Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

Mrs. Woolper is Anxious.

Since the beginning of her illness, Charlotte Halliday had been the object and subject of many anxious thoughts in the minds of several people. That her stepfather had his anxieties about her — anxieties which he tried to hide — was obvious to the one person in the Bayswater villa who noted his looks, and tried to read the thoughts they indicated.

Mrs. Sheldon’s alarm, once fairly awakened, was not to be lulled to rest. And in Valentine Hawkehurst’s heart there was an aching pain — a dull dead load of care, which had never been lightened from the hour when he first perceived the change in his dear one’s face.

There was one other person, an inhabitant of the Bayswater villa, who watched Charlotte Halliday at this time with a care as unresting as the care of mother or stepfather, bosom friend or plighted lover. This person was Ann Woolper. Mrs. Woolper had come to the villa prepared to find in Miss Halliday a frivolous self-satisfied young person, between whom and an old broken-down woman like herself there could be no sympathy. She had expected to be contemptuously — or, at the best, indifferently — entreated by the prosperous well-placed young lady, whom Mr. Sheldon had spoken of as a good girl, as girls go; a vague species of commendation, which, to the mind of Mrs. Woolper, promised very little.

As clearly as Philip Sheldon dared express his wishes with regard to Charlotte Halliday, he had expressed them to Ann Woolper. What he would fain have said, was, “Watch my stepdaughter, and keep me well acquainted with every step she takes.” Thus much he dared not say; but by insinuating that Tom Halliday’s daughter was frivolous and reckless, and that her lover was not to be trusted, he had contrived to put Mrs. Woolper on the qui vive.

“Mr. Philip’s afraid she may go and marry this young man on the sly, before he’s got the means to support a wife,” she said to herself, as she meditated upon the meaning of her master’s injunctions; “and well he may be. There’s no knowing what young women are up to nowadays; and the more innocent and inexperienced a young woman is, the more she wants looking after. And Miss Georgy Craddock always was a poor fondy, up to naught but dressing herself fine, and streaming up and down Barlingford High Street with her old schoolfellows. Such as she ain’t fit to be trusted with a daughter; and Mr. Philip knows that. He always was a deep one. But I’m glad he looks after Missy: there’s many men, having got fast hold of th’ father’s brass, would let th’ daughter marry Old Scratch, for the sake of gettin’ rid of her.”

This is how Mrs. Woolper argued the matter. She came of a prudent race; and anything like prudence seemed to her a commendable virtue. She wished to think well of her master; for her he had been a Providence in the hour of calamity and old age. Where else could she look, if not to him? And to suspect him, or think ill of him, was to reject the one refuge offered to her distress. A magnanimous independence of spirit is not an easy virtue for the old and friendless and poor. The drowning wretch will scarcely question the soundness of the plank that sustains him upon the storm-tossed billows; nor was Mrs. Woolper inclined to question the motives of the man to whom she now owed her daily bread.

It is possible that before invoking Mrs. Woolper from the ashes of the past to take her seat by the hearthstone of the present, Mr. Sheldon may have contemplated the question of her return in all its bearings, and may have assured himself that she was his own, by a tie not easily broken — his bond-slave, fettered hand and foot by the bondage of necessity.

“What choice can she have, except the choice between my house and the workhouse?” he may naturally have asked himself; “and is it likely she will quarrel with her bread-and-butter in order to fall back upon dry bread?” Mr. Sheldon, contemplating this and all other questions from his one unchanging standpoint, may reasonably have concluded that Mrs. Woolper would do nothing opposed to her own interests; and that so long as it suited her interest to remain at the Lawn, and to serve him, she would there remain, his docile and unquestioning slave.

The influence of affection, the force of generous impulse, were qualities that did not come into Mr. Sheldon’s calculations upon this subject. His addition and subtraction, division and multiplication, were all based on one system.

That happy and unconscious art by which Charlotte Halliday made herself dear to all who knew her had a speedy effect upon the old housekeeper. The girl’s amiable consideration for her age and infirmities; the pretty affectionate familiarity with which she treated this countrywoman, who had known her father, and who could talk to her of Yorkshire and Yorkshire people, soon made their way to Nancy Woolper’s heart of hearts. For Miss Halliday to come to the housekeeper’s room with some message from her mother, and to linger for a few minutes’ chat, was a delight to Mrs. Woolper. She would have detained the bright young visitant for hours instead of minutes, if she could have found any excuse for so doing. Nor was there any treason against Mr. Sheldon in her growing attachment to his stepdaughter. Whenever Nancy spoke of that master and benefactor, she spoke with unfeigned gratitude and affection.

“I nursed your step-papa as a baby, Miss Halliday,” she said very often on these occasions. “You wouldn’t think, to look at him now, that he ever was that, would you? But he was one of the finest babies you could wish to see — tall, and strong, and with eyes that pierced one through, they were so bright and big and black. He was rather stubborn-spirited with his teething; but what baby isn’t trying at such times? I had rare work with him, I can tell you, Miss, walking him about of nights, and jogging him till there wasn’t a jog left in me, as you may say, from sleepiness. I often wonder if he thinks of this now, when I see him looking so grave and stern. But, you see, being jogged doesn’t impress the mind like having to jog; and though I can bring that time back as plain as if it was yesterday, with the very nursery I slept in at Barlingford, and the rushlight in a tall iron cage on the floor, and the shadow of the cage on the bare whitewashed walls — it’s clean gone out of his mind, I dare say.”

“I’m afraid it has, Nancy.”

“But, O, I was fond of him, Miss Halliday; and what I went through with him about his teeth made me only the fonder of him. He was the first baby I ever nursed, you see, and the last; for before Master George came to town I’d taken to the cooking, and Mrs. Sheldon hired another girl as nurse; a regular softy she was, and it isn’t her fault that Master George has got anything christian-like in the way of a back, for the way she carried that blessed child used to make my blood run cold.”

Thus would Mrs. Woolper discourse whenever she had a fair excuse for detaining Miss Halliday in her comfortable apartment. Charlotte did not perceive much interest in these reminiscences of Mr. Sheldon’s infancy, but she was much too kind to bring them abruptly to a close by any show of impatience. When she could get Nancy to talk of Barlingford and Hyley, and the people whom Charlotte herself had known as a child, the conversation was really interesting; and these recollections formed a link between the old woman and the fair young damsel.

When the change arose in Charlotte’s health and spirits, Mrs. Woolper was one of the first to perceive it. She was skilled in those old woman’s remedies which Mr. Sheldon held in such supreme contempt, and she would fain have dosed the invalid with nauseous decoctions of hops, or home-brewed quinine. Charlotte appreciated the kindness of the intent, but she rebelled against the home-brewed medicines, and pinned her faith to the more scientific and less obnoxious preparations procured from the chemist’s.

For some time Nancy made light of the girl’s ailments, though she watched her with unfailing attention.

“You ain’t a-done growing yet, miss, I’ll lay,” she said.

“But I’m more than twenty-one, Nancy. People don’t grow after they’re of age, do they?”

“I’ve known them as have, miss; I don’t say it’s common, but it has been done. And then there’s the weakness that comes after you’ve done growing. Girls of your age are apt to be faint and lollopy-like, as you may say; especially when they’re stived up in a smoky place like London. You ought to go to Hyley, miss, where you was born; that’s the place to set you up.”

The time had come when the change was no longer matter for doubt. Day by day Charlotte grew weaker and paler; day by day that bright and joyous creature, whose presence had made an atmosphere of youth and gladness even in that prim dwelling-place, receded farther into the dimness of the past; until to think of what she had been seemed like recalling the image of the dead. Nancy marked the alteration with a strange pain, so sharp, so bitter, that its sharpness and bitterness were a perpetual perplexity to her.

“If the poor dear young thing is meant to go, there’s no need for me to fret about it all day long, and wake up sudden in the night with cold water standing out upon my forehead at the thought of it. I haven’t known her six months; and if she is pretty and sweet-spoken, it’s not my place to give way at the thoughts of losing her. She’s not my own flesh and blood; and I’ve sat by to watch them go, times and often, without feeling as I do when I see the change in her day after day. Why should it seem so dreadful to me?”

Why indeed? This was a question for which Mrs. Woolper could find no answer. She knew that the pain and horror which she felt were something more than natural, but beyond this point her thoughts refused to travel. A superstitious feeling arose at this point, to usurp the office of reason, and she accounted for the strangeness of Miss Halliday’s illness as she might have done had she lived in the sixteenth century, and been liable to the suspicion of nocturnal careerings on broomsticks.

“I’m sorry Mr. Philip’s house should be unlucky to that sweet young creature,” she said to herself. “It was unlucky to the father; and now it seems as if it was going to be unlucky to the daughter. And Mr. Philip won’t be any richer for her death. Mrs. Sheldon has told me times and often that all Tom Halliday’s money went to my master when she married him, and he has doubled and trebled it by his cleverness. Miss Charlotte’s death wouldn’t bring him a sixpence.”

This was the gist of Mrs. Woolper’s meditations very often nowadays. But the strange sense of perplexity, the nameless fear, the vague horror, were not to be banished from her mind. A sense of some shapeless presence for ever at her side haunted her by day and night. What was it? What did its presence portend? It was as if a figure, shrouded from head to foot, was there, dark and terrible, at her elbow, and she would not turn to meet the horror face to face. Sometimes the phantom hand lifted a corner of the veil, and the shade said, “Look at me! See who and what I am! You have seen me before. I am here again! and this time you shall not refuse to meet me face to face! I am the shadow of the horror you suspected in the past!”

The shadowy fears which oppressed Mrs. Woolper during this period did not in any way lessen her practical usefulness. From the commencement of Charlotte’s slow decline she had shown herself attentive, and even officious, in all matters relating to the invalid. With her own hands she decanted the famous port which Georgy fetched from the particular bin in Mr. Sheldon’s carefully arranged cellar. When the physician was called in, and wrote his harmless little prescription, it was Mrs. Woolper who carried the document to the dispensing chemist, and brought back the innocent potion, which might, peradventure, effect some slight good, and was too feeble a decoction to do any harm. Charlotte duly appreciated all this kindness; but she repeatedly assured the housekeeper that her ailments were not worthy of so much care.

It was Mrs. Woolper whom Mr. Sheldon employed to get lodgings for the family, when it had been ultimately decided that a change to the seaside was the best cure for Miss Halliday.

“I am too busy to go to Hastings myself this week,” he said; “but I shall be prepared to spend a fortnight there after next Monday. What I want you to do, Nancy, is to slip down tomorrow, with a second-class return-ticket, and look about for a nice place for us. I don’t care about being in Hastings; there’s too much cockneyism in the place at this time of year. There’s a little village called Harold’s Hill, within a mile or so of St. Leonard’s — a dull, out-of-the-way place, but rustic and picturesque, and all that kind of thing — the sort of place that women like. Now, I’d rather stay at that place than at Hastings. So you can take a fly at the station, drive straight to Harold’s Hill, and secure the best lodgings you can get.”

“You think as the change of air will do Miss Halliday good?” asked Mrs. Woolper anxiously, after she had promised to do all her kind master required of her.

“Do I think it will do her good? Of course I do. Sea-air and sea-bathing will set her up in no time; there’s nothing particular the matter with her.”

“No, Mr. Philip; that’s what bothers me about the whole thing. There’s nothing particular the matter with her; and yet she pines and dwindles, and dwindles and pines, till it makes one’s heart ache to see her.”

Philip Sheldon’s face darkened, and he threw himself back in his chair with an impatient movement. If he had chosen to do so, he could have prevented that darkening of his face; but he did not consider Mrs. Woolper a person of sufficient importance to necessitate the regulation of his countenance. What was she but an ignorant, obstinate old woman, who would most probably perish in the streets if he chose to turn her out of doors? There are men who consider their clerks and retainers such very dirt, that they would continue the forging of a bill of exchange, or complete the final touches of a murder, with a junior clerk putting coals on the fire, or an errand-boy standing cap in hand on the threshold of the door. They cannot realize the fact that dirt such as this is flesh and blood, and may denounce them by-and-by in a witness-box.

Of all contingencies Mr. Sheldon least expected that this old woman could prove troublesome to him — this abject wretch, whose daily bread depended on his will. He could not imagine that there are circumstances under which such abject creatures will renounce their daily bread, and die of hunger, rather than accept the means of life from one hateful hand.

“If you want to know anything about Miss Halliday’s illness,” he said in his hardest voice, and with his hardest look, “you had better apply to Dr. Doddleson, the physician who has prescribed for her. I do not attend her, you see, and I am in no way responsible for her health. When I was attending her father you favoured me by doubting my skill, if I judged rightly as to your tone and manner on one occasion. I don’t want to be brought to book by you, Mrs. Woolper, about Miss Halliday’s altered looks or Miss Halliday’s illness; I have nothing to do with either.”

“How should I think you had, sir? Don’t be angry with me, or hard upon me, Mr. Phil. I nursed you when you was but a baby, and you’re nearer and dearer to me than any other master could be. Why, I have but to shut my eyes now, and I can feel your little hand upon my neck, as it used to lie there, so soft and dear. And then I look down at the hand on the table, strong and dark, and clenched so firm, and I ask myself, Can it be the same? For the sake of that time, Mr. Phil, don’t be hard upon me. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to serve you; there’s nothing you could do that would turn me from you. There’s no man living in this world, sir, that oughtn’t to be glad to know of one person that nothing can turn from him.”

“That’s a very fine sentiment, my good soul,” replied Mr. Sheldon coolly; “but, you see, it’s only an ex parte statement; and as the case stands there is no opportunity for the display of those fine feelings you talk about. You happen to want a home in your old age, and I happen to be able to give you a home. Under such circumstances, your own good sense will show you that all sentimental talk about standing by me, and not turning away from me, is absolute bosh.”

The old woman sighed heavily. She had offered her master a fidelity which involved the abnegation of all impulses of her own heart and mind, and he rejected her love and her service. And then, after the first dreary sense of his coldness, she felt better pleased that it should be so. The man who spoke to her in this harsh uncompromising way could have no cause to fear her. In the mind of such a man there could surely be no secret chamber within which she had, with his knowledge, almost penetrated.

“I won’t trouble you any more, sir,” she said mournfully. “I dare say I’m a foolish old woman.”

“You are, Nancy. We don’t get wiser as we grow older, you see; and when we let our tongues wag, we’re apt to talk nonsense. The quieter you keep your tongue, the better for yourself, in more ways than one. To a useful old woman about the place I’ve no objection; but a chattering old woman I will not have at any price.”

After this everything was settled in the most agreeable manner. Nancy Woolper’s journey to Hastings was fully arranged; and early the next morning she started, brisk and active, in spite of her sixty-eight years of age. She returned at night, having secured very pleasant lodgings at the village of Harold’s Hill.

“And a very sweet place it is, my dear Miss Lotta,” she said to Charlotte the next day, when she described her adventures. “The apartments are at a farmhouse overlooking the sea; and the smell of the cows under your windows, and the sea-breezes blowing across the farmyard, can’t fail to bring the colour back to your pretty cheeks, and the brightness back to your pretty eyes.”

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