This was rather alarming, and Valentine felt that it was very likely to be correct.
"Mr. Sheldon may play the part of puss as he pleases," he replied after a brief pause for deliberation; "this is a case in which he dare not show his claws. He has no authority to control Miss Halliday's actions."
"Perhaps not, but he would find means for preventing her marriage if it was to his interest to do so. He is not your brother, you see, Mr. Hawkehurst; but he is mine, and I know a good deal about him. His interest may not be concerned in hindering his stepdaughter's marriage with a penniless scapegrace. He may possibly prefer such a bridegroom as less likely to make himself obnoxious by putting awkward questions about poor Tom Halliday's money, every sixpence of which he means to keep, of course. If his cards are packed for that kind of marriage, he'll welcome you to his arms as a son-in-law, and give you his benediction as well as his stepdaughter. So I think if you can contrive to inform him of your engagement, without letting him know of your visit to Yorkshire, it might be a stroke of diplomacy. He might be glad to get rid of the girl, and might hasten on the marriage of his own volition."
"He might be glad to get rid of the girl." In the ears of Valentine Hawkehurst this sounded rank blasphemy. Could there be any one upon this earth, even a Sheldon, incapable of appreciating the privilege of that divine creature's presence?
MR. SHELDON IS PROPITIOUS
It was not very long before Valentine Hawkehurst had reason to respect the wisdom of his legal patron. Within a few days of his interview with George Sheldon he paid his weekly visit to the villa. Things were going very well with him, and life altogether seemed brighter than he had ever hoped to find it. He had set himself steadily to work to win some kind of position in literature. He devoted his days to diligent study in the reading-room of the British Museum, his nights to writing for the magazines. His acquaintance with press-men had stood him in good stead; and already he had secured the prompt acceptance of his work in more than one direction. The young litterateur of the present day has not such a very hard fight for a livelihood, if his pen has only a certain lightness and dash, a rattling vivacity and airy grace. It is only the marvellous boys who come to London with epic poems, Anglo-Saxon tragedies, or metaphysical treatises in their portmanteaus, who must needs perish in their prime, or stoop to the drudgery of office or counting-house.
Valentine Hawkehurst had no vague yearnings after the fame of a Milton, no inner consciousness that he had been born to stamp out the footprints of Shakespeare on the sands of time, no unhealthy hungering after the gloomy grandeur of Byron. He had been brought up amongst people who treated literature as a trade as well as an art;—and what art is not more or less a trade? He knew the state of the market, and what kind of goods were likely to go off briskly, and it was for the market he worked. When gray shirtings were in active demand, he set his loom for gray shirtings; and when the buyers clamoured for fancy goods, he made haste to produce that class of fabrics. In this he proved himself a very low-minded and ignominious creature, no doubt; but was not one Oliver Goldsmith glad to take any order which good Mr. Newberry might give him, only writing the "Traveller" and the story of Parson Primrose pour se distraire?
Love lent wings to the young essayist's pen. It is to be feared that in roving among those shelves in Great Russell-street he showed himself something of a freebooter, taking his "bien" wherever it was to be found; but did not Moliere frankly acknowledge the same practice? Mr. Hawkehurst wrote about anything and everything. His brain must needs be a gigantic storehouse of information, thought the respectful reader. He skipped from Pericles to Cromwell, from Cleopatra to Mary Stuart, from Sappho to Madame de Sable; and he wrote of these departed spirits with such a charming impertinence, with such a delicious affectation of intimacy, that one would have thought he had sat by Cleopatra as she melted her pearls, and stood amongst the audience of Pericles when he pronounced his funeral oration. "With the De Sable and the Chevreuse, Ninon and Marion, Maintenon and La Valliere, Anne of Austria and the great Mademoiselle of France, he seemed to have lived in daily companionship, so amply did he expatiate upon the smallest details of their existences, so tenderly did he dwell on their vanished beauties, their unforgotten graces."
The work was light and pleasant; and the monthly cheques from the proprietors of a couple of rival periodicals promised, to amount to the income which the adventurer had sighed for as he trod the Yorkshire moorland. He had asked Destiny to give him Charlotte Halliday and three hundred a year, and lo! while yet the wish was new, both these blessings seemed within his grasp. It could scarcely be a matter for repining it the Fates should choose to throw in an odd fifty thousand pounds or so.
But was not all this something too much of happiness for a man whose feet had trodden in evil ways? Were not the Fates mocking this travel-stained wayfarer with bright glimpses of a paradise whose gates he was never to pass?
This was the question which Valentine Hawkehurst was fain to ask himself sometimes; this doubt was the shadow which sometimes made a sudden darkness that obscured the sunshine.
Happily for Charlotte's true lover, the shadow did not often come between him and the light of those dear eyes which were his pole-stars.
The December days were shortening as the year drew to its close, and afternoon tea seemed more than ever delightful to Charlotte and her betrothed, now that it could be enjoyed in the mysterious half light; a glimmer of chill gray day looking coldly in at the unshrouded window like some ghostly watcher envying these mortals their happiness, and the red glow of the low fire reflected upon every curve and facet of the shining steel grate.
To sit by the fire at five o'clock in the afternoon, watching the changeful light upon Charlotte's face, the rosy glow that seemed to linger caressingly on broad low brow and sweet ripe lips, the deep shadows that darkened eyes and hair, was bliss unspeakable for Mr. Hawkehurst. The lovers talked the prettiest nonsense to each other, while Mrs. Sheldon dozed placidly behind the friendly shelter of a banner-screen hooked on to the chimney-piece, or conversed with Diana in a monotonous undertone, solemnly debating the relative wisdom of dyeing or turning in relation to a faded silk dress.
Upon one special evening Valentine lingered just a little longer than usual. Christmas was near at hand, and the young man had brought his liege lady tribute in the shape of a bundle of Christmas literature. Tennyson had been laid aside in favour of the genial Christmas fare, which had the one fault, that it came a fortnight before the jovial season, and in a manner fore-stalled the delights of that time-honoured period, making the season itself seem flat and dull, and turkey and plum-pudding the stalest commodities in the world when they did come. How, indeed, can a man do full justice to his aunt Tabitha's plum-pudding, or his uncle Joe's renowned rum-punch, if he has quaffed the steaming-bowl with the "Seven Poor Travellers," or eaten his Christmas dinner at the "Kiddleawink" a fortnight beforehand? Are not the chief pleasures of life joys as perishable as the bloom on a peach or the freshness of a rose?
Valentine had read the ghastliest of ghost-stories, and the most humorous of word-pictures, for the benefit of the audience in Mrs. Sheldon's drawing-room; and now, after tea, they sat by the fire talking of the ghost-story, and discussing that unanswerable question about the possibility of such spiritual appearances, which seems to have been debated ever since the world began.
"Dr. Johnson believed in ghosts," said Valentine.
"O, please spare us Dr. Johnson," cried Charlotte, with seriocomic intensity. "What is it that obliges magazine-writers to be perpetually talking about Dr. Johnson? If they must dig up persons from the past, why can't they dig up newer persons than that poor ill-used doctor?"
The door opened with a hoarse groan, and Mr. Sheldon came into the room while Miss Halliday was making her playful protest. She stopped, somewhat confused by that sudden entrance.
There is a statue of the Commandant in every house, at whose coming hearts grow cold and lips are suddenly silent. It was the first time that the master of the villa had interrupted one of these friendly afternoon teas, and Mrs. Sheldon and her daughter felt that a domestic crisis was at hand.
"How's this?" cried the stockbroker's strong hard voice; "you seem all in the dark."
He took a wax-match from a little gilt stand on the mantelpiece and lighted two flaring lamps. He was the sort of man who is always eager to light the gas when people are sitting in the gloaming, meditative and poetical. He let the broad glare of common sense in upon their foolish musings, and scared away Robin Goodfellow and the fairies by means of the Western Gaslight Company's illuminating medium.
The light of those two flaring jets of gas revealed Charlotte Halliday looking shyly at the roses on the carpet, and trifling nervously with one of the show-books on the table. The same light revealed Valentine Hawkehurst standing by the young lady's chair, and looking at Mr. Sheldon with a boldness of countenance that was almost defiance. Poor Georgy's face peered out from behind her favourite banner-screen, looking from one to the other in evident alarm. Diana sat in her accustomed corner, watchful, expectant, awaiting the domestic storm.
To the surprise of every one except Mr. Sheldon, there was no storm, not even the lightest breeze that ever blew in domestic hemispheres. The stockbroker saluted his stepdaughter with a friendly nod, and greeted her lover with a significant grin.
"How d'ye do, Hawkehurst?" he said, in his pleasantest manner. "It's an age since I've seen you. You're going in for literature, I hear; and a very good thing too, if you can make it pay. I understand there are some fellows who really do make that sort of thing pay. Seen my brother George lately? Yes, I suppose you and George are quite a Damon and What's-his-name. You're going to dine here to-night, of course? I suppose we may go in to dinner at once, eh, Georgy?—it's half-past six."
Mr. Hawkehurst made some faint pretence of having a particular engagement elsewhere; for, supposing Sheldon to be unconscious, he scorned to profit by that gentleman's ignorance. And then, having faltered his refusal, he looked at Charlotte, and Charlotte's eyes cried "Stay," as plainly as such lovely eyes can speak. So the end of it was, that he stayed and partook of the Sheldonian crimped skate, and the Sheldonian roast-beef and tapioca-pudding, and tasted some especial Moselle, which, out of the kindliness of his nature, Mr. Sheldon opened for his stepdaughter's betrothed.
After dinner there were oranges and crisp uncompromising biscuits, that made an explosive noise like the breaking of windows whenever any one ventured to tamper with them; item, a decanter of sherry in a silver stand; item, a decanter of port, which Mr. Sheldon declared to be something almost too good to be drunk, and to the merits of which Valentine was supremely indifferent. The young man would fain have followed his delight when she accompanied her mamma and Diana to the drawing-room; but Mr. Sheldon detained him.
"I want a few words with you, Hawkehurst," he said; and Charlotte's cheeks flamed red as peonies at sound of this alarming sentence. "You shall go after the ladies presently, and they shall torture that poor little piano to their hearts' delight for your edification. I won't detain you many minutes. You had really better try that port."
Valentine closed the door upon the departing ladies, and went back to his seat very submissively. If there were any battle to be fought out between him and Philip Sheldon, the sooner the trumpet sounded to arms the better.
"His remarkable civility almost inclines me to think that he does really want to get rid of that dear girl," Valentine said to himself, as he filled his glass and gravely awaited Mr. Sheldon's pleasure.
"Now then, my dear Hawkehurst," began that gentleman, squaring himself in his comfortable arm-chair, and extending his legs before the cheery fire, "let us have a little friendly chat. I am not given to beating about the bush, you know, and whatever I have to say I shall say in very plain words. In the first place, I hope you have not so poor an opinion of my perceptive faculties as to suppose that I don't see what is going on between you and Miss Lotta yonder."
"My dear Mr. Sheldon, I—"
"Hear what I have to say first, and make your protestations afterwards. You needn't be alarmed; you won't find me quite as bad as the stepmother one reads about in the story-books, who puts her stepdaughter into a pie, and all that kind of thing. I suppose stepfathers have been a very estimable class, by the way, as it is the stepmother who always drops in for it in the story-books. You'll find mo very easy to deal with, Mr. Hawkehurst, always provided that you deal in a fair and honourable manner."
"I have no wish to be underhand in my dealings," Valentine said boldly. And indeed this was the truth. His inclination prompted him to candour, even with Mr. Sheldon; but that fatal necessity which is the governing principle of the adventurer's life obliged him to employ the arts of finesse.
"Good," cried Mr. Sheldon, in the cheery, pleasant tone of an easy-going man of the world, who is not too worldly to perform a generous action once in a way. "All I ask is frankness. You and Charlotte have fallen in love with one another—why, I can't imagine, except on the hypothesis that a decent-looking young woman and a decent-looking young man can't meet half a dozen times without beginning to think of Gretna-green, or St. George's, Hanover-square. Of course a marriage with you, looked at from a common-sense point of view, would be about the worst thing that could happen to my wife's daughter. She's a very fine girl" (a man of the Sheldonian type would call Aphrodite herself a fine girl), "and might marry some awfully rich City swell with vineries and pineries and succession-houses at Tulse-hill or Highgate, if I chose to put her in the way of that sort of thing. But then, you see, the worst of it is, a man seldom comes to vineries and pineries at Tulse-hill till he is on the shady side of forty; and as I am not in favour of mercenary marriages, I don't care to force any of my City connection upon poor Lotta. In the neighbourhood of the Stock Exchange there is no sharper man of business than your humble servant; but I don't care to bring business habits to Bayswater. Long before Lotta left school, I had made up my mind never to come between her and her own inclination in the matrimonial line; therefore, if she truly and honestly loves you, and if you truly and honestly love her, I am not the man to forbid the bans."
"My dear Mr. Sheldon, how shall I ever thank you for this!" cried Valentine, surprised into a belief in the purity of the stockbroker's intentions.
"Don't be in a hurry," replied that gentleman coolly; "you haven't heard me out yet. Though I may consent to take the very opposite line of conduct which I might be expected to take as a man of the world, I am not going to allow you and Charlotte to make fools of yourselves. There must be no love-in-a-cottage business, no marrying on nothing a year, with the expectation that papa and mamma will make up the difference between that and a comfortable income. In plain English, if I consent to receive you as Charlotte's future husband, you and she must consent to wait until you can, to my entire satisfaction, prove yourself in a position to keep a wife." Valentine sighed doubtfully.
"I don't think either Miss Halliday or I are in an unreasonable hurry to begin life together," he said thoughtfully; "but there must be some fixed limit to our probation. I am afraid the waiting will be a very long business, if I am to obtain a position that will satisfy you before I ask my dear girl to share my fate."
"Are your prospects so very black?"
"No; to my mind they seem wonderfully bright. But the earnings of a magazine-writer will scarcely come up to your idea of an independence. Just now I am getting about ten pounds a month. With industry, I may stretch that ten to twenty; and with luck I might make the twenty into thirty—forty—fifty. A man has only to achieve something like a reputation in order to make a handsome living by his pen."
"I am very glad to hear that," said Mr. Sheldon; "and when you can fairly demonstrate to me that you are earning thirty pounds a month, you shall have my consent to your marriage with Charlotte, and I will do what I can to give you a fair start in life. I suppose you know that she hasn't a sixpence in the world, that she can call her own?"
This was a trying question for Valentine Hawkehurst, and Mr. Sheldon looked at him with a sharp scrutinising glance as he awaited a reply. The young man flushed crimson, and grew pale again before he spoke.
"Yes," he said, "I have long been aware that Miss Halliday has no legal claim on her father's fortune."
"There you have hit the mark," cried Mr. Sheldon. "She has no claim to a sixpence in law; but to an honourable man that is not the question. Poor Halliday's money amounted in all to something like eighteen thousand pounds. That sum passed into my possession when I married my poor friend's widow, who had too much respect for me to hamper my position as a man of business by any legal restraints that would have hindered my making the wisest use of her money. I have used that money, and I need scarcely tell you that I have employed it with considerable advantage to myself and Georgy. I therefore can afford to be generous, and I mean to be so; but the manner in which I do things must be of my own choosing. My own children are dead, and there is no one belonging to one that stands in Miss Halliday's way. When I die she will inherit a handsome fortune. And if she marries with my approval, I shall present her with a very comfortable dowry. I think you will allow that this is fair enough."
"Nothing could be fairer or more generous," replied Valentine with enthusiasm.
Mr. Sheldon's agreeable candour had entirely subjugated him. Despite of all that George had said to his brother's prejudice, he was ready to believe implicitly in Philip's fair dealing.
"And in return for this I ask something on your part," said Mr. Sheldon. "I want you to give me your promise that you will take no serious step without my knowledge. You won't steal a march upon me. You won't walk off with Charlotte some fine morning and marry her at a registry-office, or anything of that kind, eh?"
"I will not," answered Valentine resolutely, with a very unpleasant recollection of his dealings with George Sheldon.
"Give me your hand upon that," cried the stockbroker.
Upon this the two men shook hands, and Valentine's fingers were almost crushed in the cold hard grip of Mr. Sheldon's muscular hand. And now there came upon Valentine's ear the sound of one of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte, tenderly played by the gentle hands he knew so well. And the lover began to feel that he could no longer sit sipping the stockbroker's port with a hypocritical pretence of appreciation, and roasting himself before the blazing fire, the heat whereof was multiplied to an insufferable degree by grate and fender of reflecting steel.
Mr. Sheldon was not slow to perceive his guest's impatience, and having made exactly the impression he wanted to make, was quite willing that the interview should come to an end.
"You had better be off to the drawing-room," he said, good naturedly; "I see you are in that stage of the fever in which masculine society is only a bore. You can go and hear Charlotte play, while I read the evening papers and write a few letters. You can let her know that you and I understand each other. Of course we shall see you very often. You'll eat your Christmas turkey with us, and so on; and I shall trust to your honour for the safe keeping of that promise you made me just now," said Mr. Sheldon.
"And I shall keep an uncommonly close watch upon you and the young lady, my friend," added that gentleman, communing with his own thoughts as he crossed the smart little hall, where two Birmingham iron knights in chain armour bestrode their gallant chargers, on two small tables of sham malachite.
Mr. Sheldon's library was not a very inspiring apartment. His ideas of a sanctum sanctorum did not soar above the commonplace. A decent square room, furnished with plenty of pigeon-holes, a neat brass scale for the weighing of letters, a copying-press, a waste-paper basket, a stout brass-mounted office inkstand capable of holding a quart or so of ink, and a Post-office Directory, were all he asked for his hours of leisure and meditation. In a handsome glazed bookcase, opposite his writing-table, appeared a richly-bound edition of the Waverley Novels, Knight's Shakespeare, Hume and Smollett, Fielding, Goldsmith, and Gibbon; but, except when Georgy dusted the sacred volumes with her own fair hands, the glass doors of the bookcase were never opened.
Mr. Sheldon turned on the gas, seated himself at his comfortable writing-table, and took up his pen. A quire of office note-paper, with his City address upon it, lay ready beneath his hand; but he did not begin to write immediately. He sat for some time with his elbows on the table, and his chin in his hands, meditating with dark fixed brows.
"Can I trust her?" he asked himself. "Is it safe to have her near me—after—after what she said to me in Fitzgeorge-street? Yes, I think I can trust her, up to a certain point; but beyond that I must be on my guard. She might be more dangerous than a stranger. One thing is quite clear—she must be provided for somehow or other. The question is, whether she is to be provided for in this house or out of it; and whether I can make her serve me as I want to be served?"
This was the gist of Mr. Sheldon's meditations; but they lasted for some time. The question which he had to settle was an important one, and he was too wise a man not to contemplate a subject from every possible point of sight before arriving at his decision. He took a letter-clip from one side of his table, and turned over several open letters in search of some particular document.
He came at last to the letter he wanted. It was written on very common note-paper, with brown-looking ink, and the penmanship was evidently that of an uneducated person; but Mr. Sheldon studied its contents with the air of a man who is dealing with no unimportant missive.
This was the letter which so deeply interested the stockbroker:—
"HONORED SIR—This coms hopping that You and Your Honored ladie are well has it leevs me tho nott so strong has i coud wish wich his nott too bee expect at my time off life my pore neffew was tooke with the tyfus last tewsday weak was giv over on thirsday and we hav berried him at kensil grean Honored Mr. Sheldon I hav now no home my pore neece must go hout into survis. Luckly there har no Childring and the pore gurl can gett hur living as housmade wich she were in survis hat hi gate befor she marrid my pore Joseff Honored sir i ham trewly sorry too trubbel you butt i think for hold times you will forgiv the libertey off this letter i would nott hintrewd on you iff i had enny frend to help me in my old aig,
"Your obeddient survent."
"17 Litle Tottles-yarde lambeft."
"No friend to help her in her old age," muttered Mr. Sheldon; "that means that she intends to throw herself upon me for the rest of her life, and to put me to the expense of burying her when she is so obliging as to die. Very pleasant, upon my word! A man has a servant in the days of his poverty, pays her every fraction he owes her in the shape of wages, and wishes her good speed when she goes to settle down among her relations; and one fine morning, when he has got into a decent position, she writes to inform him that her nephew is dead, and that she expects him to provide for her forthwith. That is the gist of Mrs. Woolper's letter; and if it were not for one or two considerations, I should be very much inclined to take a business-like view of the case, and refer the lady to her parish. What are poor-rates intended for, I should like to know, if a man who pays four-and-twopence in the pound is to be pestered in this sort of way?"
And then Mr. Sheldon, having given vent to his vexation by such reflections as these, set himself to examine the matter in another light.
"I must manage to keep sweet with Nancy Woolper somehow or other, that's very clear; for a chattering old woman is about as dangerous an enemy as a man can have. I might provide for her decently enough out of doors for something like a pound a week; and that would be a cheap enough way of paying off all old scores. But I'm not quite clear that it would be a safe way. A life of idleness might develop Mrs. Woolper's latent propensity for gossip—and gossip is what I want to avoid. No, that plan won't do."
For some moments Mr. Sheldon meditated silently, with his brows fixed even more sternly than before. Then he struck his hand suddenly on the morocco-covered table, and uttered his thoughts aloud.
"I'll risk it," he said; "she shall come into the house and serve my interests by keeping a sharp watch upon Charlotte Halliday. There shall be no secret marriage between those two. No, my friend Valentine, you may be a very clever fellow, but you are not quite clever enough to steal a march upon me."
Having arrived at this conclusion, Mr. Sheldon wrote a few lines to Nancy Woolper, telling her to call upon him at the Lawn.
MR. SHELDON IS BENEVOLENT.
Nancy Woolper had lost little of her activity during the ten years that had gone by since she received her wages from Mr. Sheldon, on his breaking up his establishment in Fitzgeorge-street. Her master had given her the opportunity of remaining in his service, had she so pleased; but Mrs. Woolper was a person of independent, not to say haughty, spirit, and she had preferred to join her small fortunes with those of a nephew who was about to begin business as a chandler and general dealer in a very small way, rather than to submit herself to the sway of that lady whom she insisted on calling Miss Georgy.
"It's so long since I've been used to a missus," she said, when announcing her decision to Mr. Sheldon, "I doubt if I could do with Miss Georgy's finnickin ways. I should feel tewed like, if she came into the kitchen, worritin' and asking questions. I've been used to my own ways, and I don't suppose I could do with hers."
So Nancy departed, to enter on a career of unpaid drudgery in the household of her kinsman, and to lose the last shilling of her small savings in the futile endeavour to sustain the fortunes of the general dealer. His death, following very speedily upon his insolvency, left the poor soul quite adrift; and in this extremity she had been fain to make her appeal to Mr. Sheldon. His reply came in due course, but not without upwards of a week's delay; during which time Nancy Woolper's spirits sank very low, while a dreary vision of a living grave—called a workhouse—loomed more and more darkly upon her poor old eyes. She had well-nigh given up all hope of succour from her old master when the letter came, and she was the more inclined to be grateful for very small help after this interval of suspense. It was not without strong emotion that Mrs. Woolper obeyed her old master's summons. She had nursed the hard, cold man of the world whom she was going to see once more, after ten years of severance; and though it was more difficult for her to imagine that Philip Sheldon, the stockbroker, was the same Philip she had carried in her stout arms, and hushed upon her breast forty years ago, than it would have been to fancy the dead who had lived in those days restored to life and walking by her side, still, she could not forget that such things had been, and could not refrain from looking at her master with more loving eyes because of that memory.
A strange dark cloud had arisen between her and her master's image during the latter part of her service in Fitzgeorge-street; but, little by little, the cloud had melted away, leaving the familiar image clear and unshadowed as of old. She had suffered her mind to be filled by a suspicion so monstrous, that for a time it held her as by some fatal spell; but with reflection came the assurance that this thing could not be. Day by day she saw the man whom she had suspected going about the common business of life, coldly serene of aspect, untroubled of manner, confronting fortune with his head erect, living quietly in the house where he had been wont to live, haunted by no dismal shadows, subject to no dark hours of remorse, no sudden access of despair, always equable, business-like, and untroubled; and she told herself that such a man could not be guilty of the unutterable horror she had imagined.
For a year things had gone on thus, and then came the marriage with Mrs. Halliday. Mr. Sheldon went down to Barlingford for the performance of that interesting ceremony; and Nancy Woolper bade farewell to the house in Fitzgeorge-street, and handed the key to the agent, who was to deliver it in due course to Mr. Sheldon's successor.
To-day, after a lapse of more than ten years, Mrs. Woolper sat in the stockbroker's study, facing the scrutinising gaze of those bright black eyes, which had been familiar to her of old, and which had lost none of their cold glitter in the wear and tear of life.
"Then you think you can be of some use in the house, as a kind of overlooker of the other servants, eh, Nancy—to prevent waste, and gadding out of doors, and so on?" said Mr. Sheldon, interrogatively.
"Ay, sure, that I can, Mr. Philip," answered the old woman promptly; "and if I don't save you more money than I cost you, the sooner you turn me out o' doors the better. I know what London servants are, and I know their ways; and if Miss Georgy doesn't take to the housekeeping, I know as how things must be hugger-mugger-like below stairs, however smart and tidy things may be above."
"Mrs. Sheldon knows about as much of housekeeping as a baby," replied Philip, with supreme contempt. "She'll not interfere with you; and if you serve me faithfully—"
"That I allers did, Mr. Philip."
"Yes, yes; I daresay you did. But I want faithful service in the future as well as in the past. Of course you know that I have a stepdaughter?"
"Tom Halliday's little girl, as went to school at Scarborough."
"The same. But poor Tom's little girl is now a fine young woman, and a source of considerable anxiety to me. I am bound to say she is an excellent girl—amiable, obedient, and all that kind of thing; but she is a girl, and I freely confess that I am not learned in the ways of girls; and I'm very much inclined to be afraid of them."
"As how, sir?"
"Well, you see, Nancy, they come home from school with their silly heads full of romantic stuff, fit for nothing but to read novels and strum upon the piano; and before you know where you are, they fall over head and ears in love with the first decent-looking young man who pays them a compliment. At least, that's my experience."
"Meaning Miss Halliday, sir?" asked Nancy, simply. "Has she fallen in love with some young chap?"
"She has, and with a young chap who is not yet in a position to support a wife. Now, if this girl were my own child, I should decidedly set my face against this marriage; but as she is only my stepdaughter, I wash my hands of all responsibility in the matter. 'Marry the man you have chosen, my dear,' say I; 'all I ask is, that you don't marry him until he can give you a comfortable home.' 'Very well, papa,' says my young lady in her most dutiful manner, and 'Very well, sir,' says my young gentleman; and they both declare themselves agreeable to any amount of delay, provided the marriage comes off some time between this and doomsday."
"Well, sir?" asked Nancy, rather at a loss to understand why Philip Sheldon, the closest and most reserved of men, should happen to be so confidential to-day.
"Well, Nancy, what I want to prevent is any underhand work. I know what very limited notions of honour young men are apt to entertain nowadays, and how intensely foolish a boarding-school miss can be on occasion. I don't want these young people to run off to Gretna-green some fine morning, or to steal a march upon me by getting married on the sly at some out-of-the-way church, after having invested their united fortunes in the purchase of a special license. In plain words, I distrust Miss Halliday's lover, and I distrust Miss Halliday's common sense; and I want to have a sensible, sharp-eyed person in the house always on the look-out for any kind of danger, and able to protect my stepdaughter's interests as well as my own."
"But the young lady's mamma, sir—she would look after her daughter, I suppose?"
"Her mamma is foolishly indulgent, and about as capable of taking care of her daughter as of sitting in Parliament. You remember pretty Georgy Cradock, and you must know what she was—and what she is. Mrs. Sheldon is the same woman as Georgy Cradock—a little older, and a little more plump and rosy; but just as pretty, and just as useless."
The interview was prolonged for some little time after this, and it ended in a thorough understanding between Mr. Sheldon and his old servant. Nancy Woolper was to re-enter that gentleman's service, and over and above all ordinary duties, she was to undertake the duty of keeping a close watch upon all the movements of Charlotte Halliday. In plain words, she was to be a spy, a private detective, so far as this young lady was concerned; but Mr. Sheldon was too wise to put his requirements into plain words, knowing that even in the hour of her extremity Nancy Woolper would have refused to fill such an office had she clearly understood the measure of its infamy.
Upon the day that followed his interview with Mrs. Woolper, the stockbroker came home from the City an hour or two earlier than his custom, and startled Miss Halliday by appearing in the garden where she was walking alone, looking her brightest and prettiest in her dark winter hat and jacket, and pacing briskly to and fro among the bare frost-bound patches of earth that had once been flower-beds.
"I wan't a few minutes' quiet talk with you, Lotta," said Mr. Sheldon. "You'd better come into my study, where we're pretty sure not to be interrupted."
The girl blushed crimson as she acceded to this request, being assured that Mr. Sheldon was going to discuss her matrimonial engagement. Valentine had told her of that very satisfactory interview in the dining-room, and from that time she had been trying to find an opportunity for the acknowledgment of her stepfather's generosity. As yet the occasion had not arisen. She did not know how to frame her thanksgiving, and she shrank shyly from telling Mr. Sheldon how grateful she was to him for the liberality of mind which had distinguished his conduct in this affair.
"I really ought to thank him," she said to herself more than once. "I was quite prepared for his doing his uttermost to prevent my marriage with Valentine; and instead of that, he volunteers his consent, and even promises to give us a fortune. 'I am bound to thank him for such generous kindness."
Perhaps there is no task more difficult than to offer grateful tribute to a person whom one has been apt to think of with a feeling very near akin to dislike. Ever since her mother's second marriage Charlotte had striven against an instinctive distaste for Mr. Sheldon's society, and an innate distrust of Mr. Sheldon's affectionate regard for herself; but now that he had proved his sincerity in this most important crisis of her life, she awoke all at once to the sense of the wrong she had done.
"I am always reading the Sermon on the Mount, and yet in my thoughts about Mr. Sheldon I have never been able to remember those words, 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' His kindness touches me to the very heart, and I feel it all the more keenly because of my injustice."
She followed her stepfather into the prim little study. There was no fire, and the room was colder than a vault on this bleak December day. Charlotte shivered, and drew her jacket more tightly across her chest as she perched herself on one of Mr. Sheldon's shining red morocco chairs. "The room strikes cold," she said; "very, very cold."
After this there was a brief pause, during which Mr. Sheldon took some papers from the pocket of his overcoat, and arranged them on his desk with an absent manner, as if he were rather deliberating upon what he was going to say than thinking of what he was doing. While he loitered thus Charlotte found courage to speak.
"I wish to thank you, Mr. Sheldon—papa," she said, pronouncing the "papa" with some slight appearance of effort, in spite of her desire to be grateful: "I—I have been wishing to thank you for the last day or two; only it seems so difficult sometimes to express one's self about these things."
"I do not deserve or wish for your thanks, my dear. I have only done my duty."
"But, indeed, you do deserve my thanks, and you have them in all sincerity, papa. You have been very, very good to me—about—about Valentine. I thought you would be sure to oppose our marriage on the ground of imprudence, you know, and——"
"I do oppose your marriage in the present on the ground of imprudence, and I am only consentient to it in the future on the condition that Mr. Hawkehurst shall have secured a comfortable income by his literary labours. He seems to be clever, and he promises fairly——"
"O yes indeed, dear papa," cried the girl, pleased by this meed of praise for her lover; "he is more than clever. I am sure you would say so if you had time to read his article on Madame de Sevigne in the Cheapside."
"I daresay it's very good, my dear; but I don't care for Madame de Sevigne——"
"Or his sketch of Bossuet's career in the Charing Cross."
"My dear child, I do not even know who Bossuet was. All I require from Mr. Hawkehurst is, that he shall earn a good income before he takes you away from this house. You have been accustomed to a certain style of living, and I cannot allow you to encounter a life of poverty."
"But, dear papa, I am not in the least afraid of poverty."
"I daresay not, my dear. You have never been poor," replied Mr. Sheldon, coolly. "I don't suppose I am as much afraid of a rattlesnake as the poor wretches who are accustomed to see one swinging by his tail from the branch of a tree any day in the course of their travels. I have only a vague idea that a cobra de capello is an unpleasant customer; but depend upon it, those foreign fellows feel their blood stagnate and turn to ice at sight of the cold slimy-looking monster. Poverty and I travelled the same road once, and I know what the gentleman is. I don't want to meet him again." Mr. Sheldon lapsed into silence after this. His last words had been spoken to himself rather than to Charlotte, and the thoughts that accompanied them seemed far from pleasant to him.
Charlotte sat opposite her stepfather, patiently awaiting his pleasure. She looked at the gaudily-bound books behind the glass doors, and wondered whether any one had ever opened any of the volumes.
"I should like to read dear Sir Walter's stories once more," she thought; "there never, never was so sweet a romance as the 'Bride of Lammermoor,' and I cannot imagine that one could ever grow weary of reading it. But to ask Mr. Sheldon for the key of that bookcase would be quite impossible. I think his books must be copies of special editions, not meant to be read. I wonder whether they are real books, or only upholsterer's dummies?"
And then her fancies went vagabondising off to that little archetype of a cottage on the heights of Wimbledon-common, in which she and Valentine were to live when they were married. She was always furnishing and refurnishing this cottage, building it up and pulling it down, as the caprice of the moment dictated. Now it had bow-windows and white stuccoed walls—now it was Elizabethan—now the simplest, quaintest, rose-embowered cottager's dwelling, with diamond-paned casements, and deep thatch on the old gray roof. This afternoon she amused herself by collecting a small library for Valentine, while waiting Mr. Sheldon's next observation. He was to have all her favourite books, of course; and they were to be bound in the prettiest, most girlish bindings. She could see the dainty volumes, primly ranged on the little carved oak bookcase, which Valentine was to "pick up" in Wardour-street. She fancied herself walking down that mart of bric-a-brac arm-in-arm with her lover, intent on "picking up." Ah, what happiness! what dear delight in the thought! And O, of all the bright dreams we dream, how few are realised upon this earth! Do they find their fulfilment in heaven, those visions of perfect bliss?
Mr. Sheldon looked up from his desk at last. Miss Halliday remarked to herself that his face was pale and haggard in the chill wintry sunlight; but she knew how hard and self-denying a life he led in his stern devotion to business, and she was in no manner surprised to see him looking ill.
"I want to say a few words to you on a matter of business, Lotta," he began, "and I must ask you to give me all your attention."
"I will do so with pleasure, papa, but I am awfully stupid about business."
"I shall do my best to make matters simple. I suppose you know what money your father left, including the sums his life had been insured for?"
"Yes, I have heard mamma say it was eighteen thousand pounds. I do so hate the idea of those insurances. It seems like the price of a man's life, doesn't it? I daresay that is a very unbusiness-like way of considering the question, but I cannot bear to think that we got money by dear papa's death."
These remarks were too trivial for Mr. Sheldon's notice. He went on with what he had to say in the cold hard voice that was familiar to his clerks and to the buyers and sellers of shares and stock who had dealings with him.
"Your father left eighteen thousand pounds; that amount was left to your mother without reservation. When she married me, without any settlement, that money became mine, in point of law—mine to squander or make away with as I pleased. You know that I have made good use of that money, and that your mother has had no reason to repent her confidence in my honour and honesty. The time has now come in which that honour will be put to a sharper test. You have no legal claim on so much as a shilling of your father's fortune."
"I know that, Mr. Sheldon," cried Charlotte, eagerly, "and Valentine knows also; and, believe me, I do not expect——"
"I have to settle matters with my own conscience as well as with your expectations, my dear Lotta," Mr. Sheldon said, solemnly. "Your father left you unprovided for; but as a man of honour I feel myself bound to take care that you shall not suffer by his want of caution. I have therefore prepared a deed of gift, by which I transfer to you five thousand pounds, now invested in Unitas Bank shares."
"You are going to give me five thousand pounds!" cried Charlotte, astounded.
"You mean to say that you will give me this fortune when I marry, papa?" said Charlotte, interrogatively.
"I shall give it to you immediately," replied Mr. Sheldon. "I wish you to be thoroughly independent of me and my pleasure. You will then understand, that if I insist upon the prudence of delay, I do so in your interest and not in my own. I wish you to feel that if I am a hindrance to your immediate marriage, it is not because I wish to delay the disbursement of your dowry."
"O, Mr. Sheldon, O, papa, you are more than generous—you are noble! It is not that I care for the money. O, believe me, there is no one in the world who could care less for that than I do. But your thoughtful kindness, your generosity, touches me to the very heart. O, please let me kiss you, just as if you were my own dear father come back to life to protect and guide me. I have thought you cold and worldly. I have done you so much wrong."
She ran to him, and wound her arms about his neck before he could put her off, and lifted up her pretty rosy mouth to his dry hot lips. Her heart was overflowing with generous emotion, her face beamed with a happy smile. She was so pleased to find her mother's husband better than she had thought him. But, to her supreme astonishment, he thrust her from him roughly, almost violently, and looking up at his face she saw it darkened by a blacker shadow than she had ever seen upon it before. Anger, terror, pain, remorse, she knew not what, but an expression so horrible that she shrunk from him with a sense of alarm, and went back to her chair, bewildered and trembling.
"You frightened me, Mr. Sheldon," she said faintly.
"Not more than you frightened me," answered the stockbroker, walking to the window and taking his stand there, with his face hidden from Charlotte. "I did not know there was so much feeling in me. For God's sake, let us have no sentiment!"
"Were you angry with me just now?" asked the girl, falteringly, utterly at a loss to comprehend the change in her stepfather's manner.
"No, I was not angry. I am not accustomed to these strong emotions," replied Mr. Sheldon, huskily; "I cannot stand them. Pray let us avoid all sentimental discussion. I am anxious to do my duty in a straightforward, business-like way. I don't want gratitude—or fuss. The five thousand pounds are yours, and I am pleased to find you consider the amount sufficient. And now I have only one small favour to ask of you in return."
"I should be very ungrateful if I refused to do anything you may ask," said Charlotte, who could not help feeling a little chilled and disappointed by Mr. Sheldon's stony rejection of her gratitude.
"The matter is very simple. You are young, and have, in the usual course of things, a long life before you. But—you know there is always a 'but' in these cases—a railway accident—a little carelessness in passing your drawing-room fire some evening when you are dressed in flimsy gauze or muslin—a fever—a cold—any one of the many dangers that lie in wait for all of us, and our best calculations are falsified. If you were to marry and die childless, that money would go to your husband, and neither your mother nor I would ever touch a sixpence of it, Now as the money, practically, belongs to your mother, I consider that this contingency should be provided against—in her interests as well as in mine. In plain words, I want you to make a will leaving that money to me."
"I am quite ready to do so," replied Charlotte.
"Very good, my dear. I felt assured that you would take a sensible view of the matter. If you marry your dear Mr. Hawkehurst, have a family by-and-by, we will throw the old will into the fire and make a new one; but in the mean time it's just as well to be on the safe side. You shall go into the City with me to-morrow morning, and shall execute the will at my office. It will be the simplest document possible—as simple as the will made by old Serjeant Crane, in which he disposed of half a million of money in half a dozen lines—at the rate of five thousand pounds per word. After we've settled that little matter, we can arrange the transfer of the shares. The whole affair won't occupy an hour." "I will do whatever you wish," said Charlotte, meekly. She was not at all elated by the idea of coming suddenly into possession of five thousand pounds; but she was very much impressed by the new view of Mr. Sheldon's character afforded her by his conduct of to-day. And then her thoughts, constant to one point as the needle to the pole, reverted to her lover, and she began to think of the effect her fortune might have upon his prospects. He might go to the bar, he might work and study in pleasant Temple chambers, with wide area windows overlooking the river, and read law-books in the evening at the Wimbledon cottage for a few delightful years, at the end of which he would of course become Lord Chancellor. That he should devote such intellect and consecrate such genius as his to the service of his country's law-courts, and not ultimately seat himself on the Woolsack, was a contingency not to be imagined by Miss Halliday. Ah, what would not five thousand pounds buy for him! The cottage expanded into a mansion, the little case of books developed into a library second only to that of the Duc d'Aumale, a noble steed waited at the glass door of the vestibule to convey Mr. Hawkehurst to the Temple, before the minute-hand of Mr. Sheldon's stern skeleton clock had passed from one figure to another: so great an adept was this young lady in the art of castle-building.
"Am I to tell mamma about this conversation?" asked Charlotte, presently.
"Well, no, I think not," replied Mr. Sheldon, thoughtfully. "These family arrangements cannot be kept too quiet. Your mamma is a talking person, you know, Charlotte; and as we don't want every one in this part of Bayswater to know the precise amount of your fortune, we may as well let matters rest as they are. Of course you would not wish Mr. Hawkehurst to be enlightened?"
"Why not, papa?"
"For several reasons. First and foremost, it must be pleasant to you to be sure that he is thoroughly disinterested I have told him that you will get something as a gift from me; but he may have implied that the something would be little more than a couple of hundreds to furnish a house. Secondly, it must be remembered, that he has been brought up in a bad school, and the best way to make him self-reliant and industrious is to let him think he has nothing but his own industry to depend upon. I have set him a task. When he has accomplished that, he shall have you and your five thousand pounds to boot. Till then I should strongly advise you to keep this business a secret.
"Yes," answered Charlotte, meditatively; "I think you are right. It would have been very nice to tell him of your kindness; but I want to be quite sure that he loves me for myself alone—from first to last—without one thought of money."
"That is wise," said Mr. Sheldon, decisively; and thus ended the interview.
Charlotte accompanied her stepfather to the city early next morning, and filled in the blanks in a lithographed form, prepared for the convenience of such testators as, being about to dispose of their property, do not care to employ the services of a legal adviser.
The will seemed to Charlotte the simplest possible affair. She bequeathed all her property, real and personal, to Philip Sheldon, without reserve. But as her entire fortune consisted of the five thousand pounds just given her by that gentleman, and as her personal property was comprised in a few pretty dresses and trinkets, and desks and workboxes, she could not very well object to such an arrangement.
"Of course, mamma would have all my books and caskets, and boxes and things," she said thoughtfully; "and I should like Diana Paget to have some of my jewellery, please, Mr. Sheldon. Mamma has plenty, you know."
"There is no occasion, to talk of that, Charlotte," replied the stockbroker. "This will is only a matter of form."
Mr. Sheldon omitted to inform his stepdaughter that the instrument just executed would, upon her wedding-day, become so much waste paper, an omission that was not in harmony with the practical and careful habits of that gentleman.
"Yes, I know that it is only a form," replied Charlotte; "but, after making a will, one feels as if one was going to die. At least I do. It seems a kind of preparation for death. I don't wonder people rather dislike doing it.
"It is only foolish people who dislike doing it," said Mr. Sheldon, who was in his most practical mood to-day. "And now we will go and arrange a more agreeable business—the transfer of the shares."
After this, there was a little commercial juggling, in the form of signing and countersigning, which, was quite beyond Charlotte's comprehension: which operation being completed, she was told that she was owner of five thousand pounds in Unitas Bank shares, and that the dividends accruing from time to time on those shares would be hers to dispose of as she pleased.
"The income arising from your capital will be more than you can spend so long as you remain under my roof," said Mr. Sheldon. "I should therefore strongly recommend you to invest your dividends as they arise, and thus increase your capital."
"You are so kind and thoughtful," murmured Charlotte; "I shall always be pleased to take your advice." She was strongly impressed by the kindness of the man her thoughts had wronged.
"How difficult it is to understand these reserved, matter-of-fact people!" she said to herself. Because my stepfather does not talk sentiment, I have fancied him hard and worldly; and yet he has proved himself as capable of doing a noble action as if he were the most poetical of mankind.
Mrs. Sheldon had been told that Charlotte was going into the City to choose a new watch, wherewith to replace the ill-used little Geneva toy that had been her delight as a schoolgirl; and as Charlotte brought home a neat little English-made chronometer from a renowned emporium on Ludgate-hill, the simple matron accepted this explanation in all good faith.
"I'm sure, Lotta, you must confess your stepfather is kindness itself in most matters," said Georgy, after an admiring examination of the new watch. "When I think how kindly he has taken this business about Mr. Hawkehurst, and how disinterested he has proved himself in his ideas about your marriage, I really am inclined to think him the best of men."
Georgy said this with an air of triumph. She could not forget that there were people in Barlingford who had said hard things about Philip Sheldon, and had prophesied unutterable miseries for herself and her daughter as the bitter consequence of the imprudence she had been guilty of in her second marriage.
"He has indeed been very good, mamma," Charlotte replied gravely, "and, believe me, I am truly grateful. He does not like fuss or sentiment; but I hope he knows that I appreciate his kindness."
RIDING THE HIGH HORSE.
Never, in his brightest dreams, had Valentine Hawkehurst imagined the stream of life so fair and sunny a river as it seemed to him now. Fortune had treated him so scurvily for seven-and-twenty years of his life, only to relent of a sudden and fling all her choicest gifts into his lap.
"I must be the prince in the fairy tale who begins life as a revolting animal of the rhinoceros family, and ends by marrying the prettiest princess in Elfindom," he said to himself gaily, is he paced the broad walks of Kensington-gardens, where the bare trees swung their big black branches in the wintry blast, and the rooks cawed their loudest at close of the brief day.
What, indeed, could this young adventurer demand from benignant Fortune above and beyond the blessings she had given, him? The favoured suitor of the fairest and brightest woman he had ever looked upon, received by her kindred, admitted to her presence, and only bidden to serve a due apprenticeship before he claimed her as his own for ever. What more could he wish? what further boon could he implore from the Fates?
Yes, there was one thing more—one thing for which Mr. Hawkehurst pined, while most thankful for his many blessings. He wanted a decent excuse for separating himself most completely from Horatio Paget. He wanted to shake himself free from all the associations of his previous existence. He wanted to pass through the waters of Jordan, and to emerge purified, regenerate, leaving his garments on the furthermost side of the river; and, with all other things appertaining to the past, he would fain have rid himself of Captain Paget.
"'Be sure your sin will find you out,'" mused the young man; "and having found you, be sure that it will stick to you like a leech, if your sin takes the shape of an unprincipled acquaintance, as it does in my case. I may try my hardest to cut the past, but will Horatio Paget let me alone in the future? I doubt it. The bent of that man's genius shows itself in his faculty for living upon other people. He knows that I am beginning to earn money regularly, and has begun to borrow of me already. When I can earn more, he will want to borrow more; and although it is very sweet to work for Charlotte Halliday, it would not be by any means agreeable to slave for my friend Paget. Shall I offer him a pound a week, and ask him to retire into the depths of Wales or Cornwall, amend his ways, and live the life of a repentant hermit? I think I could bring myself to sacrifice the weekly sovereign, if there were any hope that Horatio Paget could cease to be—Horatio Paget, on this side the grave. No, I have the misfortune to be intimately acquainted with the gentleman. When he is in the swim, as he calls it, and is earning money on his own account, he will give himself cosy little dinners and four-and-sixpenny primrose gloves; and when he is down on his luck, he will come whining to me."
This was by no means a pleasant idea to Mr. Hawkehurst. In the old days he had been distinguished by all the Bohemian's recklessness, and even more than the Bohemian's generosity in his dealings with friend or companion. But now all was changed. He was no longer reckless. A certain result was demanded from him as the price of Charlotte Halliday's hand, and he set himself to accomplish his allotted task with all due forethought and earnestness of purpose. He had need even to exercise restraint over himself, lest, in his eagerness, he should do too much, and so lay himself prostrate from the ill effects of overwork; so anxious was he to push on upon the road whose goal was so fair a temple, so light seemed that labour of love which was performed for the sake of Charlotte.
He communed with himself very often on the subject of that troublesome question about Captain Paget. How was he to sever his frail skiff from that rakish privateer? What excuse could he find for renouncing his share in the Omega-street lodgings, and setting up a new home elsewhere?
"Policy might prompt me to keep my worthy friend under my eye," he said to himself, "in order that I may be sure there is no underhand work going on between him and Philip Sheldon. But I can scarcely believe that Philip Sheldon has any inkling about the Haygarthian fortune. If he had, he would surely not receive me as Charlotte's suitor. What possible motive could he have for doing so?"
This was a question which Mr. Hawkehurst had frequently put to himself; for his confidence in Mr. Sheldon was not of that kind which asks no questions. Even while most anxious to believe in that gentleman's honesty of purpose, he was troubled by occasional twinges of unbelief.
During the period which had elapsed since his return from Yorkshire, he had been able to discover nothing of any sinister import from the proceedings of Captain Paget. That gentleman appeared to be still engaged upon the promoting business, although by no means so profitably as heretofore. He went into the City every day, and came home in the evening toilworn and out of spirits. He talked freely of his occupation—how he had done much or done nothing, during the day; and Valentine was at a loss to perceive any further ground for the suspicion that had arisen in his mind after the meeting at the Ullerton station, and the shuffling of the sanctimonious Goodge with regard to Mrs. Rebecca Haygarth's letters.
Mr. Hawkehurst therefore determined upon boldly cutting the knot that tied him to the familiar companion of his wanderings.
"I am tired of watching and suspecting," he said to himself. "If my dear love has a right to this fortune, it will surely come to her; or if it should never come, we can live very happily without it. Indeed, for my own part, I am inclined to believe that I should be prouder and happier as the husband of a dowerless wife, than as prince-consort to the heiress of the Haygarths. We have built up such a dear, cheery, unpretentious home for ourselves in our talk of the future, that I doubt if we should care to change it for the stateliest mansion in Kensington Palace-gardens or Belgrave-square. My darling could not be my housekeeper, and make lemon cheese-cakes in her own pretty little kitchen, if we lived in Belgrave-square; and how could she stand at one of those great Birmingham ironwork gates in the Palace-gardens to watch me ride away to my work?"
To a man as deeply in love as Mr. Hawkehurst, the sordid dross which other people prize so highly is apt to become daily more indifferent; a kind of colour-blindness comes over the vision of the true lover, and the glittering yellow ore seems only so much vulgar earth, too mean a thing to be regarded by any but the mean of soul. Thus it was that Mr. Hawkehurst relaxed his suspicion of Captain Paget, and neglected his patron and ally of Gray's Inn, much to the annoyance of that gentleman, who tormented the young man with little notes demanding interviews.
These interviews had of late been far from agreeable to either of the allies. George Sheldon urged the necessity of an immediate marriage; Valentine declined to act in an underhand manner, after the stockbroker's unexpected generosity.
"Generosity!" echoed George Sheldon, when Valentine had given him this point-blank refusal at the close of a stormy argument. "Generosity! My brother Phil's generosity! Egad, that is about the best thing I've heard for the last ten years. If I pleased, Mr. Valentine Hawkehurst, I could tell you something about my brother which would enable you to estimate his generosity at its true value. But I don't please; and if you choose to run counter to me and my interests, you must pay the price of your folly. You may think yourself uncommonly lucky if the price isn't a stiff one."
"I am prepared to abide by my decision," answered Valentine. "Miss Halliday without a shilling is so dear to me, that I don't care to commit a dishonourable action in order to secure my share of the fortune she may claim. I turned over a new leaf on the day when I first knew myself possessed of her affection. I don't want to go back to the old leaves."
George Sheldon gave himself an impatient shrug. "I have heard of a great many fools," he said, "but I never heard of a fool who would play fast-and-loose with a hundred thousand pounds, and until to-day I couldn't have believed there was such an animal."
Mr. Hawkehurst did not deign to notice this remark.
"Do be reasonable, Sheldon," he said. "You ask me to do what my sense of right will not permit me to do, and you ask me that which I fully believe to be impossible. I cannot for a moment imagine that any persuasion of mine would induce Charlotte to consent to a secret marriage, after your brother's fair and liberal conduct."
"Of course not," cried George, with savage impatience; "that's my brother Phil all over. He is so honourable, so plain and straightforward in all his dealings, that he would get the best of Lucifer himself in a bargain. I tell you, Hawkehurst, you don't know how deep he is—as deep as the bottomless pit, by Jove! His very generosity makes me all the more afraid of him. I don't understand his game. If he consented to your marriage in order to get rid of Charlotte, he would let you marry her off-hand; but instead of doing that, he makes conditions which must delay your marriage for years. There is the point that bothers me."
"You had better pursue your own course, without reference to me or my marriage with Miss Halliday," said Valentine.
"That is exactly what I must do. I can't leave the Haygarth estate to the mercy of Tom, Dick, and Harry, while you try to earn thirty pounds a month by scribbling for the magazines. I must make my bargain with Philip instead of with you, and I can tell you that you'll be the loser by the transaction."
"I don't quite see that."
"Perhaps not. You see, you don't quite understand my brother Phil. If this money gets into his hands, be sure some of it will stick to them."
"Why should the money get into his hand?"
"Because, so long as Charlotte Halliday is under his roof, she is, to a certain extent, under his authority. And then, I tell you again, there is no calculating the depth of that man. He has thrown dust in your eyes already. He will make that poor girl believe him the most disinterested of mankind."
"You can warn her."
"Yes; as I have warned you. To what purpose? You are inclined to believe in Phil rather than to believe in me, and you will be so inclined to the end of the chapter. You remember that man Palmer, at Rugely, who used to go to church, and take the sacrament?"
"Yes; of course I remember that case. What of him?"
"Why, people believed in him, you know, and thought him a jolly good fellow, up to the time when they discovered that he had poisoned a few of his friends in a quiet gentlemanly way."
Mr. Hawkehurst smiled at the irrelevance of this remark. He could not perceive the connection of ideas between Palmer the Rugely poisoner, and Philip Sheldon the stockbroker.
"That was an extreme case," he said.
"Yes; of course that was an extreme case," answered George, carelessly. "Only it goes far to prove that a man may be gifted with a remarkable genius for throwing dust in the eyes of his fellow-creatures."
There was no further disputation between the lawyer and Valentine. George Sheldon began to understand that a secret marriage was not to be accomplished in the present position of affairs.
"I am half inclined to suspect that Phil knows something about that money," he said presently, "and is playing some artful game of his own."
"In that case your better policy would be to take the initiative," answered Valentine.
"I have no other course."
"And will Charlotte know—will she know that I have been concerned in this business?" asked Valentine, growing very pale all of sudden. He was thinking how mean he must appear in Miss Halliday's eyes, if she came to understand that he had known her to be John Haygarth's heiress at the time he won from her the sweet confession of her love. "Will she ever believe how pure and true my love has been, if she comes to know this?" he asked himself despairingly, while George Sheldon deliberated in silence for a few moments.
"She need know nothing until the business comes to a head," replied George at last. "You see, there may be no resistance on the part of the Crown lawyers; and, in that case, Miss Halliday will get her rights after a moderate amount of delay. But if they choose to dispute her claim, it will be quite another thing—Halliday versus the Queen, and so on—with no end of swell Q.O.'s against us. In the latter case you'll have to put all your adventures at Ullerton and Huxter's Cross into an affidavit, and Miss H. must know everything."
"Yes; and then she will think—ah, no; I do not believe she can misunderstand me, come what may."
"All doubt and difficulty might be avoided if you would manage a marriage on the quiet off-hand," said George. "I tell you again that I cannot do that; and that, even if it were possible, I would not attempt it."
"So be it. You elect to ride the high horse; take care that magnificent animal doesn't give you an ugly tumble."
"I can take my chance."
"And I must take my chance against that brother of mine. The winning cards are all in my own hand this time, and it will be uncommonly hard if he gets the best of me."
On this the two gentlemen parted. Valentine went to look at a bachelor's lodging in the neighbourhood of the Edgeware-road, which he had seen advertised in that morning's Times; and George Sheldon started for Bayswater, where he was always sure of a dinner and a liberal allowance of good wine from the hospitality of his prosperous kinsman.
MR. SHELDON IS PRUDENT.
Valentine found the apartments near the Edgeware-road in every manner eligible. The situation was midway between his reading-room in Great Russell-street and the abode of his delight—a half-way house on the road between business and pleasure. The terms were very moderate, the rooms airy and pleasant; so he engaged them forthwith, his tenancy to commence at the end of the following week; and having settled this matter, he went back to Omega-street, bent on dissolving partnership with the Captain in a civil but decided manner.
A surprise, and a very agreeable one, awaited him at Chelsea. He found the sitting-room strewn with Captain Paget's personal property, and the Captain on his knees before a portmanteau, packing.
"You're just in time to give me a hand, Val," he said in his most agreeable manner. "I begin to find out my age when I put my poor old bones into abnormal attitudes. I daresay packing a trunk or two will be only child's-play to you."
"I'll pack half a dozen trunks if you like," replied Valentine. "But what is the meaning of this sudden move? I did not know you were going to leave town."
"Neither did I when you and I breakfasted together. I got an unexpected offer of a very decent position abroad this morning; a kind of agency, that will be much better than the hand-to-mouth business I've been doing lately."
"What kind of agency, and where?"
"Well, so far as I can make out at present, it is something in the steam navigation way. My head-quarters will be at Rouen." "Rouen! Well, it's a pleasant lively old city enough, and as mediaeval as one of Sir Walter's novels, provided they haven't Haussmanised it by this time. I am very glad to hear you have secured a comfortable berth."
"And I am not sorry to leave England, Yal," answered the Captain, in rather a mournful tone.
"Because I think it's time you and I parted company. Our association begins to be rather disadvantageous to you, Val. We've had our ups and downs together, and we've got on very pleasantly, take it for all in all. But now that you're settling down as a literary man, engaged to that young woman, hand-in-glove with Philip Sheldon, and so on, I think it's time for me to take myself off. I'm not wanted; and sooner or later I should begin to feel myself in the way."
The Captain grew quite pathetic as he said this; and little pangs of remorse shot through Valentine's heart as he remembered how eager he had been to rid himself of this Old Man of the Mountain. And here was the poor old creature offering to take himself out of the way of his own accord.
Influenced by this touch of remorse, Mr. Hawkehurst held out his hand, and grasped that of his comrade and patron.
"I hope you may do well, in some—comfortable kind of business," he said heartily. That adjective "comfortable" was a hasty substitute for the adjective "honest," which had been almost on his lips as he uttered his friendly wish. He was too well disposed to all the world not to feel profound pity for this white-headed old man, who for so many years had eaten the bread of rogues and scoundrels.
"Come," he cried cheerily, "I'll take all the packing off your hands, Captain; and we'll eat our last dinner and drink our last bottle of sparkling together at my expense, at any place you please to name."
"Say Blanchard's," replied Horatio Paget. "I like a corner-window, looking out upon the glare and bustle of Regent-street. It reminds one just a little of the Maison Doree and the boulevard. We'll drink Charlotte Halliday's health, Val, in bumpers. She's a charming young person, and I only wish she were an heiress, for your sake."
The eyes of the two men met as the Captain said this; and there was a twinkle in the cold gray orbs of that gentleman which had a very unpleasant effect upon Valentine.
"What treachery is he engaged in now?" he asked himself. "I know that look in my Horatio's eyes; and I know it always means mischief."
George Sheldon made his appearance at the Lawn five minutes after his brother came home from the City. He entered the domestic circle in his usual free-and-easy manner, knowing himself to be endured, rather than liked, by the two ladies, and to be only tolerated as a necessary evil by the master of the house.
"I've dropped in to eat a chop with you, Phil," he said, "in order to get an hour's comfortable talk after dinner. There's no saying half a dozen consecutive words to you in the City, where your clerks seem to spend their lives in bouncing in upon you when you don't want them."
There was very little talk during dinner. Charlotte and her stepfather were thoughtful. Diana was chiefly employed in listening to the sotto voce inanities of Mrs. Sheldon, for whom the girl showed herself admirably patient. Her forbearance and gentleness towards Georgy constituted a kind of penitential sacrifice, by which she hoped to atone for the dark thoughts and bitter feelings that possessed her mind during those miserable hours in which she was obliged to witness the happiness of Charlotte and her lover.
George Sheldon devoted himself chiefly to his dinner and a certain dry sherry, which he particularly affected. He was a man who would have dined and enjoyed himself at the table of Judas Iscariot, knowing the banquet to be provided out of the thirty pieces of silver.
"That's as good a pheasant as I ever ate, Phil," he said, after winding up with the second leg of the bird in question. "No, Georgy; no macaroni, thanks. I don't care about kickshaws after a good dinner. Has Hawkehurst dined with you lately, by the way, Phil?"
Charlotte blushed red as the holly-berries that decorated the chandelier. It was Christmas-eve, and her own fair hands had helped to bedeck the rooms with festal garlands of evergreen and holly.
"He dines with us to-morrow," replied the stockbroker. "You'll come, I suppose, as usual, George?"
"Well, I shall be very glad, if I'm not in the way."
Mrs. Sheldon murmured some conventional protestation of the unfailing delight afforded to her by George's society.
"Of course we're always glad to see you," said Philip in his most genial manner; "and now, if you've anything to say to me about business, the sooner you begin the better.—You and the girls needn't stay for dessert, Georgy. Almonds and raisins can't be much of a novelty to you; and as none of you take any wine, there's not much to stop for. George and I will come in to tea."
The ladies departed, by no means sorry to return to their Berlin-wool and piano. Diana took up her work with that saintly patience with which she performed all the duties of her position; and Charlotte seated herself before the piano, and began to play little bits of waltzes, and odds and ends of polkas, in a dreamy mood, and with a slurring over of dominant bass notes, which would have been torture to a musician's ear.
She was wondering whether Valentine would call that evening, Christmas-eve—a sort of occasion for congratulation of some kind from her lover, she fancied. It was the first Christmas-eve on which she had been "engaged." She looked back to the same period last year, and remembered herself sitting in that very room strumming on that very piano, and unconscious that there was such a creature as Valentine Hawkehurst upon this earth. And, strange to say, even in that benighted state, she had been tolerably happy.
"Now, George," said Mr. Sheldon, when the brothers had filled their glasses and planted their chairs on the opposite sides of the hearth-rug, "what's the nature of this business that you want to talk about?"
"Well, it is a business of considerable importance, in which you are only indirectly concerned. The actual principal in the affair is your stepdaughter, Miss Halliday."
"Yes. You know how you have always ridiculed my fancy for hunting up heirs-at-law and all that kind of thing, and you know how I have held on, hoping against hope, starting on a new scent when the old scent failed, and so on."
"And you have got a chance at last, eh?"
"I believe that I have, and a tolerably good one; and I think you will own that it is rather extraordinary that my first lucky hit should bring luck your way."
"That is to say, to my stepdaughter?" remarked Mr. Sheldon, without any appearance of astonishment.
"Precisely," said George, somewhat disconcerted by his brother's coolness. "I have lately discovered that Miss Halliday is entitled to a certain sum of money, and I pledge myself to put her in possession of that money—on one condition."
"And that is—"
"That she executes a deed promising to give me half of the amount she may recover by my agency."
"Suppose she can recover it without your agency?"
"That I defy her to do. She does not even know that she has any claim to the amount in question."
"Don't be too sure of that. Or even supposing she knows nothing, do you think her friends are as ignorant as she is? Do you think me such a very bad man of business as to remain all this time unaware of the fact that my stepdaughter, Charlotte Halliday, is next of kin to the Rev. John Haygarth, who died intestate, at Tilford Haven, in Kent, about a year ago?"
This was a cannon-shot that almost knocked George Sheldon off his chair; but after that first movement of surprise, he gave a sigh, or almost a groan, expressive of resignation.
"Egad, Phil Sheldon," he said, "I ought not to be astonished at this. Knowing you as well as I do, I must have been a confounded fool not to expect some kind of underhand work from you."
"What do you mean by underhand work?" exclaimed Mr. Sheldon. "The same newspapers that were open to you were open to me, and I had better opportunities for tracking my stepdaughter's direct descent from John Haygarth's father."
"How did you discover Miss Halliday's descent from Matthew Haygarth?" asked George, very meekly. He was quite crestfallen. He began to feel that his brother would have the upper hand of him in this business as in all other business of this world.
"That is my secret," replied Mr. Sheldon, with agreeable tranquillity of manner. "You have kept your secrets, and I shall keep mine. Your policy has been the policy of distrust. Mine shall be the same. When you were starting this affair, I offered to go into it with you—to advance whatever money you needed, in a friendly manner. You declined my offer, and chose to go in for the business on your own hook. You have made a very good thing for yourself, no doubt; but you are not quite clever enough to keep me altogether in the dark in a matter which concerns a member of my own family."
"Yes," said George, with a sigh, "that's where you hold the winning cards. Miss Halliday is your ace of trumps."
"Depend upon it, I shall know how to hold my strength in reserve, and when to play my leading trump."
"And how to collar my king," muttered George between his set teeth.
"Come," exclaimed Philip presently, "we may as well discuss this matter in a friendly spirit. What do you mean to propose?"
"I have only one proposition to make," answered the lawyer, with decision. "I hold every link of the chain of evidence, without which Miss Halliday might as well be a native of the Fiji islands for any claim she can assert to John Haygarth's estate. I am prepared to carry this matter through; but I will only do it on the condition that I receive half the fortune recovered from the Crown by Miss Halliday."
"A very moderate demand, upon my word!"
"I daresay I shall be able to make my bargain with Miss Halliday." "Very likely," replied Mr. Sheldon; "and I shall be able to get that bargain set aside as illegal."
"I doubt that. I have a deed of agreement drawn up here which would hold water in any court of equity."
And hereupon Mr. Sheldon the younger produced and read aloud one of those dry as dust documents by which the legal business of life is carried on. It was a deed to be executed by Charlotte Halliday, spinster, of Bayswater, on the one part, and George Sheldon, solicitor, of Gray's Inn, on the other part; and it gave to the said George Sheldon, as securely as any deed can give anything, one half of any property, not now in her possession or control, which the said Charlotte Halliday might obtain by the agency of the above-mentioned George Sheldon.
"And pray, who is to find the costs for this business?" asked the stockbroker. "I don't feel by any means disposed to stake my money on such a hazardous game. Who knows what other descendants of Matthew Haygarth may be playing at hide-and-seek in the remotest corners of the earth, ready to spring out upon us when we've wasted a small fortune upon law-proceedings."
"I shan't ask you to risk your money," replied George, with sullen dignity. "I have friends who will back me when they see that agreement executed."
"Very well, then, all you have to do is to alter your half share to one-fifth, and I will undertake that Miss Halliday shall sign the agreement before the week is out."
"Yes, my dear George. Twenty thousand pounds will pay you very handsomely for your trouble. I cannot consent to Miss Halliday ceding more than a fifth."
"A fig for your consent! The girl is of age, and can act upon her own hook. I shall go to Miss Halliday herself," exclaimed the indignant lawyer.
"O no, you won't. You must know the danger of running counter to me in this business. That agreement is all very well; but there is no kind of document more easy to upset if one only goes about it in the right way. Play your own game, and I will upset that agreement, as surely as I turn this wine-glass bowl downwards."
Mr. Sheldon's action and Mr. Sheldon's look expressed a determination which George knew how to estimate by the light of past experience.
"It is a hard thing to find you against me, after the manner in which I have toiled and slaved for your stepdaughter's interests."
"I am bound to hold my stepdaughter's interests paramount over every consideration." "Yes, paramount over brotherly feeling and all that sort of thing. I say that it is more than hard that you should be against me, considering the special circumstances and the manner in which I have kept my own counsel——"
"You will take a fifth share, or nothing, George," said Mr. Sheldon, with a threatening contraction of his black brows.
"If I have any difficulty in arranging matters with you, I will go into this affair myself, and carry it through without your help."
"That I defy you to do."
"You had better not defy me."
"Pray how much do you expect to get out of Miss Halliday's fortune?" demanded the aggravated George.
"That is my business," answered Philip. "And now we had better go into the drawing-room for our tea. O, by the bye, George," he added, carelessly, "as Miss Halliday is quite a child in all business matters, she had better be treated like a child. I shall tell her that she has a claim to a certain sum of money; but I shall not tell her what sum. Her disappointment will be less in the event of a failure, if her expectations are not large."
"You are always so considerate, my dear Phil," said George, with a malignant grin. "May I ask how it is you have taken it into your head to play the benevolent father in the matter of Valentine Hawkehurst and Miss Halliday?"
"What can it signify to me whom my stepdaughter marries?" asked Philip, coolly. "Of course I wish her well; but I will not have the responsibility of controlling her choice. If this young man suits her, let her marry him."
"Especially when he happens to suit you so remarkably well. I think I can understand your tactics, Phil."
"You must understand or misunderstand me, just as you please. And now come to tea."
Valentine Hawkehurst did not make his appearance at the Lawn on Christmas-eve. He devoted that evening to the service of his old ally. He performed all friendly offices for the departing Captain, dined with him very pleasantly in Regent-street, and accompanied him to the London-bridge terminus, where he beheld the voyager comfortably seated in a second-class carriage of the night-train for Newhaven.
Mr. Hawkehurst had seen the Captain take a through ticket for Rouen, and he saw the train leave the terminus. This he held to be ocular demonstration of the fact that Captain Paget was really going to the Gallic Manchester.
"That sort of customer is so uncommonly slippery," the young man said to himself as he left the station; "nothing but the evidence of my own eyes would have convinced me of my friend's departure. How pure and fresh the London atmosphere seems now that the perfume of Horatio Paget is out of it! I wonder what he is going to do at Rouen? Very little good, I daresay. But why should I wonder about him, or trouble myself about him? He is gone, and I have set myself free from the trammels of the past."
* * * * *
The next day was Christmas-day. Mr. Hawkehurst recited scraps of Milton's glorious hymn as he made his morning toilet. He was very happy. It was the first Christmas morning on which he had ever awakened with this sense of supreme happiness, or with the consciousness that the day was brighter, or grander, or more holy than other days. It seemed to him to-day, more than ever, that he was indeed a regenerate creature, purified by the influence of a good woman's love.
He looked back at his past existence, and the vision of many Christmas-days arose before him: a Christmas in Paris, amidst unutterable rain and mud; a Christmas-night spent in roaming the Boulevards, and in the consumption of cognac and tobacco at a third-rate cafe; a Christmas in Germany; more than one Christmas in the Queen's Bench; one especially dreary Christmas in a long bare ward at Whitecross-street,—how many varied scenes and changing faces arose before his mental vision associated with that festive time! And yet among them all there was not one on which there shone the faintest glimmer of that holy light which makes the common holiday a sacred season.
It was a pleasant thing to breakfast without the society of the brilliant Horatio, whose brilliancy was apt to appear somewhat ghastly at that early period of the morning. It was pleasant to loiter over the meal, now meditating on the happy future, now dipping into a tattered copy of Southey's "Doctor;" with the consciousness that the winds and waves had by this time wafted Captain Paget to a foreign land.
Valentine was to spend the whole of Christmas-day with Charlotte and her kindred. He was to accompany them to a fashionable church in the morning, to walk with them after church, to dine and tell ghost-stories in the evening. It was to be his first day as a recognised member of that pleasant family at Bayswater; and in the fulness of his heart he felt affectionately disposed to all his adopted relations; even to Mr. Sheldon, whose very noble conduct had impressed him strongly, in spite of the bitter sneers and covert slanders of George. Charlotte had told her lover that her stepfather was a very generous and disinterested person, and that there was a secret which she would have been glad to tell him, had she not been pledged to hold it inviolate, that would have gone far to place Mr. Sheldon in a very exalted light before the eyes of his future son-in-law.
And then Miss Halliday had nodded and smiled, and had informed her lover, with a joyous little laugh, that he should have a horse to ride, and an edition of Grote's "Greece" bound in dark-brown calf with bevelled edges, when they were married; this work being one which the young author had of late languished to possess.
"Dear foolish Lotta, I fear there will be a new history of Greece, based on new theories, before that time comes," said the lover.
"O no, indeed; that time will come very soon. See how industriously you work, and how well you succeed. The magazine people will soon give you thirty pounds a month. Or who knows that you may not write some book that will make you suddenly famous, like Byron, or the good-natured fat little printer who wrote those long, long, long novels that no one reads nowadays?"
Influenced by Charlotte's hints about her stepfather, Mr. Hawkehurst's friendly feeling for that gentleman grew stronger, and the sneers and innuendoes of the lawyer ceased to have the smallest power over him.
"The man is such a thorough-going schemer himself, that he cannot bring himself to believe in another man's honesty," thought Mr. Hawkehurst, while meditating upon his experience of the two brothers. "So far as I have had any dealings with Philip Sheldon, I have found him straightforward enough. I can imagine no hidden motive for his conduct in relation to Charlotte. The test of his honesty will be the manner in which he is acted upon by Charlotte's position as claimant of a great fortune. Will he throw me overboard, I wonder? or will my dear one believe me an adventurer and fortune-hunter? Ah, no, no, no; I do not think in all the complications of life there could come about a state of events which would cause my Charlotte to doubt me. There is no clairvoyance so unerring as true love."
Mr. Hawkehurst had need of such philosophy as this to sustain him in the present crisis of his life. He was blest with a pure delight which excelled his wildest dreams of happiness; but he was not blest with any sense of security as to the endurance of that exalted state of bliss.
Mr. Sheldon would learn Charlotte's position, would doubtless extort from his brother the history of those researches in which Valentine had been engaged; and then, what then? Alas! hereupon arose incalculable dangers and perplexities.
Might not the stockbroker, as a man of the world, take a sordid view of the whole transaction, and consider Valentine in the light of a shameless adventurer, who had traded on his secret knowledge in the hope of securing a rich wife? Might he not reveal all to Charlotte, and attempt to place her lover before her in this most odious aspect? She would not believe him base; her faith would be unshaken, her love unchanged; but it was odious, it was horrible, to think that her ears should be sullied, her tender heart fluttered, by the mere suggestion of such baseness.
It was during the Christmas-morning sermon that Mr. Hawkehurst permitted his mind to be disturbed by these reflections. He was sitting next his betrothed, and had the pleasure of contemplating her fair girlish face, with the rosy lips half parted in reverent attention as she looked upward to her pastor. After church there was the walk home to the Lawn: and during this rapturous promenade Valentine put away from him all shadow of doubt and fear, in order to bask in the full sunshine of his Charlotte's presence. Her pretty gloved hand rested confidingly on his arm, and the supreme privilege of carrying a dainty blue-silk umbrella and an ivory-bound church-service was awarded him. With what pride he accepted the duty of convoying his promised wife over the muddy crossings! Those brief journeys seemed to him in a manner typical of their future lives. She was to travel dry-shod over the miry ways of this world, supported by his strong arm. How fondly he surveyed her toilet! and what a sudden interest he felt in the fashions, that had until lately seemed so vulgar and frivolous!
"I will never denounce the absurdity of those little bonnets again, Lotta," he cried; "that conglomeration of black velvet and maiden's-hair fern is divine. Do you know that in some places they call that fern Maria's hair, and hold it sacred to the mother of Him who was born to-day? so you see there is an artistic fitness in your head-dress. Yes, your bonnet is delicious, darling; and though the diminutive size of that velvet jacket would lead me to suppose you had borrowed it from some juvenile sister, it seems the very garment of all garments best calculated to render you just one hair's-breadth nearer perfection than you were made by Nature."
"Valentine, don't be ridiculous!" giggled the young lady.
"How can I help being ridiculous? Your presence acts upon my nerves like laughing-gas. Ah, you do not know what cares and perplexities I have to make me serious. Charlotte," exclaimed the young man, with sudden energy, "do you think you could ever come to distrust me?"
"Valentine! Do I think I shall ever be Queen of England? One thing is quite as likely as the other."
"My dear angel, if you will only believe in me always, there is no power upon earth that can make us unhappy. Suppose you found yourself suddenly possessed of a great fortune, Charlotte; what would you do with it?"
"I would buy you a library as good as that in the British Museum; and then you would not want to spend the whole of your existence in Great Russell-street."
"But if you had a great fortune, Lotta, don't you think you would be very much disposed to leave me to plod on at my desk in Great Russell-street? Possessed of wealth, you would begin to languish for position; and you would allow Mr. Sheldon to bring you some suitor who could give you a name and a rank in society worthy of an angelic creature with a hundred thousand pounds or so."
"I should do nothing of the kind. I do not care for money. Indeed, I should be almost sorry to be very rich."
"Because, if I were very rich, we could not live in the cottage at Wimbledon, and I could not make lemon cheese-cakes for your dinner."
"My own true-hearted darling!" cried Valentine; "the taint of worldliness can never touch your pure spirit."
They were at the gates of Mr. Sheldon's domain by this time. Diana and Georgy had walked behind the lovers, and had talked a little about the sermon, and a good deal about the bonnets; poor Diana doing her very uttermost to feign an interest in the finery that had attracted Mrs. Sheldon's wandering gaze.
"Well, I should have thought you couldn't fail to see it," said the elder lady, as they approached the gate; "a leghorn, very small, with holly-berries and black ribbon—quite French, you know, and so stylish. I was thinking, if I had my Tuscan cleaned and altered, it might——" And here the conversation became general, as the family party entered the drawing-room, where Mr. Sheldon was reading his paper by a roaring fire.
"Talking about the bonnets, as per usual," said the stockbroker. "What an enormous amount of spiritual benefit you women must derive from church-going!—Consols have fallen another eighth since Tuesday afternoon, George," added Mr. Sheldon, addressing himself to his brother, who was standing on the hearth-rug, with his elbow on the chimney-piece.
"Consols are your 'bonnets,' papa," cried Charlotte, gaily; "I don't think there is a day upon which you do not talk about their having gone up, or gone down, or gone somewhere."
After luncheon the lovers went for a walk in Kensington-gardens, with Diana Paget to play propriety. "You will come with us, won't you, dear Di?" pleaded Charlotte. "You have been looking pale and ill lately, and I am sure a walk will do you good."
Valentine seconded his liege lady's request; and the three spent a couple of hours pacing briskly to and fro in the lonelier parts of the gardens, leaving the broad walks for the cockneys, who mustered strong upon this seasonable Christmas afternoon.
For two out of those three that wintry walk was rapture only too fleeting. For the third it was passive endurance. The agonies that had but lately rent Diana's breast when she had seen those two together no longer tortured her. The scorpion sting was beginning to lose its venomous power. She suffered still, but her suffering was softened by resignation. There is a limit to the capacity for pain in every mind. Diana had borne her share of grief; she had, in Homeric phrase, satiated herself with anguish and tears; and to those sharp throes and bitter torments there had succeeded a passive sense of sorrow that was almost peace.
"I have lost him," she said to herself. "Life can never bring me much joy; but I should be worse than weak if I spent my existence in the indulgence of my sorrow. I should be one of the vilest wretches upon this earth if I could not teach myself to witness the happiness of my friend without repining."
Miss Paget had not arrived at this frame of mind without severe struggles. Many times, in the long wakeful nights, in the slow, joyless days, she had said to herself, "Peace, peace, when there was no peace." But at last the real peace, the true balm of Gilead, was given in answer to her prayers, and the weary soul tasted the sweetness of repose. She had wrestled with, and had vanquished, the demon.