Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

“What Do We Here, My Heart and i?”

After that first summons to Chelsea, Diana went many times — twice and three times a week — to comfort and tend her invalid father. Captain Paget’s novel regard for his only child seemed to increase with the familiarity of frequent intercourse. “I have had very great pleasure in making your acquaintance, my dear Diana,” he said one day, in the course of a tête-à-tête with his daughter; “and I am charmed to find you everything that a well-born and well-bred young woman ought to be. I am sure you have excellent reason to be grateful to your cousin, Priscilla Paget, for the excellent education you received in her abode; and you have some cause to thank me for the dash and style imparted to your carriage and manner by our foreign wanderings.”

The Captain said this with the air of a man who had accompanied his daughter on the grand tour solely with a view to her intellectual improvement. He really thought she had reason to be grateful to him for those accidents of his nomadic life which had secured her a good accent for French and German, and the art of putting on her shawl.

“Yes, my dear child,” he continued with dignity, “it affords me real gratification to know you better. I need scarcely say that when you were the associate of my pilgrimage, you were not of an age to be available as a companion. To a man of the world like myself, a young person who has not done growing must always savour somewhat of the schoolroom and the nursery. I am not going to repeat the Byronic impertinence about bread-and-butter; but the society of a girl of the hobbledehoy age is apt to be insipid. You are now a young woman, and a young woman of whom any father might with justice be proud.”

After a few such speeches as these, Diana began to think that it was just possible her father might really experience some novel feeling of regard for her. It might be true that his former coldness had been no more than a prejudice against the awkwardness of girlhood.

“I was shabby and awkward, I daresay, in those days,” she thought; “and then I was always asking papa for money to buy new clothes; and that may have set him against me. And now that I am no burden upon him, and can talk to him and amuse him, he may feel more kindly disposed towards me.”

There was some foundation for this idea. Captain Paget had felt himself more kindly disposed towards his only child from the moment in which she ceased to be an encumbrance upon him. Her sudden departure from Forêtdechêne had been taken in very good part by him.

“A very spirited thing for her to do, Val,” he had said, when informed of the fact by Mr. Hawkehurst; “and by far the best thing she could do, under the circumstances.”

From that time his daughter had never asked him for a sixpence, and from that time she had risen steadily in his estimation. But the feeling which he now exhibited was more than placid approval; it was an affection at once warm and exacting. The fact was, that Horatio Paget saw in his daughter the high-road to the acquirement of a handsome competence for his declining years. His affection was sincere so far as it went; a sentiment inspired by feelings purely mercenary, but not a hypocritical assumption. Diana was, therefore, so much the more likely to be softened and touched by it.

She was softened, deeply touched by this late awakening of feeling. The engagement of Valentine and Charlotte had left her own life very blank, very desolate. It was not alone the man she loved who was lost to her; Charlotte, the friend, the sister, seemed also slipping away from her. As kind, as loving, as tender as of old, this dear friend and adopted sister still might be, but no longer wholly her own. Over the hearts of the purest Eros reigns with a too despotic power, and mild affection is apt to sneak away into some corner of the temple on whose shrine Love has descended. This mild affection is but a little twinkling taper, that will burn steadily on, perhaps unseen amidst the dazzling glory of Love’s supernal lamp, to be found shining benignantly when the lamp is shattered.

For Charlotte, Valentine — and for Valentine, Charlotte — made the sum-total of the universe at this time; or, at best, there was but a small balance which included all the other cares and duties, affections and pleasures, of life. Of this balance Diana had the lion’s share; but she felt that things had changed since those days of romantic school-girl friendship in which Charlotte had talked of never marrying, and travelling with her dearest friend Diana amongst all the beautiful scenes they had read of, until they found the loveliest spot in the world, where they would establish themselves in an ideal cottage, and live together for the rest of their lives, cultivating their minds and their flower-garden, working berlin-wool chairs for their ideal drawing-room, and doing good to an ideal peasantry, who would be just poor enough to be interesting, and sickly enough to require frequent gifts of calf’s-foot jelly and green tea.

Those foolish dreams were done with now; and that other dream, of a life to be spent with the reckless companion of her girlhood, was lost to Diana Paget. There was no point to which she could look forward in the future, no star to lure her onward upon life’s journey. Her present position was sufficiently comfortable; and she told herself that she must needs be weak and wicked if she were not content with her lot. But beyond the present she dared not look, so blank was the prospect — a desert, without even the mirage; for her dreams and delusions were gone with her hope.

Possessed by such a sense of loneliness, it is scarcely strange if there seemed to her a gleam of joy, a faint glimmer of hope, in the newly awakened affection of her father. She began to believe him, and to take comfort from the thought that he was drifting to a haven where he might lie moored, with other battered old hulks of pirate and privateer, inglorious and at rest. To work for him and succour him in his declining years seemed a brighter prospect to this hopeless woman of four-and-twenty than a future of lonely independence. “It is the nature of woman to lean,” says the masculine philosopher; but is it not rather her nature to support and sustain, or else why to her is entrusted the sublime responsibility of maternity? Diana was pleased to think that a remorseful reprobate might be dependent on her toil, and owe his reformation to her influence. She was indeed a new Antigone, ready to lead him in his moral blindness to an altar of atonement more pure than the ensanguined shrine of the Athenian Eumenides.

Her visits to Omega Street were not entirely devoted to tête-a-têtes with her father. By reason of those coincidences which are so common to the lives of some people, it generally happened that M. Lenoble dropped in upon his invalid friend on the very day of Miss Paget’s visit. M. Lenoble was in London on business, and this business apparently necessitated frequent interviews with Captain Paget. Of course such interviews could not take place in the presence of Diana. Gustave was wont, therefore, to wait with praiseworthy patience until the conclusion of the young lady’s visit; and would even, with an inconsistent gallantry, urge her to prolong her stay to its utmost limit.

“It will always be time for my affairs, Miss Paget,” he urged, “and I know how your father values your society; and he well may value it. I only hope my daughters will be as good to me, if I have the gout, by-and-by.”

Diana had spent nearly a dozen evenings in Omega Street, and on each of those evenings had happened to meet M. Lenoble. She liked him better on every occasion of these accidental meetings. He was indeed a person whom it was difficult for any one to dislike, and in the thirty-four years of his life had never made an enemy. She had been pleased with him on the first evening; his bright handsome face, his courteous reverence for her sex — expressed in every word, every tone, every look — his sympathy with all good thoughts, his freshness and candour, were calculated to charm the coldest and most difficult of judges. Diana liked, and even admired him, but it was from an abstract point of view. He seemed a creature as remote from her own life as a portrait of Henry of Navarre, seen and admired in some royal picture-gallery to-day, to fade out of her memory to-morrow.

There was only one point in connection with Gustave Lenoble which occupied her serious thoughts; and this was the nature of his relations with her father.

This was a subject that sorely troubled her. Hope as she might for the future, she could not shut her eyes to the past. She knew that her father had lived for years as a cheat and a trickster — now by one species of falsehood and trickery, now by another — rarely incautious, but always unscrupulous. How had this village seigneur of Normandy fallen into the Captain’s toils; and what was the nature of the net that was spread for him?

The talk of business, the frequent interviews, the evident elation of her father’s spirits, combined to assure her that some great scheme was in progress, some commercial enterprise, perhaps not entirely dishonest — nay even honest, when regarded from the sanguine speculator’s point of view, but involving the hazard of Gustave Lenoble’s fortune.

“It is quite as easy for my father to delude himself as it is for him to delude others. This M. Lenoble is ignorant of English commerce, no doubt, and will be ready to believe anything papa tells him. And he is so candid, so trusting, it would be very hard if he were to be a loser through his confidence in papa. His daughters, too; the hazard of his fortune is peril to their future.” Such doubts and fears, gradually developed by reflection took stronger hold on Miss Paget’s mind after every fresh visit to Omega Street. She saw the Frenchman’s light-hearted confidence in all humanity, her father’s specious manner and air of quixotic honour. His sanguine tone, his excellent spirits, filled her with intolerable alarm. Alas! when had she ever seen her father in good spirits, except when some gentlemanly villany was in progress?

Miss Paget endured this uneasiness of mind as long as she could, and then determined to warn the supposed victim. She planned the mode of her warning, and arranged for herself a diplomatic form which would reflect the least possible discredit upon her father; and having once come to this resolution, she was not slow to put it into effect.

When her father was about to send for a cab to convey her back to Bayswater, after her next visit to Omega Street, she surprised him by intercepting his order.

“There is a cab-stand in Sloane Square, papa,” she said; “and if M. Lenoble will be so kind as to take me there, I— I would rather get the cab from the stand. The man charges more when he is fetched off the rank, I believe.”

She could think of no better excuse for seeing Gustave alone than this most sordid pretence. She blushed as she thought how mean a sound it must have in the ears of the man for whose advantage she was plotting. Happily M. Lenoble was not among the people who see nothing but meanness in the desire to save sixpence. His aunt Cydalise had shown him the loveliness of poverty; for there are vows of holy poverty that need no spoken formula, and that are performed without the cloister.

“Poor girl!” thought M. Lenoble; “I dare say even the cost of her coach is a consideration with her; and one dare not pay the coachman.”

This was how Gustave read that blush of shame which for a moment dyed Diana’s cheek. Her father’s was a very different reading.

“The minx sees my game, and is playing into my hands,” thought he. “So demure as she is, too! I should never have supposed her capable of such a clever manoeuvre to secure ten minutes’ tête-a-tête with an eligible admirer.”

He bade his daughter good night with more than usual effusion. He began to think that she might prove herself worthy of him after all.

The district between Omega Street and Sloane Square is after dusk of all places the most solitary. It is the border-land of Pimlico, or, to borrow from Sidney Smith, the knuckle end of Belgravia. In these regions of desolation and smoke-blackened stucco Diana and her companion were as secure from the interruption of the jostling crowd as they might have been in the primeval forests of Central America.

Miss Paget’s task was not a pleasant one. Shape her warning as she might, it must reflect some discredit upon her father. He had of late been kind to her; she felt this keenly to-night, and it seemed that the thing she was about to do was a sort of parricide. Not against her father’s life was her cruel hand to be lifted; but her still more cruel tongue was to slay her father’s good name.

“This M. Lenoble likes him and trusts him,” she thought to herself. “What a happiness for that poor broken-down old man to have so kind a friend! And I am going to interfere in a manner that may put an end to this friendship?”

This is the shape which her thoughts assumed as she walked silently by Gustave’s side, with her hand lying lightly on his arm. He spoke to her two or three times about the dulness of the neighbourhood, the coldness of the night, or some other equally thrilling subject; but, finding by her replies that she was thinking deeply, he made no further attempt at conversation.

“Poor child! she has some trouble on her mind, perhaps,” he thought to himself sadly, for his sympathy with this young lady was a very profound feeling. This was the first occasion on which he had ever been alone with her, and he wondered to find what a strange emotion was developed by the novelty of the situation. He had married at twenty years of age, and had never known those brief fancies or foolish passions which waste the freshness of mind and heart. He had married a wife whom he never learned to love; but his nature was so essentially a happy one, that he had failed to discover the something wanting in his life. In all relations — as grandson, husband, father, master — he had been “all simply perfect,” as Mademoiselle Cydalise pronounced him; and in a mind occupied by cares for the welfare and happiness of others, he had never found that blank which needed to be filled in order to make his own life completely happy. Only of late, in his thirty-fourth year, had he come to the knowledge of a feeling deeper than dutiful regard for an invalid wife, or affectionate solicitude for motherless children; only of late had he felt his heart stirred by a more thrilling emotion than that placid resignation to the will of Providence which had distinguished his courtship of Mademoiselle de Nérague.

They had nearly reached Sloane Square before Diana took courage to broach the subject so naturally repugnant to her. She had need to remember that the welfare of M. Lenoble and all belonging to him might be dependent on her fortitude.

“M. Lenoble,” she began at last, “I am going to say something I shall find it most painful to utter, but which I feel it my duty to say to you. I can only ask you to receive it in a generous spirit.”

“But, my dear Miss Paget, I pray you not to say anything that is disagreeable to you. Why should you give yourself pain? — why —”

“Because it is my duty to warn you of a danger which I know only too well, and of which you may be quite ignorant. You are my father’s friend, M. Lenoble; and he has very few friends. I should be sorry if anything I were to say should rob him of your regard.”

“Nothing that you say shall rob him of my friendship. But why should you persist thus to say anything that is painful? What can you tell me that I do not know, or that I cannot guess? Will you tell me that he is poor? But I know it. That he is a broken-down gentleman? And that also I know. What, then, would you tell me? That he has a daughter who is to him a treasure without price? Ah, mademoiselle, what must I be if I did not know that also? — I, who have contemplated that daughter so many times — ah, so many! — when she could not know with what sympathy my eyes watched her dutiful looks, with what profound emotion my heart interpreted her life of affectionate sacrifice.”

There was a warmth, a tenderness in his tones which touched Diana’s heart as it had not been touched of late. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the full meaning of those tender accents came home to her. The love that she had once dreamed of from the lips of another spoke to her to-night in the words of this stranger. The sympathy for which she had yearned long ago, in the days of her wanderings with Valentine, was given to her to-night without stint or measure. Unhappily it came too late; and it did not come from the only lips which, as it seemed to her to-night, could make sympathy precious or love divine. But to this lonely girl a good man’s affection seemed a treasure for which she must needs be deeply grateful. It was something to discover that she could be loved.

“I too,” she said to herself — “I, of whose presence Valentine is scarcely conscious when he enters a room where Charlotte and I are together; I, whom he greets day after day with the same careless words, the same indifferent look; I, who might fade and waste day by day with some slow disease, until I sank into the grave, before he would be conscious of any change in my face — is it possible that amongst the same race of beings there can be any creature so widely different from Valentine Hawkehurst as to love me?”

This was the bitter complaint of her heart as she compared the tenderness of this stranger with the indifference of the man to whom, for three long years of her girlhood, she had given every dream, every thought, every hope of her existence. She could not put him away from her heart all at once. The weak heart still fondly clung to the dear familiar image. But the more intensely she had felt the cold neglect of Valentine, the more grateful to her seemed the unsought affection of Gustave Lenoble.

“You know me as little as you know my father, M. Lenoble,” she said, after a long pause, during which they had walked to the end of the long dull street, and were close to the square. “Let us go back a little way, please; I have much more to say. I wish you to be my father’s friend always, but, if possible, without danger to yourself. My father is one of those sanguine people who are always ready to embark in some new enterprise, and who go on hoping and dreaming, after the failure of a dozen schemes. He has no money, that I know of, to lose himself, and that fact may make him, unconsciously, reckless of other people’s money. I have heard him speak of business relations with you, M. Lenoble, and it is on that account I venture to speak so plainly. I do not want my poor father to delude you, as he has often deluded himself. If you have already permitted him to involve you in any speculation, I entreat you to try to withdraw from it — to lose a little money, if necessary, rather than to lose all. If you are not yet involved, let my warning save you from any hazard.”

“My dear Miss Paget, I thank you a thousand times for your advice, your noble thoughtfulness for others. But no, there is no hazard. The business in which your father is occupied for me is not a speculation. It involves no risk beyond the expenditure of a few thousand francs, which, happily, I can afford to lose. I am not at liberty to tell you the nature of the business in question, because I have promised your father to keep that a secret. Dear young lady, you need have no fear for me. I am not a rash speculator. The first years of my life were passed in extreme poverty — the poverty that is near neighbour to starvation. That is a lesson one cannot forget. How shall I thank you for your concern for me? — so generous, so noble!”

“It was only my duty to warn you of my poor father’s weakness,” replied Diana. “If I needed thanks, your kindness to him is the only boon I could ask. He has bitter need of a friend.”

“And he shall never lack one while I live, if only for your sake.” The last half of the sentence was spoken in lower tones than the first. Diana was conscious of the lurking tenderness of those few words, and the consciousness embarrassed her. Happily they had reached the end of the quiet street by this time, and had emerged into the busier square. No more was said till they reached the cab-stand, when Diana wished her companion good night.

“I am going back to Normandy in a week, Miss Paget; shall I see you again before I leave England?”

“I really don’t know; our meetings are generally accidental, you see.”

“O yes, of course, always accidental,” replied Gustave, smiling.

“I am sorry you are going to leave London — for papa’s sake.”

“And I, too, am sorry — for my own sake. But, you see, when one has daughters, and a farm, and a chateau, one must be on the spot. I came to England for one week only, and I have stayed six.”

“You have found so much to amuse you in London?”

“Nay, mademoiselle, so much to interest me.”

“It is almost the same thing, is it not?”

“A thousand times no! To be amused and to be interested — ah, what can be so widely different as those two conditions of mind!”

“Indeed! Good night, Mr. Lenoble. Please ask the cabman to drive as fast as he can venture to do with consideration for his horse. I am afraid I shall be late, and my friends will be anxious about me.”

“You will be late. You consider your friends at Bayswater, and you consider even the cabman’s horse. You are charity itself. Will you not consider me a little also, Miss Paget?”

“But how?”

“Let me see you before I go back to Normandy. Your papa likes to see you twice a week, I know. This is Monday night; will you come to see him on Thursday?”

“If he wishes it.”

“He does wish it. Ah, how he wishes it! You will come?”

“If Mrs. Sheldon and Charlotte can spare me.”

“They cannot spare you. No one can spare you. That cannot be. It is amongst the things that are impossible. But they will have pity upon — your father, and they will let you come.”

“Please ask the cabman to start. Indeed, I shall be late. Good night, M. Lenoble.”

“Good night.”

He took her hand in his, and kissed it, with the grace of a Bayard. He loved her, and took no trouble to conceal his passion. No shadow of doubt darkened that bright horizon to which M. Lenoble looked with hopeful eyes. He loved this penniless, motherless girl, as it was in the blood of the Lenobles to love the poor and the helpless; especially when poverty and helplessness presented themselves in the guise of youth and beauty. He loved her, and she would love him. But why not? He was ten years her senior, but that makes nothing. His auburn hair and beard, in the style of Henry the Great, could show no streak of grey. His eyes had the brightness of one-and-twenty; for the eyes of a man whose soul preserves its youthfulness will keep their clear lustre for half a century. The tall figure, straight as a dart; the frank handsome face which M. Lenoble saw in the glass when he made his toilet, were not calculated to dishearten a hopeful lover; and Gustave, by nature sanguine, enjoyed his dream of happiness, untroubled by one morbid apprehension.

He loved her, and he would ask her for his wife. She would accept his offer; her father would rejoice in so fortunate an alliance; her friends of Bayswater would felicitate a change so desirable. And when he returned to Normandy he would take her with him, and say to his children, “Behold your mother!” And then the great rambling mansion of Côtenoir would assume a home-like aspect. The ponderous old furniture would be replaced by lightsome appointments of modern fashion; except, of course, in the grand drawing-room, where there were tapestries said to be from the designs of Boucher, and chairs and sofas in the true Louis Quinze style, of immovable bulkiness.

There was but one trifling hitch in the whole scheme of happiness — Diana was a Protestant. Ah, but what then! A creature so sweet, so noble, could not long remain the slave of Anglican heresy. A little talk with Cydalise, a week’s “retreat” at the Sacré Coeur, and the thing would be done. The dear girl would renounce her errors, and enter the bosom of the Mother Church. Pouff! M. Lenoble blew the little difficulty away from his finger-tips, and then wafted a kiss from the same finger-tips to his absent beloved.

“And this noble heart warned me against her own father!” M. Lenoble said to himself, as he walked towards the hotel at Blackfriars where he had taken up his abode, quite unconscious that the foot of Blackfriars Bridge was not the centre of West End London. “How noble, how disinterested! Poor old man! He is, no doubt, a speculator — something even of an Adventurer. What then? He shall have an apartment at Côtenoir, his place at the family table, his fauteuil by the hearth; and there he can do no harm.”

There was a strange sentiment in Diana’s mind after this evening’s conversation with Gustave Lenoble. To feel herself beloved, to know that there was some one creature in the wide crowded world interested in, nay, even attached to her, was a mystery, a surprise, and in some sort a source of pleasure to her. That Gustave Lenoble could ever be any nearer to her than he was at the present time did not occur to her as being within the limits of possibility. She had thrust Valentine from her heart, but the empty chamber could receive no new tenant. It was not swept and garnished; nay, indeed, it was sadly littered with the shreds and patches left by the late occupant. But, while this was so, to know that she could be loved was in some manner sweet to her.

“Ah, now I know that the poet is right,” she said to herself. “There is no creature so desolate but some heart responds unto its own. And I have found the generous responsive heart that can pity and love me because I seem so sorely to need love and pity. All my life — my blank, empty life — I will remember and be grateful to him, the first good man who ever called my father friend; the first of all mankind who thought this poor hand worthy to be lifted to his lips.”

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