Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Philip Sheldon Reads the “Lancet.”

Fitzgeorge-street was chill and dreary of aspect, under a gray March sky, when Mr. Sheldon returned to it after a week’s absence from London. He had been to Little Barlingford, and had spent his brief holiday among old friends and acquaintance. The weather had not been in favour of that driving hither and thither in dog-carts, or riding rakish horses long distances to beat up old companions, which is accounted pleasure on such occasions. The blustrous winds of an unusually bitter March had buffeted Mr. Sheldon in the streets of his native town, and had almost blown him off the door-steps of his kindred. So it is scarcely strange if he returned to town looking none the better for his excursion. He looked considerably the worse for his week’s absence, the old Yorkshire-woman said, as she waited upon him while he ate a chop and drank two large cups of very strong tea.

Mr. Sheldon made short work of his impromptu meal. He seemed anxious to put an end to his housekeeper’s affectionate interest in himself and his health, and to get her out of the room. She had nursed him nearly thirty years before, and the recollection that she had been very familiar with him when he was a handsome black-eyed baby, with a tendency to become suddenly stiff of body and crimson of visage without any obvious provocation, inclined her to take occasional liberties now. She watched him furtively as he sat in a big high-backed arm-chair staring moodily at the struggling fire, and would fain have questioned him a little about Barlingford and Barlingford people.

But Philip Sheldon was not a man with whom even a superannuated nurse can venture to take many liberties. He was a good master, paid his servants their wages with unfailing punctuality, and gave very little trouble. But he was the last person in the world upon whom a garrulous woman could venture to inflict her rambling discourse; as Nancy Woolper — by courtesy, Mrs. Woolper — was fain to confess to her next-door neighbour, Mrs. Magson, when her master was the subject of an afternoon gossip. The heads of a household may inhabit a neighbourhood for years without becoming acquainted even with the outward aspect of their neighbours; but in the lordly servants’ halls of the West, or the modest kitchens of Bloomsbury, there will be interchange of civilities and friendly “droppings in” to tea or supper, let the master of the house be never so ungregarious a creature.

“You can take the tea-things, Nancy,” Mr. Sheldon said presently, arousing himself suddenly from that sombre reverie in which he had been absorbed for the last ten minutes; “I am going to be very busy to-night, and I expect Mr. George in the course of the evening. Mind, I am not at home to anybody but him.”

The old woman arranged the tea-things on her tray, but still kept a furtive watch on her master, who sat with his head a little bent, and his bright black eyes fixed on the fire with that intensity of gaze peculiar to eyes which see something far away from the object they seem to contemplate. She was in the habit of watching Mr. Sheldon rather curiously at all times, for she had never quite got over a difficulty in realising the fact that the black-eyed baby with whom she had been so intimate could have developed into this self-contained inflexible young man, whose thoughts were so very far away from her. To-night she watched him more intently than she was accustomed to do, for to-night there was some change in his face which she was trying in a dim way to account for.

He looked up from the fire suddenly, and found her eyes fixed upon him. It may be that he had been disturbed by a semi-consciousness of that curious gaze, for he looked at her angrily — “What are you staring at, Nancy?”

It was not the first time he had encountered her watchful eyes and asked the same impatient question. But Mrs. Woolper possessed that north-country quickness of intellect which is generally equal to an emergency, and was always ready with some question or suggestion which went to prove that she had just fixed her eyes on her master, inspired by some anxiety about his interests.

“I was just a-thinking, sir,” she said, meeting his stern glance unflinchingly with her little sharp gray eyes, “I was just a-thinking — you said not at home to any one, except Mr. George. If it should be a person in a cab wanting their teeth out sudden — and if anything could make toothache more general in this neighbourhood it would be these March winds — if it should be a patient, sir, in a cab ——”

The dentist interrupted her with a short bitter laugh.

“Neither March winds nor April showers are likely to bring me patients, Nancy, on foot or in cabs, and you ought to know it. If it’s a patient, ask him in, by all means, and give him last Saturday week’s Times to read, while I rub the rust off my forceps. There, that will do; take your tray — or, stop; I’ve some news to tell you.” He rose, and stood with his back to the fire and his eyes bent upon the hearthrug, while Mrs. Woolper waited by the table, with the tray packed ready for removal. Her master kept her waiting so for some minutes, and then turned his face half away from her, and contemplated himself absently in the glass while he spoke.

“You remember Mrs. Halliday?” he asked.

“I should think I did, sir; Miss Georgina Cradock that was — Miss Georgy they called her; your first sweetheart. And how she could ever marry that big awkward Halliday is more than I can make out. Poor fondy! I suppose she was took with those great round blue eyes and red whiskers of his.”

“Her mother and father were ‘took’ by his comfortable farmhouse and well-stocked farm, Nancy,” answered Mr. Sheldon, still contemplating himself in the glass. “Georgy had very little to do with it. She is one of those women who let other people think for them. However, Tom is an excellent fellow, and Georgy was a lucky girl to catch such a husband. Any little flirtation there may have been between her and me was over and done with long before she married Tom. It never was more than a flirtation; and I’ve flirted with a good many Barlingford girls in my time, as you know, Nancy.”

It was not often that Mr. Sheldon condescended to be so communicative to his housekeeper. The old woman nodded and chuckled, delighted by her master’s unwonted friendliness.

“I drove over to Hyley while I was at home, Nancy,” continued the dentist — he called Barlingford home still, though he had broken most of the links that had bound him to it —“and dined with the Hallidays. Georgy is as pretty as ever, and she and Tom get on capitally.”

“Any children, sir?”

“One girl,” answered Mr. Sheldon carelessly. “She’s at school in Scarborough, and I didn’t see her; but I hear she’s a fine bouncing lass. I had a very pleasant day with the Hallidays. Tom has sold his farm; that part of the world doesn’t suit him, it seems — too cold and bleak for him. He’s one of those big burly-looking men who seem as if they could knock you down with a little finger, and who shiver at every puff of wind. I don’t think he’ll make old bones, Nancy. But that’s neither here nor there. I daresay he’s good for another ten years; or I’m sure I hope so, on Georgy’s account.”

“It was right down soft of him to sell Hyley Farm, though,” said Nancy reflectively; “I’ve heard tell as it’s the best land for forty mile round Barlingford. But he got a rare good price for it, I’ll lay.”

“O, yes; he sold the property uncommonly well, he tells me. You know if a north-countryman gets the chance of making a profit, he never lets it slip through his fingers.”

Mrs. Woolper received this compliment to her countrymen with a gratified grin, and Mr. Sheldon went on talking, still looking at the reflection of his handsome face in the glass, and pulling his whiskers meditatively.

“Now as Tom was made for a farmer and nothing but a farmer, he must find land somewhere in a climate that does suit him; so his friends have advised him to try a place in Devonshire or Cornwall, where he may train his myrtles and roses over his roof, and grow green peas for the London markets as late as November. There are such places to be had if he bides his time, and he’s coming to town next week to look about him. So, as Georgy and he would be about as capable of taking care of themselves in London as a couple of children, I have recommended them to take up their quarters here. They’ll have their lodgings for nothing, and we shall chum together on the Yorkshire system; for of course I can’t afford to keep a couple of visitors for a month at a stretch. Do you think you shall be able to manage for us, Nancy?”

“O, yes, I’ll manage well enough. I’m not one of your lazy London lasses that take half an hour to wipe a teacup. I’ll manage easy enough. Mr. and Mrs. Halliday will be having your room, I’ll lay.”

“Yes; give them the best room, by all means. I can sleep anywhere. And now go downstairs and think it over, Nancy. I must get to my work. I’ve some letters that must be written to-night.”

Mrs. Woolper departed with her tray, gratified by her master’s unwonted familiarity, and not ill pleased by the thought of visitors. They would cause a great deal of trouble, certainly; but the monotony of Nancy’s easy life had grown so oppressive to her as to render the idea of any variety pleasing. And then there would be the pleasure of making that iniquitous creature the London lass bestir herself, and there would be furthermore the advantage of certain little perquisites which a clever manager always secures to herself in a house where there is much eating and drinking. Mr. Sheldon himself had lived like a modern anchorite for the last four years; and Mrs. Woolper, who was pretty well acquainted with the state of his finances, had pinched and contrived for his benefit, or rather for the benefit of the black-eyed baby she had nursed nine-and-twenty years before. For his sake she had been careful and honest, willing to forego all the small profits to which she held herself entitled; but if well-to-do people were going to share her master’s expenses, there would be no longer need for such scrupulous integrity; and if things were rightly managed, Thomas Halliday might be made to bear the entire cost of the household during his month’s visit on the Yorkshire system.

While Mrs. Woolper meditated upon her domestic duties, the master of the domicile abandoned himself to reflections which were apparently of a very serious character. He brought a leathern desk from a side-table, unlocked it, and took out a quire of paper; but he made no further advance towards the writing of those letters on account of which he had dismissed his housekeeper. He sat, with his elbows on the table, nibbling the end of a wooden penholder, and staring at the opposite wall. His face looked pale and haggard in the light of the gas, and the eyes, fixed in that vacant stare, had a feverish brightness.

Mr. Sheldon was a handsome man — eminently handsome, according to the popular notion of masculine beauty; and if the popular ideal has been a little vulgarised by the waxen gentlemen on whose finely-moulded foreheads the wig-maker is wont to display the specimens of his art, that is no discredit to Mr. Sheldon. His features were regular; the nose a handsome aquiline; the mouth firm and well modelled; the chin and jaw rather heavier than in the waxen ideal of the hair-dresser; the forehead very prominent in the region of the perceptives, but obviously wanting in the higher faculties. The eye of the phrenologist, unaided by his fingers, must have failed to discover the secrets of Mr. Sheldon’s organisation; for one of the dentist’s strong points was his hair, which was very luxuriant, and which he wore in artfully-arranged masses that passed for curls, but which owed their undulating grace rather to a skilful manipulation than to any natural tendency. It has been said that the rulers of the world are straight-haired men; and Mr. Sheldon might have been a Napoleon III. so far as regards this special attribute. His hair was of a dense black, and his whiskers of the same sombre hue. These carefully-arranged whiskers were another of the dentist’s strong points; and the third strong point was his teeth, the perfection whereof was a fine advertisement when considered in a professional light. The teeth were rather too large and square for a painter’s or a poet’s notion of beauty, and were apt to suggest an unpleasant image of some sleek brindled creature crunching human bones in an Indian jungle. But they were handsome teeth notwithstanding, and their flashing whiteness made an effective contrast to the clear sallow tint of the dentist’s complexion.

Mr. Sheldon was a man of industrious habits — fond indeed of work, and distinguished by a persistent activity in the carrying out of any labour he had planned for himself. He was not prone to the indulgence of idle reveries or agreeable day-dreams. Thought with him was labour; it was the “thinking out” of future work to be done, and it was an operation as precise and mathematical as the actual labour that resulted therefrom. The contents of his brain were as well kept as a careful trader’s ledger. He had his thoughts docketed and indexed, and rarely wasted the smallest portion of his time in searching for an idea. Tonight he sat thinking until he was interrupted by a loud double knock, which was evidently familiar to him, for he muttered “George!” pushed aside his desk, and took up his stand upon the hearthrug, ready to receive the expected visitor.

There was the sound of a man’s voice below — very like Philip Sheldon’s own voice; then a quick firm tread on the stairs; and then the door was opened, and a man, who himself was very like Philip Sheldon, came into the room. This was the dentist’s brother George, two years his junior. The likeness between the two men was in no way marvellous, but it was nevertheless very obvious. You could scarcely have mistaken one man for the other, but you could hardly have failed to perceive that the two men were brothers. They resembled each other more closely in form than in face. They were of the same height — both tall and strongly built. Both had black eyes with a hard brightness in them, black whiskers, black hair, sinewy hands with prominent knuckles, square finger-tops, and bony wrists. Each man seemed the personification of savage health and vigour, smoothed and shapened in accordance with the prejudices of civilised life. Looking at these two men for the first time, you might approve or disapprove their appearance; they might impress you favourably or unfavourably; but you could scarcely fail to be reminded vaguely of strong, bright-eyed, savage creatures, beautiful and graceful after their kind, but dangerous and fatal to man.

The brothers greeted each other with a friendly nod. They were a great deal too practical to indulge in any sentimental display of fraternal affection. They liked each other very well, and were useful to each other, and took their pleasure together on those rare occasions when they were weak enough to waste time upon unprofitable pleasure; but neither of them would have comprehended the possibility of anything beyond this.

“Well, old fellow,” said George, “I’m glad you’re back again. You’re looking rather seedy, though. I suppose you knocked about a good deal down there?”

“I had a night or two of it with Halliday and the old set. He’s going it rather fast.”

“Humph!” muttered Mr. Sheldon the younger; “it’s a pity he doesn’t go it a little faster, and go off the hooks altogether, so that you might marry Georgy.”

“How do I know that Georgy would have me, if he did leave her a widow?” asked Philip dubiously.

“O, she’d have you fast enough. She used to be very sweet upon you before she married Tom; and even if she has forgotten all that, she’d have you if you asked her. She’d be afraid to say no. She was always more or less afraid of you, you know, Phil.”

“I don’t know about that. She was a nice little thing enough; but she knew how to drop a poor sweetheart and take up with a rich one, in spite of her simplicity.”

“O, that was the old parties’ doing. Georgy would have jumped into a cauldron of boiling oil if her mother and father had told her she must do it. Don’t you remember when we were children together how afraid she used to be of spoiling her frocks? I don’t believe she married Tom Halliday of her own free will, any more than she stood in the corner of her own free will after she’d torn her frock, as I’ve seen her stand twenty times. She stood in the corner because they told her she must; and she married Tom for the same reason, and I don’t suppose she’s been particularly happy with him.”

“Well, that’s her look-out,” answered Philip gloomily; “I know I want a rich wife badly enough. Things are about as bad with me as they can be.”

“I suppose they are rather piscatorial. The elderly dowagers don’t come up to time, eh? Very few orders for the complete set at ten-pound-ten?”

“I took about seventy pounds last year,” said the dentist, “and my expenses are something like five pounds a week. I’ve been making up the deficiency out of the money I got for the Barlingford business, thinking I should be able to stand out and make a connection; but the connection gets more disconnected every year. I suppose people came to me at first for the novelty of the thing, for I had a sprinkling of decent patients for the first twelve months or so. But now I might as well throw my money into the gutter as spend it on circulars or advertisements.”

“And a young woman with twenty thousand pounds and something amiss with her jaw hasn’t turned up yet!”

“No, nor an old woman either. I wouldn’t stick at the age, if the money was all right,” answered Mr. Sheldon bitterly.

The younger brother shrugged his shoulders and plunged his hands into his trousers-pockets with a gesture of seriocomic despair. He was the livelier of the two, and affected a slanginess of dress and talk and manner, a certain “horsey” style, very different from his elder brother’s studied respectability of costume and bearing. His clothes were of a loose sporting cut, and always odorous with stale tobacco. He wore a good deal of finery in the shape of studs and pins and dangling lockets and fusee-boxes; his whiskers were more obtrusive than his brother’s, and he wore a moustache in addition — a thick ragged black moustache, which would have become a guerilla chieftain rather than a dweller amidst the quiet courts and squares of Gray’s Inn. His position as a lawyer was not much better than that of Philip as a dentist; but he had his own plans for making a fortune, and hoped to win for himself a larger fortune than is, often made in the law. He was a hunter of genealogies, a grubber-up of forgotten facts, a joiner of broken links, a kind of legal resurrectionist, a digger in the dust and ashes of the past; and he expected in due time to dig up a treasure rich enough to reward the labour and patience of half a lifetime.

“I can afford to wait till I’m forty for my good luck,” he said to his brother sometimes in moments of expansion; “and then I shall have ten years in which to enjoy myself, and twenty more in which I shall have life enough left to eat good dinners and drink good wine, and grumble about the degeneracy of things in general, after the manner of elderly human nature.”

The men stood one on each side of the hearth; George looking at his brother, Philip looking down at the fire, with his eyes shaded by their thick black lashes. The fire had become dull and hollow. George bent down presently and stirred the coals impatiently.

“If there’s one thing I hate more than, another — and I hate a good many things — it’s a bad fire,” he said. “How’s Barlingford — lively as ever, I suppose?”

“Not much livelier than it was when we left it. Things have gone amiss with me in London, and I’ve been more than once sorely tempted to make an end of my difficulties with a razor or a few drops of prussic acid; but when I saw the dull gray streets and the square gray houses, and the empty market-place, and the Baptist chapel, and the Unitarian chapel, and the big stony church, and heard the dreary bells ding-donging for evening service, I wondered how I could ever have existed a week in such a place. I had rather sweep a crossing in London than occupy the best house in Barlingford, and I told Tom Halliday so.”

“And Tom is coming to London I understand by your letter.”

“Yes, he has sold Hyley, and wants to find a place in the west of England. The north doesn’t suit his chest. He and Georgy are coming up to town for a few weeks, so I’ve asked them to stay here. I may as well make some use of the house, for it’s very little good in a professional sense.”

“Humph!” muttered George; “I don’t see your motive.”

“I have no particular motive. Tom’s a good fellow, and his company will be better than an empty house. The visit won’t cost me anything — Halliday is to go shares in the housekeeping.”

“Well, you may find it answer that way,” replied Mr. Sheldon the younger, who considered that every action of a man’s life ought to be made to “answer” in some way. “But I should think you would be rather bored by the arrangement: Tom’s a very good fellow in his way, and a great friend of mine, but he’s rather an empty-headed animal.”

The subject dropped here, and the brothers went on talking of Barlingford and Barlingford people — the few remaining kindred whose existence made a kind of link between the two men and their native town, and the boon companions of their early manhood. The dentist produced the remnant of a bottle of whisky from the sideboard, and rang for hot water and sugar, Wherewith to brew grog, for his own and his brother’s refreshment; but the conversation flagged nevertheless. Philip Sheldon was dull and absent, answering his companion at random every now and then, much to that gentleman’s aggravation; and he owned at last to being thoroughly tired and worn out.

“The journey from Barlingford in a slow train is no joke, you know, George, and I couldn’t afford the express,” he said apologetically, when his brother upbraided him for his distraction of manner.

“Then I should think you’d better go to bed,” answered Mr. Sheldon the younger, who had smoked a couple of cigars, and consumed the contents of the whisky-bottle; “so I’ll take myself off. I told you how uncommonly seedy you were looking when I first came in. When do you expect Tom and his wife?”

“At the beginning of next week.”

“So soon! Well, good-night, old fellow; I shall see you before they come, I daresay. You might as well drop in upon me at my place to-morrow night. I’m hard at work on a job.”

“Your old kind of work?”

“O, yes. I don’t get much work of any other kind.”

“And I’m afraid you’ll never get much good out of that.”

“I don’t know. A man who sits down to whist may have a run of ill-luck before he gets a decent hand; but the good cards are sure to come if he only sits long enough. Every man has his chance, depend upon it, Phil, if he knows how to watch for it; but there are so many men who get tired and go to sleep before their chances come to them. I’ve wasted a good deal of time, and a good deal of labour; but the ace of trumps is in the pack, and it must turn up sooner or later. Ta-ta.”

George Sheldon nodded and departed, whistling gaily as he walked away from his brother’s door. Philip heard him, and turned his chair to the fire with a movement of impatience.

“You may be uncommonly clever, my dear George,” soliloquised the dentist, “but you’ll never make a fortune by reading wills and hunting in parish-registers for heirs-at-law. A big lump of money is not very likely to go a-begging while any one who can fudge up the faintest pretence of a claim to it is above ground. No, no, my lad, you must find a better way than that before you’ll make your fortune.”

The fire had burnt low again, and Mr. Sheldon sat staring gloomily at the blackening coals. Things were very bad with him — he had not cared to confess how bad they were, when he had discussed his affairs with his brother. Those neighbours and passers-by who admired the trim brightness of the dentist’s abode had no suspicion that the master of that respectable house was in the hands of the Jews, and that the hearthstone which whitened his door-step was paid for out of Israelitish coffers. The dentist’s philosophy was all of this world, and he knew that the soldier of fortune, who would fain be a conqueror in the great battle, must needs keep his plumage undrabbled and the golden facings of his uniform untarnished, let his wounds be never so desperate.

Having found his attempt to establish a practice in Fitzgeorge-street a failure, the only course open to Mr. Sheldon, as a man of the world, was to transfer his failure to somebody else, with more or less profit to himself. To this end he preserved the spotless purity of his muslin curtains, though the starch that stiffened them and the bleaching-powder that whitened them were bought with money for which he was to pay sixty per cent. To this end he nursed that wan shadow of a practice, and sustained that appearance of respectability which, in a world where appearance stands for so much, is in itself a kind of capital. It certainly was dull dreary work to hold the citadel of No. 14 Fitzgeorge-street, against the besieger Poverty; but the dentist stood his ground pertinaciously, knowing that if he only waited long enough, the dupe who was to be his victim would come, and knowing also that there might arrive a day when it would be very useful for him to be able to refer to four years’ unblemished respectability as a Bloomsbury householder. He had his lines set in several shady places for that unhappy fish with a small capital, and he had been tantalised by more than one nibble; but he made no open show of his desire to sell his business — since a business that is obviously in the market seems scarcely worth any man’s purchase.

Things had of late grown worse with him every day; for every interval of twenty-four hours sinks a man so much the deeper in the mire when renewed accommodation-bills with his name upon them are ripening in the iron safes of Judah. Philip Sheldon found himself sinking gradually and almost imperceptibly into that bottomless pit of difficulty in whose black depths the demon Insolvency holds his dreary court. While his little capital lasted he had kept himself clear of debt, but that being exhausted, and his practice growing worse day by day, he had been fain to seek assistance from money-lenders; and now even the money-lenders were tired of him. The chair in which he sat, the poker which he swung slowly to and fro as he bent over his hearth, were not his own. One of his Jewish creditors had a bill of sale on his furniture, and he might come home any day to find the auctioneer’s bills plastered against the wall of his house, and the auctioneer’s clerk busy with the catalogue of his possessions. If the expected victim came now to buy his practice, the sacrifice would be made too late to serve his interest. The men who had lent him the money would be the sole gainers by the bargain.

Seldom does a man find himself face to face with a blacker prospect than that which lay before Philip Sheldon; and yet his manner to-night was not the dull blank apathy of despair. It was the manner of a man whose brain is occupied by busy thoughts; who has some elaborate scheme to map out and arrange before he is called upon to carry his plans into action.

“It would be a good business for me,” he muttered, “if I had pluck enough to carry it through.”

The fire went out as he sat swinging the poker backwards and forwards. The clocks of Bloomsbury and St. Pancras struck twelve, and still Philip Sheldon pondered and plotted by that dreary hearth. The servants had retired at eleven, after a good deal of blundering with bars and shutters, and unnecessary banging of doors. That unearthly silence peculiar to houses after midnight reigned in Mr. Sheldon’s domicile, and he could hear the voices of distant roisterers, and the miauling of neighbouring cats, with a painful distinctness as he sat brooding in his silent room. The fact that a mahogany chiffonier in a corner gave utterance to a faint groan occasionally, as of some feeble creature in pain, afforded him no annoyance. He was superior to superstitious fancies, and all the rappings and scratchings of spirit-land would have failed to disturb his equanimity. He was a strictly practical man — one of those men who are always ready, with a stump of lead-pencil and the back of a letter, to reduce everything in creation to figures.

“I had better read up that business before they come,” he said, when he had to all appearance “thought out” the subject of his reverie. “No time so good as this for doing it quietly. One never knows who is spying about in the daytime.” He looked at his watch, and then went to a cupboard, where there were bundles of wood and matches and old newspapers — for it was his habit to light his own fire occasionally when he worked unusually late at night or early in the morning. He relighted his fire now as cleverly as any housemaid in Bloomsbury, and stood watching it till it burned briskly. Then he lit a taper, and went downstairs to the professional torture-chamber. The tall horsehair chair looked unutterably awful in the dim glimmer of the taper, and a nervous person could almost have fancied it occupied by the ghost of some patient who had expired under the agony of the forceps. Mr. Sheldon lighted the gas in a movable branch which he was in the habit of turning almost into the mouths of the patients who consulted him at night. There was a cupboard on each side of the mantelpiece, and it was in these two cupboards that the dentist kept his professional library. His books did not form a very valuable collection, but he kept the cupboards constantly locked nevertheless.

He took the key from his waistcoat-pocket, opened one of the cupboards, and selected a book from a row of dingy-looking volumes. He carried the book to the room above, where he seated himself under the gas, and opened the volume at a place in which there was a scrap of paper, evidently left there as a mark. The book was a volume of the Lancet, and in this book he read with close attention until the Bloomsbury clocks struck three.

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