Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Counting the Cost.

For four days and four nights there were fear and watching in Mr. Sheldon’s house; and in all that time the master never quitted it, except stealthily, in the dead of the night, or at early daybreak, to roam in a purposeless manner he knew not where. The doctors came and went — Dr. Doddleson once a day, Dr. Jedd two or three times a day — and every one in villas adjoining and villas opposite, and even in villas round the corner, knew that the stockbroker’s stepdaughter lay sick unto death; for the white horses of Dr. Jedd’s landau were as the pale horse of the Pale Rider himself, and where they came was danger or death. Ah, thank God! to some they have brought hope and blessing; not always the dread answer, “You have called me in vain.”

Valentine Hawkehurst came many times in the day, but between him and Mr. Sheldon there could be no safe meeting; and the lover came quietly to the little gate, where a kindly housemaid gave him a little note from Diana Paget. Miss Paget wrote half a dozen little notes of this kind in the course of every day, but she never left her post in the room opposite the sick-chamber. She complained of headache, or of some vague illness which prevented her taking her meals in the dining-room, and Mr. Sheldon was fain to be satisfied with this explanation of her conduct.

She was on guard; and the wretched master of the house knew that she was on guard, and that if Ann Woolper could be bought over, or frightened into compliance with his wishes, this girl would still remain, faithful as watchdog, by the door of her friend and companion. He asked himself whether by violent or diplomatic process, he could rid himself of this second watcher; and the answer was in the negative. The circle around him was a circle not to be broken.

His wife, as yet, had been told nothing of the suspicions that reigned in the breasts of other people. He knew this; for in his wife’s face there was no token of that dark knowledge, and she, of all people, would be least skilled to deceive his scrutinizing eyes. Nor had the younger servants of his household any share in the hideous suspicion. He had watched the countenance of the maid who waited on him, and had convinced himself of this.

It was something to know that even these were not yet leagued against him; but he could not tell at what moment they too might be sworn into that secret society which was growing up against him in his own house. Power to carry out his own schemes in the face of these people he felt that he had none. Upon the dark road which he had travelled until of late without let or hindrance, there had arisen, all at once, an insurmountable barrier, with the fatal inscription, Here there is no Thoroughfare.

Beyond this barrier he could not pass. Sudden as the dread arrest of Lot’s wife was the mandate which had checked his progress. He was brought to a dead stop; and there was nothing for him to do but to wait the issue of Fate. He stood, defiant, unabashed, face to face with the figure of Nemesis, and calmly awaited the lifting of the veil.

He hoped that Charlotte Halliday would die. If by her death he could tide over his difficulties and drift into smooth water, it would be but a very small thing to him that Dr. Jedd, and Dr. Doddleson enlightened by his colleague, and Valentine Hawkehurst, and Diana Paget, and a stupid pig-headed old Yorkshirewoman, should carry in their minds for the remainder of their lives the suspicion that by his means that fair young life had been brought to its early close.

What would it amount to in the future of his own existence? Prudential considerations would induce these people to lock the secret of this suspicion in their own breasts. Dr. Jedd would bow to him somewhat coldly, perhaps, if they met in the streets of London, or possibly might refuse to make any return to his passing salutation; but the cut direct from Dr. Jedd would not cast a shadow over his commercial career, or even weaken his social position. If, by the loud folly of Hawkehurst, some evil rumour about him should float as far eastward as the Stock Exchange, who would be found to give credence to the dark report? Men would shrug their shoulders and shake their heads incredulously; and one of these wise men of the east would remark that, “A fellow in Sheldon’s position doesn’t do that kind of thing, you know;” while another would say, “I dined with him at Greenwich last summer, and a remarkably good dinner he gave us. Dawkins, the great shipbuilder, and M’Pherson, of M’Pherson and Flinders, the Glasgow merchants, were there. Very jolly affair, I assure you. Deuced gentlemanly fellow, Phil Sheldon.” And so the matter would end.

Would there be an inquest in the event of his stepdaughter’s death? Well, no. Jedd knew that in such a case all post-mortem inquiry must end in confusion and perplexity, statement and counter-statement from medical witnesses, who would contradict one another persistently in the support of their pet theories, and who would regard the investigation as a very convenient opportunity for ventilating their own opinions and airing their own importance. A considerable number of the canine race would be slaughtered, perhaps, in the process of dilettante experiments; the broad principles of chemical science would be discussed from every point of view, in innumerable letters published in the Zeus, and the Diurnal Hermes; and the fact that an amiable and innocent young woman had been foully murdered would be swept out of the minds of mankind before a whirlwind of technical debate. Jedd was the last man to stake his reputation upon such a hazard. No: Mr. Sheldon knew that he had played a cautious game; and if he should ultimately lose the stake for which he had ventured, it would be because he had been just a little too cautious.

“These things are generally done too quickly,” he said to himself. “My mistake has been to make matters too slow.”

Come what might, of after-consequences to himself from Charlotte Halliday’s illness or death he had no apprehension.

Thus it was that he met Dr. Jedd day after day with a face as calm as the stony countenance of that distinguished physician himself. Such anxiety as an affectionate stepfather should feel during the peril of his stepdaughter Mr. Sheldon took care to express. Greater anxiety than this by no look or gesture did he betray. He knew that he was watched; and that the people about him were inimical to himself and to his interests; and he was never off his guard.

It had been necessary for him to come to London in order to be within easy reach of that troubled sea, the money-market. But perilous though the voyage of his bark across that tempestuous ocean was, he could not guide the helm in person. He was obliged to confide matters to the care of Mr. Frederick Orcott, whom he harassed with telegraphic despatches at all hours of the day, and who at this period seemed to spend his life between the stockbroker’s office and Bayswater.

It seemed as if Mr. Sheldon meant to hold his ground in that house until the issue of events was determined. Valentine Hawkehurst and George Sheldon met at the solicitor’s offices, and there was a long and serious consultation between them.

“One thing seems pretty clear,” said George, conclusively, “and that is, that my brother Phil isn’t to be got off the premises except by some very deep move. The question is, what move can be deep enough to trap such a man as he? He’s a man who knows the inside of your mind better than you do yourself; and can reckon you up as easily as the simplest sum in arithmetic.”

The two men talked together very seriously for some time after this, and on the same day Valentine lay in wait for Dr. Jedd as he left Philip Sheldon’s house, and was driven back to town in that gentleman’s carriage. On the road there was much serious talk between Miss Halliday’s physician and Miss Halliday’s lover. Valentine was still very grave and very anxious when he took his leave of Dr. Jedd; but he was more hopeful than he had been for the last few days.

On the same evening Gustave Lenoble received a brief epistle from his plighted wife.

“MY DEAR GUSTAVE— I regret to find from your letter that the doctors consider my father weaker than when I was last at Knightsbridge; but, even knowing this, I cannot come to him just yet. The duty which detains me here is even more sacred than his claim upon my care. And I know your goodness to him, and feel that in you he has a better friend and comforter than I could be to him. I thank you, dear, for your kindness to this poor broken-down wanderer even more than for your generous devotion to me. And now I am going to ask you a favour. It is, that you will afford Mr. Hawkehurst, the person who will give you this letter, the help of your friendship and counsel in very difficult and critical circumstances, which he will explain to you. I have spoken to you of him very little, though his devotion to my dear adopted sister, Charlotte Halliday, brings him very near to me. Her long, and of late dangerous, illness has been a bitter time of trial to him, even more than to me; but the trial has proved him true as steel. I think your counsel may be of some service to him just now, and I am sure your friendship will help to support him in a period of acute anxiety.

“Do not ask to see me, dear Gustave. I cannot leave this house while Charlotte is in danger; but if it please God to remove that danger, I shall then be free to go where I please, and my future life shall be at your disposal. Do not think me cold or ungrateful; I am only faithful to the first friend I ever knew. — Yours always, with all affection,

“DIANA PAGET.”

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