Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

Gustave the Second.

The little Gustave grew and flourished. Such love was lavished on him as rarely falls to the lot of children, though the spring of many lives may be rich in love’s pure white blossom. The existence of this child seemed all happiness. He brought hope, and a sense of atonement, and all sweet things, to the quiet family at Beaubocage; and as he grew from childhood to boyhood, from boyhood to manhood, it seemed to that household as if the first Gustave of their love had never been taken from them. That Orphic fable of Zagreus repeats itself in many households. For the one bright creature lost another is given; and then comes a time when it is almost difficult to separate the image of the missing one from the dear substitute who so nearly fills his place.

François Lenoble and his wife enjoyed a green old age, and the affection of their grandson made the cup of life sweet for them to the very dregs. There are, happily, some natures which indulgence cannot injure; some luxuriant flowers which attain strength as well as beauty under the influence of these tropical heats of affection. Gustave the second possessed all the noble qualities of Gustave the first. Frank, generous, brave, constant, affectionate, light-hearted, he shone on the failing eyes of his kindred radiant as a young Apollo, brave as a mortal Hercules.

Those things which the ignorant heart has at some time so passionately desired are apt to be granted when the desire has grown somewhat cold and dead. Thus it was with the ambition of François Lenoble. He lived to see the lands of Côtenoir and Beaubocage united in the person of his grandson, who married Clarice, the only surviving child of M. and Madame de Nérague. Two sons and a daughter had been born at Côtenoir; but the sons withered and faded in early boyhood, and even the daughter, though considered a flourishing plant in that poor garden of weakling blossoms, was but a fragile creature.

The old people at Beaubocage survived the seigneur and châtelaine of Côtenoir by some years, and survived also the fiery lieutenant, who fell in Algeria without having attained his captaincy, or added any military renown to the good old name of de Nérague in his own magnificent person.

François saw his grandson established at Côtenoir before he died. He expired with his hand in that of Gustave, whom, in the half-consciousness of that last hour, he mistook for the son he had disowned.

“What door was that that shut?” he asked, in an eager whisper. “Who said I turned my son out of doors — my only son? It’s false! I couldn’t have done it! Hark! there’s the door shutting again! It sounds like the door of a tomb.”

After this he dozed a little, and woke with a smile on his face.

“I have been dreaming of thy father, Gustave,” he said calmly. “I thought that I saw him with a light shining in his face, and that he kissed and forgave me.”

This was the end. The faithful wife was not slow to follow her husband to the grave, and there was now only a placid maiden lady at Beaubocage, Mademoiselle Cydalise Lenoble, whom everyone within ten leagues of Vevinord knew and loved — a lay abbess, a Sister of Mercy in all save the robes; a tender creature, who lived only to do good.

Ten years passed, and M. Lenoble of Côtenoir was a widower with two fair young daughters at a convent school on the outskirts of Vevinord, and a boisterous son at an academy in Rouen. Gustave had never followed any profession; the lands of Beaubocage secured him a competence, so prudently had the small estate been managed by the kindred who adored him. His marriage had given him fortune. He had no need of trade or profession. His life was laid out for him like a prim Dutch flower-garden. He was to live at Côtenoir, and look after his estate, and smoke his pipe, as Baron Frehlter had done, and be a good husband to his wife, a kind father to his children. This latter part of his duty came natural to M. Lenoble. It was not in him to be otherwise than kind to women and children. His invalid wife praised him as a model of marital perfection. It was Gustave who wheeled her sofa from one room to another, Gustave who prepared her medicines, Gustave whose careful hands adjusted curtains and portières. The poor woman lived and died believing herself the happiest of wives. She mistook kindness for love.

M. Lenoble bore his wife’s demise with Christian calmness. He was sorry that the fragile creature should have been taken so early from the pleasant home that was hers by right, but of passionate grief, or dreary sense of irreparable loss, there was none in that manly heart. There were times when the widower reproached himself for this want of feeling; but in very truth Madame Lenoble, jeune, had lived and died a nonentity. Her departure left no empty place; even her children scarcely missed her. The father was all-in-all.

Gustave had married at twenty years of age. He was twenty-nine when his wife died. His eldest daughter, Clarice, eight; his second, Madelon, seven; the boy, a spoilt young dog of five, not yet despatched to the great school at Rouen.

But in ‘65 Mademoiselle Clarice was fifteen years of age, and a very charming performer on the pianoforte, as the good nuns at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, at Vevinord, told the father. Mademoiselle Madelon was looking forward to her fourteenth anniversary, and she, too, was a very pretty pianist, and altogether a young prodigy of learning and goodness, as the nuns told the master of Côtenoir. The demoiselles of Côtenoir stood high in the estimation of pupils and mistress; they were a kind of noblesse; and the simple-minded superioress spoke of these young persons with some pride when she described her establishment to a stranger. It was a very comfortable little colony, a small world enclosed by high walls. The good mothers who taught and cherished the children were for the greater part ladies of superior and even exalted station; and there was a gentleness, a tenderness, in their care for these young lambs not always to be insured by the payment of an annual stipend. It must be confessed that the young lambs were apt to be troublesome, and required a good deal of watching. To the eye of the philosopher that convent school would have afforded scope for curious study; for it is singular to discover what exceptional vices the youthful mind can develop from its inner consciousness, in homes as pure as this. There were black sheep even in the convent of the Sacré Coeur, damsels marked with a sign that meant “dangerous.”

Happily for Gustave Lenoble, his daughters were amongst the brightest and the purest of those girl-graduates. They gave him no trouble, except when they asked him for a home.

“It seems so dull and dreary at Côtenoir, papa,” they said, “though you are always so kind. It doesn’t seem like home. Beaubocage is more home-like. At Côtenoir, when you are out, there is no one to talk to; and we have no little parties, no excursions into the country, none of those pleasures which the other girls tell us they have during the holidays.”

This was the gist of the lamentations of Mademoiselles Clarice and Madelon; and the father knew not how to supply the mysterious something which was wanting to make Côtenoir a pleasant home. The girls could complain of no restraint, or pine for no indulgence, since their father was always prompt to gratify every whim. But there was some element of happiness wanting, nevertheless; and M. Lenoble perceived that it was so. The life at Côtenoir was desultory, straggling; an existence of perpetual dawdling; a life of shreds and patches, half-formed resolutions, projects begun and broken off in the middle. The good genius, the household angel, order, was wanting in that mansion. There was waste, dirt, destruction of all kinds, in the rambling old château; old servants, too weak or too lazy to work; old tradesmen, presuming on old-established habits of imposition, unquestioned so long as to have become a right — for the feudal system of fine and forfeiture has only changed hands. The power still flourishes, only it is the villein who takes tithe of his lord.

The servants at Côtenoir had gone their own ways with but little interference since the death of Madame de Nérague, which occurred two years before that of her daughter, Clarice Lenoble. Poor invalid Clarice had been quite unable to superintend her household; and since her death Mademoiselle Cydalise had been too feeble of health to assume any authority in her nephew’s establishment, even if the household of Côtenoir would have submitted to interference from Beaubocage, which in all likelihood they would not.

Thus it happened that things had taken their own course at the château, and the course had been somewhat erratic. There is nothing so costly as muddle, and Gustave Lenoble had of late begun to perceive that he had the maximum of expense with the minimum of comfort. Meanwhile the kind old aunt at Beaubocage gave her nieces much valuable advice against the time when they should be old enough to assume the management of their father’s house. The sweet unselfish lady of Beaubocage had indeed undergone hard experience in the acquirement of the domestic art. Heaven and her own memory alone recorded those scrapings and pinchings and nice calculations of morsels by which she had contrived to save a few pounds for her outcast brother. Such sordid economics show but poorly on earth; but it is probable that in the mass of documentary evidence which goes before the Great Judge, Mademoiselle Lenoble’s account-book will be placed on the right side.

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