Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

At cÔTenoir.

Beaubocage, near Vevinord, March 15, 186 —.

My darling Lotta — As you extorted from me a solemn pledge that I would write you a full and detailed account of my adventures, I seat myself in Mademoiselle Lenoble’s pretty little turret-chamber, in the hope of completing the first instalment of my work before papa or Gustave summons me to prepare for a drive and visit to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, which, I believe, has been planned for to-day.

What am I to tell you, dear, and how shall I begin my story? Let me fancy myself sitting at your feet before your bedroom fire, and you looking down at me with that pretty inquisitive look in your dear grey eyes. Do you know that M. Lenoble’s eyes are almost the colour of yours, Lotta? You asked me a dozen questions about his eyes the other day, and I could give you no clear description of them; but yesterday, as he stood at the window looking out across the garden, I saw their real colour. It is grey, a deep clear grey, and his lashes are dark, like yours. How shall I begin? That is the grand difficulty! I suppose you will want to know something even about the journey. Everything was very pleasant, in spite of the cold blusterous March weather. Do you know what my last journey was like, Lotta? It was the long dreary journey from Forêtdechêne to St. Katharine’s Wharf, when Mr. Hawkehurst advised and arranged my return to England. I had been sitting quite alone in a balcony overlooking the little town. It was after midnight, but the lights were still burning: I can see the lamplit windows shining through the night mist as I write this, end the sense of the hopeless misery of that time comes back to me like the breath of some freezing wind. I can find no words to tell you how desolate I was that night, or how hopeless.

I dared not think of my future life; or of the next day, that was to be the beginning of that hopeless future. I was obliged to bind my thoughts to the present and all its dreariness; and a kind of dull apathetic feeling, which was too dull for despair, took possession of me that night. While I was sitting there Mr. Hawkehurst came to me, and told me that my father had become involved in a quarrel, under circumstances of a very shameful nature, which I need not tell you, darling. He recommended me to leave Forêtdechêne — indeed, almost insisted that I should do so. He wanted to rescue me from that miserable life. Your lover had noble and generous impulses even then, you see, dear; at his worst he was not all bad, and needed only your gentle influence to purify and elevate his character. He gave me all the money he possessed to pay the expenses of my journey. Ah, what a dreary journey! I left Forêtdechêne in the chill daybreak, and travelled third class, with dreadful Belgians who smelt of garlic, to Antwerp. I slept at a very humble inn near the quay, and started for England by the Baron Osy at noon next day. I cannot tell you how lonely I felt on board the steamer. I had travelled uncomfortably before, but never without my father and Valentine — and he had been always kind to me. If we were shabbily dressed, and people thought ill of us, I did not care. The spirit of Bohemianism must have been very strong with me in those days. I remembered how we had sat together on the same boat watching the sleepy shores of Holland, or making fun of our respectable fellow-passengers. Now I was quite alone. People stared at me rudely and unkindly, as I thought. I could not afford to dine or breakfast with the rest; and I was weak enough to feel wounded by the idea that people would guess my motive for shunning the savoury banquets that sent up such horrid odours to the deck where I sat, trying to read a tattered Tauchnitz novel. And the end of my journey? Ah, Charlotte, you can never imagine what it is to travel like that, without knowing whether there is any haven, any shelter for you at the end of your wanderings! I knew that at a certain hour we were to arrive at St. Katharine’s Dock, but beyond that I knew nothing. I counted my money. There was just enough to pay for a cab that would carry me to Hyde Lodge. I should land there penniless. And what if my cousin Priscilla should refuse to receive me? For a moment I fancied even that possible; and I pictured myself walking about London, hungry and homeless.

This was my last journey. I have dwelt upon it longer than I need have done; but I want you to understand what it is that makes Gustave Lenoble dear to me. If you could feel the contrast between the past and the present as I felt it when I stood on the deck of the Dover packet with him by my side, you would know why I love him, and am grateful to him. We stood side by side, watching the waves and talking of our future, while my father enjoyed a nap in one of the little deck cabins. To Gustave that future seems very bright and clear; to me it seems unutterably strange that the future can be anything but a dismal terra incognita, from the contemplation of which it is wise to refrain.

Papa stays with Gustave at Côtenoir; but it had been arranged for me to visit Mademoiselle Lenoble, Gustave’s aunt, at Beaubocage, and to remain with her during my stay in Normandy. I at once understood the delicate feeling which prompted this arrangement. We dined at Rouen, and came to Vevinord in a coach. At Vevinord a queer little countrified vehicle met us, with a very old man, of the farm-servant class, as coachman. Gustave took the reins from the old man’s hand and drove to Beaubocage, where Mademoiselle Lenoble received me with much cordiality. She is a dear old lady, with silvery bands of hair neatly arranged under the prettiest of caps. Her gown is black silk, and her collar and cuffs of snowy whiteness; everything about her exquisitely neat, and of the fashion of twenty, or perhaps thirty, years ago.

And now, I suppose, you will want to know what Beaubocage is like. Well, dear, much as I admire Mademoiselle Lenoble, I must confess that her ancestral mansion is neither grand nor pretty. It might have made a very tolerable farmhouse, but has been spoiled by the architect’s determination to make it a château. It is a square white building, with two pepper-castor-like turrets, in one of which I write this letter. Between the garden and the high road there is a wall, surmounted with plaster vases. The garden is for the greater part utilitarian; but in front of the salon windows there is a grassplot, bordered by stiff gravel-walks, and relieved by a couple of flower-beds. A row of tall poplars alone screens the house from the dusty high road. At the back of it there is an orchard; on one side a farmyard; behind the orchard lie the fields that compose the farm of Beaubocage and the paternal estate of the Lenoble family. All around the country is very flat. The people seem to be kind and simple, and devotedly attached to “Mademoiselle.” There is a rustic peacefulness pervading everything which, for me, stands instead of beauty.

I am hypocrite enough to pretend to be pleased with everything, for I can perceive how anxiously M. Lenoble watches me in order to discover whether I like his native country. He was not born at Beaubocage, but in Paris. Mademoiselle Lenoble told me the story of his childhood, and how she brought him to Beaubocage, when quite a little fellow, from Rouen, where his father died. About his mother there seems to have been some mystery. Mademoiselle told me nothing of this, except that her brother, Gustave the elder, made a love-match, and thereby offended his father. She has the little crib in which her nephew, Gustave the younger, slept on the night of his coming. It had been his father’s little bed thirty years before. She shed tears as she told me the story, and how she sat and watched by the little fellow as he cried himself to sleep with his head lying on her arm, and the summer moonlight shining full upon his face.

I was deeply touched by her manner as she told me these things; and I think, if I had not already learned to love M. Lenoble, I should love him for the sake of his aunt. She is charming; a creature so innocent and pure, that one considers one’s words in speaking to her, almost as if she were a child. She is about forty years older than I; yet for worlds I would not tell her of the people and the scenes I have beheld at foreign watering-places and gambling-rooms. She has spent the sixty years of her life so completely out of the world, that she has retained the freshness and sweetness of her youth untainted in the least degree. Can there be magical philtre equal to this — a pure unselfish life, far away from the clamour of cities?

The old servant who waits upon me is seventy-five years of age, and remembers Ma’amselle Cydalise from her childhood. She is always singing the praises of her mistress, and she sees that I like to hear them. “Ah, ma’amselle,” she said to me, “to marry a Lenoble is to marry one of the angels. I will not say that the old seigneur was not hard towards his son. Ah, yes, but it was a noble heart. And the young monsieur — that one who died in Rouen, the Poor! — ah, that he was kind, that he was gracious! What of tears, what of regrets, when the Old chased him!”

My position is quite recognised. I think the very cowboy in the farmyard — a broad-shouldered lad, with a good-natured mindless face, and prodigious wooden shoes like clumsy canoes — even the cowboy knows that I am to be Madame Lenoble of Côtenoir. Côtenoir is the Windsor Castle of this district; Beaubocage is only Frogmore. Yes, dear, the bond is signed and sealed. Even if I did not love M. Lenoble, I have bound myself to marry him; but I do love him, and thank him with all my heart for having given a definite end and aim to my life. Don’t think I underrate your kindness, darling; I know that I should never want a home while you could give me one. But ’tis hard to be a hanger-on in any household; and Valentine will exact all his sweet young wife’s love and care.

I have written you a letter which I am sure will require double postage; so I will say no more except goodbye. Take care of yourself, dear one. Practise your part in our favourite duets; remember your morning walk in the garden; and don’t wear out your eyes over the big books that Mr. Hawkehurst is obliged to read.

Ever your affectionate

DIANA.

From Charlotte Halliday to Diana Paget.

The dullest house in Christendom, Monday.

EVER DEAREST Di — Your letter was a welcome relief to the weariness of my existence. How I wish I were with you! But that is too bright a dream. I am sure I should idolise Beaubocage. I should not mind the dismal row of poplars, or the flat landscape, or the dusty road, or anything, so long as it was not like Bayswater. I languish for a change, dear. I have seen so little of the world, except the dear moorland farmhouse at Newhall. I don’t think I was ever created to be “cabined, cribbed, confined,” in such a narrow life as this, amid such a dull, unchanging round of daily commonplace. Sometimes, when the cold spring moon is shining over the tree-tops in Kensington–Gardens, I think of Switzerland, and the snow-clad mountains and fair Alpine valleys we have read of and talked of, until my heart aches at the thought that I may never see them; and to think that there are people in whom the word ‘Savoy’ awakes no fairer image than a cabbage! Ah, my poor dear! isn’t it almost wicked of me to complain, when you have had such bitter experience of the hard cruel world?

I am quite in love with your dear Mademoiselle Lenoble; almost as deeply as I am in love with your magnanimous, chivalrous, generous, audacious — everything ending in ous— Monsieur Lenoble.

How dare you call him M. Lenoble, by the bye? I have counted the occasions on which you write of him in your nice long letter, and for one Gustave there are half a dozen M. Lenobles. It must be Gustave in future to me, remember.

What shall I tell you, dear? I have nothing to tell, really nothing. To say that I wish you were with me is only to confess that I am very selfish; but I do wish for you, dear — my friend and adopted sister, my old school companion, from whom, willingly, I have never concealed one thought.

Valentine called on Tuesday afternoon; but I have nothing to tell you even about him. Mamma dozed in her corner after her cup of tea, and Val and I sat by the fire talking over our future, just like you and M. Lenoble on board the Calais boat. How much engaged people find to say about the future! Is it our love that makes it seem so bright, so different from all that has gone before? I cannot fancy life with Valentine otherwise than happy. I strive to picture trials, and fancy myself in prison with him, the wind blowing in at broken windows, the rain coming through the dilapidated roof and pattering on the carpetless floor; but the most dismal picture I can paint won’t seem dismal if his figure is a part of it. We would stop the broken windows with rags and paper, we would wipe up the rain with our pocket-handkerchiefs, and sit side by side and talk of the future, as we do now. Hope could never abandon us while we were together. And then, sometimes, while I am looking at Valentine, the thought that he might die comes to me suddenly, like the touch of an icy hand upon my heart.

I lie awake at night sometimes thinking of this, and of papa’s early death. He came home one night with a cold, and from that hour grew worse until he died. Ah, think what misery for a wife to suffer! Happily for mamma, she is not capable of suffering intensely. She was very sorry, and even now when she speaks of papa she cries a little; but the tears don’t hurt her. I think, indeed, they give her a kind of pleasure.

See, dear, what a long egotistical letter I have written, after all. I will say no more, except that while I am delighted to think of your pleasure among new friends and new scenes, my selfish heart still longs for the hour that is to bring you back to me.

Pray tell me all you can about your daughters that are to be.

Ever and ever your loving CHARLOTTE.

From Diana Paget to Charlotte Halliday.

Beaubocage, near Vevinord, March 30, 186 —.

MY DEAR LOTTA— In three days more I hope to be with you; but I suppose, in the meantime, I must keep my promise, and send you a faithful account of my life here. Everyone here is more kind to me than words can tell; and I have nothing left to wish for, except that you were here to be delighted, as I am sure you would be, with the freshness and the strangeness of everything. If I ever do become Madame Lenoble — and even yet I cannot picture to myself that such a thing will be — you must come to Côtenoir, you and Valentine. I was taken through every room in the old château the day before yesterday, and I fixed in my own mind upon the rooms I will give you, if these things come to pass. They are very old rooms, and I can fancy what strange people must have lived in them, and died in them perhaps, in the days that are gone. But if you come to them, they shall be made bright and pretty, and we will chase the shadows of the mediaeval age away. There are old pictures, old musical instruments, quaint spindle-legged chairs and tables, tapestries that crumble as you touch them — the ashes and relics of many generations. Gustave says we will sweep these poor vestiges away, and begin a new life, when I come to Côtenoir; but I cannot find it in my heart to obliterate every trace of those dead feet that have come and gone in all the dusky passages of my future home.

And now I must tell you about my daughters that are to be — my daughter that is, I may say of the elder — for I love her so well already that no breach between Gustave and me could rob her of my affection. She is the dearest, most loving of creatures; and she reminds me of you! I dare say you will laugh at this, dear; and, mind, I do not say that Clarice Lenoble is actually like you in complexion or feature — those common attributes which every eye can see; the resemblance is far more subtle. There is a look in this dear girl’s face, a smile, an I-know-not-what, which every now and then recalls your own bright countenance. You will say this is mere fancy — and that is what I told myself at the first; but I found afterwards that it is no fancy, but really one of those vague, indefinable, accidental likenesses which one perceives so often. To me it seems a very happy accident; for my first glance at my daughter’s face told me that I should love her for your sake.

We went to the convent the day before yesterday. It is a curious old place, and was once a stately château, the habitation of a noble family. A little portress, in the black robes of a lay sister, admitted us, and conducted us to the parlour, a fine old room, decorated with pictures of a religious character, painted by members of the sisterhood. Here Gustave and I were received by the superioress, an elderly woman, with a mild holy face, and a quiet grace of manner which might become a duchess. She sent for the demoiselles Lenoble, and after a delay of a quarter of an hour — you remember the toilet the girls at Hyde Lodge were obliged to make before they went to the drawing-room, Lotta — Mademoiselle Lenoble came, a tall, slim, lovely and lovable girl, who reminded me of the dearest friend I have in this world. She ran to her papa first, and saluted him with an enthusiastic hug; and then she stood for a moment looking shyly at me, confused and doubtful. It was only for a moment she was left in doubt. Gustave bent down to whisper something in her ear — something for which his letters had in some manner prepared her. The fair young face brightened, the clear grey eyes looked up at me with a sweet affectionate gaze, and she came to me and kissed me. “I shall love you very much,” she whispered. “And I love you very much already,” I answered, in the same confidential manner. And I think these few words, that one pretty confiding look in her innocent eyes, made a tie between us that it would take much to loosen. Ah, Lotta, what a wide gulf between the Diana Paget who landed alone at St. Katharine’s Wharf, in the dim cheerless dawn, and uncertain where to find a shelter in all that busy city, and the same creature redeemed by your affection, and exalted by the love and trust of Gustave Lenoble!

After this my second daughter appeared — a pretty young hoyden, with lovable clinging ways; and then the superioress asked if I would like to see the garden. Of course I said yes; and we were taken through the long corridors, out into a fine old garden, where the pupils, who looked like the Hyde Lodge girls translated into French, were prancing and scampering about in the usual style. After the garden we went to the chapel, where there were more pictures, and flower-bedecked altars, and pale twinkling tapers burning here and there in the chill sunlight. Here there were damsels engaged in pious meditation, from five years old upwards. They send even the little ones to meditate, Clarice tells me; and there are these infants kneeling before the flower-bedecked altars, rapt in religious contemplation, like so many Thomas à Kempises. The young meditators glanced shyly at us as we passed. When they had shown me everything of special interest in the pleasant old place, Clarice and Madelon ran off to dress for walking, in order to accompany us to Côtenoir, where we were to dine.

It was quite a family party. Mademoiselle Lenoble was there, and papa. He arrived at the château while Gustave and I were paying our visit to the convent. He is in the highest spirits, and treats me with an amount of affection and courtesy I have not been accustomed to receive at his hands. Of course I know the cause of this change; the future mistress of Côtenoir is a very different person from that wretched girl who was nothing to him but a burden and an encumbrance. But even while I despise him I cannot refuse to pity him. One forgives anything in old age. In this, at least, it is a second childhood; and my father is very old, Lotta. I saw the look of age in his face more plainly at Côtenoir, where he assumed his usual debonnaire man-of-the-world tone and manner, than I had seen it in London, when he was a professed invalid. He is much changed since I was with him at Forêtdechêne. It seems as if he had kept Time at bay very long, and now at last, the common enemy will be held at arm’s-length no longer. He still braces himself up in the old military manner, still holds himself more erect than many men of half his age; but, in spite of all this, I can see that he is very feeble; shaken and worn by a long life of difficulty. I am glad to think that there will he a haven for him at last; and if I did not thank Gustave with my whole heart for giving me a home and a place in the world, I should thank him for giving a shelter to my father.

And now, dear, as I hope to be with you so very soon, I shall say no more. I am to spend a day in Rouen before we come back — papa and I, that is to say; Gustave stays in Normandy to make some arrangements before he comes back to England. I cannot comprehend the business relations between him and papa; but there is some business going on — law business, as it seems to me — about which papa is very important and elated.

I am to see the cathedral and churches at Rouen, and I shall contrive to see the shops, and to bring you something pretty. Papa has given me money — the first he ever gave me unasked. I have very little doubt it comes from Gustave; but I have no sense of shame in accepting it. M. Lenoble’s seems to me a royal nature, formed to bestow benefits and bounties on every side.

Tell Mrs. Sheldon that I shall bring her the prettiest cap I can find in Rouen; and,

with all love, believe me ever your affectionate DIANA.

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