Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Diana Asks for a Holiday.

Diana informed Mrs. Sheldon of her father’s wish that she should leave Bayswater. Before doing this, she had obtained the Captain’s consent to the revelation of her engagement to be married.

“I don’t like to leave them in a mysterious manner, papa,” she said. “I have told Charlotte a good deal already, under a promise of secrecy; but I should like to tell Mrs. Sheldon that there is a real reason for my leaving her.”

“Very well, my love, since you are so amazingly squeam — honourable,” interposed the Captain, remembering how much depended on his daughter’s marriage, and what a very difficult person he had found her. “Yes, my dear, of course; I respect your honourable feeling; and — er — yes — you may tell Mrs. Sheldon — and that of course includes Mr. Sheldon, since the lady is but an inoffensive cipher — that you are about to be married — to a French gentleman of position. You will, of course, be obliged to mention his name, and then will arise the question as to where and how you met him; and, upon my word, it’s confoundedly awkward that you should insist on enlightening these people. You see, my dear girl, what I want to avoid, for the present, is any chance of collision between the Sheldons and Lenoble.”

“Papa!” exclaimed Diana, impatiently, “why must there be all this scheming?”

“O, very well, Miss Paget; tell them what you like!” cried the Captain, aggravated beyond endurance by such inherent perversity. “All I can say is, that a young woman who quarrels with her bread-and-butter is likely to come to dry bread; and very little of that, perhaps. I wash my hands of the business. Tell them what you like.”

“I will not tell them more than I feel to be actually necessary, papa,” the young lady replied calmly. “I do not think Mr. Sheldon will trouble himself about M. Lenoble. He seems very much occupied by his own affairs.”

“Humph! Sheldon seems harassed, anxious, does he?”

“Well, yes, papa; I have thought so for the last few months. If I may venture to judge by the expression of his face, as he sits at home in the evening, reading the paper, or staring at the fire, I am sure he has many anxieties — troubles even. Mrs. Sheldon and Charlotte do not appear to notice these things. They are accustomed to see him quiet and reserved, and they don’t perceive the change in him as I do.”

“O, there is a change, is there?”

“Yes, a decided change.”

“Why the deuce couldn’t you tell me this before!”

“Why should I tell you that Mr. Sheldon seems anxious? I should not have told you now, if you had not appeared to dread his interference in our affairs. I can’t help observing these things; but I don’t want to play the part of a spy.”

“No, you’re so infernally punct — so delicate-minded, my love,” said the Captain, pulling himself up suddenly, for the second time. “Forgive me if I was impatient just now. You look at these things from a higher point of view than that of a battered old man of the world like me. But if you should see anything remarkable in Mr. Sheldon’s conduct on another occasion, my love, I should be obliged to you if you would be more communicative. He and I have been allied in business, you see, and it is important for me to know these things.”

“I have not seen anything remarkable in Mr. Sheldon’s conduct, papa; I have only seen him thoughtful and dispirited. And I suppose anxieties are common to every man of business.”

Georgy received Miss Paget’s announcement with mingled lamentations and congratulations.

“I am sure I am heartily glad for your sake, Diana,” she said; “but what we shall do without you, I don’t know. Who is to see to the drawing-room being dusted every morning, when you are gone? I’m sure I tremble for the glass shades. Don’t imagine I’m not pleased to think you should settle in life advantageously, my love. I’m not so selfish as that; though I will say that there never was a girl with more natural talent for making-up pretty little caps than you. The one I have on has been admired by everybody. Even Ann Woolper this morning, when I was going into the butcher’s book with her — for I insist upon going into the butcher’s book with her weekly, whether she likes it or not; though the way that man puts down the items is so bewildering that I feel myself a perfect baby in her hands — even Ann admired it, and said how young-looking it is. And then she brought up the time in Fitzgeorge Street, and poor Tom’s illness, and almost upset me for the rest of the day. And now, dear, let me offer you my sincere congratulations. Of course, you know that you would always have had a home with me; but service, or at least companionship, is no inheritance, as the proverb says; and for your own sake I’m very glad to think that you are going to have a house of your own. And now tell me what he is like, Monsieur what’s-his-name?”

Mrs. Sheldon had been told, but had not remembered the name. Her great anxiety, as well as Charlotte’s, was to know what manner of man the affianced lover was. If Diana’s future happiness had been contingent on the shape of her husband’s nose, or the colour of his eyes, these two ladies could not have been more anxious upon the subject.

“Has he long eyelashes, and a dreamy look in his eyes, like Valentine?” asked Charlotte, secretly convinced that her lover had a copyright in these personal graces.

“Does he wear whiskers?” asked Georgy. “I remember, when I was quite a girl, and went to parties at Barlingford, being struck by Mr. Sheldon’s whiskers. And I was quite offended with papa, who was always making sarcastic remarks, for calling them mutton-chop whiskers; but they really were the shape of mutton-cutlets at that time. He wears them differently now.”

Mrs. Sheldon branched off into a disquisition on whiskers, and Diana escaped from the task of describing her lover. She could not have described him to Georgy.

By-and-by she asked permission to leave Bayswater for a fortnight, in order to see her lover’s home and friends.

“I will come back to you, and stay as long as you like, dear Mrs. Sheldon,” she said, “and make you as many caps as you please. And I will make them for you by and by, when I am living abroad, and send them over to you in a bandbox. It will be a great delight to me to be of some little service to a friend who has been so kind. And perhaps you will fancy the caps are prettier when they can boast of being French.”

“You darling generous-minded girl! And you won’t go away for a fortnight and never come back again, will you, dear? I had a cook who did that, and left me with a large dinner-party hanging over my head; and how I got through it — with a strange man-cook, who charged a guinea, and used fresh butter, at twentypence, a pound, as if it had been dirt, and two strange men to wait — I don’t know. It all seemed like a dream. And since then we have generally had everything from the confectioner’s; and I assure you, to feel that you can wash your hands of the whole thing, and sit down at the head of your table with your mind as free from care as if you were a visitor, is worth all the expense.”

Diana promised she would not behave like the cook; and two days after this conversation left the London Bridge terminus with her father and Gustave Lenoble.

Mr. Sheldon troubled himself very little about this departure. He was informed of Miss Paget’s intended marriage; and the information awakened neither surprise nor interest in his heavily-burdened mind.

“A Frenchman, a friend of her father’s!” he said; “some swindling adventurer, no doubt,” he thought. And this was as much consideration as he could afford to bestow upon Miss Paget’s love affairs at this present time.

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