Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Diana Finds a New Home.

The holidays at Hyde Lodge brought at least repose for Diana Paget. The little ones had gone home, with the exception of two or three young colonists, and even they had perpetual liberty from lessons; so Diana had nothing to do but sit in the shady garden, reading or thinking, in the drowsy summer afternoons. Priscilla Paget had departed with the chief of the teachers for a seaside holiday; other governesses had gone to their homes; and but for the presence of an elderly Frenchwoman, who slept through one half of the day, and wrote letters to her kindred during the other half, Diana would have been the only responsible person in the deserted habitation.

She did not complain of her loneliness, or envy the delights of those who had departed. She was very glad to be quite alone, free to think her own thoughts, free to brood over those unforgotten years in which she had wandered over the face of the earth with her father and Valentine Hawkehurst. The few elder girls remaining at the Lodge thought Miss Paget unsociable because she preferred a lonely corner in the gardens and some battered old book of namby-pamby stories to the delights of their society, and criticised her very severely as they walked listlessly to and fro upon the lawn with big garden-hats, and arms entwined about each other’s waists.

Alas for Diana, the battered book was only an excuse for solitude, and for a morbid indulgence in her own sad thoughts! She had lived the life of unblemished respectability for a year, and looking back now at the Bohemian wanderings, she regretted those days of humiliation and misery, and sighed for the rare delights of that disreputable past! Yes, she had revolted against the degraded existence; and now she was sorry for having lost its uncertain pleasures, its fitful glimpses of sunshine. Was that true which Valentine had said, that no man can eat beef and mutton every day of his life; that it is better to be unutterly miserable one day and uproariously happy the next, than to tread one level path of dull content? Miss Paget began to think that there had been some reason in her old comrade’s philosophy; for she found the level path very dreary. She let her thoughts wander whither they would in this quiet holiday idleness, and they went back to the years which she had spent with her father. She thought of winter evenings in London when Valentine had taken her the round of the theatres, and they had sat together in stifling upper boxes — she pleased, he critical, and with so much to say to each other in the pauses of the performance. How kind he had been to her; how good, how brotherly! And then the pleasant walk home, through crowded noisy thoroughfares, and anon by long lines of quiet streets, in which they used to look up at the lighted windows of houses where parties were being given, and sometimes stop to listen to the music and watch the figures of the dancers flitting across the blinds. She thought of the journeys she had travelled with her father and Valentine by land and sea; the lonely moonlight watches on the decks of steamers; the long chill nights in railway-carriages under the feeble glimmer of an oil-lamp, and how she and Valentine had beguiled the tedious hours with wild purposeless talk while Captain Paget slept. She remembered the strange cities which she and her father’s protégé had looked at side by side; he with a calm listlessness of manner, which might either be real or assumed, but which never varied; she with an inward tremor of excitement and surprise. They had been very happy together, this lonely unprotected girl and the reckless adventurer. If his manner to her had been fitful, it had been sometimes dangerously, fatally kind. She looked back now, and remembered the days which she had spent with him, and knew that all the pleasures possible in a prosperous and successful life could never bring for her such delight as she had known in the midst of her wanderings; though shame and danger lurked at every corner, and poverty, disguised in that tawdry masquerade habit in which the swindler dresses it, accompanied her wherever she went.

She had been happy with him because she had loved him. That close companionship, sisterly and brotherly though it had seemed, had been fatal for the lonely and friendless daughter of Horatio Paget. In her desolation she had clung to the one creature who was kind to her, who did not advertise his disdain for herself and her sex, or openly avow that she was a nuisance and an encumbrance. Every slight put upon her by her father had strengthened the chain that bound her to Valentine Hawkehurst; and as the friendship between them grew closer day by day, until all her thoughts and fancies took their colour from his, it seemed a matter of course that he should love her, and she never doubted his feelings or questioned her own. There had been much in his conduct to justify her belief that she was beloved; so this inexperienced, untutored girl may surely be forgiven if she rested her faith in that fancied affection, and looked forward to some shadowy future in which she and Valentine would be man and wife, all in all to each other, free from the trammels of Captain Paget’s elaborate schemes, and living honestly, somehow or other, by means of literature, or music, or pen-and-ink caricatures, or some of those liberal arts which have always been dear to the children of Bohemia. They would have lodgings in some street near the Thames, and go to a theatre or a concert every evening, and spend long summer days in suburban parks or on suburban commons, he lying on the grass smoking, she talking to him or reading to him, as his fancy might dictate. Before her twentieth birthday, the proudest woman is apt to regard the man she loves as a grand and superior creature; and there had been a certain amount of reverential awe mingled with Diana’s regard for Mr. Hawkehurst, scapegrace and adventurer though he was.

Little by little that bright girlish dream had faded away. Fancy’s enchanted palace had been shattered into a heap of shapeless ruin by those accidental scraps of hard worldly wisdom with which Valentine had pelted the fairy fabric. He a man to love, or to marry for love! Why, he talked like some hardened world-weary sinner who had done with every human emotion. The girl shuddered as she heard him. She had loved him, and believed in his love. She had fancied a tender meaning in the voice which softened when it spoke to her, a pensive earnestness in the dark eyes which looked at her; but just when the voice had seemed softest and sweetest, the pensive eyes most eloquently earnest, the adventurer’s manner had changed all at once, and for ever. He had grown hard, and cold, and indifferent. He had scarcely tried to conceal the fact that the girl’s companionship bored and wearied him. He had yawned in her face, and had abandoned himself to moody abstraction when accident obliged him to be alone with her. Miss Paget’s pride had been equal to the occasion. Mary Anne Kepp would have dissolved into tears at the first unkind word from the lips of her beloved; but Mary Anne Kepp’s daughter, with the blood of the Cromie Pagets in her veins, was quite a different person. She returned Mr. Hawkehurst’s indifference with corresponding disregard. If his manner was cold as a bleak autumn, hers was icy as a severe winter; only now and then, when she was very tired of her joyless existence, her untutored womanhood asserted itself, and she betrayed the real state of her feelings — betrayed herself as she had done on her last night at Forêtdechêne, when she and Valentine had looked down at the lighted windows shining dimly through the purple of the summer night. She looked back at the past now in the quiet of the school-garden, and tried to remember how miserable she had been, what agonies of despair she had suffered, how brief had been her delights, how bitter her disappointments. She tried to remember what tortures she had suffered from that wasted passion, that useless devotion. She tried to rejoice in the consciousness of the peace and respectability of her present life; but she could not. That passionate yearning for the past possessed her so strongly. She could remember nothing except that she had been with him. She had seen his face, she had heard his voice; and now how long and weary the time might be before she could again see that one beloved face or hear the dear familiar voice! The brightest hope she had in these midsummer holidays was the hope of a letter from him; and even that might be the prelude of disappointment. She wrestled with herself, and tried to exorcise those ghosts of memory which haunted her by day and wove themselves into her dreams by night; but they were not to be laid at rest. She hated her folly; but her folly was stronger than herself.

For three weeks Diana Paget had no companions but her sorrowful memories — her haunting shadows; but at the end of that time the stagnant mill-pond of her life was suddenly ruffled — the dull course of existence was disturbed by the arrival of two letters. She found them lying by her plate upon the breakfast-table one bright July morning; and while she was yet far away from the table she could see that one of the envelopes bore a foreign stamp, and was directed by the hand of Valentine Hawkehurst. She seated herself at the table in a delicious flutter of emotion, and tore open that foreign envelope, while the French governess poured out the tea, and while the little group of schoolgirls nudged one another and watched her eager face with insolent curiosity.

The first letter contained only a few lines.

“MY DEAR DIANA,” wrote the young man, “your father has decided on returning to London, where I believe he really intends to make a respectable start, if he can only get the opening and the help he wants. I know you will be glad to hear this. I don’t exactly say where we shall take up our quarters; but the Captain will of course come to see you; and if I can chasten my outward semblance sufficiently to venture within the sacred precincts of a lady’s school, I shall come with him. Direct to the old address, if you write before the end of the month, and believe me, as always, your friend.” “VALENTINE.”

The second letter was in Charlotte Halliday’s big bold hand, and was frank, impetuous, and loving as the girl herself.

“MY OWN DEAREST DI— It is all arranged,” wrote Miss Halliday, dashing at once into the heart of the subject. “I talked mamma over the very first day after my return, and then there was nothing more to be done than to talk over Mr. Sheldon. Of course there was just a little difficulty in that, for he is so awfully practical; and he wanted to know why I wanted a companion, and what use you would be in the house; as if the very last thing one required in a companion was companionship. I’m almost afraid to tell you the iniquitous fables I invented about your extreme usefulness; your genius for millinery, and the mints of money you would save by making up mamma’s flimsy little caps; your taste for dress-making, &c. &c. &c. You are the cleverest creature in the world, you know, Di; for you must remember how you altered, that green silk dress for me when Miss Person had made me a square-shouldered fright. So, after a great deal of humming, and haing, and argufication —is there such a word as ‘argufication,’ I wonder? — my stepfather said that if my heart was set upon having you, and if I thought you would be useful, you might come to us; but that he could not afford to give you any salary, and that if you wanted a new dress now and then, I must buy it for you out of my own allowance; and I will, darling, if you will only come and be my friend and sister. My life is dreadfully dull without you. I walk up and down the stiff little gravel paths, and stare at the geraniums and calceolarias. Mariana might have been dreary in her moated grange; but I daresay the Lincolnshire flowers grew wild and free, and she was spared the abomination of gaudy little patches of red and yellow, and waving ribbons of blue and white, which constitute the glory of modern gardening. Do come to me, dear. I have no one to talk to, and nothing to do. Mamma is a dear good affectionate soul; but she and I don’t understand each other. I don’t care for her twittering little birds, and she doesn’t care for my whims and fancies. I have read novels until I am tired. I am not allowed to go out by myself, and mamma can scarcely walk to Kensington-gardens without sinking under the exertion. We drive out sometimes; but I am sick to death of crawling slowly up and down by the Serpentine staring at people’s bonnets. I might enjoy it, perhaps, if I had you with me to make fun out of some of the bonnets. The house is very comfortable; but it always seems to me unpleasantly like some philanthropic institution in miniature. I long to scratch the walls, or break the windows; and I begin to understand the feelings of those unhappy paupers who tear up their clothes: they get utterly tired of their stagnation, you see, and must do something wicked and rebellious rather than do nothing at all. You will take pity upon my forlorn state, won’t you, Di? I shall come to Hyde Lodge to-morrow afternoon with mamma, to hear your ulti — what’s its name? — and in the meanwhile, and for ever afterwards, believe me to be your devoted and unchanging LOTTA.”

Diana Paget’s eyes grew dim as she read this letter.

“I love her very dearly,” she thought, “but not one hundred-fold as much as I ought to love her.”

And then she went back to Mr. Hawkehurst’s epistle, and read and re-read its half-dozen lines, wondering when he would come to London, and whether she would see him when he came. To see him again! The thought of that possibility seemed like a spot of vivid light, which dazzled her eyes and made them blind to anything around or beyond it. As for this offer of a strange home in the household of Mr. Sheldon, it seemed to her a matter of so very little importance where she went or what became of her, that she was quite willing to let other people decide her existence. Anything would be better than the monotony of Hyde Lodge. If Valentine Hawkehurst came to see her at Mr. Sheldon’s house, he would be permitted to see her alone, most likely, and it would be something like the old times; whereas at the Lodge Priscilla Paget or one of the governesses would undoubtedly be present at any interview between Diana and her old friend, and the real Valentine would be hidden under the semblance of a respectable young man, with very little to say for himself. Perhaps this one thought exercised considerable influence over Miss Paget’s decision. She wanted so much to see Valentine alone, to know whether he had changed, to see his face at the first moment of meeting, and to discover, if possible, the solution of that enigma which was the grand mystery of her life — that one perpetual question which was always repeating itself in her brain — whether he was altogether cold and indifferent, or if there was not some hidden warmth, some secret tenderness beneath that repelling outward seeming.

In the afternoon Miss Halliday called with Mrs. Sheldon, and there was a long discussion about Diana Paget’s future life. Georgy abandoned herself as unhesitatingly to the influence of her daughter as she did to that of her husband, and had been brought to think that it would be the most delightful thing in the world to have Miss Paget for a useful companion.

“And will you really make my caps, dear?” she said, when she had grown at her ease with Diana. “Miss Terly in the Bayswater-road charges me so much for the simplest little lace head-dress; and though Mr. Sheldon is very good about those sort of things, I know he sometimes thinks my bills rather high.”

Diana was very indifferent about her future, and the heart must have been very hard which could have resisted Charlotte’s tender pleading; so it was ultimately decided that Miss Paget should write to her kinswoman to describe the offer that had been made to her of a new home, and to inquire if her services could be conveniently dispensed with at Hyde Lodge. After which decision Charlotte embraced her friend with enthusiasm, and departed, bearing off Mrs. Sheldon to the carriage which awaited them at the gates of Priscilla Paget’s umbrageous domain.

Diana sighed as she went back to the empty schoolroom. Even Charlotte’s affection could not altogether take the sting out of dependence. To go into a strange house amongst strange people, and to hold a place in it only on the condition of being perpetually useful and unfailingly good-tempered and agreeable, is scarcely the pleasantest prospect which this world can offer to a proud and beautiful woman. Diana remembered her bright vision of Bohemianism in a lodging near the Strand. It would be very delightful to ride on sufferance in Mrs. Sheldon’s carriage, no doubt; but O, how much pleasanter it would have been to sit by Valentine Hawkehurst in a hansom cab spinning along the road to Greenwich or Richmond!

She had promised to despatch her letter to Priscilla by that afternoon’s post, and she kept her promise. The reply came by return of post, and was very kind. Priscilla advised her by all means to accept Miss Halliday’s offer, which would give her a much better position than that which she occupied at Hyde Lodge. She would have time to improve herself, no doubt, Priscilla said, and might be able to hope for something still better in the course of two or three years; “for you must look the world straight in the face, Diana,” wrote the schoolmistress, “as I did before I was your age; and make up your mind to rely upon your own exertions, since you know what your father is, and how little you have to hope for from him. As you are to have no salary with the Sheldons, and will no doubt be expected to make a good appearance, I shall do what I can to help you with your wardrobe.”

This letter decided the fate of Captain Paget’s daughter. A week after Miss Halliday’s visit to Hyde Lodge a hack cab carried Diana and all her earthly possessions to the Lawn, where Charlotte received her with open arms, and where she was inducted into a neatly furnished bedchamber adjoining that of her friend. Mr. Sheldon scrutinised her keenly from under the shadow of his thick black brows when he came home to dinner. He treated her with a stiff kind of politeness during the orderly progress of the meal; and once, when he looked at her, he was surprised to find that she was contemplating him with an expression of mingled wonder and reverence.

He was the first eminently respectable man whom Miss Paget had ever encountered in familiar intercourse, and she was regarding him attentively, as an individual with scientific tastes might regard some natural curiosity.

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