Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3

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There had been no more spurts of jealousy on the part of Mr. Topsparkle. His wife and he had lived on the most courteous terms since last midsummer, Lavendale's disappearance from the scene had appeased the husband's anger. He concluded that his remonstrances had been taken in good part, and that Lady Judith had dismissed her flirt. That Lavendale had been anything more than her flirt Mr. Topsparkle did not believe; but from flirt to lover is but a swift transition, and there had assuredly been an hour of peril.

Mr. Topsparkle also had a rejuvenised air when he came up to town and made his reappearance in distinguished circles; but what in Lavendale was a caprice of nature, an erratic flash and sparkle of brilliancy in a waning light, was in Topsparkle the result of premeditated care and the highest development of restorative art. He had vegetated for the last three months at Ringwood Abbey, leaving his wife to do all the hard work of entertaining visitors, and sleeping through the greater portion of his existence; and now he reappeared in London full of energy and vivacity, and with an air of superiority to most of the younger men, who were content to show themselves in their true colours as exhausted debauchees, men who had drained the cup of sensual pleasure to the dregs, and whose jaded intellects were too feeble to originate any new departure in vicious amusements.

Though in society Mr. Topsparkle affected to be only the connoisseur, dilettante, and man of fashion, there was a leaven of hard-hearted commercial sagacity in his mind, an hereditary strain which marked his affinity to the trading classes. Keen though he was as a collector of pictures and curios, he was still keener as a speculator on 'Change, and knew every turn in the market, every trick of the hour.

He loved London because it brought him nearer to the money market, brought him, as it were, face to face with his millions, which were for the most part invested in public securities, Alderman Topsparkle having had no passion for adding field to field at two and a half per cent per annum. The alderman put out his wealth safely, in the New River Company and in the best National securities.

Vyvyan Topsparkle had done nothing to hazard those solid investments or to jeopardise his hereditary income; but he liked to trifle with the surplus thousands which accumulated at his banker's, and which even Judith's extravagance could not exhaust; he liked to sail his light bark over the billows of speculation, fanned by the summer winds of chance and change, and glorying in his skill as a navigator. Ombre and quadrille had very little excitement for him, but he loved to watch the fluctuations of a speculative stock, and to sell out at the critical moment when a bubble was on the point of bursting. He had been either wonderfully clever or wonderfully lucky; for he had contrived with but few exceptions to emerge from every risky enterprise with a profit. Such trivial speculations were but playing with money, and made no tangible impression upon the bulk of his wealth: but as the miser loves to hoard his guineas in a chest under his bed and to handle and toy with them, so Mr.

Topsparkle loved to play at speculation, and to warm the dull blood of age with the fever of the money market.

He was sitting before a boule bureau, with three rows of pigeon-holes stuffed with papers in front of him, and a litter of papers on his desk, when F?tis entered, carrying his master's periwig. The room was spacious, half dressing-room and half study, with panelled walls richly adorned with old Italian pottery, and a fireplace in an angle of the room, with a mantelpiece carried up to the ceiling by narrow shelves and quaint divisions, all filled with curios; delf and china, India monsters, Dutch teapots, German chocolate-pots, jars, and tea-cups. In one window stood the toilet-table, a veritable laboratory, before which Mr. Topsparkle sat for an hour every morning while his complexion was composed for the day. In the corner opposite the fireplace was the triangular closet in which Mr. Topsparkle's full-bottomed wig was besprinkled with mar?chale powder. The atmosphere of the room was loaded with various perfumes, including a faint suggestion of burnt rappee, a kind of snuff which had been fashionable ever since a fire at a famous tobacconist's, which had thrown a large quantity of scorched snuff upon the market, and had given the bucks a new sensation and a new taste.

F?tis put the wig on a stand near the dressing-table, adjusted the feathery curls carefully with delicate finger-tips, fell a step or two back to contemplate his work, gazing at it dreamily as at the perfection of beauty, suggesting the august countenance of its wearer, who was looking over a sheaf of documents and seemed preoccupied.

His valet watched him deferentially for some minutes, and then coughed gently as if to attract attention.

Topsparkle looked up suddenly. He had not heard the cautious opening of the door or the velvet tread of his slave.

"Your wig is quite ready, sir."

"I am not ready for it yet."

"Could I speak with you, sir, for a minute?"

"Of course, you can always speak with me. What do you want?"

Mr. Topsparkle laid down his papers, and faced about as he asked the question.

"I am sorry to say, sir, that fortune has been against me since I came back to London. I have lost heavily at basset, and I am in sore need of money."

"Again!" exclaimed Topsparkle impatiently; "you are everlastingly a loser. What right has a fellow of your quality to gamble? Dice and cards are a diversion for gentlemen, sir."

"Fellows of my quality are human, sir, and have minds that are subject to temptation and example. We can but imitate our betters. As for cards and dice, I am drawn into play by gentlemen who come to my house and are gracious enough to invite my company."

"They should know their position better than to associate with a lodging-house keeper."

"O sir, these are gentlemen of rank; dukes, marquises, earls, who have no fear of derogating by low company. They stand secure in a nobility three and four centuries old. My society cannot degrade them."

"How much do you want?" asked Topsparkle, with suppressed rage.

He took some papers out of the pigeon-hole labelled F, and turned them over with a hand that shook a little, till he came to one which he drew out and unfolded. It was a list of figures, headed by the name of F?tis, and against each amount there was a date.

"If you would oblige me with a paltry thousand, sir, I could set myself right. I have the honour to owe seven hundred and fifty to his grace the Duke of Bolton."

"A thousand pounds! Egregious insolence. Do you know that you had three thousand, in sums of five hundred, from me last winter? Four thousand a year! Was ever valet paid such wages since the world began?"

"Nay, sir, it is not every valet who has the honour to serve a gentleman in whose exorbitant income thousands count as hundreds do with meaner men. Nor do I rank with the common herd of servants; I have been your secretary and your confidant, often your nurse, and sometimes even your physician. I have prescribed for you in some of the most difficult occasions of your life – and successfully. I have made an end of your trouble."

"You are a villain," said Topsparkle, sitting in a brooding attitude, staring at the carpet.

"I do not pretend – never have pretended – to be a saint. A man of rigid principles would not have served you as I have done. I have been useful to your loves and to your antipathies. I do not expect to be paid as a common servant. I have a claim upon your fortune inferior to none."

"O, you are a vastly clever person, and no doubt think you have been useful to me. Well, I will advance this money – mind, as I advanced the last, on your note of hand. It must be a loan."

"I have no objection, sir."

There had been many such transactions. F?tis thought that this loan theory was a salve to his employer's wounded pride. He would not suppose himself completely under the influence of his servant. He would assert an independent position, play the patron, hug himself with the idea of power over his slave.

"He would never dare to sue me for the money," F?tis told himself. "It can be no more than an empty form."

And with this sense of security F?tis signed anything that was offered to him for signature. He had lived a good many years in London, but was still a thorough Frenchman in his profound ignorance of English law, and he had, moreover, a somewhat exaggerated estimate of his influence over his master. He had never yet failed in his attacks upon Mr. Topsparkle's purse, and he thought his resources in that direction were almost unlimited. This had encouraged him in extravagance, and had fostered the habit of reckless gaming, which was the open vice of the age.

"You ought to be making a fortune, not losing one, F?tis, with such a house as yours," said Topsparkle, counting over a bundle of bank-notes after the note of hand had been duly executed. "I am told that the most fashionable men in town patronise your supper-room, and build their occasional nests upon your upper floors, where you have bachelor quarters, as I understand, for gentlemen who are in town for too short a season to disturb the desolation of their family mansions."

"The business is not unprofitable," replied F?tis deprecatingly, "and my patrons are among the flower of the aristocracy. But I have an expensive wife."

"What can we expect, my good fellow, when at our age we marry reigning beauties," asked Topsparkle lightly. "Your lady was a dancer at the Opera House, as I am told, and a toast among the bloods who frequent the green-room. Did you think she would transform herself into a Dutch housewife, tuck up her sleeves and peel vegetables in the kitchen, because you chose to marry her?"

"Unhappily she has caught the infection of that accursed house, and plays as deep as a lady of fashion," said F?tis ruefully.

"My good F?tis, a young woman must have some kind of diversion. If she does not gamble, she will play you a worse turn. See how indulgent I am to her ladyship on that score. 'Tis only when her losses become outrageous that I venture a gentle remonstrance. And so your pretty little French wife has learnt the trick of the town, and dreams of spadillo and codille, like a woman of fashion. By the way, I hear Lord Lavendale is in London again. Pray does he ever use your house?"

"No, sir, I have never seen him there. He is not in my set."

"And yet I take it your set is a wild one, and likely to suit his lordship."

"Nay, sir, they tell me Lavendale has sobered down since his return from the Continent, and neither drinks nor plays as deep as he did before he went abroad."

"Is it so? Well, he is a mighty pretty fellow, and a prime favourite with the women. Some one told me the other day that he was in a consumption. You may begin to dress my head. Is that true, d'ye think?"

"The consumption, sir. Nay, I fancy 'tis an idle story got up by his lordship to make him more interesting to the sex. Women love a man who is reported to be dying. I have known men whose lives have been despaired of for ten years at a stretch, and who have wound up by marrying fortunes, having very little but their bad health to recommend them. A fellow who has no other capital may marry a rich widow on the strength of a consumption or a heart complaint."

"I am told Lord Lavendale is looking younger and handsomer than ever," pursued Topsparkle; "but I thought it might be the hectic of disease which imparted a delusive beauty."

"I doubt, sir, the fellow is well enough, and will outlive us all," said F?tis, with a malicious pleasure in blighting his master's hopes.

He finished his work of art upon Topsparkle's countenance, putting in every minute touch as carefully as a miniature painter. He fitted the stately wig upon the bald pate, and then Mr. Topsparkle put his head into the powdering closet for the last sprinkle of mar?chale, and emerged therefrom in all the perfection of artificial grace and court fashion. His coat and waistcoat were marvels of the tailor's and embroideress's art; his cravat was a miracle of Roman point worked by Ursuline nuns in a convent amidst the Apennines; his diamond shoe-buckles were of an exquisite neatness and elegance; his red-heeled shoes set off to perfection the narrow foot and arched instep.

The delicate duties of this elaborate toilet completed, F?tis was free till the evening. Mr. Topsparkle had meaner hirelings who attended to his lesser wants and waited upon him all day long. F?tis was the artist in chief, the high-priest in the temple, and his ministrations were confined to the sacred and secret hours in which youth and good looks were elaborated from age and decay.

To-day F?tis was inwardly impatient to be gone, yet was far too well bred to betray his impatience by the faintest indication. He seemed rather to linger, as if loth to depart, arranged the gold and ivory fittings of the n?cessaire with nicest care, gave a finishing touch to patch and pulvilio boxes, perfume bottles, and tortoiseshell combs, and it was only when Mr. Topsparkle dismissed him that he gave a sliding bow and glided gracefully from the room, as elegant in every detail of his costume as his master, but with the subdued and sober colouring which implied gravity of manners and humility of station.

When he was gone, Mr. Topsparkle rose from the sofa where he had been reclining in an attitude of luxurious repose, and began to pace the room, full of thought.

"I don't like the rascal's manner," he said to himself. "He is too bold, presumes too much upon his usefulness in the present, and" – after a thoughtful pause – "in the past. He has become a horse leech, bleeds me of thousands with an insufferable audacity. Yet, after all, 'tis hardly worth troubling about. The mere amount in itself is scarce worth a thought to a man of my means, though I might endow a bishopric on a less income, and get some credit for my generosity. To maintain a profligate and gamester, a pander to fashionable follies, only because he has the art of laying on a cosmetic and pencilling an eyebrow to a higher degree than anyone else! Yet after all 'tis something to have one's toilet performed skilfully, and a blunderer would put me in a fever every time he touched me. Why should I grudge the fellow his wages? he is as necessary to me as Dubois was to the Duke, and he would accept no lesser recompense than to be prime minister, and have all the threads of state intrigue in his hands. This fellow of mine is an unambitious, innocuous scoundrel. He only preys upon my purse."

He rang for his footman, one of those splendid functionaries being always in attendance in a three-cornered lobby or ante-room outside Mr. Topsparkle's study. This chamber was an oak-panelled well, lighted from a skylight, cold in winter and suffocating in summer; but the lacquey, sitting on a velvet-covered bench with his silken legs stretched out before him, was supposed to enjoy a life of luxurious idleness.

"My chocolate and the papers," ordered Mr. Topsparkle. "Stay, you can put on some logs before you go. 'Tis odiously cold this morning."

He went back to his sofa, which was in front of the fire. The chocolate was brought almost immediately, as if by magic, most of Mr. Topsparkle's desires being divined beforehand and duly prepared for, lest he should complain, like the late French King, that he had "almost waited."

The footman wheeled a little table beside the sofa, and arranged his master's pillows, while a second attendant spirit brought the silver-gilt chocolate service and the fashionable journals, those thin and meagre papers which in the absence of parliamentary debates eked out their scanty public news with much private scandal, announcements of intended marriages that never came off, hints at reported elopements under the thin veil of initials, theatrical criticism, and quotations from some lordling's satiric poem, for in those days almost all lordlings had an itch for satire, and fancied they could write. If the verses appeared anonymously, were fairly metrical and particularly spiteful, they were generally debited to Pope or Lady Mary, and the anonymous lordling went about for a week or two rubbing his hands and chuckling and telling all the town under the seal of secrecy that he was the author of that remarkable lampoon which had just convulsed society.

Mr. Topsparkle sipped his chocolate, and tried to read his papers: but this morning he found himself in no humour for public news – the last letter from the Continent – the last highway robbery in Denmark Street, St. Giles – or even for the more appetising private scandal, about the Lady at Richmond Court who had suddenly retired from society, but was not in a wasting sickness, or the celebrated Duchess, once a famous beauty, whose housemaids had left her in a body because the ducal board wages were two shillings a week under the customary allowance. Mr. Topsparkle's mind was too intently occupied upon his own business to compassionate the Richmond lady or to speculate whether the anonymous duchess was the mighty Sarah of Blenheim, or her mad Grace of Buckinghamshire, both alike notorious for pride and parsimony.

He flung the journals aside with an oath.

"These scribblers are the stupidest scoundrels alive," he muttered, "there is not an ounce of wit in the whole fraternity. O, for the days of Steele and Addison, when one was sure of pleasant reading with one's breakfast! Their trumpery imitators give the outward form of the essay without its inward spirit."

The footman appeared

"A lady is below, sir, who says she will be mightily obliged if you will allow her ten minutes' conversation."

"Pray, who is the lady who calls at such an extraordinary hour, before a gentleman's day has begun?"

"She gave no name, sir."

"Go ask who she is."

The man retired, and returned to say the lady was a stranger to Mr. Topsparkle, and asked an interview as a favour.

"So! That sounds mysterious," said Topsparkle. "Pray, what manner of personage is she? Does she look like a genteel beggar, elderly and shabby, in a greasy black-silk hood and mantle, eh, my man?"

"No, sir, the person is young and handsome. She looks rather like one of the foreign singing-women your honour is pleased to patronise."

"Singing women! Why, do you know, block-head, that those singing women, as you call them, are the beloved of princes, and have the salaries of prime ministers? Singing women, forsooth! And this stranger is young and pretty, you say?"

"Yes, sir."

"And a foreigner?"

"I am sure of that, sir."

"You can show her up."

Mr. Topsparkle composed himself into an attitude on the sofa, like Louis XIV. Flatterers told him that he resembled that superb monarch, as he did in the fact that much of his dignity and splendour was derived from costume. Seated upon his cut velvet sofa, with the skirts of his coat spreading wide, his jewelled rapier at his side, he had certainly an almost regal air, calculated to overawe a nameless foreign woman, who was in all probability an adventuress whose audacity was her only passport to that stately mansion.

The footman threw open the door, and announced "A lady to wait upon your honour," whereupon there came tripping in a plump little woman in a quilted satin petticoat, and short tucked-up gown, fluttering all over with cherry-coloured bows, and with a cherry-coloured hood setting off but in no wise concealing a mass of unpowdered black hair which clustered about a low forehead, and agreeably shaded the brightest black eyes Mr. Topsparkle had seen for a long time, eyes brimming with coquetry, and not without a lurking craftiness of expression which set the admiring gentleman upon his guard.

The lady's nose was retrouss?, her lips were too thick for beauty, but of a carmine tint which was accentuated by the artful adjustment of patches; the lady's complexion was not quite so artificial as Mr. Topsparkle's, but it revealed an acquaintance with some of the highest branches of the face-painting art. The lady in general effect looked about three-and-twenty. Mr. Topsparkle put her down for eight-and-thirty.

"My dear madam, I beg you to be seated," said Topsparkle, waving his attenuated hand graciously towards a chair, and admiring his rings and point lace ruffle as he did so. "You honour me vastly by this pleasant impromptu visit. May I offer you a cup of chocolate?"

"You are too condescending, sir. I took my chocolate before I left home," replied the cherry-coloured intruder, sinking gracefully into a chair, and rounding her plump white arms as she adjusted her cherry satin muff. "I venture to call at this early hour, before the great world has begun to besiege your lordship's door, because I have an appeal to make to your generous heart."

"I thought as much," said Mr. Topsparkle within himself. "This cherry-coloured personage has come to beg."

He was so used to be begged of that his heart had hardened itself, was adamant against all such petitions; but he did not object when the mendicant was a pretty woman, with whom he might indulge in half an hour's innocent persiflage at the cost of a few guineas.

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