The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 38

“From Clarissa.”

That jewel which Clarissa had given to Bessie Lovel was a treasure of price, the very possession whereof was almost an oppressive joy to the poor little woman, whose chief knowledge of life came from the experience of its debts and difficulties. That the massive gold locket with the diamond cross would be required of her sooner or later, to be handed into the ruthless paw of a clerk at the mont de piété, she had little doubt. Everything that she or her husband had ever possessed worth possessing had so vanished — had been not an absolute property, but a brief fleeting joy, a kind of supernal visitant, vanishing anon into nothingness, or only a pawnbroker’s duplicate. The time would come. She showed the trinket to her husband with a melancholy foreboding, and read his thoughts as he weighed it in his palm, by mere force of habit, speculating what it would fetch, if in his desperate needs this waif might serve him.

She was not surprised, therefore — only a little distressed — when Austin broached the subject one day at his late breakfast — that breakfast at which it needed nearly a bottle of claret to wash down three or four mouthfuls of savoury pie, or half a tiny cutlet. She had possessed the bauble more than a month, holding it in fear and trembling, and only astonished that it had not been demanded of her.

“O, by the way, Bess,” Austin Lovel said carelessly, “I was abominably unlucky last night, at Madame Caballero’s. I’m generally lugged in for a game or two at écarté there, you know. One can’t refuse in a house of that kind. And I had been doing wonders. They were betting on my game, and I stood to win something handsome, when the luck changed all in a moment. The fellow I was playing against marked the king three times running; and, in short, I rose a considerable loser — considerable for me, that is to say. I told my antagonist I should send him the money to-day. He’s a kind of man I can’t afford to trifle with; and you know the Caballero connection is of too much use to be jeopardised. So I’ve been thinking, Bess, that if you’d let me have that gimcrack locket my sister gave you, I could raise a tenner on it. Clary can afford to give you plenty of such things, even if it were lost, which it need not be.”

Of course not. Mrs. Lovel had been told as much about the little Geneva watch which her husband had given her a few days after her marriage, and had taken away from her six weeks later. But the watch had never come back to her. She gave a faint sigh of resignation. It was not within the compass of her mind to oppose him.

“We shall never get on while you play cards, Austin,” she said sadly.

“My dear Bessie, a man may win as well as lose. You see when I go into society there are certain things expected of me; and my only chance of getting on is by making myself agreeable to the people whose influence is worth having.”

“But I can’t see that card-playing leads to your getting commissions for pictures, Austin, no more than horseracing nor billiards. It all seems to end the same — in your losing money.”

The painter pushed away his plate with an impatient gesture. He was taking his breakfast in his painting-room, hours after the family meal, Bessie waiting upon him, and cobbling some juvenile garment during the intervals of her attendance. He pushed his plate aside, and got up to pace the room in the restless way that was common to him on such occasions.

“My dear child, if you don’t want to give me the locket, say so,” he said, “but don’t treat me to a sermon. You can keep it if you like, though I can’t conceive what use the thing can be to you. It’s not a thing you can wear.”

“Not at home, dear, certainly; and I never go out,” the wife answered, with the faintest touch of reproachfulness. “I am very fond of it, though, for your sister’s sake. It was so kind of her to bring it to me, and such a new thing for me to have a present. But you are welcome to it, Austin, if you really want it.”

“If I really want it! Do you suppose I should be mean enough to ask you for it if I didn’t? I shouldn’t so much care about it, you see, only I am to meet the man to-morrow evening at dinner, and I can’t face him without the money. So if you’ll look the thing out some time to-day, Bess, I’ll take it down to the Quai between this and to-morrow afternoon, and get the business over.”

Thus it was that George Fairfax, strolling into Mrs. Lovel’s sitting-room that afternoon while Austin was out, happened to find her seated in a pensive attitude, with an open work-box before her and Clarissa’s locket in her hand. It was a shabby battered old box, but had been for years the repository of all Bessie’s treasures.

She had kept the locket there, looking at it very often, and wondering if she would ever be able to wear it — if Austin would take her to a theatre, for instance, or give a little dinner at home instead of abroad, for once in a way, to some of the men whose society absorbed so much of his time.

There was no hope of this now. Once gone from her hand; the treasure would return no more. She knew that very well and was indulging her grief by a farewell contemplation of the trinket, when Mr. Fairfax came into the room.

The flash of the diamonds caught his quick eye.

“What a pretty locket you’ve got there, Mrs. Austin!” he said, as he shook hands with her. “A new-year’s gift from Austin, I suppose.”

“No, it was my sister-in-law, Mrs. Granger, who gave it me,” Bessie answered, with a sigh.

He was interested in it immediately, but was careful not to betray his interest. Mrs. Lovel put it into his hands. She was proud of it even in this last hour of possession. “Perhaps you’d like to look at it,” she said. “It’s got her ‘air inside.”

Yes, there was a circlet of the dark brown hair he knew so well, and the two works, “From Clarissa.”

“Upon my word, it’s very handsome,” he said, looking at the diamond cross outside, but thinking of the love-lock within. “I never saw a locket I liked better. You are very fond of it, I daresay?” he added interrogatively.

“O, yes, I like it very much! I can’t bear to part with it.”

And here Bessie Lovel, not being gifted with the power of concealing her emotions, fairly broke down and cried like a child.

“My dear Mrs. Austin,” exclaimed George Fairfax, “pray don’t distress yourself like that. Part with it? Why should you part with your locket?”

“O, Mr. Fairfax, I oughtn’t to have told you — Austin would be so angry if he knew — but he has been losing money at that horrid ecarty, and he says he must have ten pounds to-morrow; so my beautiful locket must go to the pawnbroker’s.”

George Fairfax paused. His first impulse was to lend the poor little woman the money — the veriest trifle, of course, to the lord of Lyvedon. But the next moment another idea presented itself to him. He had the locket lying in the open palm of his hand. It would be so sweet to possess that lock of hair — to wear so dear a token of his mistress. Even those two words, “From Clarissa,” had a kind of magic for him. It was a foolish weakness, of course; but then love is made up of such follies.

“If you really mean to part with this,” he said, “I should be very glad to have it. I would give you more than any pawnbroker — say, twenty instead of ten pounds, for instance — and a new locket for yourself into the bargain. I shouldn’t like to deprive you of an ornament you valued without some kind of compensation. I have taken a fancy to the design of the thing, and should really like to have it. What do you say now, Mrs. Austin — shall that be a transaction between you and me, without any reference to your husband, who might be angry with you for having let me into domestic secrets? You can tell him you got the money from the mont de piété. Look here, now; let’s settle the business at once.”

He opened his purse, and tumbled the contents out upon the table. Bessie Lovel thought what a blessed state of existence that must be in which people walked this world with all that ready money about them.

“There are just four-and-twenty pounds here,” he said cheerily; “so we’ll say four-and-twenty.”

He saw that she was yielding.

“And would you really give me a locket for myself,” she said, almost incredulously, “as well as this money?”

“Unquestionably. As good a one as I can find in the Rue de la Paix. This has diamonds, and that shall have diamonds. It’s the design, you see,” he added persuasively, “that has taken my fancy.”

“I’m sure you are very generous,” Bessie murmured, still hesitating.

“Generous! Pshaw, not at all. It’s a caprice; and I shall consider myself under an obligation to you if you gratify it.”

The temptation was irresistible. To obtain the money that was required — more than double the sum her husband had wanted — and to have another locket as well! Never, surely, had there been such a bargain since the famous magician offered new lamps for old ones. Of course, it was only Mr. Fairfax’s delicate way of doing them a kindness; his fancy for the locket was merely a benevolent pretence. What could he care for that particular trinket; he who might, so to speak, walk knee-deep in diamonds, if he pleased?

She took the twenty-four pounds — an English ten-pound note, and the rest in new glittering napoleons — and then began to speculate upon the possibility of giving Austin twenty pounds, and appropriating the balance to her own uses. The children wanted so many things — that perpetual want of the juvenile population above all, shoe-leather; and might she not even screw some cheap dress for herself out of the sum? while if it were all given to Austin, it would vanish, like smoke before the wind, leaving no trace behind.

So George Fairfax put the bauble in his waistcoat-pocket, and whatever sentimental pleasure might be derived from such a talisman was his. There are those among our disciples of modern magic who believe there is a subtle animal magnetism in such things; that the mere possession of such a token constitutes a kind of spiritual link between two beings. Mr. Fairfax had no such fancy; but it pleased him to have obtained that which no prayers of his could have won from Clarissa herself. Not at present, that is to say. It would all come in good time. She loved him; secure of that one fact, he believed all the rest a mere question of patience and constancy.

“And she is worth the winning,” he said to himself. “A man might serve for a longer slavery than Jacob’s, and yet be rewarded by such a conquest. I think, by the way, that Rachel must have been just a trifle faded when the patriarch was out of his time.”

He dawdled away an hour or so in Bessie’s salon — telling the poor little woman the news of the day, and playing with the two boys, who regarded him as a beneficent being, from whose hands flowed perpetual toys and sweetmeats. He waited as long as he could without making his motive obvious; waited, in the hope that Clarissa would come; and then, as there was no sign of her coming, and Austin was still out, he wished Bessie good-bye.

“I shan’t forget the locket,” he said, as he departed.

Austin came in five minutes afterwards. The boys had been scuttled off to take their evening meal in the kitchen — a darksome cupboard about eight feet square — where the tawdry servant was perpetually stewing savoury messes upon a small charcoal stove.

Bessie handed her husband the ten-pound note, and twelve bright napoleons.

“Why, what’s this?” he asked.

“The — the money for the locket, Austin. I thought you might be late home; so I ran round to the Quai with it myself. And I asked for twenty pounds, and the man gave it to me.”

“Why, that’s a brave girl!” cried Austin, kissing the pleading face uplifted to his. “I don’t believe they’d have given me as much. An English tenner, though; that’s odd!” he added carelessly, and then slipped the cash loose into his pocket, with the air of a man for whom money is at best a temporary possession.

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