Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

The Oldest Inhabitant.

Black Swan Inn, Ullerton, October 2nd.

As the work I am now employed in is quite new to me, and I am to keep Sheldon posted up in this business day by day, I have decided on jotting down the results of my inquiries in a kind of diary. Instead of writing my principal a formal letter, I shall send a copy of the entries in the diary, revised and amended. This will insure exactitude; and there is just the possibility that the record may be useful to me hereafter. To remember all I hear and pick up about these departed Haygarths without the aid of pen and ink would be out of the question; so I mean to go in for unlimited pen and ink like a hero, not to say a martyr.

And I am to do all this for twenty shillings a week, and the remote possibility of three thousand pounds! O genius, genius! in all the markets of this round world is there no better price for you than that?

How sweetly my Charlotte looked at me yesterday, when I told her I was going away! If I could have dared to kneel at her feet under those whispering elms — unconscious of the children, unconscious of the nursemaids — if I could have dared to cry aloud to her, “I am a penniless reprobate, but I love you; I am a disreputable pauper, but I adore you! Have pity upon my love and forget my worthlessness!” If I could have dared to carry her away from her prim suburban home and that terrible black-whiskered stockbroking stepfather! But how is a man to carry off the woman he adores when he has not the de quoi for the first stage of the journey?

With three thousand pounds in my pocket, I think I could dare anything. Three thousand pounds! One year of splendour and happiness, and then — the rest is chaos!

I have seen the oldest inhabitant. Ay de mi! Sheldon did not exaggerate the prosiness of that intolerable man. I thought of the luckless wedding guest in Coleridge’s grim ballad as I sat listening to this modern-ancient mariner. I had to remind myself of all the bright things to be bought for three thousand pounds, every now and then, in order to endure with fortitude, if not serenity. And now the day’s work is done, I begin to think it might as well have been left undone. How am I to disintegrate the mass of prosiness which I have heard this day? For three mortal hours did I listen to my ancient mariner; and how much am I the wiser for my patience? Clever as you may fancy yourself, my friend Hawkehurst, you don’t seem to be the man for this business. You have not the legal mind. Your genius is not the genius of Scotland-yard, and I begin to fear that in your new line you may prove yourself a failure.

However, where all is dark to me the astute Sheldon may see daylight, so I’ll observe the letter of my bond, and check off the residuum of the ancient mariner’s prosiness.

By dint of much pumping I obtained from my ancient, first, his father’s recollections of Matthew Haygarth a few years before his death, and secondly, his grandfather’s recollections of Matthew in his wild youth. It seems that in those last years of his life Matthew was a most sober and estimable citizen; attended the chapel of a nonconforming sect; read the works of Baxter, and followed in the footsteps of his departed father; was a kind husband to a woman who appears to me to have been rather a pragmatical and icy personage, but who was esteemed a model of womanly virtue, and who had money. Strange that these respectable and wealthy citizens should be so eager to increase their store by alliance with respectable and wealthy citizenesses.

In his later years Matthew Haygarth seems to have imitated his father in many respects. Like his father, he executed more than one will; and, like his father, he died intestate. The lawyer who drew up his will on more than one occasion was a man called Brice — like his client, eminently respectable.

After his marriage, our esteemed Matthew retired to a modest mansion in the heart of the country, and some ten or fifteen miles from Ullerton. The mansion in question is at a place called Dewsdale, and was the property of the wife, and accrued to him through her.

This house and estate of some thirty acres was afterwards sold by the rev. intestate, John Haygarth, shortly after his coming of age, and within a year of his mother’s death.

This much and no more could I extort from the oldest inhabitant relative to the latter days of our Matthew.

Respecting his wild youth I obtained the following crumbs of enlightenment. In the year 1741–2, being then one-and-twenty years of age, he left Ullerton. It is my ancient mariner’s belief that he ran away from home, after some desperate quarrel with his father; and it is also the belief of my ancient that he stayed away, without intermission, for twenty years — though on what precise fact that belief is founded is much more than I can extract from the venerable proser.

My ancient suggests — always in the haziest and most impracticable manner — the possibility that Matthew in his wild days lodged somewhere Clerkenwell way. He has a dim idea that he has heard his grandfather speak of St. John’s-gate, Clerkenwell, in connection with Matthew Haygarth; but, as my ancient’s grandfather seems to have been almost imbecile at the time he made such remarks, this is not much.

He has another idea — also very vague and impracticable — of having heard his grandfather say something about an adventure of Matthew Haygarth’s, which was rather a heroic affair in its way — an adventure in which, in some inexplicable manner, the wild Matthew is mixed up with a dancing-girl, or player-girl, of Bartholomew Fair, and a nobleman.

This is the sum-total of the information to be extracted in three mortal hours from my ancient. Altogether the day has been very unsatisfactory; and I begin to think I’m not up to the sort of work required of me. Oct. 3rd. Another long interview with my ancient. I dropped in directly after my breakfast, and about an hour after his dinner. I sat up late last night, occupied till nearly ten in copying my diary for Sheldon — which was just in time for the London post — and lingering over my cigar till past midnight, thinking of Charlotte. So I was late this morning.

My ancient received me graciously. I took him half a pound of mild bird’s-eye tobacco, on diplomatic grounds. He is evidently the sort of person who would receive Mephistopheles graciously, if the fiend presented him with tobacco.

I returned to the charge — diplomatically, of course; talked about Ullerton and Ullerton people in general, insinuating occasional questions about the Haygarths. I was rewarded by obtaining some little information about Mrs. Matthew. That lady appears to have been a devoted disciple of John Wesley, and was fonder of travelling to divers towns and villages to hear the discourses of that preacher than her husband approved. It seems they were wont to disagree upon this subject.

For some years before her marriage Mrs. Matthew was a member of a Wesleyan confraternity, in those days newly established at Ullerton. They held meetings and heard sermons in the warehouse of a wealthy draper; and shortly before Mrs. Matthew’s demise they built a chapel, still extant, in a dingy little thoroughfare known as Waterhouse-lane.

On these points my ancient mariner is tolerably clear. They belong to the period remembered by his father.

And now I believe him to be pumped dry. I gave him my benediction, and left him smoking some of my tobacco, content with himself and with the world — always excepting the authorities, or board, of the almshouses, against whom he appears to nourish a grievance.

After leaving him, I walked about Ullerton for an hour or so before returning to my humble hostelry. The streets of Ullerton are sealed with the seal of desolation — the abomination of desolation reigns in the market-place, where the grass flourishes greenly in the interstices of the pavement. The place has known prosperity, and is prosperous no longer; but although its chief trade has left it, there are still some three or four factories in full swing. I heard clanging bells, and met bare-headed women and uncouth-looking men hurrying to and fro. I went to look at the Wesleyan chapel in Waterhouse-lane. It is a queer little building, and bears some resemblance to a toy Noah’s Ark in red brick. Tall warehouses have arisen about it and hemmed it in, and the slim chimney-shaft of a waterworks throws a black shadow aslant its unpretending facade. I inquired the name of the present minister. He is called Jonah Goodge, began life as a carpenter, and is accounted the pink and pattern of piety. Oct. 4th. A letter from Sheldon awaited me in the coffee-room letter-rack when I went downstairs to breakfast.

“MY DEAR HAWKEHURST— Don’t be disheartened if the work seems slow at first. You’ll soon get used to it.

“I should recommend you to adopt the following tactics:

“1st. Go to the house at Dewsdale, inhabited by M.H. and his wife. You may have some difficulty in obtaining admission — and full liberty to explore and examine — from the present servant or owner; but you are not the man I take you for if you cannot overcome such a difficulty. I enclose a few of my cards, which you can use at your discretion. They show professional status. It would be as well to call yourself my articled clerk, and to state that you are prosecuting an inquiry on the behalf of a client of mine, who wishes to prove a certain event in the past connected remotely with the H. family. If asked whether your business relates to the property left by the rev. intestate, you must reply decisively in the negative. But I must remind you that extreme caution is required in every move you make. Wherever you can do your work without any reference to the name of Haygarth, avoid such reference. Always remember that there may be other people on the same scent.

“2nd. Examine the house in detail; look for old pictures, old furniture, old needlework — if you are lucky enough to find the Haygarth furniture was sold with the property, which I should think probable. The rev. intestate must have been at the University when he made the sale; and a young Cantab would in all likelihood pass over his ancestral chairs and tables to the purchaser of his ancestral mansion, as so much useless lumber. It is proverbial that walls have ears. I hope the Dewsdale walls may have tongues, and favour you with a little information.

“3rd. When you have done all that is to be done at Dewsdale, your next work must be to hunt up any scion of the lawyer Brice, if such scion be in existence at Ullerton. Or if not to be found in Ullerton, ascertain where the descendant, or decendants, of Brice is, or are, to be found. Brice, the lawyer, must have known the contents of those wills executed and afterwards destroyed by Haygarth, and may have kept rough draughts, copies, or memoranda of the same. This is most important. — Yours truly, G.S.”

This Sheldon is a wonderful man, and a cautious! — no Signature to his letter.

I started for Dewidale immediately after my breakfast. I have made arrangements for boarding in this house, which is a second-rate commercial inn. They have agreed to give me board and lodging for twenty shillings a week — the full amount of my stipend: so all that I gain by my researches in the affairs of the departed Matthew is food and shelter. However, as this food and shelter is perhaps more honestly obtained than those little dinners which I have so often eaten with the great Horatio, I will try to fancy a sweetness in the tough steaks and greasy legs of mutton. O sheep of Midlandshire! why cultivate such ponderous calves, and why so incline to sinews? O cooks of Midlandshire! why so superficial in the treatment of your roasts, so impetuous and inconsiderate when you boil?

A railroad now penetrates the rural district in which the village of Dewsdale is situated. There is a little station, something like a wooden Dutch oven, within a mile of the village; and here I alighted. The morning savoured of summer rather than autumn. The air was soft and balmy, the sunshine steeped the landscape in warm light, and the red and golden tints of the fading foliage took new splendour from that yellow sunshine. A man whose life is spent in cities must be dull of soul indeed if he does not feel a little touched by the beauty of rustic scenery, when he finds himself suddenly in the heart of the country. I had seen nothing so fair as those English fields and copses since I left the pine-clad hills of Forêtdechêne. An idiotic boy directed me across some fields to Dewsdale. He sent me a mile out of the way; but I forgave and blest him, for I think the walk did me good. I felt as if all manner of vicious vapours were being blown out of my head as the soft wind lifted my hair.

And so to Dewsdale. Strolling leisurely through those quiet meadows, I fell to thinking of many things that seldom came into my mind in London. I thought of my dead mother — a poor gentle creature — too frail to carry heroically the burden laid upon her, and so a little soured by chronic debt and difficulty. I have reason to remember her tenderly; we shared so much misery together. I believe my father married her in the Rules of the Bench; and if I am not sure upon this point, I know for a certainty that I was born within those mystic boundaries.

And then my mind wandered to those nomadic adventures in which poor Diana Paget and I were so much together. I think we were a little fond of each other in those days; but in that matter I was at least prudent; and now the transient fancy has faded, on Di’s part as well as on mine.

If I could be as prudent where Charlotte H. is concerned!

But prudence and Charlotte’s eyes cannot hold their own in the same brain. Of two things, one, as our neighbours say: a man must cease to be prudent, or he must forget those bewitching gray eyes.

I know she was sorry when she heard of my intended departure.

This is her birthday. She is twenty-one years of age to-day. I remember the two girls talking of it, and Miss Halliday declaring herself “quite old.” My dear one, I drink your health in this poor tavern liquor, with every tender wish and holy thought befitting your innocent girlhood!

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