Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Mr. Sheldon is Benevolent.

Nancy Woolper had lost little of her activity during the ten years that had gone by since she received her wages from Mr. Sheldon, on his breaking up his establishment in Fitzgeorge-street. Her master had given her the opportunity of remaining in his service, had she so pleased; but Mrs. Woolper was a person of independent, not to say haughty, spirit, and she had preferred to join her small fortunes with those of a nephew who was about to begin business as a chandler and general dealer in a very small way, rather than to submit herself to the sway of that lady whom she insisted on calling Miss Georgy.

“It’s so long since I’ve been used to a missus,” she said, when announcing her decision to Mr. Sheldon, “I doubt if I could do with Miss Georgy’s finnickin ways. I should feel tewed like, if she came into the kitchen, worritin’ and asking questions. I’ve been used to my own ways, and I don’t suppose I could do with hers.”

So Nancy departed, to enter on a career of unpaid drudgery in the household of her kinsman, and to lose the last shilling of her small savings in the futile endeavour to sustain the fortunes of the general dealer. His death, following very speedily upon his insolvency, left the poor soul quite adrift; and in this extremity she had been fain to make her appeal to Mr. Sheldon. His reply came in due course, but not without upwards of a week’s delay; during which time Nancy Woolper’s spirits sank very low, while a dreary vision of a living grave — called a workhouse — loomed more and more darkly upon her poor old eyes. She had well-nigh given up all hope of succour from her old master when the letter came, and she was the more inclined to be grateful for very small help after this interval of suspense. It was not without strong emotion that Mrs. Woolper obeyed her old master’s summons. She had nursed the hard, cold man of the world whom she was going to see once more, after ten years of severance; and though it was more difficult for her to imagine that Philip Sheldon, the stockbroker, was the same Philip she had carried in her stout arms, and hushed upon her breast forty years ago, than it would have been to fancy the dead who had lived in those days restored to life and walking by her side, still, she could not forget that such things had been, and could not refrain from looking at her master with more loving eyes because of that memory.

A strange dark cloud had arisen between her and her master’s image during the latter part of her service in Fitzgeorge-street; but, little by little, the cloud had melted away, leaving the familiar image clear and unshadowed as of old. She had suffered her mind to be filled by a suspicion so monstrous, that for a time it held her as by some fatal spell; but with reflection came the assurance that this thing could not be. Day by day she saw the man whom she had suspected going about the common business of life, coldly serene of aspect, untroubled of manner, confronting fortune with his head erect, living quietly in the house where he had been wont to live, haunted by no dismal shadows, subject to no dark hours of remorse, no sudden access of despair, always equable, business-like, and untroubled; and she told herself that such a man could not be guilty of the unutterable horror she had imagined.

For a year things had gone on thus, and then came the marriage with Mrs. Halliday. Mr. Sheldon went down to Barlingford for the performance of that interesting ceremony; and Nancy Woolper bade farewell to the house in Fitzgeorge-street, and handed the key to the agent, who was to deliver it in due course to Mr. Sheldon’s successor.

To-day, after a lapse of more than ten years, Mrs. Woolper sat in the stockbroker’s study, facing the scrutinising gaze of those bright black eyes, which had been familiar to her of old, and which had lost none of their cold glitter in the wear and tear of life.

“Then you think you can be of some use in the house, as a kind of overlooker of the other servants, eh, Nancy — to prevent waste, and gadding out of doors, and so on?” said Mr. Sheldon, interrogatively.

“Ay, sure, that I can, Mr. Philip,” answered the old woman promptly; “and if I don’t save you more money than I cost you, the sooner you turn me out o’ doors the better. I know what London servants are, and I know their ways; and if Miss Georgy doesn’t take to the housekeeping, I know as how things must be hugger-mugger-like below stairs, however smart and tidy things may be above.”

“Mrs. Sheldon knows about as much of housekeeping as a baby,” replied Philip, with supreme contempt. “She’ll not interfere with you; and if you serve me faithfully —”

“That I allers did, Mr. Philip.”

“Yes, yes; I daresay you did. But I want faithful service in the future as well as in the past. Of course you know that I have a stepdaughter?”

“Tom Halliday’s little girl, as went to school at Scarborough.”

“The same. But poor Tom’s little girl is now a fine young woman, and a source of considerable anxiety to me. I am bound to say she is an excellent girl — amiable, obedient, and all that kind of thing; but she is a girl, and I freely confess that I am not learned in the ways of girls; and I’m very much inclined to be afraid of them.”

“As how, sir?”

“Well, you see, Nancy, they come home from school with their silly heads full of romantic stuff, fit for nothing but to read novels and strum upon the piano; and before you know where you are, they fall over head and ears in love with the first decent-looking young man who pays them a compliment. At least, that’s my experience.”

“Meaning Miss Halliday, sir?” asked Nancy, simply. “Has she fallen in love with some young chap?”

“She has, and with a young chap who is not yet in a position to support a wife. Now, if this girl were my own child, I should decidedly set my face against this marriage; but as she is only my stepdaughter, I wash my hands of all responsibility in the matter. ‘Marry the man you have chosen, my dear,’ say I; ‘all I ask is, that you don’t marry him until he can give you a comfortable home.’ ‘Very well, papa,’ says my young lady in her most dutiful manner, and ‘Very well, sir,’ says my young gentleman; and they both declare themselves agreeable to any amount of delay, provided the marriage comes off some time between this and doomsday.”

“Well, sir?” asked Nancy, rather at a loss to understand why Philip Sheldon, the closest and most reserved of men, should happen to be so confidential to-day.

“Well, Nancy, what I want to prevent is any underhand work. I know what very limited notions of honour young men are apt to entertain nowadays, and how intensely foolish a boarding-school miss can be on occasion. I don’t want these young people to run off to Gretna-green some fine morning, or to steal a march upon me by getting married on the sly at some out-of-the-way church, after having invested their united fortunes in the purchase of a special license. In plain words, I distrust Miss Halliday’s lover, and I distrust Miss Halliday’s common sense; and I want to have a sensible, sharp-eyed person in the house always on the look-out for any kind of danger, and able to protect my stepdaughter’s interests as well as my own.”

“But the young lady’s mamma, sir — she would look after her daughter, I suppose?”

“Her mamma is foolishly indulgent, and about as capable of taking care of her daughter as of sitting in Parliament. You remember pretty Georgy Cradock, and you must know what she was — and what she is. Mrs. Sheldon is the same woman as Georgy Cradock — a little older, and a little more plump and rosy; but just as pretty, and just as useless.”

The interview was prolonged for some little time after this, and it ended in a thorough understanding between Mr. Sheldon and his old servant. Nancy Woolper was to re-enter that gentleman’s service, and over and above all ordinary duties, she was to undertake the duty of keeping a close watch upon all the movements of Charlotte Halliday. In plain words, she was to be a spy, a private detective, so far as this young lady was concerned; but Mr. Sheldon was too wise to put his requirements into plain words, knowing that even in the hour of her extremity Nancy Woolper would have refused to fill such an office had she clearly understood the measure of its infamy.

Upon the day that followed his interview with Mrs. Woolper, the stockbroker came home from the City an hour or two earlier than his custom, and startled Miss Halliday by appearing in the garden where she was walking alone, looking her brightest and prettiest in her dark winter hat and jacket, and pacing briskly to and fro among the bare frost-bound patches of earth that had once been flower-beds.

“I wan’t a few minutes’ quiet talk with you, Lotta,” said Mr. Sheldon. “You’d better come into my study, where we’re pretty sure not to be interrupted.”

The girl blushed crimson as she acceded to this request, being assured that Mr. Sheldon was going to discuss her matrimonial engagement. Valentine had told her of that very satisfactory interview in the dining-room, and from that time she had been trying to find an opportunity for the acknowledgment of her stepfather’s generosity. As yet the occasion had not arisen. She did not know how to frame her thanksgiving, and she shrank shyly from telling Mr. Sheldon how grateful she was to him for the liberality of mind which had distinguished his conduct in this affair.

“I really ought to thank him,” she said to herself more than once. “I was quite prepared for his doing his uttermost to prevent my marriage with Valentine; and instead of that, he volunteers his consent, and even promises to give us a fortune. ‘I am bound to thank him for such generous kindness.”

Perhaps there is no task more difficult than to offer grateful tribute to a person whom one has been apt to think of with a feeling very near akin to dislike. Ever since her mother’s second marriage Charlotte had striven against an instinctive distaste for Mr. Sheldon’s society, and an innate distrust of Mr. Sheldon’s affectionate regard for herself; but now that he had proved his sincerity in this most important crisis of her life, she awoke all at once to the sense of the wrong she had done.

“I am always reading the Sermon on the Mount, and yet in my thoughts about Mr. Sheldon I have never been able to remember those words, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ His kindness touches me to the very heart, and I feel it all the more keenly because of my injustice.”

She followed her stepfather into the prim little study. There was no fire, and the room was colder than a vault on this bleak December day. Charlotte shivered, and drew her jacket more tightly across her chest as she perched herself on one of Mr. Sheldon’s shining red morocco chairs. “The room strikes cold,” she said; “very, very cold.”

After this there was a brief pause, during which Mr. Sheldon took some papers from the pocket of his overcoat, and arranged them on his desk with an absent manner, as if he were rather deliberating upon what he was going to say than thinking of what he was doing. While he loitered thus Charlotte found courage to speak.

“I wish to thank you, Mr. Sheldon — papa,” she said, pronouncing the “papa” with some slight appearance of effort, in spite of her desire to be grateful: “I— I have been wishing to thank you for the last day or two; only it seems so difficult sometimes to express one’s self about these things.”

“I do not deserve or wish for your thanks, my dear. I have only done my duty.”

“But, indeed, you do deserve my thanks, and you have them in all sincerity, papa. You have been very, very good to me — about — about Valentine. I thought you would be sure to oppose our marriage on the ground of imprudence, you know, and ——”

“I do oppose your marriage in the present on the ground of imprudence, and I am only consentient to it in the future on the condition that Mr. Hawkehurst shall have secured a comfortable income by his literary labours. He seems to be clever, and he promises fairly ——”

“O yes indeed, dear papa,” cried the girl, pleased by this meed of praise for her lover; “he is more than clever. I am sure you would say so if you had time to read his article on Madame de Sévigné in the Cheapside.”

“I daresay it’s very good, my dear; but I don’t care for Madame de Sévigné——”

“Or his sketch of Bossuet’s career in the Charing Cross.”

“My dear child, I do not even know who Bossuet was. All I require from Mr. Hawkehurst is, that he shall earn a good income before he takes you away from this house. You have been accustomed to a certain style of living, and I cannot allow you to encounter a life of poverty.”

“But, dear papa, I am not in the least afraid of poverty.”

“I daresay not, my dear. You have never been poor,” replied Mr. Sheldon, coolly. “I don’t suppose I am as much afraid of a rattlesnake as the poor wretches who are accustomed to see one swinging by his tail from the branch of a tree any day in the course of their travels. I have only a vague idea that a cobra de capello is an unpleasant customer; but depend upon it, those foreign fellows feel their blood stagnate and turn to ice at sight of the cold slimy-looking monster. Poverty and I travelled the same road once, and I know what the gentleman is. I don’t want to meet him again.” Mr. Sheldon lapsed into silence after this. His last words had been spoken to himself rather than to Charlotte, and the thoughts that accompanied them seemed far from pleasant to him.

Charlotte sat opposite her stepfather, patiently awaiting his pleasure. She looked at the gaudily-bound books behind the glass doors, and wondered whether any one had ever opened any of the volumes.

“I should like to read dear Sir Walter’s stories once more,” she thought; “there never, never was so sweet a romance as the ‘Bride of Lammermoor,’ and I cannot imagine that one could ever grow weary of reading it. But to ask Mr. Sheldon for the key of that bookcase would be quite impossible. I think his books must be copies of special editions, not meant to be read. I wonder whether they are real books, or only upholsterer’s dummies?”

And then her fancies went vagabondising off to that little archetype of a cottage on the heights of Wimbledon-common, in which she and Valentine were to live when they were married. She was always furnishing and refurnishing this cottage, building it up and pulling it down, as the caprice of the moment dictated. Now it had bow-windows and white stuccoed walls — now it was Elizabethan — now the simplest, quaintest, rose-embowered cottager’s dwelling, with diamond-paned casements, and deep thatch on the old gray roof. This afternoon she amused herself by collecting a small library for Valentine, while waiting Mr. Sheldon’s next observation. He was to have all her favourite books, of course; and they were to be bound in the prettiest, most girlish bindings. She could see the dainty volumes, primly ranged on the little carved oak bookcase, which Valentine was to “pick up” in Wardour-street. She fancied herself walking down that mart of bric-a-brac arm-in-arm with her lover, intent on “picking up.” Ah, what happiness! what dear delight in the thought! And O, of all the bright dreams we dream, how few are realised upon this earth! Do they find their fulfilment in heaven, those visions of perfect bliss?

Mr. Sheldon looked up from his desk at last. Miss Halliday remarked to herself that his face was pale and haggard in the chill wintry sunlight; but she knew how hard and self-denying a life he led in his stern devotion to business, and she was in no manner surprised to see him looking ill.

“I want to say a few words to you on a matter of business, Lotta,” he began, “and I must ask you to give me all your attention.”

“I will do so with pleasure, papa, but I am awfully stupid about business.”

“I shall do my best to make matters simple. I suppose you know what money your father left, including the sums his life had been insured for?”

“Yes, I have heard mamma say it was eighteen thousand pounds. I do so hate the idea of those insurances. It seems like the price of a man’s life, doesn’t it? I daresay that is a very unbusiness-like way of considering the question, but I cannot bear to think that we got money by dear papa’s death.”

These remarks were too trivial for Mr. Sheldon’s notice. He went on with what he had to say in the cold hard voice that was familiar to his clerks and to the buyers and sellers of shares and stock who had dealings with him.

“Your father left eighteen thousand pounds; that amount was left to your mother without reservation. When she married me, without any settlement, that money became mine, in point of law — mine to squander or make away with as I pleased. You know that I have made good use of that money, and that your mother has had no reason to repent her confidence in my honour and honesty. The time has now come in which that honour will be put to a sharper test. You have no legal claim on so much as a shilling of your father’s fortune.”

“I know that, Mr. Sheldon,” cried Charlotte, eagerly, “and Valentine knows also; and, believe me, I do not expect ——”

“I have to settle matters with my own conscience as well as with your expectations, my dear Lotta,” Mr. Sheldon said, solemnly. “Your father left you unprovided for; but as a man of honour I feel myself bound to take care that you shall not suffer by his want of caution. I have therefore prepared a deed of gift, by which I transfer to you five thousand pounds, now invested in Unitas Bank shares.”

“You are going to give me five thousand pounds!” cried Charlotte, astounded.

“Without reservation.”

“You mean to say that you will give me this fortune when I marry, papa?” said Charlotte, interrogatively.

“I shall give it to you immediately,” replied Mr. Sheldon. “I wish you to be thoroughly independent of me and my pleasure. You will then understand, that if I insist upon the prudence of delay, I do so in your interest and not in my own. I wish you to feel that if I am a hindrance to your immediate marriage, it is not because I wish to delay the disbursement of your dowry.”

“O, Mr. Sheldon, O, papa, you are more than generous — you are noble! It is not that I care for the money. O, believe me, there is no one in the world who could care less for that than I do. But your thoughtful kindness, your generosity, touches me to the very heart. O, please let me kiss you, just as if you were my own dear father come back to life to protect and guide me. I have thought you cold and worldly. I have done you so much wrong.”

She ran to him, and wound her arms about his neck before he could put her off, and lifted up her pretty rosy mouth to his dry hot lips. Her heart was overflowing with generous emotion, her face beamed with a happy smile. She was so pleased to find her mother’s husband better than she had thought him. But, to her supreme astonishment, he thrust her from him roughly, almost violently, and looking up at his face she saw it darkened by a blacker shadow than she had ever seen upon it before. Anger, terror, pain, remorse, she knew not what, but an expression so horrible that she shrunk from him with a sense of alarm, and went back to her chair, bewildered and trembling.

“You frightened me, Mr. Sheldon,” she said faintly.

“Not more than you frightened me,” answered the stockbroker, walking to the window and taking his stand there, with his face hidden from Charlotte. “I did not know there was so much feeling in me. For God’s sake, let us have no sentiment!”

“Were you angry with me just now?” asked the girl, falteringly, utterly at a loss to comprehend the change in her stepfather’s manner.

“No, I was not angry. I am not accustomed to these strong emotions,” replied Mr. Sheldon, huskily; “I cannot stand them. Pray let us avoid all sentimental discussion. I am anxious to do my duty in a straightforward, business-like way. I don’t want gratitude — or fuss. The five thousand pounds are yours, and I am pleased to find you consider the amount sufficient. And now I have only one small favour to ask of you in return.”

“I should be very ungrateful if I refused to do anything you may ask,” said Charlotte, who could not help feeling a little chilled and disappointed by Mr. Sheldon’s stony rejection of her gratitude.

“The matter is very simple. You are young, and have, in the usual course of things, a long life before you. But — you know there is always a ‘but’ in these cases — a railway accident — a little carelessness in passing your drawing-room fire some evening when you are dressed in flimsy gauze or muslin — a fever — a cold — any one of the many dangers that lie in wait for all of us, and our best calculations are falsified. If you were to marry and die childless, that money would go to your husband, and neither your mother nor I would ever touch a sixpence of it, Now as the money, practically, belongs to your mother, I consider that this contingency should be provided against — in her interests as well as in mine. In plain words, I want you to make a will leaving that money to me.”

“I am quite ready to do so,” replied Charlotte.

“Very good, my dear. I felt assured that you would take a sensible view of the matter. If you marry your dear Mr. Hawkehurst, have a family by-and-by, we will throw the old will into the fire and make a new one; but in the mean time it’s just as well to be on the safe side. You shall go into the City with me to-morrow morning, and shall execute the will at my office. It will be the simplest document possible — as simple as the will made by old Serjeant Crane, in which he disposed of half a million of money in half a dozen lines — at the rate of five thousand pounds per word. After we’ve settled that little matter, we can arrange the transfer of the shares. The whole affair won’t occupy an hour.” “I will do whatever you wish,” said Charlotte, meekly. She was not at all elated by the idea of coming suddenly into possession of five thousand pounds; but she was very much impressed by the new view of Mr. Sheldon’s character afforded her by his conduct of to-day. And then her thoughts, constant to one point as the needle to the pole, reverted to her lover, and she began to think of the effect her fortune might have upon his prospects. He might go to the bar, he might work and study in pleasant Temple chambers, with wide area windows overlooking the river, and read law-books in the evening at the Wimbledon cottage for a few delightful years, at the end of which he would of course become Lord Chancellor. That he should devote such intellect and consecrate such genius as his to the service of his country’s law-courts, and not ultimately seat himself on the Woolsack, was a contingency not to be imagined by Miss Halliday. Ah, what would not five thousand pounds buy for him! The cottage expanded into a mansion, the little case of books developed into a library second only to that of the Duc d’Aumale, a noble steed waited at the glass door of the vestibule to convey Mr. Hawkehurst to the Temple, before the minute-hand of Mr. Sheldon’s stern skeleton clock had passed from one figure to another: so great an adept was this young lady in the art of castle-building.

“Am I to tell mamma about this conversation?” asked Charlotte, presently.

“Well, no, I think not,” replied Mr. Sheldon, thoughtfully. “These family arrangements cannot be kept too quiet. Your mamma is a talking person, you know, Charlotte; and as we don’t want every one in this part of Bayswater to know the precise amount of your fortune, we may as well let matters rest as they are. Of course you would not wish Mr. Hawkehurst to be enlightened?”

“Why not, papa?”

“For several reasons. First and foremost, it must be pleasant to you to be sure that he is thoroughly disinterested I have told him that you will get something as a gift from me; but he may have implied that the something would be little more than a couple of hundreds to furnish a house. Secondly, it must be remembered, that he has been brought up in a bad school, and the best way to make him self-reliant and industrious is to let him think he has nothing but his own industry to depend upon. I have set him a task. When he has accomplished that, he shall have you and your five thousand pounds to boot. Till then I should strongly advise you to keep this business a secret.

“Yes,” answered Charlotte, meditatively; “I think you are right. It would have been very nice to tell him of your kindness; but I want to be quite sure that he loves me for myself alone — from first to last — without one thought of money.”

“That is wise,” said Mr. Sheldon, decisively; and thus ended the interview.

Charlotte accompanied her stepfather to the city early next morning, and filled in the blanks in a lithographed form, prepared for the convenience of such testators as, being about to dispose of their property, do not care to employ the services of a legal adviser.

The will seemed to Charlotte the simplest possible affair. She bequeathed all her property, real and personal, to Philip Sheldon, without reserve. But as her entire fortune consisted of the five thousand pounds just given her by that gentleman, and as her personal property was comprised in a few pretty dresses and trinkets, and desks and workboxes, she could not very well object to such an arrangement.

“Of course, mamma would have all my books and caskets, and boxes and things,” she said thoughtfully; “and I should like Diana Paget to have some of my jewellery, please, Mr. Sheldon. Mamma has plenty, you know.”

“There is no occasion, to talk of that, Charlotte,” replied the stockbroker. “This will is only a matter of form.”

Mr. Sheldon omitted to inform his stepdaughter that the instrument just executed would, upon her wedding-day, become so much waste paper, an omission that was not in harmony with the practical and careful habits of that gentleman.

“Yes, I know that it is only a form,” replied Charlotte; “but, after making a will, one feels as if one was going to die. At least I do. It seems a kind of preparation for death. I don’t wonder people rather dislike doing it.

“It is only foolish people who dislike doing it,” said Mr. Sheldon, who was in his most practical mood to-day. “And now we will go and arrange a more agreeable business — the transfer of the shares.”

After this, there was a little commercial juggling, in the form of signing and countersigning, which, was quite beyond Charlotte’s comprehension: which operation being completed, she was told that she was owner of five thousand pounds in Unitas Bank shares, and that the dividends accruing from time to time on those shares would be hers to dispose of as she pleased.

“The income arising from your capital will be more than you can spend so long as you remain under my roof,” said Mr. Sheldon. “I should therefore strongly recommend you to invest your dividends as they arise, and thus increase your capital.”

“You are so kind and thoughtful,” murmured Charlotte; “I shall always be pleased to take your advice.” She was strongly impressed by the kindness of the man her thoughts had wronged.

“How difficult it is to understand these reserved, matter-of-fact people!” she said to herself. Because my stepfather does not talk sentiment, I have fancied him hard and worldly; and yet he has proved himself as capable of doing a noble action as if he were the most poetical of mankind.

Mrs. Sheldon had been told that Charlotte was going into the City to choose a new watch, wherewith to replace the ill-used little Geneva toy that had been her delight as a schoolgirl; and as Charlotte brought home a neat little English-made chronometer from a renowned emporium on Ludgate-hill, the simple matron accepted this explanation in all good faith.

“I’m sure, Lotta, you must confess your stepfather is kindness itself in most matters,” said Georgy, after an admiring examination of the new watch. “When I think how kindly he has taken this business about Mr. Hawkehurst, and how disinterested he has proved himself in his ideas about your marriage, I really am inclined to think him the best of men.”

Georgy said this with an air of triumph. She could not forget that there were people in Barlingford who had said hard things about Philip Sheldon, and had prophesied unutterable miseries for herself and her daughter as the bitter consequence of the imprudence she had been guilty of in her second marriage.

“He has indeed been very good, mamma,” Charlotte replied gravely, “and, believe me, I am truly grateful. He does not like fuss or sentiment; but I hope he knows that I appreciate his kindness.”

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