The weather was fine next day, and the Castle party drove ten miles to a rustic racecourse, where there was a meeting of a very insignificant character, but interesting to Mr. Armstrong, to whom a horse was a source of perennial delight, and a fair excuse for a long gay drive, and a picnic luncheon in carriages and on coach-boxes.
Amongst Lady Laura’s accomplishments was the polite art of driving. To-day she elected to drive a high phaeton with a pair of roans, and invited George Fairfax to take the seat beside her. Lady Geraldine had a headache, and had not appeared that morning; but had sent a message to her sister, to request that her indisposition, which was the merest trifle, might not prevent Mr. Fairfax going to the races.
Mr. Fairfax at first seemed much inclined to remain at home, and perform garrison duty.
“Geraldine will come downstairs presently, I daresay,” he said to Lady Laura, “and we can have a quiet stroll in the gardens, while you are all away. I don’t care a straw about the Mickleham races. Please leave me at home, Lady Laura.”
“But Geraldine begs that you will go. She’ll keep her room all day, I’ve no doubt; she generally does, when she has one of her headaches. Every one is going, and I have set my heart on driving you. I want to hear what you think of the roans. Come, George, I really must insist upon it.”
She led him off to the phaeton triumphantly; while Frederick Armstrong was fain to find some vent for his admiration of his gifted wife’s diplomacy in sundry winks and grins to the address of no one in particular, as he bustled to and fro between the terrace and the hall, arranging the mode and manner of the day’s excursion — who was to be driven by whom, and so on.
Clarissa found herself bestowed in a landau full of ladies, Barbara Fermor amongst them; and was very merry with these agreeable companions, who gave her no time to meditate upon that change in Mr. Fairfax’s manner last night, which had troubled her a little in spite of her better sense. He was nothing to her, of course; an accidental acquaintance whom she might never see again after this visit; but he had known her brother, and he had been kind and sympathetic — so much so, that she would have been glad to think that he was really her friend. Perhaps, after all, there was very little cause that she should be perplexed or worried on account of his quiet avoidance of her that one evening; but then Clarissa Lovel was young and inexperienced, and thus apt to be hypersensitive, and easily disturbed about trifles.
Having secured a comfortable tête-à-tête with Mr. Fairfax, Lady Laura lost no time in improving the occasion. They were scarcely a mile from the Castle before she began to touch upon the subject of the intended marriage, lightly, and with an airy gaiety of manner which covered her real earnestness.
“When is it to be, George?” she asked. “I really want to know something positive, on account of my own engagement and Fred’s, which must all hinge more or less on this important business. There’s no use in my talking to Geraldine, for she is really the most impracticable of beings, and I can never get her to say anything definite.”
“My dear Lady Laura, I am almost in the same position. I have more than once tried to induce her to fix the date for her marriage, but she has always put the subject aside somehow or other. I really don’t like to bore her, you see; and no doubt things will arrange themselves in due course.”
Lady Laura gave a little sigh of relief. He did not avoid the question — that was something; nor did her interference seem in any manner unpleasant to him. Indeed, nothing could be more perfect than his air of careless good-humour, Lady Laura thought.
But she did not mean the subject to drop here; and after a little graceful manipulation of the reins, a glance backward to see how far behind they had left the rest of the caravan, and some slight slackening of the pace at which they had been going, she went on.
“No doubt things would arrange themselves easily enough, if nothing happened to interfere with our plans. But the fact is, my dear George, I am really most uneasy about the state of poor papa’s health. He has been so sadly feeble for the last three or four years, and I feel that we may lose him at any moment. At his age, poor dear soul, it is a calamity for winch we must be prepared, but of course such an event would postpone our marriage for a long time, and I should really like to see my sister happily settled before the blow fell upon her. She has been so much with him, you see, and is so deeply attached to him — it will be worse for her than for any of us.”
“I— I conclude so,” Mr. Fairfax replied rather doubtfully. He could not help wondering a little how his betrothed cared to leave a beloved father in so critical a condition; but he knew that his future sister-in-law was somewhat given to exaggeration, a high colouring of simple facts, as well as to the friendly direction of other people’s affairs, he was therefore not surprised, upon reflection, that she should magnify her father’s danger and her sister’s filial devotion. Nor was he surprised that she should be anxious to hasten his marriage. It was natural to this impulsive matron to be eager for something, some event involving fine dress and invitations, elaborate dinners, and the gathering together of a frivolous crowd to be astonished and delighted by her own cleverness and fascination. To have a handsome sister to marry, and to marry well, was of course a great opportunity for the display of all those powers in which Lady Laura took especial pride.
And then George Fairfax had told himself that this marriage was the best possible thing for him; and being so, it would be well that there should be no unnecessary delay. He had perhaps a vague feeling that he was giving up a good deal in sacrificing his liberty; but on the whole the sacrifice was a wise one, and could not be consummated too quickly.
“I trust you alarm yourself needlessly about your father, my dear Lady Laura,” he said presently; “but, upon my word, you cannot be more anxious to see this affair settled than I am. I want to spend my honeymoon at Lyvedon, the quietest, most picturesque old place you can imagine, but not very enjoyable when the leaves are falling. My good uncle has set his heart on my borrowing his house for this purpose, and I think it would please Geraldine to become acquainted with an estate which must be her own in a few years.”
“Unquestionably,” cried Lady Laura eagerly; “but you know what Geraldine is, or you ought to know — so foolishly proud and sensitive. She has known you so long, and perhaps — she would never forgive me if she knew I had hinted such a thing — had half-unconsciously given you her heart before she had reason to be assured of your regard: and this would make her peculiarly sensitive. Now do, dear George, press the question, and let everything be settled as soon as possible, or I have an apprehension that somehow or other my sister will slip through your fingers.”
Mr. Fairfax looked wonderingly at his charioteer.
“Has she said anything to put this fancy into your head?” he asked, with gravity rather than alarm.
“Said anything! O dear, no. Geraldine is the last person to talk about her own feelings. But I know her so well,” concluded Lady Laura with a solemn air.
After this there came a brief silence. George Fairfax was a little puzzled by my lady’s diplomacy, and perhaps just a little disgusted. Again and again he told himself that this union with Geraldine Challoner was the very best thing that could happen to him; it would bring him to anchor, at any rate, and he had been such mere driftwood until now. But he wanted to feel himself quite a free agent, and this pressing-on of the marriage by Lady Laura was in some manner discordant with his sense of the fitness of things. It looked a little like manoeuvring; yet after all she was quite sincere, perhaps, and did really apprehend her father’s death intervening to postpone the wedding.
He would not remain long silent, lest she should fancy him displeased, and proceeded presently to pay her some compliments upon the roans, and on her driving; after which they rattled on pleasantly enough till they came to the green slope of a hill, where there was a rude rustic stand and a railed racecourse, with a sprinkling of carriages on one side and gipsy-tents on the other.
Here Mr. Fairfax delivered over Lady Laura to her natural protector; and being free to stroll about at his own pleasure, contrived to spend a very agreeable day, devoting the greater part thereof to attendance upon the landau full of ladies, amongst whom was Clarissa Lovel. And she, being relieved from that harassing notion that she had in some unknown manner offended him, and being so new to all the pleasures of life that even these rustic races were delightful to her, was at her brightest, full of gay girlish talk and merry laughter. He was not to see her thus many times again, in all the freshness of her young beauty, perfectly natural and unrestrained.
Once in the course of that day he left his post by the landau, and went for a solitary ramble; not amongst the tents, where black-eyed Bohemians saluted him as “my pretty gentleman,” or the knock-’em-downs and weighing-machines, or the bucolic babble of the ring, but away across the grassy slope, turning his back upon the racecourse. He wanted to think it out again, in his own phrase, just as he had thought it out the day before in the library at Hale.
“I am afraid I am getting too fond of her,” he said to himself. “It’s the old story: just like dram-drinking. I take the pledge, and then go and drink again. I am the weakest of mankind. But it cannot make very much difference. She knows I am engaged — and — Lady Laura is right. The sooner the marriage comes off, the better. I shall never be safe till the knot is tied; and then duty, honour, feeling, and a dozen other motives, will hold me to the right course.”
He strolled back to his party only; a little time before the horses were put in, and on this occasion went straight to the phaeton, and devoted himself to Lady Laura.
“You are going to drive me home, of course?” he said. “I mean to claim my place.”
“I hardly think you have any right to it, after your desertion of me. You have been flirting with those girls in the landau all day.”
“Flirting is one of the melancholy privileges of my condition. An engaged man enjoys an immunity in that matter. When a criminal is condemned to death, they give him whatever he likes to eat, you know. It is almost the same kind of thing.”
He took his place in the phaeton presently, and talked gaily enough all the way home, in that particular strain required to match my lady’s agreeable rattle; but he had a vague sense of uneasiness lurking somewhere in his mind, a half-consciousness that he was drifting the wrong way.
All that evening he was especially attentive to Lady Geraldine, whose headache had left her with a pale and pensive look which was not without its charm. The stately beauty had a softer air, the brightness of the blue eyes was not so cold as it was wont to be. They played chess again, and Mr. Fairfax kept aloof from Clarissa. They; walked together in the gardens for a couple of hours next morning; and George Fairfax pressed the question of his marriage with such a show of earnestness and warmth, that Geraldine’s rebellious pride was at once solaced and subdued, and she consented to agree to any arrangement he and Lady Laura might make.
“My sister is so much more practical than I am,” she said, “and I would really rather leave everything to her and to you.”
Lightly as she tried to speak of the future, she did on this occasion allow her lover to perceive that he was indeed very dear to her, and that the coldness which had sometimes wounded him was little more than a veil beneath which a proud woman strove to hide her deepest feelings. Mr. Fairfax rather liked this quality of pride in his future wife, even if it were carried so far as to be almost a blemish. It would be the surest safe guard of his home in the time to come. Such women are not prone to petty faults, or given to small quarrels. A man has a kind of security from trivial annoyances in an alliance with such a one.
It was all settled, therefore, in that two hours’ stroll in the sunny garden, where the roses still bloomed, in some diminution of their midsummer glory, their sweetness just a little over powered by the spicy odour of innumerable carnations, their delicate colours eclipsed here and there by an impertinent early dahlia. Everything was settled. The very date of the wedding was to be decided at once by Lady Laura and the bridegroom; and when George Fairfax went back to the Castle, he felt, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he really was an engaged man. It was rather a solemn feeling, but not altogether an unpleasant one. He had seen more of Geraldine Challoner’s heart this morning than he had ever seen before. It pleased him to discover that she really loved him; that the marriage was to be something more to her than a merely advantageous alliance; that she would in all probability have accepted him had he offered himself to her in his brother’s lifetime. Since his thirtieth birthday he had begun to feel himself something of a waif and stray. There had been mistakes in his life, errors he would be very glad to forget in an utterly new existence. It was pleasant to know himself beloved by a proud and virtuous woman, a woman whose love was neither to be easily won nor lightly lost.
He went back to the Castle more at ease with himself than he had felt for some time. His future was settled, and he had done his duty.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50