Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Assurance Doubly Sure.

On the day after Miss Paget’s departure Mr. Sheldon came home from the City rather earlier than usual, and found Charlotte alone in the drawing-room, reading a ponderous volume from Mudie of an instructive and edifying character, with a view to making herself clever, in order that she might better understand that prodigy of learning, Mr. Hawkehurst.

She was somewhat inclined to yawn over the big book, which contained a graphic account of recent discoveries of an antiquarian nature. Her mind was not yet attuned to the comprehension of the sublimer elements in such discoveries. She saw only a dry as dust record of futile gropings in desert sand for the traces of perished empires. Her imagination was not cultivated to that point whereat the gift which Mr. Lewes calls “insight” becomes the daily companion, nay, indeed, the ever-haunting and nightmare-bringing influence of the dreamer. For her sands were only sands, the stones were only stones. No splendour of fallen palaces, no glory and pride of perished kings, no clash and clamour of vanished courts, arose from those barren sands, with all their pomp and circumstance, conjured into being by half a word on a broken pillar, or a date upon a Punic monument. Miss Halliday looked up with a sigh of fatigue as her stepfather came into the room. It was not a room that he particularly affected, and she was surprised when he seated himself in the easy-chair opposite her, and poked the fire, as if with the intention of remaining.

“You shouldn’t read by firelight, my dear,” he said; “it is most destructive to the eyesight.”

“I dare say my sight will last my time, papa,” the young lady replied carelessly; “but it’s very kind of you to think of it, and I won’t read any more.”

Mr. Sheldon made no reply to this observation. He sat looking at the fire, with that steady gaze which was habitual to him — the gaze of the man who plans and calculates.

“My dear,” he said by-and-by, “it seems that this money to which you may or may not be entitled is more than we thought at first; in fact, it appears that the sum is a considerable one. I have been, and still am, particularly anxious to guard against disappointment on your part, as I know the effect that such a disappointment is apt to produce upon a person’s life. The harassing slowness of Chancery proceedings is proverbial; I am therefore especially desirous that you should not count upon this money.”

“I shall never do that, papa. I should certainly like a fine edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for Valentine, by-and-by, as he says that is essential for a literary man; and a horse, for people say literary men ought to take horse exercise. But beyond that —”

“We need scarcely go into these details, my dear. I want you to understand the broad facts of the case. While, on the one hand, our success in obtaining the inheritance which we are about to claim for you is uncertain, on the other hand the inheritance is large. Of course, when I presented you with the sum of five thousand pounds, I had no idea of this possible inheritance.”

“O, of course not, papa.”

“But I now find that there is such a possibility as your becoming a — well — a rich woman.”

“O papa!”

“In which case I may conclude that your mother would benefit in some measure from your good fortune.”

“Can you doubt that, papa? There should be no measure to her benefit from any money obtained by me.”

“I do not doubt that, my dear. And it is with that idea that I wish to make a proposition to you — for your mother’s possible advantage.”

“I shall be happy to do anything you wish, papa.”

“It must be done as a spontaneous act of your own, Charlotte, not in accordance with any wish of mine.”

“What is it that I am to do?” asked Charlotte.

“Well, my dear, you see it is agreed between us that if you do get this money, your mother is certain to benefit considerably. But unhappily the proceedings are likely to drag on for an indefinite time; and in the course of that time it comes within the limits of possibility that your decease may precede that of your mother.”

“Yes, papa.”

“In which case your mother would lose all hope of any such advantage.”

“Of course, papa.”

Charlotte could not help thinking that there was something sordid in this discussion — this calculation of possible gain or loss contingent on her fresh young life. But she concluded that it was the nature of business men to see everything from a debased standpoint, and that Mr. Sheldon was no more sordid than other men of his class.

“Well, papa?” she asked presently, after some moments of silence, during which she and her stepfather had both been absorbed in the contemplation of the fire.

“Well, my dear,” replied Mr. Sheldon slowly, “I have been thinking that the natural and easy way of guarding against all contingencies would be by your effecting an insurance on your life in your mother’s favour.”

“No, no, papa!” cried Charlotte, with unwonted vehemence; “I would rather do anything than that!”

“What can be your objection to such a very simple arrangement?”

“I dare say my objection seems foolish, childish even, papa; but I really have a horror of life assurances. I always think of papa — my own poor father, whom I loved so dearly. It seemed as if he put a price upon his life for us. He was so anxious to insure his life — I remember hearing him talk of it at Hyley, when I was a child — to make things straight, as he said, for us; and, you see, very soon afterwards he died.”

“But you can’t suppose the insurance of his life had anything to do with his death?”

“Of course not, I am not so childish as that; only —”

“Only you have a foolish lackadaisical prejudice against the only means by which you can protect your mother against a contingency that is so remote as to be scarcely worth consideration. Let it pass.”

There was more anger in the tone than in the words. It was not that angry tone, but the mention of her mother, that impressed Miss Halliday. She began to consider that her objections were both foolish and selfish.

“If you really think I ought to insure my life, I will do so,” she said presently. “Papa did as much for those he loved; why should I be less thoughtful of others?”

Having once brought Miss Halliday to this frame of mind, the rest was easy. It was agreed between them that as Valentine Hawkehurst was to be kept in ignorance of his betrothed’s claim to certain moneys now in the shadowy under-world of Chancery, so he must be kept in ignorance of the insurance.

It was only one more secret, and Charlotte had learned that it was possible to keep a secret from her lover.

“I suppose before we are married I shall able to tell him everything?” she said.

“Certainly, my dear. All I want is to test his endurance and his prudence. If the course of events proves him worthy of being trusted, I will trust him.”

“I am not afraid of that, papa.”

“Of course not, my dear. But, you see, I have to protect your interests; and I cannot afford to see this gentleman with your eyes. I am compelled to be prudent.”

The stockbroker sighed as he said this — a sigh of utter weariness. Remorse was unknown to him; the finer fibres upon which that chord is struck had not been employed in the fabrication of his heart. But there is a mental fatigue which is a spurious kind of remorse, and has all the anguish of the nobler feeling. It is an utter weariness and prostration of spirit — a sickness of heart and mind — a bitter longing to lie down and die — the weariness of a beaten hound rather than of a baffled man.

This was what Mr. Sheldon felt, as the threads of the web which he was weaving multiplied, and grew daily and hourly more difficult of manipulation. Success in the work which he had to do depended on so many contingencies. Afar off glittered the splendid goal — the undisputed possession of the late John Haygarth’s hundred thousand pounds; but between the schemer and that chief end and aim of all his plottings what a sea of troubles! He folded his arms behind his head, and looked across the girlish face of his companion into the shadow and the darkness. In those calculations which were for ever working themselves out in this man’s brain, Charlotte Halliday was only one among many figures. She had her fixed value in every sum; but her beauty, her youth, her innocence, her love, her trust, made no unit of that fixed figure, nor weighed in the slightest degree with him who added up the sum. Had she been old, ugly, obnoxious, a creature scarcely fit to live, she would have represented exactly the same amount in the calculations of Philip Sheldon. The graces that made her beautiful were graces that he had no power to estimate. He knew she was a pretty woman; but he knew also that there were pretty women to be seen in any London street; and the difference between his stepdaughter and the lowest of womankind who passed him in his daily walks was to him little more than a social prejudice.

The insurance business being once decided on, Mr. Sheldon lost no time in putting it into execution. Although he made a point of secrecy as regarded Mr. Hawkehurst, he went to work in no underhand manner, but managed matters after a Highly artistic and superior fashion. He took his stepdaughter to the offices of Greenwood and Greenwood, and explained her wishes to one of those gentlemen in her presence. If he dwelt a little more on Miss Halliday’s anxiety for her mother’s pecuniary advantage than his previous conversation with Miss Halliday warranted, the young lady was too confiding and too diffident to contradict him. She allowed him to state, or rather to imply, that the proposed insurance was her spontaneous wish, an emanation of her anxious and affectionate heart, the natural result of an almost morbid care for her mother’s welfare.

Mr. Hargrave Greenwood, of Greenwood and Greenwood, seemed at first inclined to throw cold water on the proposition, but after some little debate, agreed that extreme caution would certainly counsel such a step.

“I should imagine there was no better life amongst the inhabitants of London,” he said, “than Miss Shel — pardon me — Miss Halliday’s. But, as the young lady herself suggests, ‘in the midst of life we are —’; and, as the young lady herself has observed, these things are — ahem — beyond human foresight. If there were any truth in the aphorisms of poets, I should say Miss Halliday cannot insure too quickly; for the remark of Cowper — or, stay, I believe Pope —‘whom the gods love die young,’ might very well be supposed to apply to so charming a young lady. Happily, the secretaries of insurance offices know very little about the poets, unless, indeed, Miss Halliday were to go to the Royal Widow’s and Orphan’s Hope, the secretary of which is the author of dramas that may fairly rank with the works of Knowles and Lytton.”

Mr. Greenwood, an elderly gentleman of the ponderous and port-wine school, laughed at his own small jokes, and took things altogether pleasantly. He gave Mr. Sheldon a letter of introduction to the secretary of his pet insurance company, the value of which to that gentleman was considerable. Nor was this the only advantage derived from the interview. The lawyer’s approval of the transaction reassured Charlotte; and though she had heard her own views somewhat misrepresented, she felt that an operation which appeared wise in the sight of such a lawyer, standing on such a Turkey hearthrug, commanding such gentlemanly-looking clerks as those who came and went at Mr. Greenwood’s bidding, must inevitably be a proceeding at once prudent and proper.

The business of the insurance was not quite so easy as the interview with the lawyer. The doctor to whom Miss Halliday was introduced seemed very well satisfied with that young lady’s appearance of health and spirits, but in a subsequent interview with Mr. Sheldon asked several questions, and shook his head gravely when told that her father had died at thirty-seven years of age. But he looked less grave when informed that Mr. Halliday had died of a bilious fever.

“Did Mr. Halliday die in London?” he asked.

“He did.”

“I should like — ahem — if it were possible, to see the medical man who attended him. These fevers rarely prove fatal unless there is some predisposing cause.”

“In this case there was none.”

“You speak rather confidently, Mr. Sheldon, as a non-professional man.”

“I speak with a certain amount of professional knowledge. I knew Tom Halliday for many years.”

Mr. Sheldon forebore to state that Tom Halliday had died in his house, and had been attended by him. It is, perhaps, only natural that Philip Sheldon, the stockbroker of repute, should wish to escape identification with Philip Sheldon, the unsuccessful dentist of Bloomsbury.

After a little more conversational skirmishing, the confidential physician of the Prudential Step Assurance Company agreed to consider that Mr. Halliday’s constitution had been in no manner compromised by his early death, and to pass Charlotte’s life. The motives for effecting the insurance were briefly touched upon in Mr. Greenwood’s letter of introduction, and appeared very proper and feasible in the eyes of the directors; so, after a delay of a few days, the young lady found herself accepted, and Mr. Sheldon put away among his more important papers a large oblong envelope, containing a policy of assurance on his stepdaughter’s life for five thousand pounds. He did not, however, stop here, but made assurance doubly sure by effecting a second insurance upon the same young life with the Widow’s and Orphan’s Hope Society, within a few days of the first transaction.

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