The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 22

Taking the Pledge.

Clarissa had a visitor next day. She was clipping and trimming the late roses in the bright autumnal afternoon, when Lady Laura Armstrong’s close carriage drove up to the gate, with my lady inside it, in deep mourning. The visit was unexpected, and startled Clarissa a little, with a sensation that was not all pleasure. She could scarcely be otherwise than glad to see so kind a friend; but there were reasons why the advent of any one from Hale Castle should be somewhat painful to her. That meeting with George Fairfax by the churchyard had never been quite out of her mind since it happened. His looks and his words had haunted her perpetually, and now she was inclined to ascribe Lady Laura’s coming to some influence of his. She had a guilty feeling, as if she had indeed tried to steal Lady Geraldine’s lover.

Lady Laura greeted her with all the old cordiality. There was a relief in that; and Clarissa’s face, which had been very pale when she opened the gate to admit her visitor, brightened a little as my lady kissed her.

“My dear child, I am so glad to see you again!” exclaimed Lady Laura. “I am not supposed to stir outside the Castle in all this dreary week. Poor papa is to be buried to-morrow; but I wanted so much to see you on a most important business; so I ordered the brougham and drove here, with the blinds down all the way; and I’m sure, Clary, you won’t think that I feel papa’s loss any less because I come to see you just now. But I declare you are looking as pale and wan as any of us at Hale. You have not recovered that dreadful shock yet.”

“It was indeed a dreadful shock, dear Lady Laura,” said Clarissa; and then in a less steady tone she went on: “Lady Geraldine is better, I hope?”

“Geraldine is what she always is, Clary — a marvel of calmness. And yet I know she feels this affliction very deeply. She was papa’s favourite, you know, and had a most extraordinary influence over him. He was so proud of her, poor dear!”

“Won’t you come into the house, Lady Laura?”

“By and by, just to pay my respects to your papa. But we’ll stay in the garden for the present, please, dear. I have something most particular to say to you.”

Clarissa’s heart beat a little quicker. This most particular something was about George Fairfax: she felt very sure of that.

“I am going to be quite candid with you, Clary,” Lady Laura began presently, when they were in a narrow walk sheltered by hazel bushes, the most secluded bit of the garden. “I shall treat you just as if you were a younger sister of my own. I think I have almost a right to do that; for I’m sure I love you as much as if you were my sister.”

And here Lady Laura’s plump little black-gloved hand squeezed Clarissa’s tenderly.

“You have been all goodness to me,” the girl answered; “I can never be too grateful to you.”

“Nonsense, Clary; I will not have that word gratitude spoken between us. I only want you to understand that I am sincerely attached to you, and that I am the last person in the world to hold your happiness lightly. And now, dearest child, tell me the truth — have you seen George Fairfax since you left Hale?”

Clarissa flushed crimson. To be asked for the truth, as if, under any circumstances, she would have spoken anything less than truth about George Fairfax! And yet that unwonted guilty feeling clung to her, and she was not a little ashamed to confess that she had seen him.

“Yes, Lady Laura.”

“I thought so. I was sure of it. He came here on the very day you left — the day which was to have been his wedding-day.”

“It was on that evening that I saw him; but he did not come to this house. I was sitting outside the churchyard sketching when I saw him.”

“He did not come to the house — no; but he came to Arden on purpose to see you,” Lady Laura answered eagerly. “I am sure of that.”

Unhappily Clarissa could not deny the fact. He had told her only too plainly that he had come to Arden determined to see her.

“Now, Clary, let us be perfectly frank. Before my sister Geraldine came to Hale, I told you that the attachment between her and George Fairfax was one of long standing; that I was sure her happiness was involved in the matter, and how rejoiced I was at the turn things had taken. I told you all this, Clary; but I did not tell you that in the years we had known him Mr. Fairfax had been wild and unsteady; that, while always more or less devoted to Geraldine, he had had attachments elsewhere — unacknowledged attachments of no very creditable nature; such affairs as one only hears of by a side wind, as it were. How much Geraldine may have known of this, I cannot tell. I heard the scandals, naturally enough, through Fred; but she may have heard very little. I said nothing of this to you, Clarissa; it was not necessary that I should say anything to depreciate the character of my future brother-in-law, and of a man I really liked.”

“Of course not,” faltered Clarissa.

“Of course not. I was only too happy to find that George had become a reformed person, and that he had declared himself so soon after the change in his fortunes. I was convinced that Geraldine loved him, and that she could only be really happy as his wife. I am convinced of that still; but I know that nothing on earth could induce her to marry him if she had the least doubt of his devotion to herself.”

“I hope that she may never have occasion to doubt that, Lady Laura,” answered Clarissa. It was really all she could find to say under the circumstances.

“I hope not, and I think not, Clary. He has been attached to my sister so long — he proposed to her in such a deliberate manner — that I can scarcely imagine he would prove really inconstant. But I know that he is a slave to a pretty face, and fatally apt to be ruled by the impulse of the moment. It would be very hard now, Clary, if some transient fancy of that kind were to ruin the happiness of two lives — would it not, my dear?”

“It would be very hard.”

“O, Clarissa, do pray be candid. You must understand what I mean. That wretched man has been making love to you?”

“You ought not to ask me such a question, Lady Laura,” answered Clarissa, sorely perplexed by this straight attack.

“You must know that I should respect Lady Geraldine’s position — that I should be incapable of forgetting her claims upon Mr. Fairfax. Whatever he may have said to me has been, the merest folly. He knows that I consider it in that light, and I have refused ever to see him again if I can possibly help it.”

“That’s right, dear!” cried Lady Laura, with a pleased look. “I knew that you would come out of the business well, in spite of everything. Of course you can care nothing for this foolish fellow; but I know Geraldine’s sensitive nature so well, and that if she had the faintest suspicion of George’s conduct, the whole thing would be off for ever — an attachment of many years’ standing, think of that, Clary! Now I want you to promise me that, come what may, you will give Mr. Fairfax no encouragement. Without encouragement this foolish fancy will die out very quickly. Of course, if it were possible you could care for him, I would not come here to ask you such a thing as this. You would have a right to consider your own happiness before my sister’s. But as that is out of the question, and the man is almost a stranger to you ——”

“Out of the question — almost a stranger.” Clarissa remembered that night in the railway carriage, and it seemed to her as if she and George Fairfax had never been strangers.

“It is so easy for you to give me this promise. Tell me now, Clary dear, that you will not have anything to say to him, if he should contrive to see you again.”

“I will not, Lady Laura.”

“Is that a promise, now, Clarissa?”

“A most sacred promise.”

Lady Armstrong kissed her young friend in ratification of the compact.

“You are a dear generous-minded girl,” she said, “and I feel as if I had saved my sister’s happiness by this bold course. And now tell me what you have been doing since you left us. Have you seen anything more of the Grangers?”

Questioned thus, Clarissa was fain to give her friend some slight account of her day at Arden.

“It must have affected you very much to see the old place. Ah, Clary, it is you who ought to be mistress there, instead of Miss Granger!”

Clarissa blushed, remembering that awkward avowal of Daniel Granger’s.

“I am not fit to be mistress of such, a place,” she said. “I could never manage things as Miss Granger does.”

“Not in that petty way, perhaps. I should not care to see you keeping accounts and prying into grocery-lists as she does. You would govern your house on a grander scale. I should like to see you the owner of a great house”

“That is a thing you are never likely to see, Lady Laura.”

“I am not so sure of that. I have an idea that there is a great fortune lying at your feet, if you would only stoop to pick it up. But girls are so foolish; they never know what is really for their happiness; and if by any chance there should happen to be some passing folly, some fancy of the moment, to come between them and good fortune, everything is lost.”

She looked at Clarissa closely as she said this. The girl’s face had been changing from red to pale throughout the interview. She was very pale now, but quite self-possessed, and had left off blushing. Had she not given her promise — pledged away her freedom of action with regard to George Fairfax — and thus made an end of everything between them? She felt very calm, but she felt as if she had made a sacrifice. As for Daniel Granger, any reference to him and his admiration for her touched upon the regions of the absurd. Nothing — no friendly manoeuvring of Lady Laura’s, no selfish desires of her father’s — could ever induce her to listen for a moment to any proposition from that quarter.

She asked her visitor to go into the house presently, in order to put an end to the conversation; and Lady Laura went in to say a few words to Mr. Lovel. They were very melancholy words — all about the dead, and his innumerable virtues — which seemed really at this stage of his history to have been alloyed by no human frailty or shortcoming. Mr. Lovel was sympathetic to the last degree — sighed in unison with his visitor, and brushed some stray drops of moisture from his own eyelids when Lady Laura wept. And then he went out to the carriage with my lady, and saw her drive away, with the blinds discreetly lowered as before.

“What did she come about, Clarissa?” he asked his daughter, while they were going back to the house.

“Only to see me, papa.”

“Only to see you! She must have had something very important to say to you, I should think, or she would scarcely have come at such a time.”

He glanced at his daughter sharply as he said this, but did not question her farther, though he would have liked to do so. He had a shrewd suspicion that this visit of Lady Laura’s bore some reference to George Fairfax. Had there been a row at the Castle? he wondered, and had my lady come to scold her protégée?

“I don’t suppose they would show her much mercy if she stood in the way of their schemes,” he said to himself. “His brother’s death makes this young Fairfax a very decent match. The property must be worth five or six thousand a year — five or six thousand. I wonder what Daniel Granger’s income is? Nearer fifty thousand than five, if I may believe what I have been told.”

Mr. Granger and his daughter called at Mill Cottage next day: the fair Sophia with a somewhat unwilling aspect, though she was decently civil to Mr. and Miss Lovel. She had protested against the flagrant breach of etiquette in calling on people who had just dined with her, instead of waiting until those diners had discharged their obligation by calling on her; but in vain. Her father had brought her to look at some of Clarissa’s sketches, he told his friends.

“I want her to take more interest in landscape art, Mr. Lovel,” he said, “and I think your daughter’s example may inspire her. Miss Lovel seems to me to have a real genius for landscape. I saw some studies of ferns and underwood that she had done at Hale — full of freedom and of feeling. Sophia doesn’t draw badly, but she wants feeling.”

The young lady thus coldly commended gave her head rather a supercilious toss as she replied —

“You must remember that I have higher duties than sketching, papa,” she said; “I cannot devote all my existence to ferns and blackberry-bushes.”

“O, yes, of course; you’ve your schools, and that kind of thing; but you might give more time to art than you do, especially if you left the management of the house more to Mrs. Plumptree. I think you waste time and energy upon details.”

“I hope I know my duty as mistress of a large establishment, papa, and that I shall never feel the responsibility of administering a large income any less than I do at present. It would be a bad thing for you if I became careless of your interests in order to roam about sketching toadstools and blackberry-bushes.”

Mr. Granger looked as if he were rather doubtful upon this point, but it was evidently wisest not to push the discussion too far.

“Will you be so kind as to show us your portfolio, Miss Lovel?” he asked.

“Of course she will,” answered her father promptly; “she will only be too happy to exhibit her humble performances to Miss Granger. Bring your drawing-book, Clary.”

Clarissa would have given the world to refuse. A drawing-book is in some measure a silent confidante — almost a journal. She did not know how far her random sketches — some of them mere vagabondage of the pencil, jotted down half unconsciously — might betray the secrets of her inner life to the cold eyes of Miss Granger.

“I’d better bring down my finished drawings, papa; those that were mounted for you at Belforêt,” she said.

“Nonsense, child; Mr. Granger wants to see your rough sketches, not those stiff schoolgirl things, which I suppose were finished by your drawing-master. Bring that book you are always scribbling in. The girl has a kind of passion for art,” said Mr. Lovel, rather fretfully; “she is seldom without a pencil in her hand. What are you looking for, Clarissa, in that owlish way? There’s your book on that table.”

He pointed to the volume — Clarissa’s other self and perpetual companion — the very book she had been sketching in when George Fairfax surprised her by the churchyard wall. There was no help for it, no disobeying that imperious finger of her father’s; so she brought the book meekly and laid it open before Sophia Granger.

The father and daughter turned over the leaves together. It was book of “bits:” masses of foliage, bramble, and bird’s-nest; here the head of an animal, there the profile of a friend; anon a bit of still life; a vase of flowers, with the arabesqued drapery of a curtain for a background; everywhere the evidence of artistic feeling and a practised hand, everywhere a something much above a schoolgirl’s art.

Miss Granger looked through the leaves with an icy air. She was obliged to say, “Very pretty,” or “Very clever,” once in a way; but this cold praise evidently cost her an effort. Not so her father. He was interested in every page, and criticised everything with a real knowledge of what he was talking about, which made Clarissa feel that he was at least no pretender in his love of art; that he was not a man who bought pictures merely because he was rich and picture-buying was the right thing to do.

They came presently to the pages Clarissa had covered at Hale Castle — bits of familiar landscape, glimpses of still life in the Castle rooms, and lightly-touched portraits of the Castle guests. There was one head that appeared very much oftener than others, and Clarissa felt herself blushing a deeper red every time Mr. Granger paused to contemplate this particular likeness.

He lingered longer over each of these sketches, with rather a puzzled air, and though the execution of these heads was very spirited, he forbore to praise.

“There is one face here that I see a good deal of, Miss Lovel,” he said at last. “I think it is Mr. Fairfax, is it not?”

Clarissa looked at a profile of George Fairfax dubiously.

“Yes, I believe I meant that for Mr. Fairfax; his is a very easy face to draw, much easier than Lady Geraldine’s, though her features are so regular. All my portraits of her are failures.”

“I have only seen one attempt at Lady Geraldine’s portrait in this book, Miss Lovel,” said Sophia.

“I have some more on loose sheets of paper, somewhere; and then I generally destroy my failures, if they are quite hopeless.”

“Mr. Fairfax would be quite flattered if he could see how often you have sketched him,” Sophia continued blandly.

Clarissa thought of the leaf George Fairfax had cut out of her drawing-book; a recollection which did not serve to diminish her embarrassment.

“I daresay Mr. Fairfax is quite vain enough without any flattery of that kind,” said Mr. Lovel. “And now that you have exhibited your rough sketches, you can bring those mounted drawings, if you like, Clarissa.”

This was a signal for the closing of the book, which Clarissa felt was intended for her relief. She put the volume back upon the little side-table from which she had taken it, and ran upstairs to fetch her landscapes. These Miss Granger surveyed in the same cold tolerant manner with which she had surveyed the sketch-book — the manner of a person who could have done much better in that line herself, if she had cared to do anything so frivolous.

After this Mr. Lovel and his daughter called at the Court; and the acquaintance between the two families being thus formally inaugurated by a dinner and a couple of morning calls, Mr. Granger came very often to the Cottage, unaccompanied by the inflexible Sophia, who began to feel that her father’s infatuation was not to be lessened by any influence of hers, and that she might just as well let him take his own way. It was an odious unexpected turn which events had taken; but there was no help for it. Her confidential maid, Hannah Warman, reminded her of that solemn truth whenever she ventured to touch upon this critical subject.

“If your pa was a young man, miss, or a man that had admired a great many ladies in his time, it would be quite different,” said the astute Warman; “but never having took notice of any one before, and taking such particular notice of this young lady, makes it clear to any one that’s got eyes. Depend upon it, miss, it won’t be long before he’ll make her an offer; and it isn’t likely she’ll refuse him — not with a ruined pa to urge her on!”

“I suppose not,” said Sophia disconsolately.

“And after all, miss, he might have made a worse choice. If he were to marry one of those manoeuvring middle-aged widows we’ve met so often out visiting, you’d have had a regular stepmother, that would have taken every bit of power out of your hands, and treated you like a child. But Miss Lovel seems a very nice young lady, and being so near your own age will be quite a companion for you.”

“I don’t want such a companion. There is no sympathy between Miss Lovel and me; you ought to know that, Warman. Her tastes are the very reverse of mine, in every way. It’s not possible we can ever get on well together; and if papa marries her, I shall feel that he is quite lost to me. Besides, how could I ever have any feeling but contempt for a girl who would marry for money? and of course Miss Lovel could only marry papa for the sake of his money.”

“It’s done so often nowadays. And sometimes those matches turn out very well — better than some of the love-matches, I’ve heard say.”

“It’s no use discussing this hateful business, Warman,” Miss Granger answered haughtily. “Nothing could change my opinion.”

And in this inflexible manner did Daniel Granger’s daughter set her face against the woman he had chosen from among all other women for his wife. He felt that it was so, and that there would be a hard battle for him to fight in the future between these two influences; but no silent opposition of his daughter’s could weaken his determination to win Clarissa Lovel, if she was to be won by him.

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