The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 23

“He’s Sweetest Friend, or Hardest Foe.”

Mr. Granger fell into the habit of strolling across his park, and dropping into the garden of Mill Cottage by that little gate across which Clarissa had so often contemplated the groves and shades of her lost home. He would drop in sometimes in the gloaming, and take a cup of tea in the bright lamplit parlour, where Mr. Lovel dawdled away life over Greek plays, Burton’s Anatomy, and Sir Thomas Browne — a humble apartment, which seemed pleasanter to Mr. Granger under the dominion of that spell which bound him just now, than the most luxurious of his mediaeval chambers. Here he would talk politics with Mr. Lovel, who took a mild interest in the course of public affairs, and whose languid adherence to the Conservative party served to sustain discussion with Daniel Granger, who was a vigorous Liberal.

After tea the visitor generally asked for music; and Clarissa would play her favourite waltzes and mazourkas, while the two gentlemen went on with their conversation. There were not many points of sympathy between the two, perhaps. It is doubtful whether Daniel Granger had ever read a line of a Greek play since his attainment to manhood and independence, though he had been driven along the usual highway of the Classics by expensive tutors, and had a dim remembrance of early drillings in Caesar and Virgil. Burton he had certainly never looked into, nor any of those other English classics which were the delight of Marmaduke Lovel; so the subject of books was a dead letter between them. But they found enough to talk about somehow, and really seemed to get on very tolerably together. Mr. Granger was bent upon standing well with his poor neighbour; and Mr. Lovel appeared by no means displeased by the rapid growth of this acquaintance, from which he had so obstinately recoiled in the past. He took care, however, not to be demonstrative of his satisfaction, and allowed Mr. Granger to feel that at the best he was admitted to Mill Cottage on sufferance, under protest as it were, and as a concession to his own wishes. Yet Mr. Lovel meant all this time that his daughter should be mistress of Arden Court, and that his debts should be paid, and his future comfort provided for out of the ample purse of Daniel Granger.

“I shall go and live on the Continent,” he thought, “when that is all settled. I could not exist as a hanger-on in the house that was once my own, I might find myself a pied à terre in Paris or Vienna, and finish life pleasantly enough among some of the friends I liked when I was young. Six or seven hundred a year would be opulence for a man of my habits.”

Little by little Clarissa came to accept those visits of Mr. Granger’s as a common part of her daily life; but she had not the faintest notion that she was drifting into a position from which it would be difficult by-and-by to escape. He paid her no disagreeable attentions; he never alluded to that unfortunate declaration which she remembered with such a sense of its absurdity. It did not seem unreasonable to suppose that he came to Mill Cottage for no keener delight than a quiet chat with Mr. Lovel about the possibility of a coming war, or the chances of a change in the ministry.

Clarissa had been home from Hale nearly six weeks, and she had neither heard nor seen any more of George Fairfax. So far there had been no temptation for the violation of that sacred pledge which she had given to Lady Laura Armstrong. His persistence did not amount to much evidently; his ardour was easily checked; he had sworn that night that she should see him, should listen to him, and six weeks had gone by without his having made the faintest attempt to approach her. It was best, of course, that it should be so — an unqualified blessing for the girl whose determination to be true to herself and her duty was so deeply fixed; and yet she felt a little wounded, a little humiliated, as if she had been tricked by the common phrases of a general wooer — duped into giving something where nothing had been given to her.

“Lady Laura might well talk about his transient folly,” she said to herself. “It has not lasted very long. She need scarcely have taken the trouble to be uneasy about it.”

There had been one brief note for Clarissa from the mistress of Hale Castle, announcing her departure for Baden with Mr. Armstrong, who was going to shoot capercailzies in the Black Forest. Lady Geraldine, who was very much shaken by her father’s death, was to go with them. There was not a word about Mr. Fairfax, and Clarissa had no idea as to his whereabouts. He had gone with the Baden party most likely, she told herself.

It was near the close of October. The days were free from rain or blusterous winds, but dull and gray. The leaves were falling silently in the woods about Arden, and the whole scene wore that aspect of subdued mournfulness which is pleasant enough to the light of heart, but very sad to those who mourn. Clarissa Lovel was not light-hearted. She had discovered of late that there was something wanting in her life. The days were longer and drearier than they used to be. Every day she awoke with a faint sense of expectation that was like an undefined hope; something would come to pass, something would happen to her before the day was done, to quicken the sluggish current of her life; and at nightfall, when the uneventful day had passed in its customary blankness, her heart would grow very heavy. Her father watched her somewhat anxiously at this crisis of her life, and was inwardly disturbed on perceiving her depression.

She went out into the garden alone one evening after dinner, as it was her wont to do almost every evening, leaving Mr. Lovel dozing luxuriously in his easy-chair by the fire — she went out alone in the chill gray dusk, and paced the familiar walks, between borders in which there were only pale autumnal flowers, chrysanthemums and china asters of faint yellow and fainter purple. Even the garden looked melancholy in this wan light, Clarissa thought. She made the circuit of the small domain, walked up and down the path by the mill-stream two or three times, and then went into the leafless orchard, where the gnarled old trees cast their misshapen shadows on the close-cropped grass. A week-old moon had just risen, pale in the lessening twilight. The landscape had a cold shadowy beauty of its own; but to-night everything seemed wan and cheerless to Clarissa.

She was near the gate leading into Arden Park, when she heard a crackling of withered leaves, the sound of an approaching footstep. It was Mr. Granger, of course. She gave a sigh of resignation. Another evening of the pattern which had grown so familiar to her, that it seemed almost as if Mr. Granger must have been dropping in of an evening all her life. The usual talk of public matters — the leaders in that day’s Times, and so on. The usual request for a little music; the usual inquiries about her recent artistic studies. It was as monotonous as the lessons she had learned at Madame Marot’s seminary.

“Is my life to go on like that for ever?” she asked herself.

The step came a little nearer. Surely it was lighter and quicker than Daniel Granger’s — it had a sharp martial sound; it was like a step she had learned to know very well in the gardens of Hale Castle.

“He is at Baden,” she said to herself.

But the beating of her heart grew faster in spite of that tranquillizing assurance. She heard an unaccustomed hand trying the fastening of the gate, then a bolt withdrawn, the sharp light step upon the turf behind her, and in the next moment George Fairfax was by her side, among the weird shadows of the orchard trees.

He tried to draw her towards him, with the air of an accepted lover.

“My darling!” he said, “I knew I should find you here. I had a fancy that you would be here, waiting for me in the pale moonlight.”

Clarissa laughed — rather an artificial little laugh — but she felt the situation could only be treated lightly. The foolish passionate heart was beating so fast all the time, and the pale face might have told so much, if the light of the new-risen moon had not been dim as yet.

“How long do you suppose I have been waiting at this spot for you, Mr. Fairfax?” she asked lightly. “For six weeks?”

“Six weeks! Yes, it is six weeks since I saw you. It might be six years, if I were to measure the time by my own impatience. I have been at Nice, Clarissa, almost ever since that night we parted.”

“At Nice! with Lady Laura and Lady Geraldine, I suppose, I thought they were going to Baden.”

“They are at Baden; but I have not been with them. I left England with my mother, who had a very bad attack of her chronic asthma earlier than usual this year, and was ordered off to the South of France, where she is obliged to spend all her winters, poor soul. I went with her, and stayed till she was set up again in some measure. I was really uneasy about her; and it was a good excuse for getting away from Hale.”

Clarissa murmured some conventional expression of sympathy, but that was all.

“My darling,” said George Fairfax, taking her cold hand in his — she tried to withdraw it, but it was powerless in that firm grasp —“My darling, you know why I have come here; and you know now why my coming has been so long delayed. I could not write to you. The Fates are against us, Clarissa, and I do not expect much favour from your father. So I feared that a letter might do us mischief, and put off everything till I could come, I said a few words to Laura Armstrong before I left the Castle — not telling her very much, but giving her a strong hint of the truth. I don’t think she’ll be surprised by anything I may do; and my letters to Geraldine have all been written to prepare the way for our parting. I know she will be generous; and if my position with regard to her is rather a despicable one, I have done all I could to make the best of it. I have not made things worse by deceit or double-dealing. I should have boldly asked for my freedom before this, but I hear such bad accounts of poor Geraldine, who seems to be dreadfully grieved by her father’s loss, that I have put off all idea of any direct explanation for the present. I am not the less resolved, however, Clarissa.”

Miss Lovel turned her face towards him for the first time, and looked at him with a proud steady gaze. She had given her promise, and was not afraid that anything, not even his tenderest, most passionate pleading, could ever tempt her to break it; but she knew more and more that she loved him — that it was his absence and silence which, had made her life so blank, that his coming was the event she had waited and watched for day after day.

“Why should you break faith with Lady Geraldine?” she asked calmly.

“Why! Because my bondage has been hateful to me ever since I came to Hale. Because there is only one woman I will have for my wife — and her name is Clarissa Lovel!”

“You had better keep your word, Mr. Fairfax. I was quite in earnest in what I said to you six weeks ago. Nothing in the world would ever induce me to have any part in your breach of faith. Why, even if I loved you —” her voice trembled a little here, and George Fairfax repeated the words after her, “Even if you loved me — I could never trust you. How could I hope that, after having been so false to her, you could be true to me?”

“Even if I loved you. Tell me that you do love me — as I have hoped and dreamed — as I dared to believe sometimes at Hale, when my wedding-day was so near, that I seemed like some wretch bound to the wheel, for whom there is no possibility of escape. That is all over now, darling. To all intents and purposes I am free. Confess that you love me.” This was said half tenderly, half imperiously — with the air of a conqueror accustomed to easy triumphs, an air which this man’s experience had made natural to him. “Come, Clarissa, think how many miles I have travelled for the sake of this one stolen half hour. Don’t be so inexorable.”

He looked down at her with a smile on his face, not very much alarmed by her obduracy. It seemed to him only a new form of feminine eccentricity. Here was a woman who actually could resist him for ten minutes at a stretch — him, George Fairfax!

“I am very sorry you should have come so far. I am very sorry you should have taken so much trouble; it is quite wasted.”

“Then you don’t like me, Miss Lovel,” still half playfully — the thing was too impossible to be spoken of in any other tone. “For some reason or other I am obnoxious to you. Look me full in the face, and swear that you don’t care a straw for me.”

“I am not going to swear anything so foolish. You are not obnoxious to me. I have no wish to forfeit your friendship; but I will not hear of anything more than friendship from your lips.”

“Why not?”

“For many reasons. In the first place, because there would be treason against Lady Geraldine in my listening to you.”

“Put that delusion out of your mind. There would be no treason; all is over between Lady Geraldine and me.”

“There are other reasons, connected with papa.”

“Oh, your father is against me. Yes, that is only natural. Any more reasons, Clarissa?”

“One more.”

“What is that?”

“I cannot tell you.”

“But I insist upon being told.”

She tried her uttermost to avoid answering his questions; but he was persistent, and she admitted at last that she had promised not to listen to him.

“To whom was the promise given?”

“That is my secret.”

“To your father?”

“That is my secret, Mr. Fairfax. You cannot extort it from me. And now I must go back to papa, if you please, or he will be sending some one to look for me.”

“And I shall be discovered in Mr. Capulet’s orchard. Ten minutes more, Clarissa, and I vanish amidst the woods of Arden, through which I came like a poacher in order to steal upon you unawares by that little gate. And now, my darling, since we have wasted almost all our time in fencing with words, let us be reasonable. Promises such as you speak of are pledges given to the winds. They cannot hold an hour against true love. Listen, Clary, listen.”

And then came the pleading of a man only too well accustomed to plead — a man this time very much in earnest: words that seemed to Clarissa full of a strange eloquence, tones that went to her heart of hearts. But she had given her promise, and with her that promise meant something very sacred. She was firm to the last — firm even when those thrilling tones changed from love to auger.

All that he said towards the end she scarcely knew, for there was a dizziness in her brain that confused her, and her chiefest fear was that she should drop fainting at his feet; but the last words of all struck upon her ear with a cruel distinctness, and were never forgotten.

“I am the merest fool and schoolboy to take this matter so deeply to heart,” he said, with a scornful laugh, “when the reason of my rejection is so obvious. What I saw at Hale Castle might have taught me wisdom. Even with my improved prospects I am little better than a pauper compared with Daniel Granger. And I have heard you say that you would give all the world to win back Arden Court. I will stand aside, and make way for a wealthier suitor. Perhaps we may meet again some day, and I may not be so unfortunate as my father.”

He was gone. Clarissa stood like a statue, with her hands clasped before her face. She heard the gate shut by a violent hand. He was gone in supreme anger, with scorn and insult upon his lips, believing her the basest of the base, the meanest of the mean, she told herself. The full significance of his last words she was unable to understand, but it seemed to her that they veiled a threat.

She was going back to the house slowly, tearless, but with something like despair in her heart, when she heard the orchard gate open again. He had come back, perhaps — returned to forgive and pity her. No, that was not his footstep; it was Mr. Granger, looking unspeakably ponderous and commonplace in the moonlight, as he came across the shadowy grass towards her.

“I thought I saw a white dress amongst the trees,” he said, holding out his hand to her for the usual greeting. “How cold your hand is, Miss Lovel! Is it quite prudent of you to be out so late on such a chilly evening, and in that thin dress? I think I must ask your papa to lecture you.”

“Pray don’t, Mr. Granger; I am not in the habit of catching cold, and I am used to being in the gardens at all times and seasons. You are late.”

“Yes; I have been at Holborough all day, and dined an hour later than usual. Your papa is quite well, I hope?”

“He is just the same as ever. He is always more or less of an invalid, you know.”

They came in sight of the broad bay window of the parlour at this moment, and the firelight within revealed Mr. Lovel in a very comfortable aspect, fast asleep, with his pale aristocratic-looking face relieved by the crimson cushions of his capacious easy-chair, and the brown setter’s head on his knee. There were some books on the table by his side, but it was evident that his studies since dinner had not been profound.

Clarissa and her companion went in at a half-glass door that opened into a small lobby next the parlour. She knew that to open the window at such an hour in the month of October was an unpardonable crime in her father’s eyes. They went into the room very softly; but Mr. Lovel, who was a light sleeper, started up at their entrance, and declared with some show of surprise that he must have been indulging in a nap.

“I was reading a German critic on Aeschylus,” he said. “Those Germans are clever, but too much given to paradoxes. Ring the bell for tea, Clary. I didn’t think we should see you to-night, Granger; you said you were going to a dinner at Sir Archer Taverham’s.”

“I was engaged to dine with Sir Archer; but I wrote him a note this morning, excusing myself upon the plea of gout. I really had a few twinges last night, and I hate dinner-parties.”

“I am glad you have so much wisdom. I don’t think any man under a Talleyrand or an Alvanley can make a masculine dinner worth going to; and as for your mixed herds of men and women, every man past thirty knows that kind of thing to be an abomination.”

The rosy-faced parlour-maid brought in the lamp and the tea-tray, and Clarissa sat quietly down to perform her nightly duties. She took her seat in the full light of the lamp, with no evidence of emotion on her face, and poured out the tea, and listened and replied to Mr. Granger’s commonplace remarks, just the same as usual, though the sound of another voice was in her ear — the bitter passionate sound of words that had been almost curses.

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