Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

Disappointment.

Of all places upon this earth, perhaps, there is none more obnoxious to the civilized mind than London in October; and yet to Valentine Hawkehurst, newly arrived from Ullerton per North–Western Railway, that city seemed as an enchanted and paradisiacal region. Were not the western suburbs of that murky metropolis inhabited by Charlotte Halliday, and might he not hope to see her?

He did hope for that enjoyment. He had felt something more than hope while speeding Londonwards by that delightful combination of a liberal railway management, a fast and yet cheap train. He had beguiled himself with a delicious certainty. Early the next morning — or at any rate as early as civilization permitted — he would hie him to Bayswater, and present himself at the neat iron gate of Philip Sheldon’s gothic villa. She would be there, in the garden most likely, his divine Charlotte, so bright and radiant a creature that the dull October morning would be made glorious by her presence — she would be there, and she would welcome him with that smile which made her the most enchanting of women.

Such thoughts as these had engaged him during his homeward journey; and compared with the delight of such visions, the perusal of daily papers and the consumption of sandwiches, whereby other passengers beguiled their transit, seemed a poor amusement. But, arrived in the dingy streets, and walking towards Chelsea under a drizzling rain, the bright picture began to grow dim. Was it not more than likely that Charlotte would be absent from London at this dismal season? Was it not very probable that Philip Sheldon would give him the cold shoulder? With these gloomy contingencies before him, Mr. Hawkehurst tried to shut Miss Halliday’s image altogether out of his mind, and to contemplate the more practical aspect of his affairs.

“I wonder whether that scoundrel Paget has come back to London?” he thought. “What am I to say to him if he has? If I own to having seen him in Ullerton, I shall lay myself open to being questioned by him as to my own business in that locality. Perhaps my wisest plan would be to say nothing, and hear his own account of himself. I fully believe he saw me on the platform that night when we passed each other without speaking.”

Horatio Paget was at home when his protegé arrived. He was seated by his fireside in all the domestic respectability of a dressing-gown and slippers, with an evening paper on his knee, a slim smoke-coloured bottle at his elbow, and the mildest of cigars between his lips, when the traveller, weary and weather-stained, entered the lodging-house drawing-room.

Captain Paget received his friend very graciously, only murmuring some faint deprecation of the young man’s reeking overcoat, with just such a look of gentlemanly alarm as the lamented Brummel may have felt when ushered into the presence of a “damp stranger.”

“And so you’ve come back at last,” said the Captain, “from Dorking?” He made a little pause here, and looked at his friend with a malicious sparkle in his eye. “And how was the old aunt? Likely to cut up for any considerable amount, eh? It could only be with a view to that cutting-up process that you could consent to isolate yourself in such a place as Dorking. How did you find things?” “O, I don’t know, I’m sure,” Mr. Hawkehurst answered rather impatiently, for his worst suspicions were confirmed by his patron’s manner; “I only know I found it tiresome work enough.”

“Ah, to be sure! elderly people always are tiresome, especially when they are unacquainted with the world. There is a perennial youth about men and women of the world. The sentimental twaddle people talk of the freshness and purity of a mind unsullied by communion with the world is the shallowest nonsense. Your Madame du Deffand at eighty and your Horace Walpole at sixty are as lively as a girl and boy. Your octogenarian Voltaire is the most agreeable creature in existence. But take Cymon and Daphne from their flocks and herds and pastoral valleys in their old age, and see what senile bores and quavering imbeciles you would find them. Yes, I have no doubt you found your Dorking aunt a nuisance. Take off your wet overcoat and put it out of the room, and then ring for more hot water. You’ll find that cognac very fine. Won’t you have a cigar?”

The Captain extended his russia-leather case with the blandest smile. It was a very handsome case. Captain Paget was a man who could descend into some unknown depths of the social ocean in the last stage of shabbiness, and who, while his acquaintance were congratulating themselves upon the fact of his permanent disappearance, would start up suddenly in an unexpected place, provided with every necessity and luxury of civilized life, from a wardrobe by Poole to the last fashionable absurdity in the shape of a cigar-case.

Never had Valentine Hawkehurst found his patron more agreeably disposed than he seemed to be this evening, and never had he felt more inclined to suspect him.

“And what have you been doing while I have been away?” the young man asked presently. “Any more promoting work?”

“Well, yes, a little bit of provincial business; a life-and-fire on a novel principle; a really good thing, if we can only find men with perception enough to see its merits, and pluck enough to hazard their capital. But promoting in the provinces is very dull work. I’ve been to two or three towns in the Midland districts — Beauport, Mudborough, and Ullerton — and have found the same stagnation everywhere.”

Nothing could be more perfect than the semblance of unconscious innocence with which the Captain gave this account of himself: whether he was playing a part, or whether he was telling the entire truth, was a question which even a cleverer man than Valentine Hawkehurst might have found himself unable to answer.

The two men sat till late, smoking and talking; but to-night Valentine found the conversation of his “guide, philosopher, and friend” strangely distasteful to him. That cynical manner of looking at life, which not long ago had seemed to him the only manner compatible with wisdom and experience, now grated harshly upon those finer senses which had been awakened in the quiet contemplative existence he had of late been leading. He had been wont to enjoy Captain Paget’s savage bitterness against a world which had not provided him with a house in Carlton-gardens, and a seat in the Cabinet; but to-night he was revolted by the noble Horatio’s tone and manner. Those malicious sneers against respectable people and respectable prejudices, with which the Captain interlarded all his talk, seemed to have a ghastly grimness in their mirth. It was like the talk of some devil who had once been an angel, and had lost all hope of ever being restored to his angelic status.

“To believe in nothing, to respect nothing, to hope for nothing, to fear nothing, to consider life as so many years in which to scheme and lie for the sake of good dinners and well-made coats — surely there can be no state of misery more complete, no degradation more consummate,” thought the young man, as he sat by the fireside smoking and listening dreamily to his companion. “Better to be Mrs. Rebecca Haygarth, narrow-minded and egotistical, but always looking beyond her narrow life to some dimly-comprehended future.”

He was glad to escape at last from the Captain’s society, and to retire to his own small chamber, where he slept soundly enough after the day’s fatigues, and dreamed of the Haygarths and Charlotte Halliday.

He was up early the next morning; but, on descending to the sitting-room, he found his patron toasting his Times before a cheerful fire; while his gold hunting-watch stood open on the breakfast-table, and a couple of new-laid eggs made a pleasant wabbling noise in a small saucepan upon the hob.

“You don’t care for eggs, I know, Val,” said the Captain, as he took the saucepan from the hob.

He had heard the young man object to an egg of French extraction too long severed from its native land; but he knew very well that for rural delicacies from a reliable dairyman, at twopence apiece, Mr. Hawkehurst had no particular antipathy. Even in so small a matter as a new-laid egg the Captain knew how to protect his own interest.

“There’s some of that Italian sausage you’re so fond of, dear boy,” he said politely, pointing to a heel of some grayish horny-looking compound. “Thanks; I’ll pour out the coffee; there’s a knack in these things; half the clearness of coffee depends on the way in which it’s poured out, you see.”

And with this assurance Captain Paget filled his own large breakfast-cup with a careful hand and a tender solemnity of countenance. If he was a trifle less considerate in the pouring out of the second cup, and if some “grounds” mingled with the second portion, Valentine Hawkehurst was unconscious of the fact.

“Do try that Italian sausage,” said the Captain, as he discussed his second egg, after peeling the most attractive crusts from the French rolls, and pushing the crumb to his protégé.

“No, thank you; it looks rather like what your shop-people call an old housekeeper; besides, there’s a little too much garlic in those compositions for my taste.”

“Your taste has grown fastidious,” said the Captain; “one would think you were going to call upon some ladies this morning.”

“There are not many ladies on my visiting-list. O, by the way, how’s Diana? Have you seen her lately?”

“No,” answered the Captain, promptly. “I only returned from my provincial tour a day or two ago, and have had no time to waste dancing attendance upon her. She’s well enough, I’ve no doubt; and she’s uncommonly well off in Sheldon’s house, and ought to think herself so.”

Having skimmed his newspaper, Captain Paget rose and invested himself in his overcoat. He put on his hat before the glass over the mantelpiece, adjusting the brim above his brows with the thoughtful care that distinguished his performance of all those small duties which he owed to himself.

“And what may you be going to do with yourself to-day, Val?” he asked of the young man, who sat nursing his own knee and staring absently at the fire.

“Well, I don’t quite know,” Mr. Hawkehurst answered, hypocritically; “I think I may go as far as Gray’s Inn, and look in upon George Sheldon.”

“You’ll dine out of doors, I suppose?”

This was a polite way of telling Mr. Hawkehurst that there would be no dinner for him at home.

“I suppose I shall. You know I’m not punctilious on the subject of dinner. Anything you please — from a banquet at the London Tavern to a ham-sandwich and a glass of ale at fourpence.”

“Ah, to be sure; youth is reckless of its gastric juices. I shall find you at home when I come in to-night, I daresay. I think I may dine in the city. Au plaisir.”

“I don’t know about the pleasure,” muttered Mr. Hawkehurst. “You’re a very delightful person, my friend Horatio; but there comes a crisis in a man’s existence when he begins to feel that he has had enough of you. Poor Diana! what a father!”

He did not waste much time on further consideration of his patron, but set off at once on his way to Gray’s Inn. It was too early to call at the Lawn, or he would fain have gone there before seeking George Sheldon’s dingy offices. Nor could he very well present himself at the gothic villa without some excuse for so doing. He went to Gray’s Inn therefore; but on his way thither called at a tavern near the Strand, which was the head-quarters of a literary association known as the Ragamuffins. Here he was fortunate enough to meet with an acquaintance in the person of a Ragamuffin in the dramatic-author line, who was reading the morning’s criticisms on a rival’s piece produced the night before, with a keen enjoyment of every condemnatory sentence. From this gentleman Mr. Hawkehurst obtained a box-ticket for a West-end theatre; and, armed with this mystic document, he felt himself able to present a bold countenance at Mr. Sheldon’s door.

“Will she be glad to see me again?” he asked himself. “Pshaw! I daresay she has forgotten me by this time. A fortnight is an age with some women; and I should fancy Charlotte Halliday just one of those bright impressionable beings who forget easily. I wonder whether she is really like that ‘Molly’ whose miniature was found by Mrs. Haygarth in the tulip-leaf escritoire; or was the resemblance between those two faces only a silly fancy of mine?”

Mr. Hawkehurst walked the whole distance from Chelsea to Gray’s Inn; and it was midday when he presented himself before George Sheldon, whom he found seated at his desk with the elephantine pedigree of the Haygarths open before him, and profoundly absorbed in the contents of a note-book. He looked up from this note-book as Valentine entered, but did not leave off chewing the end of his pencil as he mumbled a welcome to the returning wanderer. It has been seen that neither of the Sheldon brothers were demonstrative men.

After that unceremonious greeting, the lawyer continued his perusal of the note-book for some minutes, while Valentine seated himself in a clumsy leather-covered arm-chair by the fireplace.

“Well, young gentleman,” Mr. Sheldon exclaimed, as he closed his book with a triumphant snap, “I think you’re in for a good thing; and you may thank your lucky stars for having thrown you into my path.”

“My stars are not remarkable for their luckiness in a general way,” answered Mr. Hawkehurst, coolly, for the man had not yet been born from whom he would accept patronage. “I suppose if I’m in for a good thing, you’re in for a better thing, my dear George; so you needn’t come the benefactor quite so strong for my edification. How did you ferret out the certificate of gray-eyed Molly’s espousals?”

George Sheldon contemplated his coadjutor with an admiring stare. “It has been my privilege to enjoy the society of cool hands, Mr. Hawkehurst; and certainly you are about the coolest of the lot — bar one, as they say in the ring. But that is ni ci ni là. I have found the certificate of Matthew Haygarth’s marriage, and to my mind the Haygarth succession is as good as ours.”

“Ah, those birds in the bush have such splendid plumage! but I’d rather have the modest sparrow in my hand. However, I’m very glad our affairs are marching. How did you discover the marriage-lines?”

“Not without hard labour, I can tell you. Of course my idea of a secret marriage was at the best only a plausible hypothesis; and I hardly dared to hug myself with the hope that it might turn up trumps. My idea was based upon two or three facts, namely, the character of the young man, his long residence in London away from the ken of respectable relatives and friends, and the extraordinary state of the marriage laws at the period in which our man lived.”

“Ah, to be sure! That was a strong point.”

“I should rather think it was. I took the trouble to look up the history of Mayfair marriages and Fleet marriages before you started for Ullerton, and I examined all the evidence I could get on that subject. I made myself familiar with the Rev. Alexander Keith of Mayfair, who helped to bring clandestine marriages into vogue amongst the swells, and with Dr. Gaynham — agreeably nicknamed Bishop of Hell — and more of the same calibre; and the result of my investigations convinced me that in those days a hare-brained young reprobate must have found it rather more difficult to avoid matrimony than to achieve it. He might be married when he was tipsy; he might be married when he was comatose from the effects of a stand-up fight with Mohawks; his name might be assumed by some sportive Benedick of his acquaintance given to practical joking, and he might find himself saddled with a wife he never saw; or if, on the other hand, of an artful and deceptive turn, he might procure a certificate of a marriage that had never taken place — for there were very few friendly offices which the Fleet parsons refused to perform for their clients — for a consideration.”

“But how about the legality of the Fleet marriage?”

“There’s the rub. Before the New Marriage Act passed in 1753 a Fleet marriage was indissoluble. It was an illegal act, and the parties were punishable; but the Gordian knot was quite as secure as if it had been tied in the most orthodox manner. The great difficulty to my mind was the onus probandi. The marriage might have taken place; the marriage be to all intents and purposes a good marriage; but how produce undeniable proof of such a ceremony, when all ceremonies of the kind were performed with a manifest recklessness and disregard of law? Even if I found an apparently good certificate, how was I to prove that it was not one of those lying certificates of marriages that had never taken place? Again, what kind of registers could posterity expect from these parson-adventurers, very few of whom could spell, and most of whom lived in a chronic state of drunkenness? They married people sometimes by their Christian names alone — very often under assumed names. What consideration had they for heirs-at-law in the future, when under the soothing influence of a gin-bottle in the present? I thought of all these circumstances, and I was half inclined to despair of realising my idea of an early marriage. I took it for granted that such a secret business would be more likely to have taken place in the precincts of the Fleet than anywhere else; and having no particular clue, I set to work, in the first place, to examine all available documents relating to such marriages.”

“It must have been slow work.”

“It was slow work,” answered Mr. Sheldon with a suppressed groan, that was evoked by the memory of a bygone martyrdom. “I needn’t enter into all the details of the business — the people I had to apply to for permission to see this set of papers, and the signing and counter-signing I had to go through before I could see that set of papers, and the extent of circumlocution and idiocy I had to encounter in a general way before I could complete my investigation. The result was nil; and after working like a galley-slave I found myself no better off than before I began my search. Your extracts from Matthew’s letters put me on a new track. I concluded therefrom that there had been a marriage, and that the said marriage had been a deliberate act on the part of the young man. I therefore set to work to do what I ought to have done at starting — I hunted in all the parish registers to be found within a certain radius of such and such localities. I began with Clerkenwell, in which neighbourhood our friend spent such happy years, according to that pragmatical epistle of Mrs. Rebecca’s; but after hunting in all the mouldy old churches within a mile of St. John’s-gate, I was no nearer arriving at any record of Matthew Haygarth’s existence. So I turned my back upon Clerkenwell, and went southward to the neighbourhood of the Marshalsea, where Mistress Molly’s father was at one time immured, and whence I thought it very probable Mistress Molly had started on her career as a matron. This time my guess was a lucky one. After hunting the registers of St. Olave’s, St. Saviour’s, and St. George’s, and after the expenditure of more shillings in donations to sextons than I care to remember, I at last lighted on a document which I consider worth three thousand pounds to you — and — a very decent sum of money to me.”

“I wonder what colour our hair will be when we touch that money?” said Valentine meditatively. “These sort of cases generally find their way into Chancery-lane, don’t they? — that lane which, for some unhappy travellers, has no turning except the one dismal via which leads to dusty death. You seem in very good spirits; and I suppose I ought to be elated too. Three thousand pounds would give me a start in life, and enable me to set up in the new character of a respectable rate-paying citizen. But I’ve a kind of presentiment that this hand of mine will never touch the prize of the victor; or, in plainer English, that no good will ever arise to me or mine out of the reverend intestate’s hundred thousand pounds.”

“Why, what a dismal-minded croaker you are this morning!” exclaimed George Sheldon with unmitigated disgust; “a regular raven, by Jove! You come to a fellow’s office just as matters are beginning to look like success — after ten years’ plodding and ten years’ disappointment — and you treat him to maudlin howls about the Court of Chancery. This is a new line you’ve struck out, Hawkehurst, and I can tell you it isn’t a pleasant one.”

“Well, no, I suppose I oughtn’t to say that sort of thing,” answered Valentine in an apologetic tone; “but there are some days in a man’s life when there seems to be a black cloud between him and everything he looks at. I feel like that today. There’s a tightening sensation about something under my waistcoat — my heart, perhaps — a sense of depression that may be either physical or mental, that I can’t get rid of. If a man had walked by my side from Chelsea to Holborn whispering forebodings of evil into my ear at every step, I couldn’t have felt more downhearted than I do.”

“What did you eat for breakfast?” asked Mr. Sheldon impatiently. “A tough beefsteak fried by a lodging-house cook, I daresay — they will fry their steaks. Don’t inflict the consequences of your indigestible diet upon me. To tell me that there’s a black cloud between you and everything you look at, is only a sentimental way of telling me that you’re bilious. Pray be practical, and let us look at things from a business point of view. Here is Appendix A. — a copy of the registry of the marriage of Matthew Haygarth, bachelor, of Clerkenwell, in the county of Middlesex, to Mary Murchison, spinster, of Southwark, in the county of Surrey. And here is Appendix B. — a copy of the registry of the marriage between William Meynell, bachelor, of Smithfield, in the county of Middlesex, to Caroline Mary Haygarth, spinster, of Highgate, in the same county.”

“You have found the entry of a second Haygarthian marriage?”

“I have. The C. of Matthew’s letters is the Caroline Mary here indicated, the daughter and heiress of Matthew Haygarth — doubtless christened Caroline after her gracious majesty the consort of George II., and Mary after the Molly whose picture was found in the tulip-leaf bureau. The Meynell certificate was easy enough to find, since the letters told me that Miss C.‘s suitor had a father who lived in Aldersgate-street, and a father who approved his son’s choice. The Aldersgate citizen had a house of his own, and a more secure social status altogether than that poor, weak, surreptitious Matthew. It was therefore only natural that the marriage should be celebrated in the Meynell mansion. Having considered this, I had only to ransack the registers of a certain number of churches round and about Aldersgate-street in order to find what I wanted; and after about a day and a half of hard labour, I did find the invaluable document which places me one generation nearer the present, and on the high-road to the discovery of my heir-at-law. I searched the same registry for children of the aforesaid William and Caroline Mary Meynell, but could find no record of such children nor any further entry of the name of Meynell. But we must search other registries within access of Aldersgate-street before we give up the idea of finding such entries in that neighbourhood.”

“And what is to be the next move?”

“The hunting-up of all descendants of this William and Caroline Mary Meynell, wheresoever such descendants are to be found. We are now altogether off the Haygarth and Judson scent, and have to beat a new covert.”

“Good!” exclaimed Valentine more cheerfully. “How is the new covert to be beaten?”

“We must start from Aldersgate-street. Meynell of Aldersgate-street must have been a responsible man, and it will be hard if there is no record of him extant in all the old topographical histories of wards, without and within, which cumber the shelves of your dry-as-dust libraries. We must hunt up all available books; and when we’ve got all the information that books can give us, we can go in upon hearsay evidence, which is always the most valuable in these cases.”

“That means another encounter with ancient mariners — I beg your pardon — oldest inhabitants,” said Valentine with a despondent yawn. “Well, I suppose that sort of individual is a little less obtuse when he lives within the roar of the great city’s thunder than when he vegetates in the dismal outskirts of a manufacturing town. Where am I to find my octogenarian prosers? and when am I to begin my operations upon them?” “The sooner you begin the better,” replied Mr. Sheldon. “I’ve taken all preliminary steps for you already, and you’ll find the business tolerably smooth sailing. I’ve made a list of certain people who may be worth seeing.”

Mr. Sheldon selected a paper from the numerous documents upon the table.

“Here they are,” he said: “John Grewter, wholesale stationer, Aldersgate-street; Anthony Sparsfield, carver and gilder, in Barbican. These are, so far as I can ascertain, the two oldest men now trading in Aldersgate-street; and from these men you ought to be able to find out something about old Meynell. I don’t anticipate any difficulty about the Meynells, except the possibility that we may find more of them than we want, and have some trouble in shaking them into their places.”

“I’ll tackle my friend the stationer to-morrow morning,” said Valentine.

“You’d better drop in upon him in the afternoon, when the day’s business may be pretty well over,” returned the prudent Sheldon. “And now all you’ve got to do, Hawkehurst, is to work with a will, and work on patiently. If you do as well in London as you did at Ullerton, neither you nor I will have any cause to complain. Of course I needn’t impress upon you the importance of secrecy.”

“No,” replied Valentine; “I’m quite alive to that.”

He then proceeded to inform George Sheldon of that encounter with Captain Paget on the platform at Ullerton, and of the suspicion that had been awakened in his mind by the sight of the glove in Goodge’s parlour.

The lawyer shook his head.

“That idea about the glove was rather far-fetched,” he said, thoughtfully; “but I don’t like the look of that meeting at the station. My brother Philip is capable of anything in the way of manoeuvring; and I’m not ashamed to confess that I’m no match for him. He was in here one day when I had the Haygarth pedigree spread out on the table, and I know he smelt a rat. We must beware of him, Hawkehurst, and we must work against time if we don’t want him to anticipate us.”

“I shan’t let the grass grow under my feet,” replied Valentine. “I was really interested in that Haygarthian history: there was a dash of romance about it, you see. I don’t feel the same gusto in the Meynell chase, but I daresay I shall begin to get up an interest in it as my investigation proceeds. Shall I call the day after to-morrow and tell you my adventures?”

“I think you’d better stick to the old plan, and let me have the result of your work in the form of a diary,” answered Sheldon. And with this the two men parted.

It was now half-past two o’clock; it would be half-past three before Valentine could present himself at the Lawn — a very seasonable hour at which to call upon Mrs. Sheldon with his offering of a box for the new play.

An omnibus conveyed him to Bayswater at a snail’s pace, and with more stoppages than ever mortal omnibus was subjected to before, as it seemed to that one eager passenger. At last the fading foliage of the Park appeared between the hats and bonnets of Valentine’s opposite neighbours. Even those orange tawny trees reminded him of Charlotte. Beneath such umbrage had he parted from her. And now he was going to see the bright young face once more. He had been away from town about a fortnight; but taken in relation with Miss Halliday, that fortnight seemed half a century.

Chrysanthemums and china-asters beautified Mr. Sheldon’s neat little garden, and the plate-glass windows of his house shone with all their wonted radiance. It was like the houses one sees framed and glazed in an auctioneer’s office — the greenest imaginable grass, the bluest windows, the reddest bricks, the whitest stone. “It is a house that would set my teeth on edge, but for the one sweet creature who lives in it,” Valentine thought to himself, as he waited at the florid iron gate, which was painted a vivid ultramarine and picked out with gold.

He tried in vain to catch a glimpse of some feminine figure in the small suburban garden. No flutter of scarlet petticoat or flash of scarlet plume revealed the presence of the divinity.

The prim maid-servant informed him that Mrs. Sheldon was at home, and asked if he would please to walk into the drawing-room.

Would he please? Would he not have been pleased to walk into a raging furnace if there had been a chance of meeting Charlotte Halliday amid the flames? He followed the maid-servant into Mrs. Sheldon’s irreproachable apartment, where the show books upon the show table were ranged at the usual mathematically correct distances from one another, and where the speckless looking-glasses and all-pervading French polish imparted a chilly aspect to the chamber. A newly-lighted fire was smouldering in the shining steel grate, and a solitary female figure was seated by the broad Tudor window bending over some needlework.

It was the figure of Diana Paget, and she was quite alone in the room. Valentine’s heart sank a little as he saw the solitary figure, and perceived that it was not the woman he loved.

Diana looked up from her work and recognised the visitor. Her face flushed, but the flush faded very quickly, and Valentine was not conscious of that flattering indication.

“How do you do, Diana?” he said. “Here I am again, you see, like the proverbial bad shilling. I have brought Mrs. Sheldon an order for the Princess’s.” “You are very kind; but I don’t think she’ll care to go. She was complaining of a headache this afternoon.”

“O, she’ll forget all about her headache if she wants to go to the play. She’s the sort of little woman who is always ready for a theatre or a concert. Besides, Miss Halliday may like to go, and will easily persuade her mamma. Whom could she not persuade?” added Mr. Hawkehurst within himself.

“Miss Halliday is out of town,” Diana replied coldly.

The young man felt as if his heart were suddenly transformed into so much lead, so heavy did it seem to grow. What a foolish thing it seemed that he should be the victim of this fair enslaver! — he who until lately had fancied himself incapable of any earnest feeling or deep emotion.

“Out of town!” he repeated with unconcealed disappointment.

“Yes; she has gone on a visit to some relations in Yorkshire. She actually has relations; doesn’t that sound strange to you and me?”

Valentine did not notice this rather cynical remark.

“She’ll be away ever so long, I suppose?” he said.

“I have no idea how long she may stay there. The people idolise her, I understand. You know it is her privilege to be idolised; and of course they will persuade her to stay as long as they can. You seem disappointed at not seeing her.”

“I am very much disappointed,” Valentine answered frankly; “she is a sweet girl.”

There was a silence after this. Miss Paget resumed her work with rapid fingers. She was picking up shining little beads one by one on the point of her needle, and transferring them to the canvas stretched upon an embroidery frame before her. It was a kind of work exacting extreme care and precision, and the girl’s hand never faltered, though a tempest of passionate feeling agitated her as she worked.

“I am very sorry not to see her,” Valentine said presently, “for the sight of her is very dear to me. Why should I try to hide my feelings from you, Diana? We have endured so much misery together that there must be some bond of union between us. To me you have always seemed like a sister, and I have no wish to keep any secret from you, though you receive me so coldly that one would think I had offended you.”

“You have not offended me. I thank you for being so frank with me. You would have gained little by an opposite course. I have long known your affection for Charlotte.”

“You guessed my secret?”

“I saw what any one could have seen who had taken the trouble to watch you for ten minutes during your visits to this house.”

“Was my unhappy state so very conspicuous?” exclaimed Valentine, laughing. “Was I so obviously spoony? I who have so ridiculed anything in the way of sentiment. You make me blush for my folly, Diana. What is that you are dotting with all those beads? — something very elaborate.”

“It is a prie-dieu chair I am working for Mrs. Sheldon. Of course I am bound to do something for my living.”

“And so you wear out your eyesight in the working of chairs. Poor girl! it seems hard that your beauty and accomplishments should not find a better market than that. I daresay you will marry some millionaire friend of Mr. Sheldon’s one of these days, and I shall hear of your house in Park-lane and three-hundred guinea barouche.”

“You are very kind to promise me a millionaire. The circumstances of my existence hitherto have been so peculiarly fortunate that I am justified in expecting such a suitor. My millionaire shall ask you to dinner at my house in Park-lane; and you shall play écarté with him, if you like — papa’s kind of écarté.”

“Don’t talk of those things, Di,” said Mr. Hawkehurst, with something that was almost a shudder; “let us forget that we ever led that kind of life.”

“Yes,” replied Diana, “let us forget it — if we can.”

The bitterness of her tone struck him painfully. He sat for some minutes watching her silently, and pitying her fate. What a sad fate it seemed, and how hopeless! For him there was always some chance of redemption. He could go out into the world, and cut his way through the forest of difficulty with the axe of the conqueror. But what could a woman do who found herself in the midst of that dismal forest? She could only sit at the door of her lonesome hut, looking out with weary eyes for the prince who was to come and rescue her. And Valentine remembered how many women there are to whom the prince never comes, and who must needs die and be buried beneath that gloomy umbrage.

“O! let us have women doctors, women lawyers, women parsons, women stone-breakers — anything rather than these dependent creatures who sit in other people’s houses working prie-dieu chairs and pining for freedom,” he thought to himself, as he watched the pale stern face in the chill afternoon light.

“Do leave off working for a few minutes, and talk to me, Di,” he said rather impatiently. “You don’t know how painful it is to a man to see a woman absorbed in some piece of needlework at the very moment when he wants all her sympathy. I am afraid you are not quite happy. Do confide in me, dear, as frankly as I confide in you. Are these people kind to you? Charlotte is, of course. But the elder birds, Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon, are they kind?” “They are very kind. Mr. Sheldon is not a demonstrative man, as you know; but I am not accustomed to have people in a rapturous state of mind about me and my affairs. He is kinder to me than my father ever was; and I don’t see how I can expect more than that. Mrs. Sheldon is extremely kind in her way — which is rather a feeble way, as you know.”

“And Charlotte —?”

“You answered for Charlotte yourself just now. Yes, she is very, very, very good to me; much better than I deserve. I was almost going to quote the collect, and say ‘desire or deserve.’”

“Why should you not desire or deserve her goodness?” asked Valentine.

“Because I am not a loveable kind of person. I am not sympathetic. I know that Charlotte is very fascinating, very charming; but sometimes her very fascination repels me. I think the atmosphere of that horrible swampy district between Lambeth and Battersea, where my childhood was spent, must have soured my disposition.”

“No, Diana; you have only learnt a bitter way of talking. I know your heart is noble and true. I have seen your suppressed indignation many a time when your father’s meannesses have revolted you. Our lives have been very hard, dear; but let us hope for brighter days. I think they must come to us.”

“They will never come to me,” said Diana.

“You say that with an air of conviction. But why should they not come to you — brighter and better days?”

“I cannot tell you that. I can only tell you that they will not come. And do you hope that any good will ever come of your love for Charlotte Halliday — you, who know Mr. Sheldon?”

“I am ready to hope anything.”

“You think that Mr. Sheldon would let his stepdaughter marry a penniless man?”

“I may not always be penniless. Besides, Mr. Sheldon has no actual authority over Charlotte.”

“But he has moral influence over her. She is very easily influenced.”

“I am ready to hope even in spite of Mr. Sheldon’s opposing influence. You must not try to crush this one little floweret that has grown up in a barren waste, Diana. It is my prison-flower.”

Mrs. Sheldon came into the room as he said this. She was very cordial, very eloquent upon the subject of her headache, and very much inclined to go to the theatre, notwithstanding that ailment, when she heard that Mr. Hawkehurst had been kind enough to bring her a box.

“Diana and I could go,” she said, “if we can manage to be in time after our six o’clock dinner. Mr. Sheldon does not care about theatres. All the pieces tire him. He declares they are all stupid. But then, you see, if one’s mind is continually wandering, the cleverest piece must seem stupid,” Mrs. Sheldon added thoughtfully; “and my husband is so very absent-minded.”

After some further discussion about the theatres, Valentine bade the ladies good afternoon.

“Won’t you stop to see Mr. Sheldon?” asked Georgina; “he’s in the library with Captain Paget. You did not know that your papa was here, did you, Diana, my dear? He came in with Mr. Sheldon an hour ago.”

“I won’t disturb Mr. Sheldon,” said Valentine. “I will call again in a few days.”

He took leave of the two ladies, and went out into the hall. As he emerged from the drawing-room, the door of the library was opened, and he heard Philip Sheldon’s voice within, saying —

“— your accuracy with regard to the name of Meynell.”

It was the close of a sentence; but the name struck immediately upon Valentine’s ear. Meynell! — the name which had for him so peculiar an interest.

“Is it only a coincidence,” he thought to himself, “or is Horatio Paget on our track?”

And then he argued with himself that his ears might have deceived him, and that the name he had heard might not have been Meynell, but only a name of somewhat similar sound.

It was Captain Paget who had opened the door. He came into the hall and recognised his protégé. They left the house together, and the Captain was especially gracious.

“We will dine together somewhere at the West-end, Val,” he said; but, to his surprise, Mr. Hawkehurst declined the proffered entertainment.

“I’m tired out with a hard day’s work,” he said, “and should be very bad company; so, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to Omega-street and get a chop.”

The Captain stared at him in amazement. He could not comprehend the man who could refuse to dine luxuriously at the expense of his fellow-man.

Valentine had of late acquired new prejudices. He no longer cared to enjoy the hospitality of Horatio Paget. In Omega-street the household expenses were shared by the two men. It was a kind of club upon a small scale; and there was no degradation in breaking bread with the elegant Horatio.

To Omega-street Valentine returned this afternoon, there to eat a frugal meal and spend a meditative evening, uncheered by one glimmer of that radiance which more fortunate men know as the light of home.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/birds_of_prey/book6.1.html

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