With the beginning of August there came a change in the weather. High winds, gloom, and rain succeeded that brilliant cloudless summer-time, which had become, as it were, the normal condition of the universe; and Lady Laura’s guests were fain to abandon their picnics and forest excursions, their botanical researches and distant-race meetings — nay, even croquet itself, that perennial source of recreation for the youthful mind, had to be given up, except in the most fitful snatches. In this state of things, amateur concerts and acted charades came into fashion. The billiard-room was crowded from breakfast till dinner time. It was a charmingly composite apartment — having one long wall lined with bookshelves, sacred to the most frivolous ephemeral literature, and a grand piano in an arched recess at one end of the room — and in wet weather was the chosen resort of every socially-disposed guest at Hale. Here Clarissa learned to elevate her pretty little hand into the approved form of bridge, and acquired some acquaintance with the mysteries of cannons and pockets. It was Mr. Fairfax who taught her billiards. Lady Geraldine dropped into the room now and then, and played a game in a dashing off-hand way with her lover, amidst the admiring comments of her friends; but she did not come very often, and Mr. Fairfax had plenty of time for Clarissa’s instruction.
Upon one of these wet days he insisted upon looking over her portfolio of drawings; and in going through a heap of careless sketches they came upon something of her brother Austin’s. They were sitting in the library — a very solemn and splendid chamber, with a carved oak roof and deep mullioned windows — a room that was less used than any other apartment in the Castle. Mr. Fairfax had caught Miss Lovel here, with her portfolio open on the table before her, copying a drawing of Piranesi’s; so there could be no better opportunity for inspecting the sketches, which she had hitherto refused to show him.
That sketch of Austin’s — a group of Arab horsemen done in pen and ink — set them talking about him at once; and George Fairfax told Clarissa all he could tell about his intercourse with her brother.
“I really liked him so much,” he said gently, seeing how deeply she was moved by the slightest mention of that name. “I cannot say that I ever knew him intimately, that I can claim to have been his friend; but I used at one time to see a good deal of him, and I was very much impressed by his genius. I never met a young man who gave me a stronger notion of undisciplined genius; but, unhappily, there was a recklessness about him which I can easily imagine would lead him into dangerous associations. I was told that he had quarrelled with his family, and meant to sell out, and take to painting as a profession — and I really believe that he would have made his fortune as a painter; but when I heard of him next, he had gone abroad — to the colonies, some one said. I could never learn anything more precise than that.”
“I would give the world to know where he is,” said Clarissa mournfully; “but I dare not ask papa anything about him, even if he could tell me, which I doubt very much. I did try to speak of him once; but it was no use — papa would not hear his name.”
“That seems very hard; and yet your father must have been proud of him and fond of him once, I should think.”
“I am not sure of that. Papa and Austin never seemed to get on quite well together. There was always something — as if there had been some kind of hidden resentment, some painful feeling in the mind of each. I was too young to be a competent judge, of course; but I know, as a child, I had always a sense that there was a cloud between those two, a shadow that seemed to darken our lives.”
They talked for a long time of this prodigal son; and this kind of conversation seemed to bring them nearer to each other than anything else that had happened within the six weeks of their acquaintance.
“If ever I have any opportunity of finding out your brother’s whereabouts, Miss Lovel, you may be sure that I will use every effort to get you some tidings of him. I don’t want to say anything that might lead to your being disappointed; but when I go to town again, I will hunt up a man who used to be one of his friends, and try to learn something. Only you must promise me not to be disappointed if I fail.”
“I won’t promise that; but I promise to bear my disappointment quietly, and to be grateful to you for your goodness,” Clarissa answered, with a faint smile.
They went on with the inspection of the drawings, in which Mr. Fairfax showed himself deeply interested. His own manipulative powers were of the smallest, but he was an excellent critic.
“I think I may say of you what I said of your brother just now — that you might make a fortune, if you were to cultivate art seriously.”
“I wish I could make a fortune large enough to buy back Arden Court,” Clarissa answered eagerly.
“You think so much of Arden?”
“O yes, I am always thinking of it, always dreaming of it; the dear old rooms haunt me sleeping and waking. I suppose they are all altered now. I think it would almost break my heart to see them different.”
“Do you know, I am scarcely in a position to understand that fervent love for one’s birthplace. I may be said to have no birthplace myself. I was born in lodgings, or a furnished house — some temporary ark of that kind — the next thing to being born on board ship, and having Stepney for one’s parish. My father was in a hard-working cavalry regiment, and the early days of my mother’s married life were spent in perpetual wanderings. They separated, when I was about eight years old, for ever — a sad story, of course — something worse than incompatibility of temper on the husband’s side; and from that time I never saw him, though he lived for some years. So, you see, the words ‘home’ and ‘father’ are for me very little more than sentimental abstractions. But with my mother I have been quite happy. She has indeed been the most devoted of women. She took a house at Eton when my brother and I were at school there, and superintended our home studies herself; and from that time to this she has watched my career with unchanging care. It is the old story of maternal kindness and filial shortcomings. I have given her a world of trouble; but I am not the less fond of her, or the less grateful to her.” He stopped for a few moments, with something like a sigh, and then went on in a lighter tone: “You can see, however, that having no ancestral home of my own, I am hardly able to understand the depth of your feeling for Arden Court. There is an old place down in Kent, a fine old castellated mansion, built in the days of Edward VI., which is to be mine by-and-by; but I doubt if I shall ever value it as you do your old home. Perhaps I am wanting in the poetic feeling necessary for the appreciation of these things.”
“O no, it is not that,” Clarissa answered eagerly; “but the house you speak of will not have been your home. You won’t have that dim, dreamy recollection of childhood spent in the old rooms; another life, the life of another being almost, it seems, as one looks back to it. I have only the faintest memory of my mother; but it is very sweet, and it is all associated with Arden Court. I cannot conjure up her image for a moment without that background. Yes, I do wish for fortune, for that one reason. I would give the world to win back Arden.”
She was very much in earnest. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes brightened with those eager words. Never perhaps had she looked lovelier than at that moment. George Fairfax paused a little before he answered her, admiring the bright animated face; admiring her, he thought, very much as he might have admired some beautiful wayward child. And then he said gravely:
“It is dangerous to wish for anything so intensely. There are wishes the gratification whereof is fatal. There are a dozen old stories in the classics to show that; to say nothing of all those mediaeval legends in which Satan is complaisant to some eager wisher.”
“But there is no chance of my wish being gratified. If I could work my fingers to the bone in the pursuit of art or literature, or any of the professions by which women win money, I should never earn the price of Arden; nor would that hateful Mr. Granger be disposed to sell a place which gives him his position in the county. And I suppose he is fond of it, after a fashion. He has spent a fortune upon improvements. Improvements!” repeated Clarissa contemptuously; “I daresay be has improved away the very spirit of the place.”
“You cherish a strong dislike for this gentleman, it seems, Miss Lovel.”
“I am wicked enough to dislike him for having robbed us of Arden. Of course you will say that any one else might have bought the place. But then I can only reply, that I should have disliked any other purchaser just the same; a little less though, perhaps, if he had been a member of some noble old family — a man with a great name. It would have been some consolation to think that Arden was promoted.”
“I am afraid there is a leaven of good old Tory spirit in your composition, Miss Lovel.”
“I suppose papa is a Tory. I know he has a profound contempt for what he calls new people — very foolish, of course, I quite feel that; but I think he cannot help remembering that he comes of a good old race which has fallen upon evil days.”
“You remember my telling you that I had been to Arden Court. Mr. Granger gave a state dinner once while I was staying here, and I went with Fred and Lady Laura. I found him not by any means a disagreeable person. He is just a little slow and ponderous, and I should scarcely give him credit for a profound or brilliant intellect; but he is certainly sensible, well-informed, and he gave me the idea of being the very essence of truth.”
“I daresay he is very nice,” Clarissa answered with a subdued sigh. “He has always been kind and attentive to papa, sending game and hothouse fruit, and that kind of thing; and he has begged that we would use the park as if it were our own; but I have never crossed the boundary that divides my new home from my old one. I couldn’t bear to see the old walks now.”
They talked for a good deal longer, till the clanging of the Castle bell warned Clarissa that it was time to dress for dinner. It is amazing how rapidly time will pass in such serious confidential talk. George Fairfax looked at his watch with an air of disbelief in that supreme authority the Castle bell, which was renowned for its exact observance of Greenwich time. That blusterous rainy August afternoon had slipped away so I quickly.
“It is a repetition of my experience during that night journey to Holborough,” Mr. Fairfax said, smiling. “You have a knack of charming away the hours, Miss Lovel.”
It was the commonest, most conventional form of compliment, no doubt; but Clarissa blushed a little, and bent rather lower over the portfolio, which she was closing, than she had done before. Then she put the portfolio under her arm, murmured something about going to dress, made George Fairfax a gracious curtsey, and left him.
He did not hurry away to make his own toilet, but walked up and down the library for some minutes, thinking.
“What a sweet girl she is!” he said to himself; “and what a pity her position is not a better one! With a father like that, and a brother who has stamped himself as a scapegrace at the beginning of life, what is to become of her? Unless she marries well, I see no hopeful prospect for her future. But of course such a girl as that is sure to make a good marriage.”
Instead of being cheered by this view of the case, Mr. Fairfax’s brow grew darker, and his step heavier.
“What does it matter to me whom she chooses for her husband?” he asked himself; “and yet no man would like to see such a girl throw herself away for mercenary reasons. If I had known her a few months ago! If! What is the history of human error but a succession of ‘ifs’? Would it have been better for me or for her, that we had learned to know each other while I was free? The happiest thing for me would have been never to have met her at all. I felt myself in some kind of danger that night we met in the railway-carriage. Her race is fatal to mine, I begin to think. Any connection in that quarter would have galled my mother to the quick — broken her heart perhaps; and I am bound to consider her in all I do. Nor am I a schoolboy, to fancy that the whole colour of my life is to be governed by such an influence as this. She is only a pretty woman, with a low sweet voice, and gentle winning ways. Most people would call Geraldine the handsomer of the two. Poor child! She ought to seem no more than a child to me. I think she likes me, and trusts me. I wish Geraldine were kinder to her; I wish ———”
He did not particularise that last wish, even to himself, but went away to dress, having wasted the first quarter of the three-quarters that elapsed between the first and second bell at Hale Castle.
Throughout that evening, which was an unusually quiet and domestic evening for Hale, he did not talk any more to Clarissa. It might even have been thought that he scrupulously, and of a fixed purpose, avoided her. He devoted himself to chess with Lady Geraldine; a game he played indifferently, and for which he cherished a profound aversion. But chess was one of Geraldine Challoner’s strong points; and that aristocratic beauty never looked more regal than when she sat before a chess-table, with one thin white hand hovering gently above the carved ivory pieces.
Mr. Fairfax lost four or five games in succession, excusing his own careless play every time by some dexterous compliment to his betrothed. More than once he stifled a yawn — more than once his glances wandered away to the group near the piano, amidst which Clarissa was seated, listening to Lizzy Fermor’s brilliant waltzes and mazurkas, with an open music-book on her lap, turning over the leaves now and then, with rather a listless pre-occupied air, Mr. Fairfax thought.
That evening did certainly seem very dreary to Clarissa, in spite of Miss Fermor’s dashing music and animated chatter. She missed that other talk, half playful, half earnest, with which George Fairfax had been wont to beguile some part of every evening; finding her out, as if by a subtle instinct, in whatever corner of the room she happened to be, and always devoting one stray half-hour of the evening to her society. To-night all things came to an end: matrons and misses murmured their good-nights and sailed away to the corridor, where there was a regiment of small silver candlesticks, emblazoned with the numerous quarterings of Armstrong and Challoner; and George Fairfax only rose from the chess-table as Lady Laura’s guests abandoned the drawing-room. Geraldine bade her lover good-night with her most bewitching smile — a smile in which there was even some faint ray of warmth.
“You have given me some very easy victories,” she said, as they shook hands, “and I won’t flatter you by saying you have played well. But it was very good of you to sit so long at a game which I know you detest, only to please me.”
“A very small sacrifice, surely, my dear Geraldine. We’ll play chess every night, if you like. I don’t care much for the game in the abstract, I admit; but I am never tired of admiring your judicious play, or the exquisite shape of your hands.”
“No, no; I don’t want to try you with such severe training. I saw how tired you were more than once to-night, and how your eyes wandered away to those noisy girls by the piano, like an idle boy who is kept at his lessons when his companions are at play.”
Mr. Fairfax’s sunburnt countenance reddened a little at this reproof.
“Was I inattentive?” he asked; “I did not know that. I was quite aware of my bad play, and I really believe I was conscientious.”
And so they wished each other good-night and parted. Geraldine Challoner did not go at once to her own room. She had to pass her sister’s quarters on her way, and stopped at the door of the dressing-room.
“Are you quite alone, Laura?” she asked, looking in.
A maid was busy unweaving a splendid pyramid of chestnut plaits which had crowned the head of her mistress; but she of course counted for nothing, and could be dismissed at any moment.
“And there will not be half-a-dozen people coming in to gossip?” Lady Geraldine asked in rather a fretful tone, as she flung herself into an arm-chair near the dressing-table.
“Not a soul; I have wished every one good-night. I was rather tired, to tell the truth, and not inclined for talk. But of course I am always glad of a chat with you, Geraldine. — You may go, Parker; I can finish my hair myself.”
The maid retired, as quietly as some attendant spirit.
Lady Laura took up a big ivory brush and began smoothing the long chestnut locks in a meditative way, waiting for her sister to speak. But Lady Geraldine seemed scarcely in the mood for lively conversation; her fingers were twisting themselves in and out upon the arm of her chair in a nervous way, and her face had a thoughtful, not to say moody, expression.
Her sister watched her for some minutes silently.
“What is the matter, Geraldine?” she inquired at last. “I can see there is something wrong.”
“There is very much that is wrong,” the other answered with a kind of suppressed vehemence. “Upon my word, Laura, I believe it is your destiny to stand in my light at every stage of my life, or you would scarcely have happened to have planted that girl here just at this particular time.”
“What girl?” cried Lady Laura, amazed at this sudden accusation.
“Good gracious me, Geraldine! what has my poor Clarissa done to offend you?”
“Your poor Clarissa has only set her cap at George Fairfax; and as she happens to be several years younger than I am, and I suppose a good deal prettier, she has thoroughly succeeded in distracting his attention — his regard, perhaps — from myself.”
Laura Armstrong dropped the hair-brush, in profound consternation.
“My dear Geraldine, this is the merest jealous folly on your part. Clarissa is the very last girl in the world who would be guilty of such meanness as to try and attract another woman’s lover. Besides, I am sure that George’s attachment to yourself —”
“Pray, don’t preach about that, Laura!” her sister broke in impatiently. “I must be the best judge of his attachment; and you must be the very blindest of women, if you have not seen how your newest pet and protégée has contrived to lure George to her side night after night, and to interest him by her pretty looks and juvenile airs and graces.”
“Why, I don’t believe George spoke to Miss Lovel once this evening; he was playing chess with you from the moment he came to the drawing-room after dinner.”
“To-night was an exceptional case. Mr. Fairfax was evidently on duty. His manner all the evening was that of a man who has been consciously culpable, and is trying to atone for bad behaviour. And your favourite was wounded by his desertion — I could see that.”
“She did seem a little depressed, certainly,” Lady Laura answered thoughtfully; “I observed that myself. But I know that the girl has a noble nature, and if she has been so foolish as to be just a little attracted by George Fairfax, she will very; quickly awake to a sense of her folly. Pray don’t give yourself the faintest uneasiness, Geraldine. I have my plans for Clarissa Lovel, and this hint of yours will make me more anxious to put them into execution. As for George, it is natural to men to flirt; there’s no use in being angry with them. I’m sure that wretched Fred of mine has flirted desperately, in his way.”
Lady Geraldine gave her shoulders a contemptuous shrug, expressive of a most profound indifference to the delinquencies of Mr. Armstrong.
“Your husband and George Fairfax are two very different people,” she said.
“But you don’t for a moment suppose there is anything serious in this business?” Laura asked anxiously.
“How can I tell? I sometimes think that George has never really cared for me; that he proposed to me because he thought his mother would like the marriage, and because our names had often been linked together, and our marriage was in a manner expected by people, and so on. Yes, Laura, I have sometimes doubted if he ever loved me — I hate to talk of these things, even to you; but there are times when one must confide in some one — and I have been sorely tempted to break off the engagement.”
She rose from her chair, and began to pace up and down the room in a quick impatient way.
“Upon my honour, I believe it would be the happiest thing for both of us,” she said.
Lady Laura looked at her sister with perfect consternation.
“My dearest Geraldine, you would surely never be so mad!” she exclaimed. “You could not be so foolish as to sacrifice the happiness of your future life to a caprice of the moment — a mere outbreak of temper. Pray, let there be an end of such nonsense. I am sure George is sincerely attached to you, and I am very much mistaken in you if you do not like him — love him — better than you can ever hope to love any other man in this world.”
“O yes; I like him well enough,” said Geraldine Challoner impatiently; “too well to endure anything less than perfect sincerity on his part.”
“But, my dearest, I am sure that he is sincere,” Laura answered soothingly. “Now, my own Geraldine, do pray be reasonable, and leave this business to me. As for Clarissa, I have plans for her, the realization of which would set your mind quite at ease; but if I cannot put them into execution immediately, the girl shall go. Of course you are the first consideration. With regard to George, if you would only let me sound him, I am sure I should get at the real state of his feelings and find them all we can wish ——”
“Laura!” cried Geraldine indignantly, “if you dare to interfere, in the smallest degree, with this business, I shall never speak to you again.”
“My dear Geraldine!”
“Remember that, Laura, and remember that I mean what I say. I will not permit so much as the faintest hint of anything I have told you.”
“My dearest girl, I pledge myself not to speak one word,” protested Lady Laura, very much, alarmed by her sister’s indignation.
Geraldine left her soon after this, vexed with herself for having betrayed so much feeling, even to a sister; left her — not to repose in peaceful, slumbers, but to walk up and down her room till early morning, and look out at daybreak on the Castle gardens and the purple woods beyond, with a haggard face and blank unseeing eyes.
George Fairfax meanwhile had lain himself down to take his rest in tolerable good-humour with himself and the world in general.
“I really think I behaved very well,” he said to himself; “and having made up my mind to stop anything like a flirtation with that perilously fascinating Clarissa, I shall stick to my resolve with the heroism of an ancient Roman; though the Romans were hardly so heroic in that matter, by the way — witness the havoc made by that fatal Egyptian, a little bit of a woman that could be bundled up in a carpet — to say nothing of the general predilection for somebody else’s wife which prevailed in those days, and which makes Suetonius read like a modern French novel. I did not think there was so much of the old leaven left in me. My sweet Clarissa! I fancy she likes me — in a sisterly kind of way, of course — and trusts me not a little. And yet I must seem cold to her, and hold myself aloof, and wound the tender untried heart a little perhaps. Hard upon both of us, but I suppose only a common element in the initiatory ordinances of matrimony.”
And so George Fairfax closed hie eyes and fell asleep, with the image of Clarissa before him in that final moment of consciousness, whereby the same image haunted him in his slumbers that night, alternately perplexing or delighting him; while ever and anon the face of his betrothed, pale and statue-like, came between him and that other face; or the perfect hand he had admired at chess that night was stretched out through the darkness to push aside the form of Clarissa Lovel.
That erring dreamer was a man accustomed to take all things lightly; not a man of high principle — a man whose best original impulses had been weakened and deadened not a little by the fellowship he had kept, and the life he had led; a man unhappily destined to exercise an influence over others disproportionate to the weight of his own character.
Lady Laura was much disturbed by her sister’s confidence; and being of a temperament to which the solitary endurance of any mental burden is almost impossible, immediately set to work to do the very things which would have been most obnoxious to Geraldine Challoner. In the first place she awakened her husband from comfortable slumbers, haunted by no more awful forms than his last acquisition in horseflesh, or the oxen he was fattening for the next cattle-show; and determinedly kept him awake while she gave him a detailed account of the distressing scene she had just had with “poor Geraldine.”
Mr. Armstrong, whose yawns and vague disjointed replies were piteous to hear, thought there was only one person in question who merited the epithet “poor,” and that person himself; but he made some faint show of being interested nevertheless.
“Silly woman! silly woman!” he mumbled at last. “I’ve always thought she rides the high horse rather too much with Fairfax. Men don’t like that sort of thing, you know. Geraldine’s a very fine woman, but she can’t twist a man round her fingers as you can, Laura. Why don’t you speak to George Fairfax, and hurry on the marriage somehow? The sooner the business is settled the better, with such a restive couple as these two; uncommonly hard to drive in double harness — the mare inclined to jib, and the other with a tendency to shy. You’re such a manager, Laura, you’d make matters square in no time.”
If Lady Laura prided herself on one of her attributes more than another — and she did cherish a harmless vanity about many things — it was in the idea that she was a kind of social Talleyrand. So on this particular occasion, encouraged by simple Fred Armstrong, who had a rooted belief that there never had existed upon this earth such a wonderful woman as his wife, my lady resolved to take the affairs of her sister under her protection, and to bring all things to a triumphant issue. She felt very little compunction about breaking her promise to Geraldine.
“All depends upon the manner in which a thing is done,” she said to herself complacently, as she composed herself for slumber; “of course I shall act with the most extreme delicacy. But it would never do for my sister’s chances in life to be ruined for want of a little judicious intervention.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05