Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

“There is a Word Will Priam Turn to Stone.”

When the servant was gone, Mr. Sheldon sat down and examined the document she had given him.

Yes, it was in due form. A certified copy of the certificate of a marriage performed that morning at the church of St. Matthias-in-the-fields, Paddington, and duly witnessed by the registrar of that parish. If this document were indeed genuine, as to all appearance it was, Valentine Hawkehurst and Charlotte Halliday had been married that morning; and the will and the policy of assurance deposited with Mr. Kaye the bill-discounter were so much waste-paper.

And they had fooled him, Philip Sheldon, as easily as this! The furious rage which he felt against all these people, and, more than against them, against his own besotted folly for allowing himself to be so fooled, was a sharper agony than had ever yet rent his cruel heart. He had been a scoundrel all his life, and had felt some of the pains and penalties of his position; but to be a defeated scoundrel was a new sensation to him; and a savage impotent hate and anger against himself and the universe took possession of his mind.

He walked up and down the room for some time, abandoned wholly to the ungovernable rage that consumed him, and with no thought beyond that blind useless fury. And then there came upon him the feeling that was almost a part of his mind — the consciousness that something must be done, and promptly. Whatever his position was, he must face it. His hurried pacing to and fro came to a sudden stop, and he took the crumpled document from his packet, and examined it once more.

There seemed little doubt that it was genuine; and a visit to the church where the marriage was stated to have been performed would immediately place the matter beyond all doubt. With the copy of the certificate, he had taken from his pocket the letter that had enclosed it. He saw now that the envelope was addressed in Hawkehurst’s hand.

“Favoured by Dr. Jedd,” he had written in a corner of the envelope.

Why should Dr. Jedd “favour” Mr. Hawkehurst’s letter? Why, indeed, unless there had been a conspiracy concocted by these men against his authority and his interests?

Valentine’s letter was brief and business-like.

“SIR— With the full approbation of her mother and only near relation, my dear Charlotte has this day become my wife. The enclosed attested copy of the certificate of our marriage will afford you all particulars. I shall refrain from entering upon any explanation of my conduct; and I believe such explanation to be wholly unnecessary. You can scarcely fail to understand why I have acted in this manner, and why I congratulate myself and my dear wife on her departure from your house as on an escape from imminent peril. It will be, I fear, little satisfaction to you to hear that the doctors have pronounced your stepdaughter to be out of danger, though still in very weak health. She is now comfortably established in a temporary home, with her mother and Diana Paget; and in all probability some months must elapse before she and I can begin our new life together. To afford my darling girl the legal protection of marriage was the object of this sudden and secret union. You, of all men, will most fully comprehend how necessary such protection had become to ensure her safety.

“Should you, however, require farther enlightenment as to the motives that prompted this step, Dr. Jedd will be the fittest person to give you such information; and has expressed his willingness to answer any questions you may please to put to him.

“For the rest, I beg to assure you that the rights of Mrs. Hawkehurst in relation to the inheritance of the late John Haygarth’s wealth will be as carefully protected as those of Miss Halliday; nor will the hasty marriage of this morning hinder the execution of any deed of settlement calculated to guard her interests in the future.

“With this assurance, I remain, sir, Your obedient servant, VALENTINE HAWKEHURST. Carlyle Terrace, Edgware Road.”

Enclosed with this there was a second letter — from his wife.

He read it with a countenance that expressed mingled anger and contempt.

“Fool!” he muttered; “this is about the only service she could do me.”

The letter was long and incoherent; blotted with tears — in places completely illegible. Mr. Sheldon cared only to master the main facts contained in it, which were these:— His wife had left him for ever. Dr. Jedd and Valentine Hawkehurst had told her of something — something that affected the safety of her darling and only child — and the knowledge of which must separate her for ever from him. Of the money which she had brought to him she claimed nothing. Even her jewels, which were in his keeping, in the iron safe where he kept his papers, she did not attempt to obtain from him. Valentine would not allow her to starve. The humblest shelter, the poorest food, would suffice her in the future; but no home of his providing could she ever inhabit again.

“What I have suffered in this last few days is only known to myself and to heaven,” she wrote. “O Philip, how could you — how could you even shape the thought of such a deed as this, which you have been doing, day after day, for the last two months? I could not have believed what they have told me, if I had not seen my child fade hour by hour under your care, slowly, surely — and recover as surely directly you were excluded from any part in our care of her. If it were possible not to believe these people, I would disbelieve them, and would cling to you faithfully still; but the voices against you are too many, the proofs against you are too strong.

“Do not seek to see me. I am with my poor child, who was but just able to bear the removal from your house, and to go through the ceremony that was performed this morning. Little did I ever think my daughter would have such a wedding. What a mockery all my plans seem now! — and I had chosen the six bridesmaids, and arranged all the dresses in my own mind. To see my dear girl dressed anyhow, in her oldest bonnet, standing before the altar huddled up in a shawl, and given away by a strange doctor, who kept looking at his watch in a most disrespectful manner during the ceremony, was very bitter to me.”

Mr. Sheldon flung aside the letter with an oath. He had no time to waste upon such twaddle as this. He tore open Nancy Woolper’s letter. It was a poor honest scrawl, telling him how faithfully she had served him, how truly she had loved him in the past, and how she could henceforth serve him no more. It exhorted him, in humble ill-spelt phrases, to repentance. It might not yet be too late even for such a sinner as he had been.

He tore these two epistles into infinitesimal fragments, and flung them into the fireplace. Valentine Hawkehurst’s letter he kept. It was a document of some legal importance.

For a moment there had flashed across his brain the thought that he might punish these people for their interference with his affairs. He might bring an action against Dr. Jedd for slander, and compel the physician to prove the charges insinuated against him, or pay the penalty attendant upon an unjustifiable accusation. He was well assured that Dr. Jedd could prove very little; and a jury, if properly worked, might award him exemplary damages.

But on the other hand, the circumstantial evidence against him was very strong; and evidence which might be insufficient to prove him guilty in a trial for his life might be a sufficient defence for his enemies against an action for slander; if, indeed, the course which Dr. Jedd and Valentine Hawkehurst had taken did in itself constitute a slanderous and malicious imputation. Nor could any such action invalidate the marriage solemnized that morning; and that one fact comprised his utter ruin. Charlotte’s interests were merged in the interests of her husband. No shadow of claim upon John Haygarth’s wealth remained to him.

His ruin was complete and dire. For a long time his circumstances had been desperate — no avenue of escape open to him but the one dark way which he had trodden; and now that last road was closed against him. The day was very near at hand when his fictitious bills on shadowy companies must be dishonoured; and with the dishonour of those bills came the end of all things for him — a complete revelation of all those dishonest artifices by which he had kept his piratical bark afloat on the commercial waters.

He surveyed his position in every light, calmly and deliberately, and saw there was no hope. The whole scheme of his existence was reduced to the question of how much ready-money he could carry out of that house in his pocket, and in what direction he should betake himself after leaving it.

His first care must be to ascertain whether the marriage described in the duplicate certificate had really taken place; his next, to repossess himself of the papers left with Mr. Kaye.

Before leaving the house he went to his study, where he examined his banker’s book. Yes, it was as they had told him at the bank. He was overdrawn. Among the letters lying unopened on his writing-table he found a letter from one of the officials of the Unitas, calling his attention, politely and respectfully, to that oversight upon his part. He read the letter, and crumpled it into his pocket with an angry gesture.

“I am just about as well off now as I was twelve years ago, before Tom Halliday came to Fitzgeorge Street,” he said to himself; “and I have the advantage of being twelve years older.”

Yes, this is what it all came to, after all. He had been travelling in a circle. The discovery was humiliating. Mr. Sheldon began to think that his line of life had not been a paying one.

He opened his iron safe, and forced the lock of the jewel-case in which his wife had kept the few handsome ornaments that he had given her in the early days of their marriage, as a reward for being good — that is to say, for allowing her second husband to dispose of her first husband’s patrimony without let or hindrance. The jewels were only a few rings, a brooch, a pair of earrings, and a bracelet; but they were good of their kind, and in all worth something like two hundred pounds.

These, and the gold chronometer which he carried in his waistcoat-pocket, constituted all the worldly wealth which Mr. Sheldon could command, now that the volcanic ground upon which his commercial position had been built began to crumble beneath his feet, and the bubbling of the crater warned him of his peril. He put the trinkets into his pocket without compunction, and then went upstairs to his dressing-room, where he proceeded to pack his clothes in a capacious portmanteau, which in itself might constitute his credentials among strangers, so eminently respectable was its appearance.

In this dread crisis of his life he thought of everything that affected his own interests. To what was he going? That question was for the moment unanswerable. In every quarter of the globe there are happy hunting-grounds for the soldier of fortune. Some plan for the future would shape itself in his mind by-and-by. His wife’s desertion had left him thoroughly independent. He had no tie to restrain his movements, nothing to dread except such proceedings as might be taken against him by the holders of those bills. And such proceedings are slow, while modern locomotion is swift.

What was he leaving? That was easily answered. A labyrinth of debt and difficulty. The fine house, the handsome furniture, were held in the same bondage of the law as his household goods in Fitzgeorge Street had been. He had given a bill of sale upon everything he possessed six months before, to obtain ready-money. The final terrible resource had not been resorted to until all other means had been exhausted. Let this fact at least be recorded to his credit. He was like the lady whom the poet sings, who,

“tolerably mild, To make a wash would hardly boil a child:”

that is to say, she would try all other materials for her cosmetic preparation first; and if they failed, would at last resort, unwillingly, to the boiling of children.

No; he had nothing to lose by flight — of that fact it was easy for him to assure himself.

He went downstairs, and rang for the servant.

“I am going out,” he said, “to join my wife and her daughter, and return with them to the sea-side. There is a portmanteau upstairs in my room, ready packed. You will give it to the messenger I shall send in the course of the next day or two. At what time did Mrs. Sheldon and Miss Halliday leave this morning?”

“At eight o’clock, sir. Mr. Hawkehurst came to fetch them in a carriage. They went out by the kitchen passage and the side gate, sir, because you were asleep, Mrs. Woolper said, and was not to be disturbed.”

“At eight. Yes. And Mrs. Woolper and Miss Paget?”

“They went a’most directly after you was gone out, sir. There was two cabs to take Miss Halliday’s and Mrs. Sheldon’s things, and such like — just as there was when you came from Harold’s Hill.”

“Yes; I understand.”

He was half inclined to ask the young woman if she had heard the direction given to the drivers of these two cabs. But he refrained from doing so. What could it profit him to know where his wife and stepdaughter were to be found? Whether they were in the next street or at the antipodes could matter very little to him, except so far as the knowledge of their place of habitation might guide him in his avoidance of them. Between him and them there was a gulf wider than all the waters of the world, and to consider them was only foolish waste of time and thought. He left the house, which for the last five years of his life had been the outward and visible sign of his social status, fully conscious that he left it for ever; and he left it without a sigh. For him the word home had no tender associations, and the domestic hearth had never inspired him with any sense of comfort or pleasure with which he might not have been inspired by the luxurious fireside of a first-class coffee-room. He was a man who would have chosen to spend his existence in joint-stock hotels, if there had not been solidity of position to be acquired from the possession of a handsome house.

He went to the Paddington church. It was only five o’clock in the afternoon by the clock of that edifice. The church was closely shut, but Mr. Sheldon found the clerk, who, in consideration of a handsome donation, took him to the vestry, and there showed him the register of marriages — the last entry therein.

Yes, there was Charlotte Halliday’s signature, a little uncertain and tremulous.

“I suppose you are one of the young lady’s relations, sir,” said the clerk. “It was rather a strange affair; but the young lady’s ma was with her; and the young lady was over age, so, you see, there’s nothing to be said against it.”

Mr. Sheldon had nothing to say against the marriage. If any false statement of his, however base or cruel, could have invalidated the ceremonial, he would have spared no pains to devise such a falsehood. If he had been a citizen of the Southern States, he might have suborned witnesses to prove that there was black blood in the veins of Valentine Hawkehurst. If he had not been opposed to so strong an opponent as Dr. Jedd, he might have tried to get a commission of lunacy to declare Charlotte Halliday a madwoman, and thus invalidate her marriage. As it was, he knew that he could do nothing. He had failed. All was said in those three words.

He wasted no time at the church, but hurried on to the City, where he was just in time to catch Mr. Kaye leaving his office.

“Have you sent those papers to your solicitor?” he asked.

“No; I was just going to take them round to him. I have been thinking that it will be necessary to ascertain that there is no will of Miss Halliday’s subsequent to this; and that will be rather difficult to find out. Women never know when to leave off making wills, if they once begin making them. They have a positive rage for multiplying documents, you know. If the testator in that great codicil case had been a woman, a jury would scarcely have refused to believe in the story of half a dozen different codicils hidden away in half a dozen different holes and corners. Women like that sort of thing. Of course, I quite understand that you bring me the will in all good faith; but I foresee difficulties in raising money upon such a security.”

“You need give yourself no further trouble about the matter,” said Mr. Sheldon coolly. “I find that I can do without the money, and I’ve come to reclaim the papers.”

Mr. Kaye handed them to his client. He was not altogether pleased by this turn of affairs; for he had expected to profit considerably by Mr. Sheldon’s necessities. That gentleman honoured him with no further explanations, but put the papers in his pocket, and wished the bill-discounter good day.

And this was the last time that Philip Sheldon was ever seen in his character of a solid and respectable citizen of London. He went from the bill-discounter’s office to a pawnbroker in the City, with whom he pledged Georgy’s trinkets and his own watch for the sum of a hundred and twenty pounds. From the pawnbroker’s he went back to Bayswater for his portmanteau, and thence to the Euston Hotel, where he dined temperately in the coffee-room. After dinner he went out into the dull back streets that lurk behind Euston Square, and found an obscure little barber’s shop, where he had his whiskers shaved off, and his hyacinthine locks cropped as close as the barber’s big scissors could crop them.

The sacrifice of these hirsute adornments made an extraordinary change in this man. All the worst characteristics of his countenance came out with a new force; and the face of Mr. Sheldon, undisguised by the whiskers that had hidden the corners of his mouth, or the waving locks that had given height and breadth to his forehead, was a face that no one would be likely to trust.

From the Euston Station he departed by the night mail for Liverpool, under the cover of darkness. In that city he quietly awaited the departure of the Cunard steamer for New York, and was so fortunate as to leave England one day before that fatal date on which the first of his fictitious bills arrival at maturity.

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