Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Captain Paget is Paternal.

Horatio Paget left the Lawn after the foregoing interview, fully convinced that Mr. Sheldon was only desirous to throw him off the scent, in order to follow up the chase alone, for his sole profit and advantage.

“My last letter conveyed some intelligence that altered his whole plan of action,” thought the Captain; “that is perfectly clear. He was somewhat wanting in tact when he recalled me so suddenly. But I suppose he thought it would be easy to throw dust in my poor old eyes. What was the intelligence that made him change his mind? That is the grand question.” Captain Paget dined alone at a West–End restaurant that evening. He dined well, for he had in hand certain moneys advanced by his patron, and he was not disposed to be parsimonious. He sat for some time in meditative mood over his pint bottle of Chambertin, and the subject of his meditation was Philip Sheldon.

“Yes,” he murmured at last, “that is it. The charm is in the name of Meynell. Why else should he question me about the orthography of that name? I sent him information about Matthew Haygarth in the wife’s letters, and he took no special notice of that information. It was only when the name of Meynell cropped up that he changed his tactics and tried to throw me over. It seems to me that he must have some knowledge of this Meynell branch, and therefore thinks himself strong enough to act alone, and to throw me over the bridge. To throw me over,” the Captain repeated to himself slowly. “Well, we’ll see about that. We’ll see; yes, we’ll see.”

At noon on the following day Captain Paget presented himself again at the Bayswater villa, where his daughter ate the bread of dependence. He appeared this time in a purely paternal character. He came to call upon his only child. Before paying this visit the Captain had improved the shining hour by a careful study of the current and two or three back volumes of the Post–Office and Trade Directories; but all his researches in those interesting volumes had failed to reveal to him the existence of any metropolitan Meynells.

“The Meynells whom Sheldon knows may be in the heart of the country,” he said to himself, after these futile labours.

It was a fine autumnal morning, and as Miss Paget was at home and disengaged, her affectionate father suggested that she should take a walk with him in Kensington Gardens. Such a promenade had very little attraction for the young lady; but she had a vague idea that she owed a kind of duty to her father not remitted by his neglect of all duties to her; so she assented with a smile, and went out with him, looking very handsome and stylish in her simple but fashionable attire, no part of which had been provided by the parent she accompanied.

The Captain surveyed her with some sense of family pride. “Upon my word, my dear, you do me credit!” he exclaimed, with a somewhat patronising kindness of tone and manner; “indeed any man might be proud of such a daughter. You are every inch a Paget.”

“I hope not, papa,” said the girl involuntarily; but the Captain’s more delicate instincts had been considerably blunted in the press and jostle of life, and he did not feel the sting of this remark.

“Well, perhaps you are right, my love,” he replied blandly; “the Pagets are an unlucky family. Like those Grecian people, the Atri — what’s-his-name — the man who was killed in his bath, you know. His wife, or the other young person who had come to visit his daughters, made the water too hot, you know — and that kind of thing. I am not quite clear about the story, but it’s one of those farragos of rubbish they make young men learn at public schools. Yes, my dear, I really am amazingly pleased by your improved appearance. Those Sheldon people dress you very nicely; and I consider your residence in that family a very agreeable arrangement for all parties. You confer a favour on the girl by your society, and so on, and the mother provides you with a comfortable home; All I wonder is that your good looks haven’t made their mark before this with some of Sheldon’s rich stockbroking fellows.”

“We see very little of the stockbroking fellows, as you call them, at the Lawn, papa.”

“Indeed! I thought Sheldon kept a great deal of company.”

“O no. He gives a dinner now and then, a gentleman’s dinner usually; and poor Mrs. Sheldon is very anxious that it should all go off well, as she says; but I don’t think he is a person who cares much for society.”

“Really, now?”

“His mind seems completely occupied by his business, you see, papa. That horrible pursuit of gain seems to require all his thoughts, and all his time. He is always reading commercial papers, the Money Market and On Change, and the Stockbrokers’ Vade Mecum, and publications of that kind. When he is not reading he is thinking; and by his manner one would fancy his thoughts were always gloomy and unpleasant. What a miserable, hateful, unholy life to lead! I would not be that man for all the money in the Bank of England. But it is a kind of treachery to tell these things. Mr. Sheldon is very good to me. He lets me sit at his table and share the comforts of his home, and I must be very ungrateful to speak against him. I do not mean to speak against him, you see, papa — I only mean that a life devoted to money-making is in itself hateful.”

“My dear child, you may be assured that anything you say to me will go no further,” said the Captain, with dignity; “and in whom should you confide, if not in your father? I have a profound respect for Sheldon and his family — yes, my love, a profound respect; and I think that girl Sarah — no, I mean Charlotte — a very charming young person. I need scarcely tell you that the smallest details of your life in that family possess a keen interest for me. I am not without a father’s feelings, Diana, though circumstances have never permitted me to perform a father’s duties.”

And here the solitary tear which the accomplished Horatio could produce at will trembled in his eye. This one tear was always at his command. For the life of him he could not have produced a second; but the single drop never failed him, and he found one tear as effective as a dozen, in giving point and finish to a pathetic speech.

Diana looked at him, and wondered, and doubted. Alas, she knew him only too well! Any other creature in this wide world he might deceive, but not her. She had lived with him; she had tasted the bitterness of dependence upon him — ten times more bitter than dependence on strangers. She had shown him her threadbare garments day after day, and had pleaded for a little money, to be put off with a lying excuse. She could not forget this. She had forgiven him long ago, being of too generous a nature to brood upon past injuries. But she could not forget what manner of man he was, and thank him for pretty speeches which she knew to be meaningless.

They talked a little more of Mr. Sheldon and his family, but Diana did not again permit herself to be betrayed into any vehement expressions of her opinions. She answered all her father’s questions without restraint, for they were very commonplace questions, of a kind that might be answered without any breach of faith.

“Amongst the Sheldons’ acquaintances did you ever hear of any people called Meynell?” Captain Paget asked at length.

“Yes,” Diana replied, after a moment’s thought; “the name is certainly very familiar to me;” and then, after a pause, she exclaimed, “Why, the Meynells were relations of Charlotte’s! Yes, her grandmother was a Miss Meynell; I perfectly remember hearing Mrs. Sheldon talk about the Meynells. But I do not think there are any descendants of that family now living. Why do you ask the question, papa? What interest have you in the Meynells?”

“Well, my dear, I have my reasons, but they in no manner concern Mr. Sheldon or his family; and I must beg you to be careful not to mention the subject in your conversation with those worthy people. I want to know all about this Meynell family. I have come across some people of that name, and I want to ascertain the precise relationship existing between these people and the Sheldons. But the Sheldons must know nothing of this inquiry for the present. The people I speak of are poor and proud, and they would perish rather than press a relationship upon a rich man, unless fully justified by the closeness of family ties. I am sure you understand all this, Diana?”

“Not very clearly, papa.”

“Well, my dear, it is a delicate position, and perhaps somewhat difficult for the comprehension of a third party. All you need understand is the one fact, that any information respecting the Meynell family will be vitally interesting to my friends, and, through them, serviceable to me. There is, in fact, a legacy which these friends of mine could claim, under a certain will, if once assured as to the degree of their relationship to your friend Charlotte’s kindred on the Meynell side of the house. To give them the means of securing this legacy would be to help the ends of justice; and I am sure, Diana, you would wish to do that.”

“Of course, papa, if I can do so without any breach of faith with my employers. Can you promise me that no harm will result to the Sheldons, above all to Charlotte Halliday, from any information I may procure for you respecting the Meynell family?”

“Certainly, Diana, I can promise you that. I repeat most solemnly, that by obtaining such information for me you will be aiding the cause of justice.”

If Horatio Paget might ever be betrayed into the inconsistency of a truthful assertion, it seemed to his daughter that it was likely to be in this moment. His words sounded like truth; and, on reflection, Diana failed to perceive that she could by any possibility inflict wrong on her friends by obliging her father in this small affair.

“Let me think the matter over, papa,” she said.

“Nonsense, Diana; what thinking over can be wanted about such a trifle? I never before asked you a favour. Surely you cannot refuse to grant so simple a request, after the trouble I have taken to explain my reasons for making it.”

There was some further discussion, which ended in Miss Paget consenting to oblige her father.

“And you will manage matters with tact?” urged the Captain, at parting.

“There is no especial tact required, papa,” replied Diana; “the matter is easy enough. Mrs. Sheldon is very fond of talking about her own affairs. I have only to ask her some leading question about the Meynells, and she will run on for an hour, telling me the minutest details of family history connected with them. I dare say I have heard the whole story before, and have not heeded it: I often find my thoughts wandering when Mrs. Sheldon is talking.”

Three days after this Captain Paget called on Mr. Sheldon in the City, when he received a very handsome recompense for his labours at Ullerton, and became repossessed of the extracts he had made from Matthew Haygarth’s letters, but not of the same Mr. Haygarth’s autograph letter: that document Mr. Sheldon confessed to having mislaid.

“He has mislaid the original letter, and he has had ample leisure for copying my extracts; and he thinks I am such a consummate fool as not to see all that,” thought Horatio, as he left the stockbroker’s office, enriched but not satisfied.

In the course of the same day he received a long letter from Diana containing the whole history of the Meynells, as known to Mrs. Sheldon. Once set talking, Georgy had told all she could tell, delighted to find herself listened to with obvious interest by her companion.

“I trust that you have not deceived me, my dear father,” Diana concluded, after setting forth the Meynell history. “The dear good soul was so candid and confiding, and seemed so pleased by the interest I showed in her family affairs, that I should feel myself the vilest of wretches if any harm could result to her, or those she loves, from the information thus obtained.”

The information was very complete. Mrs. Sheldon had a kindly and amiable nature, but she was not one of those sensitive souls who instinctively shrink from a story of bitter shame or profound sorrow as from a cureless wound. She told Diana, with many lamentations, and much second-hand morality, the sad history of Susan Meynell’s elopement, and of the return, fourteen years afterwards, of the weary wanderer. Even the poor little trunk, with the name of the Rouen trunk-maker, Mrs. Sheldon dwelt upon with graphic insistence. A certain womanly delicacy had prevented her ever telling this story in the presence of her brother-in-law, George Sheldon, whose hard worldly manner in no way invited any sentimental revelation. Thus it happened that George had never heard the name of Meynell in connection with his friend Tom Halliday’s family, or had heard it so seldom as to have entirely forgotten it. To Horatio his daughter’s letter was priceless. It placed him at once in as good a position as Philip Sheldon, or as George Sheldon and his coadjutor, Valentine Hawkehurst. There were thus three different interests involved in the inheritance of the Reverend John Haygarth.

Captain Paget sat late by a comfortable fire, in his own bedchamber, that night, enjoying an excellent cigar, and meditating the following jottings from a pedigree:—

THOMAS HALLIDAY, only son of above, married GEORGINA, now Mrs. SHELDON;
       |         had issue,

SUSAN MEYNELL, only and elder sister of the above-named Charlotte, ran
away from her home, in Yorkshire, with a Mr. Kingdon, brother to Lord
Darnsville. Fate unknown during fourteen years of her life. Died in
London, 1835. Buried under her maiden name; but no positive evidence to
show that she was unmarried.

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