Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Mrs. Sheldon Accepts Her Destiny.

Miss Halliday had an interview with her mother that evening in Mrs. Sheldon’s dressing-room, while that lady was preparing for rest, with considerable elaboration of detail in the way of hair-brushing, and putting away of neck-ribbons and collars and trinkets in smart little boxes and handy little drawers, all more or less odorous from the presence of dainty satin-covered sachets. The sachets, and the drawers, and boxes, and trinkets were Mrs. Sheldon’s best anchorage in this world. Such things as these were the things that made life worth endurance for this poor weak little woman; and they were more real to her than her daughter, because more easy to realise. The beautiful light-hearted girl was a being whose existence had been always something of a problem for Georgina Sheldon. She loved her after her own feeble fashion, and would have jealously asserted her superiority over every other daughter in the universe; but the power to understand her or to sympathise with her had not been given to that narrow mind. The only way in which Mrs. Sheldon’s affection showed itself was unquestioning indulgence and the bestowal of frivolous gifts, chosen with no special regard to Charlotte’s requirements, but rather because they happened to catch Mrs. Sheldon’s eye as they glittered or sparkled in the windows of Bayswater repositories.

Mr. Sheldon happened to be dining out on this particular evening. He was a guest at a great City feast, to which some of the richest men upon ‘Change had been bidden; so Miss Halliday had an excellent opportunity for making her confession.

Poor Georgy was not a little startled by the avowal.

“My darling Lotta!” she screamed, “do you think your papa would ever consent to such a thing?”

“I think my dear father would have consented to anything likely to secure my happiness, mamma,” the girl answered sadly.

She was thinking how different this crisis in her life would have seemed if the father she had loved so dearly had been spared to counsel her.

“I was not thinking of my poor dear first husband,” said Georgy. This numbering of her husbands was always unpleasant to Charlotte. It seemed such a very business-like mode of description to be applied to the father she so deeply regretted. “I was thinking of your step-papa,” continued Mrs. Sheldon.

“He would never consent to your marrying Mr. Hawkehurst, who really seems to have nothing to recommend him except his good looks and an obliging disposition with regard to orders for the theatres.”

“I am not bound to consult my stepfather’s wishes. I only want to please you, mamma.”

“But, my dear, I cannot possibly consent to anything that Mr. Sheldon disapproves.”

“O, mamma, dear kind mamma, do have an opinion of your own for once in a way! I daresay Mr. Sheldon is the best possible judge of everything connected with the Stock Exchange and the money-market; but don’t let him choose a husband for me. Let me have your approval, mamma, and I care for no one else. I don’t want to marry against your will. But I am sure you like Mr. Hawkehurst.”

Mrs. Sheldon shook her head despondingly.

“It’s all very well to like an agreeable young man as an occasional visitor,” she said, “especially when most of one’s visitors are middle-aged City people. But it is a very different thing when one’s only daughter talks of marrying him. I can’t imagine what can have put such an idea as marriage into your head. It is only a few months since you came home from school; and I fancied that you would have stopped with me for years before you thought of settling.”

Miss Halliday made a wry face.

“Dear mamma,” she said, “I don’t want to ‘settle.’ That is what one’s housemaid says, isn’t it, when she talks of leaving service and marrying some young man from the baker’s or the grocer’s? Valentine and I are not in a hurry to be married. I am sure, for my own part, I don’t care how long our engagement lasts. I only wish to be quite candid and truthful with you, mamma; and I thought it a kind of duty to tell you that he loves me, and that — I love him — very dearly.”

These last words were spoken with extreme shyness.

Mrs. Sheldon laid down her hair-brushes while she contemplated her daughter’s blushing face. Those blushes had become quite a chronic affection with Miss Halliday of late.

“But, good gracious me, Charlotte,” she exclaimed, growing peevish in her sense of helplessness, “who is to tell Mr. Sheldon?”

“There is no necessity for Mr. Sheldon to be enlightened yet awhile, mamma. It is to you I owe duty and obedience — not to him. Pray keep my secret, kindest and most indulgent of mothers, and — and ask Valentine to come and see you now and then.”

“Ask him to come and see me, Charlotte! You must know very well that I never invite any one to dinner except at Mr. Sheldon’s wish. I am sure I quite tremble at the idea of a dinner. There is such trouble about the waiting, and such dreadful uncertainty about the cooking. And if one has it all done by Birch’s people, one’s cook gives warning next morning,” added poor Georgy, with a dismal recollection of recent perplexities. “I am sure I often wish myself young again, in the dairy at Hyley farm, making matrimony cakes for a tea-party, with a ring and a fourpenny-piece hidden in the middle. I’m sure the Hyley tea-parties were pleasanter than Mr. Sheldon’s dinners, with those solemn City people, who can’t exist without clear turtle and red mullet.”

“Ah, mother dear, our lives were altogether happier in those days. I delight in the Yorkshire tea-parties, and the matrimony cakes, and all the talk and laughter about the fourpenny-piece and the ring. I remember getting the fourpenny-piece at Newhall last year. And that means that one is to die an old maid, you know. And now I am engaged. As to the dinners, mamma, Mr. Sheldon may keep them all for himself and his City friends. Valentine is the last person in the world to care for clear turtle. If you will let him drop in sometimes of an afternoon — say once a week or so — when you, and I, and Diana are sitting at our work in the drawing-room, and if you will let him hand us our cups at our five-o’clock tea, he will be the happiest of men. He adores tea. You’ll let him come, won’t you, dear? O, mamma, I feel just like a servant who asks to be allowed to see her ‘young man.’ Will you let my ‘young man’ come to tea once in a way?”

“Well, Charlotte, I’m sure I don’t know,” said Mrs. Sheldon, with increasing helplessness. “It’s really a very dreadful position for me to be placed in.”

“Quite appalling, is it not, mamma? But then I suppose it is a position that people afflicted with daughters must come to sooner or later.”

“If it were the mere civility of asking him to tea,” pursued poor Georgy, heedless of this flippant interruption, “I’m sure I should be the last to make any objection. Indeed, I am under a kind of obligation to Mr. Hawkehurst, for his polite attention has enabled us to go to the theatres very often when your papa would not have thought of buying tickets. But then, you see, Lotta, the question in point is not his coming to our five-o’clock tea — which seems really a perfect mockery to any one brought up in Yorkshire — but whether you are to be engaged to him.”

“Dear mamma, that is not a question at all, for I am already engaged to him.”

“But, Charlotte —”

“I do not think I could bring myself to disobey you, dear mother,” continued the girl tenderly; “and if you tell me, of your own free will, and acting on your conviction, that I am not to marry him, I must bow my head to your decision, however hard it may seem. But one thing is quite certain, mamma: I have given my promise to Valentine; and if I do not marry him, I shall never marry at all; and then the dreadful augury of the fourpenny-piece will be verified.”

Miss Halliday pronounced this determination with a decision of manner that quite overawed her mother. It had been the habit of Georgy’s mind to make a feeble protest against all the mutations of life, but in the end to submit very quietly to the inevitable; and since Valentine Hawkehurst’s acceptance as Charlotte’s future husband seemed inevitable, she was fain to submit in this instance also.

Valentine was allowed to call at the Lawn, and was received with a feeble, half-plaintive graciousness by the lady of the house. He was invited to stop for the five-o’clock tea, and availed himself rapturously of this delightful privilege. His instinct told him what gentle hand had made the meal so dainty and home-like, and for whose pleasure the phantasmal pieces of bread-and-butter usually supplied by the trim parlour-maid had given place to a salver loaded with innocent delicacies in the way of pound-cake and apricot jam.

Mr. Hawkehurst did his uttermost to deserve so much indulgence. He scoured London in search of free admissions for the theatres, hunting “Ragamuffins” and members of the Cibber Club, and other privileged creatures, at all their places of resort. He watched for the advent of novels adapted to Georgy’s capacity — lively records of croquêt and dressing and love-making, from smart young Amazons in the literary ranks, or deeply interesting romances of the sensation school, with at least nine deaths in the three volumes, and a comic housemaid, or a contumacious “Buttons,” to relieve the gloom by their playful waggeries. He read Tennyson or Owen Meredith, or carefully selected “bits” from the works of a younger and wilder bard, while the ladies worked industriously at their prie-dieu chairs, or Berlin brioches, or Shetland couvrepieds, as the case might be. The patroness of a fancy fair would scarcely have smiled approvingly on the novel effects in crochet à tricoter produced by Miss Halliday during these pleasant lectures.

“The rows will come wrong,” she said piteously, “and Tennyson’s poetry is so very absorbing!”

Mr. Hawkehurst showed himself to be possessed of honourable, not to say delicate, feelings in his new position. The gothic villa was his paradise, and the gates had been freely opened to admit him whensoever he chose to come. Georgy was just the sort of person from whom people take ells after having asked for inches; and once having admitted Mr. Hawkehurst as a privileged guest, she would have found it very difficult to place any restriction upon the number of his visits. Happily for this much-perplexed matron, Charlotte and her lover were strictly honourable. Mr. Hawkehurst never made his appearance at the villa more than once in the same week, though the “once a week or so” asked for by Charlotte might have been stretched to a wider significance.

When Valentine obtained orders for the theatre, he sent them by post, scrupulously refraining from making them the excuse for a visit.

“That was all very well when I was a freebooter,” he said to himself, “only admitted on sufferance, and liable to have the door shut in my face any morning. But I am trusted now, and I must prove myself worthy of my future mother-in-law’s confidence. Once a week! One seventh day of unspeakable happiness — bliss without alloy! The six other days are very long and dreary. But then they are only the lustreless setting in which that jewel the seventh shines so gloriously. Now, if I were Waller, what verses I would sing about my love! Alas, I am only a commonplace young man, and can find no new words in which to tell the old sweet story!”

If the orders for stalls and private boxes were not allowed to serve as an excuse for visits, they at least necessitated the writing of letters; and no human being, except a lover, would have been able to understand why such long letters must needs be written about such a very small business. The letters secured replies; and when the order sent was for a box, Mr. Hawkehurst was generally invited to occupy a seat in it. Ah, what did it matter on those happy nights how hackneyed the plot of the play, how bald the dialogue, how indifferent the acting! It was all alike delightful to those two spectators: for a light that shone neither on earth nor sky brightened everything they looked on when they sat side by side.

And during all these pleasant afternoons at the villa, or evenings at the theatre, Diana Paget had to sit by and witness the happiness which she had dreamed might some day be hers. It was a part of her duty to be present on these occasions, and she performed that duty punctiliously. She might have made excuses for absenting herself, but she was too proud to make any such excuses.

“Am I such a coward as to tell a lie in order to avoid a little pain more or less? If I say I have a headache, and stay in my own room while he is here, will the afternoon seem any more pleasant or any shorter to me? The utmost difference would be the difference between a dull pain and a sharp pain; and I think the sharper agony is easier to bear.” Having argued with herself thus, Miss Paget endured her weekly martyrdom with Spartan fortitude.

“What have I lost?” she said to herself, as she stole a furtive glance now and then at the familiar face of her old companion. “What is this treasure, the loss of which makes me seem to myself such an abject wretch? Only the love of a man who at his best is not worthy of this girl’s pure affection, and at his worst must have been unworthy even of mine. But then at his worst he is dearer to me than the best man who ever lived upon this earth.”

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