BIRDS OF PREY
Book the First.
I. THE HOUSE IN BLOOMSBURY II. PHILIP SHELDON READS THE "LANCET" III. MR. AND MRS. HALLIDAY IV. A PERPLEXING ILLNESS V. THE LETTER FROM THE "ALLIANCE" OFFICE VI. MR. BURKHAM'S UNCERTAINTIES
Book the Second.
THE TWO MACAIRES.
I. A GOLDEN TEMPLE II. THE EASY DESCENT III. "HEART BARE, HEART HUNGRY, VERY POOR"
Book the Third.
HEAPING UP RICHES.
I. A FORTUNATE MARRIAGE II. CHARLOTTE III. GEORGE SHELDON'S PROSPECTS IV. DIANA FINDS A NEW HOME V. AT THE LAWN VI. THE COMPACT OF GRAY'S INN VII. AUNT SARAH VIII. CHARLOTTE PROPHESIES RAIN IX. MR. SHELDON ON THE WATCH
Book the Fourth.
VALENTINE HAWKEHURST'S RECORD.
I. THE OLDEST INHABITANT II. MATTHEW HAYGARTH'S RESTING-PLACE III. MR. GOODGE'S WISDOM
Book the Fifth.
RELICS OF THE DEAD.
I. BETRAYED BY A BLOTTING-PAD II. VALENTINE INVOKES THE PHANTOMS OF THE PAST III. HUNTING THE JUDSONS IV. GLIMPSES OF A BYGONE LIFE
Book the Sixth.
THE HEIRESS OF THE HAYGARTHS.
I. DISAPPOINTMENT II. VALENTINE'S RECORD CONTINUED III. ARCADIA IV. IN PARADISE V. TOO FAIR TO LAST VI. FOUND IN THE BIBLE
Book the Seventh.
I. "IN YOUR PATIENCE YE ARE STRONG" II. MRS. SHELDON ACCEPTS HER DESTINY III. MR. HAWKEHURST AND MR. GEORGE SHELDON COME TO AN UNDERSTANDING IV. MR. SHELDON IS PROPITIOUS V. MR. SHELDON IS BENEVOLENT VI. RIDING THE HIGH HORSE VII. MR. SHELDON IS PRUDENT VIII. CHRISTMAS PEACE
BIRDS OF PREY
BOOK THE FIRST.
THE HOUSE IN BLOOMSBURY.
"What about?" There are some houses whereof the outward aspect is sealed with the seal of respectability—houses which inspire confidence in the minds of the most sceptical of butchers and bakers—houses at whose area-gates the tradesman delivers his goods undoubtingly, and from whose spotless door-steps the vagabond children of the neighbourhood recoil as from a shrine too sacred for their gambols.
Such a house made its presence obvious, some years ago, in one of the smaller streets of that west-central region which lies between Holborn and St. Pancras Church. It is perhaps the nature of ultra-respectability to be disagreeably conspicuous. The unsullied brightness of No. 14 Fitzgeorge-street was a standing reproach to every other house in the dingy thorough-fare. That one spot of cleanliness made the surrounding dirt cruelly palpable. The muslin curtains in the parlour windows of No. 15 would not have appeared of such a smoky yellow if the curtains of No. 14 had not been of such a pharisaical whiteness. Mrs. Magson, at No. 13, was a humble letter of lodgings, always more or less in arrear with the demands of quarter-day; and it seemed a hard thing that her door-steps, whereon were expended much labour and hearthstone—not to mention house-flannel, which was in itself no unimportant item in the annual expenses—should be always thrown in the shade by the surpassing purity of the steps before No. 14.
Not satisfied with being the very pink and pattern of respectability, the objectionable house even aspired to a kind of prettiness. It was as bright, and pleasant, and rural of aspect as any house within earshot of the roar and rattle of Holborn can be. There were flowers in the windows; gaudy scarlet geraniums, which seemed to enjoy an immunity from all the ills to which geraniums are subject, so impossible was it to discover a faded leaf amongst their greenness, or the presence of blight amidst their wealth of blossom. There were birdcages within the shadow of the muslin curtains, and the colouring of the newly-pointed brickwork was agreeably relieved by the vivid green of Venetian blinds. The freshly-varnished street-door bore a brass-plate, on which to look was to be dazzled; and the effect produced by this combination of white door-step, scarlet geranium, green blind, and brass-plate was obtrusively brilliant.
Those who had been so privileged as to behold the interior of the house in Fitzgeorge-street brought away with them a sense of admiration that was the next thing to envy. The pink and pattern of propriety within, as it was the pink and pattern of propriety without, it excited in every breast alike a wondering awe, as of a habitation tenanted by some mysterious being, infinitely superior to the common order of householders.
The inscription on the brass-plate informed the neighbourhood that No. 14 was occupied by Mr. Sheldon, surgeon-dentist; and the dwellers in Fitzgeorge-street amused themselves in their leisure hours by speculative discussions upon the character and pursuits, belongings and surroundings, of this gentleman.
Of course he was eminently respectable. On that question no Fitzgeorgian had ever hazarded a doubt. A householder with such a door-step and such muslin curtains could not be other than the most correct of mankind; for, if there is any external evidence by which a dissolute life or an ill-regulated mind will infallibly betray itself, that evidence is to be found in the yellowness and limpness of muslin window-curtains. The eyes are the windows of the soul, says the poet; but if a man's eyes are not open to your inspection, the windows of his house will help you to discover his character as an individual, and his solidity as a citizen. At least such was the opinion cherished in Fitzgeorge-street, Russell-square.
The person and habits of Mr. Sheldon were in perfect harmony with the aspect of the house. The unsullied snow of the door-step reproduced itself in the unsullied snow of his shirt-front; the brilliancy of the brass-plate was reflected in the glittering brightness of his gold-studs; the varnish on the door was equalled by the lustrous surface of his black-satin waistcoat; the careful pointing of the brickwork was in a manner imitated by the perfect order of his polished finger-nails and the irreproachable neatness of his hair and whiskers. No dentist or medical practitioner of any denomination had inhabited the house in Fitzgeorge-street before the coming of Philip Sheldon. The house had been unoccupied for upwards of a year, and was in the last stage of shabbiness and decay, when the bills disappeared all at once from the windows, and busy painters and bricklayers set their ladders against the dingy brickwork. Mr. Sheldon took the house on a long lease, and spent two or three hundred pounds in the embellishment of it. Upon the completion of all repairs and decorations, two great waggon-loads of furniture, distinguished by that old fashioned clumsiness which is eminently suggestive of respectability, arrived from the Euston-square terminus, while a young man of meditative aspect might have been seen on his knees, now in one empty chamber, anon in another, performing some species of indoor surveying, with a three-foot rule, a loose little oblong memorandum-book, and the merest stump of a square lead-pencil. This was an emissary from the carpet warehouse; and before nightfall it was known to more than one inhabitant in Fitzgeorge-street that the stranger was going to lay down new carpets. The new-comer was evidently of an active and energetic temperament, for within three days of his arrival the brass-plate on his street-door announced his profession, while a neat little glass-case, on a level with the eye of the passing pedestrian, exhibited specimens of his skill in mechanical dentistry, and afforded instruction and amusement to the boys of the neighbourhood, who criticised the glistening white teeth and impossibly red gums, displayed behind the plate-glass, with a like vigour and freedom of language. Nor did Mr. Sheldon's announcement of his profession confine itself to the brass-plate and the glass-case. A shabby-genteel young man pervaded the neighbourhood for some days after the surgeon-dentist's advent, knocking a postman's knock, which only lacked the galvanic sharpness of the professional touch, and delivering neatly-printed circulars to the effect that Mr. Sheldon, surgeon-dentist, of 14 Fitzgeorge-street, had invented some novel method of adjusting false teeth, incomparably superior to any existing method, and that he had, further, patented an improvement on nature in the way of coral gums, the name whereof was an unpronounceable compound of Greek and Latin, calculated to awaken an awful reverence in the unprofessional and unclassical mind.
The Fitzgeorgians shook their heads with prophetic solemnity as they read these circulars. Struggling householders, who find it a hard task to keep the two ends which never have met and never will meet from growing farther and farther asunder every year, are apt to derive a dreary kind of satisfaction from the contemplation of another man's impending ruin. Fitzgeorge-street and its neighbourhood had existed without the services of a dentist, but it was very doubtful that a dentist would be able to exist on the custom to be obtained in Fitzgeorge-street. Mr. Sheldon may, perhaps, have pitched his tent under the impression that wherever there was mankind there was likely to be toothache, and that the healer of an ill so common to frail humanity could scarcely fail to earn his bread, let him establish his abode of horror where he might. For some time after his arrival people watched him and wondered about him, and regarded him a little suspiciously, in spite of the substantial clumsiness of his furniture and the unwinking brightness of his windows. His neighbours asked one another how long all that outward semblance of prosperity would last; and there was sinister meaning in the question.
The Fitzgeorgians were not a little surprised, and were perhaps just a little disappointed, on finding that the newly-established dentist did manage to hold his ground somehow or other, and that the muslin curtains were renewed again and again in all their spotless purity; that the supplies of rotten-stone and oil, hearthstone and house-flannel, were unfailing as a perennial spring; and that the unsullied snow of Mr. Sheldon's shirt-fronts retained its primeval whiteness. Wonderland suspicion gave place to a half-envious respect. Whether much custom came to the dentist no one could decide. There is no trade or profession in which the struggling man will not receive some faint show of encouragement. Pedestrians of agonised aspect, with handkerchiefs held convulsively before their mouths, were seen to rush wildly towards the dentist's door, then pause for a moment, stricken by a sudden terror, and anon feebly pull the handle of an inflexible bell. Cabs had been heard to approach that fatal door—generally on wet days; for there seems to be a kind of fitness in the choice of damp and dismal weather for the extraction of teeth. Elderly ladies and gentlemen had been known to come many times to the Fitzgeorgian mansion. There was a legend of an old lady who had been seen to arrive in a brougham, especially weird and nut-crackery of aspect, and to depart half an hour afterwards a beautified and renovated creature. One half of the Fitzgeorgians declared that Mr. Sheldon had established a very nice little practice, and was saving money; while the other half were still despondent, and opined that the dentist had private property, and was eating up his little capital. It transpired in course of time that Mr. Sheldon had left his native town of Little Barlingford, in Yorkshire, where his father and grandfather had been surgeon-dentists before him, to establish himself in London. He had disposed advantageously of an excellent practice, and had transferred his household goods—the ponderous chairs and tables, the wood whereof had deepened and mellowed in tint under the indefatigable hand of his grandmother—to the metropolis, speculating on the chance that his talents and appearance, address and industry, could scarcely fail to achieve a position. It was further known that he had a brother, an attorney in Gray's Inn, who visited him very frequently; that he had few other friends or acquaintance; that he was a shining example of steadiness and sobriety; that he was on the sunnier side of thirty, a bachelor, and very good-looking; and that his household was comprised of a grim-visaged active old woman imported from Barlingford, a girl who ran errands, and a boy who opened the door, attended to the consulting-room, and did some mysterious work at odd times with a file and sundry queer lumps of plaster-of-paris, beeswax, and bone, in a dark little shed abutting on the yard at the back of the house. This much had the inhabitants of Fitzgeorge-street discovered respecting Mr. Sheldon when he had been amongst them four years; but they had discovered no more. He had made no local acquaintances, nor had he sought to make any. Those of his neighbours who had seen the interior of his house had entered it as patients. They left it as much pleased with Mr. Sheldon as one can be with a man at whose hands one has just undergone martyrdom, and circulated a very flattering report of the dentist's agreeable manners and delicate white handkerchief, fragrant with the odour of eau-de-Cologne. For the rest, Philip Sheldon lived his own life, and dreamed his own dreams. His opposite neighbours, who watched him on sultry summer evenings as he lounged near an open window smoking his cigar, had no more knowledge of his thoughts and fancies than they might have had if he had been a Calmuck Tartar or an Abyssinian chief.
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.
MR. AND MRS. HALLIDAY.
Mr. Sheldon's visitors arrived in due course. They were provincial people of the middle class, accounted monstrously genteel in their own neighbourhood, but in nowise resembling Londoners of the same rank.
Mr. Thomas Halliday was a big, loud-spoken, good-tempered Yorkshireman, who had inherited a comfortable little estate from a plodding, money-making father, and for whom life had been very easy. He was a farmer, and nothing but a farmer; a man for whom the supremest pleasure of existence was a cattle-show or a country horse-fair. The farm upon which he had been born and brought up was situated about six miles from Barlingford, and all the delights of his boyhood and youth were associated with that small market town. He and the two Sheldons had been schoolfellows, and afterwards boon companions, taking such pleasure as was obtainable in Barlingford together; flirting with the same provincial beauties at prim tea-parties in the winter, and getting up friendly picnics in the summer—picnics at which eating and drinking were the leading features of the day's entertainment. Mr. Halliday had always regarded George and Philip Sheldon with that reverential admiration which a stupid man, who is conscious of his own mental inferiority, generally feels for a clever friend and companion. But he was also fully aware of the advantage which a rich man possesses over a poor one, and would not have exchanged the fertile acres of Hyley for the intellectual gifts of his schoolfellows. He had found the substantial value of his comfortably furnished house and well-stocked farm when he and his friend Philip Sheldon became suitors for the hand of Georgina Cradock, youngest daughter of a Barlingford attorney, who lived next door to the Barlingford dentist, Philip Sheldon's father. Philip and the girl had been playfellows in the long-walled gardens behind the two houses, and there had been a brotherly and sisterly intimacy between the juvenile members of the two families. But when Philip and Georgina met at the Barlingford tea-parties in later years, the parental powers frowned upon any renewal of that childish friendship. Miss Cradock had no portion, and the worthy solicitor her father was a prudent man, who was apt to look for the promise of domestic happiness in the plate-basket and the linen-press, rather than for such superficial qualifications as black whiskers and white teeth. So poor Philip was "thrown over the bridge," as he said himself, and Georgy Cradock married Mr. Halliday, with all attendant ceremony and splendour, according to the "lights" of Barlingford gentry.
But this provincial bride's story was no passionate record of anguish and tears. The Barlingford Juliet had liked Romeo as much as she was capable of liking any one; but when Papa Capulet insisted on her union with Paris, she accepted her destiny with decent resignation, and, in the absence of any sympathetic father confessor, was fain to seek consolation from a more mundane individual in the person of the Barlingford milliner. Nor did Philip Sheldon give evidence of any extravagant despair. His father was something of a doctor as well as a dentist; and there were plenty of dark little phials lurking on the shelves of his surgery in which the young man could have found "mortal drugs" without the aid of the apothecary, had he been so minded. Happily no such desperate idea ever occurred to him in connection with his grief. He held himself sulkily aloof from Mr. and Mrs. Halliday for some time after their marriage, and allowed people to see that he considered himself very hardly used; but Prudence, which had always been Philip Sheldon's counsellor, proved herself also his consoler in this crisis of his life. A careful consideration of his own interests led him to perceive that the successful result of his love-suit would have been about the worst thing that could have happened to him.
Georgina had no money. All was said in that. As the young dentist's worldly wisdom ripened with experience, he discovered that the worldly ease of the best man in Barlingford was something like that of a canary-bird who inhabits a clean cage and is supplied with abundant seed and water. The cage is eminently comfortable, and the sleepy, respectable, elderly bird sighs for no better abiding-place, no wider prospect than that patch of the universe which he sees between the bars. But now and then there is hatched a wild young fledgeling, which beats its wings against the inexorable wires, and would fain soar away into that wide outer world, to prosper or perish in its freedom.
Before Georgy had been married a year, her sometime lover had fully resigned himself to the existing state of things, and was on the best possible terms with his friend Tom. He could eat his dinner in the comfortable house at Hyley with an excellent appetite; for there was a gulf between him and his old love far wider than any that had been dug by that ceremonial in the parish church of Barlingford. Philip Sheldon had awakened to the consciousness that life in his native town was little more than a kind of animal vegetation—the life of some pulpy invertebrate creature, which sprawls helplessly upon the sands whereon the wave has deposited it, and may be cloven in half without feeling itself noticeably worse for the operation. He had awakened to the knowledge that there was a wider and more agreeable world beyond that little provincial borough, and that a handsome face and figure and a vigorous intellect were commodities for which there must be some kind of market.
Once convinced of the utter worthlessness of his prospects in Barlingford, Mr. Sheldon turned his eyes Londonwards; and his father happening at the same time very conveniently to depart this life, Philip, the son and heir, disposed of the business to an aspiring young practitioner, and came to the metropolis, where he made that futile attempt to establish himself which has been described.
The dentist had wasted four years in London, and ten years had gone by since Georgy's wedding; and now for the first time he had an opportunity of witnessing the domestic happiness or the domestic misery of the woman who had jilted him, and the man who had been his successful rival. He set himself to watch them with the cool deliberation of a social anatomist, and he experienced very little difficulty in the performance of this moral dissection. They were established under his roof, his companions at every meal; and they were a kind of people who discuss their grievances and indulge in their "little differences" with perfect freedom in the presence of a third, or a fourth, or even a fifth party.
Mr. Sheldon was wise enough to preserve a strict neutrality. He would take up a newspaper at the beginning of a little difference, and lay it down when the little difference was finished, with the most perfect assumption of unconsciousness; but it is doubtful whether the matrimonial disputants were sufficiently appreciative of this good breeding. They would have liked to have had Mr. Sheldon for a court of appeal; and a little interference from him would have given zest to their quarrels. Meanwhile Philip watched them slyly from the covert of his newspaper, and formed his own conclusions about them. If he was pleased to see that his false love's path was not entirely rose-bestrewn, or if he rejoiced at beholding the occasional annoyance of his rival, he allowed no evidence of his pleasure to appear in his face or manner.
Georgina Cradock's rather insipid prettiness had developed into matronly comeliness. Her fair complexion and pink cheeks had lost none of their freshness. Her smooth auburn hair was as soft and bright as it had been when she had braided it preparatory to a Barlingford tea-party in the days of her spinsterhood. She was a pretty, weak little woman, whose education had never gone beyond the routine of a provincial boarding-school, and who believed that she had attained all necessary wisdom in having mastered Pinnock's abridgments of Goldsmith's histories and the rudiments of the French language. She was a woman who thought that the perfection of feminine costume was a moire-antique dress and a conspicuous gold chain. She was a woman who considered a well-furnished house and a horse and gig the highest form of earthly splendour or prosperity.
This was the shallow commonplace creature whom Philip Sheldon had once admired and wooed. He looked at her now, and wondered how he could ever have felt even as much as he had felt on her account. But he had little leisure to devote to any such abstract and useless consideration. He had his own affairs to think about, and they were very desperate.
In the meantime Mr. and Mrs. Halliday occupied themselves in the pursuit of pleasure or business, as the case might be. They were eager for amusement: went to exhibitions in the day and to theatres at night, and came home to cozy little suppers in Fitzgeorge-street, after which Mr. Halliday was wont to waste the small hours in friendly conversation with his quondam companion, and in the consumption of much brandy-and-water.
Unhappily for Georgy, these halcyon days were broken by intervals of storm and cloud. The weak little woman was afflicted with that intermittent fever called jealousy; and the stalwart Thomas was one of those men who can scarcely give the time of day to a feminine acquaintance without some ornate and loud-spoken gallantry. Having no intellectual resources wherewith to beguile the tedium of his idle prosperous life, he was fain to seek pleasure in the companionship of other men; and had thus become a haunter of tavern parlours and small racecourses, being always ready for any amusement his friends proposed to him. It followed, therefore, that he was very often absent from his commonplace substantial home, and his pretty weak-minded wife. And poor Georgy had ample food for her jealous fears and suspicions; for where might a man not be who was so seldom at home? She had never been particularly fond of her husband, but that was no reason why she should not be particularly jealous about him; and her jealousy betrayed itself in a peevish worrying fashion, which was harder to bear than the vengeful ferocity of a Clytemnestra. It was in vain that Thomas Halliday and those jolly good fellows his friends and companions attested the Arcadian innocence of racecourses, and the perfect purity of that smoky atmosphere peculiar to tavern parlours. Georgy's suspicions were too vague for refutation; but they were nevertheless sufficient ground for all the alternations of temper—from stolid sulkiness to peevish whining, from murmured lamentations to loud hysterics—to which the female temperament is liable.
In the meantime poor honest, loud-spoken Tom did all in his power to demonstrate his truth and devotion. He bought his wife as many stiff silk gowns and gaudy Barlingford bonnets as she chose to sigh for. He made a will, in which she was sole legatee, and insured his life in different offices to the amount of five thousand pounds.
"I'm the sort of fellow that's likely to go off the hooks suddenly, you know, Georgy," he said, "and your poor dad was always anxious I should make things square for you. I don't suppose you're likely to marry again, my lass, so I've no need to tie up Lottie's little fortune. I must trust some one, and I'd better confide in my little wife than in some canting methodistical fellow of a trustee, who would speculate my daughter's money upon some Stock-Exchange hazard, and levant to Australia when it was all swamped. If you can't trust me, Georgy, I'll let you see that I can trust you", added Tom reproachfully.
Whereupon poor weak little Mrs. Halliday murmured plaintively that she did not want fortunes or life insurances, but that she wanted her husband to stay at home, content with the calm and rather sleepy delights of his own fireside. Poor Tom was wont to promise amendment, and would keep his promise faithfully so long as no supreme temptation, in the shape of a visit from some friend of the jolly-good-fellow species, arose to vanquish his good resolutions. But a good-tempered, generous-hearted young man who farms his own land, has three or four good horses in his stable, a decent cellar of honest port and sherry—"none of your wishy-washy sour stuff in the way of hock or claret," cried Tom Halliday—and a very comfortable balance at his banker's, finds it no easy matter to shake off friends of the jolly-good-fellow fraternity.
In London Mr. Halliday found the spirit of jolly-dog-ism rampant. George Sheldon had always been his favourite of these two brothers; and it was George who lured him from the safe shelter of Fitzgeorge-street and took him to mysterious haunts, whence he returned long after midnight, boisterous of manner and unsteady of gait, and with garments reeking of stale tobacco-smoke.
He was always good-tempered, even after these diabolical orgies on some unknown Brocken, and protested indistinctly that there was no harm,—"'pon m' wor', ye know, ol' gur'! Geor' an' me—half-doz' oyst'r—c'gar—botl' p'l ale—str't home," and much more to the same effect. When did any married man ever take more than half a dozen oysters—or take any undomestic pleasure for his own satisfaction? It is always those incorrigible bachelors, Thomas, Richard, or Henry, who hinder the unwilling Benedick from returning to his sacred Lares and Penates.
Poor Georgy was not to be pacified by protestations about oysters and cigars from the lips of a husband who was thick of utterance, and who betrayed a general imbecility of mind and unsteadiness of body. This London excursion, which had begun in sunshine, threatened to end in storm and darkness. Georgy Sheldon and his set had taken possession of the young farmer; and Georgy had no better amusement in the long blustrous March evenings than to sit at her work under the flaming gas in Mr. Sheldon's drawing-room, while that gentleman—who rarely joined in the dissipations of his friend and his brother—occupied himself with mechanical dentistry in the chamber of torture below.
Fitzgeorge-street in general, always on the watch to discover evidences of impecuniosity or doubtful morality on the part of any one citizen in particular, could find no food for scandal in the visit of Mr. and Mrs. Halliday to their friend and countryman. It had been noised abroad, through the agency of Mrs. Woolper, that Mr. Sheldon had been a suitor for the lady's hand, and had been jilted by her. The Fitzgeorgians had been, therefore, especially on the alert to detect any sign of backsliding in the dentist. There would have been much pleasant discussion in kitchens and back-parlours if Mr. Sheldon had been particularly attentive to his fair guest; but it speedily became known, always by the agency of Mrs. Woolper and that phenomenon of idleness and iniquity, the London "girl," that Mr. Sheldon was not by any means attentive to the pretty young woman from Yorkshire; but that he suffered her to sit alone hour after hour in her husband's absence, with no amusement but her needlework wherewith to "pass the time," while he scraped and filed and polished those fragments of bone which were to assist in the renovation of decayed beauty.
The third week of Mr. and Mrs. Halliday's visit was near its close, and as yet the young farmer had arrived at no decision as to the subject which had brought him to London. The sale of Hyley Farm was an accomplished fact, and the purchase-money duly bestowed at Tom's banker's; but very little had been done towards finding the new property which was to be a substitute for the estate his father and grandfather had farmed before him. He had seen auctioneers, and had brought home plans of estates in Herefordshire and Devonshire, Cornwall and Somersetshire, all of which seemed to be, in their way, the most perfect things imaginable—land of such fertility as one would scarcely expect to find out of Arcadia—live stock which seemed beyond all price, to be taken at a valuation.—roads and surrounding neighbourhood unparalleled in beauty and convenience—outbuildings that must have been the very archetypes of barns and stables—a house which to inhabit would be to adore. But as yet he had seen none of these peerless domains. He was waiting for decent weather in which to run down to the West and "look about him," as he said to himself. In the meantime the blustrous March weather, which was so unsuited to long railroad journeys, and all that waiting about at junctions and at little windy stations on branch lines, incidental to the inspection of estates scattered over a large area of country, served very well for "jolly-dog-ism;" and what with a hand at cards in George Sheldon's chambers, and another hand at cards in somebody else's chambers, and a run down to an early meeting at Newmarket, and an evening at some rooms where there was something to be seen which was as near prize-fighting as the law allowed, and other evenings in unknown regions, Mr. Halliday found time slipping by him, and his domestic peace vanishing away.
It was on an evening at the end of this third week that Mr. Sheldon abandoned his mechanical dentistry for once in a way, and ascended to the drawing-room where poor Georgy sat busy with that eternal needlework, but for which melancholy madness would surely overtake many desolate matrons in houses whose common place comfort and respectable dulness are more dismal than the picturesque dreariness of a moated grange amid the Lincolnshire fens. To the masculine mind this needlework seems nothing more than a purposeless stabbing and sewing of strips of calico; but to lonely womanhood it is the prison-flower of the captive, it is the spider of Latude.
Mr. Sheldon brought his guest an evening newspaper.
"There's an account of the opening of Parliament," he said, "which you may perhaps like to see. I wish I had a piano, or some female acquaintances to drop in upon you. I am afraid you must be dull in these long evenings when Tom is out of the way."
"I am indeed dull," Mrs. Halliday answered peevishly; "and if Tom cared for me, he wouldn't leave me like this evening after evening. But he doesn't care for me."
Mr Sheldon laid down the newspaper, and seated himself opposite his guest. He sat for a few minutes in silence, beating time to some imaginary air with the tips of his fingers on the old-fashioned mahogany table. Then he said, with a half-smile upon his face,—
"But surely Tom is the best of husbands! He has been a little wild since his coming to London, I know; but then you see he doesn't often come to town."
"He's just as bad in Yorkshire," Georgy answered gloomily; "he's always going to Barlingford with somebody or other, or to meet some of his old friends. I'm sure, if I had known what he was, I would never have married him."
"Why, I thought he was such a good husband. He was telling me only a few days ago how he had made a will leaving you every sixpence he possesses, without reservation, and how he has insured his life for five thousand pounds."
"O yes, I know that; but I don't call that being a good husband. I don't want him to leave me his money. I don't want him to die. I want him to stay at home."
"Poor Tom! I'm afraid he's not the sort of man for that kind of thing. He likes change and amusement. You married a rich man, Mrs. Halliday; you made your choice, you know, without regard to the feelings of any one else. You sacrificed truth and honour to your own inclination, or your own interest, I do not know, and do not ask which. If the bargain has turned out a bad one, that's your look-out."
Philip Sheldon sat with his folded arms resting on the little table and his eyes fixed on Georgy's face. They could be very stern and hard and cruel, those bright black eyes, and Mrs. Halliday grew first red and then pale under their searching gaze. She had seen Mr. Sheldon very often during the years of her married life, but this was the first time he had ever said anything to her that sounded like a reproach. The dentist's eyes softened a little as he watched her, not with any special tenderness, but with an expression of half-disdainful compassion—such as a strong stern man might feel for a foolish child. He could see that this woman was afraid of him, and it served his interests that she should fear him. He had a purpose in everything he did, and his purpose to-night was to test the strength of his influence over Georgina Halliday. In the old time before her marriage that influence had been very strong. It was for him, to discover now whether it still endured.
"You made your choice, Mrs. Halliday," he went on presently, "and it was a choice which all prudent people must have approved. What chance had a man, who was only heir to a practice worth four or five hundred pounds, against the inheritor of Hyley Farm with its two hundred and fifty acres, and three thousand pounds' worth of live stock, plant, and working capital? When do the prudent people ever stop to consider truth and honour, or old promises, or an affection that dates from childhood? They calculate everything by pounds, shillings, and pence; and according to their mode of reckoning you were in the right when you jilted me to marry Tom Halliday."
Georgy laid down her work and took out her handkerchief. She was one of those women who take refuge in tears when they find themselves at a disadvantage. Tears had always melted honest Tom, was his wrath never so dire, and tears would no doubt subdue Philip Sheldon.
But Georgy had to discover that the dentist was made of a stuff very different from that softer clay which composed the rollicking good-tempered farmer. Mr. Sheldon watched her tears with the cold-blooded deliberation of a scientific experimentalist. He was glad to find that he could make her cry. She was a necessary instrument in the working out of certain plans that he had made for himself, and he was anxious to discover whether she was likely to be a plastic instrument. He knew that her love for him had never been worth much at its best, and that the poor little flickering flame had been utterly extinguished by nine years of commonplace domesticity and petty jealousy. But his purpose was one that would be served as well by her fear as by her love, and he had set himself to-night to gauge his power in relation to this poor weak creature.
"It's very unkind of you to say such dreadful things, Mr. Sheldon," she whimpered presently; "you know very well that my marriage with Tom was pa's doing, and not mine. I'm sure if I'd known how he would stay out night after night, and come home in such dreadful states time after time, I never would have consented to marry him."
"Wouldn't you?—O yes, you would. If you were a widow to-morrow, and free to marry again, you would choose just such another man as Tom—a man who laughs loud, and pays flourishing compliments, and drives a gig with a high-stepping horse. That's the sort of man women like, and that's the sort of man you'd marry."
"I'm sure I shouldn't marry at all," answered Mrs. Halliday, in a voice that was broken by little gasping sobs. "I have seen enough of the misery of married life. But I don't want Tom to die, unkind as he is to me. People are always saying that he won't make old bones—how horrid it is to talk of a person's bones!—and I'm sure I sometimes make myself wretched about him, as he knows, though he doesn't thank me for it."
And here Mrs Halliday's sobs got the better of her utterance, and Mr. Sheldon was fain to say something of a consolatory nature.
"Come, come," he said, "I won't tease you any more. That's against the laws of hospitality, isn't it?—only there are some things which you can't expect a man to forget, you know. However, let bygones be bygones. As for poor old Tom, I daresay he'll live to be a hale, hearty old man, in spite of the croakers. People always will croak about something; and it's a kind of fashion to say that a big, hearty, six-foot man is a fragile blossom likely to be nipped by any wintry blast. Come, come, Mrs. Halliday, your husband mustn't discover that I've been making you cry when he comes home. He may be home early this evening, perhaps; and if he is, we'll have an oyster supper, and a chat about old times."
Mrs. Halliday shook her head dolefully.
"It's past ten o'clock already," she said, "and I don't suppose Tom will be home till after twelve. He doesn't like my sitting up for him; but I wonder what time he would come home if I didn't sit up for him?"
"Let's hope for the best," exclaimed Mr. Sheldon cheerfully. "I'll go and see about the oysters."
"Don't get them for me, or for Tom," protested Mrs. Halliday; "he will have had his supper when he comes home, you may be sure, and I couldn't eat a morsel of anything."
To this resolution Mrs. Halliday adhered; so the dentist was fain to abandon all jovial ideas in relation to oysters and pale ale. But he did not go back to his mechanical dentistry. He sat opposite his visitor, and watched her, silently and thoughtfully, for some time as she worked. She had brushed away her tears, but she looked very peevish and miserable, and took out her watch several times in an hour. Mr. Sheldon made two or three feeble attempts at conversation, but the talk languished and expired on each occasion, and they sat on in silence.
Little by little the dentist's attention seemed to wander away from his guest. He wheeled his chair round, and sat looking at the fire with the same fixed gloom upon his face which had darkened it on the night of his return from Yorkshire. Things had been so desperate with him of late, that he had lost his old orderly habit of thinking out a business at one sitting, and making an end of all deliberation and hesitation about it. There were subjects that forced themselves upon his thoughts, and certain ideas which repeated themselves with a stupid persistence. He was such an eminently practical man, that this disorder of his brain troubled him more even than the thoughts that made the disorder. He sat in the same attitude for a long while, scarcely conscious of Mrs. Halliday's presence, not at all conscious of the progress of time. Georgy had been right in her gloomy forebodings of bad behaviour on the part of Mr. Halliday. It was nearly one o'clock when a loud double knock announced that gentleman's return. The wind had been howling drearily, and a sharp, slanting rain had been pattering against the windows for the last half-hour, while Mrs. Halliday's breast had been racked by the contending emotions of anxiety and indignation.
"I suppose he couldn't get a cab," she exclaimed, as the knock startled her from her listening attitude—for however intently a midnight watcher may be listening for the returning wanderer's knock, it is not the less startling when it comes?—"and he has walked home through the wet, and now he'll have a violent cold, I daresay," added Georgy peevishly.
"Then it's lucky for him he's in a doctor's house," answered Mr. Sheldon, with a smile. He was a handsome man, no doubt, according to the popular idea of masculine perfection, but he had not a pleasant smile. "I went through the regular routine, you know, and am as well able to see a patient safely through a cold or fever as I am to make him a set of teeth."
Mr. Halliday burst into the room at this moment, singing a fragment of the "Chough and Crow" chorus, very much out of tune. He was in boisterously high spirits, and very little the worse for liquor. He had only walked from Covent Garden, he said, and had taken nothing but a tankard of stout and a Welsh rarebit. He had been hearing the divinest singing—boys with the voices of angels—and had been taking his supper in a place which duchesses themselves did not disdain to peep at from the sacred recesses of a loge grillee, George Sheldon had told him. But poor country-bred Georgina Halliday would not believe in the duchesses, or the angelic singing boys, or the primitive simplicity of Welsh rarebits. She had a vision of beautiful women, and halls of dazzling light, where there was the mad music of perpetual Post-horn Galops, with a riotous accompaniment of huzzas and the popping of champagne corks—where the sheen of satin and the glitter of gems bewildered the eye of the beholder. She had seen such a picture once on the stage, and had vaguely associated it with all Tom's midnight roisterings ever afterwards.
The roisterer's garments were very wet, and it was in vain that his wife and Philip Sheldon entreated him to change them for dry ones, or to go to bed immediately. He stood before the fire relating his innocent adventures, and trying to dispel the cloud from Georgy's fair young brow; and, when he did at last consent to go to his room, the dentist shook his head ominously.
"You'll have a severe cold to-morrow, depend upon it, Tom, and you'll have yourself to thank for it," he said, as he bade the good-tempered reprobate good night. "Never mind, old fellow," answered Tom; "if I am ill, you shall nurse me. If one is doomed to die by doctors' stuff, it's better to have a doctor one does know than a doctor one doesn't know for one's executioner."
After which graceful piece of humour Mr. Halliday went blundering up the staircase, followed by his aggrieved wife.
Philip Sheldon stood on the landing looking after his visitors for some minutes. Then he went slowly back to the sitting-room, where he replenished the fire, and seated himself before it with a newspaper in his hand.
"What's the use of going to bed, if I can't sleep?" he muttered, in a discontented tone.
A PERPLEXING ILLNESS.
Mr. Sheldon's prophecy was fully realised. Tom Halliday awoke the next day with a violent cold in his head. Like most big boisterous men of herculean build, he was the veriest craven in the hour of physical ailment; so he succumbed at once to the malady which a man obliged to face the world and fight for his daily bread must needs have made light of.
The dentist rallied his invalid friend.
"Keep your bed, if you like, Tom," he said, "but there's no necessity for any such coddling. As your hands are hot, and your tongue rather queer, I may as well give you a saline draught. You'll be all right by dinner-time, and I'll get George to look round in the evening for a hand at cards."
Tom obeyed his professional friend—took his medicine, read the paper, and slept away the best part of the dull March day. At half-past five he got up and dressed for dinner, and the evening passed very pleasantly—so pleasantly, indeed, that Georgy was half inclined to wish that her husband might be afflicted with chronic influenza, whereby he would be compelled to stop at home. She sighed when Philip Sheldon slapped his friend's broad shoulder, and told him cheerily that he would be "all right to-morrow." He would be well again, and there would be more midnight roistering, and she would be again tormented by that vision of lighted halls and beautiful diabolical creatures revolving madly to the music of the Post-horn Galop.
It seemed, however, that poor jealous Mrs. Halliday was to be spared her nightly agony for some time to come. Tom's cold lasted longer than he had expected, and the cold was succeeded by a low fever—a bilious fever, Mr. Sheldon said. There was not the least occasion for alarm, of course. The invalid and the invalid's wife trusted implicitly in the friendly doctor who assured them both that Tom's attack was the most ordinary kind of thing; a little wearing, no doubt, but entirely without danger. He had to repeat this assurance very often to Georgy, whose angry feelings had given place to extreme tenderness and affection now that Tom was an invalid, quite unfitted for the society of jolly good fellows, and willing to receive basins of beef-tea and arrow-root meekly from his wife's hands, instead of those edibles of iniquity, oysters and toasted cheese.
Mr. Halliday's illness was very tiresome. It was one of those perplexing complaints which keep the patient himself, and the patient's friends and attendants, in perpetual uncertainty. A little worse one day and a shade better the next; now gaining a little strength, now losing a trifle more than he had gained. The patient declined in so imperceptible a manner that he had been ill three weeks, and was no longer able to leave his bed, and had lost alike his appetite and his spirits, before Georgy awoke to the fact that this illness, hitherto considered so lightly, must be very serious.
"I think if—if you have no objection, I should like to see another doctor, Mr. Sheldon," she said one day, with considerable embarrassment of manner. She feared to offend her host by any doubt of his skill. "You see—you—you are so much employed with teeth—and—of course you know I am quite assured of your talent—but don't you think that a doctor who had more experience in fever cases might bring Tom round quicker? He has been ill so long now; and really he doesn't seem to get any better."
Philip Sheldon shrugged his shoulders.
"As you please, my dear Mrs. Halliday," he said carelessly; "I don't wish to press my services upon you. It is quite a matter of friendship, you know, and I shall not profit sixpence by my attendance on poor old Tom. Call in another doctor, by all means, if you think fit to do so; but, of course, in that event, I must withdraw from the case. The man you call in may be clever, or he may be stupid and ignorant. It's all a chance, when one doesn't know one's man; and I really can't advise you upon that point, for I know nothing of the London profession."
Georgy looked alarmed. This was a new view of the subject. She had fancied that all regular practitioners were clever, and had only doubted Mr. Sheldon because he was not a regular practitioner. But how if she were to withdraw her husband from the hands of a clever man to deliver him into the care of an ignorant pretender, simply because she was over-anxious for his recovery?
"I always am foolishly anxious about things," she thought.
And then she looked piteously at Mr. Sheldon, and said, "What do you think I ought to do? Pray tell me. He has eaten no breakfast again this morning; and even the cup of tea which I persuaded him to take seemed to disagree with him. And then there is that dreadful sore throat which torments him so. What ought I to do, Mr. Sheldon?"
"Whatever seems best to yourself, Mrs. Halliday," answered the dentist earnestly. "It is a subject upon, which I cannot pretend to advise you. It is a matter of feeling rather than of reason, and it is a matter which you yourself must determine. If I knew any man whom I could honestly recommend to you, it would be another affair; but I don't. Tom's illness is the simplest thing in the world, and I feel myself quite competent to pull him through it, without fuss or bother; but if you think otherwise, pray put me out of the question. There's one fact, however, of which I'm bound to remind you. Like many fine big stalwart fellows of his stamp, your husband is as nervous as a hysterical woman; and if you call in a strange doctor, who will pull long faces, and put on the professional solemnity, the chances are that he'll take alarm, and do himself more mischief in a few hours than your new adviser can undo in as many weeks."
There was a little pause after this. Georgy's opinions, and suspicions, and anxieties were alike vague; and this last suggestion of Mr. Sheldon's put things in a new and alarming light. She was really anxious about her husband, but she had been accustomed all her life to accept the opinion of other people in preference to her own.
"Do you really think that Tom will soon be well and strong again?" she asked presently.
"If I thought otherwise, I should be the first to advise other measures. However, my dear Mrs. Halliday, call in some one else, for your own satisfaction."
"No," said Georgy, sighing plaintively, "it might frighten Tom. You are quite right, Mr. Sheldon; he is very nervous, and the idea that I was alarmed might alarm him. I'll trust in you. Pray try to bring him round again. You will try, won't you?" she asked, in the childish pleading way which was peculiar to her.
The dentist was searching for something in the drawer of a table, and his back was turned on the anxious questioner.
"You may depend upon it, I'll do my best, Mrs. Halliday," he answered, still busy at the drawer. Mr. Sheldon the younger had paid many visits to Fitzgeorge-street during Tom Halliday's illness. George and Tom had been the Damon and Pythias of Barlingford; and George seemed really distressed when he found his friend changed for the worse. The changes in the invalid were so puzzling, the alternations from better to worse and from worse to better so frequent, that fear could take no hold upon the minds of the patient's friends. It seemed such a very slight affair this low fever, though sufficiently inconvenient to the patient himself, who suffered a good deal from thirst and sickness, and showed an extreme disinclination for food, all which symptoms Mr. Sheldon said were the commonest and simplest features of a very mild attack of bilious fever, which would leave Tom a better man than it had found him.
There had been several pleasant little card-parties during the earlier stages of Mr. Halliday's illness; but within the last week the patient had been too low and weak for cards—too weak to read the newspaper, or even to bear having it read to him. When George came to look at his old friend—"to cheer you up a little, old fellow, you know," and so on—he found Tom, for the time being, past all capability of being cheered, even by the genial society of his favourite jolly good fellow, or by tidings of a steeplechase in Yorkshire, in which a neighbour had gone to grief over a double fence.
"That chap upstairs seems rather queerish," George had said to his brother, after finding Tom lower and weaker than usual. "He's in a bad way, isn't he, Phil?"
"No; there's nothing serious the matter with him. He's rather low to-night, that's all."
"Rather low!" echoed George Sheldon. "He seems to me so very low, that he can't sink much lower without going to the bottom of his grave. I'd call some one in, if I were you."
The dentist shrugged his shoulders, and made a little contemptuous noise with his lips.
"If you knew as much of doctors as I do, you wouldn't be in any hurry to trust a friend to the mercy of one," he said carelessly. "Don't you alarm yourself about Tom. He's right enough. He's been in a state of chronic over-eating and over-drinking for the last ten years, and this bilious fever will be the making of him."
"Will it?" said George doubtfully; and then there followed a little pause, during which the brothers happened to look at each other furtively, and happened to surprise each other in the act.
"I don't know about over-eating or drinking," said George presently; "but something has disagreed with Tom Halliday, that's very evident."
THE LETTER FROM THE "ALLIANCE" OFFICE.
Upon the evening of the day on which Mrs. Halliday and the dentist had discussed the propriety of calling in a strange doctor, George Sheldon came again to see his sick friend. He was quicker to perceive the changes in the invalid than the members of the household, who saw him daily and hourly, and he perceived a striking change for the worse to-night.
He took care, however, to suffer no evidence of alarm or surprise to appear in the sick chamber. He talked to his friend in the usual cheery way; sat by the bedside for half an hour; did his best to arouse Tom from a kind of stupid lethargy, and to encourage Mrs. Halliday, who shared the task of nursing her husband with brisk Nancy Woolper, an invaluable creature in a sick-room. But he failed in both attempts; the dull apathy of the invalid was not to be dispelled by the most genial companionship, and Georgy's spirits had been sinking lower and lower all day as her fears increased.
She would fain have called in a strange doctor—she would fain have sought for comfort and consolation from some new quarter. But she was afraid of offending Philip Sheldon; and she was afraid of alarming her husband. So she waited, and watched, and struggled against that ever-increasing anxiety. Had not Mr. Sheldon made light of his friend's malady, and what motive could he have for deceiving her?
A breakfast-cup full of beef-tea stood on the little table by the bedside, and had been standing there for hours untouched.
"I did take such pains to make it strong and clear," said Mrs. Woolper regretfully, as she came to the little table during a tidying process, "and poor dear Mr. Halliday hasn't taken so much as a spoonful. It won't be fit for him to-morrow, so as I haven't eaten a morsel of dinner, what with the hurry and anxiety and one thing and another, I'll warm up the beef-tea for my supper. There's not a blessed thing in the house; for you don't eat nothing, Mrs. Halliday; and as to cooking a dinner for Mr. Sheldon, you'd a deal better go and throw your victuals out into the gutter, for then there'd be a chance of stray dogs profiting by 'em, at any rate."
"Phil is off his feed, then; eh, Nancy?" said George.
"I should rather think he is, Mr. George. I roasted a chicken yesterday for him and Mrs. Halliday, and I don't think they eat an ounce between, them; and such a lovely tender young thing as it was too—done to a turn—with bread sauce and a little bit of sea-kale. One invalid makes another, that's certain. I never saw your brother so upset as he is now, Mr. George, in all his life.
"No?" answered George Sheldon thoughtfully; "Phil isn't generally one of your sensitive sort."
The invalid was sleeping heavily during this conversation. George stood by the bed for some minutes looking down at the altered face, and then turned to leave the room.
"Good night, Mrs. Halliday," he said; "I hope I shall find poor old Tom a shade better when I look round to-morrow."
"I am sure I hope so," Georgy answered mournfully.
She was sitting by the window looking out at the darkening western sky, in which the last lurid glimmer of a stormy sunset was fading against a background of iron gray.
This quiet figure by the window, the stormy sky, and ragged hurrying clouds without, the dusky chamber with all its dismally significant litter of medicine-bottles, made a gloomy picture—a picture which the man who looked upon it carried in his mind for many years after that night.
George Sheldon and Nancy Woolper left the room together, the Yorkshirewoman carrying a tray of empty phials and glasses, and amongst them the cup of beef-tea.
"He seems in a bad way to-night, Nancy," said George, with a backward jerk of his head towards the sick-chamber.
"He is in a bad way, Mr. George," answered the woman gravely, "let Mr. Philip think what he will. I don't want to say a word against your brother's knowledge, for such a steady studious gentleman as he is had need be clever; and if I was ill myself, I'd trust my life to him freely; for I have heard Barlingford folks say that my master's advice is as good as any regular doctor's, and that there's very little your regular doctors know that he doesn't know as well or better. But for all that, Mr. George, I don't think he understands Mr. Halliday's case quite as clear as he might."
"Do you think Tom's in any danger?"
"I won't say that, Mr. George; but I think he gets worse instead of getting better."
"Humph!" muttered George; "if Halliday were to go off the hooks, Phil would have a good chance of getting a rich wife."
"Don't say that, Mr. George," exclaimed the Yorkshirewoman reproachfully; "don't even think of such a thing while that poor man lies at death's door. I'm sure Mr. Sheldon hasn't any thoughts of that kind. He told me before Mr. and Mrs. Halliday came to town that he and Miss Georgy had forgotten all about past times."
"O, if Phil said so, that alters the case. Phil is one of your blunt outspoken fellows, and always says what he means," said George Sheldon. And then he went downstairs, leaving Nancy to follow him at her leisure with the tray of jingling cups and glasses. He went down through the dusk, smiling to himself, as if he had just given utterance to some piece of intense humour. He went to look for his brother, whom he found in the torture-chamber, busied with some mysterious process in connection with a lump of plaster-of-paris, which seemed to be the model of ruined battlements in the Gothic style. The dentist looked up as George entered the room, and did not appear particularly delighted by the appearance of that gentleman.
"Well," said Mr. Sheldon the younger, "busy as usual? Patients seem to be looking up."
"Patients be——toothless to the end of time!" cried Philip, with a savage laugh. "No, I'm not working to order; I'm only experimentalising."
"You're rather fond of experiments, I think, Phil," said George, seating himself near the table at which his brother was working under the glare of the gas. The dentist looked very pale and haggard in the gas-light, and his eyes had the dull sunken appearance induced by prolonged sleeplessness. George sat watching his brother thoughtfully for some time, and then produced his cigar-case. "You don't mind my smoke here?" he asked, as he lighted a cigar.
"Not at all. You are very welcome to sit here, if it amuses you to see me working at the cast of a lower jaw."
"O, that's a lower jaw, is it? It looks like the fragment of some castle-keep. No, Phil, I don't care about watching you work. I want to talk to you seriously."
"About that fellow upstairs—poor old Tom. He and I were great cronies, you know, at home. He's in a very bad way."
"Is he? You seem to be turning physician all at once, George. I shouldn't have thought your grubbing among county histories, and tattered old pedigrees, and parish registers had given you so deep an insight into the science of medicine!" said the dentist in a sneering tone.
"I don't know anything of medicine; but I know enough to be sure that Tom Halliday is about as bad as he can be. What mystifies me is, that he doesn't seem to have had anything particular the matter with him. There he lies, getting worse and worse every day, without any specific ailment. It's a strange illness, Philip."
"I don't see anything strange in it."
"Don't you? Don't you think the surrounding circumstances are strange? Here is this man comes to your house hale and hearty; and all of a sudden he falls ill, and gets lower and lower every day, without anybody being able to say why or wherefore."
"That's not true, George. Everybody in this house knows the cause of Tom Halliday's illness. He came home in wet clothes, and insisted on keeping them on. He caught a cold; which resulted in low fever. There is the whole history and mystery of the affair."
"That's simple enough, certainly. But if I were you, Phil I'd call in another doctor."
"That is Mrs. Halliday's business," answered the dentist coolly; "if she doubts my skill, she is free to call in whom she pleases. And now you may as well drop the subject, George. I've had enough anxiety about this man's illness, and I don't want to be worried by you."
After this there was a little conversation upon general matters, but the talk dragged and languished drearily, and George Sheldon rose to depart directly he had finished his cigar.
"Good night, Philip!" he said; "if ever you get a stroke of good luck, I hope you'll stand something handsome to me."
This remark had no particular relevance to anything that had been said that night by the two men; yet Philip Sheldon seemed in nowise astonished by it.
"If things ever do take a turn for the better with me, you'll find me a good friend, George," he said gravely; and then Mr. Sheldon the younger bade him good night, and went out into Fitzgeorge-street.
He paused for a moment at the corner of the street to look back at his brother's house. He could see the lighted windows of the invalid's chamber, and it was at those he looked.
"Poor Tom," he said to himself, "poor Tom! We were great cronies in the old times, and have had many a pleasant evening together!"
Mr. Sheldon the dentist sat up till the small hours that night, as he had done for many nights lately. He finished his work in the torture-chamber, and went up to the common sitting-room, or drawing-room as it was called by courtesy, a little before midnight. The servants had gone to bed, for there was no regular nightly watch in the apartment of the invalid. Mrs. Halliday lay on a sofa in her husband's room, and Nancy Woolper slept in an adjoining apartment, always wakeful and ready if help of any kind should be wanted.
The house was very quiet just now. Philip Sheldon walked up and down the room, thinking; and the creaking of his boots sounded unpleasantly loud to his ears. He stopped before the fireplace, after having walked to and fro some time, and began to examine some letters that lay upon the mantelpiece. They were addressed to Mr. Halliday, and had been forwarded from Yorkshire. The dentist took them up, one by one, and deliberately examined them. They were all business letters, and most of them bore country post-marks. But there was one which had been, in the first instance, posted from London and this letter Mr. Sheldon examined with especial attention.
It was a big, official-looking document, and embossed upon the adhesive envelope appeared the crest and motto of the Alliance Insurance Office.
"I wonder whether that's all square," thought Mr. Sheldon, as he turned the envelope about in his hands, staring at it absently. "I ought to make sure of that. The London postmark is nearly three weeks old." He pondered for some moments, and then went to the cupboard in which he kept the materials wherewith to replenish or to make a fire. Here he found a little tin tea-kettle, in which he was in the habit of boiling water for occasional friendly glasses of grog. He poured some water from a bottle on the sideboard into this kettle, set fire to a bundle of wood, and put the kettle on the blazing sticks. After having done this he searched for a tea-cup, succeeded in finding one, and then stood watching for the boiling of the water. He had not long to wait; the water boiled furiously before the wood was burned out, and Mr. Sheldon filled the tea-cup standing on the table. Then he put the insurance-letter over the cup, with the seal downwards, and left it so while he resumed his walk. After walking up and down for about ten minutes he went back to the table and took up the letter. The adhesive envelope opened easily, and Mr. Sheldon, by this ingenious stratagem, made himself master of his friend's business.
The "Alliance" letter was nothing more than a notice to the effect that the half-yearly premium for insuring the sum of three thousand pounds on the life of Thomas Halliday would be due on such a day, after which there would be twenty-one days' grace, at the end of which time the policy would become void, unless the premium had been duly paid.
Mr. Halliday's letters had been suffered to accumulate during the last fortnight. The letters forwarded from Yorkshire had been detained some time, as they had been sent first to Hyley Farm, now in the possession of the new owner, and then to Barlingford, to the house of Georgy's mother, who had kept them upwards of a week, in daily expectation of her son-in-law's return. It was only on the receipt of a letter from Georgy, containing the tidings of her husband's illness, that Mr. Halliday's letters had been sent to London. Thus it came about that the twenty-one days of grace were within four-and-twenty hours of expiring when Philip Sheldon opened his friend's letter.
"This is serious," muttered the dentist, as he stood deliberating with the open letter in his hand; "there are three thousand pounds depending on that man's power to write a check!"
After a few minutes' reflection, he folded the letter and resealed it very carefully.
"It wouldn't do to press the matter upon him to-night," he thought; "I must wait till to-morrow morning, come what may."
MR. BURKHAM'S UNCERTAINTIES.
The next morning dawned gray and pale and chill, after the manner of early spring mornings, let them ripen into never such balmy days; and with the dawn Nancy Woolper came into the invalid's chamber, more wan and sickly of aspect than the morning itself.
Mrs. Halliday started from an uneasy slumber.
"What's the matter, Nancy?" she asked with considerable alarm. She had known the woman ever since her childhood, and she was startled this morning by some indefinable change in her manner and appearance. The hearty old woman, whose face had been like a hard rosy apple shrivelled and wrinkled by long keeping, had now a white and ghastly look which struck terror to Georgy's breast. She who was usually so brisk of manner and sharp of speech, had this morning a strange subdued tone and an unnatural calmness of demeanour. "What is the matter, Nancy?" Mrs. Halliday repeated, getting up from her sofa.
"Don't be frightened, Miss Georgy," answered the old woman, who was apt to forget that Tom Halliday's wife had ever ceased to be Georgy Cradock; "don't be frightened, my dear. I haven't been very well all night,—and—and—I've been, worrying myself about Mr. Halliday. If I were you, I'd call in another doctor. Never mind what Mr. Philip says. He may be mistaken, you know, clever as he is. There's no telling. Take my advice, Miss Georgy, and call in another doctor—directly—directly," repeated the old woman, seizing Mrs. Halliday's wrist with a passionate energy, as if to give emphasis to her words. Poor timid Georgy shrank from her with terror.
"You frighten me, Nancy," she whispered; "do you think that Tom is so much worse? You have not been with him all night; and he has been sleeping very quietly. What makes you so anxious this morning?"
"Never mind that, Miss Georgy. You get another doctor, that's all; get another doctor at once. Mr. Sheldon is a light sleeper. I'll go to his room and tell him you've set your heart upon having fresh advice; if you'll only bear me out afterwards."
"Yes, yes; go by all means," exclaimed Mrs. Halliday, only too ready to take alarm under the influence of a stronger mind, and eager to act when supported by another person.