Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3

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There was an air of Christmas gaiety and gladness throughout the house.

"And yet I am convinced there is a ghost," protested Lady Polwhele.


Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were celebrated with all due observances. Lord Lavendale and all his guests attended the village church on Christmas morning, to the edification of the neighbourhood, which consisted of about a score of smock-frock farmers, with their labourers and dairy-maids, and a sprinkling of small gentry. Among these his lordship's party created a sensation, and almost every eye was directed to the big raised pew, with its carved wainscot and silk curtains, and its comfortable fireplace in an angle of the wall.

It was long since Lavendale had seen the inside of a church, and he looked round the village fane with wondering, interested eyes, and comparing it with the glory and vastness of St. Peter's at Rome, which was the last church he remembered to have worshipped in, four years ago at an Easter service. He had come here to-day to humour Lady Judith, who had urged that, as they were going to live at Lavendale by and by, and to settle down into sober country folks, they ought at once to conform to the obligations of their position.

He looked round the church, and remembered the years that were gone, when he had sat in that pew by his mother's side, nestling in the folds of her brocade gown, or sheltered by her furred mantle, and following the words of the lesson in the large-type Bible open on her lap; his childish finger travelling along the line, his childish lips whispering the words. He, the unbeliever, had begun, as other children, in implicit trustfulness. The old familiar Bible stories came back to him, the vivid pictures of the old patriarchal life, full of reality, lifelike in their exquisite simplicity. How he had loved and believed in those old histories! how solemn and earnest had been his childish piety! Then came his orphanage and university life, amidst a reckless, impious crew; and then the Mohawk Club, and the Calf's Head Club, and an assumption of blatant vice as a profession. He had been proud when he was told that society called him the bad Lord Lavendale, in contradistinction to his father, who had been the very pink and pattern of pious respectability.

Well, there was time to mend yet, time to lead a new and honourable life. The words of the ghostly voice were in his ear as the pitch-pipe gave the note, and the villagers began to sing "Hark, the Herald Angels":

"Repent, Lavendale; prepare to die!"

Yes, he would repent, but it should be a repentance made obvious by good works; his preparation for a better world should be the work of years.

"Why should I not live at least to sober middle age, as my father did?" he asked himself, and then turned to Judith, the chosen companion of those future years of happiness and virtue.

How beautiful she looked in the neat simplicity of her black silk hood, the sober propriety of her satin mantle and cambric neckerchief! She had attired herself thus modestly in honour of the rustic temple, and looked as she had never looked at a fashionable assembly, in the reckless exhibition of her charms.

Lavendale thought of a couplet of Pope's as he looked at her.

To him his love was fairer with lowered eyelids and modestly veiled bosom, and arms hidden in long black gloves: how delightful a contrast to that painted hag of quality, Lady Polwhele, whose wrinkles no white lead could disguise, and whose Court finery looked hideous in the searching wintry sunshine! Mrs.

Asterley, too, was as fine as brocade and ribbons could make her. Miss Vansittart wore a braided cloth gown, and a furred military spencer; and had a masculine air which contrasted curiously with Irene's simple dove-coloured hood and mantle, with pale blue ribbons, altogether girlish and innocent-looking.

The five ladies made a display which gave the villagers enough to think about all through the somewhat drowsy service and the particularly prosy sermon; after which the quality walked between two rows of bowing and curtsying Lubins and Biddys, to the lych-gate where the coaches were waiting.

Never had Lavendale felt in a serener frame of mind than on that Christmas Day. After the return from church he and Lady Judith explored the old house together, and planned what alterations they would begin next summer when they returned from their foreign tour.

"And can you really be contented to live three parts of the year in Surrey?" he asked: "to live a sober domestic life with a small establishment like this, you who at Ringwood had the state and retinue of a princess, and had your house filled always with a succession of the most distinguished people in Europe? Can your fiery spirit subdue itself to narrow means and domesticity?"

"My fiery spirit is passing weary of pomp and splendour and bustle and frivolity," she answered. "Fashion and rattle, coquetry and high play, served very well to divert my thoughts from an old love and an endless regret. But now I have my old love again and nothing to regret: fashion, cards, dice, lotteries, the flatteries of rakes and profligates may go hang – I can live without them all. I want nothing but love and Lavendale."

He took her through the library, on his way to introduce her to his old friend Vincenti.

She stopped in the middle of the room, and looked about her with a half-wondering interest.

"What a vast, sober, solemn – rather gloomy room!" she exclaimed, with a faint shudder.

"Think you so, love? It has no gloom for me. It was my father's favourite room, and my mother's: I have spent many a twilight hour with her before bedtime, have said my evening prayers at her knees on yonder hearth. It is more associated with her image than any other room in this house."

"Then I can understand your fondness for it; but I confess that for me it has a melancholy aspect. It will not be my favourite room. That sunny parlour facing southward will make ever so much brighter a nest, if you will let me furnish it in the French fashion, like Lady Bolingbroke's room at Dawley. And now take me to your ancient philosopher, of whom you have told me so much."

Vincenti received the beautiful stranger with a stately courtesy, at once foreign and old-fashioned, and altogether different from the flippant touch-and-go of the "pretty fellow" period. Judith sat with him for nearly half an hour, talking of Italy, which she was to visit for the first time with Lavendale.

"I fancy it a land of romance and of opera, and that I shall hear the reapers singing a chorus as they stoop over their sickles, and see a cluster of dancers at every turn in the road; and that the innkeepers will all address me in recitative, and the postboys will all roll out buffo songs," she protested laughingly.

"That playhouse world is not Vincenti's Italy," said Lavendale: "his country is the land of science and philosophy, of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, of Vesalius and Sarpi."

The Christmas dinner exhibited a profusion which would have shocked Lady Dainty, but which was the only idea of hospitality when George II. was king. Hams and turkeys, chines and shoulders of veal, soup and fish, jellies, mince-pies, and the traditional plum pudding, with Burgundy and champagne in abundance; and even, for those who were coarse enough to ask for it, strong home-brewed ale, ale of a dark tawny brightness, betwixt brown and amber, the very look of which in a glass suggested a swift progress from uproarious mirth to drunken stupor.

Lady Polwhele drank the home-brewed with the gusto of a chairman or a ticket-porter.

"After all, there is a true British smack about a glass of ale that beats your foreign wines hollow," she said, as she finished her fourth tumbler.

Lady Judith only sipped her champagne, just touching the glass with her ruby lips, smiling at Lavendale as she sipped. She sat in the place of honour at her host's side, and amidst that profusion of beef and poultry they two dined upon nectar and ambrosia, and were only intoxicated with each other's looks and smiles, and stolen whispers unheard in the clatter of voices.

For the evening there were cards and music; and anon the hall-doors were flung open to the cold night, and the village mummers came trooping in to perform their Christmas fooleries, and to be regaled afterwards with the remains of the feast. Then came Christmas games in the great hall: blindman's buff and hunt the slipper, at which last game Lady Polwhele disported herself with a vivacity which would have been particular even in Miss Hoyden.

"The Dowager forgets that though 'tis meritorious in her to appear five-and-twenty, 'tis foolish to try to pass for five," murmured Judith, in her lover's ears, as they sat in a recess by the fireplace, watching those juvenile revels.

Buxom Mrs. Asterley rivalled the Dowager in exuberance, and contrived to be caught and kissed at blindman's buff oftener than she need have been, in the hope of rousing some lurking demon of jealousy in her husband's breast. But Captain Asterley only resembled Othello insomuch that he was not easily jealous; so the harmony of the evening was not interrupted by his evil passions.

Next morning came the fox-hunt. Lady Judith and her lover both rode to hounds, and his lordship sent a couple of led nags in their train, while he contrived to find a decent mount for Miss Vansittart. Judith rode as straight as an arrow, and, reckless in this as in all things, went at the biggest fence with a careless easy grace which delighted her lover.

"I did not know you were a hunting-woman," he said, as they rode neck and neck across a field.

"I am an everything woman. I should have died of the spleen at Ringwood, if I had not hunted."

"You did not while I was there."

"You were there; and I had something else to think about."

"And yet you seemed so cold, so indifferent," he said, slackening his pace as he grew more earnest.

"I had so much to hide, love, I had need to put on a show of scorn. Come on, sir; we shall lose the hounds if you talk to me."

The Christmas week was nearly over. It was the thirtieth of December. Lord and Lady Bolingbroke had joined the party: the lady something of an invalid, but infinitely gracious and devoted to her husband, who loved her passionately, yet delighted in boasting of his old conquests in her presence, a self-glorification which she suffered with much good-humour. Nor was she offended at his exuberant compliments to his old flirt, Lady Judith, whom he reminded how pleasantly they had got on together at Ringwood Abbey, when his wife was nursing her gout at the Bath. He had elegant compliments even for Lady Polwhele, whose white lead had been laid on thicker than ever in his honour, and whose family diamonds blazed upon a bosom of more than Flemish development. He had not succeeded in bringing the poet. Mr. Pope had an invalid mother in his house at Twitnam, and could not trust himself away from home for above twenty-four hours at a time. There was some disappointment at his non-arrival, yet a general feeling of relief. Those bright observant eyes saw too deep into the follies and pettinesses of society.

It was in the after-dinner dusk of that thirtieth of December, and while his guests were all talking and laughing in a joyous circle round the hall fire before repairing to the tea-tables in the adjacent saloon, that Lavendale visited his friend in the laboratory. He had stolen away from that light-hearted circle while Judith was occupied with Bolingbroke's gay badinage, and now he sank with an exhausted air into an old oaken settle opposite the table at which Vincenti sat reading.

Here there was no gloaming hour of rest and respite from daily cares. The student lighted his lamp directly daylight began to fade. He could brook scarce a minute's interruption of his studies. The lamp shone full upon Lavendale's face.

"How pale and tired you look!" said Vincenti. "I hope you are not ill?"

"I hardly know whether I am very ill or only very tired," answered Lavendale. "I ought not to have hunted the other day. I have not been my own man since. My London doctor told me I must never hunt; but I have no faith in physic or physicians. However, the fellow was right so far. I am not strong enough for a tearing cross-country gallop. And my blood was up the other day, and my second horse was fresh as fire. It was a glorious run: Lady Judith and I were with the hounds to the last, though three-fifths of the field were left in the lurch. No, I must hunt no more."

"You will be wise if you stick to that resolution. Do you think if I had squandered my strength upon follies as young men do that I should be alive to-day? I have garnered the sands of life, my lord; I have measured every grain."

"I too will turn wiser. My days are precious to me now. Vincenti, do you remember drawing my horoscope t'other day?"

"Yes, I remember."

"And I told you not to show it to me, d'ye remember? A foolish, nervous, brain-sick apprehension made me shrink from the knowledge of my fate. But now I think I should like to see the result of your calculations: not that I promise to believe implicitly."

Vincenti's brow darkened.

"I would rather not show you the horoscope," he answered curtly.

"Why not?"

Vincenti was silent.

"And you had rather not tell me why not, I suppose?" said Lavendale, with a faint laugh.

"No, there could be no good – I can scarce define my reasons."

"Do you think I cannot guess them? The fate foretold was diabolically bad, and you would spare me the knowledge of evil."

"There was nothing diabolical – nothing exceptionally bad – nothing – "

"But the common lot of man," interrupted Lavendale – "death! Only the common lot; but for me it is to come earlier than to the lucky. It is to fall just when I am eager to live – just as the gates of paradise are opening to me. I am standing at the gate – I see that paradise beyond, with the sun shining on it, the sunlight of passionate, happy, satisfied love – for me the unsatisfied. I am so near, so near – 'tis but one step across the threshold and I am in the enchanted garden. But there lurks the king of terrors – there stands Apollo with his fatal shaft: I am not to taste that ineffable bliss, the cup is to be snatched from my thirsting lips – that was what the stars foretold, was it not, Vincenti?"

"'Tis your own eagerness shapes the fear that torments you."

"Tell me that I have guessed wrong, that the stars promise long life."

"I will tell you nothing."

"Nay, you have told me enough. Your reticence is more significant than words," said Lavendale, rising and leaving the student hastily.

He went no further than the adjoining room, the old Gothic library, faintly lit at this hour by a wood fire, which had burnt low and was almost expiring. He seated himself by that lonely hearth in silence and darkness; sat brooding there, a prey to a kind of angry despair.

It was hard, it was hard, he told himself, a cruel sentence issued by the implacable Fates; hard and bitterly hard, now that his heart and mind were purified of all evil, now that he was free from sin, repentant of all his old follies, intent upon leading a good life and being of some use in his generation – hard, very hard, that the decree should go forth, "Thou shalt die in thy pride of life; thou shalt perish when thy heart is full of hope and love." The foreboding of evil was so strong upon him that he accepted the presage as it were a fiat that had gone forth. He struggled no longer against the despair, the conviction of doom. All was over. These brief hours of courtship, this blissful fever-dream was to be the end of all; and then must come the grave, to lie in cold obstruction, and to rot.

He sat for more than an hour in the darkness and silence. The faint gray twilight outside the long meadows faded to the thick gloom of wintry, night. He had flung on some fresh logs, and fitful sparks flashed out from these now and then, and filled the room with a bluish light that seemed almost sepulchral, as it were in unison with his thoughts of death. He sat brooding over the fire, with his elbows on his knees, staring at the slowly kindling logs. A ripple of laughter came upon his ear now and again from the distance. They were merry enough without him, hardly conscious of his absence, perhaps. Even she might forget him for the moment, now she had her adorer Bolingbroke to breathe honeyed words into her ear.

Would she forget him by and by, when all was done? Would she grieve for a little, and then be gay again, and marry some one else, and go dancing gaily down a long perspective of idle foolish fashionable years till she became even as Lady Polwhele, and took to white lead and ratafia, and quarrelling at cards and a led captain, and so on to unhonoured old age and grim death? He felt as if he could scarce trust her upon this planet without him, she was so light and frivolous a creature.

"She loves me passionately now, I know," he told himself; "she is mine, heart and mind and being, mine utterly, as though we two were moved by the same pulses, lived by the beat of one mutual heart; but these impassioned natures forget so easily. She will be dancing and masquing and flirting again before the grass can grow upon my grave."

He sat on till the logs had burnt and blazed and crumbled away on the hearth, and the fire was again just expiring. The clock struck eight. He had been brooding there for over two hours. He sprang to his feet suddenly, cold as death, great beads of sweat breaking out upon his forehead, and a strange tremor at his knees.

What was it – fainting or fear that so shook him? He turned almost as if to rush from the room in an agony of terror – and, lo! that strange soft light, that faint brightness he knew so well, floated in the distance yonder, just within the furthermost window.

It was the figure he had seen before, a woman's form dimly defined against the dark panelled wall, like a luminous cloud rather than an actual shape; and the voice he had heard before spoke again in accents so unearthly that it seemed less a voice than the faint moaning of the wind which fancy shaped into words and meaning:

"To-morrow, at midnight, Lavendale, thou shalt be as I am."

The light was gone; the panelled wall was dark again. Lavendale snatched the poker, and stirred the logs into a blaze. There was nothing, nothing save that wildly-beating heart of his, to tell him there had been something there.

Next moment the door was flung open suddenly, and a bevy of his guests rushed into the room. A wild disorderly mob, as ribald a set as the crew in Comus, it seemed to him, after that unearthly presence which had that instant been there.

"What have you been doing, Lavendale?" asked Durnford. "Is this the way you treat your guests?"

"The ladies were out of humour at having to take their tea without your lordship," said Irene.

"And if it had not been for the most exquisite game at hide and seek, we should have all had the vapours," protested Lady Polwhele; "but we have had mighty fun in your corridors and closets, Lavendale, and I think we must have routed all your family ghosts, and given a good scare to your antique Jacobite rats. Of course you have no parvenu Hanoverians behind your respectable wainscots? We have not left a corner unexplored in our revelry."

"It was a scurvy trick in your lordship to desert us so long," said Mrs. Asterley, "and I would have you look after Lady Judith, who is flirting with Lord Bolingbroke in the saloon."

"O, his French wife will take care there is no mischief done," said Asterley; "but indeed, Lavendale, you must join us at basset. We can have no fun without you."

"I am coming," said Lavendale, following them out into the hall.

Durnford looked at him uneasily when they came into the light.

"What were you doing, Jack, in that dark room?" he asked. "Had you fallen asleep?"

"No, I was brooding; brooding over my joy. Should a man not sit and nurse his happiness as well as his grief?"

"You have had a swooning fit, Jack. You are as pale as death."

"Well, I was near swooning with excess of joy; but 'tis over, and now I am ready for a riotous night. I will play you as deep, drink you as deep as in our wickedest days. There shall be no mirth too wild for me."

He went to the saloon, where his mistress was sitting at the harpsichord playing to Lady Bolingbroke, while the statesman stood with his back to the fireplace in a thoughtful attitude. There were no signs of levity here, at any rate.

Judith sprang up at his entrance, and went over to him.

"Why have you abandoned us so long?" she asked complainingly. "It was cruel of you to leave me to myself all this time."

"Could I leave you in sweeter company? But indeed, dearest, I have not stayed away for pleasure. I was busy."

"You have no right to be busy when I am in your house. All labours should cease but the labour of pleasing me," this with the spoiled beauty's air; and then, becoming all at once earnest and womanly as she saw the change in his countenance, "but you have not been busy. You have been ill, fainting. You are as white as chalk. O Lavendale, what has happened?"

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