Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

At the Lawn.

Life at the Lawn went by very smoothly for Mr. Sheldon’s family. Georgy was very happy in the society of a companion who seemed really to have a natural taste for the manufacture of pretty little head-dresses from the merest fragments of material in the way of lace and ribbon. Diana had all that versatile cleverness and capacity for expedients which is likely to be acquired in a wandering and troubled life. She had learned more in her three years of discomfort with her father than in all the undeviating course of the Hyde–Lodge studies; she had improved her French at one table d’hôte, her German at another; she had caught some new trick of style in every concert-room, some fresh combination of costume on every racecourse; and, being really grateful for Charlotte’s disinterested affection, she brought all her accomplishments to bear to please her friend and her friend’s household.

In this she succeeded admirably. Mrs. Sheldon found her daughter’s society much more delightful now that the whole pressure of Charlotte’s intellect and vitality no longer fell entirely upon herself. She liked to sit lazily in her arm-chair while the two girls chattered at their work, and she could venture an occasional remark, and fancy that she had a full share in the conversation. When the summer weather rendered walking a martyrdom and driving an affliction, she could recline on her favourite sofa reading a novel, soothed by the feeble twittering of her birds; while Charlotte and Diana went out together, protected by the smart boy in buttons, who was not altogether without human failings, and was apt to linger behind his fair charges, reading the boards before the doors of newsvendors’ shops, or looking at the cartoons in Punch exhibited in the stationers’ windows.

Mr. Sheldon made a point of pleasing his stepdaughter whenever it was possible for him to do so without palpable inconvenience to himself; and as she was to be gratified by so small a pecuniary sacrifice as the trifling increase of tradesmen’s bills caused by Miss Paget’s residence in the gothic villa, he was the last man in the world to refuse her that indulgence. His own pursuits were of so absorbing a nature as to leave little leisure for concern about other people’s business. He asked no questions about his stepdaughter’s companion; but he was not the less surprised to see this beautiful high-bred woman content to sit at his board as an unsalaried dependent.

“Your friend Miss Paget looks like a countess,” he said one day to Charlotte. “I thought girls generally pitched upon some plain homely young woman for their pet companion, but you seem to have chosen the handsomest girl in the school.”

“Yes, she is very handsome, is she not? I wish some of your rich City men would marry her, papa.”

Miss Halliday consented to call her mother’s husband “papa,” though the caressing name seemed in a manner to stick in her throat. She had loved that blustrous good-tempered Tom Halliday so very dearly, and it was only to please poor Georgy that she brought herself to address any other man by the name that had been his.

“My City men have something better to do than to marry a young woman without a sixpence,” answered Mr. Sheldon. “Why don’t you try to catch one of them for yourself?”

“I don’t like City men,” said Charlotte quickly; and then she blushed, and added apologetically, “at least not the generality of City men, papa.”

Diana had waited until her destiny was settled before answering Valentine Hawkehurst’s letter; but she wrote to him directly she was established at the Lawn, and told him the change in her plans.

“I think papa had better let me come to see him at his lodgings,” she said, “wherever they may be; for I should scarcely care about Mr. Sheldon seeing him. No one here knows anything definite about my history; and as it is just possible Mr. Sheldon may have encountered my father somehow or other, it would be as well for him to keep clear of this house. I could not venture to say this to papa myself, but perhaps you could suggest it without offending him. You see I have grown very worldly-wise, and am learning to protect my own interests in the spirit which you have so instilled into me. I don’t know whether that sort of spirit is likely to secure one’s happiness, but I have no doubt it is the wisest and best for this world.”

Miss Paget could not refrain from an occasional sneer when she wrote to her old companion. He never returned her sneers, or noticed them. His letters were always frank, friendly, and brotherly in tone.

“Neither my good opinion nor my bad opinion is of any consequence to him,” Diana thought bitterly. It was late in August when Captain Paget and his protégé came to town. Valentine suggested the wisdom of leaving Diana in her new home uncompromised by any past associations. But this was a suggestion which Horatio Paget could not accept. His brightest successes in the way of scheming had been matured out of chance acquaintanceships with eligible men. A man who could afford such a luxury as a companion for his daughter must needs be eligible, and the Captain was not inclined to sacrifice his acquaintance from any extreme delicacy.

“My daughter seems to have made new friends for herself, and I should like to see what kind of people they are,” he said conclusively. “We’ll look them up this evening, Val.”

Mr. George Sheldon dined at the Lawn on the day on which Horatio Paget determined on “looking up” his daughter’s new friends, and he and the two girls were strolling in the garden when the Captain and Mr. Hawkehurst were announced. They had been told that Miss Paget was in the garden.

“Be good enough to take me straight to her,” said the Captain to the boy in buttons; “I am her father.”

Horatio Paget was too old a tactician not to know that by an unceremonious plunge into the family circle he was more likely to secure an easy footing in the household than by any direct approach of the master. He had seen the little group in the garden, and had mistaken George for the head of the house.

Diana turned from pale to red, and from red to pale again, as she recognised the two men. There had been no announcement of their coming. She did not even know that they were in England.

“Papa!” she cried, and then held out her hand and greeted him; coldly enough, as it seemed to Charlotte, who fancied that any kind of real father must be very dear.

But Captain Paget was not to be satisfied by that cold greeting. It suited his purpose to be especially paternal on this occasion. He drew his daughter to his breast, and embraced her affectionately, very much to that young lady’s surprise.

Then, having abandoned himself entirely for the moment to this tender impulse of paternity, he suddenly put his daughter aside, as if he had all at once remembered his duty to society, drew himself up stiffly, and saluted Miss Halliday and George Sheldon with uncovered head.

“Mr. Sheldon, I believe?” he murmured.

“George Sheldon,” answered that gentleman; “my brother Philip is in the drawing-room yonder, looking at us.”

Philip Sheldon came out into the garden as George said this, It was one of those sultry evenings on which the most delightful of gothic villas is apt to be too stifling for endurance; and in most of the prim suburban gardens there were people lounging listlessly among the flower-beds. Mr. Sheldon came to look at this patrician stranger who had just embraced his daughter’s companion; whereupon Captain Paget introduced himself and his friend Mr. Hawkehurst. After the introduction Mr. Sheldon and the Captain fell into an easy conversation, while the two girls walked slowly along the gravel pathway with Valentine by their side, and while George loitered drearily along, chewing the stalk of a geranium, and pondering the obscure reminiscences of the last oldest inhabitant whose shadowy memories he had evoked in his search after new links in the chain of the Haygarths.

The two girls walked in the familiar schoolgirl fashion of Hyde Lodge, Charlotte’s arm encircling the waist of her friend. They were both dressed in white muslin, and looked very shadowy and sylph-like in the summer dusk. Mr. Hawkehurst found himself in a new atmosphere in this suburban garden, with these two white-robed damsels by his side; for it seemed to him that Diana with Charlotte’s arm round her waist, and a certain shy gentleness of manner which was new to him, was quite a different person from that Miss Paget whose wan face had looked at him so anxiously in the saloons of the Belgian Kursaal.

At first there was considerable restraint in the tone of the conversation, and some little of that unnecessary discussion as to whether this evening was warmer than the preceding evening, or whether it was not, indeed, the warmest evening of all that summer. And then, when the ice was broken, Mr. Hawkehurst began to talk at his ease about Paris, which city Miss Halliday had never seen; about the last book, the last play, the last folly, the last fashionable bonnet; for it was one of the special attributes of this young Robert Macaire to be able to talk about anything, and to adapt himself to any society. Charlotte opened her eyes to their widest extent as she listened to this animated stranger. She had been so wearied by the dry as dust arguments of City men who had discussed the schemes of great contractors, “which will never be carried out, sir, while money is at its present rate, mark my words,”— or the chances of a company “which is eaten up by debenture-bonds and preference-shares, sir, and will never pay its original proprietors one sixpence of interest on their capital,” with a great deal more of the same character; and it was quite new to her to hear about novels, theatres, and bonnets from masculine lips, and to find that there were men living who could interest themselves in such frivolities. Charlotte was delighted with Diana’s friend. It was she who encouraged Valentine every now and then by some exclamation of surprise or expression of interest, while Miss Paget herself was thoughtful and silent.

It was not thus that she had hoped to meet Valentine Hawkehurst. She stole a look at him now and then as he walked by her side. Yes, it was the old face — the face which would have been so handsome if there had been warmth and life in it, instead of that cold listlessness which repelled all sympathy, and seemed to constitute a kind of mask behind which the real man hid himself.

Diana looked at him, and remembered her parting from him in the chill gray morning on the platform at Forêtdechêne. He had let her go out alone into the dreary world to encounter what fate she might, without any more appearance of anxiety than he might have exhibited had she been starting for a summer-day’s holiday; and now, after a year of separation, he met her with the same air of unconcern, and could discourse conventional small talk to another woman while she walked by his side.

While Mr. Hawkehurst was talking to Mr. Sheldon’s stepdaughter, Captain Paget had contrived to make himself very agreeable to that gentleman himself. Lord Lytton has said that “there is something strange and almost mesmerical in the rapport between two evil natures. Bring two honest men together, and it is ten to one if they recognise each other as honest; differences in temper, manner, even politics, may make each misjudge the other. But bring together two men unprincipled and perverted — men who, if born in a cellar, would have been food for the hulks or gallows — and they understand each other by instant sympathy.” However this might be with these two men, they had speedily become upon very easy terms with each other. Mr. Sheldon’s plans for the making of money were very complicated in their nature, and he had frequent need of clever instruments to assist in the carrying out of his arrangements. Horatio Paget was the exact type of man most likely to be useful to such a speculator as Philip Sheldon. He was the very ideal of the “Promoter,” the well-dressed, well-mannered gentleman, beneath whose magic wand new companies arise as if by magic; the man who, without a sixpence in his own pocket, can set a small Pactolus flowing from the pockets of other people; the man who, content himself to live in a humble second floor at Chelsea, can point to gigantic hotels which are as the palaces of a new Brobdignag, and say, “Lo, these arose at my bidding!” Mr. Sheldon was always on the alert to discover anything or anybody likely to serve his own interest, either in the present or the future; and he came to the conclusion that Miss Paget’s father was a person upon whom an occasional dinner might not be altogether thrown away.

“Take a chop with us to-morrow at six,” he said, on parting from the Captain, “and then you can hear the two girls play and sing. They play remarkably well, I believe, from what other people tell me; but I am not a musical man myself.”

Horatio Paget accepted the invitation as cordially as it was given. It is astonishing how genial and friendly these men of the world can be at the slightest imaginable notice. One can fancy the striped tigers of Bengal shaking paws in the jungle, the vultures hob-nobbing in a mountain cleft over the torn carcass of a stag, the kites putting their beaks together after dining on a nest of innocent doves.

“Then we shall expect to see you at sharp six,” said Mr. Sheldon, “and your friend Mr. Hawkehurst with you, of course.”

After this the two gentlemen departed. Valentine shook hands with Diana, and took a more ceremonious leave of Charlotte. George Sheldon threw away his chewed geranium-stalk in order to bid good evening to the visitors; and the little party walked to the garden-gate together.

“That Sheldon seems a very clever fellow,” said Captain Paget, as he and Valentine walked towards the Park, which they had to cross on their way to Chelsea, where the Captain had secured a convenient lodging. “I wonder whether he is any relation to the Sheldon who is in with a low set of money-lenders?”

“What, the Sheldon of Gray’s Inn?” exclaimed Mr. Hawkehurst. “We can easily find that out.”

Horatio Paget and Valentine Hawkehurst were frequent visitors at the Lawn after that first evening. Mr. Sheldon found the Captain useful to him in the carrying out of certain business arrangements on more than one occasion, and the relations between the respectable stockbroker and the disreputable adventurer assumed a very friendly character. Diana wondered to see so spotless a citizen as Philip Sheldon hand-and-glove with her father. Mrs. Sheldon and Charlotte were delighted with the Captain and his protégé; these two penniless Bohemians were so much more agreeable to the feminine mind than the City men who were wont to sit in the dining-room slowly imbibing Mr. Sheldon’s old port in the long summer evenings, while their wives endured the abomination of desolation with Georgy and Charlotte in the drawing-room. Captain Paget paid Mrs. Sheldon flowery compliments, and told her delightful stories of the aristocracy and all that shining West-end world with which he had once been familiar. Poor simple Georgy regarded him with that reverential awe which a middle-class country-bred woman is prone to feel for a man who bears upon him that ineffaceable stamp of high birth and good breeding, not to be destroyed by half a century of degradation. Nor could Charlotte withhold her admiration from the man whose tone was so infinitely superior to that of all the other men she had encountered. In his darkest hour Captain Paget had found his best friends, or his easiest dupes, among women. It had gone hard with him when his dear friend had withheld the temporary accommodation of a five-pound note; but it had been much harder when his friend’s wife had refused the loan of “a little silver.”

Valentine Hawkehurst came very often to the Lawn, sometimes with his friend and patron, sometimes alone. He brought the young ladies small offerings in the way of a popular French novel adapted for feminine perusal, or an occasional box for some theatre which had fallen upon evil days, and was liberal in the circulation of “paper.” He met the two girls sometimes in their morning walks in Kensington-gardens, and walked with them in the leafy avenues, and only left them at the gate by which they departed. So much of his life was a listless waiting for the arising of new chances, that he had ample time to waste in feminine society, and he seemed very well inclined to loiter away the leisure hours of existence in the companionship of Diana and her friend.

And was Miss Paget glad of his coming, and pleased to be in his company? Alas, no! The time had been, and only within a few months, when she had sickened for the sight of his familiar face, and fancied that the most exquisite happiness life could afford her would be to see him once more, anywhere, under any circumstances. She saw him now almost daily, and she was miserable. She saw him; but another woman had come between her and the man she loved: and now, if his voice took a softer tone, or if his eyes assumed a tender earnestness of expression, it might be Charlotte’s influence which wrought the transformation. Who could say that it was not on Charlotte’s account he came so often, and lingered so long? Diana looked at him sometimes with haggard angry eyes, which saw that it was Miss Halliday who absorbed his attention. It was Charlotte — Charlotte, who was so bright and happy a creature that the coldest heart must needs have been moved and melted by her fascination. What was the cold patrician beauty of Miss Paget’s face when compared with the changeful charm of this radiant girl, with the flashing gray eyes and piquant features, and all those artless caprices of manner which made her arch loveliness irresistible? Diana’s heart grew sick and cold as she watched these two day by day, and saw the innocent school-girl’s ascendancy over the adventurer. The attributes which made Charlotte charming were just those very attributes which Valentine Hawkehurst had been least accustomed to discover in the womankind he had hitherto encountered. He had seen beautiful women, elegant and fascinating women, without number; but this frank girlish nature, this happy childlike disposition, was entirely new to him. How should he have met bright childlike creatures in the pathways which he had trodden? For the first time in his life a fresh young heart revealed its treasures of purity and tenderness before his world-weary eyes, and his own heart was melted by the new influence. He had admired Diana; he had been touched by her girlish fancy for him, and had loved her as well as he had believed himself capable of loving any woman. But when Prudence and Honour counselled him to stifle and crush his growing affection for the beautiful companion of his wanderings, the struggle had involved no agony of regret or despair. He had told himself that no good could ever come of his love for Captain Paget’s daughter, and he had put aside that love before it had taken any vital root in his heart. He had been very strong and resolute in this matter — resisting looks of sad surprise which would have melted a softer nature. And he had been proud of his own firmness. “Better for her, and better for me,” he had said to himself: “let her outlive her foolish schoolgirl fancies, and wait patiently till her beauty wins her a rich husband. As for me, I must marry some prosperous tradesman’s widow, if I ever marry at all.”

The influence of the world in which his life had been spent had degraded Valentine Hawkehurst, and had done much to harden him; and yet he was not altogether hard. He discovered his own weakness very soon after the beginning of his acquaintance with Mr. Sheldon’s stepdaughter. He knew very well that if he had been no fitting lover for Diana Paget, he was still less a fitting lover for Charlotte Halliday. He knew that although it might suit Mr. Sheldon’s purpose to make use of the Captain and himself as handy instruments for the accomplishment of somewhat dirty work, he would be the very last man to accept one of those useful instruments as a husband for his stepdaughter. He knew all this; and knew that, apart from all worldly considerations, there was an impassable gulf between himself and Charlotte. What could there be in common between the unprincipled companion of Horatio Paget and this innocent girl, whose darkest sin had been a neglected lesson or an ill-written exercise? If he could have given her a home and a position, an untarnished name and respectable associations, he would even yet have been unworthy of her affection, unable to assure her happiness.

“I am a scoundrel and an adventurer,” he said to himself, in his most contemptuous spirit. “If some benevolent fairy were to give me the brightest home that was ever created for man, and Charlotte for my wife, I daresay I should grow tired of my happiness in a week or two, and go out some night to look for a place where I could play billiards and drink beer. Is there any woman upon this earth who could render my existence supportable without billiards and beer?”

Knowing himself much better than the Grecian philosopher seemed to think it possible for human nature to know itself, Mr. Hawkehurst decided that it was his bounden duty, both for his own sake and that of the young lady in question, to keep clear of the house in which Miss Halliday lived, and the avenue in which she was wont to walk. He told himself this a dozen times a day, and yet he made his appearance at the Lawn whenever he had the poorest shadow of an excuse for going there; and it seemed as if the whole business of his life lay at the two ends of Charlotte’s favourite avenue, so often did he find himself called upon to perambulate that especial thoroughfare. He knew that he was weak and foolish and dishonourable; he knew that he was sowing the dragon’s teeth from which were to spring up armed demons that would rend and tear him. But Charlotte’s eyes were unspeakably bright and bewitching, and Charlotte’s voice was very sweet and tender. A thrilling consciousness that he was not altogether an indifferent person in Charlotte’s consideration had possessed him of late when he found himself in that young lady’s society, and a happiness which had hitherto been strange to him gave a new zest to his purposeless life.

He still affected the old indifference of manner, the idle listless tone of a being who has finished with all the joys and sorrows, affections and aspirations, of the world in which he lives. But the pretence had of late become a very shallow one. In Charlotte’s presence he was eager and interested in spite of himself — childishly eager about the veriest trifles which interested her. Love had taken up the glass of Time; and the days and hours were reckoned by a new standard; everything in the world had suffered some wondrous change, which Valentine Hawkehurst tried in vain to understand. The very earth upon which he walked had undergone some mystic process of transformation; the very streets of London were new to him. He had known Kensington-gardens from his boyhood; but not those enchanted avenues of beech and elm in which he walked with Charlotte. In the plainest and most commonplace phraseology, Mr. Hawkehurst had fallen in love. This penniless adventurer, who at eight-and-twenty years of age was steeped to the lips in the worst experiences of a very indifferent world, found himself all at once hanging upon the words and living upon the looks of an ignorant schoolgirl.

The discovery that he was capable of this tender weakness had an almost overwhelming effect upon Mr. Hawkehurst. He was ashamed of this touch of humanity, this foolish affection which had awakened all that was purest and best in a nature that had been so long abandoned to degrading influences. For some time he fought resolutely against that which he considered his folly; but the training which had made him the master of many a perplexing position had not given him the mastery over his own inclinations; and when he found that Charlotte’s society had become the grand necessity of his life, he abandoned himself to his fate without further resistance. He let himself drift with the tide that was so much stronger than himself; and if there were breakers ahead, or fatal rocks lurking invisible beneath the blue waters, he must take his chance. His frail bark must go to pieces when her time came. In the meanwhile it was so delicious to float upon the summer sea, that a man could afford to forget future possibilities in the way of rocks and quicksands.

Miss Paget had known very few pleasures in the course of her uncared-for youth; but she hitherto had experienced no such anguish as that which she had now to endure in her daily intercourse with Valentine and Charlotte. She underwent her martyrdom bravely, and no prying eye discovered the sufferings which her proud nature supported in silence. “Who takes any heed of my feelings, or cares whether I am glad or sorry?” she thought; “he does not.”

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