Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

Mr. Hawkehurst and Mr. George Sheldon Come to an Understanding.

There was no such thing as idleness for Valentine Hawkehurst during these happy days of his courtship. The world was his oyster, and that oyster was yet unopened. For some years he had been hacking and hewing the shell thereof with the sword of the freebooter, to very little advantageous effect. He now set himself seriously to work with the pickaxe of the steady-going labourer. He was a secessionist from the great army of adventurers. He wanted to enrol himself in the ranks of the respectable, the plodders, the ratepayers, the simple citizens who love their wives and children, and go to their parish church on Sundays. He had an incentive to steady industry, which had hitherto been wanting in his life. He was beloved, and any shame that came to him would be a still more bitter humiliation for the woman who loved him.

He felt that the very first step in the difficult path of respectability would be a step that must separate him from Captain Paget; but just now separation from that gentleman seemed scarcely advisable. If there was any mischief in that Ullerton expedition, any collusion between the Captain and the Reverend Goodge, it would assuredly be well for Valentine to continue a mode of life which enabled him to be tolerably well informed as to the movements of the slippery Horatio. In all the outside positions of life expedience must ever be the governing principle, and expedience forbade any immediate break with Captain Paget.

“Whatever you do, keep your eye upon the Captain,” said George Sheldon, in one of many interviews, all bearing upon the Haygarth succession. “If there is any underhand work going on between him and Philip, you must be uncommonly slow of perception if you can’t ferret it out. I’m very sorry you met Charlotte Halliday in the north, for of course Phil must have heard of your appearance in Yorkshire, and that will set him wondering at any rate, especially as lie will no doubt have heard the Dorking story from Paget. He pretended he saw you leave town the day you went to Ullerton, but I am half inclined to believe that was only a trap.”

“I don’t think Mr. Sheldon has heard of my appearance in Yorkshire yet.”

“Indeed! Miss Charlotte doesn’t care to make a confidant of her stepfather, I suppose. Keep her in that mind, Hawkehurst. If you play your cards well, you ought to be able to get her to marry you on the quiet.” “I don’t think that would be possible. In fact, I am sure Charlotte would not marry without her mother’s consent,” answered Valentine, thoughtfully.

“And of course that means my brother Philip’s consent,” exclaimed George Sheldon, with contemptuous impatience. “What a slow, bungling fellow you are, Hawkehurst! Here is an immense fortune waiting for you, and a pretty girl in love with you, and you dawdle and deliberate as if you were going to the dentist’s to have a tooth drawn. You’ve fallen into a position that any man in London might envy, and you don’t seem to have the smallest capability of appreciating your good luck.”

“Well, perhaps I am rather slow to realise the idea of my good fortune,” answered Valentine, still very thoughtfully. “You see, in the first place, I can’t get over a shadowy kind of feeling with regard to that Haygarthian fortune. It is too far away from my grasp, too large, too much of the stuff that dreams and novels are made of. And, in the second place, I love Miss Halliday so fondly and so truly that I don’t like the notion of making my marriage with her any part of the bargain between you and me.”

Mr. Sheldon contemplated his confederate with unmitigated disdain. “Don’t try that sort of thing with me, Hawkehurst,” he said; “that sentimental dodge may answer very well with some men, but I’m about the last to be taken in by it. You are playing fast-and-loose with me, and you want to throw me over — as my brother Phil would throw me over, if he got the chance.”

“I am not playing fast-and-loose with you,” replied Valentine, too disdainful of Mr. Sheldon for indignation. “I have worked for you faithfully, and kept your secret honourably, when I had every temptation to reveal it. You drove your bargain with me, and I have performed my share of the bargain to the letter. But if you think I am going to drive a bargain with you about my marriage with Miss Halliday, you are very much mistaken. That lady will marry me when she pleases, but she shall not be entrapped into a clandestine marriage for your convenience.” “O, that’s your ultimatum, is it, Mr. Joseph Surface?” said the lawyer, biting his nails fiercely, and looking askant at his ally, with angry eyes. “I wonder you don’t wind up by saying that the man who could trade upon a virtuous woman’s affection for the advancement of his fortune, deserves to — get it hot, as our modern slang has it. Then I am to understand that you decline to precipitate matters?”

“I most certainly do.”

“And the Haygarth business is to remain in abeyance while Miss Halliday goes through the tedious formula of a sentimental courtship?”

“I suppose so.”

“Humph! that’s pleasant for me.”

“Why should you make the advancement of Miss Halliday’s claims contingent on her marriage? Why not assert her rights at once?”

“Because I will not trust my brother Philip. The day that you show me the certificate of your marriage with Charlotte Halliday is the day on which I shall make my first move in this business. I told you the other day that I would rather make a bargain with you than with my brother.”

“And what kind of bargain do you expect to make with me when Miss Halliday is my wife?”

“I’ll tell you, Valentine Hawkehurst,” replied the lawyer, squaring his elbows upon his desk in his favourite attitude, and looking across the table at his coadjutor; “I like to be open and above-board when I can, and I’ll be plain with you in this matter. I want a clear half of John Haygarth’s fortune, and I think that I’ve a very fair claim to that amount. The money can only be obtained by means of the documents in my possession, and but for me that money might have remained till doomsday unclaimed and unthought of by the descendant of Matthew Haygarth. Look at it which way you will, I think you’ll allow that my demand is a just one.”

“I don’t say that it is unjust, though it certainly seems a little extortionate,” replied Valentine. “However, if Charlotte were my wife, and were willing to cede half the fortune, I’m not the man to dispute the amount of your reward. When the time comes for bargain-driving, you’ll not find me a difficult person to deal with.

“And when may I expect your marriage with Miss Halliday?” asked George Sheldon, rapping his hard finger-nails upon the table with suppressed impatience. “Since you elect to conduct matters in the grand style, and must wait for mamma’s consent and papa’s consent, and goodness knows what else in the way of absurdity, I suppose the delay will be for an indefinite space of time.” “I don’t know about that. I’m not likely to put off the hour in which I shall call that dear girl my own. I asked her to be my wife before I knew that she had the blood of Matthew Haygarth in her veins, and the knowledge of her claim to this fortune does not make her one whit the dearer to me, penniless adventurer as I am. If poetry were at all in your line, Mr. Sheldon, you might know that a man’s love for a good woman is generally better than himself. He may be a knave and a scoundrel, and yet his love for that one perfect creature may be almost as pure and perfect as herself. That’s a psychological mystery out of the way of Gray’s Inn, isn’t it?”

“If you’ll oblige me by talking common sense for about five minutes, you may devote your powerful intellect to the consideration of psychological mysteries for a month at a stretch,” exclaimed the aggravated lawyer.

“O, don’t you see how I struggle to be hard-headed and practical!” cried Valentine; “but a man who is over head and ears in love finds it rather hard to bring all his ideas to the one infallible grindstone. You ask me when I am to marry Charlotte Halliday. To-morrow, if our Fates smile upon us. Mrs. Sheldon knows of our engagement, and consents to it, but in some manner under protest. I am not to take my dear girl away from her mother for some time to come. The engagement is to be a long one. In the mean time I am working hard to gain some kind of position in literature, for I want to be sure of an income before I marry, without reference to John Haygarth; and I am a privileged guest at the villa.”

“But my brother Phil has been told nothing?”

“As yet nothing. My visits are paid while he is in the City; and as I often went to the villa before my engagement, he is not likely to suspect anything when he happens to hear my name mentioned as a visitor.”

“And do you really think he is in the dark — my brother Philip, who can turn a man’s brains inside out in half an hour’s conversation? Mark my words, Valentine Hawkehurst, that man is only playing with you as a cat plays with a mouse. He used to see you and Charlotte together before you went to Yorkshire, and he must have seen the state of the case quite as plainly as I saw it. He has heard of your visits to the villa since your return, and has kept a close account of them, and made his own deductions, depend upon it. And some day, while you and pretty Miss Charlotte are enjoying your fool’s paradise, he will pounce upon you just as puss pounces on poor mousy.”

This was rather alarming, and Valentine felt that it was very likely to be correct.

“Mr. Sheldon may play the part of puss as he pleases,” he replied after a brief pause for deliberation; “this is a case in which he dare not show his claws. He has no authority to control Miss Halliday’s actions.”

“Perhaps not, but he would find means for preventing her marriage if it was to his interest to do so. He is not your brother, you see, Mr. Hawkehurst; but he is mine, and I know a good deal about him. His interest may not be concerned in hindering his stepdaughter’s marriage with a penniless scapegrace. He may possibly prefer such a bridegroom as less likely to make himself obnoxious by putting awkward questions about poor Tom Halliday’s money, every sixpence of which he means to keep, of course. If his cards are packed for that kind of marriage, he’ll welcome you to his arms as a son-in-law, and give you his benediction as well as his stepdaughter. So I think if you can contrive to inform him of your engagement, without letting him know of your visit to Yorkshire, it might be a stroke of diplomacy. He might be glad to get rid of the girl, and might hasten on the marriage of his own volition.”

“He might be glad to get rid of the girl.” In the ears of Valentine Hawkehurst this sounded rank blasphemy. Could there be any one upon this earth, even a Sheldon, incapable of appreciating the privilege of that divine creature’s presence?

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