Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3



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"Is your business of such a private nature that even I may not hear it?" she asked lightly, hiding keenest anxiety under that easy manner. "Husband and wife are supposed to have no secrets from each other."

"That is a supposition which must have been out of date in the Garden of Eden, madam," said Lavendale. "Be sure Eve had her little mysteries from Adam after that affair of the apple had taught her a prudent reserve."

"Then I wish you good-night, gentlemen, and leave you to a masonic secrecy," said Lady Judith, emerging with slow and languid movements from the depths of the great oak chair, sinking almost to the ground in a stately curtsey to Lavendale, and then gliding from the room, a dazzling vision of powder and patches, diamonds and ostrich feathers, alabaster shoulders and gold brocade.

She was gone, the servants had retired, all save the Swiss porter who dozed in his chair; and Lavendale and Topsparkle were alone in front of the hearth.

"Your lordship may converse at your ease," said Topsparkle, "that fellow has not a word of English."

He employed foreign locutions at times, like Lord Hervey, a modish affectation of the time which distinguished the gentleman who had travelled from the country bumpkin.

"I am going to speak to you of the past, Mr. Topsparkle. I am here to do you a friendly office, if I can."

"Indeed, my lord, I have no consciousness of being at this present moment in need of friendly offices; nor do I think it is any man's business to concern himself about another man's history. The past belongs to him who made it."

"Not always, Mr. Topsparkle. There are occasions when the history of the past concerns the law of the land – when undiscovered crimes have to be brought to light – and when wicked deeds, unrepented of and unatoned, have to be accounted for."

"As in the case of Mr. Jonathan Wild and his young friend Jack Sheppard," said Topsparkle. "Your proposition is indisputable. But did your lordship outstay the company to tell me nothing newer in the way of argument or fact?"

"No, sir; I am here to talk to you of your own crime, committed in this house, forty years ago; suspected at the time by a town which was not slow to give expression to its opinion; confessed only the other night by your tool and accomplice, Louis F?tis."

"The hysterical ravings of a drunken valet are about as trustworthy as the libels of electioneering pamphleteers; and I am surprised that a man of the world like your lordship should concern himself with such folly," said Topsparkle. "The slander was as baseless as it was malicious."

"Yet it drove you from England."

"No, my lord; I left England because I was tired of a country in which the fine arts were still in their infancy. We have been improving since Handel and Bononcini came to London. In William's time there were not half a dozen good musicians in the kingdom. I wonder, Lord Lavendale, that you should take occasion to insult me upon the strength of a slander which I trampled out forty years ago, when my slanderers stood in the pillory."

"Mr.

Topsparkle, there are crimes which never can be brought home to the evil-doers; but there are other wrongs more easily proved even after a lapse of years. I cannot prove you a murderer, though I have the strongest moral evidence of your crime: first from the testimony of your victim's grandfather, Vincenti, and secondly from the confession of your accomplice and agent. But one act in your life I can prove to all the world, if it should be necessary to show the town what manner of man you are. I can at least demonstrate your hardness of heart as a father; how you, the sybarite and Cr?sus, were content to let your daughter expire in poverty."

"I have never acknowledged a daughter."

"But she was none the less your child – the child born in this house – the helpless babe whose unhappy mother you and F?tis poisoned."

"'Tis false – a vile calumny – and you know it."

"'Tis true, and you know it. Your victim is gone beyond the reach of earthly redress – your daughter has been dead twenty years; but there is yet one living to whom, ere that frail, vanishing figure of yours melts from this earth, you may make some atonement for past evil. Your granddaughter, Philip Chumleigh's orphan child, is my friend Herrick Durnford's wife. To her you may yet act a grandfather's part."

"Mr. Durnford ran away with Mr. Bosworth's daughter."

"With Bosworth's supposed daughter only. The likeness which that young lady bears to the picture at Ringwood Abbey is no accident, but the clue to a secret which my friend and I have discovered. Those letters from your confidential servant were on the person of Irene's father when Squire Bosworth found him lying dead on Flamestead common, with his infant daughter by his side."

He showed Mr. Topsparkle the letters from F?tis, scarce trusting them out of his own hand as the gentleman examined them, lest he should fling them into the fire. And then he related the circumstances of Irene's infancy: the nameless orphan and the little heiress brought up together; and how the Squire had been tricked by a malignant woman – a discarded mistress, eager to seize the first opportunity to do evil to her inconstant lover.

Topsparkle would fain have disbelieved the story; but that extraordinary resemblance between Irene and the picture was an evidence which he could scarce gainsay; while the existence of those letters from F?tis made a link between the past and the present. He had been startled and mystified by that likeness between the living and the dead; for it was something closer and more significant than a mere resemblance of features and complexion; and there was the likeness of character, the hereditary type, the indescribable Italian beauty as distinct from every other race. No, Vyvyan Topsparkle was not inclined to deny the claim of this girl.

"I have no objection to acknowledge this young lady as my granddaughter," he said coolly.

"Do you think she would acknowledge you, did she know the story of your life?" answered Lavendale. "Happily for her she has been spared that knowledge. She knows not how her mother was abandoned by you, how her mother's mother was murdered in this house, where you can endure to live beneath the shadow of your crime."

"Your lordship forgets that I wear a sword!" exclaimed Topsparkle, clutching at the jewelled hilt of his thin Court rapier.

"Keep your sword for opponents who know less of your character than I do, sir," said Lavendale contemptuously.

"You deliberately insult me, and then refuse me satisfaction!"

"I will give you the satisfaction of a public investigation of this dark history, if you choose. Your victim's grandfather, Vincenti, is in England, ready to make his statement before a magistrate."

"That is a lie – a preposterous and impudent lie!" cried Topsparkle. "Were the grandfather living, he would be over a hundred and ten years of age."

"He is living, and in full possession of his faculties, whatever may be his age. He gave me a written record of Margharita's story, with all the circumstances of her flight with you, and of her untimely death under this roof."

"I don't believe it. The fellow must have been dead and rotten these twenty years."

"Come to Lavendale Court to-morrow, and you may convince yourself that he still lives – lives and harbours a most bitter hatred of you, Mr. Topsparkle. Old as he is, I doubt if you would be safe in his company, were you two left alone together."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Not to acknowledge your granddaughter. Kindred with you can do her no honour; and it is better that she should be ignorant of the tie. But something in way of atonement you may do out of your coffers. Durnford and his wife are poor; they have the battle of life before them; and I am too near ruined to be of much use to them in the present or the future. When you make your will, remember your victim's grandchild."

"I will consider the matter at my leisure," replied Topsparkle haughtily, recovering his self-possession now that he saw there was no actual danger to be apprehended from Lavendale.

That blabbing fool F?tis was safe under lock and key, but not until he had blackened his patron's character. It was a hard thing to have the past thus raked up, after forty years: and by this man of all others; Judith's old lover, the one man for whose sake he had suffered the pangs of bitterest jealousy.

"I can scarce urge more than that on my friend's behalf," said Lavendale quietly. "Your conscience – if with advancing years conscience has been awakened – must be the only arbiter in this matter. But there is one thing I would add. Your victim, Margharita, died unavenged; your wife, Lady Judith, would not be wronged with impunity. She has powerful friends, and to harm but a hair of her head would be fatal to him who did the wrong."

"I do not require to be schooled in my duties either to Lady Judith or any one else," replied Topsparkle, livid with rage under his artificial carnation, which had been laid on by a less cunning hand than that of F?tis, and which made hectic spots upon that death-like countenance.

Lavendale sauntered to the door, taking leave of his host with a low bow; the Swiss started from his slumbers and flung open the double-doors, and the link-boys ran forward to light the last departing guest to his chair; and then the heavy doors closed with a clang; and the great house in Soho Square sank into silence for the rest of the night.

CHAPTER IX
"THE DEVIL'S DEAD, THE FURIES NOW MAY LAUGH."

Among the habitations of eighteenth-century London, it would have been difficult to find a more dismal den than that house of entertainment which Mr. Marjory and his family kept for insolvent debtors, and which, with two other houses of the same stamp, formed a kind of antechamber to the Fleet Prison, where Governor Bambridge at this period reigned supreme. Hovels there were more squalid, rottener roofs, and darker garrets than those of Marjory, within sound of Bow bells; abodes where crime was rifer, and where midnight orgies and midnight quarrels were of a more brutal character than such as resounded under Mr. Marjory's roof-tree. But for sheer gloom, and for dulness and despair, the Marjory establishment was scarcely to be matched. There needed no inscription above the greasy portal to tell that he who entered there left hope behind him. There was an atmosphere of hopelessness in that establishment which needed no translation in words.

And yet there were rioters who drank and gamed and put on a show of joviality within those abhorred precincts; but these were only the hardened few – reprobates so steeped in vice and ignominy, that they would have made merry in Newgate on the eve of an execution.

Louis F?tis had been a dweller in that sinister abode for more than a week. At the commencement of his captivity he had carried himself haughtily enough; had blustered and swaggered, and told his gaolers that the debt for which he was arrested was but a bagatelle, which he should be able to settle off-hand directly he had communicated with his friends. He had sent a ticket-porter to Soho Square and Poland Street, with messages to his wife and to Mr. Topsparkle. There had been some difficulty about finding letter-paper, or he would have written; but he was too impatient to wait while Marjory's down-at-heel daughter hunted for a couple of sheets of paper and a pen. The reply in both cases had been in the negative. His wife could not help him; his master would not.

"You have been drawing upon me very heavily of late, my good F?tis, and I have your notes of hand to the amount of some thousands," wrote Topsparkle. "You cannot, therefore, expect that I shall hasten to your rescue, when a less forbearing creditor claps you in prison. Your house and furniture must be worth something; so, no doubt, Mrs. F?tis will be able to raise money enough to extricate you. For my own part, I am your milch cow no longer."

Mrs. F?tis informed her dearest husband, upon paper blotted with her tears, that she had not a guinea in her possession. She would have flown to him to comfort and weep with him, but the shock of his arrest had made her so ill that she was unable to leave her bed.

F?tis burst into a torrent of Gallic oaths after reading this affectionate scrawl. She was a traitress, a hypocrite, the falsest of women. She was glad to be free of him, to coquette with the fine gentlemen who frequented his house, to flaunt in brocade and powder, and gamble and drink ratafia with those middle-aged bucks who had admired her on the stage, who had watched her dancing and simpering behind the oil-lamps in a ballet divertissement.

"She is a whited sepulchre," said F?tis; and then he sat down in a dusty corner of the shabby sitting-room at Marjory's, and sobbed aloud. He felt himself abandoned by all the world, alone in his misery like a poisoned rat in a hole.

"It is not the wine-merchant," he said to himself; "'tis these two – traitor and traitress – false master, false wife. These two have plotted together to shut me up in gaol. He fears me and the secrets I can tell, and he thinks that here the scorpion cannot sting."

He asked for pens, ink, and paper, intending to pen a denunciation of his late master for one of the newspapers; and again there was a difficulty. Miss Marjory could not find a sheet of letter-paper anywhere. It was odd; but there had been such a call for it yesterday, there was not a sheet left, and it was too late to get any out of doors.

"'Twill do to-morrow," answered F?tis moodily; "what I have to write cannot be written in an hour."

He sat by the smoky fire, brooding over a letter to the Flying Post– a letter in which, without betraying himself, he should blast Mr. Topsparkle's reputation. He could not afford to speak plainly, but he could insinuate evil; he could deal in such slander as the town loved, and do infinite harm without risking his own neck.

The idea of this mischief comforted him a little; but when the next day came, he was too ill to rise from the pallet which he occupied in a draughty apartment on the first floor, where there were three other beds. It was a back room, looking into a yard, and affording a prospect of dead wall and water-butt. He was not alone in his indisposition. There was an invalid in the next bed, hidden from him by a faded old green baize curtain – a man who had been delirious in the night, but who lay for the greater part of the day in a kind of stupor. F?tis took both these conditions to be the consequences of a heavy drinking bout.

Under ordinary circumstances Mr. F?tis would perhaps have hardly been ill enough to keep his bed all that November day; but he lay there in an apathy of despair, waiting for his fate; wondering helplessly whether Topsparkle would relent, and hasten to liberate him, and whether that false wife of his would think better of her treachery, and come to his relief. He had a racking headache, and he dozed a good deal. And so the day passed.

He got up next morning, in spite of heavy head and aching limbs, and went down to the sitting-room, where he breakfasted in his solitary corner, shunning all companionship with his fellow-captives – an elderly parson, a scribbler of the Philter type, and a decayed tradesman – all equally hopeless and dismal.

"We are kept here to swell Bambridge's profits," protested the parson. "Charges are being run up against us all for our commons in this wretched hole, and still worse extortions of a so-called legal nature; and I am told there is a fever of some kind in the house, and that we may all sicken of it before we are transferred to the Fleet."

F?tis heard almost indifferently. He had entered that accursed house in a state of low fever, disturbed mentally and bodily. It seemed to him he could scarcely become worse than he was. He sat in his corner by the fireplace, sipping brandy all through the dreary winter day; would fain have attempted that letter to the newspaper, but there was again a difficulty about writing materials, and he had not strength to be persistent, and insist that he should be accommodated in that way. A lethargy was creeping over him; he sat staring at the dull fire, sometimes shivering, sometimes oppressed by heat. Next morning he awoke in a much worse condition, and could not lift his head from his pillow; next night he was delirious, and for more than a week he languished in a state betwixt apathy and raving madness; then came a lull in the fever, and one afternoon, in a lucid interval, he heard the word smallpox pronounced by an ancient beldame who had been the only attendant upon him and his neighbour; and then gradually – for there was a dulness in his mind which made him slow to apprehend anything – he began to understand what had happened to him.

He had been put into a room with a smallpox patient, and he was smitten by that fell disease. The house was infected; he had been sent there to his doom. It was Topsparkle's scheme for getting rid of a dangerous tool. The arrest had been prompted by Topsparkle; the whole business planned by Topsparkle.

He asked to see Mr. Marjory, and after much expostulation and heart-sickening delay the proprietor of the den appeared.

F?tis accused him of murder, of having entrapped an unconscious victim into his poisonous den, with deliberate purpose to compass his death.

"You have been bribed to get me out of the way," he said. "This house of yours is a guetapens;" and then he entreated that he might be removed to the Fleet prison till his debts were paid.

"You'll have first to settle with me," answered Marjory, "and the tipstaff, and the warders;" and thereupon he produced a bill of nearly thirty pounds.

F?tis had entered the house with less than thirty shillings on his person, and the greater part of those shillings had dribbled away in payment for drams. He had less than a crown left.

"Send for my wife," he screamed, "send for that cold-blooded hussy! I have a house full of furniture, I have powerful friends. Send for the Duke of Wharton."

"What, all the way to Spain? I doubt Wharton is almost as hard up as your honour, and could scarcely help you if he had a mind to it," jeered Marjory.

"Send for the Duke of Bolton."

"How many more Dukes would your worship summon? There is my little account, Mr. F?tis, and till that is squared you'll not budge. Smallpox be d – d! There's no such thing; 'tis a slander upon a respectable house to say so. Why there are but two or three pimples on your face, doubtless the result of a surfeit. Your neighbour has been down with an attack of jaundice from over-free living, but he's on the mending hand, and will be about in a few days. As for you, sir, I take it you have one of those timid constitutions that can put themselves into an ague at the slightest hint of danger."

"Send me a doctor, if you won't release me from this devilish man-trap, and send for my wife instantly," cried F?tis, in an agony of indignant feeling, fear, wrath, vengeance.

Marjory left him to rave as he pleased. He was powerless to help himself in any way, and seemed as if he had scarce strength to move. He lay there impotent and raging, like a poisoned rat in a hole, as he said to himself again; there was no other similitude that fitted him so well. And so the short winter day waned till it was growing towards dusk. His neighbour in the bed behind the baize curtain was sleeping heavily. His stertorous breathing was the only sound in the room, intolerable in its monotony. His unseen presence was the sole company that F?tis had enjoyed for the last two hours.

Suddenly it seemed to F?tis that he might see for himself what ailed the man. If his disease were jaundice, he would be as yellow as a new guinea; if it were that hideous malady which had been spoken of, the signs would be but too obvious.

F?tis gathered himself together with an effort, got out of bed, and plucked back the baize curtain.

There was a gleam of wintry sunset shining in at the window. It fell upon the sick man's face. God! what a face, seamed, scarred, ravaged by that foul disease! God's image for ever marred, humanity almost obliterated, by that dread visitation. He stood beside the bed staring at that disfigured sleeper, as if that sickening aspect had turned him into stone. Then he recoiled shuddering from that loathsome bed, the curtain dropped from his trembling hand, and he fell back upon his pallet in a mute agony of despair.

There was no longer room for doubt. He had been put into this contagious den with a deliberate purpose. This was Topsparkle's ghastly answer to his incautious menaces. He had aroused his master's suspicions, awakened his fears; and this was how Vyvyan Topsparkle defended himself.

He lay shivering under the dingy coverlet, his limbs like ice, his head on fire, meditating his revenge. He was not going to lie there like an unreasoning animal till death released him from suffering. He would be even with Vyvyan Topsparkle before he died, brief as his time might be.



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