Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Riding the High Horse.

Never, in his brightest dreams, had Valentine Hawkehurst imagined the stream of life so fair and sunny a river as it seemed to him now. Fortune had treated him so scurvily for seven-and-twenty years of his life, only to relent of a sudden and fling all her choicest gifts into his lap.

“I must be the prince in the fairy tale who begins life as a revolting animal of the rhinoceros family, and ends by marrying the prettiest princess in Elfindom,” he said to himself gaily, is he paced the broad walks of Kensington-gardens, where the bare trees swung their big black branches in the wintry blast, and the rooks cawed their loudest at close of the brief day.

What, indeed, could this young adventurer demand from benignant Fortune above and beyond the blessings she had given, him? The favoured suitor of the fairest and brightest woman he had ever looked upon, received by her kindred, admitted to her presence, and only bidden to serve a due apprenticeship before he claimed her as his own for ever. What more could he wish? what further boon could he implore from the Fates?

Yes, there was one thing more — one thing for which Mr. Hawkehurst pined, while most thankful for his many blessings. He wanted a decent excuse for separating himself most completely from Horatio Paget. He wanted to shake himself free from all the associations of his previous existence. He wanted to pass through the waters of Jordan, and to emerge purified, regenerate, leaving his garments on the furthermost side of the river; and, with all other things appertaining to the past, he would fain have rid himself of Captain Paget.

“‘Be sure your sin will find you out,’” mused the young man; “and having found you, be sure that it will stick to you like a leech, if your sin takes the shape of an unprincipled acquaintance, as it does in my case. I may try my hardest to cut the past, but will Horatio Paget let me alone in the future? I doubt it. The bent of that man’s genius shows itself in his faculty for living upon other people. He knows that I am beginning to earn money regularly, and has begun to borrow of me already. When I can earn more, he will want to borrow more; and although it is very sweet to work for Charlotte Halliday, it would not be by any means agreeable to slave for my friend Paget. Shall I offer him a pound a week, and ask him to retire into the depths of Wales or Cornwall, amend his ways, and live the life of a repentant hermit? I think I could bring myself to sacrifice the weekly sovereign, if there were any hope that Horatio Paget could cease to be — Horatio Paget, on this side the grave. No, I have the misfortune to be intimately acquainted with the gentleman. When he is in the swim, as he calls it, and is earning money on his own account, he will give himself cosy little dinners and four-and-sixpenny primrose gloves; and when he is down on his luck, he will come whining to me.”

This was by no means a pleasant idea to Mr. Hawkehurst. In the old days he had been distinguished by all the Bohemian’s recklessness, and even more than the Bohemian’s generosity in his dealings with friend or companion. But now all was changed. He was no longer reckless. A certain result was demanded from him as the price of Charlotte Halliday’s hand, and he set himself to accomplish his allotted task with all due forethought and earnestness of purpose. He had need even to exercise restraint over himself, lest, in his eagerness, he should do too much, and so lay himself prostrate from the ill effects of overwork; so anxious was he to push on upon the road whose goal was so fair a temple, so light seemed that labour of love which was performed for the sake of Charlotte.

He communed with himself very often on the subject of that troublesome question about Captain Paget. How was he to sever his frail skiff from that rakish privateer? What excuse could he find for renouncing his share in the Omega-street lodgings, and setting up a new home elsewhere?

“Policy might prompt me to keep my worthy friend under my eye,” he said to himself, “in order that I may be sure there is no underhand work going on between him and Philip Sheldon. But I can scarcely believe that Philip Sheldon has any inkling about the Haygarthian fortune. If he had, he would surely not receive me as Charlotte’s suitor. What possible motive could he have for doing so?”

This was a question which Mr. Hawkehurst had frequently put to himself; for his confidence in Mr. Sheldon was not of that kind which asks no questions. Even while most anxious to believe in that gentleman’s honesty of purpose, he was troubled by occasional twinges of unbelief.

During the period which had elapsed since his return from Yorkshire, he had been able to discover nothing of any sinister import from the proceedings of Captain Paget. That gentleman appeared to be still engaged upon the promoting business, although by no means so profitably as heretofore. He went into the City every day, and came home in the evening toilworn and out of spirits. He talked freely of his occupation — how he had done much or done nothing, during the day; and Valentine was at a loss to perceive any further ground for the suspicion that had arisen in his mind after the meeting at the Ullerton station, and the shuffling of the sanctimonious Goodge with regard to Mrs. Rebecca Haygarth’s letters.

Mr. Hawkehurst therefore determined upon boldly cutting the knot that tied him to the familiar companion of his wanderings.

“I am tired of watching and suspecting,” he said to himself. “If my dear love has a right to this fortune, it will surely come to her; or if it should never come, we can live very happily without it. Indeed, for my own part, I am inclined to believe that I should be prouder and happier as the husband of a dowerless wife, than as prince-consort to the heiress of the Haygarths. We have built up such a dear, cheery, unpretentious home for ourselves in our talk of the future, that I doubt if we should care to change it for the stateliest mansion in Kensington Palace-gardens or Belgrave-square. My darling could not be my housekeeper, and make lemon cheese-cakes in her own pretty little kitchen, if we lived in Belgrave-square; and how could she stand at one of those great Birmingham ironwork gates in the Palace-gardens to watch me ride away to my work?”

To a man as deeply in love as Mr. Hawkehurst, the sordid dross which other people prize so highly is apt to become daily more indifferent; a kind of colour-blindness comes over the vision of the true lover, and the glittering yellow ore seems only so much vulgar earth, too mean a thing to be regarded by any but the mean of soul. Thus it was that Mr. Hawkehurst relaxed his suspicion of Captain Paget, and neglected his patron and ally of Gray’s Inn, much to the annoyance of that gentleman, who tormented the young man with little notes demanding interviews.

These interviews had of late been far from agreeable to either of the allies. George Sheldon urged the necessity of an immediate marriage; Valentine declined to act in an underhand manner, after the stockbroker’s unexpected generosity.

“Generosity!” echoed George Sheldon, when Valentine had given him this point-blank refusal at the close of a stormy argument. “Generosity! My brother Phil’s generosity! Egad, that is about the best thing I’ve heard for the last ten years. If I pleased, Mr. Valentine Hawkehurst, I could tell you something about my brother which would enable you to estimate his generosity at its true value. But I don’t please; and if you choose to run counter to me and my interests, you must pay the price of your folly. You may think yourself uncommonly lucky if the price isn’t a stiff one.”

“I am prepared to abide by my decision,” answered Valentine. “Miss Halliday without a shilling is so dear to me, that I don’t care to commit a dishonourable action in order to secure my share of the fortune she may claim. I turned over a new leaf on the day when I first knew myself possessed of her affection. I don’t want to go back to the old leaves.”

George Sheldon gave himself an impatient shrug. “I have heard of a great many fools,” he said, “but I never heard of a fool who would play fast-and-loose with a hundred thousand pounds, and until to-day I couldn’t have believed there was such an animal.”

Mr. Hawkehurst did not deign to notice this remark.

“Do be reasonable, Sheldon,” he said. “You ask me to do what my sense of right will not permit me to do, and you ask me that which I fully believe to be impossible. I cannot for a moment imagine that any persuasion of mine would induce Charlotte to consent to a secret marriage, after your brother’s fair and liberal conduct.”

“Of course not,” cried George, with savage impatience; “that’s my brother Phil all over. He is so honourable, so plain and straightforward in all his dealings, that he would get the best of Lucifer himself in a bargain. I tell you, Hawkehurst, you don’t know how deep he is — as deep as the bottomless pit, by Jove! His very generosity makes me all the more afraid of him. I don’t understand his game. If he consented to your marriage in order to get rid of Charlotte, he would let you marry her off-hand; but instead of doing that, he makes conditions which must delay your marriage for years. There is the point that bothers me.”

“You had better pursue your own course, without reference to me or my marriage with Miss Halliday,” said Valentine.

“That is exactly what I must do. I can’t leave the Haygarth estate to the mercy of Tom, Dick, and Harry, while you try to earn thirty pounds a month by scribbling for the magazines. I must make my bargain with Philip instead of with you, and I can tell you that you’ll be the loser by the transaction.”

“I don’t quite see that.”

“Perhaps not. You see, you don’t quite understand my brother Phil. If this money gets into his hands, be sure some of it will stick to them.”

“Why should the money get into his hand?”

“Because, so long as Charlotte Halliday is under his roof, she is, to a certain extent, under his authority. And then, I tell you again, there is no calculating the depth of that man. He has thrown dust in your eyes already. He will make that poor girl believe him the most disinterested of mankind.”

“You can warn her.”

“Yes; as I have warned you. To what purpose? You are inclined to believe in Phil rather than to believe in me, and you will be so inclined to the end of the chapter. You remember that man Palmer, at Rugely, who used to go to church, and take the sacrament?”

“Yes; of course I remember that case. What of him?”

“Why, people believed in him, you know, and thought him a jolly good fellow, up to the time when they discovered that he had poisoned a few of his friends in a quiet gentlemanly way.”

Mr. Hawkehurst smiled at the irrelevance of this remark. He could not perceive the connection of ideas between Palmer the Rugely poisoner, and Philip Sheldon the stockbroker.

“That was an extreme case,” he said.

“Yes; of course that was an extreme case,” answered George, carelessly. “Only it goes far to prove that a man may be gifted with a remarkable genius for throwing dust in the eyes of his fellow-creatures.”

There was no further disputation between the lawyer and Valentine. George Sheldon began to understand that a secret marriage was not to be accomplished in the present position of affairs.

“I am half inclined to suspect that Phil knows something about that money,” he said presently, “and is playing some artful game of his own.”

“In that case your better policy would be to take the initiative,” answered Valentine.

“I have no other course.”

“And will Charlotte know — will she know that I have been concerned in this business?” asked Valentine, growing very pale all of sudden. He was thinking how mean he must appear in Miss Halliday’s eyes, if she came to understand that he had known her to be John Haygarth’s heiress at the time he won from her the sweet confession of her love. “Will she ever believe how pure and true my love has been, if she comes to know this?” he asked himself despairingly, while George Sheldon deliberated in silence for a few moments.

“She need know nothing until the business comes to a head,” replied George at last. “You see, there may be no resistance on the part of the Crown lawyers; and, in that case, Miss Halliday will get her rights after a moderate amount of delay. But if they choose to dispute her claim, it will be quite another thing — Halliday versus the Queen, and so on — with no end of swell Q.O.‘s against us. In the latter case you’ll have to put all your adventures at Ullerton and Huxter’s Cross into an affidavit, and Miss H. must know everything.”

“Yes; and then she will think — ah, no; I do not believe she can misunderstand me, come what may.”

“All doubt and difficulty might be avoided if you would manage a marriage on the quiet off-hand,” said George. “I tell you again that I cannot do that; and that, even if it were possible, I would not attempt it.”

“So be it. You elect to ride the high horse; take care that magnificent animal doesn’t give you an ugly tumble.”

“I can take my chance.”

“And I must take my chance against that brother of mine. The winning cards are all in my own hand this time, and it will be uncommonly hard if he gets the best of me.”

On this the two gentlemen parted. Valentine went to look at a bachelor’s lodging in the neighbourhood of the Edgeware-road, which he had seen advertised in that morning’s Times; and George Sheldon started for Bayswater, where he was always sure of a dinner and a liberal allowance of good wine from the hospitality of his prosperous kinsman.

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