Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

The Captain’s Coadjutor.

Once in possession of the connection between the intestate John Haygarth and the Halliday family, Captain Paget’s course was an easy one. He understood now why his investigations had been so suddenly brought to a standstill. Philip Sheldon had discovered the unexpected connection, and was eager to put a stop to researches that might lead to a like discovery on the part of his coadjutor.

“And Sheldon expects to prove his stepdaughter’s claim to this fortune?” thought the Captain. “He will affect ignorance of the whole transaction until his plans are ripe, and then spring them suddenly upon his brother George. I wonder if there is anything to be made out of George by letting him into the secret of his brother’s interference? No; I think not. George is as poor as a church mouse, and Philip must always be the more profitable acquaintance.”

On the broad basis afforded by Diana’s letter Captain Paget was able to build up the whole scheme of the Haygarthian succession. The pedigree of the Meynells was sufficiently simple, if their legitimate descent from Matthew Haygarth could be fairly proved. Charlotte Halliday was heiress-at-law to the fortune of John Haygarth, always provided that her great-aunt Susan died without legitimate issue.

Here was the one chance which appeared to the adventurous mind of Horatio Paget worth some trouble in the way of research. Fourteen years of Susan Meynell’s life had been spent away from all who knew her. It was certainly possible that in that time she might have formed some legitimate alliance.

This was the problem which Horatio set himself to solve. Your adventurer is, of all manner of men, the most sanguine. Sir Walter Raleigh sees visions of gold and glory where grave statesman see only a fool’s paradise of dreams and fancies. To the hopeful mind of the Captain these fourteen unrecorded years of Susan Meynell’s life seemed a very Golconda.

He did not, however, rest satisfied with the information afforded by Diana’s letter.

“I will have the story of these Meynells at first-hand as well as at second-hand,” he said to himself; and he lost no time in presenting himself again at the Villa — this time as a visitor to Mrs. Sheldon.

With Georgy he had been always a favourite. His little stories of the great world — the Prince and Perdita, Brummel and Sheridan — though by no means novel to those acquainted with that glorious period of British history, were very agreeable to Georgy. The Captain’s florid flatteries pleased her; and she contrasted the ceremonious manners of that gentleman with the curt business-like style of her husband, very much to the Captain’s advantage. He came to thank her for her goodness to his child, and this occasion gave him ample opportunity for sentiment. He had asked to see Mrs. Sheldon alone, as his daughter’s presence would have been some hindrance to the carrying out of his design.

“There are things I have to say which I should scarcely care to utter before my daughter, you see, my dear Mrs. Sheldon,” he said, with pathetic earnestness. “I should not wish to remind the dear child of her desolate position; and I need scarcely tell you that position is very desolate. A father who, at his best, cannot provide a fitting home for a delicately nurtured girl, and who at any moment may be snatched away, is but a poor protector. And were it not for your friendship, I know not what my child’s fate might be. The dangers and temptations that beset a handsome young woman are very terrible, my dear Mrs. Sheldon.”

This was intended to lead up to the subject of Susan Meynell, but Georgy did not rise to the bait. She only shook her head plaintively in assent to the Captain’s proposition.

“Yes, madam; beauty, unallied with strength of mind and high principles, is apt to be a fatal dower. In every family there are sad histories,” murmured the sentimental Horatio.

Even this remark did not produce the required result; so the Captain drew upon his invention for a specimen history from the annals of his own house, which was a colourable imitation of Susan Meynell’s story.

“And what was the end of this lovely Belinda Paget’s career, my dear Mrs. Sheldon?” he concluded. “The gentleman was a man of high rank, but a scoundrel and a dastard. Sophia’s brother, a cornet in the First Life Guards, called him out, and there was a meeting on Wimbledon Common, in which Lavinia’s seducer was mortally wounded. There was a trial, and the young captain of Hussars, Amelia’s brother, was sentenced to transportation for life. I need scarcely tell you that the sentence was never carried out. The young man fell gloriously at Waterloo, at the head of his own regiment, the Scotch Fusiliers, and Lavinia — I beg pardon, Amelia; nay, what am I saying? the girl’s name was Belinda — embraced the Roman Catholic faith, and expired from the effects of stigmata inflicted by her own hands in a paroxysm of remorse for her brother’s untimely death at the hands of her seducer.”

This lively little impromptu sketch had the desired effect. Melted by the woes of Belinda, or Sophia, or Amelia, or Lavinia Paget, Mrs. Sheldon was moved to relate a sad event in her husband’s family; and encouraged by the almost tearful sympathy of the Captain, she again repeated every detail of Susan Meynell’s life, as known to her kindred. And as this recital had flowed spontaneously from the good soul’s lips, she would he scarcely likely to allude to it afterwards in conversation with Mr. Sheldon; more especially as that gentleman was not in the habit of wasting much of his valuable time in small-talk with the members of his own household.

Captain Paget had duly calculated this, and every other hazard that menaced the intricate path he had mapped out for himself.

Satisfied by Mrs. Sheldon’s repetition of Susan Meynell’s story, and possessed of all the information he could hope to obtain from that quarter, Horatio set himself to consider what steps must next be taken. Much serious reflection convinced even his sanguine mind that the enterprise was a difficult one, and could scarcely be carried through successfully without help from some skilled genealogist.

“George Sheldon has given his lifetime to this sort of thing, and is a skilled lawyer to boot,” Captain Paget said to himself. “If I hope to go in against him, I must have someone at my elbow as well versed in this sort of business as he is.”

Having once admitted this necessity, the Captain set himself to consider where he was to find the right person. A very brief meditation settled this question. One among the numerous business transactions of Captain Paget’s life had brought him in contact with a very respectable little French gentleman called Fleurus, who had begun his career as a notary, but, finding that profession unprofitable, had become a hunter of pedigrees and heirs-at-law — for the most part to insignificant legacies, unclaimed stock, and all other jetsam and flotsam thrown up on the shadowy shores of the Court of Chancery. M. Fleurus had not often been so fortunate as to put his industrious fingers into any large pie, but he had contrived to make a good deal of money out of small affairs, and had found his clients grateful.

“The man of men,” thought Horatio Paget; and he betook himself to the office of M. Fleurus early next day, provided with all documents relating to the Haygarthian succession.

His interview with the little Frenchman was long and satisfactory. On certain conditions as to future reward, said reward to be contingent on success, M. Fleurus was ready to devote himself heart and soul to the interests of Captain Paget.

“To begin: we must find legal evidence of this Matthew Haygarth’s marriage to the mother of this child C., who came afterwards to marry the man Meynell; and after we will go to Susan Meynell. Her box came from Rouen — that we know. Where her box came from she is likely to have come from. So it is at Rouen, or near Rouen, we must look for her. Let me see: she die in 1835! that is long time. To look for the particulars of her life is like to dive into the ocean for to find the lost cargo of a ship that is gone down to the bottom, no one knows where. But to a man really expert in these things there is nothing of impossible. I will find you your Susan Meynell in less than six months; the evidence of her marriage; if she was married; her children, if she had children.”

In less than six months — the margin seemed a wide one to the impatient Horatio. But he knew that such an investigation must needs be slow, and he left the matters in the hands of his new ally with a sense that he had done the best thing that could be done. Then followed for Horatio Paget two months of patient attendance upon fortune. He was not idle during this time; for Mr. Sheldon, who seemed particularly anxious to conciliate him, threw waifs and strays of business into his way. Before the middle of November M. Fleurus had found the register of Matthew Haygarth’s marriage, as George Sheldon had found it before him, working in the same groove, and with the same order of intelligence. After this important step M. Fleurus departed for his native shores, where he had other business besides the Meynell affair to claim his attention. Meanwhile the astute Horatio kept a close eye upon his young friend Valentine. He knew from Diana that the young man had been in Yorkshire; and he guessed the motive of his visit to Newhall, not for a moment supposing that his presence in that farmhouse could have been accidental. The one turn of affairs that utterly and completely mystified him was Mr. Sheldon’s sanction of the engagement between Valentine and Charlotte. This was a mystery for which he could for some time find no solution.

“Sheldon will try to establish his stepdaughter’s claim to the fortune; that is clear. But why does he allow her to throw herself away on a penniless adventurer like Hawkehurst? If she were to marry him before recovering the Haygarth estate, she would recover it as his wife, and the fortune would be thrown unprotected into his hands.”

More deliberate reflection cast a faint light upon Philip Sheldon’s motives for so quixotic a course.

“The girl had fallen in love with Val. It was too late to prevent that. She is of age, and can marry whom she pleases. By showing himself opposed to her engagement with Val, he might have hurried her into rebellion, and an immediate marriage. By affecting to consent to the engagement, he would, on the contrary, gain time, and the advantage of all those chances that are involved in the lapse of time.”

Within a few days of Christmas came the following letter from M. Fleurus:—

From Jacques Rousseau Fleurus to Horatio Paget.

Hotel de la Pucelle, place Jeanne d’Arc, Rouen, 21st December, 186 —.

MONSIEUR— After exertions incalculable, after labours herculean, I come to learn something of your Susan Meynell — more, I come to learn of her marriage. But I will begin at the beginning of things. The labours, the time, the efforts, the courage, the patience, the — I will say it without to blush — the genius which this enterprise has cost me, I will not enlarge upon. There are things which cannot tell themselves. To commence, I will tell you how I went to Rouen, how I advertised in the journals of Rouen, and asked among the people of Rouen — at shops, at hotels, by the help of my allies, the police, by means which you, in your inexperience of this science of research, could not even figure to yourself — always seeking the trace of this woman Meynell. It was all pain lost. Of this woman Meynell in Rouen there was no trace.

In the end I enraged myself. “Imbecile!” I said to myself, “why seek in this dull commercial city, among this heavy people, for that which thou shouldst seek only in the centre of all things? As the rivers go to the ocean, so flow all the streams of human life to the one great central ocean of humanity — PARIS! It is there the Alpha and the Omega — there the mighty heart through which the blood of all the body must be pumped, and is pumping always,” I say to myself, unconsciously rising to the sublimity of my great countryman, Hugo, in whose verse I find an echo of my own soul, and whose compositions I flatter myself I could have surpassed, if I had devoted to the Muses the time and the powers which I have squandered on a vilain metier, that demands the genius of a Talleyrand, and rewards with the crust of an artisan.

In Paris, then, I will seek the woman Meynell, and to Paris I go. In my place an inexperienced person would advertise in the most considerable papers; would invite Susan Meynell to hear of something to her advantage; and would bring together a crowd of false Susan Meynells, greedy to obtain the benefice. Me, I do nothing in this style there. On the contrary, in the most obscure little journals of Paris I publish a modest little advertisement as from the brother of Susan Meynell, who implores his sister to visit him on his deathbed.

Here are follies, you will say. Since Susan Meynell is dead it is thirty years, and her brother is dead also. Ah, how you are dull, you insulars, and how impossible for your foggy island to produce a Fouché, a Canler, a genius of police, a Columbus of the subterranean darknesses of your city.

The brother, dying, advertises for the sister, dead; and who will answer that letter, think you? Some good Christian soul who has pity for the sick man, and who will not permit him to languish in waiting the sister who will come to him never. For us of the Roman Catholic religion the duty of charity is paramount. You of the Anglican faith — bah, how you are cold, how you are hard, how you are unpitiable!

My notice appears once, my notice appears twice, three times, four times, many times. I occupy myself about my other business, and I wait. I do not wait unusefully. In effect, a letter arrives at last at the address of the dying, from a lady who knew Susan Meynell before her marriage with M. Lenoble.

Think you not that to me this was a moment of triumph? Before her marriage with M. Lenoble! Those words appear under my eyes in the writing of the unknown lady. “It is found!” I cry to myself; and then I hasten myself to reply to the unknown lady. Will she permit me to see her?

With all politeness I make the request; with all politeness it is answered. The lady calls herself Mademoiselle Servin. She resides in the street Grande–Mademoiselle, at the corner of the Place Lauzun. It is of all the streets of Paris the most miserable. One side is already removed. In face of the windows of those houses that still stand they are making a new Boulevard. Behind they are pulling down edifices of all kinds in the formation of a new square. At the side there is a yawning chasm between two tall houses, through which they pierce a new street. One sees the interior of many rooms rising one above another for seven stories. Here the gay hangings of an apartment of little master; there the still gaudier decoration of a boudoir of these ladies. High above these luxurious salons — ah, but how much more near to the skies! — one sees the poor grey paper, blackened and smoky, of a garret of sempstress, or workman, and the hearths black, deserted. These interiors thus exposed tighten me the heart. It is the autopsy of the domestic hearth.

I find the Mademoiselle Servin an old lady, grey and wan. The house where she now resides is the house which she has inhabited five-and-thirty years. They talk of pulling it down, and to her the idea of leaving it is exquisite pain. She is alone, a teacher of music. She has seen proprietors come and go. The pension has changed mistresses many times. Students of law and of medicine have come and passed like the shadows of a magic lantern; but this poor soul has remained still in her little room on the fourth, and has kept always her little old piano.

It was here she knew Susan Meynell, and a young Frenchman who became in love with her, for she was beautiful like the angels, this lady said to me.

Until we meet for all details. Enough that I come to discover where the marriage took place, that I come to obtain a copy of the register, and that I do all things in rule. Enough that the marriage is a good marriage — a regular marriage, and that I have placed myself already in communication with the heir of that marriage, who resides within some few leagues of this city.

My labours, my successes I will not describe. It must that they will be recompensed in the future. I have dispensed much money during these transactions.

Agree, monsieur, that I am your devoted servitor,

JACQUES ROUSSEAU FLEURUS.

It was in consequence of the receipt of this missive that the Captain trusted himself to the winds and waves in the cheerless December weather. He was well pleased to find that M. Fleurus had made discoveries so important; but he had no idea of letting that astute practitioner absorb all the power into his own hands.

“I must see Susan Meynell’s heir,” he said to himself; “I must give him clearly to understand that to me he owes the discovery of his claims, and that in this affair the Frenchman Fleurus is no more than a paid agent.”

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