Charlotte's Inheritance, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

The Beginning of the End.

Three days elapsed after the delivery of this letter. Upwards of a week had gone by since the return of Mr. Sheldon and his family from Harold’s Hill: and as yet Philip Sheldon knew not what the issue of events was to be. Very vague were the oracular sentences which his questioning extorted from Dr. Jedd, and he had tried in vain to obtain a tête-à-tête interview with Dr. Doddleson. The physician of Burlington Row took care that his feeble colleague should not fall alone and defenceless into the pathway of Philip Sheldon. Of Charlotte’s actual condition her stepfather, therefore, knew very little. He was told that her state was attended by danger; and the solemn faces which greeted him on every side implied that the danger was extreme. From her room he was in a manner excluded. If he went to her door to make some benevolent and paternal inquiry, he was met on the threshold by Ann Woolper, the sleepless and unresting. If he hinted a natural desire to see his invalid stepdaughter, he was told that she had that moment fallen asleep, or that she was too ill to see him. There was always some plausible reason why he should not be admitted to her room; and finding that this was so, he did not press the question.

He had taken Mrs. Woolper’s measure, and had found that she was too strong for him; doubly strong since she was supported and sustained by that second sleepless watcher, Diana Paget, whom Mr. Sheldon had long ago pronounced to be a strong-minded and superior young person.

From his wife he could obtain no real information — nothing but weepings and lamentations; weak apprehensions of future woe, weaker retrospective reflections on the fatal illness and untimely end of her first husband. Georgy was admitted once or twice a day to the sick-room; but she emerged therefrom no wiser than she entered it. Sorrow in the present, and the fear of greater sorrow to come, had utterly prostrated this poor weak soul. She believed what other people told her to believe, she hoped what they told her to hope. She was the very incarnation and express image of helpless misery.

So, in utter darkness of mind, Mr. Sheldon awaited his destiny. The day drew very near on which he must find certain sums of ready money, or must accept the dreary alternative of ruin and disgrace. He had the policies of assurance in his cash-box, together with the will which made him Charlotte’s sole legatee; he had fixed in his own mind upon the man to whom he could apply for an advance of four thousand pounds on one of the two policies, and he relied on getting his banker to lend him money on the security of the second. But for the one needful event he had yet to wait. That event was Charlotte Halliday’s death.

Of his dreary wanderings in the early morning the household knew nothing. The time which he chose for these purposeless rambles was just the time when no one was astir. The watchers in the two rooms above heard neither his going out nor his coming in, so stealthy were his movements on every occasion. But without this intermission from the dreadful concentration of his life, without this amount of physical exercise and fresh air, Philip Sheldon could scarcely have lived through this period. The solitude of shipwrecked mariner cast upon a desolate island could hardly be more lonely than this man’s life had been since his return from Harold’s Hill. From his study to the dining-room, and from the dining-room back to his study, was the only variety of his dreary days and nights. He had an iron bedstead put up in his study, and there he lay in the earlier hours of the night, taking such rest as he could from fitful dozing that was scarcely sleep, or from brief intervals of heavy slumber made horrible by torturing dreams.

In this room he could hear every sudden movement in the hall, every footstep on the stairs, every opening and shutting of the outer door. Here, too, he could keep his watch, holding himself ready to counter the movements of his enemies, should any opportunity arise for action on his part, defensive or aggressive.

To this room he stealthily returned one brilliant summer morning as the clocks were striking six. He had been walking in the Bayswater Road, amidst all the pleasant stir and bustle of early morning. Waggons coming in from the country, milkwomen setting forth on their daily rounds, clamorous young rooks cawing among the topmost branches of the elms, song-birds chirruping and gurgling their glad morning hymn; and over all things the glory and the freshness of the summer sunshine.

But to Philip Sheldon it was as if these things were not. For the last twelve or fifteen years of his life he had taken no heed of the change of the seasons, except insomuch as the passage of time affected his bill-book, or the condition of that commercial world which was the beginning and end of his life. Now, less than ever, had he an ear for the carolling of birds, or an eye for the glory of summer sunlight, or the flickering shadows of summer leaves faintly stirred by the soft summer wind.

He re-entered his house with a half-dazed sense of the stir and life that had been about him in the high road. It was a relief to him to escape this life and brightness, and to take shelter in the gloom of his study, where the shutters were closed, and only a faint glimmer of day crept through a chink in the shrunken woodwork.

For the first time since the beginning of this dreary period of idleness and suspense he felt himself thoroughly beaten, and instead of going up to his dressing-room for his careful morning toilet, as it was his habit to do at this hour, he flung himself, dressed as he was, upon the low iron bedstead, and fell into a heavy slumber.

Yes, there they were — the familiar tortures of his slumbers, the shadows of busy, eager faces; and upon all one universal expression of mingled anger and surprise. The sound of a wooden hammer striking three solemn strokes; the faint tones of Tom Halliday’s voice, thanking him for his friendly care; the dying look in Tom Halliday’s face, turned to him with such depth of trust and affection. And then across the shadowy realm of dreams there swept the slow solemn progress of a funeral cortege— plumed hearses, blacker than blackest night; innumerable horses, with funereal trappings and plumed headgear waving in an icy wind; long trains of shrouded figures stretching on into infinite space, in spectral procession that knew neither beginning nor end. And in all the solemn crowd passing perpetually with the same unceasing motion, there was no sound of human footfall, no tramp of horse’s hoof, only that dismal waving of black plumage in an icy wind, and the deep boom of a bell tolling for the dead.

He awoke with a start, and exclaimed, “If this is what it is to sleep, I will never sleep again!”

In the next minute he recovered himself. He had been lying on his back. The endless pageant, the dreadful tolling of the funeral bell, meant no more than nightmare, the common torment of all humanity.

“What a fool I must be!” he muttered to himself, as he wiped his forehead, which had grown cold and damp in the agony of his dream.

He opened the shutters, and then looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. To his surprise he found that he had been sleeping three hours. It was nine o’clock. He went upstairs to dress. There was an unusual stir in the corridor above. Ann Woolper was standing there, with her hand on the door of the sick-room, talking to Diana, who covered her face suddenly as he approached, and disappeared into her own room.

The beating of his heart quickened suddenly. Something had happened to disturb the common course of events. Something? What was likely to happen, except the one dread circumstance for which he hoped and waited with such horrible eagerness?

In Ann Woolper’s solemn face he read an answer to his thought. For the first time he was well nigh losing his self-possession. It was with an effort that he steadied himself sufficiently to ask the usual conventional question in the usual conventional tone.

“Is she any better this morning, Ann?”

“Yes, sir, she is much better,” the Yorkshirewoman answered solemnly. “She is where none can harm her now.”

Yes; it was the usual periphrase of these vulgar people. He knew all their cant by heart.

“You mean to say — she — is dead?”

He no longer tried to conceal his agitation. It was a part of his duty to be agitated by the news of his stepdaughter’s untimely death.

“O, sir, you may well be sorry,” said the Yorkshirewoman, with deep feeling. “She was the sweetest, most forgiving creature that ever came into this world; and to the last no hard or cruel word ever passed her innocent lips. Yes, sir, she is gone; she is beyond the power of any one to harm her.”

“All that sort of stuff is so much hypocritical twaddle, Mrs. Woolper,” muttered Mr. Sheldon impatiently; “and I recommend you to keep it for the chaplain of the workhouse in which you are likely to end your days. At what time — did — did this — sad event — happen?

“About an hour ago.”

In the very hour when, in his hideous dream, he had beheld the solemn funeral train winding on for ever through the dim realms of sleep. Was there some meaning in such foolish shadows, after all?

“And why was I not sent for?”

“You were asleep, sir. I came downstairs myself, and looked into your room. You were fast asleep, and I wouldn’t disturb you.”

“That was very wrong; but it was of a piece with the rest of your conduct, which has been from first to last antagonistic to me. I suppose I can see my stepdaughter now,” Mr. Sheldon added, with a grim smile. “There is no further excuse — about headache — or sleep.”

“No, sir, you cannot see her yet. In an hour, if you wish to come into this room, you can come.”

“You are extremely obliging. I begin to doubt whether I am really in my own house. In an hour, then, I will come. Where is my wife?”

“In her own room, sir, lying down; asleep, I believe.”

“I will not disturb her. How about the registration, by-the-by? That must be seen to.”

“Dr. Jedd has promised to attend to that, sir.”

“Has Dr. Jedd been here?”

“He was here an hour ago.”

“Very good. And he will see to that,” muttered Mr. Sheldon thoughtfully.

The event for which he had been so long waiting seemed at the last a little sudden. It had shaken his nerves more than he had supposed it possible that they could be shaken.

He went to his dressing-room, and on this occasion made a very hasty toilet. The event had been tardy, and he had no time to lose in discounting it now that it had come to pass. He went from his dressing-room back to his study, took the jacket containing the policies of assurance and the will from the deed-box, and left the house.

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