Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

Mr. Sheldon on the Watch.

Mr. Sheldon had occasion to see Captain Paget early the following day, and questioned him closely about his protégé‘s movements. He had found Valentine a very useful tool in sundry intricate transactions of the commercial kind, and he expected his tools to be ready for his service. He was therefore considerably annoyed by Valentine’s abrupt departure.

“I think young Hawkehurst might have told me he was going out of town,” he said. “What the deuce has taken him off in such a hurry?”

“He is going to see some mysterious old aunt at Dorking, from whom he seems to expect money,” the Captain answered carelessly. “I daresay I can do what you want, Sheldon.”

“Very likely. But how comes that young fellow to have an aunt at Dorking? I fancy I’ve heard him say he was without a relative or a friend in the world — always excepting yourself.”

“The aunt may be another exception; some poor old soul that he’s half ashamed to own, I daresay — the inmate of an almshouse, perhaps. Val’s expectations may be limited to a few pounds hoarded in a china teapot.”

“I should have thought Hawkehurst the last man in the world to care about looking after that sort of thing. I could have given him plenty to do if he had stopped in town. He and my brother George are uncommonly intimate, by the bye,” added Mr. Sheldon meditatively. It was his habit to be rather distrustful of his brother and of all his brother’s acquaintance. “I suppose you can give me Hawkehurst’s address, in case I should want to write to him?” he said.

“He told me to send my letters to the post-office, Dorking,” answered the Captain, “which really looks as if the aunt’s residence were something in the way of an almshouse.”

No more was said about Valentine’s departure. Captain Paget concluded his business with his patron and departed, leaving the stockbroker leaning forward upon his desk in a thoughtful attitude and scribbling purposeless figures upon his blotting-paper.

“There’s something queer in this young man running away from town; there’s some mystification somewhere,” he thought. “He has not gone to Dorking, or he would scarcely have told Lotta that he was going a hundred and fifty miles from town. He would be likely to be taken off his guard by her questions, and would tell the truth. I wonder whether Paget is in the secret. His manner seemed open enough; but that sort of man can pretend anything. I’ve noticed that he and George have been very confidential lately. I wonder whether there’s any underhand game on the cards between those two.”

The game of which Mr. Sheldon thought as he leant over his blotting-paper was a very different kind of game from that which really occupied the attention of George and his friend.

“I’ll go to his lodgings at once,” he said to himself by-and-by, rising and putting on his hat quickly in his eagerness to act upon his resolution. “I’ll see if he really has left town.”

The stockbroker hailed the first empty hansom to be seen in the crowded thoroughfare from which his shady court diverged. In less than an hour he alighted before the door of the house in which Captain Paget lodged.

“Is Mr. Hawkehurst in?” he asked of the girl who admitted him.

“No, sir; he’s just left to go into the country. He hasn’t been gone ten minutes. You might a’most have met him.”

“Do you know where he has gone?”

“I heard say it was Dorking, sir.”

“Humph! I should like to have seen him before he went. Did he take much luggage?”

“One portmanter, sir.”

“I suppose you didn’t notice where he told the man to drive?”

“Yes, sir; it was Euston-square.”

“Ah! Euston-square. I’ll go there, then, on the chance of catching him,” said Mr. Sheldon.

He bestowed a donation upon the domestic, reentered his hansom, and told the man to drive to Euston-square “like a shot.”

“So! His destination is Dorking, and he goes from Euston-square!” muttered Mr. Sheldon, in sombre meditation, as the hansom rattled and rushed, and jingled and jolted, over the stones. “There’s something under the cards here.”

Arrived at the great terminus, the stockbroker made his way to the down platform. There was a lull in the day’s traffic, and only a few listless wretches lounging disconsolately here and there, with eyes ever and anon lifted to the clock. Amongst these there was no Valentine Hawkehurst.

Mr. Sheldon peered into all the waiting-rooms, and surveyed the refreshment-counter; but there was still no sign of the man he sought. He went back to the ticket-office; but here again all was desolate, the shutters of the pigeon-holes hermetically closed, and no vestige of Valentine Hawkehurst.

The stockbroker was disappointed, but not defeated. He returned to the platform, looked about him for a few moments, and then addressed himself to a porter of intelligent aspect.

“What trains have left here within the last half-hour?” he asked.

“Only one, sir; the 2.15 down, for Manchester.”

“You didn’t happen to notice a dark-eyed, dark-haired young man among the passengers — second class?” asked Mr. Sheldon.

“No, sir. There are always a good many passengers by that train; I haven’t time to notice their faces.”

The stockbroker asked no further questions. He was a man who did not care to be obliged to others for information which he could obtain for himself. He walked straight to a place where the time-tables were pasted on the wall, and ran his finger along the figures till he came to those he wanted.

The 2.15 train was a fast train, which stopped at only four places — Rugby, Ullerton, Murford, and Manchester.

“I daresay he has gone to Manchester,” thought Mr. Sheldon —“on some racing business most likely, which he wants to keep dark from his patron the Captain. What a fool I am to trouble myself about him, as if he couldn’t stir without meaning mischief to me! But I don’t understand the friendship between him and George. My brother George is not likely to take up any man without some motive.”

After these reflections Mr. Sheldon left the station and went back to his office in another hansom, still extremely thoughtful and somewhat disquieted.

“What does it matter to me where they go or what they do?” he asked himself, impatient of some lurking weakness of his own; “what does it matter to me whether those two are friendly or unfriendly? They can do me no harm.”

There happened to be a kind of lull in the stormy regions of the Stock Exchange at the time of Valentine Hawkehurst’s departure. Stagnation had descended upon that commercial ocean, which is such a dismal waste of waters for the professional speculator in its hour of calm. All the Bulls in the zoological creation would have failed to elevate the drooping stocks and shares and first-preference bonds and debentures, which hung their feeble heads and declined day by day, the weaker of them threatening to fade away and diminish to a vanishing-point, as it seemed to some dejected holders who read the Stock–Exchange lists and the money article in the Times with a persistent hopefulness which struggled against the encroachments of despair. The Bears had been busy, but were now idle — having burnt their fingers, commercial gentlemen remarked. So Bulls and Bears alike hung listlessly about a melancholy market, and conversed together dolefully in corners; and the burden of all their lamentations was to the effect that there never had been such times, and things never had been so bad, and it was a question whether they would ever right themselves. Philip Sheldon shared in the general depression. His face was gloomy, and his manner for the time being lost something of its brisk, business-like cheerfulness. The men who envied his better fortunes watched him furtively when he showed himself amongst them, and wondered whether Sheldon, of Jull, Girdlestone, and Sheldon, had been hit by these bad times.

It was not entirely the pressure of that commercial stagnation which weighed on the spirits of Philip Sheldon. The stockbroker was tormented by private doubts and uncertainties which had nothing to do with the money-market.

On the day after Valentine’s journey to Ullerton, Mr. Sheldon the elder presented himself at his brother’s office in Gray’s Inn. It was his habit to throw waifs and strays of business in the attorney’s way, and to make use of him occasionally, though he had steadily refused to lend or give him money; and it was big habit, as it were, to keep an eye upon his younger brother — rather a jealous eye, which took note of all George’s doings, and kept suspicious watch upon all George’s associates. Going unannounced into his brother’s office on this particular morning, Philip Sheldon found him bending over an outspread document — a great sheet of cartridge-paper covered with a net-work of lines, dotted about with circles, and with little patches of writing in red and black ink in the neatest possible penmanship. Mr. Sheldon the elder, whose bright black eyes were as the eyes of the hawk, took note of this paper, and had caught more than one stray word that stood out in larger and bolder characters than its neighbours, before his brother could fold it; for it is not an easy thing for a man to fold an elephantine sheet of cartridge when he is nervously anxious to fold it quickly, and is conscious that the eyes of an observant brother are upon him.

Before George had mastered the folding of the elephantine sheet, Philip had seen and taken note of two words. One of these was the word INTESTATE, and the other the name HAYGARTH.

“You seem in a great hurry to get that document out of the way,” said Philip, as he seated himself in the client’s chair.

“Well, to tell the truth, you rather startled me,” answered George. “I didn’t know who it might be, you know; and I was expecting a fellow who —” And then Mr. Sheldon the younger broke off abruptly, and asked, with rather a suspicious air, “Why didn’t that boy announce you?”

“Because I wouldn’t let him. Why should he announce me? One would think you were carrying on some political conspiracy, George, and had a modern Thistlewood gang hidden in that cupboard yonder. How thick you and Hawkehurst are, by the bye!”

In spite of the convenient “by the bye,” this last remark of the stockbroker’s sounded rather irrelevant.

“I don’t know about being ‘thick.’ Hawkehurst seems a very decent young fellow, and he and I get on pretty well together. But I’m not as ‘thick’ with him as I was with Tom Halliday.”

It was to be observed that Mr. Sheldon the younger was very apt to refer to that friendship with the dead Yorkshireman in the course of conversation with Philip.

“Hawkehurst has just left town,” said Philip indifferently.

“Yes, I know he has.”

“When did you hear it?”

“I saw him last night,” answered George, taken off his guard by the carelessness of his brother’s manner.

“Did you?” cried Mr. Sheldon. “You make a mistake there. He left town at two o’clock yesterday.”

“How do you happen to know that?” asked George sharply.

“Because I happened to be at the station and saw him take his ticket. There’s something underhand in that journey of his by the way; for Paget told me he was going to Dorking. I suppose he and Paget have some game of their own on the cards. I was rather annoyed by the young man’s departure, as I had some work for him. However, I can find plenty of fellows to do it as well as Hawkehurst could have done.”

George was looking into an open drawer in his desk while his brother said this. He had a habit of opening drawers and peering into them absently during the progress of an interview, as if looking for some particular paper, that was never to be found.

After this the conversation became less personal. The brothers talked a little of the events of the day, the money-article in that morning’s Times, the probability or improbability of a change in the rate of discount. But this conversation soon flagged, and Mr. Sheldon rose to depart.

“I suppose that sheet of cartridge-paper which you had so much trouble to fold is one of your genealogical tables,” he said as he was going. “You needn’t try to keep things dark from me, George. I’m not likely to steal a march upon you; my own business gives me more work than I can do. But if you have really got a good thing at last, I shouldn’t mind going into it with you, and finding the money for the enterprise.”

George Sheldon looked at his elder brother with a malicious flitter in his eyes.

“On condition that you got the lion’s share of the profits,” he said. “O yes; I know how generous you are, Phil. I have asked you for money before today, and you have refused it.”

Mr. Sheldon’s face darkened just a little at this point. “Your manner of asking it was offensive,” he said.

“Well, I’m sorry for that,” answered George politely. “However, you refused me money when I did want it; so you needn’t offer it me now I don’t want it. There are some people who think I have sacrificed my life to a senseless theory; and perhaps you are one of them. But there is one thing you may be certain of, Philip Sheldon: if ever I do get a good chance, I shall know how to keep it to myself.”

There are men skilled in the concealment of their feelings on all ordinary occasions, who will yet betray themselves in a crisis of importance. George Sheldon would fain have kept his project hidden from his elder brother; but in this one unguarded moment he forgot himself, and allowed the sense of triumph to irradiate his face.

The stockbroker was a reader of men rather than books; and it is a notable thing what superiority in all worldly wisdom is possessed by men who eschew books. He was able to translate the meaning of George’s smile — a smile of mingled triumph and malice.

“The fellow has got a good thing,” he thought to himself, “and Hawkehurst is in it. It must be a deuced good thing too, or he wouldn’t refuse my offer of money.” Mr. Sheldon was the last man in the world to reveal any mortification which he might experience from his brother’s conduct.

“Well, you’re quite right to stick to your chance, George,” he said, with agreeable frankness. “You’ve waited long enough for it. As for me, I’ve got my fingers in a good many pies just at present; so perhaps I had better keep them out of yours, whatever plums there may be to be picked out of it by an enterprising Jack Horner. Pick out your plums for yourself, old fellow, and I’ll be one of the first to call you a good boy for your pains.”

With this Mr. Sheldon slapped his brother’s shoulder and departed.

“I think I’ve had the best of Master Phil for once,” muttered George; and then he thrust his sinewy hands into the depths of his trousers-pocket, and indulged in a silent laugh, which displayed his strong square white teeth to perfection. “I flatter myself I took a rise out of Phil to-day,” he muttered.

The sense of a malicious triumph over a social enemy is a very delightful kind of thing — so delightful that a man is apt to ignore the possible cost of the enjoyment. It is like the pleasure of kicking a man who is down — very delicious in its way; only one never knows how soon the man may be up again.

George Sheldon, who was tolerably skilled in the science of human nature, should have known that “taking a rise” out of his brother was likely to be a rather costly operation. Philip was not the safest man to deal with at any time; but he was most dangerous when he was “jolly.”

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