Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Mr. Sheldon is Propitious

It was not very long before Valentine Hawkehurst had reason to respect the wisdom of his legal patron. Within a few days of his interview with George Sheldon he paid his weekly visit to the villa. Things were going very well with him, and life altogether seemed brighter than he had ever hoped to find it. He had set himself steadily to work to win some kind of position in literature. He devoted his days to diligent study in the reading-room of the British Museum, his nights to writing for the magazines. His acquaintance with press-men had stood him in good stead; and already he had secured the prompt acceptance of his work in more than one direction. The young littérateur of the present day has not such a very hard fight for a livelihood, if his pen has only a certain lightness and dash, a rattling vivacity and airy grace. It is only the marvellous boys who come to London with epic poems, Anglo–Saxon tragedies, or metaphysical treatises in their portmanteaus, who must needs perish in their prime, or stoop to the drudgery of office or counting-house.

Valentine Hawkehurst had no vague yearnings after the fame of a Milton, no inner consciousness that he had been born to stamp out the footprints of Shakespeare on the sands of time, no unhealthy hungering after the gloomy grandeur of Byron. He had been brought up amongst people who treated literature as a trade as well as an art; — and what art is not more or less a trade? He knew the state of the market, and what kind of goods were likely to go off briskly, and it was for the market he worked. When gray shirtings were in active demand, he set his loom for gray shirtings; and when the buyers clamoured for fancy goods, he made haste to produce that class of fabrics. In this he proved himself a very low-minded and ignominious creature, no doubt; but was not one Oliver Goldsmith glad to take any order which good Mr. Newberry might give him, only writing the “Traveller” and the story of Parson Primrose pour se distraire?

Love lent wings to the young essayist’s pen. It is to be feared that in roving among those shelves in Great Russell-street he showed himself something of a freebooter, taking his “bien” wherever it was to be found; but did not Molière frankly acknowledge the same practice? Mr. Hawkehurst wrote about anything and everything. His brain must needs be a gigantic storehouse of information, thought the respectful reader. He skipped from Pericles to Cromwell, from Cleopatra to Mary Stuart, from Sappho to Madame de Sablé; and he wrote of these departed spirits with such a charming impertinence, with such a delicious affectation of intimacy, that one would have thought he had sat by Cleopatra as she melted her pearls, and stood amongst the audience of Pericles when he pronounced his funeral oration. “With the De Sablé and the Chevreuse, Ninon and Marion, Maintenon and La Vallière, Anne of Austria and the great Mademoiselle of France, he seemed to have lived in daily companionship, so amply did he expatiate upon the smallest details of their existences, so tenderly did he dwell on their vanished beauties, their unforgotten graces.”

The work was light and pleasant; and the monthly cheques from the proprietors of a couple of rival periodicals promised, to amount to the income which the adventurer had sighed for as he trod the Yorkshire moorland. He had asked Destiny to give him Charlotte Halliday and three hundred a year, and lo! while yet the wish was new, both these blessings seemed within his grasp. It could scarcely be a matter for repining it the Fates should choose to throw in an odd fifty thousand pounds or so.

But was not all this something too much of happiness for a man whose feet had trodden in evil ways? Were not the Fates mocking this travel-stained wayfarer with bright glimpses of a paradise whose gates he was never to pass?

This was the question which Valentine Hawkehurst was fain to ask himself sometimes; this doubt was the shadow which sometimes made a sudden darkness that obscured the sunshine.

Happily for Charlotte’s true lover, the shadow did not often come between him and the light of those dear eyes which were his pole-stars.

The December days were shortening as the year drew to its close, and afternoon tea seemed more than ever delightful to Charlotte and her betrothed, now that it could be enjoyed in the mysterious half light; a glimmer of chill gray day looking coldly in at the unshrouded window like some ghostly watcher envying these mortals their happiness, and the red glow of the low fire reflected upon every curve and facet of the shining steel grate.

To sit by the fire at five o’clock in the afternoon, watching the changeful light upon Charlotte’s face, the rosy glow that seemed to linger caressingly on broad low brow and sweet ripe lips, the deep shadows that darkened eyes and hair, was bliss unspeakable for Mr. Hawkehurst. The lovers talked the prettiest nonsense to each other, while Mrs. Sheldon dozed placidly behind the friendly shelter of a banner-screen hooked on to the chimney-piece, or conversed with Diana in a monotonous undertone, solemnly debating the relative wisdom of dyeing or turning in relation to a faded silk dress.

Upon one special evening Valentine lingered just a little longer than usual. Christmas was near at hand, and the young man had brought his liege lady tribute in the shape of a bundle of Christmas literature. Tennyson had been laid aside in favour of the genial Christmas fare, which had the one fault, that it came a fortnight before the jovial season, and in a manner fore-stalled the delights of that time-honoured period, making the season itself seem flat and dull, and turkey and plum-pudding the stalest commodities in the world when they did come. How, indeed, can a man do full justice to his aunt Tabitha’s plum-pudding, or his uncle Joe’s renowned rum-punch, if he has quaffed the steaming-bowl with the “Seven Poor Travellers,” or eaten his Christmas dinner at the “Kiddleawink” a fortnight beforehand? Are not the chief pleasures of life joys as perishable as the bloom on a peach or the freshness of a rose?

Valentine had read the ghastliest of ghost-stories, and the most humorous of word-pictures, for the benefit of the audience in Mrs. Sheldon’s drawing-room; and now, after tea, they sat by the fire talking of the ghost-story, and discussing that unanswerable question about the possibility of such spiritual appearances, which seems to have been debated ever since the world began.

“Dr. Johnson believed in ghosts,” said Valentine.

“O, please spare us Dr. Johnson,” cried Charlotte, with seriocomic intensity. “What is it that obliges magazine-writers to be perpetually talking about Dr. Johnson? If they must dig up persons from the past, why can’t they dig up newer persons than that poor ill-used doctor?”

The door opened with a hoarse groan, and Mr. Sheldon came into the room while Miss Halliday was making her playful protest. She stopped, somewhat confused by that sudden entrance.

There is a statue of the Commandant in every house, at whose coming hearts grow cold and lips are suddenly silent. It was the first time that the master of the villa had interrupted one of these friendly afternoon teas, and Mrs. Sheldon and her daughter felt that a domestic crisis was at hand.

“How’s this?” cried the stockbroker’s strong hard voice; “you seem all in the dark.”

He took a wax-match from a little gilt stand on the mantelpiece and lighted two flaring lamps. He was the sort of man who is always eager to light the gas when people are sitting in the gloaming, meditative and poetical. He let the broad glare of common sense in upon their foolish musings, and scared away Robin Goodfellow and the fairies by means of the Western Gaslight Company’s illuminating medium.

The light of those two flaring jets of gas revealed Charlotte Halliday looking shyly at the roses on the carpet, and trifling nervously with one of the show-books on the table. The same light revealed Valentine Hawkehurst standing by the young lady’s chair, and looking at Mr. Sheldon with a boldness of countenance that was almost defiance. Poor Georgy’s face peered out from behind her favourite banner-screen, looking from one to the other in evident alarm. Diana sat in her accustomed corner, watchful, expectant, awaiting the domestic storm.

To the surprise of every one except Mr. Sheldon, there was no storm, not even the lightest breeze that ever blew in domestic hemispheres. The stockbroker saluted his stepdaughter with a friendly nod, and greeted her lover with a significant grin.

“How d’ye do, Hawkehurst?” he said, in his pleasantest manner. “It’s an age since I’ve seen you. You’re going in for literature, I hear; and a very good thing too, if you can make it pay. I understand there are some fellows who really do make that sort of thing pay. Seen my brother George lately? Yes, I suppose you and George are quite a Damon and What’s-his-name. You’re going to dine here to-night, of course? I suppose we may go in to dinner at once, eh, Georgy? — it’s half-past six.”

Mr. Hawkehurst made some faint pretence of having a particular engagement elsewhere; for, supposing Sheldon to be unconscious, he scorned to profit by that gentleman’s ignorance. And then, having faltered his refusal, he looked at Charlotte, and Charlotte’s eyes cried “Stay,” as plainly as such lovely eyes can speak. So the end of it was, that he stayed and partook of the Sheldonian crimped skate, and the Sheldonian roast-beef and tapioca-pudding, and tasted some especial Moselle, which, out of the kindliness of his nature, Mr. Sheldon opened for his stepdaughter’s betrothed.

After dinner there were oranges and crisp uncompromising biscuits, that made an explosive noise like the breaking of windows whenever any one ventured to tamper with them; item, a decanter of sherry in a silver stand; item, a decanter of port, which Mr. Sheldon declared to be something almost too good to be drunk, and to the merits of which Valentine was supremely indifferent. The young man would fain have followed his delight when she accompanied her mamma and Diana to the drawing-room; but Mr. Sheldon detained him.

“I want a few words with you, Hawkehurst,” he said; and Charlotte’s cheeks flamed red as peonies at sound of this alarming sentence. “You shall go after the ladies presently, and they shall torture that poor little piano to their hearts’ delight for your edification. I won’t detain you many minutes. You had really better try that port.”

Valentine closed the door upon the departing ladies, and went back to his seat very submissively. If there were any battle to be fought out between him and Philip Sheldon, the sooner the trumpet sounded to arms the better.

“His remarkable civility almost inclines me to think that he does really want to get rid of that dear girl,” Valentine said to himself, as he filled his glass and gravely awaited Mr. Sheldon’s pleasure.

“Now then, my dear Hawkehurst,” began that gentleman, squaring himself in his comfortable arm-chair, and extending his legs before the cheery fire, “let us have a little friendly chat. I am not given to beating about the bush, you know, and whatever I have to say I shall say in very plain words. In the first place, I hope you have not so poor an opinion of my perceptive faculties as to suppose that I don’t see what is going on between you and Miss Lotta yonder.”

“My dear Mr. Sheldon, I—”

“Hear what I have to say first, and make your protestations afterwards. You needn’t be alarmed; you won’t find me quite as bad as the stepmother one reads about in the story-books, who puts her stepdaughter into a pie, and all that kind of thing. I suppose stepfathers have been a very estimable class, by the way, as it is the stepmother who always drops in for it in the story-books. You’ll find mo very easy to deal with, Mr. Hawkehurst, always provided that you deal in a fair and honourable manner.”

“I have no wish to be underhand in my dealings,” Valentine said boldly. And indeed this was the truth. His inclination prompted him to candour, even with Mr. Sheldon; but that fatal necessity which is the governing principle of the adventurer’s life obliged him to employ the arts of finesse.

“Good,” cried Mr. Sheldon, in the cheery, pleasant tone of an easy-going man of the world, who is not too worldly to perform a generous action once in a way. “All I ask is frankness. You and Charlotte have fallen in love with one another — why, I can’t imagine, except on the hypothesis that a decent-looking young woman and a decent-looking young man can’t meet half a dozen times without beginning to think of Gretna-green, or St. George’s, Hanover-square. Of course a marriage with you, looked at from a common-sense point of view, would be about the worst thing that could happen to my wife’s daughter. She’s a very fine girl” (a man of the Sheldonian type would call Aphrodité herself a fine girl), “and might marry some awfully rich City swell with vineries and pineries and succession-houses at Tulse-hill or Highgate, if I chose to put her in the way of that sort of thing. But then, you see, the worst of it is, a man seldom comes to vineries and pineries at Tulse-hill till he is on the shady side of forty; and as I am not in favour of mercenary marriages, I don’t care to force any of my City connection upon poor Lotta. In the neighbourhood of the Stock Exchange there is no sharper man of business than your humble servant; but I don’t care to bring business habits to Bayswater. Long before Lotta left school, I had made up my mind never to come between her and her own inclination in the matrimonial line; therefore, if she truly and honestly loves you, and if you truly and honestly love her, I am not the man to forbid the bans.”

“My dear Mr. Sheldon, how shall I ever thank you for this!” cried Valentine, surprised into a belief in the purity of the stockbroker’s intentions.

“Don’t be in a hurry,” replied that gentleman coolly; “you haven’t heard me out yet. Though I may consent to take the very opposite line of conduct which I might be expected to take as a man of the world, I am not going to allow you and Charlotte to make fools of yourselves. There must be no love-in-a-cottage business, no marrying on nothing a year, with the expectation that papa and mamma will make up the difference between that and a comfortable income. In plain English, if I consent to receive you as Charlotte’s future husband, you and she must consent to wait until you can, to my entire satisfaction, prove yourself in a position to keep a wife.” Valentine sighed doubtfully.

“I don’t think either Miss Halliday or I are in an unreasonable hurry to begin life together,” he said thoughtfully; “but there must be some fixed limit to our probation. I am afraid the waiting will be a very long business, if I am to obtain a position that will satisfy you before I ask my dear girl to share my fate.”

“Are your prospects so very black?”

“No; to my mind they seem wonderfully bright. But the earnings of a magazine-writer will scarcely come up to your idea of an independence. Just now I am getting about ten pounds a month. With industry, I may stretch that ten to twenty; and with luck I might make the twenty into thirty — forty — fifty. A man has only to achieve something like a reputation in order to make a handsome living by his pen.”

“I am very glad to hear that,” said Mr. Sheldon; “and when you can fairly demonstrate to me that you are earning thirty pounds a month, you shall have my consent to your marriage with Charlotte, and I will do what I can to give you a fair start in life. I suppose you know that she hasn’t a sixpence in the world, that she can call her own?”

This was a trying question for Valentine Hawkehurst, and Mr. Sheldon looked at him with a sharp scrutinising glance as he awaited a reply. The young man flushed crimson, and grew pale again before he spoke.

“Yes,” he said, “I have long been aware that Miss Halliday has no legal claim on her father’s fortune.”

“There you have hit the mark,” cried Mr. Sheldon. “She has no claim to a sixpence in law; but to an honourable man that is not the question. Poor Halliday’s money amounted in all to something like eighteen thousand pounds. That sum passed into my possession when I married my poor friend’s widow, who had too much respect for me to hamper my position as a man of business by any legal restraints that would have hindered my making the wisest use of her money. I have used that money, and I need scarcely tell you that I have employed it with considerable advantage to myself and Georgy. I therefore can afford to be generous, and I mean to be so; but the manner in which I do things must be of my own choosing. My own children are dead, and there is no one belonging to one that stands in Miss Halliday’s way. When I die she will inherit a handsome fortune. And if she marries with my approval, I shall present her with a very comfortable dowry. I think you will allow that this is fair enough.”

“Nothing could be fairer or more generous,” replied Valentine with enthusiasm.

Mr. Sheldon’s agreeable candour had entirely subjugated him. Despite of all that George had said to his brother’s prejudice, he was ready to believe implicitly in Philip’s fair dealing.

“And in return for this I ask something on your part,” said Mr. Sheldon. “I want you to give me your promise that you will take no serious step without my knowledge. You won’t steal a march upon me. You won’t walk off with Charlotte some fine morning and marry her at a registry-office, or anything of that kind, eh?”

“I will not,” answered Valentine resolutely, with a very unpleasant recollection of his dealings with George Sheldon.

“Give me your hand upon that,” cried the stockbroker.

Upon this the two men shook hands, and Valentine’s fingers were almost crushed in the cold hard grip of Mr. Sheldon’s muscular hand. And now there came upon Valentine’s ear the sound of one of Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, tenderly played by the gentle hands he knew so well. And the lover began to feel that he could no longer sit sipping the stockbroker’s port with a hypocritical pretence of appreciation, and roasting himself before the blazing fire, the heat whereof was multiplied to an insufferable degree by grate and fender of reflecting steel.

Mr. Sheldon was not slow to perceive his guest’s impatience, and having made exactly the impression he wanted to make, was quite willing that the interview should come to an end.

“You had better be off to the drawing-room,” he said, good naturedly; “I see you are in that stage of the fever in which masculine society is only a bore. You can go and hear Charlotte play, while I read the evening papers and write a few letters. You can let her know that you and I understand each other. Of course we shall see you very often. You’ll eat your Christmas turkey with us, and so on; and I shall trust to your honour for the safe keeping of that promise you made me just now,” said Mr. Sheldon.

“And I shall keep an uncommonly close watch upon you and the young lady, my friend,” added that gentleman, communing with his own thoughts as he crossed the smart little hall, where two Birmingham iron knights in chain armour bestrode their gallant chargers, on two small tables of sham malachite.

Mr. Sheldon’s library was not a very inspiring apartment. His ideas of a sanctum sanctorum did not soar above the commonplace. A decent square room, furnished with plenty of pigeon-holes, a neat brass scale for the weighing of letters, a copying-press, a waste-paper basket, a stout brass-mounted office inkstand capable of holding a quart or so of ink, and a Post-office Directory, were all he asked for his hours of leisure and meditation. In a handsome glazed bookcase, opposite his writing-table, appeared a richly-bound edition of the Waverley Novels, Knight’s Shakespeare, Hume and Smollett, Fielding, Goldsmith, and Gibbon; but, except when Georgy dusted the sacred volumes with her own fair hands, the glass doors of the bookcase were never opened.

Mr. Sheldon turned on the gas, seated himself at his comfortable writing-table, and took up his pen. A quire of office note-paper, with his City address upon it, lay ready beneath his hand; but he did not begin to write immediately. He sat for some time with his elbows on the table, and his chin in his hands, meditating with dark fixed brows.

“Can I trust her?” he asked himself. “Is it safe to have her near me — after — after what she said to me in Fitzgeorge-street? Yes, I think I can trust her, up to a certain point; but beyond that I must be on my guard. She might be more dangerous than a stranger. One thing is quite clear — she must be provided for somehow or other. The question is, whether she is to be provided for in this house or out of it; and whether I can make her serve me as I want to be served?”

This was the gist of Mr. Sheldon’s meditations; but they lasted for some time. The question which he had to settle was an important one, and he was too wise a man not to contemplate a subject from every possible point of sight before arriving at his decision. He took a letter-clip from one side of his table, and turned over several open letters in search of some particular document.

He came at last to the letter he wanted. It was written on very common note-paper, with brown-looking ink, and the penmanship was evidently that of an uneducated person; but Mr. Sheldon studied its contents with the air of a man who is dealing with no unimportant missive.

This was the letter which so deeply interested the stockbroker:—

“HONORED SIR— This coms hopping that You and Your Honored ladie are well has it leevs me tho nott so strong has i coud wish wich his nott too bee expect at my time off life my pore neffew was tooke with the tyfus last tewsday weak was giv over on thirsday and we hav berried him at kensil grean Honored Mr. Sheldon I hav now no home my pore neece must go hout into survis. Luckly there har no Childring and the pore gurl can gett hur living as housmade wich she were in survis hat hi gate befor she marrid my pore Joseff Honored sir i ham trewly sorry too trubbel you butt i think for hold times you will forgiv the libertey off this letter i would nott hintrewd on you iff i had enny frend to help me in my old aig,

“Your obeddient survent.”

“17 Litle Tottles-yarde lambeft.”

AN WOOLPER

“No friend to help her in her old age,” muttered Mr. Sheldon; “that means that she intends to throw herself upon me for the rest of her life, and to put me to the expense of burying her when she is so obliging as to die. Very pleasant, upon my word! A man has a servant in the days of his poverty, pays her every fraction he owes her in the shape of wages, and wishes her good speed when she goes to settle down among her relations; and one fine morning, when he has got into a decent position, she writes to inform him that her nephew is dead, and that she expects him to provide for her forthwith. That is the gist of Mrs. Woolper’s letter; and if it were not for one or two considerations, I should be very much inclined to take a business-like view of the case, and refer the lady to her parish. What are poor-rates intended for, I should like to know, if a man who pays four-and-twopence in the pound is to be pestered in this sort of way?”

And then Mr. Sheldon, having given vent to his vexation by such reflections as these, set himself to examine the matter in another light.

“I must manage to keep sweet with Nancy Woolper somehow or other, that’s very clear; for a chattering old woman is about as dangerous an enemy as a man can have. I might provide for her decently enough out of doors for something like a pound a week; and that would be a cheap enough way of paying off all old scores. But I’m not quite clear that it would be a safe way. A life of idleness might develop Mrs. Woolper’s latent propensity for gossip — and gossip is what I want to avoid. No, that plan won’t do.”

For some moments Mr. Sheldon meditated silently, with his brows fixed even more sternly than before. Then he struck his hand suddenly on the morocco-covered table, and uttered his thoughts aloud.

“I’ll risk it,” he said; “she shall come into the house and serve my interests by keeping a sharp watch upon Charlotte Halliday. There shall be no secret marriage between those two. No, my friend Valentine, you may be a very clever fellow, but you are not quite clever enough to steal a march upon me.”

Having arrived at this conclusion, Mr. Sheldon wrote a few lines to Nancy Woolper, telling her to call upon him at the Lawn.

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