Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

In this Wide World i Stand Alone.

Gustave went back to his old life, and was not much disturbed by the grandeur of his destiny as future seigneur of Côtenoir and Beaubocage. It sometimes occurred to him that he had a weight upon his mind; and, on consideration, he found that the weight was Madelon Frehlter. But he continued to carry that burden very lightly, and his easy-going student life went on, unbroken by thoughts of the future. He sent polite messages to the demoiselle Frehlter in his letters to Cydalise; and he received from Cydalise much information, more graphic than interesting, upon the subject of the family at Côtenoir; and so his days went on with pleasant monotony. This was the brief summer of his youth; but, alas, how near at hand was the dark and dismal winter that was to freeze this honest joyous heart! That heart, so compassionate for all suffering, so especially tender for all womankind, was to be attacked upon its weaker side.

It was Gustave Lenoble’s habit to cross the gardens of the Luxembourg every morning, on his way from the Rue Grande–Mademoiselle to the Ecole de Droit. Sometimes, when he was earlier than usual, he carried a book with him, and paced one of the more obscure alleys, reading for an odd half-hour before he went to the daily mill-grinding in the big building beyond those quiet gardens.

Walking with his book one morning — it was a volume of Boileau, which the student knew by heart, and the pages whereof did not altogether absorb his attention — he passed and repassed a bench on which a lady sat, pensive and solitary, tracing shapeless figures on the ground with the point of her parasol. He glanced at her somewhat carelessly the first time of passing, more curiously on the second occasion, and the third time with considerable attention. Something in her attitude — helplessness, hopelessness, nay indeed, despair itself, all expressed in the drooping head, the listless hand tracing those idle characters on the gravel — enlisted the sympathies of Gustave Lenoble. He had pitied her even before his gaze had penetrated the cavernous depths of the capacious bonnet of those days; but one glimpse of the pale plaintive face inspired him with compassion unspeakable. Never had he seen despair more painfully depicted on the human countenance — a despair that sought no sympathy, a sorrow that separated the sufferer from the outer world. Never had he seen a face so beautiful, even in despair. He could have fancied it the face of Andromache, when all that made her world had been reft from her; or of Antigone, when the dread fiat had gone forth — that funeral rites or sepulture for the last accursed scion of an accursed race there were to be none.

He put Boileau into his pocket. That glimpse of a suffering human mind, which had been unconsciously revealed to him, possessed an interest more absorbing than the grandest flight of poet and satirist. As he passed for the fifth time, he looked at the mournful lady still more searchingly, and this time the sad eyes were lifted, and met his pitying looks. The beautiful lips moved, and murmured something in tones so tremulous as to be quite unintelligible.

The student took off his hat, and approached the lady, deferential as knight-errant of old awaiting the behest of his liege mistress.

“In what can I have the happiness to be agreeable to you, madame?”

“You are very good, monsieur,” murmured the lady in very decent French, but with an accent unmistakably foreign — English, as Gustave opined. “I— I— am quite a stranger in Paris, and — and — I have heard there are numerous lodging-houses in this quarter — where one may obtain a lodging — cheaply. I have asked several nursemaids, and other women, in the gardens this morning; but they seem very stupid, and can tell me nothing; and I do not care to ask at the hotel where I am staying.”

Gustave pondered. Yes, there were many lodgings, he informed the lady. And then he thought of Madame Magnotte. Was it not his duty to secure this stray lodger for that worthy woman, if possible?

“If madame has no objection to a boarding-house —” he began.

Madame shook her head. “A boarding-house would suit me just as well,” she said; “but it must not be expensive. I cannot afford to pay much.”

“I know of a boarding-house very near this place, where madame might find a comfortable home on very reasonable terms. It is, in point of fact, the house in which I myself reside,” added Gustave, with some timidity.

“If you will kindly direct me to the house —” said the lady, looking straight before her with sad unseeing eyes, and evidently supremely indifferent as to the residence or non-residence of M. Lenoble in the habitation referred to.

“Nay, madame, if you will permit me to conduct you there. It is but a walk of five minutes.”

The stranger accepted the courtesy with a gentle indifference that was not ingratitude, but rather incapacity for any feeling except that one great sorrow which seemed to absorb her mind.

Gustave wondered what calamity could thus overwhelm one so young and beautiful.

The lady was quite silent during the little walk from the gardens to the Rue Grande–Mademoiselle, and Gustave observed her attentively as he walked by her side. She was evidently not more than four-and-twenty years of age, and she was certainly the prettiest woman he had ever seen. It was a fair delicate English beauty, a little worn and faded, as if by care, but idealized and sublimated in the process. At her brightest this stranger must have been strikingly beautiful; in her sorrow she was touchingly lovely. It was what Gustave’s countrymen call a beauté navrante.

Gustave watched her, and wondered about her. The dress she wore was sufficiently elegant, but had lost the gloss of newness. Her shawl, which she carried as gracefully as a Frenchwoman, was darned. Gustave perceived the neat careful stitches, and divined the poverty of the wearer. That she should be poor was no subject for surprise; but that she, so sorrowful, so lonely, should seek a home in a strange city, was an enigma not easy to solve.

To Madame Magnotte Gustave introduced the stranger. She gave just one look round the dreary saloon; but to Gustave’s fancy that one look seemed eloquent. “Ah me!” it said; “is this the fairest home I am to find upon this inhospitable earth?”

“She does not seem to belong to this world,” the young man thought, as he went back to the garden where he had found his fair stranger, having been very coolly dismissed by Madame Magnotte after his introduction had been made.

And then M. Lenoble, being of a romantic turn of mind, remembered how a lady had been found by a student sitting on the lowest steps of the guillotine, desolate and helpless, at night; and how the student had taken her home and sheltered her, and had straightway fallen desperately in love with her, to discover, with unutterable horror, that her head had been severed from her fair shoulders by the cruel knife twelve hours before, and that her melancholy loveliness was altogether phantasmal and delusive.

Was this English stranger whom Gustave had found in the gardens of the Luxembourg twin sister to that ghostly lady of the familiar legend? Her despair and her beauty seemed to him greater than earthly sorrow or earthly beauty; and he was half inclined to wonder whether she could be of the same race as Madelon Frehlter. And from this hour the sense of a weight upon his mind, before so vague and intermittent, became an enduring oppression, not to be shaken off by any effort of his will.

All through that day he found himself thinking more of the unknown Englishwoman than was consistent with a strict performance of his duties. He was vexed with himself on account of this foolish distraction of mind.

“What a frivolous fellow I must be,” he said to himself, “to dwell upon such a trifle! This comes of leading such a monotonous life.”

At dinner he looked for the lady; but she did not appear at the long table, where the shrill old ladies, the epicurean old bachelors, the noisy students, daily devoured and grumbled at the four or five courses which old Nanon developed out of her inner consciousness and a rather scantily furnished larder. He questioned Madame Magnotte after dinner, and was told that the lady was in the house, but was too tired to dine with the other inmates.

“I have to thank thee for a new boarder, my friend,” she said. “Madame Meynell will not pay largely; but she seems a quiet and respectable person, and we shall doubtless be well pleased with each other.”

“Madame Meynell!” repeated Gustave, congratulating himself on finding that the Englishwoman was an inhabitant of the house he lived in. “She is a widow, I suppose?”

“Yes, she is a widow. I asked that question, and she answered, yes. But she told me nothing of her late husband. She is not at all communicative.”

This was all Gustave could obtain from Madame Magnotte. She was not communicative. No; she was, indeed, scarcely less silent than that ghostly lady who had been found sitting at the foot of the guillotine. There was some kind of mystery involved in her sorrowful face, her silent apathy. It was possibly the fact of this mystery which interested M. Lenoble. Certain it is that the young man’s interest had been aroused by this unknown Englishwoman, and that his mind was more occupied by the image of her whom he had seen but once than by that of his plighted wife.

He waited anxiously for the next day; but on the next day Madame Meynell still pleaded fatigue and illness. It was only on the third day that she appeared at the noisy banquet, pale, silent, absent-minded, sheltering herself under the wing of Madame Magnotte, who was disposed to be kind to this helpless stranger. To Gustave the young English widow seemed like a ghost at that crowded board. He looked at her every now and then from his distant seat, and saw her always with the same hopeless far-away look in her sad eyes. He himself was silent and distrait.

“Of what dost thou dream, my droll one?” said his nearest neighbour. “Thou art positively insupportable.”

M. Lenoble could not become vivacious or entertaining at the behest of his fellow-student. The consciousness of that strange pale face haunted and oppressed him. He hoped to have a few minutes’ talk with the English lady after dinner, but she disappeared before the removal of those recondite preparations which in the Pension Magnotte went by the generic name of “dessert.”

For more than a week she appeared thus at the dinner-table, eating very little, speaking not at all, except such monosyllabic replies as the hostess now and then extorted from her pale lips. A creature at once so beautiful and so profoundly sad became an object of interest to others besides Gustave; but in no breast was the sympathy which her sadness and beauty excited so poignant as in his. Her face haunted him. The familiar pleasures and amusements became distasteful to him. He spent his evenings at home in the dismal salon, and was content to listen to the chatter of the old women, the little music-mistress’s dreary sonatas, the monotonous roll of wheels on the distant quay — anything rather than the hackneyed round of student-life that had once been agreeable to him. He did not fail to write his weekly letter to Cydalise; but, for some reason or other, he refrained from any allusion to the English stranger, although it was his custom to relate all his adventures for the amusement of the family at Beaubocage.

An evening came at last on which Madame Meynell was persuaded to remain with the other ladies after dinner.

“It must be very cold and cheerless for you in your bedroom,” said Madame Magnotte; “why not spend your evening with us, in a pleasant and social manner?”

“You are very good, madame,” murmured the Englishwoman, in the slow timid accents that had so plaintive a sound to Gustave’s ear; “if you wish it, I will stay.”

She seemed to submit rather from utter weakness and inability to refuse anything asked of her than from any hope of finding pleasure in the society of the Magnotte salon.

It was an evening in March — cold, blustrous, dreary. The east wind blew clouds of dust athwart the Rue Grande–Mademoiselle, and the few foot-passengers in that dull thoroughfare looked pinched and wretched. The old ladies gathered round the great black stove, and gossipped in the twilight; the music-mistress went to her feeble piano, and played, unasked, unheeded; for Gustave, who was wont to turn the leaves, or sit attentive by the piano, seemed this evening unconscious of the music. Madame Meynell sat in one of the windows, alone, half-hidden by the faded yellow damask curtains, looking out into the street.

Something — some impulse which he tried to resist, but could not — drew Gustave towards that lonely figure by the window. He went close up to the strange lady. This evening, as in the gardens of the Luxembourg, she seemed to him a living statue of despair. Now, as then, he felt an interest in her sorrow which he was powerless to combat. He had a vague idea that even this compassionate sympathy was in some manner an offence against Madelon Frehlter, the woman to whom he belonged, and yet he yielded to the fatal weakness.

“Yes, I belong to her,” he said to himself; “I belong to Madelon Frehlter. She is neither pretty nor fascinating; but I have every reason to believe her very good, very amiable; and she is the only woman, except those of my own kindred, in whom I have any right to be interested.”

He did not say this in so many words; but this was the shape which his thoughts assumed as he yielded to the tempter, and walked straight to the distant window by which Madame Meynell had seated herself.

She started slightly as he approached her, and then looked up and recognized him as her acquaintance of the Luxembourg.

“Good evening, monsieur,” she said; “I have to thank you for having helped me to find a comfortable home.”

Having said this in a low gentle voice, she looked out into the street once more with her mournful unseeing eyes. It was evident that she had no more to say to M. Lenoble.

The student, however, had no idea of leaving the window just yet, although he knew — yes, knew — that his presence there was a wrong done to Madelon Frehlter; but a wrong so small, so infinitesimal, that it was really not worth consideration.

“I am enchanted to think that I was of some slight service to you, madame,” he said; “but I fear you will find this quarter of Paris very dull.”

She did not take any notice of this remark until Gustave had repeated it, and then she spoke as if suddenly awakened from a trance.

“Dull?” she said. “No, I have not found it dull. I do not care for gaiety.”

After this M. Lenoble felt that he could say no more. The lady relapsed into her waking trance. The dust-clouds in the silent street seemed more interesting to her than M. Lenoble of Beaubocage. He lingered a few minutes in the neighbourhood of her chair, thoughtfully observant of the delicate profile, the pale clear tints of a complexion that had lost its bloom but not its purity, the settled sadness of the perfect mouth, the dreamy pensiveness of the dark-grey eye, and then was fain to retire.

After this, the English widow lady spent many evenings in Madame Magnotte’s salon. The old Frenchwoman gossipped and wondered about her; but the most speculative could fashion no story from a page so blank as this joyless existence. Even slander could scarcely assail a creature so unobtrusive as the English boarder. The elderly ladies shrugged their shoulders and pursed up their lips with solemn significance. There must needs be something — a secret, a mystery, sorrow, or wrong-doing — somewhere; but of Madame Meynell herself no one could suspect any harm.

Gustave Lenoble heard little of this gossip about the stranger, but she filled his thoughts nevertheless. The vision of her face came between him and his work; and when he thought of the future, and of the damsel who had been allotted to him for a wife, his thoughts were very bitter.

“Fate is like Laban,” he said to himself; “a man works and does his duty for seven years, and then Fate gives him Leah instead of Rachel. No doubt Leah is a very good young woman; one has no complaint to make against her, except that she is not Rachel.”

This was not a hopeful manner of looking at things for the destined master of Côtenoir. M. Lenoble’s letters to the anxious folks at Beaubocage became, about this time, somewhat brief and unsatisfactory. He no longer gave ample details of his student-life — he no longer wrote in his accustomed good spirits. His letters seemed stiff and constrained.

“I am afraid he is studying too much,” said the mother.

“I daresay the rascal is wasting his time in dissipation,” suggested the father.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50