Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

Halcyon Days.

Once having offered up the fondest desires of her own heart on the shrine of duty, Diana Paget was not a person to repent herself of the pious sacrifice. After that Christmas night on which she had knelt at Charlotte’s feet to confess her sad secret, and to resign all claim to the man she had loved so foolishly, so tenderly, with such a romantic and unselfish devotion, Miss Paget put away all thought of the past from her heart and mind. Heart and mind seemed empty and joyless without those loved tenants, though the tenants had been only fair wraiths of dreams that were dead. There was a sense of something missing in her life — a blank, dull calm, which was at first very painful. But for Charlotte’s sake she was careful to hide all outward token of despondency, and the foolish grief, put down by so strong a hand, was ere long well-nigh stifled.

Those dark days which succeeded Christmas were a period of halcyon peace for Valentine and Charlotte. The accepted lover came to the villa when he pleased, but was still careful not to encroach on the license allowed him. Once a week he permitted himself the delight of five-o’clock tea in Mrs. Sheldon’s drawing-room, on which occasions he brought Charlotte all the news of his small literary world, and a good deal of useful information out of the books he had been reading. When Mr. Sheldon pleased to invite him to dinner on Sunday he gladly accepted the invitation, and this Sunday dinner became in due course an established institution.

“You may as well make this your home on a Sunday,” said Mr. Sheldon one day, with careless cordiality; “I dare say you find Sunday dull in your lodgings.”

“Yes, papa,” cried Charlotte, “he does find it very dull — dreadfully dull — don’t you, Valentine?”

And she regarded him with that pretty, tender, almost motherly look, which young ladies who are engaged are apt to bestow on their affianced lovers.

Miss Halliday was very grateful to her stepfather for his kindness to her landless adorer, and showed her appreciation of his conduct in many pretty little caressing ways, which would have been infinitely bewitching to a person of sentiment.

Unfortunately Mr. Sheldon was not sentimental, and any exhibition of feeling appeared to have an irritating effect upon his nerves. There were times when he shrank from some little sudden caress of Charlotte’s as from the sting of an adder. Aversion, surprise, fear — what was it that showed in the expression of his face at these moments? Whatever that strange look was, it departed too quickly for analysis; and the stockbroker thanked his stepdaughter for her little affectionate demonstration with his wonted smile — the smile he smiled on Change, the smile which was sometimes on his lips when his mind was a nest of scorpions.

To Valentine, in these rosy hours, life seemed full of hope and brightness. He transferred his goods and chattels from Omega Street, Chelsea, to the pleasant lodging in the Edgware Road, where he was nearer Charlotte, and out of the way of his late patron Captain Paget, in the event of that gentleman’s return from the Continent.

Fortune favoured him. The gaiety of heart which came with his happiness lent a grace to his pen. Pleasant thoughts and fancies bedecked his pages. He saw everything in the rosy light of love and beauty, and there was a buoyant freshness in all he wrote. The Pegasus might be but a common hackney, but the hack was young and fresh, and galloped gaily as he scented the dewy morning air. It is not every poet whose Pegasus clears at a bound a space as wide as all that waste of land and sea the watchman views from his tall tower on the rock.

Mr. Hawkehurst’s papers on Lauzun, Brummel, Sardanapalus, Rabelais, Lord Chesterfield, Erasmus, Beau Nash, Apelles, Galileo, and Philip of Orleans, were in demand, and the reading public wondered at this prodigy of book-making. He had begun to save money, and had opened a deposit account at the Unitas Bank. How he gloated over the deposit receipts in the stillness of the night, when he added a fresh one to his store! When he had three, for sums amounting in all to forty pounds, he took them to Charlotte, and she looked at them, and he looked at them, as if the poor little bits of printed paper had been specimens of virgin ore from some gold mine newly discovered by Mr. Hawkehurst. And then these foolish lovers kissed each other, as William Lee and his wife may have embraced after the penniless young student had perfected his invention of the stocking-frame.

“Forty pounds!” exclaimed Miss Halliday, “all won by your pen, and your poor fingers, and your poor, poor head! How it must ache after a long day’s work! How clever you must be, Valentine!”

“Yes, dear; amazingly clever. Clever enough to know that you are the dearest girl in Christendom.”

“Don’t talk nonsense, sir! You are not clever enough to have the privilege of doing that yet awhile. I mean, how learned you must be to know such lots of things, all about Erasmus, and Galileo, and —”

“No, my darling, not Erasmus and Galileo. I knew all about Erasmus last week; but I am working at my paper on Galileo now, an exhaustive review of all the books that were ever written on the subject, in ten pages. I don’t ask other people to remember what I write, you know, my dear, and I don’t pledge myself to remember it. That sort of thing won’t keep. There is a kind of sediment, no doubt, in one’s note-book; but the effervescence of that vintage goes off rather quickly.”

“I only know that you are a very clever person, and that one obtains an immensity of information from your writings,” said Charlotte.

“Yes, dearest, there is a kind of wine that must be made into negus for such pretty little topers as you — the ‘Wine of Cyprus,’ as Mrs. Browning called it. It is better for pretty girls to have the negus than to have nothing, or only weak home-brewed stuff that results in head-ache. My dearest, Fate has been very good to me, and I love my profession of letters. I am sure that of all educational processes there is none better than book-making; and the man who begins by making books must be a dolt, dunce, and dunderhead, if he do not end by writing them. So you may yet hope to see the morning that shall make your Valentine famous — for a fortnight. What man can hope to be famous for more than a fortnight in such a railroad age as this?”

During this halcyon period, in which Mr. Hawkehurst cultivated alternately the society of the Muses and his mistress, he saw little or nothing of George Sheldon. He had washed his hands of all share in the work of establishing Charlotte Halliday’s claim to the Reverend John Haygarth’s thousands. Indeed, since that interview in which Philip Sheldon had made so light of his stepdaughter’s chances, and ratified his consent to her marriage with so humble a literary adventurer as himself, Mr. Hawkehurst had come to consider the Haygarthian inheritance as altogether a visionary business. If it were certain, or even probable, that Charlotte was to inherit a hundred thousand pounds, was it likely that Mr. Sheldon would encourage such an alliance? This question Mr. Hawkehurst always answered in the negative; and as days and weeks went by, and he heard no more of the Haygarth fortune, the idea of Charlotte’s wealth became more and more shadowy.

If there were anything doing in this matter, the two brothers were now working together, and George had no further need of Valentine’s help.

The two brothers were not working entirely together. Philip Sheldon had taken the matter into his own strong hand, and George found it very difficult to hold an inch of ground against that formidable antagonist. The papers and information which George had boasted of to Valentine, and the possession whereof was, as he asserted, the very keystone of the arch, proved to be of such small account that he ultimately consented to hand them over to his brother on the payment of expenses out of pocket, and a bonus of one hundred and fifty pounds, together with a written undertaking from Miss Halliday to pay him the fifth share of any fortune recovered by means of those papers.

This undertaking had been executed in the easiest manner.

“My brother has taken it into his wise head that there is some unclaimed stock standing in your grandfather’s name which you are entitled to, Lotta,” Mr. Sheldon said one morning; “and he wants to recover the amount for you, on condition of receiving a clear fifth when the sum is recovered. Have you any objection to sign such an undertaking?”

“Dear papa, how can I object?” cried Charlotte gaily. “Why, stocks are money, are they not? How fortunate we are, and how rich we are getting!”

“We!”

“Valentine and I,” murmured the girl, blushing. “I cannot help thinking of him when any windfall of good fortune comes to me. What do you think, papa? He has saved forty pounds in little more than three months — all earned by his pen!

“Behold The arch-enchanter’s wand! Itself a nothing; But taking sorcery from the master-hand To paralyze the Caesars, and to strike The loud earth breathless!”

And Miss Halliday spouted the glowing lines of the noble dramatist with charming enthusiasm. She signed the required undertaking without looking at it, and it was duly witnessed by her stepfather.

“In your talk with your mother and Valentine, I should advise you to be as silent about this small business as about your own little fortune,” Mr. Sheldon remarked presently.

“Mustn’t I tell Valentine?” cried Charlotte, making a wry face; “I should so like to tell him — just about these stocks. I daresay he knows what stocks are; and it would be such cheering news for him, after he has worked his poor brain so for that forty pounds. I don’t so much care about telling poor mamma; for she does exclaim and wonder so about things, that it is quite fatiguing to hear her. But please let me tell Valentine?”

Miss Halliday pursed-up her lips and offered her stepfather one of those kisses which she had of late been prompted to bestow on him out of the gratitude of a heart overflowing with girlish joy. He took the kiss as he might have taken a dose of medicine, but did not grant the request preferred by it.

“If you want to be a fool, you can tell your lover of this windfall; but if you wish to prove yourself a sensible girl, you will hold your tongue. He has saved forty pounds by hard work in the last three months, you say: do you think he would have saved forty pence if he had known that you had five thousand pounds at his disposal? I know that class of men; look at Goldsmith, the man who wrote the “Vicar of Wakefield,” and “Rasselas,” and “Clarissa Harlowe,” and so on. I have read somewhere that he never wrote except under coercion — that is to say, want of money.”

Charlotte acknowledged the wisdom of this argument, and submitted. She was not what was called a strong-minded woman; and, indeed, strength of mind is not a plant indigenous to the female nature, but an exceptional growth developed by exceptional circumstances. In Charlotte’s life there had been nothing exceptional, and she was in all things soft and womanly, ready to acknowledge, and to be guided by, the wisdom of her seniors. So Valentine heard nothing of the undertaking executed by his lady-love.

After this, Mr. Sheldon took counsel’s opinion, and set to work in real earnest to recover the estate of the deceased John Haygarth from the yawning jaws of that tame but all-devouring monster, the Crown. The work was slow, and the dry as dust details thereof need not be recorded here. It had but just begun when Horatio Paget suddenly returned from his Continental expedition, and established himself once more in the Omega Street lodgings.

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