Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

The Sortes Virgilianae.

While George Sheldon was still in the depths of the City Valentine Hawkehurst arrived at the gothic villa, where he asked to see Mrs. Woolper. Of the woman herself he knew very little: he had seen her once or twice when some special mission brought her to the drawing-room; and from Charlotte he had heard much of her affectionate solicitude. To have been kind to his Charlotte was the strongest claim to his regard.

“This woman’s help would be of inestimable service,” he thought; “her age, her experience of sickness, her familiarity with the patient, especially adapt her for the office she will be required to fill. If Dr. Jedd should order a nurse to watch by the sick-bed, here is the nurse. If it should prove possible to remove the dear sufferer, here is the guardian best calculated to protect and attend her removal.” That the desperate step of an immediate marriage would be a wise step Valentine could not doubt, since it would at once annihilate Mr. Sheldon’s chances, and destroy his motive. But in contemplating this desperate step Valentine had to consider the reputation as well as the safety of his future wife. He was determined that there should be no opportunity for scandal in the circumstances of his stolen marriage, no scope for future mischief from the malignity of that baffled villain to whose schemes their marriage would give the death-blow. He, who from his cradle had been familiar with the darker side of life, knew how often the innocent carry a lifelong burden, and perform a perpetual pennance for the sins or the follies of others. And over his darling’s life in the future, should it please God that he might save her, he would have no shadow cast by imprudence of his in the present.

“This sharp-witted, sharp-tongued Yorkshirewoman will be the woman of women to protect her,” he thought, as he seated himself in Mr. Sheldon’s study, whither the prim parlour-maid had ushered him.

“Mrs. Woolper have just gone upstairs to clean herself,” she said; “which we are a-having the dining-room and droring-room carpets up, while the family are away. Would you please to wait?”

Valentine looked at his watch.

“I cannot wait very long,” he said; “and I shall be obliged if you will tell Mrs. Woolper that I wish to see her on very important business.”

The parlour-maid departed, and Valentine was left to endure the weariness of waiting until Mrs. Woolper should have “cleaned herself.”

Mr. Sheldon’s study at Bayswater did not offer much more to the eye of the investigator than Mr. Sheldon’s office in the City. There were the handsomely bound books behind the inviolable plate-glass doors, and there was the neat writing-table with the machine for weighing letters, and the large business-like looking blotting-pad, and the ponderous brass-rimmed inkstand, with no nonsense about it; and yonder, on a clumsy little oak table with thick legs, appeared the copying machine, with a big black iron lever, and a massive screw with which to screw all the spontaneous feeling out of every letter that came beneath its crushing influence.

Up and down this joyless den Valentine Hawkehurst paced, with the demon of impatience raging in his breast. The July sunshine blazed hot upon the window, and the voices of croquêt-players in adjacent gardens rose shrill upon the summer air. And there were girls playing croquêt while she, his “rose of the garden, garden of girls,” lay sick unto death! O, why could he not offer a hecatomb of these common creatures as a substitute for that one fair spirit?

He looked into the garden — the prim modern garden, but a few years reclaimed from that abomination of desolation, the “eligible lot of building land.” Across the well-kept lawn there brooded no shadow of Old–World cedar; no century-old espaliers divided flower and kitchen ground; no box-edging of the early Hanoverian era bordered the beds of roses and mignonette. From one boundary-wall to the other there was not a bush old enough to hang an association upon. The stereotyped bed of flaming yellow calceolaria balanced the conventional bed of flaming crimson verbena; the lavender heliotrope faced the scarlet geranium, like the four corners in a quadrille. The garden was the modern nurserymen’s ideal of suburban horticulture, and no more. But to Valentine this half-acre of smooth lawn and Wimbledon gravel pathway had seemed fair as those pleasure gardens of Semiramis, at the foot of the Bagistanos mountain, the fame whereof tempted Alexander to turn aside from the direct road, during his march from Chelone to the Nysaic horse pastures.

To-day the contemplation of that commonplace garden gave him direful pain. Should he ever walk there again with his dear love, or in any other garden upon earth?

And then he thought of fairer gardens, in supernal regions whither his soul was slow to travel. “Not easy is the journey from earth to the stars,” says the sage; and from this young wanderer the stain of earthly travel had yet to be washed away.

“If she is taken from me, shall I ever be pure enough to follow her?” he asked himself. “Will a life that began in such darkness ever rise to the light which is her natural element? If she is taken, and I stay behind, and bear my burden patiently in the hope to follow her, will there not be a gate closed against me in the skies, beyond which I shall see her, shining among her kindred spirits, in the white robes of perfect innocence? Ah, my love, my love, as between, us on this earth must for ever be a gulf your pure soul cannot pass, so between us in the skies will rise a barrier to sever me from your sweet company!”

The thought of probable separation upon earth, of possible separation in heaven, was too bitter to him.

“I will not think of these things,” he said to himself; “I will not believe in that possibility of this sacrifice. Ah, no! she will be saved. Against the bright young life the awful fiat has not gone forth. Providence has been with me to-day. Providence will go with me till the end.”

He thought how other men had so stood, as he was standing now, face to face with the great uncertainty, the crisis, the turning-point — the pivot on which life itself revolved. The pendulum of the mighty clock swings solemnly to and fro; with every vibration a moment; with every moment each man’s shrouded fates move another step in their inexorable progress. And the end? What was the goal towards which those dark relentless shapes were moving?

He thought of Rousseau, balancing the awful question of his soul’s salvation — his poor weak soul adrift upon a sea of doubt.

“Behold yonder tree which faces me, as I sit and meditate the problem of my destiny — the destiny of me, Jean Jacques Rousseau, self-conscious genius, and future regenerator of my age. I pick up a pebble, and poise it between my fingers before taking my aim. In another moment the question will be answered. If the pebble hits the tree, I, Jean Jacques, am reserved for salvation. If I miss — O awful, overwhelming possibility! — my name will blaze upon that dreadful scroll which numbers the damned.”

Happily the tree is bulky, and within but a few yards of the speculator; and the great enigma of the Calvinistic church is answered in favour of Madame de Warenne’s protégé, whose propensities and proclivities at that period did not very strongly indicate his claim to a place among the elect.

Valentine remembered the sortes Virgilianae— the Wesleyan’s drawing of inferences from Bible texts. Ah, could he not find an answer to the question that was the one thought of his mind? He would find some answer — a lying oracle, perhaps. It might be a voice from heaven — some temporary assuagement of this storm of doubt that raged in his breast. “I doubt if Mr. Sheldon owns either a Bible or an, ‘AEneid,’” he said to himself, as he stopped in his rapid pacing of the room; “I will open the first book I can put my hand upon, and from the first line my eye falls on will draw an augury.”

He looked about the room. Behind the glazed doors of the mahogany bookcase appeared Hume and Smollett, Scott and Shakespeare; and conspicuous among these a handsome family Bible. But the glazed doors were locked. In Mr. Sheldon’s study there appeared to be no other books than these few standard works. Yes, on some obscure little shelves, low down in one of the recesses formed by the projection of the fireplace and the chimney, there were three rows of large quarto volumes, in dingy dark-green cloth cases.

What these volumes might contain Valentine Hawkehurst knew not; and the very fact of his ignorance rendered these books all the more suitable for the purpose of augury. To dip for a sentence into any of these unknown volumes would be a leap in darkness more profound than he could find in the Bible or the “AEneid,” where his own foreknowledge of the text might unwittingly influence the oracle. He went over to the recess, bent down, and ran his hand along the backs of the volumes, with his face turned away from the books towards the window.

“The first obstruction that arrests my hand shall determine my choice of the volume,” he said to himself.

His hand ran easily along the volumes on the upper shelf — easily along the volumes on the second shelf; and he began to doubt whether this mode of determining his choice could be persisted in. But in its progress along the third and lowest range of volumes, his hand was arrested midway by a book which projected about half an inch beyond its fellows.

He took this book out and carried it to the table, still without looking at it. He opened it, or rather let its leaves fall open of their own accord — still without looking at it; and then, with a strange superstitious fear — mingled in his mind with the natural shame that accompanied his conscious folly — he looked at the page before him. The line on which he fixed his eye was the heading of a letter. It was in larger type than the rest of the page, and it was very plain to him as he stood a little way from the table, looking down at the open book.

The line ran thus:


The book was a volume of the Lancet; the date twenty years ago.

“What an oracle!” thought Valentine, with a cynical laugh at his own folly, and some slight sense of relief. In all feeble tamperings with powers invisible there lurks a sense of terror in the weak human heart. He had tempted those invisible ones, and the oracle he only half believed in might have spoken to his confusion and dismay. He was glad to think the oracle meant nothing.

And yet, even in this dry as dust title of a scientific communication from a distinguished toxicologist there was some sinister significance. It was the letter of a great chemist, who demonstrated therein the fallibility of all tests in relation to a certain poison. It was one of those papers which, while they aid the cause of science, may also further the dark processes of the poisoner, by showing him the forces he has to encounter, and the weapons with which he may defend himself from their power. It is needless to dwell here upon the contents of this letter — one of a series on the same subject, or range of subjects. Valentine read it with eager interest. For him it had a terrible importance in its relation to the past and to the present.

“I let the book fall open, and it opened at that letter,” he thought to himself. “Will it open there a second time, I wonder?”

He repeated the experiment, and the book opened in the same place. Again; and again the book opened as before. Again, many times, and the result was still the same.

After this he examined the book, and found that it had been pressed open at this page, as by a reader leaning on the opened volume. He examined it still more closely, and found here and there on the page faint indications of a pencil, which had under-scored certain lines, and the marks of which had been as far as possible erased. The deduction to be drawn from these small facts seemed only too clear to Valentine Hawkehurst. By some one reader the pages had been deliberately and carefully studied. Could he doubt that reader to have been the man in whose possession he found the book, the man whom that very day he had heard plainly denounced as a poisoner?

He drew out the previous volume, and in this a rapid search revealed to him a second fact, significant as the last.

An old envelope marked the place where appeared an article on the coincidences common to the diagnostics of a certain type of low fever and the diagnostics of a certain class of poisons. Here the volume again opened of itself, and a blot of ink on the page seemed to indicate that the open book had been leant upon by a person engaged in making memoranda of its contents. Nor was this all. The forgotten envelope that marked the place had its own dismal significance. The postmark bore the date of the year and the month in which Charlotte’s father had died.

While this volume was still open in his hand the door opened suddenly, and Mrs. Woolper came into the room.

She had kept Valentine waiting more than half an hour. He had little more than half an hour at most in which to break the ice of absolute strangeness, and sound the very depths of this woman’s character. If she had come to him earlier, when his plan of action was clear and definite, his imagination in abeyance, he would have gone cautiously to work, with slowness and deliberation. Coming to him now, when his mind, unsettled by the discovery of fresh evidence against Philip Sheldon, was divided between the past and the present, she took him off his guard, and he plunged at once into the subject that absorbed all his thoughts.

Mrs. Woolper looked from Valentine to the open books on the table with a vague terror in her face.

“I am sorry I was so long, sir; but I’d been polishing the grates and fenders, and such like, and my hands and face were blacker than a sweep’s. I hope there’s nothing wrong at the seaside, where Miss —”

“There is much that’s wrong, Mrs. Woolper — hopelessly, irrecoverably wrong. Miss Halliday is ill, very ill — doomed to die, if she remain in your master’s keeping.”

“Lord help us, Mr. Hawkehurst! what do you mean?”

The terror in her face was no longer a vague terror. It had taken a form and substance, and was a terror unutterably hideous, if ever human countenance gave expression to human thought.

“I mean that your master is better skilled in the use of the agents that kill than the agents that cure. Charlotte’s father came to Philip Sheldon’s house a hale strong man, in the very prime of manhood. In that house he sickened of a nameless disease, and died, carefully tended by his watchful friend. The same careful watcher stands by Charlotte Halliday’s deathbed, and she is dying!”

“Dying! O, sir, for God’s sake, don’t say that!”

“She is dying, as her father died before her, by the hand of Philip Sheldon.”

“O, sir! Mr. Hawkehurst!” cried the old woman, with clasped hands lifted in piteous supplication towards her master’s denouncer. “It’s not true. It is not true. For God’s dear love don’t tell me it is true! I nursed him when he was a baby, sir; and there wasn’t a little trouble I had to bear with him that didn’t make him all the dearer to me. I have sat up all the night through, sir, times and often, when he was ill, and have heard Barlingford church clock strike every hour of the long night; and O, if I had known that this could ever come to him, I should have wished him dead in the little crib where he lay and seemed so innocent. I tell you, sir, it can’t be true! His father and mother had been respected and looked up to in Barlingford for many a year — his grandfather and grandmother before them. There isn’t a name that stands better in those parts than the name of Sheldon. Do you think such a man would poison his friend?”

I said nothing about poison, Mrs. Woolper,” said Valentine, sternly.

This woman had known all, and had held her tongue, like the rest, it seemed. To Valentine there was unutterable horror in the thought that a cold-blooded murder could be thus perpetrated in the sight of several people, and yet no voice be raised to denounce the assassin.

“And this is our modern civilization!” he said to himself. “Give me the desert or the jungle. The sons of Bowanee are no worse than Mr. Sheldon, and one might be on one’s guard against them.”

Nancy Woolper looked at him aghast. He had said nothing about poison! What, then — had she betrayed her master?

He saw that she had known, or strongly suspected, the worst in the case of Tom Halliday, and that she would easily be influenced to do all he wanted of her.

“Mrs. Woolper, you must help me to save Charlotte,” he said, with intensity. “You made no attempt to save her father, though you suspected the cause of his death. I have this day seen Mr. Burkham, the doctor who attended Mr. Halliday, and from his lips I have heard the truth. I want you to accompany me to Hastings, and to take your place by Charlotte’s bed, as her nurse and guardian. If Mr. Sheldon suspects your knowledge of the past, and I have little doubt that he does”— a look in the housekeeper’s face told him that he was right —“you are of all people best fitted to guard that dear girl. Your part will not be a difficult one. If we dare remove her, we will remove her beyond the reach of that man’s power. If not, your task will be to prevent food or medicine, that his hand has touched, from approaching her lips. You can do it. It will only be a question of tact and firmness. We shall have one of the greatest doctors in London for our guide. Will you come?”

“I don’t believe my master poisoned his friend,” said Nancy Woolper, doggedly; “nor I won’t believe it. You can’t force me to think bad of him I loved when he was little and helpless, and I carried him in my arms. What are you and your fine London doctor, Mr. Burkham — he was but a poor fondy, as I mind well — that I should take your word against my master? If that young man thought as Mr. Halliday was being poisoned, why didn’t he speak out, like a man, then? It’s a fine piece of work to bring it up against my master eleven years afterwards. As for young missy, she’s as sweet a young creature as ever lived, and I’d do anything to serve her. But I won’t think, and I can’t think, that my master would hurt a hair of her head. What would he gain by it?”

“He has settled that with himself. He has gained by the death of Tom Halliday, and depend upon it he has made his plans to gain by the death of Tom Halliday’s daughter.”

“I won’t believe it,” the old woman repeated in the same dogged tone.

For such resistance as this Mr. Hawkehurst was in no manner prepared. He looked at his watch. The half hour was nearly gone. There was little more time for argument.

“Great Heaven!” he said to himself, “what argument can I employ to influence this woman’s obdurate heart?”

What argument, indeed? He knew of none stronger than those he had used. He stood for some moments battled and helpless, staring absently at the face of his watch, and wondering what he was to do next.

As Valentine Hawkehurst stood thus, there came a loud ringing of the bell, following quickly on the sound of wheels grinding against the kerbstone.

Mrs. Woolper opened the door and looked out into the hall.

“It’s master!” cried one of the maids, emerging from the disorganized dining-room, “and missus, and Miss Halliday, and Mass Paget — and all the house topsy-turvy!”

“Charlotte here!” exclaimed Valentine. “You are dreaming, girl!”

“And you told me she was dying!” said Mrs. Woolper, with a look of triumph. “What becomes of your fine story now?”

“It is Miss Halliday!” cried the housemaid, as she opened the door. “And O my!” she added, looking back into the hall with a sorrowful face, “how bad she do look!”

Valentine ran out to the gate. Yes; there were two cabs, one laden with luggage, the two cabmen busy about the doors of the vehicles, a little group of stragglers waiting to see the invalid young lady alight. It was the next best thing to a funeral.

“O, don’t she look white!” cried a shrill girl with a baby in her arms.

“In a decline, I dessay, pore young thing,” said a matron, in an audible aside to her companion.

Valentine dashed amongst the group of stragglers. He pushed away the girl with the baby, the housemaid who had run out behind him, Mr. Sheldon, the cabman, every one; and in the next moment Charlotte was in his arms, and he was carrying her into the house.

He felt as if he had been in a dream; and all that exceptional force which the dreamer sometimes feels he felt in this crisis. He carried his dear burden into the study, followed by Mr. Sheldon and Diana Paget. The face that dropped upon his shoulder showed deadly white against his dark-blue coat; the hand which he clasped in his, ah, how listless and feeble!

“Valentine!” the girl said, in a low drowsy voice, lifting her eyes to his face, “is this you? I have been so ill, so tired; and they would bring me away. To be near the doctors, papa says. Do you think any doctors will be able to cure me?”

“Yes, dear, with God’s help. I am glad he has brought you here. And now I must run away,” he said; when he had placed Charlotte in Mr. Sheldon’s arm-chair, “for a very little while, darling. I have seen a doctor, a man in whom I have more confidence than I have in Dr. Doddleson. I am going to fetch him, my dearest,” he added tenderly, as he felt the feeble hand cling to his; “I shall not be long. Do you think I shall not hurry back to you? My dearest one, when I return, it will be to stay with you — for ever.”

She was too ill to note the significance of his words; she only knew that they gave her comfort. He hurried from the room. In less than an hour he must be at the London Bridge terminus, or in all probability the five o’clock train would carry Dr. Jedd to St. Leonards; and on Dr. Jedd his chief hope rested.

“Do you believe me now?” he asked of Mrs. Woolper as he went out into the hall.

“I do,” she answered in a whisper; “and I will do what you want.”

She took his hand in her wrinkled horny palm and grasped it firmly. He felt that in this firm pressure there was a promise sacred as any oath ever registered on earth. He met Mr. Sheldon on the threshold, and passed him without a word. The time might come in which he would have to mask his thoughts, and stoop to the hateful hypocrisy of civility to this man; but he had not yet schooled himself to do this. At the gate he met George Sheldon.

“What’s up now?” asked the lawyer.

“Did you send your message?”

“Yes; I telegraphed to Phil.”

“It has been trouble wasted. He has brought her home.”

“What does that mean?”

“Who knows? I pray God that he may have overreached himself. I have set a watch upon my dear love, and no further harm shall come to her. I am going to fetch Dr. Jedd.”

“And you are not afraid of Phil’s smelling a rat?”

“I am afraid of nothing that he can do henceforward. If it is not too late to save her, I will save her.”

He waited for no more, but jumped into the cab. “London Bridge terminus! You must get me there by a quarter to five,” he said to the driver.

George Sheldon went no further than the gate of his brother’s domain.

“I wonder whether the Harold’s Hill people will send that telegram after him,” he thought. “It’ll be rather unpleasant for Fred Orcott if they do. But it’s ten to one they won’t. The normal condition of every seaside lodging-house keeper in one degree removed from idiotcy.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50