Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

A Decree of Banishment.

After those stormy emotions which accompany the doing of a desperate deed, there comes in the minds of men a dead calm. The still small voice of Wisdom, unheard while Passion’s tempest was raging, whispers grave counsel or mild reproof; and Folly, who, seen athwart the storm-cloud, sublime in the glare of the lightning, seemed inspiration, veils her face in the clear, common light of day.

Let it not for a moment be supposed that with M. Lenoble time and reflection brought repentance in their train. It was not so. The love which he felt for his English wife was no capricious emotion; it was a passion deep and strong as destiny. The worst that afterthought could reveal to him was the fact that the step he had taken was a very desperate one. Before him lay an awful necessity — the necessity of going to Beaubocage to tell those who loved him how their air-built castles had been shattered by this deed of his.

The letters from Cydalise — nay, indeed, more than one letter from his mother, with whom letter-writing was an exceptional business — had of late expressed much anxiety. In less than a month the marriage-contract would be made ready for his signature. Every hour’s delay was a new dishonour. He told his wife that he must go home for a few days; and she prepared his travelling gear, with a sweet dutiful care that seemed to him like the ministration of an angel.

“My darling girl, can I ever repay you for the happiness you have brought me!” he exclaimed, as he watched the slight girlish figure flitting about the room, busy with the preparations for his journey.

And then he thought of Madelon Frehlter — commonplace, stiff, and unimpressionable — the most conventional of school-girls, heavy in face, in figure, in step, in mind even, as it had seemed to him, despite his sister’s praises.

He had been too generous to tell Susan of his engagement, of the brilliant prospects he forfeited by his marriage, or the risk which he ran of offending his father by that rash step. But to-night, when he thought of Madelon’s dulness and commonness, it seemed to him as if Susan had in manner rescued him from a dreadful fate — as maidens were rescued from sea-monsters in the days of Perseus and Heracles.

“Madelon is not unlike a whale,” he thought. “They tell us that whales are of a sagacious and amiable temper — and Cydalise was always talking of Madelon’s good sense and amiablity. I am sure it is quite as easy to believe in the unparalleled virtues of the whale as in the unparalleled virtues of Madelon Frehlter.”

His valise was packed, and he departed for Beaubocage, after a sad and tender parting from his wife. The journey was a long one in those days, when no express train had yet thundered across the winding Seine, cleaving its iron way through the bosom of fertile Norman valleys. M. Lenoble had ample time for reflection as he jogged along in the ponderous diligence; and his heart grew more and more heavy as the lumbering vehicle approached nearer to the town of Vevinord, whence he was to make his way to the paternal mansion as best he might.

He walked to Beaubocage, attended by a peasant lad, who carried his portmanteau. The country was very pleasant in the quiet summer evening, but conscious guilt oppressed the heart and perplexity disturbed the mind of M. Gustave Lenoble, and his spirits were in nowise elevated by the walk.

Lights in the lower chambers gleamed dimly athwart the trim garden at Beaubocage. One faint twinkling candle shone in a little pepper-castor turret, his sister’s room. The thought of their glad welcome smote his heart. How could he shape the words that must inform them of their disappointment? And then he thought of the gentle pensive wife in the Parisian lodging, so grateful for his devotion, so tender and submissive — the wife he had rescued from death and eternal condemnation, as it seemed to his pious Catholic mind. The thought of this dear one gave him courage.

“I owe much to my parents,” he thought to himself, “but not the privilege to sell me for money. The marriage they want to bring about would be a sordid barter of my heart and my honour.”

In a few minutes after this he was standing in the little salon at Beaubocage, with his mother and sister hanging about him and caressing him, his father standing near, less demonstrative, but evidently well pleased by this unexpected arrival of the son and heir.

“I heard thy voice in the hall,” cried Cydalise, “and flew down from my room to welcome thee. It seems to me that one can fly on these occasions. And how thou art looking well, and how thou art handsome, and how I adore thee!” cries the damsel, more ecstatic than an English sister on a like occasion. “Dost thou know that we began to alarm ourselves about thee? Thy letters became so infrequent, so cold. And all the while thou didst plot this surprise for us. Ah, how it is sweet to see thee again!”

And then the mother took up the strain, and anon was spoken the dreaded name of Madelon. She too would be glad — she too had been anxious. The prodigal made no answer. He could not speak, his heart sank within him, he grew cold and pale; to inflict pain on those who loved him was a sharper pain than death.

“Gustave!” cried the mother, in sudden alarm, “thou growest pale — thou art ill! Look then, François, thy son is ill!”

“No, mother, I am not ill,” the young man replied gravely. He kissed his mother, and put her gently away from him. In all the years of her after-life she remembered that kiss, cold as death, for it was the farewell kiss of her son.

“I wish to speak a few words with you alone, father,” said Gustave.

The father was surprised, but in no manner alarmed by this request. He led the way to his den, a small and dingy chamber, where there were some dusty editions of the French classics, and where the master of Beaubocage kept accounts and garden-seeds and horse-medicines.

When they were gone, the mother and sister sat by one of the open windows, waiting for them. Without all was still. Distant lights glimmered through the summer twilight, the lighted windows of Côtenoir.

“How pleased Madelon will be,” said Cydalise, looking towards those glimmering windows. She had really taught herself to believe that the demoiselle Frehlter was a most estimable young person; but she would have been glad to find more enthusiasm, more brightness and vivacity, in her future sister-in-law.

The interview between the father and son seemed long to Madame Lenoble and Cydalise. The two women were curious — nay, indeed, somewhat anxious.

“I fear he has made debts,” said the mother, “and is telling thy father of his follies. I know not how they are to be paid, unless with the dowry of Madelon, and that would seem a dishonourable use of her money.”

It was half an hour before any sound broke the stillness of that quiet house. Twilight had thickened into night, when there came a banging of doors and heavy footsteps in the hall. The door of the salon was opened, and M. Lenoble came in alone. At the same moment the outer door closed heavily.

M. Lenoble went straight to the open window and closed the Venetian shutters. He went from thence to the second window, the shutters whereof he fastened carefully, while the women stared at him wonderingly, for it was not his habit to perform this office.

“I am shutting out a vagabond,” he said, in a cold, cruel voice.

“Where is Gustave?” cried the mother, alarmed.

“He is gone.”

“But he is coming back, is he not, directly?”

“Never while I live!” answered M. Lenoble. “He has married an English adventuress, and is no longer any son of mine.”

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