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Charlotte's Inheritance by M. E. Braddon

Part 9 out of 9

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With this, Mr. Sheldon of Gray's Inn pushed his brother out on to the
staircase, and shut his door. Philip sat upon the stairs, and drew his
rags together a little, and rubbed his wretched limbs, while the bolts
and chains whereby the lawyer defended his citadel clanked close behind

"I wonder whether he'll pay Hawkehurst a visit," thought George, as he
bolted his door; and he had a kind of grim satisfaction in the idea that
Valentine's Christmas peace might be disturbed by the advent of that
grisly visitor.



"Between Wimbledon and Kingston," muttered the tramp. "If I can drag
myself as far as that, I'll go there this night."

He went down stairs and out into the pitiless cold and snow, and made his
way down Fetter Lane, and across Blackfriars Bridge to the Surrey side of
the water, stopping to beg here and there.

Upon this snowy Christmas night there were plenty of people abroad;
and amongst them Philip Sheldon found pitying matrons, who explored
the depths of their capacious pockets to find him a halfpenny, and
good-natured young men, who flung the "copper" he besought with piteous
professional whine.

When he had collected the price of a glass of gin, he went into the first
public-house he came to, and spent his money. He was too ill to stay the
cravings of his stomach with substantial food. Gin gave him temporary
warmth and temporary strength, and enabled him to push on vigorously for
a little while; and then came dreary periods of faintness and exhaustion,
in which every step was sheer pain and weariness.

Something of his old self, some remnant of that hard strength of purpose
which had once characterized him, remained with him still, utterly fallen
and brutalized as he was. As a savage creature of the jungle might pursue
a given course, pushing always onward to that camp or village whence the
scent of human flesh and blood was wafted to his quivering nostrils, so
Philip Sheldon pushed on towards the dwelling-place of that man and that
woman whom of all creatures upon this earth he most savagely hated.

"There's nothing left for me but to turn housebreaker," he said to
himself; "and the first house I'll try my hand upon shall be Valentine

The idea of violence in such a creature was the idea of a madman. Weapon
he had none, nor the physical strength that would have enabled him to
grapple with a boy of twelve years old. Half intoxicated with the spirits
he had consumed on his long tramp, half delirious with fever, he had a
vague notion that he could make an entrance into some ill-defended house
under cover of night, and steal something that should procure him food
and shelter. And let the house be Valentine Hawkehurst's, the man who had
baffled his plans and crushed him!

If blood must be shed, let the blood be his! Never was man better primed
for murder than the man who tramped across Wimbledon Common at eleven
o'clock this night, with the snow drifting against his face, and his
limbs shaken every now and then by an ague-fit.

Happily for the interests of society, his hand lacked the power to
execute that iniquity which his heart willed.

He reached a little wayside inn near the Robin Hood gate of Richmond
Park, just as the shutters were being closed, and asked a man if any one
of the name of Hawkehurst lived in that neighbourhood.

"What do _you_ want with Mr. Hawkehurst?" asked the man, contemptuously.

"I've got a letter for him."

"Have you? A begging letter, I should think, from the look of you."

"No; it's a business letter. You'd better show me where he lives, if he's
a customer of yours. The business is particular."

"Is it? You're a queer kind of messenger to trust with particular
business. Mr. Hawkehurst's house is the third you come to on the opposite
side of the way. But I don't suppose you'll find anybody up as late as
this. Their lights are out by eleven, in a general way."

The third house on the opposite side of the road was half a mile distant
from the little run. Lights shone bright in the lower windows as the
tramp dragged his tired limbs to the stout oaken gate. The gate was
fastened only by a latch, and offered no resistance to the intruder. He
crept with stealthy footsteps along the smooth gravel walk, sheltered by
dark laurels, on which the light flashed cheerily from those bright
windows. Sounds of laughter and of music pealed out upon the wintry air.
Shadows flitted across the blinds of the broad bay windows. Philip
Sheldon crept into a sheltered nook beside the rustic porch, and sank
down exhausted in the shadow of the laurels.

He sat there in a kind of stupor. He had lost the power of thought,
somehow, on that dreary journey. It seemed almost as if he had left some
portion of his being out yonder in the cold and darkness. He had
difficulty in remembering why he had come to this place, and what that
deed was which he meant to do.

"Hawkehurst," he muttered to himself--"Hawkehurst, the man who leagued
against me with Jedd! I swore to be even with him if ever I found the
opportunity--if ever! And George refused me a few shillings; my brother,
my only brother, refused to stand my friend!"

Hawkehurst and George--big only brother--the images of these two men
floated confusedly in his brain: he could scarcely separate them.
Sometimes it seemed to him that he was still sitting outside his
brother's door, on the staircase in Gray's Inn, hugging himself in his
rags, and cursing his unnatural kinsman's cruelty; then in the next
moment he remembered where he was, and breathed bitter curses upon that
unconscious enemy whose laugh pealed out every now and then amid a chorus
of light-hearted laughter.

There was a little Christmas party at Charlottenburgh. Two flys were
waiting in the laurel-avenue to convey Mr. Hawkehurst's guests to distant
abodes. The door was opened presently, and all the bustle of departure
made itself heard by that wretched wayfarer who found it so difficult to
keep his hold upon the consciousness of these things.

"What is it?" he said to himself--"a party! Hawkehurst has been giving a

He had lived through too much degradation, he had descended into too deep
a gulf of wretchedness, to be conscious of the contrast between his
present situation and his position in those days when he had played the
host, and seen handsome carriages bear prosperous guests away from his
door. In that cycle of misery which he had endured, these things and the
memory of them had faded from him as completely as if they had been
obliterated by the passage of a century. The hapless wretch tried to give
sustained attention to all the animated discussion that attended the
departure of the merry guests. Half-a-dozen people seemed to be talking
at once. Valentine was giving his friends counsel about the way home.

"You will keep to the lower road, you know, Fred. Lawsley's cab can
follow yours. You came a couple of miles out of your way. And tell that
fellow Battersea Bridge is a mistake."

And then followed Charlotte's friendly questioning about wraps, and
hoods, and comforters, and other feminine gear.

"And when are you coming to dine at Fulham?" cried one voice.

"I shall certainly get those quadrilles of Offenbach's," said another.

"How delightfully Mr. Lawsley sang that song of Santley's!"

And anon a chorus of "Never enjoyed myself more!" "Most delightful
evening!" "Pray don't come out in the cold." "Thanks; well, yes, yours
are always capital." "No, I won't light up till I'm on the road." "Give
my book a lift in the _D.H._, eh, old fellow?" "Are you _quite_ sure that
shawl is warm enough?" "Take a rug for your feet." "Thanks, no."
"Good-night." "See you on Tuesday." "Don't forget the box for D.L." "All
right, old fellow!" "Lower Road, Roehampton Lane, Putney Bridge.

Among the confusion of voices Philip Sheldon had recognized more than one
voice that was familiar to him. There were Charlotte's gentle tones, and
Valentine's hearty barytone, and another that he knew.

Diana Paget! Yes, it was her voice. Diana Paget, whom he had cause to
hate for her interference with his affairs.

"A beggar," he muttered to himself, "and the daughter of a beggar! She
was a nice young lady to set herself in opposition to the man who gave
her a home."

The vehicles drove away, but there was still a little group in the rustic
porch. Valentine and Charlotte, with Monsieur and Madame Lenoble, who had
come to spend their Christmas with their English friends.

"How we have been gay this evening!" cried Gustave. "There is nothing
like your English interior for that which you call the comfortable, the
jolly, you others. Thy friends are the jollity itself, Hawkehurst. And
our acting charades, when that we all talked at once, and with a such
emphasis on the word we would make to know. Was it not that our
spectators were cunning to divine the words? And your friend Lawsley--it
is a mixture of Got and Sanson. It is a true genius. Think, then, Diane,
while we were amusing ourselves, our girls were at the midnight mass at
the Sacre Coeur? Dear pious children, their innocent prayers ascended
towards the heavens for we who are absent. Come, Madame Hawkehurst,
Diane, it makes cold."

"But we are sheltered here. And the stars are so bright after the snow,"
said Charlotte. "Do you remember the Christmas-day you spent at the Lawn,
Valentine, when we walked in Kensington Gardens together, just when we
were first engaged?" the young wife added shyly.

"Do I not remember? It was the first time the holiness of Christmas came
home to my heart. And now let us go back to the drawing-room, and sit
round the fire, and tell ghost stories. Lenoble shall give us the legends
of Cotenoir."

"Valentine," murmured Charlotte, "do you know that it is nearly one

"And we must put in an appearance at church to-morrow morning. And
Lenoble has to walk to Kingston to early mass. We will postpone our ghost
stories to New-Year's eve. And Lenoble shall read Tennyson's _New Year_,
to demonstrate his improvement in the English language. Lead the way,
Mrs. Hawkehurst; your obedient slave obeys. Mamma is waiting for us in
the drawing-room, marvelling at our delay, no doubt. And Nancy Woolper
stalks ghost-like through the house, oppressed by the awful
responsibility of to-morrow's pudding."

Anon came a clanking of bolts and bars; and Philip Sheldon, for the
second time that night, heard a door shut against him. As the voices died
away, his consciousness of external things died with him. He fancied
himself on the Gray's-Inn staircase.

"Don't be so hard upon me, George," he muttered faintly. "If my own kith
and kin turn against me, whom shall I look to?"

Mrs. Woolper opened the door early next day, when night was yet at odds
with morning. All through the night the silent snow-flakes had been
falling thick and fast; and they had woven the shroud of Philip Sheldon.
The woman who had watched his infant slumbers forty years before, was the
first to look upon him in that deeper sleep, of whose waking we know so
little. It was not until she had looked long and closely at the dead face
that she knew why it was that the aspect of that countenance had affected
her with so strange a pang. She did recognize that altered wretch, and
kept her counsel.

Before the bells rang for morning service the tramp was lying in the
dead-house of Kingston Union, whither he had been conveyed very quietly
in the early morning, unknown to any one but the constable who
superintended the removal, and the servants of Mr. Hawkehurst's
household. Only the next day did Ann Woolper tell Valentine what had
happened. There was to be an inquest. It would be well that some one
should identify the dead man, and establish the fact of Philip Sheldon's

Valentine was able to do this unaided. He attended the inquest, and made
arrangements for the outcast's decent burial; and in due course he gave
Mrs. Sheldon notice of her freedom. Beyond that nameless grave whose
fancy shall dare follow Philip Sheldon? He died and made no sign. And in
the last dread day, when the dead, small and great, from the sea and from
the grave, press together at the foot of the great white Throne, and the
books of doom are opened; when above shines the city whose light is the
glory of God, and below yawns the lake of fire,--what voice shall plead
for Philip Sheldon, what entreating cry shall Pity send forth that
sentence against him may be stayed?

Surely none; unless it issue from the lips of that one confiding friend,
whose last words upon earth thanked and blessed him, and whose long
agonies he watched with unshaken purpose, conscious that in every
convulsive change in the familiar face, and every pang that shook the
stalwart form, he saw the result of his own work.

Perhaps at that dread Judgment Day, when every other tongue is silent,
the voice of Tom Halliday may be heard pleading for the man who murdered


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