The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 28

Mr. Wooster.

The season was at its height, and the Grangers found every available hour of their existence engaged in visiting and receiving visitors. There were so many people whom Lady Laura insisted upon introducing to her dear Clarissa — there was so much in the way of party-giving that Lady Laura wanted her sweet Mrs. Granger to do. Now it was a morning concert of my lady’s planning, at which weird and wonderful-looking denizens of the Norseland — Poles, Hungarians, Danes, and Swedes — with unkempt hair and fierce flashing eyes, performed upon every variety of native instrument, or sang wild national songs in some strange language — concerts to which Lady Laura brought herds of more or less fashionable people, all of whom were languishing to know “that sweet Mrs. Granger.” My lady had taken pains to advertise her share in the manufacturer’s marriage. Every one belonging to her set knew that the match was her contriving, and that Clarissa had to thank the mistress of Hale Castle for her millionaire husband. She was really proud of her protégée’s success, and was never tired of praising her and “that admirable Granger.”

That admirable Granger endured the accession of party-giving with a very good grace. It pleased him to see his wife admired; it pleased him still more to see her happy; and he was single-minded enough to believe her increased volatility a symptom of increased happiness. Whatever undefined regrets and dim forebodings there might be lurking in his own mind, he had no doubt of his wife’s integrity — no fear of hidden perils in this ordeal of fashionable life.

She would come to love him in time, he said to himself, trusting as blindly in the power of time to work this wonder for him as Clarissa herself had trusted when she set herself to win her father’s affection. He believed this not so much because the thing was probable or feasible, as because he desired it with an intensity of feeling that blinded him to the force of hard facts. He — the man who had never made a false reckoning in the mathematics of business-life — whose whole career was unmarred by a mistake — whose greatest successes had been the result of unrivalled coolness of brain and unerring foresight — he, the hard-headed, far-seeing man of the world — was simple as a child in this matter, which involved the greater hazard of his heart.

But while Clarissa’s husband trusted her with such boundless confidence, Clarissa’s stepdaughter watched her with the vigilant eyes of prejudice, not to say hatred. That a young lady so well brought up as Miss Granger — so thoroughly grounded in Kings and Chronicles — should entertain the vulgar passion of hate, seemed quite out of the question; but so far as a ladylike aversion may go, Miss Granger certainly went in relation to her step-mother. In this she was sustained by that model damsel Hannah Warman, who, not having made much progress in Mrs. Granger’s liking, had discovered that she could not “take to” that lady, and was always ready to dilate upon her shortcomings, whenever her mistress permitted. Sophia was capricious in this, sometimes listening eagerly, at other times suppressing Miss Warman with a high hand.

So Clarissa had, unawares, an enemy within her gates, and could turn neither to the right nor to the left without her motives for so turning becoming the subject of a close and profound scrutiny. It is hard to say what shape Miss Granger’s doubts assumed. If put into the witness-box and subjected to the cross-examination of a popular queen’s-counsel, she would have found it very difficult to give a substance or a form to her suspicions. She could only have argued in a general way, that Mrs. Granger was frivolous, and that any kind of wrong-doing might be expected from so light-minded a person.

It was the beginning of June, and West-end London was glorious with the brief brilliancy of the early summer. All the Mayfair balconies were bright with, flowers, and the Mayfair knockers resounded perpetually under the hand of the archetypal Jeames. The weather was unusually warm; the most perfect weather for garden-parties, every one declared, and there were several of these al fresco assemblies inscribed in Mrs. Granger’s visiting-book: one at Wimbledon; another as far afield as Henley-on-Thames, at a villa whose grounds sloped down to the river.

This Henley party was an affair in which Lady Laura Armstrong was particularly interested. It was given by a bachelor friend of her husband’s, a fabulously rich stockbroker; and it was Lady Laura who had brought the proprietor of the villa to Clarges-street, and who had been instrumental in the getting-up of the fête.

“You must really give us some kind of a party at your Henley place this year, Mr. Wooster,” she said. “There is the regatta now; I have positively not seen the Henley regatta for three years. The Putney business is all very well — supremely delightful, in short, while it lasts — but such a mere lightning flash of excitement. I like a long day’s racing, such as one gets at Henley.”

“Lady Laura ought to be aware that my house is at her disposal all the year round, and that she has only to signify her pleasure to her most devoted slave.”

“O, that’s all very well.” replied my lady. “Of course, I know that if Frederick and I were to come down, you would give us luncheon or dinner, and let us roam about the gardens as long as we liked. But that’s not what I want. I want you to give a party on one of the race days, and invite all the nice people in London.”

“Are there any nasty people on this side of Temple-bar, Lady Laura, before the closing of Parliament? I thought, in the season everybody was nice.”

“You know what I mean, sir. I want the really pleasant people. Half-a-dozen painters or so, and some of the nicest literary men — not the men who write the best books, but the men who talk cleverly; and, of course, a heap of musical people — they are always nice, except to one another. You must have marquees on the lawn for the luncheon — your house is too small for anything more than tea and coffee; and for once let there be no such thing as croquet — that alone will give your party an air of originality. I suppose you had better put yourself entirely into Gunter’s hands for the commissariat, and be sure you tell him you want novelty — no hackneyed ideas; sparkle and originality in everything, from the eggs to the apples. I should ask you to give us a dance in the evening, with coloured lamps, if that were practicable, but there is the coming back to town; and if we carried the business on to a breakfast next morning, some of the people might begin to be tired, and the women would look faded and limp. So I think we had better confine ourselves to a mere garden-party and luncheon, without any dancing,” Lady Laura concluded with a faint sigh.

“Will you send out the invitations, Lady Laura?”

“O, no; I leave all that to you. You really know everybody — or everybody we need care about.”

In this manner Mr. Wooster’s party had been arranged, and to this party the Grangers were bidden. Even the serious Sophia was going; indeed, it is to be observed that this young lady joined in all mundane gaieties, under protest as it were.

“I go out, my dear, but I never enjoy myself,” she would say to a serious friend, as if that were a kind of merit. “Papa wishes me to go, and I have no desire to withdraw myself in any way from Mrs. Granger’s amusements, however little sympathy there may be between us. I endeavour to do my duty, whatever the result may be.”

Mr. Wooster did know a great many people. His abnormal wealth, and a certain amount of cleverness, had been his sole passports to society. Among Burke’s Landed Gentry there was no trace of the Wooster family, nor had Mr. Wooster ever been heard to allude to a grandfather. He had begun stockjobbing in the smallest way, but had at a very early stage of his career developed a remarkable genius for this kind of traffic. Those of his own set who had watched his steady ascent declared him to be a very remarkable man; and the denizens of the West-end world, who knew nothing of stockjobbing or stockbroking, were quite ready to receive him when he came to them laden with the gold of Ophir, and with a reputation, of being something distinguished upon ‘Change.

Time had begun to thin Mr. Wooster’s flowing locks before he landed himself safely upon the shores of fashionable life, and Mr. Wooster’s carefully-trained moustache and whiskers had a purplish tinge that looked more like art than nature. He was short and stout, with a florid complexion, sharp black eyes, and a large aquiline nose, and considered himself eminently handsome. He dressed with elaborate splendour —“dressed for two,” as some of his less gorgeous friends were wont to say — and was reputed to spend a small fortune annually in exotics for his buttonhole, and in dress boots.

His chief merits in the estimation of the polite world lay in the possession of a perfectly-appointed town house, the villa at Henley, another villa at Cowes, and a couple of magnificent yachts. He was a perpetual giver of dinners, and spent his existence between the Stock Exchange and the dinner-table, devoting whatever mental force remained to him after his daily traffic to the study of menus, and the grave consideration of wine-lists.

To dine with Wooster was one of the right things to do once or twice in the course of a season; and Wooster’s steam yacht was a pleasant place of rest and haven of safety for any juvenile member of the peerage who had been plunging heavily, and went in fear of the Bankruptcy-court.

So, on a brilliant June morning, the Grangers left the Great Western station by special train, and sped through the summer landscape to Henley. This garden-party at Mr. Wooster’s villa was almost their last engagement. They were to return to Arden in two days; and Clarissa was very glad that it was so. That weariness of spirit which had seemed to her so strange in some of the young ladies at Hale Castle had come upon herself. She longed for Arden Court and perfect rest; and then she remembered, with something like a shudder, that there were people invited for the autumn, and that Lady Laura Armstrong had promised to spend a week with her dearest Clarissa.

“I want to put you into the way of managing that great house, Clary,” said my lady, brimming over with good-nature and officiousness. “As to leaving the housekeeping in Miss Granger’s hands, that’s not to be dreamt of. It might do very well for the first six months — just to let her down gently, as it were — but from henceforth you must hold the reins yourself, Clary, and I’ll teach you how to drive.”

“But, dear Lady Laura, I don’t want the trouble and responsibility of housekeeping. I would much rather leave all that in Sophy’s hands,” protested Clarissa. “You have no idea how clever she is. And I have my own rooms, and my painting.”

“Yes,” exclaimed Lady Laura, “and you will mope yourself to death in your own rooms, with your painting, whenever you have no company in the house. You are not going to become a cipher, surely, Clarissa! What with Miss Granger’s schools, and Miss Granger’s clothing-club, and Miss Granger’s premiums and prizes for this, that, and the other, you stand a fair chance of sinking into the veriest nobody, or you would, if it were not for your pretty face. And then you really must have employment for your mind, Clary. Look at me; see the work I get through.”

“But you are a wonder, dear Lady Laura, and I have neither your energy nor your industry.”

Laura Armstrong would not admit this, and held to the idea of putting Clarissa in the right away.

“Wait till I come to you in the autumn,” she said. And in that depression of spirit which had grown upon her of late, Mrs. Granger found it a hard thing to say that she should be rejoiced when that time came.

She wanted to get back to Arden Court, and was proud to think of herself as the mistress of the place she loved so dearly; but it seemed to her that an existence weighed down at once by the wisdom of Sophia Granger and the exuberant gaiety of Lady Laura would be barely endurable. She sighed for Arden Court as she remembered it in her childhood — the dreamy quiet of the dull old house, brightened only by her brother’s presence; the perfect freedom of her own life, so different from the life whose every hour was subject to the claims of others.

She had changed very much since that visit to Hale Castle. Then all the pleasures of life were new to her — to-day they seemed all alike flat, stale, and unprofitable. She had been surfeited with splendours and pleasures since her marriage. The wealth which Daniel Granger so freely lavished upon her had rendered these things common all at once. She looked back and wondered whether she had really ever longed for a new dress, and been gladdened by the possession of a five-pound note.

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