Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3


November 1st. This is Huxter’s Cross, and I live here. I have lived here a week. I should like to live here for ever. O, let me be rational for a few hours, while I write the record of this last blissful week; let me be reasonable, and business-like, and Sheldon-like for this one wet afternoon, and then I may be happy and foolish again. Be still, beating heart! as the heroines of Minerva-press romances were accustomed to say to themselves on the smallest provocation. Be still, foolish, fluttering, schoolboy heart, which has taken a new lease of youth and folly from a fair landlord called Charlotte Halliday.

Drip, drip, drip, O rain! “The day is dark and cold and dreary, and the vine still clings to the mouldering wall; and with every gust the dead leaves fall:” but thy sweet sad verse wakes no responsive echo in my heart, O tender Transatlantic Poet, for my heart is light and glad — recklessly glad — heedless of to-morrow — forgetful of yesterday — full to the very brim with the dear delight of to-day.

And now to business. I descend from the supernal realms of fancy to the dry record of commonplace fact. This day week I arrived at Hidling, after a tedious journey, which, with stoppages at Derby and Normanton, and small delays at obscurer stations, had occupied the greater part of the day. It was dusk when I took my place in the hybrid vehicle, half coach, half omnibus, which was to convey me from Hidling to Huxter’s Cross. A transient glimpse at Hidling showed me one long straggling street and a square church-tower. Our road branched off from the straggling street, and in the autumn dusk I could just discover the dim outlines of distant hills encircling a broad waste of moor.

I have been so steeped in London that this wild barren scene had a charm for me which it could scarcely possess for others. Even the gloom of that dark waste of common land was pleasant to me. I shared the public vehicle with one old woman, who snored peacefully in the remotest corner, while I looked out at the little open window and watched the darkening landscape.

Our drive occupied some hours. We passed two or three little clusters of cottages and homesteads, where the geese screamed and the cocks crowed at our approach, and where a few twinkling tapers in upper windows proclaimed the hour of bed-time. At one of these clusters of habitation, a little island of humanity in the waste of wold and moor, we changed horses, with more yo-oh-ing and come-up-ing than would have attended the operation in a civilised country. At this village I heard the native tongue for the first time in all its purity; and for any meaning which it conveyed to my ear I might as well have been listening to the patois of agricultural Carthage.

After changing horses, we went up hill, with perpetual groanings, and grumblings, and grindings, and whip-smacking and come-up-ing, for an indefinite period; and then we came to a cluster of cottages, suspended high up in the sharp autumn atmosphere as it seemed to me; and the driver of the vehicle came to my little peephole of a window, and told me with some slight modification of the Carthaginian patois that I was “theer.”

I alighted, and found myself at the door of a village inn, with the red light from within shining out upon me where I stood, and a battered old sign groaning and creaking above my head. For me, who in all my life had been accustomed to find my warmest welcome at an inn, this was to be at home. I paid my fare, took up my carpet-bag, and entered the hostelry.

I found a rosy-faced landlady, clean and trim, though a trifle floury as to the arms and apron. She had emerged from a kitchen, an old-fashioned chamber with a floor of red brick; a chamber which was all in a rosy glow with the firelight, and looked like a Dutch picture, as I peeped at it through the open doorway. There were the most picturesque of cakes and loaves heaped on a wooden bench by the hearth, and the whole aspect of the place was delicious in its homely comfort.

“O,” I said to myself, “how much better the northern winds blowing over these untrodden hills, and the odour of home-made loaves, than the booming bells of St. Dunstan’s, and the greasy steam of tavern chops and steaks!”

My heart warmed to this Yorkshire and these Yorkshire people. Was it for Charlotte’s sake, I wonder, that I was so ready to open my heart to everybody and everything in this unknown land?

A very brief parley set me quite at ease with my landlady. Even, the Carthaginian patois became intelligible to me after a little experience. I found that I could have a cosy, cleanly chamber, and be fed and cared for upon terms that seemed absurdly small, even to a person of my limited means. My cordial hostess brought me a meal which was positively luxurious; broiled ham and poached eggs, such as one scarcely hopes to see out of a picture of still life; crisp brown cakes fresh from that wonderful oven whose door I had seen yawning open in the Flemish interior below; strong tea and cream — the cream that one reads of in pastoral stories.

I enjoyed my banquet, and then opened my window and looked out at the still landscape, dimly visible in the faint starlight.

I was at the top of a hill — the topmost of an ascending range of hills — and to some minds that alone is rapture. To inhale the fresh night air was to drink deeply of an ethereal beverage. I had never experienced so delicious a sensation since I had stood on the grassy battlements of the Chateau d’Arques, with the orchards and gardens of sunny Normandy spread like a carpet below my feet.

But this hill was loftier than that on which the feudal castle rears its crumbling towers, and the landscape below me was wilder than verdant Normandy.

No words can tell how I rejoiced in this untrodden region — this severance from the Strand and Temple Bar. I felt as if my old life was falling away from me — like the scales of the lepers who were cleansed by the Divine Healer. I felt myself worthier to love, or even to be loved by, the bright true-hearted girl whose image fills my heart. Ah, if Heaven gave me that dear angel, I think my old life, my old recklessness, my old want of principle, would drop away from me altogether, and the leper would stand forth cleansed and whole. Could I not be happy with her here, among these forgotten hills, these widely scattered homesteads? Could I not be happy dissevered eternally from billiard-room and kursaal, race-ground and dancing-rooms? Yes, completely and unreservedly happy — happy as a village curate with seventy pounds a year and a cast-off coat, supplied by the charity of a land too poor to pay its pastors the wage of a decent butler — happy as a struggling farmer, though the clay soil of my scanty acres were never so sour and stubborn, my landlord never so hard about his rent — happy as a pedlar, with my pack of cheap tawdry wares slung behind me, and my Charlotte tramping gaily by my side.

I breakfasted next morning in a snug little parlour behind the bar, where I overheard two carters conversing in the Carthaginian patois, to which I became hourly more accustomed. My brisk cheery landlady came in and out while I took my meal; and whenever I could detain her long enough, I tried to engage her in conversation.

I asked her if she had ever heard the name of Meynell; and after profound consideration she replied in the negative.

“I don’t mind hearing aught of folks called Meynell,” she said with more or less of the patois, which I was beginning to understand; “but I haven’t got mooch memory for nee-ams. I might have heard o’ such folks, and not minded t’ nee-am.”

This was rather dispiriting; but I knew that if any record of Christian Meynell’s daughter existed at Huxter’s Cross, it was in my power to discover it.

I asked if there was any official in the way of a registrar to be found in the village; and found that there was no one more important than an old man who kept the keys of the church. The registers were kept in the vestry, my landlady believed, and the old man was called Jonas Gorles, and lived half a mile off, at the homestead of his son-in-law. But my landlady said she would send for him immediately, and pledged herself to produce him in the course of an hour. I told her that I would find my way to the churchyard in the mean time, whither Mr. Gorles could follow me as soon as convenient.

The autumnal morning was fresh and bright as spring, and Huxter’s Cross seemed the most delightful place on earth to me, though it is only a cluster of cottages, relieved by one farmhouse of moderate pretensions, my hostelry of the Magpie, a general shop, which is also the post-office, and a fine old Norman church, which lies away from the village, and bears upon it the traces of better days. Near the church there is an old granite cross, around which the wild flowers and grasses grow rank and high. It marks the spot where there was once a flourishing market-place; but all mortal habitations have vanished, and the Huxter’s Cross of the past has now no other memorial than this crumbling stone.

The churchyard was unutterably still and solitary. A robin was perched on the topmost bar of the old wooden gate, singing his joyous carol. As I approached, he hopped from the gate to the low moss-grown wall, and went on singing as I passed him. I was in the humour to apostrophise skylark or donkey, or to be sentimental about anything in creation, just then; so I told my robin what a pretty creature he was, and that I would sooner perish than hurt him by so much as the tip of a feather.

Being bound to remember my Sheldon even when most sentimental, I endeavoured to combine the meditative mood of a Hervey with the business-like sharpness of a lawyer’s clerk; and while musing on the common lot of man in general, I did not omit to search the mouldering tombstones for some record of the Meynells in particular.

I found none; and yet, if the daughter of Christian Meynell had been buried in that churchyard, the name of her father would surely have been inscribed upon her tombstone. I had read all the epitaphs when the wooden gate creaked on its hinges, and admitted a wizen little old man — one of those ancient meanderers who seem to have been created on purpose to fill the post of sexton.

With this elderly individual I entered the church of Huxter’s Cross, which had the same mouldy atmosphere as the church at Spotswold. The vestry was an icy little chamber, which had once been a family vault; but it was not much colder than Miss Judson’s best parlour; and I endured the cold bravely while I searched the registries of the last sixty years.

I searched in vain. After groping amongst the names of all the nonentities who had been married at Huxter’s Cross since the beginning of the century, I found myself no nearer the secret of Charlotte Meynell’s marriage. And then I reflected upon all the uncertainties surrounding that marriage. Miss Meynell had gone to Yorkshire, to visit her mother’s relations, and had married in Yorkshire; and the place which Anthony Sparsfield remembered having heard of in connection with that marriage was Huxter’s Cross. But it did not by any means follow that the marriage had taken place at that obscure village. Miss Meynell might have been married at Hull, or York, or Leeds, or at any of the principal places of the county. With that citizen class of people marriage was a grand event, a solemn festivity; and Miss Meynell and her friends would have been likely to prefer that so festive an occasion should be celebrated anywhere rather than at that forgotten old church among the hills. “I shall have to search every register in Yorkshire till I light upon the record I want,” I thought to myself, “unless Sheldon will consent to advertise for the Meynell marriage certificate. There could scarcely be danger in such an advertisement, as the connection between the name of Meynell and the Haygarth estate is only known to ourselves.”

Acting upon this idea, I wrote to George Sheldon by that afternoon’s post, urging him to advertise for descendants of Miss Charlotte Meynell.

Charlotte! dear name, which is a kind of music for me. It was almost a pleasure to write that letter, because of the repetition of that delightful noun.

The next day I devoted to a drive round the neighbourhood, in a smart little dog-cart, hired on very moderate terms from mine host. I had acquainted myself with the geography of the surrounding country; and I contrived to visit every village church within a certain radius of Huxter’s Cross. But my inspection of mildewed old books, and my heroic endurance of cold and damp in mouldy old churches, resulted in nothing but disappointment.

I returned to my “Magpie” after dark a little disheartened and thoroughly tired, but still very well pleased with my rustic quarters and my adopted county. My landlord’s horse had shown himself a very model of equine perfection.

Candles were lighted and curtains drawn in my cosy little chamber, and the table creaked beneath one of those luxurious Yorkshire teas which might wean an alderman from the coarser delights of turtle or conger-eel soup and venison.

At noon the following day a very primitive kind of postman brought me a letter from Sheldon. That astute individual told me that he declined to advertise, or to give any kind of publicity to his requirements.

“If I were not afraid of publicity, I should not be obliged to pay you a pound a week,” he remarked, with pleasing candour, “since advertisements would get me more information in a week than you may scrape together in a twelvemonth. But I happen to know the danger of publicity, and that many a good thing has been snatched out of a man’s hands just as he was working it into shape. I don’t say that this could be done in my case; and you know very well that it could not be done, as I hold papers which are essential to the very first move in the business.”

I perfectly understand the meaning of these remarks, and I am inclined to doubt the existence of those important papers. Suspicion is a fundamental principle in the Sheldon mind. My friend George trusts me because he is obliged to trust me — and only so far as he is obliged — and is tormented, more or less, by the idea that I may at any moment attempt to steal a march upon him.

But to return to his letter:

“I should recommend you to examine the registries of every town or village within, say, thirty miles of Huxter’s Cross. If you find nothing in such registries, we must fall back upon the larger towns, beginning with Hull, as being nearest to our starting-point. The work will, I fear, be slow, and very expensive for me. I need scarcely again urge upon you the necessity of confining your outlay to the minimum, as you know that my affairs are desperate. It couldn’t well be lower water than it is with me, in a pecuniary sense; and I expect every day to find myself aground.

“And now for my news. I have discovered the burial-place of Samuel Meynell, after no end of trouble, the details of which I needn’t bore you with, since you are now pretty well up in that sort of work. I am thankful to say I have secured the evidence that settles for Samuel, and ascertained by tradition that he died unmarried. The onus probandi would fall upon any one purporting to be descended from the said Samuel, and we know how uncommonly difficult said person would find it to prove anything.

“So, having disposed of Samuel, I came back to London by the next mail; Calais, in the month of November, not being one of those wildly-gay watering-places which tempt the idler. I arrived just in time to catch this afternoon’s post; and now I look impatiently to your Miss Charlotte Meynell, of Huxter’s Cross. — Yours, &c. G.S.”

I obeyed my employer to the letter; hired my landlord’s dog-cart for another day’s exploration; and went further afield in search of Miss Charlotte’s marriage-lines. I came home late at night — this time thoroughly worn out — studied a railway guide with a view to my departure, and decided on starting for Hull by a train that would leave Hidling station at four o’clock on the following afternoon.

I went to bed tired in body and depressed in spirit. Why was I so sorry to leave Huxter’s Cross? What subtle instinct of the brain or heart made me aware that the desert region amongst the hills held earth’s highest felicity for me?

The next morning was bright and clear. I heard the guns of sportsmen popping merrily in the still air as I breakfasted before an open window, while a noble sea-coal fire blazed on the hearth opposite me. There is no stint of fuel at the Magpie. Everything in Yorkshire seems to be done with a lavish hand. I have heard Yorkshiremen called mean. As if meanness could exist in the hearts of my Charlotte’s countrymen! My own experience of the county is brief; but I can only say that my friends of the Magpie are liberality itself, and that a Yorkshire tea is the very acme of unsophisticated bliss in the way of eating and drinking. I have dined at Philippe’s; I know every dish in the menu of the Maison Dorée; but if I am to make my life a burden beneath the dark sway of the demon dyspepsia, let my destruction arrive in the shape of the ham and eggs, the crisp golden-brown cakes, and undefiled honey, of this northern Arcadia.

I told my friendly hostess that I was going to leave her, and she was sorry. She was sorry for me, the wanderer. I can picture to myself the countenance of a London landlady if informed thus suddenly of her lodger’s departure, and her suppressed mutterings about the ill-convenience of such a proceeding.

After breakfast I went out to take my own pleasure. I had done my duty in the matter of mouldy churches and mildewed registries; and I considered myself entitled to a holiday during the few hours that must elapse before the starting of the hybrid vehicle for Hidling.

I sauntered past the little cluster of cottages, admiring their primitive aspect, the stone-crop on the red-tiled roofs, that had sunk under the weight of years. All was unspeakably fresh and bright; the tiny panes of the casement twinkled in the autumn sunlight, birds sang, and hardy red geraniums bloomed in the cottage windows. What pleasure or distraction had the good housewives of Huxter’s Cross to lure them from the domestic delights of scrubbing and polishing? I saw young faces peeping at me from between snow-white muslin curtains, and felt that I was a personage for once in my life; and it was pleasant to feel one’s self of some importance even in the eyes of Huxter’s Cross.

Beyond the cottages and the post-office there were three roads stretching far away over hill and moorland. With two of those roads I had made myself thoroughly familiar; but the third remained to be explored.

“So now for ‘fresh fields and pastures new,’” I said to myself as I quickened my pace, and walked briskly along my unknown road.

Ah, surely there is some meaning in the fluctuations of the mental barometer. What but an instinctive consciousness of approaching happiness could have made me so light-hearted that morning? I sang as I hastened along that undiscovered road. Fragments of old Italian serenades and barcarolles came back to me as if I had heard them yesterday for the first time. The perfume of the few lingering wild-flowers, the odour of burning weeds in the distance, the fresh autumn breeze, the clear cold blue sky — all were intensely delicious to me; and I felt as if this one lonely walk were a kind of renovating process, from which my soul would emerge cleansed of all its stains.

“I have to thank George Sheldon for a great deal,” I said to myself, “since through him I have been obliged to educate myself in the school of man’s best teacher, Solitude. I do not think I can ever be a thorough Bohemian again. These lonely wanderings have led me to discover a vein of seriousness in my nature which I was ignorant of until now. How thoroughly some men are the creatures of their surroundings! With Paget I have been a Paget. But a few hours tête-à-tête with Nature renders one averse from the society of Pagets, be they never so brilliant.”

From moralising thus, I fell into a delicious day-dream. All my dreams of late had moved to the same music. How happy I could be if Fate gave me Charlotte and three hundred a year! In sober moods I asked for this much of worldly wealth, just to furnish a nest for my bird. In my wilder moments I asked Fate for nothing but Charlotte.

“Give me the bird without the nest,” I cried to Fortune; “and we will take wing to some trackless forest where there are shelter and berries for nestless birds. We will imitate that delightful bride and bridegroom of Parisian Bohemia, who married and settled in an attic, and when their stock of fuel was gone fell foul of the staircase that led to their bower, and so supplied themselves merrily enough till the staircase was all consumed, and the poor little bride, peeping out of her door one morning, found herself upon the verge of an abyss.

“And then came the furious landlord, demanding restitution. But close behind the landlord came the good fairy of all love-stories, with Pactolus in her pocket. Ah, yes, there is always a providence for true lovers.”

I had passed away by this time from the barren moor to the regions of cultivation. The trimly-cut hedges on each side of the way showed me that my road now lay between farm lands. I was outside the boundary of some upland farm. I saw sheep cropping trefoil in a field on the other side of the brown hedgerow, and at a distance I saw the red-tiled roof of a farm-house.

I looked at my watch, and found that I had still half an hour to spare; so I went on towards the farm-house, bent upon seeing what sort of habitation it was. In a solitary landscape like this, every dwelling-place has a kind of attraction for the wayfarer.

I went on till I came to a white gate, against which a girlish figure was leaning.

It was a graceful figure, dressed in that semi-picturesque costume which has been adopted by women of late years. The vivid blue of a boddice was tempered by the sober gray of a skirt, and a bright-hued ribbon gleamed among rich tresses of brown hair.

The damsel’s face was turned away from me, but there was something in the carriage of the head, something in the modelling of the firm full throat, which reminded me of —

But then, when a man is over head and ears in love, everything in creation reminds him more or less of his idol. Your pious Catholic gives all his goods for the adornment of a church; your true lover devotes his every thought to the dressing up of one dear image.

The damsel turned as my steps drew near, loud on the crisp gravel. She turned, and showed me the face of Charlotte Halliday.

I must entreat posterity to forgive me, if I leave a blank at this stage of my story. “There are chords in the human heart which had better not be wibrated,” said Sim Tappertit. There are emotions which can only be described by the pen of a poet. I am not a poet; and if my diary is so happy as to be of some use to posterity as a picture of the manners of a repentant Bohemian, posterity must not quarrel with my shortcomings in the way of sentimental description.

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