Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

The Compact of Gray’s Inn.

The sand which ran so swiftly in the glass which that bright young urchin Love had wrested from the hand of grim old Time ran with an almost equal swiftness in the hour-glasses of lodging-house keepers and tradespeople, and the necessities of every day demanded perpetual exertion on the part of Mr. Hawkehurst, let Charlotte’s eyes be never so bright, and Charlotte’s society never so dear. For Captain Paget and his protégé there was no such thing as rest; and the ingenious Captain took care that the greater part of the labour should be performed by Valentine, while the lion’s share of the spoil was pounced upon by the ready paw of the noble Horatio. Just now he found his pupil unusually plastic, unusually careless of his own interests, and ready to serve his master with agreeable blindness. Since that awkward little affair at Forêtdechêne, that tiresome entanglement about a King of Spades which had put in an appearance at a moment when no such monarch was to be expected, Captain Paget had obtained the means of existence in a manner which was almost respectable, if not altogether honest; for it is not to be supposed that honesty and respectability are by any means synonymous terms. It was only by the exercise of superhuman address that the Captain had extricated himself from that perplexing predicament at the Belgian watering-place; and it may be that the unpleasant experiences of that particular evening were not without a salutary effect upon the adventurer’s future plans.

“It was touch-and-go work, Val,” he said to his companion; “and if I hadn’t carried matters with a high hand, and sprung my position as an officer in the English service upon those French ruffians, I don’t know where it would have ended.”

“It might have come to a metallic ornamentation of the ankle, and some amiable 444, who has murdered his grandmother with a red-hot poker and extenuating circumstances, for your companion,” murmured Valentine. “I wouldn’t try it on with that supererogatory king again on this side of the Channel, if I were you.”

The Captain bestowed a freezing look on his flippant protégé and then commenced a very grave discussion of future ways and means, which ended in an immediate departure for Paris, where the two men entered upon an unpretentious career in the commercial line as agents and travellers for the patentees of an improved kind of gutta percha, which material was supposed to be applicable to every imaginable purpose, from the sole of an infant’s boot to the roof of a cathedral. There are times when genius must stoop to pick up its daily pittance; and for twelve months the elegant Horatio Paget was content to devote his best energies to the perpetual praise of the Incorrodible and Indestructible and Incombustible India-rubber, in consideration of a very modest percentage on his commercial transactions in that material. To exert the persuasive eloquence of a Burke or a Thurlow in order to induce a man to roof his new warehouses with a fabric which you are aware will be torn into ribbons by the first run of stormy weather, for the sake of obtaining two-and-a-half per cent on his investment, may not be in accordance with the honourable notions of a Bayard, and yet in a commercial sense may be strictly correct. It was only when Captain Paget had made a comfortable little purse out of his percentage upon the Incorrodible and Incombustible that he discovered the extreme degradation of his position as agent and traveller. He determined on returning to the land of his birth. Joint-stock companies were beginning to multiply in the commercial world at this period; and wherever there are many schemes for the investment of public capital there is room for such a man as Horatio Paget — a man who, with the aid of a hired brougham, can inspire confidence in the breast of the least daring speculator.

The Captain came, accompanied as usual by that plastic tool and subaltern, Valentine Hawkehurst, who, being afflicted with a chronic weariness of everything in life, was always eager to abandon any present pursuit in favour of the vaguest contingency, and to shake off the dust of any given locality from his vagabond feet. Captain Paget and his protégé came to London, where a fortunate combination of circumstances threw them in the way of Mr. Sheldon.

The alliance which arose between that gentleman and the Captain opened a fair prospect for the latter. Mr. Sheldon was interested in the formation of a certain joint-stock company, but had his own reasons for not wishing to be identified with it. A stalking-horse is by no means a difficult kind of animal to procure in the cattle-fairs of London; but a stalking-horse whose paces are sufficiently showy and imposing — a high-stepper, of thoroughbred appearance, and a mouth sensitively alive to the lightest touch of the curb, easy to ride or drive, warranted neither a kicker nor a bolter — is a quadruped of rare excellence, not to be met with every day. Just such a stalking-horse was Captain Paget; and Mr. Sheldon lost no time in putting him into action. It is scarcely necessary to say that the stockbroker trusted his new acquaintance only so far as it was absolutely necessary to trust him; or that the Captain and the stockbroker thoroughly understood each other without affecting to do so. For Horatio Paget the sun of prosperity arose in unaccustomed splendour. He was able to pay for his lodgings, and was an eminently respectable person in the eyes of his landlord. He enjoyed the daily use of a neatly-appointed brougham, in which only the most practised eye could discover the taint of the livery stable. He dined sumptuously at fashionable restaurants, and wore the freshest of lavender gloves, the most delicate of waxen heath-blossoms or creamy-tinted exotics in the button-hole of his faultless coat.

While the chief flourished, the subaltern was comparatively idle. The patrician appearance and manners of the Captain were a perennial source of profit to that gentleman; but Valentine Hawkehurst had not a patrician appearance; and the work which Mr. Sheldon found for him was of a more uncertain and less profitable character than that which fell to the share of the elegant Horatio. But Valentine was content. He shared the Captain’s lodging, though he did not partake of the Captain’s dinners or ride in the smart little brougham. He had a roof to shelter him, and was rarely unprovided with the price of some kind of dinner; and as this was the highest order of prosperity he had ever known, he was content. He was more than content; for the first time in his existence he knew what it was to be happy. A purer joy than life had ever held for him until now made him careless whether his dinner cost eighteenpence or eighteen shillings; whether he rode in the most perfect of broughams or walked in the mud. He took no heed for the future; he forgot the past, and abandoned himself heart and soul to the new delights of the present.

Never had Philip Sheldon found so willing a tool, so cheap a drudge. Valentine was ready to do anything or everything for Charlotte’s stepfather, since his relations with that gentleman enabled him to spend so much of his life with Charlotte.

But even in this sublimated state of mind Mr. Hawkehurst was not exempt from the great necessity of Mr. Skimpole and humanity at large. He wanted pounds. His garments were shabby, and he desired new and elegant raiment in which to appear to advantage before the eyes of the woman he loved. It had been his privilege on several occasions to escort Mrs. Sheldon and the two younger ladies to a theatre; and even this privilege had cost him money. He wanted pounds to expend upon those new books and music which served so often as the excuse for a visit to the Lawn. He wanted pounds for very trivial purposes; but he wanted them desperately. A lover without pounds is the most helpless and contemptible of mankind; he is a knight-errant without his armour, a troubadour without his lute.

In his dilemma Mr. Hawkehurst resorted to that simple method which civilisation has devised for the relief of pecuniary difficulties of a temporary nature. He had met George Sheldon several times at the Lawn, and had become tolerably intimate with that gentleman, whom he now knew to be “the Sheldon of Gray’s Inn,” and the ally and agent of certain bill-discounters. To George he went one morning; and after requesting that Captain Paget should know nothing of his application, explained his requirements. It was a very small sum which he asked for, modestly conscious that the security he had to offer was of the weakest. He only wanted thirty pounds, and was willing to give a bill at two months for five-and-thirty.

There was a good deal of hesitation on the part of the lawyer; but Valentine had expected to meet with some difficulty, and was not altogether unprepared for a point-blank refusal. He was agreeably surprised when George Sheldon told him he would manage that “little matter; only the bill must be for forty.” But in proof of the liberal spirit in which Mr. Hawkehurst was to be treated, the friendly lawyer informed him that the two months should be extended to three.

Valentine did not stop to consider that by this friendly process he was to pay at the rate of something over a hundred and thirty per cent per annum for the use of the money he wanted. He knew that this was his only chance of getting money; so he shut his eyes to the expensive nature of the transaction, and thanked Mr. Sheldon for the accommodation granted to him.

“And now we’ve settled that little business, I should like to have a few minutes’ private chat with you,” said George, “on the understanding that what passes between you and me is strictly confidential.”

“Of course!”

“You seem to have been leading rather an idle life for the last few months; and it strikes me, Mr. Hawkehurst, you’re too clever a fellow to care about that sort of thing.”

“Well, I have been in some measure wasting my sweetness on the desert air,” Valentine answered carelessly. “The governor seems to have slipped into a good berth by your brother’s agency; but I am not Horatio Nugent Cromie Paget, and the brougham and lavender kids of the Promoter are not for me.”

“There is money to be picked up by better dodges than promoting,” replied the attorney ambiguously; “but I suppose you wouldn’t care for anything that didn’t bring immediate cash? You wouldn’t care to speculate the chances, however well the business might promise?”

C’est selon! That’s as may be,” answered Valentine coolly. “You see those affairs that promise so much are apt to fail when it comes to a question of performance. I’m not a capitalist; I can’t afford to become a speculator. I’ve been living from hand to mouth lately by means of occasional contributions to a sporting weekly, and a little bit of business which your brother threw in my way. I’ve been able to be tolerably useful to him, and he promises to get me something in the way of a clerkship, foreign correspondence, and that kind of thing.”

“Humph!” muttered George Sheldon; “that means eighty pounds a year and fourteen hours’ work a day, letters that must be answered by this mail, and so on. I don’t think that kind of drudgery would ever suit you, Hawkehurst. You’ve not served the right apprenticeship for that sort of thing; you ought to try for some higher game. What should you say to an affair that might put two or three thousand pounds in your pocket if it was successful?”

“I should feel very much inclined to fancy it a bubble — one of those dazzling rainbow-tinted globes which look so bright dancing about in the sunshine, and explode into nothing directly they encounter any tangible substance. However, my dear Sheldon, if you really have any employment to offer to a versatile young man who is not overburdened with vulgar prejudices, you’d better put the business in plain words.”

“I will,” answered George; “but it’s not an affair that can be discussed in five minutes. It’s rather a serious matter, and involves a good deal of consideration. I know that you’re a man of the world, and a very clever fellow into the bargain; but there’s something more than that wanted for this business, and that is patience. The hare is a very fine animal in her way, you know; but a man must have a little of the tortoise in him if he wants to achieve anything out of the common run in the way of good luck. I have been working, and waiting, and speculating the chances for the last fifteen years, and I think I’ve got a good chance at last. But there’s a good deal of work to be done before the business is finished; and I find that I must have some one to help me.”

“What sort of business is it?”

“The search for the heir-at-law of a man who has died intestate within the last ten years.”

The two men looked at each other at this juncture; and Valentine Hawkehurst smiled significantly.

“Within the last ten years?” he said. “That’s rather a wide margin.”

“Do you think you would be a good hand at hunting up the missing links in the chain of a family history?” asked Mr. Sheldon. “It’s rather tiresome work, you know, and requires no common amount of patience and perseverance.”

“I can persevere,” said Valentine decisively, “if you can show me that it will be worth my while to do so. You want an heir-at-law, and I’m to look for him. What am I to get while I’m looking for him? and what is to be my reward if I find him?”

“I’ll give you a pound a week and your travelling expenses while you’re employed in the search; and I’ll give you three thousand pounds on the day the heir gets his rights.”

“Humph!” muttered Mr. Hawkehurst, rather doubtfully; “three thousand pounds is a very respectable haul. But then, you see, I may fail to discover the heir; and even if I do find him the chances are ten to one that the business would be thrown into Chancery at the last moment; in which case I might wait till doomsday for the reward of my labours.”

George Sheldon shrugged his shoulders impatiently. He had expected this penniless adventurer to catch eagerly at the chance he offered. “Three thousand pounds are not to be picked up in the streets,” he said. “If you don’t care to work with me, I can find plenty of clever fellows in London who’ll jump at the business.”

“And you want me to begin work —?”

“Immediately.”

“And how am I to pay forty pounds in three months out of a pound a week?”

“Never mind the bill,” said Mr. Sheldon, with lofty generosity. “If you work heart and soul for me, I’ll square that little matter for you; I’ll get it renewed for another three months.”

“In that case I’m your man. I don’t mind a little hard work just now, and I can live upon a pound a week where another man would starve. So now for my instructions.”

There was a brief pause, during which the lawyer refreshed himself by walking up and down his office two or three times with his hands in his pockets. After which relief he seated himself before his desk, took out a sheet of foolscap, and selected a pen from the inkstand.

“It’s just as well to put things in a thoroughly business-like manner,” he said presently. “I suppose you’d have no objection to signing a memorandum of agreement — nothing that would be of any use in a court of law, you know, but a simple understanding between man and man, for our own satisfaction, as a safeguard against all possibility of misunderstanding in the future. I’ve every reason to consider you the most honourable of men, you know; but honourable men turn round upon each other sometimes. You might ask me for something more than three thou’ if you succeeded in your search.”

“Precisely; or I might make terms with the heir-at-law, and throw you over. Perhaps that was your idea?”

“Not exactly. The first half of the chain is in my hands, and the second half will be worth nothing without it. But to prevent all unpleasantness we may as well put our intentions upon record.”

“I’ve not the least objection,” replied Valentine with supreme indifference. “Draw up whatever memorandum you please, and I’ll sign it. If you don’t mind smoke, I should like to console myself with a cigar while you draw the bond.”

The question was a polite formula, the atmosphere of George Sheldon’s office being redolent of stale tobacco.

“Smoke away,” said the lawyer; “and if you can drink brandy-and-soda at this time of day, you’ll find the de quoi in that cupboard. Make yourself at home.”

Mr. Hawkehurst declined the brandy-and-soda, and regaled himself only with a cigar, which he took from his own case. He sat in one of the second-floor windows smoking, and looking dreamily into the gardens, while George Sheldon drew up the agreement. He was thinking that any hazard which took him away from London and Charlotte Halliday might be a fortunate one.

The lawyer finished his document, which he read aloud for the benefit of the gentleman who was to sign it. The agreement was in the following terms:—

“Memorandum of agreement between George Sheldon on the one part, and Valentine Hawkehurst on the other part, whereby it is this day mutually agreed by and between the parties hereto as follows:

“1. That, in consideration of a weekly salary of one pound while in pursuit of certain inquiries, and of the sum of three thousand pounds to be paid upon the arising of a certain event, namely, the establishment of an heir-at-law to the estates of the late John Haygarth, the said Valentine Hawkehurst shall act as agent for the said George Sheldon, and shall not at any time during the continuance of this agreement do any act to prejudice the inquiry or the steps now being taken by the said George Sheldon to discover and establish an heir-at-law to the estates of the late John Haygarth.

“2. That at no time hereafter shall the said Valentine Hawkehurst be entitled to a larger recompense than is herein-before provided; nor shall he be liable to the said George Sheldon for the return of any moneys which the said George Sheldon may advance on account of the said inquiries in the event of the same not resulting in the establishment of an heir to the estates of the late John Haygarth.

“3. That the said Valentine Hawkehurst shall not alter his character of agent to the said George Sheldon during the prosecution of the said inquiry; that he shall deliver over to the said George Sheldon all documents and other forms of evidence that may arise from his, the said Valentine Hawkehurst’s, inquires; and that he shall week by week, and every week, and as often as may be necessary, report to the said George Sheldon the result of such inquiries, and that he shall not on any pretence whatever be at liberty to withhold such fruits of his researches, nor discover the same to any one else than the said George Sheldon, under a penalty of ten thousand pounds, to be recovered as liquidated damages previously agreed between the parties as the measure of damages payable to the said George Sheldon upon the breach of this agreement by the said Valentine Hawkehurst.

“In witness whereof the parties hereto have this 20th day of September 1862 set their hands and affixed their seals.” “That sounds stiff enough to hold water in a court of law,” said Valentine, when George Sheldon had recited the contents of the document.

“I don’t suppose it would be much good in Chancery-lane,” returned the lawyer carelessly; “though I daresay it sounds rather formidable to you. When one gets the trick of the legal jargon, it’s not easy to draw the simplest form of agreement without a few superfluous words. I may as well call in my clerk to witness our signatures, I suppose.”

“Call in any one you like.”

The clerk was summoned from a sunless and airless den at the back of his principal’s office. The two men appended their signatures to the document; the clerk added his in witness of the genuine nature of those signatures. It was an affair of two minutes. The clerk was dismissed. Mr. Sheldon blotted and folded the memorandum, and laid it aside in one of the drawers of his desk.

“Come,” he said cheerily, “that’s a business-like beginning at any rate. And now you’d better have some brandy-and-soda, for what I’ve got to say will take some time in the saying of it.”

On this occasion Mr. Hawkehurst accepted the lawyer’s hospitality, and there was some little delay before the conversation proceeded.

It was a very long conversation. Mr. Sheldon produced a bundle of papers, and exhibited some of them to his agent, beginning with that advertisement in the Times which had first attracted his notice, but taking very good care not to show his coadjutor the obituary in the Observer, wherein the amount of the intestate’s fortune was stated. The ready wits which had been sharpened at so many different grindstones proved keen enough for the occasion. Valentine Hawkehurst had had little to do with genealogies or baptismal registers during his past career; but his experiences were of such a manifold nature that he was not easily to be baffled or mystified by any new experience. He showed himself almost as quick at tracing up the intricacies of a family tree as Mr. Sheldon, the astute attorney and practised genealogist.

“I have traced these Haygarths back to the intestate’s great-grandfather, who was a carpenter and a Puritan in the reign of Charles the First. He seems to have made money — how I have not been able to discover with any certainty; but it is more than probable he served in the civil wars, and came in for some of the plunder those crop-eared, psalm-singing, pierce-the-brain-of-the-tyrant-with-the-nail-of-Jael scoundrels were always in the way of, at the sack of Royalist mansions. The man made money; and his son, the grandfather of the intestate, was a wealthy citizen in the reigns of Anne and the first George. He was a grocer, and lived in the market-place of Ullerton in Leicestershire; an out-of-the-way sleepy place it is now, but was prosperous enough in those days, I daresay. This man (the grandfather) began the world well off, and amassed a large fortune before he had done with it. The lucky beggar lived in the days when free trade and competition were unknown, when tea was something like sixty shillings a pound, and when a psalm-singing sleek-haired fellow, with a reputation for wealth and honesty, might cheat his customers to his heart’s content. He had one son, Matthew, who seems, from what I can gather, to have been a wild sort of fellow in the early part of his career, and not to have been at any time on the best possible terms with the sanctimonious dad. This Matthew married at fifty-three years of age, and died a year after his marriage, leaving one son, who afterwards became the reverend intestate; with whom, according to the evidence at present before me, ends the direct line of the Haygarths.” The lawyer paused, turned over two or three papers, and then resumed his explanation. “The sanctimonious grocer, Jonathan Haygarth, had one other child besides the son — a daughter called Ruth, who married a certain Peter Judson, and became the mother of a string of sons and daughters; and it is amongst the descendants of these Judsons that we may have to look for our heir at law, unless we find him nearer home. Now my idea is that we shall find him nearer home.”

“What reason have you for forming that idea?” asked Valentine.

“I will tell you. This Matthew Haygarth is known to have been a wild fellow. I obtained a good deal of fragmentary information about him from an old man in some almshouses at Ullerton, whose grandfather was a schoolfellow of Matthew’s. He was a scapegrace, and was always spending money in London while the respectable psalm-singer was hoarding it in Ullerton. There used to be desperate quarrels between the two men, and towards the end of Jonathan Haygarth’s life the old man made half a dozen different wills in favour of half a dozen different people, and cutting off scapegrace Matthew with a shilling. Fortunately for scapegrace Matthew, the old man had a habit of quarrelling with his dearest friends — a fashion not quite exploded in this enlightened nineteenth century — and the wills were burnt one after another, until the worthy Jonathan became as helpless and foolish as his great contemporary and namesake, the Dean of St. Patrick’s; and after having died ‘first at top,’ did his son the favour to die altogether, intestate, whereby the roisterer and spendthrift of Soho and Covent-garden came into a very handsome fortune. The old man died in 1766, aged eighty; a very fine specimen of your good old English tradesman of the Puritanical school. The roisterer, Matthew, was by this time forty-six years of age, and, I suppose, had grown tired of roistering. In any case he appears to have settled down very quietly in the old family house in the Ullerton market-place, where he married a respectable damsel of the Puritan school, some seven years after, and in which house, or in the neighbourhood whereof, he departed this life, with awful suddenness, one year after his marriage, leaving his son and heir, the reverend intestate. And now, my dear Hawkehurst, you’re a sharp fellow, and I daresay a good hand at guessing social conundrums; so perhaps you begin to see my idea.”

“I can’t say I do.”

“My notion is, that Matthew Haygarth may possibly have married before he was fifty-three years of age. Men of his stamp don’t often live to that ripe age without being caught in matrimonial toils somehow or other. It was in the days of Fleet marriages — in the days when young men about town were even more reckless and more likely to become the prey of feminine deception than they are now. The fact that Matthew Haygarth revealed no such marriage is no conclusive evidence against my hypothesis. He died very suddenly — intestate, as it seems the habit of these Haygarths to die; and he had never made any adjustment of his affairs. According to the oldest inhabitant in Ullerton almshouses, this Matthew was a very handsome fellow, generous-hearted, open-handed — a devil-may-care kind of a chap, the type of the rollicking heroes in old comedies; the very man to fall over head and ears in love before he was twenty, and to go through fire and water for the sake of the woman he loved: in short, the very last man upon earth to live a bachelor until his fifty-fourth year.”

“He may —”

“He may have been a profligate, you were going to say, and have had baser ties than those of Church and State. So he may; but if he was a scoundrel, tradition flatters him. Of course all the information one can gather about a man who died in 1774 must needs be of a very uncertain and fragmentary character. But if I can trust the rather hazy recollections of my oldest inhabitant about what his father told him his father had said of wild Mat Haygarth, the young man’s wildness was very free from vice. There is no legend of innocence betrayed or infamy fostered by Matthew Haygarth. He appears to have enjoyed what the young men of that day called life — attended cock-fights, beat the watch, gambled a little, and was intimately acquainted with the interior of the Fleet and Marshalsea prisons. For nearly twenty years he seems to have lived in London; and during all those years he was lost sight of by the Ullerton people. My oldest inhabitant’s grandfather was clerk to a merchant in the city of London, and had therefore some opportunity of knowing his old schoolfellow’s proceedings in the metropolis. But the two townsmen don’t seem to have seen much of each other in the big city. Their meetings were rare, and, so far as I can make out, for the most part accidental. But, as I said before, my oldest inhabitant is somewhat hazy, and excruciatingly prolix; his chaff is in the proportion of some fifty to one of his wheat. I’ve given a good deal of time to this case already, you see, Mr. Hawkehurst; and you’ll find your work very smooth sailing compared to what I’ve gone through.”

“I daresay that sort of investigation is rather tiresome in the earlier stages.”

“You’d say so, with a vengeance, if you had to do it,” answered George Sheldon almost savagely. “You start with the obituary of some old bloke who was so disgustingly old when he consented to die that there is no one living who can tell you when he was born, or who were his father and mother; for, of course, the old idiot takes care not to leave a blessed document of any kind which can aid a fellow in his researches. And when you’ve had the trouble of hunting up half a dozen men of the same name, and have addled your wretched brains in the attempt to patch the half dozen men — turning up at different periods and in different places — into one man, they all tumble to pieces like a child’s puzzle, and you find yourself as far as ever from the man you want. However, you won’t have to do any of that work,” added Mr. Sheldon, who was almost in a passion when he remembered the trouble he had gone through. “The ground has been all laid out for you, by Jove, as smooth as a bowling-green; and if you look sharp, you’ll pick up your three thou’ before you know where you are.”

“I hope I shall,” answered Valentine coolly. He was not the sort of person to go into raptures about three thousand pounds, though such a sum must needs have seemed to him the wealth of a small Rothschild. “I know I want money badly enough, and am ready and willing to work for it conscientiously, if I get the chance. But to return to this Matthew Haygarth. Your idea is that there may have been a marriage previous to the one at Ullerton?”

“Precisely. Of course there may have been no such previous marriage; but you see it’s on the cards; and since it is on the cards, my notion is that we had better hunt up the history of Matthew Haygarth’s life in London, and try to find our heir-at-law there before we go in for the Judsons. If you knew how the Judsons have married and multiplied, and lost themselves among herds of other people, you wouldn’t care about tracing the ramifications of their family tree,” said Mr. Sheldon, with a weary sigh. “So be it,” exclaimed Mr. Hawkehurst carelessly; “we’ll leave the Judsons alone, and go in for Matthew Haygarth.”

He spoke with the air of an archaeological Hercules, to whom difficulties were nothing. It seemed as if he would have been quite ready to “go in” for some sidereal branch of the Plantagenets, or the female descendants of the Hardicanute family, if George Sheldon had suggested that the intestate’s next of kin was to be found there.

“Mat Haygarth, by all means,” he said. He was on jolly-good-fellow-ish terms with the dead-and-gone grocer’s son already, and had the tone of a man who had been his friend and boon companion. “Mat Haygarth is our man. But how are we to ferret out his doings in London? A man who was born in 1720 is rather a remote kind of animal.”

“The secret of success in these matters is time,” answered the lawyer sententiously: “a man must have no end of time, and he must keep his brain clear of all other business. Those two conditions are impossible for me, and that’s why I want a coadjutor: now you’re a clever young fellow, with no profession, with no particular social ties, as I can make out, and your time is all your own; ergo, you’re the very man for this business. The thing is to be done: accept that for a certainty. It’s only a question of time. Indeed, when you look at life philosophically, what is there on earth that is not a question of time? Give the crossing-sweeper between this and Chancery-lane time enough, and he might develop into a Rothschild. He might want nine hundred years or so to do it in; but there’s no doubt he could do it, if you gave him time.”

Mr. Sheldon was becoming expansive under the influence of the brandy-and-soda; for even that mild beverage is not without its effect on the intellectual man.

“As to this Haygarth case,” he resumed, after the consumption of a little more soda and a little more brandy, “it’s a sure success, if we work it properly; and you know three thou’ is not to be despised,” added George persuasively, “even if a fellow has to wait some time for it.”

“Certainly not. And the bulk of the Haygarthian fortune — I suppose that’s something rather stiff?” returned Valentine, in the same persuasive tone.

“Well, you may suppose it’s a decent figure,” answered Mr. Sheldon, with an air of deprecation, “or how could I afford to give you three thou’ out of the share I’m likely to get?”

“No, to be sure. I think I shall take to the work well enough when once I get my hand in; but I shall be very glad of any hint you can give me at starting.”

“Well, my advice is this: begin at the beginning; go down to Ullerton; see my oldest inhabitant. I pumped him as dry as I could, but I couldn’t give myself enough time for thoroughly exhaustive pumping; one has to waste a small eternity before one gets anything valuable out of those hazy old fellows. Follow up this Matthew from his birth; see the place where he was born; ferret out every detail of his life, so far as it is to be ferreted; trace his way step by step to London, and when you get him there, stick to him like a leech. Don’t let him slip through your fingers for a day; hunt him from lodging to lodging, from tavern to tavern, into jail and out of jail — tantivy, yoicks, hark-forward! I know it’s deuced hard work; but a man must work uncommonly hard in these days before he picks up three thou’. In a few words, the game is all before you; so go in and win,” concluded George Sheldon, as he poured the last amber drops from the slim smoke-coloured bottle, and swallowed his glass of brandy undiluted by soda.

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