Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

Christmas Peace.

Valentine Hawkehurst did not make his appearance at the Lawn on Christmas-eve. He devoted that evening to the service of his old ally. He performed all friendly offices for the departing Captain, dined with him very pleasantly in Regent-street, and accompanied him to the London-bridge terminus, where he beheld the voyager comfortably seated in a second-class carriage of the night-train for Newhaven.

Mr. Hawkehurst had seen the Captain take a through ticket for Rouen, and he saw the train leave the terminus. This he held to be ocular demonstration of the fact that Captain Paget was really going to the Gallic Manchester.

“That sort of customer is so uncommonly slippery,” the young man said to himself as he left the station; “nothing but the evidence of my own eyes would have convinced me of my friend’s departure. How pure and fresh the London atmosphere seems now that the perfume of Horatio Paget is out of it! I wonder what he is going to do at Rouen? Very little good, I daresay. But why should I wonder about him, or trouble myself about him? He is gone, and I have set myself free from the trammels of the past.”

The next day was Christmas-day. Mr. Hawkehurst recited scraps of Milton’s glorious hymn as he made his morning toilet. He was very happy. It was the first Christmas morning on which he had ever awakened with this sense of supreme happiness, or with the consciousness that the day was brighter, or grander, or more holy than other days. It seemed to him to-day, more than ever, that he was indeed a regenerate creature, purified by the influence of a good woman’s love.

He looked back at his past existence, and the vision of many Christmas-days arose before him: a Christmas in Paris, amidst unutterable rain and mud; a Christmas-night spent in roaming the Boulevards, and in the consumption of cognac and tobacco at a third-rate café; a Christmas in Germany; more than one Christmas in the Queen’s Bench; one especially dreary Christmas in a long bare ward at Whitecross-street — how many varied scenes and changing faces arose before his mental vision associated with that festive time! And yet among them all there was not one on which there shone the faintest glimmer of that holy light which makes the common holiday a sacred season.

It was a pleasant thing to breakfast without the society of the brilliant Horatio, whose brilliancy was apt to appear somewhat ghastly at that early period of the morning. It was pleasant to loiter over the meal, now meditating on the happy future, now dipping into a tattered copy of Southey’s “Doctor;” with the consciousness that the winds and waves had by this time wafted Captain Paget to a foreign land.

Valentine was to spend the whole of Christmas-day with Charlotte and her kindred. He was to accompany them to a fashionable church in the morning, to walk with them after church, to dine and tell ghost-stories in the evening. It was to be his first day as a recognised member of that pleasant family at Bayswater; and in the fulness of his heart he felt affectionately disposed to all his adopted relations; even to Mr. Sheldon, whose very noble conduct had impressed him strongly, in spite of the bitter sneers and covert slanders of George. Charlotte had told her lover that her stepfather was a very generous and disinterested person, and that there was a secret which she would have been glad to tell him, had she not been pledged to hold it inviolate, that would have gone far to place Mr. Sheldon in a very exalted light before the eyes of his future son-in-law.

And then Miss Halliday had nodded and smiled, and had informed her lover, with a joyous little laugh, that he should have a horse to ride, and an edition of Grote’s “Greece” bound in dark-brown calf with bevelled edges, when they were married; this work being one which the young author had of late languished to possess.

“Dear foolish Lotta, I fear there will be a new history of Greece, based on new theories, before that time comes,” said the lover.

“O no, indeed; that time will come very soon. See how industriously you work, and how well you succeed. The magazine people will soon give you thirty pounds a month. Or who knows that you may not write some book that will make you suddenly famous, like Byron, or the good-natured fat little printer who wrote those long, long, long novels that no one reads nowadays?”

Influenced by Charlotte’s hints about her stepfather, Mr. Hawkehurst’s friendly feeling for that gentleman grew stronger, and the sneers and innuendoes of the lawyer ceased to have the smallest power over him.

“The man is such a thorough-going schemer himself, that he cannot bring himself to believe in another man’s honesty,” thought Mr. Hawkehurst, while meditating upon his experience of the two brothers. “So far as I have had any dealings with Philip Sheldon, I have found him straightforward enough. I can imagine no hidden motive for his conduct in relation to Charlotte. The test of his honesty will be the manner in which he is acted upon by Charlotte’s position as claimant of a great fortune. Will he throw me overboard, I wonder? or will my dear one believe me an adventurer and fortune-hunter? Ah, no, no, no; I do not think in all the complications of life there could come about a state of events which would cause my Charlotte to doubt me. There is no clairvoyance so unerring as true love.”

Mr. Hawkehurst had need of such philosophy as this to sustain him in the present crisis of his life. He was blest with a pure delight which excelled his wildest dreams of happiness; but he was not blest with any sense of security as to the endurance of that exalted state of bliss.

Mr. Sheldon would learn Charlotte’s position, would doubtless extort from his brother the history of those researches in which Valentine had been engaged; and then, what then? Alas! hereupon arose incalculable dangers and perplexities.

Might not the stockbroker, as a man of the world, take a sordid view of the whole transaction, and consider Valentine in the light of a shameless adventurer, who had traded on his secret knowledge in the hope of securing a rich wife? Might he not reveal all to Charlotte, and attempt to place her lover before her in this most odious aspect? She would not believe him base; her faith would be unshaken, her love unchanged; but it was odious, it was horrible, to think that her ears should be sullied, her tender heart fluttered, by the mere suggestion of such baseness.

It was during the Christmas-morning sermon that Mr. Hawkehurst permitted his mind to be disturbed by these reflections. He was sitting next his betrothed, and had the pleasure of contemplating her fair girlish face, with the rosy lips half parted in reverent attention as she looked upward to her pastor. After church there was the walk home to the Lawn: and during this rapturous promenade Valentine put away from him all shadow of doubt and fear, in order to bask in the full sunshine of his Charlotte’s presence. Her pretty gloved hand rested confidingly on his arm, and the supreme privilege of carrying a dainty blue-silk umbrella and an ivory-bound church-service was awarded him. With what pride he accepted the duty of convoying his promised wife over the muddy crossings! Those brief journeys seemed to him in a manner typical of their future lives. She was to travel dry-shod over the miry ways of this world, supported by his strong arm. How fondly he surveyed her toilet! and what a sudden interest he felt in the fashions, that had until lately seemed so vulgar and frivolous!

“I will never denounce the absurdity of those little bonnets again, Lotta,” he cried; “that conglomeration of black velvet and maiden’s-hair fern is divine. Do you know that in some places they call that fern Maria’s hair, and hold it sacred to the mother of Him who was born to-day? so you see there is an artistic fitness in your head-dress. Yes, your bonnet is delicious, darling; and though the diminutive size of that velvet jacket would lead me to suppose you had borrowed it from some juvenile sister, it seems the very garment of all garments best calculated to render you just one hair’s-breadth nearer perfection than you were made by Nature.”

“Valentine, don’t be ridiculous!” giggled the young lady.

“How can I help being ridiculous? Your presence acts upon my nerves like laughing-gas. Ah, you do not know what cares and perplexities I have to make me serious. Charlotte,” exclaimed the young man, with sudden energy, “do you think you could ever come to distrust me?”

“Valentine! Do I think I shall ever be Queen of England? One thing is quite as likely as the other.”

“My dear angel, if you will only believe in me always, there is no power upon earth that can make us unhappy. Suppose you found yourself suddenly possessed of a great fortune, Charlotte; what would you do with it?”

“I would buy you a library as good as that in the British Museum; and then you would not want to spend the whole of your existence in Great Russell-street.”

“But if you had a great fortune, Lotta, don’t you think you would be very much disposed to leave me to plod on at my desk in Great Russell-street? Possessed of wealth, you would begin to languish for position; and you would allow Mr. Sheldon to bring you some suitor who could give you a name and a rank in society worthy of an angelic creature with a hundred thousand pounds or so.”

“I should do nothing of the kind. I do not care for money. Indeed, I should be almost sorry to be very rich.”

“Why, dearest?”

“Because, if I were very rich, we could not live in the cottage at Wimbledon, and I could not make lemon cheese-cakes for your dinner.”

“My own true-hearted darling!” cried Valentine; “the taint of worldliness can never touch your pure spirit.”

They were at the gates of Mr. Sheldon’s domain by this time. Diana and Georgy had walked behind the lovers, and had talked a little about the sermon, and a good deal about the bonnets; poor Diana doing her very uttermost to feign an interest in the finery that had attracted Mrs. Sheldon’s wandering gaze.

“Well, I should have thought you couldn’t fail to see it,” said the elder lady, as they approached the gate; “a leghorn, very small, with holly-berries and black ribbon — quite French, you know, and so stylish. I was thinking, if I had my Tuscan cleaned and altered, it might ——” And here the conversation became general, as the family party entered the drawing-room, where Mr. Sheldon was reading his paper by a roaring fire.

“Talking about the bonnets, as per usual,” said the stockbroker. “What an enormous amount of spiritual benefit you women must derive from church-going! — Consols have fallen another eighth since Tuesday afternoon, George,” added Mr. Sheldon, addressing himself to his brother, who was standing on the hearth-rug, with his elbow on the chimney-piece.

“Consols are your ‘bonnets,’ papa,” cried Charlotte, gaily; “I don’t think there is a day upon which you do not talk about their having gone up, or gone down, or gone somewhere.”

After luncheon the lovers went for a walk in Kensington-gardens, with Diana Paget to play propriety. “You will come with us, won’t you, dear Di?” pleaded Charlotte. “You have been looking pale and ill lately, and I am sure a walk will do you good.”

Valentine seconded his liege lady’s request; and the three spent a couple of hours pacing briskly to and fro in the lonelier parts of the gardens, leaving the broad walks for the cockneys, who mustered strong upon this seasonable Christmas afternoon.

For two out of those three that wintry walk was rapture only too fleeting. For the third it was passive endurance. The agonies that had but lately rent Diana’s breast when she had seen those two together no longer tortured her. The scorpion sting was beginning to lose its venomous power. She suffered still, but her suffering was softened by resignation. There is a limit to the capacity for pain in every mind. Diana had borne her share of grief; she had, in Homeric phrase, satiated herself with anguish and tears; and to those sharp throes and bitter torments there had succeeded a passive sense of sorrow that was almost peace.

“I have lost him,” she said to herself. “Life can never bring me much joy; but I should be worse than weak if I spent my existence in the indulgence of my sorrow. I should be one of the vilest wretches upon this earth if I could not teach myself to witness the happiness of my friend without repining.”

Miss Paget had not arrived at this frame of mind without severe struggles. Many times, in the long wakeful nights, in the slow, joyless days, she had said to herself, “Peace, peace, when there was no peace.” But at last the real peace, the true balm of Gilead, was given in answer to her prayers, and the weary soul tasted the sweetness of repose. She had wrestled with, and had vanquished, the demon.

To-day, as she walked beside the lovers, and listened to their happy frivolous talk, she felt like a mother who had seen the man she loved won from her by her own daughter, and who had resigned herself to the ruin of all her hopes for love of her child.

There was more genial laughter and pleasant converse at Mr. Sheldon’s dinner-table that evening than was usual at that hospitable board; but the stockbroker himself contributed little to the merriment of the party. He was quiet, and even thoughtful, and let the talk and laughter go by him without any attempt to take part in it. After dinner he went to his own room; while Valentine and the ladies sat round the fire in the orthodox Christmas manner, and after a good deal of discursive conversation, subsided into the telling of ghost-stories.

George Sheldon sat apart from the circle, turning over the books upon the table, or peering into a stereoscope with an evident sense of weariness. This kind of domestic evening was a manner of life which Mr. Sheldon of Gray’s Inn denounced as “slow;” and he submitted himself to the endurance of it this evening only because he did not know where else to bestow his presence.

“I don’t think papa cares much about ghost-stories, does he, uncle George?” Charlotte asked, by way of saying something to the gentleman, who seemed so very dreary as he sat yawning over the books and stereoscopes.

“I don’t suppose he does, my dear.”

“And do you think he believes in ghosts?” the young lady demanded, laughingly.

“No, I am sure he doesn’t,” replied George, very seriously.

“Why, how seriously you say that!” cried Charlotte, a little startled by George Sheldon’s manner, in which there had been an earnestness not quite warranted by the occasion.

“I was thinking of your father — not my brother Phil. He died in Philip’s house, you know; and if Phil believed in ghosts, he would scarcely have liked living in that house afterwards, you see, and so on. But he went on living there for a twelvemonth longer. It seemed just as good as any other house to him, I suppose.”

Hereupon Georgy dissolved into tears, and told the company how she had fled, heartbroken, from the house in which her first husband had died, immediately after the funeral.

“And I’m sure the gentlemanly manner in which your step-papa behaved during all that dreadful time, Charlotte, is beyond all praise,” continued the lady, turning to her daughter; “so thoughtful, so kind, so patient. What I should have done if poor Tom’s illness had happened in a strange house, I don’t know. And I have no doubt that the new doctor, Mr. Burkham, did his duty, though his manner was not as decided as I should have wished.”

“Mr. Burkham!” cried Valentine. “What Burkham is that? We’ve a member of the Ragamuffins called Burkham, a surgeon, who does a little in the literary line.”

“The Mr. Burkham who attended my poor dear husband was a very young man,” answered Georgy; “a fair man, with a fresh colour and a hesitating manner. I should have been so much better satisfied if he had been older.”

“That is the man,” said Valentine. “The Burkham I know is fresh-coloured and fair, and cannot be much over thirty.”

“Are you and he particularly intimate?” asked George Sheldon, carelessly.

“O dear no, not at all. We speak to each other when we happen to meet — that’s all. He seems a nice fellow enough; and he evidently hasn’t much practice, or he couldn’t afford to be a Ragamuffin, and to write farces. He looks to me exactly the kind of modest deserving man who ought to succeed, and who so seldom does.”

This was all that was said about Mr. Burkham; but there was no more talk of ghost-stories, and a temporary depression fell upon the little assembly. The memory of her father had always a saddening influence on Charlotte; and it needed many tender sotto-voce speeches from Valentine to bring back the smiles to her fair young face.

The big electro-plated tea-tray and massive silver teapot made their appearance presently, and immediately after came Mr. Sheldon.

“I want to have a little talk with you after tea, Hawkehurst,” he said, as he took his own cup from Georgy’s hand, and proceeded to imbibe the beverage standing. “If you will come out into the garden and have a cigar, I can say all I have to say in a very few minutes; and then we can come in here for a rubber. Georgy is a very decent player; and my brother George plays as good a hand at whist as any man at the Conservative or the Reform.”

Valentine’s heart sank within him. What could Mr. Sheldon want with a few minutes’ talk, if not to revoke his gracious permission of some days before — the permission that had been accorded in ignorance of Charlotte’s pecuniary advantages? The young man looked very pale as he went to smoke his cigar in Mr. Sheldon’s garden. Charlotte followed him with anxious eyes, and wondered at the sudden gravity of his manner. George Sheldon also was puzzled by his brother’s desire for a tête-à-tête.

“What new move is Phil going to make?” he asked himself. The two men lit their cigars, and got them well under weigh before Mr. Sheldon began to talk.

“When I gave my consent to receive you as Miss Halliday’s suitor, my dear Hawkehurst,” he said, at last, “I told you that I was acting as very few men of the world would act, and I only told you the truth. Since giving you that consent I have made a very startling discovery, and one that places me in quite a new position in regard to this matter.”

“Indeed!”

“Yes, Mr. Hawkehurst, I have become aware of the fact that Miss Halliday, the girl whom I thought entirely dependent upon my generosity, is heir-at-law to a large fortune. You will, of course, perceive how entirely this alters the position of affairs.”

“I do perceive,” Valentine answered earnestly; “but I trust you will believe that I had not the faintest idea of Miss Halliday’s position when I asked her to be my wife. As to my love for her, I can scarcely tell you when that began; but I think it must have dated from the first hour in which I saw her, for I can remember no period at which I did not love her.”

“If I did not believe you superior to any mercenary motives, you would not have been under my roof to-day, Mr. Hawkehurst,” said the stockbroker, with extreme gravity. “The discovery of my stepdaughter’s position gives me no pleasure. Her claim to this wealth only increases my responsibility with regard to her, and responsibility is what I would willingly avoid. After all due deliberation, therefore, I have decided that this discovery need make no alteration in your position as Charlotte’s future husband. If you were worthy of her when she was without a fortune, you are not less worthy now.”

“Mr. Sheldon,” cried Valentine, with considerable emotion, “I did not expect so much generosity at your hands!”

“No,” replied the stockbroker, “the popular idea of a business man is not particularly agreeable. I do not, however, pretend to anything like generosity; I wish to take a common-sense view of the affair, but not an illiberal one.”

“You have shown so much generosity of feeling, that I can no longer sail under false colours,” said Valentine, after a brief pause. “Until a day or two ago I was bound to secrecy by a promise made to your brother. But his communication of Miss Halliday’s rights to you sets me at liberty, and I must tell you that which may possibly cause you to withdraw your confidence.”

Hereupon Mr. Hawkehurst revealed his share in the researches that had resulted in the discovery of Miss Halliday’s claim to a large fortune. He entered into no details. He told Mr. Sheldon only that he had been the chief instrument in the bringing about of this important discovery.

“I can only repeat what I said just now,” he added, in conclusion. “I have loved Charlotte Halliday from the beginning of our acquaintance, and I declared myself some days before I discovered her position. I trust this confession will in nowise alter your estimate of me.”

“It would be a poor return for your candour if I were to doubt your voluntary statement, Hawkehurst,” answered the stockbroker. “No; I shall not withdraw my confidence. And if your researches should ultimately lead to the advancement of my stepdaughter, there will be only poetical justice in your profiting more or less by that advancement. In the mean tune we cannot take matters too quietly. I am not a sanguine person, and I know how many hearts have been broken by the High Court of Chancery. This grand discovery of yours may result in nothing but disappointment and waste of money, or it may end as pleasantly as my brother and you seem to expect. All I ask is, that poor Charlotte’s innocent heart may not be tortured by a small lifetime of suspense. Let her be told nothing that can create hope in the present or disappointment in the future. She appears to be perfectly happy in her present position, and it would be worse than folly to disturb her by vague expectations that may never be realised. She will have to make affidavits, and so on, by-and-by, I daresay; and when that time comes she must be told there is some kind of suit pending in which she is concerned. But she need not be told how nearly that suit concerns her, or the extent of her alleged claim. You see, my dear sir, I have seen so much of this sort of thing, and the misery involved in it, that I may be forgiven if I am cautious.”

This was putting the whole affair in a new light. Until this moment Valentine had fancied that, the chain of evidence once established, Charlotte’s claim had only to be asserted in order to place her in immediate possession of the Haygarth estate. But Mr. Sheldon’s cool and matter-of-fact discussion of the subject implied all manner of doubt and difficulty, and the Haygarthian thousands seemed carried away to the most remote and shadowy regions of Chanceryland, as by the waves of some legal ocean.

“And you really think it would be better not to tell Charlotte?”

“I am sure of it. If you wish to preserve her from all manner of worry and annoyance, you will take care to keep her in the dark until the affair is settled — supposing it ever should be settled. I have known such an affair to outlast the person interested.”

“You take a very despondent view of the matter.”

“I take a practical view of it. My brother George is a monomaniac on the next-of-kin subject.”

“I cannot quite reconcile myself to the idea of concealing the truth from Charlotte.”

“That is because you do not know the world as well as I do,” answered Mr. Sheldon, coolly.

“I cannot imagine that the idea of this claim would have any disturbing influence upon her,” Valentine argued, thoughtfully. “She is the last person in the world to care about money.”

“Perhaps so. But there is a kind of intoxication in the idea of a large fortune — an intoxication that no woman of Charlotte’s age could stand against. Tell her that she has a claim to considerable wealth, and from that moment she will count upon the possession of that wealth, and shape all her plans for the future upon that basis. ‘When I get my fortune, I will do this, that, and the other.’ That is what she will be continually saying to herself; and by-and-by, when the affair results in failure, as it very likely will, there will remain a sense of disappointment which will last for a lifetime, and go far to embitter all the ordinary pleasures of her existence.”

“I am inclined to think you are right,” said Valentine, after some little deliberation. “My darling girl is perfectly happy as it is. It may be wisest to tell her nothing.”

“I am quite sure of that,” replied Mr. Sheldon. “Of course her being enlightened or not can be in no way material to me. It is a subject upon which I can afford to be entirely disinterested.”

“I will take your advice, Mr. Sheldon.”

“So be it. In that case matters will remain in statu quo. You will be received in this house as my stepdaughter’s future husband, and it is an understood thing that your marriage is not to take place without due consultation, with me. I am to have a voice in the business.”

“Most decidedly. It is only right that you should be deferred to.”

This brought the interview to a close very pleasantly. The gentlemen went back to the house, and Valentine found himself presently seated at a whist-table with the brothers Sheldon, and Georgy, who played very well, in a feeble kind of way, holding religiously by all the precepts of Hoyle, and in evident fear of her husband and brother-in-law. Charlotte and Diana played duets while the whist progressed, with orthodox silence and solemnity on the part of the four players. Valentine’s eyes wandered very often to the piano, and he was in nowise sorry when the termination of a conquering rubber set him at liberty. He contrived to secure a brief tête-à-tête with Charlotte while he helped her in the arrangement of the books on the music-stand, and then the shrill chime of the clock on the mantelpiece, and an audible yawn from Philip Sheldon, told him that he must go.

“Providence has been very good to us,” he said, in an undertone, as he bade Miss Halliday good night. “Your stepfather’s conduct is all that is kind and thoughtful, and there is not a cloud upon our future. Good night, and God bless you, my dearest! I think I shall always consider this my first Christmas-day. I never knew till to-day how sweet and holy this anniversary can be.”

He walked to Cumberland-gate in company with George Sheldon, who preserved a sulky gravity, which was by no means agreeable.

“You have chosen your own course,” he said at parting, “and I only hope the result may prove your wisdom. But, as I think I may have remarked before, you don’t know my brother Phil as well as I do.” “Your brother has behaved with such extreme candour and good feeling towards me, that I would really rather not hear any of your unpleasant innuendoes against him. I hate that ‘I could an if I would’ style of talk, and while I occupy my present position in your brother’s house I cannot consent to hear anything to his discredit.”

“That’s a very tall animal you’ve taken to riding lately, my friend Hawkehurst,” said George, “and when a man rides the high horse with me I always let him have the benefit of his monture. You have served yourself without consideration for me, and I shall not trouble myself in the future with any regard for you or your interests. But if harm ever comes to you or yours, through my brother Philip, remember that I warned you. Good night.”

In Charlotte’s room the cheery little fire burned late upon that frosty night, while the girl sat in her dressing-gown dreamily brushing her soft brown hair, and meditating upon the superhuman merits and graces in her lover.

It was more than an hour after the family had retired, when there came a cautious tapping at Charlotte’s door. “It is only I, dear,” said a low voice; and before Charlotte could answer, the door was opened, and Diana came in, and went straight to the hearth, by which her friend was sitting.

“I am so wakeful to-night, Lotta,” she said; “and the light under your door tempted me to come in for a few minutes’ chat.”

“My dearest Di, you know how glad I always am to see you.”

“Yes, dear, I know that you are only too good to me — and I have been so wayward, so ungracious. O, Charlotte, I know my coldness has wounded you during the last few months.”

“I have been just a little hurt now and then, dear, when you have seemed not to care for me, or to sympathise with me in all my joys and sorrows; but then it has been selfish of me to expect so much sympathy, and I know that, if your manner is cold, your heart is noble.”

“No, Lotta, it is not noble. It is a wicked heart.”

“Diana!”

“Yes,” said Miss Paget, kneeling by her friend’s chair, and speaking with suppressed energy; “it has been a wicked heart — wicked because your happiness has been torture to it.”

“Diana!”

“O, my dearest one, do not look at me with those innocent, wondering eyes. You will hate me, perhaps, when you know all. O, no, no, no, you will not hate — you will pity and forgive me. I loved him, dear; he was my companion, my only friend; and there was a time — long ago — before he had ever seen your face, when I fancied that he cared for me, and would get to love me — as I loved him — unasked, uncared for. O, Charlotte, you can never know what I have suffered. It is not in your nature to comprehend what such a woman as I can suffer. I loved him so dearly, I clung so wickedly, so madly to my old hopes, my old dreams, long after they had become the falsest hopes, the wildest dreams that ever had power over a distracted mind. But, my darling, it is past, and I come to you on this Christmas night to tell you that I have conquered my stubborn heart, and that from this time forward there shall be no cloud between you and me.”

“Diana, my dear friend, my poor girl!” cried Charlotte, quite overcome, “you loved him, you — as well as I— and I have robbed you of his heart!”

“No, Charlotte, it was never mine.”

“You loved him — all the time you spoke so harshly of him!”

“When I seemed most harsh, I loved him most. But do not look at me with such distress in your sweet face, my dear. I tell you that the worst pain is past and gone. The rest is very easy to bear, and to outlive. These things do not last for ever, Charlotte, whatever the poets and novelists may tell us. If I had not lived through the worst, I should not be here to-night, with your arm round my neck and his name upon my lips. I have never wished you joy until to-night, Charlotte, and now for the first time I can wish you all good things, in honesty and truth. I have conquered myself. I do not say that to me Valentine Hawkehurst can ever be quite what other men are. I think that to the end of my life there will be a look in his face, a tone of his voice, that will touch me more deeply than any other look or tone upon earth; but my love for you has overcome my love for him, and there is no hidden thought in my mind to-night, as I sit here at your feet, and pray for God’s blessing on your choice.”

“My darling Diana, I know not how to thank you, how to express my faith and my love.”

“I doubt if I am worthy of your love, dear; but, with God’s help, I will be worthy of your trust; and if ever there should come a day in which my love can succour or my devotion serve you, there shall be no lack of either. Listen, dear; there are the waits playing the sweet Christmas hymn. Do you remember what Shakespeare says about the ‘bird of dawning’ singing all night long, and how no evil spirit roams abroad at this dear season —

‘So hallowed and so gracious is the time?’

“I have conquered my evil spirit, Lotta, and there shall be peace and true love between us for evermore, shall there not, dearest friend?”

And thus ends the story of Diana Paget’s girlish love — the love that had grown up in secret, to be put away from her heart in silence, and buried with the dead dreams and fancies that had fostered it. For her to-night the romance of life closed for ever. For Charlotte the sweet story was newly begun, and the opening chapters were very pleasant — the mystic volume seemed all delight. Blessed with her lover’s devotion, her mother’s approval, and even Mr. Sheldon’s benign approbation, what more could she ask from Providence — what lurking dangers could she fear — what storm-cloud could she perceive upon the sunlit heavens?

There was a cloud, no bigger than a man’s hand, but the harbinger of tempest and terror. It yet remains to be shown what form that cloud assumed, and from what quarter the tempest came. The history of Charlotte Halliday has grown upon the writer; and the completion of that history, with the fate of John Haygarth’s fortune, will be found under the title of, CHARLOTTE’S INHERITANCE.

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