Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

After the Wedding.

The manner in which Mr. Sheldon would act in the future was a matter of considerable fear to his wife. She had a hazy idea that he would come to the pleasant Kilburn lodgings to claim her, and insist upon her sharing his dreary future.

“If I could only have a divorce,” she said piteously, when she discussed the subject with her son-in-law. “There ought to be divorces for such dreadful things; but I never heard of one before Sir Creswick, or the new judge, whose name I can’t remember. O Valentine, I cannot live with him; I cannot sit down to dinner day after day with such a man as that. And to think that I should have known him when I was the merest girl, and have danced my very first polka with him when it first came in, and people wore polka boots and polka jackets, and wrote their notes of invitation upon polka paper, and sang polka songs, and worked polking peasants in Berlin wool, and went on altogether in the most absurd manner. And O Valentine, whom can one trust, if not the man one has known all one’s life!”

Mr. Hawkehurst pledged himself to protect his mother-in-law from any attempt at persecution upon the part of her husband. He did not know what difficulties he might have to encounter in the performance of this pledge; for, in his ignorance of the stockbroker’s desperate circumstances, he imagined that Philip Sheldon would make some attempt to right himself in the eyes of the world, by compelling his wife to reassume her position in his house.

He went to George Sheldon’s office within a few days after his marriage to take counsel from that astute adviser. He found the lawyer hard at work, and in very good spirits. It was by his advice the marriage had been hurried on; Charlotte’s stealthy removal from the house while Philip Sheldon slumbered had been planned by him; and he was triumphant in the thought that the plot had succeeded so well, and that Philip, the coolest and deepest of schemers, had been so completely baffled.

“That Ann Woolper is a treasure,” he said; “I didn’t think it was in her to do what she has done. Nothing could be neater than the way she kept Phil at bay; and nothing could be better than her tact and cleverness in getting Charlotte and her mother quietly off the other morning while my precious brother was in the land of nod.”

“Yes, she has been invaluable to us.”

“And that girl Paget, too; she has turned out a regular trump. I used to think her a very stiff, consequential piece of goods when I saw her at the Lawn; but, egad, she has shown herself the genuine metal all through this business. Now that’s a young woman I wouldn’t mind making Mrs. George Sheldon any day in the week.”

“You do her too much honour,” said Valentine, with an internal shiver. “Unhappily, a prior engagement will prevent Miss Paget’s availing herself of so excellent an opportunity.”

“It mayn’t be such a very bad chance as you seem to think it, my friend,” George replied, with some indignation. “Whenever the Reverend John Haygarth’s estate drops in, I stand to win fifty thousand pounds. And that’s not so bad for a start in life, I suppose you haven’t forgotten that your wife is heir-at-law to a hundred thousand pounds?”

“No, I have not forgotten her position in relation to the Haygarth estate.”

“Humph! I should rather think not. People don’t generally forget that kind of thing. But you are uncommonly cool about the business.”

“Yes, I have passed through a fiery furnace in which all the bullion in the Bank of England will not serve a man. That kind of ordeal upsets one’s old notions as to the value of money. And, again, I have never been able to contemplate Charlotte’s inheritance of that fortune as anything but a remote contingency; the business is so slow.”

“Yes, but it has been going on. Affidavits have been made; the whole affair is in progress.”

“I am glad to hear it. Don’t think that I pretend not to value the prospect of wealth; I have only learnt to know that money is not the be-all and end-all of life. I could be very happy with my dear wife if there were no prospect of this Haygarthian inheritance; but if it does come to us, we shall, no doubt, be all the happier. The millionaire sees the world from a very pleasant point of view. I should like my dear girl to be the mistress of as fair a home as money can buy for her.”

“Yes, and you’d like to have your name stand high in the statistics of Government stockholders. Don’t be sentimental, Hawkehurst; that kind of thing won’t wash. Thank God, we managed to save poor Tom’s daughter from the fangs of my brother Phil. But you can’t suppose that I am going to shut my eyes to the fact that this affair has been a very good thing for you, and that you owe your chances of a great fortune entirely to me? You don’t pretend to forget that, I suppose?” said George Sheldon, with some acrimony.

“Why should I pretend to forget that, or any circumstance of our business relations? I am perfectly aware that you started the hunt of the Haygarths, and that to your investigations is to be traced the discovery that proves my wife a claimant to the estate now held by the Crown.”

“Very good; that’s outspoken and honest, at any rate. And now, how about our agreement? It’s only a parole agreement, but an honest man’s word is as good as his bond.”

“Our agreement!” repeated Valentine, with a puzzled expression of countenance. “Upon my word, I forget.”

“Ah, I thought it would come to that; I thought you would manage to forget the terms agreed upon by you and me in the event of your marriage with Charlotte Halliday. My memory is not so short as yours; and I can swear to a conversation between you and me in this room, in which you consented to my taking half the Haygarthian estate as the price of my discovery and the fair reward of my labours.”

“Yes,” said Valentine, “I remember that conversation; and I remember saying that the demand was a stiff one, but that I, as Charlotte’s future husband, would not oppose such a demand.”

“You remember that?”

“I do; and if my wife is willing to consent to your terms, I will hold to my promise.”

“Your wife’s consent is not wanted. She married you without a settlement, and her rights are merged in yours. To all intents and purposes, you are heir-at-law to John Haygarth’s estate.”

Valentine laughed aloud; the whole affair seemed a tremendous joke. He, the homeless, penniless, friendless reprobate of but one year ago — he, the son and heir of a man who had been always on the verge of social shipwreck for want of five pounds — he, of all other men upon this earth, claimant against the Crown for an estate worth one hundred thousand pounds!

“The whole affair seems ridiculously improbable,” he said.

“My brother wouldn’t have done what he did if the whole thing had seemed improbable to him. However, we needn’t estimate the chances for or against; all I want is a legal agreement between you and me, securing my share of the plunder.”

“I am ready to execute any reasonable agreement; but I am bound to protect my wife’s interests, and I must have a solicitor to act for me in this affair. Greek must meet Greek, you know.”

“Very good. I could have conducted the business myself without the interference of strangers; but if you are going in for extreme caution, you’d better leave your wife’s affairs in the hands of Messrs. Greenwood and Greenwood, who have acted for her hitherto, and have all papers relating to the case in their possession.”

“Greenwood and Greenwood? My dear girl told me she had signed some document, and had seen some lawyers; but she did not tell me the nature of the document, or the name of the lawyers. I have forborne to speak to her on business matters. The treatment that she has undergone has left her very nervous, and we try to keep all unpleasant subjects out of her mind.”

“Yes, that’s all very well; but business is business, you know. You’d better see Messrs. Greenwood and Greenwood at once. Tell them of your marriage. You’ll have to keep Phil’s conduct dark, of course; that is understood between us. You must say the marriage was a love-match against my brother’s wish, romantic, sentimental, and so on. They’ll raise no objections when they find you are willing to leave the case in their hands.”

“You have heard nothing of your brother?”

“Well, no — nothing, or next to nothing. I called at his office yesterday. He has not been there since the beginning of Charlotte’s illness, and there has been no letter or message for Orcott since your wedding-day. Things look rather piscatorial, altogether. Orcott hints that Phil’s affairs are in queer street; but he’s a shallow-headed fool, and knows very little. It seems, by his account, that Phil was a Bull, and that the fall in every species of stock has been ruin to him. You see, when a man once goes in for the Bull business, he never by any chance turns Bear — and vice versa. There’s a kind of infatuation in the thing, and a man sticks to his line until he’s cleaned out — at least, that’s what stockbrokers have told me — and I believe it’s pretty near the truth.”

This was all that Valentine could ascertain about Mr. Sheldon at present. Every knock fluttered Georgy; every accidental visitor at the Kilburn villa seemed like the swooping of eagle on dovecote.

“I cannot get over the feeling that he will come and take me away with him,” she said. “If Sir Wilde Creswick would only do something, so that my second husband mayn’t be able to insist upon my living in that dreadful, dreadful house, where I suffered such nights and days of agony, that I am convinced the sight of chintz curtains lined with pink will make me wretched as long as I live!”

“My dear Mrs. Sheldon, he shall not come,” said Valentine.

“If I could only go ever so far away from him, and feel that there was the sea, or something of that kind, between us!”

“We will take you away — across the British Channel, or further still, if you like. Diana and M. Lenoble are to be married soon; and directly Lotta is strong enough for the journey we are to go over to Normandy, to their chateau.”

“Chateau, indeed!” Mrs. Sheldon exclaimed peevishly. “The idea of Diana Paget, without a sixpence, and with a regular scamp of a father, marrying a man with a chateau, while my poor Charlotte —! I don’t wish to wound your feelings, Mr. Hawkehurst, but it really does seem hard.”

“It is hard that Lotta should not have married a prince — all the grandeurs of a prince in a fairy tale would only be her due; but it happens fortunately, you see, dear Mrs. Sheldon, that our sweet girl has simple tastes, and does not languish for jewels or palaces. If she should ever become rich —”

“Ah,” sighed, Georgy despondently, “I don’t expect that. I can’t understand anything about this idea of a fine fortune that Mr. Sheldon had got into his head. I know that my husband’s mother was a Miss Meynell, the daughter of a carpet-warehouseman in the city, and I can’t see how any grand fortune is to come to Charlotte through her. And as for the Hallidays — Hyley and Newhall farms were all the property they ever owned within the memory of man.”

“The fortune for which Charlotte is a claimant comes from the maternal ancestor of Christian Meynell. I do not count upon her possession of it as a certain good in the future. If it comes we will be thankful.”

“Is it a very large sum of money?”

“Well, yes; I believe it is a considerable sum.”

“Twenty thousand pounds, perhaps?”

“I have been told that it is as much.”

He did not want Georgy’s weak mind to become possessed of the idea of shadowy wealth. He remembered what Philip Sheldon had said to him on the Christmas night in which they had paced the little Bayswater garden together, and he felt that there was a substratum of common sense in that scoundrel’s artful warning.

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