Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3



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"Nothing in this world, sweet, to vex you. I rode too hard t'other day for the pleasure of keeping near you, and I am no Nimrod, like Walpole and his great rival yonder. The hunting tired me."

"You must be in bad health to be so easily tired."

"Easily, quotha! Why, 'twas a thirty-mile run, and a fourteen-mile ride home! 'Tis only a goddess who can make light of such a day. But are you going to play basset? and will you have me for your partner?"

"My partner in all things till death."

"Till death," he echoed solemnly; and they sat down side by side.

He seemed gay enough all that evening, and the wine brought the colour back to his face by and by; but every now and then in the pauses of the talk, when the others were intent upon the game, or at supper by and by in an interval of silence, he was thinking of the form and the voice that had been with him that night.

Could two worlds be so wide apart and yet so near – the world of life and the world of death? Not for an instant did he doubt that his mother's spirit had appeared to him; that her voice had warned him, and with no delusive warning. He told himself that he was to die to-morrow night. There were but one night and day left to him upon this upper earth: one night in which to repent his sins; one day in which to settle his worldly affairs, and bid farewell to all he loved.

Should he confide in his beloved? Should he tell Judith of the vision?

No; she would make light of it, or pretend to do so. Nay, in all likelihood she would be really unbelieving; she was too steeped in this world and in worldly follies to believe in that unearthly visitant. She would tell him his brain was unstrung, would try to laugh him into scepticism.

"I would rather believe, even though it is to accept the message of doom," he told himself. "To know that there is a God, and a world beyond, is better than long life upon earth. Man's life, did he live to a hundred years, were no better than the life of a worm if it ended here. But she who has been with me gives me assurance of a future. Where she is I shall be."

It was after midnight when the party dispersed; but, late as it was, Durnford followed Lavendale to his bedroom.

"I want you to tell me all about it, Jack," he said earnestly, as they stood together in front of the fire.

"About what?"

"The thing that has unhinged you. Something has, I know. You were frightened, you saw something, or dreamt something, in the library before we found you there, half fainting, almost speechless. There was something, Jack; I know you too well to be deceived."

"There was something, but I cannot tell you what."

"O, but you must, you shall. What is the good of our being brothers by adoption if you cannot confide in me? You have had no secrets from me, Jack. Till to-night I have shared even your guilty secrets, at the risk of being called Sir Pandarus by this good-natured world of ours.

I have the right to be trusted. You told me about a warning last summer, a warning dream that saved you from a great sin. Was this another dream? Had you dropped asleep by the fire, and did you wake in a panic, as children do sometimes?"

"No, Herrick, I was broad awake."

And then, little by little, Durnford got the truth from him: the story of the vision as it came to him in the summer night, as it had reappeared in the winter gloaming. To him, evidently, the thing was real, indisputable, an actual appearance, and not a projection of his own mind.

"I have tried to be sceptical about that earlier vision; I had almost schooled myself into disbelief," he said in conclusion, "but now I know it is real. I know that my mother's spirit watches over me with a sweet protecting influence; I know that she has warned and guarded me, and that I shall be with her to-morrow night among the dead."

Durnford attempted no strenuous argument; his office was to soothe rather than to reason with his friend. He stayed with Lavendale till late into the long winter night; they two sitting in front of the fire, and talking of their past life together, and something of Herrick's future.

"I shall execute a new will to-morrow morning, Herrick, and I shall leave this place to you. It is not entailed, and although it is heavily mortgaged there is a margin, just enough to keep out the rats and mice. It will not be a millstone round your neck, will it, friend?"

"Jack, why insist upon talking thus, as if your immediate end were a certainty? It agonises me to hear you."

"But it is a certainty. To-morrow – nay, this day is my last, for the new day has begun in darkness. At midnight I shall have passed from your sight. Do not let Judith look upon me when I am gone, Herrick. There is something horrible in the aspect of death, which might poison her memory of the man she loved. I would have her recall this face only as it was while that subtle indescribable something which we call soul still illumined it. Promise me this."

"I will promise anything that can content you. Yet I wonder that a man of your strong sense can talk of a vision which had its source only in your shattered nerves, with as much gravity as if it were a revelation from the Almighty. But I am resolved not to argue with you."

"It would be useless. I am perfectly serious, and convinced beyond all argument."

"I will laugh with you at your conviction after midnight."

"I pray God that we may have occasion to laugh. Do not suppose that I accept my doom with content, Herrick. I go from a world that is full of delight. A year ago, I think I could have welcomed the summoner, but now – Let me finish what I was saying. I have a presentiment that you are going to become a great statesman – the Whigs will have it all their own way, Herrick; the Tories have had their hour and 'tis past – so this place will be a proper abode for you. It will give you an air of stability, and be a pleasant home for your holidays. Irene will like it, because it is so near the home of her childhood, and she and you may make your after-dinner stroll as elderly married people to the trysting-place where you wooed each other in the flower of your days. This old birthplace of mine, with its burdens upon its head, is all I have to leave to my adopted brother."

"I will remind you of your promised bequest when we are old men, Jack," said Herrick gaily; "and now good-night, or good-morning, as you please. Get to bed and rest, if thou canst, my fever-brained friend, or thou wilt have a sorry countenance for a lover at breakfast-time."

Herrick went to his own room sorely troubled about his friend. The vision, or the fancy – dream, trance, catalepsy, or whatever name it might be called – had taken too strong a hold upon Lavendale's mind to be thought of lightly by his friend.

"There must be something done," thought Herrick, "or the very fantasy will kill him. He will die by the strength of his own imagination. I must consult Bolingbroke, who is the cleverest man in this house, if not in Europe, and he may suggest some way of diverting Jack's mind."

To Irene he said not a word, but after breakfast next morning, while Lavendale and Lady Judith were in the stables with a chosen few, inspecting the small stud and discussing future additions, Mr. Durnford found an opportunity to draw Bolingbroke aside.

"I have to speak with your lordship on a very serious matter," he said; "will you honour me with your company in the grounds for half an hour?"

"I am yours to command, my dear Durnford; but I hope your serious matter is nothing unpleasant. You are not an emissary from some unhappy devil among my creditors, who complains that my patronage is ruining him? I have spent three times as much on Dawley as prudence would have counselled, and I fear I shall have to sell the place in order to pay for its improvement, so that some greasy cit will profit by my taste and extravagance. It is the curse of sons that fathers are plaguily long-lived. Lord St. John is a glorious example of patriarchal length of years. He has gone far to convert me to Biblical Christianity. I can believe in Methuselah when I behold my honoured parent."

"I should not be so impertinent as to obtrude the claims of a creditor upon so great a man as Lord Bolingbroke, were he even my own brother," answered Durnford. "Alas! my lord, the matter of which I would speak to you is one that money cannot mend or mar."

"Then it must be a very strange business indeed, sir, and I am all ears."

Herrick told Bolingbroke all that had passed between him and Lavendale last night; and then the two men talked together earnestly for a considerable time, walking up and down the wintry alley, where two rows of clipped pyramid-shaped yews wore as verdant a livery as if it had been midsummer.

"One can scarce conceive that imagination could be powerful enough to kill a man," said Bolingbroke, after a long discussion, "yet I apprehend there is a state of the nerves and organs in which a mental shock may be fatal. I own I do not like the look of your friend this morning. There is a deadly pallor relieved only by a hectic flush which may deceive the inexperienced eye with the semblance of health, but which to me indicates an inward fever. The fancy about the vision of last evening may be hallucination, monomania, what you will, but the influence upon him is full of peril. All we can do is to try and distract his mind from dwelling on this one idea. Let us be as gay as ever we can to-day, and let the fair Judith exert her utmost power of fascination to make the hours pass quickly."

"And what if we shortened this fatal day by at least one hour, and thus curtailed his nervous agony of apprehension?" suggested Durnford. "We might easily put on all the clocks towards night, so that they should strike twelve when it shall be but eleven; and then we can tell him the fatal moment is past, and that the ghostly warning has been belied by the passage of time. 'At midnight he was to die.' That was the doom the unearthly voice pronounced for him. He harped upon that word midnight: 'This is my last day upon earth,' he said: 'this night at twelve o'clock I shall be gone from you all.' If we could but delude him as to the fatal hour, laugh him into good spirits and forgetfulness, those shattered nerves of his might recover, and the poor over-strained heart beat evenly once again."

"I see your drift," said Bolingbroke, "and will do my best to help you. It would be difficult to take an hour clean off the night without detection. We must begin to doctor the clocks soon after dusk: say that we put them on ten minutes before they strike six, and that from that time to eleven we gain ten minutes in each hour. It will need some subtlety to manage the job, unless there are any of the household whom you can trust to help you."

"I would rather trust no one but you and my wife," answered Durnford. "Surely we three could manage the matter: there are only two clocks that need be doctored: the eight-day clock in the hall and the French timepiece in the saloon."

"But there is his own watch, if he carries one: how are we to manage that?"

"He has half a dozen watches, all out of order; I have not seen him carry one for the last six months."

"Then there are our lively friends, who doubtless all wear watches, and who will betray us unless they are warned."

"True: they must be told something that will make them hold their tongues. I will tell them we have hatched a practical joke – or that it is a wager – cheat Lavendale out of an hour."

"You may leave them to me, I think," said Bolingbroke gaily, for to him the matter scarcely presented itself in its most serious light. "I know how to drive that kind of cattle."

"So be it: your lordship shall settle with every one except Lady Judith. I should like to confide my fears to her ear alone. She loves Lavendale devotedly, and if a woman's love could snatch a man from an untimely grave, she is the woman to save him."

His last day upon earth. Lavendale told himself that it was so, and listened nervously to the striking of the distant church clock, though he affected a gaiety which was wilder than a schoolboy's mirth. His feverish unrest alarmed his mistress.

"My dearest Lavendale, you have an air that frightens me, and you are looking horribly ill," she said suddenly in the midst of a conversation, as they paced an Italian terrace together in the noontide sunshine.

There had been a light fall of snow in the night, and the drifts lay in white ridges against the dark boles of the trees in the park, and the great gabled roof showed patches of white here and there under a bright blue sky.

"I vow it is scarcely courteous to cut me short with such a speech as that," cried Lavendale, "when I am doing my very best to entertain you with my good spirits. Would you have me as solemn as a mute at a funeral?"

"I would have you only yourself, Lavendale," she said, laying her hand upon his arm, and looking at him searchingly. "You have an air to-day as if you were acting."

"Should I act joy, love, when my bosom can scarce hold its freight of gladness, when I can count the days and nights that must pass before you and I are one? If I live till that blessed promised day? Ah, Judith, there is the awful question: if I live? Life hangs on so frail a thread that a man well may wonder on the eve of a great delight whether he may survive to possess his joy. It is my burden of happiness that overpowers me."

"If every lover talked as wildly – "

"If every lover loved as well. But there shall be no more rodomontade; I will be as solemn as you like. ? propos to acting, have you ever seen Wilks as Sir Harry Wildair?"

"Twenty times. You know I have been surfeited with plays and operas; I am delighted to be free of them; the very squeaking of a fiddle jars my nerves. Let us talk of our own future. How I love this place of yours! Its quiet, its old-world air, exercise the most soothing influence upon me."

"It is not to be compared with Ringwood Abbey either for size or grandeur."

"Why do you name a place I abhor? why remind me of my late bondage?"

"Ah, love, to make liberty sweeter," he said tenderly, drawing her to his breast. They had reached the end of the walk, where there was a circular open summer-house – a shallow dome supported upon Corinthian pillars, on the model of a classic temple – and here they sat for a few minutes on a stone bench, Judith wrapped in her furs and oblivious of the December atmosphere; Lavendale glad to rest that weary heart of his, after half an hour's sauntering up and down. Here they were remote from the house and from all observation, and could abandon themselves to lovers' talk about the future.

Judith harped upon that future with a persistence which agonised her lover.

"I mean to take such care of you," she said; "I mean to coax back the healthy colour to those pale and haggard cheeks. I shall be your sick-nurse rather than your wife for the first year or so."

"You shall be my divinity always."

"Only when you have grown stout and strong, when you have expanded into a robust country squire like Bolingbroke, shall I be quite at ease about you. O Lavendale, how fiercely you have burnt the lamp of life!"

"What motive had I for husbanding existence, when I had forfeited your love?"

"Ah, dear love, we have behaved very badly to each other," sighed Judith, half in remorse, half in coquetry, the tender coquetry of a mistress secure of her conquest. "If I could only be sure that we loved each other all the time!"

"I can answer for myself," protested her lover. "My passion has never altered. In all my foolish wanderings I have had but one lode-star."

"What, not when you carried off Chichinette?"

"Do not name that foreign hussy, the offspring of a Flemish Jewess and an Auvergnat who cleaned shoes on the Pont Neuf. I had her pedigree from her maid, who was an unacknowledged sister. Can you suppose I ever cared for such a creature? She was as avaricious as Harpagon, as dirty as Lady Moll Worthless, and she ate garlic and wallowed in oil at every meal!"

"And yet you ran away with her!"

"Dearest child, a man in my position was bound to run away with some woman at least once in a season. My reputation would have perished otherwise. As for Chichinette, the affair grew out of a drunken wager, and I was heartily sorry for it when I found you took the thing so seriously."

"Could I take it otherwise? Think what it was to love you as I did, to languish to be with you for ever like this," with her hand clasped in his and her head leaning against his shoulder, "and to know that you were at the feet of a French dancer. A year afterwards it turned me sick to see the creature on the stage, and I was near swooning in my box at the agony of disgust she inspired in me. But you are shivering, love. Let us go back to the house: you shall play me at billiards till dinner-time."

Then on the threshold of the temple she threw herself upon his breast and kissed those cold pale lips, which even love's frank warmth could not colour.

"I forgive you Chichinette," she said gaily, "I forgive you all your elopements, everything that is past, for you are mine now and for ever."

"For ever, dearest."

"O, what a sigh was there! I protest you are the dismallest lover I ever heard of!"

CHAPTER XII
"AND THE LAST PANG SHALL TEAR THEE FROM HIS HEART."

It was supper-time, and Lavendale sat at the head of his table, with Lady Polwhele on his right hand and Lady Judith on his left, in a room brilliant with the light of multitudinous wax candles and the blaze of a huge wood fire. It was a spacious apartment, with five long sash-windows opening on to a terrace with a marble balustrade, and two flights of steps leading to the lower level of the Italian garden – the prettiest summer room in the house, and by no means to be despised as a winter apartment when lighted and warmed as it was to-night.

Durnford and Irene had done everything to create an atmosphere of brightness and gaiety throughout the house, most of all in this room where the midnight hour was to be passed. They had summoned a little band of fiddlers and pipers from Kingston, and these, stationed in the hall, were to enliven the feast from time to time with their homely, merry, old English tunes. The table was loaded with the usual substantial fare; but Irene's light hands had assisted the housekeeper in decorating the board with holly-berries and greenery, and such winter flowers as the gardener could find for her in an age when the first hothouse ever built in England was yet a novelty. The shining scarlet berries, the rich red and purple and gold of the Bristol china, the silver tankards and silver-gilt bowls shining under the light of the candles or reflecting the flame of the fire, produced a dazzling effect.

"Why, this is truly cheerful!" cried Lady Polwhele; "and though I over-eat myself at dinner, and have been cursedly cross with my cards all the evening, I long to put a knife into that turkey."

"Will your ladyship operate upon the bird?" said Durnford, placing the dish in front of the Dowager, who was a famous carver: "it will be a kind of divine honours for him, and rank him at once among the celestials."

Lady Polwhele squared her elbows, tucked up her ruffles, and proceeded to dissect the turkey with the calm dexterity of a great surgeon.

The champagne corks began to fly and the knives to clatter amidst a crescendo movement of talk and laughter, while Lavendale sat back in his chair and conversed in half-whispers with Judith, who also leant back in her chair, so that they two were, in a manner, apart from the gormandisers and merrymakers at the table. He was looking better than he had looked in the morning; but the glow on his cheek and the brightness of his eye were but the transient effect of the Burgundy he had drunk at dinner and the excitement of an evening at bassett.

He held his glass for a footman to fill with champagne, and drained it at a gulp.

"Aren't you going to eat something?" asked Judith.

"Eat! no; in your society I am too ethereal to eat. Mind has the upper hand of matter."

He drank his second glass of wine next moment.

"Champagne does not count, I suppose?" said Judith; "and yet I never heard of sylphs that were wine-bibbers."

"A bottle of champagne is no more to me than a drop of dew to a sylph: there is nothing earthy about it. Look at Lady Polwhele devouring turkey and ham with the appetite of a chairman, and yet after supper she will be as ?vapor?e as you please – a bundle of nerves and emotions. Hark!"

It was the eight-day clock in the hall striking the hour. Lavendale had made no comment upon the passage of time hitherto, and all his friends were inwardly chuckling over the trick that had been played him, which had been explained to them as a wager of Bolingbroke's. Could his lordship cheat his host out of an hour before the end of the year, he was to win a hundred guineas.

This time Lavendale stopped talking, listened intently, and counted every stroke.

"Eleven!" he exclaimed; "how late we are supping!"



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