Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

A Fortunate Marriage.

Eleven years had passed lightly enough over the glossy raven locks of Mr. Philip Sheldon. There are some men with whom Time deals gently, and he was one of them. The hard black eyes had lost none of their fierce brightness; the white teeth flashed with all their old brilliancy; the complexion, which had always been dusky of hue, was perhaps a shade or two darker; and the fierce black eyes seemed all the blacker by reason of the purple tinge beneath them. But the Philip Sheldon of to-day was, taken altogether, a handsomer man than the Philip Sheldon of eleven years ago.

Within those eleven years the Bloomsbury dentist had acquired a higher style of dress and bearing, and a certain improvement of tone and manner. He was still an eminently respectable man, and a man whose chief claim to the esteem of his fellows lay in the fact of his unimpeachable respectability; but his respectability of to-day, as compared with that of eleven years before, was as the respectability of Tyburnia when contrasted with that of St. Pancras. He was not an aristocratic-looking man, or an elegant man; but you felt, as you contemplated him, that the bulwarks of the citadel of English respectability are defended by such as he.

Mr. Sheldon no longer experimentalised with lumps of beeswax and plaster-of-paris. All the appalling paraphernalia of his cruel art had long since been handed over to an aspiring young dentist, together with the respectable house in Fitzgeorge-street, the furniture, and — the connexion. And thus had ended Philip Sheldon’s career as a surgeon-dentist. Within a year of Tom Halliday’s death his disconsolate widow had given her hand to her first sweetheart, not forgetful of her dead husband or ungrateful for much kindness and affection experienced at his hands, but yielding rather to Philip’s suit because she was unable to advance any fair show of reason whereby she might reject him.

“I told you, she’d be afraid to refuse you,” said George Sheldon, when the dentist came home from Barlingford, where Tom Halliday’s widow was living with her mother.

Philip had answered his brother’s questions rather ambiguously at first, but in the end had been fain to confess that he had asked Mrs. Halliday to marry him, and that his suit had prospered.

“That way of putting it is not very complimentary to me,” he said, drawing himself up rather stiffly. “Georgy and I were attached to each other long ago, and it is scarcely strange if ——”

“If you should make a match of it, Tom being gone. Poor old Tom! He and I were such cronies. I’ve always had an idea that neither you nor the other fellow quite understood that low fever of his. You did your best, no doubt; but I think you ought to have pulled him through somehow. However, that’s not a pleasant subject to talk of just now; so I’ll drop it, and wish you joy, Phil. It’ll be rather a good match for you, I fancy,” added George, contemplating his brother with a nervous twitching of his lips, which suggested that his mouth watered as he thought of Philip’s good fortune.

“It’s a very nice thing you drop into, old fellow, isn’t it?” he asked presently, seeing that his brother was rather disinclined to discuss the subject.

“You know the state of my affairs well enough to be sure that I couldn’t afford to marry a poor woman,” answered Philip.

“And that it has been for a long time a vital necessity with you to marry a rich one,” interjected his brother.

“Georgy will have a few hundreds, and ——”

“A few thousands, you mean, Phil,” cried Sheldon the younger with agreeable briskness; “shall I tot it up for you?”

He was always eager to “tot” things up, and would scarcely have shrunk from setting down the stars of heaven in trim double columns of figures, had it seemed to his profit to do so.

“Let us put it in figures, Phil,” he said, getting his finger-tips in order for the fray. “There’s the money for Hyley Farm — twelve thousand three hundred and fifty, I had it from poor Tom’s own lips. Then there’s that little property on Sheepfield Common — say seven-fifty, eh? — well, say seven hundred, if you like to leave a margin; and then there are the insurances — three thou’ in the Alliance, fifteen hundred in the Phoenix, five hundred in the Suffolk Friendly; the total of which, my dear boy, is eighteen thousand five hundred pounds; and a very nice thing for you to drop into, just as affairs were looking about as black as they could look.” “Yes,” answered Mr. Sheldon the elder, who appeared by on means to relish this “totting-up” of his future wife’s fortune; “I have no doubt I ought to consider myself a very lucky man.”

“So Barlingford folks will say when they hear of the business. And now I hope you’re not going to forget your promise to me.”

“What promise?”

“That if you ever did get a stroke of luck, I should have a share of it — eh, Phil?”

Mr. Sheldon caressed his chin, and looked thoughtfully at the fire.

“If my wife lets me have the handling of any of her money, you may depend upon it I’ll do what I can for you,” he said, after a pause.

“Don’t say that, Phil,” remonstrated George. “When a man says he’ll do what he can for you, it’s a sure sign he means to do nothing. Friendship and brotherly feeling are at an end when it comes to a question of ‘ifs’ and ‘cans.’ If your wife lets you have the handling of any of her money!” cried the lawyer, with unspeakable derision; “that’s too good a joke for you to indulge in with me. Do you think I believe you will let that poor little woman keep custody of her money a day after she is your wife, or that you will let her friends tie it up for her before she marries you?”

“No, Phil, you didn’t lay your plans for that.”

“What do you mean by my laying plans?” asked the dentist.

“That’s a point we won’t discuss, Philip,” answered the lawyer coolly. “You and I understand each other very well without entering into unpleasant details. You promised me a year ago — before Tom Halliday’s death — that if you ever came into a good thing, I should share in it. You have come into an uncommonly good thing, and I shall expect you to keep your promise.”

“Who says I am going to break it?” demanded Philip Sheldon with an injured air. “You shouldn’t be in such a hurry to cry out, George. You take the tone of a social Dick Turpin, and might as well hold a pistol to my head while you’re about it. Don’t alarm yourself. I have told you I will do what I can for you. I cannot, and I shall not, say more.”

The two men looked at each other. They were in the habit of taking the measure of all creation in their own eminently practical way, and each took the other’s measure now. After having done which, they parted with all cordial expressions of good-will and brotherly feeling. George went back to his dusty chambers in Gray’s Inn, and Philip prepared for his return to Barlingford and his marriage with Georgina Halliday.

For ten years Georgy had been Philip Sheldon’s wife, and she had found no reason to complain of her second choice. The current of her life had flowed smoothly enough since her first lover had become her husband. She still wore moire-antique dresses and gold chains; and if the dresses were of more simple fashion, and the chains were less obtrusively displayed, she had to thank Mr. Sheldon for the refinement in her taste. Her views of life in general had expanded under Mr. Sheldon’s influence. She no longer thought a high-wheeled dog-cart and a skittish mare the acme of earthly splendour; for she had a carriage and pair at her service, and a smart little page-boy to leap off the box in attendance on her when she paid visits or went shopping. Instead of the big comfortable old-fashioned farmhouse at Hyley, with its mysterious passages and impenetrable obscurities in the way of cupboards, she occupied an intensely new detached villa in Bayswater, in which the eye that might chance to grow weary of sunshine and glitter would have sought in vain for a dark corner wherein to repose itself.

Mr. Sheldon’s fortunes had prospered since his marriage with his friend’s widow. For a man of his practical mind and energetic temperament, eighteen thousand pounds was a strong starting-point. His first step was to clear off all old engagements with Jews and Gentiles, and to turn his back on the respectable house in Fitzgeorge-street. The earlier months of his married life he devoted to a pleasant tour on the Continent; not wasting time in picturesque by-ways, or dawdling among inaccessible mountains, or mooning about drowsy old cathedrals, where there were pictures with curtains hanging before them, and prowling vergers who expected money for drawing aside the curtains; but rattling at the highest continental speed from one big commercial city to another, and rubbing off the rust of Bloomsbury in the exchanges and on the quays of the busiest places in Europe. The time which Mr. Sheldon forbore to squander in shadowy gothic aisles and under the shelter of Alpine heights, he accounted well bestowed in crowded cafés, and at the public tables of noted hotels, where commercial men were wont to congregate; and as Georgy had no aspirings for the sublimity of Vandyke and Raphael, or the gigantic splendours of Alpine scenery, she was very well pleased to see continental life with the eyes of Philip Sheldon. How could a half-educated little woman, whose worldly experience was bounded by the suburbs of Barlingford, be otherwise than delighted by the glare and glitter of foreign cities? Georgy was childishly enraptured with everything she saw, from the sham diamonds and rubies of the Palais Royal, to the fantastical bonbons of Berlin.

Her husband was very kind to her — after his own particular fashion, which was very different from blustering Tom Halliday’s weak indulgence. He allotted and regulated her life to suit his own convenience, it is true; but he bought her handsome dresses, and took her with him in hired carriages when he drove about the strange cities. He was apt to leave Georgy and the hired carriage at the corner of some street, or before the door of some cafe, for an hour at a time, in the course of his peregrinations; but she speedily became accustomed to this, and provided herself with the Tauchnitz edition of a novel, wherewith to beguile the tedium of these intervals in the day’s amusement. If Tom Halliday had left her for an hour at a street-corner, or before the door of a café, she would have tortured herself and him by all manner of jealous suspicions and vague imaginings. But there was a stern gravity in Mr. Sheldon’s character which precluded the possibility of any such shadowy fancies. Every action of his life seemed to involve such serious motives, the whole tenor of his existence was so orderly and business-like, that his wife was fain to submit to him, as she would have submitted to some ponderous infallible machine, some monster of modern ingenuity and steam power, which cut asunder so many bars of iron, or punched holes in so many paving-stones in a given number of seconds, and was likely to go on dividing iron or piercing paving-stones for ever and ever.

She obeyed him, and was content to fashion her life according to his will, chiefly because she had a vague consciousness that to argue with him, or to seek to influence him, would be to attempt the impossible. Perhaps there was something more than this in her mind — some half-consciousness that there was a shapeless and invertebrate skeleton lurking in the shadowy background of her new life, a dusky and impalpable creature which it would not be well for her to examine or understand. She was a cowardly little woman, and finding herself tolerably happy in the present, she did not care to pierce the veil of the future, or to cast anxious glances backward to the past. She thought it just possible that there might be people in the world base enough to hint that Philip Sheldon had married her for love of her eighteen thousand pounds, rather than from pure devotion to herself. She knew that certain prudent friends and kindred in Barlingford had elevated their hands and eyebrows in speechless horror when they discovered that she had married her second husband without a settlement; while one grim and elderly uncle had asked her whether she did not expect her father to turn in his grave by reason of her folly.

Georgy had shrugged her shoulders peevishly when her Barlingford friends remonstrated with her, and had declared that people were very cruel to her, and that it was a hard thing she could not choose for herself for once in her life. As to the settlements that people talked of, she protested indignantly that she was not so mean as to fancy her future husband a thief, and that to tie up her money in all sorts of ways would be to imply as much. And then, as it was only a year since poor dear Tom’s death, she had been anxious to marry without fuss or parade. In fact, there were a hundred reasons against legal interference, and legal tying-up of the money, with all that dreadful jargon about “whereas,” and “hereinafter,” and “provided always,” and “nothing herein contained,” which seems to hedge round a sum of money so closely, that it is doubtful whether the actual owner will ever be free to spend a sixpence of it after the execution of that formidable document intended to protect it from possible marauders.

George Sheldon had said something very near the truth when he had told Philip that Mrs. Halliday would be afraid to refuse him. The fair-haired, fair-faced little woman did in some manner fear the first lover of her girlhood. She had become his wife, and so far all things had gone well with her; but if misery and despair had been the necessary consequences of her union with him, she must have married him all the same, so dominant was the influence by which he ruled her. Of course Georgy was not herself aware of her own dependence. She accepted all things as they were presented to her by a stronger mind than her own. She wore her handsome silk dresses, and was especially particular as to the adjustment of her bonnet-strings, knowing that the smallest impropriety of attire was obnoxious to the well-ordered mind of her second husband. She obeyed him very much as a child obeys a strict but not unkind schoolmaster. When he took her to a theatre or a racecourse, she sat by his side meekly, and felt like a child who has been good and is reaping the reward of goodness. And this state of things was in nowise disagreeable to her. She was perhaps quite as happy as it was in her nature to be; for she had no exalted capacity for happiness or misery. She felt that it was pleasant to have a handsome man, whose costume was always irreproachable, for her husband. Her only notion of a bad husband was a man who stayed out late, and came home under the influence of strong liquors consumed in unknown localities and amongst unknown people. So, as Mr. Sheldon rarely went out after dinner, and was on all occasions the most temperate of men, she naturally considered her second husband the very model of conjugal perfection. Thus it was that domestic life had passed smoothly enough for Mr. Sheldon and his wife during the ten years which had elapsed since their marriage.

As to the eighteen thousand pounds which she had brought Philip Sheldon, Georgy asked no questions. She knew that she enjoyed luxuries and splendours which had never been hers in Tom Halliday’s lifetime, and she was content to accept the goods which her second husband provided. Mr. Sheldon had become a stockbroker, and occupied an office in some dusky court within a few hundred yards of the Stock Exchange. He had, according to his own account, trebled Georgy’s thousands since they had been in his hands. How the unsuccessful surgeon-dentist had blossomed all at once into a fortunate speculator was a problem too profound for Georgy’s consideration. She knew that her husband had allied himself to a certain established firm of stockbrokers, and that the alliance had cost him some thousands of Tom Halliday’s money. She had heard of preliminary steps to be taken to secure his admission as a member of some mysterious confraternity vaguely spoken of as “the House;” and she knew that Tom Halliday’s thousands had been the seed from which had sprung other thousands, and that her husband had been altogether triumphant and successful.

It may be that it is easier to rig the market than to induce a given number of people to resort to a certain dull street in Bloomsbury for the purpose of having teeth extracted by an unknown practitioner. It is possible that the stockbroker is like the poet, a creature who is born, and not made; a gifted and inspired being, not to be perfected by any specific education; a child of spontaneous instincts and untutored faculties. Certain it is that the divine afflatus from the nostrils of the god Plutus seemed to have descended upon Philip Sheldon; for he had entered the Stock Exchange an inexperienced stranger, and he held his place there amongst men whose boyhood had been spent in the offices of Capel-court, and whose youthful strength had been nourished in the chop-houses of Pinch-lane and Thread-needle-street.

Mrs. Sheldon was satisfied with the general knowledge that Mr. Sheldon had been fortunate, and had never sought any more precise knowledge of her husband’s affairs. Nor did she seek such knowledge even now, when her daughter was approaching womanhood, and might ere long need some dower out of her mother’s fortune. Poor Tom, trusting implicitly in the wife he loved, and making his will only as a precautionary measure, at a time when he seemed good for fifty years of life and strength, had not troubled himself about remote contingencies, and had in no wise foreseen the probability of a second husband for Georgy and-a stepfather for his child.

Two children had been born to Mr. Sheldon since his marriage, and both had died in infancy. The loss of these children had fallen very heavily on the strong hard man, though he had never shed a tear or uttered a lamentation, or wasted an hour of his business-like existence by reason of his sorrow. Georgy had just sufficient penetration to perceive that her husband was bitterly disappointed when no more baby-strangers came to replace those poor frail little lives which had withered away and vanished in spite of his anxiety to hold them.

“It seems as if there was a blight upon my children,” he once said bitterly; and this was the only occasion on which his wife heard him complain of his evil fortune.

But one day, when he had been particularly lucky in some speculation, when he had succeeded in achieving what his brother George spoke of as the “biggest line he had ever done,” Philip Sheldon came home to the Bayswater villa in a particularly bad humour, and for the first time since her marriage Georgy heard him quote a line of Scripture.

“Heaping up riches,” he muttered, as he paced up and down the room; “heaping up riches, and ye cannot tell who shall gather them.”

His wife knew then that he was thinking of his children. During the brief lives of those two fragile boy-babies the stockbroker had been wont to talk much of future successes in the way of money-making to be achieved by him for the enrichment and exaltation of these children. They were gone now, and no more came to replace them. And though Philip Sheldon still devoted himself to the sublime art of money-making, and still took delight in successful time-bargains and all the scientific combinations of the money-market, the salt of life had lost something of its savour, and the chink of gold had lost somewhat of its music.

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