Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

Greek Against Greek.

Valentine Hawkehurst called upon Mr. Greenwood, of the firm of Greenwood and Greenwood, within a week of his marriage, and exhibited the certificate to that gentleman. Mr. Greenwood received the information with much solemnity, and even severity, of manner.

“Are you aware that this is a very serious step which you have taken, Mr. Hawkehurst?” he demanded, sternly. “You entrap — that is to say, you persuade a lady into a hasty marriage — without consultation with her legal advisers, without settlements of any kind whatever — while at the same time you are aware that the lady in question is heir-at-law to a very large fortune, proceedings for the recovery of which are now pending. Pardon me if I observe that there is a want of delicacy — of — a — hem — right-mindedness in the transaction.”

“The imputation contained in your remarks is not a pleasant one, Mr. Greenwood,” Valentine remarked quietly; “but I am quite willing to pardon any injustice which you may inflict upon me by your desire to protect the interests of your client. I think you will speedily discover that those interests are in no way endangered by the lady’s marriage with me. There are social complications which are not to be settled by either law or equity. Miss Halliday’s surroundings of the last few months were of a very painful nature; so painful, that the legal protection of marriage became the only means of saving her from imminent peril. I cannot enter more fully into those painful circumstances. I can only assure you that I married your client with the consent and approval of her only near relation, and uninfluenced in the smallest degree by mercenary considerations. Whatever post-nuptial settlement you please to make for my wife’s protection I shall promptly execute.”

“You express yourself in a very honourable and highly creditable manner, Mr. Hawkehurst,” exclaimed the lawyer, with sudden cordiality; “and I beg distinctly to withdraw any offensive observations I may have made just now. Your own affairs are, I conclude, in a sufficiently solvent state?”

“I do not owe a sixpence.”

“Good; and Mr. Sheldon, the lady’s stepfather and my client — had you his approval for this hasty marriage?”

“The marriage took place without Mr. Sheldon’s knowledge or consent.”

“May I ask your reason for this secrecy?”

“No, Mr. Greenwood; it is just that one reason that I cannot tell you. Accept my assurance that it was an all-powerful reason.”

“I am compelled to do so, if you decline to confide in my discretion; but as Mr. Sheldon is my client, I am bound to think of his interests as well as those of Miss Halliday — er — Mrs. Hawkehurst. I am somewhat surprised that he has not called upon me since the marriage. He has been made aware of that circumstance, I suppose?”

“Yes; I wrote to him immediately after the ceremony, enclosing him a copy of the certificate.”

“The marriage will make a considerable difference to him.”

“In what manner?”

“Well, in the event of his stepdaughter’s death. If she had died unmarried and intestate, this fortune would have gone to her mother; besides which, there was the insurance on Miss Halliday’s life.”

“An insurance!”

“Yes. Were you not apprised of that fact? Mr. Sheldon, with very natural precaution, insured his stepdaughter’s life for a considerable sum — in point of fact, as I believe, five thousand pounds; so that, in case of her death prior to the recovery of the Haygarth estate, her mother might receive some solatium.”

“He had insured her life!” said Valentine, under his breath.

This, then, was the key to the mystery. The Haygarthian inheritance was but a remote contingency, a shadowy prize, which could scarcely have tempted the secret assassin; but the insurance had offered the prospect of immediate gain. The one link wanting to complete the chain of evidence against Philip Sheldon was found. There was no longer a question as to his motive.

“This man knows of one insurance on her life,” Valentine thought to himself; “there may have been more than one.”

After a brief silence, in which Mr. Hawkehurst had been lost in thought, the lawyer proceeded to discuss the terms of the post-nuptial settlement necessary for the protection of his client’s interests. In the course of this discussion Valentine explained his position in relation to George Sheldon, and stated the demands of that sharp practitioner.

Mr. Greenwood was utterly aghast upon hearing Mr. Hawkehurst’s views on this subject.

“You mean to tell me that this man claims a clear half of the Haygarth estate — fifty thousand pounds — in consideration of his paltry discoveries!”

“Such is the demand he has made, and which I have pledged myself not to oppose. He certainly does open his mouth very wide; but we are bound to consider that but for these discoveries of his, my wife and my wife’s relatives would in all probability have gone down to their graves in ignorance of their claim to this estate.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Hawkehurst. If Mr. George Sheldon had not made the discovery, some one else would have made it sooner or later, depend upon it. There would have been a little loss of time, that is all. There are plenty of men of George Sheldon’s class always on the look-out for such chances as this — and for very small chances in comparison to this. Why, I know a fellow, a Frenchman, called Fleurus, who will take as much trouble about a few hundred pounds’ worth of unclaimed stock as this man, George Sheldon, has taken about the Haygarth succession. And he has really the impudence to claim fifty thousand pounds from you?”

“A claim which I have pledged myself not to oppose.”

“But which you have not pledged yourself to support. My dear Mr. Hawkehurst, this is a business which you must allow me to settle for you, as your wife’s legal adviser. We will consider you quite out of the question, if you please; you will thus come out of your relations to Mr. George Sheldon with perfectly clean hands. You will not oppose his claim; but I shall oppose him in my character of legal adviser to your wife. Why, are you aware that this man executed an agreement with his brother, consenting to receive a fifth share of the estate, and costs out of pocket, in complete acquittance of all claims? I have an abstract of the agreement, amongst Miss Halliday’s — Mrs. Hawkehurst’s papers.”

After some further discussion, Valentine agreed to leave the whole matter in Mr. Greenwood’s hands. Greek must meet Greek. Gray’s Inn and the Fields must settle this business between themselves.

“I am only prince consort,” he said, with a smile. “I pretend to no actual interest in my wife’s estate. I doubt, indeed, whether I should not have felt more complete happiness in our marriage if she had not been heiress to so large a fortune.”

At this Mr. Greenwood laughed outright.

“Come, come, Mr. Hawkehurst,” he exclaimed, “that really won’t do. I am an old stager, you know — a man of the world; — and you mustn’t ask me to believe that the idea of your wife’s expectations can afford you anything but unqualified satisfaction.”

“You cannot believe? No, perhaps not,” Valentine answered, thoughtfully. “But you do not know how nearly these expectations have lost me my wife. And even now, when she is mine by virtue of a bond that only death can loosen, it seems to me as if her wealth would make a kind of division between us. There are people who will always consider me a lucky adventurer, and look at my marriage as the result of clever scheming. I cannot advertise to the world the fact that I loved Charlotte Halliday from the first hour in which I saw her, and asked her to be my wife three days before I discovered her claim to John Haygarth’s estate. A man can’t go through the world with his justification pinned upon his breast. I think it will be my fate to be misjudged all my life. A twelvemonth ago I cared very little about the opinions of my fellow-men; but I want to be worthy of my wife in the esteem of mankind, as well as in the depths of my own moral consciousness.”

“Go and finish your honeymoon,” said the lawyer, digging his client in the ribs with elephantine playfulness; “the moon must be in her first quarter, I should think. Go along with you, and leave me to tackle Mr. George Sheldon.”

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