The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Clarissa is “Taken up.”

For some time there was neither change nor stir in Clarissa Lovel’s new life. It was not altogether an unpleasant kind of existence, perhaps, and Miss Lovel was inclined to make the best of it. She was very much her own mistress, free to spend the long hours of her monotonous days according to her own pleasure. Her father exacted very little from her, and received her dutiful attentions with an air of endurance which was not particularly encouraging. But Clarissa was not easily disheartened. She wanted to win her father’s affection; and again and again, after every new discouragement, she told herself that there was no reason why she should not ultimately succeed in making herself as dear to him as an only daughter should be. It was only a question of time and patience. There was no reason that he should not love her, no possible ground for his coldness. It was his nature to be cold, perhaps; but those cold natures have often proved capable of a single strong attachment. What happiness it would be to win this victory of love!

“We stand almost alone in the world,” she said to herself. “We had need be very dear to each other.”

So, though the time went by, and she made no perceptible progress towards this happy result, Clarissa did not despair. Her father tolerated her, and even this was something; it seemed a great deal when she remembered her childhood at Arden, in which she had never known what it was to be in her father’s society for an hour at a time, and when, but for chance meetings in corridors and on staircases, she would very often have lived for weeks under the same roof with him without seeing his face or hearing his voice.

Now it was all different; she was a woman now, and Mill Cottage was scarcely large enough to accommodate two separate existences, even had Mr. Lovel been minded to keep himself aloof from his daughter. This being so, he tolerated her, treating her with a kind of cold politeness, which might have been tolerably natural in some guardian burdened with the charge of a ward he did not care for. They rarely met until dinner-time, Clarissa taking her breakfast about three hours before her father left his room. But at seven they dined together, and spent the long winter evenings in each other’s company, Clarissa being sometimes permitted to read aloud in German or Italian, while her father lay back in his easy-chair, smoking his meerschaum, and taking the amber mouthpiece from his lips now and then to correct an accent or murmur a criticism on the text. Sometimes, too, Mr. Lovel would graciously expound a page or two of a Greek play, or dilate on the subtilty of some learned foot-note, for his daughter’s benefit, but rather with the air of one gentleman at his club inviting the sympathy of another gentleman than with the tone of a father instructing his child.

Sometimes, but very rarely, they had company. Mr. Oliver and his wife would dine with them occasionally, or the Vicar of Arden, a grave bachelor of five-and-thirty, would drop in to spend an hour or two of an evening. But besides these they saw scarcely any one. The small professional men of Holborough Mr. Lovel held in supreme contempt, a contempt of which those gentlemen themselves were thoroughly aware; the country people whom he had been accustomed to receive at Arden Court he shrank from with a secret sense of shame, in these days of his fallen fortunes. He had therefore made for himself a kind of hermit life at Mill Cottage; and his acquaintance had come, little by little, to accept this as his established manner of existence. They still called upon the recluse occasionally, and sent him cards for their state dinners, averse from any neglect of a man who had once occupied a great position among them; but they were no longer surprised when Mr. Lovel pleaded his feeble health as a reason for declining their hospitality. A very dull life for a girl, perhaps; but for Clarissa it was not altogether an unhappy life. She was at an age when a girl can make an existence for herself out of bright young fancies and vague deep thoughts. There was that in her life just now which fades and perishes with the passing of years; a subtle indescribable charm, a sense of things beyond the common things of daily life. If there had been a closer bond of union between her father and herself, if there had not been that dark cloud upon her brother’s life, she might have made herself entirely happy; she might almost have forgotten that Arden was sold, and a vulgar mercantile stranger lord of those green slopes and broad ancient terraces she loved so well.

As it was, the loneliness of her existence troubled her very little. She had none of that eager longing for “society” or “fashion” wherewith young ladies who live in towns are apt to inoculate one another. She had no desire to shine, no consciousness of her own beauty; for the French girls at Madame Marot’s had been careful not to tell her that her pale patrician face was beautiful. She wished for nothing but to win her father’s love, and to bring about some kind of reconciliation between him and Austin. So the autumn deepened into winter, and the winter brightened into early spring, without bringing any change to her life. She had her colour-box and her easel, her books and piano, for her best companions; and if she did not make any obvious progress towards gaining her father’s affection, she contrived, at any rate, to avoid rendering her presence in any way obnoxious to him.

Two or three times in the course of the winter Mrs. Oliver gave a little musical party, at which Clarissa met the small gentry of Holborough, who pronounced her a very lovely girl, and pitied her because of her father’s ruined fortunes. To her inexperience these modest assemblies seemed the perfection of gaiety; and she would fain have accepted the invitations that followed them, from the wives of Holborough bankers and lawyers and medical men to whom she had been introduced. Against this degradation, however, Mr. Lovel resolutely opposed himself.

“No, Clarissa,” he said, sternly; “you must enter society under such auspices as I should wish, or you must be content to remain at home. I can’t have a daughter of mine hawked about in that petty Holborough set. Lady Laura will be at Hale Castle by-and-by, I daresay. If she chooses to take you up, she can do so. Pretty girls are always at par in a country house, and at the Castle you would meet people worth knowing.”

Clarissa sighed. Those cordial Holborough gentry had been so kind to her, and this exclusiveness of her father’s chilled her, somehow. It seemed to add a new bitterness to their poverty — to that poverty, by the way, of which she had scarcely felt the sharp edges yet awhile. Things went very smoothly at Mill Cottage. Her father lived luxuriously, after his quiet fashion. One of the best wine-merchants at the West-end of London supplied his claret; Fortnum and Mason furnished the condiments and foreign rarities which were essential for his breakfast-table. There seemed never any lack of money, or only when Clarissa ventured to hint at the scantiness of her school-wardrobe, on which occasion Mr. Lovel looked very grave, and put her off with two or three pounds to spend at the Holborough draper’s.

“I should want so many new clothes if I went to the Castle, papa,” she said, rather sadly one day, when her father was talking of Lady Laura Armstrong; but Mr. Lovel only shrugged his shoulders.

“A young woman is always well dressed in a white muslin gown,” he said, carelessly. “I daresay a few pounds would get you all you want.”

The Castle was a noble old place at Hale, a village about six miles from Holborough. It had been the family seat of the Earl of Roxham ever since the reign of Edward VI.; but, on the Roxham race dying out, some fifty years before this, had become the property of a certain Mr. Armstrong, a civilian who had made a great fortune in the East, in an age when great fortunes were commonly made by East–Indian traders. His only son had been captain in a crack regiment, and had sold out of the army after his father’s death, in order to marry Lady Laura Challoner, second daughter of the Earl of Calderwood, a nobleman of ancient lineage and decayed fortunes, and to begin life as a country gentleman under her wise governance. The Armstrongs were said to be a very happy couple; and if the master of Hale Castle was apt to seem something of a cipher in his own house, the house was an eminently agreeable one, and Lady Laura popular with all classes. Her husband adored her, and had surrendered his judgment to her guidance with a most supreme faith in her infallibility. Happily, she exercised her power with that subtle tact which is the finest gift of woman, and his worst enemies could scarcely call Frederick Armstrong a henpecked husband.

The spring and early summer brought no change to Clarissa’s life. She had been at home for the greater part of a year, and in all that time one day had resembled another almost us closely as in the scholastic monotony of existence at Madame Marot’s. And yet the girl had shaped no complaint about the dulness of this tranquil routine, even in her inmost unspoken thoughts. She was happy, after a quiet fashion. She had a vague sense that there was a broader, grander kind of life possible to womanhood; a life as different from her own as the broad river that lost itself in the sea was different from the placid mill-stream that bounded her father’s orchard. But she had no sick fretful yearning for that wider life. To win her father’s affection, to see her brother restored to his abandoned home — these were her girlish dreams and simple unselfish hopes.

In all the months Clarissa Lovel had spent at Mill Cottage she had never crossed the boundary of that lost domain she loved so well. There was a rustic bridge across the mill-stream, and a wooden gate opening into Arden woods. Clarissa very often stood by this gate, leaning with folded arms upon the topmost bar, and looking into the shadowy labyrinth of beech and pine with sad dreamy eyes, but she never went beyond the barrier. Honest Martha asked her more than once why she never walked in the wood, which was so much pleasanter than the dusty high-road, or even Arden common, an undulating expanse of heathy waste beyond the village, where Clarissa would roam for hours on the fine spring days, with a sketch-book under her arm. The friendly peasant woman could not understand that obstinate avoidance of a beloved scene — that sentiment which made her lost home seem to Clarissa a thing to shrink from, as she might have shrunk from beholding the face of the beloved dead.

It was bright midsummer weather, a glorious prolific season, with the thermometer ranging between seventy and eighty, when Lady Laura Armstrong did at last make her appearance at Mill Cottage. The simple old-fashioned garden was all aglow with roses; the house half-hidden beneath the luxuriance of foliage and flowers, a great magnolia on one side climbing up to the dormer windows, on the other pale monthly roses, and odorous golden and crimson tinted honeysuckle. Lady Laura was in raptures with the place. She found Clarissa sitting in a natural arbour made by a group of old hawthorns and a wild plum-tree, and placed herself at once upon a footing of perfect friendliness and familiarity with the girl. Mr. Lovel was out — a rare occurrence. He had gone for a stroll through the village with Ponto.

“And why are you not with him?” asked Lady Laura, who, like most of these clever managing women, had a knack of asking questions. “You must be a better companion than Ponto.”

“Papa does not think so. He likes walking alone. He likes to be quite free to dream about his books, I fancy, and it bores him rather to have to talk.”

“Not a very lively companion for you, I fear. Why, child, how dismal your life must be!”

“O, no; not dismal. It is very quiet, of course; but I like a quiet life.”

“But you go to a good many parties, I suppose, in Holborough and the neighbourhood? I know the Holborough people are fond of giving parties, and are quite famous for Croquet.”

“No, Lady Laura; papa won’t let me visit any one at Holborough, except my uncle and aunt, the Olivers.”

“Yes; I know the Olivers very well indeed. Remarkably pleasant people.”

“And I don’t even know how to play croquet.”

“Why, my poor benighted child, in what a state of barbarism this father of yours is bringing you up! How are you ever to marry and take your place in the world? And with your advantages, too! What can the man be dreaming about? I shall talk to him very seriously. We are quite old friends, you know, my dear, and I can venture to say what I like to him. You must come to me immediately. I shall have a houseful of people in a week or two, and you shall have a peep at the gay world. Poor little prison flower! no wonder you look thoughtful and pale. And now show me your garden, please, Miss Lovel. We can stroll about till your father comes home; I mean to talk to him at once.”

Energy was one of the qualities of her own character for which Laura Armstrong especially valued herself. She was always doing something or other which she was not actually called upon by her own duty or by the desire of other people to do, and she was always eager to do it “at once.” She had come to Mill Cottage intending to show some kindness to Clarissa Lovel, whose father and her own father, the Earl of Calderwood, had been firm friends in the days when the master of Arden entertained the county; and Clarissa’s manner and appearance having impressed her most favourably, she was eager to do her immediate service, to have her at the Castle, and show her to the world, and get her a rich husband if possible.

In honest truth, this Lady Laura Armstrong was a kindly disposed, sympathetic woman, anxious to make the best of the opportunities which Providence had given her with so lavish a hand, and to do her duty towards her less fortunate neighbours. The office of Lady Bountiful, the position of patroness, suited her humour. Her active frivolous nature, which spurned repose, and yet never rose above trifles, found an agreeable occupation in the exercise of this kind of benign influence upon other people’s lives. Whether she would have put herself seriously out of the way for the benefit of any of these people to whom she was so unfailingly beneficent, was a question which circumstances had never yet put to the test. Her benevolence had so far been of a light, airy kind, which did not heavily tax her bodily or mental powers, or even the ample resources of her purse.

She was a handsome woman, after a fair, florid, rather redundant style of beauty, and was profoundly skilled in all those arts of costume and decoration by which such beauty is improved. A woman of middle height, with a fine figure, a wealth of fair hair, and an aquiline nose of the true patrician type, her admirers said. The mouth was rather large, but redeemed by a set of flashing teeth and a winning smile; the chin inclined to be of that order called “double;” and indeed a tendency to increasing stoutness was one of the few cares which shadowed Lady Laura’s path. She was five-and-thirty, and had only just begun to tell herself that she was no longer a girl. She got on admirably with Clarissa, as she informed her husband afterwards when she described the visit.

The girl was fascinated at once by that frank cordial manner, and was quite ready to accept Lady Laura for her friend, ready to be patronised by her even, with no sense of humiliation, no lurking desire to revolt against the kind of sovereignty with which her new friend took possession of her.

Mr. Lovel came strolling in by-and-by, with his favourite tan setter, looking as cool as if there were no such thing as blazing midsummer sunshine, and found the two ladies sauntering up and down the grassy walk by the mill-stream, under the shadow of gnarled old pear and quince trees. He was charmed to see his dear Lady Laura. Clarissa had never known him so enthusiastic or so agreeable. It was quite a new manner which he put on — the manner of a man who is still interested in life. Lady Laura began almost at once with her reproaches. How could he be so cruel to this dear child? How could he be so absurd as to bury her alive in this way?

“She visits no one, I hear,” cried the lady; “positively no one.”

“Humph! she has been complaining, has she?” said Mr. Lovel, with a sharp glance at his daughter.

“Complaining! O no, papa! I have told Lady Laura that I do not care about gaiety, and that you do not allow me to visit.”

Aut Caesar aut nullus— the best or nothing. I don’t want Clarissa to be gadding about to all the tea-drinkings in Holborough; and if I let her go to one house, I must let her go to all”

“But you will let her come to me?”

“That is the best, my dear Lady Laura. Yes, of course she may come to you, whenever you may please to be troubled with her.”

“Then I please to be troubled with her immediately. I should like to carry her away with me this afternoon, if it were possible; but I suppose that can’t be — there will be a trunk to be packed, and so on. When will you come to me, Miss Lovel? Do you know, I am strongly tempted to call you Clarissa?”

“I should like it so much better,” the girl answered, blushing.

“What! may I? Then I’m sure I will. It’s such a pretty name, reminding one of that old novel of Richardson’s, which everybody quotes and no one ever seems to have read. When will you come, Clarissa?”

“Give her a week,” said her father; “she’ll want a new white muslin gown, I daresay; young women always do when they are going visiting.”

“Now, pray don’t let her trouble herself about anything of that kind; my maid shall see to all that sort of thing. We will make her look her best, depend upon it. I mean this visit to be a great event in her life, Mr. Lovel, if possible.”

“Don’t let there be any fuss or trouble about her. Every one knows that I am poor, and that she will be penniless when I am gone. Let her wear her white muslin gown, and give her a corner to sit in. People may take her for one of your children’s governesses, if they choose; but if she is to see society, I am glad for her to see the best.”

“People shall not take her for one of my governesses; they shall take her for nothing less than Miss Lovel of Arden. Yes, of Arden, my dear sir; don’t frown, I entreat you. The glory of an old house like that clings to those who bear the old name, even though lands and house are gone — Miss Lovel, of Arden, By the way, how do you get on with your neighbour, Mr. Granger?”

“I do not get on with him at all. He used to call upon me now and then, but I suppose he fancied, or saw somehow or other — though I am sure I was laboriously civil to him — that I did not care much for his visits; at any rate, he dropped them. But he is still rather obtrusively polite in sending me game and hot-house fruit and flowers at odd times, in return for which favours I can send him nothing but a note of thanks —‘Mr. Level presents his compliments to Mr. Granger, and begs to acknowledge, with best thanks, &c.”— the usual formula.”

“I am so sorry you have not permitted him to know you,” replied Lady Laura. “We saw a good deal of him last year — such a charming man! what one may really call a typical man — the sort of person the French describe as solid ——Carré par la base— a perfect block of granite; and then, so enormously rich!”

Lady Laura glanced at Clarissa, as if she were inspired with some sudden idea. She was subject to a sudden influx of ideas, and always fancied her ideas inspirations. She looked at Clarissa, and repeated, with a meditative air, “So enormously rich!”

“There is a grown-up daughter, too,” said Mr. Lovel; “rather a stiff-looking young person. I suppose she is solid, too.”

“She is not so charming as her father,” replied Lady Laura, with whom that favourite adjective served for everything in the way of praise. To her the Pyramids and Niagara, a tropical thunderstorm, a mazourka by Chopin, and a Parisian bonnet, were all alike charming. “I suppose solidity isn’t so nice in a girl,” she went on, laughing; “but certainly Sophia Granger is not such a favourite with me as her father is. I suppose she will make a brilliant marriage, however, sooner or later, unattractive as she may be; for she’ll have a superb fortune — unless, indeed, her father should take it into his head to marry again.”

“Scarcely likely that, I should think, after seventeen years of widowhood. Why, Granger must be at least fifty.” “My dear Mr. Lovel, I hope you are not going to call that a great age.”

“My dear Lady Laura, am I likely to do so, when my own fiftieth birthday is an event of the past? But I shouldn’t suppose Granger to be a marrying man,” he added meditatively; “such an idea has never occurred to me in conjunction with him.” And here he glanced ever so slightly at his daughter. “That sort of granite man must take a great deal of thawing.”

“There are suns that will melt the deepest snows,” answered the lady, laughing. “Seriously, I am sorry you will not suffer him to know you. But I must run away this instant; my unfortunate ponies will be wondering what has become of me. You see this dear girl and I have got on so well together, that I have been quite unconscious of time; and I had ever so many more calls to make, but those must be put off to another day. Let me see; this is Tuesday, I shall send a carriage for you, this day week, Clarissa, soon after breakfast, so that I may have you with me at luncheon. Good-bye.”

Lady Laura kissed her new protégée at parting. She was really fond of everything young and bright and pretty; and having come to Mr. Lovel’s house intending to perform a social duty, was delighted to find that the duty was so easy and pleasant to her. She was always pleased with new acquaintances, and was apt to give her friendship on the smallest provocation. On the other hand, there came a time when she grew just a little weary of these dear sweet friends, and began to find them less charming than of old; but she was never uncivil to them; they always remained on her list, and received stray gleams from the sunlight of her patronage.

“Well,” said Mr. Lovel interrogatively, when the mistress of Hale Castle had driven off, in the lightest and daintiest of phaetons, with a model groom and a pair of chestnut cobs, which seemed perfection, even in Yorkshire, where every man is a connoisseur in horseflesh. “Well, child, I told you that you might go into society if Lady Laura Armstrong took you up, but I scarcely expected her to be as cordial as she has been to-day. Nothing could have been better than the result of her visit; she seemed quite taken with you, Clary.”

It was almost the first time her father had ever called her Clary. It was only a small endearment, but she blushed and sparkled into smiles at the welcome sound. He saw the smile and blush, but only thought she was delighted with the idea of this visit to the Castle. He had no notion that the placid state of indifference which he maintained towards her was otherwise than agreeable to her feelings. He was perfectly civil to her, and he never interfered with her pursuits or inclinations. What more could she want from a father?

Perhaps she assumed a new value in his eyes from the time of that visit of Lady Laura’s. He was certainly kinder to her than usual, the girl thought, as they sat on the lawn in the balmy June evening, sipping their after-dinner coffee, while the moon rose fair and pale above the woods of Arden Court. He contemplated her with a meditative air now and then, when she was not looking his way. He had always known that she was beautiful, but her beauty had acquired a new emphasis from Lady Laura Armstrong’s praises. A woman of the world of that class was not likely to be deceived, or to mistake the kind of beauty, likely to influence mankind; and in the dim recesses of his mind there grew up a new hope — very vague and shadowy; he despised himself for dwelling upon it so weakly — a hope that made him kinder to his daughter than he had ever been yet — a hope which rendered her precious to him all at once. Not that he loved her any better than of old; it was only that he saw how, if fortune favoured him, this girl might render him the greatest service that could be done for him by any human creature.

She might marry Daniel Granger, and win back the heritage he had lost. It was a foolish thought, of course; Mr. Lovel was quite aware of the supremity of folly involved in it. This Granger might be the last man in the world to fall in love with a girl younger than his daughter; he might be as impervious to beauty as the granite to which Laura Armstrong had likened him. It was a foolish fancy, a vain hope; but it served to brighten the meditations of Marmaduke Lovel — who had really very few pleasant subjects to think about — with a faint rosy glow.

“It is the idlest dream,” he said to himself. “When did good luck ever come my way? But O, to hold Arden Court again — by any tie — to die knowing that my race would inherit the old gray walls!”

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