Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Firm as a Book.

After that midnight interview between the two girls in Miss Halliday’s bedroom, life went very smoothly at the gothic villa for two or three days, during which the impulsive Charlotte, being forbidden to talk openly of the change in her friend’s position, was fain to give vent to her feelings by furtive embraces and hand-squeezings, sly nods and meaning becks, and mischievous twinkling of her arch grey eyes.

She talked of Valentine more than ever now, feeling herself at liberty to sing what paeans she pleased in praise of her hero, now that her friend had also a fitting subject for paeans.

“And now it’s your turn to talk of M. Lenoble, dear,” she would say naively, when she had entertained Diana with the minute details of her last conversation with her lover, or a lively sketch of the delights of that ideal cottage which she loved to furnish and unfurnish in accordance with the new fancy of the hour.

Diana was pleased to listen to her girlish talk: to hang and rehang the ideal draperies, to fill and refill the ideal bookcase, to plan and replan the arrangements of that ideal existence which was to be all joy and love and harmony; but when her turn came, and she was asked to be rapturous about her own lover, she could say nothing: that which she felt was too deep for words. The thought of her lover was strange to her; the fact of his love was mysterious and wonderful. She could not talk of him with the customary frivolous school-girl talk; and love for him had so newly taken root in her heart that there were as yet no blossoms to be gathered from that magical plant.

“Don’t ask me to talk of him, Lotta, dear;” she said. “I am not yet sure that I love him; I only feel that it is sweet to be loved by him. I think Providence must have sent him to me in pity for my desolation.”

This was almost the same fancy that had occurred to Susan Meynell five-and-thirty years before this time, when Gustave the first had rescued her from the suicide’s unrepentable sin.

That chivalrous turn of mind which was hereditary in the race of Lenoble predisposed these men to pity loneliness and beauty, weakness and sorrow. This pity for helplessness may have been indeed only an element of their exceeding strength. Was not the rescue of weaklings and women an unfailing attribute in the mighty men of old? Who so prompt as Hercules to fly to the rescue of Hesione? Who so swift as Perseus to save Andromeda? And what sea-monster more terrible than loneliness and poverty?

In a few days there came another letter from Captain Paget, containing a fresh summons to Omega Street.

“Lenoble positively returns to Normandy to-morrow,” he wrote, “to see his girls, and, no doubt, break the news of his approaching marriage. He much wants to see you, and, as I have forbidden his calling on you at the Lawn, can only meet you here. He is to drink tea with me at the usual time to-morrow evening, and I shall expect to see you early in the afternoon.”

This afforded an opportunity for that introduction to which Miss Halliday looked forward with so much interest.

“If Mr. Sheldon and your mamma will let you come with me this afternoon, dear, I shall be very pleased to take you,” said Diana; and she felt that she would appear less in the character of a lamb led to the slaughter if she could go to meet her betrothed accompanied by Charlotte.

But in this matter both the young ladies were doomed to disappointment. Mr. Sheldon showed himself a social Draco in all things relating to his stepdaughter. Being forbidden to reveal the existence of Gustave Lenoble, Charlotte could only urge a frivolous desire to accompany her friend in a pilgrimage dictated by filial duty. To the practical mind of Philip Sheldon this desire appeared altogether absurd and unreasonable, and he did not hesitate to express himself to that effect in a tête-a-tête with his stepdaughter.

“What good on earth can you do by going to see a gouty old man, who has his own daughter to dance attendance upon him?” asked Mr. Sheldon. “Really, Charlotte, I am surprised to hear such a proposition from a girl of your good sense. Miss Paget is your companion, not your visitor. It is her duty to indulge your whims, but it is not your place to give way to hers.”

“But this is a whim of mine, papa; I should really like to spend the afternoon at Chelsea. It would be a change, you know.”

Mr. Sheldon looked at his stepdaughter with a sharp and searching gaze, a gaze in which there was suspicion as well as curiosity.

“It is a very discreditable whim for a young lady in your position,” he said sternly; “and I beg that such a proposition may not be made to me again.”

This was decisive. Charlotte submitted, and Diana went alone to Omega Street. She found Gustave waiting for her. He proposed a walk, and Captain Paget was enthusiastic upon the subject of fresh air, and the benefits arising therefrom. So the lovers went out in the bleak winter afternoon, and wandered in the dreary Pimlico region as far as St. James’s Park — Gustave delighted to have Diana’s hand upon his arm, and Diana almost bewildered by a sense of happiness, which seemed unreal by reason of its very novelty.

Gustave was all enthusiasm, full of plans for the future. He would have had the marriage take place immediately, if such a thing had been possible; but Diana showed him that it would not be possible. Her first duty was to the only friends she had ever known. Gustave argued the point resolutely for nearly an hour, during which time they made their way to the very gates of St. James’s Park, but Diana was more resolute still.

“What a tyrannical wife I shall have by-and-by!” said Gustave. “I think you care for these Sheldons more than for me, Diane.”

“These Sheldons have been so good to me in the past.”

“And I mean to be so good to you in the future,” answered Gustave. “You shall be the happiest wife in Normandy, if a foolish doting husband’s devotion can make you happy.”

“What have I done to deserve so much devotion?” Diana murmured wonderingly.

“What have you done? Nothing, less than nothing. You will not even run the hazard of offending your family of Sheldon in order to make me happy. But Fate has said, ‘At the feet of that girl with the dark eyes and pale proud face shall poor Lenoble of Côtenoir put down his heart.’ Do you know what I said to myself when I saw you first in the little parlour yonder? Ah, no! How should you guess? ‘She is there,’ said I; ‘behold her! It is thy destiny, Lenoble, on which thou gazest!’ And thou, love, wert calm and voiceless as Fate. Quiet as the goddess of marble before which the pagans offered their sacrifices, across whose cold knees they laid their rich garments. I put my treasures in your hip, my love; my heart, my hopes — all the treasures I had to offer.”

This was all very sweet, but there was a sting even mingled with that sweetness. Diana told herself that love like this should only be offered on the purest shrine; and when she remembered the many stains upon her father’s honour, it seemed to her that a part of the shame must needs cleave to her.

“Gustave,” she said presently, after an absent meditative mood, from which her lover had vainly tried to beguile her, “does it not seem to you that there is something foolish in this talk of love and confidence between you and me; and that all your promises have been a little too lightly made? What do you know of me? You see me sitting in my father’s room, and because my eyes happen to please you, or for some reason as foolish as that, you ask me to be your wife. I might have been one of the worst of women.”

“You might have been? — yes, dear, but you are not. And if you had been, Gustave Lenoble would not have flung his heart into your lap, even if your eyes had been sweeter than they are. We impulsive people are people of quick perceptions, and know what we are doing better than our reflective friends imagine. I did not need to be an hour in your company, dear love, in order to know that you are noble and true. There are tones in the voice, there are expressions of the face, that tell these things better than words can tell them; for, you see, words can lie, while tones and looks are apt to be true. Yes, my angel, I knew you from that first night. My heart leapt across all conventional barriers, and found its way straight to yours.”

“I can see that you think much better of me than I deserve; but even supposing you not to be deceived as to myself, I fear you are much deceived as to my surroundings.”

“I know that your father is poor, and that the burden of his poverty weighs heavily on you. That is enough for me to know.”

“No, M. Lenoble; it is act enough for you to know. If I am to be your wife, I will not enter your family as an impostor. I told you the truth about myself the other day when you questioned me, and I am bound to tell you the truth about my father.”

And then she told him, in the plainest frankest language, the story of her father’s life. She inflicted no unnecessary shame on Captain Paget; she made no complaint of her neglected childhood and joyless youth; but she told Gustave that her father had been an adventurer, keeping doubtful company, and earning his bread by doubtful means.

“I hope and believe that if a peaceful home could be secured for his declining years, he would live the rest of his life like a gentleman and a Christian; and that, the bitter struggle for existence being ended, he would be sorry for the past. I doubt if the sense of shame ever deserted him when he was living that wretched wandering life, leaving debts and difficulties behind him everywhere — always harassed and hunted by creditors, who had good cause to be angry. Yes, Gustave, I do believe that if it should please Providence to give my father a peaceful home at last, he will be thankful for God’s mercy, and will repent the sins of life. And now I have told you the kind of heritage I can bring my husband.”

“My dear love, I will accept the heritage, for the sake of her who brings it. I never meant to be less than a son to your father; and if he is not the best of fathers, as regards the past, we will try to make him a decent kind of father as regards the future. I have long understood that Captain Paget is something — ever so little — of an adventurer. It was the pursuit of fortune that brought him to me; and without knowing it, he brought me my fortune in the shape of his daughter.”

Diana blushed as she remembered that Captain Paget had not been so innocent of any design in this matter as the Frenchman imagined.

“And you will receive even papa for my sake?” asked Diana.

“With all my heart.”

“Ah, you are indeed a generous lover!”

“A lover who is not generous is — bah! there is nothing in creation so mean as the wretch whom love does not render generous. When one sees the woman whom Fate intends for one’s wife, is one to stop to inquire the character of her father, her mother, her sister, her cousin? — for there is no stopping when you begin that. A man who loves makes no inquiries. If he finds his jewel in the gutter, he picks it out of the mud and carries it away in his bosom, too proud of his treasure to remember where he found it; always provided that the jewel is no counterfeit, but the real gem, fit for a king’s crown. And my diamond is of the purest water. By-and-by we will try to drain the gutter — that is to say, we will try to pay those small debts of which you speak, to lodging-house keepers, and tradesmen who have trusted your father.”

“You would pay papa’s debts!” cried Diana in amazement.

“But why not? All these little debts, the thought of which is so bitter to you, might be discharged for two or three thousand pounds. Your father tells me I am to be very rich by-and-by.”

“My father tells you! Ah, then, you have allowed him to involve you in some kind of speculation!”

“He has involved me in no speculation, and in no risk that two or three hundred pounds will not cover.”

“The whole business seems very mysterious, Gustave.”

“Perhaps; it has to do with a secret which I am pledged to keep. I will not allow your father to lead me into any quagmire of speculation, believe me, dear one.”

After this they went back to Omega Street in the winter gloaming, and Diana loved and admired this man with all her heart and mind. A new life lay before her, very bright and fair. There, where had been only the barren desert, was now a fair landscape, shining in the sunlight of hope.

“Do you think your children will ever love me, Gustave?” she asked, not without some sense of wonder that this impulsive light-hearted lover should be the owner of children. She fancied that a responsibility so grave as paternity must needs have impressed some stamp of solemnity upon the man who bore it.

“Ever love thee!” cried Gustave. “Child, they will adore thee. They ask only some one to love. Their hearts are gardens of flowers; and thou shalt gather the flowers. But wilt thou be happy at Côtenoir, thou? It is somewhat sad, perhaps — the grave old château with the long sombre corridors. But thou shalt choose new furniture, new garnitures at Rouen, and we will make all bright and gay, like the heart of thy affianced Thou wilt not be dull?”

“Dull, with you and yours! I shall thank God for my happy home day and night, as I never thought to thank Him a few months ago, when I was dissatisfied, wicked, tired of my life.”

“And when you thought of that other one? Ah, how he was an imbecile, that other one! But thou wilt never think of him again; it is a dream that is past,” said M. Lenoble.

That self-confidence which was an attribute of his sanguine nature rendered the idea of a rival not altogether unpleasant to him. He was gratified by the idea of his own victory, and the base rival’s annihilation.

“Diane, I want to show thee the home that is to be thine,” he said presently. “Your Sheldon family must give thee at least a holiday, if they refuse to let thee go altogether. Thou wilt come to Normandy with thy father. He is coming for a week or two, now that his gout is better. I want to show thee Côtenoir — and Beaubocage, the place where my father was born. It will seem dreary, perhaps, to thine English eyes; but to me it is very dear.”

“Nothing that is dear to you shall appear dreary to me,” said Diana.

By this time they had arrived at Omega Street. Again Miss Paget made tea for her lover. Strange to say, the operation seemed to grow more agreeable with every repetition. While taking his tea from the hands of his beloved, Gustave pressed the question of Diana’s visit to Normandy.

“About her Sheldon family she is adamant,” he said to Captain Paget, who sipped his tea and smiled at the lovers with the air of an aristocratic patriarch. “There is to be no marriage till it pleases Mrs. Sheldon to set her free. I consent to this only as man must consent to the inevitable; but I say to her, can she not come to Normandy for a fortnight — say but one short fortnight — to see her home? She will come with you. She has but to ask a holiday of her friends, and it is done.”

“Of course,” exclaimed the Captain, “she shall come with me. If necessary, I myself will ask it of Sheldon. — But it will be best not to mention where you are going, Diana. There are reasons, best known to our friend Gustave and myself, which render secrecy advisable just at present. You can say Rouen. That is quite near enough to the mark to come within the limits of truth,” added Horatio, with the tone of a man who had never; quite outstepped those limits. “Yes, Rouen. And you will come with me.”

“With us,” said Gustave. “I will put off my journey for a day or two for the sake of going with you. You have to meet Fleurus in Rouen haven’t you?”

“Yes; he is to be there on the fifth of March, and this is the last day of February. I had a letter from him this morning. All goes swimmingly.”

Diana wondered what it could be which went swimmingly; but she was obliged to content herself with her lover’s assurance that he had not allowed her father to involve him in any kind of speculation.

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