Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Mr. Burkham’s Uncertainties.

The next morning dawned gray and pale and chill, after the manner of early spring mornings, let them ripen into never such balmy days; and with the dawn Nancy Woolper came into the invalid’s chamber, more wan and sickly of aspect than the morning itself.

Mrs. Halliday started from an uneasy slumber.

“What’s the matter, Nancy?” she asked with considerable alarm. She had known the woman ever since her childhood, and she was startled this morning by some indefinable change in her manner and appearance. The hearty old woman, whose face had been like a hard rosy apple shrivelled and wrinkled by long keeping, had now a white and ghastly look which struck terror to Georgy’s breast. She who was usually so brisk of manner and sharp of speech, had this morning a strange subdued tone and an unnatural calmness of demeanour. “What is the matter, Nancy?” Mrs. Halliday repeated, getting up from her sofa.

“Don’t be frightened, Miss Georgy,” answered the old woman, who was apt to forget that Tom Halliday’s wife had ever ceased to be Georgy Cradock; “don’t be frightened, my dear. I haven’t been very well all night — and — and — I’ve been, worrying myself about Mr. Halliday. If I were you, I’d call in another doctor. Never mind what Mr. Philip says. He may be mistaken, you know, clever as he is. There’s no telling. Take my advice, Miss Georgy, and call in another doctor — directly — directly,” repeated the old woman, seizing Mrs. Halliday’s wrist with a passionate energy, as if to give emphasis to her words. Poor timid Georgy shrank from her with terror.

“You frighten me, Nancy,” she whispered; “do you think that Tom is so much worse? You have not been with him all night; and he has been sleeping very quietly. What makes you so anxious this morning?”

“Never mind that, Miss Georgy. You get another doctor, that’s all; get another doctor at once. Mr. Sheldon is a light sleeper. I’ll go to his room and tell him you’ve set your heart upon having fresh advice; if you’ll only bear me out afterwards.”

“Yes, yes; go by all means,” exclaimed Mrs. Halliday, only too ready to take alarm under the influence of a stronger mind, and eager to act when supported by another person.

Nancy Woolper went to her master’s room. He must have been sleeping very lightly, if he was sleeping at all; for he was broad awake the next minute after his housekeeper’s light knock had sounded on the door. In less than five minutes he came out of his room half-dressed. Nancy had told him that Mrs. Halliday had taken fresh alarm about her husband, and wished for further advice.

“She sent you to tell me that?” asked Philip.

“Yes.”

“And when does she want this new doctor called in?”

“Immediately, if possible.”

It was seven o’clock by this time, and the morning was brightening a little.

“Very well,” said Mr. Sheldon; “her wishes shall be attended to directly. Heaven forbid that I should stand between my old friend and any chance of his speedy recovery! If a stranger can bring him round quicker than I can, let the stranger come.”

Mr. Sheldon was not slow to obey Mrs. Halliday’s behest. He was departing on his quest breakfastless, when Nancy Woolper met him in the hall with a cup of tea. He accepted the cup almost mechanically from her hand, and took it into the parlour, whither Nancy followed him. Then for the first time he perceived that change in his housekeeper’s face which had so startled Georgina Halliday. The change was somewhat modified now; but still the Nancy Woolper of to-day was not the Nancy Woolper of yesterday.

“You’re looking very queer, Nancy,” said the dentist, gravely scrutinising the woman’s face with his bright penetrating eyes. “Are you ill?”

“Well, Mr. Philip, I have been rather queer all night — sickish and faintish-like.”

“Ah, you’ve been over-fatiguing yourself in the sick-room, I daresay. Take care you don’t knock yourself up.” “No; it’s not that, Mr. Philip. There’s not many can stand hard work better than I can. It’s not that as made me ill. I took something last night that disagreed with me.”

“More fool you,” said Mr. Sheldon curtly; “you ought to know better than to ill-use your digestive powers at your age. What was it? Hard cold meat and preternaturally green pickles, I suppose; or something of that kind.”

“No, sir; it was only a drop of beef-tea that I made for poor Mr. Halliday. And that oughtn’t to have disagreed with a baby, you know, sir.”

“Oughtn’t it?” cried the dentist disdainfully. “That’s a little bit of vulgar ignorance, Mrs. Woolper. I suppose it was stuff that had been taken up to Mr. Halliday.”

“Yes, Mr. Philip; you took it up with your own hands.”

“Ah, to be sure; so I did. Very well, then, Mrs. Woolper, if you knew as much about atmospheric influences as I do, you’d know that food which has been standing for hours in the pestilential air of a fever-patient’s room isn’t fit for anybody to eat. The stuff made you sick, I suppose.”

“Yes, sir; sick to my very heart,” answered the Yorkshirewoman, with a strange mournfulness in her voice.

“Let that be a warning to you, then. Don’t take anything more that comes down from the sick-room.”

“I don’t think there’ll be any chance of my doing that long, sir.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t fancy Mr. Halliday is long for this world.”

“Ah, you women are always ravens.”

“Unless the strange doctor can do something to cure him. O, pray bring a clever man who will be able to cure that poor helpless creature upstairs. Think, Mr. Philip, how you and him used to be friends and playfellows — brothers almost — when you was both bits of boys. Think how bad it might seem to evil-minded folks if he died under your roof.”

The dentist had been standing near the door drinking his tea during this conversation; and now for the first time he looked at his housekeeper with an expression of unmitigated astonishment.

“What, in the name of all that’s ridiculous, do you mean, Nancy?” he asked impatiently. “What has my roof to do with Tom Halliday’s illness — or his death, if it came to that? And what on earth can people have to say about it if he should die here instead of anywhere else?”

“Why, you see, sir, you being his friend, and Miss Georgy’s sweetheart that was, and him having no other doctor, folks might take it into their heads he wasn’t attended properly.”

“Because I’m his friend? That’s very good logic! I’ll tell you what it is, Mrs. Woolper; if any woman upon earth, except the woman who nursed me when I was a baby, had presumed to talk to me as you have been talking to me just this minute, I should open the door yonder and tell her to walk out of my house. Let that serve as a hint for you, Nancy; and don’t you go out of your way a second time to advise me how I should treat my friend and my patient.”

He handed her the empty cup, and walked out of the house. There had been no passion in his tone. His accent had been only that of a man who has occasion to reprove an old and trusted servant for an unwarrantable impertinence. Nancy Woolper stood at the street-door watching him as he walked away, and then went slowly back to her duties in the lower regions of the house.

“It can’t be true,” she muttered to herself; “it can’t be true.”

The dentist returned to Fitzgeorge-street in less than an hour, bringing with him a surgeon from the neighbourhood, who saw the patient, discussed the treatment, spoke hopefully to Mrs. Halliday, and departed, after promising to send a saline draught. Poor Georgy’s spirits, which had revived a little under the influence of the stranger’s hopeful words, sank again when she discovered that the utmost the new doctor could do was to order a saline draught. Her husband had taken so many saline draughts, and had been getting daily worse under their influence.

She watched the stranger wistfully as he lingered on the threshold to say a few words to Mr. Sheldon. He was a very young man, with a frank boyish face and a rosy colour in his cheeks. He looked like some fresh young neophyte in the awful mysteries of medical science, and by no means the sort of man to whom one would have imagined Philip Sheldon appealing for help, when he found his own skill at fault. But then it must be remembered that Mr. Sheldon had only summoned the stranger in compliance with what he considered a womanish whim.

“He looks very young,” Georgina said regretfully, after the doctor’s departure.

“So much the better, my dear Mrs. Halliday,” answered the dentist cheerfully; “medical science is eminently progressive, and the youngest men are the best-educated men.”

Poor Georgy did not understand this; but it sounded convincing, and she was in the habit of believing what people told her; so she accepted Mr. Sheldon’s opinion. How could she doubt that he was wiser than herself in all matters connected with the medical profession?

“Tom seems a little better this morning,” she said presently.

The invalid was asleep, shrouded by the curtain of the heavy old-fashioned four-post bedstead.

“He is better,” answered the dentist; “so much better, that I shall venture to give him a few business letters that have been waiting for him some time, as soon as he wakes.”

He seated himself by the head of the bed, and waited quietly for the awakening of the patient.

“Your breakfast is ready for you downstairs, Mrs. Halliday,” he said presently; “hadn’t you better go down and take it, while I keep watch here? It’s nearly ten o’clock.”

“I don’t care about any breakfast,” Georgina answered piteously.

“Ah, but you’d better eat something. You’ll make yourself an invalid, if you are not careful; and then you won’t be able to attend upon Tom.”

This argument prevailed immediately. Georgy went downstairs to the drawing-room, and tried bravely to eat and drink, in order that she might be sustained in her attendance upon her husband. She had forgotten all the throes and tortures of jealousy which she had endured on his account. She had forgotten his late hours and unholy roisterings. She had forgotten everything except that he had been very tender and kind throughout the prosperous years of their married life, and that he was lying in the darkened room upstairs sick to death.

Mr. Sheldon waited with all outward show of patience for the awakening of the invalid. But he looked at his watch twice during that half-hour of waiting; and once he rose and moved softly about the room, searching for writing materials. He found a little portfolio of Georgina’s, and a frivolous-minded inkstand, after the semblance of an apple, with a gilt stalk and leaflet. The dentist took the trouble to ascertain that there was a decent supply of ink in the green-glass apple, and that the pens were in working order. Then he went quietly back to his seat by the bedside and waited.

The invalid opened his eyes presently, and recognised his friend with a feeble smile.

“Well, Tom, old fellow, how do you feel to-day — a little better I hear from Mrs. H.,” said the dentist cheerily.

“Yes, I think I am a shade better. But, you see, the deuce of it is I never get more than a shade better. It always stops at that. The little woman can’t complain of me now, can she, Sheldon? No more late hours, or oyster suppers, eh?”

“No, no, not just yet. You’ll have to take care of yourself for a week or two when you get about again.” Mr. Halliday smiled faintly as his friend said this.

“I shall be very careful of myself if I ever do get about again, you may depend upon it, old fellow. But do you know I sometimes fancy I have spent my last jolly evening, and eaten my last oyster supper, on this earth? I’m afraid it’s time for me to begin to think seriously of a good many things. The little woman is all right, thank God. I made my will upwards of a year ago, and insured my life pretty heavily soon after my marriage. Old Cradock never let me rest till that was done. So Georgy will be all safe. But when a man has led a careless, godless kind of a life — doing very little harm, perhaps, but doing no particular good — he ought to set about making up his account somehow for a better world, when he feels himself slipping out of this. I asked Georgy for her Bible yesterday, and the poor dear loving little thing was frightened out of her wits. ‘O, don’t talk like that, Tom,’ she cried; ‘Mr. Sheldon says you are getting better every hour,’— by which you may guess what a rare thing it is for me to read my Bible. No, Phil, old fellow, you’ve done your best for me, I know; but I’m not made of a very tough material, and all the physic you can pour down this poor sore throat of mine won’t put any strength into me.”

“Nonsense, dear boy; that’s just what a man who has not been accustomed to illness is sure to think directly he is laid up for a day or two.”

“I’ve been laid up for three weeks,” murmured Mr. Halliday rather fretfully.

“Well, well, perhaps this Mr. Burkham will bring you round in three days, and then you’ll say that your friend Sheldon was an ignoramus.”

“No, no, I shan’t, old fellow; I’m not such a fool as that. I’m not going to blame you when it’s my own constitution that’s in fault. As to that young man you brought here just now, to please Georgy, I don’t suppose he’ll be able to do any more for me than you have done.”

“We’ll contrive to bring you round between us, never fear, Tom,” answered Philip Sheldon in his most hopeful tone. “Why, you are looking almost your old self this morning. You are so much improved that I may venture to talk to you about business. There have been some letters lying about for the last few days. I didn’t like to bore you while you were so very low. But they look like business letters; and perhaps it would be as well for you to open them.”

The sick man contemplated the little packet which the dentist had taken from his breast-pocket; and then shook his head wearily.

“I’m not up to the mark, Sheldon,” he said; “the letters must keep.” “O, come, come, old fellow! That’s giving way, you know. The letters may be important; and it will do you good if you make an effort to rouse yourself.”

“I tell you it isn’t in me to do it, Philip Sheldon. I’m past making efforts. Can’t you see that, man? Open the letters yourself, if you like.”

“No, no, Halliday, I won’t do that. Here’s one with the seal of the Alliance Insurance Office. I suppose your premium is all right.”

Tom Halliday lifted himself on his elbow for a moment, startled into new life; but he sank back on the pillows again immediately, with a feeble groan.

“I don’t know about that,” he said anxiously; “you’d better look to that, Phil, for the little woman’s sake. A man is apt to think that his insurance is settled and done with, when he has been pommelled about by the doctors and approved by the board. He forgets there’s that little matter of the premium. You’d better open the letter, Phil. I never was a good hand at remembering dates, and this illness has thrown me altogether out of gear.”

Mr. Sheldon tore open that official document, which, in his benevolent regard for his friend’s interest, he had manipulated so cleverly on the previous evening, and read the letter with all show of deliberation.

“You’re right, Tom,” he exclaimed presently. “The twenty-one days’ grace expire to-day. You’d better write me a check at once, and I’ll send it on to the office by hand. Where’s your check-book?”

“In the pocket of that coat hanging up there.”

Philip Sheldon found the check-book, and brought it to his friend, with Georgy’s portfolio, and the frivolous little green-glass inkstand in the shape of an apple. He adjusted the writing materials for the sick man’s use with womanly gentleness. His arm supported the wasted frame, as Tom Halliday slowly and laboriously filled in the check; and when the signature was duly appended to that document, he drew a long breath, which seemed to express infinite relief of mind.

“You’ll be sure it goes on to the Alliance Office, eh, old fellow?” asked Tom, as he tore out the oblong slip of paper and handed it to his friend. “It was kind of you to jog my memory about this business. I’m such a fellow for procrastinating matters. And I’m afraid I’ve been a little off my load during the last week.”

“Nonsense, Tom; not you.”

“O yes, I have. I’ve had all sorts of queer fancies. Did you come into this room the night before last, when Georgy was asleep?” Mr. Sheldon reflected for a moment before answering.

“No,” he said, “not the night before last.”

“Ah, I thought as much,” murmured the invalid. “I was off my head that night then, Phil, for I fancied I saw you; and I fancied I heard the bottles and glasses jingling on the little table behind the curtain.”

“You were dreaming, perhaps.”

“O no, I wasn’t dreaming. I was very restless and wakeful that night. However, that’s neither here nor there. I lie in a stupid state sometimes for hours and hours, and I feel as weak as a rat, bodily and mentally; so while I have my wits about me, I’d better say what I’ve been wanting to say ever so long. You’ve been a good and kind friend to me all through this illness, Phil, and I’m not ungrateful for your kindness. If it does come to the worst with me — as I believe it will — Georgy shall give you a handsome mourning ring, or fifty pounds to buy one, if you like it better. And now let me shake hands with you, Philip Sheldon, and say thank you heartily, old fellow, for once and for ever.”

The invalid stretched out a poor feeble attenuated hand, and, after a moment’s pause, Philip Sheldon clasped it in his own muscular fingers. He did hesitate for just one instant before taking that hand.

He was no student of the gospel; but when he had left the sick-chamber there arose before him suddenly, as if written in letters of fire on the wall opposite to him, one sentence which had been familiar to him in his school-days at Barlingford:

And as soon as he was come, he goeth straightway to him, and saith, Master, master; and kissed him.

The new doctor came twice a day to see his patient. He seemed rather anxious about the case, and just a little puzzled by the symptoms. Georgy had sufficient penetration to perceive that this new adviser was in some manner at fault; and she began to think that Philip Sheldon was right, and that regular practitioners were very stupid creatures. She communicated her doubts to Mr. Sheldon, and suggested the expediency of calling in some grave elderly doctor, to supersede Mr. Burkham. But against this the dentist protested very strongly.

“You asked me to call in a stranger, Mrs. Halliday, and I have done so,” he said, with the dignity of an offended man. “You must now abide by his treatment, and content yourself with his advice, unless he chooses to summon further assistance.”

Georgy was fain to submit. She gave a little plaintive sigh, and went back to her husband’s room, where she sat and wept silently behind the bed-curtains. There was a double watch kept in the sick-chamber now; for Nancy Woolper rarely left it, and rarely closed her eyes. It was altogether a sad time in the dentist’s house; and Tom Halliday apologised to his friend more than once for the trouble he had brought upon him. If he had been familiar with the details of modern history, he would have quoted Charles Stuart, and begged pardon for being so long a-dying.

But anon there came a gleam of hope. The patient seemed decidedly better; and Georgy was prepared to revere Mr. Burkham, the Bloomsbury surgeon, as the greatest and ablest of men. Those shadows of doubt and perplexity which had at first obscured Mr. Burkham’s brow cleared away, and he spoke very cheerfully of the invalid.

Unhappily this state of things did not last long. The young surgeon came one morning, and was obviously alarmed by the appearance of his patient. He told Philip Sheldon as much; but that gentleman made very light of his fears. As the two men discussed the case, it was very evident that the irregular practitioner was quite a match for the regular one. Mr. Burkham listened deferentially, but departed only half convinced. He walked briskly away from the house, but came to a dead stop directly after turning out of Fitzgeorge-street.

“What ought I to do?” he asked himself. “What course ought I to take? If I am right, I should be a villain to let things go on. If I am wrong, anything like interference would ruin me for life.”

He had finished his morning round, but he did not go straight home. He lingered at the corners of quiet streets, and walked up and down the unfrequented side of a gloomy square. Once he turned and retraced his steps in the direction of Fitzgeorge-street. But after all this hesitation he walked home, and ate his dinner very thoughtfully, answering his young wife at random when she talked to him. He was a struggling man, who had invested his small fortune in the purchase of a practice which had turned out a very poor one, and he had the battle of life before him.

“There’s something on your mind to-day, I’m sure, Harry,” his wife said before the meal was ended.

“Well, yes, dear,” he answered; “I’ve rather a difficult case in Fitzgeorge-street, and I’m anxious about it.”

The industrious little wife disappeared after dinner, and the young surgeon walked up and down the room alone, brooding over that difficult case in Fitzgeorge-street. After spending nearly an hour thus, he snatched his hat suddenly from the table on which he had set it down, and hurried from the house.

“I’ll have advice and assistance, come what may,” he said to himself, as he walked rapidly in the direction of Mr. Sheldon’s house. “The case may be straight enough — I certainly can’t see that the man has any motive — but I’ll have advice.”

He looked up at the dentist’s spotless dwelling as he crossed the street. The blinds were all down, and the fact that they were so sent a sudden chill to his heart. But the April sunshine was full upon that side of the street, and there might lie no significance in those closely-drawn blinds. The door was opened by a sleepy-looking boy, and in the passage Mr. Burkham met Philip Sheldon.

“I have been rather anxious about my patient since this morning, Mr. Sheldon,” said the surgeon; “and I have come to the conclusion that I ought to confer with a man of higher standing than myself. Do you think Mrs. Halliday will object to such a course?”

“I am sure she would not have objected to it,” the dentist answered very gravely, “if you had suggested it sooner. I am sorry to say the suggestion comes too late. My poor friend breathed his last half an hour ago.”

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