Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

Out of the Dark Valley.

Not with pomp or with splendour, with rejoicing or strewing of summer blossoms in the pathway of bride and bridegroom, had the marriage of Valentine and Charlotte been solemnized. Simple and secret had been the ceremonial, dark with clouds was the sky above them; and yet it is doubtful if happier bridegroom ever trod this earth than Valentine Hawkehurst as he went to his lonely lodging under the starry summer sky, after leaving his young wife to her mother’s care in the new home that had been found for them.

He had reason to rejoice; for he had passed through the valley of the shadow of death. He had seen, very near, that dread presence before which the angels of faith and love can avail nothing. Fearless as Alcides had he gone down to the realms of darkness; triumphant and glad as the demigod he returned from the under-world, bearing his precious burden in his strong arms. The struggle had been dire, the agony of suspense a supreme torture; but from the awful contest the man came forth a better and a wiser man. Whatever strength of principle had been wanting to complete the work of reformation inaugurated by love, had been gained by Valentine Hawkehurst during the period of Charlotte’s illness. His promised wife, his redeeming angel, she for whose affection he had first learned to render thanks to his God, had seemed to be slipping away from him. In the happiest hour of his prosperous courtship he had known himself unworthy of her, with no right, no claim, to so fair a prize, except the right of pure and unselfish love. When the hour of trial came to him he had said, “Behold the avenger!” and in that hour it seemed to him that a lurking anticipation of future woe had been ever present with him in the midst of his happiness — it seemed so natural, go reasonable that this treasure should be taken away from him. What had he done, that he should go unpunished for all the errors and follies of his youth?

He looked back, and asked himself if he had been so vile a sinner as in these hours of self-reproach he was inclined to esteem himself? Could his life have been otherwise? Had he not been set in a groove, his young feet planted in the crooked ways, before he knew that life’s journey might be travelled by a straighter road?

Alas, the answer given at the tribunal of conscience went against him! Other men had come into this world amidst surroundings as bad, nay, indeed, worse than the surroundings of his cradle. And of these men some had emerged from their native mire spotless and pure as from newly-fallen snow. The natural force of character which had saved these men had not been given to him. His feet had been set in the crooked ways, and he had travelled on, reckless, defiant, dimly conscious that the road was a bad one, and that his garments were bespattered with more mud-stains than would be agreeable to some travellers.

It was only when the all-powerful influence of love was brought to bear upon this plastic nature that Valentine Hawkehurst became fully awakened to the degradation of his position, and possessed with an earnest desire to emerge from the great dismal swamp of bad company. Then, and then only, began the transformation which was ultimately to become so complete a change. Some influence, even beyond that of happy love, was needed to give force to this man’s character; and in the great terror of the last three months that influence had been found. The very foundations of Valentine Hawkehurst’s life had been shaken, and, come what might, he could never be again what he had been.

He had almost lost her. All was said in that. She had been almost taken from him — she, who to this man was father, mother, wife, household, past, present, future, glory, ambition, happiness — everything except that God who ruled above and held her life and his peace in the hollow of His hand. He had been face to face with death; and never, in all the years to come — never in the brightest hour of future happiness, could he forget the peril that had come upon him, and might come again. He had learned to understand that he held her, not as a free gift, but as a loan — a treasure to be reclaimed at any moment by the God who lent her.

The darksome valley was past, and Valentine stood by his darling’s side, safe upon the sunlit uplands.

The doctors had declared their patient safe. The hour of danger had been passed in safety, and the mischief worked by the poisoner’s slow process had been well nigh counteracted by medical skill.

“In six weeks’ time you may take your wife for her honeymoon tour, Mr. Hawkehurst, with her health and spirits thoroughly re-established,” said Dr. Jedd.

“What is that you say about honeymoon tours?” cried Gustave Lenoble. “Hawkehurst and his wife will spend their honeymoon at Côtenoir; is it not, Diana?”

Diana replied that it was to be, and must be so.

It was impossible to imagine a happier party than that which met day after day in those pleasant lodgings at Kilburn, wherein Georgy and Diana and Charlotte had been established with much devotion and care on the parts of Valentine and Gustave. Mr. Hawkehurst had chosen the apartments, and M. Lenoble had spent the day before the wedding in rushing to and fro between the West End and Kilburn, carrying hot-house flowers, comestibles of all kinds from Fortnum and Mason’s, bonbon boxes, perfumery, new books, new music, and superintending the delivery of luxurious easy-chairs, hired from expensive upholsterers, a grand piano, and a harmonium.

“We will have music in the evenings,” he said to Diana, upon her expressing surprise on beholding these arrangements, “when we are assembled here, all. How thou dost open thine eyes on beholding these nothings! Do you think it has been no pleasure to me to testify my affection for one who has been so good to thee — thy friend, thine adopted sister? I wished that all things should look bright around her, when they brought her here, after that she had come to escape from the jaws of death. And thou, was it not that thou wert also coming to make thy home here for some days, until thy day of marriage? Thy father astonishes himself to hear of such sudden events. Thou wilt go to see him, soon, is it not?”

“Yes, dear Gustave. I will go to-morrow.”

She went on the next day, and found Captain Paget much weaker than on her last visit.

It was evident that for him the end was very near. He was much changed and subdued by his long illness; but the spirit of worldliness had not been altogether exorcised even in this dismal period of self-communion.

“What does it all mean, Diana?” he asked. “I don’t understand being kept in the dark like this. Here are you suddenly leaving Mr. Sheldon’s house without rhyme or reason, to take up your quarters in lodgings with Mrs. Sheldon. Here is a mysterious marriage taking place at a time when I have been given to understand that one of the parties is at death’s door; and here is Lenoble introduced to Valentine Hawkehurst, in express opposition to my particular request that my future son-in-law should be introduced to none of the Sheldon set.”

“Valentine is not one of the Sheldon set, papa. I do not think it likely that he will ever see Philip Sheldon again.”

“Bless my soul!” exclaimed Captain Paget. “There has been something serious going on, then, surely?”

After this he insisted on an explanation, and Diana told him the story of the last two or three weeks: Charlotte’s increasing illness — so mysterious and incurable; the sudden return from Harold’s Hill; Valentine’s fears; Dr. Jedd’s boldly-expressed opinion that the patient was the victim of foul play; the systematic exclusion of Philip Sheldon from the sick-room, followed immediately by symptoms of amelioration, leading to gradual recovery.

All this Captain Paget heard with an awe-stricken countenance. The distance that divides the shedder of blood from all other wrong-doers is so great, that the minor sinner feels himself a saint when he contemplates the guilt of the greater criminal.

“Great God! is this possible?” exclaimed the Captain, with a shudder. “And I have taken that man’s hand!”

Later in the evening, when Diana had left him, and he had been thinking seriously of his own career, and those many transactions of his troubled life which, in the slang denomination of the day, would be called “shady,” he derived some scrap of comfort from one consideration.

“I never hurt a worm,” he murmured to himself, complacently. “No, I can lay my hand upon my heart and say, I never hurt a worm.”

The Captain did not pause to reflect that some of the merit involved in this amiable trait of character might have been referable to the fact, that he had never happened to fall upon a state of society in which a comfortable living was to be made by the hurting of worms. He thought only of the story he had heard about Philip Sheldon; and he told himself that not in the direst necessity of his life could his brain have fashioned the thought of such a deed as that, in the doing of which this man had persevered for nearly three months.

For Charlotte Hawkehurst the summer days which succeeded her marriage passed very quietly. She had not been told the real motive of that hasty and stolen marriage which had given her to the man she loved and trusted so completely. Valentine and Diana had between them contrived to mould Mrs. Sheldon to their will; and it was at her request that Charlotte had consented to so strange a step.

The fable invented to account for this desire on the part of Mrs. Sheldon was very innocent. The doctors had ordered a milder climate than England for the dear convalescent — Madeira, Algeria, Malta — or some other equally remote quarter of the globe. It was impossible that Mr. or Mrs. Sheldon could take so long a journey; Mr. Sheldon being bound hand and foot to the mill-wheel of City life, Mrs. Sheldon being the slave and helpmeet of her husband. Nor could dear Charlotte go to Malta alone, or attended only by faithful Diana Paget. In short, there was no course so obvious or so prudent as a hasty marriage, which would enable the invalid to seek a milder clime, accompanied and guarded by her natural protector — a husband.

“Consent, dearest, I entreat you,” wrote Valentine, in the little note which supported Mrs. Sheldon’s request, “however strange our wishes may seem to you. Believe that it is for the best, for your own sake, for the sake of all who love you, and ask no questions. Say only yes.”

To the prayer in this letter, to the entreaties of her mother and Diana, Charlotte yielded. She wondered why Mr. Sheldon avoided her, and asked anxiously, on more than one occasion, why she did not see that gentleman.

“Is papa ill,” she asked, “that he never comes to see how I am?”

“The doctors have forbidden many people in your room, dear.”

“Yes, a few days ago, when I was so very ill; but now that I am better, papa might come. I want to thank him for all his anxious care of me, and to be sure that he consents to this marriage.”

“My darling, be assured the marriage is for the best,” pleaded Diana.

And the marriage took place.

Charlotte’s innocent soul was thus spared the pain of a revelation which must have cast a dark shadow on the bright beginning of her wedded life. Georgy pledged herself to keep the fatal secret from her daughter; and Diana Paget rewarded her discretion by the most patient attention to her piteous and prosy lamentations upon the iniquity of mankind in general, and Philip Sheldon in particular.

Of that hideous secret of the past, lately revealed by Mr. Burkham, Mrs. Sheldon had been told nothing. No good end could have been served by such a revelation. The criminal law has its statute of limitations — unwritten, but not the less existent. A crime which would have been difficult of proof at the time of its commission must after the lapse of twelve years have travelled beyond the pale of justice. For three people to come forward and declare that at the time of Mr. Halliday’s death they had suspected Mr. Sheldon of poisoning him, would be to prove nothing to the minds of a British jury, except that the three people in question were libellous and ill-disposed persons. The greater the issue, the wider the chances of escape given to the accused; and a petty offender will be condemned for picking a pocket upon much lighter grounds than will be considered sufficient to prove a man guilty of blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/charlotte_s_inheritance/book10.1.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31