Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

Something Too Much.

“Is that young man mad?” asked Philip Sheldon, as he went into his study immediately after Valentine had passed him in the hall.

The question was not addressed to any particular individual; and Diana, who was standing near the door by which Mr. Sheldon entered, took upon herself to answer it.

“I think he is very anxious,” she said in a half whisper.

“What brought him here just now? He did not know we were coming home.”

Mrs. Woolper answered this question.

“He came for something for Miss Charlotte, sir; some books as she’d had from the library. They’d not been sent back; and he came to see about their being sent.”

“What books?” murmured Charlotte. But a pressure from Mrs. Woolper’s hand prevented her saying more.

“I never encountered any one with so little self-command,” said Mr. Sheldon. “If he is going to rush in and out of my house in that manner, I must really put a stop to his visits altogether. I cannot suffer that kind of thing. For Charlotte’s welfare quiet is indispensable; and if Mr. Hawkehurst’s presence is to bring noise and excitement, Mr. Hawkehurst must not cross this threshold.”

He spoke with suppressed anger; with such evident effort to restrain his anger, that it would have seemed as if his indignation against Valentine was no common wrath.

Charlotte caught his last words.

“Dear papa,” she pleaded in her faint voice, “pray do not be angry with Valentine; he is so anxious about me.”

“I am not angry with him; but while you are ill, I will have quiet — at any price.”

“Then I’m sure you should not have brought Charlotte home,” exclaimed Georgy, in tones of wailing and lamentation; “for of all the miseries in life, there is nothing worse than coming home in the very midst of a general cleaning. It was agreed between Ann Woolper and me that there should be a general cleaning while we were away at the seaside. We were to be away a fortnight, and everything was to be as neat as a new pin when we came home. But here we are back in less than a week, and everything at sixes-and-sevens. Where we are to dine I know not; and as for the carpets, they are all away at the beating-place, and Ann tells me they won’t be home till Friday.”

“We can exist without carpets,” answered Mr. Sheldon, in a hard dry voice. “I suppose they are seeing to Miss Halliday’s room?” he added, addressing himself to Mrs. Woolper. “Why don’t you go and look after them, Nancy?”

“Sarah knows what she has to do. The bed-rooms was done first; and there’s not much amiss in Miss Charlotte’s room.”

Mr. Sheldon dropped wearily into a chair. He looked pale and haggard. Throughout the journey he had been unfailing in his attention to the invalid; but the journey had been fatiguing; for Charlotte Halliday was very ill — so ill as to be unable to avoid inflicting trouble upon others. The weariness — the dizziness — the dull intervals of semi-consciousness — the helpless tottering walk, which was like the walk of intoxication rather than ordinary weakness — the clouded sight — all the worst symptoms of this nameless disease, had every hour grown more alarming.

Against this journey to London Mrs. Sheldon and Diana had pleaded — Georgy with as much earnestness as she could command; Diana as forcibly as she dared argue a question in which her voice had so little weight.

But upon this point Mr. Sheldon was adamant.

“She will be better off in London,” he said resolutely. “This trip to the seaside was a whim of my wife’s; and, like most other whims of my wife’s, it has entailed trouble and expense upon me. Of course I know that Georgy did it for the best,” he added, in reply to a reproachful “O Philip!” from Mrs. Sheldon. “But the whole business has been a mistake. No sooner are we comfortably settled down here, than Hawkehurst takes it into his head to be outrageously alarmed about Charlotte, and wants to bring half-a-dozen doctors round the poor girl’s bed, to her inevitable peril; for in an illness which begins and ends in mental depression, all appearance of alarm is calculated to do mischief.”

Having said this, Mr. Sheldon lost no time in making arrangements for the journey. A carriage was ordered; all possible preparations were made for the comfort of the invalid — everything that care or kindness could do was done; but the cruelty of the removal was not the less obvious. Georgy wailed piteously about the sixes-and-sevens to which they were being taken. Diana cared nothing about sixes-and-sevens; but she felt supreme indignation against Charlotte’s stepfather, and she did not attempt to conceal her feelings.

Nor was it without an effort to oppose Mr. Sheldon’s authority that Miss Paget succumbed to the force of circumstances. She appealed to his wife.

“Dear Mrs. Sheldon, I beg you not to suffer Lotta’s removal,” she said earnestly. “You do not know how ill she is — nor can Mr. Sheldon know, or he would not take such a step. As her mother, your authority is superior to his; you have but to say that she shall not be taken from this house in her present state of prostration and sickness.”

“I have only to say!” cried Georgy, piteously. “O Diana, how can you say such a thing? What would be Mr. Sheldon’s feelings if I were to stand up against him, and declare that Charlotte should not be moved? And he so anxious too, and so clever. I’m sure his conduct about my poor dear Lotta is positively beautiful. I never saw such anxiety. Why, he has grown ten years older in his looks since the beginning of her illness. People go on about stepfather this, and stepfather that, until a poor young widow is almost frightened to marry again. But I don’t believe a real father ever was more thoughtful or more careful about a real daughter than Philip has been about Lotta. And what a poor return it would be if I were to oppose him now, when he says that the removal will be for Charlotte’s good, and that she will be near clever doctors — if she should require clever doctors! You don’t know how experienced he is, and how thoughtful. I shall never forget his kindness to poor Tom.”

“Yes,” exclaimed Miss Paget impatiently, “but Mr. Halliday died.”

“O Diana,” whimpered Georgy, “I did not think you could be so unkind as to remind me of that.”

“I only want to remind you that Mr. Sheldon is not infallible.”

Mr. Sheldon entered the room at this juncture, and Diana left it, passionately indignant against the poor weak creature, to whom no crisis, no danger, could give strength of mind or will.

“A sheep would make some struggle for her lamb,” she thought, angrily. “Mrs. Sheldon is lower than a sheep.”

It was the first time she had thought unkindly of this weak soul, and her anger soon melted to pity for the powerless nature which Mr. Sheldon held in such supreme control. She made no further attempt at resistance after this; but went to Charlotte’s room and prepared for the journey.

“O, why am I to be moved, dear?” the girl asked piteously. “I am too ill to be moved.”

“It is for your good, darling. Mr. Sheldon wants you to be near the great physicians, who can give you health and strength.”

“There are no physicians who can do that. Let me stay here, Di. Beg papa to let me stay here.”

Diana hid her face upon the invalid’s shoulder. Her tears choked her. To repress her grief was agony scarcely endurable. But she did hide all trace of anger and sorrow, and cheered the helpless traveller throughout the weariness of the journey.

Charlotte was lying on a sofa in her bedroom, with Mrs. Woolper in attendance upon her, when Dr. Jedd arrived. It was a quarter to six, and the low western sunshine flooded the room.

The physician came with Valentine, and did not ask to see Mr. Sheldon before going to his patient’s room. He told the housemaid who admitted him to show the way to Miss Halliday’s room.

“The nurse is there, I suppose?” he said to the girl.

“Yes, sir; leastways, Mrs. Woolper.”

“That will do.”

Mr. Sheldon heard the voice in the hall, and came out of the library as the doctor mounted the step of the stairs.

“Who is this? What is this?” he asked of Valentine Hawkehurst.

“I told you I was not satisfied with Dr. Doddleson’s opinion,” answered the young man coolly. “This gentleman is here by appointment with me.”

“And pray by what right do you bring a doctor of your own choosing to visit my stepdaughter without previous consultation with me?”

“By the right of my love for her. I am not satisfied as to the medical treatment your stepdaughter has received in this house, Mr. Sheldon, and I want to be satisfied. Miss Halliday is something more than your, stepdaughter, remember: she is my promised wife. Dr. Jedd’s opinion will be more assuring to me than the opinion of Dr. Doddleson.”

At the sound of Dr. Jedd’s name Mr. Sheldon started slightly. It was a name he knew only too well — a name he had seen among the medical witnesses in the great Fryar trial, the record of which had for him possessed a hideous fascination. He had fancied himself in the poisoner Fryar’s place; and the fancy had sent an icy chill through his veins. But in the next minute he had said to himself, “I am not such a reckless fool as that man Fryar was; and have run no such risks as he ran.”

At the name of Jedd the same icy shiver ran through his veins again. His tone of suppressed anger changed to a tone of civility which was almost sycophantic.

“I have the honour to know Dr. Jedd by repute very well indeed, and I withdraw my objection to your course of proceeding, my dear Hawkehurst; though I am sure Dr. Jedd will agree with me that such a course is completely against all professional etiquette, and that Dr. Doddleson will have the right to consider himself aggrieved.”

“There are cases in which one hardly considers professional etiquette. I shall be very happy to meet Dr. Doddleson to-morrow morning. But as Mr. Hawkehurst was very anxious that I should see Miss Halliday to-night, I consented to waive all ceremony, and come with him on the spot.”

“I cannot blame his anxiety to secure so valuable an opinion. I only wonder what lucky star guided him to so excellent an adviser.”

Mr. Sheldon looked from Dr. Jedd to Valentine Hawkehurst as he said this. The physician’s face told him no more than he might have learnt from a blank sheet of paper. Valentine’s face was dark and gloomy; but that gloomy darkness might mean no more than natural grief.

“I will take you to my stepdaughter’s room at once,” he said to the physician.

“I think it will be better for me to see the young lady alone,” the doctor answered coolly: “that is to say, in the presence of her nurse only.”

“As you please,” Mr. Sheldon replied.

He went back to his study. Georgy was sitting there, whimpering in a feeble way at intervals; and near her sat Diana, silent and gloomy. A settled gloom, as of the grave itself, brooded over the house. Mr. Sheldon flung himself into a chair with an impatient gesture. He had sneered at the inconvenience involved in uncarpeted floors, but he was beginning to feel the aggravation of that inconvenience. These two women in his study were insupportable to him. It seemed as if there was no room in the house in which he could be alone; and just now he had bitter need of solitary meditation.

“Let them arrange the dining-room somehow, carpet or no carpet,” he said to his wife. “We must have some room to dine in; and I can’t have you here, Georgy; I have letters to write.”

Mrs. Sheldon and Diana were not slow to take the hint.

“I’m sure I don’t want to be here, or anywhere,” exclaimed Georgy in piteous accents; “I feel so miserable about Charlotte, that if I could lie down and die, it would be a comfort to me. And it really seems a mockery having dinner at such a time. It’s just as it was during poor Tom’s illness; there were fowls and all sorts of things cooked, and no one ever ate them.”

“For God’s sake go away!” cried Mr. Sheldon passionately; “your perpetual clack is torture to me.”

Georgy hurried from the room, followed closely by Diana.

“Did you ever see any one more anxious?” Mrs. Sheldon asked, with something like pride.

“I would rather see Mr. Sheldon less anxious!” Diana answered gravely.

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