Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

At Harold’s Hill.

The summer sun shone upon the village of Harold’s Hill when Charlotte arrived there with Mrs. Sheldon and Diana Paget. Mr. Sheldon was to follow them on the same day by a later train; and Valentine was to come two days afterwards to spend the peaceful interval between Saturday and Monday with his betrothed. He had seen the travellers depart from the London Bridge terminus, but Mr. Sheldon had been there also, and there had been no opportunity for confidential communication between the lovers.

Of all Sussex villages Harold’s Hill is perhaps the prettiest. The grey old Saxon church, the scattered farmhouses and pleasant rustic cottages, are built on the slope of a hill, and all the width of ocean lies below the rustic windows. The roses and fuchsias of the cottage gardens seem all the brighter by contrast with that broad expanse of blue. The fresh breath of the salt sea blends with the perfume of new-mown hay and all the homely odours of the farmyard. The lark sings high in the blue vault of heaven above the church, and over the blue of the sea the gull skims white in the sunshine. The fisherman and the farm labourer have their cottages side by side, nestling cosily to leeward of the hilly winding road.

This hilly winding road in the July afternoon seemed to Charlotte almost like the way to Paradise.

“It is like going to heaven, Di!” she cried, with her eyes fixed on the square tower of the old grey church. She wondered why sudden tears sprang to Diana’s eyes as she said this. Miss Paget brushed the unbidden tears away with a quick gesture of her hand, and smiled at her friend.

“Yes, dear, the village is very pretty, isn’t it?”

“It looks awfully dull!” said Mrs. Sheldon, with a shudder; “and, Diana, I declare there isn’t a single shop. Where are we to get our provisions? I told Mr. Sheldon St. Leonards would have been a better place for us.”

“O mamma, St. Leonards is the very essence of all that is tame and commonplace, compared to this darling rural village! Look, do look, at that fisherman’s cottage, with the nets hanging out to dry in the sunshine; just like a picture of Hook’s!”

“What’s the use of going on about fishermen’s cottages, Lotta?” Mrs. Sheldon demanded, peevishly. “Fishermen’s cottages won’t provide us with butcher’s meat. Where are we to get your little bit of roast mutton? Dr. Doddleson laid such a stress upon the roast mutton.”

“The sea-air will do me more good than all the mutton that ever was roasted at Eton, mamma. O, dear, is this our farmhouse?” cried Charlotte, as the vehicle drew up at a picturesque gate. “O, what a love of a house! what diamond-paned windows! what sweet white curtains! and a cow staring at me quite in the friendliest way across the gate! O, can we be so happy as to live here?”

“Diana,” cried Mrs. Sheldon, in a solemn voice, “not a single shop have we passed — not so much as a post-office! And as to haberdashery, I’m sure you might be reduced to rags in this place before you could get so much as a yard of glazed lining!”

The farmhouse was one of those ideal homesteads which, to the dweller in cities, seems fair as the sapphire-ceiled chambers of the house of Solomon. Charlotte was enraptured by the idea that this was to be her home for the next fortnight.

“I wish it could be for ever, Di,” she said, as the two girls were inspecting the rustic, dimity-draperied, lavender-and-rose-leaf-perfumed bedchambers. “Who would wish to go back to prim suburban Bayswater after this? Valentine and I could lodge here after our marriage. It is better than Wimbledon. Grand thoughts would come to him with the thunder of the stormy waves; and on calm bright days like this the rippling water would whisper pretty fancies into his ear. Why, to live here would make any one a poet. I think I could write a novel myself, if I lived here long enough.”

After this they arranged the pretty sitting-room, and placed an easy-chair by the window for Charlotte, an arm-chair opposite this for Mrs. Sheldon, and between the two a little table for the fancy work and books and flowers, and all the small necessities of feminine existence. And then — while Mrs. Sheldon prowled about the rooms, and discovered so many faults and made so many objections as to give evidence of a fine faculty for invention unsuspected in her hitherto — Charlotte and Diana explored the garden and peeped at the farmyard, where the friendly cow still stared over the white gate, just as she had stared when the fly came to a stop, as if she had not yet recovered from the astonishment created in her pastoral mind by that phenomenal circumstance. And then Charlotte was suddenly tired, and there came upon her that strange dizziness which was one of her most frequent symptoms. Diana led her immediately back to the house, and established her comfortably in her easy-chair.

“I must be very ill,” she said, plaintively; “for even the novelty of this pretty place cannot make me happy long.”

Mr. Sheldon arrived in the evening, bringing with him a supply of that simple medicine which Charlotte took three times a day. He had remembered that there was no dispensing chemist at Harold’s Hill, and that it would be necessary to send to St. Leonards for the medicine, and had therefore brought with him a double quantity of the mild tonic.

“It was very kind of you to think of it, though I really don’t believe the stuff does me any good,” said Charlotte. “Nancy Woolper used to get it for me at Bayswater. She made quite a point of fetching it from the chemist’s herself.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Mr. Sheldon. “Nancy troubled herself about your medicine, did she?”

“Yes, papa; and about me altogether. If I were her own daughter she could scarcely have seemed more anxious.”

The stockbroker made a mental note of this in the memorandum-book of his brain. Mrs. Woolper was officious, was she, and suspicious? — altogether a troublesome sort of person.

“I think a few weeks of workhouse fare would be wholesome for that old lady,” he said to himself. “There are some people who never know when they are well off.”

Saturday afternoon came in due course, after a long and dreary interval, as it seemed to Charlotte, for whom time travelled very slowly, so painful was the weariness of illness. Now and then a sudden flash of excitement brought the old brightness to her face, the old gaiety to her accents; but the brightness faded very soon, and the languor of illness was very perceptible.

Punctual to the hour at which he was expected, Mr. Hawkehurst appeared, in radiant spirits, laden with new magazines, delighted with the village, enraptured with the garden, enchanted with the sea; full of talk and animation, with all sorts of news to tell his beloved. Such and such a book was a failure, such and such a comedy was a fiasco; Jones’s novel had made a hit; Brown’s picture was the talk of the year; and Charlotte must see the picture that had been talked about, and the play that had been condemned, when she returned to town.

For an hour the lovers sat in the pretty farmhouse parlour talking together thus, the summer sea and the garden flowers before them, and a bird singing high in the calm blue heaven. Charlotte’s talk was somewhat languid, though it was perfect happiness for her to be seated thus, with her betrothed by her side; but Valentine’s gaiety of spirits never flagged; and when Mrs. Sheldon hinted to him that too long a conversation might fatigue the dear invalid, he left the parlour with a smile upon his face, and a cheery promise to return after an hour’s ramble.

He did not ramble far. He went straight to a little wooden summer-house in the remotest corner of the humble garden; and thither Diana Paget followed him. She had learned the language of his face in the time of their daily companionship, and she had seen a look as he left the house which told her of the struggle his cheerfulness had cost him.

“You must not be downhearted, Valentine,” she said, as she went into the summer-house, where he sat in a listless attitude, with his arms lying loosely folded on the rustic table.

He did not answer her.

“You don’t think her worse — much worse — do you, Valentine?”

“Worse? I have seen death in her face to-day!” he cried; and then he let his forehead fall upon his folded arms, and sobbed aloud.

Diana stood by his side watching that outburst of grief. When the passionate storm of tears was past, she comforted him as best she might. The change so visible to him was not so plain to her. He had hoped that the breath of the ocean would have magical power to restore the invalid. He had come to Harold’s Hill full of hope, and instead of the beginning of an improvement he saw the progress of decay.

“Why did not Sheldon send for the doctor,” he asked, indignantly — “the physician who has attended her? He might have telegraphed to that man.”

“Charlotte is taking Dr. Doddleson’s medicine,” said Diana, “and all his directions are most carefully obeyed.”

“What of that, if she grows worse? The doctor should see her daily, hourly, if necessary. And if he cannot cure her, another doctor should be sent for. Good heavens, Diana! are we to let her fade and sink from us before our eyes? I will go back to London at once, and bring that man Doddleson down by the night mail.”

“Your going back to London would grieve and alarm Charlotte. You can telegraph for the doctor; or, at least, Mr. Sheldon can do so. It would not do for you to interfere without his permission.”

“It would not do!” echoed Valentine, angrily. “Do you think that I am going to stand upon punctilio, or to consider what will do or will not do?”

“Above all things, you must avoid alarming Charlotte,” pleaded Diana.

“Do you think I do not know that? Do you think I did not feel that just now, when I sat by her side, talking inane rubbish about books and plays and pictures, while every stolen glance at my darling’s face was like a dagger thrust into my heart? I will not alarm her. I will consult Mr. Sheldon — will do anything, everything, to save her! To save her! O my God, has it come to that?”

He grew a little calmer presently under Diana’s influence, and went slowly back to the house. He avoided the open window by which Charlotte was sitting. He had not yet schooled himself to meet her questioning looks. He went to the room where they were to dine, a duller and darker apartment than the parlour, and here he found Mr. Sheldon reading a paper, one of the eternal records of the eternal money-market.

The stockbroker had been in and out of the house all day, now sauntering by the sea-shore, now leaning moodily, with folded arms, on the garden gate, meditative and silent as the cow that stared at Charlotte; now pacing the garden walks, with his hands in his pockets and his head bent. Diana, who in her anxiety kept a close watch upon Mr. Sheldon’s movements, had noted his restlessness, and perceived in it the sign of growing anxiety on his part. She knew that he had once called himself surgeon-dentist, and had some medical knowledge, if not so much as he took credit for possessing. He must, therefore, be better able to judge the state of Charlotte’s health than utterly ignorant observers. If he were uneasy, there must be real cause for uneasiness. It was on this account, and on this account only, that Diana watched him.

“He must love her better than I gave him credit for being able to love any one,” Miss Paget said to herself. “Dear girl! The coldest heart is touched by her sweetness.”

Mr. Sheldon looked up from his newspaper as Valentine came into the room, and saluted the visitor with a friendly nod.

“Glad to see you, Hawkehurst,” he said. “Semper fidelis, and that kind of thing; the very model of devoted lovers. Why, man alive, how glum you look!”

“I think I have reason to look glum,” answered Valentine, gravely; “I have seen Charlotte.”

“Yes? And don’t you find her improving? — gradually, of course. That constitutional languor is not shaken off in a hurry. But surely you think her improving — brightening —”

“Brightening with the light that never shone on earth or sea. God help me! I— I— am the merest child, the veriest coward, the —” He made a great effort, and stifled the sob that had well-nigh broken his voice. “Mr. Sheldon,” he continued quietly, “I believe your stepdaughter is dying.”

“Dying! Good heavens! — my dear Hawkehurst, this alarm is most — most premature. There is no cause for fear — at present, no cause — I give you my word as a medical man.”

“No cause for alarm at present? That means my darling will not be taken from me to-night, or to-morrow. I shall have a few days breathing-time. Yes, I understand. The doom is upon us. I saw the shadow of death upon her face to-day.”

“My dear Hawkehurst —”

“My dear Sheldon, for pity’s sake don’t treat me as if I were a woman or a child. Let me know my fate. If — if — this, the worst, most bitter of all calamities God’s hand — raised against me in punishment of past sins, sinned lightly and recklessly, in the days when my heart had no stake in the game of destiny — can inflict upon me; if this deadly sorrow is bearing down upon me, let me meet it like a man. Let me die with my eyes uncovered. O, my dearest, my fondest, redeeming angel of my ill-spent life! have you been only a supernal visitant, after all, shining on me for a little while, to depart when your mission of redemption is accomplished?”

“Powers above!” thought Mr. Sheldon, “what nonsense these sentimental magazine-writers can talk!”

He was in nowise melted by the lover’s anguish, though it was very real. Such a grief as this was outside the circle in which his thoughts revolved. This display of grief was unpleasant to him. It grated painfully upon his nerves, as some of poor Tom Halliday’s little speeches had done of old, when the honest-hearted Yorkshireman lay on his deathbed; and the young man’s presence and the young man’s anxiety were alike inconvenient.

“Tell me the truth, Mr. Sheldon,” Valentine said presently, with suppressed intensity. “Is there any hope for my darling, any hope?”

Mr. Sheldon considered for some moments before he replied to this question. He pursed-up his lips and bent his brows with the same air of business-like deliberation that he might have assumed while weighing the relative merits of the first and second debenture bonds of some doubtful railway company.

“You ask me a trying question, Hawkehurst,” he said at last. “If you ask me plainly whether I like the turn which Charlotte’s illness has taken within the last few weeks, I must tell you frankly, I do not. There is a persistent want of tone — a visible decay of vital power — which, I must confess, has caused me some uneasiness. You see, the fact is, there is a radical weakness of constitution — as Miss Paget, a very sensible girl and acute observer — herself has remarked, indeed a hereditary weakness; and against this medicine is sometimes unavailing. You need apprehend no neglect on my part, Hawkehurst; all that can possibly be done is being done. Dr. Doddleson’s instructions are carefully obeyed, and —”

“Is this Dr. Doddleson competent to grapple with the case?” asked Valentine; “I never heard of him as a great man.”

“That fact proves how little you know of the medical profession.”

“I know nothing of it; I have had no need for doctors in my life. And you think this Dr. Doddleson really clever?”

“His position is a sufficient answer to that question.”

“Will you let me telegraph for him — this afternoon — immediately?”

“You cannot telegraph from this place.”

“No, but from St. Leonards I can. Do you think I am afraid of a five-mile walk?”

“But why send for Dr. Doddleson? The treatment he prescribed is the treatment we are now following to the letter. To summon him down here would be the merest folly. Our poor Charlotte’s illness is, so far, free from all alarming symptoms.”

“You do not see the change in her that I can see,” cried Valentine piteously. “For mercy’s sake, Mr. Sheldon, let me have my way in this. I cannot stand by and see my dear one fading and do nothing — nothing to save her. Let me send for this man. Let me see him myself, and hear what he says. You can have no objection to his coming, since he is the man you have chosen for Charlotte’s adviser? It can only be a question of expense. Let this particular visit be my affair.”

“I can afford to pay for my stepdaughter’s medical attendance without any help from your purse, Mr. Hawkehurst,” said the stockbroker with offended pride. “There is one element in the case which you appear to ignore.”

“What is that?”

“The alarm which this summoning of a doctor from London must cause in Charlotte’s mind.”

“It need cause no alarm. She can be told that Dr. Doddleson has come to this part of the world for a Sunday’s change of air. The visit can appear to be made en passant. It will be easy to arrange that with the doctor before he sees her.”

“As you please, Mr. Hawkehurst,” the stockbroker replied coldly. “I consider such a visit to the last degree unnecessary; but if Dr. Doddleson’s coming can give you any satisfaction, by all means let him come. The expense involved in summoning him is of the smallest consideration to me. My position with regard to my wife’s daughter is one of extreme responsibility, and I am ready to perform all the obligations of that position.”

“You are very good: your conduct in relation to Charlotte and myself has been beyond all praise. It is quite possible that I am over-anxious; but there was a look in that dear face — no — I cannot forget that look; it struck terror to my heart. I will go at once to St. Leonards. I can tell Charlotte that I am obliged to telegraph to the printer about my copy. You will not object to that white lie?”

“Not at all. I think it essential that Charlotte should not be alarmed. You had better stop to dine; there will be time for the telegram after dinner.”

“I will not risk that,” answered Valentine. “I cannot eat or drink till I have done something to lessen this wretched anxiety.”

He went back to the room where Charlotte was sitting by the open window, through which there came the murmur of waves, the humming of drowsy bees, the singing of birds, all the happy voices of happy nature in a harmonious chorus.

“O God, wilt thou take her away from such a beautiful world,” he asked, “and change all the glory of earth to darkness and desolation for me?”

His heart rebelled against the idea of her death. To save her, to win her back to himself from the jaws of death, he was ready to promise anything, to do anything.

“All my days will I give to Thy service, if Thou wilt spare her to me,” in his heart he said to his God. “If Thou dost not, I will be an infidel and a pagan — the vilest and most audacious of sinners. Better to serve Lucifer than the God who could so afflict me.”

And this is where the semi-enlightened Christian betrays the weakness of his faith. While the sun shines, and the sweet gospel story reads to him like some tender Arcadian idyl, all love and promise, he is firm in his allegiance; but when the dark hour comes, he turns his face to the wall, with anger and disappointment in his heart, and will have no further commune with the God who has chastised him. His faith is the faith of the grateful leper, who, being healed, was eager to return and bless his divine benefactor. It is not the faith of Abraham or of Job, of Paul or of Stephen.

Valentine told his story about the printers and the copy for the Cheapside magazine, about which there had arisen some absurd mistake, only to be set right by a telegram.

It was not a very clear account; but Charlotte did not perceive the vagueness of the story; she thought only of the one fact, that Valentine must leave her for some hours.

“The evening will seem so long without you,” she said. “That is the worst part of my illness; the time is so long — so weary. Diana is the dearest and kindest of friends. She is always trying to amuse me, and reads to me for hours, though I know she must often be tired of reading aloud so long. But even the books I was once so fond of do not amuse me. The words seem to float indistinctly in my brain, and all sorts of strange images mix themselves up with the images of the people in the book. Di has been reading “The Bride of Lammermoor” all this morning; but the pain and weariness I feel seemed to be entangled with Lucy and Edgar somehow, and the dear book gave me no pleasure.”

“My darling, you — you are too weak to listen to Diana’s reading. It is very kind of her to try to amuse you; but — but it would be better for you to rest altogether. Any kind of mental exertion may help to retard your recovery.”

He had placed himself behind her chair, and was bending over the pillows to speak to her. Just now he felt himself unequal to the command of his countenance. He bent his head until his lips touched the soft brown hair, and kissed those loose soft tresses passionately. The thought occurred to him that a day might come when he should again kiss that soft brown hair, with a deeper passion, with a sharper pain, and when Charlotte would not know of his kisses, or pity his pain.

“O Valentine!” cried Charlotte, “you are crying; I can see your face in the glass.”

He had forgotten the glass; the little rococo mirror, with an eagle hovering over the top of the frame, which hung above the old-fashioned chiffonier.

“I am not so very ill, dear; I am not indeed,” the girl continued, turning in her chair with an effort, and clasping her lover’s hands; “you must not distress yourself like this, Valentine — dear Valentine! I shall be better by-and-by. I cannot think that I shall be taken from you.”

He had broken down altogether by this time. He buried his face in the pillows, and contrived to stifle the sobs that would come; and then, after a sharp struggle, he lifted his face, and bent over the chair once more to kiss the invalid’s pale upturned forehead.

“My dear one, you shall not, if love can guard and keep you. No, dear, I cannot believe that God will take you from me. Heaven may be your fittest habitation; but such sweet spirits as yours are sorely needed upon earth. I will be brave, dearest one; brave and hopeful in the mercy of Heaven. And now I must go and telegraph to my tiresome printer. Au revoir!”

He hurried away from the farmhouse, and started at a rattling pace along the pleasant road, with green waving corn on his left, and broad blue ocean on his right.

“I can get a fly to bring me back from St. Leonard’s” he thought; “I should only lose time by hunting for a vehicle here.”

He was at St. Leonards station within an hour after leaving the farm. He despatched the message in Mr. Sheldon’s name, and took care to make it urgent.

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