Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Dr. Jedd’s Opinion.

Alone, Philip Sheldon breathed more freely. He paced the room, waiting for the appearance of the doctor; and with almost every turn he looked at the clock upon the chimneypiece.

How intolerable seemed the slow progress of the moments! How long that man Jedd was staying in the sick-room! And yet not long; it was he, Philip Sheldon, who was losing count of time. Where was Valentine? He opened the door of the room, and looked out. Yes, there was a figure on the stairs. The lover was waiting the physician’s verdict.

A door on the landing above opened, and the step of the Doctor sounded on the upper flight. Mr. Sheldon waited for Dr. Jedd’s appearance.

“I shall be glad to hear your opinion,” he said quietly; and the Doctor followed him into the study. Valentine followed the Doctor, to Mr. Sheldon’s evident surprise.

“Mr. Hawkehurst is very anxious to hear what I have to say,” said Dr. Jedd; “and I really see no objection to his hearing it.”

“If you have no objection, I can have none,” Mr. Sheldon answered. “I must confess, your course of proceeding appears to me altogether exceptional, and —”

“Yes, Mr. Sheldon; but then, you see, the case is altogether an exceptional case,” said the physician, gravely.

“You think so?”

“Decidedly. The young lady is in extreme danger. Yes, Mr. Sheldon, in extreme danger. The mistake involved in her removal to-day is a mistake which I cannot denounce too strongly. If you had wanted to kill your stepdaughter, you could scarcely have pursued a more likely course for the attainment of your object. No doubt you were actuated by the most amiable motives. I can only regret that you should have acted without competent advice.”

“I believed myself to be acting for the best,” replied Philip Sheldon, in a strange mechanical way.

He was trying to estimate the true meaning of the Doctor’s address. Was he merely expressing anger against an error of ignorance or stupidity, or was there a more fatal significance in his words?

“You overwhelm me,” the stockbroker said presently; “you positively overwhelm me by your view of my daughter’s condition. Dr. Doddleson apprehended no danger. He saw our dear girl on Sunday morning — yesterday morning,” added Mr. Sheldon, wonder-stricken to find that the interval was so brief between the time in which he had walked with Valentine and Dr. Doddleson in the garden at Harold’s Hill and the present moment. To Valentine it seemed still more wonderful. What a bridgeless gulf between yesterday morning and to-night! All his knowledge of this man Sheldon, all the horror involved in Tom Halliday’s death, had come upon him in that brief span.

“I should like to see Dr. Doddleson’s prescriptions,” said Dr. Jedd, with grave politeness.

Mr. Sheldon produced them from his pocket-book with an unshaken hand. No change of countenance, no tremulous hand, no broken voice, betrayed his apprehension. The one distinguishing mark of his manner was an absent, half-mechanical tone, as of a man whose mind is employed otherwise than in the conversation of the moment. Prompt at calculation always, he was at this crisis engaged in a kind of mental arithmetic. “The chances of defeat, so much; the chances of detection —?”

A rapid survey of his position told him what those chances were. Detection by Dr. Jedd? Yes. That had come to him already perhaps. But would any actual harm to him come of such detection?

He calculated the chances for and against this — and the result was in his favour. That Dr. Jedd should form certain opinions of Miss Halliday’s case was one thing; that he should give public utterance to those opinions was another thing.

“What can his opinion matter to me?” Mr. Sheldon asked himself; “opinion cannot touch me in a case where there is no such thing as certainty. He has seen the dilatation of the pupil — even that old fool Doddleson saw it — and has taken fright. But no jury in England would hang a man on such evidence as that; or if a jury could be found to put the rope round a man’s neck, the British public and the British press would be pretty sure to get the rope taken off again.”

“Chloric aether, spirits of ammonia — hum, ha, hum — yes,” muttered Dr. Jedd, looking at one prescription. “Quinine, yes; aqua pura,” he murmured, looking at another.

He threw them aside with a half-contemptuous gesture, and then took up a pen and began to write.

“My mode of treatment will be quite different from that adopted by Dr. Doddleson,” he said; “but I apprehend no difficulty in bringing that gentleman round to my view of the case when we meet.”

As he wrote his prescription Philip Sheldon rose and looked over his shoulder.

The form of the prescription told him that Dr. Jedd knew — all! He had suspected this from the first, and the confirmation of this suspicion did not shake him. He grew firmer, indeed; for now he knew on what ground he was standing, and what forces were arrayed against him.

“I really do not understand the basis of your treatment,” he said, still looking over the physician’s shoulder.

Dr. Jedd turned his chair with a sudden movement, and faced him.

“Am I talking to Mr. Sheldon the stockbroker, or Mr. Sheldon the surgeon-dentist?” he asked.

This was a blow. This allusion to the past was a sharper stroke than any that Philip Sheldon had before received. He looked at Valentine; from Valentine to the physician. What did it mean, this mention of the past? That blabbing fool George had talked to his friend of the days in Fitzgeorge Street, no doubt; and Valentine had blabbed Mr. Sheldon’s antecedents to the physician.

Was this what it all meant? Or did it mean more than this? Whatever it might mean, he faced the hidden danger, and met the uncertainties of his position as calmly as he met its certainties.

“I have no desire to interfere with your treatment,” he said, very quietly; “but I have some knowledge of the Pharmacopoeia, and I confess myself quite at a loss to understand your prescription.”

“Dr. Doddleson will understand it when he has heard my opinion. There is no time to be lost — Mr. Hawkehurst, will you take this to the chemist, and wait for the medicine? Miss Halliday cannot take it too soon. I shall be here to-morrow at nine o’clock. — If you wish me to see Dr. Doddleson, Mr. Sheldon, you will perhaps arrange an appointment with him for that hour.”

“It is rather an early hour.”

“No hour is too early in a case attended with so much danger. Perhaps it will be as well for me to call on Dr. Doddleson as I drive home. I shall make a point of seeing Miss Halliday twice a day. I find your housekeeper a very sensible person. She will remain in close attendance upon the sick-room; and I must beg that there is no quackery — no home-made remedies. I have given your housekeeper all directions as to treatment and diet, and she has my orders to allow no one but herself in the invalid’s room. There is a marked tendency to delirium, and quiet is indispensable.”

“I have said as much myself,” answered Mr. Sheldon.

“Mr. Hawkehurst will undertake to see to the making-up of my prescriptions,” continued Dr. Jedd, as he drew on his gloves. “He is very anxious about the young lady, and it will afford him some relief of mind to be employed in her service. No, thanks,” he said, putting aside Mr. Sheldon’s hand as that gentleman offered him his fee. “I have already received my honorarium from Mr. Hawkehurst.”

There was no more to be said. The physician wished the two men good evening, and returned to his carriage, to be driven home to dinner by way of Plantagenet Square, where he saw Dr. Doddleson, and appointed to meet him next day, much to the delight of that individual, who was proud to be engaged in a case with the great Jedd.

Valentine left the house on the heels of the Doctor. He came back in about twenty minutes with the medicine. He did not go to the principal gate, but to a little side gate, near the offices of the gothic villa — a gate to which butchers and bakers came with their wares in the morning.

“I want to see Miss Paget,” he said to the maid who answered his summons; “and I want to see her without disturbing Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon. Do you know where to find her?”

“Yes, sir; she’s in her own room. I took her a cup of tea there ten minutes ago. She’s got a headache with fretting about our poor young lady, and she won’t go down to dinner with master and missus.”

“Will you ask her to step out here and speak to me for a few minutes?”

“Won’t you come indoors and see her, sir?”

“No; I’d rather see her in the garden.”

It was still daylight here, but it was growing shadowy among the avenues in Kensington Gardens. The gate near which Valentine waited was not to be seen from the windows of dining or drawing-room.

The housemaid ran off to summon Miss Paget; and in less than five minutes Diana appeared, dressed in her hat and garden jacket.

“Will you come out into the road with me, dear?” asked Valentine. “I have something serious to say to you.”

“And I am so anxious to hear what the Doctor has said,” answered Diana, as she took Valentine’s arm.

“The road before the Lawn was very quiet at this hour of the evening, and here they were safely beyond Mr. Sheldon’s ken.

“Tell me the Doctor’s opinion, Valentine,” Diana said, eagerly. “Does he think the case very serious?”

“He does. It is more serious than you or I could have imagined, if Providence had not helped me to discover the truth.”

“What do you mean, Valentine?”

He gave her in brief the story of his day’s work. She listened to him breathlessly, but uttered no exclamation until his story was finished.

“It is most horrible,” she said at last; “but I believe it is most true. There has been so much in that man’s conduct that has mystified me; and this explains all. But what earthly motive can have prompted this hideous crime?”

“He believes that he has a beneficial interest in her death. I cannot fully understand his motive; but, rely upon it, there is a motive, and a sufficient one. And I have let that man delude me into belief in his honesty after I had been warned against him! But there is no time for regrets. Diana, I look to you to help me in saving my dear love.”

“It is not too late to save her?”

“Dr. Jedd will commit himself to no positive statement. He tells me she is in danger, but he does not refuse all hope. Now listen, my dear. In that house I have only two people to help me — Ann Woolper and yourself. Ann Woolper I hold only by a feeble bond. I think she will be true to us; but I am not sure of her. Sheldon’s influence over her is a powerful one; and God knows what concession he might extort from her. She is the ostensible guardian of Charlotte’s room; you must contrive to be the real guardian. You must keep custody over the custodian. How is your room situated in relation to Charlotte’s room?”

“The doors of the two rooms are exactly opposite.”

“Providence favours us there. Can you keep watch over Charlotte’s door from your room without making your guardianship too apparent?”

“I can.”

“Day and night?”

“Day and night.”

“God bless you, dear! Her life may be saved by your fidelity.”

“I would do as much to render her a smaller service.”

“My dear girl! And now go back to the house. Here is the medicine. You will give that into Mrs. Woolper’s hands; she has received her instructions from Dr. Jedd, and those instructions leave no room for doubt. If she permits Sheldon to tamper with the medicine or the food of her patient, she will be the wilful accomplice of a murderer. I think she may be trusted.”

“I will watch her.”

“The charge of procuring the medicine is mine. I shall come to this house many times in the course of every day; but I am bound to prepare myself for the hour in which Mr. Sheldon may forbid me his house. In that event I shall come to this gate. I suppose the servants would stand by me if you pleaded for me?”

“I am sure they would.”

“And now, dear, go; the medicine is wanted. I shall come back in a few hours to inquire if there is any change for the better. Go.”

They had returned to the gate ere this. He grasped the hand which she held out to him, and stood by the little gate watching her till she had disappeared through the door of the servants’ quarters. When the door closed, he walked slowly away. He had done all that it was possible for him to do, and now came his worst misery. There was nothing left for him but to wait the issue of events.

What was he to do? Go home to his lodgings — eat, drink, sleep? Was it possible for him to eat or to sleep while that precious life trembled in the balance? He walked slowly along the endless roads and terraces in a purposeless way. Careless people pushed against him, or he pushed against them; children brushed past him as they ran. What a noisy, busy, clattering world it seemed! And she lay dying! O, the droning, dreary organs, and the hackneyed, common tunes, how excruciating they were to him to-night!

He emerged into the high road by-and-by, in all the bustle and riot of Netting Hill. The crowded shops, the clamorous people, seemed strange to him. It was like the clamour of a foreign city. He walked on past the bustle and riot, by the quieter terraces near Holland Park, and still held on to Shepherd’s Bush, where he went into a little public-house and called for some brandy.

There was a bench on one side of the space in front of the bar, and towards this he pushed his way.

“Where are you shoving to, my young swell?” growled a sturdy cabman, indignant at the outrage inflicted by Valentine’s elbows; but in the next moment the sturdy cabman dashed suddenly forward and caught the young swell in his strong arms.

“My eye, young un!” he cried; “where do you want to go to? Here, some one bring a mug of cold water: I’m blest if he ain’t in a fit!”

Happily it was no fit, only a dead faint into which Mr. Hawkehurst had fallen. He came back to consciousness presently, after a few spoonfuls of brandy had been forced into his mouth, and looked about him with a helpless stare.

“I’m jiggered if I don’t believe he’s fainted for the want of wittles!” cried the cabman. “They keeps up till they drop, sometimes, these seedy swells — walks about, lookin’ like so many Dossays, on a hempty stomach. Here, some one bring a plate o’ cold meat, and look sharp about it. I’ll stand sam.”

Valentine looked up with a faint smile.

“And I’ll stand sam for anything you like to order, my friend,” he said, holding out his hand to the good-natured cabman. “I’ve eaten nothing since last night; but I haven’t fasted for want of money. There are worse troubles than an empty pocket — and I’m not unacquainted with that.”

“I’m sure I beg your pardon, sir,” said the man, sheepishly, very much ashamed of his benevolence; “but, you see, it ain’t the fust time I’ve seen a swell come to the pavement with a cropper, in consequence of having gone it too fast, and cleaned hisself out, in a manner of speaking.”

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