Mr. Lovel gave his daughter twenty pounds; a stretch of liberality which did not a little astonish her. She was very grateful for this unexpected kindness; and her father was fain to submit to be kissed and praised for his goodness more than was entirely agreeable to him. But he had been kinder to her ever since Lady Laura’s visit, and her heart was very light under that genial influence. She thought he was beginning to love her, and that belief made her happy.
Nor was there anything but unqualified pleasure for her in the possession of twenty pounds — the largest sum she had ever had at her disposal. Although the solitude of her life and the troubles that overshadowed it had made her thoughtful beyond her years, she was still young enough to be able to put aside all thought, and to live in the present. It was very pleasant to go into Holborough, with those four crisp new five-pound notes in her purse, to ask her aunt’s advice about her purchases. Mrs. Oliver was enraptured to hear of the visit to the Castle, but naturally a little despondent about the circumstances under which the visit was to be paid. That Clarissa should go to Lady Laura’s without a maid was eminently distressing to her aunt.
“I really think you ought to take Peters,” Mrs. Oliver said meditatively. “She is a most reliable person; and of course nobody need know that she is not your own maid. I can fully rely upon her discretion for not breathing a word upon the subject to any of the Castle servants.”
Peters was a prim middle-aged spinster, with a small waist and a painfully erect figure, who combined the office of parlour-maid at the Rectory with that of personal attendant upon the Rector’s wife — a person whom Clarissa had always regarded with a kind of awe — a lynx-eyed woman, who could see at a glance the merest hint of a stray hair-pin in a massive coil of plaits, or the minutest edge of a muslin petticoat, visible below the hem of a dress.
“O no, aunt; please don’t think of such a thing!” the girl cried eagerly. “I could not go with a borrowed servant; and I don’t want a maid at all; I am used to do everything for myself Besides, Lady Laura did not ask me to bring a maid.”
“She would take that for granted. She would never expect Mr. Lovel’s daughter to travel without a maid.”
“But papa told her how poor he was.”
“Very unnecessary, and very bad taste on his part, I think. But of course she would not suppose him to be too poor to maintain a proper establishment in a small way. People of that kind only understand poverty in the broadest sense.”
Mrs. Oliver consented to forego the idea of sending Peters to the Castle, with a regretful sigh; and then the two ladies went out shopping — Clarissa in high spirits; her aunt depressed by a conviction, that she would not make her first entrance into society with the surroundings that befitted a Lovel of Arden Court.
There seemed so many things indispensable for this all-important visit. The twenty pounds were nearly gone by the time Miss Lovel’s shopping was finished. A white muslin dress for ordinary occasions, some white gauzy fabric for a more important toilette, a golden-brown silk walking or dinner dress, a white areophane bonnet, a gray straw hat and feather, gloves, boots, slippers, and a heap of feminine trifles. Considerable management and discretion were required to make the twenty pounds go far enough: but Mrs. Oliver finished her list triumphantly, leaving one bright golden sovereign in Clarissa’s purse. She gave the girl two more sovereigns at parting with her.
“You will want as much as that for the servants when you are coming away, Clary,” she said imperatively, as Clarissa protested against this gift. “I don’t suppose you will be called upon to spend a shilling for anything else during your visit, unless there should happen to be a charity sermon while you are at Hale. In that case, pray don’t put less than half-a-crown in the plate. Those things are noticed so much. And now, good-bye, my dear. I don’t suppose I shall see you again between this, and Tuesday. Miss Mallow will come to you to try-on the day after to-morrow at one o’clock, remember; be sure you are at home. She will have hard work to get your things ready in time; but I shall look in upon her once or twice, to keep her up to the mark. Pray do your best to secure Lady Laura’s friendship. Such an acquaintance as that is all-important to a girl in your position.”
Tuesday came very quickly, as it seemed to Clarissa, who grew a little nervous about this visit among strangers, in a great strange house, as it came nearer. She had seen the outside of the Castle very often: a vast feudal pile it seemed, seen across the bright river that flowed beneath its outward wall — a little darksome and gloomy at the best, Clarissa had thought, and something too grand to make a pleasant habitation. She had never seen the inner quadrangle, in all its splendour of modern restoration — sparkling freestone, fresh from the mason’s chisel; gothic windows, glowing with rare stained glass; and the broad fertile gardens, with their terraces and banks of flowers, crowded together to make a feast of colour, sloping down to the setting sun.
It was still the same bright midsummer weather — a blue sky without a cloud, a look upon earth and heaven as if there would never be rain again, or anything but this glow and glory of summer. At eleven o’clock the carriage came from the Castle; Clarissa’s trunks and travelling-bag were accommodated somehow; and the girl bade her father good-bye.
“I daresay I shall be asked to dinner while you are there,” he said, as they were parting, “and I may possibly come; I shall be curious to see how you get on.”
“O, pray do come, papa; I’m sure it will do you good.”
And then she kissed him affectionately, emboldened by that softer manner which he had shown towards her lately; and the carriage drove off. A beautiful drive past fertile fields, far stretching towards that bright river, which wound its sinuous way through all this part of the country; past woods that shut in both sides of the road with a solemn gloom even at midday — woods athwart which one caught here and there a distant glimpse of some noble old mansion lying remote within the green girdle of a park.
It was something less than an hour’s drive from Arden to Hale: the village-church clock and a great clock in the Castle stables were both striking twelve as the carriage drove under a massive stone arch, above which the portcullis still hung grimly. It was something like going into a prison, Clarissa thought; but she had scarcely time for the reflection, when the carriage swept round a curve in the smooth gravel road, and she saw the sunny western front of the Castle, glorious in all its brightness of summer flowers, and with a tall fountain leaping and sparkling up towards the blue sky.
She gave a little cry of rapture at sight of so much brightness and beauty, coming upon her all at once with a glad surprise. There were no human creatures visible; only the glory of fountain and flowers. It might have been the palace of the Sleeping Beauty, deep in the heart of the woodlands, for any evidence to the contrary, perceptible to Clarissa in this drowsy noontide; but presently, as the carriage drove up to the hall door, a dog barked, and then a sumptuous lackey appeared, and anon another, who, between them, took Miss Lovel’s travelling-bag and parasol, prior to escorting her to some apartment, leaving the heavier luggage to meaner hands.
“The saloon, or my lady’s own room, miss?” one of the grandiose creatures demanded languidly.
“I would rather see Lady Laura alone at first, if you please.”
The man bowed, and conducted her up a broad staircase, lined with darksome pictures of battles by land and sea, along a crimson-carpeted corridor where there were many doors, to one particular portal at the southern end.
He opened this with a lofty air, and announced “Miss Lovel.”
It was a very large room — all the rooms in this newly-restored part of the Castle were large and lofty (a great deal of the so-called “restoration” had indeed been building, and many of these splendid rooms were new, newer even than the wealth of Frederick Armstrong)— a large room, furnished with chairs and tables and cabinets of satin wood, with oval medallions of pale blue Wedgwood let into the panelled doors of the cabinets, and a narrow beading of lustreless gold here and there; a room with pale blue silken hangings, and a carpet of white wood-anemones scattered on a turquoise-coloured ground. There were no pictures; art was represented only by a few choice bronzes and a pair of Venetian mirrors.
Lady Laura was busy at a writing-table, filling in the blanks in some notes of invitation. She was always busy. On one table there were an easel and the appliances of illumination; a rare old parchment Missal lying open, and my lady’s copy of a florid initial close beside it. On a small reading-desk there was an open Tasso with a couple of Italian dictionaries near at hand. Lady Laura had a taste for languages, and was fond of reviving her acquaintance with foreign classics. She was really the most indefatigable of women. It was a pity, perhaps, that her numerous accomplishments and her multifarious duties towards society at large left her so very little leisure to bestow upon her own children; but then, they had their foreign governesses, and maids — there was one poor English drudge, by the way, who seemed like a stranger in a far land — gifted in many tongues, and began to imbibe knowledge from their cradles. To their young imaginations the nursery wing of Hale Castle must have seemed remarkably like the Tower of Babel.
The lady of the Castle laid down her pen, and received Clarissa with warm affection. She really liked the girl. It was only a light airy kind of liking, perhaps, in unison with her character; but, so far as it went, it was perfectly sincere.
“My dear child, I am so glad to have you here,” she said, placing Miss Lovel beside her on a low sofa. “You will find me dreadfully busy sometimes, I daresay; but you must not think me neglectful if I cannot be very much with you downstairs. You are to come in and out of this room whenever you please. It is not open to the world at large, you know, and I am supposed to be quite inaccessible here; but it is open to my favourites, and I mean you to be one of them, Clarissa.”
“You are very good, dear Lady Laura.”
“No, I am not good; I daresay I am the most selfish creature in Christendom; but when I like people, I like them with all my heart. And now tell me what you think of Hale.”
“It is lovely — it is like fairyland.”
“Yes, it is pretty, isn’t it, this new side? It has all been done in my time — it has all been my doing, indeed, I may venture to say; for Fred would have gone on living contentedly in the old rooms till his dying day. You can’t imagine the trouble I took. I read no end of books upon the domestic architecture of the middle ages, went all over England hunting for model houses, and led the poor architect a fine life. But I think, between us, we succeeded in carrying out a very fine idea at last. The crenellated roof, with its machicolations, is considered a great success. There was a time when one was obliged to get a license from the sovereign to build that kind of thing; but it is all changed now. The sovereign is not afraid of rebellion, and the machicolations are only for ornament. You have not seen the old hall yet. That is splendid — a real original bit of the Castle, you know, which has never been tampered with, as old as Edward III., with a raised platform at the upper end, where the lord of the castle used to sit while his vassals ate below him; and with a stone hearth in the centre, where they used to make their wood fires, all the smoke going through an opening in the roof — rather pleasant for my lord and his vassals, I should think! Take off your hat, Clarissa; or perhaps you would rather go to your room at once. Yes, you shall, dear; and I’ll finish my letters, and we can meet at luncheon.”
Lady Laura rang a bell twice; which particular summons produced a very smart-looking maid, into whose charge my lady confided Clarissa, with a pretty little wave of her hand, and “à bientôt, dear child.”
The maid conducted Miss Lovel to a charming chintz-curtained bedroom on the second floor, looking westward over those gorgeous flower-banks; a bedroom with a bright-looking brass bedstead, and the daintiest chintz-patterned carpet, and nothing medieval about it except the stone-framed gothic window.
“I will send a person to unpack your trunks, miss,” the maid said, when she had listened with a deferential air to Clarissa’s praise of the room. “I am very glad you like your rooms; my lady was most anxious you should be pleased. I’ll send Fosset miss; she is a very handy young person, and will be always at your service to render you any assistance you may require.”
“Thank you — I am not likely to trouble her often; there is so very little assistance I ever want. Sometimes, when I am putting on an evening dress, I may ask for a little help perhaps — that is all.”
“She will be quite at your service, miss: I hope you will not scruple to ring for her,” the chief of the maids replied, and then made a dignified exit.
The maid of inferior degree, Fosset, speedily appeared; a pale-complexioned, meek-looking young woman, who set about unpacking Clarissa’s trunks with great skill and quickness, and arranged their contents in the capacious maple wardrobe, while their owner washed her face and hands and brushed the dust of her brief journey out of her dark brown hair. A clamorous bell rang out the summons to the midday meal presently, and Clarissa went down to the hall, where a watchful footman took her in charge.
“Luncheon is served in the octagon room, miss,” he said, and straightway led her away to an apartment in an angle of the Castle: a room with a heavily-carved oak ceiling, and four mullioned windows overlooking the river; a room hung with gilt and brown stamped leather, and furnished in the most approved mediaeval style. There was an octagon table, bright with fruit and flowers, and a good many ladies seated round it, with only here and there a gentleman.
There was one of these gentlemen standing near Lady Laura’s chair as Clarissa went into the room, tall and stout, with a very fair good-natured countenance, light blue eyes, and large light whiskers, whom, by reason of some careless remarks of her father’s, she guessed at once to be Mr. Armstrong; a gentleman of whom people were apt to say, after the shortest acquaintance, that there was not much in him, but that he was the best fellow in the world — an excellent kind of person to be intrusted with the disposal of a large fortune, a man by whom his neighbours could profit without a too painful sense of obligation, and who was never so happy as when a crowd of people were enjoying life at his expense. Friends who meant to say something very generous of Frederick Armstrong were wont to observe, that he was not such a fool as he looked. Nor, in the ordinary attributes of a country gentleman, was the master of Hale Castle behind his compeers. He rode like Assheton Smith, never missed his bird in the open, and had a manly scorn of battues; was great in agriculture, and as good a judge of a horse as any man in Yorkshire. His literary attainments were, perhaps, limited to a comprehensive knowledge of the science of farriery, a profound study of Buff’s Guide, and a familiar acquaintance with Bell’s Life and two or three weekly newspapers devoted to the agricultural interest; but as he had the happiness to live amongst a race which rather cultivates the divine gift of ignorance, his shortcomings awakened no scorn.
When he was known to have made a bad book for the Leger or the Great Ebor, his friends openly expressed their contempt for his mental powers; but no one despised him because an expensive university training had made him nothing more than a first-rate oarsman, a fair billiard-player, and a distinguished thrower of the hammer. He was just what a country gentleman should be in the popular idea — handsome, broad-shouldered, long-limbed, with the fist and biceps of a gladiator, and a brain totally unburdened by the scholiast’s dry-as-dust rubbish: sharp and keen enough where the things that interested him were in question, and never caring to look beyond them.
To this gentleman Lady Laura introduced Clarissa.
“Fred, this is Miss Lovel — Clarissa Lovel — and you and she are to like each other very much, if you please. This is my husband, Clarissa, who cares more for the cultivation of short-horns — whatever kind of creatures those brutes may be — and ugly little shaggy black Highland cattle, than for my society, a great deal; so you will see very little of him, I daresay, while you are at the Castle. In London he is obliged to be shut-up with me now and then; though, as he attends nearly all the race-meetings, I don’t see very much of him even there; but here he escapes me altogether.”
“Upon my word, Laura — upon my word, you know, Miss Lovel, there’s not a syllable of truth in it,” exclaimed the gentleman with the light whiskers. “My wife’s always illuminating old Missals, or rending Italian, or practising the harmonium, or writing out lists of things for her Dorcas club, or something of that sort; and a fellow only feels himself in the way if he’s hanging about her. She’s the busiest woman in the world. I don’t believe the prime minister gets through more work or receives more letters than she does. And she answers ’em all too, by Jove; she’s like the great Duke of Wellington.”
“Do you happen to take a lively interest in steam-ploughs and threshing-machines, and that kind of thing, Clarissa?” asked Lady Laura.
“I’m afraid not. I never even saw a steam-plough; and I believe if I were to see one, I should think it a most unpicturesque object.”
“I am sorry to hear that. Fred would have been so delighted with you, if you’d shown agricultural proclivities. We had a young lady from Westmoreland here last year who knew an immense deal about farming. She was especially great upon pigs, I believe, and quite fascinated Fred by tramping about the home farm with him in thick boots. I was almost jealous. But now let me introduce you to some of my friends, Clarissa.”
Hereupon Miss Lovel had to bow and simper in response to the polite bows and simpers of half a dozen ladies. Mrs. Weldon Dacre and three Miss Dacres, Rose, Grace, and Amy, tall and bony damsels, with pale reddish hair, and paler eyebrows and eyelashes, and altogether more “style” than beauty; Mrs. Wilmot, a handsome widow, whom Frederick Armstrong and his masculine friends were wont to call “a dasher;” Miss Fermor, a rather pretty girl, with a piquant nose and sparkling hazel eyes; and Miss Barbara Fermor, tall and slim and dark, with a romantic air. The gentlemen were a couple of officers — Major Mason, stout, dark, hook-nosed, and close-shaven; Captain Westleigh, fair, auburn-moustached and whiskered — and a meek-looking gentleman, of that inoffensive curate race, against which Clarissa had been warned by her father.
She found herself very quickly at home among these people. The Miss Fermors were especially gifted in the art of making themselves delightful to strangers; they had, indeed, undergone such training in a perpetual career of country-house visiting, that it would have gone hard with them had they not acquired this grace. The three tall pale Dacres, Rose, Grace, and Amy, were more conventional, and less ready to swear alliance with the stranger; but they were not disagreeable girls, and improved considerably after a few days’ acquaintance, showing themselves willing to take the bass in pianoforte duets, sing a decent second, exhibit their sketch-books and photographic collections in a friendly manner, and communicate new stitches and patterns in point de Russe or point d’Alençon.
After luncheon Miss Lovel went off with Captain Westleigh and Miss Fermor — Lizzie, the elder and livelier of the two sisters — to take her first lesson in croquet. The croquet-ground was a raised plateau to the left of the Italian garden, bounded on one side by a grassy slope and the reedy bank of the river, and on the other by a plantation of young firs; a perfect croquet-ground, smooth as an ancient bowling-green, and unbroken by invading shrub or flower-bed. There were some light iron seats on the outskirts of the ground here and there, and that was all.
Clarissa received her lesson, and (having been lucky enough to send her ball through the hoop now and then) was pronounced to have a natural genius for croquet. It was a pleasant, idle afternoon, passed amidst so bright and fair a scene, that the beauty of her surroundings alone was enough to give Clarissa’s life a new zest — a day which the mind recalls in the stormier periods of after-life, wondering at its gracious peace, its utter freedom from care or thought. Too soon came the time when there could be no more of such girlish happiness for Clarissa, such perfect respite from thought of to-morrow, or regret for yesterday.
By-and-by came dressing for dinner, and then an assemblage of visitors in the drawing-room — county people from neighbouring parks and halls and courts — mingling pleasantly with the Castle guests, and then dinner in the great dining-room; a splendid chamber, with a music-gallery at one end, and with the earliest crystal chandeliers ever used in England, and given by Queen Elizabeth to the Lord of Hale, for its chief decorations. At eight o’clock these crystal chandeliers glittered with the light of many wax-candles, though there was still the soft glow of sunset in the gardens beyond the great gothic windows.
That first visit to a great country house was like a new page in life to Clarissa. She had not wearied of her quiet existence at Mill Cottage, her books, her art, her freedom from the monotonous tasks and dull restraints of school; but she felt that if life could always be like this, it would be something very sweet and joyous. Captain Westleigh had contrived to take her in to dinner.
“I was determined to do it,” he told her confidentially, as they sat down; “so I made a rush across to you when I saw Lady Laura’s eye upon you, with a malicious intention of billeting you upon young Halkin, the great cloth-manufacturer’s son. I know Lady Laura so well; she will be trying to plant all those rich manufacturing fellows upon you; she has quite a mania for that sort of people.”
The Captain made himself very pleasant all through that long ceremonial of dinner. If the brilliant things which he said were not quite the newest in the world, they were at least new to Clarissa, who rewarded his efforts to please her by seeming very much amused, and flattered, and stimulated him to new flights by her appreciation. He told her all about the people round her, making her feel less like a stranger in a foreign country; and that pageant-like dinner, long as it was, did not seem at all too long to be pleasant.
After dinner there was a little music and singing at one end of the drawing-room, to which people listened or not, as they pleased; a friendly whist-table established at the other end, at which four elderly, grey-whiskered, and bald-headed country gentlemen played gravely for an hour or so; and a good deal of desultory strolling out through the open windows to the terrace for the contemplation of the moonlit gardens, with perhaps a spice of flirtation. Lady Laura was never quite happy unless she saw something like flirtation going on among her younger visitors. She was pleased to see Captain Westleigh’s attention to Clarissa, though she would rather that James Halkin had occupied the ground. But, alas! Mr. Halkin, stiff and solemn as a policeman on duty, was standing by the chair of the very palest and least beautiful of the Miss Dacres, mildly discussing a collection of photographs of Alpine scenery. They had both been over the same country, and were quite enthusiastic when they came to peaks and mountain gorges that they remembered.
“I was there with another fellow, and he nearly slipped just on that edge there. It was as near as a ——” Mr. Halkin was going to say “a toucher,” but it occurred to him that that vague expression was scarcely permissible in conversation with a lady —“the nearest thing you ever saw in your life, in fact. If it hadn’t been for his alpen-stock, it would have been all over with him; and the guides told us there’d been a fellow killed there the year before. We stopped at Rigot’s — I think the dearest hotel I was ever at; but they gave us some very fair still champagne — very fair indeed.”
Lady Laura took occasion to warn Clarissa against the Captain when they separated for the night, in the corridor upon which my lady’s rooms opened.
“Very nice, isn’t he, dear? Come into my dressing-room for a few minutes’ talk;” and my lady led Clarissa into another charming chamber, all blue silk and satin-wood, like the morning room. “Yes, he is very nice, and he really seemed quite épris. Poor Herbert Westleigh! I’ve known him for years. He belongs to one of the oldest families in Somersetshire, and is a capital fellow, as my husband says; but a person not to be thought of by you, Clarissa. There are a crowd of brothers, and I doubt if Herbert has a hundred a year beyond his pay. Did you notice that Mr. Halkin, a rather sandy-haired young man with a long nose? That young fellow will come into thirty thousand a year by-and-by.”
“Yes, Lady Laura, I did notice him a little when he was talking to one of the Miss Dacres. He seemed very stupid.”
“Stupid, my dear Clarissa! Why, I have been told that young man made a good deal of character at Oxford. But I daresay you are taken by Herbert Westleigh’s rattling way. Now remember, my dear, I have warned you.”
“There is no occasion for any warning, Lady Laura. Believe me, I am in no danger. I thought Captain Westleigh was very kind, and I liked him because he told me all about the other people; that is all.”
“Very well, dear. You will see a good many people here; there is an advantage in that — one influence neutralises another. But I should really like you to take some notice of that Mr. Halkin. He will be a good deal here, I daresay. His family live at Selbrook Hall, only four miles off. The father and mother are the plainest, homeliest people, but very sensible; live in a quiet unpretending style, and can’t spend a quarter of their income. When I speak of thirty thousand a year, I don’t reckon the accumulations that young man will inherit. He is the only son. There is a sister; but she is lame and a confirmed invalid — not likely to live many years, I think.”
Clarissa smiled at Lady Laura’s earnestness.
“One would think you were in league with papa, dear Lady Laura. He says I am bound to marry a rich man.”
“Of course; it is a solemn duty when a girl is handsome and not rich. Look at me: what would my life have been without Fred, Clarissa? There were five of us, child: five daughters to be married, only think of that; and there are still three unmarried. One of my sisters is coming here to-morrow. I do so hope you will get on with her; but she is rather peculiar. I am glad to say she is engaged at last — quite an old affair, and I think an attachment on both sides for some time past; but it has only lately come to a definite engagement. The gentleman’s prospects were so uncertain; but that is all over now. The death of an elder brother quite alters his position, and he will have a very fine estate by-and-by. He is coming here, too, in a few days, and I’m sure I hope the marriage will take place soon. But I must not keep you here chattering, at the risk of spoiling your fresh looks.”
And with a gracious good-night Lady Laura dismissed her new protégée.
Yes, it was a pleasant life, certainly; a life that drifted smoothly onward with the tide, and to all seeming unshadowed by one sorrowful thought or care. And yet, no doubt, with but a few youthful exceptions, every guest at Hale Castle had his or her particular burden to carry, and black Care sat behind the gentlemen as they rode to small country meetings or primitive cattle-fairs. To Clarissa Lovel the state of existence was so new, that it was scarcely strange she should be deluded by the brightness and glitter of it, and believe that these people could have known no sorrow.
She found herself looking forward with unwonted interest to the arrival of Lady Laura’s sister, Lady Geraldine Challoner. To a girl who has never had a lover — to whom the whole science of love is yet a profound inscrutable mystery — there is apt to be something especially interesting in the idea of an engagement. To her the thought of betrothal is wondrously solemn. A love-match too, and an attachment of long standing — there were the materials for a romance in these brief hints of Lady Laura’s. And then, again, her sister described this Lady Geraldine as a peculiar person, with whom it was rather doubtful whether Clarissa would be able to get on. All this made her so much the more anxious to see the expected guest; and in the morning’s drive, and the afternoon’s croquet, she thought more of Lady Geraldine than of the landscape or the game.
Croquet was over — Clarissa had taken part in a regular game this afternoon — and the players were strolling about the gardens in couples, in an idle half-hour before the first dinner-bell, when Miss Lovel met Lady Laura with another lady. They were sauntering slowly along one of the sunny gravel walks — there was every charm in this Italian garden except shade — and stopped on seeing Clarissa.
“Now, Geraldine, I shall be able to introduce you to my favourite, Clarissa Lovel,” said Lady Laura; “Captain Westleigh you know of old.”
The Captain and Lady Geraldine shook hands, declaring that they were quite old friends — had known each other for ages, and so on; and Clarissa had a few moments’ pause, in which to observe the young lady.
She was tall and slim, her sister’s junior by perhaps five years, but not more; very fair, with bright auburn hair — that golden-tinted hair, of which there seems to be so much more nowadays than was to be seen twenty years ago. She was handsome — very handsome — Clarissa decided at once; but it seemed to her rather a cold, hard style of beauty; the straight nose, the mouth, and chin chiselled with a clearness and distinctness that was almost sharpness; the large luminous blue eyes, which did not seem to possess much capacity for tenderness.
Lady Laura was very proud of this sister, and perhaps just a little afraid of her; but of course that latter fact was not obvious to strangers; she was only a shade less volatile than usual in Geraldine’s presence. Geraldine was the beauty of the Challoner family, and her career had been a failure hitherto; so that there was much rejoicing, in a quiet way, now that Lady Geraldine’s destiny was apparently decided, and in an advantageous manner.
She was sufficiently gracious to Clarissa, but displayed none of that warmth which distinguished Lady Laura’s manner to her new friend; and when the sisters had turned aside into another path, and were out of hearing, Geraldine asked rather sharply why “that girl” was here?
“My dear Geraldine, she is perfectly charming. I have taken the greatest fancy to her.”
“My dear Laura, when will you leave off those absurd fancies for strangers?”
“Clarissa Lovel is not a stranger; you must remember how intimate papa used to be with her father.”
“I only remember that Mr. Lovel was a very selfish person, and that he has lost his estate and gone down in the world. Why should you trouble yourself about his daughter? You can only do the girl harm by bringing her here; she will have to go out as a governess, I daresay, and will be writing to you whenever she is out of a situation to ask some favour or other, and boring you to death. I cannot think how you can be so inconsiderate as to entangle yourself with that kind of acquaintance.”
“I don’t mean Clarissa to be a governess; I mean her to make a good marriage.”
“O, of course it is very easy to say that,” exclaimed Lady Geraldine scornfully; “but you have not been so fortunate as a match-maker hitherto. Look at Emily and Louisa.”
“Emily and Louisa were so intractable and difficult to please, that I could do nothing for them; and now I look upon them as confirmed old maids. But it is a different thing with Clarissa. She is very sensible; and I do not think she would stand in her own light if I could bring about what I wish. And then she is so lovely. Emily and Louisa were good-looking enough half a dozen years ago, but this girl is simply perfect. Come, Geraldine, you can afford to praise her. Is she not lovely?”
“Yes, I suppose she is handsome,” the other answered icily.
“You suppose she is handsome! It is really too bad of you to be prejudiced against a girl I wanted you to like. As if this poor little Clarissa could do anybody any harm! But never mind, she must do without your liking. And now tell me all about George Fairfax. I was so glad to hear your news, dear, so thoroughly rejoiced.”
“There is no occasion for such profound gladness. I could have gone on existing very well as Geraldine Challoner.”
“Of course; but I had much rather see you well married, and your own mistress; and this is such a good match.”
“Yes; from a worldly point of view, I suppose, the affair is unexceptionable,” Geraldine Challoner answered, with persistent indifference; simulated indifference, no doubt, but not the less provoking to her sister. “George will be rich by-and-by, and he is well enough off now. We shall be able to afford a house in one of the streets out of Park Lane — I have a rooted detestation for both Belgravia and Tyburnia — and a carriage, and so on; and I shall not be worried as I have been about my milliner’s bills.”
“And then you are very fond of him, Geraldine,” Lady Laura said, softly.
There were still little romantic impulses in the matron’s heart, and this studied coldness of her sister’s tone wounded her.
“Yes, of course that is the beginning of the business. We like each other very well,” Lady Geraldine replied, still with the same unenthusiastic air. “I think there has always been some kind of liking between us. We suit each other very well, you see; have the same way of thinking about most things, take the same view of life, and so on.”
Lady Laura gave a faint sigh of assent. She was disappointed by her sister’s tone; for in the time past she had more than once suspected that Geraldine Challoner loved George Fairfax with a passionate half-despairing love, which, if unrequited, might make the bane of her life. And, lo! here was the same Geraldine discussing her engagement as coolly as if the match had been the veriest marriage of convenience ever planned by a designing dowager. She did not understand how much pride had to do with this reticence, or what volcanic depths may sometimes lie beneath the Alpine snows of such a nature as Geraldine Challoner’s.
In the evening Lady Geraldine was the centre of a circle of old friends and admirers; and Clarissa could only observe her from a distance, and wonder at her brilliancy, her power to talk of anything and everything with an air of unlimited wisdom and experience, and the perfect ease with which she received the homage offered to her beauty and wit. The cold proud face lighted up wonderfully at night, and under the softening influence of so much adulation; and Lady Geraldine’s smiles, though wanting in warmth at the best, were very fascinating. Clarissa wondered that so radiant a creature could have been so long unmarried, that it could be matter for rejoicing that she was at last engaged. It must have been her own fault, of course; such a woman as this could have been a duchess if she pleased, Clarissa thought.
Lizzy Fermor came up to her while she was admiring the high-bred beauty.
“Well, Miss Lovel, what do you think of her?”
“Lady Geraldine? I think she is wonderfully handsome — and fascinating.”
“Do you? Then I don’t think you can know the meaning of the word ‘fascination.’ If I were a man, that woman would be precisely the last in the world to touch my heart. O yes, I admit that she is very handsome — classic profile, bright blue eyes, complexion of lilies and roses, real golden hair — not dyed, you know — and so on; but I should as soon think of falling in love with a statue of snow as with Lady Geraldine Challoner. I think she has just about as much heart as the statue would have.”
“Those people with cold manners have sometimes very warm hearts,” Clarissa, remonstrated, feeling that gratitude to Lady Laura made it incumbent on her to defend Lady Laura’s sister.
“Perhaps; but that is not the case with her. She would trample upon a hecatomb of hearts to arrive at the object of her ambition. I think she might have made more than one brilliant marriage since she has been out — something like ten years, you know — only she was too cold, too obviously mercenary. I am very sorry for George Fairfax.”
“Do you know him?”
“Yes, and he is a very noble fellow. He has been rather wild, I believe; but of course we are not supposed to know anything about that; and I have heard that he is the most generous-hearted of men. I know Lady Geraldine has contrived to keep him dangling about her whenever he was in England for the last six or eight years; but I thought it was one of those old established flirtations that would never come to anything — a kind of institution. I was quite surprised to hear of their engagement — and very sorry.”
“But Lady Geraldine is very much attached to him, is she not?”
“O yes, I daresay she likes him; it would be almost difficult for any one to avoid liking him. She used to do her utmost to keep him about her always, I know; and I believe the flirtation has cost her more than one chance of a good marriage. But I doubt if we should have ever heard of this engagement if Reginald Fairfax had not died, and left his brother the heir of Lyvedon.”
“Is Lyvedon a very grand place?”
“It is a fine estate, I believe; a noble old house in Kent, with considerable extent of land attached to it. The place belongs now to Sir Spencer Lyvedon, an old bachelor, whose only sister is George Fairfax’s mother. The property is sure to come to Mr. Fairfax in a few years. He is to be here to-morrow, they say; and you will see him, and be able to judge for yourself whether Lady Geraldine is worthy of him.”
There was a little excursion proposed and planned that evening for the next day — a drive to Marley Wood, a delicious bit of forest about seven miles from the Castle, and a luncheon in the open air. The party was made up on the spot. There were ladies enough to fill two carriages; a couple of servants were to go first with the luncheon in a waggonette, and the gentlemen were to ride. Everybody was delighted with the idea. It was one of those unpremeditated affairs which are sure to be a success.
“I am glad to have something to do with myself,” said Lady Geraldine. “It is better than dawdling away one’s existence at croquet.”
“I hope you are not going to be dull here, Geraldine,” replied Lady Laura. “There are the Helston races next week, and a flower-show at Holborough.”
“I hate small country race-meetings and country flower-shows; but of course I am not going to be dull, Laura. The Castle is very nice; and I shall hear all about your last new protégées, and your Dorcas societies, and your model cottages, and your architect, and your hundred-and-one schemes for the benefit of your fellow-man. It is not possible to be dull in the presence of so much energy.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50