The lamps of the Great Northern Terminus at King’s Cross had not long been lighted, when a cab deposited a young lady and her luggage at the departure platform. It was an October twilight, cold and gray, and the place had a cheerless and dismal aspect to that solitary young traveller, to whom English life and an English atmosphere were somewhat strange.
She had been seven years abroad, in a school near Paris; rather an expensive seminary, where the number of pupils was limited, the masters and mistresses, learned in divers modern accomplishments, numerous, and the dietary of foreign slops and messes without stint.
Dull and gray as the English sky seemed to her, and dreary as was the aspect of London in October, this girl was glad to return to her native land. She had felt herself very lonely in the French school, forgotten and deserted by her own kindred, a creature to be pitied; and hers was a nature to which pity was a torture. Other girls had gone home to England for their holidays; but vacation after vacation went by, and every occasion brought Clarissa Lovel the same coldly worded letter from her father, telling her that it was not convenient for him to receive her at home, that he had heard with pleasure of her progress, and that experienced people with whom he had conferred, had agreed with him that any interruption to the regular course of her studies could not fail to be a disadvantage to her in the future.
“They are all going home except me, papa,” she wrote piteously on one occasion, “and I feel as if I were different from them, somehow. Do let me come home to Arden for this one year. I don’t think my schoolfellows believe me when I talk of home, and the gardens, and the dear old park. I have seen it in their faces, and you cannot think how hard it is to bear. And I want to see you, papa. You must not fancy that, because I speak of these things, I am not anxious for that. I do want to see you very much. By-and-by, when I am grown up, I shall seem a stranger to you.”
To this letter, and to many such, letters, Mr. Lovel’s reply was always the same. It did not suit his convenience that his only daughter should return to England until her education was completed. Perhaps it would have suited him better could she have remained away altogether; but he did not say as much as that; he only let her see very clearly that there was no pleasure for him in the prospect of her return.
And yet she was glad to go back. At the worst it was going home. She told herself again and again, in those meditations upon her future life which were not so happy as a girl’s reveries should be — she told herself that her father must come to love her in time. She was ready to love him so much on her part; to be so devoted, faithful, and obedient, to bear so much from him if need were, only to be rewarded with his affection in the end.
So at eighteen years of age Clarissa Lovel’s education was finished, and she came home alone from a quiet little suburban village just outside Paris, and having arrived to-night at the Great Northern Station, King’s Cross, had still a long journey before her.
Mr. Lovel lived near a small town called Holborough, in the depths of Yorkshire; a dreary little town enough, but boasting several estates of considerable importance in its neighbourhood. In days gone by, the Lovels had been people of high standing in this northern region, and Clarissa had yet to learn how far that standing was diminished.
She had been seated about five minutes in a comfortable corner of a first-class carriage, with a thick shawl over her knees, and all her little girlish trifles of books and travelling, bags gathered about her, and she had begun to flatter herself with the pleasing fancy that she was to have the compartment to herself for the first stage of the journey, perhaps for the whole of the journey, when a porter flung open the door with a bustling air, and a gentleman came in, with more travelling-rugs, canes, and umbrellas, russia leather bags, and despatch boxes, than Clarissa had ever before beheld a traveller encumbered with. He came into the carriage very quietly, however, in spite of these impedimenta, arranged his belongings in a methodical manner, and without the slightest inconvenience to Miss Lovel, and then seated himself next the door, upon the farther side of the carriage.
Clarissa looked at him rather anxiously, wondering whether they two were to be solitary companions throughout the whole of that long night journey. She had no prudish horror of such a position, only a natural girlish shyness in the presence of a stranger.
The traveller was a man of about thirty, tall, broad-shouldered, with long arms, and powerful-looking hands, ungloved, and bronzed a little by sun and wind. There was the same healthy bronze upon his face, Clarissa perceived, when he took off his hat, and hung it up above him; rather a handsome face, with a long straight nose, dark blue eyes with thick brown eyebrows, a well cut mouth and chin, and a thick thatch of crisp dark brown hair waving round a broad, intelligent-looking forehead. The firm, full upper lip was half-hidden by a carefully trained moustache; and in his dress and bearing the stranger had altogether a military air: one could fancy him a cavalry soldier. That bare muscular hand seemed made to grasp the massive hilt of a sabre.
His expression was grave — grave and a little proud, Clarissa thought; and, unused as she was to lonely wanderings in this outer world, she felt somehow that this man was a gentleman, and that she need be troubled by no fear that he would make is presence in any way unpleasant to her, let their journey together last as long as it would.
She sank back into her corner with a feeling of relief. It would have been more agreeable for her to have had the carriage to herself; but if she must needs have a companion, there was nothing obnoxious in this one.
For about an hour they sped on in silence. This evening train was not exactly an express, but it was a tolerably quick train, and the stoppages were not frequent. The dull gray twilight melted into a fair tranquil night. The moon rose early; and the quiet English landscape seemed very fair to Clarissa Lovel in that serene light. She watched the shadowy fields flitting past; here and there a still pool, or a glimpse of running water; beyond, the sombre darkness of wooded hills; and above that dark background a calm starry sky. Who shall say what dim poetic thoughts were in her mind that night, as she looked at these things? Life was so new to her, the future such an unknown country — a paradise perhaps, or a drear gloomy waste, across which she must travel with bare bleeding feet. How should she know? She only knew that she was going home to a father who had never loved her, who had deferred the day of her coming as long as it was possible for him decently to do so.
The traveller in the opposite corner of the carriage glanced at Miss Lovel now and then as she looked out of the window. He could just contrive to see her profile, dimly lighted by the flickering oil lamp; a very perfect profile, he thought; a forehead that was neither too high nor too low, a small aquiline nose, a short upper lip, and the prettiest mouth and chin in the world. It was just a shade too pensive now, the poor little mouth, he thought pityingly; and be wondered what it was like when it smiled. And then he began to arrange his lines for winning the smile he wanted so much to see from those thoughtful lips. It was, of course, for the gratification of the idlest, most vagabond curiosity that he was eager to settle this question: but then on such a long dreary journey, a man may be forgiven for a good deal of idle curiosity.
He wondered who his companion was, and how she came to be travelling alone, so young, so pretty, so much in need of an escort. There was nothing in her costume to hint at poverty, nor does poverty usually travel in first-class carriages. She might have her maid lurking somewhere in the second-class, he said to himself. In any case, she was a lady. He had no shadow of doubt about that.
She was tall, above the ordinary height of women. There was a grace in the long flowing lines of her figure more striking than the beauty of her face. The long slim throat, the sloping shoulder, not to be disguised even by the clumsy folds of a thick shawl — these the traveller noted, in a lazy contemplative mood, as he lolled in his corner, meditating an easy opening for a conversation with his fair fellow-voyager.
He let some little time slip by in this way, being a man to whom haste was almost unknown. This idle artistic consideration of Miss Level’s beauty was a quiet kind of enjoyment for him. She, for her part, seemed absorbed in watching the landscape — a very commonplace English landscape in the gentleman’s eyes — and was in no way disturbed by his placid admiration.
He had a heap of newspapers and magazines thrown pell-mell into the empty seat next him; and arousing himself with a faint show of effort presently, he began to turn these over with a careless hand.
The noise of his movements startled Clarissa; she looked across at him, and their eyes met. This was just what he wanted. He had been curious to see her eyes. They were hazel, and very beautiful, completing the charm of her face.
“May I offer you some of these things?” he said. “I have a reading lamp in one of my bags, which I will light for you in a moment. I won’t pledge myself for your finding the magazines very amusing, but anything is better than the blankness of a long dreary journey.”
“Thank you, you are very kind; but I don’t care about reading to-night; I could not give you so much trouble.”
“Pray don’t consider that. It is not a question of a moments trouble. I’ll light the lamp, and then you can do as you like about the magazines.”
He stood up, unlocked one of his travelling-bags, the interior of which glittered like a miniature arsenal, and took out a lamp, which he lighted in a rapid dexterous manner, though without the faintest appearance of haste, and fixed with a brass apparatus of screws and bolts to the arm of Clarissa’s seat. Then he brought her a pile of magazines, which she received in her lap, not a little embarrassed by this unexpected attention. He had called her suddenly from strange vague dreams of the future, and it was not easy to come altogether back to the trivial commonplace present.
She thanked him graciously for his politeness, but she had not smiled yet.
“Never mind,” the traveller said to himself; “that will come in good time.”
He had the easiest way of taking all things in life, this gentleman; and having established Clarissa with her lamp and books, sank lazily back into his corner, and gave himself up to a continued contemplation of the fair young face, almost as calmly as if it had been some masterpiece of the painter’s art in a picture gallery.
The magazines were amusing to Miss Lovel. They beguiled her away from those shapeless visions of days to come. She began to read, at first with very little thought of the page before her, but, becoming interested by degrees, read on until her companion grew tired of the silence.
He looked at his watch — the prettiest little toy in gold and enamel, with elaborate monogram and coat of arms — a watch that looked like a woman’s gift. They had been nearly three hours on their journey.
“I do not mean to let you read any longer,” he said, changing his seat to one opposite Clarissa. “That lamp is very well for an hour or so, but after that time the effect upon one’s eyesight is the reverse of beneficial. I hope your book is not very interesting.”
“If you will allow me to finish this story,” Clarissa pleaded, scarcely lifting her eyes from the page. It was not particularly polite, perhaps, but it gave the stranger an admirable opportunity for remarking the dark thick lashes, tinged with the faintest gleam of gold, and the perfect curve of the full white eyelids.
“Upon my soul, she is the loveliest creature I ever saw,” he said to himself; and then asked persistently, “Is the story a long one?”
“Only about half-dozen pages more; O, do please let me finish it!”
“You want to know what becomes of some one, or whom the heroine marries, of course. Well, to that extent I will be a party to the possible injury of your sight.”
He still sat opposite to her, watching her in the old lazy way, while she read the last few pages of the magazine story. When she came to the end, a fact of which he seemed immediately aware, he rose and extinguished the little reading lamp, with an air of friendly tyranny.
“Merciless, you see,” he said, laughing. “O, la jeunesse, what a delicious thing it is! Here have I been tossing and tumbling those unfortunate books about for a couple of hours at a stretch, without being able to fix my attention upon a single page; and here are you so profoundly absorbed in some trivial story, that I daresay you have scarcely been conscious of the outer world for the last two hours. O, youth and freshness, what pleasant things they are while we can keep them!”
“We were not allowed to read fiction at Madame Marot’s,” Miss Lovel answered simply. “Anything in the way of an English story is a treat when one has had nothing to read but Racine and Télémaque for about six years of one’s life.”
“The Inimical Brothers, and Iphigenia; Athalie, as performed before Louis Quatorze, by the young ladies of St. Cyr, and so on. Well, I confess there are circumstances under which even Racine might become a bore; and Télémaque has long been a synonym for dreariness and dejection of mind. You have not seen Rachel? No, I suppose not. She was a great creature, and conjured the dry bones into living breathing flesh. And Madame Marot’s establishment, where you were so hardly treated, is a school, I conclude?”
“Yes, it is a school at Belforêt, near Paris. I have been there a long time, and am going home now to keep house for papa.”
“Indeed! And is your journey a long one? Are we to be travelling companions for some time to come?”
“I am going rather a long way — to Holborough.”
“I am very glad to hear that, for I am going farther myself, to the outer edge of Yorkshire, where I believe I am to do wonderful execution upon the birds. A fellow I know has taken a shooting-box yonder, and writes me most flourishing accounts of the sport. I know Holborough a little, by the way. Does your father live in the town?”
“O, no; papa could never endure to live in a small country town. Our house is a couple of miles away — Arden Court; perhaps you know it?”
“Yes, I have been to Arden Court,” the traveller answered, with rather a puzzled air. “And your papa lives at Arden? — I did not know he had any other daughter,” he added in a lower key, to himself rather than to his companion. “Then I suppose I have the pleasure of speaking to Miss —”
“My name is Lovel My father is Marmaduke Level, of Arden Court.”
The traveller looked at her with a still more puzzled air, as if singularly embarrassed by this simple announcement. He recovered himself quickly, however, with a slight effort.
“I am proud and happy to have made your acquaintance, Miss Lovel,” he said; “your father’s family is one of the best and oldest in the North Riding.”
After this, they talked of many things; of Clarissa’s girlish experiences at Belforêt; of the traveller’s wanderings, which seemed to have extended all over the world.
He had been a good deal in India, in the Artillery, and was likely to return thither before long.
“I had rather an alarming touch of sunstroke a year ago,” he said, “and was altogether such a shattered broken-up creature when I came home on sick leave, that my mother tried her hardest to induce me to leave the service; but though I would do almost anything in the world to please her, I could not bring myself to do that; a man without a profession is such a lost wretch. It is rather hard upon her, poor soul; for my elder brother died not very long ago, and she has only my vagabond self left. ‘He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.’”
“I have no mother,” Clarissa said mournfully; “mine died when I was quite a little thing. I always envy people who can speak of a mother.”
“But, on the other hand, I am fatherless, you see,” the gentleman said, smiling. But Clarissa’s face did not reflect his smile.
“Ah, that is a different thing,” she said softly.
They went on talking for a long while, talking about the widest range of subjects; and their flight across the moonlit country, which grew darker by-and-by, as that tender light waned, seemed swifter than. Clarissa could have imagined possible, had the train been the most desperate thing in the way of an express. She had no vulgar commonplace shyness, mere school-girl as she was, and she had, above all, a most delightful unconsciousness of her own beauty; so she was quickly at home with the stranger, listening to him, and talking to him with a perfect ease, which seemed to him a natural attribute of high breeding.
“A Lovel,” he said to himself once, in a brief interval of silence; “and so she comes of that unlucky race. It is scarcely strange that she should be beautiful and gifted. I wonder what my mother would say if she knew that my northern journey had brought me for half-a-dozen hours tête-à-tête with a Lovel? There would be actual terror for her in the notion of such an accident. What a noble look this girl has! — an air that only comes after generations of blue blood untainted by vulgar admixture. The last of such a race is a kind of crystallisation, dangerously, fatally brilliant, the concentration of all the forces that have gone before.”
At one of their halting-places, Miss Lovel’s companion insisted upon bringing her a cup of coffee and a sponge-cake, and waited upon her with a most brotherly attention. At Normanton they changed to a branch line, and had to wait an hour and a half in that coldest dreariest period of the night that comes before daybreak. Here the stranger established Clarissa in a shabby little waiting-room, where he made up the fire with his own hands, and poked it into a blaze with his walking-stick; having done which, he went out into the bleak night and paced the platform briskly for nearly an hour, smoking a couple of those cigars which would have beguiled his night journey, had he been alone.
He had some thoughts of a third cigar, but put it back into his case, and returned to the waiting-room.
“I’ll go and have a little more talk with the prettiest woman I ever met in my life,” he said to himself. “It is not very likely that we two shall ever see each other again. Let me carry away the memory of her face, at any rate. And she is a Lovel! Will she be as unfortunate as the rest of her race, I wonder? God forbid!”
Clarissa was sitting by the fire in the dingy little waiting-room, with one elbow resting on the arm of her chair, her chin leaning on her hand, and her eyes fixed thoughtfully upon a dull red chasm in the coals. She had taken off her gray felt hat, and she looked older without it, the traveller thought, in spite of her wealth of waving dark brown hair, gathered into a great coil of plaits at the back of the graceful head. Perhaps it was that thoughtful expression which made her look older than she had seemed to him in the railway carriage, the gentleman argued with himself; a very grave anxious expression for a girl’s face. She had indeed altogether the aspect of a woman, rather than of a girl who had just escaped from boarding-school, and to whom the cares of life must needs be unknown.
She was thinking so deeply, that she did not hear the opening of the door, or her fellow-traveller’s light footstep as he crossed the room. He was standing on the opposite side of the fireplace, looking down at her, before she was aware of his presence. Then she raised her head with a start; and he saw her blush for the first time. “You must have been absorbed in some profound meditation, Miss Lovel,” he said lightly.
“I was thinking of the future.”
“Meaning your own future. Why, at your age the future ought to be a most radiant vision.”
“Indeed it is not that. It is all clouds and darkness. I do not see that one must needs be happy because one is young. There has been very little happiness in my life yet awhile, only the dreary monotonous routine of boarding-school.”
“But all that is over now, and life is just beginning for you. I wish I were eighteen instead of eight-and-twenty.”
“Would you live your life over again?”
The traveller laughed.
“That’s putting a home question,” he said. “Well, perhaps not exactly the same life, though it has not been a bad one. But I should like the feeling of perfect youth, the sense of having one’s full inheritance of life lying at one’s banker’s, as it were, and being able to draw upon the account a little recklessly, indifferent as to the waste of a year or two. You see I have come to a period of existence in which a man has to calculate his resources. If I do not find happiness within the next five years, I am never likely to find it at all. At three-and-thirty a man has done with a heart, in a moral and poetic sense, and begins to entertain vague alarms on the subject of fatty degeneration.”
Clarissa smiled faintly, as if the stranger’s idle talk scarcely beguiled her from her own thoughts.
“You said you had been at Arden,” she began rather abruptly; “then you must know papa.”
“No, I have not the honour to know Mr. Lovel,” with the same embarrassed air which he had exhibited before in speaking of Arden Court. “But I am acquainted — or I was acquainted, rather, for he and I have not met for some time — with one member of your family, a Mr. Austin Lovel.”
“My brother,” Clarissa said quickly, and with a sudden shadow upon her face.
“Your brother; yes, I supposed as much.”
“Poor Austin! It is very sad. Papa and he are ill friends. There was some desperate quarrel between them a few years ago; I do not even know what about; and Austin was turned out of doors, never to come back any more. Papa told me nothing about it, though it was the common talk at Holborough. It was only from a letter of my aunt’s that I learnt what had happened; and I am never to speak of Austin when I go home, my aunt told me.”
“Very hard lines,” said the stranger, with a sympathetic air. “He was wild, I suppose, in the usual way. Your brother was in a line regiment when I knew him; but I think I heard afterwards that he had sold out, and had dropped away from his old set, had emigrated, I believe, or something of that kind exactly the thing I should do, if I found myself in difficulties; turn backwoodsman, and wed some savage woman, who should rear my dusky race, and whose kindred could put me in the way to make my fortune by cattle-dealing; having done which, I should, of course, discover that fifty years of Europe are worth more than a cycle of Cathay, and should turn my steps homeward with a convenient obliviousness upon the subject of the savage woman.”
He spoke lightly, trying to win Clarissa from her sad thoughts, and with the common masculine idea, that a little superficial liveliness of this kind can lighten the load of a great sorrow.
“Come, Miss Lovel, I would give the world to see you smile. Do you know that I have been watching for a smile ever since I first saw your face, and have not surprised one yet? Be sure your brother is taking life pleasantly enough in some quarter of the globe. We worthless young fellows always contrive to fall upon our feet.”
“If I could believe that he was happy, if I could think that he was leading an honourable life anywhere, I should not feel our separation so much,” the girl said mournfully; “but to be quite ignorant of his fate, and not to be allowed to mention his name, that is hard to bear. I cannot tell you how fond I was of him when we were children. He was seven years older than I, and so clever. He wanted to be a painter, but papa would not hear of that. Yet I think he might have been happier if he had been allowed to have his own way. He had a real genius for art.”
“And you too are fond of art, I suppose?” hazarded the traveller, more interested in the young lady herself than in this reprobate brother of hers.
“Yes, I am very fond of it. It is the only thing I really care for. Of course, I like music to a certain extent; but I love painting with my whole heart.”
“Happy art, to be loved by so fair a votary! And you dabble with brushes and colours, of course?”
“A true young lady’s answer. If you were a Raffaelle in glacé silk and crinoline, you would tell me no more than that. I can only hope that some happy accident will one day give me an opportunity of judging for myself. And now, I think, you had better put on your hat. Our train will be in almost immediately.”
She obeyed him; and they went out together to the windy platform, where the train rumbled in presently. They took their places in a carriage, the gentleman bundling in his rugs and travelling-bags and despatch boxes with very little ceremony; but this time they were not alone. A plethoric gentleman, of the commercial persuasion, was sleeping laboriously in one corner.
The journey to Holborough lasted a little less than an hour. Miss Lovel and her companion did not talk much during that time. She was tired and thoughtful, and he respected her silence. As she drew nearer home, the happiness she had felt in her return seemed to melt away somehow, leaving vague anxieties and morbid forebodings in its stead. To go home to a father who would only be bored by her coming. It was not a lively prospect for a girl of eighteen.
The dull cold gray dawn was on the housetops of Holborough, as the train stopped at the little station. The traveller alighted, and assisted Clarissa’s descent to the platform.
“Can I see about your luggage, Miss Lovel?” he asked; but looking up at that moment, the girl caught sight of a burly gentleman in a white neckcloth, who was staring in every direction but the right one.
“Thank you very much, no; I need not trouble you. My uncle Oliver is here to meet me — that stout gentleman over there.”
“Then I can only say good-bye. That tiresome engine is snorting with a fiendish impatience to bear me away. Good-bye, Miss Lovel, and a thousand thanks for the companionship that has made this journey so pleasant to me.”
He lifted his hat and went back to the carriage, as the stout gentleman approached Clarissa. He would fain have shaken hands with her, but refrained from that unjustifiable familiarity. And so, in the bleak early autumnal dawn, they parted.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47