Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

“According to Their Deeds.”

“Between Wimbledon and Kingston,” muttered the tramp. “If I can drag myself as far as that, I’ll go there this night.”

He went down stairs and out into the pitiless cold and snow, and made his way down Fetter Lane, and across Blackfriars Bridge to the Surrey side of the water, stopping to beg here and there.

Upon this snowy Christmas night there were plenty of people abroad; and amongst them Philip Sheldon found pitying matrons, who explored the depths of their capacious pockets to find him a halfpenny, and good-natured young men, who flung the “copper” he besought with piteous professional whine.

When he had collected the price of a glass of gin, he went into the first public-house he came to, and spent his money. He was too ill to stay the cravings of his stomach with substantial food. Gin gave him temporary warmth and temporary strength, and enabled him to push on vigorously for a little while; and then came dreary periods of faintness and exhaustion, in which every step was sheer pain and weariness.

Something of his old self, some remnant of that hard strength of purpose which had once characterized him, remained with him still, utterly fallen and brutalized as he was. As a savage creature of the jungle might pursue a given course, pushing always onward to that camp or village whence the scent of human flesh and blood was wafted to his quivering nostrils, so Philip Sheldon pushed on towards the dwelling-place of that man and that woman whom of all creatures upon this earth he most savagely hated.

“There’s nothing left for me but to turn housebreaker,” he said to himself; “and the first house I’ll try my hand upon shall be Valentine Hawkehurst’s.”

The idea of violence in such a creature was the idea of a madman. Weapon he had none, nor the physical strength that would have enabled him to grapple with a boy of twelve years old. Half intoxicated with the spirits he had consumed on his long tramp, half delirious with fever, he had a vague notion that he could make an entrance into some ill-defended house under cover of night, and steal something that should procure him food and shelter. And let the house be Valentine Hawkehurst’s, the man who had baffled his plans and crushed him!

If blood must be shed, let the blood be his! Never was man better primed for murder than the man who tramped across Wimbledon Common at eleven o’clock this night, with the snow drifting against his face, and his limbs shaken every now and then by an ague-fit.

Happily for the interests of society, his hand lacked the power to execute that iniquity which his heart willed.

He reached a little wayside inn near the Robin Hood gate of Richmond Park, just as the shutters were being closed, and asked a man if any one of the name of Hawkehurst lived in that neighbourhood.

“What do you want with Mr. Hawkehurst?” asked the man, contemptuously.

“I’ve got a letter for him.”

“Have you? A begging letter, I should think, from the look of you.”

“No; it’s a business letter. You’d better show me where he lives, if he’s a customer of yours. The business is particular.”

“Is it? You’re a queer kind of messenger to trust with particular business. Mr. Hawkehurst’s house is the third you come to on the opposite side of the way. But I don’t suppose you’ll find anybody up as late as this. Their lights are out by eleven, in a general way.”

The third house on the opposite side of the road was half a mile distant from the little run. Lights shone bright in the lower windows as the tramp dragged his tired limbs to the stout oaken gate. The gate was fastened only by a latch, and offered no resistance to the intruder. He crept with stealthy footsteps along the smooth gravel walk, sheltered by dark laurels, on which the light flashed cheerily from those bright windows. Sounds of laughter and of music pealed out upon the wintry air. Shadows flitted across the blinds of the broad bay windows. Philip Sheldon crept into a sheltered nook beside the rustic porch, and sank down exhausted in the shadow of the laurels.

He sat there in a kind of stupor. He had lost the power of thought, somehow, on that dreary journey. It seemed almost as if he had left some portion of his being out yonder in the cold and darkness. He had difficulty in remembering why he had come to this place, and what that deed was which he meant to do.

“Hawkehurst,” he muttered to himself —“Hawkehurst, the man who leagued against me with Jedd! I swore to be even with him if ever I found the opportunity — if ever! And George refused me a few shillings; my brother, my only brother, refused to stand my friend!”

Hawkehurst and George — big only brother — the images of these two men floated confusedly in his brain: he could scarcely separate them. Sometimes it seemed to him that he was still sitting outside his brother’s door, on the staircase in Gray’s Inn, hugging himself in his rags, and cursing his unnatural kinsman’s cruelty; then in the next moment he remembered where he was, and breathed bitter curses upon that unconscious enemy whose laugh pealed out every now and then amid a chorus of light-hearted laughter.

There was a little Christmas party at Charlottenburgh. Two flys were waiting in the laurel-avenue to convey Mr. Hawkehurst’s guests to distant abodes. The door was opened presently, and all the bustle of departure made itself heard by that wretched wayfarer who found it so difficult to keep his hold upon the consciousness of these things.

“What is it?” he said to himself —“a party! Hawkehurst has been giving a party.”

He had lived through too much degradation, he had descended into too deep a gulf of wretchedness, to be conscious of the contrast between his present situation and his position in those days when he had played the host, and seen handsome carriages bear prosperous guests away from his door. In that cycle of misery which he had endured, these things and the memory of them had faded from him as completely as if they had been obliterated by the passage of a century. The hapless wretch tried to give sustained attention to all the animated discussion that attended the departure of the merry guests. Half-a-dozen people seemed to be talking at once. Valentine was giving his friends counsel about the way home.

“You will keep to the lower road, you know, Fred. Lawsley’s cab can follow yours. You came a couple of miles out of your way. And tell that fellow Battersea Bridge is a mistake.”

And then followed Charlotte’s friendly questioning about wraps, and hoods, and comforters, and other feminine gear.

“And when are you coming to dine at Fulham?” cried one voice.

“I shall certainly get those quadrilles of Offenbach’s,” said another.

“How delightfully Mr. Lawsley sang that song of Santley’s!”

And anon a chorus of “Never enjoyed myself more!” “Most delightful evening!” “Pray don’t come out in the cold.” “Thanks; well, yes, yours are always capital.” “No, I won’t light up till I’m on the road.” “Give my book a lift in the D.H., eh, old fellow?” “Are you quite sure that shawl is warm enough?” “Take a rug for your feet.” “Thanks, no.” “Good-night.” “See you on Tuesday.” “Don’t forget the box for D.L.” “All right, old fellow!” “Lower Road, Roehampton Lane, Putney Bridge. Good-night.”

Among the confusion of voices Philip Sheldon had recognized more than one voice that was familiar to him. There were Charlotte’s gentle tones, and Valentine’s hearty barytone, and another that he knew.

Diana Paget! Yes, it was her voice. Diana Paget, whom he had cause to hate for her interference with his affairs.

“A beggar,” he muttered to himself, “and the daughter of a beggar! She was a nice young lady to set herself in opposition to the man who gave her a home.”

The vehicles drove away, but there was still a little group in the rustic porch. Valentine and Charlotte, with Monsieur and Madame Lenoble, who had come to spend their Christmas with their English friends.

“How we have been gay this evening!” cried Gustave. “There is nothing like your English interior for that which you call the comfortable, the jolly, you others. Thy friends are the jollity itself, Hawkehurst. And our acting charades, when that we all talked at once, and with a such emphasis on the word we would make to know. Was it not that our spectators were cunning to divine the words? And your friend Lawsley — it is a mixture of Got and Sanson. It is a true genius. Think, then, Diane, while we were amusing ourselves, our girls were at the midnight mass at the Sacré Coeur? Dear pious children, their innocent prayers ascended towards the heavens for we who are absent. Come, Madame Hawkehurst, Diane, it makes cold.”

“But we are sheltered here. And the stars are so bright after the snow,” said Charlotte. “Do you remember the Christmas-day you spent at the Lawn, Valentine, when we walked in Kensington Gardens together, just when we were first engaged?” the young wife added shyly.

“Do I not remember? It was the first time the holiness of Christmas came home to my heart. And now let us go back to the drawing-room, and sit round the fire, and tell ghost stories. Lenoble shall give us the legends of Côtenoir.”

“Valentine,” murmured Charlotte, “do you know that it is nearly one o’clock?”

“And we must put in an appearance at church to-morrow morning. And Lenoble has to walk to Kingston to early mass. We will postpone our ghost stories to New–Year’s eve. And Lenoble shall read Tennyson’s New Year, to demonstrate his improvement in the English language. Lead the way, Mrs. Hawkehurst; your obedient slave obeys. Mamma is waiting for us in the drawing-room, marvelling at our delay, no doubt. And Nancy Woolper stalks ghost-like through the house, oppressed by the awful responsibility of to-morrow’s pudding.”

Anon came a clanking of bolts and bars; and Philip Sheldon, for the second time that night, heard a door shut against him. As the voices died away, his consciousness of external things died with him. He fancied himself on the Gray’s-Inn staircase.

“Don’t be so hard upon me, George,” he muttered faintly. “If my own kith and kin turn against me, whom shall I look to?”

Mrs. Woolper opened the door early next day, when night was yet at odds with morning. All through the night the silent snow-flakes had been falling thick and fast; and they had woven the shroud of Philip Sheldon. The woman who had watched his infant slumbers forty years before, was the first to look upon him in that deeper sleep, of whose waking we know so little. It was not until she had looked long and closely at the dead face that she knew why it was that the aspect of that countenance had affected her with so strange a pang. She did recognize that altered wretch, and kept her counsel.

Before the bells rang for morning service the tramp was lying in the dead-house of Kingston Union, whither he had been conveyed very quietly in the early morning, unknown to any one but the constable who superintended the removal, and the servants of Mr. Hawkehurst’s household. Only the next day did Ann Woolper tell Valentine what had happened. There was to be an inquest. It would be well that some one should identify the dead man, and establish the fact of Philip Sheldon’s decease.

Valentine was able to do this unaided. He attended the inquest, and made arrangements for the outcast’s decent burial; and in due course he gave Mrs. Sheldon notice of her freedom. Beyond that nameless grave whose fancy shall dare follow Philip Sheldon? He died and made no sign. And in the last dread day, when the dead, small and great, from the sea and from the grave, press together at the foot of the great white Throne, and the books of doom are opened; when above shines the city whose light is the glory of God, and below yawns the lake of fire — what voice shall plead for Philip Sheldon, what entreating cry shall Pity send forth that sentence against him may be stayed?

Surely none; unless it issue from the lips of that one confiding friend, whose last words upon earth thanked and blessed him, and whose long agonies he watched with unshaken purpose, conscious that in every convulsive change in the familiar face, and every pang that shook the stalwart form, he saw the result of his own work.

Perhaps at that dread Judgment Day, when every other tongue is silent, the voice of Tom Halliday may be heard pleading for the man who murdered him.

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