, he has another in mind…
“No, you’re right. I don’t want to tell the secret. I don’t want to see poor Lady Lisle, or Mrs Walsingham, or whatever else she may choose to call herself, break her heart. I don’t want to see you kicked out of Lislewood Park, or sent to some unpleasant colony, where they might have the impertinence to ask you to pick oakum or break stones…
“I am not one of those unlucky wretches to whom ready money is of vital importance… I would rather have fifty thousand pounds ten years hence than I would have five thousand today. Arthur Walsingham, what is the age of that boy yonder?” Major Varney pointed, as he spoke, to Sir Rupert Lisle…
“He was seven last July.”
“Seven years old. Very good. What would you say, Arthur, if I were to tear these silly letters and that other little document into a thousand pieces, and not ask you for another farthing for fourteen years?”
We are not privy to the details which Major Varney whispers into his companion’s ear, only to Walsingham’s appalled reaction—which extends so far as threatening to expose the Major, whatever the cost to himself, should he take one step towards putting his scheme into effect. The Major takes this easily enough, only shaking his head over Walsingham’s short-sightedness, and pointing out that he may have to use those letters after all…
Then, apparently putting all unpleasantness out of his mind, he requests an explanation for the name of ‘Beecher’s Ride’, given to a steep hill nearby. Walsingham tells him impatiently that it was named for a certain Captain Beecher, who won a wager by riding his horse down the face of the dangerous slope.
Walsingham then walks off, and the Major turns his attention to Sir Rupert, who has listened to this with great interest, and immediately declares that he could ride down the slope. The Major scoffs at this assertion—which gets exactly the response he expected, and perhaps the outcome, too…
The Major, with every one of his white teeth displayed in an insolent laugh, and with his face towards the sun, was provokingly bright to look at.
“No, no, my little Baronet,” he said, “you’re not brave enough to try that; for you’re too sensible not to know that it can’t be done.”
The boy’s pale face flushed crimson with passion. “Can’t it?” he screamed at the top of his shrill treble voice. “Can’t it be done, Major?”
He turned the pony’s head, galloped once round the summit of the hill, and then, lashing the animal violently with his whip, flew over the narrow ridge and down the hill-side… The pony reached the bottom of the hill, the boy swaying backwards and forwards in his saddle, but keeping his seat, but in the impetus of the last rush, the animal lost his balance, and fell, rolling over his rider. From where the two men stood, the pony and the boy looked like one confused mass, which rolled over and over for a few moments, and then grew suddenly still…
The two men rush to the scene via a less dangerous path. The pony is not seriously hurt, and scrambles to its feet; but when the Major kneels to inspect the child…
The Major is not slow to take advantage of Walsingham’s state of grief and shock—and guilt—arguing that he never intended such a thing to happen—he promised, did he not, that the boy would not be harmed?—but now that this has happened…
The numb Walsingham does not intervene as the Major springs into action, whipping the the pony to drive it deep into a nearby pool of muddy, stagnant water, from where it scrambles up into the woods beyond. He then wraps the child in his own plaid, telling Walsingham to go home and alert everyone that the boy is missing; to tell them that he galloped away from his companions and became lost; no more than that.
The Major carries his grim bundle to his carriage, waiting nearby with Mrs Varney and Alfred Salamons, and places it upon the seat inside. As he climbs in, he tells the others that Sir Rupert has been badly injured, and must be taken to Brighton immediately for more expert care than may be found near Lislewood:
The Captain laid his hand upon the carriage-door. “What are you going to do with—with—the boy?”
For the first time since the accident, Major Granville Varney smiled.
“You know, or can guess,” he said. “Au revoir, dear boy.”
When the alarm is given at Lislewood Park, a wide-ranging search is put into effect; with the wet and muddy state of the pony, which wanders back to its own stable, suggesting the worst. Mrs Walsingham all but collapses in shock and grief, clinging desperately to the fact that her son’s body has not been found; and it never is…
No suspicion that the boy’s disappearance, and presumed death, is anything but a tragic accident crosses anyone’s mind. After all, with the boy dead the estate will pass to a distant cousin; while the profound grief and perpetual mourning of the boy’s mother, and the unyielding gloom of his step-father, speak for themselves. The entire district is affected by the tragedy—with one exception. Though Mrs Arnold mourns for the boy, and the sorrow of her patroness, Gilbert Arnold himself is in a state of high glee, delighted that adversity has finally struck the Lisles in a way that not all the wealth and property in the world can help.
But late one night, Arnold’s unwontedly cheerful mood receives a severe check when he has a visitor in the person of Major Granville Varney. Polite and urbane as always, the Major sends Mrs Arnold to bed, then settles in for a long talk with Arnold: one which encompasses the doings of a certain Josiah Bird, wanted for the murder of a gamekeeper in Kent, and includes the fact that Bird is a man identifiable by a gunshot wound in his right leg, such that he might be supposed to have a limp…
After this, the conversation takes an abrupt turn. Gilbert Arnold is advised—strongly advised—to pack up his family—including his boy; he must take great care of his boy—and go to London, where he will be met at the station by Mr Alfred Salamons, who may have some good news for him.
And so the Arnolds depart from Lislewood; although under the circumstances, this is not much noticed, nor is Arnold at all missed.
In London, the invaluable Mr Salamons directs the Arnolds to their new lodgings, taken in the name of “Green”, and further informs Arnold that if he behaves himself and does as he is told, particularly with respect to the care of his son, he will receive a weekly stipend until further notice. Arnold, typically, snarls at what he considers the smallness of the amount; but on the other hand there is the shadow of Josiah Bird…
Fourteen sad years then slide by at Lislewood. The cousin who has inherited the baronetcy is comfortably settled in Italy, and has no desire to return to England, instead leasing his estate to the Walsinghams in exchange for their management of his property. Mrs Walsingham’s grief for her son finally settles into resignation, a process assisted by the birth of her second child, also a boy: a healthy, happy, good-natured boy, who becomes the pet of the whole household, and the apple of his father’s eye.
But in spite of this, the loss of Sir Rupert Lisle is a blow from which Arthur Walsingham never recovers. His health deteriorates; far more seriously, indeed, than he allows his wife to know; but it is not until a short time before what would have been Sir Rupert’s coming-of-age that he speaks to her of any of the things on his mind.
At last, sure within himself that he has a very short time to live, he is moved to tell her a certain sad story—about a young army officer, who fell passionately in love with a beautiful girl who jilted him—and who responded to her perfidy by going sixteen ways to the devil. In particular, the young man completely lost his head over an actress, who was even more beautiful than his lost love, and unlike her in every other way, being dark, stately and mysterious. A brief but violent courtship conducted chiefly through wild letters ended in marriage. It was only after the ceremony that he ran into an acquaintance from India, who, recognising the new Mrs Walsingham from her earlier days in Calcutta, told the new bridegroom all about his wife…
On the instant, the young man abandoned the woman he had married, although not without giving her money, and returned to his old life in India. Some years later he saw his wife again, by then calling herself the wife of another man; well-contented, he did not interfere. Soon afterwards, a terrible temptation was placed in his path, one to which he succumbed—and so left himself the perpetual victim of a conscienceless villain. For the young man learned that the girl he had loved, the girl who had jilted him, had been widowed…
Claribel Lisle—not Walsingham—is appalled by the story unfolded to her, as well she might be; but her years of suffering have strengthened her, and she rises to the occasion with forgiveness and pity.
But for Walsingham, the stress of the moment brings about the crisis he has long expected. He collapses in a fit of apoplexy; only managing to utter, before he dies, a few incoherent words:
“Claribel—the boy, Rupert,” he gasped with a painful effort, “the boy is alive—Major Varney—ask—ask—“
[To be continued…]