The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

And this is George Fairfax.

The next day was lovely. There seemed, indeed, no possibility of variation in the perfection of this summer weather; and Clarissa Lovel felt her spirits as light as if the unknown life before her had been all brightness, unshadowed by one dread or care. The party for Marley Wood started about an hour after breakfast — Lady Laura, Mrs. Dacre, Barbara Fermor, and Clarissa, in one carriage; two Miss Dacres, Lady Geraldine, and Mrs. Wilmot in the other; Lizzy Fermor and Rose Dacre on horseback; with a small detachment of gentlemen in attendance upon them. There were wide grassy waste lands on each side of the road almost all the way to the wood, on which the equestrian party could disport themselves, without much inconvenience from the dust of the two carriages. Once arrived at the wood, there were botanising, fern-hunting, sketching, and flirtation without limit. Lady Laura was quite happy, discussing her Dorcas societies and the ingratitude of her model cottagers, with Mrs. Dacre; Lady Geraldine sat at the foot of a great shining beech, with her white dress set off by a background of scarlet shawl, and her hat lying on the grass beside her. She seemed too listless to ramble about with the rest of the party, or to take the faintest interest in the conversation of any of the gentlemen who tried to talk to her. She amused herself in a desultory way with a drawing-book and a volume of a novel, and did not appear to consider it incumbent on her to take notice of any one.

Clarissa and Barbara Fermor wandered away into the heart of the wood, attended by the indefatigable Captain Westleigh, and sketched little bits of fern and undergrowth in their miniature sketch-books, much to the admiration of the Captain, who declared that Clarissa had a genius for landscape. “As you have for croquet and for everything else, I think,” he said; “only you are so quiet about your resources. But I am very glad you have not that grand sultana manner of Lady Geraldine Challoner’s. I really can’t think how any man can stand it, especially such a man as George Fairfax.”

“Why ‘especially’?” asked Miss Fermor, curiously.

“Well, I don’t know exactly how to explain my meaning to a lady — because he has knocked about the world a good deal — seen a great deal of life, in short. Il a vecu, as the French say. He is not the kind of man to be any woman’s slave, I should think; he knows too much of the sex for that. He would take matters with rather a high hand, I should fancy. And then Lady Geraldine, though she is remarkably handsome, and all that kind of thing, is not in the first freshness of her youth. She is nearly as old as George, I should say; and when a woman is the same age as a man, it is her misfortune to seem much older. No, Miss Fermor, upon my word, I don’t consider them fairly matched.”

“The lady has rank,” said Barbara Fermor.

“Yes, of course. It will be Mr. and Lady Geraldine Fairfax. There are some men who care for that kind of thing; but I don’t suppose George is one of them. The Fairfaxes are of a noble old Scotch family, you know, and hold themselves equal to any of our nobility.”

“When is Mr. Fairfax expected at the Castle?”

“Not till to-night. He is to come by the last train, I believe. You may depend Lady Geraldine would not be here if there were any chance of his arriving in the middle of the day. She will keep him up to collar, you maybe sure. I shouldn’t like to be engaged to a woman armed with the experience of a decade of London seasons. It must be tight work!”

A shrill bell, pealing gaily through the wood, summoned them to luncheon; a fairy banquet spread upon the grass under a charmed circle of beeches; chicken-pies and lobster-salads, mayonaise of salmon and daintily-glazed cutlets in paper frills, inexhaustible treasure of pound-cake and strawberries and cream, with a pyramid of hothouse pines and peaches in the centre of the turf-spread banquet. And for the wines, there were no effervescent compounds from the laboratory of the wine-chemist — Lady Laura’s guests were not thirsty cockneys, requiring to be refreshed by “fizz”— but delicate amber-tinted vintages of the Rhineland, which seemed too ethereal to intoxicate, and yet were dangerous. And for the more thirsty souls there were curiously compounded “cups:” hock and seltzer; claret and soda-water, fortified with curaçoa and flavoured artistically with burrage or sliced pine-apple.

The banquet was a merry one; and it was nearly four o’clock when the ladies had done trifling with strawberries and cream, and the gentlemen had suspended their homage to the Rhineland. Then came a still more desultory wandering of couples to and fro among the shadowy intricacies of the wood; and Clarissa having for once contrived to get rid of the inevitable Captain, who had been beguiled away to inspect some remote grotto under convoy of Barbara Fermor, was free to wander alone whither she pleased. She was rather glad to be alone for a little. Marley Wood was not new to her. It had been a favourite spot of her brother Austin’s, and the two had spent many a pleasant day beneath the umbrage of those old forest-trees; she, sitting and reading, neither of them talking very much, only in a spasmodic way, when Austin was suddenly moved by some caprice to pour out his thoughts into the ear of his little sister — strange bitter thoughts they were sometimes; but the girl listened as to the inspirations of genius. Here he had taught her almost all that she had ever learned of landscape art. She had only improved by long practice upon those early simple lessons. She was glad to be alone, for these old memories were sad ones. She wandered quite away from the rest, and, sitting down upon a bank that sloped towards a narrow streamlet, began to sketch stray tufts and clusters of weedy undergrowth — a straggling blackberry-branch, a bit of ivy creeping sinuously along the uneven ground — in an absent desultory way, thinking of her brother and the days gone by. She had been alone like this about half an hour, when the crackling of the brambles near her warned her of an approaching footstep. She looked up, and saw a stranger approaching her through the sunlight and shadows of the wood — a tall man, in a loose, gray overcoat.

A stranger? No. As he came nearer to her, the face seemed very familiar; and yet in that first moment she could not imagine where she had seen him. A little nearer, and she remembered all at once. This was her companion of the long railway journey from London to Holborough. She blushed at the recollection, not altogether displeased to see him again, and yet remembering bitterly that cruel mistake she had made about Arden Court. She might be able to explain her error now, if he should recognise her and stop to speak; but that was scarcely likely. He had forgotten her utterly, no doubt, by this time.

She went on with her sketching — a trailing spray of Irish ivy, winding away and losing itself in a confusion of bramble and fern, every leaf sharply defined by the light pencil touches, with loving pre-Raphaelite care — she went on, trying to think that it was not the slightest consequence to her whether this man remembered their brief acquaintance of the railway-carriage. And yet she would have been wounded, ever so little, if he had forgotten her. She knew so few people, that this accidental acquaintance seemed almost a friend. He had known her brother, too; and there had been something in his manner that implied an interest in her fate.

She bent a little lower over the sketch-book, doing her uttermost not to be seen, perhaps all the more because she really did wish for the opportunity of explaining that mistake about Arden Court. Her face was almost hidden under the coquettish gray hat, as she bent over her drawing; but the gentleman came on towards her with evident purpose. It was only to make an inquiry, however.

“I am looking for a picnic party,” he said. “I discovered the débris of a luncheon yonder, but no human creature visible. Perhaps you can kindly tell me where the strayed revellers are to be found; you are one of them, perhaps?”

Clarissa looked up at him, blushing furiously, and very much ashamed of herself for the weakness, and then went on with her drawing in a nervous way, as she answered him —

Yes, I am with Lady Laura Armstrong’s party; but I really cannot tell you where to look for them all. They are roaming about in every direction, I believe.”

“Good gracious me!” cried the gentleman, coming a good deal nearer — stepping hastily across the streamlet, in fact, which had divided him from Clarissa hitherto. “Have I really the pleasure of speaking to Miss Lovel? This is indeed a surprise. I scarcely expected ever to see you again.”

“Nor I to see you,” Clarissa answered, recovering herself a little by this time, and speaking with her accustomed frankness. “And I have been very anxious to see you again.”

“Indeed!” cried the gentleman eagerly.

“In order to explain a mistake I made that night in the railway-carriage, in speaking of Arden Court. I talked of the place as if it had still belonged to papa; I did not know that he had sold it, and fancied I was going home there. It was only when I saw my uncle that I learnt the truth. You must have thought it very strange.”

“I was just a little mystified, I confess, for I had dined at the Court with Mr. Granger.”

“Papa had sold the dear old place, and, disliking the idea of writing such unpleasant news, had told me nothing about the sale. It was not wise, of course; but he felt the loss of Arden so keenly, I can scarcely wonder that he could not bring himself to write about it.”

“It would have been better to have spared you, though,” the unknown answered gravely. “I daresay you were as fond of the old home as ever your father could have been?”

“I don’t think it would be possible for any one to love Arden better than I. But then, of course, a man is always prouder than a woman —”

“I am not so sure of that,” the stranger muttered parenthetically.

“— And papa felt the degradation involved in the loss.”

“I won’t admit of any degradation in the case. A gentleman is none the less a gentleman for having spent his fortune rather recklessly, and the old blood is no less pure without the old acres. If your father were a wise man, he might be happier now than he has ever been. The loss of a great estate is the loss of a bundle of cares.”

“I daresay that is very good philosophy,” Clarissa answered, smiling, beguiled from painful thoughts by the lightness of his tone; “but I doubt if it applies to all cases — not to papa’s, certainly.”

“You were sketching, I see, when I interrupted you. I remember you told me that night of your fondness for art. May I see what you were doing?”

“It is hardly worth showing you. I was only amusing myself, sketching at random — that ivy straggling along there, or anything that caught my eye.”

“But that sort of thing indicates so much. I see you have a masterly touch for so young an artist. I won’t say anything hackneyed about so fair a one; for women are showing us nowadays that there are no regions of art closed against them. Well, it is a divine amusement, and a glorious profession.”

There was a little pause after this, during which Clarissa looked at her watch, and finding it nearly five o’clock, began to put up her pencils and drawing-book.

“I did not think that you knew Lady Laura Armstrong,” she said; and then blushed for the speech, remembering that, as she knew absolutely nothing about himself or his belongings, the circumstance of her ignorance on this one point was by no means surprising.

“No; nor did I expect to meet you here,” replied the gentleman. “And yet I might almost have done so, knowing that you lived at Arden. But, you see, it is so long since we met, and I——”

“Had naturally forgotten me.”

“No, I had not forgotten you, Miss Lovel, nor would it have been natural for me to forget you. I am very glad to meet you again under such agreeable auspices. You are going to stay at the Castle a long time, I hope. I am booked for an indefinite visit.”

“O no, I don’t suppose I shall stay very long. Lady Laura is extremely kind; but this is my first visit, and she must have many friends who have a greater claim upon her hospitality.”

“Hale Castle is a large place, and I am sure Lady Laura has always room for agreeable guests.”

“She is very, very kind. You have known her a long time, perhaps?”

“Yes. I have been intimate with the Challoners ever since I was a boy. Lady Laura was always charming; but I think her marriage with Fred Armstrong — who worships the ground she walks on — and the possession of Hale Castle have made her absolutely perfect.”

“And you know her sister, Lady Geraldine, of course?”

“O yes, I know Geraldine.”

“Do you know Mr. Fairfax, the gentleman to whom she is engaged?”

“Well, yes; I am supposed to have some knowledge of that individual.”

Something in his smile, and a certain significance in his tone, let in a sudden light upon Clarissa’s mind.

“I am afraid I am asking very foolish questions,” she said. “You are Mr. Fairfax?”

“Yes, I am George Fairfax. I forgot that I had omitted to you my name that night.”

“And I had no idea that I was speaking to Mr. Fairfax. You were not expected till quite late this evening.”

“No; but I found my business in London easier to manage than I had supposed it would be; so, as in duty bound, I came down here directly I found myself free. When I arrived at the Castle, I was told of this picnic, and rode off at once to join the party.”

“And I am keeping you here, when you ought to be looking for your friends.”

“There is no hurry. I have done my duty, and am here; that is the grand point. Shall we go and look for them together?”

“If you like. I daresay we shall be returning to the Castle very soon.”

They sauntered slowly away, in and out among the trees, towards a grassy glade, where there was more open space for walking, and where the afternoon sun shone warmly on the smooth turf.

“I hope you get on very well with Geraldine?” Mr. Fairfax said presently.

It was almost the same phrase Lady Laura had used about her sister.

“I have seen so little of her yet,” Clarissa answered, rather embarrassed by this inquiry. “I should like to know her very much; but she only arrived yesterday, and we have scarcely spoken half-a-dozen words to each other yet.”

“You will hardly like her at first, perhaps,” Mr. Fairfax went on, doubtfully. “People who don’t know much of her are apt to fancy her cold and proud; but to those whom she really likes she is all that is charming, and I don’t think she can fail to like you.”

“You are very kind to say so. I hope she may like me. Do you know, I have been so much interested in Lady Geraldine from the first, before I saw her even — partly, perhaps, because her sister told me about her engagement. You will think that very romantic and silly, I daresay.”

“Not at all; a young lady is bound to be interested in that kind of thing. And I hope your interest in Lady Geraldine was not lessened when you did see her.”

“It could scarcely be that. No one could help admiring her.”

“Yes, she is very handsome, there is no question about that; she has been an acknowledged beauty ever since she came out. I think I can catch a glimpse of her yonder among the trees; I see a white dress and a scarlet shawl. Geraldine always had a penchant for scarlet draperies.”

“Yes, that is Lady Geraldine.”

They hastened their steps a little, and came presently to the circle of beeches where they had lunched, and where most of the party were now assembled, preparing for the return journey. Lady Geraldine was sauntering to and fro with Major Mason, listening with a somewhat indifferent air to that gentleman’s discourse.

She caught sight of her lover the moment he appeared; and Clarissa saw the statuesque face light up with a faint flush of pleasure that brightened it wonderfully. But however pleased she might be, Lady Geraldine Challoner was the last of women to demonstrate her pleasure in her lover’s arrival by any overt act. She received him with the tranquil grace of an empress, who sees only one courtier more approach the steps of her throne. They shook hands placidly, after Mr. Fairfax had shaken hands and talked for two or three minutes with Lady Laura Armstrong, who welcomed him with considerable warmth.

The major dropped quietly away from Lady Geraldine’s side, and the plighted lovers strolled under the trees for a little, pending the signal for the return.

“So you know Miss Lovel?” Geraldine said, with an icy air of surprise, as soon as she and George Fairfax were alone.

“I can hardly say that I know her; our acquaintance is the merest accident,” answered Mr. Fairfax; and then proceeded to relate his railway adventure.

“How very odd that she should travel alone!”

“Scarcely so odd, when you remember the fact of her father’s poverty. He could not be supposed to find a maid for his daughter.”

“But he might be supposed to take some care of her. He ought not to have allowed her to travel alone — at night too.”

“It was careless and imprudent, no doubt. Happily she came to no harm. She was spared from any encounter with a travelling swell-mobsman, who would have garotted her for the sake of her watch and purse, or an insolent bagman, who would have made himself obnoxiously agreeable on account of her pretty face.”

“I suppose she has been in the habit of going about the world by herself. That accounts for her rather strong-minded air.”

“Do you find her strong-minded? I should have thought her quite gentle and womanly.”

“I really know nothing about her; and I must not say anything against her. She is Laura’s last protégée; and you know, when my sister takes any one up, it is always a case of rapture.”

After this the lovers began to talk about themselves, or rather George Fairfax talked about himself, giving a detailed account of his proceedings since last they had met.

“I went down to see my uncle,” he said, “the day before yesterday. He is at Lyvedon, and I had a good look at the old house. Really it is the dearest old place in the world, Geraldine, and I should like above all things to live there by-and-by, when the estate is ours. I don’t think we are likely to wait very long. The poor old man is awfully shaky. He was very good to me, dear old boy, and asked all manner of kind questions about you. I think I have quite won his heart by my engagement; he regards it as a pledge of my reform.”

“I am glad he is pleased,” replied Lady Geraldine, in a tone that was just a shade more gracious than that in which she had spoken of Clarissa.

The summons to the carriages came almost immediately. Mr. Fairfax conducted his betrothed to her seat in the barouche, and then mounted his horse to ride back to the Castle beside her. He rode by the side of the carriage all the way, indifferent to dust; but there was not much talk between the lovers during that homeward progress, and Clarissa fancied there was a cloud upon Mr. Fairfax’s countenance.

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