Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

The Fate of Susan Lenoble.

Seven years after that miserable summer night at Beaubocage on which Gustave Lenoble was disowned by his father, a man and woman, with a boy five years of age, were starving in a garret amongst the housetops and chimneys of Rouen. In the busy city these people lived lonely as in a forest, and were securely hidden from the eyes of all who had ever known them. The man — haggard, dying — cherished a pride that had grown fiercer as the grip of poverty tightened upon him. The woman lived only for her husband and her child.

The man was Gustave Lenoble. The world had gone ill with him since he cast his destiny into the lap of the woman he loved. In all these years no olive-bearing dove had spanned the gulf that yawned between the prodigal and his father. The seigneur of Beaubocage had been marble. A narrow-minded old man, living his narrow life, and nursing one idea with fanatical devotion, was of all men the least likely to forgive. Vain had been the tears and entreaties of mother and sister. The doors of that joyless dwelling on the fertile flats beyond Vevinord were sealed against the offender with a seal not to be broken, even had he come thither to plead for pardon, which he did not.

“My father would have sold me as negro slaves are sold làbas,” he said, on those rare occasions when he opened his old wounds, which were to the last unhealed: “I am glad that I escaped the contemptible barter.”

He was in very truth glad. Poverty and hardship seemed to him easier to bear than the dreary prosperity of Côtenoir and a wife he could not have loved. The distinguishing qualities of this man’s mind were courage and constancy. There are such noble souls born into the world, some to shine with lustre supernal, many to burn and die in social depths, obscure as ocean’s deepest cavern.

In his love for the woman he had chosen Gustave Lenoble never wavered. He worked for her, he endured for her, he hoped against hope for her sake; and it was only when bodily strength failed that this nameless foot-soldier began to droop and falter in life’s bitter battle. Things had gone ill with him. He had tried his fate as an advocate in Paris, in Caen, in Rouen — but clients would not come. He had been a clerk, now in one counting-house, now in another, and Susan and he had existed somehow during the seven years of their married life.

They clung to each other with affection that seemed to grow with every new sorrow; nor did love exhibit any inclination to spread his wings and take flight from the window, though poverty came in every day at the door, and sat by the hearth, a familiar companion and inevitable guest.

The mother and sister contrived to help this poor castaway with the veriest scrapings of a miserly household. The old man, soured by his great disappointment, grew sordid and covetous with increasing years, and the lives of the women were hard and hopeless. By little cheats, and petty contrivances, and pitiful falsifications of financial statements, they managed to scrape together a few louis now and then for the struggling exile; and to do this was the sole delight of their patient lives. They contrived also to correspond secretly with Gustave, and were informed of the birth of his son.

“Ah, if thou couldst see how beautiful he is,” wrote the father, “this child of pure and true love, thou wouldst no longer regret my breach of faith with Madelon Frehlter. I knew not until now how like infant children are to angels. I knew not how true to nature are the angels in the pictures of Raffaelle and Murillo. Thou knowest the print of Murillo’s Assumption; the picture is in the Louvre. If thou canst remember that picture, dear mother, thou hast but to recall the face of one of the cherubim about the feet of our Lady, and thou hast the portrait of my boy. He opens his eyes, and looks at me as I write. Ah! that he and I and my Susan were with thee in the little salon at Beaubocage — my sister, Susan, you, and I united round this darling’s cradle. He has been born in poverty, but his birth has made us very happy.”

The sentiment of this letter was no spurious or transient feeling. For this child Gustave Lenoble evinced an unchanging fondness. It was indeed no part of his nature to change. The little one was his comfort in affliction, his joy during every brief interval of prosperity. When the battle was well nigh fought, and he began to feel himself beaten. His chief anxieties, his ever-returning fears, were for his wife and child.

To Susan the thought of parting from him was a despair too deep for tears. She would have been something less than woman if she had not loved her husband with more than common affection. She watched the change that illness brought in the frank face, the stalwart figure; and little by little the awful truth came home to her. The hour was at hand in which she must lose him.

“If you could have rest, Gustave, better medical advice, more comforts, you would soon be strong again, I am sure your father would not refuse to forgive you now. Write to him, dearest. Go back to Beaubocage, and let your mother and sister nurse you. I will stay here with the little one. It shall be forgotten that you have a wife and child.”

“No, dear one; I will not desert you, even for a day, to buy back my father’s love. I would rather be here with you than in the pleasantest home without you. But we must face the future, Susan; we must be brave and wise, for the little one’s sake. You are not so strong that you can afford to trust blindly in your power to protect him by-and-by. I have written a letter to my father. He has proved himself a hard man to me, cruel and obdurate beyond all my fears; but I know he is not altogether heartless. When I am dead, you will take the letter in one hand, the child in the other, and go to Beaubocage. I believe he will adopt the boy, and that the little one will give him the comfort and happiness he hoped from me. He must be very lonely; and I cannot doubt that his heart will melt when he sees the child’s face, and hears that he has no longer a son. As for yourself, my poor girl, I see for you no hope except in the old Yorkshire home, and the friends you fear to see again.”

“I no longer fear them,” said his wife, with unwonted energy, “I could not go to them seven years ago; but I can go to them as your wife.”

“Ah, thank God, the poor name is worth something for you.”

“Yes, dear; and I will go back to them — to-morrow.”

“To-morrow!”

“To-morrow, Gustave. I have been selfish and cruel to delay so long. The old dread of seeing my sister’s reproachful face has been strong enough to hold me back, when a little courage might have enabled me to help you. The burden has been all on you, and I have done nothing. O, what a wretch I must have been to sit idly by and see you suffer, and make no effort to help you!”

“But, my darling, you have not been idle. You have been the dearest and most industrious of wives, and have helped me to bear my burden. You have done more, dear — you have made my burden pleasant to me.”

“I will try to lighten it, Gustave,” cried Susan, with excitement. “O, why, why did I never try before! My sister and her husband are well off — rich perhaps. If they are still living, if no cruel changes have come to pass at Newhall, they could help us with a little money. They might even give us a home. I will start for England to-morrow.”

“Nay, my dear, you are not strong enough to travel so far alone. It seems, indeed, a happy thought this of your rich relations; but you must not undertake such a journey. You might write.”

“No, Gustave, I will trust to no letter; I will go. It will be no pain for me to humble myself for your sake. I will go straight to my sister. I know what a tender compassionate heart it is that I shall appeal to.”

There was much discussion; but Susan was resolute. To scrape together the money for the journey she made efforts that were heroic in a nature so weak as hers. She went to the Monte de Piété with the last of her little treasures, that one dear trinket to which she had clung even when hunger was at the door — the gimmal or alliance ring that Gustave had placed upon her finger before God’s altar — the double symbolic circlet which bore on one side her name, on the other her husband’s. This dearest of all her possessions she surrendered for a few francs, to make up the sum needful for her journey.

What it cost her to do this, what it cost her to tear herself away from her sick husband and her only child, who shall say? There are pangs that cannot be counted, agonies that will come within no calculation — the infinite of pain. She went. Two kind souls, a labourer and his wife, lodgers in the same garret-story, promised to care for and help the invalid and child. There is no desolation in which a child will not find a friend.

The journey was long and fatiguing; the anguish of her poor aching heart almost too much for endurance — a heart so heavy that even hope could scarce flutter it. It was dull damp weather, though in the middle of summer. The solitary traveller caught cold on the journey, and arrived in London in a high fever. Ill, faint, and helpless, the great city seemed to her unspeakably dismal — most stony of all stony-hearted mothers to this wretched orphan. She could go no farther than the darksome city inn where the coach from Southampton brought her. She had come viâ Havre. Here she sank prostrate, and had barely sufficient strength to write an incoherent letter to her sister, Mrs. Halliday, of Newhall Farm, near Huxter’s Cross, Yorkshire.

The sister came as fast as the fastest coach on the great northern road could carry her. There was infinite joy in that honest sisterly heart over this one sinner’s repentance. Fourteen years had gone by since the young city-bred beauty had fled with that falsest of men, and most hardened of profligates, Montague Kingdon; and tidings from Susan were unlooked for and thrilling as a message from the grave.

Alas for the adverse fate of Susan Meynell! The false step of her youth had set her for ever wrong upon life’s highway. When kind Mrs. Halliday came, Gustave Lenoble’s wife was past her help; wandering in her mind; a girl again, but newly run away from her peaceful home; and with no thought save of remorse for her misdeeds.

The seven years of her married life seemed to have faded out of her mind. She raved of Montague Kingdon’s baseness, of her own folly, her vain regret, her yearning for pardon; but of the dying husband in the garret at Rouen she uttered no word. And so, with her weary head upon her sister’s breast, she passed away, her story untold, no wedding-ring on her wasted finger to bear witness that she died an honest man’s wife; no letters or papers in her poor little trunk to throw light on the fourteen years in which she had been a castaway.

Mrs. Halliday stayed in London to see the wanderer laid in the quiet city churchyard where her family rested, and where for her was chosen an obscure corner in which she might repose forgotten and unknown.

But not quite nameless. Mrs. Halliday could not leave the grave unmarked by any record of the sister she had loved. The stone above the grave of Gustave’s wife bore her maiden name, and the comforting familiar text about the one sinner who repenteth.

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