Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

Eteocles and Polynices.

George Sheldon went his ways, picking up as good a living as he could from that chivalrous assertion of the rights of the weak which has been already described; and the thought of his brother’s sin-burdened soul troubled him very little. He did think of Tom Halliday; for that last grasp of the honest Yorkshireman’s hand, that last look in his old friend’s face, were haunting memories which this sharp practitioner had found himself powerless to exorcise. If his brother, after an absence of many years in the remote regions of the East Indies, had come home to his fatherland with a colossal fortune, and the reputation of having strangled a few natives during the process of amassing that fortune, George Sheldon would have welcomed the returning wanderer, and would, in his own parlance, have “swallowed the natives.” A few niggers, more or less, sent untimely to Gehenna, would have seemed scarcely sufficient cause for quarrel with a fraternal and liberally-disposed millionaire. But the circumstances of Tom Halliday’s death had brought all the horror of crime and treachery home to the spectator of that deliberate assassination, and had produced such an impression as no other circumstances could on so hard a nature.

It was some satisfaction to George Sheldon to know that his old friend’s daughter had found a happy home; and he was apt to take some credit from his own share in his brother’s discomfiture. He met Valentine sometimes in the course of his peregrinations in the neighbourhood of the British Museum, and the greeting between the two men was sufficiently cordial; but Mr. Hawkehurst did not invite his old employer to Charlottenburgh, and George was able to comprehend that to that household no one bearing the name of Sheldon could be a welcome visitor.

He jogged on comfortably enough in his own way; living in his chambers, and consorting with a few chosen friends and kindred spirits of the jolly-good-fellow class, whom he met at an old-established tavern in the west-central district, and in whose society, and the society of the subscription-ground in the Farringdon Road, he found the summum bonum in the way of social intercourse. He did a little speculation upon the turf, and discounted the bills of needy bookmakers, or bought up their bad debts, and thereby gained introductions to the noble patrons of the humble “scums,” and pushed his business into new grooves. He had no idea that such an existence was in any way ignoble; nay, indeed, when he had paid his rent, and his clerk, and his laundress, and his tavern score, and “stood glasses round” amongst his friends, he lighted his cigar, and thrust his hands into the depths of his pockets, and paced the flags of Holborn happy in the belief that he had performed the whole duty of man.

“There are men whose business obliges them to keep up an establishment, and go to church twice a day, and all that kind of thing,” he said; “and I dare say they find it pay. My clients don’t care a doit where I live, or how I spend my Sundays; and I’d rather have five pounds a week and my liberty than the best family connection in the Fields.”

The fate of that wretched man, who had dropped out of his old circle and vanished no one knew whither, in no manner disturbed the peace of George Sheldon.

“Take my word for it, that gentleman has fallen on his feet,” he said, on the only occasion when the fate of Philip was discussed by Valentine and himself. “He’s doing well enough, somewhere or other, you may depend; but I don’t think he’ll ever be able to show his nose in London after those bill transactions. There’s a very strong feeling against him on Change. He’s looked upon as a discredit to the order, and that sort of thing, you see. It isn’t often a member of the House goes to the bad like that. No, I don’t think Phil will ever show himself in London again; but such a man as that can always find a platform somewhere —”

“And go on to the end of his days unpunished, I suppose,” remarked Mr. Hawkehurst, with some bitterness.

“Well, yes; I don’t see what’s to touch him in the future. Of course he could be dropped upon for those bills, if he came in the way of being dropped upon; but, as I said before, he’s too deep a card for that.”

Thus did George Sheldon dismiss the subject. That his brother was an exile for life from his native land he did not doubt; but he took it for granted that in whatever distant spot of earth Philip had found a refuge, he would there contrive to prosper and to show a bold front in the city of his adoption.

This belief Mr. Sheldon of Gray’s Inn cherished until one snowy Christmas Eve, a year and a half after that event, or series of events, which the lawyer briefly designated “the burst-up at Bayswater.”

Bleak and bitter was that December, a December not long gone by. The heart of the prosperous British nation melted as the heart of one man. The columns of the Zeus and the Diurnal Hermes, the Flag and the Hesper, overflowed with the record of subscriptions to charity funds; and the leaders of the morning journals all preached the same kindly sermon on the same Christian text. Thick lay the snow upon the housetops; “thick and slab” the greasy slush upon the pavements of crowded thoroughfares; merry the rogues and ragamuffins of the great city. The ideal Christmas of our dreams seemed to have come at last, and the heart of every true Briton rejoiced; while skaters in the parks made merry, and cabmen demanded fabulous sums of helpless wayfarers; and luckless, overworked, under-fed horses stumbled and fell at every turn, and the familiar steep of Holborn was dangerous as Alpine mountain.

To George Sheldon neither the weather nor the Christmas season made much difference. The even current of his life was little disturbed by festive pleasures or dissipations. An extra glass at his tavern, an invitation to dinner from some friend in the bill-discounting line, were the most exciting events the season was likely to bring him. He saw the shops brighten suddenly with semi-supernal glories of crystallized fruits and gorgeous bonbon-boxes, and he was aware of a kind of movement in the streets that was brisker and gayer than the plodding hurry of everyday life. He stood aside and let the mummeries go by him, and was glad when these Christmas follies were done with, and the law-courts in full swing once more. In the happiest and most innocent days of his youth, Christmas had brought him no more than extraordinary indulgences in the way of eating and drinking, swiftly followed by that dread avenger, the demon of the bilious.

Upon this particular occasion Mr. Sheldon had pledged himself to dine with a horsey publican lately retired from business, and big with all the pride and glory of a “place” at Hornsey.

“Come down and see my place, Sheldon,” this gentleman had said. “I don’t pretend to do the swell thing; but I force my own pines and grow my own grapes, and can put as good a dessert on my table as you could buy in Covent Garden for a five-pun’ note. That’s my missus’s fad, that is, and I can afford it; so why shouldn’t I do it? You come and eat your Christmas dinner with us, Sheldon. I’ve got a friend coming that can sing as good a song as Reeves hisself, and might make a fortune, if he wasn’t above coming out at one of them music-halls. And I’ll give you a bottle of Madeira that you won’t match at any nobleman’s table, if noblemen’s tables was in your line of business, which you and I know they ain’t, old fellow.”

And then the jolly good fellow dug his fat fingers into George Sheldon’s ribs, and George accepted the invitation; not with any elation of spirits, but sufficiently pleased to secure a good dinner with a man who promised to be a profitable client, and whose house was within a reasonable cab-fare from the west-central district.

“The cabmen are trying it on, anyhow, just now,” thought Mr. Sheldon; “but I don’t think they’ll try it on with me. And if they do, there’s the Marylebone stage. I’m not afraid of a five-mile walk.”

Having accepted this invitation, and thus disposed of his Christmas-day, George Sheldon refrained from the delights of social converse at his tavern on Christmas-eve, and occupied himself with business. His clerk left him at the usual hour; but the master sat, long after dark, writing letters and reading law-papers, while the snow drifted against his windows and whitened the quiet quadrangle below.

He had just laid aside his papers and lighted a cigar, when he was startled by a stealthy knocking at his door. He was not unaccustomed to late visitors, as he was known to live at his chambers, and to work after office-hours; but the knocking of to-night was not the loud rollicking rat-a-tat of his jolly-good-fellow friends or clients. If he had been a student of light literature, and imbued with the ghostly associations of the season, he would have gone to his door expecting to behold a weird figure clothed in the vestments of the last century; or an old woman in ruff and martingale, whose figure in the flesh had once haunted those legal precincts; or the ghostly semblance of the Baron of Verulam himself, revisiting the glimpses of the moon and the avenue of elms that were planted by his order.

In George Sheldon’s nature there was, however, no lurking dread of fiend or phantom. His ideas in connection with ghosts were limited to a white sheet, a broomstick, and a hollow turnip with a lighted candle inside it; and he would have set down the most awful apparition that ever was revealed to German ghost-seer, with a scornful grin, as a member of the sheet and-hollow-turnip confraternity.

“I know how it’s done,” he would have said, if the spectral form had glowered upon him in midnight churchyard or ruined abbey. “You’d better go and try it on somewhere else, my friend.”

To a superstitious mind the THING which crept across the dark lobby and dragged itself into the glare of the gas-lighted office might have seemed, indeed, some, creature too loathsome for humanity. A plague-stricken corpse galvanized into a spasmodic life could scarcely have lifted to the light a more awful countenance than that on which George Sheldon looked with mingled anger and disgust.

“What do you want here” he asked. “Do you take this for the workhouse?”

“No,” the creature answered, in a faint hoarse voice; “but I take you for my brother.”

“WHAT!” cried George Sheldon, aghast.

He bent down and looked at the awful face. Yes, from the cavernous hollows of those sunken cheeks, beneath the shaggy penthouse of those bony brows, the fierce black eyes of Philip Sheldon looked out at him with a savage glare that he had never seen in them before — even when the savage nature of the man had revealed itself most nakedly — the fierce glare of fever and starvation.

This walking horror, this mass of loathsome rags endued with motion, this living disease, was the sometime prosperous stockbroker, the man whom it had been impossible to think of except furnished with linen of spotless whiteness, and the glossy broad-cloth, and well-made boots, and keyless chronometer, and silk umbrella of commercial success.

“Good God!” exclaimed George, horror-stricken, “is it you?”

“Yes, it’s I,” answered the creature in his strange husky accents; and the change — nay, indeed, the degradation, of the voice was as complete as the degradation of the man. “Yes, George, it’s I; your brother Phil. You’re surprised to see me fallen so low in the world, I suppose; but you can’t be more surprised than I am myself. I’ve tried hard enough to hold my head above water. There’s scarcely any trade that mortal man ever tried to earn his bread by, that I haven’t tried — and failed in. It has been the experience of Fitzgeorge-street over and over again, in every trade and every profession. I started as doctor in Philadelphia, and was doing well; — till — till a patient died — and things went against me. I’ve been clerk in more offices than you can count on your ten fingers; but there was always something — my employer levanted, or was bankrupt, or died, or dismissed me. I’ve been travelling-dentist, auctioneer, commission-agent, tout, pedlar, out yonder; but it all came to the same thing — ruin, starvation, the hospital, or the pauper’s ward. I have swept crossings in the city, and camped out in the wilderness among the bears and opossums. One day I thought I’d come home. ‘There’s George,’ I said to myself; ‘if I can get money enough to take me across the Atlantic, I shall be all right. George will give me a lift.’ I don’t stand alone in the world. A man’s own flesh and blood won’t let him starve — can’t let him starve. Blood’s thicker than water, you know, George. So I came home. I got the money; never you mind how. I needn’t tell you what it cost me to scrape half-a-dozen pounds together. When a man’s as low down in the world as I am, there’s not a shilling he earns that doesn’t cost him a drop of his heart’s blood; there’s not a pound he gets together that isn’t bought by the discount of so much of his life. I found money enough for my passage in an emigrant vessel; and here I am, ready for anything. I’ll work like your bought nigger. I’ll do the work your clerk does for a quarter of his wages. I’ll sweep out your office, and run errands for you. You’ll give me something to keep body and soul together, won’t you, George?”

Nothing could be more utterly abject than the tone of this most abject wretch.

This man, who in prosperity had been the very personification of hardness and insolence, was transformed into a grovelling, cringing supplicant, ready to lie face downward in the dust beneath the feet of that brother whose patronage, or charity, he besought.

Mr. Sheldon the younger contemplated the supplicant with looks of undisguised gratification. He walked a few paces backward from the spot where his brother had fallen, in a half-sitting, half-crouching attitude, and where he remained, hugging himself in his rags, too abject to be acutely conscious of his degradation. A year ago and he would have held himself obstinately aloof from all old associations, and would have declared himself ready to face starvation, rather than accept, still less supplicate, relief from his younger brother. The events of that one year had involved alternations and convulsions that change a year into a cycle. He had faced starvation; he had walked with hunger for his travelling companion; he had lain down night after night in such lairs as the tramp can find for his refuge, with sickness and pain for his bed-fellows. The crucible through which he had passed had left in him no more of humanity than its outward semblance, and scarcely that; for when the moral man sinks to the level of the beasts of prey, the physical man undergoes an assimilative process only less marked than that which transforms the mental nature.

For six months this man had lived by fawning upon or threatening his fellow-men; by violence or craft; by the degradation of the vagrant or the audacity of the thief. There is no limit to man’s capacity for infamy which he had not touched. Vilest amongst the vile, he had been cast forth from the haunts of beggars and reprobates, as no fitting company for honourable thieves or cadgers of good repute.

George Sheldon seated himself astride upon a chair, and, with his folded arms resting on the back of it, contemplated this hideous spectacle. It was a picture that he had never thought to see, and the feeling with which he surveyed it was not unmingled with pleasure.

“When you rode me rough-shod, my friend, I used to think how I should enjoy taking my change out of you,” he said; “but I never thought I should have such an opportunity as this — never, by Jove! I thought you would ride the high horse to the end of the journey; I didn’t think your steed would land you in the gutter. And so you’ve tried every move, have you? — tumbled upon every platform? — and you’ve found all your cleverness no go upon the other side of the three thousand miles of everlasting wet, as my Yankee friends call the Atlantic; and you’ve come back whining to me, and I’m to help you, am I, and to give you a fresh start in life, I suppose, and make you my clerk, or my junior partner, eh? — that would be better. Messrs. Sheldon and Sheldon wouldn’t look bad on my door. That’s about what you mean when you talk of blood being thicker than water, isn’t it?”

The abject wretch who had once been Philip Sheldon felt that his brother was trifling with him, savouring to the last drop that cup of triumph which the chances of fortune had offered to his lips.

“Don’t play the fool with me, George,” he said piteously. “I don’t ask you much — a crust of bread, a corner to sleep in, and a cast-off suit of clothes: that’s not much for one brother to ask of another.”

“Perhaps not,” replied George Sheldon; “but it’s a great deal for you to ask of me. You’ve had your turn, Phil; and you made the most of it, and contrived to keep me at arm’s length. My turn has come at last, and you may depend upon it I shall contrive now to keep you at arm’s length.”

The vagrant stared at him aghast. Here he had felt secure of food and shelter; and he had endured miseries and deprivations that reduce a man to a state in which food and shelter seem to constitute the supreme good that can be obtained in this life.

“You won’t refuse to do something for me, George,” he whined piteously.

“I will do nothing for you. Do you hear that, my man? Nothing! You taught me that blood is not thicker than water twelve years ago, when you married Tom Halliday’s widow, and drew your purse-strings, after flinging me a beggarly hundred as you’d throw a bone to a dog. You made me understand that was all I should ever get out of your brotherly love, or your fear of my telling the world what I knew. You gave me a dinner now and then, because it suited you to keep your eye upon me; and you had generally some piece of dirty work on hand that made the advice of a sharp practitioner like me uncommonly useful to you. I don’t believe that you ever gave me so much as a dinner that you didn’t take payment for in meal or in malt. Don’t come howling here now, trying to persuade me that blood is thicker than water, or that brotherhood means anything more than the accident of birth. And now I’ve said all I have to say; and the sooner you make yourself scarce, the better for both of us.”

“George!” cried the miserable suppliant, clasping his bony hands convulsively, and whimpering as he had whimpered when he begged his bread in the streets of New York, “you can’t mean to turn me out of doors on such a night. Look at me. It was as much as I could do to crawl to this room. I have walked every step of the way from Liverpool; my wretched limbs have been frost-bitten, and ulcered, and bruised, and racked with rheumatism, and bent double with cramp. I came over in an emigrant vessel, with a herd of miserable creatures who had tried their luck on the other side of the Atlantic, and had failed, like me, and were coming home to their native workhouses. You don’t know what some of your emigrant ships are, perhaps. People talk about the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the Middle Passage; but let them try the cabin of an emigrant vessel, and they’ll have a pretty fair idea of what human beings have to suffer when Poverty drives the ship. I landed in Liverpool with half-a-dollar in my pocket, and I’ve had neither decent food nor decent shelter since I landed. Give me some hole to lie in, George, till you can get me an order for the nearest hospital. It’s a toss-up whether I ever come out of it.”

“Do you think I’d sleep under the roof that sheltered you?” cried George.

“Why not?”

“Why not! Because I’m afraid of you. Because I’d as soon have a cobra for my companion, or a wolf for my bedfellow. I know you. I’ve seen what you can do, and how you can do it. And if you could do those things when the only pressure upon you was one that you could have cast off by going through the Gazette, what would you not do now when you are as desperate as a famished wolf, and governed by no better law than that which governs a wolf — the law of self-preservation? Am I to trust a tiger because he tells me he is hungry? No, Phil Sheldon; neither will I trust you.”

“You will give me some money — enough to keep me alive for a week or two.”

“Not one sixpence. I’ll establish no precedent; I’ll acknowledge no tie between us. You’d better march. I don’t want to send for a policeman; but if you won’t go quietly, you must do the other thing.”

“You mean that?”

“Most emphatically yes.”

“I didn’t think it was in you to be so hard upon me,” faltered; the wretch in that faint hoarse voice which had grown fainter and hoarser during this interview.

“Did you think that I would trust you?” cried George. “Trust you! You call me hard because I won’t give you a corner to lie in. And if I did, you would creep out of your corner to poison me, or cut my throat. You would crawl into my room in the dead of the night and put a pillow over my face, and kneel upon it till you’d done the trick for me; and then you’d walk off with as much as you could carry, and begin the same kind of work over again with some one else. I tell you, Mr. Phil Sheldon, I will hold no intercourse with you. You’ve escaped hanging, but there’s something that’s worse than hanging, to my mind, and that is the state of a man whom nobody will trust. You’ve come to that; and if you had a spark of gentlemanly feeling, you’d have bought two-pennyworth of rope and hung yourself rather than come cringing to me.”

“Suppose I don’t cringe,” said the outcast, dropping the fawning tone of the mendicant for the threatening ferocity of the social wolf; “you’d better give me a trifle to keep body and soul together for the next few weeks. I’m a desperate man, George! You and I are alone up here. You are pretty sure to have ready money about you. And there’s your watch; that’s worth something. I didn’t come here to go away empty-handed. AND I WON’T!”

He sprang to his feet, and in the next moment the lawyer heard the sharp clicking noise made by the opening of a clasp-knife.

“O,” cried he, “that’s what you want, is it!”

He bent over his desk, with his eyes fixed on those other evil eyes that still retained some likeness to his own, and with his left arm raised in a boxer’s defensive attitude, to guard his head, while his right hand groped for something in a drawer. It was a moment’s work. Philip had seized that uplifted left arm, and was hanging on to it like a cat, with his knife between his teeth, when George clapped the muzzle of a revolver to his brow.

“There are plenty of wild beasts in London besides you,” he said, “and I am not such a fool as to be without the means of settling a chance visitor of your sort. Drop your knife, and march.”

The outcast dropped his knife submissively. He was too weak for anything more than a spasmodic violence.

“Take your pistol away from my head,” he whined.

“Certainly, when you are outside my door.”

“You might give me a handful of silver, George. I haven’t a week’s life left in me.”

“All the better for society if you hadn’t an hour’s life in you. Be off. I’m tired of holding this revolver to your head, and I don’t mean to let it go till you’re off my premises.”

Philip saw that there was no hope. Food and shelter were all he had hoped for; but even these blessings were not for him. He backed out of the office, closely followed by George, holding the muzzle of the revolver within an inch or so of the fraternal brains. Upon the threshold only did he pause.

“Tell me one thing,” he said. “You won’t give me sixpence to buy a loaf of bread or a glass of gin. Give me one scrap of comfort. It need cost you nothing. Tell me something bad of Valentine Hawkehurst: that he’s gone to the dogs, or drowned himself; that his wife has run away from him, or his house been burned to the ground. Tell me that he’s had a taste of my luck; and that Ann Woolper has died in a workhouse. It will be as good as meat and drink to me, and it will cost you nothing.”

“If I told you anything of the kind, I should tell you a lie; Valentine Hawkehurst is doing uncommonly well, and has got one of the prettiest little boxes between Wimbledon and Kingston. Ann Woolper lives with them, and is in better feather than she ever was in your time.”

With this, Mr. Sheldon of Gray’s Inn pushed his brother out on to the staircase, and shut his door. Philip sat upon the stairs, and drew his rags together a little, and rubbed his wretched limbs, while the bolts and chains whereby the lawyer defended his citadel clanked close behind him.

“I wonder whether he’ll pay Hawkehurst a visit,” thought George, as he bolted his door; and he had a kind of grim satisfaction in the idea that Valentine’s Christmas peace might be disturbed by the advent of that grisly visitor.

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