The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 20

Model Villagers.

They went to luncheon in a secondary dining room — a comfortable apartment, which served pleasantly for all small gatherings, and had that social air so impossible in a stately banqueting-chamber — a perfect gem of a room, hung with gilt leather, relieved here and there by a choice picture in a frame of gold and ebony. Here the draperies were of a dark crimson cut velvet, which the sunshine brightened into ruby. The only ornaments in this room were a pair of matchless Venetian girandoles on the mantelpiece, and a monster Palissy dish, almost as elaborate in design as the shield of Achilles, on the oaken buffet.

The luncheon was not a very genial repast; Miss Granger maintained a polite sulkiness; Clarissa had not yet recovered from the agitation which Mr. Granger’s most unexpected avowal had occasioned; and even the strong man himself felt his nerves shaken, and knew that he was at a disadvantage, between the daughter who suspected him and the woman who had all but refused his hand. He did his utmost to seem at his ease, and to beguile his daughter into a more cordial bearing; but there was a gloom upon that little party of three which was palpably oppressive. It seemed in vain to struggle against the dismal influence. Mr. Granger felt relieved when, just at the close of the meal, his butler announced that Mr. Tillott was in the drawing-room. Mr. Tillott was a mild inoffensive young man of High-church tendencies, the curate of Arden.

“I asked Tillott to go round the schools with us this afternoon,” Mr. Granger said to his daughter in an explanatory tone. “I know what an interest he takes in the thing, and I thought it would be pleasanter.”

“You are very kind, papa,” Miss Granger replied, with implacable stiffness; “but I really don’t see what we want with Mr. Tillott, or with you either. There’s not the least reason that we should take you away from your usual occupations; and you are generally so busy of an afternoon. Miss Lovel and I can see everything there is to be seen, without any escort; and I have always heard you complain that my schools bored you.”

“Well, perhaps I may have had rather an overdose of the philanthropic business occasionally, my dear,” answered Mr. Granger, with a good-humoured laugh. “However, I have set my heart upon seeing how all your improvements affect Miss Lovel. She has such a peculiar interest in the place, you see, and is so identified with the people. I thought you’d be pleased to have Tillott. He’s really a good fellow, and you and he always seem to have so much to talk about.”

On this they all repaired to the drawing-room, where Mr. Tillott the curate was sitting at a table, turning over the leaves of an illuminated psalter, and looking altogether as if he had just posed himself for a photograph.

To this mild young man Miss Granger was in a manner compelled to relax the austerity of her demeanour. She even smiled in a frosty way as she shook hands with him; but she had no less a sense of the fact that her father had out-manoeuvred her, and that this invitation to Mr. Tillott was a crafty design whereby he intended to have Clarissa all to himself during that afternoon.

“I am sorry you could not come to luncheon with us, Tillott,” said Mr. Granger in his hearty way. “Or are you sure, by the bye, that you have taken luncheon? We can go back to the dining-room and hear the last news of the parish while you wash down some game-pie with a glass or two of the old madeira.”

“Thanks, you are very good; but I never eat meat on Wednesdays or Fridays. I had a hard-boiled egg and some cocoa at half-past seven this morning, and shall take nothing more till sunset. I had duties at Swanwick which detained me till within the last half-hour, or I should have been very happy to have eaten a biscuit with you at your luncheon.”

“Upon my word, Tillott, you are the most indefatigable of men; but I really wish you High-church people had not such a fancy for starving yourselves. So much expenditure of brain-power must involve a waste of the coarser material. Now, Sophy, if you and Miss Lovel are ready, we may as well start.”

They went out into the sunny quadrangle, where the late roses were blooming with all their old luxuriance. How well Clarissa remembered them in those days when they had been the sole glory of the neglected place! In spite of Sophia, who tried her hardest to prevent the arrangement, Mr. Granger contrived that he and Clarissa should walk side by side, and that Mr. Tillott should completely absorb his daughter. This the curate was by no means indisposed to do; for, if the youthful saint had a weakness, it lay in the direction of vanity. He sincerely admired the serious qualities of Miss Granger’s mind, and conceived that, blest with such a woman and with the free use of her fortune, he might achieve a rare distinction for his labours in tins fold, to say nothing of placing himself on the high-road to a bishopric. Nor was he inclined to think Miss Granger indifferent to his own merits, or that the conquest would be by any means an impossible one. It was a question of time, he thought; the sympathy between them was too strong not to take some higher development. He thought of St. Francis de Sales and Madame de Chantal, and fancied himself entrusted with the full guidance of Miss Granger’s superior mind.

They walked across the park to a small gothic gateway, which had been made since the close of Marmaduke Lovel’s reign. Just outside this stood the chapel of Mr. Granger’s building, and the new schools, also gothic, and with that bran-new aspect against which architecture can do nothing. They would be picturesque, perhaps, ten years hence. To-day they had the odour of the architect’s drawing-board.

Beyond the schools there were some twenty cottages, of the same modern gothic, each habitation more or less borne down and in a manner extinguished by its porch and chimney. If the rooms had been in reasonable proportion to the chimneys, the cottages would have been mansions; but gothic chimneys are pleasing objects, and the general effect was good. These twenty cottages formed the beginning of Mr. Granger’s model village — a new Arden, which was to arise on this side of the Court. They were for the most part inhabited by gardeners and labourers more or less dependent on Arden Court, and it had been therefore an easy matter for Miss Granger to obtain a certain deference to her wishes from the tenants.

The inspection of the schools and cottages was rather a tedious business. Sophia would not let her companions off with an iota less than the whole thing. Her model pupils were trotted out and examined in the Scriptures — always in Kings and Chronicles — and evinced a familiarity with the ways of Jezebel and Rehoboam that made Clarissa blush at the thought of her own ignorance. Then there came an exhibition of plain needlework, excruciatingly suggestive of impaired eyesight; then fancy-work, which Miss Granger contemplated with a doubtful air, as having a frivolous tendency; and then the school mistress’s parlour and kitchen were shown, and displayed so extreme a neatness that made one wonder where she lived; and then the garden, where the heels of one’s boots seemed a profanation; and then, the schools and schoolhouses being exhausted, there came the cottages.

How Clarissa’s heart bled for the nice clean motherly women who were put through their paces for Miss Granger’s glorification, and were fain to confess that their housekeeping had been all a delusion and a snare till that young lady taught them domestic economy! How she pitied them as the severe Sophia led the way into sacred corners, and lifted the lids of coppers and dustholes, and opened cupboard-doors, and once, with an aspect of horror, detected an actual cobweb lurking in an angle of the whitewashed wall! Clarissa could not admire things too much, in order to do away with some of the bitterness of that microscopic survey. Then there was such cross-examination about church-going, and the shortcomings of the absent husbands were so ruthlessly dragged into the light of day. The poor wives blushed to own that these unregenerate spirits had still a lurking desire for an occasional social evening at the Coach and Horses, in spite of the charms of a gothic chimney, and a porch that was massive enough for the dungeon of a mediaeval fortress. Miss Granger and the curate played into each other’s hands, and between the two the model villagers underwent a kind of moral dissection. It was dreary work altogether; and Daniel Granger had been guilty of more than one yawn before it was all over, even though he had the new delight of being near Clarissa all the time. It was finished at last. One woman, who in her benighted state had known Miss Lovel, had shown herself touched by the sight of her.

“You never come anigh me now, miss,” she said tenderly, “though I’ve knowed you ever since you was a little girl; and it would do my heart good to see your sweet face here once in a way.”

“You’ve better friends now, you see, Mrs. Rice,” Clarissa answered gently. “I could do so little for you. But I shall be pleased to look in upon you now and then.”

“Do’ee, now, miss; me and my master will be right down glad to see you. However kind new friends may be,” this was said with a conciliatory curtsey to Miss Granger, “we can’t forget old friends. We haven’t forgot your goodness when my boy Bill was laid up with the fever, miss, and how you sat beside his bed and read to him.”

It was at this juncture that Sophia espied another cobweb, after which the little party left this the last of the cottages, and walked back to the park, Daniel Granger still by Clarissa’s side. He did not make the faintest allusion to that desperate avowal of the morning. He was indeed cruelly ashamed of his precipitation, feeling that he had gone the very way to ruin his cause. All that afternoon, while his daughter had been peering into coppers and washing-tubs and dustholes, he had been meditating upon the absurdity of his conduct, and hating himself for his folly. He was not a man who suffered from a mean opinion of his own merits. On the contrary, in all the ordinary commerce of life he fancied himself more than the equal of the best among his fellow-men. He had never wished himself other than what he was, or mistrusted his own judgment, or doubted that he, Daniel Granger, was a very important atom in the scheme of creation. But in this case it was different. He knew himself to be a grave middle-aged man, with none of those attributes that might have qualified him to take a young woman’s heart by storm; and as surely as he knew this, he also knew himself to be passionately in love. All the happiness of his future life depended on this girl who walked by his side, with her pale calm face and deep hazel eyes. If she should refuse him, all would be finished. He had dreamed his dream, and life could never any more be what it had been for him. The days were past in which, he himself had been all-sufficient for his own happiness. But, though he repented that hasty betrayal of his feelings, he did not altogether despair. It is not easy to reduce a man of his age and character to the humble level of a despairing lover. He had so much to bestow, and could not separate himself in his own mind from those rich gifts of fortune which went along with him. No, there was every chance of ultimate success, he thought, in spite of his rashness of that morning. He had only to teach himself patience — to bide his time.

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