Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

Mr. Sheldon is Prudent.

Valentine found the apartments near the Edgeware-road in every manner eligible. The situation was midway between his reading-room in Great Russell-street and the abode of his delight — a half-way house on the road between business and pleasure. The terms were very moderate, the rooms airy and pleasant; so he engaged them forthwith, his tenancy to commence at the end of the following week; and having settled this matter, he went back to Omega-street, bent on dissolving partnership with the Captain in a civil but decided manner.

A surprise, and a very agreeable one, awaited him at Chelsea. He found the sitting-room strewn with Captain Paget’s personal property, and the Captain on his knees before a portmanteau, packing.

“You’re just in time to give me a hand, Val,” he said in his most agreeable manner. “I begin to find out my age when I put my poor old bones into abnormal attitudes. I daresay packing a trunk or two will be only child’s-play to you.”

“I’ll pack half a dozen trunks if you like,” replied Valentine. “But what is the meaning of this sudden move? I did not know you were going to leave town.”

“Neither did I when you and I breakfasted together. I got an unexpected offer of a very decent position abroad this morning; a kind of agency, that will be much better than the hand-to-mouth business I’ve been doing lately.”

“What kind of agency, and where?”

“Well, so far as I can make out at present, it is something in the steam navigation way. My head-quarters will be at Rouen.” “Rouen! Well, it’s a pleasant lively old city enough, and as mediaeval as one of Sir Walter’s novels, provided they haven’t Haussmanised it by this time. I am very glad to hear you have secured a comfortable berth.”

“And I am not sorry to leave England, Yal,” answered the Captain, in rather a mournful tone.

“Why not?”

“Because I think it’s time you and I parted company. Our association begins to be rather disadvantageous to you, Val. We’ve had our ups and downs together, and we’ve got on very pleasantly, take it for all in all. But now that you’re settling down as a literary man, engaged to that young woman, hand-in-glove with Philip Sheldon, and so on, I think it’s time for me to take myself off. I’m not wanted; and sooner or later I should begin to feel myself in the way.”

The Captain grew quite pathetic as he said this; and little pangs of remorse shot through Valentine’s heart as he remembered how eager he had been to rid himself of this Old Man of the Mountain. And here was the poor old creature offering to take himself out of the way of his own accord.

Influenced by this touch of remorse, Mr. Hawkehurst held out his hand, and grasped that of his comrade and patron.

“I hope you may do well, in some — comfortable kind of business,” he said heartily. That adjective “comfortable” was a hasty substitute for the adjective “honest,” which had been almost on his lips as he uttered his friendly wish. He was too well disposed to all the world not to feel profound pity for this white-headed old man, who for so many years had eaten the bread of rogues and scoundrels.

“Come,” he cried cheerily, “I’ll take all the packing off your hands, Captain; and we’ll eat our last dinner and drink our last bottle of sparkling together at my expense, at any place you please to name.”

“Say Blanchard’s,” replied Horatio Paget. “I like a corner-window, looking out upon the glare and bustle of Regent-street. It reminds one just a little of the Maison Dorée and the boulevard. We’ll drink Charlotte Halliday’s health, Val, in bumpers. She’s a charming young person, and I only wish she were an heiress, for your sake.”

The eyes of the two men met as the Captain said this; and there was a twinkle in the cold gray orbs of that gentleman which had a very unpleasant effect upon Valentine.

“What treachery is he engaged in now?” he asked himself. “I know that look in my Horatio’s eyes; and I know it always means mischief.”

George Sheldon made his appearance at the Lawn five minutes after his brother came home from the City. He entered the domestic circle in his usual free-and-easy manner, knowing himself to be endured, rather than liked, by the two ladies, and to be only tolerated as a necessary evil by the master of the house.

“I’ve dropped in to eat a chop with you, Phil,” he said, “in order to get an hour’s comfortable talk after dinner. There’s no saying half a dozen consecutive words to you in the City, where your clerks seem to spend their lives in bouncing in upon you when you don’t want them.”

There was very little talk during dinner. Charlotte and her stepfather were thoughtful. Diana was chiefly employed in listening to the sotto voce inanities of Mrs. Sheldon, for whom the girl showed herself admirably patient. Her forbearance and gentleness towards Georgy constituted a kind of penitential sacrifice, by which she hoped to atone for the dark thoughts and bitter feelings that possessed her mind during those miserable hours in which she was obliged to witness the happiness of Charlotte and her lover.

George Sheldon devoted himself chiefly to his dinner and a certain dry sherry, which he particularly affected. He was a man who would have dined and enjoyed himself at the table of Judas Iscariot, knowing the banquet to be provided out of the thirty pieces of silver.

“That’s as good a pheasant as I ever ate, Phil,” he said, after winding up with the second leg of the bird in question. “No, Georgy; no macaroni, thanks. I don’t care about kickshaws after a good dinner. Has Hawkehurst dined with you lately, by the way, Phil?”

Charlotte blushed red as the holly-berries that decorated the chandelier. It was Christmas-eve, and her own fair hands had helped to bedeck the rooms with festal garlands of evergreen and holly.

“He dines with us to-morrow,” replied the stockbroker. “You’ll come, I suppose, as usual, George?”

“Well, I shall be very glad, if I’m not in the way.”

Mrs. Sheldon murmured some conventional protestation of the unfailing delight afforded to her by George’s society.

“Of course we’re always glad to see you,” said Philip in his most genial manner; “and now, if you’ve anything to say to me about business, the sooner you begin the better. — You and the girls needn’t stay for dessert, Georgy. Almonds and raisins can’t be much of a novelty to you; and as none of you take any wine, there’s not much to stop for. George and I will come in to tea.”

The ladies departed, by no means sorry to return to their Berlin-wool and piano. Diana took up her work with that saintly patience with which she performed all the duties of her position; and Charlotte seated herself before the piano, and began to play little bits of waltzes, and odds and ends of polkas, in a dreamy mood, and with a slurring over of dominant bass notes, which would have been torture to a musician’s ear.

She was wondering whether Valentine would call that evening, Christmas-eve — a sort of occasion for congratulation of some kind from her lover, she fancied. It was the first Christmas-eve on which she had been “engaged.” She looked back to the same period last year, and remembered herself sitting in that very room strumming on that very piano, and unconscious that there was such a creature as Valentine Hawkehurst upon this earth. And, strange to say, even in that benighted state, she had been tolerably happy.

“Now, George,” said Mr. Sheldon, when the brothers had filled their glasses and planted their chairs on the opposite sides of the hearth-rug, “what’s the nature of this business that you want to talk about?”

“Well, it is a business of considerable importance, in which you are only indirectly concerned. The actual principal in the affair is your stepdaughter, Miss Halliday.”

“Indeed!”

“Yes. You know how you have always ridiculed my fancy for hunting up heirs-at-law and all that kind of thing, and you know how I have held on, hoping against hope, starting on a new scent when the old scent failed, and so on.”

“And you have got a chance at last, eh?”

“I believe that I have, and a tolerably good one; and I think you will own that it is rather extraordinary that my first lucky hit should bring luck your way.”

“That is to say, to my stepdaughter?” remarked Mr. Sheldon, without any appearance of astonishment.

“Precisely,” said George, somewhat disconcerted by his brother’s coolness. “I have lately discovered that Miss Halliday is entitled to a certain sum of money, and I pledge myself to put her in possession of that money — on one condition.”

“And that is —”

“That she executes a deed promising to give me half of the amount she may recover by my agency.”

“Suppose she can recover it without your agency?”

“That I defy her to do. She does not even know that she has any claim to the amount in question.”

“Don’t be too sure of that. Or even supposing she knows nothing, do you think her friends are as ignorant as she is? Do you think me such a very bad man of business as to remain all this time unaware of the fact that my stepdaughter, Charlotte Halliday, is next of kin to the Rev. John Haygarth, who died intestate, at Tilford Haven, in Kent, about a year ago?”

This was a cannon-shot that almost knocked George Sheldon off his chair; but after that first movement of surprise, he gave a sigh, or almost a groan, expressive of resignation.

“Egad, Phil Sheldon,” he said, “I ought not to be astonished at this. Knowing you as well as I do, I must have been a confounded fool not to expect some kind of underhand work from you.”

“What do you mean by underhand work?” exclaimed Mr. Sheldon. “The same newspapers that were open to you were open to me, and I had better opportunities for tracking my stepdaughter’s direct descent from John Haygarth’s father.”

“How did you discover Miss Halliday’s descent from Matthew Haygarth?” asked George, very meekly. He was quite crestfallen. He began to feel that his brother would have the upper hand of him in this business as in all other business of this world.

“That is my secret,” replied Mr. Sheldon, with agreeable tranquillity of manner. “You have kept your secrets, and I shall keep mine. Your policy has been the policy of distrust. Mine shall be the same. When you were starting this affair, I offered to go into it with you — to advance whatever money you needed, in a friendly manner. You declined my offer, and chose to go in for the business on your own hook. You have made a very good thing for yourself, no doubt; but you are not quite clever enough to keep me altogether in the dark in a matter which concerns a member of my own family.”

“Yes,” said George, with a sigh, “that’s where you hold the winning cards. Miss Halliday is your ace of trumps.”

“Depend upon it, I shall know how to hold my strength in reserve, and when to play my leading trump.”

“And how to collar my king,” muttered George between his set teeth.

“Come,” exclaimed Philip presently, “we may as well discuss this matter in a friendly spirit. What do you mean to propose?”

“I have only one proposition to make,” answered the lawyer, with decision. “I hold every link of the chain of evidence, without which Miss Halliday might as well be a native of the Fiji islands for any claim she can assert to John Haygarth’s estate. I am prepared to carry this matter through; but I will only do it on the condition that I receive half the fortune recovered from the Crown by Miss Halliday.”

“A very moderate demand, upon my word!”

“I daresay I shall be able to make my bargain with Miss Halliday.” “Very likely,” replied Mr. Sheldon; “and I shall be able to get that bargain set aside as illegal.”

“I doubt that. I have a deed of agreement drawn up here which would hold water in any court of equity.”

And hereupon Mr. Sheldon the younger produced and read aloud one of those dry as dust documents by which the legal business of life is carried on. It was a deed to be executed by Charlotte Halliday, spinster, of Bayswater, on the one part, and George Sheldon, solicitor, of Gray’s Inn, on the other part; and it gave to the said George Sheldon, as securely as any deed can give anything, one half of any property, not now in her possession or control, which the said Charlotte Halliday might obtain by the agency of the above-mentioned George Sheldon.

“And pray, who is to find the costs for this business?” asked the stockbroker. “I don’t feel by any means disposed to stake my money on such a hazardous game. Who knows what other descendants of Matthew Haygarth may be playing at hide-and-seek in the remotest corners of the earth, ready to spring out upon us when we’ve wasted a small fortune upon law-proceedings.”

“I shan’t ask you to risk your money,” replied George, with sullen dignity. “I have friends who will back me when they see that agreement executed.”

“Very well, then, all you have to do is to alter your half share to one-fifth, and I will undertake that Miss Halliday shall sign the agreement before the week is out.”

“One-fifth?”

“Yes, my dear George. Twenty thousand pounds will pay you very handsomely for your trouble. I cannot consent to Miss Halliday ceding more than a fifth.”

“A fig for your consent! The girl is of age, and can act upon her own hook. I shall go to Miss Halliday herself,” exclaimed the indignant lawyer.

“O no, you won’t. You must know the danger of running counter to me in this business. That agreement is all very well; but there is no kind of document more easy to upset if one only goes about it in the right way. Play your own game, and I will upset that agreement, as surely as I turn this wine-glass bowl downwards.”

Mr. Sheldon’s action and Mr. Sheldon’s look expressed a determination which George knew how to estimate by the light of past experience.

“It is a hard thing to find you against me, after the manner in which I have toiled and slaved for your stepdaughter’s interests.”

“I am bound to hold my stepdaughter’s interests paramount over every consideration.” “Yes, paramount over brotherly feeling and all that sort of thing. I say that it is more than hard that you should be against me, considering the special circumstances and the manner in which I have kept my own counsel ——”

“You will take a fifth share, or nothing, George,” said Mr. Sheldon, with a threatening contraction of his black brows.

“If I have any difficulty in arranging matters with you, I will go into this affair myself, and carry it through without your help.”

“That I defy you to do.”

“You had better not defy me.”

“Pray how much do you expect to get out of Miss Halliday’s fortune?” demanded the aggravated George.

“That is my business,” answered Philip. “And now we had better go into the drawing-room for our tea. O, by the bye, George,” he added, carelessly, “as Miss Halliday is quite a child in all business matters, she had better be treated like a child. I shall tell her that she has a claim to a certain sum of money; but I shall not tell her what sum. Her disappointment will be less in the event of a failure, if her expectations are not large.”

“You are always so considerate, my dear Phil,” said George, with a malignant grin. “May I ask how it is you have taken it into your head to play the benevolent father in the matter of Valentine Hawkehurst and Miss Halliday?”

“What can it signify to me whom my stepdaughter marries?” asked Philip, coolly. “Of course I wish her well; but I will not have the responsibility of controlling her choice. If this young man suits her, let her marry him.”

“Especially when he happens to suit you so remarkably well. I think I can understand your tactics, Phil.”

“You must understand or misunderstand me, just as you please. And now come to tea.”

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