Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Valentine Invokes the Phantoms of the Past.

Oct. 7th, Midnight. I was so fortunate as to get away from Spotswold this morning very soon after the completion of my researches in the vestry, and at five o’clock in the afternoon I found myself once more in the streets of Ullerton. Coming home in the train I meditated seriously upon the unexpected appearance of Horatio Paget at the head-quarters of this Haygarthian investigation; and the more I considered that fact, the more I felt inclined to doubt my patron’s motives, and to fear his interference. Can his presence in Ullerton have any relation to the business that has brought me here? That is the question which I asked myself a hundred times during my journey from Spotswold; that is the question which I ask myself still.

I have no doubt I give myself unnecessary trouble; but I know that old man’s Machiavellian cleverness only too well; and I am inclined to look with suspicion upon every action of his. My first business on returning to this house was to ascertain whether any one bearing his name, or answering to my description of him, had arrived during my absence. I was relieved by finding that no stranger whatever had put up at the inn since the previous forenoon. Who may have used the coffee-room is another question, not so easily set at rest. In the evening a great many people come in and go out; and my friend and patron may have taken his favourite brandy-and-soda, skimmed his newspaper, and picked up whatever information was to be obtained as to my movements without attracting any particular attention.

In the words of the immortal lessee of the Globe Theatre, “Why I should fear I know not . . . and yet I feel I fear!”

I found a registered letter from George Sheldon, enclosing twenty pounds in notes, and furnished therewith I went straight to my friend Jonah, whom I found engaged in the agreeable occupation of taking tea. I showed him the money; but my estimate of the reverend gentleman’s honour being of a very limited nature, I took care not to give it to him till he had produced the letters. On finding that I was really prepared to give him his price, he went to an old-fashioned bureau, and opened one of those secret recesses which cannot for three minutes remain a secret to any investigator possessed of a tolerably accurate eye or a three-foot rule. From this hiding-place — which he evidently considered a triumph of mechanical art, worthy the cabinet of a D’Argenson or a Fouché— he produced a packet of faded yellow letters, about which there lurked a faint odour of dried rose-leaves and lavender, which seemed the very perfume of the past.

When my reverend friend had laid the packet on the table within reach of my hand, and not till then, I gave him the bank-notes. His fat old fingers closed upon them greedily, and his fishy old eyes were illumined by a faint glimmer which I believe nothing but bank-notes could have kindled in them.

After having assured himself that they were genuine acknowledgments of indebtedness on the part of the old lady in Thread-needle-street, and not the base simulacra of Birmingham at five-and-twenty shillings a dozen — thirteen as twelve — Mr. Goodge obligingly consented to sign a simple form of receipt which I had drawn up for the satisfaction of my principal.

“I think you said there were forty-odd letters,” I remarked, before I proceeded to count the documents in the presence of Mr. Goodge.

That gentleman looked at me with an air of astonishment, which, had I not known him to be the most consummate of hypocrites, would have seemed to be simplicity itself.

“I said from thirty to forty,” he exclaimed; “I never said there were forty-odd letters.”

I looked at him and he looked at me. His face told me plainly enough that he was trying to deceive me, and my face told him plainly enough that he had no chance of succeeding in that attempt. Whether he was keeping back some of the letters with a view to extorting more money from me hereafter, or whether he was keeping them with the idea of making a better bargain with somebody else, I could not tell; but of the main fact I was certain — he had cheated me.

I untied the red tape which held the letters together. Yes, there was a piece of circumstantial evidence which might have helped to convict my friend had he been on his trial in a criminal court. The red tape bore the mark of the place in which it had been tied for half a century; and a little way within this mark the trace of a very recent tying. Some of the letters had been extracted, and the tape had been tied anew.

I had no doubt that this had been done while my negotiation with Mr. Goodge had been pending. What was I to do? Refuse the letters, and demand to have my principal’s money returned to me? I knew my friend well enough to know that such a proceeding would be about as useless as it would be to request the ocean to restore a cup of water that had been poured into it. The letters he had given me might or might not afford some slight link in the chain I was trying to put together; and the letters withheld from me might be more or less valuable than those given to me. In any case the transaction was altogether a speculative one; and George Sheldon’s money was hazarded as completely as if it had been put upon an outsider for the Derby.

Before bidding him a polite farewell, I was determined to make Mr. Goodge thoroughly aware that he had not taken me in.

“You said there were more than forty letters,” I told him; “I remember the phrase ‘forty-odd,’ which is a colloquialism one would scarcely look for in Tillotson or in John Wesley, who cherished a prejudice in favour of scholarship which does not distinguish all his followers. You said there were forty-odd letters, and you have removed some of them from the packet. I am quite aware that I have no legal remedy against you, as our contract was a verbal one, made without witnesses; so I must be content with what I get; but I do not wish you to flatter yourself with the notion that you have hoodwinked a lawyer’s clerk. You are not clever enough to do that, Mr. Goodge, though you are knave enough to cheat every attorney in the Law List.”

“Young man, are you aware ——?”

“As I have suffered by the absence of any witness to our negotiation, I may as well profit by the absence of any witness to our interview. You are a cheat and a trickster, Mr. Goodge, and I have the honour to wish you good afternoon!” “Go forth, young man!” cried the infuriated Jonah whose fat round face became beet-root colour with rage, and who involuntarily extended his hand to the poker — for the purpose of defence and not defiance, I believe. “Go forth, young man! I say unto you, as Abimelech said unto Jedediah, go forth.”

I am not quite clear as to the two scriptural proper names with which the Rev. Jonah embellished his discourse on this occasion; but I know that sort of man always has a leaning to the Abimelech and Jedediahs of biblical history; solely, I believe, because the names have a sonorous roll with them that is pleasant in the mouth of the charlatan.

As I was in the act of going forth — quite at my leisure, for I had no fear of the clerical poker — my eye happened to alight on a small side-table, covered with a chessboard-patterned cloth in gaudy colours, and adorned with some of those sombre volumes which seem like an outward evidence of the sober piety of their possessor. Among the sombre volumes lay something which savoured of another hemisphere than that to which those brown leather-bound books belonged. It was a glove — a gentleman’s glove, of pale lavender kid — small in size for a masculine glove, and bearing upon it the evidence of the cleaner’s art. Such might be the glove of an exiled Brummel, but could never have encased the squat paw of a Jonah Goodge. It was as if the point d’Alençon ruffle of Chesterfield had been dropped in the study of John Wesley.

In a moment there flashed into my mind an idea which has haunted me ever since. That glove had belonged to my respected patron, Horatio Paget, and it was for his benefit the letters had been abstracted from the packet. He had been with Jonah Goodge in the course of that day, and had bought him over to cheat me.

And then I was obliged to go back to the old question, Was it possible that the Captain could have any inkling of my business? Who could have told him?

Who could have betrayed a secret which was known only to George Sheldon and myself?

After all, are there not other people than Horatio Paget who wear cleaned lavender gloves? But it always has been a habit with the Captain to leave one loose glove behind him; and I daresay it was the recollection of this which suggested the idea of his interference in the Goodge business.

I devoted my evening to the perusal of Mrs. Rebecca Haygarth’s letters. The pale ink, the quaint cramped hand, the old-fashioned abbreviations, and very doubtful orthography rendered the task laborious; but I stuck to my work bravely, and the old clock in the market-place struck two as I began the last letter. As I get deeper into this business I find my interest in it growing day by day — an interest sui generis, apart from all prospect of gain — apart even from the consideration that by means of this investigation I am obtaining a living which is earned almost honestly; for if I tell an occasional falsehood or act an occasional hypocrisy, I am no worse than a secretary of legation of an Old Bailey barrister.

The pleasure which I now take in the progress of this research is a pleasure that is new to me: it is the stimulus which makes a breakneck gallop across dreary fields gridironed with dykes and stone walls so delicious to the sportsman; it is the stimulus which makes the task of the mathematician sweet to him when he devotes laborious days to the solution of an abstruse problem; it is the stimulus that sustains the Indian trapper against all the miseries of cold and hunger, foul weather, and aching limbs; it is the fever of the chase — that inextinguishable fire which, once lighted in the human breast, is not to be quenched until the hunt is ended.

I should like to earn three thousand pounds; but if I were to be none the richer for my trouble, I think, now that I am so deeply involved in this business, I should still go on. I want to fathom the mystery of that midnight interment at Dewsdale; I want to know the story of that Mary Haygarth who lies under the old yew-tree at Spotswold, and for whose loss some one sorrowed without hope of consolation.

Was that a widower’s commonplace, I wonder, and did the unknown mourner console himself ultimately with a new wife? Who knows? as my Italian friends say when they discuss the future of France. Shall I ever penetrate that mystery of the past? My task seems to me almost as hopeless as if George Sheldon had set me to hunt up the descendants of King Solomon’s ninety-ninth wife. A hundred years ago seems as far away, for all practical purposes, as if it were on the other side of the flood.

The letters are worth very little. They are prim and measured epistles, and they relate much more to spiritual matters than to temporal business. Mrs. Rebecca seems to have been so much concerned for the health of her soul that she had very little leisure to think of anything so insignificant as the bodies of other people. The letters are filled with discourses upon her own state of mind; and the tone of them reveals not a little of that pride whose character it is to simulate humility. Mrs. Rebecca is always casting ashes on her head; but she takes care to let her friend and pastor know what a saintly head it is notwithstanding.

I have laid aside three of the most secular letters, which I selected after wading through unnumbered pages of bewailings in the strain of a Wesleyan Madame Guyon. These throw some little light upon the character of Matthew Haygarth, but do not afford much information of a tangible kind. I have transcribed the letters verbatim, adhering even to certain eccentricities of orthography which were by no means unusual in an age when the Pretender to the crown of Great Britain wrote of his father as Gems.

The first letter bears the date of August 30th, 1773, one week after the marriage of the lady to our friend Matthew.

“REVERED FRIEND AND PASTOR— On Monday sennite we arriv’d in London, wich seems to me a mighty bigg citty, but of no more meritt or piety than Babylon of old. My husband, who knows ye towne better than he knows those things with wich it would more become him to be familiar, was pleas’d to laugh mightily at that pious aversion wherewith I regarded some of ye most notable sights in this place. We went t’other night to a great garden called by some Spring Garden, by others Vauxhall — as having been at one time ye residence or estate of that Arch Fiend and Papistical traitor Vaux, or Faux; but although I felt obligated to my husband for ye desire to entertain me with a fine sight, I could not but look with shame upon serious Christians disporting themselves like children amongst coloured lamps, and listening as if enraptured to profane music, when, at so much less cost of money or of health, they might have been assembled together to improve and edify one another.

“My obliging Mathew would have taken me to other places of the like character; but inspir’d, as I hope and believe, by ye direction of ye spirit, I took upon myself to tell him what vain trifling is all such kind of pleasure. He argu’d with me stoutly, saying that ye King and Queen, who are both shining examples of goodness and piety, do attend Vauxhall and Ranelagh, and are to be seen there frequent, to the delight of their subjects. On which I told him that, much as I esteemed my sovereign and his respectable consort, I would compleat my existence without having seen them rather than I would seek to encounter them in a place of vain and frivolous diversion. He listen’d to my discoorse in a kind and sober temper, but he was not convinc’d; for by and by he falls of a sudden to sighing and groaning, and cries out, ‘O, I went to Vauxhall once when ye garden was not many years made, and O, how bright ye lamps shone, like ye stars of heaven fallen among bushes! and O, how sweet ye music sounded, like ye hymns of angels in ye dewy evening! but that was nigh upon twenty years gone by, and all ye world is changed since then.’

“You will conceive, Reverend Sir, that I was scandalised by such a foolish rapsodie, and in plain words admonish’d my husband of his folly. Whereupon he speedily became sober, and asked my pardon; but for all that night continued of a gloomy countenance, ever and anon falling to sighing and groning as before. Indeed, honour’d Sir, I have good need of a patient sperrit in my dealings with him; for altho’ at times I think he is in a fair way to become a Christian, there are other times when I doubt Satan has still a hold upon him, and that all my prayers and admonitions have been in vaine.

“You, who know the wildness and wickedness of his past life — so far as that life was ever known to any but himself, who was ever of a secret and silent disposition concerning his own doings in this city, tho’ free-spoken and frank in all common matters — you, honour’d sir, know with how serious an intention I have taken upon myself the burden of matrimony, hoping thereby to secure the compleat conversion of this waywarde soul. You are aware how it was ye earnest desire of my late respected father that Mathew Haygarth and I shou’d be man and wife, his father and my father haveing bin friends and companions in ye days of her most gracious majesty Queen Anne. You know how, after being lost to all decent company for many years, Mathew came back after his father’s death, and lived a sober and serious life, attending amongst our community, and being seen to shed tears on more than one occasion while listening to the discourse of our revered and inspired founder. And you, my dear and honour’d pastor, will feel for me when I tell you how I am tormented by ye fear of backsliding in this soul which I have promised to restore to ye fold. It was but yesterday, when walking with him near St. John’s Gate at Clerkenwell, he came to a standstill all of a sudden, and he cried in that impetuous manner which is even yet natural to him, ‘Look ye now, Becky, wouldst like to see the house in which the happiest years of my life was spent?’ And I making no answer, as thinking it was but some sudden freak, he points out a black dirty-looking dwelling-place, with overhanging windows and a wide gabled roof. ‘Yonder it stands, Becky,’ he cries; ‘number seven John-street, Clerkenwell; a queer dingy box of four walls, my wench — a tumble-down kennel, with a staircase that ‘twould break your neck to mount, being strange to it — and half a day’s journey from the court-end of town. But that house was once paradise to me; and to look at it even now, though ’tis over eighteen years since I saw the inside of it, will bring the tears into these poor old eyes of mine’. And then he walk’d on so fast that I could scarce keep pace with him, till we came to Smithfield; and then he began to tell me about Bartholomew-fair and the brave sights he had seen; and must needs show me where had stood the booth of one Fielding — since infamously notorious as the writer of some trashy novels, the dulness whereof is only surpassed by their profligacy: and then he talks of Fawkes the conjurer, who made a great fortune, and of some humble person called ‘Tiddy Doll,’ a dealer in gingerbread and such foolish wares. But he could tell me nothing of those early preachings of our revered founder in Moorfields, which would have been more pleasant to me than all this vain babble about drolls and jesters, gingerbread bakers and showmen.

“When we had walked the round of the place, and it was time to take coach for our lodging at Chelsea — he having brought me thus far to see St. Paul’s and the prison of Newgate, the Mint and Tower — the gloomy fit came on him again, and all that evening he was dull and sorrowful, though I read aloud to him from the printed sermons of a rising member of our community. So you will see, honour’d sir, how difficult it is for these children of Satan to withdraw themselves from that master they have once served; since at the sober age of fifty-three yeares my husband’s weak heart yet yearns after profligate faires and foolish gardens lighted by color’d lampes.

“And now no more, reverend friend, my paper being gone and it being full time to reflect that y’r patience must be gone also. Service to Mrs. Goodge. I have no more room but to assure you that y’r gayeties of this foolish and erring citty have no power to withdraw y’r heart of her whose chief privilege it is to subscribe herself,

“Your humble follower and servant.”

“Rebecca Haygarth.”

To my mind there seems just a shadowy hint of some bygone romance in this letter. Why did the dingy house in John-street bring the tears into Matthew’s eyes? and why did the memory of Vauxhall and Bartholomew fair seem so sweet to him? And then that sighing and groaning and dolefulness of visage whenever the thought of the past came back to him?

What did it all mean, I wonder? Was it only his vanished youth, which poor, sobered, converted, Wesleyanised Matthew regretted? or were there pensive memories of something even sweeter than youth associated with the coloured lamps of Vauxhall and the dinginess of Clerkenwell? Who shall sound the heart of a man who lived a hundred years ago? and where is the fathom-line which shall plumb its mysteries? I should need a stack of old letters before I could arrive at the secret of that man’s life.

The two other letters, which I have selected after some deliberation, relate to the last few weeks of Matthew’s existence; and in these again I fancy I see the trace of some domestic mystery, some sorrowful secret which this sober citizen kept hidden from his wife, but which he was on several occasions half inclined to reveal to her.

Perhaps if the lady’s piety — which seems to have been thoroughly sincere and praiseworthy, by the bye — had been a little less cold and pragmatical in its mode of expression, poor Matthew might have taken heart of grace and made a clean breast of it.

That there was a secret in the man’s life I feel convinced; but that conviction goes very little way towards proving any one point of the smallest value to George Sheldon.

I transcribe an extract from each of the two important letters; the first written a month before Matthew’s death, the second a fortnight after that event.

“And indeed, honour’d sir, I have of late suffered much uneasinesse of speritt concerning my husband. Those fits of ye mopes of w’h I informed you some time back have again come upon him. For awhile I did hope that these melancholic affections were ye fruit put forth by a regenerate soul; but within this month last past it has been my sorrow to discover that these gloomy disorders arise rather from ye promptings of the Evil One. It has pleased Mr. Haygarthe of late to declare that his life is nigh at an end; and indeed he affects a conviction that his days are number’d. This profane and impertinent notion I take to be a direct inspiration of Satan, of a like character to ye sudden and unaccountable fitts of laughter which have seized upon many pious Christians in the midst of earnest congregations; whereby much shame and discomfiture has been brought upon our sect. Nor is there any justification for this presumptuous certainty entertained by my husband, inasmuch as his health is much as it has ordinarily been for ye last ten years. He does acknowledge this with his own lips, and immediately after cries out that his race is run, and ye hand of death is upon him; which I cannot but take as ye voice of ye enemy speaking through that weak mouth of ye flesh.

“On Sunday night last past, ye gloomy fitt being come upon him after prayers, Mr. Haygarthe began all on a sudden, as it is his habit to do:

“‘There is something I would fain tell ye, wench,’ he cries out, ‘something about those roistering days in London, which it might be well for thee to know.’

“But I answered him directly, that I had no desire to hear of profane roisterings, and that it would be better for him to keep his peace, and listen reverently to the expounding of the Scriptures, which Humphrey Bagot, our worthy pastor and friend, had promised to explain and exemplify after supper. We was seated at ye time in ye blue parlour, the table being spread for supper, and were awaiting our friend from the village, a man of humble station, being but a poor chapman and huckster, but of exalted mind and a most holy temper, and sells me the same growth of Bohea as that drunk by our gracious queen at Windsor. After I had thus reproved him — in no unkind speritt —” Mr. Haygarthe fell to sighing; and then cries out all at once:

“‘When I am on my death-bed, wife, I will tell thee something: be sure thou askest me for it; or if death come upon me unawares, thou wouldst do well to search in the old tulip-leaf bureau for a letter, since I may tell thee that in a letter which I would not tell with these lips.’

“Before there was time to answer him in comes Mr. Bagot, and we to supper; after which he did read the sixth chapter of Hebrews and expound it at much length for our edifying; at the end whereof Satan had obtained fast hold of Mr. Haygarthe, who was fallen asleep and snoring heavily.”

Here is plain allusion to some secret, which that pragmatical idiot, Mrs. Rebecca, studiously endeavoured not to hear. The next extract is from a letter written when the lips that had been fain to speak were stilled for ever. Ah, Mistress Rebecca, you were but mortal woman, although you were also a shining light amongst the followers of John Wesley; and I wonder what you would have given for poor Matthew’s secret then.

“Some days being gone after this melancholic event, I bethought me of that which my husband had said to me before I left Dewsdale for that excursion to the love-feasts at Kemberton and Kesfield, Broppindean and Dawnfold, from which I returned but two short weeks before my poor Matthew’s demise. I called to remembrance that discourse about approaching death which in my poor human judgment I did esteem a pestilent error of mind, but which I do now recognise as a spiritual premonition; and I set myself earnestly to look for that letter which Matthew told me he would leave in the tulip-leaf bureau. But though I did search with great care and pains, my trouble was wasted, inasmuch as there was no letter. Nor did I leave off to search until ev’ry nook and crevvis had been examin’d. But in one of ye secret drawers, hidden in an old dog’s-eared book of prayers, I did find a lock of fair hair, as if cut from the head of a child, entwin’d curiously with a long plait of dark hair, which, by reason of ye length thereof, must needs have been the hair of a woman, and with these the miniature of a girl’s face in a gold frame. I will not stain this paper, which is near come to an end, by the relation of such suspicions as arose in my mind on finding these curious treasures; nor will I be of so unchristian a temper as to speak ill of the dead. My husband was in his latter days exemplarily sober, and a humble acting Xtian. Ye secrets of his earlier life will not now be showne to me on this side heaven. I have set aside ye book, ye picture, and ye plaited hair in my desk for conveniency, where I will show them to you when I am next rejoic’d by y’r improving conversation. Until then, in grief or in happiness, in health and sickness, I trust I shall ever continue, with y’r same sincerity,

“Your humble and obliged Servant and disciple


Thus end my excerpts from the correspondence of Mrs. Haygarthe. They are very interesting to me, as containing the vague shadow of a vanished existence; but whether they will ever be worth setting forth in an affidavit is extremely uncertain. Doubtless that miniature of an unknown girl which caused so much consternation in the mind of sober Mrs. Rebecca was no other than the “Molly” whose gray eyes reminded me of Charlotte Halliday.

As I copied Mrs. Rebecca’s quaint epistles, in the midnight stillness, the things of which I was writing arose before me like a picture. I could see the blue parlour that Sunday evening; the sober couple seated primly opposite to each other; the china monsters on the high chimneypiece; the blue-and-white Dutch tiles, with queer squat figures of Flemish citizens on foot and on horseback; the candles burning dimly on the spindle-legged table — two poor pale flames reflected ghastly in the dark polished panels of the wainscot; the big open Bible on an adjacent table; the old silver tankard, and buckhorn-handled knives and forks set out for supper; the solemn eight-day clock, ticking drearily in the corner; and amid all that sombre old-fashioned comfort, gray-haired Matthew sighing and lamenting for his vanished youth.

I have grown strangely romantic since I have fallen in love with Charlotte Halliday. The time was when I should have felt nothing but a flippant ignorant contempt for poor Haygarth’s feeble sighings and lamentings; but now I think of him with a sorrowful tenderness, and am more interested in his poor commonplace life, that picture, and those two locks of hair, than in the most powerful romance that ever emanated from mortal genius. It has been truly said, that truth is stranger than fiction: may it not as justly be said, that truth has a power to touch the human heart which is lacking in the most sublime flights of a Shakespeare, or the grandest imaginings of an Aeschylus? One is sorry for the fate of Agamemnon; but one is infinitely more sorrowful for the cruel death of that English Richard in the dungeon at Pomfret, who was a very insignificant person as compared to the king of men and of ships.

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