Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3
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"We sat so long at that devilish game," said Judith, who had been a heavy loser. "Well, I must resign myself to be unlucky at cards, if 'tis but at that price one can be fortunate in love."
To her, in a quarter of an hour's confidential talk after dinner, Herrick had told much more of the truth than had been imparted to Lavendale's other guests. He had implored her to do her utmost to distract her lover, to prevent his thinking his own thoughts, were it possible; to absorb him, interest him, bewitch him, as only she could.
"Alas, I fear all my weapons are stale, my armoury is used up," she said, with a sigh; "we have been so deep in love with each other, so frank in our love-making for this last happy week, that I have no treasures of tenderness, no refinement of coquetry in reserve. Like Juliet, I have been too lightly won, too frank – I have too openly adored. O Durnford, if I am to lose him at last, I shall go stark mad!"
"You will not lose him, if you can beguile him to forget his waking dream."
"Was it a dream? Was it not the presage of death, rather a physical influence, the poor decaying body conscious of the coming change? He had a look of death this morning. There was an ashy grayness upon his face that horrified me. Yes, I was racked with despair in the midst of our talk of future happiness. And now you bid me be gay, when my heart sinks within me every time I look at him."
In spite of soul-devouring anxiety, Lady Judith had contrived to be brilliantly gay all the evening: as gay as Mrs. Oldfield in her most vivacious character, with all the charms of fashionable coquetry and modish insolence. She had laughed at her own losses, had challenged Lavendale and Bolingbroke to the wildest wagers about the cards, had been the leading spirit in reckless revelry, and had exercised a fascination upon her lover which had made him forget everything but that beautiful creature, leaning over the table with round white arms glittering with diamonds, and the famous Topsparkle necklace flashing upon the loveliest, whitest neck in England, showing all the whiter against the lady's black velvet weeds. Never had those glorious eyes shone with so brilliant a light; and Lavendale knew not that it was the wild lustre of despair. Her voice, her eyes, the caressing sweetness in every word which she addressed to him, might have made Damiens forget his agony upon the wheel.
So it had come to eleven by the hall clock, and Lavendale had been scarce conscious of the passage of time.
"One more hour," he said, with sudden gravity, "and the year of his Majesty's accession will be over."
"Let us be merry while it lasts," said Judith; "let us see the old year out with joyous spirits. What say you to a dance by and by, when these people have finished their gormandising?"
"I will do anything you bid me – dance or sing, preach a sermon or throw the dice."
"No, you shall not dance. You are not strong enough for their robust country dances, and a minuet is too slow and solemn, though you and I excel in the figure.The other butterflies shall dance, and you and I will look on like king and queen. But let them finish their supper first; and we must have some toasts, political, friendly, sentimental. We will drink to the King over the water out of compliment to Bolingbroke. We will drink George and Caroline because they are good honest souls, and our very intimate friends. We will drink to anybody and everybody, were it only for the sake of drinking."
"My lovely Bacchanalian," he murmured tenderly, "even vice is beautiful when you inspire it."
"O, 'tis hardly a vice to drown the dying year in good wine. I'm sure, could old Father Time have a voice in the matter he would like to die like Clarence in a butt of Malmsey," laughed Judith, holding out her glass to be filled. She had neither eaten nor drunk until this moment, and now her lips scarce touched the brim of her glass: she sat looking at Lavendale, counting the moments as she watched him.
The toasting began presently. Lord Bolingbroke rose, and in a speech full of veiled meaning proposed the King, waving his glass lightly over a great silver dish of rose-water which the butler had placed in front of him. Some drank and some refused, while everybody laughed.
"Your lordship might see the inside of the Tower for that pretty oration, were one of us minded to turn traitor," said Asterley, as he set down his empty glass.
"I am not afraid," answered Bolingbroke. "I have a good many friends capable of playing Judas, but not one whose word would be taken without confirmatory evidence."
"As you are in the house of a man who owes title and estate to a staunch adherence to Whig principles in the person of his ancestors, I think you should drink to her Majesty Queen Caroline, who is a much better King than her husband," said Lavendale.
"O, to Caroline by all means," cried Bolingbroke; "Caroline is a capital fellow." And the Queen's health was drunk upstanding, with three times three.
Then came the toast of Woman, Wit, and Beauty, coupled with the name of Lady Judith Topsparkle, in a brilliant speech from Bolingbroke, who had swallowed as much champagne as would have made a lesser man dead-drunk, but who was only pleasantly elevated, a more vivid brightness in his flashing eyes, a more commanding air in his fine and somewhat portly person. He spoke for twenty minutes at a stretch, and the company all hung upon his words with delight – could have listened to that gay spontaneous eloquence for an hour.
"Woman, wit, beauty, and the highest exemplar of all three, Lady Judith Topsparkle," cried Asterley, standing upon his chair, and waving his glass above his head.
There was a roar of applause, a guzzling of wine, a crash of shivered glass, as the more reckless drinkers flung their empty glasses across their shoulders; and then above that medley of sounds, came silver clear the striking of the clock in the hall.
Lavendale counted the strokes, listening with breathless intensity, his hand inside his waistcoat pressed nervously against his heart.
The last stroke sounded, and he lived. The beating of his heart seemed to him calmer and more regular than it had been all day. He had no sense of faintness or failing strength – a keener life rather, a quicker circulation in all his veins, a sense of lightness and well-being, as of one who had cast off some heavy burden.
"Gentlemen," he said, "look at your watches and tell me – is that clock right?"
His friends pulled out their watches and consulted them with the most natural air in the world.
"Yes, your clock is right enough," said Bolingbroke.
"'Tis three minutes slow by my timekeeper," said Asterley: "I take it the new year is just three minutes old."
"Then 'twas an hallucination," cried Lavendale, "and I am a free man."
The revulsion of feeling overpowered him, and he broke into a half-hysterical sob; but Judith's hand upon his shoulder calmed him again, and he sat by her side as the fiddles and flutes in the hall struck up a joyous air, and the revellers left the table.
"Now for a dance," exclaimed Judith: "we have drunk out the old year; let us dance in the new one. Lady Polwhele, I'll wager those girlish feet of yours are impatient for a jig."
"Faith, my dear Judith, my feet don't feel a day older than when William III. was king, and Lady Orkney and I were rivals," protested the Dowager, "and I am as ready to dance as the youngest of you."
"And yet I know for certain that she was a martyr to podagra all last summer, and could hardly hobble from the Rooms to her chair when she was at the Bath," whispered Lady Bolingbroke to Mrs. Asterley.
They all trooped out into the great oak-panelled hall, and a country dance was arranged in a trice, Durnford and Irene leading, as married lovers, who might be forgiven if they were still silly enough to like dancing with each other. Lavendale and Judith sat in the chimney-corner and looked on. The tall eight-day clock was opposite to them, and he looked up now and then at the hands.
Twenty minutes past twelve.
"We've jockeyed the ghost, I think," whispered Bolingbroke to Durnford, in a pause of the dance. "See how much better and brighter Lavendale looks. He was ready to expire of his own sick fancy. To cure that was to cure him."
Never had Lavendale felt happier. Yes, he told himself, he had been deceived by his own imagination. Remorse or unquiet love had conjured up the vision, had evoked the warning. 'Twas well if it had won him to repent the past, to think more seriously of the future. The solemn thoughts engendered of that strange experience had confirmed him in his desire to lead a better life. It was well, altogether well with him, as he sat by Judith's side in the ruddy fire-glow, and watched the moving figures in the dance, the long line of undulating forms, the lifted arms and bended necks, the graceful play of curving throats and slender waists, light talk and laughter blending with the music in sotto voce accompaniment. Even Lady Polwhele looked to advantage in a country dance. She had been taught by a famous French master at a time when dancing was a fine art, and she had all the stately graces and graceful freedoms of the highest school.
Yes, it was a pretty sight, Lavendale thought, a prodigiously pleasant sight; but it all had a dream-like air, as everything seemed to have to-night. Even Judith's face as he gazed at it had the look of a face in a dream. There was an unreality about all things that he looked upon. Indeed, nothing in his life had seemed real since that vision and that mystic voice in the winter dusk last night.
Suddenly those tripping figures reeled and rocked as he gazed at them, and then the perspective of the hall seemed to lengthen out into infinite distance, and then a veil of semi-darkness swept over all things, and he staggered to his feet.
"Air, air! I am choking!" he cried hoarsely.
That hoarse strange cry stopped the dance as by the stroke of an enchanter's wand. Bolingbroke ran to the hall-door, and threw it wide open. A rush of cold air streamed into the hall, and blew that darkening veil off the picture.
"Thank God," said Lavendale, "I can breathe again! Pray pardon me, ladies, and go on with your dance," he added courteously; and then, half-leaning upon Bolingbroke, he walked slowly out to the terrace in front of the porch, Judith accompanying him.
Here he sat upon a stone bench, and the cool still night restored all his senses.
"I am well now, my dear friend," he said to Bolingbroke; "'twas only a passing faintness. The fumes of the log fire stupefied me."
"And here you will catch a consumption, if you sit in this cold air," returned his friend, while Judith hung over him with a white scared face, full of keenest anxiety.
"It is not cold, but if you are afraid of your gout – "
"I am, my dear Lavendale, so I will leave Lady Judith to take care of you for a few minutes – I urgently advise you to stay no longer than that. Are you sure you are quite recovered?"
"Quite recovered. Infinitely happy," murmured Lavendale, in a dreamy voice, with his hand in Judith's, looking up at her as she stood by his side.
Bolingbroke left them discreetly. To the old intriguer it seemed the most natural thing in the world to leave those two alone together.
"How fond they are of each other!" he said to himself; "'tis a pity poor Lavendale is so marked for death. And yet perhaps he may live long enough for them to get tired of each other; so short a time is sometimes long enough for satiety."
"My beloved, a few minutes ago I thought I was dying," said Lavendale, in a low voice. "Had that deadly swooning come about an hour earlier, I should have said to myself, 'This is the stroke of death.'"
"Why, dearest love?"
"Because it has been prophesied to me that I should die at midnight."
"Idle prophecy. Midnight is past, and we are here, you and I together, happy in each other's love," said Judith.
"You are trembling in every limb!"
"It is the cold."
"No, it is not the cold, Judith: your face is full of fear. Do you see death in mine?"
"I see only love, infinite love, the promise of our new life in the glad new year."
"Judith," he murmured, leaning his head against her bosom as she leant over him, "I know not if I am happy or miserable; I know only that I am with you: past and future are lost in darkness. But indeed you are shivering. You are not cold, are you, love? It is such a lovely night, so still, so calm."
It was one of those exquisite nights which come sometimes in mid-winter. Not a breath of wind stirred the light leafage of the shrubs, or waved the pine-tops yonder. A light fall of snow had whitened the garden-walks, but left the shrubberies untouched. The moon was at the full, and every line and every leaf showed clear in that silver light. The distant landscape glimmered in a luminous haze, deepening to purple as it touched the horizon; while here and there in the valley a glint of brighter silver showed where the river wound among low hills and dusky islets towards the busier world beyond.
Suddenly, silver sweet in the moonlight and the silence, came the musical fall of a peal of bells – joy-bells from the distant tower of Flamestead Church – joy-bells ringing in the new year.
"My God!" cried Lavendale, "the clocks were wrong!"
He gazed at Judith with wide distended eyes, and the ghastly pallor on his face took a more livid hue.
"Beloved, my mother's ghost spoke truth," he said: "death calls me with the stroke of midnight. Beloved, beloved, never, never, never to be mine! But O, 'tis more blessed than all I have known of life to die here – thus."
His head was on her breast, her arms were wreathed round him, supporting that heavy brow, on which the death-dews were gathering. Yes, it was death. The cord, worn to attenuation long ago, had snapped at last; the last sands of that wasted life had run out; and just when life seemed worth living, death called the repentant sinner from the arms of love.
From the earthly love to love beyond, from the known to the unknown. In that swift, sudden passage from life to death, he had been less of an infidel than in the active life behind him. It had seemed to him that a gate opened into the dim distance of eternity; that he stretched out his arms to some one or to something that called and beckoned; that he went not to outer darkness and extinction, but to a new existence. Yet the wrench was scarce less bitter, since it parted him from the woman he loved.
Friendly hands carried that lifeless form into the old house, and laid the dead Lord Lavendale upon the bed where his father had lain before him in the same funeral solemnity. Curtains and blinds were drawn in all the windows; the guests, who had been so merry at the feast on New Year's Eve, hurried off on New Year's morning as fast as coach-horses could be got to carry them away; and the year began at Lavendale Manor in the shadow of mourning. Only Herrick and Irene stayed in the darkened house, and watched and prayed in the death-chamber.
And so the house of Lavendale expired with its last representative. Name and race vanished suddenly from the eyes of men like a ship that founders at sea.
Deeper yet drew the death shadows on Lavendale Manor House, for on the morning of Lord Lavendale's funeral the old Venetian chemist was found cold and stark beside his furnace, the elixir of life, the universal panacea, simmering in the crucible beside him, and his attenuated fingers clasping one of those antique guides to immortality, fraught with the wisdom of old Arabia, which had been his solace and delight. The shock of his friend and patron's death had accelerated the inevitable end. The lamp of life, nursed in solitude, economised by habits of exceptional temperance, had burned to the last drop of oil, and the discoverer, baulked in all his searching after the supernatural, had yet succeeded in living to his hundred and eleventh year.
Three years afterwards, and Herrick and Irene were living with their two children at Lavendale Manor, and the fences that parted manor and court had been thrown down, and the two estates were as one, the old squire having settled Fairmile Court and all its belongings upon his adopted daughter, whose husband was to assume the name of Bosworth in addition to his own, and to sign himself Durnford-Bosworth henceforward. Time is the best of all peace-makers, and after nursing his wrath for a year or two Roland Bosworth had discovered that the orphan he had picked up on Flamestead Common was dearer to him than resentment or wounded pride. Perhaps he was all the better pleased to endow the changeling since Mr. Topsparkle's magnificent bequest had made her independent of his bounty.
To Lavendale Manor every New Year's Eve comes a pensive lady to pass sad hours in solitude and silence and pious prayers and meditations in those rooms which were once so full of mirth. Alone she paces the terrace in moonlight or in darkness: alone she keeps her midnight vigil, and prays and weeps upon that stone bench where her lover died.
Irene and her husband respect the mourner's solitude, and in their pity for an inconsolable grief they scarce lament the change in that beautiful face which is but too prophetic of doom. Not again will that widowed heart ache at the sound of New Year joy-bells, for their merry peal will ring above her grave.
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