Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Phoenicians are Rising.

While Mr. Hawkehurst arranged his affairs with the clerk of St. Matthias-in-the-fields, in the parish of Marylebone, George Sheldon sat in his brother’s office writing a letter to that distinguished stockbroker. The pretext of writing a letter was the simplest pretext for being alone in his brother’s room; and to be alone in Philip Sheldon’s room was the first step in the business which George had to do.

The room was distractingly neat, and as handsomely furnished as it is possible for an office to be within the closest official limits. A Spanish mahogany desk with a cylinder cover, and innumerable drawers fitted with invisible Bramah locks, occupied the centre of the room; and four ponderous Spanish mahogany chairs, with padded backs, and seats covered with crimson morocco, were primly ranged against the wall. Upon the mantelpiece ticked a skeleton clock; above which there hung the sternest and grimmest of almanacks, on either whereof were fastened divers lists and calendars of awful character, affected by gentlemen on ‘Change.

Before penetrating to this innermost and sacred chamber, George Sheldon wasted some little time in agreeable gossip with a gentleman whom he found yawning over the Times newspaper in an outer and less richly furnished apartment. This gentleman was Philip Sheldon’s clerk, the younger son of a rich Yorkshire farmer, who had come to London with the intention of making his fortune on the Stock Exchange, and whose father had paid a considerable sum in order to obtain for this young man the privilege of reading the Times in Mr. Sheldon’s office, and picking up whatever knowledge might be obtained from the business transactions of his employer.

The career of Philip Sheldon had been watched with some interest by his fellow-townsmen of Barlingford. They had seen him leave that town with a few hundreds in his pocket, and they had heard of him twelve years afterwards as a prosperous stockbroker, with a handsome house and a handsome carriage, and the reputation of being one of the sharpest men in the City. The accounts of him that came to Barlingford were all more or less exaggerated; and the men who discussed his cleverness and his good luck were apt to forget that he owed the beginning of his fortunes to Tom Halliday’s eighteen thousand pounds. The one fact that impressed Philip Sheldon’s townsmen was the fact that a Barlingford man had made money on the Stock Exchange; and the one inference they drew therefrom was the inference that other Barlingford men might do the same.

Thus it had happened that Mr. Stephen Orcott, of Plymley Rise farm, near Barlingford, being at a loss what to do with a somewhat refractory younger son, resolved upon planting his footsteps in the path so victoriously trodden by Philip Sheldon. He wrote to Philip, asking him to receive the young man as clerk, assistant, secretary — anything, with a view to an ultimate junior partnership; and Philip consented, upon certain conditions. The sum he demanded was rather a stiff one, as it seemed to Stephen Orcott, but he opined that such a sum would not have been asked if the advantages had not been proportionately large. The bargain was therefore concluded, and Mr. Frederick Orcott came to London. He was a young man of horsey propensities, gifted with a sublime contempt for any kind of business requiring application or industry, and with a supreme belief in his own merits.

George Sheldon had known Frederick Orcott as a boy, and had been in his society some half-dozen times since his coming to London. He apprehended no difficulty in obtaining from this young gentleman any information he had the power to afford.

“How do, Orcott?” he said, with agreeable familiarity. “My brother Phil not come back yet?”

“No,” replied the other, sulkily. “There have been ever so many people here bothering me about him. Where has he gone? and when will he be back? and so on. I might as well be some d —— d footman, if I’m to sit here answering questions all day. High Wickham races are on to-day, and I wanted to see Barmaid run before I put my money on her for Goodwood. She was bred down our way, you see, and I know she’s like enough to win the cup, if she’s fit. They don’t know much about her this way, either, though she’s own sister to Boots, that won the Chester Cup last year, owing to Topham’s being swindled into letting him off with seven lbs. He ran at the York Spring, you see, for a twopenny-halfpenny plate, and the boy that rode him pulled his head half off — I saw him do it — and then he won the Chester, and brought his owners a pot of money.”

This information was not exactly what George Sheldon wanted, but he planted himself on the hearthrug in an easy attitude, with his back against the mantelpiece, and appeared much interested in Mr. Orcott’s discourse.

“Anything stirring in the City?” he asked presently.

“Stirring? No — nothing stirring but stagnation, as some fellow said in a play I saw the other night. Barlingford folks say your brother Philip has made a heap of money on the Stock Exchange; but if he has, he must have done a good deal more business before I came to him than he has done lately. I can’t see how a man is to develop into a Rothschild out of an occasional two-and-sixpence per cent on the transfer of some old woman’s savings from railway stock to consols; and that’s about the only kind of business I’ve seen much of lately. Of course Phil Sheldon has got irons of his own in the fire; for he’s an uncommonly deep card, you see, that brother of yours, and it isn’t to be expected he’ll tell me all he’s up to. I know he’s up to his eyebrows in companies, but I don’t see how he’s to make his fortune out of them, for limited liability now-a-days seems only another name for unlimited crash. However, I don’t care. It pleased my governor to get me into Sheldon’s office, and it suited my book to come to London; but if the author of my being thinks I’m going to addle my blessed brains with the decline and fall of the money market, he’s a greater fool than I took him for — and that’s saying a great deal.”

And here Mr. Frederick Orcott lapsed into admiring contemplation of his boots, which were the chefs-d’oeuvre of a sporting bootmaker; boots that were of the ring, ringy, and of the corner, cornery.

“Ah,” said George, “and Phil doesn’t tell you much of his affairs, doesn’t he? That’s rather a bad sign, I should think. Looks as if he was rather down upon his luck, eh?”

“Well, there’s no knowing, you see, with that sort of close fish. He may have made his book for a great haul, and may be keeping himself quiet till the event comes off. He may be laying on to something with all his might, you know, on safe information. But there’s one thing I know he stands to lose by.”

“What’s that?”

“The Phoenician Loan. He speculated in the bonds when they began to go down; and I’m blessed if they haven’t been dropping ever since, an eighth a day, as regular as the day comes round. He bought them for the March account, and has been paying contango since then, and holding on in hopes of a rise. I don’t know whether the purchase was a large one, but I know he’s been uncommonly savage about the drop. He bought on the strength of private information from the other side of the Channel. The Emperor was putting his own money into the Phoenician business, and it was the best game out, and so on. But he seems to have been made a fool of, for once in a way.”

“The bonds may steady themselves.”

“Yes, they may; but, on the other hand, they mayn’t. There are the Stock Exchange lists, with Phoenicians ticked off by your brother’s own pen. A steady drop, you see. ‘Let me have a telegram if there’s a sudden rise,’ said Sheldon to me the day he left London; ‘they’ll go up with rush when they do move.’ But they’ve been moving the other way ever since; and I think if he stayed away till doomsday it would be pretty much the same.”

Phoenicians are rising rapidly. Come back to town.

These were the words of the telegraphic despatch which shaped itself in George Sheldon’s brain, as his brother’s clerk revealed the secrets of his employer.

It was found — the solution of the one great question as to how Philip Sheldon was to be lured away from the bedside of his unconscious victim. Here was the bait.

“I knew I could do it; I knew I could get all I wanted to know out of this shallow-brained idiot,” he said to himself, triumphantly.

And then he told the shallow-brained idiot that he thought he would write a line to his brother; and on that pretence went into Philip’s office.

Here, use his eyes as he might, he could discover nothing; he could glean no stray scrap of information. The secrets that could be guarded by concealed Bramah locks and iron safes, with mystic words to be learned by the man who would open them, Philip Sheldon knew how to protect. Unhappily for himself, he had been compelled to confide some of his secrets to human receptacles not to be guarded by Bramah locks or mystic words.

The lawyer did not waste much time in his brother’s office. A very hasty investigation showed him there was nothing to be learned from those bare walls and that inviolable cylinder-topped desk. He scribbled a few lines of commonplace at a table by the window, sealed and addressed his note, and then departed to despatch his telegram, “Phoenicians are rising rapidly,” he wrote, and that was all. He signed the despatch Frederick Orcott.

“Phil and Orcott may settle the business between them,” he said to himself, as he forged the Yorkshireman’s name. “What I have to do is to get Phil away, and give Hawkehurst a chance of saving Tom Halliday’s daughter; and I shan’t stand upon trifles in the doing of it.”

After having despatched this telegram, George Sheldon found himself much too restless and excited for ordinary business. He, so renowned even amongst cool hands for exceptional coolness, was on this occasion thoroughly unnerved. He dropped into a City tavern, and refreshed himself with a dram. But, amidst all the bustle and clatter of a crowded bar, the face of Tom Halliday, haggard and worn with illness, was before his eyes, and the sound of Tom Halliday’s voice was in his ears. “I can’t settle to anything this afternoon,” he said to himself. “I’ll run down to Bayswater, and see whether Hawkehurst has managed matters with Nancy Woolper.”

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