Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Captain Paget Awakens to a Sense of His Duty.

Captain Paget’s return was made known to the Sheldon circle by a letter from the returning wanderer to his daughter. The Captain was laid up with rheumatic gout, and wrote quite piteously to implore a visit from Diana. Miss Paget, always constant to the idea of a duty to be performed on her side, even to this père prodigue, obeyed the summons promptly, with the full approval of Georgy, always good-natured after her own fussy manner.

“And if you’d like to take your papa a bottle of Mr. Sheldon’s old port, Diana, remember it’s at your disposal. I’m sure I’ve heard people say that old port is good for the gout — or perhaps, by the bye, what I heard was that it wasn’t good. I know old port and gout seem to run together in my head somehow. But if there’s anything in the house your papa would like, Diana — wine, or gunpowder tea, or the eider-down coverlet off the spare bed, or the parlour croquet, to amuse him of an evening, or a new novel — surely one couldn’t forfeit one’s subscription by lending a book to a non-subscribing invalid?”

While Georgy was suggesting the loan of almost every portable object in the house as a specific for Captain Paget’s gout, Charlotte sent for a cab and made things smooth for her friend’s departure. She wrapped her warmly against the February blast, and insisted upon going out to see her seated in the cab, whereby she offered to the pedestrians of that neighbourhood a seraphic vision of loveliness with tumbled hair. Charlotte had been always delightful, but Charlotte engaged to Valentine Hawkehurst was a creature of supernal sweetness and brightness — a radiant ministering angel, hovering lightly above a world too common for her foot to rest upon.

Miss Paget found her father suffering from a by no means severe attack of a respectable family gout, a little peevish from the effects of this affliction, but not at all depressed in mind. He had, indeed, the manner of a man with whom things are going pleasantly. There was a satisfaction in his tone, a placidity in his face, except when distorted for the moment by a twinge of pain, that were new to Diana, who had not been accustomed to behold the brighter side of her father’s disposition. He seemed grateful for his daughter’s visit, and received her with unwonted kindness of manner.

“You have come very promptly, my dear, and I am gratified by your early compliance with my request,” he said with dignified affection, after he had given his daughter the kiss of greeting. “I was a great sufferer last night, Diana, a great sufferer, a prisoner to this chair, and the woman below attempted to send me up a dinner —such a dinner! One would think a very small degree of education necessary for the stewing of a kidney, but the things that woman gave me last night were like morsels of stewed leather. I am not an epicure, Diana; but with such a constitution as mine, good cooking is a vital necessity. Life in lodgings for a man of my age is a sore trial, my dear. I wish you were well married, Diana, and could give your father a humble corner at your fireside.”

Diana smiled. It was a somewhat bitter smile; and there was scorn of herself, as well as scorn of her father in that bitterness.

“I am not the sort of person to marry well, papa,” she said.

“Who knows? You are handsomer than nine-tenths of the women who marry well.”

“No, papa; that is your sanguine manner of looking at your own property. And even if I were married to some one to whom I might give obedience and duty, and all that kind of thing, in exchange for a comfortable home, as they say in the advertisements, would you be content with a peaceful corner by my fireside? Do you think you would never pine for clubs and gaming-tables — nay, even for creditors to — to diplomatize with, and difficulties to surmount?”

“No, my dear. I am an old man; the clubs and gaming-houses have done with me, and I with them. I went to see a man at Arthur’s a few months ago. I had written to him on a little matter of business — in fact, to be candid with you, my love, for the loan of a five-pound note — and I called at the club for his reply. I caught sight of my face in a distant glass as I was waiting in the strangers’ room, and I thought I was looking at a ghost. There comes a time towards the close of a long troublesome life in which a man begins to feel like a ghost. His friends are gone, and his money is gone, his health is gone, his good looks are gone; and the only mistake seems to be that the man himself should be left behind. I remember an observation of Lord Chesterfield’s: ‘Lord —— and I have been dead for the last two years, but we don’t tell anyone so,’ he said; and there are few old men who couldn’t say the same. But I am not down-hearted to-day, my dear. No, the habit of hoping has never quite deserted me; and it is only now and then that I take a dismal view of life. Come, my love, lay aside your bonnet and things. Dear me! what a handsome black silk dress, and how well you look in it!”

“It is a present from Charlotte, papa. She has a very liberal allowance of pocket-money, and is generosity itself. I don’t like to take so much from her, but I only wound her by a refusal.”

“Of course, my dear. There is nothing so ungracious as a refusal, and no mark of high breeding so rare as the art of gracious acceptance. Any booby can give a present; but to receive a gift without churlish reticence or florid rapture is no easy accomplishment. I am always pleased to see you well-dressed, my love”— Diana winced as she remembered her shabby hat and threadbare gown at Fôretdechêne —“and I am especially pleased to see you elegantly attired this evening, as I expect a gentleman by-and-by.”

“A gentleman, papa!” exclaimed Miss Paget, with considerable surprise; “I thought that you had sent for me because you were ill and depressed and lonely.”

“Well, yes, Diana, I certainly am ill; and I suppose it is scarcely unnatural that a father should wish to see his only daughter.”

Diana was silent. A father’s wish to see his daughter was indeed natural and common; but that Captain Paget, who in no period of his daughter’s life had evinced for her the common affection of paternity, should be seized all of a sudden with a yearning for her society, was somewhat singular. But Diana’s nature had been ennobled and fortified by the mental struggle and the impalpable sacrifice of the last few months, and she was in nowise disposed to repel any affectionate feeling of her father’s even at this eleventh hour.

He tells us the eleventh hour is not too late,” she thought. “If it is not too late in the sight of that Divine Judge, shall it be thought too late by an erring creature like me?”

After a few minutes of thoughtful silence, she knelt down by her father’s chair and kissed him.

“My dear father,” she murmured softly, “believe me, I am very pleased to think you should wish to see me. I will come to you whenever you like to send for me. I am glad not to be a burden to you; but I should wish to be a comfort when I can.”

The Captain shed his stock tear. It signified something nearer akin to real emotion than usual.

“My dear girl,” he said, “this is very pleasing, very pleasing indeed. The day may come — I cannot just now say when — and events may arise — which — the nature of which I am not yet in a position to indicate to you — but the barren fig-tree may not be always fruitless. In its old age the withered trunk may put forth fresh branches. We will say no more of this, my love; and I will only remark that you may not go unrequited for any affection bestowed on your poor old father.”

Diana smiled, and this time it was a pensive rather than a bitter smile. She had often heard her father talk like this before. She had often heard these oracular hints of some grand event looming mighty in the immediate future; but she had never seen the vague prophecy accomplished. Always a schemer, and always alternating between the boastful confidence of hope and the peevish bewailings of despair, the Captain had built his castle to-day to sit among its ruins to-morrow, ever since she had known him.

So she set little value on his hopeful talk of this evening, but was content to see him in good spirits. He contemplated her admiringly as she knelt by his easy-chair, and smoothed the shining coils of her dark hair with a gentle hand, as he looked downward at the thoughtful face — proud and grave, but not ungentle.

“You are a very handsome girl, Diana,” he murmured, as much to himself as to his daughter; “yes, very handsome. Egad, I had no idea how handsome!”

“What has put such a fancy into your head to-night, papa?” asked Diana, laughing. “I do not believe in the good looks you are so kind as to attribute to me. When I see my face in the glass I perceive a pale gloomy countenance that is by no means pleasing.”

“You may be out of spirits when you look in the glass. I hope you are not unhappy at Bayswater.”

“Why should I be unhappy, papa? No sister was ever kinder or more loving than Charlotte Halliday is to me. I should he very ungrateful to Providence as well as to her if I did not appreciate such affection. How many lonely girls, like me, go through life without picking up a sister?”

“Yes, you are right, my dear. Those Sheldon people have been very useful to you. They are not the kind of people I should have wished a daughter of mine to be live with, if I were in the position my birth entitles me to occupy; but as I am not in that position, I submit. That black silk becomes you admirably. And now, my love, be so kind as to ring the bell for lights and tea.”

They had been sitting in the firelight — the mystic magical capricious firelight — which made even that tawdry lodging-house parlour seem a pleasant chamber. The tea-tray was brought, and candles. Diana seated herself at the table, and made tea with the contents of a little mahogany caddy.

“Don’t pour out the tea just yet,” said the Captain; “I expect a gentleman. I don’t suppose he’ll take tea, but it will look more civil to wait for him.”

“And who is this mysterious gentleman, papa?”

“A Frenchman; a man I met while I was abroad.”

Really a gentleman?”

“Certainly, Diana,” replied her father, with offended dignity.

“Do you think I should admit any person to my friendship who is not a gentleman? My business relations I am powerless to govern; but friendship is a different matter. There is no man more exclusive than Horatio Paget. M. Lenoble is a gentleman of ancient lineage and amiable character.”

“And rich, I suppose, papa?” asked Diana. She thought that her father would scarcely speak of the gentleman in a tone so profoundly respectful if he were not rich.

“Yes, Diana. M. Lenoble is master of a very fair estate, and is likely to be much richer before he dies.”

“And he has been kind to you, papa?”

“Yes, he has shown me hospitality during my residence in Normandy. You need not speak of him to your friends the Sheldons.”

“Not even to Charlotte?”

“Not even to Charlotte. I do not care to have my affairs discussed by that class of people.”

“But, dear papa, why make a mystery about so unimportant a matter.

“I do not make a mystery; but I hate gossip. Mrs. Sheldon is an incorrigible gossip, and I daresay her daughter is no better.”

“Charlotte is an angel, papa.”

“That is very possible. But I beg that you will refrain from discussing my friend M. Lenoble in her angelic presence.”

“As you please, papa,” said Diana gravely. She felt herself bound to obey her father in this small matter; but the idea of this mystery and secrecy was very unwelcome to her. It implied that her father’s acquaintance with this Frenchman was only a part of some new scheme. It was no honest friendship, which the Captain might be proud to own, glad to show the world that in these days of decadence he could still point to a friend. It was only some business alliance, underhand and stealthy; a social conspiracy, that must needs be conducted in darkness.

“Why did papa summon me here if he wants his acquaintance with this man kept secret?” she asked herself; and the question seemed unanswerable.

She pictured this M. Lenoble to herself — a wizened, sallow-faced Macchiavellian individual, whose business in England must needs be connected with conspiracy, treason, commercial fraud, anything or everything stealthy and criminal.

“I wish you would let me go back to Bayswater before this gentleman comes, papa,” she said presently. “I heard it strike seven just now, and I know I shall be expected early. I can come again whenever you like.”

“No, no, my love; you must stop to see my friend. And now tell me a little about the Sheldons. Has anything been stirring since I saw them last?”

“Nothing whatever, papa. Charlotte is very happy; she always had a happy disposition, but she is gayer than ever since her engagement with — Valentine.”

“What an absurd infatuation!” muttered the Captain.

“And he — Valentine — is very good, and works very hard at his literary profession — and loves her very dearly.”

It cost her an effort to say this even now, even now when she fancied herself cured of that folly which had once been so sweet to her. To speak of him like this — to put him away out of her own life, and contemplate him as an element in the life of another — could not be done without some touch of the old anguish.

There was a loud double-knock at the street-door as she said this, and a step sounded presently in the passage; a quick, firm tread. There was nothing stealthy about that, at any rate.

“My friend Lenoble,” said the Captain; and in the next instant a gentleman entered the room, a gentleman who was in every quality the opposite of the person whom Diana had expected to see.

These speculative pictures are seldom good portraits. Miss Paget had expected to find her father’s ally small and shrivelled, old and ugly, dried-up and withered in the fiery atmosphere of fraud and conspiracy; in outward semblance a monkey, in soul a tiger. And instead of this obnoxious creature there burst into the room a man of four-and-thirty years of age, tall, stalwart, with a fair frank face, somewhat browned by summer suns; thick auburn hair and beard, close trimmed and cropped in the approved Gallic fashion — clear earnest blue eyes, and a mouth whose candour and sweetness a moustache could not hide. Henry of Navarre, before the white lilies of France had dazzled his eyes with their fatal splendour, before the court of the Medici had taught the Bearnois to dissemble, before the sometime Protestant champion had put on that apparel of stainless white in which he went forth to stain his soul with the sin of a diplomatic apostasy.

Such a surprise as this makes a kind of crisis in the eventless record of a woman’s life. Diana found herself blushing as the stranger stood near the door awaiting her father’s introduction. She was ashamed to think of the wrong her imagination had done him.

“My daughter, Diana Paget — M. Lenoble. I have been telling Diana how much I owed to your hospitality during my stay in Normandy,” continued the Captain, with his grandest air, “I regret that I can only receive you in an apartment quite unworthy the seigneur of Côtenoir. — A charming place, my dear Diana, which I should much like you to see on some future occasion. — Will you take some tea, Lenoble? — Diana, a cup of tea. — The Pagets are a fallen race, you see, my dear sir, and a cup of tea in a lodging-house parlour is the best entertainment I can give to a friend. The Cromie Pagets of Hertfordshire will give you dinner in gold plate, with a footman standing behind the chair of every guest; but our branch is a younger and a poorer one, and I, among others, am paying the price of youthful follies.”

Gustave Lenoble looked sympathetic, but the glance of sympathy was directed to Diana, and not to the male representative of the younger Pagets. To pity the distressed damsel was an attribute of the Lenoble mind; and Gustave had already begun to pity Miss Paget, and to wonder what her fate in life would be, with no better protector than a father who was confessedly a pauper. He saw that the young lady was very handsome, and he divined, from some indefinable expression of her face, that she was proud; and as he thought of his own daughters, and their easy life and assured future, the contrast seemed to him very cruel.

Chivalrous as the house of Lenoble might be by nature, he could scarcely have felt so keen an interest in Captain Paget’s daughter at the first glance, if his sympathies had not been already enlisted for her. The noble Horatio, though slow to act a father’s part, had shown himself quick to make capital out of his daughter’s beauty and virtues when the occasion offered.

In his intercourse with the seigneur of Côtenoir, which had developed from a mere business acquaintance into friendship, Captain Paget had discoursed with much eloquence upon the subject of his motherless daughter; and M. Lenoble, having daughters of his own, also motherless, lent him the ear of sympathy.

“I have heard much of you, Miss Paget,” said Gustave presently, “and of your devotion to your father. He has no more favourite theme than your goodness.”

Diana blushed, and Diana’s father blushed also. That skilled diplomatist felt the awkwardness of the situation, and was prompt to the rescue.

“Yes,” he said, “my daughter has been a heroine. There are Antigones, sir, who show their heroic nature by other service than the leading to and fro of a blind father. From the earliest age my poor child has striven to stand alone; too proud, too noble to be a burden on a parent whose love would have given all, but whose means could give but little. And now she comes to me from her home among strangers, to soothe my hour of pain and infirmity. I trust your daughters may prove as worthy of your love, M. Lenoble.”

“They are very dear girls,” answered the Frenchman; “but for them life has been all sunshine. They have never known a sorrow except the death of their mother. It is the storm that tests the temper of the tree. I wish they might prove as noble in adversity as Miss Paget has shown herself.”

This was more than Diana could bear without some kind of protest.

“You must not take papa’s praises au pied de la lettre, M. Lenoble,” she said; “I have been by no means brave or patient under adversity. There are troubles which one must bear. I have borne mine somehow; but I claim no praise for having submitted to the inevitable.”

This was spoken with a certain noble pride which impressed Gustave more than all the father’s florid eloquence had done. After this the conversation became less personal. M. Lenoble talked of England. It was not his first visit; but he had only the excursionist’s knowledge of the British Isles.

“I have been to Scotland,” he said. “Your Scotland is grand, mountainous — all that there is of the most savage and poetic. It is a Switzerland lined with Brittany. But that which most speaks to the heart of a stranger is the peaceful beauty of your English landscape.”

“You like England, M. Lenoble?” said Diana.

“Have I not reason? My mother was English. I was only five years old when I lost her. She went out of my life like a dream; but I can still recall a faint shadow of her face — an English face — a countenance of placid sadness, very sweet and tender. But why do I talk of these things?”

On this the Frenchman’s talk took a gayer turn. This M. Lenoble showed himself a lively and agreeable companion. He talked of Normandy, his daughters and their convent, his little son at Rouen, his aunt Cydalise, the quiet old lady at Beaubocage; his grandfather, his grandmother, the old servants, and everything familiar and dear to him. He told of his family history with boyish candour, untainted by egotism, and seemed much pleased by Diana’s apparent interest in his unstudied talk. He was quite unconscious that the diplomatic Horatio was leading him on to talk of these things, with a view to making the conversation supremely interesting to him. That arch diplomatist knew that there is nothing a man likes better than talking of his own affairs, if he can have a decent excuse for such discourse.

The clock struck nine while Diana was listening, really interested. This glimpse of a life so far apart from her own was a relief, after the brooding introspective reveries which of late had constituted so large a portion of her existence. She started up at the sound of the clock.

“What now, Cinderella?” cried her father. “Have you stopped beyond your time, and will your fairy godmother be angry?”

“No one will be angry, papa; but I did not mean to stay so late. I am sorry your description of Normandy has been so interesting, M. Lenoble.”

“Come and see Vevinord and Côtenoir, and you will judge for yourself. The town-hall of Vevinord is almost as fine as that of Louvain; and we have a church that belongs to the time of Dagobert.”

“She shall see them before long,” said the Captain; “I shall have business in Rouen again before the next month is out; and if my daughter is a good girl, I will take her over there with me.”

Diana stared at her father in utter bewilderment. What could be the meaning of this sudden display of affection?

“I should not be free to go with you, papa, even if you were able to take me,” she replied, somewhat coldly; “I have other duties.”

She felt assured that there was some lurking motive, some diplomatic art at the bottom of the Captain’s altered conduct, and she could not altogether repress her scorn. The astute Horatio saw that he had gone a little too far, and that his only child was not of the stuff to be moulded at will by his dexterous hands.

“You will come and see me again, Diana?” he said in a pleading tone: “I am likely to be a prisoner in this room for a week or more.”

“Certainly, papa; I will come if you wish it. When shall I come?”

“Well, let me see — to-day is Thursday; can you come on Monday?”

“Yes, I will come on Monday.”

A cab was procured, and Miss Paget was conducted to that vehicle by her new acquaintance, who showed a gallant anxiety for her comfort on the journey, and was extremely careful about the closing of the windows. She arrived at Bayswater before ten, but being forbidden to talk of M. Lenoble, could give but a scanty account of her evening.

“And was your papa kind, dear?” asked Charlotte, “and did he seem pleased to see you?”

“He was much kinder and more affectionate than usual, Lotta dear; so much so, that he set me wondering. Now, if I were as confiding and eager to think well of people as you are, I should be quite delighted by this change. As it is, I am only mystified. I should be very glad if my father and I could be drawn closer together; very glad if my influence could bring about an amendment in his life.”

While Miss Paget was discussing her father’s affectionate and novel behaviour, the noble Horatio was meditating, by his solitary hearth, upon the events of the evening.

“I’m half-inclined to think he’s hit already,” mused the Captain. “I must not allow myself to be deluded by manner. A Frenchman’s gallantry rarely means much; but Lenoble is one of those straightforward fellows whose thoughts may be read by a child. He certainly seemed pleased with her; interested and sympathetic, and all that kind of thing. And she is an uncommonly handsome girl, and might marry any one if she had the opportunity. I had no idea she was so handsome until to-night. I suppose I never noticed her by candlelight before. By Jove! I ought to have made her an actress, or singer, or something of that kind. And so I might, if I’d known her face would light up as it does. I wish she wasn’t so impracticable — always cutting in with some awkward speech, that makes me look like a fool, when, if she had an ounce of common sense, she might see that I’m trying to make her fortune. Yes, egad, and such a fortune as few girls drop into now-a-days! Some of your straitlaced church-going people would call me a neglectful father to that girl, I daresay; but I think if I succeed in making her the wife of Gustave Lenoble, I shall have done my duty in a way that very few fathers can hope to surpass. Such a high-principled fellow as Lenoble is too! — and that is a consideration.”

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