Who heeds the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand amidst a broad expanse of blue ether? The faint, scarce perceptible menace of that one little cloud is lost in the wide brightness of a summer sky. The traveller jogs on contented and unthinking, till the hoarse roar of stormy winds, or the first big drops of the thunder-shower, startle him with a sudden consciousness of the coming storm.
It was early May, and the young leaves were green in the avenues of Kensington Gardens; Bayswater was bright and gay with fashionable people; and Mrs. Sheldon found herself strong enough to enjoy her afternoon drive in Hyde Park, where the contemplation of the bonnets afforded her perennial delight.
“I think they are actually smaller than ever this year,” she remarked every season; and every season the headgear of fashionable London did indeed seem to shrink and dwindle, “fine by degrees, and beautifully less.” The coalscuttle-shaped headdress of our grandmothers had not yet resolved itself into a string of beads and a rosebud in these days, but was obviously tending thitherward.
Charlotte and Diana accompanied Mrs. Sheldon in her drives. The rapture of contemplating the bonnets was not complete unless the lady had some sympathising spirit to share her delight. The two girls were very well pleased to mingle in that brilliant crowd, and to go back to their own quiet life when the mystic hour came, and that bright vision of colour and beauty melted into the twilight loneliness. It had seemed just lately, however, as if Charlotte was growing a little weary of the gorgeous spectacle — the ever-changing, ever-splendid diorama of West End life. She no longer exclaimed at the sight of each exceptional toilette; she no longer smiled admiringly on the thoroughbred horses champing their bits in the immediate neighbourhood of her bonnet; she no longer gave a little cry of delight when the big drags came slowly along the crowded ranks, the steel bars shining as they swung loosely in the low afternoon sunlight, the driver, conscious of his glory, grave and tranquil, with the pride that apes humility.
“See, Lotta,” said Miss Paget, upon an especially bright May evening, as one of these gorgeous equipages went past Mr. Sheldon’s landau, “there’s another drag. Did you see it?”
“Yes, dear, I saw it.”
“And are you tired of four-in-hands? You used to admire them so much.”
“I admire them as much as ever, dear.”
“And yet you scarcely gave those four splendid roans a glance.”
“No,” Charlotte answered, with a faint sigh.
“Are you tired, Lotta?” Miss Paget asked, rather anxiously. There was something in Charlotte’s manner of late that had inspired her with a vague sense of anxiety; some change which she could scarcely define — a change so gradual that it was only by comparing the Charlotte of some months ago with the Charlotte of the present that she perceived how real a change it was. The buoyancy and freshness, the girlish vivacity of Miss Halliday’s manner, were rapidly giving place to habitual listlessness. “Are you tired, dear?” she repeated, anxiously; and Mrs. Sheldon looked round from her contemplation of the bonnets.
“No, Di, dearest, not tired; but — I don’t feel very well this afternoon.”
This was the first confession which Charlotte Halliday made of a sense of weakness and languor that had been creeping upon her during the last two months, so slowly, so gradually, that the change seemed too insignificant for notice.
“You feel ill, Lotta dear?” Diana asked.
“Well, no, not exactly ill. I can scarcely call it illness; I feel rather weak — that is really all.”
At this point Mrs. Sheldon chimed in, with her eyes on a passing bonnet as she spoke.
“You see, you are so dreadfully neglectful of your papa’s advice, Lotta,” she said, in a complaining tone. “Do you like pink roses with mauve areophane, Diana? I do not. Look at that primrose tulle, with dead ivy-leaves and scarlet berries, in the barouche. I dare say you have not taken your glass of old port this morning, Charlotte, and have only yourself to thank if you feel weak.”
“I did take a glass of port this morning, mamma. I don’t like it; but I take it every morning.”
“Don’t like old tawny port, that your papa bought at the sale of a bishop of somewhere? It’s perfectly absurd of you, Lotta, to talk of not liking wine that cost fifteen shillings a bottle, and which your papa’s friends declare to be worth five-and-thirty.”
“I am sorry it is so expensive, mamma; but I can’t teach myself to think it nice,” answered Charlotte, with a smile that sadly lacked the brightness of a few weeks ago. “I think one requires to go into the City, and become a merchant or a stockbroker, before one can like that sort of wine. What was it Valentine quoted in the Cheapside, about some lady whom somebody loved? —‘To love her was a liberal education.’ I think to like old port is a commercial education.”
“I am sure such wine ought to do you good,” said Georgy, almost querulously. She thought this bright blooming creature had no right to be ill. The headaches, and little weaknesses and languors and ladylike ailments, were things for which she (Georgy) had taken out a patent; and this indisposition of her daughter’s was an infringement of copyright.
“I dare say the port will do me good, mamma, in time. No doubt I shall be as strong as that person who strangled lions and snakes and dogs with incalculable heads, and all that kind of thing.”
“I really wish you would not talk in that absurd manner, my dear,” said Mrs. Sheldon with offended dignity. “I think you really cannot be too grateful for your papa’s kind thoughtfulness and anxiety about you. I am sure I myself am not so anxious as he is; but of course his medical knowledge makes him doubly careful. Six weeks ago he noticed that you wanted strength — tone is what he calls it. ‘Georgina,’ he said to me, ‘Charlotte wants tone. She is beginning to stoop in a really lamentable manner: we must make her take port or bark, or something of a strengthening kind.’ And then a day or two afterwards he decided on port, and gave me the key of the cellar — which is a thing he rarely gives out of his own hands — and told me the number of the bin from which I was to take the wine — some old wine that he had laid by on purpose for some special occasion; and no one is to have it but you, and you are to take a glass daily at eleven o’clock. Mr. Sheldon is most particular about the hour. The regularity of the thing is half the battle in these cases, he says; and I am sure if you do not observe his wishes and mine, Charlotte, it will be really ungrateful of you.”
“But, dear mamma, I do observe Mr. — papa’s wishes. I take my glass of port every morning at eleven. I go to your cupboard in the breakfast-room and take out my special decanter, and my special glass, in the most punctiliously precise manner. I don’t like the wine, and I don’t like the trouble involved in the ceremony of drinking it; but I go through it most religiously, to please you and papa.”
“And do you mean to say that you do not feel stronger after taking that expensive old port regularly for nearly six weeks.
“I am sorry to say that I do not, mamma. I think if there is any change, it is that I am weaker.”
“Dear, dear me!” exclaimed Mrs. Sheldon captiously, “you are really a most extraordinary girl.”
Mrs. Sheldon could almost have found it in her heart to say, a most ungrateful girl. There did seem a kind of ingratitude in this futile consumption of old port at fifteen shillings a bottle.
“I’ll tell you what it is, Lotta,” she said presently, “I am convinced that your illness — or your weakness — is all fancy.”
“Why so, mamma?”
“Because, if it were real weakness, that old port must have made you stronger. And the fact that the port does you no good, is a proof that your weakness is only fancy. Girls of your age are so full of fancies. Look at me, and the martyrdom I go through with my nervous headaches, which perfectly prostrate me, after the least worry or excitement. The nerves of my head, after going into the butcher’s book, are perfect agony. When you come to have a house to look after, and find what it is to have the same saddle of mutton charged for twice over, with the most daring impudence — or to have capers and currie-powder, that you know you’ve never had, staring at you from every page of your grocer’s book, and nothing but your memory between you and utter ruin — you’ll discover what it is to be really ill.”
In this easy manner did Mrs. Sheldon dismiss the subject of her daughters illness. But it was not so easily dismissed by Diana Paget, who loved her friend with a profound and pure affection, than which no sister’s love was ever warmer or stronger. Even Valentine’s preference for this happy rival had not lessened Diana’s love for her friend and benefactress. She had been jealous of Charlotte’s happier fate: but in the hour when this jealousy was most bitter there had been no wavering in her attachment to this one true and generous friend.
Miss Paget was very silent during the homeward drive. She understood now what that change had been in her friend which until now had so perplexed her. It was a decay of physical strength which had robbed Lotta’s smile of its brightness, her laugh of its merry music. It was physical languor that made her so indifferent to the things which had once awakened her girlish enthusiasm. The discovery was a very painful one. Diana remembered her experience of Hyde Lodge: the girls who had grown day by day more listless, now in the doctor’s hands for a day or two, now well again and toiling at the old treadmill round of study, now sinking into confirmed invalids; until the bitter hour in which parents are summoned, and the doctor urges rest, and the fond mother carries her darling home, assured that home comfort and tenderness will, speedily restore her. Her schoolfellows cluster round the carriage to bid her “good-bye until next half,” full of hopeful talk about her swift recovery. But when the vacation is over, and Black Monday comes, she is not amongst the returning scholars. Has she not gone up to the higher school, and answered Adsum to the call of the Great Master?
Diana remembered these old experiences with cruel pain.
“Girls, as bright and lovable as she is, have drooped and faded away, just when they seem brightest and happiest,” she thought as she watched Charlotte, and perceived to-day for the first time that the outline of her fair young cheek had lost its perfect roundness.
But in such a case love can do nothing except watch and wait. That night, in the course of that girlish talk in Charlotte’s bedroom, which had become a habit with the two girls, Diana extorted from her friend a full account of the symptoms which had affected her within the last few weeks.
“Pray don’t look so anxious, dear Di,” she said gaily; “it is really nothing worth talking of; and I knew that if I confessed to feeling ill you and mamma would straightway begin to worry yourselves about me. I have felt a little sick and faint sometimes; and now and then a sudden dizziness has come over me. It is nothing of any consequence, and it passes away very quickly. Sometimes I have a kind of torpid languid feeling, which is scarcely unpleasant, only strange, you know. But what does it all amount to, except that I am nervous?”
“You must have change of air, Lotta,” said Diana resolutely, “and change of scene. Yes, no doubt you are nervous. You have been kept almost a prisoner in the house through Mr. Sheldon’s punctilious nonsense. You miss our brisk morning walks in the Gardens, I dare say. If you were to go to Yorkshire, now, to your friends at Newhall, you would like that change, dear, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, I should dearly like to see Aunt Dorothy and uncle Joe; but —”
“But what, darling?”
“I should scarcely like being at Newhall, unless — you’ll think me very foolish, Di — unless Valentine was with me. We were so happy there, you see, dear; and it was there he first told me he loved me. No, Di, I couldn’t bear Newhall without him.”
“Poor Aunt Dorothy, poor uncle Joe! feathers when weighed in the scale against a young man whom their niece has known less than a twelvemonth!”
No more was said about Charlotte’s illness; Diana was too prudent to alarm her friend by any expression of uneasiness. She adopted a cheering tone, and the conversation drifted into other channels.
While Diana’s concern for her friend’s altered health was yet a new feeling, she found herself called upon to attend her father once more in the character of a ministering angel. And this time Captain Paget’s illness was something more than gout. It was, according to his doctors — he had on this occasion two medical attendants — a general breaking up of the system. The poor old wanderer — the weary Odysseus, hero of so many trickeries, such varied adventures — laid himself down to rest, within view of the Promised Land for which his soul yearned.
He was very ill. Gustave Lenoble, who came back to London, did not conceal from Diana that the illness threatened to end fatally. At his instigation the Captain had been removed from Omega Street to pleasant lodgings at the back of Knightsbridge Road, overlooking Hyde Park. This was nearer Bayswater, and it was very pleasant for the fading old worldling. He could see the stream of fashion flowing past as he sat in his easy-chair, propped up with pillows, with the western sunlight on his face. He pointed out the liveries and armorial bearings; and told many scandalous and entertaining anecdotes of their past and present owners to Gustave Lenoble, who devoted much of his time to the solacement of the invalid. Everything that affection could do to smooth this dreary time was done for the tired Ulysses. Pleasant books were read to him; earnest thoughts were suggested by earnest words; hothouse flowers adorned his cheerful sitting-room; hothouse fruits gladdened his eye by their rich warmth of colour, and invited his parched lips to taste their cool ripeness. Gustave had a piano brought in, so that Diana might sing to her father in the dusky May evenings, when it should please him to hear her. Upon the last feeble footsteps of this old man, whose life had been very selfish and wicked, pity waited with a carefulness so fond and tender that he might well mistake it for love. Was it fair that his last days should be so peaceful and luxurious, when many a good man falls down to die in the streets, worn out with the life-long effort to bear the burden laid upon his weary shoulders? In the traditions of the Rabbins it is written that those are the elect of God who suffer His chastisement in the flesh. For the others, for those who on earth drain the goblet of pleasure, and riot in the raptures of sin, for them comes the dread retribution after death. They are plunged in the fire, and driven before the wind; they take the shape of loathsome reptiles, and ascend by infinitesimal degrees through all the grades of creation, until their storm-tost wearied degraded souls re-enter human semblance once more. But even then their old stand-point is not yet regained; their dread penance not yet performed. As men they are the lowest and worst of men; slaves toiling in the desert; dirt to be trampled under the feet of their prosperous brethren. Inch by inch the wretched soul regains its lost inheritance; cycles must elapse before the awful sentence is fulfilled.
Our Christian faith knows no such horrors. Even for the penitent of the eleventh hour there is promise of pardon. The most earnest desire of Diana’s heart was that her father should enroll himself amongst those late penitents — those last among the last who crowd in to the marriage feast, half afraid to show their shame-darkened faces in that glorious company.
If we forgive all things to old age, so much the more surely do we forgive all injuries to the fading enemy. That she had suffered much cruelty and neglect at the hands of her father, was a fact that Diana could not forget, any more than she could forget the name which he had given her. It was a part of her life not to be put off or done away with. But in these last days, with all her heart she forgave and pitied him. She pitied him for the crooked paths into which his feet had wandered at the very outset of life, and from which so weak a soul could find no issue. She pitied him for that moral blindness which had kept him pleasantly unconscious of the supreme depth of his degradation — a social Laplander, who never having seen a western summer, had no knowledge that his own land was dark and benighted.
Happily for Diana and her generous lover, the Captain was not a difficult penitent. He was indeed a man who, having lost the capacity and the need for sin, took very kindly to penitence, as a species of sentimental luxury.
“Yes, my dear,” he said complacently — for even in the hour of his penitence he insisted on regarding himself as a social martyr —“my life has been a very hard one. Fortune has not been kind to me. In the words of the immortal bard, my lines have not been set in pleasant places. I should have been glad if Providence had allowed me to be a better father to you, a better husband to your poor mother — a better Christian, in fact — and had spared me the repeated humiliation of going through the Insolvent Debtors’ Court. It is not always easy to understand the justice of these things: and it has often appeared to me that something of the favouritism which is the bane of our governments on earth must needs obtain at a higher tribunal. One man enters life with an entailed estate worth seventy thousand a-year, while another finds himself in the hands of the Jews before he is twenty years of age. ‘There’s something in this world amiss shall be unriddled by-and-by,’ as the poet observes. The circumstances of my own existence I have ever regarded as dark and enigmatic. And, indeed, the events of this life are altogether inexplicable, my love. There is that fellow Sheldon, now, who began life as a country dentist, a man without family or connections, who — well, I will not repine. If I am spared to behold my daughter mistress of a fine estate, although in a foreign country, I can depart in peace. But you must have a house in town, my dear. Yes, London must be your head-quarters. You must not be buried alive in Normandy. There is no place like London. Take the word of a man who has seen the finest Continental cities, and lived in them — that is the point, my love — lived in them. For a fine afternoon in the beginning of May, an apartment in the Champs Elysées, or the Boulevard, is an earthly paradise; but the Champs Elysées in a wet December — the Boulevard in a sweltering August! London is the only spot upon earth that is never intolerable. And your husband will be a rich man, my dear girl, a really wealthy man; and you must see that he makes a fitting use of his wealth, and does his duty to society. The parable of the Talents, which you were reading to me this afternoon, is a moral lesson your husband must not forget.”
After this fashion did the invalid discourse. Gustave and Diana perceived that he still hoped to have his share in their future life, still looked to pleasant days to come in a world which he had loved, not wisely, but too well. Nor could they find it in their hearts to tell him that his journey was drawing to a close, and that on the very threshold of the peaceful home which his diplomatic arts had helped to secure, he was to abandon life’s weary race.
They indulged his hopes a little, in order to win him the more easily to serious thoughts; but though at times quite ready to abandon himself to a penitential mood that was almost maudlin, there were other times when the old Adam asserted himself, and the Captain resented this intrusion of serious subjects as a kind of impertinence.
“I am not aware that I am at my last gasp, Diana,” he said with dignity, on one of these occasions; “or that I need to be talked to by my own daughter as if I were on my deathbed. I can show you men some years my senior driving their phaetons-and-pairs in that Park. The Gospel is all very well in its place — during Sunday-morning service, and after morning prayers, in your good old county families, where the household is large enough to make a fair show at the end of the dining-room, without bringing in hulking lads who smell of the stables: but I consider that when a man is ill, there is a considerable want of tact in bringing the subject of religion before him in any obtrusive manner.”
Thus the Captain alternated from sentimental penitence to captious worldliness, during may days and weeks. The business of the Haygarthian inheritance was progressing slowly, but surely. Documents were being prepared, attested copies of certificates of marriages, births, baptisms, and burials were being procured, and all was tending towards the grand result. Once, and sometimes twice a week, M. Fleurus came to see Captain Paget, and discussed the great affair with that invalid diplomatist. The Captain had long ago been aware that in entering upon an alliance with that gentleman, he had invoked the aid of a coadjutor likely to prove too strong for him. The event had justified his fears. M. Fleurus had something of Victor Hugo’s famous Poulpe in his nature. Powerful as flexible were the arms he stretched forth to grasp all prizes in the way of heirs-at-law and disputed heritages, unclaimed railway-stock, and forgotten consols. If the Captain had not played his cards very cleverly, and contrived to obtain a personal influence over Gustave Lenoble, he might have found himself thrust entirely out of the business by one of the Frenchman’s gelatinous arms. Happily for his own success, however, the Captain did obtain a strong hold upon Gustave. This enabled him to protect his own interests throughout the negotiation, and to keep the insidious Fleurus at bay.
“My good friend,” he said, in his grand Carlton–House manner, “I am bound to protect the interests of my friend M. Lenoble, in any agreement to be entered upon in this matter. I cannot permit M. Lenoble’s generosity or M. Lenoble’s inexperience to be imposed upon. My own interests are of secondary importance. That I expect to profit by the extraordinary discovery made by me — by ME— alone and unaided, I do not affect to deny. But I will not profit at the expense of a too generous friend.”
“And what recompense am I to have for my work — a work at once painful and impoverishing?” asked the little Frenchman, with an angry and suspicious look. “Do you believe that I do that to amuse me? To run the streets, to go by here, by there, in hunting the papers of that marriage, or this baptism? Believe you that is so agreeable, Monsieur the Captain? No; I desire to be paid for my work. I must have my part in the heritage which I have help to win.”
“It is not won yet. We will talk of your recompense by-and-by.”
“We will talk of it this instant — upon the field. It must that I comprehend where I am in this affair. I will not of mystifications, of prevarications, of lies —”
“M. Fleurus!” cried the Captain, with a hand stretched towards the bell.
“You will sound — you will chase me! Ah, but no! — you cannot afford to chase me yet. I have to find more papers of baptisms and burials. Go, then, we will talk of this affair as friends.”
This friendly talk ended in Captain Paget’s complete victory. M. Fleurus consented to accept his costs out of pocket in the present, and three per cent, of the heritage in the future. It was further agreed that the Captain should select the English attorney who should conduct M. Lenoble’s case in the Court of Chancery.
This conversation occurred at Rouen, and a day or two afterwards the necessary document was drawn up. Gustave pledged himself to pay over a fourth share of the Haygarthian fortune to Horatio Paget, and three per cent, upon the whole amount to Jean François Fleurus. The document was very formal, very complete; but whether such an agreement would hold water, if Gustave Lenoble should choose to contest it, was open to question.
The solicitor to whom Horatio Paget introduced M. Lenoble was a Mr. Dashwood, of the firm of Dashwood and Vernon; a man whom the Captain had known in the past, and from whom he had received good service in some of the most difficult crises of his difficult career. To this gentleman he confided the conduct of the case; and explained his apprehensions with regard to the two Sheldons.
“You see, as the case now stands, they think they have the claimant to this money in Miss Halliday — Sheldon’s stepdaughter. But if they got an inkling of Susan Meynell’s marriage — and, in point of fact — the actual state of the case — they might try to get hold of my friend, Gustave Lenoble. They could not get hold of him, mind you, Dashwood, but they would try it on, and I don’t want trying on of that kind.”
“Of course not. I know Sheldon, of Gray’s Inn. He is rather — well, say shady. That’s hardly an actionable epithet, and it expresses what I mean. Your friend’s case seems to me tolerably clear. That little Frenchman is useful, but officious. It is not a speculative affair, I suppose? There is money to meet the current expenses of the business?”
“Yes, there is money. Within reasonable limits my friend is prepared to pay for the advancement of his claims.”
After this the Haygarthian business progressed, slowly, quietly. The work was up to this point underground work. There were still papers wanting — final links of the chain to be fitted together; and to the fitting of these links Messrs. Dash and Vernon devoted themselves, in conjunction with M. Fleurus.
This was how matters stood when Captain Paget drooped and languished, and was fain to abandon all active share in the struggle.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05