Having pledged herself to visit Omega Street on Thursday, Diana considered herself bound to perform that promise. She felt, however, that there was some touch of absurdity in the position, for to keep a promise so made was in a manner to keep an appointment with M. Lenoble.
“I dare say he has a habit of falling in love with every young woman he meets,” she thought, when she considered his conduct from a more prosaic standpoint than the grateful enthusiasm his generous sympathy had at first awakened in her mind. “I have heard that it is a Frenchman’s faculty to consider himself irresistible, and to avow his adoration for a new divinity every week. And I was so foolish as to fancy there was a depth of feeling in his tone and manner! I am sure he is all that is good and generous; but the falling in love is no doubt a national failing.”
She remembered the impertinent advances of divers unknown foreigners whom she had encountered on pier or digue, kursaal or beach, in the frequently unprotected hours of her continental wanderings.
She had not seen the best side of the foreign mind in her character of unattended and doubtfully attired English demoiselle. She knew that Gustave Lenoble was of a very different stamp from those specimens of the genus tiger whose impertinent admiration had often wounded and distressed her; but she was inclined to attribute the fault of shallowness to a nature so frank and buoyant as that of her father’s friend.
She walked from Bayswater to Chelsea on the appointed Thursday, for the cost of frequent journeys in cabs was more than her purse could supply. The walk across the Park was pleasant even in the bleak March weather, and she entered the little parlour in Omega Street with the bloom of damask roses upon her cheeks.
“How do you do, papa dear?” she began, as she came into the dusky room; but the figure sitting in her father’s accustomed place was not that of her father. It was M. Lenoble, who rose to welcome her.
“Is papa worse?” she asked, surprised by the Captain’s absence.
“On the contrary, he is better, and has gone out in a hired carriage for a breath of fresh air. I persuaded him to go. He will be back very shortly.”
“I wrote to tell him I should be here to-day, but I am very glad he has gone out, for I am sure the air will do him good. Was he well wrapped up, do you know, M. Lenoble?”
“Enveloped in railway-rugs and shawls to his very nose. I arranged all that with my own hands. He looked like an ambassador from all the Russias.”
“How kind of you to think of such things!” said Diana gratefully.
“And tell me why should I not think of such things? Do you imagine that it is not a pleasure to me to wait upon your father — for your sake?”
There was some amount of awkwardness in this kind of thing. Diana busied herself with the removal of her hat and jacket, which she laid neatly upon a stony-hearted horsehair sofa. After doing this she placed herself near the window, whence she contemplated the dusky street, appearing much interested in the movements of the lamp lighter.
“What an admirable way they have of lighting the lamps now,” she remarked, with the conversational brilliance which usually marks this kind of situation; “how much more convenient it must be than the old method with the ladder, you know!”
“Yes, I have no doubt,” said Gustave, bringing himself to her side with a couple of steps, and planting himself deliberately in a chair next to hers; “but don’t you think, as I start for Normandy to-morrow, we might talk of something more interesting than the lamplighter, Miss Paget?”
“I am ready to talk of anything you like,” replied Miss Paget, with that charming assumption of unconsciousness which every woman can command on these occasions.
“You are very good. Do you know that when I persuaded your father to go out for an airing, I was prompted by a motive so selfish as to render the proceeding quite diabolical? Don’t be alarmed! The doctor gave his permission for the airing, or I should not have attempted such a thing. Hypocrisy I am capable of, but not assassination. You cannot imagine the diplomacy which I exhibited; and all to what end? Can you imagine that?”
“That I might secure one half-hour’s uninterrupted talk with you; and, unhappily, you are so late that I expect your father’s return every minute. He was to be back again before dusk, and the appearance of the lamplighter demonstrates that the dusk has come. I have so much to say, and so little time to say it; so much, Diane —”
She started as he called her thus, as if in that moment of surprise she would have risen from her chair by his side. She knew what was coming, and having expected nothing so desperate, knew not how to arrest the confession that she would fain have avoided hearing. M. Lenoble laid his hand firmly on hers.
“So much, Diane; and yet so little, that all can be told in three words. I love you.”
“Ah, you are surprised, you wonder, you look at me with eyes of sweet amazement! Dear angel, do you think it is possible to see you and not to love you? To see you once is to respect, to admire, to bow the knee before beauty and goodness; but to see you many times, as I have done, the patient consoler of an invalid and somewhat difficult father — ah, my sweet love, who is there so hard amongst mankind that he should escape from loving you, seeing all that?”
The question had a significance that the speaker knew not. Who amongst mankind? Why, was there not one man for whom she would have been content to be the veriest slave that ever abnegated every personal delight for the love of a hard master? And he had passed her by, indifferent, unseeing. She had worshipped him on her knees, as it seemed to her; and he had left her kneeling in the dust, while he went on to offer himself, heart and soul, at another shrine.
She could not forget these things. The memory and the bitterness of them came back with renewed poignancy at this moment, when the voice of a stranger told her she was beloved.
“My dear one, will you not answer me?” pleaded Gustave, in nowise alarmed by Diana’s silence, which seemed to him only the natural expression of a maidenly emotion. “Tell me that you will give me measure for measure; that you will love me as my mother loved my father — with a love that trouble and poverty could never lessen; with a love that was strongest when fate was darkest — a star which the dreary night of sorrow could not obscure. I am ten years older than you by my baptismal register, Diane; but my heart is young. I never knew what love was until I knew you. And yet those who know me best will tell you that I was no unkind husband, and that my poor wife and I lived happily. I shall never know love again, except for you. The hour comes, I suppose, in every man’s life; and the angel of his life comes in that appointed hour. Mine came when I saw you. I have spoken to your father, and have his warm approval. He was all encouragement, and hinted that I might be assured of your love. Had he sufficient justification for that half-promise, Diane?”
“He had none,” Miss Paget answered gravely, “none except his own wishes. You have made me hear more than I wished to hear, M. Lenoble, for the treasure you offer me is one that I cannot accept. With all my heart I thank you for the love you tell me of. Even if it is, as I can but think it, a passing fancy, I thank you, nevertheless. It is sweet to win the love of a good man. I pray you to believe that with all my heart and mind I honour your generous nature, your noble sympathy with the weak and friendless. If you can give me your friendship, you shall find how I can value a good man’s regard, but I cannot accept your love.”
“Why not?” asked Gustave, aghast.
“Because I cannot give you measure for measure, and I will not give you less.”
“But in time, Diane, in time?”
“Time cannot show me your character in a nobler light than that in which I see it now. You do not lack the power to win a woman’s heart, but I have no heart to give. If you will be my friend, time will increase my affection for you — but time cannot restore the dead.”
“Which means that your heart is dead, Diane?”
“Yes,” she answered, with unutterable sadness.
“You love some one younger, happier than I?”
“No, M. Lenoble, no one.”
“But you have loved? Yes! — a scoundrel, perhaps; a villain, who —”
A spasm of pain contracted his face as he looked at the girl’s drooping head; her face, in that dim light, he could not see.
“Tell me this, Diane,” he said presently, in an altered voice; “there is no barrier between us — no irrevocable obstacle that must part us for ever? There is no one who can claim you by any right —” He paused; and then added, in a lower voice, “by any wrong?”
“No one,” answered Miss Paget, lifting her head, and looking her lover full in the face. Even in that uncertain light he could see the proud steady gaze that seemed the fittest answer of all doubts.
“Thank God!” he whispered. “Ah, how could I fear, even for one moment, that you could be anything but what you seem — the purest among the pure? Why, then, do you reject me? You do not love me, but you ask my friendship; you offer me your friendship, even your affection. Ah, believe me, if those are but real, time will ripen them into love. Your heart is dead. Ah, why should that young heart be dead? It is not dead, Diane; it needs but the fire of true love to warm it into life again. Why should you reject me, since you tell me that you love me; unless you love another? What should divide us?”
“Shadows and memories,” Diana replied mournfully — “vague and foolish; wicked, perhaps; but they come between you and me, M. Lenoble. And since I cannot give you a whole heart, I will give you nothing.”
“You have loved some one, some one who did not value your love? Tell me the truth, Diane; you owe me at least as much as that.”
“I do owe you the truth. Yes; I have been very foolish. For two or three years of my life there was a person who was our daily companion. He travelled with us — with my father and me; and we saw many changes and troubles together. For a long time he was like my brother; and I doubt if many brothers are as kind to their sisters as he was to me. In his heart that feeling never changed. He was always equally kind, equally careless. Once I deluded myself with the fancy that in his looks and tones, and even in his words, there was some deeper feeling than this careless brotherly kindness; but it was no more than a delusion. My eyes were opened rudely enough. I saw his heart bestowed elsewhere. Do not think that I am so weak, or so wicked, as to abandon myself to despair because I have been awakened from my foolish dream. I can look the realities of life in the face, M. Lenoble; and I have taught myself to wish all good things for the dear girl who has won the heart that I once thought was mine. The person I am speaking of can boast no superior graces of mind or person. He is only a very commonplace young man, with a certain amount of talent, a disposition inclined to good rather than to evil. But he was the companion of my girlhood; and in losing him it seems to me as if I had lost a part of my youth itself.”
To Diana’s mind this seemed the end of the discussion. She expected M. Lenoble to bow his head to the inevitable, to utter a friendly farewell, and depart for his Norman home, convinced, if not satisfied. But the light-hearted, easy-tempered Gustave was not a lover of the despairing order, nor an easily answered suppliant.
“And that is all!” he exclaimed, in the cheeriest tone. “A companion of your girlhood, for whom you had a girl’s romantic fancy! And the memory of this unspeakable idiot — great Heaven! but how idiotic must this wretch have been, to be loved by you, and not even to know it! — the memory of this last of the last is to come between you and me, and divide us for ever? The phantom of this miserable, who could be loved by an angel without knowing it, is to lift its phantasmal hand and thrust me aside — me, Gustave Lenoble, a man, and not an idiot? Ah, thus we blow him to the uttermost end of the world!” cried M. Lenoble, blowing an imaginary rival from the tips of his fingers. “Thus we dismiss him to the Arctic regions, the torrid zone — to the Caucasus, where await vultures to gnaw his liver — wherever earth is most remote and uncomfortable — he and the bread-and-butter miss whom he prefers to my Diane!”
This manner of taking things was quite unexpected by Diana. It was much more pleasant than gloomy despair or sullen resentment; but it was, at the same time, much more difficult to deal with.
“He is gone!” cried Gustave presently; “he is on the topmost heights of Caucasus, and the vultures are sharpening their beaks! And now, tell me, Diane — you will be my wife, will you not? You will be a mother to my children? You will transform the old chateau of Côtenoir into a pleasant home? You will cease to live amongst strangers? You will come to those who will love and cherish you as their own, their dearest and best and brightest? You will give your poor old father a corner by your fireside? He is old and needs a home for his last years. For his sake, Diane, for mine, for my children, let your answer be yes! Ah, not so fast!” he cried, as she was about to speak. “Why are you so quick to pronounce your fatal judgment? Think how much depends on your reply — your father’s happiness, my children’s, mine!”
“It is of yours only I must think,” Miss Paget answered earnestly. “You fancy it is so easy for me to say no. Believe me, it would be much easier to say yes. When you speak of my father’s declining years, I, who know his weary life so well, would be hard of heart indeed if I were not tempted by the haven you offer. Every word that you say gives me some new proof of your goodness, your generosity. But I will not wrong you because you are generous. I shall always be your grateful friend, but you must seek elsewhere for a wife, M. Lenoble. You will have little difficulty in finding one worthier than I.”
“I will seek nowhere else for a wife; I will have no wife but you. I have had a wife of other people’s choosing; I will choose one for myself this time. Let us be friends, Diane, since your decision is as irrevocable as the laws of Draco. You are stone, you are adamant; but no matter, we can be friends. Your father will be disappointed. But what then? He is no doubt accustomed to disappointments. My daughters — for them it is a profound affliction to be motherless, but they must support it. Côtenoir must go to wreck and ruin a little longer — a few more rats behind the panelling, a few more moths in the tapestry, that is all. My children say, ‘Papa, our home is not comfortable; all is upside-down;’ and I reply. ‘But what will you, my children? A home without a wife is always upside down.’ And then I take them between my arms, in weeping. It is a poignant picture to rend the heart. But what does it matter, Miss Paget? What is that verse of your grand Will? —
Blow, blow, thou wintry wind; And let go weep the stricken land, While harts ungalled go play.
Perhaps I have mixed him up somehow; but the meaning is clear.”
A hollow-sounding and somewhat awful cough heralded the approach of Captain Paget, who entered the room at this juncture. If the Captain had prolonged his first airing, after six weeks’ confinement to the house, until this late period of the afternoon, he would have committed an imprudence which might have cost him dearly. Happily, he had done nothing of the kind, but had re-entered the house unobserved, while Diana and Gustave were conversing close to the window, having preferred to leave his fly at the end of the street, rather than to incur the hazard of interrupting a critical tête-à-tête. The interval that had elapsed since his return had been spent by the Captain in his own bedchamber, and in the immediate neighbourhood of the folding-doors between that apartment and the parlour. What he had heard had been by no means satisfactory to him; and if a look could annihilate, Miss Paget might have perished beneath the Parthian glance which her father shot at her as he came towards the window, with a stereotyped smile upon his lips and unspeakable anger in his heart.
He had heard just enough of the conversation to know that Gustave had been rejected — Gustave, with Côtenoir and a handsome independence in the present, and the late John Haygarth’s fortune in the future. Rejected by a penniless young woman, who at any moment might find herself without a roof to shelter her from the winds of heaven! Was ever folly, madness, wickedness supreme as this?
Horatio trembled with rage as he took his daughter’s hand. She had the insolence to extend her hand for the customary salutation. The Captain’s greeting was a grip that made her wince.
“Good-night, Miss Paget,” said Gustave gravely, but with by no means the despondent tone of a hopeless lover; “I— well, I shall see you again, perhaps, before I go to Normandy. I doubt if I shall go to-morrow. I have my own reasons for staying — unreasonable reasons, perhaps, but I shall stay.”
All this was said in a tone too low to reach Captain Paget’s ear.
“Are you going to leave us, Lenoble?” he asked in a quavering voice. “You will not stop and let Di give you a cup of tea as usual?”
“Not to-night, Captain. Good-bye.”
He wrung the old man’s hand and departed. Captain Paget dropped heavily into a chair, and for some minutes there was silence. Diana was the first to speak.
“I am glad your doctor considered you well enough to go out for a drive, papa,” she said.
“Indeed, my dear,” answered her father with a groan; “I hope my next drive may be in a different kind of vehicle — the last journey I shall ever take, until they cart away my bones for manure. I believe they do make manure from the bones of paupers in our utilitarian age.”
“Papa, how can you talk so horribly! You are better, are you not? M. Lenoble said you were better.”
“Yes, I am better, God help me!” answered the old man, too weak alike in mind and body to hide the passion that possessed, him. “That is one of the contradictions of the long farce we call life. If I had been a rich man, with a circle of anxious relations and all the noted men of Savile Row dancing attendance round my bed, I dare say I should have died; but as I happen to be a penniless castaway, with only a lodging-house drudge and a half-starved apothecary to take care of me, and with nothing before me but a workhouse, I live. It is all very well for a man to take things easily when he is ill and helpless, too weak even to think. That is not the trying time. The real trial arrives when a little strength comes back to him, and his landlady begins to worry him for her rent, and the lodging-house drudge gets tired of pitying him, and the apothecary sends in his bill, and the wretched high-road lies bare and broad before him, and he hears the old order to move on. The moving-on time has come for me, Di; and the Lord alone knows how little I know where I am to go.”
“Papa, you are not friendless; even I can give you a little help.”
“Yes,” answered the Captain with a bitter laugh; “a sovereign once a quarter — the scrapings of your pittance! That help won’t save me from the workhouse.”
“There is M. Lenoble.”
“Yes, there is M. Lenoble; the man who would have given me a home for my old age: he told me so to-day — a home fit for a gentleman — for the position he now occupies is nothing compared to that which he may occupy a year hence. He would have received me as his father-in-law, without thought or question of my antecedents; and if I have not lived like a gentleman, I might have died like one. This is what he would have done for me. But do you think I can ask anything of him now, after you have refused him? I know of your refusal to be that man’s wife. I heard — I saw it in his face. You — a beggar, a friendless wretch, dependent on the patronage of a stockbroker’s silly wife —you must needs give yourself grand airs, and refuse such a man as that! Do you think such men go begging among young ladies like you, or that they run about the streets, like the roast pigs in the story, begad, with knives and forks in their backs, asking to be eaten?”
The Captain was walking up and down the room in a fever of rage. Diana looked at him with sad wondering eyes. Yes, it was the old selfish nature. The leopard cannot change his spots; and the Horatio Paget of the present was the Horatio Paget of the past.
“Pray don’t be angry with me, papa,” said Diana sorrowfully; “I believe that I have done my duty.”
“Done your fiddlesticks!” cried the Captain, too angry to be careful of his diction. “Your duty to whom? Did you happen to remember, miss, that you owe some duty to me, your father, but for whom you wouldn’t be standing there talking of duty like a tragedy queen? By Jove! I suppose you are too grand a person to consider my trouble in this matter; the pains I took to get Lenoble over to England; the way I made the most of my gout even, in order to have you about me; the way I finessed and diplomatized to bring this affair to a successful issue. And now, when I have succeeded beyond my hopes, you spoil everything, and then dare to stand before me and preach about duty. What do you want in a husband, I should like to know? A rich man? Lenoble is that. A handsome man? Lenoble is that. A gentleman, with good blood in his veins? Lenoble comes of as pure a race as any man in that part of France. A good man? Lenoble is one of the best fellows upon this earth. What is it, then, that you want?”
“I want to give my heart to the man who gives me his.”
“And what, in the name of all that’s preposterous, is to prevent you giving Gustave Lenoble your heart?”
“I cannot tell you.”
“No, nor any one else. But let us have no more of this nonsense. If you call yourself a daughter of mine, you will marry Gustave Lenoble. If not —”
The Captain found himself brought to a sudden stop in his unconscious paraphrase of Signor Capulet’s menace to his recalcitrant daughter, Juliet. With what threat could the noble Horatio terrify his daughter to obedience? Before you talk of turning your rebellious child out of doors, you must provide a home from which to cast her. Captain Paget remembered this, and was for the moment reduced to sudden and ignominious silence. And yet there must surely be some way of bringing this besotted young woman to reason.
He sat for some minutes in silence, with his head leaning on his hand, his face hidden from Diana. This silence, this attitude, so expressive of utter despondency, touched her more keenly than his anger. She knew that he was mean and selfish, that it was of his own loss he thought; and yet she pitied him. He was old and helpless and miserable; so much the more pitiable because of his selfishness and meanness. For the heroic soul there is always some comfort; but for the grovelling nature suffering knows no counterbalance. The ills that flesh is heir to seem utterly bitter when there is no grand spirit to dominate the flesh, and soar triumphant above the regions of earthly pain. Captain Paget’s mind, to him, was not a kingdom. He could not look declining years of poverty in the face; he was tired of work. The schemes and trickeries of his life were becoming very odious to him; they were for the most part worn out, and had ceased to pay. Of course he had great hopes, in any event, from Gustave Lenoble; but those hopes were dependent on Gustave’s inheritance of John Haygarth’s estate. He wanted something more tangible than this — he wanted immediate security; and his daughter’s marriage with Gustave would have given him that security, and still grander hopes for the future. He had fancied himself reigning over the vassals of Côtenoir, a far more important personage than the real master of that château. He had pictured to himself a pied-à-terre in Paris which it might be agreeable for him to secure, for existence in Normandy might occasionally prove canuyeux. These things were what he meant when he talked of a haven for his declining years; and against the daughter who, for some caprice of her own, could hinder his possession of these things, he had no feeling but anger.
Diana compassionated this weak old man, to whose lips the cup of prosperity had seemed so near, from whose lips her hand had thrust it. He had been promised a home, comfort, respectability, friendship —“all that should accompany old age”— and she had prevented the fulfilment of the promise. Heaven knows how pure her motives had been; but as she watched that drooping head, with its silvered hair, she felt that she had been cruel.
“Papa,” she began presently, laying her hand caressingly upon her father’s neck; but he pushed aside the timid, caressing hand —“papa, you think me very unkind, only because I have done what I believe to be right; indeed it is so, papa dear. In what I said to Gustave Lenoble this evening, I was governed only by my sense of right.”
“Indeed!” cried the Captain, with a strident laugh; “and where did you pick up your sense of right, madam, I should like to know? From what Methodist parson’s hypocritical twaddle have you learnt to lay down the law to your poor old father about the sense of right? ‘Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land,’ miss, that’s what your Bible teaches you; but the Bible has gone out of fashion, I dare say, since I was a young man; and your model young woman of the present generation taunts her father with her sense of right. Will your sense of right be satisfied when you hear of your father rotting in the old-men’s ward of a workhouse, or dying on the London stones?”
“I am not unfeeling, papa. With all my heart I pity you; but it is cruel on your part to exaggerate the misery of your position, as I am sure you must be doing. Why should your means of living fail because I refuse to marry M. Lenoble? You have lived hitherto without my help, as I have lived of late without yours. Nothing could give me greater happiness than to know that you were exempt from care; and if my toil can procure you a peaceful home in the future — as I believe it can, or education and will to work must go for nothing — there shall be no lack of industry on my part. I will work for you, I will indeed, papa — willingly, happily.”
“When your work can give me such a home as Côtenoir — a home that one word of yours would secure for me — I will thank you.”
“If you will only wait, papa, if you will only have patience —”
“Patience! Wait! Do you know what you are talking about? Do you prate of patience, and waiting, and hope in the future to a man who has no future — to a man whose days are numbered, and who feels the creeping chills of death stealing over him every day as he sits beside his wretched hearth, or labours through his daily drudgery? I can live as I have always lived! Yes; but do you know, or care to know, that with every day life becomes more difficult for me? Your fine friends at Bayswater have done with me. I have spent the last sixpence I shall ever see from Philip Sheldon. Hawkehurst has cut me, like the ungrateful hound he is. When they have squeezed the orange, they throw away the rind. Didn’t Voltaire say that, when Frederick of Prussia gave him the go-by? Heaven knows it’s true enough; and now you, who by a word might secure yourself a splendid position — yes, I say splendid for a poor drudge and dependent like you, and insure a home for me — you, forsooth, must needs favour me with your high-flown sentiments about your sense of right, and promise me a home in the future, if I will wait and hope! No, Diana, waiting and hoping are done with for me, and I can find a home in the bed of the river without your help.”
“You would not be so wicked as to do that!” cried Diana, aghast.
“I don’t know about the wickedness of the act. But, rely upon it, when my choice lies between the workhouse and the river, I shall prefer the river. The modern workhouse is no inviting sanctuary, and I dare say many a homeless wretch makes the same choice.”
For some minutes there was silence. Diana stood with her elbows resting on the chimneypiece, her face covered with her hands.
“O Lord, teach me to do the thing which is right!” she prayed, and in the next breath acted on the impulse of the moment.
“What would you have me do?” she asked.
“What any one but an idiot would do of her own accord — accept the good fortune that has dropped into your lap. Do you think such luck as yours goes begging every day?”
“You would have me accept Gustave Lenoble’s offer, no matter what falsehoods may be involved in my acceptance of it?”
“I can see no reason for falsehood. Any one but an idiot would honour such a man; any one but an idiot would thank Providence for such good fortune.”
“Very well, papa,” exclaimed Diana, with a laugh that had no mirthful music, “I will not be the exceptional idiot. If M. Lenoble does me the honour to repeat his offer — and I think from his manner he means to do so — I will accept it.”
“He shall repeat it!” cried the Captain, throwing off his assumption of the tragic father. The Oedipus Coloneus, the Lear — the venerable victim of winter winds and men’s ingratitude — was transformed in a moment into an elderly Jeremy Diddler, lined with Lord Foppington. “He shall repeat it; I will have him at your feet to-morrow. Yes, Di, my love, I pledge myself to bring that about, without compromise to your maidenly pride or the dignity of a Paget. My dear child, I ought to have known that reflection would show you where your duty lies. I fear I have been somewhat harsh, but you must forgive me, Di; I have set my heart on this match, for your happiness as well as my own. I could not stand the disappointment; though I admired, and still admire, the high feeling, and all that kind of thing, which prompted your refusal. A school-girlish sentimentality, child, but with something noble in it; not the sentimentality of a vulgar schoolgirl. The blue blood will show itself, my love; and now — no, no, don’t cry. You will live to thank me for to-night’s work; yes, my child, to thank me, when you look round your comfortable home by-and-by — when my poor old bones are mouldering in their unpretending sepulchre — and say to yourself, ‘I have my father to thank for this. Adverse circumstances forbade his doing his duty as happier fathers are allowed the privilege of doing theirs, but it was his forethought, his ever-watchful care, which secured me an admirable husband and a happy home.’ Mark my words, the time will come when you will say this, my dear.”
“I will try to think of you always kindly, papa,” Miss Paget answered in a low sad voice; “and if my marriage can secure your happiness and Gustave Lenoble’s, I am content. I only fear to take too much, and give too little.”
“My love, you must certainly be the lineal descendant of Don Quixote. Too much, and too little, forsooth! Let Lenoble find a handsomer woman, or a more elegant woman, by gad, elsewhere! Such a woman as a duke might be proud to make his duchess, by Jove! There shall be no sense of obligation on our side, my love. Gustave Lenoble shall be made to feel that he gets change for his shilling. Kiss me, child, and tell me you forgive me for being a little rough with you, just now.”
“Forgive you? — yes, papa. I dare say you are wiser than I. Why should I refuse M. Lenoble? He is good and kind, and will give us a happy home? What more can I want? Do I want to be like Charlotte, to whom life seems all poetry and brightness?”
“And who is going to throw herself away upon a penny-a-liner, by Jove!” interjected the Captain.
“Can I hope to be like that girl, with her happy ignorance of life, her boundless love and trust! O, no, no, papa; those things are not for me.”
She laid her head upon her father’s breast, and sobbed like a child. This was her second farewell to the man she had loved, the dreams she had dreamed. The Captain comforted her with a paternal embrace, but was as powerless to comprehend her emotion as if he had found himself suddenly called upon to console the sorrows of a Japanese widow.
“Hysterical,” he murmured. “These noble natures are subject to that kind of thing. And now, my love,” he continued, in a more business-like tone, “let us talk seriously. I think it would be very advisable for you to leave Bayswater, and take up your abode in these humble lodgings with me immediately.”
“The reason is sufficiently obvious, my love. It is not right that you should continue to eat the bread of dependence. As the future wife of Gustave Lenoble — and in this case, the word future means immediately —”
“Papa,” cried Diana suddenly, “you will not hurry me into this marriage? I have consented for your sake. You will not be so ungenerous as to —”
“As to hurry you? No, my dear, of course not. There shall be no indecent haste. Your wishes, your delicate and disinterested motives, shall be consulted before all things; yes, my love,” cried the Captain, sorely afraid of some wavering on the part of his daughter, and painfully anxious to conciliate her, “all shall be in accordance with your wishes. But I must urge your immediate removal from Bayswater; first, because M. Lenoble will naturally wish to see you oftener than he can while you are residing with people whose acquaintance I do not want him to make; and secondly, because you have no further need of Mrs. Sheldon’s patronage.”
“It has been kindness, affection, papa — never patronage. I could not leave Mrs. Sheldon or Charlotte abruptly or ungraciously, upon any consideration. They gave me a home when I most bitterly needed one. They took me away from the dull round of schoolroom drudgery, that was fast changing me into a hard hopeless joyless automaton. My first duty is to them.”
The Captain’s angry sniff alone expressed the indignation which this impious remark inspired.
“My next shall be to you and M. Lenoble. Let me give Mrs. Sheldon due notice of the change in our plans.”
“What do you call due notice?” asked Horatio, peevishly.
“A quarter’s notice.”
“O, indeed! Then for three months you are to dance attendance upon Mrs. Sheldon, while M. Lenoble is waiting to make you his wife.”
“I must consult the wishes of my friends, papa.”
“Very well, my dear,” replied the Captain, with a sigh that was next of kin to a groan; “you must please yourself and your friends, I suppose; your poor old father is a secondary consideration.” And then, timeously mindful of the skirmish he had just had with his daughter, Captain Paget made haste to assure her of his regard and submission.
“All shall be as you please, my love,” he murmured. “There, go into my room, and smooth your hair, and bathe your eyes, while I ring for the tea.”
Diana obeyed. She found eau-de-cologne and the most delicate of Turkey sponges on her father’s wash-handstand; jockey-club, and ivory-backed brushes, somewhat yellow with age, but bearing crest and monogram, on his dressing-table. The workhouse did not seem quite so near at hand as the Captain had implied; but with these sanguine people it is but a step from disappointment to despair.
“What am I to tell Mrs. Sheldon, papa?” she asked, when she was pouring out her father’s tea.
“Well, I think you had better say nothing, except that my circumstances have somewhat improved, and that my failing health requires your care.”
“I hate secrets, papa.”
“So do I, my dear; but half-confidences are more disagreeable than secrets.”
Diana submitted. She secretly reserved to herself the right to tell Charlotte anything she pleased. From that dear adopted sister she would hide nothing.
“If M. Lenoble should repeat his offer, and I should accept it, I will tell her all,” she thought. “It will make that dear girl happy to know that there is some one who loves me, besides herself.”
And then she thought of the strange difference of fate that gave to this Charlotte Halliday, with her rich stepfather and comfortable surroundings, a penniless soldier of fortune for a lover, while to her, the spendthrift adventurer’s daughter, came a wealthy suitor.
“Will hers be the dinner of herbs, and mine the stalled ox?” she thought. “Ah, Heaven forbid! Why is it so difficult to love wisely, so easy to love too well?”
She remembered the cynical French proverb, “When we can not have what we love, we must love what we have.” But the cynical proverb brought her no comfort.
She went back to Bayswater with a strange bewildered feeling; after having promised her father to go to Omega Street whenever he sent for her. There was no actual pain in her mind, no passionate desire to recall her promise, no dread horror of the step to which she had pledged herself. The feeling that oppressed her was the sense that such a step should have been the spontaneous election of her grateful heart, proud of a good man’s preference, instead of a weak submission to a father’s helplessness.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50