Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Desperate Measures.

Fitful and feverish were the slumbers which visited Mr. Hawkehurst on that balmy summer’s night. His waking hours were anxious and unhappy; but his sleeping hours were still more painful. To sleep was to be the feverish fool of vague wild visions, in which Charlotte and Dr. Doddleson, the editor of the Cheapside, the officials of the British Museum reading-room, Diana Paget, and the Sheldons, figured amidst inextricable confusion of circumstances and places. Throughout these wretched dreams he had some consciousness of himself and the room in which he was lying, the July moon shining upon him, broad and bright, through the diamond-paned lattice. And O, what torturing visions were those in which Charlotte smiled upon him, radiant with health and happiness; and there had been no such thing as her illness, no such thing as his grief. And then came hurried dreams, in which Dr. Doddleson was knocking at the farmhouse door, with the printer of the Cheapside. And then he was a spectator in a mighty theatre, large as those Roman amphitheatres, wherein the audience seemed a mass of flies, looking down on the encounter of two other flies, and all the glory of an imperial court only a little spot of purple and gold, gleaming afar in the sunshine. To the dreamer it was no surprise that this unknown theatre of his dreams should be vast as the gladiatorial arena. And then came the deep thunderous music of innumerable bass-viols and bassoons: and some one told him it was the first night of a great tragedy. He felt the breathless hush of expectation; the solemn bass music sank deeper; dark curtains were drawn aside, with a motion slow and solemn, like the waving of mountain pines, and there appeared a measureless stage, revealing a moonlit expanse, thickly studded with the white headstones of unnumbered graves, and on the foremost of these — revealed to him by what power he knew not, since mortal sight could never have reached a point so distant — he read the name of Charlotte Halliday. He awoke with a sharp cry of pain. It was broad day, and the waves were dancing gaily in the morning sunlight. He rose and dressed himself. Sleep, such as he had known that night, was worse than the weariest waking. He went out into the garden by-and-by, and paced slowly up and down the narrow pathways, beside which box of a century’s growth rose dark and high. Pale yellow lights were in the upper windows. He wondered which of those sickly tapers flickered on the face he loved so fondly.

“It is only a year since I first saw her,” he thought: “one year! And to love her has been my ‘liberal education;’ to lose her would be my desolation and despair.”

To lose her! His thoughts approached that dread possibility, but could not realize it; not even yet.

At eight o’clock Diana came to summon him to breakfast.

“Shall I see Charlotte?” he asked.

“No; for some time past she has not come down to breakfast.”

“What kind of night has she had?”

“A very quiet night, she tells me; but I am not quite sure that she tells me the truth, she is so afraid of giving us uneasiness.”

“She tells you. But do you not sleep in her room, now that she is so ill?”

“No. I was anxious to sleep on a sofa at the foot of her bed, and proposed doing so, but Mr. Sheldon objects to my being in the room. He thinks that Charlotte is more quiet entirely alone, and that there is more air in the room with only one sleeper. Her illness is not of a kind to require attention of any sort in the night.”

“Still I should have thought it better for her to have you with her, to cheer and comfort her.

“Believe me, Valentine, I wished to be with her.”

“I am sure of that, dear,” he answered kindly.

“It was only Mr. Sheldon’s authority, as a man of some medical experience, that conquered my wish.”

“Well, I suppose he is right. And now we must go in to breakfast. Ah, the dreary regularity of these breakfasts and dinners, which go on just the same when our hearts are breaking!”

The breakfast was indeed a dreary soul-dispiriting meal. Farmhouse luxuries, in the way of new-laid eggs and home-cured bacon, abounded; but no one had any inclination for these things. Valentine remembered the homestead among the Yorkshire hills, with all the delight that he had known there; and the “sorrow’s crown of sorrow” was very bitter. Mr. Sheldon gave his Sabbath-morning meditations to the study of a Saturday-evening share-list; and Georgy plunged ever and anon into the closely printed pages of a Dissenting preacher’s biography, which she declared to be “comforting.”

Diana and Valentine sat silent and anxious; and after the faintest pretence of eating and drinking, they both left the table, to stroll drearily in the garden. The bells were ringing cheerily from the grey stone tower near at hand; but Valentine had no inclination for church on this particular morning. Were not all his thoughts prayers — humble piteous entreaties — for one priceless boon?

“Will you see the doctor when he comes, and manage matters so as not to alarm Charlotte?” he asked of Mr. Sheldon. That gentleman agreed to do so, and went out into the little front-garden to lie in wait for the great Doddleson —“Dowager Doddleson” as he was surnamed by some irreverent unbelievers.

A St. Leonards fly brought the doctor while the bells were still ringing for morning service. Mr. Sheldon received him at the gate; and explained the motive of his summons.

The doctor was full of pompous solicitude about “our sweet young patient.”

“Really one of the most interesting cases I ever had upon my hands,” the West-end physician said blandly; “as I was remarking to a very charming patient of mine — in point of fact, the amiable and accomplished Countess of Kassel–Kumberterre, only last Tuesday morning. A case so nearly resembling the Countess’s own condition as to be highly interesting to her.”

“I really ought to apologize for bringing you down,” said Mr. Sheldon, as he led the doctor into the house. “I only consented to your being sent for in order to tranquillize this young fellow Hawkehurst, who is engaged to my daughter; a rising man, I believe, in his own particular line, but rather wild and impracticable. There is really no change for the worse, absolutely none; and as we have not been here more than three days, there has been positively no opportunity for testing the effect of change and sea air, and so on.”

This seemed rather like giving the learned physician his cue. And there were those among Dr. Doddleson’s professional rivals who said that the worthy doctor was never slow to take a cue so given, not being prejudiced by any opinions of his own.

Charlotte had by this time been established in her easy-chair by the open window of the sitting-room, and here Dr. Doddleson saw her, in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon; and here Dr. Doddleson went through the usual Abracadabra of his art, and assented to the opinions advanced, with all deference, by Mr. Sheldon.

To Georgy this interview, in which Mr. Sheldon’s opinions were pompously echoed by the West-end physician, proved even more comforting than the benignant career of the Dissenting minister, who was wont to allude to that solemn passing hence of which the ancients spoke in dim suggestive phrase, as “going upstairs.”

Diana and Valentine strolled in the garden while the physician saw his patient. Dr. Doddleson’s ponderous polysyllables floated out upon the summer air like the droning of a humble-bee. It was a relief to Valentine to know that the doctor was with his patient: but he had no intention to let that gentleman depart unquestioned.

“I will take no secondhand information,” he thought; “I will hear this man’s opinion from his own lips.”

He went round to the front of the house directly the droning had ceased, and was in the way when Dr. Doddleson and Mr. Sheldon came out of the rose-hung porch.

“If you have no objection,” he said to Mr. Sheldon, “I should like to ask Dr. Doddleson a few questions.”

I have no objection,” replied the stockbroker; “but it is really altogether such an unusual thing, and I doubt if Dr. Doddleson will consent to —”

And here he cast a deprecating glance at the doctor, as who should say, “Can you permit yourself to comply with a demand go entirely unwarranted by precedent?”

Dowager Doddleson was eminently good-natured.

“And this is our sweet young friend’s fiancé,” he said; “dear me — dee-ar me!”

And then he looked at Valentine with bland pale-blue eyes that twinkled behind his gold-framed spectacles; while Valentine was taking his measure, so far as the measure of any man’s moral and intellectual force can be taken by the eyes of another man. “And this is the man who is chosen to snatch my darling from the jaws of death!” he said to himself, with burning rage in his heart, while the amiable physician repeated blandly:

“And this is our sweet young patient’s fiancé. Dee-ar me, how very interesting!”

The three men strolled round to the garden behind the house, Mr. Sheldon close at the physician’s elbow.

“For God’s sake tell me the truth, Dr. Doddleson!” said Valentine in a low hoarse voice, directly they were beyond ear-shot of the house. “I am a man, and I can steel myself to hear the worst you can tell.”

“But really, Hawkehurst, there is no occasion for this kind of thing,” interjected Philip Sheldon; “Dr. Doddleson agrees with me, that the case is one of extreme languor, and no more.”

“Unquestionably,” said the doctor in a fat voice.

“And Dr. Doddleson also coincides with me in the opinion that all we can do is to wait the reviving influence of sea-air.”

“Undoubtedly,” said the doctor, with a solemn nod.

“And is this all?” asked Valentine hopelessly.

“My dear sir, what else can I say?” said the doctor; “as my good friend Mr. Sheldon has just remarked, there is extreme languor; and as my good friend Mr. Sheldon further observes, we must await the effect of change of air. The — aw — invigorating sea-breezes, the — aw — enlivening influence of new surroundings, and — aw — so forth. Dr. Poseidon, my dear sir, is a very valuable coadjutor.”

“And you think your patient no worse, Dr. Doddleson?”

“The doctor has just left Mrs. Sheldon much comforted by his assurance that her daughter is better,” said the stockbroker.

“No, no!” exclaimed Dr. Doddleson; “no, no! there my good friend Mr. Sheldon somewhat misrepresents me. I said that our patient was not obviously worse. I did not say that our patient was better. There is a dilatation of the pupil of the eye which I don’t quite understand.”

“Mental excitement,” said Mr. Sheldon, somewhat hastily; “Charlotte is nervous to an extreme degree, and your sudden arrival was calculated to shake her nerves.”

“Undoubtedly,” rejoined the doctor; “and it is unquestionable that such a dilatation of the pupil might, under certain circumstances, be occasioned by mental excitement. I am sorry to find that our patient’s attacks of dizziness —”

“Which are purely the effect of fancy,” interjected Mr. Sheldon.

“Which are no doubt, in some measure, attributable to a hypochondriacal condition of mind,” continued the doctor in his fat voice. “I am sorry to find that this periodical dizziness has been somewhat increased of late. But here again we must look to Dr. Poseidon. Tepid sea-baths, if they can be managed, in the patient’s own room; and by-and-by a dip in the waves yonder, may do wonders.”

Valentine asked no further questions; and the physician departed in the St. Leonards fly, to turn his excursion to profitable use by calling on two or three dowagers in Warrior Square and Marina, who would doubtless be glad of an unexpected visit from their pet doctor.

“Well, Hawkehurst,” said Mr. Sheldon, when the fly had driven away, “I hope you are satisfied now?”

“Satisfied!” cried Valentine; “yes, I am satisfied that your stepdaughter is being murdered!”

“Murdered!” echoed the stockbroker, his voice thick and faint; but Valentine did not heed the change in it.

“Yes, murdered — sacrificed to the utter incompetence of that old idiot who has just left us.”

Philip Sheldon drew a long breath.

“What!” he exclaimed; “do you doubt Doddleson’s skill?”

“Do you believe in it? Do you? No; I cannot think that a man of your keen perception in all other matters — half a medical man yourself — can be the dupe of so shallow an impostor. And it is to that man’s judgment my darling’s life has been confided; and it is to that man I have looked, with hope and comfort in the thought of his power to save my treasure! Good God! what a reed on which to rely! And of all the medical men of London, this is the one you have chosen!”

“I must really protest against this rant, Hawkehurst,” said Philip Sheldon. “I hold myself responsible for the selection which I made, and will not have that selection questioned in this violent and outrageous manner by you. Your anxiety for Charlotte’s recovery may excuse a great deal, but it cannot excuse this kind of thing; and if you cannot command yourself better, I must beg you to absent yourself from my house until my stepdaughter’s recovery puts an end to all this fuss.”

“Do you believe in Dr. Doddleson’s skill?” asked Valentine doggedly. He wanted to have that question answered at any cost.

“Most decidedly I do, with the rest of the medical world. My choice of this gentleman as Charlotte’s adviser was governed by his reputation as a safe and conscientious man. His opinions are sound, trustworthy —”

“His opinions!” cried Valentine with a bitter laugh; “what in heaven’s name do you call his opinions? The only opinions I could extract from him to-day were solemn echoes of yours. And the man himself! I took the measure of him before I asked him a question; and physiology is a lie if that man is anything better than an impostor.”

“His position is the answer to that.”

“His position is no answer. He is not the first impostor who has attained position, and is not likely to be the last. You must forgive me, if I speak with some violence, Mr. Sheldon. I feel too deeply to remember the conventionalities of my position. The dear girl yonder, hovering between life and death, is my promised wife. As your stepdaughter she is very dear to you, no doubt, and you are of course anxious to do your duty as her stepfather. But she is all the world to me — my one sweet memory of the past, my sole hope for the future. I will not trust her to the care of Dr. Doddleson; I claim the right to choose another physician — as that man’s coadjutor, if you please. I have no wish to offend the doctor of your choice.”

“This is all sheer nonsense,” said Mr. Sheldon.

“It is nonsense about which you must let me have my own way,” replied Valentine, resolutely. “My stake on this hazard is too heavy for careless play. I shall go back to town at once and seek out a physician.”

“Do you know any great man?”

“No; but I will find one.”

“If you go today, you will inevitably alarm Charlotte.”

“True; and disappoint her into the bargain. I suppose in such a case tomorrow will do as well as to-day?”

“Decidedly.”

“I can go by the first train, and return with my doctor in the afternoon. Yes, I will go tomorrow.”

Mr. Sheldon breathed more freely. There are cases in which to obtain time for thought seems the one essential thing — cases in which a reprieve is as good as a pardon.

“Pray let us consider this business quietly,” he said, with a faint sigh of weariness. “There is no necessity for all this excitement. You can go to town to-morrow, by the first train, as you say. If it is any satisfaction to you to bring down a physician, bring one; bring half a dozen, if you please. But, for the last time, I most emphatically assure you that anything that tends to alarm Charlotte is the one thing of all others most sure to hinder her recovery.”

“I know that. She shall not be frightened; but she shall have a better adviser than Dr. Doddleson. And now I will go back to the house. She will wonder at my absence.”

He went to the bright, airy room where Charlotte was seated, her head lying back upon the pillows, her face paler, her glances and tones more languid than on the previous day as it seemed to Valentine. Diana was near her, solicitous and tender; and on the other side of the window sat Mrs. Sheldon, with her Dissenting minister’s biography open on her lap.

All through that day Valentine Hawkehurst played his part bravely: it was a hard and bitter part to play — the part of hope and confidence while unutterable fears were rending his heart. He read the epistle and gospel of the day to his betrothed; and afterwards some chapters of St. John — those profoundly mournful chapters that foreshadow the agonising close. It was Charlotte who selected these chapters, and her lover could find no excuse for disputing her choice.

It was the first time that they had shared any religious exercise, and the hearts of both were deeply touched by the thought of this.

“How frivolous all our talk must have been, Valentine, when it seems so new to us to be reading these beautiful words together?”

Her head was half supported by the pillows, half resting on her lover’s shoulder, and her eyes travelled along the lines as he read, in a calm low voice, which was unbroken to the end.

Early in the evening Charlotte retired, worn out by the day’s physical weariness, in spite of Valentine’s fond companionship. Later, when it was dusk, Diana came downstairs with the news that the invalid was sleeping quietly. Mrs. Sheldon was dozing in her arm-chair, the Dissenting minister having fallen to the ground; and Valentine was leaning, with folded arms, on the broad window-sill looking out into the shadowy garden. Mr. Sheldon had given them very little of his society during that day. He went out immediately after his interview with Valentine, on a sea-coast ramble, which lasted till dinner-time. After dinner he remained in the room where they had dined. He was there now. The light of the candles, by which he read his papers, shone out upon the dusk.

“Will you come for a stroll with me, Diana?” asked Valentine.

Miss Paget assented promptly; and they went out into the garden, beyond the reach of Mr. Sheldon’s ears, had that gentleman been disposed to place himself at his open window in the character of a listener.

“I want to tell you my plans about Charlotte,” Valentine began. “I am going to London to-morrow to search for a greater physician than Dr. Doddleson. I shall find my man in an hour or so; and, if possible, shall return with him in the evening. There is no apparent reason to anticipate any sudden change for the worse; but if such a change should take place, I rely on you, dear, to give me the earliest tidings of it. I suppose you can get a fly here, if you want one?”

“I can get to St. Leonards, if that is what you mean,” Miss Paget answered promptly. “I dare say there is a fly to be had; if not, I can walk there. I am not afraid of a few miles’ walk, by day or night. If there should be a change, Valentine — which God forbid — I will telegraph the tidings of it to you.”

“You had better address the message to me at Rancy’s, Covent Garden; the house where the Ragamuffins have their rooms, you know, dear. That is a more central point than my lodgings, and nearer the terminus. I will call there two or three times in the course of the day.”

“You may trust my vigilance, Valentine. I did not think it was in my nature to love any one as I love Charlotte Halliday.”

Gustave Lenoble’s letters lying unanswered in her desk asserted the all-absorbing nature of Diana’s affection for the fading girl. She was fading. The consciousness of this made all other love sacrilege, as it seemed to Diana. She sat up late that night to answer Gustave’s last letter of piteous complaint.

“She had forgotten him. Ah, that he had been foolish — insensate — to confide himself in her love! Was he not old and grey in comparison to such youth — such freshness — a venerable dotard of thirty-five? What had he with dreams of love and marriage? Fie, then. He humiliated himself in the dust beneath her mignon feet. He invited her to crush him with those cruel feet. But if she did not answer his letters, he would come to Harold’s Hill. He would mock himself of that ferocious Sheldon — of a battalion of Sheldons still more ferocious — of all the world, at last — to be near her.”

“Believe me, dear Gustave, I do not forget,” wrote Diana, in reply to these serio-comic remonstrances. “I was truly sorry to leave town, on your account and on my father’s. But my dear adopted sister is paramount with me now. You will not grudge her my care or my love, for she may not long be with me to claim them. There is nothing but sorrow here in all our hearts; sorrow, and an ever-present dread.”

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