Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

Taken by Storm.

Two days after her interview with Gustave Lenoble, Miss Paget received a brief note from her father, summoning her again to Omega Street.

“He has not gone back to Normandy,” wrote the Captain.

“My child, he positively worships the ground you walk upon. Ah, my love, it is something to have a father! I need scarcely tell you that his first idea of your excellence was inspired by those glowing descriptions of your goodness, your beauty, your heroism, which I favoured him with, en passant, during our conversations at Côtenoir, where the happy accident of a business transaction first introduced me to him. The interests of my only child have ever been near and dear to me; and where a duller man would have perceived only a wealthy stranger, my paternal instincts recognized at a glance the predestined husband of my daughter. It needed my wide experience of life — and, as I venture to believe, my subtle knowledge of the human heart — to understand that a man who had lived for five-and-thirty years buried alive in a French province — a charming place, my love, and for your refined taste replete with interest — never seeing a mortal except his immediate neighbours, would be the man of men to fall in love with the first attractive young woman he met among strangers. Come to me this afternoon without fail, and come early. — Yours,

“H.N.C.P.”

Diana obeyed this summons submissively, but still troubled by that strange sense of bewilderment which had affected her since her stormy interview with Captain Paget. She was not quite certain of herself. The old dreams — the sweet foolish girlish fancies — were not yet put away altogether from her mind; but she knew that they were foolish, and she was half-inclined to believe that there had been some wisdom in her father’s scorn.

“What do I want more?” she asked herself. “He is good and brave and true, and he loves me. If I were a princess, my marriage would be negotiated for me by other people, and I should have reason to consider myself very happy if the man whom the state selected for my husband should prove as good a man as Gustave Lenoble. And he loves me; me, who have never before had power over a man’s heart!”

She walked across Hyde Park on this occasion, as on the last; and her thoughts, though always confused — mere rags and scraps of thought — were not all unpleasant. There was a smile, half shy, half tender, on her face as she went into the little sitting-room where Gustave was waiting for her. She had seen his hat and overcoat in the passage, and knew that he was there waiting for her. To this poor desolate soul there was something sweet in the idea of being waited for.

As she stood but a little within the doorway, blushing, almost trembling with the sense of her changed position, her lover came across the room and took her in his arms. The strong brave arms held her to his breast; and in that one embrace he took her to his heart, and made her his own for ever.

In every story of life-long affection, there is one moment in which the bond is sealed. Diana looked up at the frank tender face, and felt that she had found her conqueror. Master, friend, protector, husband, adoring and devoted lover, gallant and fearless champion — he was all; and she divined his power and his worth as she glanced shyly upward, ashamed to be so lightly won.

“M. Lenoble,” she faltered, trying to withdraw herself from the strong encircling arm that held her, as if by right.

“Gustave, now and for ever, my Diane! There shall be no more Monsieur Lenoble. And in a few weeks it shall be ‘my husband.’ Your father has given me to you. He tells me to laugh at your refusals your scruples; to assail you like your Shakespeare’s Petruchio assails his Katherine — with audacious insolence that will not be denied. And I shall take his advice. Look up into my face, dear angel, and defy me to take his advice.”

Happily the dear angel looked only downwards. But M Lenoble was resolved to have an agreeable response.

“See, then, thou canst not defy me!” he cried, in the only language he spoke; and the “tu” for the first time sounded very tender, very sweet. “Thou canst not tell me thou art angry with me. And the other — the imbecile; — he is gone for ever, is he not? Ah, say yes!”

“Yes, he is gone,” said Diana, almost in a whisper.

“Is he quite gone? The door of thine heart locked against him, his luggage thrown out of the window?”

“He is gone!” she murmured softly. “He could not hold his place against you — you are so strong — so brave; and he was only a shadow. Yes, he is gone.”

She said this with a little sigh of relief. It was in all sincerity that she answered her suitor’s question. She felt that a crisis had come in her life — the first page of a new volume; and the old sad tear-blotted book might be cast away.

“Dear angel, wilt thou ever learn to love me?” asked Gustave, in a half-whisper, bending down his bearded face till his lips almost touched her cheek.

“It is impossible not to love you,” she answered softly. And indeed it seemed to her as if this chivalrous Gaul was a creature to command the love of women, the fear of men; an Achilles en frac; a Bayard without his coat of mail; Don Quixote in his youth, generous, brave, compassionate, tender, and with a brain not as yet distempered by the reading of silly romances.

Captain Paget emerged from his den as the little love scene ended. He affected a gentlemanly unconsciousness of the poetry involved in the situation, was pleasantly anxious about the tea-tray, the candles, and minor details of life; and thus afforded the lovers ample time in which to recover their composure. The Frenchman was in no wise discomposed; he was only abnormally gay, with a little air of triumph that was not unpleasing. Diana was pale; but there was an unwonted light in her eyes, and she had by no means the appearance of a victim newly offered on the sacrificial altar of filial duty. In sober truth, Miss Paget was happier to-night than she had been for a long time. At three-and-twenty she was girl enough to rejoice in the knowledge that she was truly loved, and woman enough to value the sense of peace involved in the security of a prosperous future.

If she was grateful to her lover — and the affection he had inspired in her heart had grown out of gratitude — it was no mercenary consideration as to his income or position that made her grateful. She thanked him for his love — that treasure which she had never expected to possess; she thanked him because he had taken her by the hand, and led her out of the ranks of lonely dependent womanhood, and seated her upon a throne, on the steps whereof he was content to kneel. Whether the throne were a rushen chair in some rustic cottage, or a gilded fauteuil in a palace, she cared very little. It was the subject’s devotion that was new and sweet to her.

She went to Charlotte’s room that night, when Mr. Sheldon’s small household was at rest; as she had gone on Christmas Eve to renounce her lover and to bless her rival. This time it was a new confession she went to make, and a confession that involved some shame. There is nothing so hard to confess as inconstancy; and every woman is not so philosophic as Rahel Varnhagen, who declared that to be constant was not always to love the same person, but always to love some one.

Miss Paget seated herself at Charlotte’s feet, as she had done on that previous occasion. The weather was still cold enough to make a fire very pleasant, though it was more than two months since the Christmas bells had rung out upon the frosty air. Diana sat on a low hassock, playing with the tassels of her friend’s dressing-gown, anxious to make her confession, and solely at a loss for words in which to shape so humiliating an avowal.

“Charlotte,” she began abruptly at last, “have you any idea when you and Valentine are to be married?”

Miss Halliday gave a little cry of surprise.

“Why, of course not, Di! How can you ask such a question? Our marriage is what uncle George calls a remote contingency. We are not to be married for ages — not until Valentine has obtained a secure position in literature, and an income that seems almost impossible. That was the special condition upon which Mr. Sheldon — papa — gave his consent to our engagement. Of course it was very proper and prudent of him to think of these things; and as he has been very kind and liberal-minded in his conduct to me throughout, I should be a most ungrateful person if I refused to be guided by his advice.”

“And I suppose that means that your engagement is to be a long one?”

“The longest of long engagements. And what can be happier than a long engagement? One gets to know and understand the man one is to marry so thoroughly. I think I know every turn of thought in Valentine’s mind; every taste, every fancy; and I feel myself every day growing to think more and more like him. I read the books he reads, so as to be able to talk to him, you know; but I am not so clever as you, Di, and Valentine’s favourite authors do sometimes seem rather dry to me. But I struggle on, you know; and the harder I find the struggle, the more I admire my dear love’s cleverness. Think of him, Di — three different articles in three different magazines last month! The paper on Apollodorus, in the Cheapside, you know; and that story in the Charing Cross —‘How I lost my Gingham Umbrella, and gained the Acquaintance of Mr. Gozzleton.’ So funny! And the exhaustive treatise on the Sources of Light, in the Scientific Saturday. And think of the fuss they make about Homer, a blind old person who wrote a long rigmarole of a poem about battles, and wrote it so badly that to this day no one knows whether it’s one complete poem, or a lot of odds-and-ends in the way of poetry, put together by a man with an unpronounceable Greek name. When I think of what Valentine accomplishes in comparison to Homer, and the little notice the reviewers take of him, except to make him low-spirited by telling him that he is shallow and frivolous, I begin to think that literature must be going to the dogs.”

And here Charlotte became meditative, absorbed in the contemplation of Mr. Hawkehurst’s genius. Diana had begun the conversation very artfully, intending to proceed by a gentle transition from Charlotte’s love affairs to her own; but the conversation was drifting away from the subject into a discussion upon literature, and the brilliant young essayist whose first adventurous flights seemed grand as the soaring of Theban eagle to this tender and admiring watcher of his skyward progress.

“Lotta,” said Miss Paget, after a pause, “should you be very sorry if I were to leave you before your marriage?”

“Leave me before my marriage, Diana! Is it not arranged that you are to live with mamma, and be a daughter to her, when I am gone? And you will come and stay with Valentine and me at our cottage; and you will advise me about my house-keeping, and teach me how to be a sensible, useful, economical wife, as well as a devoted one. Leave us, Di! What have I done, or mamma, or Mr. Sheldon, or anybody, that you should talk of anything so dreadful?”

“What have you done, dear girl, dear friend, dear sister? Everything to win my undying love and gratitude. You have changed me from a hard disappointed bitter-minded woman — envious, at times, even of you — into your loving and devoted friend. You have changed me from a miserable creature into a contented and hopeful one. You have taught me to forget that my childhood and youth were one long night of wretchedness and degradation. You have taught me to forgive the father who suffered my life to be what it was, and made no one poor effort to lift me out of the slough of despond to which he had sunk. I can say no more, Charlotte. There are things that cannot be told by words.”

“And you want to leave me!” said Charlotte, in accents half-wondering, half-reproachful.

“My father wants me to leave you, Lotta; and some one else — some one whom you must know and like before I can be sure I like him myself.”

“Him!” cried Charlotte, with a faint shriek of surprise. “Diana, WHAT are you going to tell me?”

“A secret, Lotta; something which my father has forbidden me to tell any one, but which I will not hide from you. My poor father has found a kind friend — a friend who is almost as good to him as you are to me. How merciful Heaven is in raising up friends for outcasts! And I have seen a good deal of this gentleman who is so kind to papa, and the result is that — chiefly for papa’s sake, and because I know that he is generous and brave and true, I mean papa’s friend, M. Lenoble — I have consented to be his wife.”

“Diana!” cried Charlotte, with a sternness of manner that was alarming in so gentle a creature, “it shall never be!”

“What dear?”

“The sacrifice! No, dear, no! I understand it all. For your cruel mercenary heartless designing father’s sake, you are going to marry a man whom you can’t love. You are going to offer up your poor bruised desolate heart on the altar of duty. Ah, dear, you can’t think I forget what you told me only two short months ago — though I seem selfish and frivolous, and am always talking about him, and parading my happiness, as it must seem to you, reckless of the wounds so newly healed in your noble unselfish heart. But I do not altogether forget, Diana, and such a sacrifice as this I will not allow. I know you have resigned him to me — I know you have thrust him from your heart, as you told me that night. But the hollow aching void that is left in your lonely heart shall be sacred, Di. No stranger’s image shall pollute it. You shall not sacrifice your own peace to your father’s selfishness. No, dear, no! With mamma and me you will always have a home. You need stoop to no cruel barter such as this marriage.”

And hereupon Miss Halliday wept over and caressed her friend, as the confidante of Agamemnon’s daughter may have wept over and caressed that devoted young princess after the divination of Calchas had become common talk in the royal household.

“But if I think it my duty to accept M. Lenoble’s offer, Lotta?” urged Miss Paget with some embarrassment of manner. “M. Lenoble is as rich as he is generous, and my marriage with him will secure a happy home for my father. The foolish dreams I told you about on Christmas Eve had faded from my mind before I dared to speak of them. I could only confess my folly when I knew that I was learning to be wise. Pray do not think that I am sordid or mercenary. It is not because M. Lenoble is rich that I am inclined to marry him, it is because —”

“Because you want to throw yourself away for the advantage of your selfish heartless father,” interjected Charlotte. “He has neglected you all your life, and now wants to profit by the sacrifice of your happiness. Be firm, Di, darling; your Charlotte will stand by you, and find a home for you always, come what may. Who is this M. Lenoble? Some horrible ugly old creature, I dare say.”

Miss Paget smiled and blushed. The vision of Gustave’s frank handsome face arose before her very vividly as Charlotte said this.

“No, dear,” she replied. “M. Lenoble is not an old man — five-and-thirty at most.”

“Five-and-thirty!” repeated Charlotte, with a wry face; you don’t call that young? And what is he like?”

“Well, dear, I think he is the sort of man whom most people would call handsome. I’m sure you would like him, Lotta. He is so candid, so animated, so full of strength and courage. The sort of man to whom one would naturally look in any emergency or danger; the sort of man in whose company fear would be impossible.”

“Diana,” cried Charlotte, suddenly, “you are in love with him!”

“Lotta!”

“Yes, dear, you are in love with him,” repeated Miss Halliday, embracing her friend with effusion; “yes, over head and ears in love with him. And you are ashamed to confess the truth to me; and you are half ashamed to confess it even to yourself — as if you could deceive an old stager like me!” cried Charlotte, laughing. “Why, you dear inconstant thing, while I have felt myself the guiltiest and most selfish creature in the world for robbing you of Valentine, you have been quietly transferring your affections to this M. Gustave Lenoble — who is very rich, and brave, and true, and generous, and what most people would call handsome! Bless you, a thousand times, my darling! You have made me so happy!”

“Indeed, Lotta!”

“Yes, dear. The thought that there was a blank in your life made a dark cloud in mine. I know I have been very selfish, very thoughtless, but I could never have been quite free from a sense of self-reproach. But now there is nothing for me but happiness. O darling, I so long to see your M. Lenoble!”

“You shall see him, dear.”

“And in the meantime tell me what he is like.”

Miss Halliday insisted upon a full, true, and particular account of M. Lenoble’s personal appearance. Diana gave it, but not without some sense of embarrassment. She could not bring herself to be enthusiastic about Gustave Lenoble, though in her heart there was a warmth of feeling that surprised her. “What a hypocrite you are, Di!” exclaimed Charlotte presently. “I know you love this good Frenchman almost as dearly as I love Valentine, and that the thought of his affection makes you happy; and yet you speak of him in little measured sentences, and you won’t be enthusiastic even about his good looks.”

“It is difficult to pass from dreams to realities, Lotta. I have lived so long among dreams, that the waking world seems strange to me.”

“That is only a poetical way of saying that you are ashamed of having changed your mind. I will tell M. Lenoble what a lukewarm creature you are, and how unworthy of his love!”

“You shall tell him what you please. But remember, dear, my engagement must not be spoken about yet awhile, not even to your mamma. Papa makes a strong point of this, and I have promised to obey, though I am quite in the dark as to his reasons.”

Miss Halliday submitted to anything her friend wished; only entreating that she might be introduced to M. Lenoble. Diana promised her this privilege; but it speedily transpired that Diana’s promise was not all that was wanted on this occasion.

For some time past, in fact from the very commencement of Charlotte’s engagement, Mr. Sheldon had shown himself punctilious to an exceeding degree with regard to his stepdaughter. The places to which she went, and the people with whom she consorted, appeared to be matters of supreme importance in his mind. When speaking of these things he gave those about him to understand that his ideas had been the same from the time of Charlotte’s leaving school; but Diana knew that this was not true. Mr. Sheldon’s theories had been much less strict, and Mr. Sheldon’s practice had been much more careless, prior to Miss Halliday’s engagement.

No stately principal of a school for young ladies could have been more particular as to the movements of her charges — more apprehensive of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing in the shape of singing or drawing-master — than Mr. Sheldon seemed to be in these latter days. Even those pleasant walks in Kensington Gardens, which had been one of the regular occupations of the day, were now forbidden. Mr. Sheldon did not like that his daughter should walk in public with no better protector than Diana Paget.

“There is something disreputable in two girls marching about those gardens together according to my ideas,” said this ultra-refined stockbroker, one morning at the family breakfast-table. “I don’t like to see my stepdaughter do anything I should forbid my own daughter to do. And if I had a daughter, I should most decidedly forbid all lonely rambles in Kensington Gardens. You see, Lotta, two girls as attractive as you and Miss Paget can’t be too particular where you go, and what you do. When you want air and exercise, you can get both in the garden; and when you want change of scene, and a peep at the fashions, you can drive out with Mrs. Sheldon.”

To this deprivation Charlotte submitted, somewhat unwillingly, but with no sign of open rebellion. She thought her stepfather foolish and unreasonable; but she always bore in mind the fact that he had been kind and disinterested in the matter of her engagement, and she was content to prove her gratitude by any little sacrifice of this kind. Was not her lover permitted to spend his Sundays in her society, and to call on her, at his discretion, during the week? And what were walks in Kensington Gardens compared with the delight of his dear presence! It is true that she had sometimes been favoured with Mr. Hawkehurst’s society in the course of her airing; but she knew that he sacrificed his hours of work or study for the chance of half an hour in her society; and she felt that there might be gain to him in her loss of liberty.

She told him, when next they met, that the morning walks were forbidden; and, so jealous a passion is love, that Mr. Hawkehurst was nowise sorry to find that his pearl was strictly watched and carefully guarded.

“Well, it seems very particular of Mr. Sheldon, of course,” he said; “but, upon my word, I think he’s right. Such a girl as you oughtn’t to go about with no better protection than Diana can give you. Fellows will stare so at a pretty girl, you know; and I can’t bear to think my pearl should be stared at by impertinent strangers.”

Mr. Hawkehurst did not, however, find the strict notions of his lady-love’s stepfather quite so agreeable when he wanted to take his “pearl” to the winter exhibitions of pictures. He was told that Miss Halliday could go nowhere, except accompanied by her mamma; and as Georgy did not care about pictures, and found herself unequal to the fatigue of attending the winter exhibitions, he was obliged to forego the delight of seeing them with Lotta on his arm. He pronounced Mr. Sheldon on this occasion to be a narrow-minded idiot; but withdrew the remark in a contrite spirit when Charlotte reminded him of that gentleman’s generosity.

“Yes, dear, he has certainly been very kind and very disinterested — more disinterested than even you think; but, somehow, I can’t make him out.”

It was very well for Miss Halliday that she had submitted to this novel restriction with as good a grace, inasmuch as Mr. Sheldon had prepared himself for active opposition. He had given orders to his wife, and further orders to Mrs. Woolper to the effect that his step-daughter should not be permitted to go out of doors, except in his own or her mother’s company.

“She is a very good girl, you see, Nancy,” he said to the old housekeeper, “but she’s young, and she’s giddy; and of course I can’t take upon myself to answer for Miss Paget, who may or may not be a good girl. She comes of a very bad stock, however; and I am bound to remember that. Some people think that you can’t give a girl too much liberty. My ideas lean the other way. I think you can’t take too much care of a very pretty girl whom you are bound by duty to protect.”

All this sounded very noble and very conscientious. It sounded thus even to Mrs. Woolper, who in her intercourse with Philip Sheldon could never quite divest herself of one appalling memory. That memory was the death of Tom Halliday, and the horrible thoughts and fears that had for a time possessed her mind in relation to that death. The shadow of that old ghastly terror sometimes came between her and Mr. Sheldon, even now, though she had long ago assured herself that the terror had been alike groundless and unreasonable.

“Didn’t I see my own nephew carried off by a fever twice as sudden as the fever that carried off poor Mr. Halliday?” she said to herself; “and am I to think horrid things of him as I nursed a baby, because a cup of greasy beef-tea turned my stomach?”

Convinced by such reasoning as this that she had done her master a grievous wrong, and grateful for the timely shelter afforded in her old age, Mrs. Woolper felt that she could not do too much in her benefactor’s service. She had already shown herself a clever managing housekeeper; had reformed abuses, and introduced a new system of care and economy below-stairs, to the utter bewilderment of poor Georgy, for whom the responsibilities of the gothic villa had been an overwhelming burden. Georgy was not particularly grateful to the energetic old Yorkshirewoman who had taken this burden off her hands, but she was submissive.

“I never felt myself much in the house, my dear,” she said to Lotta; “but I am sure since Ann Woolper has been here I have felt myself a cipher.”

Mrs. Woolper, naturally sharp and observant, was not slow to perceive that Mr. Sheldon was abnormally anxious about his stepdaughter. She ascribed this anxiety to a suspicious nature, an inherent distrust of other people on the part of her master, and in some measure to his ignorance of womankind.

“He seems to think that she’d run away and get married on the sly, at a word from that young man; but he doesn’t know what a dear innocent soul she is, and how sorry she’d be to displease any one that’s kind to her. I don’t know anything about Miss Paget. She’s more stand-offish than our own Miss, though she is little better than a genteel kind of servant; but she seems fair-spoken enough. As to our Miss, bless her dear heart! she want’s no watching, I’ll lay. But I daresay those City folks, with their stocks going up and going down, and always bringing about the ruin of somebody or other, go which way they will, get their poor heads so muddled with figures that they can’t believe there’s such a thing as honesty in the world.”

This was the gist of Mrs. Woolper’s evening musing in the snug little housekeeper’s room at the Lawn. It was a very comfortable little room, and held sacred to Mrs. Woolper; the three young females, and the boy in buttons, who formed Mr. Sheldon’s in-door establishment, preferring the license of the kitchen to the strict etiquette of the housekeeper’s room.

This apartment, as well as every other room in the stockbroker’s house, bore the stamp of prosperity. A comfortable easy-chair reposed the limbs of Mrs. Woolper; a bright little fire burned in a bright little grate, and its ruddy light was reflected in a bright little fender. Prints of the goody class adorned the walls; and a small round table, with a somewhat gaudy cover, supported Mrs. Woolper’s work-box and family Bible, both of which she made it a point of honour to carry about with her, and to keep religiously, through good fortune and through evil fortune; neither of which, however, afforded her much employment. She felt herself to be much nearer grace with the family Bible by her side than she would have been without it; she felt, indeed, that the maintenance and due exhibition of the family Bible was in itself a kind of religion. But that she should peruse its pages was not in the bond. Her eyes were old and weak — sharp enough to discover the short-comings of Mr. Sheldon’s young maid-servants, but too feeble even for long-primer.

As she looked round that snug little chamber of an evening, when her day’s labours were ended, and her own particular Britannia-metal tea-pot was basking in the fender, her own special round of toast frizzling on the trivet, she was very grateful to the man to whom she owed these comforts.

“What should I be but for him?” she asked herself with a shudder; for the vision of that darksome abode shut in by high black walls — the metropolitan workhouse — arose before her. She did not know what difficulties would have barred her entrance even to that dreary asylum; she only thought of the horrors of that sanctuary, and she blessed her master for the benevolence that had accepted the service of her failing hands.

This was the servant on whom Philip Sheldon relied. He saw that she was grateful, and that she was ready to serve him with an almost slavish devotion. He knew that she had suspected him in the past, and he saw that she had outlived her suspicion.

“There is a statute of limitations to these things as well as for debt,” he said to himself. “A man can live down anything, if he knows what he is about.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/charlotte_s_inheritance/book5.1.html

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