Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

“In Your Patience Ye are Strong.”

Miss Halliday returned to the gothic villa at Bayswater with a bloom on her cheeks, and a brightness in her eyes, which surpassed her wonted bloom and brightness, fair and bright as her beauty had been from the hour in which she was created to charm mankind. She had been a creature to adore even in the first dawn of infancy, and in her christening-hood and toga of white satin had been a being to dream of. But now she seemed invested all at once with a new loveliness — more spiritual, more pensive, than the old.

Might not Valentine have cried, with the rapturous pride of a lover: “Look at the woman here with the new soul!” and anon: “This new soul is mine!”

It was love that had imparted a new charm to Miss Halliday’s beauty. Diana wondered at the subtle change as her friend sat in her favourite window on the morning after her return, looking dreamily out into the blossomless garden, where evergreens of the darkest and spikiest character stood up stern and straight against the cold gray sky. Diana had welcomed her friend in her usual reserved manner, much to Charlotte’s discomfiture. The girl so yearned for a confidante. She had no idea of hiding her happiness from this chosen friend, and waited eagerly for the moment in which she could put her arms round Diana’s neck and tell her what it was that had made Newhall so sweet to her during this particular visit.

She sat in the window this morning thinking of Valentine, and languishing to speak of him, but at a loss how to begin. There are some people about whose necks the arms of affection can scarce entwine themselves. Diana Paget sat at her eternal embroidery-frame, picking up beads on her needle with the precision of some self-feeding machine. The little glass beads made a hard clicking sound as they dropped from her needle — a very frosty, unpromising sound, as it seemed to Charlotte’s hyper-sensitive ear.

There had been an unwonted reserve between the girls since Charlotte’s return — a reserve which arose, on Miss Halliday’s part, from the contest between girlish shyness and the eager desire for a confidante; and on the part of Miss Paget, from that gloomy discontent which had of late possessed her.

She watched Charlotte furtively as she picked up her beads — watched her wonderingly, unable to comprehend the happiness that gave such spiritual brightness to her eyes. It was no longer the childlike gaiety of heart which had made Miss Halliday’s girlhood so pleasant. It was the thoughtful, serene delight of womanhood.

“She can care very little for Valentine,” Diana thought, “or she could scarcely seem so happy after such a long separation. I doubt if these bewitching women who enchant all the world know what it is to feel deeply. Happiness is a habit with this girl. Valentine’s attentions were very pleasant to her. The pretty little romance was very agreeable while it lasted; but at the first interruption of the story she shuts the book, and thinks of it no more. O, if my Creator had made me like that! If I could forget the days we spent together, and the dream I dreamt!”

That never-to-be-forgotten vision came back to Diana Paget as she sat at her work; and for a few minutes the clicking sound of the beads ceased, while she waited with clasped hands until the shadows should have passed before her eyes. The old dream came back to her like a picture, bright with colour and light. But the airy habitation which she had built for herself of old was no “palace lifting to Italian heavens its marble roof.” It was only a commonplace lodging in a street running out of the Strand, with just a peep of the river from a trim little balcony. An airy second-floor sitting-room, with engraved portraits of the great writers on the newly-papered walls: on one side an office-desk, on the other a work-table. The unpretending shelter of a newspaper hack, who lives à jour la journée, and whose wife must achieve wonders in the way of domestic economy in order to eke out his modest earnings.

This was Diana Paget’s vision of Paradise, and it seemed only the brighter now that she felt it was never to be anything more than a supernal picture painted on her brain.

After sitting silent for some little time, eager to talk, but waiting to be interrogated, Charlotte was fain to break silence.

“You don’t ask me whether I enjoyed myself in Yorkshire, Di,” she said, looking shyly down at the little bunch of charms and lockets which employed her restless fingers.

“Didn’t I, really?” replied Diana, languidly; “I thought that was one of the stereotyped inquiries one always made.”

“I hope you wouldn’t make stereotyped inquiries of me, Diana.”

“No, I ought not to do so. But I think there are times when one is artificial even with one’s best friends. And you are my best friend, Charlotte. I may as well say my only friend,” the girl added, with a laugh.

“Diana,” cried Charlotte, reproachfully, “why do you speak so bitterly? You know how dearly I love you. I do, indeed, dear. There is scarcely anything in this world I would not do for you. But I am not your only friend. There is Mr. Hawkehurst, whom you have known so long.”

Miss Halliday’s face was in a flame; and although she bent very low to examine the golden absurdities hanging on her watch-chain, she could not conceal her blushes from the eyes that were so sharpened by jealousy.

“Mr. Hawkehurst!” cried Diana, with unspeakable contempt. “If I were drowning, do you think he would stretch out his hand to save me while you were within his sight? When he comes to this house — he who has seen so much poverty, and misery, and shame, and — happiness with me and mine — do you think he so much as remembers my existence? Do you think he ever stops to consider whether I am that Diana Paget who was once his friend and confidante and fellow-wayfarer and companion? or only a lay figure dressed up to fill a vacant chair in your drawing-room?”

“Diana!”

“It is all very well to look at me reproachfully, Charlotte. You must know that I am speaking the truth. You talk of friendship. What is that word worth if it does not mean care and thought for another? Do you imagine that Valentine Hawkehurst ever thinks of me, or considers me?”

Charlotte was fain to keep silence. She remembered how very rarely, in those long afternoons at Newhall farm, the name of Diana Paget had been mentioned. She remembered how, when she and Valentine were mapping out the future so pleasantly, she had stopped in the midst of an eloquent bit of word-painting, descriptive of the little suburban cottage they were to live in, to dispose of Diana’s fate in a sentence —

“And dear Di can stop at the villa to take care of mamma,” she had said; whereupon Mr. Hawkehurst had assented, with a careless nod, and the description of the ideal cottage had been continued.

Charlotte remembered this now with extreme contrition. She had been so supremely happy, and so selfish in her happiness.

“O, Di,” she cried, “how selfish happy people are!” And then she stopped in confusion, perceiving that the remark had little relevance to Diana’s last observation.

“Valentine shall be your friend, dear,” she said, after a pause.

“O, you are beginning to answer for him already!” exclaimed Miss Paget, with increasing bitterness.

“Diana, why are you so unkind to me?” Charlotte cried, passionately. “Don’t you see that I am longing to confide in you? What is it that makes you so bitter? You must know how truly I love you. And if Mr. Hawkehurst is not what he once was to you, you must remember how cold and distant you always are in your manner to him. I am sure, to hear you speak to him, and to see you look at him sometimes, one would think he was positively hateful to you. And I want you to like him a little for my sake.”

Miss Halliday left her seat by the window as she said this, and went towards the table by which her friend was sitting. She crept close to Diana, and with a half-frightened, half-caressing movement, seated herself on the low ottoman at her feet, and, seated thus, possessed herself of Miss Paget’s cold hand.

“I want you to like Mr. Hawkehurst a little, Di,” she repeated, “for my sake.”

“Very well, I will try to like him a little — for your sake,” answered Miss Paget, in a very unsympathetic tone.

“O, Di! tell me how it was he offended you.”

“Who told you that he offended me?”

“Your own manner, dear. You could never have been so cold and distant with him — having known him go long, and endured so many troubles in his company — if you had not been deeply offended by him.”

“That is your idea, Charlotte; but, you see, I am very unlike you. I am fitful and capricious. I used to like Mr. Hawkehurst, and now I dislike him. As to offence, his whole life has offended me, just as my father’s life has offended me, from first to last. I am not good and amiable and loving, like you; but I hate deceptions and lies; above all, the lies that some men traffic in day after day.”

“Was Valentine’s — was your father’s life a very bad one?” Charlotte asked, trembling palpably, and looking up at Miss Paget’s face with anxious eyes.

“Yes, it was a mean false life — a life of trick and artifice. I do not know the details of the schemes by which my father and Valentine earned their daily bread — and my daily bread; but I know they inflicted loss upon other people. Whether the wrong done was always done deliberately and consciously upon Valentine’s part, I cannot say. He may have been only a tool of my father’s. I hope he was, for the most part an unconscious tool.”

She said all this in a dreamy way, as if uttering her own thoughts, rather than seeking to enlighten Charlotte.

“I am sure he was an unconscious tool,” cried that young lady, with an air of conviction; “it is not in his nature to do anything false or dishonourable.”

“Indeed! you know him very well, it seems,” said Diana.

Ah, what a tempest was raging in that proud passionate heart! what a strife between the powers of good and evil! Pitying love for Charlotte; tender compassion for her rival’s childlike helplessness; and unutterable sense of her own loss.

She had loved him so dearly, and he was taken from her. There had been a time when he almost loved her — almost! Yes, it was the remembrance of that which made the trial so bitter. The cup had approached her lips, only to be dashed away for ever.

“What did I ask in life except his love?” she said to herself. “Of all the pleasures and triumphs which girls of my age enjoy, is there one that I ever envied? No, I only sighed for his love. To live in a lodging-house parlour with him, to sit by and watch him at his work, to drudge for him, to bear with him — this was my brightest dream of earthly bliss; and she has broken it!”

It was thus Diana argued with herself, as she sat looking down at the bright creature who had done her this worst, last wrong which one woman can do to another. This passionate heart, which ached with such cruel pain, was prone to evil, and to-day the scorpion Jealousy was digging his sharp tooth into its very core. It was not possible for Diana Paget to feel kindly disposed towards the girl whose unconscious hand had shattered the airy castle of her dreams. Was it not a hard thing that the bright creature, whom every one was ready to adore, must needs steal away this one heart?

“It has always been like this,” thought Diana. “The story of David and Nathan is a parable that is perpetually being illustrated. David is so rich — he is lord of incalculable flocks and herds; but he will not be content till he has stolen the one little ewe lamb, the poor man’s pet and darling.”

“Diana,” said Miss Halliday very softly, “you are so difficult to talk to this morning, and I have so much to say to you.”

“About your visit, or about Mr. Hawkehurst?”

“About — Yorkshire,” answered Charlotte, with the air of a shy child who has made her appearance at dessert, and is asked whether she will have a pear or a peach.

“About Yorkshire!” repeated Miss Paget, with a little sigh of relief. “I shall be very glad to hear about your Yorkshire friends. Was the visit a pleasant one?”

“Very, very pleasant!” answered Charlotte, dwelling tenderly on the words.

“How sentimental you have grown, Lotta! I think you must have found a forgotten shelf of Minerva Press novels in some cupboard at your aunt’s. You have lost all your vivacity.”

“Have I?” murmured Charlotte; “and yet I am happier than I was when I went away. Whom do you think I met at Newhall, Di?”

“I have not the slightest idea. My notions of Yorkshire are very vague. I fancy the people amiable savages; just a little in advance of the ancient Britons whom Julius Caesar came over to conquer. Whom did you meet there? Some country squire, I suppose, who fell in love with your bright eyes, and wished you to waste the rest of your existence in those northern wilds.”

Miss Paget was not a woman to bare her wounds for the scrutiny of the friendliest eyes. Let the tooth of the serpent bite never so keenly, she could meet her sorrows with a bold front. Was she not accustomed to suffer — she, the scapegoat of defrauded nurses and indignant landladies, the dependent and drudge of her kinswoman’s gynaeceum, the despised of her father? The flavour of these waters was very familiar to her lips. The draught was only a little more acrid, a little deeper, and habit had enabled her to drain the cup without complaining, if not in a spirit of resignation. To-day she had been betrayed into a brief outbreak of passion; but the storm had passed, and a more observant person than Charlotte might have been deceived by her manner.

“Now you are my own Di again,” cried Miss Halliday; somewhat cynical at the best of times, but always candid and true.

Miss Paget winced ever so little as her friend said this.

“No, dear,” continued Charlotte, with the faintest spice of coquetry; “it was not a Yorkshire squire. It was a person you know very well; a person we have been talking of this morning. O, Di, you must surely have understood me when I said I wanted you to like him for my sake!”

“Valentine Hawkehurst!” exclaimed Diana.

“Who else, you dear obtuse Di!”

“He was in Yorkshire?”

“Yes, dear. It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened. He marched up to Newhall gate one morning in the course of his rambles, without having the least idea that I was to be found in the neighbourhood. Wasn’t it wonderful?”

“What could have taken him to Yorkshire?”

“He came on business.”

“But what business?”

“How do I know? Some business of papa’s, or of George Sheldon’s, perhaps. And yet that can’t be. He is writing a book, I think, about geology or archaeology — yes, that’s it, archaeology.”

“Valentine Hawkehurst writing a book on archaeology!” cried Miss Paget. “You must be dreaming, Charlotte.”

“Why so? He does write, does he not?”

“He has been reporter for a newspaper. But he is the last person to write about archaeology. I think there must be some mistake.”

“Well, dear, it may be so. I didn’t pay much attention to what he said about business. It seemed so strange for him to be there, just as much at home as if he had been one of the family. O, Di, you can’t imagine how kind aunt Dorothy and uncle Joe were to him! They like him so muchy — and they know we are engaged.”

Miss Halliday said these last words almost in a whisper.

“What!” exclaimed Diana, “do you mean to say that you have promised to marry this man, of whom you know nothing but what is unfavourable?”

“What do I know in his disfavour? Ah, Diana, how unkind you are! and what a dislike you must have for poor Valentine! Of course, I know he is not what people call a good match. A good match means that one is to have a pair of horses, whose health is so uncertain that I am sure their lives must be a burden to them, if we may judge by our horses; and a great many servants, who are always conducting themselves in the most awful manner, if poor mamma’s experience is any criterion; and a big expensive house, which nobody can be prevailed on to dust. No, Di! that is just the kind of life I hate. What I should like is a dear little cottage at Highgate or Wimbledon, and a tiny, tiny garden, in which Valentine and I could walk every morning before he began his day’s work, and where we could drink tea together on summer evenings — a garden just large enough to grow a few rose-bushes. O. Di! do you think I want to marry a rich man?”

“No, Charlotte; but I should think you would like to marry a good man.”

“Valentine is good. No one but a good man could have been so happy as he seemed at Newhall farm. That simple country life could not have been happiness for a bad man.”

“And was Valentine Hawkehurst really happy at Newhall?”

“Really — really — really! Don’t try to shake my faith in him, Diana; it is not to be shaken. He has told me a little about the past, though I can see that it pains him very much to speak of it. He has told me of his friendless youth, spent amongst unprincipled people, and what a mere waif and stray he was until he met me. And I am to be his pole-star, dear, to guide him in the right path. Do you know, Di, I cannot picture to myself anything sweeter than that — to be a good influence for the person one loves. Valentine says his whole nature has undergone a change since he has known me. What am I that I should work so good a change in my dear one? It is very foolish, is it not, Di?”

“Yes, Charlotte,” replied the voice of reason from the lips of Miss Paget; “it is all foolishness from beginning to end, and I can foresee nothing but trouble as the result of such folly. What will your mamma say to such an engagement? or what will Mr. Sheldon say?”

“Yes, that is the question,” returned Charlotte, very seriously. “Dear mamma is one of the kindest creatures in the world, and I’m sure she would consent to anything rather than see me unhappy. And then, you know, she likes Valentine very much, because he has given her orders for the theatres, and all that kind of thing. But, whatever mamma thinks, she will be governed by what Mr. Sheldon thinks; and of course he will be against our marriage.”

“Our marriage!” It was a settled matter, then — a thing that was to be sooner or later; and there remained only the question as to how and when it was to be. Diana sat like a statue, enduring her pain. So may have suffered the Christian martyrs in their death-agony; so suffers a woman when the one dear hope of her life is reft from her, and she dare not cry aloud.

“Mr. Sheldon is the last man in the world to permit such a marriage,” she said presently.

“Perhaps,” replied Charlotte; “but I am not going to sacrifice Valentine for Mr. Sheldon’s pleasure. Mr. Sheldon has full power over mamma and her fortune, but he has no real authority where I am concerned. I am as free as air, Diana, and I have not a penny in the world. Is not that delightful?”

The girl asked this question in all good faith, looking up at her friend with a radiant countenance. What irony there was in the question for Diana Paget, whose whole existence had been poisoned by the lack of that sterling coin of the realm which seemed such sordid dross in the eyes of Charlotte!

“What do you mean, Charlotte?”

“I mean, that even his worst enemies cannot accuse Valentine of any mercenary feeling. He does not ask me to marry him for the sake of my fortune.”

“Does he know your real position?”

“Most fully. And now, Diana, tell me that you will try to like him, for my sake, and that you will be kind, and will speak a good word for me to mamma by-and-by, when I have told her all.”

“When do you mean to tell her?”

“Directly — or almost directly. I scarcely know how to set about it. I am sure it has been hard enough to tell you.”

“My poor Charlotte! What an ungrateful wretch I must be!”

“My dear Diana, you have no reason to be grateful. I love you very dearly, and I could not live in this house without you. It is I who have reason to be grateful, when I remember how you bear with mamma’s fidgety ways, and with Mr. Sheldon’s gloomy temper, and all for love of me.”

“Yes, Lotta, for love of you,” Miss Paget answered, with a sigh; “and I will do more than that for love of you.”

She had her arm round her happy rival’s beautiful head, and she was looking down at the sweet upturned face with supreme tenderness. She felt no anger against this fair enslaver, who had robbed her of her little lamb. She only felt some touch of anger against the Providence which had decreed that the lamb should be so taken.

No suspicion of her friend’s secret entered Charlotte Halliday’s mind. In all their intercourse Diana had spoken very little of Valentine; and in the little she had said there had been always the same half-bitter, half-disdainful tone. Charlotte, in her simple candour, accepted this tone as the evidence of Miss Paget’s aversion to her father’s protégé.

“Poor Di does not like to see her father give so much of his friendship to a stranger while she is neglected,” thought Miss Halliday; and having once jumped at this conclusion, she made no further effort to penetrate the mysteries of Diana’s mind.

She was less than ever inclined to speculation about Diana’s feelings now that she was in love, and blest with the sweet consciousness that her love was returned. Tender and affectionate as she was, she could not quite escape that taint of egotism which is the ruling vice of fortunate lovers. Her mind was not wide enough to hold much more than one image, which demanded so large a space.

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