Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Too Fair to Last.

In my confidences with my dear girl I had told her neither the nature of my mission in Yorkshire, nor the fact that I was bound to leave Huxter’s Cross immediately upon an exploring expedition to nowhere in particular, in search of the archives of the Meynells. How could I bring myself to tell her that I must leave her? — how much less could I bring myself to do it?

Rendered desperately unmindful of the universe by reason of my all-absorbing happiness, I determined on giving myself a holiday boldly, in defiance of Sheldon and the Sheldonian interests.

“Am I a bounden slave?” I asked myself, “that I should go here or there at any man’s bidding, for the pitiful stipend of twenty shillings a week?”

It is to be observed that the rate of hire makes all the difference in these cases; and while it is ignominious for a lawyer’s clerk to hasten to and fro in the earning of his weekly wage, it is in no way dishonourable for the minister of state to obey the call of his chief, and hurry hither and thither in abnegation of all his own predilections, and to the aggravation of his chronic gout.

I wrote to my Sheldon, and told him that I had met with friends in the neighbourhood of Huxter’s Cross, and that I intended to give myself a brief holiday; after which I would resume my labours, and do my uttermost to make up for wasted time. I had still the remnant of my borrowed thirty pounds, and amongst these northern hills I felt myself a millionaire.

Three thousand pounds at five per cent — one hundred and fifty pounds a year. I felt that with such an income assured to us, and the fruits of my industry, Charlotte and I might be secure from all the storms of life. Ah, what happiness it would be to work for her! And I am not too old to begin life afresh; not too old for the bar; not too old to make some mark as a writer on the press; not too old to become a respectable member of society.

After having despatched my letter to Sheldon, I made off for Newhall farm with all speed. I had received a sort of general invitation from the kindest of uncles and aunts, but I contrived with becoming modesty to arrive after Mr. Mercer’s dinner-hour. I found Charlotte alone in the dear old-fashioned parlour, aunt Dorothy being engaged in some domestic operations in the kitchen, and uncle Joseph making his usual after-dinner rounds amongst the pig-styes and the threshing-machines. I discovered afterwards that it was Miss Halliday’s wont to accompany her kind kinsman in this afternoon investigation; but to-day she had complained of a headache and preferred to stay at home. Yet there were few symptoms of the headache when I found her standing in the bow-window, watching the path by which I came, and the face of Aurora herself could scarcely be brighter or fresher than my darling’s innocent blushes when I greeted her with the privileged kiss of betrothal.

We sat in the bow-window talking till the twilight shadows crept over the greensward, and the sheep were led away to their fold, with cheerful jingling of bells and barking of watchful dog. My dearest girl told me that our secret had already been discovered by the penetrating eyes of aunt Dorothy and uncle Joseph. They had teased her unmercifully, it seemed, all that day, but were graciously pleased to smile upon my suit, like a pair of imprudent Arcadians as they are.

“They like you very much indeed,” my Lotta said joyously; “but I believe they think I have known you much longer than I really have, and that you are very intimate with my stepfather. It seems almost like deceiving them to allow them to think so, but I really haven’t the courage to tell the truth. How foolish and bold they would think me if they knew how very short a time I have known you!”

“Twenty times longer than Juliet had known Romeo when they met in the Friar’s cell to be married,” I urged.

“Yes, but that was in a play,” replied Charlotte, “where everything is obliged to be hurried; and at Hyde Lodge we all of us thought that Juliet was a very forward young person.”

“The poets all believe in love at first sight, and I’ll wager our dear uncle Joe fell over head and ears in love with aunt Dorothy after having danced with her two or three times at an assize ball,” said I. After this we became intensely serious, and I told my darling girl that I hoped very soon to be in possession of a small fixed income, and to have begun a professional career. I told her how dear an incentive to work she had given me, and how little fear I had for the future.

I reminded her that Mr. Sheldon had no legal power to control her actions, and that, as her father’s will had left her entirely to her mother’s guardianship, she had only her mother’s pleasure to consult.

“I believe poor mamma would let me marry a crossing-sweeper, if I cried and declared it would make me miserable not to marry him,” said Charlotte; “but then, you see, mamma’s wishes mean Mr. Sheldon’s wishes; she is sure to think whatever he tells her to think; and if he is strongly against our marriage —”

“As I am sure he will be,” I interjected.

“He will work upon poor mamma in that calm, persistent, logical way of his till he makes her as much against it as himself.”

“But even your mamma has no legal power to control your actions, my love. Were you not of age on your last birthday?”

My darling replied in the affirmative.

“Then of course you are free to marry whom you please; and as I am thankful to say you don’t possess a single sixpence in your own right, there need be no fuss about settlements or pin-money. We can marry any fine morning that my dear girl pleases to name, and defy all the stern stepfathers in creation.”

“How I wish I had a fortune, for your sake!” she said with a sigh.

“Be glad for my sake that you have none,” I answered. “You cannot imagine the miserable complications and perplexities which arise in this world from the possession of money. No slave so tightly bound as the man who has what people call ‘a stake in the country’ and a balance at his banker’s. The true monarch of all he surveys is the penniless reprobate who walks down Fleet-street with his whole estate covered by the seedy hat upon his head.”

Having thus moralized, I proceeded to ask Miss Halliday if she was prepared to accept a humbler station than that enjoyed by her at the Lawn.

“No useful landau, to be an open carriage at noon and a family coach at night,” I said; “no nimble page to skip hither and thither at his fair lady’s commands, if not belated on the way by the excitement of tossing halfpence with youthful adventurers of the byways and alleys; no trim parlour-maids, with irreproachable caps, dressed for the day at 11 o’clock A.M. — but instead of these, a humble six-roomed bandbox of a house, and one poor hardworking slavey, with perennial smudges from saucepan-lids upon her honest pug-nose. Consider the prospect seriously, Charlotte, and ask yourself whether you can endure such a descent in the social scale.”

My Charlotte laughed, as if the prospect had been the most delightful picture ever presented to mortal vision.

“Do you think I care for the landau or the page?” she cried. “If it were not for mamma’s sake, I should detest that prim villa and all its arrangements. You see me so happy here, where there is no pretence of grandeur —”

“But I am bound to warn you that I shall not be able to provide Yorkshire teas at the commencement of our domestic career,” I remarked, by way of parenthesis.

“Aunt Dorothy will send us hampers of poultry and cakes, sir, and for the rest of our time we can live upon bread and water.”

On this I promised my betrothed a house in Cavendish or Portman-square, and a better-built landau than Mr. Sheldon’s, in the remote future. With those dear eyes for my pole-stars, I felt myself strong enough to clamber up the slippery ascent to the woolsack. The best and purest ambition must surely be that which is only a synonym for love.

After we had sat talking in the gloaming to our hearts’ content, aunt Dorothy appeared, followed by a sturdy handmaid with lighted candles, and a still sturdier handmaid with a ponderous tea-tray. The two made haste to spread a snow-white cloth, and to set forth the species of banquet which it is the fashion nowadays to call high tea. Anon came uncle Joseph, bringing with him some slight perfume from the piggeries, and he and aunt Dorothy were pleased to be pleasantly facetious and congratulatory in their conversation during the social meal which followed their advent.

After tea we played whist again, aunt Dorothy and I obtaining a succession of easy victories over Charlotte and uncle Joe. I felt myself hourly more and more completely at home in that simple domestic circle, and enjoyed the proud position of an accepted lover. My Arcadian friends troubled themselves in nowise as to the approval or disapproval of Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon, or with regard either to my prospects or my antecedents. They saw me devoted to my dear girl, they saw my dearest pleased by my devotion, and they loved her so well that they were ready to open their hearts without reserve to the man who adored her and was loved by her, let him be rich or poor, noble or base-born. As they would have given her the wax-doll of her desire ten or twelve years ago without question as to price or fitness of things, so they now gave her their kindly smiles and approval for the lover of her choice. “I know Phil Sheldon is a man who looks to the main chance,” said uncle Joe, in the course of a discussion about his niece’s future which dyed her cheeks with blushes in the present; “and I’ll lay you’ll find him rather a difficult customer to deal with, especially as poor Tom’s will left all the money in Georgy’s hands, which of course is tantamount to saying that Sheldon has got the disposal of it.”

I assured uncle Joe that money was the very last thing which I desired.

“Then in that case I don’t see why he shouldn’t let you have Charlotte,” replied Mr. Mercer; “and if she’s cheated out of her poor dad’s money, she shan’t be cheated out of what her old aunt and uncle may have to leave her by-and-by.”

Here were these worthy people promising me an heiress with no more compunction than if they had been offering me a cup of tea.

I walked homeward once more beneath the quiet stars. O, how happy I was! Can happiness so perfect, joy so sinless, endure? I, the friendless wanderer and penniless Bohemian, asked myself this question; and again I paused upon the lonely moorland road to lift my hat as I thanked God for having given me such bright hopes.

But George Sheldon’s three thousand pounds must be mine before I can secure the humblest shelter for my sweet one; and although it would be bliss to me to tramp through the world barefoot with Charlotte by my side, the barefooted state of things is scarcely the sort of prospect a man would care to offer to the woman he loves. So once more to the chase. One more day in this delicious island of the lotus-eaters, Newhall farm; and then away! — hark forward! — tantivy! — and hey for the marriage-lines of Charlotte Meynell, great-granddaughter of Matthew Haygarth, and, if still in the flesh, rightful heiress to the one hundred thousand pounds at present likely to be absorbed by the ravening jaws of the Crown! One more day, one more delightful idle day, in the land where it is always afternoon, and then away to Hidling in the hybrid vehicle, and thence to Hull, from Hull to York, from York to Leeds, then Bradford, Huddersfield —toute la boutique!

The rain beats against the diamond panes of my casement as I write. The day has been hopelessly wet, so I have stayed in my snug little chamber and occupied myself in writing this record. Foul wind or weather would have little power to keep me from my darling; but even if it had been a fine day, I could not with any grace have presented myself at Newhall farm for a third afternoon. To-morrow my immediate departure will afford me an excuse for presenting myself once more before my kind uncle and aunt. It will be my farewell visit. I wonder whether Charlotte will miss me this afternoon. I wonder whether she will be sorry when I tell her that I am going to leave this part of the country. Ah, shall we ever meet again under such happy auspices? Shall I ever again find such kind friends or such a hospitable dwelling as those I shall leave amidst these northern hills?

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