Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

Aunt Sarah.

After that interview in Gray’s Inn, there were more interviews of a like character. Valentine received further instructions from George Sheldon, and got himself posted up in the Haygarthian history, so far as the lawyer’s information furnished the materials for such posting. But the sum total of Mr. Sheldon’s information seemed very little to his coadjutor when the young man looked the Haygarthian business full in the face and considered what he had to do. He felt very much like a young prince in the fairy tale who has been bidden to go forth upon an adventurous journey in a trackless forest, where if he escape all manner of lurking dangers, and remember innumerable injunctions, such as not to utter a single syllable during the whole course of his travels, or look over his left shoulder, or pat any strange dog, or gather forest fruit or flower, or look at his own reflection in mirror or water-pool, shining brazen shield or jewelled helm, he will ultimately find himself before the gates of an enchanted castle, to which he may or may not obtain admittance.

Valentine fancied himself in the position of this favourite young prince. The trackless forest was the genealogy of the Haygarths; and in the enchanted castle he was to find the crown of success in the shape of three thousand pounds. Could he marry Charlotte on the strength of those three thousand pounds, if he were so fortunate as to unravel the tangled skein of the Haygarth history? Ah, no; that black-whiskered stockbroking stepfather would ask for something more than three thousand pounds from the man to whom he gave his wife’s daughter.

“He will try to marry her to some rich City swell, I dare say,” thought Valentine. “I should be no nearer her with three thousand pounds for my fortune than I am without a sixpence. The best thing I can do for her happiness and my own is to turn my back upon her, and devote myself to hunting the Haygarths. It’s rather hard too, just as I have begun to fancy that she likes me a little.”

In the course of those interviews in Gray’s Inn which occurred before Valentine took any active steps in his new pursuit, certain conditions were agreed upon between him and Mr. Sheldon. The first and most serious of these conditions was, that Captain Paget should be in nowise enlightened as to his protégé‘s plans. This was a strong point with George Sheldon. “I have no doubt Paget’s a very good fellow,” he said. (It was his habit to call everybody a good fellow. He would have called Nana Sahib a good fellow, and would have made some good-natured excuse for any peccadilloes on the part of that potentate). “Paget’s an uncommonly agreeable man, you know; but he is not the man I should care to trust with this kind of secret.” Mr. Sheldon said this with a tone that implied his willingness to trust Captain Paget with every other kind of secret, from the contents of his japanned office-boxes to the innermost mysteries of his soul.

“You see Paget is thick with my brother Phil,” he resumed; “and whenever I find a man thick with my relations, I make it a point to keep clear of that man myself. Relations never have worked well in harness, and never will work well in harness. It seems to be against nature. Now Phil has a dim kind of idea of the game I want to play, in a general way, but nothing more than a dim idea. He fancies I’m a fool, and that I’m wasting my time and trouble. I mean him to stick to that notion. For, you see, in a thing of this kind there’s always a chance of other people cutting in and spoiling a man’s game. Of course, that advertisement I read to you was seen by other men besides me, and may have been taken up. My hope is that whoever has taken it up has gone in for the female branch, and got himself snowed up under a heap of documentary evidence about the Judsons. That’s another reason why we should put our trust in Matthew Haygarth. The Judson line is the obvious line to follow, and there are very few who would think of hunting up evidence for a hypothetical first marriage until they had exhausted the Judsons. Now, I rely upon you to throw dust in Paget’s eyes, so that there may be no possibility of my brother getting wind of our little scheme through him.”

“I’ll take care of that,” answered Valentine; “he doesn’t want me just now. He’s in very high feather, riding about in broughams and dining at West-end taverns. He won’t be sorry to get rid of me for a short time.” “But what’ll be your excuse for leaving town? He’ll be sure to want a reason, you know.”

“I’ll invent an aunt at Ullerton, and tell him I’m going down to stop with her.”

“You’d better not say Ullerton; Paget might take it into his head to follow you down there in order to see what sort of person your aunt was, and whether she had any money. Paget’s an excellent fellow, but there’s never any knowing what that sort of man will do. You’d better throw him off the scent altogether. Plant your aunt in Surrey — say Dorking.”

“But if he should want to write to me?”

“Tell him to address to the post-office, Dorking, as your aunt is inquisitive, and might tamper with your correspondence. I daresay his letters will keep.”

“He could follow me to Dorking as easily as to Ullerton.”

“Of course he could,” answered George Sheldon; “but then, you see, at Dorking the most he could find out would be that he’d been made a fool of; whereas if he followed you to Ullerton, he might ferret out the nature of your business there.”

Mr. Hawkehurst perceived the wisdom of this conclusion, and agreed to make Dorking the place of his relative’s abode.

“It’s very near London,” he suggested thoughtfully; “the Captain might easily run down.”

“And for that very reason he’s all the less likely to do it,” answered the lawyer; “a man who thinks of going to a place within an hour’s ride of town knows he can go any day, and is likely to think of going to the end of the chapter without carrying out his intention. A man who resolves to go to Manchester or Liverpool has to make his arrangements accordingly, and is likely to put his idea into practice. The people who live on Tower-hill very seldom see the inside of the Tower. It’s the good folks who come up for a week’s holiday from Yorkshire and Cornwall who know all about the Crown jewels and John of Gaunt’s armour. Take my advice, and stick to Dorking.”

Acting upon this advice, Valentine Hawkehurst lay in wait for the Promoter that very evening. He went home early, and was seated by a cheery little bit of fire, such as an Englishman likes to see at the close of a dull autumn day, when that accomplished personage returned to his lodgings.

“Deuced tiresome work,” said the Captain, as he smoothed the nap of his hat with that caressing tenderness of manipulation peculiar to the man who is not very clear as to the means whereby his next hat is to be obtained — “deuced slow, brain-belabouring work! How many people do you think I’ve called upon to-day, eh, Val? Seven-and-thirty! What do you say to that? Seven-and-thirty interviews, and some of them very tough ones. I think that’s enough to take the steam out of a man.”

“Do the moneyed swells bite?” asked Mr. Hawkehurst, with friendly interest.

“Rather slowly, my dear Val, rather slowly. The mercantile fisheries have been pretty well whipped of late years, and the fish are artful — they are uncommonly artful, Val. Indeed, I’m not quite clear at this present moment as to the kind of fly they’ll rise to most readily. I’m half inclined to be doubtful whether your gaudy pheasant-feather, your brougham and lavender-kid business is the right thing for your angler. It has been overdone, Val, considerably overdone; and I shouldn’t wonder if a sober little brown fly — a shabby old chap in a rusty greatcoat, with a cotton umbrella under his arm — wouldn’t do the trick better. That sort of thing would look rich, you see, Val — rich and eccentric; and I think on occasions — with a very downy bird — I’d even go so far as a halfp’orth of snuff in a screw of paper. I really think a pinch of snuff out of a bit of paper, taken at the right moment, might turn the tide of a transaction.”

Impressed by the brilliancy of this idea, Captain Paget abandoned himself for the moment to profound meditation, seated in his favourite chair, and with his legs extended before the cheerful blaze. He always had a favourite chair in every caravanserai wherein he rested in his manifold wanderings, and he had an unerring instinct which guided him in the selection of the most comfortable chair, and that one corner, to be found in every room, which is a sanctuary secure from the incursions of Boreas.

The day just ended had evidently not been a lucky one, and the Captain’s gaze was darkly meditative as he looked into the ruddy little fire.

“I think I’ll take a glass of cold water with a dash of brandy in it, Val,” he said presently; and he said it with the air of a man who rarely tasted such a beverage; whereas it was as habitual with him to sit sipping brandy-and-water for an hour or so before he went to bed as it was for him to light his chamber candle. “That fellow Sheldon knows how to take care of himself,” he remarked thoughtfully, when Valentine had procured the brandy-and-water. “Try some of that cognac, Val; it’s not bad. To tell you the truth, I’m beginning to get sick of this promoting business. It pays very little better than the India-rubber agency, and it’s harder work. I shall look about me for something fresh, if Sheldon doesn’t treat me handsomely. And what have you been doing for the last day or two?” asked the Captain, with a searching glance at his protégé‘s face. “You’re always hanging about Sheldon’s place; but you don’t seem to do much business with him. You and his brother George seem uncommonly thick.”

“Yes, George suits me better than the stockbroker. I never could get on very well with your ultra-respectable men. I’m as ready to ‘undertake a dirty job’ as any man; but I don’t like a fellow to offer me dirty work and pretend it’s clean.”

“Ah, he’s been getting you to do a little of the bear business, I suppose,” said the Captain. “I don’t see that your conscience need trouble you about that. Amongst a commercial people money must change hands. I can’t see that it much matters how the change takes place.”

“No, to be sure; that’s a comfortable way of putting it, at any rate. However, I’m tired of going about in the ursine guise, and I’m going to cut it. I’ve an old aunt settled at Dorking who has got a little bit of money to leave, and I think I’ll go and look her up.”

“An aunt at Dorking! I never heard of her before.”

“O yes you have,” answered Mr. Hawkehurst, with supreme nonchalance; “you’ve heard of her often enough, only you’ve a happy knack of not listening to other people’s affairs. But you must have been wrapped up in yourself with a vengeance if you don’t remember to have heard me speak of my aunt — Sarah.”

“Well, well, it may be so,” murmured the Captain, almost apologetically. “Your aunt Sarah? Ah, to be sure; I have some recollection: is she your father’s sister?”

“No; she’s the sister of my maternal grandmother — a great-aunt, you know. She has a comfortable little place down at Dorking, and I can get free quarters there whenever I like; so as you don’t particularly want me just now, I think I’ll run down to her for a week or two.”

The Captain had no objection to offer to this very natural desire on the part of his adopted son; nor did he concern himself as to the young man’s motive for leaving London.

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