Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

The Letter from the “Alliance” Office.

Upon the evening of the day on which Mrs. Halliday and the dentist had discussed the propriety of calling in a strange doctor, George Sheldon came again to see his sick friend. He was quicker to perceive the changes in the invalid than the members of the household, who saw him daily and hourly, and he perceived a striking change for the worse to-night.

He took care, however, to suffer no evidence of alarm or surprise to appear in the sick chamber. He talked to his friend in the usual cheery way; sat by the bedside for half an hour; did his best to arouse Tom from a kind of stupid lethargy, and to encourage Mrs. Halliday, who shared the task of nursing her husband with brisk Nancy Woolper, an invaluable creature in a sick-room. But he failed in both attempts; the dull apathy of the invalid was not to be dispelled by the most genial companionship, and Georgy’s spirits had been sinking lower and lower all day as her fears increased.

She would fain have called in a strange doctor — she would fain have sought for comfort and consolation from some new quarter. But she was afraid of offending Philip Sheldon; and she was afraid of alarming her husband. So she waited, and watched, and struggled against that ever-increasing anxiety. Had not Mr. Sheldon made light of his friend’s malady, and what motive could he have for deceiving her?

A breakfast-cup full of beef-tea stood on the little table by the bedside, and had been standing there for hours untouched.

“I did take such pains to make it strong and clear,” said Mrs. Woolper regretfully, as she came to the little table during a tidying process, “and poor dear Mr. Halliday hasn’t taken so much as a spoonful. It won’t be fit for him to-morrow, so as I haven’t eaten a morsel of dinner, what with the hurry and anxiety and one thing and another, I’ll warm up the beef-tea for my supper. There’s not a blessed thing in the house; for you don’t eat nothing, Mrs. Halliday; and as to cooking a dinner for Mr. Sheldon, you’d a deal better go and throw your victuals out into the gutter, for then there’d be a chance of stray dogs profiting by ’em, at any rate.”

“Phil is off his feed, then; eh, Nancy?” said George.

“I should rather think he is, Mr. George. I roasted a chicken yesterday for him and Mrs. Halliday, and I don’t think they eat an ounce between, them; and such a lovely tender young thing as it was too — done to a turn — with bread sauce and a little bit of sea-kale. One invalid makes another, that’s certain. I never saw your brother so upset as he is now, Mr. George, in all his life.

“No?” answered George Sheldon thoughtfully; “Phil isn’t generally one of your sensitive sort.”

The invalid was sleeping heavily during this conversation. George stood by the bed for some minutes looking down at the altered face, and then turned to leave the room.

“Good night, Mrs. Halliday,” he said; “I hope I shall find poor old Tom a shade better when I look round to-morrow.”

“I am sure I hope so,” Georgy answered mournfully.

She was sitting by the window looking out at the darkening western sky, in which the last lurid glimmer of a stormy sunset was fading against a background of iron gray.

This quiet figure by the window, the stormy sky, and ragged hurrying clouds without, the dusky chamber with all its dismally significant litter of medicine-bottles, made a gloomy picture — a picture which the man who looked upon it carried in his mind for many years after that night.

George Sheldon and Nancy Woolper left the room together, the Yorkshirewoman carrying a tray of empty phials and glasses, and amongst them the cup of beef-tea.

“He seems in a bad way to-night, Nancy,” said George, with a backward jerk of his head towards the sick-chamber.

“He is in a bad way, Mr. George,” answered the woman gravely, “let Mr. Philip think what he will. I don’t want to say a word against your brother’s knowledge, for such a steady studious gentleman as he is had need be clever; and if I was ill myself, I’d trust my life to him freely; for I have heard Barlingford folks say that my master’s advice is as good as any regular doctor’s, and that there’s very little your regular doctors know that he doesn’t know as well or better. But for all that, Mr. George, I don’t think he understands Mr. Halliday’s case quite as clear as he might.”

“Do you think Tom’s in any danger?”

“I won’t say that, Mr. George; but I think he gets worse instead of getting better.”

“Humph!” muttered George; “if Halliday were to go off the hooks, Phil would have a good chance of getting a rich wife.”

“Don’t say that, Mr. George,” exclaimed the Yorkshirewoman reproachfully; “don’t even think of such a thing while that poor man lies at death’s door. I’m sure Mr. Sheldon hasn’t any thoughts of that kind. He told me before Mr. and Mrs. Halliday came to town that he and Miss Georgy had forgotten all about past times.”

“O, if Phil said so, that alters the case. Phil is one of your blunt outspoken fellows, and always says what he means,” said George Sheldon. And then he went downstairs, leaving Nancy to follow him at her leisure with the tray of jingling cups and glasses. He went down through the dusk, smiling to himself, as if he had just given utterance to some piece of intense humour. He went to look for his brother, whom he found in the torture-chamber, busied with some mysterious process in connection with a lump of plaster-of-paris, which seemed to be the model of ruined battlements in the Gothic style. The dentist looked up as George entered the room, and did not appear particularly delighted by the appearance of that gentleman.

“Well,” said Mr. Sheldon the younger, “busy as usual? Patients seem to be looking up.”

“Patients be —— toothless to the end of time!” cried Philip, with a savage laugh. “No, I’m not working to order; I’m only experimentalising.”

“You’re rather fond of experiments, I think, Phil,” said George, seating himself near the table at which his brother was working under the glare of the gas. The dentist looked very pale and haggard in the gas-light, and his eyes had the dull sunken appearance induced by prolonged sleeplessness. George sat watching his brother thoughtfully for some time, and then produced his cigar-case. “You don’t mind my smoke here?” he asked, as he lighted a cigar.

“Not at all. You are very welcome to sit here, if it amuses you to see me working at the cast of a lower jaw.”

“O, that’s a lower jaw, is it? It looks like the fragment of some castle-keep. No, Phil, I don’t care about watching you work. I want to talk to you seriously.”

“About that fellow upstairs — poor old Tom. He and I were great cronies, you know, at home. He’s in a very bad way.”

“Is he? You seem to be turning physician all at once, George. I shouldn’t have thought your grubbing among county histories, and tattered old pedigrees, and parish registers had given you so deep an insight into the science of medicine!” said the dentist in a sneering tone.

“I don’t know anything of medicine; but I know enough to be sure that Tom Halliday is about as bad as he can be. What mystifies me is, that he doesn’t seem to have had anything particular the matter with him. There he lies, getting worse and worse every day, without any specific ailment. It’s a strange illness, Philip.”

“I don’t see anything strange in it.”

“Don’t you? Don’t you think the surrounding circumstances are strange? Here is this man comes to your house hale and hearty; and all of a sudden he falls ill, and gets lower and lower every day, without anybody being able to say why or wherefore.”

“That’s not true, George. Everybody in this house knows the cause of Tom Halliday’s illness. He came home in wet clothes, and insisted on keeping them on. He caught a cold; which resulted in low fever. There is the whole history and mystery of the affair.”

“That’s simple enough, certainly. But if I were you, Phil I’d call in another doctor.”

“That is Mrs. Halliday’s business,” answered the dentist coolly; “if she doubts my skill, she is free to call in whom she pleases. And now you may as well drop the subject, George. I’ve had enough anxiety about this man’s illness, and I don’t want to be worried by you.”

After this there was a little conversation upon general matters, but the talk dragged and languished drearily, and George Sheldon rose to depart directly he had finished his cigar.

“Good night, Philip!” he said; “if ever you get a stroke of good luck, I hope you’ll stand something handsome to me.”

This remark had no particular relevance to anything that had been said that night by the two men; yet Philip Sheldon seemed in nowise astonished by it.

“If things ever do take a turn for the better with me, you’ll find me a good friend, George,” he said gravely; and then Mr. Sheldon the younger bade him good night, and went out into Fitzgeorge-street.

He paused for a moment at the corner of the street to look back at his brother’s house. He could see the lighted windows of the invalid’s chamber, and it was at those he looked.

“Poor Tom,” he said to himself, “poor Tom! We were great cronies in the old times, and have had many a pleasant evening together!”

Mr. Sheldon the dentist sat up till the small hours that night, as he had done for many nights lately. He finished his work in the torture-chamber, and went up to the common sitting-room, or drawing-room as it was called by courtesy, a little before midnight. The servants had gone to bed, for there was no regular nightly watch in the apartment of the invalid. Mrs. Halliday lay on a sofa in her husband’s room, and Nancy Woolper slept in an adjoining apartment, always wakeful and ready if help of any kind should be wanted.

The house was very quiet just now. Philip Sheldon walked up and down the room, thinking; and the creaking of his boots sounded unpleasantly loud to his ears. He stopped before the fireplace, after having walked to and fro some time, and began to examine some letters that lay upon the mantelpiece. They were addressed to Mr. Halliday, and had been forwarded from Yorkshire. The dentist took them up, one by one, and deliberately examined them. They were all business letters, and most of them bore country post-marks. But there was one which had been, in the first instance, posted from London and this letter Mr. Sheldon examined with especial attention.

It was a big, official-looking document, and embossed upon the adhesive envelope appeared the crest and motto of the Alliance Insurance Office.

“I wonder whether that’s all square,” thought Mr. Sheldon, as he turned the envelope about in his hands, staring at it absently. “I ought to make sure of that. The London postmark is nearly three weeks old.” He pondered for some moments, and then went to the cupboard in which he kept the materials wherewith to replenish or to make a fire. Here he found a little tin tea-kettle, in which he was in the habit of boiling water for occasional friendly glasses of grog. He poured some water from a bottle on the sideboard into this kettle, set fire to a bundle of wood, and put the kettle on the blazing sticks. After having done this he searched for a tea-cup, succeeded in finding one, and then stood watching for the boiling of the water. He had not long to wait; the water boiled furiously before the wood was burned out, and Mr. Sheldon filled the tea-cup standing on the table. Then he put the insurance-letter over the cup, with the seal downwards, and left it so while he resumed his walk. After walking up and down for about ten minutes he went back to the table and took up the letter. The adhesive envelope opened easily, and Mr. Sheldon, by this ingenious stratagem, made himself master of his friend’s business.

The “Alliance” letter was nothing more than a notice to the effect that the half-yearly premium for insuring the sum of three thousand pounds on the life of Thomas Halliday would be due on such a day, after which there would be twenty-one days’ grace, at the end of which time the policy would become void, unless the premium had been duly paid.

Mr. Halliday’s letters had been suffered to accumulate during the last fortnight. The letters forwarded from Yorkshire had been detained some time, as they had been sent first to Hyley Farm, now in the possession of the new owner, and then to Barlingford, to the house of Georgy’s mother, who had kept them upwards of a week, in daily expectation of her son-in-law’s return. It was only on the receipt of a letter from Georgy, containing the tidings of her husband’s illness, that Mr. Halliday’s letters had been sent to London. Thus it came about that the twenty-one days of grace were within four-and-twenty hours of expiring when Philip Sheldon opened his friend’s letter.

“This is serious,” muttered the dentist, as he stood deliberating with the open letter in his hand; “there are three thousand pounds depending on that man’s power to write a check!”

After a few minutes’ reflection, he folded the letter and resealed it very carefully.

“It wouldn’t do to press the matter upon him to-night,” he thought; “I must wait till to-morrow morning, come what may.”

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