Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

Chiefly Retrospective.

Captain Paget went his way to Rouen in a placid but not an exulting mood, after parting with his young friend Valentine Hawkehurst at the London Bridge terminus of the Brighton line. He was setting out upon an adventure wild and impracticable as the quest of Jason and his Argonauts; and this gallant captain was a carpet-knight, sufficiently adventurous and audacious in the diplomatic crusades of society, but in nowise eager to hazard his life on tented field and in thick press of war. If the Fates had allowed the accomplished Horatio to choose his own destiny, he would have elected to live in the immediate neighbourhood of St. James’s Street, from the first day to the last of the London season, and to dine artistically and discreetly at one of those older and more exclusive clubs dear and familiar to him from the bright years of his youth. He was by nature a flâneur, a gossip, a lover of expensive luxuries and frivolous pleasures. He was not only incapable of a high thought himself, but was an unbeliever in the possibility of high thoughts or noble principles in the world he lived in. He measured the universe by that narrow scrap of tape which was the span of his own littleness. To him Caesar was an imperial brigand, Cicero a hypocritical agitator. To him all great warriors were greedy time-servers like John Churchill; all statesmen plausible placemen; all reformers self-seeking pretenders. Nor did Captain Paget wish that it should be otherwise. In his ideal republic, unselfishness and earnestness would have rendered a man rather a nuisance than otherwise. With the vices of his fellow-men the diplomatic Horatio was fully competent to deal; but some of his most subtle combinations on the chess-board of life would have been checkmated by an unexpected encounter with intractable virtue.

The necessity of living was the paramount consideration to which this gentleman had given his mind from the time when he found himself a popular subaltern in a crack regiment, admired for his easy manners and good looks, respected by meaner men for his good blood, and rich in everything except that vulgar dross without which the life of West-end London is so hollow a delusion, so bitter a comedy of mean shifts and lying devices.

That freebooter of civilization, the man who lives by his wits, is subject to strange fluctuations from prosperity to adversity. He is the miner or gold-digger of civilized life; and as there are times when his pickaxe strikes suddenly on a rich lode, so there are dreary intervals in which his spade turns up nothing but valueless clay, and the end of each day’s work leaves him with no better evidence of his wasted labour than the aching limbs which he drags at nightfall to his dismal shanty.

For some months Captain Paget had found Philip Sheldon a very useful acquaintance. The stockbroker had been the secret inaugurator of two or three joint-stock companies, though figuring to the outer world only as director; and in the getting-up of these companies Horatio had been a useful instrument, and had received liberal payment for his labours. Unhappily, so serene an occupation as promoting cannot go on for ever; or rather, cannot remain for ever in the same hands. The human mind is naturally imitative, and the plagiarisms of commerce are infinitely more audacious than the small larcenies of literature. The joint-stock company market became day by day more crowded. No sooner did Philip Sheldon float the Non-destructive Laundry Company, the admirable organization of which would offer a guarantee against the use of chloride of lime and other destructive agencies in the wash-tub, than a rival power launched a colourable imitation thereof, in the Union-is-Strength Domestic Lavatory Company, with a professor of chemistry specially retained as inspector of wash-tubs. Thus it was that, after the profitable ripening of three such schemes, Mr. Sheldon deemed it advisable to retire from the field, and await a fitter time for the further exercise of his commercial genius.

Captain Paget’s relations with the stockbroker did not, however, terminate with the cessation of his labours as secretary, jack-of-all-trades, and promoter. Having found him, so far, clever, and to all appearance trustworthy — and this was an important point, for no man so much needs honourable service as a rogue — Philip Sheldon determined upon confiding to Horatio the conduct of a more delicate business than anything purely commercial. After that discovery of the telegraphic message sent by his brother George to Valentine Hawkehurst, and the further discovery of the advertisement relating to the unclaimed wealth of the lately deceased John Haygarth, Mr. Sheldon lost no time in organizing his plans for his own aggrandizement at the expense of his brother.

“George refused to let me in for a share of chances when I showed myself willing to help him,” thought Philip. “He may discover by-and-by that I have contrived to let myself into his secrets; and that he might have played a better game by consenting to a partnership.”

A life devoted to his own interests, and a consistent habit of selfishness, had rendered Mr. Sheldon, of the Lawn, Bayswater, and Stags Court, City, very quick of apprehension in all matters connected, immediately or remotely, with the making of money. The broken sentences of the telegram betrayed by the blotting-pad told him a great deal. They told him that there was a certain Goodge, in the town of Ullerton, who possessed letters so valuable to George Sheldon, as to be bought by his agent Valentine Hawkehurst. Letters for which Sheldon was willing to give money must needs be of considerable importance, since money was a very scarce commodity with that hunter of unconscious heirs-at-law. Again, a transaction which required the use of so expensive a medium as the electric telegraph rather than the penny post, might be fairly supposed a transaction of some moment. The letters in question might relate to some other estate than that of John Haygarth, for it was quite possible that the schemer of Gray’s Inn had other irons in the fire. But this was a question of no moment to Philip Sheldon.

If the letters — or the information contained therein — were likely to be useful to George, they might be useful to him. If George found it worth his while to employ an agent at Ullerton, why should not he (Philip) have his agent in the same town? The pecuniary risk, which might be a serious affair to George, was child’s play for Philip, who had always plenty of money, or, at any rate, the command of money. The whole business of heir-at-law hunting seemed to the stockbroker a very vague and shadowy piece of work, as compared to the kind of speculation that was familiar to him; but he knew that men had made money in such a manner, and any business by which money could be made, was interesting to him. Beyond this, the notion of cutting the ground from under his brother’s feet had a certain attraction for him. George’s manner to him had been somewhat offensive to him on more than one occasion since — well, since Tom Halliday’s death. Mr. Sheldon had borne that offensiveness in mind, with the determination to “take it out of” his brother on the earliest opportunity.

It seemed as if the opportunity had arrived, and Philip was not one of those men who wait shivering on the shore when Fortune’s tide is at the flood. Mr. Sheldon launched his bark upon the rising waters, and within two hours of his discovery in the telegraph-office was closeted with Horatio Paget in the little parlour in Omega Street, making arrangements for the Captain’s journey to Ullerton.

That Horatio was the right man for the work he wanted done, Mr. Sheldon had been quick to perceive.

“He knows Hawkehurst, and will be able to reckon up any manoeuvres of his better than a stranger; and is, I think, altogether as deep an old gentleman as one could hope to meet with, barring the traditional gentleman who did odd jobs for Dr. Faustus,” the stockbroker said to himself, as his hansom sped along Park Lane on its way to Chelsea. The eagerness with which Captain Paget took up the idea of this business was very agreeable to his patron.

“This is an affair in which success hinges on time,” said Mr. Sheldon; “so, if you mean to go in for the business, you must start for Ullerton by the two o’clock express. You’ll have just time to throw your razors and a clean shirt into a carpet-bag while I talk to you. I’ve got a cab outside, and a good one, that will take you to Euston Square in half an hour.”

The Captain showed himself prompt in action. His bedchamber was a small apartment at the back of the parlour, and here he packed his bag while conversing with his employer.

“If you get upon the ground in time, you may obtain a look at the letters before they are handed over to Hawkehurst, or you may outbid him for them,” said Mr. Sheldon; “but remember, whatever you do must be so done as to keep Hawkehurst and George completely in the dark as to our proceedings. If once they find out we are on their track, our chances will be gone, for they have got the information and we haven’t; and it’s only by following close in their footsteps we can hope to do anything.”

“That is understood,” replied the Captain, stooping over his bag; “I shall keep myself as close as possible, you may depend upon it. And it shan’t be my fault if Valentine sees me or hears of me. I shall want money, by the bye; for one can’t stir a step in this sort of affair without ready cash.”

“I am quite aware of that. I stopped at the West-end branch of the Unitas and cashed a cheque for forty pounds. You can do a good deal in the way of bribery for forty pounds, in such a place as Ullerton. What you have to do is to keep your eye on Hawkehurst, and follow up every channel of information that he opens for you. He has the clue to the labyrinth, remember, the reel of cotton, or whatever it was, that the young woman gave that Roman fellow. All you have to do is to get hold of it, and follow your leader.” continued Philip, with his watch in his hand. “This business of the letters will be sharp work, for the chances are against us here, as it’s more than likely the papers will have changed hands before you can get to Ullerton. But if you can’t buy the letters, you may buy the information contained in them, and that is the next best thing. Your first move will be to ferret out this man Goodge. Everybody knows everybody else in such a place as Ullerton, large and busy as the town is, and you won’t find that difficult. When you see Goodge, you’ll know how to deal with him. The mode and manner of your dealing I leave to yourself. You are a man of the world, and will know how to manipulate the gentleman, whoever he may be. And now lock your bag and cut downstairs as fast as you can. Time’s up. Here’s your money — three tens, two fives. Good day.”

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