Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

Non Dormit Judas.

The summer darkness closed round the Bayswater villa, but of sleep there was little for any one in that household during this sad night. Is there not, in almost every household, a memory of such days and nights — dread intervals in which the common course of life and time seems to be suspended, and all the interests of the universe hang upon the fitful breath of one dear sufferer?

Lonely were the watchers in Mr. Sheldon’s house. Georgy was in her own room, forbidden to disturb the invalid by her restless presence — now lying down, now pacing to and fro, now praying a little, now crying a little — the very ideal of helpless misery.

In the sick-room there was no one but the invalid and Ann Woolper. In the room opposite watched Diana Paget, her door ajar, her senses sharpened by anxiety, quick to hear the faintest sound of footfall on the stairs, or to feel the slightest vibration from stealthily opened door on the story below.

Alone in the study sat Philip Sheldon, at the table where he was accustomed to write — a blank sheet of paper before him, a pen held loosely in his outstretched hand, and his eyes fixed in an unseeing gaze upon the bookcase opposite — the living image of care. Now that the turmoil of the day was done, and there was silence in the house, he had set himself to face his position. It was no trifling task which he had to perform. Not one difficulty, or one set of difficulties, had he to meet and master. The armed enemies up-springing from the dragon’s teeth which he had sown were not to be set fighting amongst themselves, nor were they to be smashed by any rocks that he could hurl amongst them. They stood around him in an awful circle, and turn which way he would, he saw the same appalling figure, armed to the teeth, and invincible as death.

What had he to fear?

Detection of a past crime? No, that was a fool’s terror which shook him at the sound of Tom Halliday’s name — a child’s fear of the nursery bogie. Detection in the present was more to be dreaded. The work that he had done was, according to his belief, work that could not be proved against him. But there are crimes of which to be accused is to be condemned. Lawyers may plead, and juries may acquit; but the fiat of public opinion goes forth against the suspected wretch, and on his forehead for ever shows the dark brand of Cain.

For the criminal of almost every shade of colour, save this one dread hue, society has a sanctuary and earth a refuge. The forger may find a circle in which the signing of another man’s name, under the pressure of circumstances, is held to be a misfortune rather than an offence. The swindler has the gentlemanly brotherhood and sisterhood of Macaire for his family, and need never be lonely. The thief may dance away his jovial nights among kindred spirits, and be carried to his grave by sorrowing fellow-artists. The coiner may be jolly in his hiding-place among his chosen band of brother coiners. But for the murderer there is no such thing as human sympathy; and, when the blood of Nancy dyes his cruel hand, Bill Sykes may thank God if he has a dog that will follow him to his wretched end, for from mankind he can hope nothing.

Mr. Sheldon did not contemplate his position from any sentimental point of view; but he told himself that to be suspected of having poisoned his friend, and to be accused of poisoning, or attempting to poison, his daughter, would be ruin — ruin social and commercial, ruin complete and irretrievable.

And having faced one of these dread armed antagonists, he passed on to another shadowy enemy.

What if Charlotte recovered, and he escaped the taint of uttered suspicion — for Dr. Jedd’s private opinion he cared very little — what then?

Then the grim antagonist lifted his visor, and showed him the countenance of Commercial Disgrace.

Unless within the next few weeks he could command from eight to ten thousand pounds, his disgrace as a member of the Stock Exchange was inevitable. Charlotte’s death would give him the means of raising as much upon the policies of assurance obtained by her, and which, by the terms of her will, he would inherit. The life-insurance people might be somewhat slow to settle his claims; but he had all possible facilities for the raising of money upon any tangible security, and he could count upon immediate cash, in the event of Charlotte’s death.

But what if she should not die? What if this nameless languor, this mysterious atrophy, taken vigorously in hand by Dr. Jedd, should be vanquished, and the girl should live?

What indeed? A sharp spasm contracted the stockbroker’s hard cold face as he pictured to himself the result of failure.

He saw the crowd of busy faces in the House, and heard the low hum of many voices, and the dull sound of the big half-glass doors swinging to and fro, and the constant tread of hurrying feet. He heard the buzz of voices and the tramp of feet stop as suddenly as if that busy tide of human life had been arrested by an enchanter’s wand. The enchanter is no other than the head-waiter of the Stock Exchange, who takes his position by a stand in the midst of that great meeting-place, and removes his hat.

After that sudden silence comes a faint sound of anxious whisperings; and then again a second silence, still more profound, prevails in that assembly. Three times, with wooden hammer sounding dull against the woodwork of his stand, the waiter raps his awful rap. To some it is the call of doom. The commercial Nemesis hides her awful countenance. Slow and solemn sound those three deliberate strokes of the wooden hammer. You can hear the stertorous breathing of an apoplectic stockbroker, the short panting respiration of some eager speculator — the rest is silence. And then the voice of the waiter — proxy for the commercial Nemesis — calmly enunciates the dread decree.

“Philip Sheldon begs to inform the members of the House that he cannot comply with his bargains.”

A sudden flutter of the leaves of many note-books follows that awful announcement. Voices rise loud in united utterance of surprise or indignation. The doors swing to and fro, as hurrying members dash in and out to scan the market and ascertain how far they may be affected by this unlooked-for failure.

This was the scene which the watcher pictured to himself; and for him Fate could wear no aspect more terrible. Respectability, solvency, success — these were the idols to which he had given worship and tribute in all the days of his life. To propitiate these inexorable ones he had sacrificed all the dearest and best blessings which earth and heaven offer to mankind. Best or happiness, as other men consider these blessings, he had never known; the sense of triumph in success of the present, the feverish expectation of success in the future — these had stood to him in the place of love and hope, pleasure and idlesse, all the joys and comforts of this lower world, and all the holy dreams of purer pleasures in a world to come.

One vague brief thought of all that he had sacrificed flashed across his brain; and swift upon his track followed the thought of what he stood to lose.

Something more than his position upon the Stock Exchange was at stake. He had done desperate things in the vain hope of sustaining that position against the destroying sweep of Fortune’s turning tide. Bills were afloat which he must meet, or stand before the world a detected forger — bills drawn upon companies that were shadowy as the regions of their supposed operations. Bills amounting to five thousand pounds, drawn, upon the Honduras Mahogany Company, Limited; other bills amounting to upwards of three thousand pounds, against the Pennsylvanian Anthracite Coal Corporation, Limited. The sum he might raise on the policies of insurance would about cover these bills; and, simultaneously with their withdrawal, fresh bills might be floated, and the horse-leech cry of the brokers for contango might be satisfied until there came a reaction in the City, and the turning tide should float him into some harbour of safety. Beyond this harbour shone a splendid beacon, the dead girl’s inheritance — his, to claim by right of the same will that would give him the sum insured upon her life.

Without this immediate ready money there was no extraction from the hideous labyrinth. His position had been already too long sustained by bills of exchange. There were people in the City who wanted, in vulgar parlance, to see the colour of his money. He knew this — and knew how frail the tenure by which he held his position, and how dire the crash which would hurl him down to ruin.

After the proclamation of his inability to meet his differences — the Deluge: and, looking gloomily athwart the flood and tempest, he saw neither ark nor Ararat.

Charlotte’s death was the one chance of redemption; and to that event he looked as to a figure in a mathematical proposition. Of this girl herself, with all her wealth of beauty and goodness, of hope and love, he had scarcely any definite idea. She had so long been no more to him than an important figure in the mathematics of his life, that he had lost the power to behold her in any other light.

The hardness of his nature was something lower than absolute cruelty of heart. It was less human than the half-insane ferocity of a Nero. It was a calm indifference to the waste of human life, which, displayed upon a larger field of operation, would have made a monster cold and passionless as Sphinx or Chimaera.

“I must see Ann Woolper,” he said to himself, presently, “she will not dare to exclude me from that room.”

He listened to the striking of the Bayswater clocks. Two o’clock. Within and without the house reigned a profound silence. The room immediately over Mr. Sheldon’s study was Charlotte’s room, and here there had been for a long time no sound of life or movement.

“Asleep, I dare say,” muttered Mr. Sheldon, “invalid and nurse both.”

He exchanged his boots for slippers, which he kept in a little cupboard below the bookshelves, among old newspapers, and went softly from the room. The gas was burning dimly on the stairs and on the landing above. He opened the door of the invalid’s room softly, and went in.

Mrs. Woolper was seated beside the bed. She looked up at him with unwinking eyes.

“I thought you was abed, sir,” she said.

“No; I am too anxious to sleep.”

“I think every one is anxious, sir,” Mrs. Woolper answered, gravely.

“How is your patient?”

The pretty white curtains of the little brass Arabian bedstead were drawn.

“She is asleep, sir. She sleeps a great deal. The doctor said that was only natural.”

“She has taken her medicine, I suppose?” said Mr. Sheldon.

He glanced round the room as he asked this question, but could see no trace of medicine-bottle or glass.

“Yes, sir; she has taken it twice, the poor dear.”

“Let me look at the medicine.”

“The strange doctor said as I was to let no one touch it, sir.”

“Very likely; but that direction doesn’t apply to me.”

“He said no one, sir.”

“You are an old fool!” muttered Mr. Sheldon, savagely.

“Ah no, sir,” the housekeeper answered, with a profound sigh; “I am wiser than I was when poor Mr. Halliday died.”

This answer, and the sigh, and the look of solemn sadness which accompanied it, told him that this woman knew all. She had suspected him long ago; but against her unsupported suspicion the mere force of his character had prevailed. She was wiser now; for on this occasion suspicion was confirmed by the voice of science.

He stood for a few minutes looking at his old nurse, with a dark moody face. What could he feel except supreme indignation against this woman, who dared to oppose him when he had the best right to rely on her faithful service? She had promised him her fidelity, and at the first hint from a stranger she coolly deserted him and went over to the enemy.

“Do you mean to say that you refuse to let me look at the medicine which you have been giving to my stepdaughter?” he asked.

“I mean to say that I will obey the orders given me by the strange doctor,” the old woman answered, with a calm sadness of tone, “even if it turns you against me — you that have given me a comfortable home when there was nothing before me but the workhouse; you that I carried in my arms forty years ago. If it was anything less than her dear life that was in danger, sir, and if I hadn’t stood by her father’s deathbed, I couldn’t stand against you like this. But knowing what I do, I will stand firm as a rock between you and her; and think myself all the more truly your faithful servant because I do not fear to offend you.”

“That’s so much arrant humbug, Mrs. Woolper. I suppose you’ve made your book with Miss Halliday and Miss Halliday’s lover, and think you can serve your turn best by sticking to them and throwing me over the bridge. It’s only the way of the world. You’re genuine Yorkshire, and know how to pack your cards for winning the trick. But suppose I were to spoil your game by turning you out of doors neck and crop? What then?”

“I don’t think you’ll do that, sir.”

“Why not, pray?”

“I don’t think you dare do it, in the face of that strange doctor.”

“You don’t? And so Dr. Jedd is the master of this house, is he?”

“Yes, sir. Till that poor dear young lady is well again, if ever that day comes, I think Dr. Jedd will be the real master in this house.”

“By ——! Mrs. Woolper, you’re a cool hand, I must say!”

He could say no more. Of passionate or declamatory language he had no command. The symbols of thought that obtained in his world were of a limited and primitive range.

“You’re a cool hand,” he repeated, under his breath. And then he turned and left the room, opening and closing the door less cautiously than on his entrance.

The door of the opposite room was opened softly as he came out into the corridor, and Diana Paget stood before him, dressed as she had been in the day.

“What!” he exclaimed, impatiently, “are you up too?”

“Yes, Mr. Sheldon. I cannot sleep while Lotta is so ill.”

“Humph! I suppose you mean to get yourself on the sick-list, and give us another invalid to nurse.”

“I will not trouble you to nurse me if I should be ill.”

“Ah!” growled the stockbroker, as he went to his own room, “you are a pack of silly women altogether; and your fine friend Hawkehurst is more womanish than the silliest of you. Goodnight.”

He went into his own room, where he found his wife still awake. Her weak lamentings and bewailings were insupportable to him; and at three o’clock he went downstairs, put on his boots and a light overcoat, and went out into the dim regions of Bayswater, whence he saw the sun rise red above the eastern roofs and chimneys, and where he walked until the first clatter of hoofs and roll of wheels began to echo through the empty streets, and, with faint distant cries of sweeps and milk-women, life’s chorus recommenced.

It was seven o’clock when he went back to his house, and let himself in softly with his latchkey. He knew that he had been walking a long time, and that he had seen the sun rise; but what streets or squares he had been walking in he did not know. He crept upstairs to his dressing-room with stealthy footsteps, and made an elaborate toilet. At eight o’clock he was seated at breakfast in the hastily-arranged dining-room, with the newspapers by the side of his cup and saucer. At nine he went into the hall to receive Dr. Jedd and Dr. Doddleson, who arrived almost simultaneously. His carefully-arranged hair and whiskers, his well made unpretentious clothes, his spotless linen, would have done credit to an archbishop. Of all the cares and calculations of his long dreary night there was no trace, except a certain dulness in his eyes, and the dark half-circles below them.

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