Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

George Sheldon’s Prospects.

For George Sheldon the passing years had brought very little improvement of fortune. He occupied his old dingy chambers in Gray’s Inn, which had grown more dingy under the hand of Time; and he was wont to sit in his second-floor window on sultry summer Sundays, smoking his solitary cigar, and listening to the cawing of the rooks in the gardens beneath him, mingled with the voices of rebellious children, and shrill mothers threatening to “do for them,” or to “flay them alive,” in Somebody’s Rents below. The lawyer used to be quite meditative on those Sunday afternoons, and would wonder what sort of a fellow Lord Bacon was, and how he contrived to get into a mess about taking bribes, when so many other fellows had done it quietly enough before the Lord of Verulam’s day, and even yet more quietly since — agreeably instigated thereto by the casuistry of Escobar.

Mr. Sheldon’s prospects were by no means promising. From afar off he beheld his brother’s star shining steadily in the commercial firmament; but, except for an occasional dinner, he was very little the better for the stockbroker’s existence. He had reminded his brother very often, and very persistently, of that vague promise which the dentist had made in the hour of his adversity — the promise to help his brother if ever he did “drop into a good thing.” But as it is difficult to prevent a man who is disposed to shuffle from shuffling out of the closest agreement that was ever made between Jones of the one part, and Smith of the other part, duly signed, and witnessed, and stamped with the sixpenny seal of infallibility, so is it still more difficult to obtain the performance of loosely-worded promises, uttered in the confidential intercourse of kinsmen.

In the first year of his married life Philip Sheldon gave his brother a hundred pounds for the carrying out of some grand scheme which the lawyer was then engaged in, and which, if successful, would secure for him a much larger fortune than Georgy’s thousands. Unhappily the grand scheme was a failure; and the hundred pounds being gone, George applied again to his brother, reminding him once more of that promise made in Bloomsbury. But on this occasion Mr. Sheldon plainly told his kinsman that he could do no more for him.

“You must fight your own battle, George,” he said, “as I have fought mine.”

“Thank you, Philip,” said the younger brother; “I would rather fight it any other way.”

And then the two men looked at each other, as they were in the habit of doing sometimes, with a singularly intent gaze.

“You’re very close-fisted with Tom Halliday’s money,” George said presently. “If I’d asked poor old Tom himself, I’m sure he wouldn’t have refused to lend me two or three hundred.”

“Then it’s a pity you didn’t ask him,” Mr. Sheldon answered, with supreme coolness.

“I should have done so fast enough, if I had thought he was going to die so suddenly. It was a bad day for me, and for him too, when he came to Fitzgeorge-street.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Mr. Sheldon sharply.

“You can pretty well guess my meaning, I should think,” George answered in a sulky tone.

“No, I can’t; and what’s more, I don’t mean to try. I’ll tell you what it is, Master George; you’ve been treating me to a good many hints and innuendoes lately; and you must know very little of me if you don’t know that I’m the last kind of man to stand that sort of thing from you, or from any one else. You have tried to take the tone of a man who has some kind of hold upon another. You had better understand at once that such a tone won’t answer with me. If you had any hold upon me, or any power over me, you’d be quick enough to use it; and you ought to be aware that I know that, and can see to the bottom of such a shallow little game as yours.”

Mr. Sheldon the younger looked at his brother with an expression of surprise that was not entirely unmingled with admiration.

“Well, you are a cool hand, Phil!” he said.

Here the conversation ended. The two brothers were very good friends after this, and George presented himself at the gothic villa whenever he received an invitation to dine there. The dinners were good, and the men who ate them were men of solidity and standing in the commercial world; and George was very glad to eat good dinners, and to meet eligible men; but he never again asked his brother for the loan of odd hundreds.

He grubbed on, as best he might, in the dingy Gray’s-Inn chambers. Be had a little business — business which lay chiefly amongst men who wanted to borrow money, or whose halting footsteps required guidance through the quagmire of the Bankruptcy Court. He just contrived to keep his head above water, and his name in the Law-list, by means of such business; but the great scheme of his life remained as yet unripened, an undeveloped shadow to which he had in vain attempted to give a substance.

The leading idea of George Sheldon’s life was the idea that there were great fortunes in the world waiting for claimants; and that a share of some such fortune was to be obtained by any man who had the talent to dig it out of the obscurity in which it was hidden. He was a student of old county histories, and a searcher of old newspapers; and his studies in that line had made him familiar with many strange stories — stories of field-labourers called away from the plough to be told they were the rightful owners of forty thousand a year; stories of old white-haired men starving to death in miserable garrets about Bethnal-green or Spitalfields, who could have claimed lands and riches immeasurable, had they known how to claim them; stories of half-crazy old women, who had wandered about the world with reticules of discoloured papers clamorously asserting their rights and wrongs unheeded and unbelieved, until they encountered sharp-witted lawyers who took up their claims, and carried them triumphantly into the ownership of illimitable wealth.

George Sheldon had read of these things until it had seemed to him that there must be some such chance for any man who would have patience to watch and wait for it. He had taken up several cases, and had fitted link after link together with extreme labour, and had hunted in parish registers until the cold mouldy atmosphere of vestries was as familiar to him as the air of Gray’s Inn. But the cases had all broken down at more or less advanced stages; and after infinite patience and trouble, a good deal of money spent upon travelling and small fees to all manner of small people, and an incalculable number of hours wasted in listening to the rambling discourse of parish-clerks and oldest inhabitants, Mr. Sheldon had been compelled to abandon his hopes time after time, until a man with less firmly rooted ideas would have given up the hunting of registers and grubbing up of genealogies as a delusion and a snare.

George Sheldon’s ideas were very firmly rooted, and he stuck to them with that dogged persistency which so often achieves great ends, that it seems a kind of genius. He saw his brother’s success, and contemplated the grandeurs of the gothic villa in a cynical rather than an envious spirit. How long would it all last? How long would the stockbroker float triumphantly onward upon that wonderful tide which is constituted by the rise and fall of the money-market?

“That sort of thing is all very well while a man keeps his head cool and clear,” thought George; “but somehow or other men always seem to lose their heads on the Stock Exchange before they have done with it, and I daresay my wise brother will drop into a nice mess sooner or later. Setting aside all other considerations, I think I would rather have my chances than his; for I speculate very little more than my time and trouble, and I stand in to win a bigger sum than he will ever get in his line, let stocks rise and fall as they may.”

During that summer in which Miss Halliday bade farewell to Hyde Lodge and her school-days, George Sheldon was occupied with the early steps in a search which he hoped would end in the discovery of a prize rich enough to reward him for all his wasted time and labour.

Very early in the previous year there had appeared the following brief notice in the Observer:—

“The Rev. John Haygarth, late vicar of Tilford Haven, Kent, died lately, without a will, or relation to claim his property, 100,000 pounds. The Crown therefore claimed it. And last court-day the Prerogative Court of Canterbury decreed letters of Administration to Mr. Paul, the nominee of the Crown.”

Some months after this an advertisement had been inserted in the Times newspaper to the following effect:—

“NEXT OF KIN. — If the relatives or next of kin of the Rev. John Haygarth, late vicar of Tilford Haven, in the county of Kent, clerk, deceased, who has left property of the value of one hundred thousand pounds, will apply, either personally or by letter, to Stephen Paul, Esq., solicitor for the affairs of Her Majesty’s Treasury, at the Treasury Chambers, Whitehall, London, they may hear of something to their advantage. The late Rev. John Haygarth is supposed to have been the son of Matthew Haygarth, late of the parish of St. Judith, Ullerton, and Rebecca his wife, formerly Rebecca Caulfield, spinster, late of the same parish; both long since deceased.”

Upon the strength of this advertisement George Sheldon began his search. His theory was that there always existed an heir-at-law somewhere, if people would only have the patience to hunt him or her out; and he attributed his past failures rather to a want of endurance on his own part than to the breaking down of his pet theory.

On this occasion he began his work with more than usual determination.

“This is the biggest chance I’ve ever had,” he said to himself, “and I should be something worse than a fool if I let it slip through my fingers.”

The work was very dry and dreary, involving interminable hunting of registers, and questioning of oldest inhabitants. And the oldest inhabitants were so stupid, and the records of the registers so bewildering. One after another Mr. Sheldon set himself to examine the lines of the intestate’s kindred and ancestors; his father’s only sister, his grandfather’s brothers and sisters, and even to the brothers and sisters of his great-grandfather. At that point the Haygarth family melted away into the impenetrable darkness of the past. They were no high and haughty race of soldiers and scholars, churchmen and lawyers, or the tracing of them would have been a much easier matter. Burke would have told of them. There would have been old country houses filled with portraits, and garrulous old housekeepers learned in the traditions of the past. There would have been mouldering tombs and tarnished brasses in quiet country churches, with descriptive epitaphs, and many escutcheons. There would have been crumbling parchments recording the prowess of Sir Reginald, knight, or the learning of Sir Rupert, counsellor and judge. The Haygarths were a race of provincial tradesmen, and had left no better record of their jog-trot journey through this world than the registry of births, marriages, and deaths in obscure churches, or an occasional entry in the fly-leaf of a family Bible.

At present Mr. Sheldon was only at the beginning of his work. The father and grandfather and uncle and great-uncles, the great-grandfather and great-great-uncles, with all their progenies, lay before him in a maze of entanglement which it would be his business to unravel. And as he was obliged to keep his limited legal connection together while he devoted himself to this task, the work promised to extend over months, or indeed years; and in the meanwhile there was always the fear that some one else, as quick-witted and indefatigable as himself, would take up the same tangled skein and succeed in the unravelment of it. Looking this fact full in the face, Mr. Sheldon decided that he must have an able and reliable coadjutor; but to find such a coadjutor, to find a man who would help him, on the chance of success, and not claim too large a share of the prize if success came, was more than the speculative attorney could hope. In the meantime his work progressed very slowly; and he was tormented by perpetual terror of that other sharp practitioner who might be following up the same clue, and whose agents might watch him in and out of parish churches, and listen at street-corners when he was hunting an oldest inhabitant.

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