The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 37

Stolen Hours.

Miss Granger’s portrait was finished; and the baby picture — a chubby blue-eyed cherub, at play on a bank of primroses, with a yellowhammer perched on a blossoming blackthorn above his head, and just a glimpse of blue April sky beyond; a dainty little study of colour in which the painter had surpassed himself — was making rapid progress, to the young mother’s intense delight. Very soon Mr. Austin would have no longer the privilege of coming every other day to the Rue da Morny. Daniel Granger had declined sitting for his portrait.

“I did it once,” he said. “The Bradford people insisted upon making me a present of my own likeness, life-size, with my brown cob, Peter Pindar, standing beside me. I was obliged to hang the picture in the hall at Arden — those good fellows would have been wounded if I hadn’t given it a prominent position; but that great shining brown cob plays the mischief with my finest Velasquez, a portrait of Don Carlos Baltazar, in white satin slashed with crimson. No; I like your easy, dashing style very much, Mr. Austin; but one portrait in a lifetime is quite enough for me.”

As the Granger family became more acclimatised, as it were, Clarissa found herself with more time at her disposal. Sophia had attached herself to a little clique of English ladies, and had her own engagements and her separate interests. Clarissa’s friends were for the most part Frenchwomen, whom she had known in London, or to whom she had been introduced by Lady Laura. Mr. Granger had his own set, and spent his afternoons agreeably enough, drinking soda water, reading Galignani, and talking commerce or politics with his compeers at the most respectable cafe on the Boulevards. Being free therefore to dispose of her afternoons, Clarissa, when Lovel’s picture was finished, went naturally to the Rue du Chevalier Bayard. Having once taken her servants there, she had no farther scruples. “They will think I come to see a dressmaker,” she said to herself. But in this she did not give those domestic officers credit for the sharpness of their class. Before she had been three times to her brother’s lodgings, John Thomas, the footman, had contrived — despite his utter ignorance of the French tongue — to discover who were the occupants of No. 7, and had ascertained that Mr. Austin, the painter, was one of them.

“Who’d have thought of her coming to see that chap Hostin?” said John Thomas to the coachman. “That’s a rum start, ain’t it?”

“Life is made up of rum starts, John Thomas,” replied the coachman sententiously. “Is there a Mrs. Hostin, do you know?”

“Yes, he’s got a wife. I found that out from the porter, though the blessed old buffer can’t speak anything but his French gibberish. ‘Madame?’ I said, bawling into his stupid old ear. ‘Mossoo and Madame Hostin? comprenny?’ and he says, ‘Ya-ase,’ and then bursts out laughing, and looks as proud as a hen that’s just laid a hegg —’ Ya-ase, Mossoo et Madame.”

George Fairfax and Clarissa met very frequently after that ball at the Embassy. It happened that they knew the same people; Mr. Fairfax, indeed, knew every one worth knowing in Paris; and he seemed to have grown suddenly fond of respectable society, going everywhere in the hope of meeting Mrs. Granger, and rarely staying long anywhere, if he did not meet her. There were those who observed this peculiarity in his movements, and shrugged their shoulders significantly. It was to be expected, of course, said this butterfly section of humanity: a beautiful young woman, married to a man old enough to be her father, would naturally have some one interested in her.

Sometimes Clarissa met George Fairfax in her brother’s painting-room; so often, indeed, that she scarcely cared to keep an account of these meetings. Austin knew a good many clever agreeable Americans and Frenchmen, and his room was a pleasant lounge for idle young men, with some interest in art, and plenty to say upon every subject in the universe. If there were strangers in the painting-room when Mrs. Granger came to the Rue du Chevalier Bayard, she remained in the little salon, talking to her sister-in-law and the two precocious nephews; but it happened generally that George Fairfax, by some mysterious means, became aware of her presence, and one of the folding-doors would open presently, and the tall figure appear.

“Those fellows have fairly smoked me out, Mrs. Austin,” he would say. —“Ah, how do you do, Mrs. Granger? I hope you’ll excuse any odour of Victorias and Patagas I may bring with me. Your brother’s Yankee friends smoke like so many peripatetic furnaces.”

And then he would plant himself against a corner of the mantelpiece, and remain a fixture till Clarissa departed. It was half-an-hour’s talk that was almost a tête-à-tête. Bessie Lovel counted for so little between those two. Half-an-hour of dangerous happiness, which made all the rest of Mrs. Granger’s life seem dull and colourless; the thought of which even came between her and her child.

Sometimes she resolved that she would go no more to that shabby street on the “Surrey side”; but the resolve was always broken. Either Austin had asked her to come for some special reason, or the poor little wife had begged some favour of her, which required personal attention; there was always something.

Those were pleasant afternoons, when the painting-room was empty of strangers, and Clarissa sat in a low chair by the fire, while George Fairfax and her brother talked. Austin was never so brilliant as in George’s company; the two men suited each other, had lived in the same world, and loved the same things. They talked of all things in heaven and earth, touching lightly upon all, and with a careless kind of eloquence that had an especial fascination for the listener. It seemed as if she had scarcely lived in the dull interval between those charmed days at Hale Castle and these hours of perilous delight; as if she had been half-stifled by the atmosphere of common-sense which had pervaded her existence — crushed and borne down by the weight of Daniel Granger’s sober companionship. This was fairyland — a region of enchantment, fall of bright thoughts and pleasant fancies; that a dismal level drill-ground, upon which all the world marched in solid squares, to the monotonous cry of a serjeant-major’s word of command. One may ride through a world of weariness in a barouche-and-pair. Clarissa had not found her husband’s wealth by any means a perennial source of happiness, nor even the possession of Arden an unfailing consolation.

It was strange how this untidy painting-room of Austin’s, with its tawdry dilapidated furniture — all of which had struck her with a sense of shabbiness and dreariness at first — had grown to possess a charm for her. In the winter gloaming, when the low wood fire glowed redly on the hearth, and made a flickering light upon the walls, the room had a certain picturesque aspect. The bulky Flemish cabinets, with their coarse florid carving, stood boldly out from the background, with red gleams from the fire reflected on chubby cherub heads and mediaeval monsters. The faded curtains lost their look of poverty, and had only the sombre air of age; an old brass chandelier of the Louis Quatorze period, which Austin had hung in in the centre of his room, flashed and glittered in the uncertain, light; and those two figures — one leaning against the mantelpiece, the other prowling restlessly to and fro as he talked, carrying a mahl-stick, which he waved ever and anon like the rod of a magician — completed the picture. It was a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes in the great world of art, a peep into Bohemia; and O, how much brighter a region it seemed to Clarissa than that well-regulated world in which she dined every day at the same hour, with four solemn men watching the banquet, and wound up always with the game dismal quarter of an hour’s sitting in state at dessert!

Those stolen hours in Austin’s painting-room had too keen a fascination for her. Again and again she told herself that she would come no more, and yet she came. She was so secure of her own integrity, so fenced and defended by womanly pride, that she argued with herself there could be neither sin nor danger in these happy respites from the commonplace dreariness of her life. And yet, so inconsistent is human nature, there were times when this woman flung herself upon the ground beside her baby’s crib, and prayed God to pardon her iniquities.

Austin was much too careless to be conscious of his sister’s danger. George Fairfax had made an afternoon lounge of his rooms in the previous winter; it was no new thing for him to come there three or four times a week; and Austin did not for a moment suspect that Clarissa’s occasional presence had anything to do with these visits.

When the three portraits were finished, Mr. Granger expressed himself highly content with them, and gave Austin Lovel a cheque for three hundred pounds; a sum which, in the painter’s own words, ought to have set him upon his legs. Unhappily, Austin’s legs, from a financial point of view, afforded only the most insecure basis — were always slipping away from him, in fact. Three hundred pounds in solid cash did not suffice for even his most pressing needs. He saw nothing before him but the necessity of an ignominious flight from Paris. It was only a question of when and where he should fly; there was no question as to the fact.

He did not care to tell Clarissa this, however. It would be time enough when the thing was done, or just about to be done. All his life he had been in the habit of shirking unpleasant subjects, and he meant to shirk this as long as he could. He might have borrowed money of George Fairfax, no doubt; but unfortunately he was already in that gentleman’s debt, for money borrowed during the previous winter; so he scarcely cared to make any new appeal in that quarter.

So the unsubstantial Bohemian existence went on; and to Clarissa, for whom this Bohemia was an utterly new world, it seemed the only life worth living. Her brother had been pleased to discover the ripening of her artistic powers, and had given her some rough-and-ready lessons in the art she loved so well. Sometimes, on a bright wintry morning, when Mr. Granger was engaged out of doors, she brought her portfolio to the Rue du Chevalier Bayard, and painted there for an hour or so. At first this had been a secure hour for unreserved talk with her brother; but after she had been there two or three mornings in this way, Mr. Fairfax seemed mysteriously aware of her movements, and happened to drop in while she was taking her lesson.

It is not to be supposed that Clarissa could be so much away from home without attracting the attention of Miss Granger. Whether that young lady was at home or abroad, she contrived to keep herself always well informed as to the movements of her stepmother. She speculated, and wondered, and puzzled herself a good deal about these frequent outings; and finding Clarissa singularly reticent upon the subject, grew daily more curious and suspicious; until at last she could endure the burden of this perplexity no longer, without some relief in words, and was fain to take the judicious Warman into her confidence.

“Has Mrs. Granger been out again this afternoon, Warman?” she asked one evening, when the handmaiden was dressing her hair for dinner.

“Yes, miss. The carriage came home just now. I heard it Mrs. Granger went out almost directly after you did.”

“I wonder she can care to waste so much time in calls,” said Sophia.

“Yes, miss, it is odd; and almost always the same place too, as you may say. But I suppose Mrs. Granger was intimate with Mr. and Mrs. Austin before her marriage.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Austin! What do you mean, Warman?”

“Lor’, miss, I thought you would know where she went, as a matter of course. It seems only natural you should. I’ve heard Jarvis mention it at supper. Jarvis has his meals at our table, you know, miss. ‘We’ve been to the Rue du Cavalier Barnard again to-day,’ he says, ‘which I suppose is French for Barnard’s-inn. Missus and them Austins must be very thick.’ Jarvis has no manners, you know, miss; and that’s just his uncultivated way of speaking. But from what I’ve heard him remark, I’m sure Mrs. Granger goes to call upon the Austins as much as three times a week, and seldom stops less than an hour.”

A deadly coldness had crept over Sophia Granger — a cold, blank feeling, which had never come upon her until that moment. He had a wife, then, that dashing young painter with the brilliant brown eyes — the only man who had ever aroused the faintest interest in her well-regulated soul. He was married, and any vague day-dream with which she had interwoven his image was the merest delusion and phantasmagoria. She was unspeakably angry with herself for this unworthy weakness. A painter — a person paid by her father — something less than a curate — if it was possible for any creature to seem less than Mr. Tillott in Sophia’s estimation. He was a married man — a base impostor, who had sailed under false colours — a very pirate. All those graceful airy compliments, those delicate attentions, which had exercised such a subtle influence over her narrow mind — had, indeed, awakened in her something that was almost sentiment — were worse than meaningless, were the wiles of an adventurer trading on her folly.

“He wanted to paint papa’s picture,” she thought, “and I suppose he fancied my influence might help him.”

But what of Clarissa’s visits to the painter’s lodgings? what possible reason could she have for going there? Miss Granger’s suspicions were shapeless and intangible as yet, but she did suspect. More than once — many times, in fact — during the painting of the portrait, she had seen, or had imagined she could see, signs and tokens of a closer intimacy between the painter and her father’s wife than was warranted by their ostensible acquaintance. The circumstances were slight enough in themselves, but these fragile links welded together made a chain which would have been good enough evidence in a criminal court, skilfully handled by an Old Bailey lawyer. Sophia Granger racked her brain to account for this suspected intimacy. When and where had these two been friends, lovers perhaps? Mr. Austin had been away from England for many years, if his own statement were to be believed. It must have been abroad, therefore, that Clarissa had known him — in her school-days. He had been drawing-master, perhaps, in the seminary at Belforêt. What more likely?

Miss Granger cherished the peculiar British idea of all foreign schools, that they were more or less sinks of iniquity. A flirtation between drawing-master and pupil would be a small thing in such a pernicious atmosphere. Even amidst the Arcadian innocence of native academies such weeds have flourished This flirtation, springing up in foreign soil, would be of course ten times more desperate, secret, jesuitical in fact, than any purely English product.

Yes, Miss Granger decided at the end of every silent debate in which she argued this question with herself — yes, that was the word of the enigma. These two had been lovers in the days that were gone; and meeting again, both married, they were more than half lovers still.

Clarissa made some excuse to see her old admirer frequently. She was taking lessons in painting, perhaps. Miss Granger observed that she painted more than usual lately — merely for the sake of seeing him.

And how about George Fairfax? Well, that flirtation, of course, was of later date and a less serious affair. Jealousy — a new kind of jealousy, more bitter even than that which she had felt when Clarissa came between her and her father — sharpened Miss Granger’s suspicions in this case. She was jealous even of that supposed flirtation at Belforêt, four or five years ago. She was angry with Clarissa for having once possessed this man’s heart; ready to suspect her of any baseness in the past, any treason in the present.

The Grangers were at Madame Caballero’s two or three evenings after this revelation of Warman’s, and Sophia had an opportunity of gleaning some scraps of information from the good-natured little lion-huntress. Madame had been asking her if Mr. Austin’s portraits had been a success.

“Yes; papa thinks they are excellent, and talks about having them exhibited in the salon. Mr. Austin is really very clever. Do you know, I was not aware that he was married, till the other day?” Sophia added, with a careless air.

“Indeed! Yes, there is a wife, I understand; but she never goes into society; no one hears of her. For my part I think him charming.”

“Has he been long in Paris?”

Madame Caballero shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she said. “I have only known of his existence since he became famous — in a small way — a very small way, of course. He exhibited some military sketches, which attracted the attention of a friend of mine, who talked to me about him. I said at once, ‘Bring him here. I can appreciate every order of genius, from Ary Scheffer to Gavarni.’ The young man came, and I was delighted with him. I admitted him among my intimates; and he insisted on painting the picture which your papa was good enough to admire.”

“Do you know how he lived before he came into notice — if he has ever been a drawing-master, for instance?”

“I know that he has given lessons. I have heard him complain of the drudgery of teaching.”

This sustained Miss Granger’s theory. It seemed so likely. No other hypothesis presented itself to her mind.

Day by day she watched and waited and speculated, hearing of all Clarissa’s movements from the obsequious Warman, who took care to question Mrs. Granger’s coachman in the course of conversation, in a pleasant casual manner, as to the places to which he had taken his mistress. She waited and made no sign. There was treason going on. The climax and explosion would come in good time.

In the meanwhile, Clarissa seemed almost entirely free. Mr. Granger, after living for nearly fifty years of his life utterly unaffected by feminine influence, was not a man to hang upon his wife’s footsteps or to hold her bound to his side. If she had returned his affection with equal measure, if that sympathy for which he sighed in secret could have arisen between them, he might have been as devoted a slave as love could make an honest man. As it was, his married life at its best was a disappointment. Only in the fond hopes and airy visions which his son had inspired, did he find the happiness he had dreamt of when he first tried to win Clarissa for his wife. Here alone, in his love for his child, was there a pure and perfect joy. All other dreams ended in bitter waking. His wife had never loved him, never would love him. She was grateful for his affection, obedient, submissive; her grace and beauty gave him a reflected lustre in society. She was a creature to be proud of, and he was proud of her; but she did not love him. And with this thought there came always a sudden agony of jealousy. If not him, what other had she loved? Whose image reigned in the heart so closely shut against him? Who was that man, the mere memory of whom was more to her than the whole sum of her husband’s devotion?

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