Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

Charlotte Prophesies Rain.

Mr. Hawkehurst had no excuse for going to the Lawn before his departure; but the stately avenues between Bayswater and Kensington are free to any man; and, having nothing better to do, Valentine put a shabby little volume of Balzac in his pocket, and spent his last morning in town under the shadow of the mighty elms, reading one of the great Honoré‘s gloomiest romances, while the autumn leaves drifted round him, dancing fairy measures on the grass, and scraping and scuffling on the gravel, and while children with hoops and children with balls scampered and screamed in the avenue by which he sat. He was not particularly absorbed by his book. He had taken it haphazard from the tattered collection of cheap editions which he carried about with him in his wanderings, ignominiously stuffed into the bottom of a portmanteau, amongst boots and clothes-brushes and disabled razors.

“I’m sick of them all,” he thought; “the De Beauseants, and Rastignacs, the German Jews, and the patrician beauties, and the Israelitish Circes of the Rue Taitbout, and the sickly self-sacrificing provincial angels, and the ghastly vieilles filles. Had that man ever seen such a woman as Charlotte, I wonder — a bright creature, all smiles and sunshine, and sweet impulsive tenderness; an angel who can be angelic without being poitri-naire, and whose amiability never degenerates into scrofula? There is an odour of the dissecting-room pervading all my friend Balzac’s novels, and I don’t think he was capable of painting a fresh, healthy nature. What a mass of disease he would have made Lucy Ashton, and with what dismal relish he would have dilated upon the physical sufferings of Amy Robsart in the confinement of Cumnor Hall! No, my friend Honoré, you are the greatest and grandest of painters of the terrible school; but the time comes when a man sighs for something brighter and better than your highest type of womanhood.”

Mr. Hawkehurst put his book in his pocket, and abandoned himself to meditation, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his face buried in his hands, unconscious of the trundling hoops and screaming children.

“She is better and fairer than the fairest heroine of a novel,” he thought. “She is like Heloise. Yes, the quaint old French fits her to a nicety:

‘Elle ne fu oscure ne brune,

Ains fu clere comme la lune,

Envers qui les autres estoiles

Ressemblent petites chandoiles.’

Mrs. Browning must have known such a woman:

‘Her air had a meaning, her movements a grace;

You turned from the fairest to gaze on her face;’

and yet

‘She was not as pretty as women I know.’

Was she not?” mused the lover. “Is she not? Yes,” he cried suddenly, as he saw a scarlet petticoat gleaming in the distance, and a bright young face under a little black turban hat — prettiest and most bewitching of all feminine headgear, let fashion change as it may. “Yes,” he cried, “she is the loveliest creature in the world, and I love her to distraction.” He rose, and went to meet the loveliest creature in the world, whose earthly name was Charlotte Halliday. She was walking with Diana Paget, who, to more sober judges, might have seemed the handsomer woman of the two. Alas for Diana! the day had been when Valentine Hawkehurst considered her very handsome, and had need to fight a hard battle with himself in order not to fall in love with her. He had been conqueror in that struggle of prudence and honour against nascent love, only to be vanquished utterly by Charlotte’s brighter charms and Charlotte’s sunnier nature.

The two girls shook hands with Mr. Hawkehurst. An indifferent observer might have perceived that the colour faded from the face of one, while a blush mounted to the cheeks of the other. But Valentine did not see the sudden pallor of Diana’s face — he had eyes only for Charlotte’s blushes. Nor did Charlotte herself perceive the sudden change in her dearest friend’s countenance. And that perhaps is the bitterest sting of all. It is not enough that some must weep while others play; the mourners must weep unnoticed, unconsoled; happiness is so apt to be selfish.

Of course the conversation was the general sort of thing under the given circumstances — just a little more inane and disjointed than the ordinary small talk of people who meet each other in their walks abroad.

“How do you do, Mr. Hawkehurst? — Very well, thank you. — Mamma is very well; at least no, not quite well; she has one of her headaches this morning. She is rather subject to headache, you know; and the canaries sing so loud. Don’t the canaries sing abominably loud, Diana? — loudly they would have made me say at Hyde Lodge; but it is only awfully clever people who know when to use adverbs.”

And Miss Halliday having said all this in a hurried and indeed almost breathless manner, stopped suddenly, blushing more deeply than at first, and painfully aware of her blushes. She looked imploringly at Diana; but Diana would not come to the rescue; and this morning Mr. Hawkehurst seemed as a man struck with sudden dumbness.

There followed presently a little discussion of the weather. Miss Halliday was possessed by the conviction that there would be rain — possibly not immediate rain, but before the afternoon inevitable rain. Valentine thought not; was, indeed, positively certain there would be no rain; had a vague idea that the wind was in the north; and quoted a dreary Joe–Millerism to prove the impossibility of rain while the wind came from that quarter. Miss Halliday and Mr. Hawkehurst held very firmly to their several opinions, and the argument was almost a quarrel — one of those little playful quarrels which form some of the most delicious phases of a flirtation. “I would not mind wagering a fortune — if I had one — on the certainty of rain,” cried Charlotte with kindling eyes.

“And I would not shrink from staking my existence on the conviction that there will be no rain,” exclaimed Valentine, looking with undisguised tenderness at the glowing animated face.

Diana Paget took no part in that foolish talk about the possibilities of the weather. She walked silently by the side of her friend Charlotte, as far away from her old comrade, it seemed to her, as if the Atlantic’s wild waste of waters had stretched between them. The barrier that divided them was only Charlotte; but then Miss Paget knew too well that Charlotte in this case meant all the world.

The ice had been broken by that discussion as to rain or no rain, and Miss Halliday and Mr. Hawkehurst talked pleasantly for some time, while Diana still walked silently by her friend’s side, only speaking when compelled to do so. The strangeness of her manner would have been observed by any one not utterly absorbed by that sublime egotism called love; but Valentine and Charlotte were so absorbed, and had no idea that Miss Paget was anything but the most delightful and amusing of companions.

They had taken more than one turn in the broad avenue, when Charlotte asked Mr. Hawkehurst some question about a piece which was speedily to be played at one of the theatres.

“I do so much want to see this new French actress,” she said. “Do you think there is any possibility of obtaining orders, Mr. Hawkehurst? You know what a dislike Mr. Sheldon has to paying for admission to a theatre, and my pocket-money was exhausted three weeks ago, or I wouldn’t think of giving you any trouble about it.”

Philosophers have observed that in the life of the plainest woman there is one inspired moment in which she becomes beautiful. Perhaps it is when she is asking a favour of some masculine victim — for women have a knack of looking their prettiest on such occasions. Charlotte Halliday’s pleading glance and insinuating tone were irresistible. Valentine would have given a lien on every shilling of his three thousand pounds rather than disappoint her, if gold could purchase the thing she craved. It happened fortunately that his occasional connection with the newspapers made it tolerably easy for him to obtain free admissions to theatres.

“Do not speak of the trouble; there will be no trouble. The orders shall be sent you, Miss Halliday.”

“O, thanks — a thousand thanks! Would it be possible to get a box, and for us all to go together?” asked the fair encroacher; “mamma is so fond of the theatre. She used to go often with poor papa, at York and in London. And you are such an excellent critic, Mr. Hawkehurst, and it would be so nice to have you with us — wouldn’t it, Di? You know what a good critic Mr. Hawkehurst is?”

“Yes,” answered Diana; “we used to go to theatres together very often.”

This was a cry of anguish wrung from a bleeding heart; but to the two absorbed egotists it seemed the simplest of casual observations.

“Do you think you could manage to get a box, Mr. Hawkehurst?” asked the irresistible enslaver, putting her head on one side, in a manner which, for the protection of weak mankind, should be made penal.

“I will try my uttermost,” answered Valentine.

“O, then I’m sure you will succeed. And we shall be amused by your deliciously bitter criticisms between the acts. One would think you had studied under Douglas Jerrold.”

“You do me too much honour. But before the new piece is produced I shall have left London, and shall not have the pleasure of accompanying you to the theatre.”

“You are going to leave London?”

“Yes, to-morrow.”

“So soon!” cried Charlotte, with undisguised regret; “and for a long time, I suppose?” she added, very mournfully.

Miss Paget gave a little start, and a feverish flush lit up her face for one brief moment.

“I am glad he is going,” she thought; “I am very glad he is going.”

“Yes,” said Valentine, in reply to Charlotte’s inquiry, “I am likely to be away for a considerable time; indeed my plans are at present so vague, that I cannot tell when I may come back to town.”

He could not resist the temptation to speak of his absence as if it were likely to be the affair of a lifetime. He could not refrain from the delight of sounding the pure depths of that innocent young heart. But when the tender gray eyes looked at him, so sweet in their sudden sadness, his heart melted, and he could trifle with her unconscious love no longer.

“I am going away on a matter of business,” he said, “which may or may not occupy some time; but I don’t suppose I shall be many weeks away from London.”

Charlotte gave a little sigh of relief.

“And are you going very far?” she asked.

“Some distance; yes — a — hundred and fifty miles or so,” Valentine answered very lamely. It had been an easy thing to invent an ancient aunt Sarah for the mystification of the astute Horatio; but Valentine Hawkehurst could not bring himself to tell Charlotte Halliday a deliberate falsehood. The girl looked at him wonderingly, as he gave that hesitating answer to her question. She was at a loss to understand why he did not tell her the place to which he was going, and the nature of the business that took him away.

She was very sorry that he was going to disappear out of her life for a time so uncertain, that while on the one hand it might be only a few weeks, it might on the other hand be for ever. The life of a young English damsel, in a prim villa at Bayswater, with a very commonplace mother and a practical stockbroking stepfather, is rather a narrow kind of existence; and to such a damsel the stranger whose hand lifts the curtain that shrouds new and brighter worlds is apt to become a very important personage, especially when the stranger happens to be young and handsome, and invested with that dash of Bohemianism which to artless and sentimental girlhood has such a flavour of romance.

Charlotte was very silent as she retraced her steps along the broad gravel walk. As they drew near the Bayswater-gate she looked at her watch. It was nearly one o’clock, and she had promised Mrs. Sheldon to be home at one for luncheon, and afterwards shopping.

“I’m afraid we must hurry home, Di,” she said.

“I am quite ready to go,” answered Miss Paget promptly. “Good-bye, Valentine.”

“Good-bye, Diana; good-bye, Miss Halliday.”

Mr. Hawkehurst shook hands with both young ladies; but shaking hands with Charlotte was a very slow process compared to the same performance with Diana.

“Good-bye,” he repeated, in a lingering tone; and then, after standing for some moments silent and irresolute, with his hat in his hand, he put it on suddenly and hurried away.

The two girls had walked a few steps towards the gate when Charlotte stopped before a stony-looking alcove, which happened at this nursery-dinner-hour to be empty.

“I’m so tired, Di,” she said, and went into the alcove, where she sat down to rest. She had a little veil attached to her turban hat — a little veil which she now drew over her face. The tears gathered slowly in her eyes and fell through that flimsy morsel of lace with which she would fain have hidden her childish sorrow. The tears gathered and fell on her lap as she sat in silence, pretending not to cry. This much rain at least was there to justify her prediction, uttered in such foolish gaiety of heart half an hour before.

Miss Halliday’s eyes were undimmed by tears? when she went back to the gothic villa; but she had a feeling that some great sorrow had come upon her — a vague idea that the last lingering warmth and brightness of summer had faded all in a moment, and that chill gray winter had closed in upon Bayswater without any autumnal interval. What was it that she had lost? Only the occasional society of a young man with a handsome pale face, a little haggard and wan from the effect of dissipated habits and a previous acquaintance with care and difficulty — only the society of a penniless Bohemian who had a certain disreputable cleverness and a dash of gloomy sentimentality, which the schoolgirl mistook for genius. But then he was the first man whose eyes had ever softened with a mysterious tenderness as they looked at her — the first whose voice had grown faintly tremulous when it syllabled her name.

There was some allusion to Mr. Hawkehurst’s departure in the course of dinner, and Philip Sheldon expressed some surprise.

“Going to leave town?” he said.

“Yes, papa,” Charlotte answered; “he is going a long way into the country — a hundred and fifty miles, he said.”

“Did he tell you where he was going?”

“No; he seemed unwilling to mention the place. He only said something about a hundred and fifty miles.”

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