Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

A Perplexing Illness.

Mr. Sheldon’s prophecy was fully realised. Tom Halliday awoke the next day with a violent cold in his head. Like most big boisterous men of herculean build, he was the veriest craven in the hour of physical ailment; so he succumbed at once to the malady which a man obliged to face the world and fight for his daily bread must needs have made light of.

The dentist rallied his invalid friend.

“Keep your bed, if you like, Tom,” he said, “but there’s no necessity for any such coddling. As your hands are hot, and your tongue rather queer, I may as well give you a saline draught. You’ll be all right by dinner-time, and I’ll get George to look round in the evening for a hand at cards.”

Tom obeyed his professional friend — took his medicine, read the paper, and slept away the best part of the dull March day. At half-past five he got up and dressed for dinner, and the evening passed very pleasantly — so pleasantly, indeed, that Georgy was half inclined to wish that her husband might be afflicted with chronic influenza, whereby he would be compelled to stop at home. She sighed when Philip Sheldon slapped his friend’s broad shoulder, and told him cheerily that he would be “all right to-morrow.” He would be well again, and there would be more midnight roistering, and she would be again tormented by that vision of lighted halls and beautiful diabolical creatures revolving madly to the music of the Post-horn Galop.

It seemed, however, that poor jealous Mrs. Halliday was to be spared her nightly agony for some time to come. Tom’s cold lasted longer than he had expected, and the cold was succeeded by a low fever — a bilious fever, Mr. Sheldon said. There was not the least occasion for alarm, of course. The invalid and the invalid’s wife trusted implicitly in the friendly doctor who assured them both that Tom’s attack was the most ordinary kind of thing; a little wearing, no doubt, but entirely without danger. He had to repeat this assurance very often to Georgy, whose angry feelings had given place to extreme tenderness and affection now that Tom was an invalid, quite unfitted for the society of jolly good fellows, and willing to receive basins of beef-tea and arrow-root meekly from his wife’s hands, instead of those edibles of iniquity, oysters and toasted cheese.

Mr. Halliday’s illness was very tiresome. It was one of those perplexing complaints which keep the patient himself, and the patient’s friends and attendants, in perpetual uncertainty. A little worse one day and a shade better the next; now gaining a little strength, now losing a trifle more than he had gained. The patient declined in so imperceptible a manner that he had been ill three weeks, and was no longer able to leave his bed, and had lost alike his appetite and his spirits, before Georgy awoke to the fact that this illness, hitherto considered so lightly, must be very serious.

“I think if — if you have no objection, I should like to see another doctor, Mr. Sheldon,” she said one day, with considerable embarrassment of manner. She feared to offend her host by any doubt of his skill. “You see — you — you are so much employed with teeth — and — of course you know I am quite assured of your talent — but don’t you think that a doctor who had more experience in fever cases might bring Tom round quicker? He has been ill so long now; and really he doesn’t seem to get any better.”

Philip Sheldon shrugged his shoulders.

“As you please, my dear Mrs. Halliday,” he said carelessly; “I don’t wish to press my services upon you. It is quite a matter of friendship, you know, and I shall not profit sixpence by my attendance on poor old Tom. Call in another doctor, by all means, if you think fit to do so; but, of course, in that event, I must withdraw from the case. The man you call in may be clever, or he may be stupid and ignorant. It’s all a chance, when one doesn’t know one’s man; and I really can’t advise you upon that point, for I know nothing of the London profession.”

Georgy looked alarmed. This was a new view of the subject. She had fancied that all regular practitioners were clever, and had only doubted Mr. Sheldon because he was not a regular practitioner. But how if she were to withdraw her husband from the hands of a clever man to deliver him into the care of an ignorant pretender, simply because she was over-anxious for his recovery?

“I always am foolishly anxious about things,” she thought.

And then she looked piteously at Mr. Sheldon, and said, “What do you think I ought to do? Pray tell me. He has eaten no breakfast again this morning; and even the cup of tea which I persuaded him to take seemed to disagree with him. And then there is that dreadful sore throat which torments him so. What ought I to do, Mr. Sheldon?”

“Whatever seems best to yourself, Mrs. Halliday,” answered the dentist earnestly. “It is a subject upon, which I cannot pretend to advise you. It is a matter of feeling rather than of reason, and it is a matter which you yourself must determine. If I knew any man whom I could honestly recommend to you, it would be another affair; but I don’t. Tom’s illness is the simplest thing in the world, and I feel myself quite competent to pull him through it, without fuss or bother; but if you think otherwise, pray put me out of the question. There’s one fact, however, of which I’m bound to remind you. Like many fine big stalwart fellows of his stamp, your husband is as nervous as a hysterical woman; and if you call in a strange doctor, who will pull long faces, and put on the professional solemnity, the chances are that he’ll take alarm, and do himself more mischief in a few hours than your new adviser can undo in as many weeks.”

There was a little pause after this. Georgy’s opinions, and suspicions, and anxieties were alike vague; and this last suggestion of Mr. Sheldon’s put things in a new and alarming light. She was really anxious about her husband, but she had been accustomed all her life to accept the opinion of other people in preference to her own.

“Do you really think that Tom will soon be well and strong again?” she asked presently.

“If I thought otherwise, I should be the first to advise other measures. However, my dear Mrs. Halliday, call in some one else, for your own satisfaction.”

“No,” said Georgy, sighing plaintively, “it might frighten Tom. You are quite right, Mr. Sheldon; he is very nervous, and the idea that I was alarmed might alarm him. I’ll trust in you. Pray try to bring him round again. You will try, won’t you?” she asked, in the childish pleading way which was peculiar to her.

The dentist was searching for something in the drawer of a table, and his back was turned on the anxious questioner.

“You may depend upon it, I’ll do my best, Mrs. Halliday,” he answered, still busy at the drawer. Mr. Sheldon the younger had paid many visits to Fitzgeorge-street during Tom Halliday’s illness. George and Tom had been the Damon and Pythias of Barlingford; and George seemed really distressed when he found his friend changed for the worse. The changes in the invalid were so puzzling, the alternations from better to worse and from worse to better so frequent, that fear could take no hold upon the minds of the patient’s friends. It seemed such a very slight affair this low fever, though sufficiently inconvenient to the patient himself, who suffered a good deal from thirst and sickness, and showed an extreme disinclination for food, all which symptoms Mr. Sheldon said were the commonest and simplest features of a very mild attack of bilious fever, which would leave Tom a better man than it had found him.

There had been several pleasant little card-parties during the earlier stages of Mr. Halliday’s illness; but within the last week the patient had been too low and weak for cards — too weak to read the newspaper, or even to bear having it read to him. When George came to look at his old friend —“to cheer you up a little, old fellow, you know,” and so on — he found Tom, for the time being, past all capability of being cheered, even by the genial society of his favourite jolly good fellow, or by tidings of a steeplechase in Yorkshire, in which a neighbour had gone to grief over a double fence.

“That chap upstairs seems rather queerish,” George had said to his brother, after finding Tom lower and weaker than usual. “He’s in a bad way, isn’t he, Phil?”

“No; there’s nothing serious the matter with him. He’s rather low to-night, that’s all.”

“Rather low!” echoed George Sheldon. “He seems to me so very low, that he can’t sink much lower without going to the bottom of his grave. I’d call some one in, if I were you.”

The dentist shrugged his shoulders, and made a little contemptuous noise with his lips.

“If you knew as much of doctors as I do, you wouldn’t be in any hurry to trust a friend to the mercy of one,” he said carelessly. “Don’t you alarm yourself about Tom. He’s right enough. He’s been in a state of chronic over-eating and over-drinking for the last ten years, and this bilious fever will be the making of him.”

“Will it?” said George doubtfully; and then there followed a little pause, during which the brothers happened to look at each other furtively, and happened to surprise each other in the act.

“I don’t know about over-eating or drinking,” said George presently; “but something has disagreed with Tom Halliday, that’s very evident.”

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