Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3
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"Not my daughter?" muttered the Squire; "not my daughter? It is a foul lie – a lie hatched by you, sir, to cozen and torment me – an outrageous, obvious, shallow, impudent lie!"
"Should I invent a lie which deprives my wife of any claim to your wealth? However indifferent I may be to riches, I am too much a man of the world to so wantonly sacrifice my wife's prospects."
"Upon what grounds?" cried Bosworth. "What proof?" And then suddenly gripping Irene by the arm, "Unfasten your bodice, girl. Let me see your right shoulder."
He almost tore the upper part of the bodice from the fair and dimpled shoulder in his furious impatience, and there at the top of the arm was revealed a deep cicatrice, the scar of a wound healed long ago.
"Out of my sight, you beggar's brat!" he cried huskily. "Yes, I have been tricked, deluded, cozened damnably. But by whom? There could be only two concerned in it. Bridget and that other one – that she-devil. Follow me, both of you. We'll have it out! We'll have it out!"
He dashed out of the room and along the corridor with the rapid movements of a madman, and they followed him to Mrs. Layburne's room.
She who had once been the delight of crowded playhouses, the admired of bucks and wits in the days of the Godolphin ministry, now presented the saddest spectacle of hopeless decay.
She lay on a sofa beside a pinched and poverty-stricken fire, burning dully in one of those iron grates by means of which our forefathers contrived to keep themselves cold while they were mocked by the semblance and abstract idea of heat. A small table with a basin that had held broth, and two or three medicine bottles, stood near her. Her gaunt and wasted form was clad in a dingy printed calico dressing-gown, over which her white hair fell in neglect and abandonment. Her eyes – once the stars of a playhouse – now looked unnaturally large in her pinched and shrunken countenance – unnaturally bright, too, with the lustre of disease; while on each hollow cheek there burned a hectic spot, which made the sickly pallor of the skin only the more livid by contrast.
She looked up with a startled air when the Squire burst into her room, followed immediately by Herrick and Irene. She struggled into a sitting position, and sat trembling, either with the effort of shifting her attitude, or with the agitation caused by this strange intrusion.
"Do you see this girl?" demanded Bosworth, thrusting Irene in front of him. "Do you see her, woman?"
"Ay, sir, I see her well enough. My sight is not yet so dim but I can recognise a familiar face."
"Who and what is she?"
"Your daughter; your disobedient rebellious daughter, whom you were howling about yesterday, and whom you welcome home to-day."
"She is not my daughter, and you know it. She is a pauper's nameless brat, foisted upon me by you, by you, she-devil, so that you might be able to twit and laugh at me, to revel in the sight of my discomfiture, before you sink into the grave.This was your vengeance upon me, was it – your vengeance upon me for not having been more your victim than I was, though God knows I paid dear enough for my folly! This is what your innuendoes and mysterious speeches of yesterday hinted at, though I was too dull to understand them."
"What makes you think she is less than your daughter?" asked Mrs. Layburne, with a mocking smile, a smile that seemed to gloat over the Squire's agony of rage.
"What? – this," pointing to the naked shoulder, from which kerchief and bodice had been so rudely wrenched away. "This scar, which you pointed out to me when first this beggar-brat was brought into my house. 'You may always know her by that mark,' you said: ''twill last her lifetime.' And I forgot all about the mark, and loved the impostor that was foisted upon me, and believed in her, and toiled for her, and schemed for her as my very daughter. It flashed upon me all at once – the memory of that scar, and your words and voice as you showed it – just now, when her husband yonder told me what his wife is; and I knew in a moment that I had been duped. Why did you do this thing, Barbara?"
"Why? To be even with you, as I told you I would be – ay, swore it by my mother's grave, when you forsook me to marry a fine lady. I told you I would have my revenge, and I have lived to enjoy it. Mr. Durnford has only anticipated my confession. I should have told you everything upon my death-bed. I have feasted upon the bare thought of that parting hour, when you should learn how your discarded mistress had tricked you."
"Devil!" muttered Bosworth. "What had you to gain by such an infamy?"
"Everything! Revenge! 'the most luscious morsel that the devil puts into the sinner's mouth.' That is what the Preacher says of it. I have tasted that sweet morsel, chewed and mumbled it many a time by anticipation, as I have sat by this desolate hearth. It has been sweeter to me than the applause of the playhouse, the lights, the music, the flattery, the jewels, and savoury suppers, and wines, and rioting. I have watched your growing love for another man's child, while your own, your wife's child, lay mouldering in her grave. I have seen you gloating over your schemes for a spurious daughter's aggrandisement – heard you praise her beauty and boast of her likeness to your ancestors. Poor fool, poor fool! To think that a man of the world, a speculator of 'Change Alley, could be so easily hoodwinked!"
"When was the change made?" asked Bosworth, ringing the bell furiously. "Bridget must have been concerned in it. I will prosecute you both for felony."
"Prosecute a dying woman! fie for shame, Squire! Where is your humanity?"
"I would drag you from your death-bed to a gaol if the law would let me. Whatever I can do I will; be sure of that, Jezebel."
"Is it come to Jezebel? I was your Helen once, your Cleopatra, the sovereign beauty of the world."
"Ay, 'tis a quick transmutation which such cattle as you make – from your dupe's brief vision of beauty and love to the hag that will turn and rend him. Where is Bridget?" (to the servant who answered the bell;) "bring her to me this instant."
"I think I had best take my wife from the reach of your violence, sir, now that I have convinced you that I did you no wrong in marrying her," said Durnford, with his arm round Irene, as if to shelter her in this moral tempest, this confusion and upheaval of all the baser elements in human nature.
"Take her away. Yes, remove her from my sight at once and for ever. Let me forget how I have loved her, that I may less deeply loathe her."
"Father," cried Irene piteously, holding out her arms to him, "do not forget that you have loved me, and that I have returned your love measure for measure. Is there no tie but that of blood? I have been brought up under your roof, and you have been kind to me, and I am sure I love you as much as daughters love their fathers. If you scorn me, do not scorn my love."
"You poor beggar's brat," muttered the Squire contemptuously, yet with a relenting look at the pale pathetic face, "you are the lightest sinner of them all, perhaps. But to have been cheated – to have taken a vagabond's spawn to my breast – "
"She is no vagabond's child, but of as gentle blood on the father's side as your own. She comes of a good old Hampshire family – as old as William the Norman. Her father was Philip Chumleigh, the son of a younger son, a gentleman born and bred."
"I thought as much when I saw him dead and stark upon Flamestead Common," said the Squire. "So-ho, mistress," to Bridget, who came in with a cowed air, and guilt written in every feature; "you were in the conspiracy to cheat your master with a supposititious child; but I'd have you to know that you were accomplice in a felony, for which you shall swing higher than Jack Sheppard, if there's justice in this land."
"O sir, is it hanging?" exclaimed the nurse, "and I as innocent as the unborn babe. Never would such a thought have come into my head, to put another into my darling's place; but she made me do it, and I was half distracted – loving them both so well – so full of sorrow for the little angel that was gone, and of tenderness for her that was left, and she – Mrs. Layburne – threatened me she would say 'twas by my neglect my precious treasure died, though God knows I neglected nothing, and watched day and night. But I was scarcely in my right senses; so I gave way, and held my tongue, and once done it was done for ever – there was no going back upon it. And when I saw your honour so fond of my pretty one, and she growing nearer and dearer to you every day, I thought it was well as it was. You had something to love."
"Something, but not of my own blood – something that had no right to my affection, an impostor, an alien, a sham, a cheat, a mockery. You had better have poisoned me, woman. It would have been a kinder thing to do."
"It was her doing," sobbed Bridget, pointing to Mrs. Layburne, who listened and looked on with a ghastly smile, the exultation of a fiend doomed to everlasting torment, and rejoicing in the agony of another. "'Twas all her doing, and I knew it was a sin, and have been troubled with the thought of it ever since; yes, I have never known real peace and comfort since I did her bidding. But she told me 'twas a good thing to do; your heart was so set on the child that it would all but kill you to lose her, and one child was equal to another in the sight of God, and the one that was left would grow up to be a blessing to you, did you but think she was your daughter; and so I yielded, and let her lie to you. But, O sir, as you are a Christian, do not punish that innocent lamb for our sin. Do not take your love from her."
"It is gone," cried the Squire. "She has become hateful to me."
"She shall trouble you no more, sir," said Irene, with a quiet dignity, which moved her husband almost to tears. "I am very sorry that you should have been cheated, but you must at least own that I have been an innocent impostor. You have been very good to me, sir, and I have loved you as a father should be loved, and though you may hate me, my heart cannot turn so quickly. It cleaves to you still, sir. Good-bye."
She dropped on her knee again and kissed his reluctant hand, then put her hand in her husband's, and glided from the room with him, Mdlle. Latour following.
"We had best go back to London in the coach that brought us," said Herrick. "Will you come with us, Mademoiselle, or will you follow us later?"
"I will follow in a day or two," answered the little Frenchwoman. "It would seem like sneaking away to go to-day. I will wait till the tempest is lulled. I am really sorry for that poor man, savage as he is in his chagrin and disappointment; I will see the end of it. That woman is a devil."
"Can you forgive me, Rena, for having sprung this surprise upon you?" asked Herrick, drawing his young wife to his breast, and kissing away her tears. "Or do I seem to have been cruel? I feared your courage might fail if I told you what was coming: and I wanted to have you face to face with your sham father and that wicked witch yonder. I was prepared for her denial of the facts."
"How did you make this discovery, Herrick?"
"That is a long story, dearest. You shall know all about it by and by. And now, dear love, you are my very own. No tyrannical father can come between my orphan wife and me. We stand each alone, love, and all in all to each other."
"I am content to be yours and yours only," she said, looking up at him with adoring eyes. "But I hope my – I hope Mr. Bosworth will forgive me some day."
"Be sure he will, my pet, and that he loves you dearly at this moment, though he roars and blusters about hatred. All will come well, dearest, in the end."
"And you have married a pauper, after all," said Irene.
"I have married the girl I love, and that is enough for me," answered Herrick. "But it is not so clear to me but that I have married a fortune into the bargain. Wait and see, love; the end has not come yet. And now settle your hood and wrap your cloak round you, and we are off again for London."
And thus, clinging to her husband's arm, she who had so long been called Irene Bosworth left the home that had seemed her birthplace. It had been a solitary joyless life which she had lived there, for the most part, yet she looked back at the old panelled hall with a sigh of regret, the instinctive yearning of an affectionate nature.
"We are as unfettered as our first parents, Irene, and the world is before us," said Herrick gaily, as he lifted her into the coach. "Back to Kingston, my men," to the postillions. "We will stay at the inn there to-night, and go on to London to-morrow morning."
"Go," said the Squire to Bridget, when the door had closed upon his sometime daughter; "go about your business, woman, and consider yourself lucky if I do not send you to gaol."
"You had better think twice of that, Squire," said Mrs. Layburne. "To have this business out before a magistrate might lead to the asking of strange questions."
"Do you think I care what questions they ask?" cried Bosworth scornfully. "Do you suppose I am such an arrant cur as to quail before my fellow-worms because I have lived my own life, crawled upon this earth after my own fashion, and not wriggled in their particular mode? No, Barbara Layburne, if I have been a profligate, I have at least been a bold sinner, and I have never feared the face of a man. Were not the grip of death upon you, madam, you should answer to the law for the trick you have played me."
"What if it was an accident?" asked Barbara; "both the children were so reduced by sickness out of their own likeness, that one might easily mistake one for another."
"You could not. 'Twas you called my attention to the scar upon the baby's arm when she was but an hour in this house."
"Ay, I remember. I bade you mark it well. I had it in my mind even then to ring the changes on you – to cheat you out of a daughter – you who had cheated me out of name and honour, the world's respect, and a good husband – for I might have made a good match, were it not that I was a slave to my passion for you. When I came into this house and met only scorn and ignominy, I resolved to be quits with you. I have lain awake many a night trying to hit upon the way; but the devil himself would not help me to a plan till you brought that beggar's brat into the house. Then in a moment I saw the chance of being even with you. I knew how you prided yourself on your ancient race, how you heaped up riches, caring not as other men care for the things that gold can buy: only caring for wealth as misers care for it, to heap moneybags upon moneybags. I knew you had made your scheme of leaving a vast fortune, as Marlborough did t'other day, marrying your child to a great nobleman, leaving your name among the mighty ones of the land. I knew this, for though you were rarely civil to me, you could not help confiding in me; 'twas an old habit that remained to you from the days when we were lovers. I knew this, and I meant to drag your pride in the dust; and so, as the whole scheme flashed upon me, I bade you note the cicatrice on the baby's arm, so that when my hour came you should see the sign-manual of the lie that had been foisted on you. Your son-in-law has anticipated me by a short time – that is all. My play is played out."
"You are a devil!" muttered Bosworth, walking towards the door.
"I am as God made me – a woman who could love, and who can hate."