Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Found in the Bible.

November 3d. The most wonderful event has befallen — surely the most wonderful that ever came to pass outside the realms of fiction. Let me set down the circumstances of yesterday coolly and quietly if I can. I invoke the placid spirit of my Sheldon. I invoke all the divinities of Gray’s Inn and “The Fields.” Let me be legal and specific, perspicacious and logical — if this beating heart, this fevered brain, will allow me a few hours’ respite.

The autumn sunshine blessed the land again yesterday. Moorland and meadow, fallow and clover-field, were all the brighter for the steady downfall of the previous day. I walked to Newhall directly after breakfast, and found my dearest standing at the white five-barred gate, dressed in her pretty blue jacket, and with ribbons in her bonny brown hair.

She was pleased to see me, though at first just a little inclined to play the boudeuse on account of my absence on the previous day. Of course I assured her that it had been anguish for me to remain away from her, and quoted that divine sonnet of our William’s to the like effect:

“How like a winter hath my absence been!”

and again:

“O, never say that I was false of heart,

Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.”

Equally of course my pet pretended not to believe me. After this little misunderstanding we forgave each other, and adored each other again with just a little more than usual devotion; and then we went for a long ramble among the fields, and looked at the dear placid sheep, who stared at us wonderingly in return, as if exclaiming to themselves, “And these are a specimen couple of the creatures called lovers!”

We met uncle Joe in the course of our wanderings, and returned with him in time for the vulgar superstition of dinner, which we might have forgotten had we been left by ourselves. After dinner uncle Joe made off to his piggeries; while aunt Dorothy fell asleep in a capacious old arm-chair by the fire, after making an apologetic remark to the effect that she was tired, and had been a good deal “tewed” that morning in the dairy. “Tewed,” I understand, is Yorkshire for “worried.”

Aunt Dorothy having departed into the shadowy realm of dreams, Charlotte and I were left to our own devices.

There was a backgammon board on a side-table, surmounted by an old Indian bowl of dried rose-leaves; and, pour nous distraire, I proposed that I should teach my dearest that diverting game. She assented, and we set to work in a very business-like manner, Miss Halliday all attention, I serious as a professional schoolmaster.

Unfortunately for my pupil’s progress, the game of backgammon proved less entertaining than our own conversation, so, after a very feeble attempt on the one side to learn and on the other to teach, we closed the board and began to talk; — first of the past, then of the future, the happy future, which we were to share.

There is no need that I should set down this lovers’ talk. Is it not written on my heart? The future seemed so fair and unclouded to me, as my love and I sat talking together yesterday afternoon. Now all is changed. The strangest, the most surprising complications have arisen; and I doubt, I fear.

After we had talked for a long time, Miss Halliday suddenly proposed that I should read to her.

“Diana once told me that you read very beautifully,” said this flatterer; “and I should so like to hear you read — poetry of course. You will find plenty of poems in that old bookcase — Cowper, and Bloomfield, and Pope. Now I am sure that Pope is just the kind of poet whose verses you would read magnificently. Shall we explore the bookcase together?”

Now if there is any manner of beguiling an idle afternoon, which seems to me most delightful, it is by the exploration of old bookcases; and when that delight can be shared by the woman one fondly loves, the pleasure thereof must be of course multiplied to an indefinite amount.

So Charlotte and I set to work immediately to ransack the lower shelves of the old-fashioned mahogany bookcase, which contained the entire library of the Mercer household.

I am bound to admit that we did not light upon many volumes of thrilling interest. The verses of Cowper, like those of Southey, have always appeared to me to have only one fault — there are too many of them. One shrinks appalled from that thick closely-printed volume of morality cut into lengths of ten feet; and beyond the few well-worn quotations in daily use, I am fain to confess that I am almost a stranger to the bard of Olney.

Half a dozen odd volumes of the Gentleman’s Magazine, three or four of the Annual Register, a neatly-bound edition of Clarissa Harlowe and Sir Charles Grandison in twelve volumes, Law’s Holy Call to a Serious Life, Paradise Lost, Joseph Andrews, Hervey’s Meditations, and Gulliver’s Travels, formed the varied contents of the principal shelves. Above, there were shabbily-bound volumes and unbound pamphlets. Below, there were folios, the tops whereof were thickly covered with the dust of ages, having escaped the care of the handmaidens even in that neatly-appointed household.

I knelt down to examine these.

“You’ll be covered with dust if you touch them,” cried Charlotte. “I was once curious enough to examine them, but the result was very disappointing.”

“And yet they look so delightfully mysterious,” I said. “This one, for instance?”

“That is an old history of London, with curious plates and maps; rather interesting if one has nothing more amusing to read. But the perennial supply of novels from Mudie’s spoils one for that kind of book.”

“If ever I come to Newhall again, I shall dip into the old history. One is never tired of dead and gone London. But after Mr. Knight’s delightful book any old history must seem very poor. What is my burly friend here?”

“O, a dreadful veterinary-surgeon’s encyclopaedia —The Farmer’s Friend I think it is called; all about the ailments of animals.”

“And the next?”

“The next is an odd volume of the Penny Magazine. Dear aunt Dorothy is rich in odd volumes.”

“And the next — my bulky friend number two — with a cracked leather back and a general tendency to decay?”

“O, that is the Meynell Bible.”

The MEYNELL BIBLE! A hot perspiration broke out upon my face as I knelt at Charlotte Halliday’s feet, with my hand resting lightly on the top of the book.

“The Meynell Bible!” I repeated; and my voice was faintly tremulous, in spite of the effort I made to control myself. “What do you mean by the Meynell Bible?”

“I mean the old family Bible that belonged to my grand-mamma. It was her father’s Bible, you know; and of course he was my great-grandfather — Christian Meynell. Why, how you stare at me, Valentine! Is there anything so wonderful in my having had a great-grandfather?”

“No, darling; but the fact is that I—”

In another moment I should have told her the entire truth; but I remembered just in time that I had pledged myself to profound secrecy with regard to the nature and progress of my investigation, and I had yet to learn whether that pledge did or did not involve the observance of secrecy even with those most interested in my researches. Pending further communication with Sheldon, I was certainly bound to be silent.

“I have a kind of interest in the name of Meynell,” I said, “for I was once engaged in a business matter with people of that name.”

And having thus hoodwinked my beloved with a bouncer, I proceeded to extract the Bible from its shelf. The book was so tightly wedged into its place, that to remove it was like drawing a tooth. It was a noble-looking old volume, blue with the mould of ages, and redolent of a chill dampness like the atmosphere of a tomb.

“I should so like to examine the old book when the candles come in,” I said.

Fortunately for the maintenance of my secret, the darkness was closing in upon us when I discovered the volume, and the room was only fitfully illuminated by the flame that brightened and faded every minute.

I carried the book to a side-table, and Charlotte and I resumed our talk until the candles came, and close behind them uncle Joe. I fear I must have seemed a very inattentive lover during that brief interval, for I could not concentrate my thoughts upon the subject of our discourse. My mind would wander to the strange discovery that I had just made, and I could not refrain from asking myself whether by any extraordinary chance my own dear love should be the rightful claimant to John Haygarth’s hoarded wealth.

I hoped that it might not be so. I hoped that my darling might be penniless rather than the heir to wealth, which, in all likelihood, would create an obstacle strong enough to sever us eternally. I longed to question her about her family, but could not as yet trust myself to broach the subject. And while I doubted and hesitated, honest blustering uncle Joe burst into the room, and aunt Dorothy awoke, and was unutterably surprised to find she had slept so long.

After this came tea; and as I sat opposite my dearest girl I could not choose but remember that gray-eyed Molly, whose miniature had been found in the tulip-wood bureau, and in whose bright face I had seen the likeness of Philip Sheldon’s beautiful stepdaughter. And Mr. Sheldon’s lovely stepdaughter was the lineal descendant of this very Molly. Strange mystery of transmitted resemblances! Here was the sweet face that had bewitched honest, simple-minded Matthew Haygarth reproduced after the lapse of a century.

My Charlotte was descended from a poor little player girl who had smiled on the roisterous populace of Bartholomew Fair. Some few drops of Bohemian blood mingled with the pure life-stream in her veins. It pleased me to think of this; but I derived no pleasure from the idea that Charlotte might possibly be the claimant of a great fortune.

“She may have cousins who would stand before her,” I said to myself; and there was some comfort in the thought.

After tea I asked permission to inspect the old family Bible, much to the astonishment of uncle Joe, who had no sympathy with antiquarian tastes, and marvelled that I should take any interest in so mouldy a volume. I told him, with perfect truth, that such things had always more or less interest for me; and then I withdrew to my little table, where I was provided with a special pair of candles.

“You’ll find the births and deaths of all poor Molly’s ancestors on the first leaf,” said uncle Joe. “Old Christian Meynell was a rare one for jotting down such things; but the ink has gone so pale that it’s about as much as you’ll do to make sense of it, I’ll lay.”

Charlotte looked over my shoulder as I examined the fly-leaf of the family Bible. Even with this incentive to distraction I contrived to be tolerably business-like; and this is the record which I found on the faded page:

“Samuel Matthew Meynell, son of Christian and Sarah Meynell, b. March 9, 1796, baptised at St. Giles’s, Cripplegate, in this city.

“Susan Meynell, daughter of Christian and Sarah Meynell, b. June 29, 1798, also baptised in the same church.

“Charlotte Meynell, second daughter of the above Christian and Sarah, b. October 3, 1800, baptised at the above-mentioned church of St. Giles, London.”

Below these entries, in blacker ink and in a different hand-writing — a bold, business-like, masculine caligraphy — came the following:

“Charlotte Meynell married to James Halliday, in the parish church of Barngrave, Yorks. April 15, 1819.

“Thomas Halliday, son of the above James and Charlotte Halliday, b. Jan. 3d, 1821, baptised in the parish church of Barngrave, Feb. 20 in the same year.

“Mary Halliday, daughter of the above-named James and Charlotte Halliday, b. May 27th, 1823, baptised at Barngrave, July 1st in the same year.”

Below this there was an entry in a woman’s penmanship:

“Susan, the beloved sister of C. H., died in London, July 11, 1835.

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.

“I came to call sinners, and not the righteous, to repentance.”

This record seemed to hint vaguely at some sad story: “Susan, the beloved sister;” no precise data of the death — no surname! And then those two deprecating sentences, which seemed to plead for the dead.

I had been led to understand that Christian Meynell’s daughters had both died in Yorkshire — one married, the other unmarried.

The last record in the book was the decease of James Halliday, my dear girl’s grandfather.

After pondering long over the strangely-worded entry of Susan Meynell’s death, I reflected that, with the aid of those mysterious powers Hook and Crook, I must contrive to possess myself of an exact copy of this leaf from a family history, if not of the original document. Again my duty to my Sheldon impelled me to be false to all my new-born instincts, and boldly give utterance to another bouncer.

“I am very much interested in a county history now preparing for the press,” I said to my honoured uncle, who was engaged in a hand at cribbage with his wife; “and I really think this old leaf from a family Bible would make a very interesting page in that work.”

I blushed for myself as I felt how shamefully I was imposing upon my newly-found kinsman’s credulity. With scarcely any one but uncle Joe could I have dared to employ so shallow an artifice.

“Would it really, now?” said that confiding innocent.

“Well, I suppose old papers, and letters, and such like, are uncommonly interesting to some folks. I can’t say I care much about ’em myself.”

“Would you have any objection to my taking a copy of these entries?” I asked.

“My word, no, lad; not I. Take half a dozen copies, and welcome, if they can be of any use to you or other people. That’s not much to ask for.”

I thanked my simple host, and determined to write to a stationer at Hull for some tracing-paper by the first post next morning. There was some happiness, at least, in having found this unlooked-for end to my researches. I had a good excuse for remaining longer near Charlotte Halliday.

“It’s only for my poor Mary’s sake I set any value on that old volume,” the farmer said, presently, in a meditative tone. “You see the names there are the names of her relations, not mine; and this place and all in it was hers. Dorothy and I are only interlopers, as you may say, at the best, though I brought my fortune to the old farm, and Dorothy brought her fortune, and between us we’ve made Newhall a much better place than it was in old James Halliday’s time. But there’s something sad in the thought that none of those that were born on the land have left chick or child to inherit it.” Uncle Joseph fell for a while into a pensive reverie, and I thought of that other inheritance, well-nigh fifty times the value of Newhall farm, which is now waiting for a claimant. And again I asked myself, Could it be possible that this sweet girl, whose changeful face had saddened with those old memories, whose innocent heart knew not one sordid desire — could it be indeed she whose fair hand was to wrest the Haygarthian gold from the grip of Crown lawyers?

The sight of that old Bible seemed to have revived Mr. Mercer’s memory of his first wife with unwonted freshness.

“She was a sweet young creature,” he said; “the living picture of our Lottie, and sometimes I fancy it must have been that which made me take to Lottie when she was a little one. I used to see my first wife’s eyes looking up at me out of Lottie’s eyes. I told Tom it was a comfort to me to have the little lass with me, and that’s how they let her come over so often from Hyley. Poor old Tom used to bring her over in his Whitechapel cart, and leave her behind him for a week or so at a stretch. And then, when my Dorothy, yonder, took pity upon a poor lonely widower, she made as much of the little girl as if she’d been her own, and more, perhaps; for, not having any children of her own, she thought them such out-of-the-way creatures, that you couldn’t coddle them and pet them too much. There’s a little baby lies buried in Barngrave churchyard with Tom Halliday’s sister that would have been a noble young man, sitting where you’re sitting, Mr. Hawkehurst, and looking at me as bright as you’re looking, perhaps, if the Lord’s will hadn’t been otherwise. We’ve all our troubles, you see, and that was mine; and if it hadn’t been for Dorothy, life would not have been worth much for me after that time — but my Dorothy is all manner of blessings rolled up in one.”

The farmer looked fondly at his second wife as he said this, and she blushed and smiled upon him with responsive tenderness. I fancy a woman’s blushes and smiles wear longer in these calm solitudes than amid the tumult and clamour of a great city.

Finding my host inclined to dwell upon the past, I ventured to hazard an indirect endeavour to obtain some information respecting that entry in the Bible which had excited my curiosity.

“Miss Susan Meynell died unmarried, I believe?” I said. “I see her death recorded here, but she is described by her Christian name only.”

“Ah, very like,” replied Mr. Mercer, with an air of indifference, which I perceived to be assumed. “Yes, my poor Molly’s aunt Susan died unmarried.”

“And in London? I had been given to understand that she died in Yorkshire.”

I blushed for my own impertinence as I pressed this inquiry. What right had I to be given to understand anything about these honest Meynells? I saw poor uncle Joe’s disconcerted face, and I felt that the hunter of an heir-at-law is apt to become a very obnoxious creature.

“Susan Meynell died in London — the poor lass died in London,” replied Joseph Mercer, gravely; “and now we’ll drop that subject, if you please, my lad. It isn’t a pleasant one.”

After this I could no longer doubt that there was some painful story involved in those two deprecating sentences of the gospel.

It was some time before uncle Joe was quite his own jovial and rather noisy self again, and on this evening we had no whist. I bade my friends good night a little earlier than usual, and departed, after having obtained permission to take a tracing of the fly-leaf as soon as possible.

On this night the starlit sky and lonesome moor seemed to have lost their soothing power. There was a new fever in my mind. The simple plan of the future which I had mapped out for myself was suddenly shattered. The Charlotte of to-night — heiress-at-law to an enormous fortune — ward in Chancery — claimant against the Crown — was a very different person from the simple maid “whom there were none”— or only a doating simpleton in the person of the present writer —“to praise, and very few to love.”

The night before last I had hoped so much; to-night hope had forsaken me. It seemed as if a Titan’s hand had dug a great pit between me and the woman I loved — a pit as deep as the grave.

Philip Sheldon might have consented to give me his stepdaughter unpossessed of a sixpence; but would he give me his stepdaughter with a hundred thousand pounds for her fortune? Alas! no; I know the Sheldonian intellect too well to be fooled by any hope so wild and baseless. The one bright dream of my misused life faded from me in the hour in which I discovered my dearest girl’s claim to the Haygarthian inheritance. But I am not going to throw up the sponge before the fight is over. Time enough to die when I am lying face downward in the ensanguined mire, and feel the hosts of the foemen trampling above my shattered carcass. I will live in the light of my Charlotte’s smiles while I can, and for the rest —“Il ne faut pas dire, fontaine, je ne boirai pas de ton eau.” There is no cup so bitter that a man dare say, I will not drain it to the very dregs. “What must be, shall be — that’s a certain text;” and in the mean time carpe diem. I am all a Bohemian again.

Nov. 5th. After a day’s delay I have obtained my tracing-paper, and made two tracings of the entries in the Meynell Bible, How intercourse with the Sheldonian race inclines one to the duplication of documents! I consider the copying-press of modern civilization the supreme incarnation of man’s distrust of his fellow-men.

I spent this afternoon and evening with my dear love — my last evening in Yorkshire. To-morrow I shall see my Sheldon, and inform him of the very strange termination which has come to my researches. Will he communicate at once with his brother? Will he release me from my oath of secrecy? There is nothing of the masonic secretiveness in my organisation, and I am very weary of the seal that has been set upon my unwary lips. Will Charlotte be told that she is the reverend intestate’s next of kin? These are questions which I ask myself as I sit in the stillness of my room at the Magpie, scribbling this wretched diary of mine, while the church clock booms three solemn strokes in the distance.

O, why did not the reverend intestate marry his housekeeper, and make a will, like other honest citizens, and leave my Charlotte to walk the obscure byways of honest poverty with me? I do believe that I could have been honest; I do believe that I could have been brave and true and steadfast for her dear sake. But it is the office of man to propose, while the Unseen disposes. Perhaps such a youth as mine admits of no redemption. I have written circulars for Horatio Paget. I have been the willing remorseless tool of a man who never eats his dinner without inflicting a wrong upon his fellow-creatures. Can a few moments of maudlin sentimentality, a vague yearning for something brighter and better, a brief impulse towards honesty, inspired by a woman’s innocent eyes — can so little virtue in the present atone for so much guilt in the past? Alas! I fear not.

I had one last brief tête-à-tête with my dear girl while I took the tracing from the old Bible. She sat watching me, and distracting me more or less while I worked; and despite the shadow of doubt that has fallen upon me, I could not be otherwise than happy in her sweet company.

When I came to the record of Susan Meynell’s death, my Charlotte’s manner changed all at once from her accustomed joyousness to a pensive gravity.

“I was very sorry you spoke of Susan Meynell to uncle Joseph,” she said, thoughtfully.

“But why sorry, my dear?”

I had some vague notion as to the cause of this sorrow; but the instincts of the chase impelled me to press the subject. Was I not bound to know every secret in the lives of Matthew Haygarth’s descendants?

“There is a very sad story connected with my aunt Susan — she was my great-aunt, you know,” said Charlotte, with a grave earnest face. “She went away from home, and there was great sorrow. I cannot talk of the story, even to you, Valentine, for there seems something sacred in these painful family secrets. My poor aunt Susan left all her friends, and died many years afterwards in London.”

“She was known to have died unmarried?” I asked. This would be an important question from George Sheldon’s point of sight.

“Yes,” Charlotte replied, blushing crimson.

That blush told me a great deal.

“There was some one concerned in this poor lady’s sorrow,” I said; “some one to blame for all her unhappiness.”

“There was.”

“One whom she loved and trusted, perhaps?”

“Whom she loved and trusted only too well. O, Valentine, must not that be terrible? To confide with all your heart in the person you love, and to find him base and cruel! If my poor aunt had not believed Montagu Kingdon to be true and honourable, she would have trusted her friends a little, instead of trusting so entirely in him. O, Valentine, what am I telling you? I cannot bear to cast a shadow on the dead.”

“My dear love, do you think I cannot pity this injured lady? Do you think I am likely to play the Pharisee, and be eager to bespatter the grave of this poor sufferer? I can almost guess the story which you shrink from telling me — it is one of those sad histories so often acted, so often told. Your aunt loved a person called Montagu Kingdon — her superior in station, perhaps?”

I looked at Charlotte as I said this, and her face told me that I had guessed rightly.

“This Montagu Kingdon admired and loved her,” I said. “He seemed eager to make her his wife, but no doubt imposed secrecy as to his intentions. She accepted his word as that of a true-hearted lover and a gentleman, and in the end had bitter reason to repent her confidence. That is an outline of the story, is it not, Charlotte?”

“I am sure that it was so. I am sure that when she left Newhall she went away to be married,” cried Charlotte, eagerly; “I have seen a letter that proves it — to me, at least. And yet I have heard even mamma speak harshly of her — so long dead and gone off the face of this earth — as if she had deliberately chosen the sad fate which came to her.”

“Is it not possible that Mr. Kingdon did marry Miss Meynell, after all?”

“No,” replied Charlotte, very sadly; “there is no hope of that. I have seen a letter written by my poor aunt years afterwards — a letter that tells much of the cruel truth; and I have heard that Mr. Kingdon came back to Yorkshire and married a rich lady during my aunt’s lifetime.”

“I should like to see that letter,” I said, involuntarily.

“Why, Valentine?” asked my darling, looking at me with sorrowful, wondering eyes, “To me it seems so painful to talk of these things: it is like reopening an old wound.”

“But if the interests of other people require —” I began, in a very blundering manner.

“Whose interest can be served by my showing you my poor aunt’s letter? It would seem like an act of dishonour to the dead.”

What could I say after this — bound hand and foot as I am by my promise to Sheldon?

After a long talk with my sweet one, I borrowed uncle Joe’s dog-cart, and spun across to Barngrave, where I found the little church, beneath whose gray old roof Charlotte Meynell plighted her troth to James Halliday. I took a copy of all entries in the register concerning Mrs. Meynell Halliday and her children, and then went back to Newhall to restore the dog-cart, and to take my last Yorkshire tea at the hospitable old farm-house.

To-morrow I am off to Barlingford, fifteen miles from this village, to take more copies from registries concerning my sweet young heiress — the registries of her father’s marriage, and her own birth. After that I think my case will be tolerably complete, and I can present myself to Sheldon in the guise of a conqueror.

Is it not a great conquest to have made? Is it not almost an act of chivalry for these prosaic days to go forth into the world as a private inquirer, and win a hundred thousand pounds for the lady of one’s love? And yet I wish any one rather than my Charlotte were the lineal descendant of Matthew Haygarth.

Nov. 10th. Here I am in London once more, with my Sheldon in ecstatics, and our affairs progressing marvellously well, as he informs me; but with that ponderous slowness peculiar to all mortal affairs in which the authorities of the realm are in any way concerned.

My work is finished. Hawkehurst the genealogist and antiquarian sinks into Hawkehurst the private individual. I have no more to do but to mind my own business and await the fruition of time in the shape of my reward.

Can I accept three thousand pounds for giving my dearest her birthright? Can I take payment for a service done to her? Surely not: and, on the other hand, can I continue to woo my sweet one, conscious that she is the rightful claimant to a great estate? Can I take advantage of her ignorance, and may it not be said that I traded on my secret knowledge?

Before leaving Yorkshire, I stole one more day from the Sheldon business, in order to loiter just a few hours longer in that northern Arcadia called Newhall farm. What assurance have I that I shall ever re-enter that pleasant dwelling? What hold have I, a wanderer and vagabond, on the future which respectable people map out for themselves with such mathematical precision? And even the respectable people are sometimes out in their reckoning. To snatch the joys of to-day must always be the policy of the adventurer. So I took one more happy afternoon at Newhall. Nor was the afternoon entirely wasted; for, in the course of my farewell visit, I heard more of poor Susan Meynell’s history from honest uncle Joseph. He told me the story during an after-dinner walk, in which he took me the round of his pig-styes and cattle-sheds for the last time, as if he would fain have had them leave their impress on my heart.

“You may see plenty of cattle in Yorkshire,” he remarked, complacently, “but you won’t see many beasts to beat that.”

He pointed to a brown and mountainous mass of inert matter, which he gave me to understand was something in the way of cattle.

“Would you like to see him standing?” he asked, giving the mass a prod with the handle of his walking-stick, which to my cockney mind seemed rather cruel, but which, taken from an agricultural point of view, was no doubt the correct thing. “He can stand. Coom up, Brownie!”

I humbly entreated that the ill-used mass might be allowed to sprawl in undisturbed misery.

“Thorley!” exclaimed Mr. Mercer, laying his finger significantly against the side of his unpretending nose.

I had not the faintest comprehension of my revered uncle-in-law’s meaning; but I said, “O, indeed!” with the accents of admiration.

“Thorley’s Condiment,” said my uncle. “You’ll see some fine animate at the Cattle-show; but if you see a two-year-old ox to beat him, my name is not Joe Mercer.”

After this I had to pay my respects to numerous specimens of the bovine race, all more or less prostrate under the burden of superabundant flesh, all seeming to cry aloud for the treatment of some Banting of the agricultural world.

After we had “done” the cattle-sheds, with heroic resignation on my part, and with enthusiasm on the part of Mr. Mercer, we went a long way to see some rarities in the way of mutton, which commodity was to be found cropping the short grass on a distant upland.

With very little appreciation of the zoological varieties, and with the consciousness that my dear one was sitting in the farm-house parlour, wondering at my prolonged absence, this excursion could not be otherwise than a bore to me. But it was a small thing to sacrifice my own pleasure for once in a way, when by so doing I might gratify the kindest of men and of uncles; so I plodded briskly across the fields with the friendly farmer.

I had my reward; for, in the course of this walk, Mr. Mercer gave me the history of poor Susan Meynell.

“I didn’t care to talk about the story the other night before the young lass,” he said, gravely; “for her heart’s so full of pity and tenderness, pretty dear, that any tale such as that is like to upset her. But the story’s known to almost all the folks in these parts; so there’s no particular reason against my telling it to you. I’ve heard my poor mother talk of Susan Meynell many a time. She was a regular beauty, it seems; prettier than her sister Charlotte, and she was a pretty woman, as you may guess by looking at our Charlotte, who is thought the image of her grandmother. But Susan was one of those beauties that you don’t see very often — more like a picture than flesh and blood. The gentry used to turn round to look at her at Barngrave church, I’ve heard my mother say. She was a rare one for dress, too; for she had a few hundreds left her by her father and mother, who had both of them been very well-to-do people. The mother was daughter to William Rand, of Barngrave, a man who farmed above a thousand acres of his own land; and the father kept a carpet warehouse in Aldersgate-street.”

This information I received with respectful deference, and a hypocritical assumption of ignorance respecting Miss Meynell’s antecedents.

Mr. Mercer paused to take breath, and then continued the story after his own rambling fashion.

“Well, my lad, what with her fine dress, and what with her pretty looks, Susan Meynell seems to have thought a little too much of herself; so that when Montagu Kingdon, of Kingdon-place, younger brother to Lord Durnsville, fell in love with her, and courted her — not exactly openly, but with the knowledge of her sister, Mrs. Halliday — she thought it no more than natural that he should intend to make her his wife. Mr. Kingdon was ten years older than Susan, and had served in Spain, and had not borne too good a character abroad. He had been in a hard-drinking cavalry regiment, and had spent all his money, and sold out directly the war was over. There was very little of all this known down hereabouts, where Mr. Kingdon stood very high, on account of his being Lord Durnsville’s brother. But it was known that he was poor, and that the Durnsville estates were heavily encumbered into the bargain.”

“Then this gentleman would have been no grand match for Miss Meynell, if —” “If he had married her? No, my lad; and it might have been the knowledge of his poverty that made Susan and her sister think less of the difference between his station and the girl’s. The two women favoured him, anyhow; and they kept the secret from James Halliday, who was a regular upstraight-and-downright kind of fellow, as proud as any lord in his own way. The secret was kept safe enough for some time, and Mr. Kingdon was always dropping in at Newhall when Jim was out of the way; but folks in these parts are very inquisitive, and, lonesome as our place is, there are plenty of people go by between Monday and Saturday; so by-and-by it got to be noticed that there was very often a gentleman’s horse standing at Newhall gate, with the bridle tied to one of the gate-posts; and those that knew anything, knew that the horse belonged to Montagu Kingdon. A friend of Jim Halliday’s told him as much one day, and warned him that Mr. Kingdon was a scamp, and was said to have a Spanish wife somewhere beyond seas. This was quite enough for James Halliday, who flew into a roaring rage at the notion of any man, most of all Lord Durnsville’s brother, going to his house and courting his sister-in-law in secret. It was at Barngrave he was told this, one market-day, as he was lounging with his friends in the old yard of the Black Bull inn, where the corn exchange used to be held in those days. He called for his horse the next minute, and left the town at a gallop. When he came to Newhall, he found Montagu Kingdon’s chestnut mare tied to the gate-post, and he found Mr. Kingdon himself, dawdling about the garden with Miss Meynell.”

“And then I suppose there was a scene?” I suggested, with unfeigned interest in this domestic story.

“Well, I believe there was, my lad. I’ve heard all about it from my poor Molly, who had the story from her mother. James Halliday didn’t mince matters; he gave Mr. Kingdon a bit of his mind, in his own rough outspoken way, and told him it would be the worse for him if he ever crossed the threshold of Newhall gate again. ‘If you meant well by that foolish girl, you wouldn’t come sneaking here behind my back,’ he said; ‘but you don’t mean well by her, and you’ve a Spanish wife hidden away somewhere in the Peninsula.’ Mr. Kingdon gave the lie to this; but he said he shouldn’t stoop to justify himself to an unmannerly yeoman. ‘If you were a gentleman,’ he said, ‘you should pay dearly for your insolence.’ ‘I’m ready to pay any price you like,’ answered James Halliday, as bold as brass; ‘but as you weren’t over fond of fighting abroad, where there was plenty to be got for it, I don’t suppose you want to fight at home, where there’s nothing to be got for it.’”

“And did Susan Meynell hear this?” I asked. I could fancy this ill-fated girl standing by and looking on aghast while hard things were said to the man she loved, while the silver veil of sweet romance was plucked so roughly from the countenance of her idol by an angry rustic’s rude hand.

“Well, I don’t quite know whether she heard all,” answered Mr. Mercer, thoughtfully. “Of course, James Halliday told his wife all about the row afterwards. He was very kind to his sister-in-law, in spite of her having deceived him; and he talked to her very seriously, telling her all he had heard in Barngrave against Montagu Kingdon. She listened to him quietly enough, but it was quite clear that she didn’t believe a word he said. ‘I know you have heard all that, James,’ she said; ‘but the people who said it knew they were not telling the truth. Lord Durnsville and his brother are not popular in the country, and there are no falsehoods too cruel for the malice of his enemies.’ She answered him with some such fine speech as that, and when the next morning came she was gone.”

“She eloped with Mr. Kingdon?”

“Yes. She left a letter for her sister, full of romantic stuff about loving him all the better because people spoke ill of him; regular woman’s talk, you know, bless their poor silly hearts!” murmured Mr. Mercer, with tender compassion. “She was going to London to be married to Mr. Kingdon, she wrote. They were to be married at the old church in the city where she had been christened, and she was going to stay with an old friend — a young woman who had once been her brother’s sweetheart, and who was married to a butcher in Newgate-market — till the bans were given out, or the license bought. The butcher’s wife had a country-house out at Edmonton, and it was there Susan was going to stay.”

“All that seemed straightforward enough,” said I.

“Yes,” replied uncle Joe; “but if Mr. Kingdon had meant fairly by Susan Meynell, it would have been as easy for him to marry her at Barngrave as in London. He was as poor as a church mouse, but he was his own master, and there was no one to prevent him doing just what he pleased. This is about what James Halliday thought, I suppose; for he tore off to London, as fast as post-horses could carry him, in pursuit of his wife’s sister and Mr. Kingdon. But though he made inquiries all along the road he could not hear that they had passed before him, and for the best of all reasons. He went to the butcher’s house at Edmonton; but there he found no trace of Susan Meynell, except a letter posted in Yorkshire, on the day of the row between James and Mr. Kingdon, telling her intention of visiting her old friend within the next few days, and hinting at an approaching marriage. There was the letter announcing the visit, but the visitor had not come.” “But the existence of that letter bears witness that Miss Meynell believed in the honesty of her lover’s intentions.”

“To be sure it does, poor lass,” answered Mr. Mercer pensively. “She believed in the word of a scoundrel, and she was made to pay dearly for her simplicity. James Halliday did all he could to find her. He searched London through, as far as any man can search such a place as London; but it was no use, and for a very good reason, as I said before. The end of it was, he was obliged to go back to Newhall no wiser than when he started.”

“And was nothing further ever discovered?” I asked eagerly, for I felt that this was just one of those family complications from which all manner of legal difficulties might arise.

“Don’t be in a hurry, my lad,” answered uncle Joe; “wickedness is sure to come to light sooner or later. Three years after this poor young woman ran away there was a drunken groom dismissed from Lord Durnsville’s stable; and what must he needs do but come straight off to James Halliday, to vent his spite against his master, and perhaps to curry favour at Newhall. ‘You shouldn’t have gone to London to look for the young lady, Muster Halliday,’ he said; ‘you should have gone the other way. I know a man as drove Mr. Kingdon and your wife’s sister across country to Hull with two of my lord’s own horses, stopping to bait on the way. They went aboard ship at Hull, Mr. Kingdon and the young lady — a ship that was bound for foreign parts.’ This is what the groom said; but it was little good knowing it now. There’d been advertisements in the papers beseeching her to come back; and everything had been done that could be done, and all to no end. A few years after this back comes Mr. Kingdon as large as life, married to some dark-faced, frizzy-haired lady, whose father owned half the Indies, according to people’s talk: but he fought very shy of James Halliday; but when they did meet one day at the covert side, Jim rode up to the honourable gentleman and asked him what he had done with Susan Meynell. Those that saw the meeting say that Montagu Kingdon turned as white as a ghost when he saw Jim Halliday riding up to him on his big, raw-boned horse; but nothing came of the quarrel. Mr. Kingdon did not live many years to enjoy the money his frizzy-haired West–Indian lady brought him. He died before his brother, Lord Durnsville, and left neither chick nor child to inherit his money, nor yet the Durnsville title, which was extinct on the death of the viscount.”

“And what of the poor girl?”

“Ay, poor lass, what of her? It was fourteen years after she left her home before her sister got so much as a line to say she was in the land of the living. When a letter did come at last, it was a very melancholy one. The poor creature wrote to her sister to say she was in London, alone and penniless, and, as she thought, dying.”

“And the sister went to her?”

I remembered that deprecating sentence in the family Bible, written in a woman’s hand.

“That she did, good honest soul, as fast as she could travel, carrying a full purse along with her. She found poor Susan at an inn near Aldersgate-street — the old quarter, you see, that she’d known in her young days. Mrs. Halliday meant to have brought the poor soul back to Yorkshire, and had settled it all with Jim; but it was too late for anything of that kind. She found Susan dying, wandering in her mind off and on, but just able to recognise her sister, and to ask forgiveness for having trusted to Montagu Kingdon, instead of taking counsel from those that wished her well.”

“Was that all?” I asked presently.

Mr. Mercer made long pauses in the course of his narrative, during which we walked briskly on; he pondering on those past events, I languishing for further information.

“Well, lad, that was about all. Where Susan had been in all those years, or what she had been doing, was more than Mrs. Halliday could find out. Of late she had been living somewhere abroad. The clothes she had last worn were of foreign make, very poor and threadbare; and there was one little box in her room at the inn that had been made at Rouen, for the name of a Rouen trunkmaker was on the inside of the lid. There were no letters or papers of any kind in the box; so you see there was no way of finding out what the poor creature’s life had been. All her sister could do was to stay with her and comfort her to the last, and to see that she was quietly laid to rest in a decent grave. She was buried in a quiet little city churchyard, somewhere where there are green trees among the smoke of the chimney-pots. Montagu Kingdon had been dead some years when that happened.”

“Is that last letter still in existence?” I asked.

“Yes; my first wife kept it with the rest of her family letters and papers. Dorothy takes care of them now. We country folks set store by those sort of things, you know.”

I would fain have asked Mr. Mercer to let me see this last letter written by Susan Meynell; but what excuse could I devise for so doing? I was completely fettered by my promise to George Sheldon, and could offer no reasonable pretence for my curiosity.

There was one point which I was bound to push home in the interests of my Sheldon, or, shall I not rather say, of my Charlotte? That all-important point was the question of marriage or no marriage. “You feel quite clear as to the fact that Montagu Kingdon never did marry this young woman?” I said.

“Well, yes,” replied uncle Joe; “that was proved beyond doubt, I’m sorry to say. Mr. Kingdon never could have dared to come back here with his West–Indian wife in poor Susan Meynell’s lifetime if he had really married her.”

“And how about the lady he was said to have married in Spain?”

“I can’t say anything about that. It may have been only a scandal, or, if there was a marriage, it may have been illegal. The Kingdons were Protestants, and the Spaniards are all papists, I suppose. A marriage between a Protestant and a Roman Catholic wouldn’t be binding.”

“Not upon such a man as this Kingdon.”

It seems more than probable that the opinion arrived at by this poor soul’s friends must be correct, and that Montagu Kingdon was a scoundrel. But how about Susan Meynell’s after-life? — the fourteen years in which she was lost sight of? May she not have married some one else than Mr. Kingdon? and may she not have left heirs who will arise in the future to dispute my darling’s claim?

Is it a good thing to have a great inheritance? The day has been when such a question as that could not by any possibility have shaped itself in my mind. Ah! what is this subtle power called love, which worketh such wondrous changes in the human heart? Surely the miracle of the cleansed leper is in some manner typical of this transformation. The emanation of divine purity encircled the leper with its supernal warmth, and the scales fell away beneath that mysterious influence. And so from the pure heart of a woman issues a celestial fire which burns the plague-spot out of the sinner’s breast. Ah, how I languish to be at my darling’s feet, thanking her for the cure she has wrought!

I have given my Sheldon the story of Susan Meynell’s life, as I had it from uncle Joseph. He agrees with me as to the importance of Susan’s last letter, but even that astute creature does not see a way to getting the document in his hands without letting Mr. Mercer more or less into our secret.

“I might tell this man Mercer some story about a little bit of money coming to his niece, and get at Susan Meynell’s letter that way,” he said; “but whatever I told him would be sure to get round to Philip somehow or other, and I don’t want to put him on the scent.”

My Sheldon’s legal mind more than ever inclines to caution, now that he knows the heiress of the Haygarths is so nearly allied to his brother Philip.

“I’ll tell you what it is, Hawkehurst,” he said to me, after we had discussed the business in all its bearings, “there are not many people I’m afraid of, but I don’t mind owning to you that I am afraid of my brother Phil. He has always walked over my head; partly because he can wear his shirt-front all through business hours without creasing it, which I can’t, and partly because he’s — well — more unscrupulous than I am.”

He paused meditatively, and I too was meditative; for I could not choose but wonder what it was to be more unscrupulous than George Sheldon.

“If he were to get an inkling of this affair,” my patron resumed presently, “he’d take it out of our hands before you could say Jack Robinson — supposing anybody ever wanted to say Jack Robinson, which they don’t — and he’d drive a bargain with us, instead of our driving a bargain with him.”

My friend of Gray’s Inn has a pleasant way of implying that our interests are coequal in this affair. I caught him watching me curiously once or twice during our last interview, when Charlotte’s name was mentioned. Does he suspect the truth, I wonder?

Nov. 12th. I had another interview with my patron yesterday, and rather a curious interview, though not altogether unsatisfactory. George Sheldon has been making good use of his time since my return from Yorkshire.

“I don’t think we need have any fear of opposition from children or grandchildren of Susan Meynell,” he said; “I have found the registry of her interment in the churchyard of St. Giles’s, Cripplegate. She is described in that registry by her maiden name, and there is a plain headstone in a corner of the ground, inscribed with the name of Susan Meynell, who died July 14th, 1835, much lamented; and then the text about ‘the one sinner that repenteth,’ and so on,” said Mr. Sheldon, as if he did not care to dwell on so hackneyed a truism.

“But,” I began, “she might have been married, in spite of —”

“Yes, she might,” replied my Sheldon, captiously; “but then, you see, the probability is that she wasn’t. If she had been married, she would have told her sister as much in that last letter, or she would have said as much when they met.”

“But she was delirious.”

“Not all the time. She was sensible enough to talk about her sorrow for the past, and so on; and she must have been sensible enough to have spoken of her children, if she had ever had any. Besides, if she had been married, she would scarcely have been wandering about the world in that miserable manner, unless her husband was an uncommonly bad lot. No, Hawkehurst, depend upon it, we’ve nothing to fear in that quarter. The person we have to fear is that precious brother of mine.”

“You talked the other day about driving a bargain with him,” I said; “I didn’t quite understand your meaning. The fortune can only be claimed by Char — Miss Halliday, and your brother has no legal authority to dispose of her money.”

“Of course not,” answered my employer, with contemptuous impatience of my dulness; “but my brother Phil is not the man to wait for legal power. His ideas will be Miss Halliday’s ideas in this business. When my case is ripe for action, I shall make my bargain — half the fortune to be mine from the day of its recovery. A deed containing these conditions must be executed by Charlotte Halliday before I hand over a single document relating to the case. Now, as matters stand at present,” he went on, looking very fixedly at me, “her execution of that deed would rest with Philip.”

“And when shall you make your overtures to Mr. Sheldon?” I asked, at a loss to understand that intent look.

“Not until the last links of the chain are put together. Not before I’m ready to make my first move on the Chancellor’s chessboard. Perhaps not at all.”

“How do you mean?”

“If I can tide over for a little time, I may throw Philip overboard altogether, and get some one else to manage Miss Halliday for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you, Hawkehurst,” answered my patron, resting his elbows on the table by which we were sitting, and looking me through with those penetrating black eyes of his. “My brother Phil played me a shabby trick a few years ago, which I have not forgotten or forgiven. So I shouldn’t mind paying him out in some of his own coin. Beyond which, I tell you again, I don’t like the idea of his having a finger in this business. Where that kind of man’s finger can go, his whole hand will follow; and if once that hand fastens on John Haygarth’s money, it’ll be bad times for you and me. Miss Halliday counts for exactly nothing in my way of reckoning. If her stepfather told her to sign away half a million, she’d scribble her name at the bottom of the paper, and press her pretty little thumb upon the wafer, without asking a single question as to the significance of the document. And, of course, she’d be still less inclined to make objections if it was her husband who asked her to execute the deed. Aha! my young friend, how is it you grow first red and then white when I mention Miss Halliday’s husband?”

I have no doubt that I did indeed blanch when that portentous word was uttered in conjunction with my darling’s name. Mr. Sheldon leant a little further across the table, and his hard black eyes penetrated a little deeper into the recesses of my foolish heart.

“Valentine Hawkehurst,” he said, “shall we throw my brother Phil overboard altogether? Shall you and I go shares in this fortune?”

“Upon my word and honour I don’t understand you,” I said, in all sincerity.

“You mean that you won’t understand me,” answered George Sheldon, impatiently; “but I’ll make myself pretty clear presently; and as your own interest is at stake, you’ll be very unlike the rest of your species if you don’t find it easy enough to understand me. When first I let you in for the chance of a prize out of this business, neither you nor I had the slightest idea that circumstances would throw the rightful claimant to the Haygarth estate so completely into our way. I had failed so many times with other cases before I took up this case, that it’s a wonder I had the courage to work on. But, somehow or other, I had a notion that this particular business would turn up trumps. The way seemed a little clearer than it usually is; but not clear enough to tempt Tom, Dick, and Harry. And then, again, I had learnt a good many secrets from the experience of my failures. I was well up to my work. I might have carried it on, and I ought to have carried it on, without help; but I was getting worn out and lazy, so I let you into my secret, having taken it into my head that I could venture to trust you.”

“You didn’t trust me further than you could help, my friend,” I replied with my usual candour. “You never told me the amount left by the reverend intestate; but I heard that down at Ullerton. A half share in a hundred thousand pounds is worth trying for, Mr. Sheldon.”

“They call it a hundred thousand down there, do they?” asked the lawyer, with charming innocence. “Those country people always deal in high figures. However, I don’t mind owning that the sum is a handsome one, and if you and I play our cards wisely, we may push Philip out of the game altogether, and share the plunder between us.”

Again I was obliged to confess myself unable to grasp my employer’s meaning.

“Marry Charlotte Halliday out of hand,” he said, bringing his eyes and his elbows still nearer to me, until his bushy black whiskers almost touched my face. “Marry her before Philip gets an inkling of this affair, and then, instead of being made a tool of by him, she’ll be safe in your hands, and the money will be in your hands into the bargain. Why, how you stare, man! Do you think I haven’t seen how the land lies between you two? Haven’t I dined at Bayswater when you’ve been there? and could any man with his wits about him see you two sentimental young simpletons together without seeing how things were going on? You are in love with Charlotte, and Charlotte is in love with you. What more natural than that you two should make a match of it? Charlotte is her own mistress, and hasn’t sixpence in the world that any one but you and I know of; for, of course, my brother Phil will continue to stick to every penny of poor old Tom’s money. All you have to do is to follow up the young lady; it’s the course that would suggest itself to any man in the same case, even if Miss Halliday were the ugliest old harridan in Christendom, instead of being a very jolly kind of girl, as girls go.”

My employer said this with the tone of a man who had never considered the genus girl a very interesting part of creation. I suppose I looked at him rather indignantly; for he laughed as he resumed —

“I’ll say she’s an angel, if you like,” he said; “and if you think her one, so much the better. You may consider it a very lucky thing that you came in my way, and a still more lucky thing that Miss Halliday has been silly enough to fall in love with you. I’ve heard of men being born with silver spoons in their mouths; but I should think you must have come into the world with a whole service of plate. However, that is neither here nor there. Your policy will be to follow up your advantages; and if you can persuade the young lady to change her name for Hawkehurst on the quiet some fine morning, without stopping to ask permission of her stepfather, or any one else, so much the better for you, and so much the more agreeable to me. I’d rather do business with you than with my brother Phil; and I shan’t be sorry to cry quits with that gentleman for the shabby trick he played me a few years ago.”

My Sheldon’s brow darkened as he said this, and the moody fit returned. That old grudge which my patron entertains against his brother must have relation to some very disagreeable business, if I may judge by George Sheldon’s manner.

Here was a position for me, Valentine Hawkehurst, soldier of fortune, cosmopolitan adventurer, and child of the nomadic tribes who call Bohemia their mother country! Already blest with the sanction of my dear love’s simple Yorkshire kindred, I was now assured of George Sheldon’s favour; nay, urged onward in my paradisiac path by that unsentimental Mentor. The situation was almost too much for my bewildered brain. Charlotte an heiress, and George Sheldon eager to bring about my participation in the Haygarthian thousands!

And now I sit in my little room 1a Omega-street, pondering upon the past, and trying to face the perplexities of the future.

Is this to be? Am I, so hopeless an outsider in the race of life, to come in with a rush and win the prize which Fortune’s first favourite might envy? Can I hope or believe it? Can the Fates have been playing a pleasant practical joke with me all this time, like those fairies who decree that the young prince shall pass his childhood and youth in the guise of a wild boar, only to be transformed into an Adonis at last by the hand of the woman who is disinterested enough to love him despite his formidable tusks and ungainly figure?

No! a thousand times no! The woman I love, and the fortune I have so often desired, are not for me. Every man has his own especial Fates; and the three sisters who take care of me are grim, hard-visaged, harder-hearted spinsters, not to be mollified by propitiation, or by the smooth tongue of the flatterer. The cup is very sweet, and it seems almost within my grasp; but between that chalice of delight and the lips that thirst for it, ah, what a gulf!

Nov. 13th. The above was written late at night, and under the influence of my black dog. What an ill-conditioned cur he is, and how he mouths and mangles the roses that bestrew his pathway, always bent upon finding the worm at the core!

I kicked the brute out of doors this morning, on finding a letter from my dear one lying in my plate. “Avaunt, aroint thee, foul fiend!” I cried. “Thou art the veritable poodle in whose skin Mephistopheles hides when bent on direst mischief. I will set the sign of the cross upon my threshold, and thou shalt enter no more.”

This is what I said to myself as I tore open Charlotte’s envelope, with its pretty little motto stamped on cream-coloured sealing-wax, “Pensez à moi.” Ah, love; “while memory holds a seat in this distracted globe.” I saw the eyes of my friend Horatio fixed upon me as I opened my letter, and knew that my innermost sentiments were under inspection. Prudence demands all possible caution where the noble Captain is concerned. I cannot bring myself to put implicit faith in his account of his business at Ullerton. He may have been there, as he says, on some promoting spec; but our meeting in that town was, to say the least, a strange coincidence, and I am not a believer in coincidences — off the stage, where a gentleman invariably makes his appearance directly his friends begin to talk about him.

I cannot forget my conviction that Jonah Goodge was bought over by a rival investigator, and that Rebecca Haygarth’s letters were tampered with; nor can I refrain from connecting that shapely but well-worn lavender glove with the person of my dandy friend, Horatio Paget. The disappearance of a letter from the packet intrusted to me by Miss Judson is another mysterious circumstance; nor can I do away with the impression that I heard the name Meynell distinctly pronounced by Philip Sheldon the last time I was at the villa.

George Sheldon tells me the secret cannot by any possibility have been betrayed, unless by me; and I have been prudence itself.

Supposing my suspicions of Mr. Goodge to be correct, the letters extracted from Mrs. Rebecca’s correspondence might tell much, and might even put Horatio on the track of the Meynells. But how should he get his first inkling of the business?

Certainly not from me or from George Sheldon. But might not his attention have been attracted by that advertisement for heirs-at-law to the Haygarthian estate which appeared in the Times?

These are questions with which the legal intellect of my Sheldon may best grapple. For myself, I can only drift with the resistless stream called life.

I was so unfortunate as to make my appearance in our common sitting-room five minutes after my patron. There had been time enough for him to examine the superscription and postmark of my letter. He was whistling when I went into the room. People who have been looking at things that don’t belong to them always whistle.

I did not care to read Charlotte’s first letter with those hawk’s eyes fixed upon me. So I just glanced at the dear handwriting, as if running over an ordinary letter with the eye of indifference, and then put the document into my pocket with the best assumption of carelessness I was capable of. How I longed for the end of that tedious meal, over which Captain Paget lingered in his usual epicurean fashion!

My friend Horatio has shown himself not a little curious about my late absence from the joint domicile. I again resorted to the Dorking fiction — my aged aunt breaking fast, and requiring much propitiation from a dutiful nephew with an eye to her testamentary arrangements. I had been compelled to endow my shadowy relative with a comfortable little bit of money, in order to account for my devotion; since the powerful mind of my Horatio would have refused to grasp the idea of disinterested affection for an ancient kinswoman.

There was an ominous twinkle in the Captain’s sharp gray eyes when I gave this account of my absence, and I sorely doubt his acceptance of this second volume of the Dorking romance. Ah, what a life it is we lead in the tents of Ishmael, the cast-away! through what tortuous pathways wander the nomad tribes who call Hagar, the abandoned, their mother! what lies, what evasions, what prevarications! Horatio Paget and I watch each other like two cunning fencers, with a stereotyped smile upon our lips and an eager restlessness in our eyes, and who shall say that one or other of our rapiers is not poisoned, as in the famous duel before Claudius, usurper of Denmark? My dear one’s letter is all sweetness and love. She is coming home; and much as she prefers Yorkshire to Bayswater, she is pleased to return for my sake — for my sake. She leaves the pure atmosphere of that simple country home to become the central point in a network of intrigue; and I am bound to keep the secret so closely interwoven with her fate. I love her more truly, more purely than I thought myself capable of loving; yet I can only approach her as the tool of George Sheldon, a rapacious conspirator, bent on securing the hoarded thousands of old John Haygarth.

Of all men upon this earth I should be the last to underrate the advantages of wealth — I who have been reared in the gutter, which is Poverty’s cradle. Yet I would fain Charlotte’s fortune had come to her in any other fashion than as the result of my work in the character of a salaried private inquirer.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/birds_of_prey/book6.6.html

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