The ball began, and without the assistance of Mr. Fairfax — much to my lady’s indignation. She was scarcely consoled by the praises and compliments she received on the subject of her arrangements and decorations; but these laudations were so unanimous and so gratifying, that she did at last forget Mr. Fairfax’s defection in the delight of such perfect success.
The Duke — the one sovereign magnate of that district — a tall grand-looking old man with white hair, even deigned to be pleased and surprised by what she had done.
“But then you have such a splendid platform to work upon,” he said; “I don’t think we have a place in Yorkshire that can compare with Hale. You had your decorators from London, of course?”
“No, indeed, your grace,” replied my lady, sparkling with delighted pride; “and if there is anything I can boast of, it is that. Fred wanted me to send for London people, and have the thing done in their wholesale manner — put myself entirely into their hands, give them carte blanche, and so on; so that, till the whole business was finished, I shouldn’t have known what the place was to be like; but that is just the kind of arrangement I detest. So I sent for one of my Holborough men, told him my ideas, gave him a few preliminary sketches, and after a good many consultations and discussions, we arrived at our present notion. Abolish every glimmer of gas,” I said, “and give me plenty of flowers and wax-candles. The rest is mere detail.”
Everything was successful; Miss Granger’s prophecy of cold weather was happily unfulfilled. The night was unusually still and sultry, a broad harvest moon steeping terraces and gardens in tender mellow light; not a breath to stir the wealth of blossoms, or to flutter the draperies of the many windows, all wide open to the warm night — a night of summer at the beginning of autumn.
Clarissa found herself in great request for the dances, and danced more than she had done since the days of her schoolgirl waltzes and polkas in the play-room at Belforêt. It was about an hour after the dancing had begun, when Lady Laura brought her no less a partner than Mr. Granger, who had walked a solemn quadrille or two with a stately dowager, and whose request was very surprising to Clarissa. She had one set of quadrilles, however, unappropriated on her card, and expressed herself at Mr. Granger’s disposal for that particular dance, and then tripped away, to be whirled round the great room by one of her military partners.
Daniel Granger stood amongst the loungers at one end of the room, watching that aerial revolving figure. Yes, Lady Laura was right; she was very lovely. In all his life he had never before paid much heed to female loveliness, any more than to the grandeurs and splendours of nature, or anything beyond the narrow boundary of his own successful commonplace existence. But in this girl’s face there was something that attracted his attention, and dwelt in his memory when he was away from her; perhaps, after all, it was the result of her position rather than her beauty. It was natural that he should be interested in her, poor child. He had robbed her of her home, or it would seem so to her, no doubt; and she had let him see that she set an exaggerated value on that lost home, that she clung to it with a morbid sentimentality.
“I should not wonder if she hates me,” he said to himself. He had never thought as much about her father, but then certainly he had never been brought into such close contact with her father.
He waited quietly for that appointed quadrille, declining a dance in which Lady Laura would have enlisted him, and keeping a close watch upon Clarissa during the interval. What a gay butterfly creature she seemed to-night! He could scarcely fancy this was the same girl who had spoken so mournfully of her lost home in the library that afternoon. He looked from her to his daughter for a moment, comparing the two; Sophia resplendent in pink areophane and pearls, and showing herself not above the pleasures of a polka; eminently a fine young woman, but O, of what a different day from that other one!
Once Miss Fermor, passing the rich man on the arm of her partner, surprised the watchful gray eyes with a new look in them — a look that was neither cold nor stern.
“So, my gentleman,” thought the lively Lizzie, “is it that way your fancies are drifting? It was I whom you suspected of dangerous designs the other day, Miss Granger. Take care your papa doesn’t fall into a deeper pitfall. I should like to see him marry again, if it were only to take down that great pink creature’s insolence.” Whereby it will be seen that Miss Granger was not quite so popular among her contemporaries as, in the serenity of her self-possessed soul, she was wont to imagine herself.
The quadrille began presently, and Clarissa walked through its serious mazes with the man whom she was apt to consider the enemy of her race. She could not help wondering a little to find herself in this position, and her replies to Mr. Granger’s commonplace remarks were somewhat mechanical.
Once he contrived to bring the conversation round to Arden Court.
“It would give me so much pleasure to see you there as my daughter’s guest,” he said, in a warmer tone than was usual to him, “and I really think you would be interested in her parish-work. She has done wonders in a small way.”
“I have no doubt. You are very kind,” faltered Clarissa; “but I do not the least understand how to manage people as Miss Granger does, and I could not bear to come to the Court. I was so happy there with my brother, and now that he is gone, and that I am forbidden even to mention his name, the associations of the place would be too painful.”
Mr. Granger grew suddenly grave and silent.
“Yes, there was that business about the brother,” he thought to himself; “a bad business no doubt, or the father would never have turned him out of doors — something very queer perhaps. A strange set these Lovels evidently. The father a spendthrift, the son something worse.”
And then he looked down at Clarissa, and thought again how lovely she was, and pitied her for her beauty and her helplessness — the daughter of such a father, the sister of such a brother.
“But she will marry well, of course,” he said to himself, just as George Fairfax had done; “all these young fellows seem tremendously struck by her. I suppose she is the prettiest girl in the room. She will make a good match, I daresay, and get out of her father’s hands. It must be a dreary life for her in that cottage, with, a selfish disappointed man.”
The night waned, and there was no George Fairfax. Lady Geraldine bore herself bravely, and danced a good deal more than she would have done, had there not been appearances to be kept up. She had to answer a great many questions about her lover, and she answered all with supreme frankness. He was away in Scotland with some bachelor friends, enjoying himself no doubt. He promised to be with them to-night, and had broken his promise; that was all — she was not afraid of any accident.
“I daresay he found the grouse-shooting too attractive,” she said coolly.
After supper, while the most determined of the waltzers were still spinning round to a brisk deux temps of Charles d’Albert’s, Clarissa was fain to tell the last of her partners she could dance no more.
“I am not tired of the ball,” she said; “I like looking on, but I really can’t dance another step. Do go and get some one else for this waltz; I know you are dying to dance it.”
This was to the devoted Captain Westleigh, a person with whom Miss Level always felt very much at home.
“With you,” he answered tenderly. “But if you mean to sit down, I am at your service. I would not desert you for worlds. And you really are looking a little pale. Shall we find some pleasanter place? That inner room, looks deliciously cool.”
He offered his arm to Clarissa, and they walked slowly away towards a small room at the end of the saloon; a room which Lady Laura had arranged with an artful eye to effect, leaving it almost in shadow. There were only a few wax-candles glimmering here and there among the cool dark foliage of the ferns and pitcher-plants that filled every niche and corner, and the moonlight shone full into the room through a wide window that opened upon a stone balcony a few feet above the terrace.
“If I am left alone with her for five minutes, I am sure I shall propose,” Captain Westleigh thought, on beholding the soft secluded aspect of this apartment, which was untenanted when he and Clarissa entered it.
She sank down upon a sofa near the window, more thoroughly tired than she had confessed. This long night of dancing and excitement was quite a new thing to her. It was nearly over now, and the reaction was coming, bringing with it that vague sense of hopelessness and disappointment which had so grown upon her of late. She had abandoned herself fully to the enchantment of the ball, almost losing the sense of her own identity in that brilliant scene. But self-consciousness came back to her now, and she remembered that she was Clarissa Lovel, for whom life was at best a dreary business.
“Can I get you anything?” asked the Captain, alarmed by her pallor.
“Thanks, you are very kind. If it would not be too much trouble — I know the refreshment-room is a long way off — but I should be glad of a little water.”
“I’ll get some directly. But I really am afraid you are ill,” said the Captain, looking at her anxiously, scarcely liking to leave her for fear she should faint before he came back.
“No, indeed, I am not ill — only very tired. If you’ll let me lest here a little without talking.”
She half closed her eyes. There was a dizziness in her head very much like the preliminary stage of fainting.
“My dear Miss Lovel, I should be a wretch to bore you. I’ll go for the water this moment.”
He hurried away. Clarissa gave a long weary sigh, and that painful dizziness passed off in some degree. All she wanted was air, she thought, if there had been any air to be got that sultry night. She rose from the sofa presently, and went out upon the balcony. Below her was the river; not a ripple upon the water, not a breath stirring the rushes on the banks. Between the balcony and the river there was a broad battlemented walk, and in the embrasures where cannon had once been there were great stone vases of geraniums and dwarf roses, which seemed only masses of dark foliage in the moonlight.
The Captain was some little time gone for that glass of water. Clarissa had forgotten him and his errand as she sat upon a bench in the balcony with her elbow leaning on the broad stone ledge, looking down at the water and thinking of her own life — thinking what it might have been if everything in the world had been different.
A sudden step on the walk below startled her, and a low voice said,
“I would I were a glove upon that hand, that I might kiss that cheek.”
She knew the voice directly, but was not less startled at hearing it just then. The step came near her, and in the next moment a dark figure had swung itself lightly upward from the path below, and George Fairfax was seated on the angle of the massive balustrade.
“Juliet!” he said, in the same low voice, “what put it into your head to play Juliet to-night? As if you were not dangerous enough without that.”
“Mr. Fairfax, how could you startle me so? Lady Laura has been expecting you all the evening.”
“I suppose so. But you don’t imagine I’ve been hiding in the garden all the evening, like the man in Tennyson’s Maud? I strained heaven and earth to be here in time; but there was a break-down between Edinburgh and Carlisle. Nothing very serious: an engine-driver knocked about a little, and a few passengers shaken and bruised more or less, but I escaped unscathed, and had to cool my impatience for half a dozen hours at a dingy little station where there was no refreshment for body or mind but a brown jug of tepid water and a big Bible. There I stayed till I was picked up by the night-mail, and here I am. I think I shall stand absolved by my lady when she reads the account of my perils in to-morrow’s papers. People are just going away, I suppose. It would be useless for me to dress and put in an appearance now.”
“I think Lady Laura would be glad to see you. She has been very anxious, I know.”
“Her sisterly cares shall cease before she goes to sleep to-night. She shall be informed that I am in the house; and I will make my peace to-morrow morning.”
He did not go away however, and Clarissa began to feel that there was something embarrassing in her position. He had stepped lightly across the balustrade, and had seated himself very near her, looking down at her face.
“Clarissa, do you know what has happened to me since I have been away from this place?”
She looked up at him with an alarmed expression. It was the first time he had ever uttered her Christian name, but his tone was so serious as to make that a minor question.
“You cannot guess, I suppose,” he went on, “I’ve made a discovery — a most perplexing, most calamitous discovery.”
“What is that?”
“I have found out that I love you.”
Her hand was lying on the broad stone ledge. He took it in his firm grasp, and held it as he went on:
“Yes, Clarissa; I had my doubts before I went away, but thought I was master of myself in this, as I have been in other things, and fancied myself strong enough to strangle the serpent. But it would not be strangled, Clarissa; it has wound itself about my heart, and here I sit by your side dishonoured in my own sight, come what may — bound to one woman and loving another with all my soul — yes, with all my soul. What am I to do?”
“Your duty,” Clarissa answered, in a low steady voice.
Her heart was beating so violently that she wondered at her power to utter those two words. What was it that she felt — anger, indignation? Alas, no; Pride, delight, rapture, stirred that undisciplined heart. She knew now what was wanted to make her life bright and happy; she knew now that she had loved George Fairfax almost from the first. And her own duty — the duty she was bound in honour to perform — what was that? Upon that question she had not a moment’s doubt. Her duty was to resign him without a murmur; never to let him know that he had touched her heart. Even after having done this, there would be much left to her — the knowledge that he had loved her.
“My duty! what is that?” he asked in a hoarse hard voice. “To keep faith with Geraldine, whatsoever misery it may bring upon both of us? I am not one of those saints who think of everybody’s happiness before their own, Clarissa. I am very human, with all humanity’s selfishness. I want to be happy. I want a wife for whom I can feel something more than a cold well-bred liking. I did not think that it was in me to feel more than that. I thought I had outlived my capacity for loving, wasted the strength of my heart’s youth on worthless fancies, spent all my patrimony of affection; but the light shines on me again, and I thank God that it is so. Yes, Clarissa, come what may, I thank my God that I am not so old a man in heart and feeling as I thought myself.”
Clarissa tried to stem the current of his talk, with her heart still beating stormily, but with semblance of exceeding calmness.
“I must not hear you talk in this wild way, Mr. Fairfax,” she said. “I feel as if I had been guilty of a sin against Lady Geraldine in having listened so long. But I cannot for a moment think you are in earnest.”
“Do not play the Jesuit, Clarissa. You know that I am in earnest.”
“Then the railway accident must have turned your brain, and I can only hope that to-morrow morning will restore your reason.”
“Well, I am mad, if you like — madly in love with you. What am I to do? If with some show of decency I can recover my liberty — by an appeal to Lady Geraldine’s generosity, for instance — believe me, I shall not break her heart; our mutual regard is the calmest, coolest sentiment possible — if I can get myself free from this engagement, will you be my wife, Clarissa?”
“No; a thousand times no.”
“You don’t care for me, then? The madness is all on my side?”
“The madness — if you are really in earnest, and not carrying on some absurd jest — is all on your side.”
“Well, that seems hard. I was vain enough to think otherwise. I thought so strong a feeling on one side could not co-exist with perfect indifference on the other. I fancied there was something like predestination in this, and that my wandering unwedded soul had met its other half — it’s an old Greek notion, you know, that men and women were made in pairs — but I was miserably mistaken, I suppose. How many lovers have you rejected since you left school, Miss Lovel?” he asked with a short bitter laugh. “Geraldine herself could not have given me my quietus more coldly.”
He was evidently wounded to the quick, being a creature spoiled by easy conquests, and would have gone on perhaps in the same angry strain, but there was a light step on the floor within, and Lady Laura Armstrong came quickly towards the balcony.
“My dearest Clary, Captain Westleigh tells me that you are quite knocked up —” she began; and then recognizing the belated traveller, cried out, “George Fairfax! Is it possible?”
“George Fairfax, my dear Lady Laura, and not quite so base a delinquent as he seems. I must plead guilty to pushing matters to the last limit; but I made my plans to be here at seven o’clock this evening, and should inevitably have arrived at that hour, but for a smash between Edinburgh and Carlisle.”
“An accident! Were you hurt?”
“Not so much as shaken; but the break-down lost me half a dozen hours. We were stuck for no end of time at a dingy little station whose name I forget, and when I did reach Carlisle, it was too late for any train to bring me on, except the night-mail, which does not stop at Holborough. I had to post from York, and arrived about ten minutes ago — too late for anything except to prove to you that I did make heroic efforts to keep my word.”
“And how, in goodness’ name, did you get here, to this room, without my seeing you?”
“From the garden. Finding myself too late to make an appearance in the ball-room, I prowled round the premises, listening to the sounds of revelry within; and then seeing Miss Lovel alone here — playing Juliet without a Romeo — I made so bold as to accost her and charge her with a message for you.”
“You are amazingly considerate; but I really cannot forgive you for having deferred your return to the last moment. You have quite spoilt Geraldine’s evening, to say nothing of the odd look your absence must have to our friends. I shall tell her you have arrived, and I suppose that is all I can do. You must want some supper, by the bye: you’ll find plenty of people in the dining-room.”
“No, thanks; I had some cold chicken and coffee at Carlisle. I’ll ring for a soda-and-brandy when I get to my room, and that’s all I shall do to-night. Good-night, Lady Laura; good-night, Miss Lovel.”
He dropped lightly across the balcony and vanished. Lady Laura stood in the window for a few moments in a meditative mood, and then, looking up suddenly, said,
“O, by the bye, Clarissa, I came to fetch you for another dance, the last quadrille, if you feel well enough to dance it. Mr. Granger wants you for a partner.”
“I don’t think I can dance any more, Lady Laura. I refused Captain Westleigh the last waltz.”
“Yes, but a quadrille is different. However, if you are really tired, I must tell Mr. Granger so. What was George Fairfax saying to you just now? You both looked prodigiously serious.”
“I really don’t know — I forget — it was nothing very particular,” Clarissa answered, conscious that she was blushing, and confused by that consciousness.
Lady Laura looked at her with a sharp scrutinising glance.
“I think it would have been better taste on George’s part if he had taken care to relieve my sister’s anxiety directly he arrived, instead of acting the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. I must go back to Mr. Granger with your refusal, Clarissa. O, here comes Captain Westleigh with some water.”
The Captain did appear at this very moment carrying a glass of that beverage, much to Clarissa’s relief, for a tête-à-tête with Lady Laura was very embarrassing to her just now.
“My dear Miss Lovel, you must think me an utter barbarian,” exclaimed the Captain; “but you really can’t conceive the difficulties I’ve had to overcome. It seemed as if there wasn’t a drop of iced water to be had in the Castle. If you’d wanted Strasburg pies or barley-sugar temples, I could have brought you them by cartloads. Moselle and Maraschino are the merest drugs in the market; but not a creature could I persuade to get me this glass of water. Of course the fellows all said, ‘Yes, sir;’ and then went off and forgot all about me. And even when I had got my prize, I was waylaid by thirsty dowagers who wanted to rob me of it. It was like searching for the North-west Passage.”
Lady Laura had departed by this time. Clarissa drank some of the water and took the Captain’s arm to return to the ball-room, which was beginning to look a little empty. On the threshold of the saloon they met Mr. Granger.
“I am so sorry to hear you are not well, Miss Lovel,” he said.
“Thank you, Mr. Granger, but I am really not ill — only too tired to dance any more.”
“So Lady Laura tells me — very much to my regret. I had hoped for the honour of dancing this quadrille with you.”
“If you knew how rarely Mr. Granger dances, you’d consider yourself rather distinguished, I think, Miss Lovel,” said the Captain, laughing.
“Well, no, I don’t often dance,” replied Mr. Granger, with a shade of confusion in his manner; “but really, such a ball as this quite inspires a man — and Lady Laura was good enough to wish me to dance.”
He remained by Clarissa’s side as they walked back through the rooms. They were near the door when Miss Granger met them, looking as cold and prim in her pink crape and pearls as if she had that moment emerged from her dressing-room.
“Do you know how late it is, papa?” she asked, contemplating her parent with severe eyes.
“Well, no, one does not think of time upon such an occasion as this. I suppose it is late; but it would not do for us of the household to desert before the rest of the company.”
“I was thinking of saying good-night,” answered Miss Granger. “I don’t suppose any one would miss me, or you either, papa, if we slipped away quietly; and I am sure you will have one of your headaches to-morrow morning.”
There is no weapon so useful in the hands of a dutiful child as some chronic complaint of its parent. A certain nervous headache from which Mr. Granger suffered now and then served the fair Sophia as a kind of rod for his correction on occasions.
“I am not tired, my dear.”
“O, papa, I know your constitution better than you do yourself. Poor Lady Laura, how worn out she must be!”
“Lady Laura has been doing wonders all the evening,” said Captain Westleigh. “She has been as ubiquitous as Richmond at Bosworth, and she has the talent of never seeming tired.”
Clarissa took the first opportunity of saying good-night. If so important a person as the heiress of Arden Court could depart and not leave a void in the assembly, there could be assuredly no fear that she would be missed. Mr. Granger shook hands with her for the first time in his life as he wished her good-night, and then stood in the doorway watching her receding figure till it was beyond his ken.
“I like your friend Miss Lovel, Sophia,” he said to his daughter presently.
“Miss Lovel is hardly a friend of mine, papa,” replied that young lady somewhat sharply. “I am not in the habit of making sudden friendships, and I have not known Miss Lovel a week. Besides which, she is not the kind of girl I care for.”
“Why not?” asked her father bluntly.
“One can scarcely explain that kind of thing. She is too frivolous for me to get on very well with her. She takes no real interest in my poor, in spite of her connection with Arden, or in church music. I think she hardly knows one Te Deum from another.”
“She is rather a nice girl, though,” said the Captain, who would fain be loyal to Clarissa, yet for whom the good opinion of such an heiress is Miss Granger could not be a matter of indifference — there was always the chance that she might take a fancy to him, as he put it to his brother-officers, and what a lucky hit that would be! “She’s a nice girl,” he repeated, “and uncommonly pretty.”
“I was not discussing her looks, Captain Westleigh,” replied Miss Granger with some asperity; “I was talking of her ideas and tastes, which are quite different from mine. I am sorry you let Lady Laura persuade you to dance with a girl like that, papa. You may have offended old friends, who would fancy they had a prior claim on your attention.”
Mr. Granger laughed at this reproof.
“I didn’t think a quadrille was such a serious matter, Sophy,” he said. “And then, you see, when a man of my age does make a fool of himself, he likes to have the prettiest girl in the room for his partner.”
Miss Granger made an involuntary wry face, as if she had been eating something nasty. Mr. Granger gave a great yawn, and, as the rooms by this time were almost empty, made his way to Lady Laura in order to offer his congratulations upon her triumph before retiring to rest.
For once in a way, the vivacious châtelaine of Hale Castle was almost cross.
“Do you really think the ball has gone off well?” she asked incredulously. “It seems to me to have been an elaborate failure.” She was thinking of those two whom she had surprised tête-à-tête in the balcony, and wondering what George Fairfax could have been saying to produce Clarissa’s confusion. Clarissa was her protégée, and she was responsible to her sister Geraldine for any mischief brought about by her favourite.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05