Mary Braddon.

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"Was, madam; nay, speak not of yourself in the past, 'Fuit Ilium;' say not that such charms are for ever withdrawn from the public eye – that the flame of the candles no longer shines upon that beauty – that some selfish churl, some avaricious hoarder of loveliness, has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."

CHAPTER IV
"SMITE HIS HARD HEART, AND SHAKE HIS REPTILE SOUL."

With Vincenti's narrative fresh in his mind, and with a very lively recollection of Mr. Philter's story, Lord Lavendale had a keen desire to see something more of the French valet – or private secretary – who had been so diabolically subservient to his master's jealousy and revenge. There was of course always the possibility that Vincenti's theory and the floating suspicions of the neighbourhood might be without substantial foundation. People have had a knack of attributing all sudden or mysterious deaths to poison ever since the days of Sir Thomas Overbury – nor could Lord Essex cut his throat with his own razor without giving rise to an accusation of murder. In any case Lavendale was determined to see something more of the supposed tool, and to study him on his own ground, at the house in Poland Street.

It was very easy for him to get invited to supper at this favourite rendezvous. The Schemers' Club was extinct, and almost forgotten. It had expired with Wharton's disgrace and exile; and Wharton himself, the brilliant orator, the unscrupulous turncoat, the prodigal and profligate, was a wanderer in the wilds of Catalonia, ruined, broken, and dying.

There were other bloods of the same kidney, lesser lights in the firmament of pleasure, and one of these, Sir Randal Hetherington, invited Lavendale to a card party at the house in Poland Street.

"'Tis a snug retreat, where a gentleman can receive his friends without being stared at by the chance mob of a chocolate house; 'tis more secluded even than a club, and has the advantage of admitting feminine company," he said; "and F?tis has one of the best cooks in London. A very clever fellow, F?tis, monstrously superior to his station – knows more about foreign politics than Peterborough or Horace Walpole; I have sometimes suspected that he is one of old Fleury's spies."

Lavendale went, supped, and drank deep of the champagne which Mr. F?tis supplied to his patrons at a guinea a bottle, but not so deep as to lose a word that was spoken or a single indication which could enlighten him as to the character of his host, who waited upon the little party in person during supper, and afterwards sat down to cards with them, received upon a footing which was more familiar than friendship, something after the kind of condescending jocose intimacy which obtained between the princes and court jesters of old.

F?tis under such conditions was an altogether different person from Mr. Topsparkle's sedate and silent valet. He had a Rabelaisian wit which kept the table in a roar, had a fund of French anecdotes, short, sharp, and pungent, ?propos to every turn of the conversation. He had been carefully and piously educated in his early youth, and out of the theological learning acquired in those days was able to furnish an inexhaustible flow of blasphemy.

"I never knew a man who could get such a fine effect out of so small a knowledge of the Scriptures," said young Spencer, the Duchess of Marlborough's prodigal grandson, and one of the finest gentlemen upon town. He and his elder brother were both patrons of the house in Poland Street, supped there with a confidential friend or two on a bladebone of mutton and a magnum of Burgundy, after the play, as the prologue to a quiet hour at hazard, or gave a choice banquet in the French style to a bevy of stage beauties.

Lavendale marked the change in F?tis from the grave and high-bred servant to the audacious jester, and saw in it the clue to the man's character – a creature of various masks, who could fit his manners to the occasion; but he saw also that the man was of a highly nervous excitable temperament, and that a long life of iniquity had wasted his physical forces to extreme attenuation.

"He is of a more spiritual type than his master, in spite of that gentleman's various accomplishments," thought Lavendale, "and with him the flame in the lamp burns brighter, the oil that feeds it wastes faster. Not a man to stand a violent shock of any kind, I doubt."

As the night wore on, and the party grew more riotous, and less observant of one another, Lavendale took an opportunity to talk apart with F?tis.

"I think we have met before, Monsieur F?tis?" he said.

"Yes, my lord, frequently. I was at Ringwood Abbey in attendance upon Mr. Topsparkle while you were visiting there last winter."

"True, 'twas there I saw you, slipping past me in a corridor with a most incomparable modesty. I dreamt not what a roguish wit was hidden under so subdued and sober an aspect."

"Your lordship must consider that in Mr. Topsparkle's house I am in some measure a servant. Here I am on my own ground, and these gentlemen are good enough to indulge all my follies."

"Ringwood Abbey did not give me my first knowledge of you," said Lavendale, watching the crafty face, as F?tis trifled with a silver-gilt snuffbox. "Your renown had reached me before then. I heard of you some years ago when I was travelling in Italy, where you are still remembered."

"Indeed, my lord! It is ten years since I was in Italy."

"These memories were of an older date. They went back to the last century, when you were a youth and a student, an adept in chemistry, I am told."

F?tis started, and turned towards his interlocutor with an ashen countenance, the snuffbox shaking in his tremulous hand.

"Who told you that?" he asked; "who remembers me so long?"

"An old Venetian who happened to hear of you at that time, and who is one of my most intimate friends."

"Will your lordship tell me his name?"

He had recovered himself by this time, and had closed the snuffbox, not without spilling a slight shower of the scented mixture upon his olive-silk knee-breeches.

"Borromeo."

F?tis shook his head.

"I have no memory of such a person. Yes, my lord, I was in Venice forty years ago as a travelling secretary to Mr. Topsparkle. We were both young men in those days, and I was more of a student than I have ever been since that time. The world soon drew me from the study of science; but at three-and-twenty I was full of enthusiasm, hoped to discover the philosopher's stone, to make myself as powerful as Dr. Faustus. Idle dreams, my lord. The world is wiser nowadays. I am told that Sir Richard Steele was the last person who ever cultivated the necromantic arts in England, and that he set up his laboratory at Islington. But even he learnt to laugh at his own delusions."

"But there are more practical studies for the chemist than the arts of Paracelsus or the Geber Arabs," said Lavendale lightly. "My informant told me that you had the repute of being a great toxicologist."

F?tis looked at the speaker intently, but did not answer for the moment. He seemed sunk in a reverie.

"Borromeo," he muttered to himself; "I know no such name."

"F?tis, the deal is yours," cried Mr. Spencer, and F?tis took the cards with a mechanical air, and went on with the game.

Lavendale was satisfied. He had gone far enough for a first attack, and he had seen enough in the manner and expression of the man to assure him that Vincenti's story was true.

"And the woman I love is married to a secret assassin!" he thought despairingly, "and when I might have plucked her out of that hell yonder, I drew back and left her there at peril of her life! If he was capable of murdering that early victim of his forty years ago, at what crime would he stop now, hardened and emboldened by a long life of wickedness? She has but to go a step too far – provoke his jealousy beyond endurance – and Mr. F?tis and his black art may be invoked again. Fool that I was to leave her in his power, and yet – " And yet he felt that the alternative might have been worse – to ally her to a fast vanishing life, to leave her with a dishonoured name, ruined in worldly circumstance, widowed in heart without a widow's title of honour, desolate, unpitied, to wander about the Continent in fourth-rate society – an outcast – as the Duke of Wharton was wandering now. No, that would have been a moral murder, worse than the hazard of Topsparkle's revenge. Again, there was always this to be considered – that, although a nameless foreign mistress might be murdered almost with impunity, it would be a very perilous matter to make away with an English lady of rank.

"No, she is safe," reflected Lavendale, "and if she is unhappy she wears her rue with a difference – everybody thinks her the gayest and luckiest of women. I will not waste my pity upon her."

Before the entertainment was over, his lordship and Mr. F?tis were on the friendliest terms.

"You must visit me in Bloomsbury Square, Monsieur F?tis," said Lavendale. "The house is not without interest, for 'twas a chosen resort of the Whigs in Godolphin's time, and it has seen some curious meetings at the beginning of the late king's reign."

"I shall be proud to wait upon your lordship."

"Say you so; then name your evening to sup with me. Shall it be to-morrow?"

"If your lordship has no better occupation."

"I could have none better. Your mind is a treasury of interesting facts, Mr. F?tis, and your conversation is the best entertainment I can imagine for an idle hour after supper. I want to talk with you of my poor friend Wharton. He and I have been companions in many a revel in London and Vienna; and 'tis sad to think that fiery comet should have plunged so fast into space and darkness, a burnt-out shell."

"His grace was one of my most generous friends and patrons, and I mourn for him as for a son," said F?tis.

Lavendale went home in a thoughtful mood, and was glad to find lights burning in Durnford's study, and that his friend was sitting up late to finish his newspaper work, after a long afternoon at the House. Herrick and Irene were still his lordship's guests, and he was very loth to part with them; but they had found a cottage at Battersea, with a garden sloping to the river, not far from that big house of Lord St. John's which dominated the village. The cottage was in a wretched state of repair, and a month or more must elapse before it could be made habitable; but to Herrick and Irene there was rapture in the idea of this modest home which was to be all their own, maintained by the husband's industry, brightened and beautified by the young wife's care.



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