Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

Lost Sight of.

A year and a half had passed since the disappearance of Philip Sheldon from the circle in which he had been considered a person of some importance. The repudiation of those bills by which he had sustained his exhausted credit, or rather the discovery that the companies upon which the bills pretended to be drawn were of all shadows the most shadowy, had brought consternation upon many, and ruin upon some. Bitter and unmeasured were the terms in which City men spoke of that Phil Sheldon with whom they had eaten the sacred bait and quaffed the social moselle in the taverns of Greenwich and Blackwall.

There is a saying current on the Stock Exchange to the effect that the man who fails, and disappears from among his fellows behind a curtain of commercial cloud, is sure to return sooner or later to his old circle, with a moustache and a brougham. For Philip Sheldon there was, however, no coming back. The moustache and the brougham of the chastened and penitent defaulter were not for him. By his deliberate and notorious dishonour he had shut the door against the possibility of return. It may be supposed that the defaulter knew this, for he did not come back; and since he had no lack of moral courage, he would scarcely have refrained from showing himself once more in his old haunts, if it had been possible for him to face the difficulties of his position.

Time passed, and there came no tidings of the missing man, though a detective was despatched to America in search of him by one vengeful sufferer among the many victims of the fictitious bills-of-exchange. It was supposed that he must inevitably go to America, and thither went his pursuer, but with no result except the expenditure of money and the further exasperation of the vengeful sufferer.

“What will you do with him, if you get him?” asked a philosophical friend of the sufferer. “He has nothing to surrender. Zabulon had a bill-of-sale on his furniture.”

“Furniture!” cried the infuriated victim; “I don’t want his furniture. I want his flesh and bones. I want to shut him up in Dartmoor Prison, or to get him twenty years’ hard labour at Portland Island.”

“That sort of man would get a ticket-of-leave in less than twelve months,” replied the philosophic friend. “I’m afraid you are only throwing good money after bad.”

The event proved this gentleman but too able a seer. In the monster city of New York Philip Sheldon had disappeared like a single drop of water flung upon the Atlantic Ocean. There was no trace of him: too intangible for the grasp of international law, he melted into the mass of humanity, only one struggler the more in the great army perpetually fighting life’s desperate battle.

From among all those who had known him this man had utterly vanished, and not one sigh of regret followed him in his unknown wanderings — not one creature amongst all those who had taken his hand and given him friendly greeting thought of him kindly, or cared to know whither he went or how he prospered. He had not left in the house that had sheltered him for years so much as a dog to whine at his door or listen for his returning footstep.

This fact, if he had known it or considered it, would have troubled him very little. He had played his game for a certain stake, and had lost it. This he felt, and cursed his own too cautious play as the cause of his defeat. That there were higher stakes for which he might have played an easier game, was a fact that never occurred to him. In his philosophy there was indeed nothing higher given to the hopes of man than worldly success, and a dull, cold, prosperous life spent among prosperous acquaintance.

He was gone, and those who remembered him most keenly — Valentine Hawkehurst, Diana Paget, Ann Woolper — remembered him with a shudder. The old Yorkshirewoman thought of him sometimes as she bent over the little muslin-bedecked cradle where the hope of the Hawkehursts slumbered, and looked round fearfully in the gloaming, half expecting to see his dreaded face glower upon her, dark and threatening, from between the curtains of the window.

It was a belief of all ancient races, nay indeed, a belief still current amongst modern nations, that it is not given to man to behold the beings of another world and live. The Arab who meets a phantom in the desert goes home to his tent to die. He knows that the hand of doom is upon him. He has seen that upon which, for mortal eyes, it is fatal to look. And it is thus in some measure with those who are admitted within the dark precincts of murder’s dread sanctuary. Not swiftly does the curtain fall which has once been lifted from the hidden horrors of that ghastly temple. The revelations of an utterly wicked soul leave a lasting impress upon the mind which unwillingly becomes recipient of those awful secrets.

The circumstances of Tom Halliday’s death and of Charlotte’s illness were not to be forgotten by Ann Woolper. The shadow of that dark cruel face, which had lain upon her bosom forty years before, haunted many a peaceful hour of her quiet old age. Her ignorance, and that faint tinge of superstition which generally accompanies ignorance, exaggerated the terror of those dark memories. The thought that Philip Sheldon still lived, still had the power to plot and plan evil against the innocent, was an ever-present source of terror to her. She could not understand that such an element could exist among the forces of evil without fatal result to some one. It seemed to her as if a devil were at large, and there could be neither peace nor security until the evil spirit was exorcised, the baneful presence laid in nethermost depths of unfathomable sea.

These feelings and these fears would scarcely have arisen in the old woman’s breast, had she alone been subject to the possible plottings of that evil nature. For herself she had little fear. Her span of life was nearly ended; very few were the sands that had yet to run; and, for her own sake, she would have cared little if some rough hand had spilt them untimely. But a new interest in life had been given to Mrs. Woolper just as life drew near its close. That peerless child, the son and heir of the Hawkehursts, had been intrusted to the old woman’s care; and this infant she loved with an affection much more intense than that which had once made Philip Sheldon so dear to her.

It was by the cradle of this much-treasured child that Ann Woolper nursed her fear of her old master. She knew that he had been counter-plotted and beaten ignominiously in that deadly game which he had played so boldly. And she asked herself whether he was the man to submit to such utter defeat without any effort to revenge himself upon those who had helped to compass his failure.

On that night when Charlotte Halliday had lain between life and death, suffering on the one hand from the effects of a prolonged and gradual course of poison, on the other from the violent measures taken to eliminate that poisonous element from her system — on that night when the precious life yet trembled in the balance, Ann Woolper had seen murderous looks in the face of the man whom she dared boldly to defy, and who knew in that hour that his ghastly plot was discovered. Even now, secure in a haven of safety, she could not forget that baneful look in Philip Sheldon’s eyes. She could not find perfect rest while she knew not where that man might be, or what mischief he might be plotting against those she loved.

Her fears showed themselves in many ways. When she read of dark and vengeful deeds in her newspaper, she thought of her old master, and how, in such or such an act, his fatal hand might reveal itself. He might lie in wait for Valentine some night on the dark road between Charlottenburgh and the distant railway-station. She could fancy the young wife’s agony of terror as the night wore on, and her husband did not return; the unspeakable horror that would come over all that happy household when the news came that its young master had been found on the lonely road slain by some unknown hand. Open utterance to her fears she was too wise to give; but she warned Mr. Hawkehurst of the dangers on that dark road, and besought him to arm himself with a trusty bludgeon wherewith to meet and vanquish any chance assailant. Valentine laughed at her anxious warning; but when Charlotte took up the cry he was fain to content her by the purchase of a sturdy stick, which he swung cheerily to and fro as he walked homewards in the gloaming, planning a chapter in his new book, and composing powerful and eloquent sentences which eluded his mental grasp when he tried to reduce his evening reverie to pen-and-ink.

“When the air blows fresh across the common, and the distant lights twinkle, and the bright stars peep out in the pale-yellow sky, my language flows as it never does when I sit at my desk, Lotta,” he said to his wife. “I feel myself a Swift or a Junius out there; equal to the tackling of any social question that ever arose upon this earth, from the Wood halfpence to the policy of American taxation, and triennial elections. At home I am only Valentine Hawkehurst, with an ever-present consciousness that so many pages of copy are required from me within a given time, and that my son-and-heir is cutting his teeth, and making more fuss about it than I ever made about my teeth; and that the man about the water-rate is waiting to see me, please, and is desperately anxious about making-up his books; and that I have the dearest wife in Christendom, who opens my door, and puts her pretty head into my room once in half an hour to see how I am getting on, or to ask whether I want any more coals, or to borrow my ink to make-up her washing-book.”

“You mean, sir, that I prevent your becoming a Junius?” cried Charlotte, with an enchanting moue.

“Yes, dear. I begin to understand why Swift kept his poor ill-used wife at a respectful distance. She would have made him too happy if he had allowed her to be on the premises. She would have given the cruel indignation no chance of lacerating his heart; and such writing as Swift’s is only produced by a man whose heart is so lacerated. No, my darling, I shall never be a Swift or a Junius while your pretty head is thrust into my room once or twice an hour; but I may hope to be something better, if bright eyes can inspire bright thoughts, and innocent smiles give birth to pleasant fancies.”

Upon this there was the usual little demonstration of affection between this young couple; and Charlotte praised her husband as the most brilliant and admirable of men; after which pleasing flattery she favoured him with a little interesting information about the baby’s last tooth, and the contumacious behaviour of the new housemaid, between whom and Mrs. Woolper there had been a species of disagreement, which the Yorkshirewoman described as a “standfurther.”

Thus occupied in simple pleasures and simple cares, the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Hawkehurst went on, untroubled by any fear of that crime-burdened wretch whose image haunted the dreams and meditations of Ann Woolper. For these two Mr. Sheldon was numbered among the dead. To Charlotte the actual truth had never been revealed; but she had been, in the course of time, given to understand that her stepfather had committed some unpardonable sin, which must for ever separate him from herself and her mother. She had been told as much as this, and had been told that she must seek to know no more. To this she submitted without questioning.

“I am very sorry for him,” she said, “and for mamma.”

She concluded that the unpardonable offence must needs have been some sin against her mother, some long-hidden infidelity brought suddenly to light, with all the treachery and falsehood involved therein. She never mentioned her stepfather after this but in her prayers the sinner was not forgotten.

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