The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 39

That is what Love Means.

The Grangers and Mr. Fairfax went on meeting in society; and Daniel Granger, with whom it was a kind of habit to ask men to dinner, could hardly avoid inviting George Fairfax. It might have seemed invidious to do so; and for what reason should he make such a distinction? Even to himself Mr. Granger would not be willing to confess that he was jealous of this man. So Mr. Fairfax came with others of his species to the gorgeous caravanserai in the Rue de Morny, where the rooms never by any chance looked as if people lived in them, but rather as if they were waiting-rooms at some railway station got up with temporary splendour for the reception of royalty.

He came; and though Clarissa sometimes made feeble efforts to avoid him, it happened almost always, that before the evening was out he found some few minutes for unreserved talk with her. There is little need to record such brief stolen interviews — a few hurried words by the piano, a sentence or two in a lowered voice at parting. There was not much in the words perhaps — only very common words, that have done duty between thousands of men and women — a kind of signal code, as it were; and yet they had power to poison Clarissa’s life, to take the sweetness out of every joy, even a mother’s innocent idolatry of her child.

The words were spoken; but so carefully did George Fairfax play his part, that not even Sophia’s sharp eyes could perceive more than was correct in the conduct of her stepmother. No, she told herself, that other flirtation was the desperate one. Clarissa might have had some preference for George Fairfax; there had been occasional indications of such a feeling in her manner at Hale Castle; but the dark spot of her life, the secret of her girlhood, was a love affair with Mr. Austin.

By way of experiment, one day she asked her father’s wife a question about the painter.

“You seemed to admire Mr. Austin very much, Clarissa,” she said, “and I admit that he is remarkably clever; but he appears such a waif and stray. In all his conversation with us he never threw much light upon his own history. Do you know anything of his antecedents?”

Clarissa blushed in spite of herself. The deception she had sustained so long was unspeakably distasteful her. Again and again she had been tempted to hazard everything, and acknowledge Austin as her brother, whether he liked or not that she should do so. It was only his peremptory tone that had kept her silent.

“What should I know of his antecedents more than you, Sophy?” she said, avoiding a more direct reply. “It is quite enough for me to know that he has undeniable genius.”

The blush, and a certain warmth in her tone, seemed to Sophia conclusive evidence of her hidden regard for this man. Miss Granger’s heart beat a good deal faster than usual, and little jealous sparkles shone in her cold gray eyes. She had never admired any man so much as she had admired this brilliant young painter. Many men had paid her compliments; as the rich Mr. Granger’s sole daughter and heiress, she had been gratified with no meagre share of mankind’s worship; but no words ever spoken had sounded so sweet in her ears as those few civil speeches that Mr. Austin had found time to address to her during his visits to the Rue de Morny. And after having taken so much pleasure in his converse, and thought so much more about him than she would have considered it proper for any model villager to think about an individual of the opposite sex, it was a hard thing to find — first, that the base impostor had a wife; and secondly, that whatever illegitimate worship he might have to render, was to be offered at the shrine of Clarissa.

“Indeed!” she exclaimed, with an air of extreme surprise. “You seemed on such very friendly terms with him, that I fancied you must really have known each other before, and that you had some motive for concealing the fact from papa.”

Clarissa blushed a deeper crimson at this homethrust, and bent a little lower over her drawing-board. It seemed a fortunate thing that she happened to be painting when Miss Granger opened her guns upon her in this manner.

“He gives lessons, I believe; does he not?” asked Sophia.

“Yes — I— I believe — I have heard so.”

“Do you know, I took it into my head that he might have been your drawing-master at Belforêt.”

Clarissa laughed aloud at this suggestion. Miss Granger’s persistent curiosity amused her a little, dangerous as the ground was.

“Oh dear no, he was not our master at Belforêt,” she said. “We had a little old Swiss — such an ancient, ancient man — who took snuff continually, and was always talking about his pays natal and Jean Jacques Rousseau. I think he had known Rousseau; and I am sure he was old enough to remember the night they locked him out of Geneva.”

Sophia was fairly posed; she had been on a false scent evidently, and yet she was sure there was something. That is how she shaped her doubts in her own mind — there was something. Warman thought so, she knew; and Warman was gifted with no ordinary amount of penetration.

So Mrs. Granger went her way, with suspicion around and about her, and danger ahead. Whatever peace had been hers in the brief period of her married life — and the quiet spring-time and summer that came after her baby’s birth had been very peaceful — had vanished now. A cloud of fear encompassed her; a constant melancholy possessed her; a pleading voice, which she ought never to have heard, was always in her ears — a voice that charged her with the burden of a broken life — a voice that told her it was only by some sacrifice of her own she could atone for the sacrifice that had been made for her — a too persuasive voice, with a perilous charm in its every accent.

She loved him. That she could ever be weak enough, or vile enough, to sink into that dread abyss, whereto some women have gone down for the love of man, was not within the compass of her thought. But she knew that no day in her life was sinless now; that no pure and innocent joys were left to her; that her every thought of George Fairfax was a sin against her husband.

And yet she went on loving him. Sometimes, when the dense of her guilt was strongest, she would fain have asked her husband to take her back to Arden; which must needs be a kind of sanctuary, as it were, she thought. Nay, hardly so; for even in that tranquil retreat Temple Fairfax had contrived to pursue her mother, with the poison of his influence and his presence. Very often she felt inclined to ask her husband this favour; but she could not do so without running some risk of betraying herself — Heaven knows how much she might betray — unawares. Again, their sojourn in the Rue de Morny was not to endure for ever. Already Mr. Granger had expressed himself somewhat tired of Paris; indeed, what denizen of that brilliant city does not become a little weary of its brightness, sooner or later, and fall sick of the Boulevard-fever — a harassing sense of all-pervading glare and confusion, a sensation of Paris on the brain?

There was some talk of returning to Arden at the end of a month. They were now at the close of January; by the first of March Mr. Granger hoped to be at the Court. His architect and his head-bailiff were alike eager for his return; there were more pullings down and reconstructions required on the new estate; there were all manner of recondite experiments to be tried in scientific farming: there were new leases to be granted, and expiring leases, the covenants whereof must be exacted.

Since they were likely to leave Paris so soon, it would be foolish to excite wonder by asking to leave sooner, Mrs. Granger thought. It mattered so little, after all, she told herself sometimes. It mattered this much only — that day by day her feet were straying farther from the right road.

O those happy winter afternoons in the Rue du Chevalier Bayard! Such innocent happiness, too, in all seeming — only a little animated rambling talk upon all manner of subjects, from the loftiest problems in philosophy to the frothiest gossip of the Faubourg St. Honoré; only the presence of two people who loved each other to distraction. A dim firelit room; a little commonplace woman coming in and out; two young men disputing in the dusk; and Clarissa in her low chair by the fire, listening to the magical voice that was now the only music of her dreams. If it could have gone on for ever thus — a sweet sentimental friendship like that which linked Madame Roland and Brissot, Madame Recamier and Chateaubriand — there would surely have been no harm, Clarissa sometimes argued with herself. She was married to a man whom she could respect for many qualities of his heart and mind, against whom she could never seriously offend. Was it so great a sin if the friendship of George Fairfax was dear to her? if the few happy hours of her life were those she spent in his company? But such special pleading as this was the poorest sophistry; at heart she was conscious that it was so. A woman has a double conscience, as it were — a holy of holies within the temple of her mind, to which falsehood cannot enter. She may refuse to lift the screen, and meet the truth face to face; but it is there — not to be extinguished — eternal, immutable; the divine lamp given for her guidance, if only she will not withdraw herself from its light.

Just a little less than a month before his intended departure, Mr. Granger had a letter from that exacting bailiff, entreating his return. Something in the scientific farming had gone wrong, some great sewage question was at issue, and none but the lord of the soil himself could settle the matter. Very dear to Daniel Granger were those lands of Arden, that Arden–Court estate which he had made to spread itself so far over the face of the county. Sweet are ancestral domains, no doubt; dear by association, made holy by the pride of the race; but perhaps sweeter to the soul of man are those acres he has won by the work of his own strong hand, or his own steadfast brain. Next to his wife and children, in Mr. Granger’s regard, were the lands of Arden: the farms and homesteads, in valleys and on hill-tops; the cottages and school-houses, which he had built for the improvement of his species; the bran-new slack-baked gothic church in an outlying village, where the church had never been before his coming.

He was very sorry to leave his wife; but the question at stake was an important one. If he could have carried his household away with him at an hour’s notice, he would gladly have done so; but to move Clarissa and the nurse, and the baby, and Miss Granger, would be rather a formidable business — in fact, not to be done without elaborate preparation. He had the apartments in the Rue du Morny on his hands, too, until the beginning of March; and even a millionaire seldom cares to waste such a rental as Parisian proprietors exact for houseroom in a fashionable quarter. So he decided upon going to Arden at once — which was essential — and returning directly he had adjusted matters with his bailiff, and done a morning’s work with his architect.

He told Clarissa of his intention one evening when they had returned from a dinner-party, and she was seated before her dressing-table, taking off her jewels in a slow, absent way. She looked up with a start as her husband came into the room, and planted himself on the white sheepskin rug, with his back against the mantelpiece.

“I am obliged to go back to Yorkshire, Clary,” he said.

She thought he meant they were all going back — that it was an interposition of Providence, and she was to be taken away from sin and danger. But O, how hard it seemed to go — never again to look forward to those stolen twilights in her brother’s painting-room!

“I am glad!” she exclaimed. “I shall be very glad to go back to Arden.”

“You, my dear!” said her husband; “it is only I who am going. There is some hitch in our experiments on the home farm, and Forley knows how anxious I am about making a success this year. So he wants me to run over and see to things; he won’t accept the responsibility of carrying on any longer without me. I needn’t be away above two or three days, or a week at most. You can get on very well without me.”

Clarissa was silent, looking down at a bracelet which she was turning idly round her arm. Get on without him! Alas, what part had Daniel Granger played in her life of late beyond that of some supernumerary king in a stage-play? — a person of importance by rank and title in the play-bill, but of scarcely any significance to the story. Her guilty heart told her how little he had ever been to her; how, day by day, he had been growing less and less. And while he was away, she might go to the Rue du Chevalier Bayard every day. There would be nothing to prevent her so doing if she pleased. The carriage was nominally and actually hers. There was a brougham at Miss Granger’s disposal; but the landau was essentially Clarissa’s carriage.

“You can get on very well without me,” repeated Mr. Granger. “I do not think my presence or absence makes very much difference to you, Clarissa,” he added, in a grave displeased tone.

It was almost his first hint of a reproach. To his wife’s guilty heart it struck sharply home, like an unexpected blow. She looked up at him with a pale conscience-stricken face, in which he might have read much more than he did read there. He only thought that he had spoken a shade too severely — that he had wounded her.

“I— I don’t know what you mean by that,” she faltered helplessly, “I always try to please you.”

“Try to please me!” he repeated passionately. “Yes, Clary, as a child tries to please a schoolmaster. Do you know, that when I married you I was mad enough to hope the day would come when you would love me — that you loved me a little even then? Do you know how I have waited for that day, and have learned to understand, little by little, that it never can dawn for me upon this earth? You are my wife, and the mother of my child; and yet, God knows, you are no nearer to me than the day I first saw you at Hale Castle — a slim, girlish figure in a white dress, coming in at the door of the library. Not a whit nearer,” he went on, to himself rather than to Clarissa; “but so much more dear.”

There was a passion in his words which touched his wife. If it had only been possible for her to love him! If gratitude and respect, joined together, could have made up the sum of love; but they could not. She knew that George Fairfax was in all moral qualities this man’s inferior; yet, for some indefinable charm, some trick of tone or manner, some curious magic in a smile or a glance, she loved him.

She was silent. Perhaps the sense of her guilt came more fully home to her in this moment than it had ever done before. What words could she speak to bring comfort to her husband’s soul — she whose whole life was a lie?

Daniel Granger wandered up and down the room for some minutes in a vague restless way, and then came to his wife’s chair, and looked down at her very tenderly.

“My dear, I do wrong to worry you with reproaches,” he said. “The mistake has been mine. From first to last, I have been to blame. I suppose in the wisest life there must always be some folly. Mine has been the hope that I could win your love. It has gone now, Clarissa; it is quite gone. Not even my child has given me a place in your heart.”

She looked up at him again, with that look which expressed such a depth of remorse.

“I am very wicked,” she said, “I am utterly unworthy of all you have done for me. It would have been better for you never to have seen my face.”

“Wicked! no, Clary. Your only sin has been to have disappointed a foolish fancy. What right had I to suppose you loved me? Better never to have seen your face? — yes, perhaps that might have been better. But, once having seen you, I would rather be wretched with you than happy with any other woman in the world. That is what love means, Clary.”

He stooped down to kiss her.

“Say no more, dear,” he said, “I never meant to speak as I have spoken to-night. I love you for ever.”

The day came when she remembered those words, “I love you for ever.”

If she could have thrown herself upon his breast and acknowledged all her weakness, beseeching him to shield her from herself in obedience to the impulse of that moment, what a world of anguish might have been spared to these two! But she let the impulse pass, and kept silence.

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