Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

Against Wind and Tide.

Between Philip Sheldon and his brother there was at this time a state of feeling somewhat akin to the relations between a subjugated country and its conqueror. The vanquished is fain to accept whatever the victor is pleased to give, though discontent and impotent rage may be gnawing his entrails. George Sheldon had been a loser in that game in which the Haygarthian inheritance was the stake. He had held good cards, and had played them with considerable cleverness; but no play could prevail against his antagonist’s ace of trumps. The ace of trumps was Charlotte Halliday; and as to his mode and matter of playing this card, Mr. Sheldon was for the present profoundly mysterious.

“I have known a good many inscrutable cards in my time,” the solicitor of Gray’s Inn observed to his elder brother, in the course of fraternal converse; “but I think for inscrutability you put the topper on the lot. What do you expect to get out of this Haygarth estate? Come, Phil, let us have your figures in plain English. I am to have a fifth — that’s all signed and sealed. But how about your share? What agreement have you got from Miss Halliday?”

“None.”

“None!”

“What would the world think of me if I extorted money, or the promise of money, from my wife’s daughter? Do you think I could enforce any deed between her and me?”

“Ah, I see; you go in for respectability. And you are going to leave the settlement of your claims to your stepdaughter’s generosity. You will let her marry Hawkehurst, with her hundred thousand pounds; and then you will say to those two, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Hawkehurst, be so kind as to hand over my share of the plunder.’ That is not like you, Phil.”

“Perhaps you will be good enough to spare yourself the trouble of speculating about my motives. Go your way, and leave me to go mine.”

“But this is a case in which I have an interest. If Charlotte marries Hawkehurst, I don’t see how you are to profit, to any extent that you would care about, by the Haygarth fortune. But, on the other hand, if she should die unmarried, without a will, the money would go to your wife. O my God! Philip Sheldon, is THAT what you mean?”

The question was so sudden, the tone of horror in which it was spoken so undisguised, that Mr. Sheldon the stockbroker was for one moment thrown off his guard. His breath thickened; he tried to speak, but his dry lips could shape no word. It was only one moment that he faltered. In the next he turned upon his brother angrily, and asked what he meant.

“You’ve been promised your reward,” he said; “leave me to look after mine. You’ll take those papers round to Greenwood and Greenwood; they want to talk to you about them.”

“Yes, I’ll take the papers.”

Greenwood and Greenwood were Mr. Sheldon’s own solicitors — a firm of some distinction, on whose acumen and experience the stockbroker placed implicit reliance. They were men of unblemished respectability, and to them Mr. Sheldon had confided the care of his stepdaughter’s interests, always reserving the chief power in his own hands. These gentlemen thought well of the young lady’s prospects, and were handling the case in that slow and stately manner which marks the handling of such cases by eminent firms of the slow-and-stately class.

Mr. Sheldon wished his brother good-day, and was about to depart, when George planted himself suddenly before the door.

“Look you here, Phil,” he said, with an intensity of manner that was by no means common to him; “I want to say a few words to you, and I will say them. There was an occasion, ten years ago, on which I ought to have spoken out, and didn’t. I have never ceased to regret my cowardice. Yes, by Jove! I hate myself for it; and there are times when I feel as if my share in that wretched business was almost as bad as yours.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Of course not. That’s your text, and you’ll stick to it. But you do know what I mean, and you shall know what I mean, if plain words can tell you. You and I had a friend, Phil. He was a good friend to me, and I liked him as much as a man of the world can afford to like anybody. If I had been down in the world, and had asked him for a hundred pounds to give me a new start in life, I think he’d have said, ‘George, here’s a cheque for you.’ That’s my notion of a friend. And yet I stood by that man’s deathbed, and saw him sinking, and knew what ailed him, and didn’t stretch out my hand to save him.”

“Be so good as to move away from that door,” said Mr. Sheldon, livid to the lips with smothered fury, but able to put on a bold front nevertheless. “I didn’t come here to listen to rhodomontade of this kind, or to bandy words with you. Get out of my way.”

“Not till I’ve said my say. There shall be no rhodomontade this time. I stood by and saw my best friend murdered — by you. I kept my counsel for your sake, and when you had made your fortune — by his death — I asked you for a little money. You know how much you gave me, and how graciously you gave it. If you had given me twenty times the sum you gained by Tom Halliday’s death, I would give it back, and twenty times as much again, to bring him back to life, and to feel that I had never aided and abetted a murderer. Yes, by God, I would! though I’m not straitlaced or over-scrupulous at the best of times. But that’s past, and all the money in the Bank of England wouldn’t undo what you did in Fitzgeorge Street. But if you try on any such tricks with Tom Halliday’s daughter, if that’s the scheme you’ve hatched for getting hold of this money, as surely as we two live, I’ll let in the light upon your doings, and save the girl whose father you murdered. I will, Philip, let come what may. You can’t get me out of the way when it suits you, you see. I know you. That’s the best antidote against your medicines.”

“If you’ll be so good as to say these things on ‘Change, I can bring an action for libel, or get you put into a madhouse. There’s no good in saying them here.”

Philip Sheldon, even in this crisis, was less agitated than his brother, being of a harder nature, and less subject to random impulses of good or evil. He caught his accuser by the collar of his coat, and flung him violently from the doorway. Thus ended his visit to Gray’s Inn.

Boldly as he had borne himself during the interview, he went to his office profoundly depressed and dispirited.

“So I am to have him against me?” he said to himself. “He can do me no real harm; but he can harass and annoy me. If he should drop any hint to Hawkehurst? — but he’ll scarcely do that. Perhaps I’ve ridden him a little too roughly in the past. And yet if I’d been smoother, where would his demands have ended? No; concession in these cases means ruin.”

He shut himself in his office, and sat down to his desk to confront his difficulties. For a long time the bark which was freighted with Philip Sheldon’s fortunes had been sailing in troubled waters. He had been an unconscious disciple of Lord Bacon, inasmuch as the boldness inculcated by that philosopher had been the distinguishing characteristic of his conduct in all the operations of life. As a speculator, his boldness had served him well. Adventures from which timid spirits shrunk appalled had brought golden harvests to this daring gamester. When some rich argosy upon the commercial ocean fired her minute-guns, and sent up signals of distress, menaced by the furious tempest, lifted high on the crest of mountainous waves, below which, black and fathomless, yawn the valleys of death — a frail ark hovering above the ravening jaws of all-devouring Poseidon — Philip Sheldon was among that chosen band of desperate wreckers who dared to face the storm, and profit by the tempest and terror. From such argosies, while other men watched and waited for a gleam of sunlight on the dark horizon, Mr. Sheldon had obtained for himself goodly merchandise. The debenture of railways that were in bad odour; Unitas Bank shares, immediately after the discovery of gigantic embezzlements by Swillenger, the Unitas–Bank secretary; the Mole-and-Burrow railway stock, when the Mole-and-Burrow scheme was as yet in the clouds, and the wiseacres prognosticated its failure; the shares in foreign loans, which the Rothschilds were buying sub rosa; — these, and such as these, had employed Mr. Sheldon’s capital; and from the skilful manipulation of capital thus employed, Mr. Sheldon had trebled the fortune secured by his alliance with Tom Halliday’s widow.

It had been the stockbroker’s fate to enter the money market at a time when fortunes were acquired with an abnormal facility. He had made the most of his advantages, and neglected none of his opportunities. He had seized Good Fortune by the forelock, and not waited to find the harridan’s bald and slippery crown turned to him in pitiless derision. He had made only one mistake — and that he made in common with many of his fellow-players in the great game of speculation always going on eastward of Temple Bar — he had mistaken the abnormal for the normal: he had imagined that these splendid opportunities were the natural evolvements of an endless sequence of everyday events; and when the sequence was abruptly broken, and when last of the seven fat kine vanished off the transitory scene of life, to make way for a dismal succession of lean kine, there was no sanguine youngster newly admitted to the sacred privileges of “The House” more astounded by the change than Mr. Sheldon.

The panic came like a thief in the night, and it found Mr. Sheldon a speculator for the rise. The Melampuses and Amphiaräuses of the Stock Exchange had agreed in declaring that a man who bought into consols at 90 must see his capital increased; and what was true of this chief among securities was of course true of other securities. The panic came, and from 90, consols declined dismally, slowly, hopelessly, to 85–1/2; securities less secure sank with a rapidity corresponding with their constitutional weakness. As during the ravages of an epidemic the weaker are first to fall victims to the destroyer, so while this fever raged on ‘Change, the feeble enterprises, the “risky” transactions, sank at an appalling rate, some to total expiry. The man who holds a roaring lion by the tail could scarcely be worse off than the speculator in these troublous times. To let go is immediate loss, to hold on for a certain time might be redemption, could one but know the exact moment in which it would be wise to let go. But to hold on until the beast grows more and more furious, and then to let go and be eaten up alive, is what many men did in that awful crisis.

If Philip Sheldon had accepted his first loss, and been warned by the first indication that marked the turning of the tide, he would have been a considerable loser; but he would not accept his loss, and he would not be warned by that early indication. He had implicit belief in his own cleverness; and he fancied if every other bark in that tempest-tossed ocean foundered and sank, his boat might ride triumphantly across the harbour-bar, secure by virtue of his science and daring as a navigator. It was not till he had seen a small fortune melt away in the payment of contango, that he consented to the inevitable. The mistakes of one year devoured the fruits of nine years’ successful enterprise, and the Philip Sheldon of this present year was no richer than the man who had stood by Tom Halliday’s bedside and waited the advent of the equal foot that knows no difference between the threshold of kingly palace or pauper refuge. Not only did he find himself as poor a man as in that hateful stage of his existence — to remember which was a dull dead pain even to him— but a man infinitely more heavily burdened. He had made for himself a certain position, and the fall from that must needs be a cruel and damaging fall, the utter annihilation of all his chances in life.

The stockbroker’s fitful slumbers at this time began to be haunted by the vision of a black board fixed against the wall of a public resort, a black board on which appeared his own name. In what strange places feverish dreams showed him this hideous square of painted deal! — Now it was on the walls of the rooms he lived in; now on the door of a church, like Luther’s propositions; now at a street-corner, where should have been the name of the street; now inky-black against the fair white headstone of his own grave. Miserable dream, miserable man, for whom the scraping together of sordid dross was life’s only object, and who, in losing money, lost all!

This agonizing consciousness of loss and of close-impending disgrace was the wolf which this Spartan stockbroker concealed beneath his waistcoat day after day, while the dull common, joyless course of his existence went on; and his shallow wife smiled at him from the opposite side of his hearth, more interested in a new stitch for her crotchet or berlin-wool work than by the inner life of her husband; and Charlotte and her lover contemplated existence from their own point of view, and cherished their own dreams and their own hopes, and were, in all things, as far away from the moody meditator as if they had been natives of Upper India.

The ruin which impended over the unlucky speculator was not immediate, but it was not far off; the shadow of it already wrapped him in a twilight obscurity. His repute as a clever and a safe man had left him. He was described now as a daring man; and the wiseacres shook their heads as they talked of him.

“One of the next to go will be Sheldon,” said the wiseacres; but in these days of commercial epidemic there was no saying who would be the first to go. It was the end of the world in little. One was taken, and another left. The Gazette overran its customary column like a swollen river, and flooded a whole page of the Times newspaper; and men looked to the lists of names in the Wednesday and Saturday papers as to the trump of archangels sounding the destruction of the universe.

For some time the bark in which Mr. Sheldon had breasted those turbulent waters had been made of paper. This was nothing. Paper boats were the prevailing shipping in those waters; but Captain Sheldon’s bark needed refitting, and the captain feared a scarcity of paper, or, worse still, the awful edict issued from some commercial Areopagus that for him there should be no more paper.

Once before, Mr. Sheldon had found himself face to face with ruin complete and irredeemable. When all common expedients had been exhausted, and his embarrassments had become desperate, he had found a desperate expedient, and had extricated himself from those embarrassments. The time had come in which a new means of extrication must be found as desperate as the last, if need were. As Philip Sheldon had faced the situation before, he faced it now — unshrinkingly, though with a gloomy anger against destiny. It was hard for him that such a thing should have to be repeated. If he pitied anybody, he pitied himself; and this kind of compassion is very common with this kind of character. Do not the Casket letters show us — if we may trust them to show us anything — that Mary Stuart was very sorry for herself when she found herself called upon to make an end of Darnley? In Mr. Swinburne’s wonderful study in morbid anatomy, there are perhaps no finer touches than those which reveal the Queen’s selfish compassion for her own heartlessness.

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