Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3

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Another revolution of the social wheel. Summer was over, and Twickenham, Richmond, Bath, and Tunbridge Wells were deserted for the new squares and narrow streets between Soho and Hyde Park Corner. The theatres in Drury Lane and Lincoln's Inn were open every night, the opera-house in the Haymarket was crowded, and drums and assemblies, concerts and quadrille-parties, filled the very air with excitement. 'Twas said the young people were younger than they used to be, and all the old had grown young. The new reign began in a blaze of gaiety; King and Queen, flushed with the sense of power, delighted to occupy the first place after having so long held the second rank; conscious, too, of a handsome exchequer, and a clever minister who could change stones into gold; at peace with other nations, and with leisure to enjoy themselves.

The King had only one objection to London, and that extended to the whole of his British dominions. He would rather have been in Hanover. It needed all her Majesty's subtlety, all Lady Suffolk's subservient devotion, all Walpole's strenuous arguments, to keep him contented at St. James's or Kensington, when his inclinations all pointed to the old German home, and the old German ways of thinking and living.

Lady Judith Topsparkle was a favourite at the new Court. Her beauty and vivacity made her conspicuous even where many other women were beautiful and vivacious. She and Mary Hervey were sworn friends, and Lord Hervey raved about her fine eyes and her sharp tongue. Lady Mary Montagu praised her, and won her money at ombre, being by far the luckier player. Lady Judith's afternoon card-parties, to which only women were admitted, had become the rage. The house in Soho was thronged with hoops and high heads, and although only ladies were allowed a seat at any of the tables, the men soon forced an entrance, and assisted as spectators, sometimes betting furiously on the progress of the game.

Mr. Topsparkle went in and out, shrugged his shoulders with his highly Parisian shrug, and said very little. The play was supposed to be a gentle feminine business, for very modest stakes. The sums that were spoken of seemed almost contemptible for such fine ladies. But these fair ones had a jargon of their own; they talked and counted in a cipher, and the coins that changed hands in public were but symbols of the debts that were to be paid in private next morning.

"I protest, Lady Judith, I owe you a crown," cried Lady Hervey.

"And I am Lady Polwhele's debtor for a guinea," said Lady Judith, producing the coin from a toy purse; and next morning Juba carried a letter lined with bank-notes from Lady Judith to the Dowager, while Judith received a heartrending plea for grace from a chaplain's wife who had lost half a year of her husband's stipend to her ladyship on a previous afternoon.

Topsparkle called these assemblies the mysteries of the Bona Dea.

"And I'll warrant," said Bolingbroke, "there is always Clodius somewhere in hiding among the hoops and powder, were there only a mother-in-law to unearth him."

Durnford called occasionally in Soho Square to satisfy Lavendale, who was now at his house in Bloomsbury, living in the seclusion of a hermit, although the town with all its pleasures was at his elbow.

He looked very ill, and was the victim of an abiding melancholy which moved his friend to deepest compassion. To oblige him, Durnford left his quiet lodging by Russell Street, and took up his quarters in Bloomsbury Square, where he had a whole suite of rooms to himself, and where he was able to keep an eye upon his friend, whose condition filled him with alarm.

He had somewhat agreeable business in hand just now in the production of his play, which was to be brought out at Drury Lane by his Majesty's company of comedians. Upon the success of this play his future and his marriage in some wise depended, for the production of a successful comedy would at once place him in the highest literary rank. The actors were all sanguine of success, and were pleased at the idea of putting forward a new man. Mr. Cibber declared that An Old Story was the best comedy that had been written since The Conscious Lovers.

"I wish poor Dick Steele were in health to applaud your play, Mr. Durnford," said the manager. "He was ever generous to a young rival. He would have made the reputation of Savage, had that wild youth been of a less difficult temper. But, alas, Sir Richard is but a wreck, wheeled about in a Bath-chair at his retreat in Shropshire, and with Death walking at his elbow."

The play was a success. Mrs. Oldfield, the brilliant, the elegant Nancy Oldfield, the most admired and indulged of her sex, who could violate all the laws of decorum, and yet be received and courted in the politest society, the finest comedy actress in that age of fine acting, condescended to appear in Mr. Durnford's piece, and her performance of a character of the Lady Betty Modish type, with Wilks as her lover, ravished the town. She had more grace, more distinction, than any woman of quality in London; she was the very quintessence of a fine lady, concentrating in her own person all the airs and graces, caprices and minauderies, of half a dozen fashionable coquettes, adopting a shrug from one, a wave of the fan from another, a twirl of her hoop from a third – bewitching and enchanting her audience, albeit her beauty had long been on the wane, and she was well over forty. It was the last comedy part she ever studied; and she would scarce have undertaken it but for Mr. Durnford's reputation as a man of some slight fashion, and the bosom friend of Lavendale.

Nor was Wilks, the famous Sir Harry Wildair, less admirable as a fine gentleman than Mrs. Oldfield as a fine lady. A young man of good family and liberal education, he had made his d?but in Dublin the year after the Revolution, and coming thence to London, he had quickly caught the grace and dash of the bucks and bloods of that statelier period. As the periwig shortened and manners relaxed, he had cultivated the more careless style of the Hanoverian era, with all its butterfly graces and audacious swagger. There was an insolent self-assurance in his love-making which delighted the fine ladies of the period, with whom modesty and reverence for womanhood were at a discount. Durnford knew Wilks intimately as a boon companion and as an actor. He had taken the exact measure of the veteran comedian's talents and capacities; and in the middle-aged fop of quality had produced a character which promised to become as popular as Wildair or Lord Townley.

All the town rushed to see An Old Story, and the patentees were eager for future comedies from the same hand. A single comedy had made Congreve independent for life; and with the success of his play Herrick Durnford felt that his prosperity as a literary worker was assured. He had tried his pen in the various departments of literature, and had been successful in all. He had won for himself a certain standing in the House of Commons, and had Walpole's promise of a place. In a word, he was as well able to marry as Richard Steele was when he took unto himself the wayward and capricious Mrs. Molly Scurlock, and he had all Steele's pluck, and a good deal more than Steele's industry.

Now then he resolved upon a step which to the outer world would have seemed desperate even to madness, a reckless throwing away of fortune. He resolved upon carrying off the Squire's heiress, and marrying her off-hand at the little chapel which Parson Keith had lately established in Curzon Street. He had always had a Mayfair marriage in his mind as the last revolt against tyranny, and he had reasons for deciding that the time had come when that revolt should be made.

It rested with Irene to give or to withhold her consent to this strong measure. He meant to use no undue persuasion. Freely must she come to his arms, as he had told himself in the dawning of their love. He had not set himself to steal her, but to win her.

When An Old Story had run fifteen nights, and had been applauded and approved by all the town, from their Majesties and the Court to the misses in the side-boxes, the apprentices in the shilling gallery, and the orange-girls in the pit, Herrick rode down to Lavendale Manor one October morning, and contrived a meeting by the old oak fence in the waning light between five and six o'clock in the evening. His ever-willing Mercury had conveyed a note to Miss Bosworth, and she was first at the trysting-place.

"My dearest, this is so good of you," said Herrick, as he clasped her to his breast and kissed the shy, half-reluctant lips.

"'Twas selfish curiosity brought me," she answered. "I have been expiring with anxiety to hear about your play. My father's newspapers told me so little, though they told me 'twas the best comedy that had been written for years; and it's so hard we cannot write to each other freely. I have been pining for a letter."

"Dearest, the time is past for secret letters and stolen meetings. The hour has struck for boldness and liberty – for open, happy, unassailable love. Irene, you have told me more than once that you do not value wealth."

"And I tell you so again," she answered.

"And that you would freely renounce a great fortune to be my wife, the mistress of a modest unluxurious home, such as I am now able to support."

"I think you know that I would be happier with you in a hovel than with any other husband in a palace," she said, in a low sweet voice that thrilled him, and with drooping eyelids, as if she were half ashamed at the boldness of her confession.

"Then break your chains, Rena; fly with the lover who adores you; steal away in the early dawn to-morrow; steal across the park with foot as light and form as graceful as the young fawn's yonder. Meet me at the wicket that opens on the road. I will have a carriage-and-four ready to receive you. I'll whip you up in my arms and carry you off as Jove carried Europa, and we shall be well over the first stage to London before your gaolers discover their captive has escaped. I saw Parson Keith last night; he will be ready to marry us at ten o'clock to-morrow morning, and his ceremonial will be just as binding as if we were married by an archbishop."

"But can I disobey my father, prove myself an ungrateful daughter?" asked Irene, with a distressed air.

She had been woman enough to know that this crisis in her life must come sooner or later; that love would not wait for ever. She had pondered upon this crucial question in many an hour of solitude, and now it had come and must be answered.

"Dear love, you have to choose between that tyrannic father and me," pleaded Herrick, with impassioned earnestness; "the time has come for that choice to be made. I have hung back hitherto, fearful to trust the future; but I am now assured of a literary career and of Sir Robert Walpole's friendship and patronage. I can afford to tempt fortune so far as to take a wife. I am secure of keeping a roof over my darling's head, and that the pinch of poverty shall never be hers."

"I am not afraid of poverty – I only fear to offend my father."

"That is a hazard which must be run, Irene. We have tried to be dutiful, both of us. I addressed him honourably as a suitor for your hand; urged upon him that my prospects were not hopeless, that I was industrious, patient, and had begun to earn my living. He rejected my proposals with contempt, treated me as harshly as ever miserly hidalgo in a Spanish comedy treated his daughter's suitor. If you are ever to be mine, Rena, you must brave your father's anger. You will never be mine with his consent, and 'tis ill waiting for dead men's shoes, saying we will put off our happiness till the old man is in his coffin. Let us be happy in spite of him. When the deed is done, I have a way to win him to forgive us both."

"What way, Herrick?" she asked eagerly.

"That is my secret, which I will reveal only to my wife."

"Ah, that is playing on my curiosity to win me to rebellion."

"Not rebellion, Rena; only natural revolt against an unendurable tyranny."

"Do you think he will ever forgive?"

"He will, he must. He will have no right to be angry, from the moment he knows my secret."

"You torture me with your enigmas. Why will you not tell me?"

"To my wife, my wife only," he whispered, drawing her to his breast once again, and stifling her questions with kisses. "That secret is for none but my wife's ear: but, as I am a man of honour, Irene, you will stand free of all reproach for undutifulness. You can look Squire Bosworth in the face and say, 'I am no rebellious daughter;' and if he has a spark of generosity in him he shall take you to his heart as I do now, and give you love for love."

"He is not ungenerous," said Irene. "But I wish you would be less mysterious."

"There shall be no mysteries when I am your husband. And now, love, say that you will come. I have done my part towards your father as a man of honour. I have worked hard as journalist and politician for wife and home. Am I to be disappointed of my reward?"

"No, love," she answered, "you shall not be cheated. I will be your wife; even at the risk of never seeing my father's face again."

He thanked and blest her, in a rapture of love and gratitude; and then came a reiteration of his instructions. She was to creep out of the house before the servants were up; they rose at daybreak, but she must be before them. There was a glass door in the white parlour where they had all dined together – Lavendale, Herrick, the Squire, and his daughter – so often last year. This door opened into the garden, and was fastened with bolts which could be easily withdrawn; especially if Irene would but take the trouble to oil the fastenings over-night, to guard against any tell-tale scrooping of the iron. Then, cloaked and warmly clad, she was to skirt the shrubberies and cross the park to the wicket-gate. There Herrick and his coach would be in readiness; and all the rest was a question of fleet horses and quick relays, of which it was the lover's business to make sure over-night.

"I shall ride to Esher and on to Kingston, and make all preparations before ten o'clock," he said.

Irene was not like Lady Judith. She never thought of her gowns, or asked how she was to carry away her clothes. Not more than the lilies of the field did she consider her raiment in this solemn crisis of her life. She only knew that soon after daybreak to-morrow morning she would be in her lover's arms, speeding away along the London road to be wedded and made one with him for ever. That she was to leave a noble inheritance and all her frocks and furbelows behind her troubled her not the least. She had no lust for finery, or to shine and dazzle in some new sphere. Blindly, and with a childlike confidence, she threw herself into her lover's arms, believing him wisest and best among all mankind.

So in the gray cold October dawn those two met at the wicket-gate, the coach and four horses standing ready a little way along the road. There had been nothing to hinder Irene's flight, albeit her sharpest gaoler, Mrs. Layburne, lay wakeful and restless as the girl's light foot passed her chamber-door. Irene heard the short dry cough, and the quick impatient sigh that followed; and she knew that her father's mysterious housekeeper was lying there, sleepless and suffering.

"My glorious girl," cried Herrick, as he hurried her to the carriage, "I half feared your courage might fail you."

"There was no fear of that, Herrick," she answered quietly; "but I felt myself a rebel and an undutiful daughter as I crept past my father's room."

"You will not think that to-morrow."

"To-morrow! What do you mean by to-morrow?"

"Only that I intend to beard the lion in his den, Irene, or in other words to ask the Squire's pardon as soon as you are so fast my wife that no fury of his can part us. We will not behave as most runaway lovers do, go and hide themselves and wait for Providence to melt the paternal heart. We will go straight to the tyrant, and say, 'You see, love is stronger than self-interest. It is not your fortune we want, but your love;' and if he has a heart he will forgive us both, Irene."

"I hope he will," she murmured despondently.

"You hope, but you don't believe. Well, we shall see. And now tell me, sweet, how is the Squire's housekeeper, Mrs. Layburne?"

"Very ill. Indeed, Herrick, I fear the poor soul has not many weeks, or perhaps many days, to live. It is a sad and lonely ending. She shuns all sympathy, and waits for death in a proud silence which has an awful air. Alas, I fear she lacks all the consolations of piety. I have offered to read to her, to pray with her; but she refused with open scorn. She will have nothing to say to Mademoiselle, who is all kindness. Bridget detests her, and yet tries to nurse her and to do all she can to lessen her sufferings: but it is an unthankful office. My father looks miserable, and I think the presence of that dying woman in the house overshadows his life. He has not been to London for weeks. He sits alone in his study, reading or writing, as if he were waiting for Mrs. Layburne's death. Mademoiselle and I have hardly seen him from day to day, yet last year we were all three so happy together. He used always to dine and spend his evenings with us; but now he dines alone, and is shut up in his study till midnight."

The horses were tearing along the London road, past breezy commons and low-wooded hills, between which flashed now and then a distant glimpse of the river – a silvery streak across the gray of the autumn landscape. Herrick put his head out of the coach window once in a quarter of an hour, to survey the road behind him; but there was no sign of pursuit. The chances were that Irene's absence would not be discovered till eight o'clock, the usual breakfast-hour; and it was not yet seven. They had a clear hour before them.

They changed horses at Kingston, and were crossing Wimbledon Common at eight. The strong fresh horses tore down the hill into Wandsworth, and now Herrick felt that his prize was won. From Wandsworth to the ferry between Lambeth and Westminster was but half an hour's drive. The Abbey clock was striking nine as they stepped into the ferry-boat.

A hackney coach was waiting for them on the other side, bespoken by Durnford before he left London on the previous day, a coach which carried them to Curzon Street in a quarter of an hour, and there was Parson Keith in his surplice, ready to begin the ceremony.

How solemn and how sweet the service sounded to those true lovers, as they stood side by side before the communion-table, in the shabby little chapel which was to be the scene of so many a clandestine union, of so many a love-match doomed to end in mutual aversion! But here Fate promised a more consistent future. Here was no transient passion, born but to die, no will-o'-the-wisp love, leading the lovers over swamps and perilous places, to expire in a quagmire, but a pure and steady flame that would light their pathway to the close of life.

Durnford left the chapel with his bride on his arm, half expecting to meet Squire Bosworth on the threshold, just half an hour too late to hinder the marriage. He would be likely to guess that the runaway couple would go straight to Parson Keith. But there was no furious father, only the jarvey nodding on his box, and a handful of vagabonds and idlers demanding largesse from the bridegroom, a scurvy crew who always gathered from the adjacent alleys to stare at the gentry whom Mr. Keith made happy.

"To Lord Lavendale's, Bloomsbury Square," said Herrick; and then when they were seated side by side in the coach, he told Irene how Lavendale had insisted that they should lodge at his house till they had one of their own, and that they were to take as much time as ever they could in finding one.

"He has given me a suite of rooms, where we shall be as much alone as if we had a house all to ourselves," he said.

They found the rooms prepared for them, the servants in attendance, and an excellent breakfast of chicken and iced champagne on the table. Lavendale was discreetly absent. The butler told Mr. Durnford that his lordship was not expected home till the evening.

After breakfast, Durnford proposed that Irene should do a little shopping, and then it occurred to the bride for the first time that all her wardrobe was at Fairmile Court.

"And I am to cost you money at the very beginning!" she said dolefully.

"Dearest, it will be bliss to spend my money in such sweet service."

"Ah, but wait! I have twenty guineas in my purse, which my father gave me a week ago, my quarterly allowance of pocket-money. That will buy all I shall want for the present; and I daresay he will let me have my clothes from Fairmile. However angry he may be, he will scarcely insist upon keeping my clothes."

"It would assuredly be a petty form of resentment. Well, dearest, may I go shopping with you? or would you rather go alone in a chair?"

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