The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 14

The Morning After.

The day after the ball was a broken straggling kind of day, after the usual manner of the to-morrow that succeeds a festival. Hale Castle was full to overflowing with guests who, having been invited to spend one night, were pressed to stay longer. The men spent their afternoon for the most part in the billiard-room, after a late lingering luncheon, at which there was a good deal of pleasant gossip. The women sat together in groups in the drawing-room, pretending to work, but all desperately idle. It was a fine afternoon, but no one cared for walking or driving. A few youthful enthusiasts did indeed get up a game at croquet, but even this soul-enthralling sport was pursued with a certain listlessness.

Mr. Fairfax and Lady Geraldine walked in the garden. To all appearance, a perfect harmony prevailed between them. Clarissa, sitting alone in an oriel at the end of the drawing-room, watched them with weary eyes and a dull load at her heart, wondering about them perpetually, with a painful wonder.

If she could only have gone home, she thought to herself, what a refuge the dull quiet of her lonely life would have been! She had not slept five minutes since the festival of last night, but had lain tossing wearily from side to side, thinking of what George Fairfax had said to her — thinking of what might have been and could never be, and then praying that she might do her duty; that she might have strength to keep firmly to the right, if he should try to tempt her again.

He would scarcely do that, she thought. That wild desperate talk of last night was perhaps the merest folly — a caprice of the moment, the shallowest rodomontade, which he would be angry with himself for having spoken. She told herself that this was so; but she knew now, as she had not known before last night, that she had given this man her heart.

It would be a hard thing to remain at Hale to perform her part in the grand ceremonial of the marriage, and yet keep her guilty secret hidden from every eye; above all, from his whom it most concerned. But there seemed no possibility of escape from this ordeal, unless she were to be really ill, and excused on that ground. She sat in the oriel that afternoon, wondering whether a painful headache, the natural result of her sleeplessness and hyper-activity of brain, might not be the beginning of some serious illness — a fever perhaps, which would strike her down for a time and make an end to all her difficulties.

She had been sitting in the window for a long time quite alone, looking out at the sunny garden and those two figures passing and repassing upon an elevated terrace, with such an appearance of being absorbed in each other’s talk, and all-sufficient for each other’s happiness. It seemed to Clarissa that she had never seen them so united before. Had he been laughing at her last night? she asked herself indignantly; was that balcony scene a practical joke? He had been describing it to Lady Geraldine perhaps this afternoon, and the two had been laughing together at her credulity. She was in so bitter a mood just now that she was almost ready to believe this.

She had been sitting thus a long time, tormented by her own thoughts, and hearing the commonplace chatter of those cheerful groups, now loud, now low, without the faintest feeling of interest, when a heavy step sounded on the floor near her, and looking up suddenly, she saw Mr. Granger approaching her solitary retreat. The cushioned seat in the oriel, the ample curtains falling on either side of her, had made a refuge in which she felt herself alone, and she was not a little vexed to find her retreat discovered.

The master of Arden Court drew a chair towards the oriel, and seated himself deliberately, with an evident intention of remaining. Clarissa was obliged to answer his courteous inquiries about her health, to admit her headache as an excuse for the heaviness of her eyes, and then to go on talking about everything he chose to speak of. He did not talk stupidly by any means, but rather stiffly, and with the air of a man to whom friendly converse with a young lady was quite a new thing. He spoke to her a good deal about the Court and its surroundings — which seemed to her an error in taste — and appeared anxious to interest her in all his improvements.

“You really must come and see the place, Miss Lovel,” he said. “I shall be deeply wounded if you refuse.”

“I will come if you wish it,” Clarissa answered meekly; “but you cannot imagine how painful the sight of the dear old house will be to me.”

“A little painful just for the first time, perhaps. But that sort of feeling will soon wear off. You will come, then? That is settled. I want to win your father’s friendship if I can, and I look to you to put me in the right way of doing so.”

“You are very good, but papa is so reserved — eccentric, I suppose most people would call him — and he lives shut up in himself, as it were. I have never known him make a new friend. Even my uncle Oliver and he seem scarcely more than acquaintances; and yet I know my uncle would do anything to serve us, and I believe papa knows it too.”

“We must trust to time to break down that reserve, Miss Lovel,” Mr. Granger returned cheerily; “and you will come to see us at the Court — that is understood. I want you to inspect Sophia’s schools, and sewing classes, and cooking classes, and goodness knows what. There are plenty of people who remember you, and will be delighted to welcome you amongst them. I have heard them say how kind you were to them before you went abroad.”

“I had so little money,” said Clarissa, “I could do hardly anything.”

“But, after all, money is not everything with that class of people. No doubt they like it better than anything in the present moment; but as soon as it is gone they forget it, and are not apt to be grateful for substantial benefits in the past. But past kindness they do remember. Even in my own experience, I have known men who have been ungrateful for large pecuniary benefits, and yet have cherished the memory of some small kindness; a mere friendly word perhaps, spoken at some peculiar moment in their lives. No, Miss Lovel, you will not find yourself forgotten at Arden.”

He was so very earnest in this assurance, that Clarissa could not help feeling that he meant to do her a kindness. She was ashamed of her unworthy prejudice against him, and roused herself with a great effort from her abstraction, in order to talk and listen to Mr. Granger with all due courtesy. Nor had she any farther opportunity of watching those two figures pacing backward and forward upon the terrace; for Mr. Granger contrived to occupy her attention till the dressing-bell rang, and afforded her the usual excuse for hurrying away.

She was one of the last to return to the drawing-room, and to her surprise found Mr. Granger by her side, offering his arm in his stately way when the procession began to file off to the dining-room, oblivious of the claims which my lady’s matronly guests might have upon him.

Throughout that evening Mr. Granger was more or less by Clarissa’s side. His daughter, perceiving this with a scarcely concealed astonishment, turned a deaf ear to the designing compliments of Captain Westleigh (who told himself that a fellow might just as well go in for a good thing as not when he had a chance), and came across the room to take part in her parent’s conversation. She even tried to lure him away on some pretence or other; but this was vain. He seemed rooted to his chair by Clarissa’s side — she listlessly turning over a folio volume of steel plates, he pointing out landscapes and scenes which had been familiar to him in his continental rambles, and remarking upon them in a somewhat disjointed fashion —“Marathon, yes — rather flat, isn’t it? But the mountains make a fine background. We went there with guides one day, when I was a young man. The Acropolis — hum! ha! — very fine ruins, but a most inconvenient place to get at. Would you like to see Greece, Miss Lovel?”

Clarissa gave a little sigh — half pain, half rapture. What chance had she of ever treading that illustrious soil, of ever emerging from the bondage of her dull life? She glanced across the room to the distant spot where Lady Geraldine and George Fairfax sat playing chess. He had been there. She remembered his pleasant talk of his wanderings, on the night of their railroad journey.

“Who would not like to see Greece?” she said.

“Yes, of course,” Mr. Granger answered in his most prosaic way. “It’s a country that ought to be remarkably interesting; but unless one is very well up in its history, one is apt to look at everything in a vague uncertain sort of manner. A mountain here, and a temple there — and then the guides and that kind of people contrive to vulgarise everything somehow; and then there is always an alarm about brigands, to say nothing of the badness of the inns. I really think you would be disappointed in Greece, Miss Lovel.”

“Let me keep my dream,” Clarissa answered rather sadly “I am never likely to see the reality.”

“You cannot be sure of that; at your age all the world is before you.”

“You have read Grote, of course, Miss Lovel?” said Miss Granger, who had read every book which a young lady ought to have read, and who rather prided herself upon the solid nature of her studies.

“Yes, I have read a good deal of Grote,” Clarissa replied meekly.

Miss Granger looked at her as if she rather doubted this assertion, and would like to have come down upon her with some puzzling question about the Archons or the Areopagus, but thought better of it, and asked her father if he had been talking to Mr. Purdew.

Mr. Purdew was a landed gentleman of some standing, whose estate lay near Arden Court, and who had come with his wife and daughters to Lady Laura’s ball.

“He in sitting over there, near the piano,” added Sophia; “I expected to find you enjoying a chat with him.”

“I had my chat with Purdew after luncheon,” answered Mr. Granger; and then he went on turning the leaves for Clarissa with a solemn air, and occasionally pointing out to her some noted feature in a landscape or city. His daughter stared at him in supreme astonishment. She had seen him conventionally polite to young ladies before to-night, but this was something more than conventional politeness. He kept his place all the evening, and all that Sophia could do was to remain on guard.

When Clarissa was lighting her candle at a table in the corridor, Mr. Fairfax came up to her for the first time since the previous night.

“I congratulate you on your conquest, Miss Lovel,” he said in a low voice.

She looked up at him with a pale startled face, for she had not known that he was near her till his voice sounded close in her ear. “I don’t understand you,” she stammered.

“O, of course not; young ladies never can understand that sort of thing. But I understand it very well, and it throws a pretty clear light upon our interview last night. I wasn’t quite prepared for such wise counsel as you gave me then. I can see now whence came the strength of your wisdom. It is a victory worth achieving, Miss Lovel. It means Arden Court. — Yes, that’s a very good portrait, isn’t it?” he went on in a louder key, looking up at a somewhat dingy picture, as a little cluster of ladies came towards the table; “a genuine Sir Joshua, I believe.”

And then came the usual good-nights, and Clarissa went away to her room with those words in her ears, “It means Arden Court.”

Could he be cruel enough to think so despicably of her as this? Could he suppose that she wanted to attract the attention of a man old enough to be her father, only because he was rich and the master of the home she loved? The fact is that Mr. Fairfax — not too good or high-principled a man at the best of times, and yet accounting himself an honourable gentleman — was angry with himself and the whole world, most especially angry with Clarissa, because she had shown herself strong where he had thought to find her weak. Never before had his vanity been so deeply wounded. He had half resolved to sacrifice himself for this girl — and behold, she cared nothing for him!

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31