Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3
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The beldame came in presently, before he had had time to shape his thoughts. She brought two basins of gruel, and a rushlight in a great iron cage, which she set upon the empty hearth, where it looked like a lighthouse shedding long slanting lines of light over a dark sea.
"You'll not want anything more to-night, will you, good gentleman?" she asked. "I'm going home to my family, and there's no one else in the house that cares to come into this room; so I hope you'll spend a comfortable night, and to-morrow morning old Biddy Flanagan will come and look after ye again. Lord! how sweet he sleeps!" looking down at the slumberer behind the curtain. "Sure, there never was such a cure; but I'm afraid his beauty is a thrifle damaged, poor dear sowl."
"What's the hour, woman?" asked F?tis.
"Sure, darlint, 'tis just on the stroke of six."
"And quite dark outside?"
"As black as your hat, surr. God bless your honour, and give yez a good night's rest!"
She was gone, in haste to return to her brood, and to feed them with broken victuals secreted about her person at odd intervals during her daily duties. 'Twas almost as tender a thing, though not altogether so honest, as the maternal ministrations of the pelican.
F?tis dozed for a little, wandered in his mind for a little, then woke with a start, perfectly lucid, and heard the clock of St. Bride's strike ten.
No, he would not lie there like a dog. He would find a way of escape somehow.
He got up, and though he reeled and staggered for the first minute or two, while he groped for his clothes by the dim glimmer of the rushlight, he felt stronger presently – much stronger than he had felt in the morning, when he tried to dress himself and gave it up for a bad job. It was but the strength of fever, perhaps, but it served. He shuffled on his clothes and went to the door. It was locked on the outside. Then he tried the window, a rotten old guillotine sash, which opened easily and hung loose upon a frayed and rotten cord. He found a piece of wood in the fireplace, and propped the sash up before he dared look out.
His fellow-patient had been wakeful and slightly delirious in the earlier part of the evening, but had sunk off to sleep again, and was snoring heavily.
F?tis looked down into the yard, which was not more than fourteen feet below him. There was a water-butt in an angle made by the wall of the house and that of the yard, and there was a wooden pipe fixed in a slanting position to carry the rain from the gutters above to the butt below. This pipe passed within a few feet of the window, and F?tis, even at sixty-six years of age, and with a fever upon him, felt agile enough to descend by it to the edge of the water-butt and thence drop into the yard. It was a descent which a schoolboy might have made half a dozen times a day for sport. He buttoned his coat across his chest, clapped his hat firmly over his brow, and clambered out of the window, cautiously, slowly, seating himself upon the timber pipe, and letting himself gradually down the incline, hugging the wall as he went.
His slim fleshless figure and light weight served him well; he dropped from the edge of the water-butt on to the stone pavement as lightly as a rabbit; and then he had no more to do but to find an egress from the yard, which might prove impossible, and so all his work wasted.He groped about him in the darkness till he discovered a narrow passage which went under a house at the back of Marjory's, and opened into an alley. There was an iron gate which was generally locked; but fortune favoured the fugitive. One of Marjory's slipshod daughters had gone on an errand to the dram-shop in the alley, and had left the gate ajar. In another moment F?tis was beyond the precincts. He ran along the narrow court as fast as his thin legs could carry him, hearing voices and laughter in the dram-shop as he sped past its open door. A turn of the alley brought him into Fleet Street, and in his blind rush for freedom he nearly went head over heels over one of the posts that guarded the footway.
Late as the hour was, the business of life was not over. A train of heavy wagons and tired cattle choked the road; a ballad-singer was shrilling a political ballad in front of a public-house, while a roar of festal noises testified to the carousal within. A street-fight blocked the rough pavement between Chancery Lane and St. Dunstan's, much to the discomfiture of an alderman, who was being carried westward after a City dinner, in a chair guarded by a couple of linkmen.
F?tis changed his pace from a run to a walk, hurried along, threading his way safely amidst all obstacles, scarce conscious of fatigue in that hypernatural condition of his mind and body. Yet he had sense enough to know that his strength might fail him at any moment, and was on the look-out for a coach or chair.
He saw a coach standing just inside Temple Bar, hailed the driver, who was half-asleep on his box, and jumped in.
"Soho Square," he said, "the corner of Greek Street."
He had five shillings in his pocket, which would be more than enough for so short a journey. The coach rattled along the Strand in a series of short stages, having to pull up every now and then to make way for some heavier vehicle, and then by Leicester Fields to Soho Square, where the coachman pulled up his horses at the corner, as he had been bidden.
Here F?tis alighted – weak and tottering after the interval of rest – paid the man, and then crept off to a court at the back of the great house in the square – a court in which there was a private door of communication with Mr. Topsparkle's offices. This was the entrance and exit which F?tis had generally used in his attendance upon his master, and he had always carried a key to this door about his person. He had the key in his pocket when he was arrested, and he had it ready for use to-night.
He opened the door softly and let himself in then crept stealthily along a passage leading to the servants' staircase. This part of the house was a labyrinth of passages and small rooms, devoted to various domestic uses. He could hear the voices of the servants at supper yonder in the great stone hall, where they ate and drank to repletion at this hour, and where, Mr. Topsparkle and Lady Judith being out, they were riotous in their mirth, and indulged in many a coarse jest at the expense of master and mistress, and the company they kept.
It was the hour at which all the restraints of servitude were thrown off, and when men and maids romped and revelled without fear of interruption; since the housekeeper had her own evening engagements, and was rarely home till midnight; and the steward might be relied upon as drunk and speechless in his private apartment, snug for the night; while there was no likelihood that Mr. Topsparkle or Lady Judith and her running footmen would be home before three o'clock in the morning. Her evening was a progress from one assembly to another, with occasional intervals at Opera-house or masquerade. She came home worn out, and sighing over the weariness of life. There never were such dull parties; 'twas a tiresome world, and she wondered at her patience in bearing with it. And then, if she were in the humour, she would bring home two or three of her satellites, and sit down to cards and ratafia until the late sunrise shone redly through the cracks of the shutters, with the suggestion of a conflagration.
The passages and stairs were all in darkness; but Mr. F?tis knew every angle and every step. He crept to the back staircase, which wound itself sinuously upward between the state apartments and the offices, and then he ascended noiselessly to a narrow landing outside Mr. Topsparkle's bedroom. He opened the door of that sacred apartment, and went in. There was a fire burning on the hearth, and light enough to show that the room was empty. It was a small room, luxuriously furnished, the low narrow French bed draped with cut velvet of so dark a red that it looked black in the firelight. A great fur rug lay in front of the bed, and an immense armchair, with wings at the sides to screen off the draught, stood by the fireplace. A little spindle-legged tea-table, and an Italian coffer upon carved legs, completed the furniture.
Three choicest gems of Italian art, a Carlo Dolci, a Leonardo, and a Titian – cabinet pictures all of them – adorned the walls, and a Venetian mirror in a carved ebony and silver frame hung above the mantelpiece.
F?tis squatted in front of the fire and warmed his aching limbs. One of his shivering fits came upon him as he sat there, and his teeth chattered; but the fever was soon upon him again, and then he left the fire and lay down on his master's bed, defiling the embroidered Indian coverlet with the dust and grime of the street. It was a masterpiece chosen by Lady Judith at the India house where she spent so much money and wasted so much time; a rendezvous and gossiping place for her idlest acquaintances; a resort where reputations were murdered daily in the politest fashion, and where modish women envied and hated each other with unvarying civility.
F?tis lay on those Oriental roses and lilies, staring at the fire, wondering what Mr. Topsparkle would think were he to come in and find him there. But he did not intend to be discovered immediately. He meant to hide himself in that luxurious bower, to rise up like a spectre before his guilty master. There was a narrow space between the bed and the wall, just large enough to accommodate F?tis, and into this gully he slipped presently when he heard approaching footsteps, and lay there among the voluminous folds of the velvet curtains, warmly and even luxuriously lodged.
Here he slept the sleep of exhaustion. It was daylight when he awoke: the fire was still burning, had been tended by the slave who kept watch in the great house o' nights.
F?tis could hear the light fall of wood ashes in the grate, and the monotonous breathing of his slumbering master.
He crept out from his hiding-place, and went round to the hearth. He seated himself in the deep armchair, warmed his aching limbs at the fire, and waited for his master's awakening.
He had slept long and profoundly, but he was unrefreshed by his slumbers. He drained a carafe of water that stood on the table by the bed, and sat waiting and shivering.
The clock struck eight, and Mr. Topsparkle stretched himself and rubbed his eyes. However late were his revels over-night, he invariably awoke at this hour. It was his habit to lounge in bed for an hour or two after that awakening, while the day was airing; but his slumbers were generally over with the stroke of eight.
His first glance was at the fire, to see that his slaves had not neglected him, for the nights were chilly. Gazing dreamily at the burning logs and sea-coal, straight in front of him, Mr. Topsparkle was unconscious of that small slender figure beside the hearth, almost hidden by the side-pieces of the easy-chair. But as consciousness became keener in the newly awakened senses, as the passage from dreams to waking became complete, Mr. Topsparkle's instinct told him that he was not alone. He looked round the room nervously, saw that figure in the chair, the ghastly face covered with pustules, and gave a shriek of absolute terror.
"'Tis a ghost," he muttered, after the first shock, "F?tis's ghost!"
"'Tis stern reality, Vyvyan Topsparkle, 'tis the pestilence that walketh at noonday. You sent me to an infected den, of malice aforethought, planned to trap me like a rat; sent me to die and rot there, lest this tongue of mine should tell how you tempted me to give your mistress her last sleeping draught when you were alike weary of her charms and doubtful of her fidelity. You meant to make a swift end of a foolish babbler whose awakened conscience threatened your safety. But 'twas not so easy as you thought. I have brought contagion to your own couch, the venom of virulent smallpox has poisoned your pillow. I lay for an hour upon your bed last night before you came to it. Your down coverlet is tainted by my breath, your satin and velvet are reeking with infection. I slept beside you all night. 'Twill be a miracle if you escape the disease."
"You are a maniac," cried Topsparkle, "a malignant maniac; and I will have you clapped in a strait-waistcoat before this world is an hour older."
He lifted his arm to ring for aid, but the bell-pull had been plucked down by F?tis over-night.
"You have trapped me once," said the valet. "You shall not catch me so easily again. If I am to die, it shall be in my own hole, not in a trap of your choosing."
He opened the door and was gone before Mr. Topsparkle, helpless in the elegant disorder of his night raiment, could attempt to detain him. He fled with swift footsteps from the house which had been the scene of murder forty years ago, and which had been hateful to this cowardly sinner ever since. Topsparkle was a bolder villain, and was not open to such influences.
A week later, everybody at the Court end of London was talking of poor Mr. Topsparkle, who was stricken with smallpox, a malady which at his age was likely to be fatal, despite the assiduous attendance of fashionable physicians, learned in the latest treatment of this terrible disease.
People talked even more of Mr. Topsparkle's wife, who, with heroic self-abnegation, had insisted upon nursing her husband. She had shut herself up in his room with the sufferer, and never left that tainted atmosphere. She had been inoculated three years before, at Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's entreaty, submitting to the operation rather in sport than in earnest, to please that clever eccentric, whom she loved partly for the lady's own merits, and partly because she was related to Lavendale. She had suffered a slight attack of the disease, which her splendid constitution and high spirits had thrown off as lightly as if it had been but a fit of the vapours. And now, armed by this preparation, she took her seat fearlessly beside her husband's pillow; she ordered the servants in their goings to and fro between the sick-room and the outer world; she watched day and night, and took care that not the slightest detail in the regimen prescribed by the physicians should be neglected. She performed the duties of sick-nurse as one who had a natural genius for the task.
One night, in an interval of consciousness after a period of delirium, Mr. Topsparkle took his wife's hand in his, kissed it, and cried over it, and thanked her feebly for her devotion.
"I never expected that you would be so good to me," he faltered. "I know you never loved me."
"I owe you something for your indulgence," she answered gently. "You rescued me from genteel poverty; you let me waste your money as if it were water; and I have scarcely been grateful. I think it was less my fault than that of the world in which we live. It would have been so unfashionable to be grateful or over-civil to my husband," with a sardonic smile. "But now you are ill, I feel that I may do something to prove that my heart is not the nethermost millstone."
"And when I am dead you will marry Lavendale."
"O, but you are not going to die this bout. You are better to-night. Dr. Chessenden told me this morning there was a change for the better."
"Would I could feel it! But I don't, and I doubt the end is near. And when I am gone you will marry Lavendale."
"He was my first love," she answered gravely: "be assured I shall marry none other."
"Well, I won't begrudge you your happiness. When my dry bones are mouldering in the dark it can make but little difference to me. You will have wealth enough to please yourself in a husband or any other whim. I made my will a week ago, and left you three-fourths of my fortune. The remaining quarter goes to a person who is represented to have a claim upon me."
"You are too generous; but, indeed, I have no desire for inordinate wealth."
"Nay, but you have a very pretty talent for spending. You will not discredit your position as Cr?sus's widow any more than you have done as Cr?sus's wife. There, there, Judith, I forgive all your follies. You have given me a good deal of pain at odd times by your flirtation with Lavendale; but, on the whole, I have been proud of you."
He lay muttering little speeches of this kind at intervals all that night; kissed his wife's hand ever and anon with maudlin fondness; was declared by the physicians next morning to be convalescent; and three days afterwards was dead; just a week after his valet had been buried in the churchyard of St. Giles's in the Fields.
Vyvyan Topsparkle's funeral was the most splendid function of the funereal kind that had been seen in London since the burial of the Duke of Buckinghamshire, and the most distinguished assemblage of mourners that had followed a hearse since the great ones of the land bore Sir Isaac Newton's pall, and followed genius and philosophy to the grave, a few months before. As that frivolous great world had done reverence to intellect, so now it did homage to wealth and fashion. Mr. Topsparkle was buried in the family vault in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, where the bones of his father the Alderman had been laid five-and-forty years before, in a sarcophagus of Florentine marble, sent from Rome by his dutiful son. The plumes, the sable horses, the mourning chariots, and procession of hireling mourners, the long train of fashionable carriages, made a striking impression upon the crowd in the Strand and Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill and St. Paul's Churchyard. Nor was Lady Judith, in her sable robes, the least imposing figure in that stately ceremonial. Calm and dignified in her sober bearing, affecting no false hysteria of grief, but shedding a womanly tear or two for poor humanity at those pathetic words, "Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery," she won the sympathy and admiration of all who looked upon her.
"I protest she is the most beautiful woman in England," said Bolingbroke to Pulteney, as they stood side by side in the shadowy crypt.
"And the richest, Harry. Are you not almost sorry you are married – though 'tis to the most charming woman of my acquaintance?"
"Faith, Will, yonder handsome widow would be a glorious chance for a greater man than your humble servant, and my admiration of her only stops short of passionate love. Her money would have been my salvation; for I confess my own fortune has dwindled atrociously since I bought Lord Tankerville's place, and turned gentleman farmer; and my father's unamiable pertinacity in living might force his son to an untimely death in a debtors' prison, were there no such thing as privilege."