Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

The House in Bloomsbury.

“What about?” There are some houses whereof the outward aspect is sealed with the seal of respectability — houses which inspire confidence in the minds of the most sceptical of butchers and bakers — houses at whose area-gates the tradesman delivers his goods undoubtingly, and from whose spotless door-steps the vagabond children of the neighbourhood recoil as from a shrine too sacred for their gambols.

Such a house made its presence obvious, some years ago, in one of the smaller streets of that west-central region which lies between Holborn and St. Pancras Church. It is perhaps the nature of ultra-respectability to be disagreeably conspicuous. The unsullied brightness of No. 14 Fitzgeorge-street was a standing reproach to every other house in the dingy thorough-fare. That one spot of cleanliness made the surrounding dirt cruelly palpable. The muslin curtains in the parlour windows of No. 15 would not have appeared of such a smoky yellow if the curtains of No. 14 had not been of such a pharisaical whiteness. Mrs. Magson, at No. 13, was a humble letter of lodgings, always more or less in arrear with the demands of quarter-day; and it seemed a hard thing that her door-steps, whereon were expended much labour and hearthstone — not to mention house-flannel, which was in itself no unimportant item in the annual expenses — should be always thrown in the shade by the surpassing purity of the steps before No. 14.

Not satisfied with being the very pink and pattern of respectability, the objectionable house even aspired to a kind of prettiness. It was as bright, and pleasant, and rural of aspect as any house within earshot of the roar and rattle of Holborn can be. There were flowers in the windows; gaudy scarlet geraniums, which seemed to enjoy an immunity from all the ills to which geraniums are subject, so impossible was it to discover a faded leaf amongst their greenness, or the presence of blight amidst their wealth of blossom. There were birdcages within the shadow of the muslin curtains, and the colouring of the newly-pointed brickwork was agreeably relieved by the vivid green of Venetian blinds. The freshly-varnished street-door bore a brass-plate, on which to look was to be dazzled; and the effect produced by this combination of white door-step, scarlet geranium, green blind, and brass-plate was obtrusively brilliant.

Those who had been so privileged as to behold the interior of the house in Fitzgeorge-street brought away with them a sense of admiration that was the next thing to envy. The pink and pattern of propriety within, as it was the pink and pattern of propriety without, it excited in every breast alike a wondering awe, as of a habitation tenanted by some mysterious being, infinitely superior to the common order of householders.

The inscription on the brass-plate informed the neighbourhood that No. 14 was occupied by Mr. Sheldon, surgeon-dentist; and the dwellers in Fitzgeorge-street amused themselves in their leisure hours by speculative discussions upon the character and pursuits, belongings and surroundings, of this gentleman.

Of course he was eminently respectable. On that question no Fitzgeorgian had ever hazarded a doubt. A householder with such a door-step and such muslin curtains could not be other than the most correct of mankind; for, if there is any external evidence by which a dissolute life or an ill-regulated mind will infallibly betray itself, that evidence is to be found in the yellowness and limpness of muslin window-curtains. The eyes are the windows of the soul, says the poet; but if a man’s eyes are not open to your inspection, the windows of his house will help you to discover his character as an individual, and his solidity as a citizen. At least such was the opinion cherished in Fitzgeorge-street, Russell-square.

The person and habits of Mr. Sheldon were in perfect harmony with the aspect of the house. The unsullied snow of the door-step reproduced itself in the unsullied snow of his shirt-front; the brilliancy of the brass-plate was reflected in the glittering brightness of his gold-studs; the varnish on the door was equalled by the lustrous surface of his black-satin waistcoat; the careful pointing of the brickwork was in a manner imitated by the perfect order of his polished finger-nails and the irreproachable neatness of his hair and whiskers. No dentist or medical practitioner of any denomination had inhabited the house in Fitzgeorge-street before the coming of Philip Sheldon. The house had been unoccupied for upwards of a year, and was in the last stage of shabbiness and decay, when the bills disappeared all at once from the windows, and busy painters and bricklayers set their ladders against the dingy brickwork. Mr. Sheldon took the house on a long lease, and spent two or three hundred pounds in the embellishment of it. Upon the completion of all repairs and decorations, two great waggon-loads of furniture, distinguished by that old fashioned clumsiness which is eminently suggestive of respectability, arrived from the Euston-square terminus, while a young man of meditative aspect might have been seen on his knees, now in one empty chamber, anon in another, performing some species of indoor surveying, with a three-foot rule, a loose little oblong memorandum-book, and the merest stump of a square lead-pencil. This was an emissary from the carpet warehouse; and before nightfall it was known to more than one inhabitant in Fitzgeorge-street that the stranger was going to lay down new carpets. The new-comer was evidently of an active and energetic temperament, for within three days of his arrival the brass-plate on his street-door announced his profession, while a neat little glass-case, on a level with the eye of the passing pedestrian, exhibited specimens of his skill in mechanical dentistry, and afforded instruction and amusement to the boys of the neighbourhood, who criticised the glistening white teeth and impossibly red gums, displayed behind the plate-glass, with a like vigour and freedom of language. Nor did Mr. Sheldon’s announcement of his profession confine itself to the brass-plate and the glass-case. A shabby-genteel young man pervaded the neighbourhood for some days after the surgeon-dentist’s advent, knocking a postman’s knock, which only lacked the galvanic sharpness of the professional touch, and delivering neatly-printed circulars to the effect that Mr. Sheldon, surgeon-dentist, of 14 Fitzgeorge-street, had invented some novel method of adjusting false teeth, incomparably superior to any existing method, and that he had, further, patented an improvement on nature in the way of coral gums, the name whereof was an unpronounceable compound of Greek and Latin, calculated to awaken an awful reverence in the unprofessional and unclassical mind.

The Fitzgeorgians shook their heads with prophetic solemnity as they read these circulars. Struggling householders, who find it a hard task to keep the two ends which never have met and never will meet from growing farther and farther asunder every year, are apt to derive a dreary kind of satisfaction from the contemplation of another man’s impending ruin. Fitzgeorge-street and its neighbourhood had existed without the services of a dentist, but it was very doubtful that a dentist would be able to exist on the custom to be obtained in Fitzgeorge-street. Mr. Sheldon may, perhaps, have pitched his tent under the impression that wherever there was mankind there was likely to be toothache, and that the healer of an ill so common to frail humanity could scarcely fail to earn his bread, let him establish his abode of horror where he might. For some time after his arrival people watched him and wondered about him, and regarded him a little suspiciously, in spite of the substantial clumsiness of his furniture and the unwinking brightness of his windows. His neighbours asked one another how long all that outward semblance of prosperity would last; and there was sinister meaning in the question.

The Fitzgeorgians were not a little surprised, and were perhaps just a little disappointed, on finding that the newly-established dentist did manage to hold his ground somehow or other, and that the muslin curtains were renewed again and again in all their spotless purity; that the supplies of rotten-stone and oil, hearthstone and house-flannel, were unfailing as a perennial spring; and that the unsullied snow of Mr. Sheldon’s shirt-fronts retained its primeval whiteness. Wonderland suspicion gave place to a half-envious respect. Whether much custom came to the dentist no one could decide. There is no trade or profession in which the struggling man will not receive some faint show of encouragement. Pedestrians of agonised aspect, with handkerchiefs held convulsively before their mouths, were seen to rush wildly towards the dentist’s door, then pause for a moment, stricken by a sudden terror, and anon feebly pull the handle of an inflexible bell. Cabs had been heard to approach that fatal door — generally on wet days; for there seems to be a kind of fitness in the choice of damp and dismal weather for the extraction of teeth. Elderly ladies and gentlemen had been known to come many times to the Fitzgeorgian mansion. There was a legend of an old lady who had been seen to arrive in a brougham, especially weird and nut-crackery of aspect, and to depart half an hour afterwards a beautified and renovated creature. One half of the Fitzgeorgians declared that Mr. Sheldon had established a very nice little practice, and was saving money; while the other half were still despondent, and opined that the dentist had private property, and was eating up his little capital. It transpired in course of time that Mr. Sheldon had left his native town of Little Barlingford, in Yorkshire, where his father and grandfather had been surgeon-dentists before him, to establish himself in London. He had disposed advantageously of an excellent practice, and had transferred his household goods — the ponderous chairs and tables, the wood whereof had deepened and mellowed in tint under the indefatigable hand of his grandmother — to the metropolis, speculating on the chance that his talents and appearance, address and industry, could scarcely fail to achieve a position. It was further known that he had a brother, an attorney in Gray’s Inn, who visited him very frequently; that he had few other friends or acquaintance; that he was a shining example of steadiness and sobriety; that he was on the sunnier side of thirty, a bachelor, and very good-looking; and that his household was comprised of a grim-visaged active old woman imported from Barlingford, a girl who ran errands, and a boy who opened the door, attended to the consulting-room, and did some mysterious work at odd times with a file and sundry queer lumps of plaster-of-paris, beeswax, and bone, in a dark little shed abutting on the yard at the back of the house. This much had the inhabitants of Fitzgeorge-street discovered respecting Mr. Sheldon when he had been amongst them four years; but they had discovered no more. He had made no local acquaintances, nor had he sought to make any. Those of his neighbours who had seen the interior of his house had entered it as patients. They left it as much pleased with Mr. Sheldon as one can be with a man at whose hands one has just undergone martyrdom, and circulated a very flattering report of the dentist’s agreeable manners and delicate white handkerchief, fragrant with the odour of eau-de-Cologne. For the rest, Philip Sheldon lived his own life, and dreamed his own dreams. His opposite neighbours, who watched him on sultry summer evenings as he lounged near an open window smoking his cigar, had no more knowledge of his thoughts and fancies than they might have had if he had been a Calmuck Tartar or an Abyssinian chief.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50