Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Forgiven Too Late.

For a week of long days and longer nights there was no step sounded on the stair, no opening or shutting of a door in the old dilapidated house where he lay languishing on the brink of an open grave, that did not move Gustave Lenoble with a sudden emotion of hope. But the footsteps came and went, the doors were opened and shut again and again, and the traveller so waited, so hoped for did not return.

The boy — the brave bright son, who seemed to inherit all that was noblest and best in his father’s nature — pined for his mother. The man endured a martyrdom worse than the agony of Damiens, the slow tortures of La Barre. What had befallen her? That she could desert him or his child was a possibility that never shaped itself in his mind. That drop of poison was happily wanting in his cup; and the bitterness of death was sweet compared to the scorpion-sting of such a supposition.

She did not return. Calamity in some shape had overtaken her — calamity dire as death; for, with life and reason, she could not have failed to send some token, some tidings, to those she loved. The sick man waited a week after the day on which he had begun to expect her return. At the end of that time he rose, with death in his face, and went out to look for her — to look for her in Rouen; for her whom the instinct of his heart told him was far away from that city — as far as death from life. He went to the Cour de Messageries, and loitered and waited amidst the bustle of arriving and departing diligences, with a half-imbecile hope that she would alight from one of them. The travellers came and went, pushing and hustling him in their selfish haste. When night came he went back to his garret. All was quiet. The boy slept with the children of his good neighbour, and was comforted by the warmth of that strange hearth.

Gustave lit his candle, a last remaining morsel.

“You will last my time, friend,” he said, with a wan smile.

He seated himself at the little table, pushed aside the medicine-bottles, searched for a stray sheet of letter-paper, and then began to write.

He wrote to his mother, telling her that death was at hand, and that the time had come in which she must succour her son’s orphan child. With this he enclosed a letter to his father — that letter of which he had spoken to his wife, and which had been written in the early days of his illness. This packet he directed to Madame Lenoble, at Beaubocage. There was no longer need for secrecy.

“When those letters are delivered I shall be past blame, and past forgiveness,” he thought.

In the morning he was dead.

The neighbours posted the letter. The neighbours comforted and protected the child for two days; and then there came a lady, very sad, very quiet, who wept bitterly in the stillness of that attic chamber where Gustave Lenoble lay; and who afterwards, with a gentle calmness of manner that was very sweet to see, made all necessary arrangements for a humble, but not a mean or ignominious, funeral.

“He was my brother,” she said to the good friends of the neighbouring garret. “We did our best to help him, my mother and I; but we little thought how bitterly he wanted help. The brave heart would not suffer us to know that.”

And then she thanked them with much tenderness for their charity to the dead man; and with these good people she went on foot through the narrow streets of the city to see her brother laid in his grave.

Until this was done the mournful lady, who was not yet thirty years of age, and of a placid nun-like beauty, abandoned herself to no transport of love for her orphan nephew; but when that last office of affection had been performed, she took the little one on her knees, and folded him to her breast, and gave him her heart, as she had given it long ago to his father; for this gentle unselfish creature was one who must needs have some shrine at which to offer her daily sacrifice of self. Already she was beginning to think how the orphan was to be cared for and the widow also, for whose return she looked daily.

For the return of Susan Lenoble Cydalise waited at Rouen several days after the funeral. She had, happily, an old school-fellow comfortably established in the city; and in the house of this old friend she found a home. No one but her mother and this friend, whom she could trust, knew of the business that had brought her from Beaubocage. In seven years the father had never uttered his only son’s name; in all the seven years that name had never been spoken in his hearing.

When three weeks had gone by since the departure of Susan for England, all hope of her return was abandoned by Mademoiselle Lenoble and the neighbours who had known the absent woman.

“She had the stamp of death on her face when she went away,” said the labourer’s wife, “as surely as it was on him that she left. I told her she had no strength for the journey; but she would go: there was no moving her from that. She had rich friends là-bas, who might help her husband. It was for that she went. That thought seemed to give her a kind of fever, and the strength of fever.”

“And there has come no letter — nothing?”

“Nothing, mademoiselle.”

On this Cydalise determined to return to Beaubocage. She could not well leave the child longer on the hands of these friendly people, even by paying for his maintenance, which she insisted on doing, though they would fain have shared their humble pot-à-feu and coarse loaf with him unrecompensed. She determined on a desperate step. She would take her brother’s orphan child back with her, and leave the rest to Providence — to the chance of some sudden awakening of natural affection in a heart that had long languished in a kind of torpor that was almost death.

The little fellow pined sadly for those dear familiar faces, those tender soothing voices, that had vanished so suddenly from his life. But the voice of his aunt was very sweet and tender, and had a tone that recalled the father who was gone. With this kind aunt he left Rouen in the lumbering old vehicle that plied daily betwixt that city and Vevinord.

“Thou canst call me Cydalise for a while, my little one,” she said to him; for she did not wish the child to proclaim the relationship between them yet awhile.

Ah, what bitter tears the two women shed over the soft fair curls of that little head, when they had the boy all to themselves in the turret chamber at Beaubocage, on whose white walls the eyes of Cydalise had opened almost every morning of her pure eventless life!

“Why dost thou cry so, madame?” the child asked of his grandmother, as she held him in her arms, kissing and weeping over him; “and what have they done with my father — and mamma too? She went away one day, but she told me that she would come back, so quickly, ah, so quickly! and the days passed, and they shut papa in his room, and would not let me go to him; and mamma did not come, though I asked the Blessed Virgin to send her back to me.”

“Dear child, thy father and mother are in a brighter place than this hard world, where they had so much sorrow,” Madame Lenoble answered, gently.

“Yes, they were often sorry,” murmured the boy thoughtfully. “It was because of money; but then, when there was no money, mamma cried and kissed me, and kissed papa, and the good papa kissed us both, and somehow it always ended in happiness.”

François Lenoble was, happily, absent on this day of tribulation. The women took their fill of sorrow, but it was sorrow mingled with a strange bitter sweetness that was almost joy. The seigneur of Beaubocage had gone to dine, as he still often did, with his old friend Baron Frehlter; for the breach of faith which had caused a lifelong disunion of father and son had not divided the two proprietors. Nay, indeed the Baron had been generous enough to plead the cause of the castaway.

“A man cannot dispose at will of his affections, my friend,” he urged; “and it was more generous in your son to break faith with my daughter before marriage than after.”

Mademoiselle Frehlter had not broken her heart on account of her lover’s falsehood. She had been sufficiently indignant on the occasion, and had been more impatient of her mother’s pet priest and pet poodle during the brief period in which she wore the willow. She had recovered her good humour, however, on being wooed by a young subaltern in a cavalry regiment stationed at Vevinord, the offshoot of a grander house than that of Lenoble, and whose good looks and good lineage had ultimately prevailed with the Baron. That gentleman had by no means too good an opinion of the son-in-law thus forced upon him; but peace was the highest good (with unlimited tobacco) to which his Germanic soul aspired; and for the sake of peace in the present he was content to hazard his daughter’s happiness in the future.

That is very brilliant,” he said of M. Paul de Nérague, the young lieutenant of light cavalry; “but it is not solid, like Gustave. Your son is honest, candid — a brave heart. It is for that I would have given him Madelon. But it is Providence which disposes of us, as our good father St. Velours tells us often; and one must be content. Young Nérague pleases my daughter, and I must swallow him, though for me he smells too strong of the barracks: ça flaire la caserne, mon ami.”

That odour of the barracks which distinguished the sub-lieutenant Paul de Nérague became more odious after his marriage with the virtuous Madelon, when he was established —niché, as he himself called it — in very comfortable, though somewhat gruesome, apartments at Côtenoir. His riotous deportment, his hospitable disposition (as displayed in the frequent entertainment of his brothers-in-arms at the expense of his father-in-law), his Don Juan-like demeanour in relation to the housemaids and kitchen-wenches of the château — innocent enough in the main, but on that account so much the more audacious — struck terror to the hearts of Madame Frehlter and her daughter; and the elder lady was much gratified by that thirst for foreign territory which carried the greater part of the French army and the regiment of the vivacious Paul to the distant wilds of Algeria.

The virtuous Madelon was too stolid to weep for her husband. But even her stolidity was not proof against the fiery influence of jealousy, and, waking and sleeping, her visions were of veiled damsels of Orient assailing the too inflammable heart of Lieutenant de Nérague.

The young officer was yet absent at that period in which Cydalise returned from Rouen with her brother’s child.

The little boy was sleeping peacefully in a cot beside his aunt’s bed (it had been his father’s cot thirty years ago) when François Lenoble returned from Côtenoir that night.

It was not till the next day that he saw the child. He had been making his usual morning’s round in the gardens and orchards, when he came into the salon, and saw the little boy seated near his grandmother’s chair, playing with some dominoes. Something — perhaps the likeness to his dead son — the boy’s black clothes, for Cydalise had contrived to dress him in decent mourning — struck suddenly on the old man’s heart. “Who is that boy?” he asked, with a strange earnestness.

“Your son Gustave’s only child,” answered his wife gently — “his orphan child.”

François Lenoble looked at her, and from her to the boy; tried to speak, but could not; beckoned the child, and then dropped heavily into a chair and sobbed aloud. Until this moment no one had ever seen him shed a tear for the son he had put away from his home — and, as it had seemed, from his heart. Not by one sigh, not by one mournful utterance of the familiar name, had he betrayed the depth of that wound which he had endured, silently, obstinately, in all these years.

They suffered him to bemoan his dead son unhindered by stereotyped consolations. The two women stood by, and pitied him in silence. The little boy stared wonderingly, and at last crept up to the sorrow-stricken father. “Why do you cry, poor old man?” he asked. “You have not lost your papa and mamma, as I have lost mine, have you? I want to stay with you and be your little boy, please. She told me to say that,” he added, pointing to Cydalise. —“And I have said it right, haven’t I?” he asked of the same lady. —“I think I shall love you, because you are like my papa, only older and uglier,” the little one concluded, with angelic candour.

The seigneur of Beaubocage dried his tears with an effort. Beaubocage — Côtenoir. Ah, me! what empty sounds those two once magic names seemed to him now that his son’s life had been sacrificed to so paltry an ambition, so sordid a passion, so vile and grovelling a desire! He took the boy on his knee, and kissed him tenderly. His thoughts bridged over a chasm of five-and-twenty years as his lips pressed that fair young brow; and it was his own son — the son whom he had disowned — whose soft hair was mingling itself now with the grey bristles on his rugged chin.

“My child,” he murmured softly, “the fear is that I shall love thee too well, and be to thee as much too weakly indulgent as I was wickedly stern to thy father. Anything is easier to humanity than justice.”

This was said to himself rather than to the boy.

“Tell me thy name, little one,” he asked presently, after a few moments’ pensive meditation.

“I have two names, monsieur.”

“Thou must call me grandfather. And the two names?”

“François Gustave.”

“I shall call thee Gustave.”

“But papa always called me François, and mamma said it was the name of a cruel man; but papa said he loved the name —”

“Ah, no more, little one!” cried the lord of Beaubocage suddenly; “thou knowest not with what dagger-thrusts thou dost pierce this poor old heart.”

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