Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

Mr. And Mrs. Halliday.

Mr. Sheldon’s visitors arrived in due course. They were provincial people of the middle class, accounted monstrously genteel in their own neighbourhood, but in nowise resembling Londoners of the same rank.

Mr. Thomas Halliday was a big, loud-spoken, good-tempered Yorkshireman, who had inherited a comfortable little estate from a plodding, money-making father, and for whom life had been very easy. He was a farmer, and nothing but a farmer; a man for whom the supremest pleasure of existence was a cattle-show or a country horse-fair. The farm upon which he had been born and brought up was situated about six miles from Barlingford, and all the delights of his boyhood and youth were associated with that small market town. He and the two Sheldons had been schoolfellows, and afterwards boon companions, taking such pleasure as was obtainable in Barlingford together; flirting with the same provincial beauties at prim tea-parties in the winter, and getting up friendly picnics in the summer — picnics at which eating and drinking were the leading features of the day’s entertainment. Mr. Halliday had always regarded George and Philip Sheldon with that reverential admiration which a stupid man, who is conscious of his own mental inferiority, generally feels for a clever friend and companion. But he was also fully aware of the advantage which a rich man possesses over a poor one, and would not have exchanged the fertile acres of Hyley for the intellectual gifts of his schoolfellows. He had found the substantial value of his comfortably furnished house and well-stocked farm when he and his friend Philip Sheldon became suitors for the hand of Georgina Cradock, youngest daughter of a Barlingford attorney, who lived next door to the Barlingford dentist, Philip Sheldon’s father. Philip and the girl had been playfellows in the long-walled gardens behind the two houses, and there had been a brotherly and sisterly intimacy between the juvenile members of the two families. But when Philip and Georgina met at the Barlingford tea-parties in later years, the parental powers frowned upon any renewal of that childish friendship. Miss Cradock had no portion, and the worthy solicitor her father was a prudent man, who was apt to look for the promise of domestic happiness in the plate-basket and the linen-press, rather than for such superficial qualifications as black whiskers and white teeth. So poor Philip was “thrown over the bridge,” as he said himself, and Georgy Cradock married Mr. Halliday, with all attendant ceremony and splendour, according to the “lights” of Barlingford gentry.

But this provincial bride’s story was no passionate record of anguish and tears. The Barlingford Juliet had liked Romeo as much as she was capable of liking any one; but when Papa Capulet insisted on her union with Paris, she accepted her destiny with decent resignation, and, in the absence of any sympathetic father confessor, was fain to seek consolation from a more mundane individual in the person of the Barlingford milliner. Nor did Philip Sheldon give evidence of any extravagant despair. His father was something of a doctor as well as a dentist; and there were plenty of dark little phials lurking on the shelves of his surgery in which the young man could have found “mortal drugs” without the aid of the apothecary, had he been so minded. Happily no such desperate idea ever occurred to him in connection with his grief. He held himself sulkily aloof from Mr. and Mrs. Halliday for some time after their marriage, and allowed people to see that he considered himself very hardly used; but Prudence, which had always been Philip Sheldon’s counsellor, proved herself also his consoler in this crisis of his life. A careful consideration of his own interests led him to perceive that the successful result of his love-suit would have been about the worst thing that could have happened to him.

Georgina had no money. All was said in that. As the young dentist’s worldly wisdom ripened with experience, he discovered that the worldly ease of the best man in Barlingford was something like that of a canary-bird who inhabits a clean cage and is supplied with abundant seed and water. The cage is eminently comfortable, and the sleepy, respectable, elderly bird sighs for no better abiding-place, no wider prospect than that patch of the universe which he sees between the bars. But now and then there is hatched a wild young fledgeling, which beats its wings against the inexorable wires, and would fain soar away into that wide outer world, to prosper or perish in its freedom.

Before Georgy had been married a year, her sometime lover had fully resigned himself to the existing state of things, and was on the best possible terms with his friend Tom. He could eat his dinner in the comfortable house at Hyley with an excellent appetite; for there was a gulf between him and his old love far wider than any that had been dug by that ceremonial in the parish church of Barlingford. Philip Sheldon had awakened to the consciousness that life in his native town was little more than a kind of animal vegetation — the life of some pulpy invertebrate creature, which sprawls helplessly upon the sands whereon the wave has deposited it, and may be cloven in half without feeling itself noticeably worse for the operation. He had awakened to the knowledge that there was a wider and more agreeable world beyond that little provincial borough, and that a handsome face and figure and a vigorous intellect were commodities for which there must be some kind of market.

Once convinced of the utter worthlessness of his prospects in Barlingford, Mr. Sheldon turned his eyes Londonwards; and his father happening at the same time very conveniently to depart this life, Philip, the son and heir, disposed of the business to an aspiring young practitioner, and came to the metropolis, where he made that futile attempt to establish himself which has been described.

The dentist had wasted four years in London, and ten years had gone by since Georgy’s wedding; and now for the first time he had an opportunity of witnessing the domestic happiness or the domestic misery of the woman who had jilted him, and the man who had been his successful rival. He set himself to watch them with the cool deliberation of a social anatomist, and he experienced very little difficulty in the performance of this moral dissection. They were established under his roof, his companions at every meal; and they were a kind of people who discuss their grievances and indulge in their “little differences” with perfect freedom in the presence of a third, or a fourth, or even a fifth party.

Mr. Sheldon was wise enough to preserve a strict neutrality. He would take up a newspaper at the beginning of a little difference, and lay it down when the little difference was finished, with the most perfect assumption of unconsciousness; but it is doubtful whether the matrimonial disputants were sufficiently appreciative of this good breeding. They would have liked to have had Mr. Sheldon for a court of appeal; and a little interference from him would have given zest to their quarrels. Meanwhile Philip watched them slyly from the covert of his newspaper, and formed his own conclusions about them. If he was pleased to see that his false love’s path was not entirely rose-bestrewn, or if he rejoiced at beholding the occasional annoyance of his rival, he allowed no evidence of his pleasure to appear in his face or manner.

Georgina Cradock’s rather insipid prettiness had developed into matronly comeliness. Her fair complexion and pink cheeks had lost none of their freshness. Her smooth auburn hair was as soft and bright as it had been when she had braided it preparatory to a Barlingford tea-party in the days of her spinsterhood. She was a pretty, weak little woman, whose education had never gone beyond the routine of a provincial boarding-school, and who believed that she had attained all necessary wisdom in having mastered Pinnock’s abridgments of Goldsmith’s histories and the rudiments of the French language. She was a woman who thought that the perfection of feminine costume was a moire-antique dress and a conspicuous gold chain. She was a woman who considered a well-furnished house and a horse and gig the highest form of earthly splendour or prosperity.

This was the shallow commonplace creature whom Philip Sheldon had once admired and wooed. He looked at her now, and wondered how he could ever have felt even as much as he had felt on her account. But he had little leisure to devote to any such abstract and useless consideration. He had his own affairs to think about, and they were very desperate.

In the meantime Mr. and Mrs. Halliday occupied themselves in the pursuit of pleasure or business, as the case might be. They were eager for amusement: went to exhibitions in the day and to theatres at night, and came home to cozy little suppers in Fitzgeorge-street, after which Mr. Halliday was wont to waste the small hours in friendly conversation with his quondam companion, and in the consumption of much brandy-and-water.

Unhappily for Georgy, these halcyon days were broken by intervals of storm and cloud. The weak little woman was afflicted with that intermittent fever called jealousy; and the stalwart Thomas was one of those men who can scarcely give the time of day to a feminine acquaintance without some ornate and loud-spoken gallantry. Having no intellectual resources wherewith to beguile the tedium of his idle prosperous life, he was fain to seek pleasure in the companionship of other men; and had thus become a haunter of tavern parlours and small racecourses, being always ready for any amusement his friends proposed to him. It followed, therefore, that he was very often absent from his commonplace substantial home, and his pretty weak-minded wife. And poor Georgy had ample food for her jealous fears and suspicions; for where might a man not be who was so seldom at home? She had never been particularly fond of her husband, but that was no reason why she should not be particularly jealous about him; and her jealousy betrayed itself in a peevish worrying fashion, which was harder to bear than the vengeful ferocity of a Clytemnestra. It was in vain that Thomas Halliday and those jolly good fellows his friends and companions attested the Arcadian innocence of racecourses, and the perfect purity of that smoky atmosphere peculiar to tavern parlours. Georgy’s suspicions were too vague for refutation; but they were nevertheless sufficient ground for all the alternations of temper — from stolid sulkiness to peevish whining, from murmured lamentations to loud hysterics — to which the female temperament is liable.

In the meantime poor honest, loud-spoken Tom did all in his power to demonstrate his truth and devotion. He bought his wife as many stiff silk gowns and gaudy Barlingford bonnets as she chose to sigh for. He made a will, in which she was sole legatee, and insured his life in different offices to the amount of five thousand pounds.

“I’m the sort of fellow that’s likely to go off the hooks suddenly, you know, Georgy,” he said, “and your poor dad was always anxious I should make things square for you. I don’t suppose you’re likely to marry again, my lass, so I’ve no need to tie up Lottie’s little fortune. I must trust some one, and I’d better confide in my little wife than in some canting methodistical fellow of a trustee, who would speculate my daughter’s money upon some Stock–Exchange hazard, and levant to Australia when it was all swamped. If you can’t trust me, Georgy, I’ll let you see that I can trust you”, added Tom reproachfully.

Whereupon poor weak little Mrs. Halliday murmured plaintively that she did not want fortunes or life insurances, but that she wanted her husband to stay at home, content with the calm and rather sleepy delights of his own fireside. Poor Tom was wont to promise amendment, and would keep his promise faithfully so long as no supreme temptation, in the shape of a visit from some friend of the jolly-good-fellow species, arose to vanquish his good resolutions. But a good-tempered, generous-hearted young man who farms his own land, has three or four good horses in his stable, a decent cellar of honest port and sherry —“none of your wishy-washy sour stuff in the way of hock or claret,” cried Tom Halliday — and a very comfortable balance at his banker’s, finds it no easy matter to shake off friends of the jolly-good-fellow fraternity.

In London Mr. Halliday found the spirit of jolly-dog-ism rampant. George Sheldon had always been his favourite of these two brothers; and it was George who lured him from the safe shelter of Fitzgeorge-street and took him to mysterious haunts, whence he returned long after midnight, boisterous of manner and unsteady of gait, and with garments reeking of stale tobacco-smoke.

He was always good-tempered, even after these diabolical orgies on some unknown Brocken, and protested indistinctly that there was no harm — ”‘pon m’ wor’, ye know, ol’ gur’! Geor’ an’ me — half-doz’ oyst’r — c’gar — botl’ p’l ale — str’t home,” and much more to the same effect. When did any married man ever take more than half a dozen oysters — or take any undomestic pleasure for his own satisfaction? It is always those incorrigible bachelors, Thomas, Richard, or Henry, who hinder the unwilling Benedick from returning to his sacred Lares and Penates.

Poor Georgy was not to be pacified by protestations about oysters and cigars from the lips of a husband who was thick of utterance, and who betrayed a general imbecility of mind and unsteadiness of body. This London excursion, which had begun in sunshine, threatened to end in storm and darkness. Georgy Sheldon and his set had taken possession of the young farmer; and Georgy had no better amusement in the long blustrous March evenings than to sit at her work under the flaming gas in Mr. Sheldon’s drawing-room, while that gentleman — who rarely joined in the dissipations of his friend and his brother — occupied himself with mechanical dentistry in the chamber of torture below.

Fitzgeorge-street in general, always on the watch to discover evidences of impecuniosity or doubtful morality on the part of any one citizen in particular, could find no food for scandal in the visit of Mr. and Mrs. Halliday to their friend and countryman. It had been noised abroad, through the agency of Mrs. Woolper, that Mr. Sheldon had been a suitor for the lady’s hand, and had been jilted by her. The Fitzgeorgians had been, therefore, especially on the alert to detect any sign of backsliding in the dentist. There would have been much pleasant discussion in kitchens and back-parlours if Mr. Sheldon had been particularly attentive to his fair guest; but it speedily became known, always by the agency of Mrs. Woolper and that phenomenon of idleness and iniquity, the London “girl,” that Mr. Sheldon was not by any means attentive to the pretty young woman from Yorkshire; but that he suffered her to sit alone hour after hour in her husband’s absence, with no amusement but her needlework wherewith to “pass the time,” while he scraped and filed and polished those fragments of bone which were to assist in the renovation of decayed beauty.

The third week of Mr. and Mrs. Halliday’s visit was near its close, and as yet the young farmer had arrived at no decision as to the subject which had brought him to London. The sale of Hyley Farm was an accomplished fact, and the purchase-money duly bestowed at Tom’s banker’s; but very little had been done towards finding the new property which was to be a substitute for the estate his father and grandfather had farmed before him. He had seen auctioneers, and had brought home plans of estates in Herefordshire and Devonshire, Cornwall and Somersetshire, all of which seemed to be, in their way, the most perfect things imaginable — land of such fertility as one would scarcely expect to find out of Arcadia — live stock which seemed beyond all price, to be taken at a valuation. — roads and surrounding neighbourhood unparalleled in beauty and convenience — outbuildings that must have been the very archetypes of barns and stables — a house which to inhabit would be to adore. But as yet he had seen none of these peerless domains. He was waiting for decent weather in which to run down to the West and “look about him,” as he said to himself. In the meantime the blustrous March weather, which was so unsuited to long railroad journeys, and all that waiting about at junctions and at little windy stations on branch lines, incidental to the inspection of estates scattered over a large area of country, served very well for “jolly-dog-ism;” and what with a hand at cards in George Sheldon’s chambers, and another hand at cards in somebody else’s chambers, and a run down to an early meeting at Newmarket, and an evening at some rooms where there was something to be seen which was as near prize-fighting as the law allowed, and other evenings in unknown regions, Mr. Halliday found time slipping by him, and his domestic peace vanishing away.

It was on an evening at the end of this third week that Mr. Sheldon abandoned his mechanical dentistry for once in a way, and ascended to the drawing-room where poor Georgy sat busy with that eternal needlework, but for which melancholy madness would surely overtake many desolate matrons in houses whose common place comfort and respectable dulness are more dismal than the picturesque dreariness of a moated grange amid the Lincolnshire fens. To the masculine mind this needlework seems nothing more than a purposeless stabbing and sewing of strips of calico; but to lonely womanhood it is the prison-flower of the captive, it is the spider of Latude.

Mr. Sheldon brought his guest an evening newspaper.

“There’s an account of the opening of Parliament,” he said, “which you may perhaps like to see. I wish I had a piano, or some female acquaintances to drop in upon you. I am afraid you must be dull in these long evenings when Tom is out of the way.”

“I am indeed dull,” Mrs. Halliday answered peevishly; “and if Tom cared for me, he wouldn’t leave me like this evening after evening. But he doesn’t care for me.”

Mr Sheldon laid down the newspaper, and seated himself opposite his guest. He sat for a few minutes in silence, beating time to some imaginary air with the tips of his fingers on the old-fashioned mahogany table. Then he said, with a half-smile upon his face —

“But surely Tom is the best of husbands! He has been a little wild since his coming to London, I know; but then you see he doesn’t often come to town.”

“He’s just as bad in Yorkshire,” Georgy answered gloomily; “he’s always going to Barlingford with somebody or other, or to meet some of his old friends. I’m sure, if I had known what he was, I would never have married him.”

“Why, I thought he was such a good husband. He was telling me only a few days ago how he had made a will leaving you every sixpence he possesses, without reservation, and how he has insured his life for five thousand pounds.”

“O yes, I know that; but I don’t call that being a good husband. I don’t want him to leave me his money. I don’t want him to die. I want him to stay at home.”

“Poor Tom! I’m afraid he’s not the sort of man for that kind of thing. He likes change and amusement. You married a rich man, Mrs. Halliday; you made your choice, you know, without regard to the feelings of any one else. You sacrificed truth and honour to your own inclination, or your own interest, I do not know, and do not ask which. If the bargain has turned out a bad one, that’s your look-out.”

Philip Sheldon sat with his folded arms resting on the little table and his eyes fixed on Georgy’s face. They could be very stern and hard and cruel, those bright black eyes, and Mrs. Halliday grew first red and then pale under their searching gaze. She had seen Mr. Sheldon very often during the years of her married life, but this was the first time he had ever said anything to her that sounded like a reproach. The dentist’s eyes softened a little as he watched her, not with any special tenderness, but with an expression of half-disdainful compassion — such as a strong stern man might feel for a foolish child. He could see that this woman was afraid of him, and it served his interests that she should fear him. He had a purpose in everything he did, and his purpose to-night was to test the strength of his influence over Georgina Halliday. In the old time before her marriage that influence had been very strong. It was for him, to discover now whether it still endured.

“You made your choice, Mrs. Halliday,” he went on presently, “and it was a choice which all prudent people must have approved. What chance had a man, who was only heir to a practice worth four or five hundred pounds, against the inheritor of Hyley Farm with its two hundred and fifty acres, and three thousand pounds’ worth of live stock, plant, and working capital? When do the prudent people ever stop to consider truth and honour, or old promises, or an affection that dates from childhood? They calculate everything by pounds, shillings, and pence; and according to their mode of reckoning you were in the right when you jilted me to marry Tom Halliday.”

Georgy laid down her work and took out her handkerchief. She was one of those women who take refuge in tears when they find themselves at a disadvantage. Tears had always melted honest Tom, was his wrath never so dire, and tears would no doubt subdue Philip Sheldon.

But Georgy had to discover that the dentist was made of a stuff very different from that softer clay which composed the rollicking good-tempered farmer. Mr. Sheldon watched her tears with the cold-blooded deliberation of a scientific experimentalist. He was glad to find that he could make her cry. She was a necessary instrument in the working out of certain plans that he had made for himself, and he was anxious to discover whether she was likely to be a plastic instrument. He knew that her love for him had never been worth much at its best, and that the poor little flickering flame had been utterly extinguished by nine years of commonplace domesticity and petty jealousy. But his purpose was one that would be served as well by her fear as by her love, and he had set himself to-night to gauge his power in relation to this poor weak creature.

“It’s very unkind of you to say such dreadful things, Mr. Sheldon,” she whimpered presently; “you know very well that my marriage with Tom was pa’s doing, and not mine. I’m sure if I’d known how he would stay out night after night, and come home in such dreadful states time after time, I never would have consented to marry him.”

“Wouldn’t you? — O yes, you would. If you were a widow to-morrow, and free to marry again, you would choose just such another man as Tom — a man who laughs loud, and pays flourishing compliments, and drives a gig with a high-stepping horse. That’s the sort of man women like, and that’s the sort of man you’d marry.”

“I’m sure I shouldn’t marry at all,” answered Mrs. Halliday, in a voice that was broken by little gasping sobs. “I have seen enough of the misery of married life. But I don’t want Tom to die, unkind as he is to me. People are always saying that he won’t make old bones — how horrid it is to talk of a person’s bones! — and I’m sure I sometimes make myself wretched about him, as he knows, though he doesn’t thank me for it.”

And here Mrs Halliday’s sobs got the better of her utterance, and Mr. Sheldon was fain to say something of a consolatory nature.

“Come, come,” he said, “I won’t tease you any more. That’s against the laws of hospitality, isn’t it? — only there are some things which you can’t expect a man to forget, you know. However, let bygones be bygones. As for poor old Tom, I daresay he’ll live to be a hale, hearty old man, in spite of the croakers. People always will croak about something; and it’s a kind of fashion to say that a big, hearty, six-foot man is a fragile blossom likely to be nipped by any wintry blast. Come, come, Mrs. Halliday, your husband mustn’t discover that I’ve been making you cry when he comes home. He may be home early this evening, perhaps; and if he is, we’ll have an oyster supper, and a chat about old times.”

Mrs. Halliday shook her head dolefully.

“It’s past ten o’clock already,” she said, “and I don’t suppose Tom will be home till after twelve. He doesn’t like my sitting up for him; but I wonder what time he would come home if I didn’t sit up for him?”

“Let’s hope for the best,” exclaimed Mr. Sheldon cheerfully. “I’ll go and see about the oysters.”

“Don’t get them for me, or for Tom,” protested Mrs. Halliday; “he will have had his supper when he comes home, you may be sure, and I couldn’t eat a morsel of anything.”

To this resolution Mrs. Halliday adhered; so the dentist was fain to abandon all jovial ideas in relation to oysters and pale ale. But he did not go back to his mechanical dentistry. He sat opposite his visitor, and watched her, silently and thoughtfully, for some time as she worked. She had brushed away her tears, but she looked very peevish and miserable, and took out her watch several times in an hour. Mr. Sheldon made two or three feeble attempts at conversation, but the talk languished and expired on each occasion, and they sat on in silence.

Little by little the dentist’s attention seemed to wander away from his guest. He wheeled his chair round, and sat looking at the fire with the same fixed gloom upon his face which had darkened it on the night of his return from Yorkshire. Things had been so desperate with him of late, that he had lost his old orderly habit of thinking out a business at one sitting, and making an end of all deliberation and hesitation about it. There were subjects that forced themselves upon his thoughts, and certain ideas which repeated themselves with a stupid persistence. He was such an eminently practical man, that this disorder of his brain troubled him more even than the thoughts that made the disorder. He sat in the same attitude for a long while, scarcely conscious of Mrs. Halliday’s presence, not at all conscious of the progress of time. Georgy had been right in her gloomy forebodings of bad behaviour on the part of Mr. Halliday. It was nearly one o’clock when a loud double knock announced that gentleman’s return. The wind had been howling drearily, and a sharp, slanting rain had been pattering against the windows for the last half-hour, while Mrs. Halliday’s breast had been racked by the contending emotions of anxiety and indignation.

“I suppose he couldn’t get a cab,” she exclaimed, as the knock startled her from her listening attitude — for however intently a midnight watcher may be listening for the returning wanderer’s knock, it is not the less startling when it comes? —“and he has walked home through the wet, and now he’ll have a violent cold, I daresay,” added Georgy peevishly.

“Then it’s lucky for him he’s in a doctor’s house,” answered Mr. Sheldon, with a smile. He was a handsome man, no doubt, according to the popular idea of masculine perfection, but he had not a pleasant smile. “I went through the regular routine, you know, and am as well able to see a patient safely through a cold or fever as I am to make him a set of teeth.”

Mr. Halliday burst into the room at this moment, singing a fragment of the “Chough and Crow” chorus, very much out of tune. He was in boisterously high spirits, and very little the worse for liquor. He had only walked from Covent Garden, he said, and had taken nothing but a tankard of stout and a Welsh rarebit. He had been hearing the divinest singing — boys with the voices of angels — and had been taking his supper in a place which duchesses themselves did not disdain to peep at from the sacred recesses of a loge grillee, George Sheldon had told him. But poor country-bred Georgina Halliday would not believe in the duchesses, or the angelic singing boys, or the primitive simplicity of Welsh rarebits. She had a vision of beautiful women, and halls of dazzling light, where there was the mad music of perpetual Post-horn Galops, with a riotous accompaniment of huzzas and the popping of champagne corks — where the sheen of satin and the glitter of gems bewildered the eye of the beholder. She had seen such a picture once on the stage, and had vaguely associated it with all Tom’s midnight roisterings ever afterwards.

The roisterer’s garments were very wet, and it was in vain that his wife and Philip Sheldon entreated him to change them for dry ones, or to go to bed immediately. He stood before the fire relating his innocent adventures, and trying to dispel the cloud from Georgy’s fair young brow; and, when he did at last consent to go to his room, the dentist shook his head ominously.

“You’ll have a severe cold to-morrow, depend upon it, Tom, and you’ll have yourself to thank for it,” he said, as he bade the good-tempered reprobate good night. “Never mind, old fellow,” answered Tom; “if I am ill, you shall nurse me. If one is doomed to die by doctors’ stuff, it’s better to have a doctor one does know than a doctor one doesn’t know for one’s executioner.”

After which graceful piece of humour Mr. Halliday went blundering up the staircase, followed by his aggrieved wife.

Philip Sheldon stood on the landing looking after his visitors for some minutes. Then he went slowly back to the sitting-room, where he replenished the fire, and seated himself before it with a newspaper in his hand.

“What’s the use of going to bed, if I can’t sleep?” he muttered, in a discontented tone.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31