Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3
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"Let it be soon," he said, as he stood with her in the house whence her husband's coffin had not long been carried; and she, with her white arms wreathed round his neck, as on that night years ago in the Chinese tent at Lady Skirmisham's ball, had answered tearfully, with a sad frankness which had a touch of despair in it,
"It shall be when you will, love. I care nothing for the world, nothing for any one in this world or beyond it, except you. And you are looking so ill! I want to be your wife, that I may have the right to take care of you."
"A poor prospect for youth and beauty and wit and fashion, my dearest," he said, smiling down at her upturned face with love unutterable in his own. "You have had to bear with an old husband, and now can you put up with an ailing one? I think I am more infirm than Mr. Topsparkle, in spite of his threescore and ten. But indeed, love, I mean to reform – to forswear sack and live cleanly; or, in other words, to take good care of my life now it is worth keeping. I want to be sure of long years, love, now I am sure of you. I feel new life in my veins as I stand here with those sweet eyes looking up at me, full of the promise of bliss. Yes, dear love, I will defy augury. Why should I not be happy?"
Why not, indeed? He asked himself the same question on this Christmas Eve, in the winter gloaming, in front of the great hall fire which roared so lustily in the wide chimney, and sent such a coruscation of sparks dancing merrily up to the cold north wind, that it was hard to be gloomy face to face with such a companion: hard to be gloomy when she whom he loved was coming to be his Christmas guest, to stay with him till the turn of the year; then back to the haunted house in Soho for but one night of lonely widowhood; and on the next morning they two were to meet quietly, unknown and unnoticed, at St. Anne's Church, there to be made one for ever.
She was coming. Herrick and his young wife were there to receive her. She was to bring her own little retinue: Lady Polwhele, and the Asterleys, and a certain Mrs. Lydia Vansittart, a young lady of good birth, small fortune, and easy manners, whom Lady Judith had taken up of late as companion and confidante – a woman of fashion must always have some one of this kind, an unofficial maid of honour, who retires at intervals, like the real article, to make way for a successor, and, unlike the official damsel, is not always certain of returning to her post.
Lavendale was not an admirer of Lady Polwhele, nor of her led captain and his buxom wife, and indeed wondered that his mistress should keep such company; yet at the least hint from her he had hastened to invite them, and was ready to pay them all the honours of a sumptuous hospitality. Mrs. Vansittart he thought a harmless young person, but brazen, after the manner of damsels at the Court end of town. The author of Gulliver had talked of her openly as an insolent drab, but "insolent drab" with the Dean of St.Patrick's was sometimes a term of endearment.
Lord Bolingbroke had promised to spend a day or two at the Manor before the turn of the year, to inspect the home-farm, and compare its old-fashioned neglect with his own new-fangled improvements at Dawley.
"We will quote Virgil to each other, and fancy ourselves farmers," he said, when he accepted the invitation. "Perhaps I may bring friend Pope in my coach, and be sure those keen eyes of his will be on the watch for a trait of character in every particular of your existence – will hit off your house and park, your table and friends, in lines that will be as sharply cut and gracefully finished as a Roman medal."
Every bedchamber of importance in the rambling old house had been swept and garnished for distinguished guests. Irene and the housekeeper had roamed in and out of the rooms, and up and down the corridors again and again, before it had been decided which were to be my Lord Bolingbroke's rooms, and whether the bedchamber with the butterfly paper would be good enough for the poet.
"Be sure he will put you into one of his satires, if you lodge him ill, Mrs. Becket," said Irene: "they say he is as malicious as he is clever, and loves to lampoon his friends."
"Lord, madam, I'm no friend of his, so perhaps he'll let me alone," said the housekeeper; "but I shouldn't like to show disrespect to a famous poet. I only wish it was Dr. Watts or Mr. Bunyan that was coming: the best room in the house wouldn't be good enough for either of those pious gentlemen," added the simple soul, who knew not that both her favourite authors were defunct.
And now it was nearly dark on Christmas Eve, and the clatter of Lady Judith's coach and six might be heard at any moment in the avenue. She and her party were to have dined early in London, and to arrive at the Manor in time for a dish of tea, and a substantial nine-o'clock supper of beef and turkey. The Indian cups and saucers, the melon-shaped silver tea-kettle, the dainty little teapots, and coffee-pots, and chocolate-pots, and those miniature silver caddies, in which our ancestors hoarded their thirty-shilling bohea, had all been set out in the saloon under Irene's superintendence; and Irene herself, in a rustling sea-green brocade, and her unpowdered hair turned up over a cushion, and her dark eyes full of light, looked as fair a young matron as any mansion need boast for its mistress.
Herrick, standing with his back to the fire, and his hands clasped behind him in a lazy, contented attitude, watched his wife in the light of the candles, as she moved to and fro in a restless expectancy: watched, and admired, and smiled with all a young husband's fondness, marvelling even yet that this beauteous, innocent creature could verily belong to him.
These two were alone together in the saloon, but Lavendale stayed without in the firelit hall, brooding over the fire, and waiting for the coming of his love.
"Why should I not be happy?" he asked himself. "Why should I not live to taste this golden fortune that Fate has flung into my lap – at last! at last! A broken constitution can be patched up again. A heart that has taken to irregular paces can learn to beat quietly in an atmosphere of peace and joy. I have burnt life's candle at both ends hitherto. I must be sober. Shall I despair because of that mystic warning, which may have been, after all, but a waking dream? Yes, I will believe that sweet sad voice – my mother's very voice – was but a supreme effect of a fevered imagination. I know that I was not asleep when I saw that luminous figure, when I heard that unearthly voice; but there may be a kind of trance in which the mind can create the image it looks upon, and the sound that it hears. Hark, there are the horses! She is here, she is here: and where she is death cannot come."
The clatter of six horses upon a frost-bound drive was unmistakable. There were a couple of outriders, too, and Captain Asterley was on horseback, making nine horses in all. The footmen ran to fling open the hall-door, the butler came to the threshold, Herrick and Irene appeared from the saloon, and Lavendale went out into the dusk, bare-headed, to receive his mistress. She was scarce less eager than her lover. She flung open the coach-door before footmen could reach it, and sprang almost into Lavendale's eager arms. She wore a wide beaver hat with an ostrich plume, and a long velvet pelisse bordered with fur, like a Russian princess. She was flushed with the cold air, and her eyes sparkled; never had she looked lovelier.
"Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear!" cried Lavendale, kissing her audaciously before all the world, and then holding out a hand to Lady Polwhele, who was closely hooded, and whose white-lead complexion looked ghastlier than ever where the cold had turned it blue. "What ample provision hast thou made against Jack Frost, love! Have you borrowed Anastasia Robinson's sables?"
"Do you suppose nobody but a soprano can wear a fur-trimmed coat?" she asked gaily. "I bought this yesterday, and I can tell you that it is handsomer than anything Peterborough ever gave his wife. They say she is really married to him, and she and her mother are established in his house at Parson's Green; but he has sworn her to secrecy, and won't even let her wear her wedding-ring."
"He is a fool," answered Lavendale, "and his pride is of the basest quality. King Cophetua was not ashamed of his beggar-maid. He knew his own power to exalt the woman of his choice. Mrs. Robinson is only too good for Mordanto, who will be half a madman to the end of the chapter. Welcome to Lavendale Manor, my northern princess. 'Tis but a faded old mansion for you, who are used to such splendours – "
"Do not speak of them," she said hurriedly, "forget that I have ever known them. Would to God my own memory were a blank! Ah, there is your young friend Mrs. Durnford smiling welcome at me, and her clever husband, too;" and Lady Judith ran into the house, and was presently embracing Irene, whom she had not seen since last winter.
Lady Polwhele and the two other ladies had stayed by the coach all this time, squabbling with the two maids, who had travelled in the rumble, and who were broadly accused of having left nearly everything behind, because this or that precious consignment could not be produced on the moment.
"I feel certain my jewel-case is lost!" exclaimed the Dowager, "and if it is I am a ruined woman; for it contains some of the very finest of the family diamonds, which are heirlooms, and must be given up to my son's wife whenever he marries. I wouldn't so much have minded my own rubies and emeralds, though the ruby necklace is worth a small fortune; and to think that careless hussy should have forgotten where she put it!"
"Indeed, your ladyship carried it to the coach – nay, 'twas Captain Asterley carried it, and your ladyship ordered where it was to be put."
"Ifackens, so I did, wench!" cried the Dowager, who was very vulgar when she was in a good temper. "'Tis on the floor of the coach, Lyddy, and I had my feet on it all the way down. Lord, what a no-memory I have, child!" tapping Mrs. Lydia Vansittart archly with her fan, and ignoring the falsely-accused abigail, who stood by with an aggrieved countenance.
"I rejoice to hear your ladyship's memory is bad," said Lavendale, approaching the group with his courtly air, at once debonair and stately, "for in that case I dare hope you will forget the poverty of your entertainment at Lavendale Manor, and remember only how enchanted its master was to have you under his roof."
"Poverty, my dear Lavendale! Your house has a delightful air, and I am going to be ravished with everything I see in it. There is nothing so agreeable, to my ideas, as a fine old mansion which time has sobered down to a prevailing sombreness – the mellow colouring of centuries. I hate your newly-built and newly-appointed house, with its Italian pediment and marble floors, and its draughty comfortless rooms. Give me a house that my ancestors have aired for me. A man who inhabits a house of his own building must feel like Adam, as if he had never had a father."
They were all in the hall by this time, and Lady Polwhele was warming her feet, which were one of her good points, at the log fire, turning about the little velvet slippers with a coquettish air, now making a Bristol diamond buckle flash in the firelight, and now bringing into play an instep exaggerated by a three-inch heel.
Lady Judith had flung herself into a chair, and had thrown off her hat carelessly, letting the loose disordered hair fall as it would about her face and neck. She had unfastened the fur-trimmed coat, revealing the snowy whiteness of swan-like throat and bust, and the glitter of a diamond cross, half veiled by a cloud of Mechlin lace. She was leaning back in her chair, sipping a cup of tea, which Irene had just brought her from the saloon, and looking admiringly round at the old hall, with its family portraits and family armour and floodtide worn last at Sedgemoor, and dusty with the dust of a generation.
The other three women crowded round the fire, Captain Asterley with them. His City wife had seen a good many grand houses since her marriage, and would not commit herself by admiring this one, lest it should be supposed she was overawed by its grandeur.
"There was a turn of the road in your park that reminded me of Canons," she told Lavendale.
"My park is but a paddock when compared with the Duke's demesne, my dear Mrs. Asterley; but I am flattered that even a branch of one of my trees should recall that splendid seat. Did you stay long at Canons?"
"N-no, not very long," faltered Mrs. Asterley, who had been admitted to the ducal palace by a side-wind of favour, to see the pictures.
Mrs. Vansittart was in raptures with Lavendale Manor. She affected a kind of hoydenish enthusiasm, rode to hounds, adored the country, pretended to know a great deal about farming, and was altogether of a masculine type of young lady.
"I hope there will be some fox-hunting while we are with your lordship," she said, "and that you can find me some kind of creature to ride. I am not particular; anything, from a Godolphin colt to your bailiff's gray Dobbin, will suit me."
"We will try to find you something better than gray Dobbin, if even we cannot promise you the Godolphin blood," answered Lavendale pleasantly. "If the frost grows no harder, the hounds will meet on Flamestead Common early on Boxing Day; but I fear you will have a good many of the rabble out that morning to follow on foot."
"O, I do not mind the rabble. I am a Republican, and admire old Noll Cromwell better than any hero in history, though he was hardly personable enough for me to be in love with his shade. It has always been a wonder to me that we did not make an end of kings and queens altogether when good Queen Anne died. Instead of making all that fuss about Settlement and Succession, the Whigs should have taken the government into their own hands, elected Robert Walpole as their head, and carried on the affairs of the nation as easily as the Lord Mayor manages the City. Was ever anything so preposterous as to send for an elderly German, who knew not one word of our language, to rule over us, just because he was a lineal descendant of King James I.?"
"O, but we couldn't get on without a king," cried Mrs. Asterley. "I love the look of the King's gilt coach and eight, or his gilt chair, with six footmen walking in front, and a body of soldiers behind. 'Tis one of the prettiest sights in London. And would you have no Drawing-rooms, and no birthnight balls, and no illuminations, and no trumpeters, and no beefeaters, when the King goes to the play?"
"We should get on just as well without any such raree-shows," said Mrs. Lydia contemptuously. "Give me a Roman Forum and Consuls elected by the people."
"Nay, child, I'm sure the Romans were no better off than we are, from anything I can hear of their Neros and their Caligulas," protested the Dowager; "and I quite agree with Mrs. Asterley that a Court is an indispensable institution. We must have somebody to make a fuss about, and though I allow that Germans are mostly savages, I am sure Queen Caroline is the nicest woman I know."
"Say that she is a great deal too good for her boorish husband, and we will all be of one mind with you," said Lady Judith; and then there was a move to the saloon, where every one clustered round the table, and where tea, coffee, chocolate, cakes, and toast were discussed with considerable gusto by people who had dined at two o'clock.
Judith was altogether the queen of the friendly little party. Lavendale helped her to take off the great sable-bordered pelisse, and she emerged from her furs in a gown of black brocade, which intensified the dazzling whiteness of neck and arms, and a black satin petticoat embroidered with silver. Her only ornament was a large diamond cross, tied round her neck with a broad black ribbon, but the diamonds were as magnificent as any to be seen in London.
"Was it not that cross which the Queen wore at her coronation?" asked Lady Polwhele, screwing up her wrinkled eyelids to peer across the table at the gems.
"I believe this was one of the trifles which her Majesty did me the honour to wear on that occasion," answered Judith carelessly.
"I wonder she gave it back to you; I wouldn't, if I'd been Queen of England. You should have sued me for it."
"I don't believe Judith would ever have found out her loss," said Mrs. Vansittart: "she has a plethora of gems. She lets me blaze in borrowed splendour sometimes, but I take no pleasure in my finery. 'Tis the sense of possession that is the real delight."
"Ay, I know that by sad experience," said the Dowager. "I detest the family diamonds because I know I shall have to see them worn by somebody else, if I live long enough. When I see Polwhele flirting with some scraggy minx, I fancy how she would look with my collet necklace on her bony neck. And he is such a weak young simpleton that I never see him civil to a young woman without expecting to hear next morning that he has proposed to her."
"I don't think your ladyship need anticipate immediate peril," said Asterley, with a significant air. "From the kind of life his lordship has been leading of late, I should think there was nothing further from his thoughts than matrimony. A young man cannot marry two French dancers; and from what I know of the ladies with whom Lord Polwhele has been seen about town lately, if he marries one 'twill be at the risk of getting shot or stabbed by the other. O, I don't mean that the lady would murder him herself. She would get some serviceable Irish captain to invite him to a meeting in the Five Fields or at Wormwood Scrubs."
"You have no right to talk of such things, Asterley, and in the hearing of a mother!" whimpered the Dowager.
"I beg your ladyship's pardon; but when all the town knows the story – "
"The town reeks with malicious inventions," said Lavendale lightly. "I daresay young Lord Polwhele is not a whit worse than his neighbours."
Lady Judith leant back in her chair and listened with a supercilious air, as if she had been looking on at a gathering of ants and emmets. They sat and babbled about their acquaintances: how he or she had run mad, and how people did such monstrous stupendous things that it was strange no fiery rain came down from heaven, or inward convulsion upheaved the earth, to wreak the vengeance of the Omnipotent on this modern Sodom. Lady Judith listened, and said scarce a word. Of course the world was wicked; she had known as much from her childhood. She had heard of gambling debts and family quarrels, elopements and suicides, madness, scrofula, hereditary hatreds, and fatal duels, in her nursery. There was nothing new in the latest scandal, only another turn of the old figures in the old kaleidoscope. She heard and smiled.
"My dear souls, how stale your talk is!" she said at last: "not one of your scandals has any originality. They sound as if you had adapted them from the French. They are reminiscences of the Regent and his rou?s. Confess now that they are stolen from the Philippiques."
"May I show you your rooms, ladies?" said Irene, "and then we might have time for some music before supper."
"O, hang music!" cried Miss Vansittart. "We have music enough in London. 'Tis nothing but talk of Cuzzoni and Faustina, Handel and Bononcini, all day long; everybody fighting for his or her favourite singer: and 'tis dangerous to confess one admires Senesino, lest one should be torn to pieces by the votaries of Farinelli. Let us clean ourselves, and then sit down to a good round game – bassett, or pharaoh."
Durnford rang the bell, and the housekeeper came with a couple of maids, carrying wax candles; and the ladies gathered up their cloaks and hoods, and prepared to be ushered to their several rooms.
"One word, Lavendale," cried the vivacious Dowager, wheeling suddenly on the threshold: "is there a ghost?"
"There is the ghost which appeared to Saul, madam, in the twenty-seventh chapter of the first book of Samuel."
"Pshaw, coxcomb! you know what I mean. Is this fine old house of yours haunted? It ought to be, if you lay claim to respectability. Have you ever seen a ghost within these walls?"
"Not one, your ladyship, but a hundred. The ghosts of lost hopes, the ghosts of good resolutions, the phantom of my boyish innocence, the shadow of my wasted youth, the spectre of my dissolute manhood. These rooms were full of ghosts, Lady Polwhele, till this dear lady," taking Judith's hand and kissing it, "exorcised them all by her magical presence. You will find no ghosts to-night. Love has laid them."
"Au revoir, Count Rhodomont: I think that should be your name," said the Dowager, as she skipped lightly off, followed by the other women.
Everybody was delighted with everything: the rooms, the fires, and bright clusters of candles, shining upon old Venetian looking-glasses in silvered frames; the oak passages, which would have seemed gloomy enough had the house been dark and empty, but which were now lighted by wax candles in polished brass sconces, and garnished with garlands of evergreens.
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