“I tell you,” cried Olivia, her voice vibrating, clear and loud, through the lofty room—“I tell you that I know all about the base and wicked plot that has been carried out by that vile tool, and I know your infamous share in it, Major Varney. Why, look at him!” she cried, with passionate vehemence, pointing to her husband as she spoke—“look at him, as he sits there in his stupid drunkenness—more brutal than the oxen that sleep in his fields—lower than the lowest brute in his stables. Good heavens! what a pitiful dupe I must have been to have been deceived by such a thing as that!”
The Major quietly took the key from the lock of the door, and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket; then, advancing to Lady Lisle, he tried to take her hands into his.
“Lady Lisle,” he said, “listen to me.”
She snatched her hand indignantly from him.
“Lady Lisle!” she cried. “Hypocrite, plotter, trickster, cheat! how dare you call me by that false and lying name! which has never—no, never, not for one hour been my own. O, fool, fool, fool!” she moaned, her rage and scorn changing to a tone of anguish. “Fool, to sell my soul for pomp and grandeur, to sacrifice an earnest and noble heart, for what—for what? For an imposter, whose name is a lie, and who fattens upon the wealth of another man.”
The implied past relationship between Olivia Marmaduke and Walter Remorden and the sins of the former are interestingly handled by Braddon, and in a way that does her heroine no favours. At this point she chooses to leave matters just as they stand and Olivia without excuse, as she commits just about the worst sin that a novel-heroine of her class and position can commit, jilting a good poor man for a bad rich man in an openly declared mercenary marriage. It is not for some time that we get the rest of the story: that there was indeed an exchange of promises between Olivia and Walter Remorden, just before he left to take up his curacy, and when she was barely seventeen; an exchange kept secret from Colonel Marmaduke. Because of that, and because, perhaps, of an imperfect knowledge of the girl to whom he had plighted himself, Walter made no attempt during the following two years to contact Olivia, not a visit, not a letter, not a message; while she, growing into young womanhood amidst loneliness and poverty, was left to eat her heart out—and then to harden her heart.
The wedding goes off as planned, despite Sir Rupert’s fears, and a splendid wedding it is—on externals. The bride and groom depart on their honeymoon, while those remaining for the night at Lislewood—even Mrs Walsingham—find the atmosphere much improved by the absence of the master of the house. The Major, who, after a serious conference between himself and Sir Rupert the night before, which ended with the baronet’s signing of his name to a certain document, seems to have let go of his objections to the marriage, and is in a genial mood:
“How well Lady Lisle looked this morning!” said the Major.
Mrs Walsingham started at the mention of the name which had once been her own. Olivia’s four sisters felt a simultaneous thrill of envy at the sound. Lady Lisle! Yes, it was really true—she was indeed Lady Lisle!
The narrative of Lady Lisle then follows Walter Remorden to his new curacy in Yorkshire, where he tries to bury the past in hard work and good service. Mr Hayward, the minister, is new to Belminster, replacing a lazy old man who neglected his duties, and consequently has much lost ground to make up: work in which his energetic, devoted young curate is invaluable to him.
Though only a minor character, Mr Hayward is entirely typical of his author who, as we have seen before in her novels, had nothing but scorn for polite hypocrisy and platitudes, and who herself knew only too well what it was like to be poor (a fact which shows itself in her sympathetic attitude towards Olivia). When she diverts into a description of how Mr Hayward goes about his work, we suddenly hear the voice that Braddon usually kept for her working-class readers:
He reprobated the vices of his people; but he took care to show them how they might be amended. He was not afraid of sin; he never shuddered at its aspect; but he hunted it down, and hand to hand with it struggled and conquered… Mr Hayward never tried to beguile grown men and woman with pretty lollipop sayings that nobody ever yet believed in. He did not tell wretched creatures living in stifling hovels, to which the pure air never penetrated, that it was a pleasant thing to be poor and comfortless, and that if they were only good they would be sure to be happy. No; he told them that they must not be contented with dirt and filth, but that they must cover over drains and break open blocked-up windows, and scrub, scour, whitewash and purify… And when all was done, and the house cleansed, and the eldest girl rescued from the wretched streets…when the little ones were in the National School, and the father had succeeded in getting a job at his own trade; then the rector set to work to teach these people how to be good Christians…
The rector’s right-hand person in all his efforts is his daughter, Blanche, who is not a pretty girl, but whose intelligence, good-humour and compassion win her wide popularity. Blanche is as tireless as her father in her labours, and also tirelessly friendly and interested in people. She takes an immediate liking to her father’s new curate who, she is quick to see, has something preying on his spirits, for all his focus and dedication. For his part, Walter finds Blanche invaluable as a companion, a friend, and a workmate. Further than that his thoughts and feelings do not carry him, whatever hers might be doing…
One day Mr Hayward consults with Walter and Blanche about a problem that has been presented to him, regarding a young man, a pupil at the local school, who was placed there more than twelve years earlier by a man who said he was the boy’s uncle, and who wanted him (he said) kept in the country for his health as well as his education, the boy having just gotten over a serious illness. After placing him at the school, the uncle paid his nephew’s fees with perfect regularity, though making only brief and infrequent visits to see him; but no new remittance has been received for some eighteen months, nor can the uncle be found. Richard Saunders is now twenty-two, and what is to be done with him?
In answer to Blanche’s eager questions, Mr Hayward explains that the young man seems to know nothing that can help them: his uncle is his only known relative, and his memory of his childhood is erratic due, it is supposed, to his long illness. He even gets frightened and upset when anyone asks him to recall the time before his illness; though, Mr Hayward assures Walter, his intellect is in no way impaired.
It is Blanche who comes up with a practical answer to the situation: getting new National Schools built is one of Mr Hayward’s pet projects, and schools need schoolmasters. With Hayward’s approval, Walter agrees to meet the young man, and sound him out about this prospect.
Richard Saunders is a fair, pale young man, so nervous and inarticulate that Walter begins to doubt the assertions about his intellect; but as he overcomes his shyness, he shows himself as he has been represented. The young man is delighted and grateful for the offer of a position at the new school, particularly as it will enable him to repay the generosity of Mr Daunton, who kindly kept him on at his own school as a boarder of sorts, despite the ceasing of his fee-payments.
A great collector of lame ducks, Blanche adopts Richard as a special project; and while she has no more success than anyone else in getting him to talk about his childhood, she does get at the reason why he won’t talk:
“No, no, no,” cried the young man, with the same look of terror that Walter Remorden had seen in his face the day before; “no, I remember nothing of that time. My thoughts and fancies about that time are nothing more than delusions; nothing but delusions—nothing!”
“But, Mr Saunders,” urged Blanche, her curiosity more and more excited by the young man’s strange manner, “but these these delusions, what are they?”
“Do not ask me!” he exclaimed. “I have taken a solemn oath never to speak of them to any human being.”
“An oath? But to whom?”
“To my uncle George. He told me that my only chance of being saved from becoming a madman was to resolve never to speak of those things again.”
In time, Blanche’s kindness, sympathy and support have the inevitable effect upon Richard, who falls very deeply in love with her—but, as she assures him as gently as she can, hopelessly. When Walter walks into this unhappy scene, he decides to tell his own story, by way of illustrating that although it might seem like it now, this need not be the end of the world. It is during the following conversation that we learn what exactly went on between Walter and Olivia—of course, from his point of view—but still, the period of separation and silence, measuring almost three years, is revealed. It is already evident that Blanche is suffering unrequited love for Walter, as Richard is for her, and her indignation on his behalf is boundless. Walter’s response contains both an indication that he is aware of her feelings, and a tacit apology that he cannot return them.
As Walter concludes his sad story, dwelling not upon his own situation, but Olivia’s, there is a sudden cry from Richard:
…he started from his seat, and, ghastly pale in the dusk, cried, in wild and terrified accents,—
“Sir Rupert Lisle! Are you mad, as well as I? It is the very name—the very name—which I have neither heard nor spoken for twelve long years.”
“What do you mean, Richard?” exclaimed Blanche Hayward, almost alarmed for the young man’s sanity.
“I mean that when I was a child I had a dangerous fever which made me mad, and my madness was to fancy myself Sir Rupert Lisle!”
And what of Sir Rupert Lisle?—or at least, “Sir Rupert Lisle”?
Sir Rupert and Lady Lisle are away six months, travelling through Europe; and, well, if Olivia has sinned, she has her full measure of punishment in being known everywhere as the wife of a bad-tempered, petulant, drunken boor. Fortunately (at least from one perspective), Olivia’s contempt for her husband has reached such proportions it acts as a kind of armour: she so far beyond caring what he is or what he does that she does not feel his behaviour as otherwise she might.
When the newlyweds return to Lislewood, they find Mrs Walsingham on the verge of departure. She has made up her mind that it will not be fitting for her to go on living in her son’s house now that it has a new mistress. She has also taken a strong dislike to Olivia, whose worst side she has certainly seen glaringly emphasised; although whether she can admit it to herself, the thought of being separated from her son has quite as much to do with her decision. But an unexpected scene makes her alter her plans somewhat: when she grasps the significance of Mrs Walsingham’s baggage, the previously cold and detached Olivia breaks down into a storm of tears, begging her mother-in-law not to leave her. Startled and touched, Mrs Walsingham compromises, removing from the house but only so far as the village, to the house she shared with her aunt when she was Miss Claribel Merton, which she still owns.
Olivia’s life then takes on a strange, divided quality. She spends her husband’s money without stint, devising a series of lavish entertainments and filling the house with a constant stream of people; while any spare time on her hands is devoted to the welfare of Lislewood’s tenants. What she won’t do is sit still. During this time a tacit truce is called between Olivia and Major Varney, who quietly makes himself useful to her in all sorts of ways, and manages to lull the suspicions which Olivia conceived about him upon their first acquaintance.
But a deeply ugly incident is about to tear the mask from more person than one…
Olivia is riding home one day when she is witness to a confrontation between Lislewood’s lodge-keeper and a woman in a state of extreme distress. The lodge-keeper explains that Sir Rupert has already refused to see the woman, and that he has been trying to send her away as ordered, but she won’t go—even though Sir Rupert has threatened to have her arrested.
Seeing something more in this than a simple request for charity, Olivia takes the woman under her own protection. Getting a straight story out of her is almost impossible, though between tears and excuses the woman finally reveals herself as Rachel Arnold. Olivia knows well the story of Sir Rupert and Gilbert Arnold, but is inclined to believe the hysterical woman when she swears she knew nothing of her husband’s plot. Mrs Arnold further explains that, once they arrived in America, Arnold abandoned her; she subsequently found work as a servant and scraped together enough money for a passage home. Now she asks only for enough to live upon, which she seems to feel that Sir Rupert owes her for reasons that Olivia can’t quite get at…
A puzzled Olivia takes the direct route of leading Mrs Arnold to Sir Rupert, who is playing billiards with Major Varney and several other guests. The effect of Mrs Arnold’s appearance is electric: instantly the baronet flies into a violent rage, cursing her and Olivia before committing an act that horrifies the involuntary witnesses to this scene:
The poor creature, still kneeling on the ground and clinging to his hand, lifted up her face in supplication as she spoke. In a mad fury the Baronet, with his disengaged fist, struck the wretched woman full in the face; so violently, that the blood trickled fast from a cut across her upper lip…
And well as he he knows the baronet—better, indeed, than anyone else—even Major Varney is shocked by this; so very shocked, he is provoked into showing a side of himself usually carefully concealed:
…he caught Sir Rupert Lisle by the collar of his coat and flung him violently against the wall of the room. “You ruffian!” he cried, “you mean pitiful hound! you contemptible villain! without one redeeming touch of common humanity! I swear to you that, if I had known what you really are, you might have rotted piecemeal in the garret where I found you before I would have soiled my hands by lifting a finger of them to help you. I don’t believe in all Newgate there is a wretch who would have done what you did just at this moment. Dog! I loathe and detest you! and hate myself for being mixed up with you!”
But we should not be misled by this into sympathy for Major Varney who, when he cools down, and sees the comfortable and lucrative nest he has been at such pains to acquire for himself and his wife threatened, will reveal himself every bit as vile and contemptible as Sir Rupert. His methods are merely less crude.
Olivia has Mrs Arnold carried to a room and arranges medical attendance for her—and she needs it. The physical and emotional scene with Sir Rupert, coming on top of exhaustion and even starvation, reduces her to a pitiful condition of suffering. The doctor—who knew her when she was the abused wife of Gilbert Arnold—tells Olivia there is little hope.
Sir Rupert seems eager to make what amends he can for his actions, not opposing Mrs Arnold’s residence under his roof, and constantly inquiring after her health. He seems particularly interested in what she talks about… The one thing he won’t do is see her himself, despite her entreaties.
At this time the baronet finds himself back in his old position of being wholly reliant upon Major Varney—and wholly in fear of him. All his old habits, his tendency to check with the Major before he speaks or acts, re-emerge. And it is to the Major he turns for advice about the sick woman:
“What can I do?” he said. “She’s always worrying,—sending sickly romantic messages about wanting to be forgiven, and all such foolery. And what do I care about seeing her, you know?” he whined, in his peevish treble voice.
“Very little, I should think, Sir Rupert,” replied the Major. “I can see the glitter of that superb sapphire ring upon your right hand at this moment. I’ve heard you say that you gave a hundred and twenty napoleons for that sapphire in the Rue de la Paix, and it was the ring that cut Rachel Arnold so severely over the mouth. No, I should think you would scarcely care about seeing your—your old servant.”
“I’ll tell you what,” muttered Sir Rupert, “I think you might keep your tongue between your teeth. You’ve made a good thing out of it…”
“As to what I get out of you, or what I may intend to get out of you in time to come,” said the Major, looking full at Sir Rupert, “that is of very little moment. But remember, that I have got that out of you which makes you as much my slave as if I had bought you for so many dollars in the Southern States of America; as much my dog as if I had paid a dog-fancier for you, and had you chained and padlocked in my kennel.”
Major Varney makes it his business to visit Mrs Arnold, who recoils in terror at the sight of him, and learns from the weary, disinterested servant-girl assigned to attend her that she is much given to wild, rambling talk about her son. The Major then requests a consultation with the doctor, who emerges from it agreeing that there should be no difficulty acquiring the necessary certificate…
One day, however, Mrs Arnold’s talk takes another direction: she demands to see Lady Lisle, even going to the length of threatening the maid with a knife when she cannot immediately get her way. Betsy Jane flees the room in terror and does as she is bid, but Mrs Arnold repudiates her visitor, demanding the other Lady Lisle. Olivia explains to her that Mrs Walsingham is away from her home in the village for a few days, which causes Mrs Arnold to cry out in despair, afraid that she may die before she can unburden herself. Olivia offers to hear the woman’s confession, but this only distresses Mrs Arnold even more: she sobs that Olivia has been injured too, and could never forgive her.
Finally Mrs Arnold agrees to tell her secret. Olivia sends Betsy Jane away, and listens to an incredible story…
Mrs Arnold chose her moment well: Olivia was alone in the house, Major Varney and Sir Rupert having gone out for the day; it is hardly to be supposed that she would have been permitted a private interview with the sick woman otherwise. When the men return, Sir Rupert is drunk; nothing unusual these days. He turns on Olivia:
“Curse her for a kill-joy; what do I want with her white face and great black eyes, and her grand airs? I’ll teach her to treat me to her airs. I’ll make her know who I am, d–n her!”
So vile a coward was he on ordinary occasions, that the factitious audacity engendered of strong drink was a surprise to himself. He felt proud of his own temerity, and he slapped his hand upon his thigh with a triumphant gesture as he looked about him.
Lady Lisle rose from her low chair and walked straight over to the young man.
“Suppose I do know who you are!” she said, standing before him, and looking down at his face with an expression of unutterable disgust.
Sir Rupert does not immediately grasp her meaning, but Major Varney does. He quickly intervenes, trying to scoff away the implication, to convince her that she has been listening to an hysterical, deluded woman and has become deluded herself, but Olivia is having none of it. Major Varney then turns judicial, forcing Olivia to admit that she has no proof of what she asserts:
“You say that our friend there is not the real Baronet, and that the actual Sir Rupert Lisle is now living. May I ask where?”
“I cannot tell you?”
“I thought not,” murmured the Major. “It is not in your power to produce him, and it is not likely to be in your power to produce him, eh?”
“I fear not.”
“Good. And pray may I ask when Mrs Rachel Arnold last saw him alive?”
“When he was removed from the hospital, upwards of fifteen years ago.”
“Fifteen years!” repeated Major Varney; “a long time, my dear Lady Lisle. And on the strength of the ravings of a woman who has been pronounced by her medical attendant to be out of her mind and without any other proof whatsoever, you would charge your husband as an imposter. We are not afraid of you, Lady Lisle, for our position rests upon substantial proof, and if you choose to bring forward the witness of a madwoman, we can show the evidence of that madwoman’s husband, in the shape of the formal deposition made by Gilbert Arnold, and duly signed by him, in the presence of the Baronet’s lawyers.
“Heaven help me!” cried Olivia, clasping her hands together passionately; “my instinct tells me that the woman has spoken the truth.”
“Your instinct would go very little way towards the support of your case in a court of law, my dear Lady Lisle,” said the Major. “We are not afraid of you, are we, my Rupert? We are not afraid of you, or of Mrs Arnold either; indeed, there is only one person whom Sir Rupert Lisle need fear, and that is Major Granville Varney.”
And it is he who Olivia also needs to fear, as he makes brutally clear to her. Olivia is a witness to the terrified Mrs Arnold’s forcible removal to the County Lunatic Asylum, with the Major warning her that a similar fate might be arranged for her, if she isn’t very careful…
This is clearly a favourite tactic of the Major: we know already that it was with threats of confinement that Richard Saunders was taught to keep silent about his delusions. And while this is all very melodramatic in context, we should note that during the 19th century it was terrifyingly easy—if you were a man with money—to get people committed against their wills, and that this was not an uncommon way for inconvenient relatives and other connections (usually women, so given to “hysteria”, but not always) to be disposed of. The Major’s threat has weight behind it, and Olivia knows it.
But when things seem darkest for her—when the Major’s triumph seems absolute—we learn that Nemesis is on her way…
Nemeses, actually—one in the form of a grim, gaunt man with murder in his heart, recently returned from America, who must make his way by foot from Liverpool to Lislewood, but who is sustained through hunger, cold and exhaustion by his rage and hatred. Finally he has a stroke of luck when he falls in with a troop of gipsies who happen to be heading his way, and who amicably take him in and offer him shelter and food. The man, who calls himself John Andrews, soon realises that something is wrong within the troop: there is a young woman whose wild, muttered talk of vengeance sounds remarkably like his own, and whose story Andrews manages to extract from the leader of the troop, a man named Abraham. The young woman once had a sister, a virtuous and most beloved sister, who had the grave misfortune to attract the obsessive attention of a dissolute young gentleman, and could not with all her efforts avoid him:
“Half way between the town and the common, where the road was most lonesome , we found her lying in the shallow water, cold and dead. There was footmarks upon the bit of grass alongside of the ditch, a woman’s and a man’s, and there was marks of horses’ hoofs upon the road. The grass was trodden down as if there’d been a struggle, and a broken riding-whip lay among the reeds hard by. I’ve kept that whip ever since, and it was his. I knew it by the gold handle, shaped the same as his crest.”
John Andrews has been listening with the greatest of attention ever since the geography of the story told by Abraham was made clear to him; and when he hears of the young man of the whip, and his older friend, and how they laughed at Abraham when he confronted them—and how Abraham ended up serving three months for assault—he can contain himself no longer:
“But I do mind his name,” answered the other, with a strange eagerness, “and if you won’t tell it me, I’ll tell it to you.”
“You!” exclaimed Abraham; “how should you know it?”
“His name is Sir Rupert Lisle,” answered Andrews; “and he lives at Lislewood Park, about nine miles from here, and the friend you see along with him was a stout chap in a yellow waistcoat, with yellow chains and lockets hanging all about it, and his name is Granville Varney, and he’s the biggest villain as walks this sinful earth!” cried John Andrews, his voice rising with every word, until it ended in a savage scream..
If we were so inclined, we might at this point say of Sir Rupert Lisle and Major Granville Varney, “God help them both”; but I doubt we’ll be so inclined…
Braddon never hesitates to dispense rough justice, and in this case she has her twin Nemeses catch up with their respective quarries on a dark and lonely road between Brighton and Lislewood; Major Varney is driving their open carriage, and Sir Rupert Lisle is in an alcoholic stupor. The physical confrontation between Granville Varney and Gilbert Arnold ends with a pistol-shot to the face, and a corpse rolled down a long slope into a stagnant pond and plundered of its ready cash; although the pocket-book chained to the Major’s person must stay where it is. Abraham the gipsy, meanwhile, more intent upon something that looks like an accident, sends the carriage and its insensible occupant careening down the dangerous road…
It is some days before the Major’s body is found. When the pocket-book is inspected, found within it is a signed and witnessed statement from James Arnold, declaring the imposture, and that the real Sir Rupert Lisle may be found in the county of York. James Arnold himself, crushed and broken by the overturning of his carriage, lingers some days; long enough to confirm the truth of his statement; while the signatory witness to the undated confession—none other than Alfred Salamons, who grieves most sincerely for the Major—boldly asserts that it was only very recently that he became aware of the substitution and, being unable to find any trace of the missing Sir Rupert, held his peace.
The law eventually catches up with Gilbert Arnold, who has in his possession objects that make his guilt clear enough. Having carried through his plan of revenge, Arnold is almost disinterested in the grim fate that necessarily awaits him…
Curiously, however, none of the novel’s other transgressors are punished. We never, for one, hear another word about Abraham, who slips quietly from the narrative with the rest of his troop.
But Braddon’s most interesting non-fate is reserved for Mrs Varney who, when all is said and done, is in many ways the most intriguing character in Lady Lisle, albeit that her creator never dares bring her out into the clear light of day. No wonder. Though never an active participant—at least, not when we are watching—Mrs Varney is au fait with all the Major’s schemes, and benefits from them. Furthermore, what we already know by inference is finally spelled out here, that she was the first Mrs Walsingham, an “infamous woman” even before she entrapped the reckless young officer into marriage; and that she and Major Varney were therefore living in sin. Yet for all this, Braddon is prepared to present the Varneys as very sincerely in love; even though, as we belatedly learn, the Major “married” the lady for payment, thus assuming her support—this being the service he rendered Arthur Walsingham, and subsequently held over his head—and to allow that Mrs Varney’s grief at her husband’s death is equally sincere.
(We do not know whether the Varneys marry after Walsingham’s death. Of course, Braddon herself was living in sin at this point in her life, and probably didn’t think that marital status necessarily spoke to the true state of a relationship.)
With the Major gone, Mrs Varney turns Arthur Walsingham’s letters over to Claribel, so that they may finally be destroyed—and then she, too, is allowed simply to walk away, and to live in comfort for the rest of her life on the proceeds of the Major’s wrongdoing: presumably sharing her inheritance with her brother, Alfred Salamons, who likewise gets away scot-free!
(I should, perhaps, mention that it was Mr Salamons who took on the role of “Uncle George Saunders”…)
But while Braddon amuses herself with these background details, she also lets all of her good (or perhaps we should say, “better”) characters off their various hooks. Her plot-threads come neatly together when, after the discovery of James Arnold’s confession, Claribel Walsingham advertises for anyone knowing anything of Sir Rupert Lisle—an advertisement which comes to the attention of Walter Remorden…
So poor Claribel finds her real son at last; the unfortunate Rachel Arnold is released from her incarceration, and placed once more in her old home, where she recovers her health and even her spirits (once, Braddon implies but does not say, her husband and son are both safely dead); Walter returns to Lislewood to find Olivia a widow; and in the year that must pass before the reconciled lovers may marry, Blanche Hayward, recognising the futility of her first love, strives to banish it from her heart, and succeeds so well that she is able, in good faith, eventually to accept the second proposal of marriage made to her by “Richard Saunders”.
One bright morning, there is a double wedding at Lislewood Church:
…there is no fashionable crowd, no long string of carriages; only a simple procession of two happy couples, attended by about a dozen friends. First, Mr Hayward’s daughter, Blanche, leaning upon the arm of Sir Rupert Lisle, and smiling brightly on the schoolchildren, who throw their flowers under her feet; while close behind them comes Walter Remorden, with Olivia by his side. Colonel Marmaduke has given his daughter into the curate’s hands with a pride and happiness he never felt in the marriage which seemed such a splendid one.
The worthy rector of Lislewood obtained a better living from the bishop of the diocese, and abandoned the pleasant rectory, shut in by shady gardens, and close under the shadow of the grey old church tower, to Walter Remorden and his wife.
The poor of Lislewood learned to bless the day which brought them Blanche, Lady Lisle; the third who had borne that name within twenty years…