The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 19

Mr. Granger is Precipitate.

Clarissa had little sleep that night. The image of George Fairfax, and of that dead soldier whom she pictured darkly like him, haunted her all through the slow silent hours. Her mother’s story had touched her to the heart; but her sympathies were with her father. Here was a new reason why she should shut her heart against Lady Geraldine’s lover, if any reason were wanted to strengthen that sense of honour which reigns supreme in a girl’s unsullied soul. In her conviction as to what was right she never wavered. She felt herself very weak where this man was concerned — weak enough to love him in spite of reason and honour; but she did not doubt her power to keep that guilty secret, and to hide her weakness from George Fairfax.

She had almost forgotten her engagement at Arden Court when her father came down to his late breakfast, and found her sketching at a little table near the window, with the affectionate Ponto nestling close at her side.

“I thought you would be dressing for your visit by this time, Clary,” he said very graciously.

“My visit, papa? O, yes, to the Court,” she replied, with a faint sigh of resignation. “I had very nearly forgotten all about it. I was to be there between twelve and one, I think. I shall have plenty of time to give you your breakfast. It’s not eleven yet.”

“Be sure you dress yourself becomingly. I don’t want you to appear at a disadvantage compared with the heiress.”

“I’ll put on my prettiest dress, if you like, papa; but I can’t wear such silks and laces as Miss Granger wears.”

“You will have such things some day, I daresay, and set them off better than Miss Granger. She is not a bad-looking young woman — good complexion, fine figure, and so on — but as stiff as a poker.”

“I think she is mentally stiff, papa; she is a sort of person I could never get on with. How I wish you were coming with me this morning!”

“I couldn’t manage it, Clarissa. The schools and the model villagers would be more than I could stand. But at your age you ought to be interested in that sort of thing; and you really ought to get on with Miss Granger.”

It was half-past twelve when Miss Lovel opened the gate leading into Arden Park — the first time that she had ever opened it; though she had stood so often leaning on that rustic boundary, and gazing into the well-known woodland, with fond sad looks. There was an actual pain at her heart as she entered that unforgotten domain; and she felt angry with Daniel Granger for having forced this visit upon her.

“I suppose he is determined that we shall pay homage to his wealth, and admire his taste, and drink the bitter cup of humiliation to the very dregs. If he had any real delicacy of feeling, he would understand our reluctance to any intimacy with him.”

While she was thinking of Mr. Granger in this unfriendly spirit, a step sounded on the winding path before her, and looking up, she perceived the subject of her thoughts coming quickly towards her. Was there ever such an intrusive man? She blushed rosy red with vexation.

He came to her, with his hat in his hand, looking very big and stiff and counting-house like among the flickering shadows of forest trees; not an Arcadian figure by any means, but with a certain formal business-like-dignity about him, for all that; not a man to be ridiculed or despised.

“I am glad you have not forgotten your promise to come early, Miss Lovel,” he said, in his strong sonorous voice. “I was just walking over to the cottage to remind you. Sophia is quite ready to do the honours of her schools. But I shall not let her carry you off till after luncheon; I want to show you my improvements. I had set my heart on your seeing the Court for the first time — since its restoration — under my guidance.”

“Pompous, insufferable parvenu,” thought Clarissa, to whom this desire on Mr. Granger’s part seemed only an odious eagerness to exhibit his wealth. She little knew how much sentiment there was involved in this wish of Daniel Granger’s.

They came into the open part of the park presently, and she was fain to confess, that whatever changes had been made — and the alterations here were not many — had been made with a perfect appreciation of the picturesque. Even the supreme neatness with which the grounds were now kept did not mar their beauty. Fairy-like young plantations of rare specimens of the coniferous tribe had arisen at every available point of the landscape, wherever there had been barrenness before. Here and there the old timber had been thinned a little, always judiciously. No cockney freaks of fancy disfigured the scene. There were no sham ruins, no artificial waterfalls poorly supplied with water, no Chinese pagodas, or Swiss cottages, or gothic hermitages. At one point of the shrubbery where the gloom of cypress and fir was deepest, they came suddenly on a Grecian temple, whose slender marble columns might have gleamed amidst the sacred groves of Diana; and this was the only indulgence Mr. Granger had allowed to an architect’s fancy, Presently, at the end of a wide avenue, a broad alley of turf between double lines of unrivalled beeches, the first glimpse of the Court burst upon Clarissa’s sight — unchanged and beautiful. A man must have been a Goth, indeed, who had altered the outward aspect of the place by a hair’s breadth.

The house was surrounded by a moat, and there was a massive stone gateway, of older date than the Court itself — though that was old — dividing a small prim garden from the park; this gatehouse was a noble piece of masonry, of the purest gothic, rich with the mellow tint of age, and almost as perfect as in the days when some wandering companionship of masons gave the last stroke of their chisels to the delicate tracery of window and parapet.

The Court formed three sides of a quadrangle. A dear old place, lovable rather than magnificent, yet with all the grandeur of the middle ages; a place that might have stood a siege perhaps, but had evidently been built for a home. The garden originally belonging to the house was simplicity itself, and covered scarcely an acre. All round the inner border of the moat there ran a broad terrace-walk, divided by a low stone balustrade from a grassy bank that sloped down to the water. The square plot of ground before the house was laid out in quaint old flower-beds, where the roses seemed, to Clarissa at least, to flourish as they flourished nowhere else. The rest of the garden consisted of lawn and flower-beds, with more roses. There were no trees near the house, and the stables and out-offices, which made a massive pile of building, formed a background to the grave old gothic mansion.

Without, at least, Mr. Granger had respected the past. Clarissa felt relieved by this moderation, and was inclined to think him a little less hateful. So far he had said nothing which could seem to betray a boastful spirit. He had watched her face and listened to her few remarks with a kind of deferential eagerness, as if it had been a matter of vital importance to him that she should approve what he had done. A steward, who had been entrusted with the conduct of alterations and renovations during the absence of his master, could scarcely have appeared more anxious as to the result of his operations.

The great iron gates under the gothic archway stood wide open just as they had been wont to do in Mr. Lovel’s time, and Clarissa and her companion passed into the quiet garden. How well she remembered the neglected air of the place when last she had seen it — the mossgrown walks, the duckweed in the moat, the straggling rose-bushes, everything out of order, from the broken weathercock on one of the gateway towers, to the scraper by the half-glass door in one corner of the quadrangle, which had been, used instead of the chief entrance! It seems natural to a man of decayed fortune to shut up his hall-door and sneak in and out of his habitation by some obscure portal.

Now all was changed; a kind of antique primness, which had no taint of cockney stiffness, pervaded the scene. One might have expected to see Sir Thomas More or Lord Bacon emerge from the massive gothic porch, and stroll with slow step and meditative aspect towards the stone sun-dial that stood in the centre of that square rose-garden. The whole place had an air of doublet and hose. It seemed older to Clarissa than when she had seen it last — older and yet newer, like the palace of the Sleeping Beauty, restored, after a century of decay, to all its original grandeur.

The door under the porch stood open; but there were a couple of men in a sober livery waiting in the hall — footmen who had never been reared in those Yorkshire wilds — men with powdered hair, and the stamp of Grosvenor-square upon them. Those flew to open inner doors, and Clarissa began with wonder to behold the new glories of the mansion. She followed Mr. Granger in silence through dining and billiard-rooms, saloon and picture-gallery, boudoir and music-room, in all of which the Elizabethan air, the solemn grace of a departed age, had been maintained with a marvellous art. Money can do so much; above all, where a man has no bigoted belief in his own taste or capacity, and will put his trust in the intelligence of professional artists. Daniel Granger had done this. He had said to an accomplished architect, “I give you the house of my choice; make it what it was in its best days. Improve wherever you can, but alter as little as possible; and, above all, no modernising.”

Empowered by this carte blanche, the architect had given his soul to dreams of mediaeval splendour and had produced a place which, in its way, was faultless. No matter that some of the carved-oak furniture was fresh from the chisel of the carver, while other things were the spoil of old Belgian churches; that the tapestry in one saloon was as old as the days of its designer, Boucher, and that in the adjoining chamber made on purpose for Arden Court at the Gobelins manufactory of his Imperial Majesty Napoleon III. No matter that the gilt-leather hangings in one room had hung there in the reign of Charles I., while those in another were supplied by a West-end upholsterer. Perfect taste had harmonised every detail; there was not so much as a footstool or a curtain that could have been called an anachronism. Clarissa looked at all these things with a strange sense of wandering somewhere in a dream. It was, and yet was not her old home. There was nothing incongruous. The place scarcely seemed new to her, though everything was altered. It was only as it ought to have been always.

She remembered the bare rooms, the scanty shabby furniture of the Georgian era, the patches and glimpses of faded splendour here and there, the Bond-street prettinesses and fripperies in her mother’s boudoir, which, even in her early girlhood, had grown tawdry and rococo, the old pictures rotting in their tarnished frames; everything with that sordid air of poverty and decay upon it.”

“Well, Miss Lovel,” Daniel Granger said at last, when they had gone through all the chief rooms almost in silence, “do you approve of what has been done?”

“It is beautiful,” Clarissa answered, “most beautiful; but — but it breaks my heart to see it.”

The words were wrung from her somehow. In the next moment she was ashamed of them — it seemed like the basest envy.

“O, pray, pray do not think me mean or contemptible, Mr. Granger,” she said; “it is not that I envy you your house, only it was my home so long, and I always felt its neglect so keenly; and to see it now so beautiful, as I could have only pictured it in my dreams — and even in them I could not fancy it so perfect.”

“It may be your home again, Clarissa, if you care to make it so,” said Mr. Granger, coming very close to her, and with a sudden passion in his voice. “I little thought when I planned this place that it would one day seem worthless to me without one lovely mistress. It is all yours, Clarissa, if you will have it — and the heart of its master, who never thought that it was in his nature to feel what he feels for you.”

He tried to take her hand; but she shrank away from him, trembling a little, and with a frightened look in her face.

“Mr. Granger, O, pray, pray don’t ——”

“For God’s sake don’t tell me that this seems preposterous or hateful to you — that you cannot value the love of a man old enough to be your father. You do not know what it is for a man of my age and my character to love for the first time. I had gone through life heart-whole, Clarissa, till I saw you. Between my wife and me there was never more than liking. She was a good woman, and I respected her, and we got on very well together. That was all. Clarissa, tell me that there is some hope. I ought not to have spoken so soon; I never meant to be such a fool — but the words came in spite of me. O, my dearest, don’t crush me with a point-blank refusal. I know that all this must seem strange to you. Let it pass. Think no more of anything I have said till you know me better — till you find my love is worth having. I believe I fell in love with you that first afternoon in the library at Hale. From that time forth your face haunted me — like some beautiful picture — the loveliest thing I had ever seen, Clarissa.”

“I cannot answer you, Mr. Granger,” she said in a broken voice; “you have shocked and surprised me so much, I——”

“Shocked and surprised you! That seems hard.”

In that very moment it flashed upon her that this was what her father and Lady Laura Armstrong had wished to bring about. She was to win back the lost heritage of Arden Court — win it by the sacrifice of every natural feeling of her heart, by the barter of her very self.

How much more Mr. Granger might have said there is no knowing — for, once having spoken, a man is loth to leave such a subject as this unexhausted — but there came to Clarissa’s relief the rustling sound of a stiff silk dress, announcing the advent of Miss Granger, who sailed towards them through a vista of splendid rooms, with a stately uncompromising air that did not argue the warmest possible welcome for her guest.

“I have been hunting for you everywhere, papa,” she said in an aggrieved tone. “Where have you been hiding Miss Lovel?”

And then she held out her hand and shook hands with Clarissa in the coldest manner in which it was possible for a human being to perform that ceremony. She looked at her father with watchful suspicious eyes as he walked away to one of the windows, not caring that his daughter should see his face just at that moment. There was something, evidently, Sophia thought — something which it concerned her to discover.

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