Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3
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"Dearest madam, I am all ears," he murmured languidly.
"Sir, you behold a deeply-injured woman," said the lady, with a tragic air, and the announcement sounded like the beginning of a very long story.
"Say not so, I beseech you, madam; the character is so odiously common," protested Mr. Topsparkle. "That piquant countenance, those brilliant eyes, bespeak originality. Such a face is designed only to injure, the mission of such beauty is to destroy."
"Ah, sir, there was a day when I knew my power and used it; you who are a frequenter of the opera may perhaps remember the name and person of Coralie Legrand."
"Your person, madam, once seen can never be forgotten; and if I had heard you sing in the opera – "
"Sir, I was a dancer, not a singer," exclaimed the lady, with a wounded air.
"Was, madam; nay, speak not of yourself in the past, 'Fuit Ilium;' say not that such charms are for ever withdrawn from the public eye – that the flame of the candles no longer shines upon that beauty – that some selfish churl, some avaricious hoarder of loveliness, has appropriated so fair a being for his own exclusive property."
"It is true, sir. I who had once half the town at my feet am now mewed up in a stuffy parlour, and scolded if I venture to exchange half a dozen sentences with some aristocratic pretty fellow, or to venture a guinea or so at ombre."
"Soho!" exclaimed Topsparkle, becoming suddenly intent. "Your name, madam, your name, I entreat."
"I was Coralie Legrand, leading dancer in the first division of the ballet at the Royal Haymarket Opera. I am Mrs. F?tis, your valet's ill-used wife; and it is on my husband's account that I venture – "
"Madam, you have the strongest claim upon me. F?tis is an old servant – "
"He is an old servant. If I had known how old before I married him – "
"O, madam, he is not a septuagenarian; F?tis is my junior."
"He looks your lordship's senior; but it is not so much his age I object to. I would forgive him for being ninety if he were only indulgent and generous."
"Is he capable of meanness to so bewitching a wife?"
"Yes, sir, he is horribly stingy. At this hour I am being dunned to death by my next-door neighbour, to whom I owe a paltry fifteen guineas. She is Madame Furbelow, the Court milliner, a person of some ton, and she and I were dearest friends till this money trouble parted us – but 'tis shocking not to be able to pay one's debts of honour. Yet, to my certain knowledge, F?tis has lost hundreds in a single night to some of his fine gentlemen customers, who fool him by pretending to treat him as a friend. There was the wild Duke of Wharton, for instance, and his club of intriguers, the Schemers they called themselves, a committee of gallants, who used to hold their meetings at our house and plot mischief against poor innocent women – how to carry off silly heiresses and to conquer rich widows. His Grace had a bank at faro, and that foolish husband of mine was a frequent loser."
"He must have won sometimes, madam.He must have had his lucky nights, like the rest of us."
"Then he kept his good luck to himself, sir; I never heard of it. He said he ought to have the devil's luck in love since he was so cursedly unlucky at cards and dice. And then, though he has the effrontery to deny me a few guineas, I have heard him boast that he has claims upon you which you must always honour, that your purse was a golden stream which could never run dry."
"O, he has boasted, has he, the poor foolish fellow, boasted of his power over me?"
"Nay, sir, I did not presume to mention the word 'power.' He has bragged of his services to you – long and faithful services such as no other man in Europe would have rendered to a master. He has curious fits at times – but I did not come hither to betray his secrets, poor creature; I came in the hope that your lordship, who has been ever so bountiful to my husband, could perhaps grant some small pecuniary favour to a poor woman in distress – "
"Madam, my purse is at your service," exclaimed Topsparkle eagerly, taking out a well-filled pocket-book, and selecting a couple of bank-notes. "Here is a trifling sum which will enable you to pay your neighbour and leave a surplus for some future transactions of the same kind, or for another hood like that which becomes you so admirably. Pray, never hesitate to call upon me for any petty assistance of this kind."
The fair Coralie cooed her thanks with a gentle murmuring as of a wood-pigeon, and ventured so far as to imprint her rosy lips upon her benefactor's lean hand, a kiss which Mr. Topsparkle received as a compliment, although he stealthily wiped his hand with his cambric handkerchief the next minute.
"And you say that my poor Louis is odd at times," he said caressingly. "I hope he does not drink?"
"I think not, sir. There is a terrible deal of drinking goes on in our house, but I doubt if my husband is ever the worse for liquor. But he has strange fits sometimes of a night, cannot sleep, or sleeps but for five minutes at a time, and then starts up from his bed and walks up and down the room, saying that he is haunted, haunted by the souls he has ruined. He says there is a ghost in thishouse."
"Indeed," cried Mr. Topsparkle, looking around him, and assuming his airiest manner, "and yet I do not fancy this looks like the habitation of ghosts. There are no cobwebs festooning the walls, no bats and owls flitting across the ceiling, no dirt, decay, or desolation."
"Nay, sir, it is a splendid house, full of beautifulest things. Yet I have heard my husband on those sleepless nights of his when he has talked more to himself than to me – I have heard him say that he has rushed out of this house at twilight with the cold sweat pouring down his face."
"Then, my dear lady, I fear there is no room to doubt that your husband has taken to drink. The symptoms you depict are precisely those of a drunkard's disease known to all medical men. The sleepless nights – the imagination of ghosts and phantoms – the cold sweat – these are as common and as plain as the pustules that denote smallpox or the spots that indicate scarlet fever. If your husband does not drink openly, be assured he drinks deep in secret. You had better get him away from London. What say you to returning to your native country?"
Mrs. F?tis shrugged her shoulders with a doubtful air. She often talked rapturously of La Belle France, raved of her sunny south, that gracious city of P?rigord where she had been born and reared to the age of fifteen. Yet for all the common purposes of life she had liked London a great deal better.
"There is nothing I should love so much," she protested. "But 'twould be madness to leave a house in which we have sunk all our means and our labour with the hope of getting our reward by a competence in our old age. Indeed, sir, we could not afford to leave Poland Street."
"Not if you were amply provided for elsewhere?" asked Topsparkle.
"Ah, sir, to be provided for by others – by a kind of pension from a wealthy benefactor for instance," looking at him searchingly, as if she were measuring his capacity for generosity, "that is all very well for poor-spirited people – the English lower classes have no pride. But my husband and I are of an independent mind. We would rather have our liberty even in poverty than be pensioners upon any one's bounty, which might be withdrawn at a day's notice."
"Nay, a pension of that kind to be useful must be assured to you – something in the way of an annuity in the public funds, for instance – dependent on your own lives, and not upon any one else's frail thread of existence."
Mrs. F?tis looked interested, and almost convinced.
"'Twould be a delicious life and free from care; but F?tis has a passion for London, and all whom I love in my own country are dead. It would be but to go back to their graves."
Mr. Topsparkle said no more. He did not want to appear over anxious to banish his old servant, yet the man's tone to-day and the wife's revelations had intensified a feeling he had entertained for a long time, a feeling that the hour had come when it would be very agreeable to get rid of his ?me damn?e. He would suffer considerable inconvenience undoubtedly from the loss of a valet who so thoroughly understood his complexion; but anything was better than the everlasting vicinity of a servant who knew too much.
He dismissed the Frenchwoman with a compliment, escorted her to the ante-room, and kissed her hand with a finished courtesy before he committed her to the care of the footman, and then he went back to his sofa, warmed his feet at the log-fire, and gave himself up to a serious thought.
"The man is getting dangerous," he thought; "he always was a creature of excitable temper, and now he has drunk or gamed himself into a kind of mental fever, from which perhaps the next stage would be madness. Better so! Nobody believes a madman. And if he were to make any revelations about the remote past, who is there to confirm him? No one. The old Venetian must long since have been numbered with his ancestors. The apothecary disappeared thirty years ago and left no trace behind him. If it had not been for that damnable scandal at the time, set on foot and fostered by that villain Churchill, I could laugh any accusation of F?tis to scorn; but there are a few of my contemporaries malicious enough to have long memories, and I would do much to avoid a revival of that hellish outcry which drove me from the hustings and from the country. I have not forgotten. That hateful scene at Brentford is as vivid in my mind as if it had happened yesterday. And he has begun to talk, to get up in the middle of the night and to rave about being haunted. And this loquacious wife of his will repeat his ravings to all her gossips. Yes, there is danger, were it ever so slight. A man of my importance is a target for every venomous arrow. F?tis, you must be silenced."
He rose and paced the room slowly, meditating upon the position in all its aspects, and with all its possibilities of evil. There was his wife, of whose loyalty he was ever doubtful. What if that ancient scandal were to reach her ears? Would she not use it as a weapon against him, ally herself with her old lover for his destruction? The very thought made that magnificent periwig of his tremulous as if with a palsy.
The man must be got out of the way somehow. If he did not snap at the bait of a handsome annuity and accept retirement to his native land, there might be other means, nearer, shorter, of disposing of him.
Yes, there was one way, short and easy, as it seemed to Mr. Topsparkle; a way of making Louis F?tis safe for ever: but that way would leave the wife at liberty – and she might be dangerous.
"No, she can be bought," thought Topsparkle, "she is vain and empty-headed. I can manage her – but he – I have been an idiot to keep him about me so long – and yet he has been useful. I have leant upon him – never knowing when I might need his help. I believed in his discretion, thought him secret as the grave; and now he has begun to blab to that silly wife of his, my confidence is destroyed for ever – all sense of security is gone."