Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3

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Mdlle. Latour was in possession already, living in the one habitable room, and superintending the repairs and improvements. She was installed as Irene's housekeeper, with a stout servant-girl for the rest of the establishment.

Lavendale was vexed that his friend should not be content to share his home in London and Surrey.

"'Tis churlish of you to go and build your own nest four miles off, and leave me to the desolation of empty rooms and echoing passages," he complained. "Pray, have I been over-officious in my hospitality, or intrusive of my company? Have I ever disturbed your billing and cooing?"

"You have done all that hospitality and delicatest feeling could do to make us happy, dear Jack," returned Herrick warmly; "but it is not well for any man to set up his Lares and Penates under another man's roof. The sense of independence, the burden of bread-winning, is the one attribute of manhood which no man dare surrender, least of all when he has a dear soul dependent upon him. What would the world say, d'ye think, were my wife and I to riot in luxury at your cost?"

"Damn the world!"

"Ay, Jack, I could afford to say that while I was a bachelor; but for my wife's sake I must truckle to the town, and do nothing to forfeit the most pragmatical person's good opinion. Do you think I shall love you less when I am living at Battersea?"

"I know that I shall have less of your society – that when my dark hour is on there will be no one to cheer me."

"Order your horse and ride to Battersea whenever the dark hour comes. The ride will do you good, and you shall have a loving welcome and a decent meal, come when you may. We shall always keep open house for you."

"And I shall visit you so often as to make you heartily sick of me. Good God, Herrick, how I envy you your happiness, your future with its fulness of hope; while for me there is nothing – "

Herrick clasped his hand without a word; that honest affectionate grasp was all the comfort he could offer to one whose wasted life and broken constitution left scarce the possibility of hope on this side of the grave; and to suggest spiritual consolation at all times and seasons was not in Herrick's line. He knew too well that no man could be preached into piety.

Lavendale went straight to the room where his friend was at work, and told him of his evening in Poland Street, and of his invitation to F?tis. He had told Herrick all the facts in Vincenti's narrative, and the two had discussed the story together. Herrick was keenly interested, and it was partly on his suggestion that Lavendale had made himself familiar with the F?tis establishment.

"Let him come to-morrow night by all means," he said eagerly, "and if we lay our heads together meanwhile, we might, I think, with Irene's help, frighten the wretch into a confession."

"What, after forty years of secrecy, after having so hardened himself in crime!"

"Well, say an admission of some kind – a full confession were perhaps too much to expect.

Nothing but the immediate prospect of a hempen necklace would extort that. And yet it has been found that the most hardened villain has sometimes a vein of superstition, an abject terror of that spirit world whose judgments and punishments he has hazarded so audaciously."

"With Irene's help, you said. What has Irene to do with the matter?"

"Have you forgotten that picture in Mr. Topsparkle's cabinet – that Italian head which might have been intended for my wife's portrait, so vivid was the likeness?"

"Yes, I remember it perfectly."

"I have a notion that I can play upon F?tis's feelings by means of that resemblance."

"But the likeness will not be new to him. He saw your wife at Ringwood Abbey."

"Yes; but the circumstances under which he shall see her again will be new, and his own feelings will be new. Leave me to work out my scheme after my own fashion, Jack. All you have to do is to ply your guest with the strongest liquor he will swallow, and then watch and listen."


F?tis repaired to Bloomsbury Square next evening, not altogether with the innocent simplicity of the lamb that goes to the slaughter, but with the caution of an astute mind which perceives a snare in every civility, and suspects a trap in every invitation.

"Why was the man so civil, and what does he know about my life in Venice forty years ago?"

Those were the questions which had agitated the Frenchman's mind during that brief remnant of the night which he had spent in restless wakefulness, and they had proved unanswerable. Caution might have prompted him to avoid Lord Lavendale's house and turn a deaf ear to that nobleman's civilities; but anxiety made him curious, and fear of the future made him bold in the present. He wanted to know the extent of Lavendale's knowledge of his own past life, and to that end he accepted his lordship's invitation. His vanity again, which was large, made him suppose himself a match for Lord Lavendale in any intellectual encounter.

"If he has courted me in order to pump me for the secrets of the past, he will find he has wasted his trouble," thought Mr. F?tis, as his chair was being carried through perilous St. Giles's.

It was eleven o'clock, a late hour for supper; but Lord Lavendale had been at the House of Lords, and had dined with some of his brother peers after the debate. Supper had been prepared in the late lord's private sitting-room, a small triangular parlour at the end of a stately suite of reception-rooms, a room which had been rarely used of late, but which Herrick, for some unexplained motive, had selected as the scene of this evening's entertainment. It was altogether the cosiest room in the house, and with a heaped-up fire of sea-coal and oak logs in the wide grate, a small round table laid for supper, a pair of silver candelabra holding a dozen wax candles, and a side table loaded with all the materials for a jovial evening, the little triangular parlour looked the very picture of comfort.

The brightness and warmth of the room had an agreeable effect upon Mr. F?tis, who had been chilled and depressed for the moment by those cold and empty apartments through which a footman had ushered him by the light of a single candle, borne aloft as the man stalked in advance with a ghostlike air.

"Let me perish, my lord, but your empty saloons have given me the shivers," said F?tis, as he warmed his spindleshanks at the blaze; "your tall footman looked like a spectre."

"Come, come, Mr. F?tis, you are not the kind of man to believe in apparitions," said Durnford gaily. "I think we are all materialists here, are we not? We accept nothing for truth that cannot be mathematically demonstrated."

Lavendale looked grave. "It is not every sceptic who is free from superstition," he said. "There are men who cannot believe in a Personal God, and who will yet tremble at a shadow. I have known an infidel who would scoff at the Gospel, stand up for the story of the Witch of Endor."

Mr. F?tis shrugged his shoulders, and did not pursue the argument.

The butler and a pair of footmen brought in the hot dishes, and opened a magnum of champagne, and supper began in serious earnest – one of those exquisite suppers for which Lavendale had been renowned in his wild youth, when he had vied with the Regent Philip in the studied extravagance of his table.

F?tis was a connoisseur, and his secret anxieties did not hinder him from doing ample justice to the meal. Lavendale pretended to eat, but scarcely tasted the delicacies which were set before him. Durnford ate hurriedly, hardly knowing what he was eating, full of nervous anticipation. F?tis was the only one of the party who could calmly appreciate the talents of the chef and the aroma of the wines.

He refused champagne altogether, as a liquor only fit for boyhood and senility; but he highly approved the Burgundy, which had been laid down by the last Lord Lavendale, and had been maturing for nearly fifteen years.

"There is no wine like that which comes from the C?te d'Or," he said; and then, in a somewhat cracked voice, he chirruped a stanza of Villon's "Ballade joyeuse des Taverniers."

"I did not see your lordship at the opera to-night," he said presently.

"No, I was at a less agreeable entertainment. I was at the House of Lords. Was the Opera House full?"

"A galaxy of fashion and beauty; but I think that lady whom I may call my mistress still bears the palm. There was not a woman among them to outshine Mr. Topsparkle's wife."

"He has reason to be proud of such a wife," said Lavendale lightly. "Fill your glass, I beg, Mr. F?tis, or I shall doubt your liking for that wine. She is not his first wife, by the way – nor his first beautiful wife. My Italian friend told me that Topsparkle carried off one of the handsomest women in Venice when he left that city. What became of the lady?"

"She died young."

"In Italy?"

"No, my lord. Mr. Topsparkle brought the young lady to London, and she died of colic – or in all likelihood of the plague – at his house in Soho Square."

"Was she his wife?"

"That question, my lord, rests with Mr. Topsparkle's conscience. If he was married to the young lady I was not admitted to his confidence. I was not present at the marriage; but she was always spoken of in the household as Mrs. Topsparkle; and I, as a servant, had no right to question her claim to that title."

"I have heard that there was something mysterious about her death; something that aroused suspicion in the neighbourhood."

"O, my lord, all sudden deaths are accounted suspicious nowadays. There has not been a prince of the blood royal, or a nobleman that has died in France during the last thirty years, but there has been talk of poison, although the disease has been as obvious in its characteristics as disease can ever be. Smallpox, ague, putrid fever, have one and all been put down to the late Regent and his accomplices; whereas that poor good-natured prince would scarce have trodden willingly upon a worm. Never was a kinder creature, yet his heart was wrung many a time by the vilest accusations circulated with an insolent openness. As for Mrs. Topsparkle's death, I could give you all the medical details, were you curious enough to listen to them."

His manner was serenity itself; and it was difficult to suppose that guilt could lurk under so placid an aspect, so easy a bearing. Yet last night the first allusion to his life in Venice had blanched his cheek and made his hand tremulous. The difference was that he had then been unprepared, while to-night he was fortified against every shock, and had schooled himself to answer every question.

"The suspicion was doubtless unfounded," said Lavendale, "but I have heard that the slander banished Mr. Topsparkle from this country."

"My master was over sensitive regarding the lampoons and libels which are rife at all elections, and which were directed against him with peculiar venom on account of his wealth, his youth, and his accomplishments," answered F?tis. "He left England in a fit of disgust after the Brentford Election; and as a Continental life had always suited his humour, he lived abroad for thirty years, with but occasional visits to his native country."

"You stand by him with a truly loyal spirit, which is worthy of all admiration," said Durnford.

"'Twere hard if there were no fidelity between master and servant after forty years' service. I know Mr. Topsparkle's failings, and can compassionate him where he is weak and erring. He is a man of a jealous temper, and did not live altogether happily with the Italian lady of whom you were talking. It was known in the household that they had quarrelled – that there had been tears, scenes, recrimination on his side, distress on hers. This knowledge was the only ground for suspicion among the busy-bodies of the neighbourhood when the young lady died after an illness of two days. The fools did not take the trouble to know or to consider that she had never properly recovered her health after the birth of her infant."

"What became of that infant, Mr. F?tis?"

"She was educated abroad, and turned out badly. I can tell you nothing about her," replied F?tis, with an impatient shrug. "I had nothing to do with her bringing up, nor do I know her fate. I have never tried to pry into my master's secrets."

"But surely you, who were so much more than a servant, almost a brother, must have known everything," urged Lavendale; and then with a lighter air he added, "but 'tis inhospitable to plague you about the history of the past when we are met here to enjoy the present. What say you to a shake of the dice-box to raise our spirits?"

F?tis assented eagerly, with all a gamester's gusto, and he and Lord Lavendale spent nearly an hour at hazard, until the Frenchman had a pile of guineas lying in front of him, and in the pleasure of winning had drank deep of that fine old Burgundy which he had praised at supper. He played with a feverish excitement which Lavendale had remarked in his manner on the previous evening; but to-night the fiery energies of the man were intensified. He was like a man possessed by devils.

When Lavendale grew weary of losing, and would have left off, the Frenchman urged him to go on a little longer.

"I am generally an unlucky wretch: you will have your revenge presently," he said eagerly, and after a few more turns F?tis began to lose.

Lavendale swept up the dice and flung them into a drawer.

"It would have been unmannerly to leave off while you were winning, Monsieur F?tis," he said; "but now the luck is turned against you, I will own I have had enough. What can be this passion of cards which possesses some of us to grovel for a long night over the board of green cloth? I have never known the gambler's fiercest fever, though I have played deep enough in my time; and now my soul soon sickens of the stale diversion."

The Frenchman pocketed his pile of gold with a mechanical air, and looked about him like a man awakened suddenly from a feverish dream. His hands trembled a little as he adjusted his wig, which had been pushed awry in his excitement. His eyes had a glassy brightness, and it was obvious that he was the worse for liquor.

"Good-night, my lord; Mr. Durnford, your servant. I fear I have kept your lordship up very late. If we have trenched somewhat on the dead of night – "

"Monsieur F?tis, the pleasure of your society has been an ample recompense for the loss of slumber," said Lavendale. "My chairmen shall take you home. They have been told to wait for you."

"Indeed, your lordship is too considerate."

"The rest of my people have gone to bed, I believe; Durnford, will you light Monsieur F?tis to the hall?"

Herrick took a candle from a side table and led the way through the empty rooms, cold and dark and unspeakably dismal after the light and warmth of that cosy parlour in which the three men had supped. The atmosphere struck a chill to the soul of F?tis as he entered the first of those disused reception-rooms. Herrick's one candle shed but a faint gleam of light, which served only to accentuate the gloom. Gigantic shadows, strange forms of vague blackness, like the monstrous inhabitants of some mysterious underworld, seemed to emerge out of the corners and creep towards F?tis – dragon-like monsters, with spreading pinions and eagle claws. They were but the shadow-forms of incipient delirium tremens; but to him who beheld them they were unspeakably horrible.

Yet these were as nothing to that which came afterwards.

He crept with a curious cat-like gait across the room, shrinking from side to side to avoid the clutch of those shadowy claws, to avoid being caught up and enfolded for ever beneath those dark pinions, but on the threshold of the next room he gave a wild yell of agony, and fell on his knees, grovelling, the powdered wig pushed from his bald head by those nerveless hands of his, and drops of cold sweat breaking out upon his wrinkled forehead.

At the further end of the room, luminous in the faint rays of a lamp, he saw a shadow in a long white garment, a pale face, and dark eyes gazing upon him with a solemn stillness, a pale immovable countenance, like that of the dead.

"Spare me! spare me!" he cried. "O, pale, sad victim, have I not atoned? Haunt me no more, poor murdered wretch, betrayed, betrayed, betrayed at every turn! Thy cup of sorrow was full, but O, forgive thy much more wretched murderer! Pity, and pardon!"

The words came in short gasps – uttered in a shrill treble that was almost a scream. They had a sound like the cry of a tortured animal – seemed hardly human to those who heard them. He held his hands before his eyes, clasped convulsively over the eyeballs to shut out the vision that appalled him; and then gradually he collapsed altogether, and sank fainting on the threshold.

When consciousness returned he was seated in front of an open window, the cool night air blowing in upon him, sharp with the breath of late autumn.

"Where am I?" he faltered.

"You are with those who have judged and condemned you," answered Lavendale solemnly. "Murderer!"

"Who dares call me by that name?"

"I, Lavendale. My friend here, Durnford, is witness with me of your guilty terror. You have seen the ghost of her whom you murdered, or helped to murder. You have seen the ghost of your innocent victim, Margharita Vincenti."

"It was Topsparkle's crime. I was but the assistant and tool. The guilt was his. I was only a faithful servant."

"I doubt you were the inspirer of most of his iniquities at that time," said Lavendale. "It was your knowledge of poisons which put him in the way of accommodating his sated love and gratifying his revenge at one stroke. It is only the dead who do not come back."

That last gust of October wind did its work. F?tis rose to his feet with his nerves restored, and faced his accuser with an easy insolence.

"Your lordship's wine has been too strong for my poor brain," he said lightly, "and I fear I have troubled you with one of my raving fits. My good little wife will tell you that I am subject to a kind of brain fever after anything in the way of a debauch. Your lordship should not have tempted me to so far exceed my usual two bottles. Pray, Mr. Durnford, be so good as to show me to the hall. I shall not trouble your lordship's chairmen. The walk home will steady my poor head. Your lordship's most humble and deeply obliged servant."

He gave a low bow, a succession of bows rather, with which he bent and wriggled himself out of Lord Lavendale's presence, in a series of serpentine curves.

Lavendale made as if he would have sprung at him, longing to clutch at that wizened throat and pin the secret murderer to the floor, to imprison him for the rest of the night, and deliver him over to the officers of justice in the morning; but Durnford laid a warning hand upon his shoulder.

"Let him go," he whispered. "There is no evidence against him yet."

Lavendale submitted, and Durnford led the way to the hall, and saw Mr. F?tis out of doors with supreme courtesy. F?tis flung a couple of crowns to the sleepy chairmen as he passed out.

"Get to your beds, my good fellows," he said. "My legs are steady enough to carry me home, in spite of your master's Burgundy."

"Why did you not help me to detain him?" asked Lavendale, when Durnford rejoined him in the wainscoted parlour. "What can justice want more than the wretch's own confession of his guilt?"

"Justice – as represented by a Bow Street magistrate – would want a great deal more evidence than the incoherent ravings of a drunkard, repeated at second hand. Our moral certainty that F?tis poisoned your old Venetian's granddaughter will not hang him, any more than the suspicions of the neighbours and the apothecary forty years ago."

"Yet I think your little play succeeded, and that the craven hound revealed himself clearly enough at sight of your poor pale wife, scared to death at the part she had to act, and looking every inch a ghost. Neither you nor I can ever doubt that he and Topsparkle were accomplices in a villainous murder. A pleasant reflection for one who loves Topsparkle's wife, and might have run away with her, yet chose to play the moralist and leave her in a murderer's clutches."

"'Twould have been a worse murder to slay her honour, as you would have done. She is safe enough with her wicked old husband, guarded and fenced round by society. Lady Judith is a personage. Topsparkle trembles at her frown."

"Yes, as the devils are said to tremble before the Eternal; but his heart may rebel against her all the same, torn by jealous fury. To know himself old, effete, a mere simulacrum of humanity, and to see her surrounded by all the bucks and bloods of the town, idolising and pursuing her: could the infernal powers in Tartarus invent a more horrible agony for a worn-out old profligate? And when once a man has got his hand at poisoning, how easy the art! See how often my Lord This or my Lady That is hustled into the family vault after a three days' illness – a fever, a putrid sore-throat, the Lord knows what! Two or three doses of arsenic or antimony, and the trick is done. 'Putrid fever,' says the physician. 'Your house is unhealthy, Mr. Topsparkle. I have heard your first wife died of the same kind of malady. You should move further to the West; the new houses in Cavendish Square are almost in the country. Here you are too near to Newgate and the Compter. The foul odours of the gaol-birds are blown in at your windows by every east wind.' Do you think Lady Judith's untimely death would be more than a nine days' wonder, happen when it might?"

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