Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

Better than Gold.

The little fleet of paper boats which Mr. Sheldon had pioneered so skilfully over the commercial seas came to grief very soon after the disappearance of the admiral. A bill drawn upon the Honduras Mahogany Company, Limited, was the first to reach maturity. The bill was referred to the drawer — the drawer was not to be found.

“I have not seen Sheldon for the last fortnight,” Mr. Orcott informed the gentleman who brought him the document.

“Out of business for a fortnight?”

“He has not been in business for a month. His stepdaughter has been very ill — at death’s door, and all that kind of thing, and my governor was awfully cut up about it. There used to be a couple of doctors at the house every day, and no end of fuss. I took Sheldon his letters, and managed matters for him here, and so on. And one fine morning my young lady runs off and gets married on the quiet; so I suspect there was a good deal of shamming about the illness — and those old fogies, the doctors, winked at it. Between them all, I fancy Sheldon was completely sold; and he has turned savage and gone off somewhere in the sulks.”

“I wish he had chosen any other time for his sulks,” said the holder of the bill; “my partner and I have discounted several acceptances for him. He gave us liberal terms, and we considered any paper of his as safe as a Bank of England note; and now this confounded bill comes back to us through our bankers, noted, ‘Refer to drawer’— a most unpleasant thing, you know, and very inconsiderate of Sheldon to leave us in such a fix.”

“He has forgotten the bill, I suppose,” said Mr. Orcott.

“Well, but you see, really now, a business man ought not to forget that kind of thing. And so Miss Halliday has made a runaway match, has she? I remember seeing her when I dined at Bayswater — an uncommonly fine girl. And she has gone and thrown herself away upon some penniless scapegrace, most likely? Now, by the bye, how about this Honduras Company, Mr. Orcott; they don’t seem to have any London offices?”

“I believe not. We’ve some of their prospectuses somewhere about, I think. Would you like to see one?”

“I should, very much.”

Mr. Orcott opened two or three drawers, and after some little trouble produced the required document.

It was a very flourishing prospectus, setting forth the enormous benefits to be derived by shareholders from the profitable dealings of the company. Some good high-sounding names figured in the list of directors, and the chairman was Captain H. N. Cromie Paget. The prospectus looked well enough, but the holder of Mr. Sheldon’s dishonoured bill was not able to derive much comfort from high-sounding phrases and high-sounding names.

“I’ll go down to Bayswater, and see if I can hear anything of your governor,” he said to Mr. Orcott.

“He was not there yesterday when I called, and his servants could tell me nothing of his whereabouts,” the young Yorkshireman said very coolly.

“Indeed!” cried the holder of the dishonoured bill in some alarm. “Now, really, that is not right; a business man ought not to do that kind of thing.”

He called a cab and drove to the Lawn. There was the smart gothic villa, with its pointed gables, and florid chimneys, and oriel windows, and in the Tudor casements of the ground-floor appeared the bills of a West-end auctioneer, announcing in large letters that the lease of this charming mansion, together with the nearly new furniture, linen, books, china, plate, carefully-selected proof-prints after distinguished modern artists, small cellar of choice wines, &c., &c., &c., would be disposed of by auction on the following day.

Mr. Sheldon’s victim went into the house, where he found some men preparing for the forthcoming sale.

“What is the meaning of all this?” he asked, aghast.

“A bill of sale, sir. Messrs. Napthali and Zabulon.”

This was enough. The holder of the bill went back to the City. Another bill came due on the following day, and before the members of the Stock Exchange took their luncheon, it was known that Philip Sheldon’s credit was among the things of the past.

“I always thought he was out of his depth,” said one set of talkers.

“He was the last man I should have expected to see come to grief,” said another set of talkers.

On settling-day came the awful proclamation — Philip Sheldon had absconded, and would not meet his differences.

On the same day came a terrible revelation to Mr. George Sheldon, of Gray’s Inn, solicitor, genealogist, and pedigree hunter. The first official step in the advancement of Gustave Lenoble’s claim against the Crown was taken by Messrs. Dashwood and Vernon, the solicitors, of Whitehall; and George Sheldon discovered that between Charlotte Hawkehurst and the Haygarth estate there stood a prior claimant, whereby all his toil, trouble, costs out of pocket, and wear and tear of body and mind, had been wasted.

“It is enough to make a man go and cut his throat,” cried George, in his first savage sense of utter disappointment.

He went into his slovenly bedroom, and took out one of his razors, and felt the corrugated surface of the left side of his neck meditatively. But the razor was blunt, and the corrugated surface seemed very tough and unmanageable; so George Sheldon decided that this kind of operation was an affair which might be deferred.

He heard the next day that his brother was non est, and, in his own phraseology, that there was a pretty kettle of fish in the City.

“Upon my word, Phil and I seem to have brought our pigs to a very nice market,” he said. “I dare say, wherever that fellow has gone, he has carried a well-lined purse with him. But I wouldn’t have his conscience for all the wealth of the Rothschilds. It’s bad enough to see Tom Halliday’s face as I see it sometimes. What must it be to him?”

A little more than a year after this, and the yellow corn was waving on the fertile plains of Normandy, fruit ripening in orchards on hillside and in valley; merry holiday folks splashing and dabbling in the waves that wash the yellow sands of Dieppe; horses coming to grief in Norman steeplechases; desperate gamesters losing their francs and half-francs in all kinds of frivolous games in the Dieppe établissement; and yonder, in the heart of Normandy, beyond the tall steeples of Rouen, a happy family assembled at the Chateau Côtenoir.

One happy family — two happy families rather, but so closely united by the bonds of love and friendship as to seem indeed one. Here are Gustave Lenoble and his young wife Diana, with two tall slender damsels by their side; and here is Valentine Hawkehurst, the successful young scribbler, with his fair young wife Charlotte; and out on the terrace yonder are two nurses walking with two babies, at that early, and, to some minds, obnoxious stage of babyhood in which a perpetual rocking, and pacing to and fro, and swaying backwards and forwards in the air, is necessary for the preservation of anything approaching tranquillity. But to the minds of the two young mothers and the two proud fathers, these small creatures in their long white robes seem something too bright for earth. The united ages of the babies do not amount to six months; but the mothers have counted every gradual stage of these young lives, and to both it seems as if there had been no time in which the children were not, with so firm a hold have they possessed themselves of every thought in the foolish maternal mind, of every impulse in the weak maternal heart.

Mrs. Hawkehurst has brought her son to see his aunt Diana; for Diana has insisted upon assuming that relationship by letters-patent, as it were. Madame Lenoble’s baby is a daughter, and this fact in itself seems to the two friends to be a special interposition of Providence.

“Would it not be delightful if they should grow up to love each other and marry?” exclaimed Diana; and Charlotte agreed with her that such an event in the future did indeed seem in a manner foreshadowed by the conduct of the infants in the present.

“He takes notice of her already!” she exclaimed, looking out at the little creature in white muslin robes, held up against the warm blue sky; “see, they are cooing at each other! I am sure that must be cooing.”

And then the two mothers went out upon the sunny terrace-walk and fondly contemplated these domestic treasures, until the domestic treasures were seized with some of the inexplicable throes and mysterious agonies of early babyhood, and had to be borne off shrieking to their nurseries.

“Dear angel,” said Gustave, of his “little last one,” “she has the very shriek of Clarice here, poignant and penetrating, until to drown the heart. Dost thou figure to thyself that thy voice was penetrating as that, my beautiful, in the time?”

He kissed his beautiful, and she ran off to join the procession following the two babies — alarmed nurses, distracted mammas, shrieking infants, anxious damsels.

C’est un vrai tourbillon,” as Gustave remarked to his companion Valentine Hawkehurst; “these women, how they love their children! What of saints, what of Madonnas, what of angels!”

Whereupon he spouted Victor Hugo:

“Lorsque l’enfant paraît, le cercle de famille Applaudit à grands cris; son doux regard qui brille Fait briller tous les yeux; Et les plus tristes fronts, les plus souillés peut-être, Se dérident soudain à voir l’enfant paraître, Innocent et joyeux.”

All things had gone well for M. Lenoble. His direct descent from Matthew Haygarth, the father of the intestate, had been proved to the satisfaction of Crown lawyers and High Court of Chancery, and he had been in due course placed in possession of the reverend intestate’s estate, to the profit and pleasure of his solicitors and M. Fleurus, and to the unspeakable aggravation of George Sheldon, who washed his hands at once and for ever of all genealogical research, and fell back in an embittered and angry spirit upon the smaller profits to be derived from petty transactions in the bill-discounting line, and a championship of penniless sufferers of all classes, from a damsel who considered herself jilted by a fickle swain, in proof of whose inconstancy she could produce documentary evidence of the “pork-chop and tomato sauce” order, to a pedestrian who knocked his head against a projecting shutter in the Strand, and straightway walked home to Holloway to lay himself up for a twelvemonth in a state of mental and bodily incapacity requiring large pecuniary redress from the owner of the fatal shutter. To this noble protection of the rights of the weak did George Sheldon devote his intellect; and when malicious enemies stigmatized these Quixotic endeavours as “speculative actions,” or when, in the breaking-down of some oppressed damsel’s cause by reason of the slender evidence afforded by some reticent lover’s epistolary effusions, unjust judges told him that he “ought to be ashamed of himself” for bringing such an action, the generous attorney no doubt took consolation from an approving conscience, and went forth from that court, to look for other oppressed damsels or injured wayfarers, erect and unshaken.

Some little profit Mr. Sheldon of Gray’s Inn did derive from the Haygarth estate; for at the request of Gustave Lenoble Messrs. Dashwood and Vernon sent him a cheque for one thousand pounds, as the price of those early investigations which had set the artful Captain upon the right track. He wrote a ceremoniously grateful letter to Gustave Lenoble on receiving this honorarium. It is always well to be grateful for benefits received from a rich man; but in the depths of his heart he execrated the fortunate inheritor of the Haygarthian thousands.

Mr. Hawkehurst was not quite so vehement in the expression of his feelings as that lively Celt, Gustave; but deep in his heart there was a sense of happiness no less pure and exalted.

Providence had given him more than he had ever dared to hope; not John Haygarth’s thousands; not a life of luxurious idleness, and dinner-giving, and Derby days, and boxes on the grand tier, and carriage-horses at five hundred guineas a pair; not a palace in Belgravia, and a shooting-box in the Highlands, and a villa at Cowes; not these things, in which he would once have perceived the summum bonum; but a fair price for his labour, a dear young wife, a tranquil home.

Nor had his researches among the dusty records of the departed Haygarths been profitless in a pecuniary sense to himself. Gustave Lenoble insisted that he should accept that honorarium of three thousand pounds which had been promised by George Sheldon as the reward of his success.

“Captain Paget would never have been put on the right track if he had not filched your secrets from you,” said the son and heir of Susan Meynell. “It is to your researches, in the first place, that I owe this inheritance; and you cannot refuse to accept the agreed price of your labour.”

Valentine did not refuse this fairly-earned reward, nor did he oppose the settlement which Gustave made in favour of Charlotte’s infant son. It seemed to him only just that some share of the heritage should fall to the descendant of poor Susan’s younger sister and faithful friend.

With this capital of three thousand pounds comfortably invested in consols, and with the interest of that sum of ten thousand pounds settled on his infant son, Mr. Hawkehurst began the world, in his new character of a husband and a father, very pleasantly.

Of his literary career very little need be said here. He was yet at the beginning of the long dusty road that leads to the temple of Fame. It is enough to state that he found the dusty high-road rather difficult walking, and that he was pelted with more mud, flung by nameless assailants hidden behind the hedges, than he had anticipated when he set out upon the first stage of his journey. Happily, he found pleasant fellow-travellers and kindly encouragement from an indulgent public, and was thus able to accept the mud which bespattered his garments in a very placid spirit, and to make light of all obstacles in the great highway.

The cottage at Wimbledon was no longer a dream. It was a pleasant reality, the pride and delight of Mrs. Sheldon and Ann Woolper. It was a picturesque dwelling-place, half cottage, half villa, situated on the broad high-road from London to Kingston, with all the woodland of Richmond Park to be seen from the windows at the back. Only a wall divided Mr. Hawkehurst’s gardens from the coverts of the Queen. It was like a royal demesne, Charlotte said; whereupon her husband insisted that it should be christened by the name of a royal dwelling, and so called it Charlottenburgh.

Mr. Hawkehurst had secured this delightful abode for a considerable term of years, and upon the furnishing and decoration of the pretty rustic rooms Charlotte and he lavished unmeasured care. The delicious excitement of “picking up,” or, in more elegant parlance, “collecting,” was to these two happy people an inexhaustible source of pleasure. Every eccentric little table, every luxurious chair, had its special history, and had been the subject of negotiation and diplomacy that might have sufficed a Burleigh in the reorganization of Western Europe. The little Dresden and Vienna cups and saucers in the maple cabinet had been every one bought from a different dealer. The figures on the mantelpiece were Old Chelsea, of a quality that would have excited the envy of a Bernal or a Bonn, and had only fallen to the proud possessors by a sequence of fortuitous circumstances, the history of which was almost as thrilling as the story of Boehmer’s diamond-necklace. The curtains in the drawing-room had draped the portières of the lovely Lady Blessington, and had been bought for a song by Valentine Hawkehurst, after passing through the hands of brokers and dealers innumerable. The tapestry-covered Louis–Quatorze chairs had belonged to Madame de Sévigné, and had furnished that dull country house whence she wrote the liveliest letters extant to her disreputable cousin, Bussy, Count of Babutin. These inestimable treasures had been picked up by Mr. and Mrs. Hawkehurst from a bric-à-brac merchant in a little court at the back of the Rue Vivienne, whither the young couple had gone arm-in-arm to choose a bonnet on their first pleasure-trip to Paris. The clock in the modest dining-room had been secured from the repository of the same merchant, and was warranted to have sounded the last domestic hours of Maximilian Robespierre in his humble lodging chez le Menuisier. The inkstand into which Mr. Hawkehurst dipped his rapid pen had served the literary career of Voltaire; the blotting-book on which he wrote had been used by Balzac.

To the plausible fictions of the second-hand dealer Mr. and Mrs. Hawkehurst lent willing ears, and it seemed to them as if these associations, for which they had paid somewhat dearly, imparted a new grace to their home.

The arrangement and superintendence of all these treasures gave poor Georgy endless pleasure and employment; but in her heart of hearts she believed in the prim splendours of the dismantled Lawn as much superior to these second-hand objects of art and upholstery. Nor did Ann Woolper regard the Chelsea figures and Dresden teacups and old black Albert-Dürer engravings as anything better than an innocent eccentricity on the part of the master of the house, for the saving of whose purse she managed and economized as faithfully as she had done for that lost master whereof the memory was so bitter.

It will be seen, therefore, that Mr. Hawkehurst with a wife, a mother-in-law, and a faithful old servant, was likely to be well taken care of; a little spoiled perhaps by “much cherishing,” but carefully guarded from all those temptations which are supposed to assail the bachelor man-of-letters, toiling alone and neglected in Temple chambers. For him the days passed in a pleasant monotony of constant labour, lightened always by the thought of those for whom he worked, cheered ever by the fond hope of future fame. He was no longer a bookmaker. He had written a book, the proceeds of which had enabled him to furnish the Wimbledon villa; and he was engaged in writing a second book, the fruits whereof would secure the needs of the immediate future. He had insured his life for a considerable amount, and had shown himself in all things prudent to a degree that verged upon Philistinism. But the policies taken out on Charlotte’s life by Mr. Sheldon had been suffered to lapse. Valentine would have no money staked on that dear head.

The steed which Charlotte had desired for her husband’s pleasure, the library which she had catalogued so often, were yet among the delights of the future; but life has lost half its brightness when there is no unfulfilled desire left to the dreamer; and the horse which Mr. Hawkehurst was to ride in time to come, and the noble library which he was to collect, were the pleasant themes of Charlotte’s conversation very often, as she and her husband walked on the heights of Wimbledon in the twilight, when his day’s work was done.

These twilight walks were the happy holidays of his life, and a part of his liberal education. He told his wife everything, every literary scheme, every fancy, every shadowy outline of future work, every new discovery in the boundless realms of Bookland. His enthusiasm; his hero-worship; his setting-up of one favourite and knocking-down of another; his unchristian pleasure in that awful slating of poor Jones in this week’s Saturday, or the flaying alive of Robinson in the Bond Street Backbiter; — in a word, his “shop” never became wearisome to Charlotte. She listened always with a like rapture and sympathy; she worshipped his favourites of Bookland; she welcomed his friends and fellow-workers with unvarying sweetness she devised and superintended the fitting-up of a smoking-room that was perfectly paradisaical, a glimpse of the Alhambra in miniature; and that obnoxious dish, the cold shoulder, was never served in Mr. Hawkehurst’s dwelling. So sweet a wife, so pleasant a home, popularized the institution of matrimony among the young writer’s bachelor friends; and that much-abused and cruelly maligned member of the human race, the mother-in-law, was almost rehabilitated by Mrs. Sheldon’s easy good-nature and evident regard for the interests of her daughter’s husband.

And after all the groping among dry as dust records of a bygone century, after all the patient following of those faint traces on the sands of time left by the feet of Matthew Haygarth, this was Charlotte’s Inheritance — a heart whose innocence and affection made home a kind of earthly paradise, and gave to life’s commonest things a charm that all the gold ever found in California could not have imparted to them. This was Charlotte’s Inheritance — the tender, unselfish nature of the Haygarths and Hallidays; and thus dowered, her husband would not have exchanged her for the wealthiest heiress whose marriage was ever chronicled in Court Circular or Court Journal.

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