Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Valentine’s Skeleton.

The idea of this visit to the Sussex village by the sea seemed delightful to every one except Gustave Lenoble, who was still in town, and who thought it a hard thing that he should be deprived of Diana’s society during an entire fortnight, for the sake of this sickly Miss Halliday.

For the rest, there was hope and gladness in the thought of this change of dwelling. Charlotte languished for fresher breezes and more rustic prospects than the breezes and prospects of Bayswater; Diana looked to the sea-air as the doctor of doctors for her fading friend; and Valentine cherished the same hope.

On Valentine Hawkehurst the burden of an unlooked-for sorrow had weighed very heavily. To see this dear girl, who was the beginning, middle, and end of all his hopes, slowly fading before his eyes, was, of all agonies that could have fallen to his lot, the sharpest and most bitter. Not Ugolino sitting silent amidst his famishing children — not Helen, when she would fain that the tempest had swept her from earth’s surface on that evil day when she was born — not Penelope, when she cried on Diana, the high-priestess of death, to release her from the weariness of her days — not Agamemnon, when the fatal edict had gone forth, and his fair young daughter looked into his face, and asked him if it was true that she was to die — not one of these typical mourners could have suffered a keener torture than that which rent this young man’s heart, as he marked the stealthy steps of the Destroyer drawing nearer and nearer the woman he loved. Of all possible calamities, this was the last he had ever contemplated. Sometimes, in moments of doubt or despondency, he had thought it possible that poverty, the advice of friends, caprice or inconstancy on the part of Charlotte herself, should sever them. But among the possible enemies to his happiness he had never counted Death. What had Death to do with so fair and happy a creature as Charlotte Halliday? she who, until some two months before this time, might have been the divine Hygieia in person — so fresh was her youthful bloom, so buoyant her step, so bright her glances. Valentine’s hardest penance was the necessity for the concealment of his anxiety. The idea that Charlotte’s illness might be — nay, must be — for the greater part an affair of the nerves was always paramount in his mind. He and Diana had talked of the subject together whenever they found an opportunity for so doing, and had comforted themselves with the assurance that the nerves alone were to blame; and they were the more inclined to think this from the conduct of Dr. Doddleson, on that physician’s visits to Miss Halliday. Mrs. Sheldon had been present on each occasion, and to Mrs. Sheldon alone had the physician given utterance to his opinion of the case. That opinion, though expressed with a certain amount of professional dignity, amounted to very little. “Our dear young friend wanted strength; and what we had to do was to give our dear young friend strength — vital power. Yes — er — um, that was the chief point. And what kind of diet might our dear young friend take now? Was it a light diet, a little roast mutton — not too much done, but not underdone? O dear, no. And a light pudding? what he would call — if he might be permitted to have his little joke — a nursery pudding.” And then the old gentleman had indulged in a senile chuckle, and patted Charlotte’s head with his fat old fingers. “And our dear young friend’s room, now, was it a large room? — good! and what was the aspect now, south? — good again! nothing better, unless, perhaps, south-west; but, of course, everyone’s rooms can’t look south-west. A little tonic draught, and gentle daily exercise in that nice garden, will set our dear young friend right again. Our temperament is nervous we are a sensitive plant, and want care.” And then the respectable septuagenarian took his fee, and shuffled off to his carriage. And this was all that Mrs. Sheldon could tell Diana, or Nancy Woolper, both of whom questioned her closely about her interview with the doctor. To Diana and to Valentine there was hope to be gathered from the very vagueness of the physician’s opinion. If there had been anything serious the matter, the medical adviser must needs have spoken more seriously. He came again and again. He found the pulse a little weaker, the patient a little more nervous, with a slight tendency to hysteria, and so on; but he still declared that there were no traces of organic disease, and he still talked of Miss Halliday’s ailments with a cheery easy-going manner that was very reassuring.

In his moments of depression Valentine pinned his faith upon Dr. Doddleson. Without organic disease, he told himself, his darling could not perish. He looked for Dr. Doddleson’s name in the Directory, and took comfort from the fact of that physician’s residence in a fashionable West End square. He took further comfort from the splendour of the doctor’s equipage, as depicted to him by Mrs. Sheldon; and from the doctor’s age and experience, as copiously described by the same lady.

“There is only one fact that I have ever reproached myself with in relation to my poor Tom,” said Georgy, who, in talking to strangers of her first husband, was apt to impress them with the idea that she was talking of a favourite cat; “and that is, the youthfulness of the doctor Mr. Sheldon employed. Of course I am well aware that Mr. Sheldon would not have consulted the young man if he had not thought him clever; but I could lay my head upon my pillow at night with a clearer conscience if poor Tom’s doctor had been an older and more experienced person. Now, that’s what I like about Dr. Doddleson. There’s a gravity — a weight — about a man of that age which inspires one with immediate confidence. I’m sure the serious manner with which he questioned me about Lotta’s diet, and the aspect of her room, was quite delightful.”

In Dr. Doddleson, under Providence, Valentine was fain to put his trust. He did not know that the worthy doctor was one of those harmless inanities who, by the aid of money and powerful connections, are sometimes forced into a position which nature never intended them to occupy. Among the real working men of that great and admirable brotherhood, the medical profession, Dr. Doddleson had no rank; but he was the pet physician of fashionable dowagers suffering from chronic laziness or periodical attacks of ill-humour. For the spleen or the vapours no one was a better adviser than Dr. Doddleson. He could afford to waste half an hour upon the asking of questions which the fair patient’s maid might as well have asked, and the suggestions of remedies which any intelligent abigail could as easily have suggested. Elderly ladies believed in him because he was pompous and ponderous, lived in an expensive neighbourhood, and drove a handsome equipage. He wore mourning-rings left him by patients who never had anything particular the matter with them, and who, dying of sheer old age, or sheer over-eating, declared with their final gasp that Dr. Doddleson had been the guardian angel of their frail lives during the last twenty years.

This was the man who, of all the medical profession resident in London, Mr. Sheldon had selected as his stepdaughter’s medical adviser in a case so beyond common experience, that a man of wide practice and keen perception was especially needed for its treatment.

Dr. Doddleson, accustomed to attribute the fancied ailments of fashionable dowagers to want of tone, and accustomed to prescribe the mildest preparations with satisfaction to his patients and profit to himself dwelt upon the same want of tone, and prescribed the same harmless remedies, in his treatment of Charlotte Halliday. When he found her no better — nay, even worse — after some weeks of this treatment, he was puzzled; and for one harmless remedy he substituted another harmless remedy, and waited another week to see what effect the second harmless remedy might have on this somewhat obstinate young person.

And this was the broken reed to which Valentine clung in the day of his trouble.

Bitter were his days and sleepless were his nights in this dark period of his existence. He went to the Bayswater villa nearly every day now. It was no longer time for etiquette or ceremony. His darling was fading day by day; and it was his right to watch the slow sad change, and, if it were possible, to keep the enemy at arm’s-length. Every day he came to spend one too brief hour with his dear love; every day he greeted her with the same fond smile, and beguiled her with the same hopeful talk. He brought her new books and flowers, and any foolish trifle which he fancied might beguile her thoughts from the contemplation of that mysterious malady which seemed beyond the reach of science and Dr. Doddleson. He sat and talked with her of the future — that future which in their secret thoughts both held to be a sweet sad fable — the hyperborean garden of their dreams. And after spending this too sweet, too bitter hour with his beloved, Mr. Hawkehurst would diplomatise in order to have a little talk with Diana as he left the house. Did Diana think his dear girl better to-day, or worse — surely not worse? He had fancied she had more colour, more of her old gaiety of manner. She had seemed a little feverish; but that might be the excitement of his visit. And so on, and so on, with sad and dreary repetition.

And then, having gone away from that house with an aching heart, the young magazine-writer went back to his lodgings, and plunged into the dashing essay or the smart pleasant story which was to constitute his monthly contribution to the Cheapside or the Charing Cross. Gaiety, movement, rollicking, Harry Lorrequer-like spirits were demanded for the Cheapside; a graceful union of brilliancy and depth was required for the Charing Cross. And, O, be sure the critics lay in wait to catch the young scribbler tripping! An anachronism here, a secondhand idea there, and the West End Wasp shrieked its war-whoop in an occasional note; or the Minerva published a letter from a correspondent in the Scilly Islands, headed “Another Literary Jack Sheppard,” to say that in his “Imperial Dictionary” he had discovered with profound indignation a whole column of words feloniously and mendaciously appropriated by the writer of such and such an article in the Cheapside. While the sunlight of hope had shone upon him, Mr. Hawkehurst had found the hardest work pleasant. Was he not working for her sake? Did not his future union with that dear girl depend upon his present industry? It had seemed to him as if she stood at his elbow while he wrote, as Pallas stood beside Achilles at the council, invisible to all but her favourite. It was that mystic presence which lent swiftness to his pen. When he was tired and depressed, the thought of Charlotte had revived his courage and vanquished his fatigue. Pleasant images crowded upon him when he thought of her. What could be easier than for him to write a love-story? He had but to create a shadowy Charlotte for his heroine, and the stream of foolish lover’s babble flowed from his pen perennial and inexhaustible. To his reading she lent a charm and a grace that made the most perfect poetry still more poetical. It was not Achilles and Helen who met on Mount Ida, but Valentine and Charlotte; it was not Paolo and Francesca who read the fatal book together, but Valentine and Charlotte, in an unregenerate and mediaeval state of mind. The mere coincidence of a name made the “Sorrows of Werter” delightful. The all-pervading presence was everywhere and in everything. His religion was not Pantheism, but Charlottism.

Now all was changed. A brooding care was with him in every moment. The mystic presence was still close to him in every hour of his lonely days and nights; but that image, which had been fair and blooming as the incarnation of youth and spring-time, was now a pale shrouded phantom which he dared not contemplate. He still wrote on — for it is marvellous how the pen will travel and the mind will project itself into the shadow-world of fancy while cankerous care gnaws the weary heart. Nay, it is perhaps at these times that the imagination is most active; for the world of shadows is a kind of refuge for the mind that dare not dwell upon realities. Who can say what dull, leaden, care may have weighed down the heart of William Shakespeare when his mind conceived that monster of a poet’s grand imaginings, Othello! There is the flavour of racking care in that mighty creation. The strong soul wantonly tortured by a sordid wretch; the noble spirit distraught, the honourable life wrecked for so poor a motive; that sense of the “something in this world amiss,” which the poet, of all other creatures, feels most keenly.

With grief and fear as his constant companions, Valentine Hawkehurst toiled on bravely, patiently. Hope had not deserted him; but between hope and fear the contest was unceasing. Sometimes hope had the best of it for a while, and the toiler comforted himself with the thought that this dark cloud would pass anon from the horizon of his life; and then he counted his gains, and found that the fruit of his labours was increasing monthly, as his name gained rank among the band of young littérateurs. The day when he might count upon that income which Mr. Sheldon demanded as his qualification for matrimony did not appear far distant. Given a certain amount of natural ability, and the industrious and indefatigable young writer may speedily emerge from obscurity, and take his place in the great army of those gallant soldiers whose only weapon is the pen. Whatever good fortune had come to Valentine Hawkehurst he had worked for with all honesty of purpose. The critics were not slow to remark that he worked at a white-hot haste, and must needs be a shallow pretender because he was laborious and indefatigable.

Before the beginning of Charlotte’s slow decline he had fancied himself the happiest of men. There were more deposit-receipts in his desk. The nest-egg, about the hatching whereof there had been such cackling and crowing some months ago, was now one of many eggs; for the hard-working scribbler had no leisure in which to be extravagant, had he been so minded. The purchase of a half-circlet of diamonds for his betrothed’s slim finger had been his only folly.

Charlotte had remonstrated with him on the impropriety of such an extravagance, and had exacted from him a promise that this wild and Monte–Christo-like course should be pursued no further; but she was very proud of her half-hoop of diamonds nevertheless, and was wont to press it tenderly to her lips before she laid it aside for the night.

“There must be no more such extravagance, sir,” she said to her lover, when he sat by her side twisting the ring round and round on her pretty finger. Alas, how loose the ring had become since it had first been placed there!

“Consider the future, Valentine,” continued the girl, hopeful of mood while her hand rested in his. “Do you suppose we can furnish our cottage at Wimbledon if we rush into such wild expenses as diamond rings? Do you know that I am saving money, Valentine? Yes, positively. Papa gives me a very good allowance for my dresses, and bonnets, and things, you know, and I used to be extravagant and spend it all. But now I have become the most miserly creature; and I have a little packet of money upstairs which you shall put in the Unitas Bank with the rest of your wealth. Diana and I have been darning, and patching, and cutting, and contriving, in the most praiseworthy manner. Even this silk has been turned. You did not think that, did you, when you admired it so?”

Mr. Hawkehurst looked at his beloved with a tender smile. The exact significance of the operation of turning, as applied to silk dresses, was somewhat beyond his comprehension; but he felt sure that to turn must be a laudable action, else why that air of pride with which Charlotte informed him of the fact?

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