Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Fading.

While the invalid in the pleasant lodgings overlooking Hyde Park grew day by day weaker, there was a change as marked in the bright young creature whose loving spirit had first brought the influence of affection to bear upon Diana Paget’s character. Charlotte Halliday was ill — very ill. It was with everyday increasing anxiety that Diana watched the slow change — slow in its progress, but awfully rapid to look back upon. The pain, the regret, with which she noted her father’s decay were little indeed compared with the sharp agony which rent her heart as she perceived the alteration in this dear friend, the blighting of this fair young flower.

That the withered leaves of autumn should fall is sad, but natural, and we submit to the gloomy inevitable fact of decay and death. But to see our rose of roses, the pride and glory of the garden, fade and perish in its midsummer prime, is a calamity inexplicable and mysterious. Diana watched her father’s decline with a sense of natural sorrow and pity; but there was neither surprise nor horror in the thought that for him the end of all things was drawing nigh. How different was it with Charlotte — with that happy soul for whom life and love wore their brightest smile, before whose light joyous footsteps stretched so fair a pathway!

The illness, whatever it was — and neither Mr. Sheldon nor the portly and venerable physician whom he called in could find a name for it — crept upon the patient with stealthy and insidious steps. Dizziness, trembling, faintness; trembling, faintness, dizziness; the symptoms alternated day by day. Sometimes there was a respite of a few days; and Charlotte — the youthful, the sanguine, the happy — declared that her enemy had left her.

“I am sure mamma is right, Di,” she said on these occasions. “My nerves are the beginning and end of the mischief; and if I could get the better of my nerves, I should be as well as ever. I don’t wonder that the idea of my symptoms makes mamma almost cross. You see, she has been accustomed to have the symptoms all to herself; and for me to plagiarise them, as it were, must seem quite an impertinence. For a strong young thing like me, you know, Di dear — who have only just broken myself of plunging downstairs two and three steps at a time, and plunging upstairs in the same vulgar manner — to intrude on mamma’s shattered nerves, and pirate mamma’s low spirits, is utterly absurd and abominable; so I have resolved to look my nerves straight in the face, and get the better of them.”

“My darling, you will get the better of them if you try,” said Diana, who did at times beguile herself with the hope that her friend’s ailments were mental rather than bodily. “I dare say your monotonous life has something to do with your altered health; you want change of scene, dear.”

“Change of scene, when I have you and Valentine! No, Di. It would certainly be very nice to have the background shifted now and then; to see Capability Brown’s prim gardens melt into Alpine heights or southern vineyards, or even into Russian steppes or Hungarian forests. One does get a little tired of toujours Bayswater; and Mr. Sheldon; and crimped skate; and sirloin of beef, and the inevitable discussion as to whether it is in a cannibal state of rawness or burnt to a cinder; and the glasses of pale sherry; and the red worsted doyleys and blue finger-glasses; and the almonds and raisins, and crisp biscuits, that nobody ever eats; and the dreary, dreary funereal business of dinner, when we all talk vapid nonsense, with an ever-present consciousness of the parlourmaid. I am tired of the dull dinners, and of mamma’s peevish complaints about Ann Woolper’s ascendancy downstairs; and of Mr. Sheldon’s perpetual newspapers, that crackle, crackle, crackle all the evening through; and such papers! —Money Market Monitor, Stockholder’s Vade–Mecum, and all sorts of dreadful things of that kind, with not so much as an interesting advertisement in one of them. I used never to feel these things an annoyance, you know, dear, till I made the acquaintance of my nerves; but from the moment I allowed my nerves to get the better of me, all these trifles have worried and excruciated me. But I am happy with you, darling; and I am happy with Valentine. Poor Valentine!”

She pronounced his name with a sigh; and then, after a pause, repeated mournfully, “Poor Valentine!”

“Why do you speak of him so sadly, dear?” asked Diana, very pale.

“Because — because we have planned such a happy life together, dear, and —”

“Is that a thing to be sad about, darling?”

“And — if it should happen, after all, that we have to part, and he go on alone, the world may seem so sad and lonely to him.”

“Charlotte!” cried Diana, with a laugh that was almost choked by a sob, “is this looking your nerves in the face? Why, my dear one, this is indeed plagiarism of your mamma’s low spirits. Lotta, you shall have change of air; yes, I am determined on that. The stately physician who came in his carriage the other day, and who looked at your tongue, and said ‘Ah!’ and then felt your pulse and said ‘Ah!’ again, and then called for pen-and-ink and wrote a little prescription, is not the doctor we want for you. We want Dr. Yorkshire; we want the breezes from the Yorkshire moors, and the smell of the farmyard, and our dear Aunt Dorothy’s sillabubs, and our uncle Joe to take us for long walks across his clover-fields.”

“I don’t want to go to Newhall, Di. I couldn’t bear to leave — him.”

“But what is to prevent your meeting him at the white gate this time, as you met him last October? Might not accident take him to Huxter’s Cross again? The archaeological work — of which we have heard no more, by the bye — might necessitate further investigations in that district. If you will go to Newhall, Lotta, I will pledge myself for Mr. Hawkehurst’s speedy appearance at the white gate you have so often described to me.”

“My dearest Di, you are all kindness; but even if I were inclined to go to Newhall, I doubt if mamma or Mr. Sheldon would like me to go.”

“I am sure they would be pleased with any arrangement that was likely to benefit your health. But I will talk to your mamma about it. I have set my heart on your going to Newhall.”

Miss Paget lost no time in carrying out her idea. She took possession of Georgy that afternoon, while teaching her a new stitch in tricot, and succeeded in impressing her with the conviction that change of air was necessary for Charlotte.

“But you don’t think Lotta really ill?” asked Mrs. Sheldon, nervously.

“I trust she is not really ill, dear Mrs. Sheldon; but I am sure she is much changed. In talking to her, I affect to think that her illness is only an affair of the nerves; but I sadly fear that it is something more than that.”

“But what is the matter with her?” exclaimed Georgy, with a, piteous air of perplexity; “that is the question which I am always asking. People can’t be ill, you know, Diana, without having something the matter with them; and that is what I can’t make out in Charlotte’s case. Mr. Sheldon says she wants tone; the physician who came in a carriage and pair, and ought to know what he is talking about, says there is a lack of vigour. But what does that all amount to? I’m sure I’ve wanted tone all my life. Perhaps there never was a creature so devoid of tone as I am; and the internal sinking I feel just before luncheon is something that no one but myself can realize. I dare say Lotta is not so strong as she might be; but I do not see that she can be ill, unless her illness is something definite. My poor first husband’s illness, now, was the kind of thing that any one could understand — bilious fever. The merest child knows what it is to be bilious, and the merest child knows what it is to be feverish. There can be nothing mysterious in bilious fever.”

“But, dear Mrs. Sheldon,” said Diana, gravely, “don’t you think that the weakness of constitution which rendered Charlotte’s father liable to be taken off in the prime of life by a fever is a weakness that Charlotte may possibly have inherited?”

“Good heavens, Diana!” cried Georgy, with sudden terror; “you don’t mean to say that you think my Charlotte is going to die?”

It was but one step with Mrs. Sheldon from peevish incredulity to frantic alarm; and Diana found it as difficult to tranquillise her newly-awakened fears as it had been to rouse her from absolute apathy.

Change of air — yes, of course — Charlotte must have change of air that instant. Let a cab be sent for immediately to take them to the terminus. Change of air, of course. To Newhall — to Nice — to the Isle of Wight — to Malta; Mrs. Sheldon had heard of people going to Malta. Where should they go? Would Diana advise, and send for a cab, and pack a travelling bag without an instant’s delay? The rest of the things could be sent afterwards. What did luggage matter, when Charlotte’s life was at stake?

At this point a flood of tears happily relieved poor Georgy’s excited feelings, and then common sense and Diana Paget came to the rescue.

“My dear Mrs. Sheldon,” she said, with a quiet cheerful tone that went far to reassure the excited lady, “in the first place we must, above all things, refrain from any appearance of alarm. Her illness may, after all, be only an affair of the nerves; and there is certainly no cause for immediate fear.”

Georgy was tranquillised, and agreed to take matters quietly. She promised to arrange Charlotte’s departure for Newhall, with Mr. Sheldon, that evening.

“Of course, you know, my dear, I like to consult him about everything,” she said, apologetically. “It is a duty which one owes one’s husband, you know, and a duty which, as a young woman about to marry, I cannot too much impress upon you; but in this case it is quite a matter of form: Mr. Sheldon never has objected to Charlotte’s going to Newhall, and he is not likely to object now.”

The event proved Mrs. Sheldon mistaken as to this matter. Georgy proposed the visit to Newhall that evening, while the two girls were strolling listlessly in the dusky garden, and Mr. Sheldon most decidedly rejected the proposition.

“If she wants change of air — and Dr. Doddleson recommended nothing of the kind — Newhall is not the place for her.”

“Why not, dear?”

“It is too cold. Northerly aspect — no shelter — three hundred feet above York minster.”

“But Dorothy Mercer is such a kind motherly creature; she’d delight in nursing Lotta.”

“Yes,” answered Mr. Sheldon, with a laugh, “and in quacking her. I know what those good motherly creatures are when they get an excuse for dosing some unhappy victim with their quack nostrums. If Charlotte went to Newhall, Mrs. Mercer would poi — would make her ten times worse than she is with old woman’s remedies. Besides, as I said before, the place is too cold. That is a conclusive argument, I suppose?”

He said this with some impatience of tone and manner. There was a haggard look in his face, a hurried harassed manner pervading him this evening, which had been growing upon him of late. Georgy was too slow of perception to remark this; but Diana Paget had remarked it, and had attributed the change in the stockbroker’s manner to a blending of two anxieties.

“He is anxious about money matters,” she had said to herself, “and he is anxious about Charlotte’s health. His lips, moving in whispered calculations, as he sits brooding by the fire, tell me of the first anxiety; his eyes, wandering furtively to his step-daughter’s face every now and then, tell me of the second.”

This furtive anxiety of Mr. Sheldon’s increased Diana Paget’s anxiety. This man, who had a certain amount of medical knowledge, could no doubt read the diagnostics of that strange insidious illness, which had, as yet, no name, Diana, furtively watching his furtive looks, told herself that he read of danger.

“If Charlotte wants change of air, let her go to Hastings,” he said; “that is the kind of place for an invalid. I want rest myself; and there’s such utter stagnation in the City nowadays that I can very well afford to give myself a holiday. We’ll run down to Hastings, or the immediate neighbourhood of Hastings, for a week or two.”

“O Philip, how kind and considerate you are! I am sure, as I was observing to Miss Paget only today, you —”

“Ah, by the bye, there’s Miss Paget. Is it absolutely necessary that Miss Paget should go to Hastings with us?”

“Well, dear, you see she has so kindly desired to remain with me for the quarter, so as to give me time to turn round, you know, with regard to caps and summer things, and so on — for, really, she has such taste, and does strike out such excellent ideas about turning, and dipping, and dyeing, that I don’t know what will become of me when she leaves us; and it would look so pointed to —”

“Yes; she had better go with us. But why all this fuss about Charlotte? Who put it into your head that she wants change of air?”

Mr. Sheldon evidently considered it an established fact that any idea in his wife’s head must needs have been put there by someone or other.

“Well, you see, Diana and I were talking of Lotta this afternoon, and Diana quite alarmed me.”

“How so?” asked Mr. Sheldon, with a quick frown.

“Why, she said it was evident, by the fact of poor dear Tom’s dying of a fever, that his constitution must have been originally weak. And she said that perhaps Charlotte had inherited Tom’s weak constitution — and frightened me dreadfully.”

“There is no occasion for you to be frightened; Charlotte will get on very well, I dare say, with care. But Miss Paget is a very sensible young woman, and is right in what she says. Charlotte’s constitution is not strong.”

“O Philip!” said Georgy, in a faint wailing voice.

“I dare say she will live to follow you and me to our graves,” said Mr. Sheldon, with a hard laugh. “Ah, here she is!”

Here she was, coming towards the open window near which her stepfather sat. Here she was, pale and tired, with her sauntering walk, dressed in white, and spectral in the gloaming. To the sad eyes of her mother she looked like a ghost. To the eyes of Philip Sheldon, a man not prone to poetic fancies, she looked even more ghostlike.

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