The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 18

Something Fatal.

AT seven o’clock Mr. Level composed himself for his after-dinner nap, and Clarissa, being free to dispose of herself as she pleased till about nine, at which hour the tea-tray was wont to be brought into the parlour, put on her hat and went out into the village. It would be daylight till nearly eight, and moonlight after that; for the moon rose early, as Miss Lovel remembered. She had a fancy to look at the familiar old plane again — the quiet village street, with its three or four primitive shops, and single inn lying back a little from the road, and with a flock of pigeons and other feathered creatures always on the patch of grass before it; the low white-walled cottages, in which there were only friendly faces for her. That suggestion of a foreign home had made her native village newly dear to her.

She had not held much intercourse with these Arden people since her coming home. The sense of her inability to help them in any substantial way had kept her aloof from them. She had not the gift of preaching, or of laying down the laws of domestic economy, whereby she might have made counsel and admonition serve instead of gold or silver. Being able to give them nothing, she felt herself better out of the way; but there were two or three households upon which she had contrived to bestow some small benefits — a little packet of grocery bought with her scanty pocket-money, a jar of good soup that she had coaxed good-natured Martha to make, and so on — and in which her visits had been very welcome.

All was very quiet this evening. Clarissa went through the village without meeting any one she knew. The gate of the churchyard stood open, and Arden churchyard was a favourite spot with Clarissa. A solemn old place, shadowed by funereal yews and spreading cedars, which must have been trees of some importance before the Hanoverian succession. There was a narrow footpath between two rows of tall quaint old tombstones, with skulls and crossbones out upon the moss-grown stone; a path leading to another gate which opened upon a wide patch of heath skirted by a scanty firwood.

This was the wildest bit of landscape about Arden, and Clarissa loved it with all an artist’s love. She had sketched that belt of fir-trees under almost every condition — with the evening sun behind them, standing blackly out against the warm crimson light; or later, when the day had left no more than a faint opal glimmer in the western sky; later still, in the fair summer moonlight, or en a blusterous autumn afternoon, tossed by the pitiless wind. There was a poetry in the scene that seemed to inspire her pencil, and yet she could never quite satisfy herself. In short, she was not Turner; and that wood and sky needed the pencil of a Turner to translate them fully. This evening she had brought her pocket sketch-book with her. It was the companion of all her lonely walks.

She sat down upon the low boundary-wall of the churchyard, close by the rustic wooden gate through which she had come, facing the heath and the firwood, and took out her sketch-book. There was always something new; inexhaustible Nature had ever some fresh lesson for her. But this evening she sat idle for a long time, with her pencil in her hand; and when at last she began to draw, it was no feature of heathy ridge or dark firwood, but a man’s face, that appeared upon the page.

It was a face that she had drawn very often lately in her idle moods, half unconsciously sometimes — a bold handsome face, that offered none of those difficulties by which some countenances baffle the skill of a painter. It was the face of a man of whom she had told herself it was a sin even to think; but the face haunted her somehow, and it seemed as if her pencil reproduced it in spite of herself.

She was thinking as she drew near of Lady Geraldine’s postponed wedding. It would have been better that the marriage should have taken place; better that the story should have ended to-day and that the frail link between herself and George Fairfax should have been broken. That accident of Lord Calderwood’s death had made everything more or less uncertain. Would the marriage ever take place? Would George Fairfax, with ample leisure for deliberation, hold himself bound by his promise, and marry a woman to whom he had confessed himself indifferent?

She was brooding over this question when she heard the thud of a horse’s hoofs upon the grass, and, looking up, saw a man riding towards her. He was leaning across his horse’s head, looking down at her in the next moment — a dark figure shutting out the waving line of fir-trees and the warm light in the western sky. “What are you doing there, Miss Lovel?” asked a voice that went straight to her heart. Who shall say that it was deeper or sweeter than, common voices? but for her it had a thrilling sound.

She started and dropped her book. George Fairfax dismounted, tied his horse’s bridle to the churchyard gate, and picked up the little sketch-book.

“My portrait!” he cried, recognizing the carelessly-pencilled bead. “Then you do think of me a little, Clarissa! Do you know that I have been prowling about Arden for the last two hours, waiting and watching for you? I have ridden past your father’s cottage twenty times, I think, and was on the point of giving up all hope and galloping back to Hale, when I caught sight of a familiar figure from that road yonder.”

He had taken a knife from his pocket, and was deliberately cutting out the leaf from Miss Lovel’s sketch-book.

“I shall keep this, Clarissa — this one blessed scrap of evidence that you do sometimes think of me.”

“I think of a good many people in the same manner,” she said, smiling, with recovered self-possession. “I have very few acquaintance whose likenesses I have not attempted in some fashion.”

“But you have attempted mine very often,” he answered, looking over the leaves of the book. “Yes, here is my profile amongst bits of foliage, and scroll-work, and all the vagabond thoughts of your artistic brain. You shall not snub me, Clarissa. You do think of me — not as I think of you, perhaps, by day and night, but enough for my encouragement, almost enough for my happiness. Good heavens, how angry I have been with you during the last few weeks!”

“What right had you to be angry with me, Mr. Fairfax?”

“The sublime right of loving you. To my mind that constitutes a kind of moral ownership. And to see you flirting with that fellow Granger, and yet have to hold my peace! But, thank God, all pretences are done with. I recognize the event of to-day as an interposition of Providence. As soon as I can decently do so, I shall tell Lady Geraldine the truth.”

“You will not break your engagement — at such a time — when she has double need of your love?” cried Clarissa indignantly.

She saw the situation from the woman’s point of view, and it was of Geraldine Challoner’s feelings she thought at this crisis. George Fairfax weighed nothing in the scale against that sorrowing daughter. And yet she loved him.

“My love she never had, and never can have; nor do I believe that honour compels me to make myself miserable for life. Of course I shall not disturb her in the hour of her grief by any talk about our intended marriage; but, so soon as I can do so with kindness, I shall let her know the real state of my feelings. She is too generous to exact any sacrifice from me.”

“And you will make her miserable for life, perhaps?”

“I am not afraid of that. I tell you, Clarissa, it is not in her cold proud nature to care much for any man. We can invent some story to account for the rupture, which will save her womanly pride. The world can be told that it is she who has broken the engagement: all that will be easily settled. Poor Lord Calderwood! Don’t imagine that I am not heartily sorry for him; he was always a good friend to me; but his death has been most opportune. It has saved me, Clarissa. But for that I should have been a married man this night, a bound slave for evermore. You can never conceive the gloomy dogged spirit in which I was going to my doom. Thank God, the release came; and here, sitting by your side, a free man, I feel how bitter a bondage I have escaped.”

He put his arm round Clarissa, and tried to draw her towards him; but she released herself from him with a quick proud movement, and rose from her seat on the low wall. He rose at the same moment, and they stood facing each other in the darkening twilight.

“And what then, Mr. Fairfax?” she said, trembling a little, but looking him steadily in the face nevertheless. “When you have behaved like a traitor, and broken your engagement, what then?”

“What then? Is there any possible doubt about what must come then? You will be my wife, Clarissa!”

“You think that I would be an accomplice to such cruelty? You think that I could be so basely ungrateful to Lady Laura, my first friend? Yes, Mr. Fairfax, the first friend I ever had, except my aunt, whose friendship has always seemed a kind of duty. You think that after all her goodness to me I could have any part in breaking her sister’s heart?”

“I think there is one person whose feelings you overlook in this business.”

“And who is that?”

“Myself. You seem to forget that I love you, and that my happiness depends upon you. Are you going to stand upon punctilio, Clarissa, and break my heart because Laura Armstrong has been civil to you?”

Clarissa smiled — a very mournful smile.

“I do not believe you are so dreadfully in earnest,” she said. “If I did —”

“If you did, what then, Clarissa?”

“It might be different. I might be foolish enough, wicked enough — But I am sure that this folly of yours is no more than a passing fancy. You will go away and forget all about me. You would be very sorry by-and-by, if I were weak enough to take you at your word; just as sorry as you are now for your engagement to Lady Geraldine. Come, Mr. Fairfax, let us both be sensible, if we can, and let there be an end of this folly for evermore between us. Good-night; I must go home. It is half-past eight o’clock, and at nine papa has his tea.”

“You shall go home in time to pour out Mr. Lovel’s tea; but you shall hear me out first, Clarissa, and you shall confess to me. I will not be kept in the dark.”

And then he urged his cause, passionately, eloquently, or with that which seemed eloquence to the girl of nineteen, who heard him with pale cheeks and fast-throbbing heart, and yet tried to seem unmoved. Plead as he might, he could win no admission from her. It was only in her eyes, which could not look denial, on her tremulous lips, which could not simulate coldness, that he read her secret. There he saw enough to make him happy and triumphant.

“Say what you please, my pitiless one,” he cried at last; “in less than three months you shall be my wife!”

The church-clock chimed the three-quarters. He had no excuse for keeping her any longer.

“Come then, Clarissa,” he said, drawing her hand through his arm; “let me see you to your father’s door.”

“But your horse — you can’t leave him here?”

“Yes, I can. I don’t suppose any one will steal him in a quarter of an hour or so; and I daresay we shall meet some village urchin whom I can send to take care of him.”

“There is no occasion. I am quite accustomed to walk about Arden alone.”

“Not at this hour. I have detained you, and am bound to see you safely lodged.”

“But if papa should hear ——”

“He shall near nothing. I’ll leave you within a few yards of his gate.”

It was no use for her to protest; so they went back to within half a dozen paces of Mill Cottage arm-in-arm; not talking very much, but dangerously happy in each other’s company.

“I shall see you again very soon, Clarissa,” George Fairfax said. And then he asked her to tell him her favourite walks; but this she refused to do.

“No matter. I shall find you out in spite of your obstinacy. And remember, child, you owe nothing to Laura Armstrong except the sort of kindness she would show to any pretty girl of good family. You are as necessary to her as the orchids on her dinner-table. I don’t deny that she is a warm-hearted little woman, with a great deal that is good in her — just the sort of woman to dispense a large fortune. But I shall make matters all right in that quarter, and at once.”

They were now as near Mill Cottage as Mr. Fairfax considered it prudent to go. He stopped, released Clarissa’s hand from his arm, only to lift it to his lips and kiss it — the tremulous little ungloved hand which had been sketching his profile when he surprised her, half an hour before, on the churchyard wall.

There was not a creature on the road before them, as they Stood thus in the moonlight; but in spite of this appearance of security, they were not unobserved. A pair of angry eyes watched them from across a clipped holly hedge in front of the cottage — the eyes of Marmaduke Lovel, who had ventured out in the soft September night to smoke his after-dinner cigar.

“Good-night, Clarissa,” said George Fairfax; “I shall see you again very soon.”

“No, no; I don’t wish to see you. No good can come of our seeing each other.”

“You will see me, whether you wish or not. Good-night. There is nine striking. You will be in time to pour out papa’s tea.”

He let go the little hand which he had held till now, and went away. When Clarissa came to the gate, she found it open, and her father standing by it. She drew back with a guilty start.

“Pray come in,” said Mr. Lovel, in his most ceremonious tone. “I am very glad that a happy accident has enabled me to become familiar with your new habits. Have you learnt to give clandestine meetings to your lovers at Hale Castle? Have I to thank Lady Laura for this novel development of your character?”

“I don’t know what you mean, papa. I was sitting in the churchyard just now, sketching, when Mr. Fairfax rode up to me. He stopped talking a little, and then insisted on seeing me home. That is all.”

“That is all. And so it was George Fairfax — the bridegroom that was to have been — who kissed your hand just now, in that loverlike fashion. Pray come indoors; I think this is a business that requires to be discussed between us quietly.”

“Believe me you have no reason to be angry, papa,” pleaded Clarissa; “nothing could have been farther from my thoughts than the idea of meeting Mr. Fairfax to-night.”

“I have heard that kind of denial before, and know what it is worth,” answered her father coldly. “And pray, if he did not come here to meet you, may I ask what motive brought Mr. Fairfax to Arden to-night? His proper place would have been at Hale Castle, I should have supposed.”

“I don’t know, papa. He may have come to Arden for a ride. Everything is in confusion at the Castle, I scarcely think he would be wanted there.”

“You scarcely think! And you encourage him to follow you here — this man who was to have been married to Lady Geraldine Challoner to-day — and you let him kiss your hand, and part from you with the air of a lover. I am ashamed of you, Clarissa. This business is odious enough in itself to provoke the anger of any father, if there were not circumstances in the past to make it trebly hateful to me.”

They had passed in at the open window by this time, and were standing in the lamp-lit parlour, which had a pretty air of home comfort, with its delicate tea-service and quaintly shaped silver urn. Mr. Lovel sank into his arm-chair with a faint groan, and looking at him in the full light of the lamp, Clarissa saw that he was deadly pale.

“Do you know that the father of that man was my deadliest foe?” he exclaimed.

“How should I know that, papa?”

“How should you know it! — no. But that you should choose that man for your secret lover! One would think there was some hereditary curse upon your mother’s race, binding her and hers with that hateful name. I tell you, Clarissa, that if there had been no such creature as Temple Fairfax, my life might have been as bright a one as any man need hope for. I owe every misery of my existence to that man.”

“Did he injure you so deeply, papa?”

“He did me the worst wrong that one man can do to another. He came between me and the woman I loved; he stole your mother’s heart from me, Clarissa, and embittered both our lives.”

He stopped, and covered his face with his hand. Clarissa could see that the hand trembled. She had never seen her father so moved before. She too was deeply moved. She drew a chair close to him, and sat down by his side, but dared not speak.

“It is just as well that you should hear the story from me,” he said, after a long pause. “You may hear hints and whispers about it from other people by-and-by perhaps, if you go more into society; for it was known to several. It is best you should know the truth. It is a common story enough in the history of the world; but whenever it happens, it is enough to make the misery of one man’s life. I was not always what you have known me, Clarissa — a worn-out machine, dawdling away the remnant of a wasted existence. I once had hopes and passions like the rest of mankind — perhaps more ardent than the most. Your mother was the loveliest and most fascinating woman I ever met, and from the hour of our first meeting I had but one thought — how I should win her for my wife. It was not a prudent marriage. She was my equal by birth; but she was the daughter of a ruined spendthrift, and had learnt extravagance and recklessness in her very nursery. She thought me much richer than I was, and I did not care to undeceive her. Later, when we were married, and I could see that her extravagant habits were hastening my ruin, I was still too much a moral coward to tell her the naked truth. I could not bear to come between her and caprices that seemed a natural accompaniment to her charms. I was weakness itself in all that concerned her.”

“And she loved you, papa?” said Clarissa softly. “I am sure she must have loved you.”

“That is a question that I have never answered with any satisfaction to myself. I thought she loved me. She liked me well enough, I believe, till that man crossed her path, and might have learnt to like me better as she grew older and wiser, and rose above the slavery of frivolous pleasures. But, in the most evil hour of her life, she met Temple Fairfax, and from that hour her heart was turned from me. We were travelling, trying to recover from the expenses of a house perpetually full of my wife’s set; and it was at Florence that we first encountered the Colonel. He had just returned from India, had been doing great things there, and was considered rather a distinguished person in Florentine society. I need not stop to describe him. His son is like him. He and I became friends, and met almost daily. It was not till a year afterwards that I knew how pitiful a dupe of this man’s treachery I had been from the very first. We were still in Italy when I made my first discovery; it was one that let in the light upon his character, but did not seriously involve my wife. We fought, and I was wounded. When I recovered, I brought my wife home to Arden. Our year’s retrenchment had left me poorer than when I left home. Your mother’s beauty was a luxury not to be maintained more cheaply at Florence than in Yorkshire.”

There was another pause, and then Marmaduke Lovel went on, in the same bitter tone:

“Within a short time of our return your brother was born. There are things that I can’t even hint to you, Clarissa; but there have been times when the shadow of that man has come between me and my children. Passion has made me unjust. I know that in her worst sin against my love — for I went on loving her to the last — your mother remained what the world calls innocent. But years after I had believed there was an end of all communion between those two, I discovered letters, even stolen meetings — rare, I confess, and never without witnesses, but no less a treason against me. Colonel Fairfax had friends at Holborough, by whose aid he contrived to see my wife. That he urged her to leave me, I know, and that she was steadfast in her refusal to do me that last wrong. But I know too that she loved him. I have read the confession of that which she called her ‘madness’ under her own hand.”

“O, papa, papa, how sad! how dreadful!”

“Within a year or two of your birth she began to fade. From my heart I believe it was this struggle between passion and the last remnant of honour that killed her. I need not tell you the details of my discoveries, some of them made not very long before her death. They led to bitter scenes between us; but I thank God I did believe her protestations of innocence, and that I kept her under my own roof. There were others not so merciful. Colonel Fairfax’s wife was told of his devotion to mine at Florence, and the duel which ended our acquaintance. She found out something of his subsequent meetings with your mother, and her jealousy brought about a separation. It was managed quietly enough, but not without scandal; and nothing but my determination to maintain my wife’s position could have saved her from utter disgrace. Yes, Clarissa, I loved her to the last, but the misery of that last year was something that no words can tell. She died in my arms, and in her latest hours of consciousness thanked me for what she called my generosity. I went straight from her funeral to London, with a bundle of letters in my pocket, to find Temple Fairfax. What might have happened between us, had we met, I can scarcely guess; but there were no scruples on my side. Fortune favoured him, however; he had sailed for India a few weeks before, in command of his regiment. I had some thoughts of following him even there, but abandoned the notion. My wrongs would keep. I waited for his return, but that never happened. He was killed in Afghanistan, and carried to his Indian grave the reputation of one of the worst men and best soldiers who ever bore the king’s commission.”

This was all. To speak of these things had profoundly agitated Marmaduke Lovel; but a sudden impulse had moved this man, who was apt to be so silent about himself and his own feelings, and he had been in a manner constrained to tell this story.

“You can understand now, I suppose, Clarissa,” he said coldly, after another pause, “why this young man, George Fairfax, is hateful to me.”

“Yes, papa. It is only natural that you should be prejudiced against him. Does he know, do you think ——” she faltered and stopped, with a bitter sense of shame.

“Does he know what?”

“About the past?”

“Of course he must know. Do you suppose his mother has not told him her grievances?”

Clarissa remembered Mrs. Fairfax’s cold manner, and understood the reason of that tacit avoidance which had wounded her so deeply. She too, no doubt, was hateful; as hateful to the injured wife of Colonel Fairfax as his son could be to her father.

“And now, Clarissa,” said Mr. Lovel, “remember that any acquaintance between you and George Fairfax is most repugnant to me. I have told you this story in order that there may be no possibility of any mistake between us. God only knows what it costs a man to open old wounds as I have opened mine to-night. Only this afternoon you affected a considerable regard for me, which I promised to return to the best of my power. All that is a dead letter if you hold any communion with this man. Choose him for your friend, and renounce me for your father. You cannot have both.”

“He is not my friend, papa; he is nothing to me. Even it there were no such thing as this prejudice on your part, I am not so dishonourably as to forget that Mr. Fairfax is engaged to Lady Geraldine.”

“And you promise that there shall be no more meetings, no repetition of the kind of thing I saw to-night?”

“I promise, papa, that of my own free will I will never see him again. Our meeting to-night was entirely accidental.”

“On your part, perhaps; but was it so on his?”

“I cannot tell that, papa.”

Mr. Lovel felt himself obliged to be satisfied with this answer. It seemed to him a hard thing that the son of his enemy should arise thus to torment him — an accident that might have tempted a superstitious man to think that an evil fate brooded over his house; and Marmaduke Lovel’s mind, being by no means strongly influenced by belief, was more or less tainted with superstition. Looked at from any point of view, it was too provoking that this man should cross Clarissa’s pathway at the very moment when it was all-important to her destiny that her heart should be untouched, her fancy unfettered.

“If nothing comes of this Granger business I shall take her abroad,” Mr. Lovel said to himself; “anything to get her out of the way of a Fairfax.”

He drank his tea in silence, meditating upon that little scene in the moonlight, and stealing a look at his daughter every now and then, as she sat opposite to him pretending to read. He could see that the open book was the merest pretence, and that Clarissa was profoundly agitated. Was it her mother’s story that had moved her so deeply, or that other newer story which George Fairfax might have been whispering to her just now in the lonely moonlit road? Mr. Lovel was disturbed by this question, but did not care to seek any farther explanation from his daughter. There are some subjects that will not bear discussion.

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