The early fast train by which Valentine Hawkehurst travelled brought him into town at a quarter past nine o’clock. During the journey he had been meditating on the way in which he should set to work when he arrived in London. No ignorance could be more profound than his on all points relating to the medical profession. Dimly floating in his brain there were the names of doctors whom he had heard of as celebrated men — one for the chest, another for the liver, another for the skin, another for the eyes; but, among all these famous men, who was the man best able to cope with the mysterious wasting away, the gradual, almost imperceptible ebbing of that one dear life which Valentine wanted to save?
This question must be answered by some one; and Valentine was sorely puzzled as to who that some one must be.
The struggling young writer had but few friends. He had, indeed, worked too hard for the possibility of friendship. The cultivation of the severer Muses is rarely compatible with a wide circle of acquaintances; and Valentine, if not a cultivator of these severe ones, had been a hard and honest worker during the later reputable portion of his life. His friendships of the previous portion had been the friendships of the railway-carriage and the smoking room, the café and the gaming-table. He could count upon his fingers the people to whom he could apply for counsel in this crisis of his life. There was George Sheldon, a man for whom he entertained a most profound contempt; Captain Paget, a man who might or might not be able to give him good advice, but who would inevitably sacrifice Charlotte Halliday’s welfare to self-interest, if self-interest could be served by the recommendation of an incompetent adviser.
“He would send me to some idiot of the Doddleson class, if he thought he could get a guinea or a dinner by the recommendation,” Valentine said to himself, and decided that to Horatio Paget he would not apply. There were his employers, the editors and proprietors of the magazines for which he worked; all busy over-burdened workers in the great mill, spending the sunny hours of their lives between a pile of unanswered letters and a waste-paper basket; men who would tell him to look in the Post-office Directory, without lifting their eyes from the paper over which their restless pens were speeding.
No. Amongst these was not the counsellor whom Valentine Hawkehurst needed in this dire hour of difficulty.
“There are some very good fellows among the Ragamuffins,” he said to himself, as he thought of the only literary and artistic club of which he was a member; “fellows who stuck by me when I was down in the world, and who would do anything to serve me now they know me for an honest worker. But, unfortunately, farce writers and burlesque writers, and young meerschaum-smoking painters, are not the sort of men to give good advice: I want the advice of a medical man.”
Mr. Hawkehurst almost bounded from his seat as he said this. The advice of a medical man? Yes; and was there not a medical man among the Ragamuffins? and something more than a medical man? That very doctor, who of all other men upon this earth could best give him counsel — the doctor who had stood by the deathbed of Charlotte Halliday’s father.
He remembered the conversation that had occurred at Bayswater, on the evening of Christmas day, upon this very subject. He remembered how from the talk about ghosts they had drifted somehow into talking of Tom Halliday; whereupon Mrs. Sheldon had been melted to tears, and had gone on to praise Philip Sheldon’s conduct to his dying friend, and to speak of Mr. Burkham, the strange doctor, called in too late to save, or, it might have been, incapable to save.
“Sheldon seems to have a genius for calling in incapable doctors,” he thought bitterly.
Incapable as Mr. Burkham might have been for the exigencies of this particular case, he would at least be able to inform Valentine who among the medical celebrities of London would be best adapted to advise in such an illness as Charlotte Halliday’s.
“And if, as Diana has sometimes suggested, there is any hereditary disease, this Burkham may be able to throw some light upon the nature of it,” thought Valentine.
He went straight from the railway terminus to the quiet tavern upon the first floor of which the Ragamuffins had their place of rendezvous. It was not an hour for the encounter of many Ragamuffins. A meek-looking young man, of clerical aspect, who had adapted a Palais Royal farce, and had awoke in the morning to find himself famous, and eligible for admission amongst the Ragamuffins, was sipping his sherry and soda-water while he skimmed the morning papers. Him Mr. Hawkehurst saluted with an absent nod, and went in search of the steward of the club, from whom he obtained Mr. Burkham’s address, with some little trouble in the way of hunting through old and obscure documents.
It was the old address; the old dingy, comfortable, muffin-bell-haunted street in which Mr. Burkham had lived ten years before, when he was summoned to attend the sick Yorkshire farmer.
Mr. Burkham’s career had not been brightened by the sunshine of prosperity. He had managed to live somehow, and to find food and raiment for his young wife, who, when she considered the lilies of the field, may have envied their shining robes of pure whiteness, so dingy and dark was her own apparel. When children came, the young surgeon contrived to find food and raiment for them also, but not without daily and hourly struggles with that grim wolf who haunts the thresholds of so many dwellings, and will not be thrust from the door. Sometimes a little glimmering ray of light illumined Mr. Burkham’s pathway, and he was humbly grateful to Providence for the brief glimpse of sunshine. But for a meek fair-faced man, with a nervous desire to do well, a very poor opinion of his own merits, and a diffident, not to say depressed manner, the world is apt to be a hard battle-ground.
Mr. Burkham sometimes found himself well-nigh beaten in the cruel strife; and at such times, in the dead silence of the night, with mortal agonies, and writhings as of Pythoness upon tripod, Mr. Burkham gave himself up to the composition of a farce, adapted, not from the French, but from his memories of Wright and Bedford in the jovial old student days, when the pit of the Adelphi Theatre had been the pleasant resort of his evenings. He could no longer afford the luxury of theatrical entertainments, except when provided with a free admission. But from the hazy reminiscences floating in his poor tired brain he concocted little pieces which he fondly hoped might win him money and fame.
With much effort and interest he contrived to get himself elected a Ragamuffin; believing that to be a Ragmuffin was to secure a position as a dramatic writer. But with one or two fortunate exceptions, his pieces were refused. The managers would not have the poor little feeble phantasmagoria of bygone fun, even supported by the whole clan of Ragamuffins. So Mr. Burkham had gradually melted into the dimness of Bloomsbury, and haunted the club-room of the Ragamuffins no more.
A hansom carried Valentine Hawkehurst swiftly to these regions of Bloomsbury. It was no time for the saving of cab-hire. The soldier of fortune thought no longer of his nest-eggs — his Unitas Bank deposit-notes. He was fighting with time and with death; foes dire and dreadful, against whose encroachments the sturdiest of mortal warriors can make but a feeble stand. He found the dingy-looking house in the dingy-looking street; and the humble drudge who opened the door informed him that Mr. Burkham was at home, and ushered him into a darksome and dreary surgery at the back of the house, where a phrenological head, considerably the worse for London smoke, surmounted a dingy bookcase filled with the dingiest of books. A table, upon which were a blotting-book and inkstand, and two shabby horsehair chairs, composed the rest of the furniture. Valentine sent his card to the surgeon, and seated himself on one of the horsehair chairs, to await that gentleman’s appearance.
He came after a brief delay, which seemed long to his visitor. He came from regions in the back of the house, rubbing his hands, which seemed to have been newly washed, and the odour of senna and aloes hung about his garments.
“I doubt if you remember my name, Mr. Burkham,” said Valentine; “but you and I are members of the same club, and that a club among the members of which considerable good feeling prevails. I come to ask a favour”— Mr. Burkham winced, for this sounded like genteel begging, and for genteel beggars this struggling surgeon had no spare cash —“which it will scarcely cause you a moment’s thought to grant. I am in great distress”— Mr. Burkham winced again, for this sounded still more like begging —“mental distress”— Mr. Burkham gave a little sigh of relief —“and I come to you for advice.” Mr. Burkham gave a more profound sigh of relief.
“I can assure you that my best advice is at your command,” he said, seating himself, and motioning to his visitor to be seated. “I am beginning to remember your face amongst the members of the club, though the name on your card did not strike me as familiar. You see, I have never been able to afford much time for relaxation at the Ragamuffins’, though I assure you I found the agreeable conversation there, the literary on dits, and so on, a very great relief. But my own little efforts in the dramatic line were not successful, and I found myself compelled to devote myself more to my profession. And now I have said quite enough about myself; let me hear how I can be useful to you.”
“In the first place, let me ask you a question. Do you know anything of a certain Dr. Doddleson?”
“Of Plantagenet Square?”
“Yes; of Plantagenet Square.”
“Well, not much. I have heard him called Dowager Doddleson; and I believe he is very popular among hypochondriac old ladies who have more money than they know what to do with, and very little common sense to regulate their disposal of it.”
“Is Dr. Doddleson a man to whom you would intrust the life of your dearest friend?”
“Most emphatically no!” cried the surgeon, growing red with excitement.
“Very well, Mr. Burkham; my dearest friend, a young lady — well, in plain truth, the woman who was to have been my wife, and whom I love as it is not the lot of every plighted wife to be loved — this dear girl has been wasting away for the last two or three months under the influence of an inscrutable malady, and Dr. Doddleson is the only man called to attend her in all that time.”
“A mistake!” said Mr. Burkham, gravely; “a very great mistake! Dr. Doddleson lives in a fine square, and drives a fine carriage, and has a reputation amongst the class I have spoken of; but he is about the last man I would consult as to the health of any one dear to me.”
“That is precisely the opinion which I formed after ten minutes’ conversation with him. Now, what I want from you, Mr. Burkham, is the name and address of the man to whom I can intrust this dear girl’s life.”
“Let me see. There are so many men, you know, and great men. Is it a case of consumption?”
“No, thank God!”
“No; there is no organic disease. It is a languor — a wasting away.”
Mr. Burkham suggested other diseases whereof the outward sign was languor and wasting.
“No,” replied Valentine; “according to Dr. Doddleson there is actually no disease — nothing but this extreme prostration — this gradual vanishing of vital power. And now I come to another point upon which I want your advice. It has been suggested that this constitutional weakness may be inherited; and here I think you can help me.”
“You attended the lady’s father.”
“Indeed!” cried Mr. Burkham, delighted. “This is really interesting. In what year did I attend this gentleman? If you will allow me, I will refer to some of my old case-books.”
He drew out a clumsy drawer in the clumsy table, in order to hunt for old memoranda.
“I am not quite certain as to the year,” answered Valentine; “but it was more than ten years ago. The gentleman died close by here, in Fitzgeorge Street. His name was Halliday.”
Mr. Burkham had drawn out the drawer to its farthest extent. As Valentine pronounced this name, he let it drop to the ground with a crash, and sat, statue-like, staring at the speaker. All other names given to mortal man he might forget; but this one never. Valentine saw the sudden horror in his face, before he could recompose his features into something of their conventional aspect.
“Yes,” he said, looking down at the fallen drawer with its scattered papers and case-books, “yes, I have some recollection of the name of Halliday.”
“Some very strange and agitating recollection it would seem by your manner, Mr. Burkham,” said Valentine, at once assured that there was something more than common in the surgeon’s look and gesture; and determined to fathom the mystery, let it be what it might.
“O dear no,” said the surgeon nervously; “I was not agitated, only surprised. It was surprising to me to hear the name of a patient so long forgotten. And so the lady to whom you are engaged is a daughter of Mr. Halliday’s? The wife — Mrs. Halliday — is still living, I suppose?”
“Yes; but the lady who was then Mrs. Halliday is now Mrs. Sheldon.”
“Of course; he married her,” said Mr. Burkham. “Yes; I remember hearing of the marriage.”
He had tried in vain to recover his old composure. He was white to the lips, and his hand shook as he tried to arrange his scattered papers.
“What does it mean?” thought Valentine. “Mrs. Sheldon talked of this man’s inexperience. Can it be that his incompetency lost the life of his patient, and that he knows it was so?”
“Mrs. Halliday is now Mrs. Sheldon,” repeated the surgeon, in a feeble manner. “Yes, I remember; and Mr. Sheldon — the dentist, who at that time resided in Fitzgeorge Street — is he still living?”
“He is still living. It was he who called in Dr. Doddleson to attend upon Miss Halliday. As her stepfather, he has some amount of authority, you see; not legal authority — for my dear girl is of age — but social authority. He called in Doddleson, and appears to place confidence in him; and as he is something of a medical man himself, and pretends to understand Miss Halliday’s case thoroughly —”
“Stop!” cried Mr. Burkham, suddenly abandoning all pretence of calmness. “Has he — Sheldon — any interest in his stepdaughter’s death?”
“No, certainly not. All her father’s money went to him upon his marriage with her mother. He can gain nothing by her death; on the contrary, he may lose a good deal, for she is the heir-at-law to a large fortune.”
“And if she dies, that fortune will go —”
“I really don’t know where it will go,” Valentine answered carelessly: he thought the subject was altogether beside the question of Mr. Burkham’s agitation, and it was the cause of that agitation which he was anxious to discover.
“If Mr. Sheldon can gain by his stepdaughter’s death, fear him!” exclaimed the surgeon, with sudden passion; “fear him as you would fear death itself — worse than death, for death is neither so stealthy nor so treacherous as he is!”
“What in Heaven’s name do you mean?”
“That which I thought my lips would never utter to mortal hearing — that which I dare not publicly proclaim, at the hazard of taking the bread out of the mouths of my wife and children. I have kept this hateful secret for eleven years — through many a sleepless night and dreary day. I will tell it to you; for if there is another life in peril, that life shall be lost through no cowardice of mine.”
“What secret?” cried Valentine.
“The secret of that poor fellow’s death. My God! I can remember the clasp of his hand, and the friendly look of his eyes, the day before he died. He was poisoned by Philip Sheldon!”
“You must be mad!” gasped Valentine, in a faint voice.
For one moment of astonishment and incredulity he thought this man must needs be a fool or a lunatic, so wildly improbable did the accusation seem. But in the next instant the curtain was lifted, and he knew that Philip Sheldon was a villain, and knew that he had never wholly trusted him.
“Never until to-day have I told this secret,” said the surgeon; “not even to my wife.”
“I thank you,” answered Valentine, in the same faint voice; “with all my heart, I thank you.”
Yes, the curtain was lifted. This mysterious illness, this slow silent decay of bloom and beauty, by a process inscrutable as the devilry of medieval poisoner or Hecate-serving witch — this was murder. Murder! The disease, which had hitherto been nameless, had found its name at last. It was all clear now. Philip Sheldon’s anxiety; the selection of an utterly incompetent adviser; certain looks and tones that had for a moment mystified him, and had been forgotten in the next, came back to him with a strange distinctness, with all their hidden meaning made clear and plain as the broad light of day.
But the motive? What motive could prompt the slow destruction of that innocent life? A fortune was at stake, it is true; but that fortune, as Valentine understood the business, depended on the life of Charlotte Halliday. Beyond this point he had never looked. In all his consideration of the circumstances relating to the Haygarthian estate, he had never thought of what might happen in the event of Charlotte’s decease.
“It is a diabolical mystery,” he said to himself. “There can be no motive —none. To destroy Thomas Halliday was to clear his way to fortune; to destroy Charlotte is to destroy his chance of fortune.”
And then he remembered the dark speeches of George Sheldon.
“My God! and this was what he meant, as plainly as he dared tell me! He did tell me that his brother was an unutterable scoundrel; and I turned a deaf ear to his warning, because it suited my own interest to believe that villain. For her dear sake I believed him. I would have believed in Beelzebub, if he had promised me her dear hand. And I let myself be duped by the lying promise, and left my darling in the power of Beelzebub!”
Thoughts followed each other swift as lightning through his overwrought brain. It seemed but a moment that he had been sitting with his clenched hands pressed against his forehead, when he turned suddenly upon the surgeon.
“For God’s sake, help me, guide me!” he said. “You have struck a blow that has numbed my senses. What am I to do? My future wife is in that man’s keeping — dying, as I believe. How am I to save her?”
“I cannot tell you. You may take the cleverest man in London to see her; but it is a question if that man will perceive the danger so clearly as to take prompt measures. In these cases there is always room for doubt; and a man would rather doubt his own perceptions than believe the hellish truth. It is by this natural hesitation so many lives are lost. While the doctor deliberates, the patient dies. And then, if the secret of the death transpires — by circumstantial evidence, perhaps, which never came to the doctor’s knowledge — there is a public outcry. The doctor’s practice is ruined, and his heart broken. The outcry would have been still louder if he had told the truth in time to save the patient, and had not been able to prove his words. You think me a coward and a scoundrel because I dared not utter my suspicion when I saw Mr. Halliday dying. While it was only a suspicion it would have been certain ruin for me to give utterance to it. The day came when it was almost a conviction. I went back to that man Sheldon’s house, determined to insist upon the calling in of a physician who would have made that conviction certainty. My resolution came too late. It is possible that Sheldon had perceived my suspicions, and had hastened matters. My patient was dead before I reached the house.”
“How am I to save her?” repeated Valentine, with the same helpless manner. He could not bring himself to consider Tom Halliday’s death. The subject was too far away from him — remote as the dim shadows of departed centuries. In all the universe there were but two figures standing out in lurid brightness against the dense night of chaos — a helpless girl held in the clutches of a secret assassin; and it was his work to rescue her.
“What am I to do?” he asked. “Tell me what I am to do.”
“What it may be wisest to do I cannot tell you,” answered Mr. Burkham, almost as helplessly as the other had asked the question. “I can give you the name of the best man to get to the bottom of such a case — a man who gave evidence on the Fryar trial — Jedd. You have heard of Jedd, I daresay. You had better go straight to Jedd, and take him down with you to Miss Halliday. His very name will frighten Sheldon.”
“I will go at once. Stay — the address! Where am I to find Dr. Jedd?”
“In Burlington Row. But there is one thing to be considered.”
“The interference of Jedd may only make that man desperate. He may hasten matters now as he hastened matters before. If you had seen his coolness at that time; if you had seen him, as I saw him, standing by that poor fellow’s deathbed, comforting him — yes, with friendly speeches — laughing and joking, watching the agonising pain and the miserable sickness, and all the dreary wretchedness of such a death, and never swerving from his work; if you had seen him, you would understand why I am afraid to advise you. That man was as desperate as he was cool when he murdered his friend. He will be more reckless this time.”
“Because he has reached a higher stage in the science of murder. The symptoms of that poor Yorkshireman were the symptoms of arsenical poisoning; the symptoms of which you have told me to-day denote a vegetable poison. That affords very vague diagnosis, and leaves no trace. That was the agent which enabled the Borgias to decimate Rome. It is older than classic Greece, and simple as a b c, and will remain so until the medical expert is a recognized officer of the law, the faithful guardian of the bed over which the suspected poisoner loiters — past-master of the science in which the murderer is rarely more than an experimentalist, and protected from all the hazards of plain speaking by the nature of his office.”
“Great Heaven, how am I to save her?” exclaimed Valentine. He could not contemplate the subject in its broad social aspect; he could only think of this one dear life at stake. “To send this Dr. Jedd might be to hasten her death; to send a less efficient man would be mere childishness. WHAT shall I do?”
He looked despairingly at the surgeon, and in that one glance perceived what a frail reed this was upon which he was leaning. And then, like the sudden gleam of lightning, a name flashed across his mind — George Sheldon, the lawyer, the schemer, the man who of all the world best knew this vile enemy and assassin against whom he was matched; he it was of whom counsel should be asked in this crisis. Once perceiving this, Valentine was prompt to act. It was the first flash of light in the darkness.
“You mean to stand by me in this, don’t you?” he asked Mr. Burkham.
“With all my heart and soul.”
“Good. Then you must go to Dr. Jedd instantly. Tell him all you know — Tom Halliday’s death; the symptoms of Charlotte’s decline, as you have heard them from me —everything; and let him hold himself in readiness to start for Hastings directly he hears from or sees me. I am going to a man who of all men can tell me how to deal with Philip Sheldon. I shall try to be in Burlington Row in an hour from this time; but in any case you will wait there till I come. I suppose, in a desperate case like this, Dr. Jedd will put aside all less urgent work?”
“No doubt of that.”
“I trust to you to secure his sympathy,” said Valentine.
He was in the darksome entrance-hall by this time. Mr. Burkham followed, and opened the door for him.
“Have no fear of me,” he said. “Good bye.”
The two men shook hands with a grip significant as masonic sign-manual. It meant on the one part hearty co-operation, on the other implicit confidence. In the next moment Valentine sprang into the cab.
“King’s Road — entrance to Gray’s Inn, and drive like mad!” he shouted to the driver. The hansom rattled across the stones, dashed round corners, struck consternation to scudding children in pinafores, all but annihilated more than one perambulator, and in less than ten minutes after leaving Mr. Burkham’s door, ground against the kerbstone before the little gate of Gray’s Inn.
“God grant that George Sheldon may be at home!” Valentine said to himself, as he hurried towards that gentleman’s office. George Sheldon was at home. In this fight against time, Mr. Hawkehurst had so far found the odds in his favour.
“Bless my soul!” exclaimed the lawyer, looking up from his desk, as Valentine appeared on the threshold of the door, pale and breathless; “to what do I owe the unusual honour of a visit from Mr. Hawkehurst? I thought that rising littérateur had cut all old acquaintances, and gone in for the upper circles.”
“I have come to you on a matter of life and death, George Sheldon,” said Valentine; “this is no time to talk of why I haven’t been to you before. When you and I last met, you advised me to beware of your brother Philip. It wasn’t the first, or the second, or the third time that you so warned me. And now speak out like an honest man, and tell me what you meant by that warning? For God’s sake, speak plainly this time.”
“I cannot afford to speak more plainly than I have spoken half a dozen times already. I told you to beware of my brother Phil, and I meant that warning in its fullest significance. If you had chosen to take my advice, you would have placed Charlotte Halliday’s fortune, and Charlotte Halliday herself, beyond his power, by an immediate marriage. You didn’t choose to do that, and there was an end of the matter. I have been a heavy loser by your pigheaded obstinacy; and I dare say before you and Phil Sheldon have done with each other, you too will find yourself a loser.”
“God help me, yes!” cried Valentine, with a groan; “I stand to make the heaviest loss that was ever made by man.”
“What do you mean?” exclaimed George.
“Shall I tell you what you meant when you warned me against your own brother? Shall I tell you why you so warned me? You know that Philip Sheldon murdered Tom Halliday.”
“Yes; the secret is out. You knew it; how or when you discovered it I cannot tell. You knew of that one hellish crime, and would have prevented the commission of a second murder. You should have spoken more plainly. To know what you knew, and to confine yourself to cautious hints and vague suggestions, as you did, was to have part in that devilish work. If Charlotte Halliday dies, her blood be upon your head — upon yours — as well as upon his!”
The young man had risen in his passion, and stood before George Sheldon with uplifted hands, and eyes that flashed angry lightnings. It seemed almost as if he would have called down the Divine vengeance upon this man’s head.
“If Charlotte Halliday dies!” repeated George, in a horror-stricken whisper; “why should you suggest such a thing?”
“Because she is dying.”
There was a pause. Valentine flung himself passionately upon the chair from which he had just risen, with his back to George Sheldon, and his face bent over the back of the chair. The lawyer sat looking straight before him, with a ghastly countenance.
“I told him he meant this,” he said to himself, in a hoarse whisper. “I told him in this office not six months ago. Powers of hell, what a villain he is! And there are people who do not believe there is a devil!”
For a few moments Valentine gave free vent to his passion of grief. These tears of rage, of agony the most supreme, were the first he had shed since he had bent his face over Charlotte’s soft brown hair, to hide the evidence of his sorrow. When he had dashed these bitter drops away from his burning eyes, he turned to confront George Sheldon, pale as death, but very calm. And after this he gave way no more to his passion. He was matched against Time, of all enemies the most pitiless and unrelenting, and every minute wasted was a point scored by his foe.
“I want your help, George Sheldon,” he said. “If you have ever been sorry that you made no effort to save Charlotte Halliday’s father, prove yourself his friend by trying to save her.”
“If I have ever been sorry!” echoed the lawyer. “Why, my miserable dreams have never been free from the horror of that man’s face. You don’t know what it is — murder! Nobody knows who hasn’t been concerned in it. You read of murders in your newspapers. A shot B, or C poisoned D, and so on, all through the letters of the alphabet, with a fresh batch for every Sunday; but it never comes home to you. You think of the horror of it in a shadowy kind of way, as you might think of having a snake twisted round your waist and legs, like that blessed man and boys one never sees the last of. But if you were to look at that plaster cast all your life, you couldn’t realize ten per cent of the horror you’d feel if the snake was there, alive, crushing your bones, and hissing in your ear. I have been face to face with murder, Valentine Hawkehurst; and if I were to live a century, I should never forget what I felt when I stood by Tom Halliday’s deathbed, and it flashed upon me, all at once, that my brother Phil was poisoning him.”
“And you did not try to save him — your friend?” cried Valentine.
“Why, you see,” replied the other, in a strange slow way, “it was too late to save him: I knew that, and — I held my tongue. What could I do? Against my own brother! That sort of thing in a family is ruin for every one! Do you think anybody would have brought their business to me after my brother had stood in the Old Bailey dock to take his trial for murder? No; my only course was to keep my own counsel, and I kept it. Phil made eighteen thousand pounds by his marriage with poor Tom’s widow, and a paltry hundred or two is all I ever touched of that money.”
“And you could touch that money?” cried Valentine, aghast.
“Money carries no infection. Did you ever ask any questions about the money you won at German gaming-tables. I dare say some of your napoleons and ten-thaler notes could have told queer stories if they had been able to talk. Taking Phil’s money has never weighed upon my conscience. I’m not very inquisitive about the antecedents of a five-pound note; but I’ll tell you what it is, Hawkehurst, I’d give all I have, and all I ever hope to have, and would go out and sweep a crossing to-morrow, if I could get Tom Halliday’s face out of my mind, with the look that he turned upon me the last time I saw him. ‘Ah, George,’ he said, ‘in illness a man feels the comfort of being among friends!’ And he took my hand and squeezed it, in his old hearty way. We had been boys together, Hawkehurst, birds-nesting in Hyley Woods; on the same side in our Barlingford cricket-matches. And I shook his hand, and went away, and left him to die!”
And here Mr. Sheldon of Gray’s Inn, the Sheldon who was in with the money-lenders, sharpest of legal prestigitators, most ruthless of opponents, most unscrupulous of allies, buried his face in a flaming bandanna, and fairly sobbed aloud. When the passion had passed, he got up and walked hastily to the window, more ashamed of this one touch of honest emotion than of all the falsehoods and chicaneries of his career.
“I didn’t think I could have been such an ass,” he muttered sheepishly.
“I did not hope that you could feel so deeply,” answered Valentine. “And now help me to save the only child of your ill-fated friend. I am sure that you can help me.”
Without waiting to be questioned, Valentine related the circumstances of Charlotte’s illness, and of his interview with Mr. Burkham.
“I did not even know that the poor girl was ill,” said George Sheldon. “I have not seen Phil for months. He came here one day, and I gave him a bit of my mind. I told him if he tried to harm her I’d let the light in upon him and his doings. And I’ll keep my word.”
“But his motive? What, in the name of Heaven, can be his motive for taking her innocent life? He knows of the Haygarth estate, and must hope to profit by her fortune if she lives.”
“Yes, and to secure the whole of that fortune if she dies. Her death would make her mother sole heir to that estate, and the mother is the merest tool in his hands. He may even have induced Charlotte to make a will in his favour, so that he himself may stand in her shoes.”
“She would not have made a will without telling me of it.”
“You don’t know that. My brother Phil can do anything. It would be as easy for him to persuade her to maintain secrecy about the transaction as to persuade her to make the will. Do you suppose he shrinks from multiplying lies and forgeries and hypocrisies? Do you suppose anything in that small way comes amiss to the man who has once brought his mind to murder? Why, look at the Scotch play of that fellow Shakespeare’s. At the beginning, your Macbeth is a respectable trustworthy sort of person, anxious to get on in life, and so on, and that’s all; but no sooner has he made an end of poor old Duncan, than he lays about him right and left — Banquo, Fleance, anybody and everybody that happens to be in his way. It was lucky for that Tartar of a wife of his that she hook’d it, or he’d soon have put a stop to her sleep-walking. There’s no such wide difference between a man and a tiger, after all. The tiger’s a decent fellow enough till he has tasted human blood; but when once he has, Lord save the country-side from the jaws of the man-eater!”
“For Heaven’s sake let us waste no time in talk!” Valentine cried, impetuously. “I am to meet Burkham in Burlington Row directly I have got your advice.”
“To see Dr. Jedd, and take him down to Hastings, if possible.”
“That won’t do.”
“Because Jedd’s appearance would give Phil the office. Jedd gave evidence on the Fryar trial, and must be a marked man to him. All Jedd can tell you is that Charlotte is being poisoned. You know that already. Of course she’ll want medical treatment, and so on, to bring her round; but she can’t get that under my brother’s roof. What you have to do is to get her away from that house.”
“You do not know how ill she is. I doubt if she could bear the removal.”
“Anything is better than to remain. That is certain death.”
“But your brother would surely dispute her removal.”
“He would, and oppose it inch by inch. We must get him away, before we attempt to remove her.”
“I will find the means for that. I know something of his business relations, and can invent some false cry for luring him off the trail. We must get him away. The poor girl was not in actual danger when you left her, was she?”
“No, thank God, there was no appearance of immediate danger. But she was very ill. And that man holds her life in his hand. He knows that I have come to London in search of a doctor. What if —”
“Keep yourself quiet, Hawkehurst. He will not hasten her death unless he is desperate; for a death occurring immediately after your first expression of alarm would seem sudden. He’ll avoid any appearance of suddenness, if he can, depend upon it. The first thing is to get him away. But the question is, how to do it? There must be a bait. What bait? Don’t talk to me, Hawkehurst. Let me think it out, if I can.”
The lawyer leaned his elbows on the table, and abandoned himself to profound cogitation, with his forehead supported by his clenched hands. Valentine waited patiently while he thus cogitated.
“I must go down to Phil’s office,” he said at last, “and ferret out some of his secrets. Nothing but stock-exchange business, of an important character, would induce him to leave Charlotte Halliday. But if I can telegraph such a message as will bring him to town, I’ll do it. Leave all that to me. And now, what about your work?”
“I am at a loss what to do, if I am not to take Dr. Jedd to Harold’s Hill.”
“Take him to St. Leonards; and if I get my brother out of the way, you can have Charlotte conveyed to an hotel in St. Leonard’s, where she can stop till she picks up strength enough to come to London.”
“Do you think her mother will consent to her removal?
“Do I think you will be such an idiot as to ask for her consent?” cried George Sheldon impatiently. “My brother’s wife is so weak a fool, that the chances are she’d insist on her daughter stopping quietly, to be poisoned. No; you must get Mrs. Sheldon out of the way somehow. Send her to look at the shops, or to bathe, or to pick up shells on the beach, or anything else equally inane. She’s easy enough to deal with. There’s that young woman, Paget’s daughter, with them still, I suppose? Yes. Very well, then, you and she can get Charlotte away between you.”
“But for me to take those two girls to an hotel — the chance of scandal, of wonder, of inquiry? There ought to be some other person — some nurse. Stay, there’s Nancy Woolper — the very woman! My darling has told me of that old woman’s affectionate anxiety about her health — an anxiety which was singularly intense, it seemed to Lotta. Good God! do you think she, Nancy Woolper, could have suspected the cause of Mr. Halliday’s death?”
“I dare say she did. She was in the house when he died, and nursed him all through his illness. She’s a clever old woman. Yes, you might take her down with you; I think she would be of use in getting Charlotte away.”
“I’ll take her, if she will go.”
“I am not sure of that; our north-country folks have stiffish notions about fidelity to old masters, and that kind of thing. Nancy Woolper nursed my brother Phil.”
“If she knows or suspects the fate of Charlotte’s father, she will try to save Charlotte,” said Valentine, with conviction. “And now, good bye! I trust to you for getting your brother out of the way, George Sheldon; remember that.”
He held out his hand; the lawyer took it with a muscular grip, which, on this occasion, meant something more than that base coin of jolly good fellowship which so often passes current for friendship’s virgin gold.
“You may trust me,” George Sheldon said gravely. “Stop a moment, though; I have a proposition to make. If my brother Philip has induced that girl to make a will, as it is my belief he has, we must counter him. Come down with me to Doctors’ Commons. You’ve a cab? Yes; the business won’t take half an hour.”
“A special licence for your marriage with Charlotte Halliday.”
“Yes; her marriage invalidates her will, if she has made one, and does away with Phil’s motive. Come along; we’ll get the licence.”
“But the delay?”
“Exactly half an hour. Come!”
The lawyer dashed out of his office. “At home in an hour,” he shouted to the clerk, and then ran downstairs, followed closely by Valentine, and did not cease running until he was in the King’s Road, where the cab was waiting.
“Newgate Street and Warwick Lane to Doctors’ Commons!” he cried to the cabman; and Valentine was fain to take his seat in the cab without further remonstrance.
“I don’t understand —” he began, as the cabman drove away.
“I do. It’s all right; you’ll put the licence in your pocket, and call at the church nearest which you hang out, Edgware Road way, give notice of the marriage, and so on; and as soon as Charlotte can bear the journey, bring her to London and marry her. I told you your course six months ago. Your obstinacy has caused the hazard of that young woman’s life. Don’t let us have a second edition of it.”
“I will be governed by your advice,” answered Valentine, submissively. “It is the delay that tortures me.”
The delay was indeed torture to him. Everything and everybody in Doctors’ Commons seemed the very incarnation of slowness. The hansom cab might tear and grind the pavement, the hansom cabman might swear until even monster waggons swerved aside to give him passage; but neither tearing nor swearing could move the incarnate stolidity of Doctors’ Commons. When he left that quaint sanctuary of old usages, he carried with him the Archbishop of Canterbury’s benign permission for his union with Charlotte Halliday. But he knew not whether it was only a morsel of waste paper which he carried in his pocket; and whether there might not ere long be need of a ghastlier certificate, giving leave and licence for the rendering back of “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”
Valentine’s first call, after leaving George Sheldon at the gate of Doctors’ Commons, was at the head-quarters of the Ragamuffins. His heart sank as he ran into the bar of the hostelry to ask for the telegram which might be waiting for him.
Happily there was no telegram. To find no tidings of a change for the worse seemed to him almost equivalent to hearing of a change for the better. What had he not feared after his interview with the surgeon of Bloomsbury!
From Covent Garden the hansom bowled swiftly to Burlington Row. Here Valentine found Mr. Burkham, pale and anxious, waiting in a little den of a third room, on the ground-floor — a ghastly little room, hung with anatomical plates, and with some wax preparations in jars, on the mantelpiece, by way of ornament. To them presently came Dr. Jedd, as lively and business-like as if Miss Halliday’s case had been a question of taking out a double-tooth.
“Very sad!” he said; “these vegetable poisons — hands of unscrupulous man. Very interesting article in the Medical Quarterly— speculative analysis of the science of toxicology as known to the ancients.”
“You will come down to Harold’s Hill at once, sir?” said Valentine, imploringly.
“Well, yes; your friend here, Mr. Burkham, has persuaded me to do so, though I need hardly tell you that such a journey will be to the last degree inconvenient.”
“It is an affair of life and death,” faltered the young man.
“Of course, my dear sir. But then, you see, I have half-a-dozen other affairs of life and death on my hands at this moment. However, I have promised. My consultations will be over in half an hour; I have a round of visits after that, and by — well, say by the five o’clock express, I will go to St. Leonards.”
“The delay will be very long,” said Valentine.
“It cannot be done sooner. I ought to go down to Hertfordshire this evening — most interesting case — carbuncle — three operations in three consecutive weeks — Swain as operator. At five o’clock I shall be at the London Bridge station. Until then, gentlemen, good day. Lawson, the door.”
Dr. Jedd left his visitors to follow the respectable white-cravatted butler, and darted back to his consulting-room.
Mr. Burkham and Valentine walked slowly up and down Burlington Row before the latter returned to his cab.
“I thank you heartily for your help,” said Valentine to the surgeon; “and I believe, with God’s grace, we shall save this dear girl’s life. It was the hand of Providence that guided me to you this morning. I can but believe the same hand will guide me to the end.”
On this they parted. Valentine told his cabman to drive to the Edgware Road; and in one of the churches of the immediate neighbourhood of that thoroughfare he gave notice of his intention to enter the bonds of holy matrimony. He had some difficulty in arranging matters with the clerk, whom he saw in his private abode and non-official guise. That functionary was scarcely able to grasp the idea of an intending Benedick who would not state positively when he wanted to be married. Happily, however, the administration of half-a-sovereign considerably brightened the clerk’s perceptions.
“I see what you want,” he said. “Young lady a invalid, which she wants to leave her home as she finds uncomfortable, she being over twenty-one years of age and her own mistress. It’s what you may call a runaway match, although the parties ain’t beholden to any one, in a manner of speaking. I understand. You give me half an hour’s notice any morning within the legal hours, and I’ll have one of our young curates ready for you as soon as you’re ready for them; and have you and the young lady tied up tight enough before you know where you are. We ain’t very long over our marriages, unless it is something out of the common way.”
The clerk’s familiarity was more good-natured than flattering to the applicant’s self-esteem; but Valentine was in no mood to object to this easy-going treatment of the affair. He promised to give the clerk the required notice; and having arranged everything in strictly legal manner, hurried back to his cab, and directed the man to drive to the Lawn.
It was now three o’clock. At five he was to meet Dr. Jedd at the station. He had two hours for his interview with Nancy Woolper, and his drive from Bayswater to London Bridge.
He had tasted nothing since daybreak; but the necessity to eat and drink never occurred to him. He was dimly conscious of feeling sick and faint, but the reason of this sickness and faintness did not enter into his thoughts. He took off his hat, and leant his head back against the cushion of the hansom as that vehicle rattled across the squares of Paddington. The summer day, the waving of green trees in those suburban squares; the busy life and motion of the world through which he went, mixed themselves into one jarring whirl of light and colour, noise and motion. He found himself wondering how long it was since he left Harold’s Hill. Between the summer morning in which he had walked along the dusty high-road, with fields of ripening corn upon his left, and all the broad blue sea upon his right, and the summer afternoon in which he drove in a jingling cab through the noisy streets and squares of Bayswater, there seemed to him a gulf so wide, that his tried brain shrank from scanning it.
He struggled with this feeling of helplessness and bewilderment, and overcame it.
“Let me remember what I have to do,” he said to himself; “and let me keep my wits about me till that is done.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05