Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Charlotte.

The little villa at Bayswater was looking its brightest on a resplendent midsummer afternoon, one year after Diana Paget’s hurried hegira from Forêtdechêne. If the poor dentist’s house in dingy Bloomsbury had been fresh and brilliant of aspect, how much more brilliant was the western home of the rich stockbroker, whose gate was within five minutes’ walk of that aristocratic Eden, Kensington Gardens! Mr. Sheldon’s small domain was called The Lawn, and consisted of something over half an acre of flower-garden and shrubbery, a two-stall stable and coach-house, a conservatory and fernery, and a moderate-sized house in the gothic or mediaeval style, with mullioned windows in the dining-room and oriels in the best bedroom, and with a great deal of unnecessary stone-work and wooden excrescence in every direction.

The interior of Mr. Sheldon’s dwelling bore no trace of that solid old-fashioned clumsiness which had distinguished his house in Fitzgeorge-street. Having surrendered his ancestral chairs and tables in liquidation of his liabilities, Philip Sheldon was free to go with the times, and had furnished his gothic villa in the most approved modern style, but without any attempt at artistic grace or adornment. All was bright, and handsome, and neat, and trim; but the brightness and the neatness savoured just a little of furnished apartments at the seaside, and the eye sought in vain for the graceful disorder of an elegant home. The dining-room was gorgeous with all the splendour of new mahogany and crimson morocco; the drawing-room was glorified by big looking-glasses, and the virginal freshness of gilt frames on which the feet of agile house-fly or clumsy blue-bottle had never rested. The crimsons, and blues, and greens, and drabs of the Brussels carpets retained the vivid brightness of the loom. The drops of the chandeliers twinkled like little stars in the sunshine; the brass birdcages were undimmed by any shadow of dulness. To Georgy’s mind the gothic villa was the very perfection of a dwelling-place. The Barlingford housekeepers were wont to render their homes intolerable by extreme neatness. Georgy still believed in the infallibility of her native town, and the primness of Barlingford reigned supreme in the gothic villa. There were no books scattered on the polished walnut-wood tables in the drawing-room, no cabinets crammed with scraps of old china, no pictures, no queer old Indian feather-screens, no marvels of Chinese carving in discoloured ivory; none of those traces which the footsteps of the “collector” leave behind him. Mr. Sheldon had no leisure for collecting; and Georgy preferred the gaudy pink-and-blue vases of a Regent-street china-shop to all the dingy chefs-d’oeuvre of a Wedgwood, or the quaint shepherds and shepherdesses of Chelsea. As for books, were there not four or five resplendent volumes primly disposed on one of the tables; an illustrated edition of Cowper’s lively and thrilling poems; a volume of Rambles in Scotland, with copper-plate engravings of “Melrose by night,” and Glasgow Cathedral, and Ben Nevis, and other scenic and architectural glories of North Britain; a couple of volumes of Punch, and an illustrated “Vicar of Wakefield;” and what more could elevated taste demand in the way of literature? Nobody ever read the books; but Mrs. Sheldon’s visitors were sometimes glad to take refuge in the Scottish scenery and the pictorial Vicar during that interval of dulness and indigestion which succeeds a middle-class dinner. Georgy read a great many books; but they were all novels, procured from the Bayswater branch of a fashionable circulating library, and were condemned unread by Mr. Sheldon, who considered all works of fiction perfectly equal in demerit, and stigmatised them, in a general way, as “senseless trash.” He had tried to read novels in the dreary days of his Bloomsbury probation; but he had found that the heroes of them were impracticable beings, who were always talking of honour and chivalry, and always sacrificing their own interests in an utterly preposterous manner; and he had thrown aside story after story in disgust.

“Give me a book that is something like life, and I’ll read it,” he exclaimed impatiently; “but I can’t swallow the high-flown prosings of impossibly virtuous inanities.”

One day, indeed, he had been struck by the power of a book, a book written by a certain Frenchman called Balzac. He had been riveted by the hideous cynicism, the supreme power of penetration into the vilest corners of wicked hearts; and he flung the book from him at last with an expression of unmitigated admiration.

“That man knows his fellows,” he cried, “and is not hypocrite enough to conceal his knowledge, or to trick out his puppets in the tinsel and rags of false sentiment in order that critics and public may cry, ‘See, what noble instincts, what generous impulses, what unbounded sympathy for his fellow-creatures this man has!’ This Frenchman is an artist, and is not afraid to face the difficulties of his art. What a scoundrel this Philippe Bridau is! And after wallowing in the gutter, he lives to bespatter his virtuous brother with the mire from his carriage wheels. That is real life. Your English novelist would have made his villain hang himself with the string of his waistcoat in a condemned cell, while his amiable hero was declared heir to a dukedom and forty thousand a year. But this fellow Balzac knows better than that.”

The days had passed when Mr. Sheldon had leisure to read Balzac. He read nothing but the newspapers now, and in the newspapers he read very little more than the money articles and such political news as seemed likely to affect the money-market. There is no such soul-absorbing pursuit as the race which men run whose goal is the glittering Temple of Plutus. The golden apples which tempted Atalanta to slacken her pace are always rolling before the modern runner, and the greed of gain lends the wings of Hermes to his feet. Mr. Sheldon had sighed for pleasures sometimes in the days of his Bloomsbury martyrdom. He had sat by his open window on sultry summer evenings, smoking his solitary cigar, and thinking moodily of all the pleasant resting-places from which other men were looking out at that golden western sky, deepening into crimson and melting into purples which even the London smoke could not obscure. He had sat alone, thinking of jovial parties lounging in the bow-windows of Greenwich taverns, with cool green hock-glasses and pale amber wine, and a litter of fruit and flowers on the table before them, while the broad river flowed past them with all the glory of the sunset on the rippling water, and one black brig standing sharply out against the yellow sky. He had thought of Richmond, and the dashing young men who drive there every summer in drags, with steel chain and bar clanking and glittering in front of the team, and two solemn grooms with folded arms seated stiff and statue-like behind. He had thought of Epsom, and the great Derby mob; and all of those golden goblets of pleasure which prosperous manhood drains to the very dregs. He had fancied the enjoyments which would be his if ever he were rich enough to pay for them. And now he was able to afford all such pleasures he cared nothing for them; for the ecstasy of making money seemed better than any masculine dissipation or delight. He did sometimes dine at Greenwich. He knew the menus of the different taverns by heart, and had discovered that they were all alike vanity and indigestion; but he never seated himself at one of those glistening little tables, or deliberated with an obsequious waiter over the mysteries of the wine carte, without a settled purpose to be served by the eating of the dinner, and a definite good to be achieved by the wine he ordered. He gave many such entertainments at home and abroad; but they were all given to men who were likely to be useful to him — to rich men, or the toadies and hangers-on of rich men, the grand viziers of the sultans of the money-market. Such a thing as pleasure or hospitality pure and simple had no place in the plan of Mr. Sheldon’s life. The race in which he was running was not to be won by a loiterer. The golden apples were always rolling on before the runner; and woe be to him who turned away from the course to dally with the flowers or loiter by the cool streams that beautified the wayside.

Thus it was that Mr. Sheldon’s existence grew day by day more completely absorbed by business pursuits and business interests. Poor Georgy complained peevishly of her husband’s neglect; but she did not dare to pour her lamentations into the ear of the offender. It was a kind of relief to grumble about his busy life to servants and humble female friends and confidantes; but what could she say to Philip Sheldon himself? What ground had she for complaint? He very seldom stayed out late; he never came home tipsy. He was quite as cool and clear-headed and business-like, and as well able to “tot up” any given figures upon the back of an envelope after one of those diplomatic little Greenwich dinners as he was the first thing after breakfast. It had been an easy thing to tyrannise over poor Tom Halliday; but this man was a grave inscrutable creature, a domestic enigma which Georgy was always giving up in despair. But so completely did Mr. Sheldon rule his wife, that when he informed her inferentially that she was a very happy woman, she accepted his view of the subject, and was content to believe herself blest.

In spite of those occasional grumblings to servants and female friends, Mrs. Sheldon did think herself happy. Those occasional complaints were the minor notes in the harmony of her life, and only served to make the harmony complete. She read her novels, and fed a colony of little feeble twittering birds that occupied a big wire cage in the breakfast-parlour. She executed a good deal of fancy-work with beads and Berlin-wool; she dusted and arranged the splendours of the drawing-room with her own hands; and she took occasional walks in Kensington Gardens.

This was the ordinary course of her existence, now and then interrupted by such thrilling events as a dinner given to some important acquaintance of Mr. Sheldon’s, or a visit to the school at which Charlotte Halliday was completing her education.

That young lady had been removed from the Scarborough boarding-school to a highly respectable establishment at Brompton, within a few months of her mother’s marriage with Mr. Sheldon. She had been a rosy-cheeked young damsel in pinafores at the time of that event, too young to express any strong feeling upon the subject of her mother’s second choice; but not too young to feel the loss of her father very deeply. Tom Halliday had been fondly attached to that bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked damsel of nine years’ growth, and the girl had fully reciprocated his affection. How often they had talked together of the future, which was to be so delightful for them both; the new farm, which was to be such a paradise in comparison to Hyley; the pony that Charlotte was to ride when she should be old enough to wear a habit like a lady, and to go about with her father to market-towns and corn-exchanges! The little girl had remembered all this, and had most bitterly lamented the loss of that dear and loving father.

She remembered it all to this day; she regretted her loss to this day, though she was nearly of age, and on the point of leaving school for ever, after having prolonged her school-days considerably beyond the usual period, at the express wish of her stepfather. To say that she disliked Mr. Sheldon is only to admit that she was subject to the natural prejudices of humanity. He had usurped the place of a beloved father, and he was in every way the opposite of that father. He had come between Charlotte Halliday and her mother, and had so absorbed the weak little woman into himself, as to leave Charlotte quite alone in the world. And yet he did his duty as few stepfathers do it. Charlotte admitted that he was very kind to her, that he was an excellent husband, and altogether the most conscientious and respectable of mankind; but she admitted with equal candour that she had never been able to like him. “I daresay it is very wicked of me not to be fond of him, when he is so good and generous to me,” she said to her chosen friend and companion; “but I never can feel quite at home with him. I try to think of him as a father sometimes, but I never can get over the ‘step.’ Do you know I have dreamed of him sometimes? and though he is so kind to me in reality, I always fancy him cruel to me in my dreams. I suppose it is on account of his black eyes and black whiskers,” added Miss Halliday, in a meditative tone. “It is certainly a misfortune for a person to have blacker eyes and whiskers than the rest of the world; for there seems something stern and hard, and almost murderous, in such excessive blackness.”

Charlotte Halliday was a very different creature from the mother whom Mr. Sheldon had absorbed into himself. Georgy was one of the women who have “no characters at all,” but Georgy’s daughter was open to the charge of eccentricity rather than of inanity. She was a creature of fancies and impulses She had written wild verses in the secrecy of her own chamber at midnight, and had torn her poetic effusions into a thousand fragments the morning after their composition. She played and sang very sweetly, and danced admirably, and did everything in a wild way of her own, which was infinitely more charming than the commonplace perfection of other women. She was not a beauty according to those established rules which everybody believes in until they meet a woman who sins against them all and yet is beautiful. Miss Halliday had thick black eyebrows, and large gray eyes which people were apt to mistake for black. She had a composite nose, and one of the sweetest mouths that ever smiled upon enraptured mankind. Nature had given her just a little more chin than a Greek sculptor would have allowed her; but, by way of make-weight, the same careless Nature had bestowed upon her a throat which Phidias himself might have sought in vain to improve upon. And Nature had planted this young lady’s head upon her shoulders with a grace so rare that it must needs be a happy accident in the workmanship of that immortal artist. Indeed it seemed as if Charlotte Halliday owed her charms to a series of happy accidents. The black eyebrows which made her face so piquant might have been destruction to another woman. The round column-like throat needed a fine frank face to surmount it, and the fine frank face was rendered gracious and womanly by the wealth of waving dark hair which framed it. The girl was one of those bright happy creatures whom men worship and women love, and whom envy can scarcely dislike. She was so infinitely superior to both father and mother, that a believer in hereditary attributes was fain to invent some mythical great-grandmother from whom the girl’s graces might have been derived. But she had something of her father’s easy good-nature and imprudent generosity; and was altogether one of those impulsive creatures whose lives are perpetual difficulties and dilemmas. More lectures had been delivered for her edification than for any other young lady in the Brompton boarding-school, and yet she had been the favourite and delight of everybody in the establishment, from the mistress of the mansion down to the iniquitous boy who cleaned the boots, and who was hounded and hunted, and abused and execrated, from dewy morn to dusky eve.

“I allus puts plenty of elbow-grease on your boots, Miss ‘Allundale, though cook does heave saucepan-lids at my ‘ed and call me a lazy wiper,” this incorrigible imp protested to Charlotte one morning, when she had surprised him in tears and had consoled his woes by a donation of pence.

“All things love thee, so do I,” says the lover to his mistress; and it is almost impossible not to adore a young lady who is universally beloved, for the simple reason that this general affection is very rarely accorded to any but a loving nature. There is an instinct in these things. From all the ruck of Cheapside a vagrant dog will select the man who has most toleration for the canine species, and is most likely to give him shelter. A little child coming suddenly into a circle of strangers knows in which lap it may find a haven, on which bosom it may discover safety and comfort. If mistress and schoolfellows, servants and shoeblack, dogs and cats, were fond of Charlotte Halliday, their affection had been engendered by her own sweet smiles and loving words, and helping hands always ready to give substantial succour or to aid by active service.

She had been at the Brompton gynaeceum nearly eleven years — only leaving it for her holidays — and now her education was finished, and Mr. Sheldon could find no excuse for leaving her at school any longer, so her departure had been finally agreed upon.

To most damsels of twenty-one this would have been a subject for rejoicing; but it was not so with Charlotte. She did not like her stepfather; and her mother, though very affectionate and gentle, was a person whose society was apt to become wearisome any time after the first half-hour of social intercourse. At Hyde Lodge Charlotte had a great deal more of Lingard and condensed and expurgated Gibbon than was quite agreeable; she had to get up at a preternatural hour in the morning and to devote herself to “studies of velocity,” whose monotony became wearing as the drip, drip, drip of water on the skull of the tortured criminal. She was very tired of all the Hyde–Lodge lessons and accomplishments, the irregular French verbs — the “braires” and “traires” which were so difficult to remember, and which nobody ever could want to use in polite conversation; the ruined castles and dilapidated windmills, the perpetual stumpy pieces of fallen timber and jagged posts, executed with a BBB pencil; the chalky expanse of sky, with that inevitable flight of crows scudding across it:— why must there be always crows scudding across a drawing-master’s sky, and why so many jagged posts in a drawing-master’s ideal of rural beauty? Charlotte was inexpressibly weary of all the stereotyped studies; but she liked Hyde Lodge better than the gothic villa. She liked the friendly schoolfellows with their loud talk and boisterous manners, the girls who called her “Halliday,” and who were always borrowing her reels of crochet-cotton and her pencils, her collars and pocket-handkerchiefs. She liked the free-and-easy schoolgirl talk better than her mother’s tame discourse; she preferred the homely litter of the spacious schoolroom to the prim splendours of Georgy’s state chambers; and the cool lawn and shrubberies of Hyde Lodge were a hundred-fold more pleasant to her than the stiff little parterre at Bayswater, wherein scarlet geraniums and calceolarias flourished with an excruciating luxuriance of growth and an aggravating brilliancy of colour. She liked any place better than the hearth by which Philip Sheldon brooded with a dark thoughtful face, and a mind absorbed by the mysteries and complications of the Stock Exchange.

On this bright June afternoon other girls were chattering gaily about the fun of the breaking-up ball and the coming delights of the holidays, but Charlotte sighed when they reminded her that the end of her last half was close at hand.

She sat under a group of trees on the lawn, with a crochet antimacassar lying in her lap, and with her friend and favourite, Diana Paget, sitting by her side.

Hyde Lodge was that very establishment over which Priscilla Paget had reigned supreme for the last seventeen years of her life, and among all the pupils in a school of some forty or fifty girls, Diana was the one whom Charlotte Halliday had chosen for her dearest companion and confidante, clinging to her with a constancy not to be shaken by ill-fortune or absence. The girl knew very well that Diana Paget was a poor relation and dependant; that her bills had never been paid; that all those incalculable and mysterious “extras,” which are the martyrdom of parents and the delight of schoolmistresses, were a dead letter so far as Diana was concerned. She knew that “poor Di” had been taken home suddenly one day, not in compliance with any behest of her father’s, but for the simple reason that her kinswoman’s patience had been worn out by the Captain’s dishonesty. It is doubtful whether Priscilla Paget had ever communicated these facts in any set phrase, but in a boarding-school such things make themselves known, and the girls had discussed the delinquencies of that dreadful creature, Captain Paget, very freely in the security of their dormitories.

Charlotte knew that her dearest friend was not a person whom it was advantageous to know. She had seen Diana depart ignominiously, and return mysteriously after an absence of some years, very shabby, very poor, very sombre and melancholy, and with no inclination to talk of those years of absence. Miss Halliday had known all this, and had asked no questions. She took the returned wanderer to her heart, and cherished her with an affection which was far beyond the average measure of sisterly love.

“I thought I should never see you again, dear,” she cried when she and Diana had retired to a corner of the schoolroom to talk confidentially on the morning of Miss Paget’s return; “and I missed you so cruelly. Other girls are very nice and very kind to me. There is a new girl, Miss Spencer — that girl with flaxen hair, standing by the big Canterbury — whom I get on with delightfully; but there is no one in the world like you, Di. And where have you been all this time? With your papa, I suppose.”

“Yes,” answered Miss Paget gloomily; “I have been with my father. Don’t ask me anything about the last three years, Lotta. I have been utterly wretched and miserable, and I can’t bear to talk about my misery.”

“And you shan’t talk of it, darling,” cried Charlotte, pursing up her mouth for a kiss in a manner which might have been distraction to a masculine mind of average susceptibility. “You shan’t talk of anything or think of anything the least, least, least bit unpleasant; and you shall have my gold pencil-case,” added Miss Halliday, wrenching that trinket suddenly from the ribbon by which it hung at her side. Perhaps there was just the least touch of Georgy’s childishness in this impulsive habit of giving away all her small possessions, for which Lotta was distinguished. “Yes, you must, dear,” she went on. “Mamma gave it me last half; but I don’t want it; I don’t like it; in point of fact, I have had it so long that I positively loathe it. And I know it’s a poor trumpery thing, though mamma gave two guineas for it; but you know she is always imposed upon in shops. Do, do, do take it, darling, just to oblige me. And now, tell me, dear — you’re going to stop here for ever and ever, now you’ve come back” asked Charlotte, after having thrust the gold pencil-case into Diana’s unwilling hand.

“I don’t know about for ever and ever, dear,” Miss Paget replied presently; “but I daresay I shall stay here till I’m tired of the place and everybody about it. You won’t be here very long, you know, Lotta; for you’ll be twenty next birthday, and I suppose you’ll be leaving school before you’re twenty-one. Most of the girls leave at eighteen or nineteen at latest; and you’ve been here so long, and are so much farther advanced than others are. I am not going to be a pupil again — that’s out of the question; for I’m just twenty-two, as you know. But Priscilla has been good enough to let me stay as a kind of second teacher for the little ones. It will be dull work going through the stupid abridgments of history and geography, and the scrappy bits of botany and conchology, with those incorrigible little ones; but of course I am very grateful to my cousin for giving me a home under any conditions, after papa’s dishonourable conduct. If it were not for her, Lotta, I should have no home. What a happy girl you are, to have a respectable man for your father!”

Charlotte’s brow darkened a little as her friend said this.

“He is not my own father, you know,” she said gravely, “and I should be a great deal happier if mamma and I were alone in the world. We could live in some dear little cottage on wide open downs near the sea, and I could have a linsey habit, and a pony, and ride about all day, and read and play to mamma at night. Of course Mr. Sheldon is very respectable, and I daresay it’s very wicked of me; but O, Diana, I think I should like him better if he were not quite so respectable. I saw your papa once when he came to call, and I thought him nicer than my stepfather. But then I’m such a frivolous creature, Di, and am always thinking what I ought not to think.”

Nearly a year had passed since Diana’s return, and the girl’s life had been very monotonous during that time. She had stuck bravely to the abridgments and the juvenile scraps of — ologies, and had been altogether a model of propriety, sewing on such a number of strings and buttons during the period as can only be compassed by the maternal mind. Her existence had been by no means as joyless or desolate as such an existence is generally represented by the writer of fiction. There was plenty of life and bustle in the big prosperous boarding-school, if there was not much variety. There were small scandals and small intrigues; departures and arrivals; wonderful hampers of cake and wine to be divided among the elect of a fashionable dormitory — for there is as wide a difference between the tone and status of the bedrooms in a ladies’-school as between the squares of Berkeley and Bedford. There were breaking-up parties, and the free-and-easy idleness of the holidays, when a few dark-complexioned girls from the colonies, a yellow-haired damsel from the remote north of Scotland, and Miss Diana Paget, were wont to cluster round the fire in the smaller of the schoolrooms to tell ghost-stories or talk scandal in the gloaming.

It was a life which, taken with all its small hardships and petty annoyances, should have been as the life of Paradise compared to that which Diana had led with her father and Mr. Hawkehurst. Whether the girl fully appreciated the change from the Bohemianism of her late existence to the respectability of Hyde Lodge was a question which no one had asked of her. She had fits of despondency now and then, even in the midst of her duties, and was apt to fall into a sombre reverie over one of the abridgments, whereby she was neglectful of her pupils’ aspirates, and allowed Henry the Second to be made the poorer by the loss of an H, or Heliogabalus to be described by a name which that individual himself would have failed to recognise.

There were times when, in the midst of that shrill Babel, the schoolroom, Diana Paget heard the summer winds sighing in the pine-woods above Forêtdechêne, and fancied herself standing once more in that classic temple on whose plastered wall Valentine had once cut her initials with his penknife in a fantastical monogram, surmounted by a death’s-head and encircled by a serpent. She thought of that familiar companion very often, in spite of her juvenile pupils and the sewing-on of tapes and buttons. He had seemed to her a perpetual enigma and mystery when she was with him; and now that she was far away from him, he was more than ever an inscrutable creature. Was he altogether vile, she wondered, or was there some redeeming virtue in his nature? He had taken trouble to secure her escape from shame and disgrace, and in doing this he surely had performed a good action; but was it not just possible that he had taken this opportunity of getting rid of her because her presence was alike wearisome and inconvenient? She thought very bitterly of her fellow Bohemian when this view of his conduct presented itself to her; how heartlessly he had shuffled her off — how cruelly he had sent her out into the hard pitiless world, to find a shelter as best she might!

“What would have become of me if Priscilla had refused to take me in?” she asked herself. “I wonder whether Mr. Hawkehurst ever considered that.”

More than one letter had come to Diana from her old companion since her flight from the little Belgian watering-place. The first letter told her that her father had “tided over that business, and was in better feather than before the burst-up at the Hôtel d’Orange.” The letter was dated from Paris, but gave no information as to the present arrangements or future plans of the writer and his companion. Another letter, dated from the same place, but not from the same address, came to her six months afterwards, and anon another; and it was such a wonderful thing for Captain Paget to inhabit the same city for twelve months together, that Diana began to cherish faint hopes of some amendment in the scheme of her father’s life and of Valentine’s, since any improvement in her father’s position would involve an improvement in that of his protégé.

Miss Paget’s regard for her father was by no means an absorbing affection. The Captain had never cared to conceal his indifference for his only child, or pretended to think her anything but a nuisance and an encumbrance — a superfluous piece of luggage more difficult to dispose of than any other luggage, and altogether a stumbling-block in the stony path of a man who has to live by his wits. So perhaps it is scarcely strange that Diana did not think of her absent father with any passionate tenderness or sad yearning love. She thought of him very often; but her thoughts of him were painful and bitter. She thought still more often of his companion; and her thoughts of him were even more bitter.

The experiences of Diana Paget are not the experiences which make a pure or perfect woman. There are trials which chasten the heart and elevate the mind; but it is doubtful whether it can be for the welfare of any helpless, childish creature to be familiar with falsehood and chicanery, with debt and dishonour, from the earliest awakening of the intellect; to feel, from the age of six or seven, all the shame of a creature who is always eating food that will not be paid for, and lying on a bed out of which she may be turned at any moment with shrill reproaches and upbraidings; to hear her father abused and vilified by vulgar gossips over a tea-table, and to be reminded every day and every hour that she is an unprofitable encumbrance, a consumer of the bread of other people’s children, an intruder in the household of poverty, a child whose heritage is shame and dishonour. These things had hardened the heart of Captain Paget’s daughter. There had been no counteracting influence — no fond, foolish loving creature near at hand to save the girl from that perdition into which the child or woman who has never known what it is to be loved is apt to fall. For thirteen years of Diana’s life all love and tenderness, endearing words, caressing touches, fond admiring looks, had been utterly unknown to her. To sit in a room with a father who was busy writing letters, and who was wont to knit his brows peevishly if she stirred, or to mutter an oath if she spoke; to be sent to a pawnbroker’s in the gloaming with her father’s watch, and to be scolded and sworn at on her return if the money-lender had advanced a less sum than was expected on that security — do not compose the most delightful or improving experiences of a home life. But Diana could remember little of a more pleasant character respecting her existence during those brief periods when she was flung back upon her father’s hands, and while that gentleman was casting about for some new victim on whom to plant her.

At Hyde Lodge, for the first time, the girl knew what it was to be loved. Bright, impulsive Charlotte Halliday took a fancy to her, as the schoolgirl phrase goes, and clung to her with a fond confiding affection. It may be that the softening influence came too late, or that there was some touch of natural hardness and bitterness in Diana’s mind; for it is certain that Charlotte’s affection did not soften the girl’s heart or lessen her bitter consciousness of the wide difference between her own fortunes and those of the happier daughters whose fathers paid their debts. The very contrast between Charlotte’s position and her own may have counteracted the good influence. It was very easy for Charlotte to be generous and amiable. She had never been hounded from pillar to post by shrewish matrons who had no words too bitter for their unprofitable charge. She had never known what it was to rise up in the morning uncertain where she should lie down at night, or whether there would be any shelter at all for her hapless head; for who could tell that her father would be found at the lodging where he had last been heard of, and how should she obtain even workhouse hospitality, whose original parish was unknown to herself or her protector? To Charlotte these shameful experiences would have been as incomprehensible as the most abstruse theories of a metaphysician. Was it any wonder, then, if Charlotte was bright and womanly, and fond and tender — Charlotte, who had never been humiliated by the shabbiness of her clothes, and to whom the daily promenade had never been a shame and a degradation by reason of obvious decay in the heels of her boots?

“If your father would dress you decently, and supply you with proper boots, I could almost bring myself to keep you for nothing,” Priscilla had said to her reprobate kinsman’s daughter; “but the more one does for that man the less he will do himself; so the long and the short of it is, that you will have to go back to him, for I cannot consent to have such an expensive establishment as mine degraded by the shabbiness of a relation.”

Diana had been obliged to listen to such speeches as this very often during her first residence at Hyde Lodge, and then, perhaps, within a few minutes after Priscilla’s lecture was concluded, Charlotte Halliday would bound into the room, looking as fresh and bright as the morning, and dressed in silk that rustled with newness and richness. Keenly as Diana felt the difference between her friend’s fortune and her own, she did nevertheless in some manner return Charlotte’s affection. Her character was not to be altered all at once by this new atmosphere of love and tenderness; but she loved her generous friend and companion after her own fitful fashion, and defended her with passionate indignation if any other girl dared to hint the faintest disparagement of her graces or her virtues. She envied and loved her at the same time. She would accept Charlotte’s affection one day with unconcealed pleasure, and revolt against it on the next day as a species of patronage which stung her proud heart to the Quick.

“Keep your pity for people who ask you for it,” she had exclaimed once to poor bewildered Charlotte; “I am tired of being consoled and petted. Go and talk to your prosperous friends, Miss Halliday; I am sick to death of hearing about your new frocks, and your holidays, and the presents your mamma is always bringing you.”

And then when Charlotte looked at her friend with a sad perplexed face, Diana relented, and declared that she was a wicked discontented creature, unworthy of either pity or affection.

“I have had so much misery in my life, that I am very often inclined to quarrel with happy people without rhyme or reason, or only because they are happy,” she said in explanation of her impatient temper.

“But who knows what happiness may be waiting for you in the future, Di?” exclaimed Miss Halliday. “You will marry some rich man by-and-by, and forget that you ever knew what poverty was.”

“I wonder where the rich man is to come from who will marry Captain Paget’s daughter?” Diana asked contemptuously. “Never mind where he comes from; he will come, depend upon it. The handsome young prince with the palace by the Lake of Como will come to fall in love with my beautiful Diana, and then she will go and live at Como; and desert her faithful Charlotte, and live happy ever afterwards.”

“Don’t talk nonsense, Lotta,” cried Miss Paget. “You know what kind of fate lies before me as well as I do. I looked at myself this morning, as I was plaiting my hair before the glass — you know how seldom one gets a turn at the glass in the blue room — and I saw a dark, ugly, evil-minded-looking creature, whose face frightened me. I have been getting wicked and ugly ever since I was a child. An aquiline nose and black eyes will not make a woman a beauty; she wants happiness, and hope, and love, and all manner of things that I have never known, before she can be pretty.” “I have seen a beautiful woman sweeping a crossing,” said Charlotte doubtfully.

“Yes, but what sort of beauty was it? — a beauty that made you shudder. Don’t talk about these things, Charlotte; you only encourage me to be bitter and discontented. I daresay I ought to be very happy, when I remember that I have dinner every day, and shoes and stockings, and a bed to lie down upon at night; and I am happier, now that I work for my living, than I was in the old time, when my cousin was always grumbling about her unpaid bills. But my life is very dreary and empty; and when I look forward to the future, it seems like looking out upon some level plain that leads nowhere, but across which I must tramp on for ever and ever, until I drop down and die.”

It was something in this fashion that Miss Paget talked, as she sat in the garden with Charlotte Halliday at the close of the half-year. She was going to lose her faithful friend — the girl who, so much richer, and happier, and more amiable than herself, had yet clung to her so fondly; she was going to lose this tender companion, and she was more sorry for the loss than she cared to express.

“You must come and see us very often,” Charlotte said for the hundredth time; “mamma will be so glad to have you, for my sake; and my stepfather never interferes with our arrangements. O, Di, how I wish you would come and live with us altogether! Would you come, if I could manage to arrange it?”

“How could I come? What Quixotic nonsense you talk, Lotta!”

“Not at all, dear; you could come as a sort of companion for me, or a sort of companion for mamma. What does it matter how you come, if I can only have you? My life will be so dreary in that dreadful new-looking house, unless I have a companion I love. Will you come, Di? — only tell me you will come! I am sure Mr. Sheldon would not refuse, if I asked him to let you live with us. Will you come, dear? — yes or no. You would be glad to come, if you loved me.”

“And I do love you, Lotta, with all my heart,” answered Miss Paget, with unusual fervour; “but then the whole of my heart is not much. As to coming to live with you, of course it would be a hundred thousand times pleasanter than the life I lead here; but it is not to be supposed that Mr. Sheldon will consent to have a stranger in his house just because his impulsive stepdaughter chooses to take a fancy to a schoolfellow who isn’t worthy of half her affection.”

“Let me be the judge of that. As to my stepfather, I am almost sure of his consent. You don’t know how indulgent he is to me; which shows what a wicked creature I must be not to like him. You shall come to us, Diana, and be my sister; and we will play and sing our pet duets together, and be as happy as two birds in a cage, or a good deal happier — for I never could quite understand the ecstatic delight of perpetual hempseed and an occasional peck at a dirty lump of sugar.”

After this there came all the bustle of packing and preparation for departure, and a kind of saturnalia prevailed at Hyde Lodge — a saturnalia which terminated with the breaking-up ball: and who among the crowd of fair young dancers so bright as Charlotte Halliday, dressed in the schoolgirl’s festal robes of cloud-like muslin, and with her white throat set off by a black ribbon and a gold locket?

Diana sat in a corner of the schoolroom towards the close of the evening, very weary of her share in the festival, and watched her friend, half in sadness, half in envy.

“Perhaps if I were like her, he would love me,” she thought.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31