The Lovels of Arden, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

Lady Laura’s Preparations.

After that interview between Mr. Fairfax and his betrothed, there was no time wasted. Laura Armstrong was enraptured at being made arbiter of the arrangements, and was all haste and eagerness, impetuosity and animation. The wedding was appointed for the second week in September, about five weeks from the period of that garden tête-à-tête. Lady Geraldine was to go to town for a week, attended only by her maid, to see her father, and to give the necessary orders for her trousseau. The business of settlements would be arranged between the family lawyers. There were no difficulties. Lord Calderwood was not able to settle anything on his daughter, and Mr. Fairfax was inclined to be very generous. There was no prospect of squabbling or unpleasantness.

George Fairfax was to be away during this brief absence of his betrothed. He had an engagement with an old friend and brother officer who was wont to spend the autumn in a roughly comfortable shooting-box in the north of Scotland, and whom he had promised to visit before his marriage; as a kind of farewell to bachelorhood and bachelor friendship. There could be no other opportunity for the fulfilment of this promise, and it was better that Mr. Fairfax should be away while Lady Geraldine was in London. As the period of his marriage became imminent, he had a vague feeling that he was an object of general attention; that every feminine eye, at any rate, was on him; and that the watch would be all the closer in the absence of his betrothed No, he did not want to dawdle away a week (off duty) at Hale Castle. Never before had he so yearned for the rough freedom of Major Seaman’s shooting-quarters, the noisy mirth of those rude Homeric feasts, half dinner, half supper, so welcome after a long day’s sport, with a quiet rubber, perhaps, to finish with, and a brew of punch after a recondite recipe of the Major’s, which he was facetiously declared to bear tattooed above the region of his heart. Mr. Fairfax had been two months at Hale when Lady Geraldine left on that dutiful visit to her father, and necessary interviewing of milliners and dressmakers; and he was, it is just possible, a little tired of decorous country-house life, with its weekly dinner-parties and perpetual influx of county families to luncheon, and its unfailing croquet. He felt, too, that at such a time it would, be perhaps safer for him to be away from Clarissa Lovel.

Was there any real danger for him in her presence? If he asked himself this question nowadays, he was able to answer boldly in the negative. There might have been a time of peril, just one perilous interval when he was in some danger of stumbling; but he had pulled himself up in time, with an admirable discretion, he thought, and now felt as bold as a lion. After that morning with Lady Geraldine in the garden, he had never wavered. He had not been less kind or polite to Miss Lovel; he had only made a point of avoiding anything like that dangerous confidential friendship which had been so nearly arising between them.

Of course every guest at the Castle knew all about the intended wedding directly things had been finally arranged. Lady Laura was not given to the keeping of secrets, and this important fact she communicated to all her particular friends with a radiant face, and a most triumphant manner. The two Fermor girls and Clarissa she invited to remain at Hale till after the wedding, and to act as bridesmaids.

“My sisters Emily and Louisa will make two more,” she said; “and that pretty little Miss Trellis, Admiral Trellis’s daughter, will be the sixth — I shall have only six. We’ll have a grand discussion about the dresses to-morrow morning. I should like to strike out something original, if it were possible. We shall see what Madame Albertine proposes. I have written to ask her for her ideas; but a milliner’s ideas are so bornées.” Lady Laura had obtained permission from her sister to enlist Clarissa in the ranks of the bridesmaids.

“It would look so strange to exclude a pretty girl like that,” she said. Whereupon Geraldine had replied rather coldly that she did not wish to do anything that was strange, and that Miss Lovel was at liberty to be one of her bridesmaids. She had studiously ignored the confession of jealousy made that night in her sister’s dressing-room; nor had Laura ever presumed to make the faintest allusion to it. Things had gone so well since, and there seemed nothing easier than to forget that unwonted outbreak of womanly passion.

Clarissa heard the approaching marriage discussed with a strange feeling, a nameless undefinable regret. It seemed to her that George Fairfax was the only person in her small world who really understood her, the only man who could have been her friend and counsellor. It was a foolish fancy, no doubt, and had very little foundation in fact; but, argue with herself as she might against her folly, she could not help feeling that this marriage was in somewise a calamity for her. She was quite sure that Lady Geraldine did not like her, and that, as Lady Geraldine’s husband, George Fairfax could not be her friend. She thought of this a great deal in those busy weeks before the wedding, and wondered at the heaviness of her heart in these days. What was it that she had lost? As she had wondered a little while ago at the brightness of her life, she wondered now at its darkness. It seemed as if all the colour had gone out of her existence all at once; as if she had been wandering for a little while in some enchanted region, and found herself now suddenly thrust forth from the gates of that fairy paradise upon the bleak outer world. The memory of her troubles came back to her with a sudden sharpness. She had almost forgotten them of late — her brother’s exile and disgrace, her father’s coldness, all that made her fate dreary and hopeless. She looked forward to the future with a shudder. What had she to hope for — now?

It was the last week in August when Lady Geraldine went up to London, and George Fairfax hurried northward to his Friend’s aerie. The trousseau had been put in hand a day or two after the final settlement of affairs, and the post had carried voluminous letters of instruction from Lady Laura to the milliners, and had brought back little parcels containing snippings of dainty fabrics, scraps of laces, and morsels of delicate silk, in order that colours and materials might be selected by the bride. Everything was in progress, and Lady Geraldine was only wanted for the adjustment of those more important details which required personal supervision.

If Clarissa Lovel could have escaped from all this pleasant bustle and confusion, from the perpetual consultations and discussions which Lady Laura held with all her favourites upon the subject of the coming marriage — if she could by any means have avoided all these, and above all her honourable office of bridesmaid — she would most gladly have done so. A sudden yearning for the perfect peace, the calm eventless days of her old life at Mill Cottage, had taken possession of her. In a moment, as if by some magical change, the glory and delight of that brilliant existence at the Castle seemed to have vanished away. There were the same pleasures, the same people; but the very atmosphere was different, and she began to feel like those other girls whose dulness of soul she had wondered at a little while ago.

“I suppose I enjoyed myself too much when first I came here,” she thought, perplexed by this change in herself. “I gave myself up too entirely to the novelty of this gay life, and have used up my capacity for enjoyment, almost like those girls who have gone through half-a-dozen London seasons.”

When Lady Geraldine and George Fairfax were gone, it seemed to Clarissa that the Castle had a vacant air without them. The play still went on, but the chief actors had vanished from the scene. Miss Lovel had allowed herself to feel an almost morbid interest in Mr. Fairfax’s betrothed. She had watched Lady Geraldine from day to day, half unconsciously, almost in spite of herself, wondering whether she really loved her future husband, or whether this alliance were only the dreary simulacrum she had read of in fashionable novels — a marriage of convenience. Lady Laura; certainly declared that her sister was much attached to Mr. Fairfax; but then, in an artificial world, where such a mode of marrying and giving in marriage obtained, it would obviously be the business of the bride’s relatives to affect a warm belief in her affection for the chosen victim. In all her watching Clarissa had never surprised one outward sign of Geraldine Challoner’s love. It was very difficult for a warm-hearted impulsive girl to believe in the possibility of any depth of feeling beneath that coldly placid manner. Nor did she perceive in Mr. Fairfax himself many of those evidences of affection which she would have expected from a man in his position. It was quite true that as the time of his marriage drew near he devoted himself more and more exclusively to his betrothed; but Clarissa could not help fancying, among her many fancies about these two people, that them was something formal and ceremonial in his devotion; that he had, at the best, something of the air of a man who was doing his duty. Yet it would have seemed absurd to doubt the reality of his attachment to Lady Geraldine, or to fear the result of an engagement that had grown out of a friendship which had lasted for years. The chorus of friends at Hale Castle were never tired of dwelling upon this fact, and declaring what a beautiful and perfect arrangement such a marriage was. It was only Lizzie Fermor who, in moments of confidential converse with Clarissa, was apt to elevate her expressive eyebrows and impertinent little nose, and to make disrespectful comments upon the subject of Lady Geraldine’s engagement — remarks which Miss Lovel felt it in some manner her duty to parry, by a warm defence of her friend’s sister.

“You are such a partisan, Clarissa,” Miss Fermor would exclaim impatiently; “but take my word for it, that woman only marries George Fairfax because she feels she has come to the end of her chances, and that this is about the last opportunity she may have of making a decent marriage.”

The engaged couple were to be absent only a week — that was a settled point; for on the very day after that arranged for their return there was to be a ball at Hale Castle — the first real ball of the season — an event which would of course lose half its glory if Lady Geraldine and her lover were missing. So Laura Armstrong had been most emphatic in her parting charge to George Fairfax.

“Remember, George, however fascinating your bachelor friends may be — and of course we know that nothing we have to offer you in a civilized way can be so delightful as roughing it in a Highland bothy (bothy is what you call your cottage, isn’t it?) with a tribe of wild sportsmen — you are to be back in time for my ball on the twenty-fifth. I shall never forgive you, if you fail me.”

“My dear Lady Laura, I would perish in the struggle to be up to time, rather than be such a caitiff. I would do the journey on foot, like Jeannie Deans, rather than incur the odium of disappointing so fair a hostess.”

And upon this Mr. Fairfax departed, with a gayer aspect than he had worn of late, almost as if it had been a relief to him to get away from Hale Castle.

Lady Laura had a new set of visitors coming, and was full of the business involved in their reception. She was not a person who left every arrangement to servants, numerous and skilful as her staff was. She liked to have a finger in every pie, and it was one of her boasts that no department of the household was without her supervision. She would stop in the middle of a page of Tasso to discuss the day’s bill of fare with her cook; and that functionary had enough to do to gratify my lady’s eagerness for originality and distinction even in the details of her dinner-table.

“My good Volavent,” she would say, tossing the poor man’s list aside, with a despairing shrug of her shoulders, “all these entrees are as old as the hills. I am sure Adam must have had stewed pigeons with green peas, and chicken à la Marengo — they are the very ABC of cookery. Do, pray, strike out something a little newer. Let me see; I copied the menu of a dinner at St. Petersburg from ‘Count Cralonzki’s Diary of his Own Times,’ the other day, on purpose to show you. There really are some ideas in it. Do look it over, Volavent, and see if it will inspire you. We must try to rise above the level of a West-end hotel.”

In the same manner did my lady supervise the gardens, to the affliction of the chief official and his dozen or so of underlings. To have the first peaches and the last grapes in the county of York, to decorate her table with the latest marvel in pitcher plants and rare butterfly-shaped orchids, was Lady Laura’s ambition; to astonish morning visitors with new effects in the garden her unceasing desire. Nor within doors was her influence less actively exercised. Drawing-rooms and boudoirs, morning-rooms and bedchambers, were always undergoing some improving touch, some graceful embellishment, inspired by that changeful fancy. When new visitors were expected at the Castle, Lady Laura flitted about their rooms, inspecting every arrangement, and thinking of the smallest minutiae. She would even look into the rooms prepared for the servants on these occasions, to be sure that nothing was wanting for their comfort. She liked the very maids and valets to go away and declare there was no place so pleasant as Hale Castle. Perhaps when people had been to her two or three times, she was apt to grow a little more careless upon these points. To dazzle and astonish was her chief delight, and of course it is somewhat difficult to dazzle old friends.

In the two days after Geraldine Challoner’s departure Lady Laura was in her gayest mood. She had a delightful air of mystery in her converse with Clarissa; would stop suddenly sometimes in the midst of her discourse to kiss the girl, and would contemplate her for a few moments with her sweetest smile.

“My dear Lady Laura, what pleasant subject are you thinking about?” Clarissa asked wonderingly; “I am sure there is something. You have such a mysterious air to-day, and one would suppose by your manner that I must be concerned in this mystery.”

“And suppose you were, Clary — suppose I were plotting for your happiness? But no; there is really nothing; you must not take such silly fancies into your head. You know how much I love you, Clary — as much as if you were a younger sister of my own; and there is nothing I would not do to secure your happiness.”

Clarissa shook her head sadly.

“My dear Lady Laura, good and generous as you are, it is not in your power to do that,” she said, “unless you could make my father love me, or bring my brother happily home.”

“Or give you back Arden Court?” suggested Lady Laura, smiling.

“Ah, that is the wildest dream of all! But I would not even ask Providence for that. I would be content, if my father loved me; if we were only a happy united family.”

“Don’t you think your father would be a changed man, if he could get back his old home somehow? The loss of that must have soured him a good deal.”

“I don’t know about that. Yes, of course that loss does weigh upon his mind; but even when we were almost children he did not seem to care much for my brother Austin or me. He was not like other fathers.”

“His money troubles may have oppressed him even then. The loss of Arden Court might have been a foreseen calamity.”

“Yes, it may have been so. But there is no use in thinking of that. Even if papa were rich enough to buy it, Mr. Granger would never sell the Court.”

“Sell it!” repeated Lady Laura, meditatively; “well, perhaps not. One could hardly expect him to do that — a place for which he has done so much. But one never knows what may happen; I have really seen such wonderful changes come to pass among friends and acquaintances of mine, that scarcely anything would astonish me — no, Clary, not if I were to see you mistress of Arden Court.”

And then Lady Laura kissed her protégée once more with effusion, and anon dipped her brush in the carmine, and went on with the manipulation of a florid initial in her Missal — a fat gothic M, interlaced with ivy-leaves and holly.

“You haven’t asked me who the people are that I am expecting this afternoon,” she said presently, with a careless air.

“My dear Lady Laura, if you were to tell me their names, I don’t suppose I should be any wiser than I am now. I know so few people.”

“But you do know these — or at least you know all about them. My arrivals to-day are Mr. and Miss Granger.”

Clarissa gave a faint sigh, and bent a little lower over her work.

“Well, child, are you not surprised? have you nothing to say?” cried Lady Laura, rather impatiently.

“I— I daresay they are very nice people,” Clarissa answered, nervously. “But the truth is — I know you must despise me for such folly — I cannot help associating them with our loss, and I have a kind of involuntary dislike of them. I have never so much as seen them, you know — not even at church; for they go to the gothic chapel which Mr. Granger has built in his model village, and never come to our dear little church at Arden; and it is very childish and absurd of me, no doubt, but I don’t think I ever could like them.”

“It is very absurd of you, Clary,” returned my lady; “and if I could be angry with you for anything, it certainly would be for this unjust prejudice against people I want you to like. Think what a nice companion Miss Granger would be for you when you are at home — so near a neighbour, and really a very superior girl.”

“I don’t want a companion; I am used to being alone.”

“Well, well, when you come to know her, you will like her very much, I daresay, in spite of yourself; that will be my triumph. I am bent upon bringing about friendly relation, between your father and Mr. Granger.”

“You will never do that, Lady Laura.”

“I don’t know. I have a profound faith in my own ideas.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50