Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

Betrayed by a Blotting-Pad.

At an early hour upon the day on which Valentine Hawkehurst telegraphed to his employer, Philip Sheldon presented himself again at the dingy door of the office in Gray’s Inn.

The dingy door was opened by the still more dingy boy; and Mr. Sheldon the elder — who lived in a state of chronic hurry, and had a hansom cab in attendance upon him at almost every step of his progress through life — was aggravated by the discovery that his brother was out.

“Out!” he repeated, with supreme disgust; “he always is out, I think. Where is he to be found?”

The boy replied that his master would be back in half an hour, if Mr. Sheldon would like to wait.

“Like to wait!” cried the stockbroker; “when will lawyers’ clerks have sense enough to know that nobody on this earth ever liked to wait? Where’s your master gone?”

“I think he’s just slipped round into Holborn, sir,” the boy replied, with some slight hesitation. He was very well aware that George had secrets from his brother, and that it was not judicious to be too free in his communications to the elder gentleman. But the black eyes and white teeth of the stockbroker seemed very awful to him; and if Philip chose to question him, he must needs answer the truth, not having been provided by his master with any convenient falsehood in case of inquiry.

“What part of Holborn?” asked Philip sharply.

“I did hear tell as it was the telegraph office.”

“Good!” exclaimed Mr. Sheldon; and then he dashed downstairs, leaving the lad on the threshold of the door staring after him with eyes of wonder.

The telegraph office meant business; and any business of his brother’s was a matter of interest to Mr. Sheldon at this particular period. He had meditated the meaning of George’s triumphant smile in the secluded calm of his own office; and the longer he had meditated, the more deeply rooted had become his conviction that his brother was engaged in some very deep and very profitable scheme, the nature of which it was his bounden duty to discover.

Impressed by this idea, Mr. Sheldon returned to the hansom-cab, which was waiting for him at the end of Warwick-court, and made his way to the telegraph office. The ostensible motive of his call in Gray’s Inn was sufficient excuse for this following up of his brother’s footsteps. It was one of those waifs and strays of rather disreputable business which the elder man sometimes threw in the way of the younger.

As the wheel of the hansom ground against the kerbstone in front of the telegraph office, the figure of George Sheldon vanished in a little court to the left of that establishment. Instead of pursuing this receding figure, Philip Sheldon walked straight into the office.

It was empty. There was no one in any of the shaded compartments, so painfully suggestive of pecuniary distress and the stealthy hypothecation of portable property. A sound of rattling and bumping in an inner office betrayed the neighbourhood of a clerk; but in the office Mr. Sheldon was alone.

Upon the blotting-pad on the counter of the central partition the stockbroker perceived one great blot of ink, still moist. Ha laid the tip of his square forefinger upon it, to assure himself of that fact, and then set himself deliberately to scrutinise the blotting-paper. He was a man who seldom hesitated. His greatest coups on the money-market had been in a great measure the result of this faculty of prompt decision. To-day he possessed himself of the blotting-pad, and examined the half-formed syllables stamped upon it with as much coolness and self-possession as if he had been seated in his own office reading his own newspaper. A man given to hesitation would have looked to the right and the left and watched for his opportunity — and lost it. Philip Sheldon knew better than to waste his chances by needless precaution; and he made himself master of all the intelligence the blotting-pad could afford him before the clerk emerged from the inner den where the rattling and stamping was going forward.

“I thought as much,” muttered the stockbroker, as he recognised traces of his brother’s sprawling penmanship upon the pad. The message had been written with a heavy hand and a spongy quill pen, and had left a tolerably clear impression of its contents on the blotting-paper.

Here and there the words stood out bold and clear; here and there, again, there was only one decipherable letter amongst a few broken hieroglyphics. Mr. Sheldon was accustomed to the examination of very illegible documents, and he was able to master the substance of that random impression. If he could not decipher the whole, he made out sufficient for his purpose. Money was to be offered to a man called Goodge for certain letters. He knew his brother’s affairs well enough to know that these letters for which money was to be offered must needs be letters of importance in some search for an heir-at-law. So far all was clear and simple; but beyond this point he found himself at fault. Where was this Goodge to be found? and who was the person that was to offer him money for the letters? The names and address, which had been written first, had left no impression on the blotting-pad, or an impression so faint as to be useless for any practical purpose.

Mr. Sheldon put down the pad and lingered by the door of the office deliberating, when the rattling and hammering came to an abrupt termination, and the clerk emerged from the interior den.

“O,” he exclaimed, “it’s all right. Your message shall go directly.”

The stockbroker, whose face was half averted from the clerk, and who stood between that functionary and the light from the open doorway, at once comprehended the error that had arisen. The clerk had mistaken him for his brother.

“I’m not quite clear as to whether I gave the right address,” he said promptly, with his face still averted, and his attention apparently occupied by a paper in his hand. “Just see how I wrote it, there’s a good fellow.”

The clerk withdrew for a few minutes, and returned with the message in his hand.

“From George Sheldon to Valentine Hawkehurst, Black Swan Inn, Ullerton,” he read aloud from the document.

“All right, and thanks,” cried the stockbroker.

He gave one momentary glance at the clerk, and had just time to see that individual’s look of bewilderment as some difference in his voice and person from the voice and person of the black-whiskered man who had just left the office dawned upon his troubled senses. After that one glance Mr. Sheldon darted across the pavement, sprang into his cab, and called to the driver, “Literary Institution, Burton-street, as fast as you can go.”

“I’ll try my luck in the second column of the Times,” he said to himself. “If George’s scheme is what I take it to be, I shall get some clue to it there.” He took a little oblong memorandum-book from his pocket, and looked at his memoranda of the past week. Among those careless jottings he found one memorandum scrawled in pencil, amongst notes and addresses in ink, “Haygarth — intestate. G.S. to see after.

“That’s it,” he exclaimed; “Haygarth — intestate; Valentine Hawkehurst not at Dorking, but working for my brother; Goodge — letters to be paid for. It’s all like the bits of mosaic that those antiquarian fellows are always finding in the ruins of Somebody’s Baths; a few handfuls of coloured chips that look like rubbish, and can yet be patched into a perfect geometric design. I’ll hunt up a file of the Times at the Burton Institution, and find out this Haygarth, if he is to be found there.”

The Burton Institution was a somewhat dingy temple devoted to the interests of science and literature, and next door to some baths that were very popular among the denizens of Bloomsbury. People in quest of the baths were apt to ascend the classic flight of steps leading to the Institution, when they should have descended to a lowlier threshold lurking modestly by the side of that edifice. The Baths and the Institution had both been familiar to Mr. Sheldon in that period of probation which he had spent in Fitzgeorge-street. He was sufficiently acquainted with the librarian of the Institution to go in and out uninterrogated, and to make any use he pleased of the reading-room. He went in to-day, asked to see the latest bound volumes of the Times and the latest files of unbound papers, and began his investigation, working backwards. Rapidly and dexterously as he turned the big leaves of the journals, the investigation occupied nearly three-quarters of an hour; but at the expiration of that time he had alighted on the advertisement published in the March of the preceding year.

He gave a very low whistle — a kind of phantom whistle — as he read this advertisement. “John Haygarth! — a hundred thousand pounds!”

The fortune for which a claimant was lacking amounted to a hundred thousand pounds! Mr. Sheldon knew commercial despots who counted their wealth by millions, and whose fiat could sway the exchanges of Europe; but a hundred thousand pounds seemed to him a very nice thing nevertheless, and he was ready to dispute the prize the anticipation whereof had rendered his brother so triumphant.

“He has rejected me as a coadjutor,” he thought, as he went back to his cab after having copied the advertisement; “he shall have me as an antagonist.”

“Omega-street, Chelsea, next call,” he cried to the driver; and was soon beyond the confines of Bloomsbury, and rattling away towards the border-land of Belgravia. He had completed his search of the newspapers at ten minutes past twelve, and at twenty minutes to one he presented himself at the lodging-house in Omega-street, where he found Captain Paget, in whose “promoting” business there happened to be a lull just now. With this gentleman he had a long interview; and the result of that interview was the departure of the Captain by the two o’clock express for Ullerton. Thus had it happened that Valentine Hawkehurst and his patron encountered each other on the platform of Ullerton station.

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