Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

“Past Hope, and in Despair.”

Two months had elapsed since the bleak spring morning on which Gustave Lenoble found the solitary lady under the leafless trees of the Luxembourg gardens. The inmates of the Pension Magnotte had grown accustomed to her presence, to her silence, her settled sadness, and troubled themselves no further respecting herself or her antecedents. The lapse of time had brought no improvement to her spirits; indeed, Gustave, who watched her closely, perceived that she had grown paler and thinner since that March morning when he met her in the public garden. Her life must have been painfully monotonous. She very rarely went out of doors, and on no occasion ventured beyond the gardens of the Luxembourg. No one visited her. She neither wrote nor received any letters. She was wont to make a pretence of reading as she sat in her retired corner of the salon; but Gustave had discovered that she gave little attention to her book. The open volume in her hand seemed no more than an excuse for brooding upon her sorrows.

If people, prompted by curiosity or by compassion, endeavoured to get into conversation with this lonely lady, the result was always the same. She would answer their questions in a low gentle voice, with a quiet politeness; but she never assisted them in the smallest degree to interchange thoughts with her. It seemed as if she sought neither friend nor sympathizer, or as if her case was so entirely hopeless as to admit of neither. She paid for her board and lodging weekly with a punctilious exactness, though weekly payments were not the rule of the house.

“My movements are uncertain,” she said to Madame Magnotte. “I cannot tell how long I may be with you. It will therefore be better for me to pay you weekly.”

She had been in the house two months, dining every day at the public table, spending all her evenings in the public saloon; and during that time her settled gloom had never been broken by any outburst of grief or passion. She might have been a creature of ice, a statue of despair modelled in snow by a Michael Angelo. But one night the ice melted, the statue of snow became in a moment a passionate, grief-stricken woman.

It was one bright evening late in May. Ah, how near at hand was the appointed date of those nuptials to which the household of Beaubocage looked forward with supreme happiness! The old ladies of the Pension Magnotte were for the most part out of doors. The long saloon was almost empty. There were only Gustave, Madame Magnotte, and the little music-mistress, who sat at her piano, with the western sunlight shining full upon her, rosy-hued and glorious, surrounding her with its soft radiance until she looked like a humble St. Cecilia.

Madame Meynell had seated herself close to the piano, and was listening to the music. Gustave hovered near, pretending to be occupied with a limp little sheet of news published that evening.

Mademoiselle Servin, the teacher of music, upon this occasion deserted her favourite masters. She seemed in a somewhat dreamy and sentimental humour, and played tender little melodies and simple plaintive airs, that were more agreeable to Gustave than those grand examples of the mathematics of counter-point which she so loved to interpret.

“You like this melody of Grétry’s,” said the music-mistress, as M. Lenoble seated himself close to the piano. “I do not think you care for classic sonatas — the great works of Gluck, or Bach, or Beethoven?”

“No,” replied the young man frankly; “I do not care about anything I can’t understand. I like music that goes to one’s heart.”

“And you, too, Madame Meynell, like simple melodies?” mademoiselle asked of that lady, who was not wont to come so near the little piano, or to pay so much attention to Mademoiselle Servin’s performance.

“O yes,” murmured the Englishwoman, “I like such music as that.”

“And you, too, think that Beethoven never composed simple plaintive airs — for example,” exclaimed the pianist, playing softly while she spoke. “You think he wrote only sonatas, quartettes, fugues, grand, operas, like Fidelio. Have you never heard this by your scientific Beethoven?”

Hereupon she played “Hope told a flattering tale,” with much tenderness and delicacy. Her two hearers listened, mute and deeply moved. And then from that familiar melody she glided softly into another, most musical, most melancholy, which has been set to some of the sweetest verses that Thomas Moore ever composed:

“Those evening bells, those evening bells! How many a tale their music tells Of youth and home, and that sweet time When last I heard their soothing chime!”

All the world sang the verses of Ireland’s divine bard in those days. The song was one which the Englishwoman had sung years ago in a happy home. What recollections, what associations, were evoked by that plaintive melody, who shall say? The words came back with the music to which they have been eternally wedded. The words, their mournful meaning, the faces of the friends amongst whom she had last sung them, the picture of the peaceful home whose walls had echoed the music — all these things arose before her in a vision too painfully vivid; and the lonely boarder at the Pension Magnotte covered her face with her hands, and sobbed aloud.

The passion of tears lasted but a minute. Madame Meynell dried her eyes, and rose to leave the room.

“Do not question me,” she said, perceiving that her two companions were about to offer her their sympathy. “I cannot tell you the memories that were conjured up by that music. It brought back a home I shall never see again, and the faces of the dead — worse than dead to me — and the happiness I have lost, and the hopes and dreams that once were mine. Oh, I pray God I may never hear that melody again.”

There was a passion, a depth of feeling, in her tone quite new to Gustave Lenoble. He opened the door for her without a word, and she passed out of the salon quietly, like a ghost — the ghost of that bright young creature who had once borne her shape, and been called by her name, in a pleasant farmhouse among the Yorkshire wolds.

“Ah, but how that poor soul must have suffered!” cried the sympathetic Mademoiselle Servin, as the door closed on the Englishwoman. “I did not think it was in her to feel so deeply. I thought she was stone, and now I begin to think it must be of such stone as Niobe — the petrification of despair.”

Upon Gustave Lenoble this scene made a profound impression. He lay awake during the greater part of that night, thinking of the lonely lady’s tears and anguish. The music of “Those evening bells” pervaded his dreams. He rose unrefreshed, feverish, forgetful of Côtenoir and Madelon Frehlter, as if that place and that person had never emerged from the shapeless substances of chaos. He wanted to see her again, to console her, if that were possible. Oh, that it might be his privilege to console her! He pitied her with a compassion so intense, that thus to compassionate her woes, was himself to suffer a poignant anguish. He pitied her. Yes, he told himself again and again that this sentiment which so absorbed his heart and mind was no more than pity. But oh, if this were pity, what were love? That was a question which also presented itself to the mind of M. Gustave Lenoble, of Beaubocage in esse, and Côtenoir in posse.

Madame Meynell rarely appeared at the common breakfast in the grim dining-room of the Pension Magnotte. Gustave was therefore in nowise surprised to miss her on this particular morning. He took a cup of coffee, and hurried off to his daily duties. There was a fever on him which he could neither understand nor shake off, and he hastened to the gardens of the Luxembourg, as if there were some special necessity for speed. So do men often hasten unconsciously to their predestined doom, defiant of augury. Soothsayers may menace, and wives may dream dreams; but when his hour comes, Caesar will go to the appointed spot where the daggers of his assassins await him.

In the alley where he had first looked upon her sad face, beneath the umbrage of young limes and chestnuts just bursting into bloom, he saw the Englishwoman to-day, seated on the same bench, almost in the same attitude.

He went up to her, and bade her good morning; and then, intensely conscious of his own temerity, seated himself by her side.

“I did not expect to find you here so early.”

“No, I seldom come out so soon; but this morning I have to make some inquiries upon a matter of business, and I am only resting here before going to make them.”

She gave a little weary sigh at the end of this speech. It seemed a strange manner of transacting business to rest in the Luxembourg gardens, which were distant but a few hundred yards from her home. Gustave divined that it was for very forlornness she lingered there, shrinking from some difficult encounter that lay before her.

“Can I not make the inquiries for you?” he asked. “Pray command me. It will be my happiness to be useful to you.”

“You are very good. I cannot trouble you so much.”

“Pray do not talk of trouble. It can be no trouble to me to aid you in any manner. Ah, madame, you do not know how much I would sacrifice to be useful to you!”

She must have been dull indeed had she failed to perceive the earnestness of his tone. She did perceive it, and was vaguely conscious that in this student of law she had a friend.

“I want to know when the diligence for Calais leaves Paris, and from what office,” she said. “I am going back to England.”

She was surprised to see the young man’s face blanch as she announced this simple fact. The young man himself was surprised by the sudden anguish inflicted by her announcement. It was in this moment that he first discovered how completely he had given his heart into this strange woman’s keeping.

“You are really going to leave Paris? — for ever?” he exclaimed.

“Yes. I have been here too long already. I have no business here. I ought to have gone back to England that day when I first met you here, but I put off the day of my return. I can put it off no longer.”

“And you are going back to your friends?” Gustave asked, in a very mournful tone.

“I am going back to my friends? Yes!” Her lips quivered a little, and the unbidden tears came to her eyes.

Ah, what was the sorrow that oppressed this beauteous lonely creature? What agony of grief or self-reproach was this pain which consumed her? Gustave remembered her passion of tears on the previous night; her talk of friends that were dead, and happiness lost; and now to-day she talked of going home to her friends: but O the bitterness of expression with which she had spoken that word “friends!”

“Are you going alone, Madame Meynell?” he inquired, after a pause. He could not tear himself from that seat by her side. He could not be manly or rational where she was concerned. The image of Madelon Frehlter rose before his mental vision, reproachful, menacing; but a thick fog intervened to obscure that unwelcome image. His whole life resolved itself into those thrilling moments in which he sat here, on this common garden bench, by this stranger’s side; the entire universe was contracted into this leafy walk where they two sat.

“Yes, I am going alone,” madame replied, with a little laugh. “Who should I have to go with me? I am quite alone in the world. I think I had better make these inquiries myself, M. Lenoble. There is no reason why I should give you so much trouble.”

“There is no such thing as trouble. I will bring you all necessary information to-day at dinner, if that will be soon enough.”

“Quite soon enough, I thank you, monsieur,” she answered, with a sigh. “I must ask you kindly to ascertain for me also the expense of the journey.”

“Most certainly, madame.”

This request set him wondering whether she were poor, and how poor. But she had evidently no more to say to him; she had again become impenetrable. He would fain have stayed, though honour and conscience were clamorous in their demands for his departure. Happily for honour and conscience, the lady was silent as death, impervious as marble; so M. Lenoble presently bowed and departed.

He thought of her all day long. The farce of pity was ended. He knew now that he loved this Englishwoman with an affection at once foolish and sinful — foolish, since he knew not who or what this woman was; sinful, since the indulgence of this passion involved the forfeiture of his plighted word, the disappointment of those who loved him.

“No, no, no,” he said to himself; “I cannot do this base and wicked thing. I must marry Madelon. All the hopes of my mother and father rest on that marriage; and to disappoint them because this stranger’s face has bewitched me? Ah, no, it cannot be. And even if I were willing to trample my honour in the dust, how do I know that she would value or accept the sacrifice?”

M. Lenoble made all necessary inquiries at the office of the Messageries, and carried the intelligence to Madame Meynell. He could see that she winced a little when he told her the cost of the journey, which in those days was heavy.

“She must certainly be poor,” he said to himself; and it rent his heart to think that even in this paltry matter he could be of no use to her. The destined master of Beaubocage and Côtenoir was entirely without ready money. He had his watch. He put his hand upon that clumsy timekeeper as he talked to madame.

Je te porterai chez ma tante, mon gars,” he said to himself. But he doubted whether the high priests of the pious mountain — the Dordona of Pauperism — would advance much upon this antique specimen of the watchmaker’s art.

After this evening he looked forward daily, hourly, to the anguish of her departure. She would vanish out of his life, intangible as a melted snow-flake, and only memory would stay behind to tell him he had known and loved her. Why should this be so hard to bear? If she stayed, he dared not tell her she was dear to him; he dared not stretch forth his hand to help her. In all the world there was no creature more utterly apart from him than she, whether she lived in the same house with him or was distant as the Antipodes. What did it matter, then, since she was destined to disappear from his life, whether she vanished to-day or a year hence? He argued with himself that it could be a question of no moment to him. There was a death-blow that must descend upon him, cruel, inevitable. Let it come when it would.

Every day when he came home to dinner, M. Lenoble expected to behold a vacant place by the side of his hostess; every day he was pleasantly disappointed. The pale hopeless face was still to be seen, ghost-like, at that noisy board. The face was more pale, more hopeless, as it seemed to Gustave, every day he looked upon it.

He asked Madame Magnotte when the English lady was going to leave, but she could not tell.

“She talks of leaving from day to day,” said madame; “it will no doubt be soon. I am sorry to lose her. She is very gentle, and gives no trouble to any one. But she is sad — ah, how sad she is! She has suffered, monsieur.”

Gustave agreed to this. Yes, she had suffered; but what, and how?

He watched her closely, but she was always the same. She no longer spent her evenings in the salon, but in her own apartment. He saw her only at dinner-time, and had no opportunity of speaking to her.

At last the day came upon which he missed her at the usual hour. He sat through the tedious meal without speaking; eating a little, drinking a little, mechanically, but with no consciousness of what he ate or drank. There was a mist before his eyes, a confusion of voices in his ears; but the faculties of sight and hearing seemed suspended. The agony he suffered during that miserable hour was bitter as death.

“O, my God, how I love her!” he said to himself, while Raoul’s bass roar brayed in his ear on one side, and Leon’s shrill squeal tortured him on the other.

He made his way to Madame Magnotte directly after dinner.

“She is gone?” he exclaimed.

“But who, my friend? Ah, yes; it is of that poor Madame Meynell you speak. How you are interested in her! No, she is not gone, poor woman. She remains always. She has the air of a person who knows not her own mind. Yet I am sure she thinks of going. To-day, for the first time, she has been writing letters. Reine came to tell me she had seen her occupied in her own room for the first time. It is not her habit to occupy herself.”

Gustave’s heart gave a great jump. She was not gone; he might see her again — if it were but a glimpse of her pale face looking out of the diligence as it drove out of the Cour de Messageries. One look, one glance; it would be something to carry in his heart all his life. All his life! He looked forward and shuddered. What a dreary life it must needs be! Côtenoir, Beaubocage, Madelon, the law; to plead, to read papers, to study dry as dust books. He shrank appalled from the contemplation of that dreary desert of existence — a life without her.

She had been writing letters — doubtless letters to her friends to announce her return. Her departure must be very near at hand.

Gustave refused to go out that evening. His fellow-students were bent on a night’s pleasure at a dancing-garden then in vogue, where there would be twinkling lamps and merry music under the May moon. The lamp-lit parterres, the joyous waltzes, had no attractions for Gustave Lenoble. He haunted the dull salon, dim and dreary in the twilight; for Madame Magnotte was chary of lamps and candles, and prolonged to its utmost limits the pensive interval between day and night. He walked softly up and down the room, unheeded by the ladies clustered in a group by one of the windows. Restless and unhappy, he could neither go nor stay. She was not coming down to the salon this evening. He had clung to the faint hope that she might appear; but the faint hope died away in his breast as the night deepened. What purpose could be served by his remaining in that dismal room? He was no nearer her than he would have been in the remotest wilds of Central America. He would go out — not to the odious dancing-garden, but to the cool dark streets, where the night wind might blow this fever from his brain.

He left the room suddenly, and hurried downstairs. At the bottom of the staircase he almost stumbled against a woman, who turned and looked at him in the light of a little oil-lamp that hung over the door of the portress’s lodge.

It was the Englishwoman, deadly pale, and with a wild look in her face that Gustave had never seen there before. She gave him no sign of recognition, but passed out of the courtyard, and walked rapidly away. That unusual look in her face, the strangeness of the fact that she should be leaving the house at this hour, inspired him with a vague terror, and he followed her, not stealthily, without a thought that he was doing any wrong by such an act — rather, indeed, with the conviction that he had a right so to follow her.

She walked very quickly — at a more rapid pace than Gustave would have supposed possible for so fragile a creature. She chose the lonelier streets, and Gustave had no difficulty in following her; she never looked back, but went straight on her course, without pause or slackening of her pace, as if with a settled purpose.

“Where can she be going?” Gustave asked himself; and an answer, vague, hideous, terrible, suggested itself to his mind. The idea that occurred to him was one that would scarcely have occurred to an Englishman under the same circumstances, but to a Frenchman it was a very familiar idea.

It was dark now — the darkness that reigns between early sunset and late moonrise. As the lonely woman went farther along the dreary streets parallel with the quay, the dreadful suspicion grew stronger in Gustave’s mind. From that instant he had but one thought; in that moment he put away from him for ever all sense of obligation to Madelon Frehlter; he shook off father, mother, sister, old associations, home ties, ambition, fortune — he lived alone for this woman, and the purpose of his life was to save her from despair and death.

They emerged upon the quay at last. The long stretch of pavement was deserted. Ah, now she looked back — she looked on every side with wild unseeing eyes — and now there could be little doubt as to the purpose that brought her here. She crossed the road, and went upon the bridge, Gustave following close; in the next minute she was standing on the stone bench, a tremulous, fluttering figure, with arms stretched towards the water; in a breath she was clasped to Gustave’s breast, clasped by arms that meant to hold her for ever.

The shock of that surprise utterly unnerved the wretched creature. She shivered violently, and struggled to free herself from those strong arms.

“Let me go!” she cried in English. “Let me go!” And then, finding herself powerless, she turned and looked at her captor. “M. Lenoble! O, why do you persecute me? Why do you follow me?”

“Because I want to save you.”

“To save me! To snatch me back when I was going to find rest — an end for my weary life! O yes, I know that it is a sinful end; but my life has been all sin.”

“Your life all sin! Foolish one, I will never believe that.”

“It is true,” she cried, with passionate self-reproach. “The sin of selfishness, and pride, and disobedience. There is no fate too hard for me — but, O, my fate is very hard! Why did you keep me from that river? You do not know how miserable my life is — you do not know. I paid my last penny to Madame Magnotte this morning. I have no money to take me back to England, even if I dared go there — and I dare not. I have prayed for courage, for strength to go back, but my prayers have not been heard; and there is nothing for me but to die. What would be the sin of my throwing myself into that river! I must die; I shall die of starvation in the streets.”

“No, no,” cried Gustave passionately; “do you think I have dragged you back from death to give you to loneliness and despair? My dear one, you are mine — mine by right of this night. These arms that have kept you from death shall shelter you — ah, let them shelter you! These hands shall work for you. My love, my love! you cannot tell how dear you are to me. If there must be want or trouble for either of us, it shall come to me first.”

He had placed her on the stone bench, bewildered and unresisting, and had seated himself by her side. The fragile figure, shivering still, even in the mild atmosphere of the spring night, was sustained by his encircling arm. He felt that she was his, irrevocably and entirely — given to him by the Providence which would have seemed to have abandoned her, but for the love it had implanted for her in this one faithful heart. His tone had all the pleading tenderness of a lover’s, but it had something more — an authority, a sense of possession.

“Providence sent me here to save you,” he said, with that gentle yet authoritative tone; “I am your providence, am I not, dearest? Fate made me love you — fondly, hopelessly, as I thought. Yesterday you seemed as far away from me as those pale stars, shining up yonder — as incomprehensible as that faint silvery mist above the rising moon — and to-night you are my own.”

He knew not what ties might be broken by this act. He had indeed a vague consciousness that the step which he was now taking would cause a lifelong breach between himself and his father. But the time had gone by in which he could count the cost.

“Let me go back, M. Lenoble,” the Englishwoman said presently. The faintness of terror was passing away, and she spoke almost calmly. “Let me go back to the house. It is you that have saved me from a dreadful sin. I promise you that I will not again think of committing that deadly sin. I will wait for the end to come. Let me go, my kind friend. Ah, no, no; do not detain me! Forget that you have ever known me.”

“That is not in my power. I will take you back to the Pension Magnotte directly; but you must first promise to be my wife.”

“Your wife! O, no, no, no! That is impossible.”

“Because you do not love me,” said Gustave, with mournful gravity.

“Because I am not worthy of you.”

Humiliation and self-reproach unspeakable were conveyed in those few words.

“You are worth all the stars to me. If I had them in my hands, those lamps shining up there, I would throw them away, to hold you,” said the student passionately. “You cannot understand my love, perhaps. I seem a stranger to you, and all I say sounds wild and foolish. My love, it is true as the heaven above us — true as life or death — death that was so near you just now. I have loved you ever since that bleak March morning on which I saw you sitting under the leafless trees yonder. You held me from that moment. I was subjugated — possessed — yours at once and for ever. I would not confess even to myself that my heart had resigned itself to you; but I know now that it was so from the first. Is there any hope that you will ever pay me back one tithe of my love?”

“You love me,” the Englishwoman repeated slowly, as if the words were almost beyond her comprehension — “you love me, a creature so lost, so friendless! Ah, but you do not know my wretched story!”

“I do not ask to know it. I only ask one question — will you be my wife?”

“You must be mad to offer your name, your honour to me.”

“Yes, I am mad — madly in love. And I am waiting for your answer. You will be my wife? My angel, you will say yes! It is not much that I offer you — a life of uncertainty, perhaps even of poverty; but a fond and constant heart, and a head and hands that will work for you while God gives them strength. It is better than the river.”

All that was thoughtless and hopeful in his disposition was expressed in these words. The woman to whom he pleaded was weakened by sorrow, and the devotion of this brave true heart brought her strength, comfort, almost hope.

“Will you be my friend?” she said gently. “Your words seem to bring me back to life. I wanted to die because I was so wretched, so lonely. I have friends in England — friends who were once all that is dear and kind; but I dare not go to them. I think a cruel look from one of those friends would kill me with a pain more bitter than any other death could give. And I have no right to hope for kind looks from them. Yours are the only words of friendship I have heard for a long time.”

“And you will give me the right to work for you — to protect you? You will be my wife?”

“I would rather be your servant,” she answered, with sad humility. “What right have I to accept so great a sacrifice? What folly can be so foolish as your love for me — if it is indeed love, and not a wild fancy of to-night!”

“It is a fancy that will last my life.”

“Ah, you do not know how such fancies change.”

“I know nothing except that mine is changeless. Come, my love, it is growing late and cold. Let me take you home. The portress will wonder. You must slip past her quietly with your veil down. Did you give old Margot your key when you came down stairs to-night?”

“No, it is in my pocket. I was not thinking — I—”

She stopped with a sudden shudder. Gustave understood that shudder; he also shuddered. She had left her room that night possessed by the suicide’s madness; she had left it to come straight to death. Happily his strong arm had come between her and that cruel grave by which they were still lingering.

They walked slowly back to the Rue Grande–Mademoiselle under the light of the newly-risen moon. The Englishwoman’s wasted hand rested for the first time on M. Lenoble’s arm. She was his — his by the intervention and by the decree of Providence! That became a conviction in the young man’s mind. He covered her late return to the house with diplomatic art, engaging the portress in conversation while the dark figure glided past in the dim lamplight. On the staircase he paused to bid her good night.

“You will walk with me in the Luxembourg garden to-morrow morning, dearest,” he said. “I have so much to say — so much. Until then, adieu!”

He kissed her hand, and left her on the threshold of her apartment, and then went to his own humble bachelor’s chamber, singing a little drinking song in his deep manly voice, happy beyond all measure.

They walked together next day in the gardens of the Luxembourg. The poor lonely creature whom Gustave had rescued seemed already to look up to him as a friend and protector, if not in the character of a future husband. It was no longer this fair stranger who held possession of Gustave; it was Gustave who had taken possession of her. The stronger nature had subjugated the weaker. So friendless, so utterly destitute — penniless, helpless, in a strange land, it is little matter for wonder that Susan Meynell accepted the love that was at once a refuge and a shelter.

“Let me tell you my wretched story,” she pleaded, as she walked under the chestnut-trees by her lover’s side. “Let me tell you everything. And if, when you have heard what an unhappy creature I am, you still wish to give me your heart, your name, I will be obedient to your wish. I will not speak to you of gratitude. If you could understand how debased an outcast I seemed to myself last night when I went to the river, you would know how I must feel your goodness. But you can never understand — you can never know what you seem to me.”

And then in a low voice, and with infinite shame and hesitation, she told him her story.

“My father was a tradesman in the city of London,” she said. “We were very well off, and my home ought to have been a happy one. Ah, how happy such a home would seem to me now! But I was idle and frivolous and discontented in those days, and was dissatisfied with our life in the city because it seemed dull and monotonous to me. When I look back now and remember how poor a return I gave for the love that was given to me — my mother’s anxiety, my father’s steady, unpretending kindness — I feel how well I have deserved the sorrows that have come to me since then.”

She paused here, but Gustave did not interrupt her. His interest was too profound for any conventional expression. He was listening to the story of his future wife’s youth. That there could be any passage in that history which would hinder him from claiming this woman as his wife was a possibility he did not for a moment contemplate. If there were shame involved in the story, as Madame Meynell’s manner led him to suppose there must be, so much the worse was it for him, since the shame must be his, as she was his.

“When my father and mother died, I went into Yorkshire to live with my married sister. I cannot find words to tell you how kind they were to me — my sister and her husband. I had a little money left me by my father, and I spent the greater part of it on fine dress, and on foolish presents to my sister and her children. I was happier in Yorkshire than I had been in London; for I saw more people, and my life seemed gayer and brighter than in the city. One day I saw a gentleman, the brother of a nobleman who lived in the neighbourhood of my sister’s house. We met by accident in a field on my brother-in-law’s farm, where the gentleman was shooting; and after that he came to the house. He had seen my sister before, and made some excuse for renewing his acquaintance. He came very often, and before long he asked me to marry him; and I promised to be his wife, with my sister’s knowledge and consent. She loved me so dearly, and was so proud of me out of her dear love, that she saw nothing wonderful in this engagement, especially as Mr. Kingdon, the gentleman I am speaking of, was a younger son, and by no means a rich man.”

Again she stopped, and waited a little before continuing her story. Only by a gentle pressure of the tremulous hand resting on his arm did Gustave express his sympathy.

“I cannot tell you, how happy I was in those days — so bright, so brief. I cannot tell you how I loved Montague Kingdon. When I look back to that time of my life, it seems like a picture standing out against a background of darkness, with some strange vivid light shining upon it. It was arranged between Montague and my sister that we should be married as soon as his brother, Lord Durnsville, had paid his debts. The payment of the debts was an old promise of Lord Durnsville’s, and an imprudent marriage on his brother’s part might have prevented the performance of it. This is what Montague told my sister Charlotte. She begged him to confide in her husband, my kind brother-in-law, but this he refused to do. There came a day very soon after this when James Halliday, my brother-in-law, was told about Montague Kingdon’s visits to the farm. He came home and found Mr. Kingdon with us; and then there was a dreadful scene between them. James forbade Mr. Kingdon ever again to set foot in his house. He scolded my sister, he warned me. It was all no use. I loved Montague Kingdon as you say you love me — foolishly, recklessly. I could not disbelieve or doubt him. When he told me of his plans for our marriage, which was to be kept secret until Lord Durnsville had paid his debts, I consented to leave Newhall with him to be married in London. If he had asked me for my life, I must have given it to him. And how should I disbelieve his promises when I had lived only amongst people who were truth itself? He knew that I had friends in London, and it was arranged between us that I was to be married from the house of one of them, who had been my girlish companion, and who was now well married. I was to write, telling her of my intended journey to town; and on the following night I was to leave Newhall secretly with Montague Kingdon. I was to make my peace with my sister and her husband after my marriage. How shall I tell you the rest? From the first to last he deceived me. The carriage that was, as I believed, to have taken us to London, carried us to Hull. From Hull we crossed to Hamburg. From that time my story is all shame and misery. I think my heart broke in the hour in which I discovered that I had been cheated. I loved him, and clung to him long after I knew him to be selfish and false and cruel. It seemed to be a part of my nature to love him. My life was not the kind of life one reads of in novels. It was no existence of splendour and luxury and riot, but one long struggle with debt and difficulty. We lived abroad — not for our pleasure, but because Mr. Kingdon could not venture to appear in England. His brother, Lord Durnsville, had never promised to pay his debts. That was a falsehood invented to deceive my sister. For seven long weary years I was his slave, a true and faithful slave; his nurse in illness, his patient drudge at all times. We had been wandering about France for two years, when he brought me to Paris; and it was here he first began to neglect me. O, if you could know the dreary days and nights I have spent at the hotel on the other side of the river, where we lived, you would pity me.”

“My dear love, my heart is all pity for you,” said Gustave. “Do not tell me any more. I can guess the end of the story. There came a day in which neglect gave place to desertion.”

“Yes; Mr. Kingdon left me one day without a warning word to break the blow. I had been waiting and watching for him through two weary days and nights, when there came a letter to tell me he was on his way to Vienna with a West Indian gentleman and his daughter. He was to be married to the daughter. It was his poverty, he told me, which compelled this step. He advised me to go back to my friends in Yorkshire. To go back! — as if he did not know that death would be easier to me. There was a small sum of money in the letter, on which I have lived since that time. When you first met me here, I had not long received that letter.”

This was the end of her story. In the depth of her humiliation she dared not lift her eyes to the face of her companion; but she felt his hand clasp hers, and knew that he was still her friend. This was all she asked of Providence.

To Gustave Lenoble the story had been unutterably painful. He had hoped to hear a tragedy untarnished by shame, and the shame was very bitter to him. This woman whom he loved so fondly was no spotless martyr, the victim of inevitable fate, beautiful and sublime in her affliction. She was only a weak vain, village beauty who had suffered herself to be lured away from her peaceful home by the falsehoods of a commonplace scoundrel.

The story was common, the shame was common, but it seemed to M. Lenoble that the woman by his side was his destiny; and then, prompt to the rescue of offended pride, of outraged love — tortured to think that she, so distant and pure a creature to him, should have been trampled in the dust by another — came the white-winged angel Pity. By her weakness, by her humiliation, by the memory of her suffering, Pity conjured him to love her so much the more dearly.

“My darling,” he said softly, “it is a very sad story, and you and I will never speak of it again. We will bury the memory of Montague Kingdon in the deepest grave that was ever dug for bitter remembrances; and we will begin a new life together.”

This was the end of M. Lenoble’s wooing. He could not speak of his love any more while the sound of Montague Kingdon’s name had but lately died away on Susan Meynell’s lips. He had taken her to himself, with all her sorrows and sins, in the hour in which he snatched her from death; and between these two there was no need of passionate protestations or sentimental rapture.

M. Lenoble speedily discovered that the law had made no provision for the necessities of a chivalrous young student eager to unite himself with a friendless foreign woman, who could not produce so much as one of the thirty witnesses required to establish her identity. A very little consideration showed Gustave that a marriage between him and Susan Meynell in France was an impossibility. He explained this, and asked her if she would trust him as she had trusted Montague Kingdon. In Jersey the marriage might easily be solemnised. Would she go with him to Jersey, to stay there so long as the English law required for the solemnization of their union?

“Why should you take so much trouble about me?” said Susan, in her low sad voice. “You are too good, too generous. I am not worth so much care and thought from you.”

“Does that mean that you will not trust me, Susan?”

“I would trust you with my life in a desert, thousands of miles from the rest of mankind — with a happier life than mine. I have no feeling in my heart but love for you, and faith in you.”

After this the rest was easy. The lovers left the Pension Magnotte one bright summer morning, and journeyed to Jersey, where, after a fortnight’s sojourn, the English Protestant church united them in the bonds of matrimony.

Susan was a Protestant, Gustave a Catholic, but the difference of religion divided them no more than the difference of country. They came back to Paris directly after the marriage, and M. Lenoble took a very modest lodging for himself and his wife in a narrow street near the Pantheon — a fourth story, very humbly furnished. M. Lenoble had provided for himself an opportunity of testing the truth of that adage which declares that a purse large enough for one is also large enough for two.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/charlotte_s_inheritance/book1.3.html

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