Mid–Winter had come, and the pleasures and splendours of Paris were at their apogee. The city was at its gayest — that beautiful city, which we can never see again as we have seen it; which we lament, as some fair and radiant creature that has come to an untimely death. Paris the beautiful, Paris the beloved, imperial Paris, with her air of classic splendour, like the mistress of a Caesar, was in these days overshadowed by no threatening thundercloud, forerunner of the tempest and earthquake to come. The winter season had begun; and all those wanderers who had been basking through the autumn under the blue skies that roof the Pyrenees, or dawdling away existence in German gambling-saloons, or climbing Alpine peaks, or paddling down the Danube, flocked back to the central city of civilization in time to assist at Patti’s reappearance in the Rue Lepelletier, or to applaud a new play of Sardou’s at the Gymnase.
Amongst this flock of returning pilgrims came George Fairfax, very much the worse for two or three months spent in restless meanderings between Baden and Hombourg, with the consciousness of a large income at his disposal, and a certain reckless indifference as to which way his life drifted, that had grown upon him of late years.
He met Mr. and Mrs. Granger within twenty-four hours of his arrival in Paris, at a ball at the British embassy — the inaugural fête of the season, as it were, to which the master of Arden Court, by right of his wealth and weight in the North Riding, had been bidden. The ambassadorial card had ignored Miss Granger, much to the damsel’s dissatisfaction.
Clarissa came upon Mr. Fairfax unawares in the glazed colonnade upon which the ball-room opened, where he was standing alone, staring moodily at a tall arum lily shooting up from a bed of ferns, when she approached on her partner’s arm, taking the regulation promenade after a waltz. The well-remembered profile, which had grown sharper and sterner since she had seen it for the first time, struck her with a sudden thrill, half pleasure, half terror. Yes; she was pleased to see him; she, the wife of Daniel Granger, felt her heart beating faster, felt a sense of joy strangely mingled with fear. In all the occupations of her life, even amidst the all-absorbing delight of her child’s society, she had not been able quite to forget this man. The one voice that had touched her heart, the one face that had haunted her girlish dream, came back to her again and again in spite of herself. In the dead of the night she had started up from her pillow with the sound of George Fairfax’s familiar tones in her ears; in too many a dream she had acted over again the meeting in the orchard, and heard his voice upbraiding her, and had seen his face dark and angry in the dim light. She had done her duty to Daniel Granger; but she had not forgotten the man she had loved, and who had loved her after his fashion; and often in her prayers she had entreated that she might never see him again.
Her prayers had not been granted — perhaps they did not come so entirely from the heart, as prayers should, that would fain bring a blessing. He was here; here to remind her how much she had loved him in the days gone by — to bewilder her brain with conflicting thoughts. He turned suddenly from that gloomy contemplation of the arum lily, and met her face to face.
That evening-dress of ours, which has been so liberally abused for its ugliness, is not without a certain charm when worn by a handsome man. A tall man looks taller in the perfect black. The broad expanse of shirt-front, with its delicate embroidery, not obtrusively splendid, but minutely elaborate rather, involving the largest expenditure of needlework to produce the smallest and vaguest effect — a suspicion of richness, as it were, nothing more; the snowy cambric contrasts with the bronzed visage of the soldier, or blends harmoniously with the fair complexion of the fopling, who has never exposed his countenance to the rough winds of heaven; the expanse of linen proclaims the breadth of chest, and gives a factitious slimness to the waist. Such a costume, relieved perhaps by the flash of some single jewel, not large, but priceless, is scarcely unbecoming, and possibly more aesthetic in its simplicity than the gem-besprinkled brocades and velvets of a Buckingham, in the days when men wore jewelled cloaks on their shoulders, and point d’Alençon flounces round their knees.
George Fairfax, in this evening dress, looked supremely handsome. It is a poor thing, of course, in man or woman, this beauty; but it has its charm nevertheless, and in the being who is loved for other and far higher qualities, the charm is tenfold. Few women perhaps have ever fallen in love with a man on account of his good looks; they leave such weak worship for the stronger sex; but having loved him for some other indefinable reason, are not indifferent to the attraction of splendid eyes or a faultless profile.
Clarissa trembled a little as she held out her hand to be clasped in George Fairfax’s strong fingers, the quiet pressure whereof seemed to say, “You know that you and I are something more to each other than the world supposes.”
She could not meet him without betraying, by some faint sign, that there was neither forgetfulness nor indifference in her mind as to the things that concerned him.
Her late partner — a youthful secretary of legation, with straw-coloured hair and an incipient moustache — murmured something civil, and slid away, leaving those two alone beside the arum lily, or as much alone as they could be in a place, where the guests were circulating freely, and about half-a-dozen flirtations ripening amidst the shining foliage of orange-trees and camellias.
“I thought I should meet you here to-night,” he said. “I came here in the hope of meeting you.”
She was not an experienced woman of the world, skilled in the art of warding off such a speech as this. She had never flirted in her life, and sorely felt the want of that facility which comes from long practice.
“Have you seen my husband?” she asked, awkwardly enough, in her distress.
“I did not come to see Mr. Granger. It was the hope of seeing you that brought me here. I am as great a fool as I was at Hale Castle, you see, Clarissa. There are some follies of which a man cannot cure himself.”
She looked up at him gravely, reproachfully, with as much anger as she could bring herself to feel against him; but as their eyes met, something in his — a look that told too plainly of passion and daring — made her eyelids fall, and she stood before him trembling like a frightened child. And this moment was perhaps the turning-point in Clarissa’s life — the moment in which she took the first step on the wrong road that was to lead her so far away from the sacred paths of innocence and peace.
George Fairfax drew her hand through his arm — she had neither strength nor resolution to oppose him — and led her away to the quietest corner of the colonnade — a recess sheltered by orange-trees, and provided with a rustic bench.
There is no need to record every word that was spoken there; it was the old story of a man’s selfish guilty love, and a woman’s sinful weakness. He spoke, and Clarissa heard him, not willingly, but with faint efforts of resistance that ended in nothing. She heard him. Never again could she meet Daniel Granger’s honest gaze as she had done — never, it seemed to her, could she lose the sense of her sin.
He told her how she had ruined his life. That was his chief reproach, and a reproach that a woman can rarely hear unmoved. He painted in the briefest words the picture of what he might have been, and what he was. If his life were wrecked utterly — and from his own account of himself it must needs be so — the wreck was her fault. He had been ready to sacrifice everything for her. She had basely cheated him. His upbraiding stung her too keenly; she could keep her secret no longer.
“I had promised Laura Armstrong,” she said —“I had promised her that no power on earth should tempt me to marry you — if you should ask me.”
“You had promised!” he cried contemptuously. “Promised that shallow trickster! I might have known she had a hand in my misery. And you thought a promise to her more sacred than good faith to me? That was hard, Clarissa.”
“It was hard,” she answered, in a heart-broken voice.
“My God!” he cried, looking at her with those passionate eyes, “and yet you loved me all the time?”
“With all my heart,” she faltered, and then hid her face in her hands.
It seemed as if the confession had been wrung from her somehow. In the next moment she hated herself for having said the words, and calming herself with a great effort, said to him quietly.
“And now that you know how weak I was, when I seemed indifferent to you, have pity upon me, Mr. Fairfax.”
“Pity!” he exclaimed. “It is not a question of pity; it is a question of two lives that have been blighted through your foolish submission to that plotting woman. But there must be some recompense to be found in the future for all the tortures of the past. I have broken every tie for your sake, Clarissa; you must make some sacrifice for me.”
Clarissa looked at him wonderingly. Was he so mad as to suppose that she was of the stuff that makes runaway wives?
“Your father tempted my mother, Mr. Fairfax,” she said, “but I thank Heaven she escaped him. The role of seducer seems hereditary in your family. You could not make me break my word when I was free to marry you; do you believe that you can make me false to my husband?”
“Yes, Clarissa. I swore as much that night in the orchard — swore that I would win you, in spite of the world.”
“And my son,” she said, with the tone she might have used if he had been one-and-twenty, “is he to blush for his mother by and by?”
“I have never found that sons have a faculty for blushing on account of that kind of thing,” Mr. Fairfax answered lightly. —“Egad, there’d be a great deal of blushing going on at some of the crack clubs if they had!” he said to himself afterwards.
Clarissa rose from the seat amongst the orange-trees, and George Fairfax did not attempt to detain her.
He offered her his arm to conduct her back to the ball-room; they had been quite long enough away. He did not want to attract attention; and he had said as much as he cared to say.
He felt very sure of his ground now. She loved him — that was the all-important point. His wounded self-esteem was solaced by this knowledge. His old sense of power came back to him. He had felt himself all at sea, as it were, when he believed it possible that any woman he cared to win could be indifferent to him.
From the other side of the ball-room Mr. Granger saw his wife re-enter arm-in-arm with George Fairfax. The sight gave him a little shock. He had hoped that young man was far enough away, ruining himself in a fashionable manner somehow; and here he was in attendance upon Clarissa. He remembered how his daughter had said that George Fairfax was sure to meet them in Paris, and his own anger at the suggestion. He would be obliged to be civil to the young man, of course. There was no reason indeed that he should be otherwise than civil — only that lurking terror in his mind, that this was the man his wife had loved. Had loved? is there any past tense to that verb?
Mrs. Granger dropped Mr. Fairfax’s arm directly they came to a vacant seat.
“I am rather tired,” she said, in her coldest voice. “I think I’ll rest a little, if you please. I needn’t detain you. I daresay you are engaged for the next dance.”
“No. I seldom dance.”
He stood by her side. One rapid glance across the room had shown him Daniel Granger making his way towards them, looking unspeakably ponderous and British amidst that butterfly crowd. He did not mean to leave her just yet, in spite of her proprietor’s approach. She belonged to him, he told himself, by right of that confession just now in the conservatory. It was only a question when he should take her to himself. He felt like some bold rover of the seas, who has just captured a gallant craft, and carries her proudly over the ocean chained to his gloomy hull.
She was his, he told himself; but before he could carry her away from her present surroundings he must play the base part which he had once thought he never could play. He must be civil to Daniel Granger, mask his batteries, win his footing in the household, so that he might have easy access to the woman he loved, until one day the thunderbolt would descend, and an honest man be left desolate, “with his household gods shattered.” It was just one of those sins that will not bear contemplation. George Fairfax was fain to shut his eyes upon the horror and vileness of it, and only to say to himself doggedly, “I have sworn to win her.”
Mr. Granger greeted him civilly enough presently, and with the stereotyped cordiality which may mean anything or nothing. Was Mr. Fairfax going to remain long in Paris? Yes, he meant to winter there, if nothing better turned up.
“After all, you see,” he said, “there is no place like Paris. One gets tired of it, of course, in time; but I find that in other places one is always tired.”
“A very pleasant ball,” remarked Mr. Granger, with the air of saying something original. “You have been dancing, I suppose?”
“No,” replied Mr. Fairfax, smiling; “I have come into my property. I don’t dance. ‘I range myself,’ as our friends here say.”
He thought, as he spoke, of sundry breakneck gallops and mahlstrom waltzes danced in gardens and saloons, the very existence whereof was ignored by or unknown to respectability; and then thought, “If I were safely planted on the other side of the world with her for my wife, it would cost me no more to cut all that kind of thing than it would to throw away a handful of withered flowers.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05