Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Confusion Worse Confounded.

A cab conveyed Mr. Sheldon swiftly to a dingy street in the City — a street which might have been called the pavement of wasted footsteps, so many an impecunious wretch tramped to and fro upon those dreary flags in vain.

The person whom Mr. Sheldon came to see was a distinguished bill-discounter, who had served him well in more than one crisis, and on whose service he fancied he could now rely.

Mr. Kaye, the bill-discounter, was delighted to see his worthy friend Mr. Sheldon. He had just come up from his family at Brighton, and had quite a little court awaiting him in an outer chamber, through which Mr. Sheldon had been ushered to the inner office.

“It’s rather early for such a visitor as you,” Mr. Kaye said, after a few commonplaces. “I have not been in town half an hour.”

“My business is too important for any consideration about hours,” answered Mr. Sheldon, “or I should not be here at all. I have just come from the deathbed of my wife’s daughter.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed the bill-discounter, looking inexpressibly shocked. Until that moment he had lived in supreme ignorance of the fact that Mr. Sheldon had a stepdaughter; but his sorrow-stricken expression of countenance might have implied that he had known and esteemed the young lady.

“Yes, it’s very sad,” said Mr. Sheldon; “and something more than sad for me. The poor girl had great expectations, and would have come into a very fine fortune if she had lived a year or two longer.”

“Ha! dear me, how very unfortunate! Poor young lady!”

“Jedd and Doddleson — you know them by repute, of course — have been attending her for the last six weeks. There will be no end of expense for me; and it has been all of no use.”

“Consumption, I suppose?”

“Well, no; not pulmonary disease. A kind of atrophy. I scarcely know what to call it. Now, look here, Kaye. This illness has thrown all my affairs into a muddle. Taken in conjunction with the depressed state of the money-market, it has been altogether an upset for me. I have been staying at home looking after this poor girl and my wife — who of course is dreadfully cut up, and that sort of thing — when I ought to have been in the City. Luckily for me, and for my wife, in whose interests I acted, I took the precaution to get her daughter’s life insured eight or nine months ago; in point of fact, immediately after finding she was heir-at-law to a considerable fortune. The policy is for five thousand pounds. I want you to give me four thousand immediately upon the strength of the document and of my stepdaughter’s will.”

“Give you four thousand!” exclaimed Mr. Kaye, with a little unctuous laugh. “Do you suppose I keep such a balance as that at my banker’s?”

“I suppose that you can give me the money if you like.”

“I might be able to get it for you.”

“Yes; that’s a kind of humbug a hundred years old. We’ve heard all about little Premium and his friend in the City, and so on, from that man who wrote plays and cut a figure in Parliament. You can give me the money on the spot if you like, Kaye; and if I didn’t want ready money very badly I shouldn’t come to you. The insurance company will give me five thousand in a month or two. I can give you my bill at two months’ date, and deposit the policy in your hands as collateral security. I might get this money from other quarters — from my bankers’, for instance; but I don’t want to let them know too much.”

Mr. Kaye deliberated. He had assisted Mr. Sheldon’s financial operations, and had profited thereby. Money advanced upon such a security must be as safe as money invested in Consols, unless there were anything doubtful in the circumstances of the policy; and that, with a man of Mr. Sheldon’s respectability, was to the last degree unlikely.

“When do you want this money?” he asked at last.

“At the beginning of next week. On the twenty-fifth at latest.”

“And this is the twentieth. Sharp work.”

“Not at all. You could give me the money this afternoon, if you pleased.”

“Well, I’ll think it over. It’s a matter in which I feel myself bound to take my solicitor’s opinion. Suppose you meet him here to-morrow at twelve o’clock? You can bring the necessary evidence to support the claim — the doctor’s and registrar’s certificate, and so on?”

“Yes,” Mr. Sheldon answered, thoughtfully; “I will bring the documentary evidence. To-morrow at twelve, then.”

Very little more was said. Mr. Sheldon left the will and the policy in the bill-discounter’s possession, and departed. Things had gone as smoothly as he could fairly expect them to go. From Mr. Kaye’s office he went to the Unitas Bank, where he had a very friendly, but not altogether satisfactory, interview with the secretary. He wanted the Unitas people to advance him money on the strength of the second policy of assurance; but his balance had been very low of late, and the secretary could not promise compliance with his desires. Those Unitas shares valued at five thousand pounds, which he had transferred to his beloved stepdaughter, had been retransferred by the young lady some months before, with a view to the more profitable investment of the money.

This money, as well as all else that Philip Sheldon could command, had gone to the same bottomless pit of unlucky speculation. From the bank the stockbroker went to his office, where he saw Frederick Orcott, to whom he announced his stepdaughter’s death with all due appearance of sorrow. He sat for an hour in his office, arranging his affairs for the following day, then sent for another cab, and drove back to Bayswater. The noonday press and noise of the City seemed strange to him, almost as they might have seemed to a man newly returned from lonely wanderings in distant wildernesses.

The blinds were down at the Lawn. His own handsome bedchamber and adjoining dressing-room faced the road, and it was at the windows of these two rooms he looked. He fancied his weak foolish wife wailing and lamenting behind those lowered blinds.

“And I shall have to endure her lamentations,” he thought, with a shudder. “I shall have no further excuse for avoiding her. But, on the other hand, I shall have the pleasure of giving Mrs. Woolper and Miss Paget notice to quit.”

He derived a grim satisfaction from this thought. Yes; insolence from those two women he would endure no longer. The time had come in which he would assert his right to be master in his own house. The game had been played against him boldly by Jedd and these people, and had been lost by them. He was the winner. He could not dismiss doctors, nurse, friend, lover. Charlotte Halliday’s death made him master of the situation.

He went into his house with the determination to assert his authority at once. Within all was very quiet. He looked into the dining-room — it was quite empty; into the study — also empty. He went slowly upstairs, composing his face into the appropriate expression. At the door of that chamber which to him should have seemed of all earthly chambers the most awful, he knocked softly.

There was no answer.

He knocked a little louder, but there was still no answer. A little louder again, and with the same result.

“Is there no one there?” he asked himself. “No one, except —?”

He opened the door, and went in, with unshaken nerves, to look upon that one quiet sleeper whom his summons could not awaken, whom his presence could not disturb.

There was no nurse or watcher by the bed. Everything was arranged with extreme neatness and precision; but it seemed to him that there were objects missing in the room, objects that had been familiar to him during the dead girl’s illness, and which were associated with her presence — the clock that had stood on the table by her bed, a stand of books, a low easy-chair, with embroidered cover worked by her mother and Diana Paget. The room looked blank and empty without these things, and Mr. Sheldon wondered what officious hand had removed them.

Yonder stood the pretty little bedstead, shrouded by closely drawn white curtains. Philip Sheldon walked slowly across the room, and drew aside one of the curtains. He had looked upon the death-sleep of Charlotte Halliday’s father, why not upon hers?

She was not there! Those closely drawn curtains shrouded only the bed on which she had slept in the tranquil slumbers of her careless girlhood. That cold lifeless form, whose rigid outline Philip Sheldon had steeled himself to see, had no place here.

He put his hand to his head, bewildered. “What does it mean?” he asked himself; “surely she died in this room!”

He went hurriedly to his wife’s room. They had taken Charlotte there, perhaps, shortly before her death. Some feverish fancy might have possessed her with the desire to be taken thither.

He opened the door and went in; but here again all was blank and empty. The room was arranged after its usual fashion; but of his wife’s presence there was no token. His sense of mystification and bewilderment grew suddenly into a sense of fear. What did it mean? What hellish fooling had he been the dupe of?

He went to Diana’s room. That, too, was empty. A trunk and a portmanteau, covered and strapped as if for removal, occupied the centre of the room.

There was no other room upon this floor. Above this floor there were only the rooms of the servants.

He went downstairs to the dining-room and rang the bell The parlour-maid came in answer to his summons.

“Where is your mistress?” he asked.

“Gone out, sir; she went at eight o’clock this morning. And O, if you please, sir, Dr. Jedd called, and said I was to give you this — with the certificate.”

The certificate! Yes, the certificate of Charlotte Halliday’s death — the certificate which he must produce to-morrow, with other evidence, for the satisfaction of the bill-discounter and his legal adviser. He stared at the girl, still possessed by the sense of bewilderment which had come upon him on seeing those empty rooms upstairs. He took the letter from her almost mechanically, and tore it open without looking at the address. The certificate dropped to the ground. He picked it up with a tremulous hand, and for some moments stood staring at it with dazzled, unseeing eyes. He could see that it was a document with dates and names written in a clerkly hand. For some moments he could see no more. And then words and names shone out of the confusion of letters that spun and whirled, like motes in the sunshine, before his dazzled eyes.

“Valentine Hawkehurst, bachelor, author, Carlyle Terrace, Edgware Road, son of Arthur Hawkehurst, journalist; Charlotte Halliday, spinster, of the Lawn, Bayswater, daughter of Thomas Halliday, farmer.”

He read no more.

It was a copy of a certificate of marriage — not a certificate of death — that had been brought to him.

“You can go,” he said to the servant hoarsely.

He had a vague consciousness that she was staring at him with curious looks, and that it was not good for him to be watched by any one just now.

“About dinner, sir, if you please?” the young woman began timidly.

“What do I know about dinner?”

“You will dine at home, sir?”

“Dine at home? Yes; Mrs. Woolper can give you your orders.”

“Mrs. Woolper has gone out, sir. She has gone for good, I believe, sir; she took her boxes. And Miss Paget’s luggage will be sent for, if you please, sir. There’s a letter, sir, that Mrs. Woolper left for you on the mantelpiece.”

“She was very good. That will do; you can go.”

The girl departed, bewildered like her fellow-servants by the strangeness of the day’s proceedings, still more bewildered by the strangeness of her master’s manner.

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