The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

Dangerous Ground.

Life was very pleasant at Hale Castle. About that one point there could be no shadow of doubt. Clarissa wondered at the brightness of her new existence; began to wonder vaguely by-and-by what it was that made it seem brighter every day. There was the usual round of amusements — dinner-parties, amateur concerts, races, flower-shows, excursions to every point of interest within a day’s drive, a military ball at the garrison-town twenty miles off, perennial croquet, and gossip, and afternoon tea-drinking in arbours or marquees in the gardens, and unlimited flirtation. It was impossible for the most exacting visitor to be dull. There was always something.

And to Clarissa all these things possessed the charm of freshness. She was puzzled beyond measure by the indifference, real or simulated, of the girls who had seen half-a-dozen London seasons; the frequent declarations that these delights only bored them, that this or that party was a failure. George Fairfax watched her bright face sometimes, interested in spite of himself by her freshness.

“What a delicious thing youth is!” he said to himself. “Even if that girl were less completely lovely than she is, she would still be most charming. If Geraldine were only like that — only fresh and candid and pure, and susceptible to every new emotion! But there is an impassable gulf of ten years between them. Geraldine is quite as handsome — in her own particular style — and she talks much better than Clarissa Lovel, and is more clever, no doubt; and yet there are some men who would be bewitched by that girl before they knew where they were.”

Very often after this Mr. Fairfax fell a-musing upon those apocryphal men who might be subjugated by the charms of Miss Lovel.

When did he awaken to the fatal truth that those charms were exercising a most potent influence upon his own mind? When did he open his eyes for the first time to behold his danger?

Not yet. He was really attached to Geraldine Challoner. Her society had been a kind of habit with him for several years of his life. She had been more admired than any woman he knew, and it was, in some sort, a triumph to have won her. That he never would have won her but for his brother’s death he knew very well, and accepted the fact as a matter of course; a mere necessity of the world in which they lived, not as evidence of a mercenary spirit in the lady. He knew that no woman could better discharge the duties of an elevated station, or win him more social renown. To marry Geraldine Challoner was to secure for his house the stamp of fashion, for every detail of his domestic life a warrant of good taste. She had a kind of power over him too, an influence begun long ago, which had never yet been oppressive to him. And he took these things for love. He had been in love with other women during his long alliance with Lady Geraldine, and had shown more ardour in the pursuit of other flames than he had ever evinced in his courtship of her; but these more passionate attachments had come, for the most part, to a sorry end; and now he told himself that Geraldine suited him better than any other woman in the world.

“I have outgrown all foolish notions,” he said to himself, believing that the capacity was dead within him for that blind unreasoning passion which poets of the Byronic school have made of love. “What I want is a wife; a wife of my own rank, or a little above me in rank; a wife who will be true and loyal to me, who knows the world well enough to forgive my antecedents, and to be utterly silent about them, and who will help me to make a position for myself in the future. A man must be something in this world. It is a hard thing that one cannot live one’s own life; but it seems inevitable somehow.”

His mother had helped not a little to the bringing about of this engagement. She knew that her son’s bachelor life had been at best a wild one; not so bad as it was supposed to be, of course, since nothing in this world ever is so bad as the rest of the world supposes it; and she was very anxious to see him safely moored in the sheltered harbour of matrimony. She was a proud woman, and she was pleased that her son should have an earl’s daughter for his wife; and beyond this there was the fact that she liked Lady Geraldine. The girl who had been too proud to let the man she loved divine the depth of her feeling, had not been too proud to exhibit her fondness for his mother. There had grown up a warm friendship between these two women; and Mrs. Fairfax’s influence had done much, almost unknown to her son, to bring about this result of his chronic flirtation with Geraldine Challoner.

Just at present he was very well satisfied with the fact of his engagement, believing that he had taken the best possible means for securing his future happiness; an equable, quiet sort of happiness, of course — he was nearly thirty, and had outlived the possibility of anything more than that. It would have bored him to suppose that Geraldine expected more from him than this tranquil kind of worship. Perhaps the lady understood this, and schooled herself to a colder tone than was even natural to her, rather than be supposed for one moment to be the more deeply attached of the two.

Thus it happened that Mr. Fairfax was not severely taxed in his capacity of plighted lover. However exacting Lady Geraldine may have been by nature, she was too proud to demand more exclusive attention than her betrothed spontaneously rendered; indeed, she took pains to let him perceive that he was still in full enjoyment of all his old bachelor liberty. So the days drifted by very pleasantly, and George Fairfax found himself in Clarissa Lovel’s society perhaps a little oftener than was well for either of those two.

He was very kind to her; he seemed to understand her better than other people, she thought; and his companionship was more to her than that of any one else — a most delightful relief after Captain Westleigh’s incessant frivolity, or Mr. Halkin’s solemn small-talk. In comparison with these men, he appeared to such wonderful advantage. Her nature expanded in his society, and she could talk to him as she talked to no one else.

He used to wonder at her eloquence sometimes, as the beautiful face glowed, and the dark hazel eyes brightened; he wondered not a little also at the extent of her reading, which had been wide and varied during that quiet winter and spring-time at Mill Cottage.

“What a learned lady you are!” he said, smiling at her enthusiasm one day, when they had been talking of Italy and Dante; “your close knowledge of the poet puts my poor smattering to shame. Happily, an idler and a worldling like myself is not supposed to know much. I was never patient enough to be a profound reader; and if I cannot tear the heart out of a book, I am apt to throw it aside in disgust. But you must have read a great deal; and yet when we met, less than a year ago, you confessed to being only a schoolgirl fresh from grinding away at Corneille and Racine.”

“I have had the advantage of papa’s help since then,” answered Clarissa, “and he is very clever. He does not read many authors, but those he does care for he reads with all his heart. He taught me to appreciate Dante, and to make myself familiar with the history of his age, in order to understand him better.”

“Very wise of him, no doubt. And that kind of studious life with your papa is very pleasant to you, I suppose, Miss Lovel?”

“Yes,” she answered thoughtfully; “I have been quite happy with papa. Some people might fancy the life dull, perhaps, but it has scarcely seemed so to me. Of course it is very different from life here; but I suppose one would get tired of such a perpetual round of pleasure as Lady Laura provides for us.”

“I should imagine so. Life in a country house full of delightful people must be quite intolerable beyond a certain limit. One so soon gets tired of one’s best friends. I think that is why people travel so much nowadays. It is the only polite excuse for being alone.”

The time came when Clarissa began to fancy that her visit had lasted long enough, and that, in common decency, she was bound to depart; but on suggesting as much to Lady Laura, that kindly hostess declared she could not possibly do without her dearest Clarissa for ever so long.

“Indeed, I don’t know how I shall ever get on without you, my dear,” she said; “we suit each other so admirably, you see. Why, I shall have no one to read Tasso with — no one to help me with my Missal when you are gone.”

Miss Lovel’s familiar knowledge of Italian literature, and artistic tastes, had been altogether delightful to Lady Laura; who was always trying to improve herself, as she called it, and travelled from one pursuit to another, with a laudable perseverance, but an unhappy facility for forgetting one accomplishment in the cultivation of another. Thus by a vigorous plunge into Spanish and Calderon this year, she was apt to obliterate the profound impression created by Dante and Tasso last year. Her music suffered by reason of a sudden ardour for illumination; or art went to the wall because a London musical season and an enthusiastic admiration of Hallé had inspired her with a desire to cultivate a more classic style of pianoforte-playing. So in her English reading, each new book blotted out its predecessor. Travels, histories, essays, biographies, flitted across the lady’s brain like the coloured shadows of a magic-lantern, leaving only a lingering patch of picture here and there. To be versatile was Lady Laura’s greatest pride, and courteous friends had gratified her by treating her as an authority upon all possible subjects. Nothing delighted her so much as to be appealed to with a preliminary, “Now, you who read so much, Lady Laura, will understand this;” or, “Dear Lady Laura, you who know everything, must tell me why,” etc.; or to be told by a painter, “You who are an artist yourself can of course see this, Lady Laura;” or to be complimented by a musician as a soul above the dull mass of mankind, a sympathetic spirit, to whom the mysteries of harmony are a familiar language.

In that luxurious morning-room of Lady Laura’s Clarissa generally spent the first two hours after breakfast. Here the children used to come with French and German governesses, in all the freshness of newly-starched cambric and newly-crimped tresses, to report progress as to their studies and general behaviour to their mother; who was apt to get tired of them in something less than a quarter of an hour, and to dispatch them with kisses and praises to the distant schoolrooms and nurseries where these young exotics were enjoying the last improvements in the forcing system.

Geraldine Challoner would sometimes drop into this room for a few minutes at the time of the children’s visit, and would converse not unkindly with her nephews and nieces; but for her sister’s accomplishments she displayed a profound indifference, not to say contempt. She was not herself given to the cultivation of these polite arts — nothing could ever induce her to sing or play in public. She read a good deal, but rarely talked about books — it was difficult indeed to say what Lady Geraldine did talk about — yet in the art of conversation, when she chose to please, Geraldine Challoner infinitely surpassed the majority of women in her circle. Perhaps this may have been partly because she was a good listener; and, in some measure, on account of that cynical, mocking spirit in which she regarded most things, and which was apt to pass for wit.

Clarissa had been a month at Hale Castle already; but she stayed on at the urgent desire of her hostess, much too happy in that gay social life to oppose that lady’s will.

“If you really, really wish to have me, dear Lady Laura,” she said; “but you have been so kind already, and I have stayed so long, that I begin to feel myself quite an intruder.”

“You silly child! I do really, really wish to have you. I should like to keep you with me always, if I could. You suit me so much better than any of my sisters; they are the most provoking girls in the world, I think, for being uninterested in my pursuits. And your Italian is something wonderful. I have not opened my dictionary since we have been reading together. And beyond all that, I have a very particular reason for wishing you to be here next month.”

“Why next month, Lady Laura?”

“I am not going to tell you that.”

“But you quite mystify me.”

“I mean to mystify you. No, it’s not the least use asking questions, Clary; but mind, you must not tease me any more about running away: that is understood.”

In all this time Clarissa had not found herself any nearer to that desired result of getting on well with Geraldine Challoner. That, lady seemed quite as far away from her after a month’s acquaintance as she had seemed at the very first. It was not that Lady Geraldine was uncivil. She was polite, after her manner, to Clarissa, but never cordial; and yet she could not fail to see that George Fairfax admired and liked Miss Lovel, and she might have been supposed to wish to think well of any one he liked.

Was she jealous of Clarissa? Well, no, it scarcely seemed possible to associate the fever of jealousy with that serene temperament. She had an air of complete security in all her intercourse with George Fairfax, which was hardly compatible with doubt or the faintest shadow of suspicion.

If ever she did speak of Miss Lovel to her lover, or to any one else, she talked of her as a pretty country girl, and seemed to consider her as far removed, by reason of her youth and obscure position, from herself, as if they had been inhabitants of two separate worlds.

Mr. Lovel had been invited to several dinner-parties at the Castle during his daughter’s visit, but was not to be drawn from his seclusion. He had no objection, however, that Clarissa should stay as long as Lady Laura cared to retain her, and wrote very cordially to that effect.

What a pleasant, idle, purposeless life it was, and how rapidly it drifted by for Clarissa! She wondered to find herself so happy; wondered what the charm was which made life so new and sweet, which made her open her eyes on the morning sunshine with such a glad eagerness to greet the beginning of another day, and filled up every hour with such a perfect sense of contentment.

She wondered at this happiness only in a vague dreamy way, not taking much trouble to analyse her feelings. It was scarcely strange that she should be completely happy in a life so different from her dull existence at home. The freshness and beauty of all these pleasant things would be worn off in time, no doubt, and she would become just like those other young women, with their experience of many seasons, and their perpetual complaint of being bored; but just now, while the freshness lasted, everything delighted her.

Clarissa had been more than six weeks at the Castle, while other visitors had come and gone, and the round of country-house gaieties had been unbroken. The Fermors still lingered on, and languidly deprecated the length of their visit, without any hint of actual departure. Captain Westleigh had gone back to his military duties, very much in love with Miss Lovel. He plaintively protested, in his confidences with a few chosen friends, against a Providence which had made them both penniless.

“I don’t suppose I shall ever meet such a girl again,” he would declare piteously. “More than once I was on the point of making her an offer; the words were almost out, you know; for I don’t go in for making a solemn business of the thing, with a lot of preliminary palaver. If a fellow really likes a girl, he doesn’t want to preach a sermon in order to let her know it; and ever so many times, when we’ve been playing croquet, or when I’ve been hanging about the piano with her of an evening, I’ve been on the point of saying, ‘Upon my word, Miss Lovel, I think we two are eminently suited to each other, don’t you?’ or something plain and straightforward of that kind; and then I’ve remembered that her father can’t give her a sixpence, which, taken in conjunction with my own financial condition, would mean starvation!”

“And do you think she liked you?” a curious friend would perhaps inquire.

“Well, I don’t know. She might do worse, you see. As a rule, girls generally do like me. I don’t see why there should be any difference in her case.”

Nor did the Captain for a moment imagine that Clarissa would have rejected him, had he been in a position to make an offer of his hand.

Lady Geraldine was a fixture at Hale. She was to stay there till her marriage, with the exception, perhaps, of a brief excursion to London for millinery purposes, Lady Laura told Clarissa. But the date of the marriage had not yet been settled — had been, indeed, only discussed in the vaguest manner, and the event seemed still remote.

“It will be some time this year, I suppose,” Lady Laura said; “but beyond that I can really say nothing. Geraldine is so capricious; and perhaps George Fairfax may not be in a great hurry to give up his bachelor privileges. He is very different from Fred, who worried me into marrying him six weeks after he proposed. And in this case a long engagement seems so absurd, when you consider that they have known each other for ten years. I shall really be very glad when the business is over, for I never feel quite sure of Geraldine.”

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