The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 33

Only a Portrait-Painter.

While Clarissa was pondering on that perplexing question, how she was to see her brother frequently without Mr. Granger’s knowledge, fortune had favoured her in a manner she had never anticipated. After what Mr. Fairfax had said to her about Austin Lovel’s “set,” the last thing she expected was to meet her brother in society — that fast Bohemian world in which she supposed him to exist, seemed utterly remote from the faultless circle of Daniel Granger’s acquaintance. It happened, however, that one of the dearest friends to whom Lady Laura Armstrong had introduced her sweet Clarissa was a lady of the Leo–Hunter genus — a certain Madame Caballero, née Bondichori, a little elderly Frenchwoman, with sparkling black eyes and inexhaustible vivacity; the widow of a Portuguese wine-merchant; a lady whose fortune enabled her to occupy a first floor in one of the freestone palaces of the Champs Elysées, to wear black velvet and diamonds in perpetuity, and to receive a herd of small lions and a flock of admiring nobodies twice a-week. The little widow prided herself on her worship of genius. All members of the lion tribe came alike to her: painters, sculptors, singers; actors, and performers upon every variety of known and unknown musical instruments; budding barristers, who had won forensic laurels by the eloquent defence of some notorious criminal; homoeopathic doctors, lady doctresses, or lawyeresses, or deaconesses, from America; and pretty women who had won a kind of renown by something special in the way of eyebrows, or arms, or shoulders.

To these crowded saloons Mr. Granger brought his wife and daughter one evening. They found a great many people assembled in three lofty rooms, hung with amber satin, in the remotest and smallest of which apartments Madame Caballero made tea à l’anglaise, for her intimates; while, in the largest, some fearful and wonderful instrumental music was going on, with the very smallest possible amount of attention from the audience. There was a perpetual buzz of conversation; and there was a considerable sprinkling of curious-looking people; weird men with long unkempt hair, strong-minded women, who counterbalanced these in a manner by wearing their hair preternaturally short. Altogether, the assembly was an usual one; but Madame Caballero’s guests seemed to enjoy themselves very much. Their good spirits may have been partly due to the fact that they had the pleasing anticipation of an excellent supper, furnished with all the choicest dainties that Chevet can provide; for Madame Caballero’s receptions were of a substantial order, and she owed a good deal of her popularity to the profusion that distinguished the commissariat department.

Mr. and Mrs. Granger made their way to the inner room by and by. It was the prettiest room of the three, with a great semi-circular window overlooking nothing particular in the daytime, but making a handsome amber-hung recess at night. Here there was a sea-coal fire à l’anglaise, and only a subdued glimmering of wax candles, instead of the broad glare in the larger saloons. Here, too were to be found the choicest of Madame Caballero’s guests; a cabinet minister, an ambassador, a poet of some standing, and one of the most distinguished soprano’s of the season, a fair-haired German girl, with great pathetic blue eyes.

Even in this society Madame Caballero was rejoiced to see her sweet Mrs. Granger and her charming Miss Granger, who was looking unutterably stiff, in mauve silk and white lace. The lady and her friends had been talking of some one as the Grangers entered, talking rapturously.

J’en raffole!” exclaimed Madame; “such a charming young man, gifted with talents of the most original order.”

The ambassador was looking at a portrait — the likeness of Madame Caballero herself — a mere sketch in oils, with a mark of the brush upon it, but remarkable for the chic and daring of the painter’s style, and for that idealised resemblance which is always so agreeable to the subject.

Clarissa’s heart gave a little throb. The picture was like one she had seen on the easel in the Rue du Chevalier Bayard.

Mais c’est charmant!” exclaimed the ambassador; and the adjective was echoed in every key by the rest of the little coterie.

“I expect him here this evening,” said Madame; “and I shall be very much gratified if you will permit me to present him to your excellency.”

The ambassador bowed. “Any protégée of Madame’s,” he said, and so on.

Mr. Granger, who was really a judge of art, fastened on to the picture immediately.

“There’s something fresh in the style, Clary,” he said. “I should like this man to paint your portrait. What’s the signature? Austin! That’s hardly a French name, I should think — eh, Madame Caballero?”

“No,” replied Madame; “Mr. Austin is an Englishman. I shall be charmed if you will allow him to paint Mrs. Granger; and I’m sure he will be delighted to have such a subject.”

There was a good deal of talk about Mr. Austin’s painting, and art in general. There were some half dozen pictures of the modern French school in this inner room, which helped to sustain the conversation. Mr. Granger talked very fair French, of a soundly grammatical order; and Clarissa’s tongue ran almost as gaily as in her schoolgirl days at Belforêt. She was going to see her brother — to see him shining in good society, and not in the pernicious “set” of which George Fairfax had spoken. The thought was rapture to her. They might have a few minutes’ talk to themselves, perhaps, before the evening was over. That interview in the Rue du Chevalier Bayard had been so sadly brief, and her heart too full for many words.

Austin Lovel came in presently, looking his handsomest, in his careful evening-dress, with a brilliant light in his eyes, and that appearance of false brightness which is apt to distinguish the man who is burning the candle of life at both ends. Only by just the faintest elevation of his eyebrows did he betray his surprise as he looked at his sister; and his air, on being presented to her a few moments afterwards, was perfect in its serene unconsciousness.

Mr. Granger talked to him of his picture pleasantly enough, but very much as he would have talked to his architect, or to one of his clerks in the great Bradford establishment. There was a marked difference between the tone of the rich English trader and the German ambassador, when he expressed himself on the subject of Mr. Austin’s talent; but then the Englishman intended to give the painter a commission, and the German did not.

“I should like you to paint my wife — and — and — my daughter,” said Mr. Granger, throwing in Sophia as an after-thought. It would be only civil to have his daughter’s portrait painted, he thought.

Mr. Austin bowed. “I shall be most happy,” he said. Clarissa’s eyes sparkled with delight. Sophia Granger saw the pleased look, and thought, “O, the vanity of these children of perdition!” But she did not offer any objection to the painting of her own likeness.

“When shall we begin?” asked Mr. Granger.

“My time is entirely at your disposal.”

“In that case, the sooner the thing is done the better. My wife cannot come to your studio — she has so many claims upon her time — but that would make no difficulty, I suppose?”

“Not at all. I can paint Mrs. Granger in her own rooms as well as in mine, if the light will serve.”

“One of our drawing-rooms faces the north,” answered Mr. Granger, “and the windows are large — larger than I like. Any loss of time which you may suffer in accommodating Mrs. Granger must, of course, be considered in the price of your pictures.”

“I have only one price for my pictures,” replied Mr. Austin, with a loftiness that astonished his patron. “I charge fifty guineas for a portrait of that kind — whether it is painted for a duke or a grocer in the Rue St. Honoré.”

“I will give you a hundred guineas for each of the pictures, if they are successes,” said Mr. Granger. “If they are failures, I will give you your own price, and make you a present of the canvasses.”

“I am not a stoic, and have no objection to accept a premium of a hundred guineas from so distinguished a capitalist as Mr. Granger,” returned Austin Lovel, smiling. “I don’t think Mrs. Granger’s portrait will be a failure,” he added confidently, with a little look at Clarissa.

Sophia Granger saw the look, and resented it. The painter had said nothing of her portrait. It was of Clarissa’s only that he thought. It was a very small thing; but when her father’s wife was concerned, small things were great in the eyes of Miss Granger.

There was no opportunity for confidential talk between Austin Lovel and his sister that evening; but Clarissa went home happy in the expectation of seeing her brother very often in the simplest, easiest way. The portraits would take some time to paint, of course; indeed Austin might make the business last almost as long as he liked.

It was rather hard, however, to have to discuss her brother’s merits with Mr. and Miss Granger as if he had been a stranger; and Clarissa had to do this going home in the carriage that night, and at breakfast next morning. The young man was handsome, Mr. Granger remarked, but had rather a worn look — a dissipated look, in point of fact. That sort of people generally were dissipated.

Mrs. Granger ventured to say that she did not think Mr. Austin looked dissipated — a little worn, perhaps, but nothing more; and that might be the effect of hard work.

“My dear Clary, what can you know of the physiology of dissipation? I tell you that young man is dissipated. I saw him playing écarté with a Frenchman just before we left Madame Caballero’s; and, unless I am profoundly mistaken, the man is a gambler.”

Clarissa shuddered. She could not forget what George Fairfax had said to her about her brother’s ways, nor the fact that her remittances had seemed of so little use to him. He seemed in good repute too, and talked of fifty guineas for a picture with the utmost coolness. He must have earned a good deal of money, and the money must have gone somewhere. In all the details of his home there was evidence of extravagance in the past and poverty in the present.

He came at eleven o’clock on the second morning after Madame Caballero’s reception; came in a hired carriage, with his easel and all the paraphernalia of his art. Mr. Granger had made a point of being present at this first sitting, much to the discomfiture of Clarissa, who was yearning for a long uninterrupted talk with her brother. Even when Mr. Granger was absent, there would be Miss Granger, most likely, she thought, with vexation; and, after all, these meetings with Austin would be only half meetings. It would be pleasant only to see him, to hear his voice; but she was longing to talk freely of the past, to give him counsel for the future.

The drawing-room looking north was rather a dreary apartment, if any apartment furnished with blue-satin damask and unlimited gilding can be called dreary. There was splendour, of course, but it was a chilling kind of splendour. The room was large and square, with two tall wide windows commanding a view of one of the dullest streets in new Paris — a street at the end of which workmen were still busy cutting away a hill, the removal whereof was necessary for the realisation of the Augustan idea of that archetypal city, which was to be left all marble. Mr. Granger’s apartments were in a corner house, and he had the advantage of this side view. There was very little of what Mr. Wemmick called “portable property” in this northern drawing-room. There were blue-satin divans running along the walls, a couple of blue-satin easy-chairs, an ormolu stand with a monster Sèvres dish for cards, and that was all — a room in which one might, “receive,” but could scarcely live.

The light was capital, Mr. Austin said. He set up his easel, settled the position of his sister, after a little discussion with Mr. Granger, and began work. Clarissa’s was to be the first portrait. This being arranged, Mr. Granger departed to write letters, leaving Sophia established, with her Berlin-wool work, at one of the windows. Clarissa would not, of course, like to be left tête-à-tête for two or three hours with a strange painter, Miss Granger opened.

Yes, it was very pleasant to have him there, even though their talk was restrained by the presence of a third person, and they could only speak of indifferent things. Perhaps to Austin Lovel himself it was pleasanter to have Miss Granger there than to be quite alone with his sister. He was very fond of Clarissa, but there was much in his past life — some things in his present life even — that would not bear talking of, and he shrank a little from his sister’s tender questioning. Protected by Miss Granger and her Berlin-wool spaniels, he was quite at his ease, and ran gaily on about all manner of things as he sketched his outline and set his palette. He gave the two ladies a lively picture of existing French art, with little satirical touches here and there. Even Sophia was amused, and blushed to find herself comparing the social graces of Mr. Austin the painter with those of Mr. Tillott the curate, very much to the advantage of the former — blushed to find herself so much interested in any conversation that was not strictly utilitarian or evangelical in its drift. Once or twice Austin spoke of his travels, his Australian experiences; and at each mention, Clarissa looked up eagerly, anxious to hear more. The history of her brother’s past was a blank to her, and she was keenly interested by the slightest allusion that cast a ray of light upon it. Mr. Austin did not care, however, to dwell much upon his own affairs. It was chiefly of other people that he talked. Throughout that first sitting Miss Granger maintained a dignified formality, tempered by maidenly graciousness. The young man was amusing, certainly, and it was not often Miss Granger permitted herself to be amused. She thought Clarissa was too familiar with him, treated him too much with an air of perfect equality. A man who painted portraits for hire should be received, Miss Granger thought, as one would receive a superior kind of bootmaker.

More than once, in fact, in the course of that agreeable morning, Clarissa had for a moment forgotten that she was talking to Mr. Austin the painter, and not to her brother Austin Lovel. More than once an unconscious warmth or softness in her tone had made Miss Granger look up from her embroidery-frame with the eyes of wonder.

Mr. Granger came back to the drawing-room, having finished his letter-writing just as the sitting concluded, and, luncheon being announced at the same time, asked Mr. Austin to stay for that meal. Austin had no objection to linger in his sister’s society. He wanted to know what kind of man this Daniel Granger was; and perhaps wanted to see what probability there was of Daniel Granger’s wife being able to supply him with money in the future. Austin Lovel had, from his earliest boyhood, possessed a fatal capacity for getting rid of money, and for getting into debt; not common plain-sailing debt, which would lead at the worst to the Bankruptcy Court, but liability of a more disreputable and perilous character, involving the terror of disgrace, and entanglements that would have to be unravelled by a police-magistrate.

Racing debts, gambling debts, and bill-discounting transactions, had been the agreeable variety of difficulties which had beset Austin Level’s military career; and at the end there had been something — something fully known to a few only — which had made the immediate sale of his commission a necessity. He was allowed to sell it; and that was much, his friends said. If his commanding officer had not been an easy-going kind of man, he would scarcely have got off so cheaply.

“I wonder how this fellow Granger would treat me, if he knew who I was?” he thought to himself. “He’d inaugurate our acquaintance by kicking me out of his house most likely, instead of asking me to luncheon.” Notwithstanding which opinion Mr. Austin sat down to share the sacred bread and salt with his brother-in-law, and ate a cutlet a la Maintenon, and drank half a bottle of claret, with a perfect enjoyment of the situation. He liked the idea of being patronised by the man who would not have tolerated his society for a moment, had he been aware of his identity.

He talked of Parisian life during luncheon, keeping carefully clear of all subjects which the “young person,” as represented by Miss Granger, might blush to hear; and Mr. Granger, who had only an Englishman’s knowledge of the city, was amused by the pleasant gossip. The meal lasted longer than usual, and lost all its wonted formality; and the fair Sophia found herself more and more interested in this fascinating painter, with his brilliant dark eyes, and sarcastic mouth, and generally agreeable manner. She sat next him at luncheon, and, when there came a little pause in the conversation, began to question him about the state of the Parisian poor. It was very bad, was it not?

Mr. Austin shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I don’t think it would be possible for a man to starve to death in Paris under the Imperial regime; and it seems very easy for an Englishman to do it in Spitalfields or Mile-end New Town. You don’t hear of men and women found dead in their garrets from sheer hunger. But of course there is a good deal of poverty and squalor to be found in the city.”

And then Mr. Austin launched into a graphic description of some interesting phases of life among the lower classes, borrowed from a novel that had been recently delighting the reading public of France, but appropriated with such an air of reality, that Miss Granger fancied this delightful painter must spend some considerable part of his existence as a district visitor or city missionary.

“What a pity that Mr. Tillott has not his persuasive powers!” she thought; Mr. Tillott’s eloquence being, in fact, of a very limited order, chiefly exhibiting itself in little jerky questions about the spiritual and temporal welfare of his humble parishioners — questions which, in the vernacular language of agricultural labourers, “put a chap’s back up, somehow.”

“I should like to show Mr. Austin the baby, Daniel,” Clarissa said to her husband shyly, while Miss Granger was keeping Austin hard and fast to the amelioration of the working classes; “he would make such a lovely picture.”

Mr. Granger smiled, a quiet well-satisfied smile. He, the strong man, the millowner and millionaire, was as weak as the weakest woman in all things concerning the child of his mature age.

“Yes,” he said, with some affectation of indifference; “Lovel would make a nice picture enough. We’ll have him painted if you like, Clary, some day. Send for him, my dear.”

She had her hand upon the bell directly.

“Yes,” she cried, “he would make the sweetest picture in the world, and Austin shall paint him.”

The familiar mention of the name Austin, tout court, scared Mr. Granger almost as much as a cannon fired close at his elbow might have done. He stared at his wife with grave displeasure.

Mr. Austin can paint him some day, if you wish it, Clarissa,” he said.

Mrs. Granger blushed crimson; again she remembered that this brother she loved so dearly was only a strange painter of portraits, whom it behoved her to treat with only the most formal courtesy. She hated the deception; and having a strong faith in her husband’s generosity, was sorely tempted to put an end to this acted lie on the spot, and to tell him who his guest was; but fear of her brother’s anger stopped her. She had no right to betray him; she must wait his permission to tell the secret.

“Even Sophia seems to like him,” she thought; “and I don’t think Daniel could help being pleased with him, in spite of anything papa may have said to his prejudice.”

The baby was brought, and, being in a benignant humour, was graciously pleased to look his brightest and prettiest, and in nurse’s phraseology, to “take to” his unknown uncle. The unknown uncle kissed him affectionately, and said some civil things about the colour of his eyes, and the plumpness of his limbs —“quite a Rubens baby,” and so on, but did not consider a boy-baby an especially wonderful creature, having had two boy-babies of his own, and not having particularly wanted them. He looked upon them rather as chronic perplexities, like accommodation bills that had matured unawares.

“And this is the heir of Arden,” he said to himself, as he looked down at the fat blue-eyed thing struggling in Clarissa’s arms, with that desperate desire to get nowhere in particular, common to infancy. “So this little lump of humanity is the future lord of the home that should have been mine. I don’t know that I envy him. Country life and Arden would hardly have suited me. I think I’d rather have an entresol in the Champs Elysees, and the run of the boulevards, than the gray old Court and a respectable position. Unless a man’s tastes are ‘horsey’ or agricultural, country life must be a bore.”

Mr. Austin patted the plump young cheeks without any feeling of enmity.

“Poor little beggar! What ghosts will haunt him in the old rooms by-and-by, I wonder?” he said to himself, smiling down at the child.

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