Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3



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"I think you should concern yourself less about her, dear Jack, for your own peace of mind."

"That was shattered long ago, friend. It is gone irrevocably, shivered, smashed, annihilated, like that glass goblet which was once the luck of Eden Hall. O, that Topsparkle is a damned villain! Could I but see him and his accomplice at the Old Bailey, I would answer the dread summons cheerfully. But to die and leave those two behind, and to leave her in their power!"

"God grant that you may outlive those ancient sinners."

"God will not grant it, Herrick. My days are numbered, like the beads upon a rosary – I am telling them off bead by bead – 'tis but a short string."

"Dear Jack, if thou would'st consult a physician instead of talking this wild nonsense, and if thou would'st but take care of thyself – "

"I might live to be ninety – on ass's milk – like Hervey. Open another bottle of Burgundy, Herrick, we are too much in the dismals."

"You shall have no more to-night."

"Shall I not, Mentor? Then I will go to bed and dream I am in Mahomet's paradise, where lovely woman intoxicates instead of wine."

CHAPTER VI
"WHEN SCREECH-OWLS CROAK UPON THE CHIMNEY-TOPS."

The house in Poland Street was scarce alive with the sound of footsteps on the stairs, or the opening and shutting of doors, until the day was well on towards noon. The cry of the sweep and the small coal man, the baker with his rolls, and Irish Molly with her clattering milk-pails, passed over the sleeping household, and was scarce heard dimly in a dream by any member of that strangely compacted family. The lodgers were for the most part such gentlemen as only began to think of their morning tea or chocolate when it was afternoon by the sundial. The landlord and his wife, being always among the last to retire, rose late in the morning with a struggle, lamenting the brevity of the night. Your bad sleeper is ever the most reluctant to rise, for his one chance of slumber comes generally in that fatal hour when business or duty compels him to leave his bed. F?tis, who passed most of his nights in feverish unrest, was apt after sunrise to sink into the deep sleep of mental and bodily exhaustion; but he must needs rise at ten in order to wait upon his master in Soho Square, whose toilet generally began at eleven. Madame F?tis coiled herself round like a dormouse, and would have slept twelve hours at a stretch if permitted; but as she rarely went to bed before three o'clock in the morning, so much indulgence was impossible. The house must be in order soon after noon, and delicate dainty little breakfasts must be served up for any distinguished patrons who might have spent the night upon the premises. And neither cook nor underlings could be trusted unless Madame was there with her keen bright eyes overlooking everything. It was Madame who made my lord Duke's chocolate, and buttered my lord Marquis's toast. She was the moving principle of grace and order in the household.

At one o'clock on the day after Lord Lavendale's supper-party, at an hour when the sober jog-trot citizens of London had dined or were in the act of dining, Madame sat sipping her chocolate, in a morning n?glig? of dove-coloured tabinet – a material which Dr.

Swift had done his best to make popular, through the Queen and Princesses, for the benefit of the Irish weavers. Her lace ruffles at neck and wrist were of the finest Buckinghamshire, and she wore a little mob-cap upon her piled-up tresses of unpowdered hair, which was vastly becoming. At her side lay an open ledger, and a brace of bills, which were to be delivered to his Grace and the Marquis later in the afternoon. As she sipped and munched, the lady compared the items in the bills with the figures in the ledger, and with this reading solaced her morning meal. She stopped occasionally to make a calculation with the aid of her roseate finger-tips, laboriously counted, for she resembled the great Duchess Sarah alike in being an excellent woman of business, and completely ignorant of the simplest rules of arithmetic.

For the first time for at least a year Mr. F?tis had failed in his morning duties at Mr. Topsparkle's toilet. He had come home from his evening entertainment very ill, and he was no better this morning; so Madame had been obliged to send a little note of apology to Soho Square, a missive composed in equal parts of French and English, with an impartial measure of bad spelling in both languages.

Madame's apartment was a small front parlour, close to the street door. From her window she could survey an approaching visitor, while from her door she could overhear any conversation that was carried on in the passage, and keep herself informed as to every one who went out or came in. It was the spider's little parlour into which many a giddy buzzing fly had fluttered unwarily, to emerge with clipped wings. It was Circe's cave; and the bones of innumerable victims lay bleaching there, from a metaphorical point of view.

To-day Madame F?tis was so deeply absorbed in the addition of that long column of figures that she was less on the alert than usual for external sounds, and she was surprised by the setting down of a sedan in front of her door, and within three feet of her window. It was a private sedan, painted and fitted with that studied simplicity which indicated distinction in the owner. The panels were a dark brown, the armorial bearings were unobtrusive – all was dark, plain, sober in style. Madame F?tis had not time to wonder, for the orange and brown liveries of the footmen who preceded the vehicle informed her that the chair could belong to no less important a person than her husband's patron and quasi-master, the rich Mr. Topsparkle; and the little Frenchwoman's heart fluttered with gratified vanity at the idea that her fascinations had brought Mr. Topsparkle to her husband's house, which he had never visited before.

"The powdered pert proficient in the art" of disturbing a whole street by his performance on the knocker now proceeded to startle the midday quiet by a most prodigious fantasia in iron. Madame flew to open the door, and stood smiling and curtseying as Mr. Topsparkle descended from his chair, treading delicately, like the ladies of ancient Jerusalem.

"Dear Madam, you do me too much honour," he protested, as he entered the panneled passage, bringing a cloud of perfumed powder and an overpowering odour of attar of roses into the semi-darkness of the narrow entry. "It is not often that Cerberus is replaced by Hebe."

"My servants are so lazy, your honour," apologised Madame; "our Cerberus is cleaning the shoes in his morning sleep, and my femme de chambre has scarce made up her mind whether the broom she is using is a dream or a reality. If your honour will be so condescending as to step into the parlour – "

"One moment, madam," said Topsparkle, and then turning to the open door he waved his hand to the footmen. "You can take my chair home, you fellows. I shall walk."

The chairmen took up their lightened load, and the footmen trudged off in front of the sedan, as Madame F?tis shut the door, and followed her visitor into the little parlour, where she drew forward a large armchair, in which she was wont to take her afternoon sleep, and which was naturally the most luxurious seat in the room, or it would not have been so favoured.

"So my good F?tis has broken down at last," said Mr. Topsparkle, as he seated himself.

"Yes, sir; he is very ill."

"I was hardly surprised at receiving your amiable billet. I have been meditating on our little chat t'other day, my good Madame F?tis," pursued Topsparkle, lolling negligently forward in the commodious chair, with his elbow on his knee, and drawing figures upon the dusty carpet with the amber tip of his cane, "and as I am deeply concerned in the health – above all in the mental health – of your excellent husband, I felt an anxiety to hear more from the same source; so instead of sending a footman to make inquiries, I have come myself. I know the uneasiness of a wife's affection, and that her tenderness may exaggerate the signs of evil – "

"Indeed, sir, I don't exaggerate my husband's condition," exclaimed the lady, with a fretful air; "it grows worse and worse; and I dread the day when I shall see him carried off to Bedlam in a strait waistcoat. 'Twas only last night that he had a worse outbreak than ever, and the night before that – "

"The night before that you had Jack Spencer, and Lord Lavendale, and a party to supper and cards," interrupted Topsparkle, tapping Madame's plump arm with the tips of his skinny fingers. "Oh, I have heard of your banquetings and revelries, ma belle, and the money that is lost and won under this modest roof of yours."

"Indeed, sir, it was a very sober party. There were no ladies, and there was no broken glass, nor an item of furniture damaged. I protest we should never make both ends meet by such parties as that, though I own Mr. Spencer flings a guinea where any other gentleman would give a shilling. But 'tis the mad-cap evenings – when the ladies and gentlemen take to romping over their supper, or when there are swords drawn at cards, and the furniture damaged – that bring grist to the mill."

"And so there was not much diversion at Mr. Spencer's party – 'twas a grave and sedate assembly," said Topsparkle, with a trivial gossiping air, as of one who talked from sheer idleness; "but those quiet evenings are more dangerous than your romping revelries. I'll warrant the play was high."

Madame shook her head gloomily.

"Ay, I'll warrant it was, your honour, for that silly husband of mine tossed about in a wakeful fever till daylight, and raved like a lunatic towards nine o'clock, when he fell asleep – raved about Venice and one Borromeo. Does your honour remember any friend of my husband's by that name?"

"Borromeo?" repeated Topsparkle meditatively. "No, the name is strange to me. And so your husband talked in his sleep, and about Venice? Do his thoughts often turn that way?"

"'Tis the first time I have heard him. His ravings have been mostly about your honour's house in Soho Square. What can there be in that splendid mansion which should give Louis such a horror of it? He is always prating of ghosts. Do you really think 'tis haunted, sir?"

"Not one whit more than this cosy little parlour of yours, my fair friend; but servants are superstitious, and have a way of inventing a ghost for every fine old house. Mine was once occupied by Lord Grey, who was beheaded after Monmouth's rebellion; and those fools of mine have concocted a story that his headless figure stalks in the corridors between midnight and cock-crow. There are no ghosts in Soho Square, madam, save such childish inventions as I tell you of; but I fear your husband is in a very bad way, and that these ravings of his are but too sure an indication of the brandy-drinker's disease. You must be careful of him, my good Madame F?tis, if you would not see him expire in a madhouse."

"Alas, sir, how can I take care of a man who refuses to take care of himself? 'Twas only last night I implored him not to go to a supper at Lord Lavendale's house in Bloomsbury Square, to which his lordship had invited him."

"So his lordship invited your husband to sup, did he? Vastly condescending, I protest."

"Your honour would hardly believe how much notice the highest gentlemen in the land have taken of F?tis. 'Tis that has been his ruin. Lord Lavendale was monstrously taken with him. In his sleep that night it was Lavendale at every turn – Venice – Borromeo – Lavendale – mixed in all his ravings; and then yesterday evening, after the opera, he calls for a chair and is carried to his lordship's house, in spite of my protesting that the company he was going into would lead him into high play and hasten our ruin. He would not listen to me, but off he goes, in a sage-green ribbed velvet suit which your honour had made for the last birthday, and never wore but once – "

"I remember the suit," said Topsparkle, "it made me look as sickly as a lady of fashion in her morning cap before she puts on her rouge. It cost me ninety-five guineas for the birthday, and I gave it to F?tis next morning. 'Tis my rule never to wear a suit a second time if I don't like myself in it on the first wearing. 'Tis against good sense that a man should disgust himself with his own person for the sake of a few paltry guineas. I dare swear F?tis looks admirable in the suit. 'Tis just the colour of his own complexion."

"He looked more of a fine gentleman than 'tis well a man of his position should," replied Madame severely. "If he would take more pains to save money for his old age, and less to pass for a man of fashion, 'twould be better for both of us."

"But with so charming a wife, and with such advantages of education, a man of romantic temper might be pardoned for forgetting that he was not born in the purple," pleaded Topsparkle. "But I distract you from your narrative. You were about to say – "

"Oh, sir, could you but have seen my husband at four o'clock this morning, when he came back from his orgy."

"The word is severe, madam. Was he intoxicated?"

"Worse than that, sir. He was white as death, and trembling in every limb. He had tried to walk home, but had well nigh fallen in the street, when the chance of an empty coach saved him. He seemed as if he were struck speechless, would answer none of my questions, and let me help him to bed like a baby. Yet it was not losing his money which had overcome his senses, for the guineas fell out of his pockets and strewed the carpet as if it had been raining gold. He lay moaning half the night, till he fell into a kind of stupor."

"Did he rave as on the previous night?"

"Not one intelligible word has he uttered since he came home."

"Strange. It looks like some kind of seizure. Have you sent for a doctor?"

"No, sir; I was afraid for any one to see him in such a condition, lest it should get about the neighbourhood that he is a lunatic, and spoil our business."

"You are a vastly sensible woman, an excellent prudent creature," exclaimed Topsparkle, with enthusiasm. "Let not a mortal see him till he has got his reason again. Should it once be rumoured that he is out of his mind, you would be undone."

"I have spoken to your honour with perfect candour, as my poor husband's patron and friend," returned Madame meekly.

"You have done wisely, my good soul. I am your husband's best friend, and your only safe adviser. It is evident that he has got himself into a condition that is but one step from madness, and madness in this country is a terrible thing. It means the loss of all a man's rights as a citizen, it means the confiscation of his property, upon which the iron clutch of the High Court of Chancery swoops down like the claw of a vulture. It means that from comfortable circumstances a maniac's family may be reduced to paupers."

"O, sir, protect me from such a calamity."

"Do not fear, sweet soul. You shall be protected. Should the worst come, and your husband must needs be removed, it shall be my sacred care to provide for you. Two hundred a year in Paris, where you might, perhaps, return to the profession which you so much adorned."

"O, sir, you have, indeed, the soul of a great nobleman. It was the dream of my girlhood to live in Paris."

"The nest shall be found for you, poor bird, if the tempest of calamity should ever blow you hence," murmured Topsparkle, patting her plump hand.

"But indeed, sir, we will hope my poor husband will recover his reason, and learn better sense," resumed Madame, after a few moments' reflection. "I am very fond of Poland Street, and this business would be a fortune for us if F?tis would leave off play."

"My dear soul, he has gone too far. He will never be cured. When a man of his age gambles or drinks, the chances of cure are nil."

"Would you like to see him, sir?"

Topsparkle suppressed a shudder.

"Better not, madam. I should but agitate him by my presence. I will call on you to-morrow, when he may be in a better condition to converse with me."

He kissed Madame's fair hand, and bowed himself out of her presence. He walked along Poland Street, across Golden Square, westward to St. James's Street, with that light and easy motion which had become natural to him, the bearing of an elderly man who never meant to be old, who defied age to wither him, and who conquered the insidious foe called Time, by being in all things younger than youth itself. Yonder gallant guardsman of five-and-twenty on the opposite pavement moved heavily compared with the airy grace with which Topsparkle skimmed the street. He had trained every muscle, schooled every sinew in the long fight against senility. By his temperance and his activity he had contrived so far to have the best of the battle. The day of defeat must come sooner or later, he knew, and he had steeled himself to contemplate the end with a cynical courage. "May it be sharp and swift," he said; "may I crumble to pieces in an hour, like an embalmed corpse which is suddenly exposed to the air after two thousand years in an Egyptian sepulchre."

To-day, though his mind was full of perplexity, his movements and the carriage of his head were as jaunty as ever. No one who saw those dainty red-heeled shoes tripping along, and the careless swing of that slender rapier, would have supposed that Mr. Topsparkle was meditating anything more serious than the last quarrel between the Cuzzoni faction and the Faustina faction at the opera house, or the last wild exploit of mad-cap Peterborough at Bevis Mount.

What was to be done with this worn-out tool of his, which was getting dangerous? That was the question. It had never occurred to Vyvyan Topsparkle that his accomplice would not last as long as himself; that this slave of his, who had done his bidding with an unscrupulous obedience which indicated a mind utterly callous to the distinction between right and wrong, should at the eleventh hour develop a guilty conscience and all its attendant inconveniences.

"It is not conscience," thought Topsparkle savagely. "The man cares no more for that false feeble creature who lies in St. Anne's churchyard than he cares for St. Anne herself. It is brandy and not conscience that moves him. He has destroyed his nerves by intemperance, and must needs call up the dead to torment himself and endanger me. A madhouse – yes, that is the safest abode for a gentleman in this disposition. I have only to find out a safe asylum, and then, presto, my friend F?tis shall be bestowed where a strait waistcoat will tame his antics, and the free use of the gag will put a stop to his invocations of the dead. A mad-doctor and a private madhouse – that is what I have to find without loss of time."

Then, after walking a little further, cudgelling his brain in the effort to remember all he had ever heard about the incarceration of madmen in England, he reverted to a question which was more perplexing to him than the ravings of F?tis.

"Lavendale, que diable allait il faire dans cette gal?re? what the deuce can impel Lavendale to patronise my valet? and why should his lordship's society revive old associations with Venice, and reduce the man from semi-lunacy to dumb melancholic madness, as I doubt his state must be to-day, if his wife speaks truth? There is mystery and mischief here, and I cannot too soon protect myself from the chances of awkward revelations. There must be some private way of dealing with madmen, without shutting them up in that great hospital by London Wall, where all the world may see them at a penny a head, easier and cheaper than the lions in the Tower. I remember how Lavendale and his friend were struck by that marvellous likeness between Miss Bosworth and Margharita; yet what should come of that, an accidental resemblance, curious, but of no significance? I almost hated that girl for the shock her face gave me every time we met. It was a constant oppression to my spirits to have her in my house. And now they say Durnford has run away with her, and married her at Keith's Chapel, and that her father has thrown her off in consequence, so that my gentleman has but a penniless beauty for his partner in life, and no doubt will soon repent his bargain. Why should Lavendale invite my valet? O, a whim, no doubt, a trick, a practical joke, such as Wharton and his Schemers used to hatch t'other day – some conspiracy against a woman's peace or reputation. Something modish, witty, and iniquitous, no doubt. Why should I fancy there is mischief to me amidst such random follies? But the fact remains that F?tis has taken to blabbing, and must be gagged. Yes, my poor, good, faithful, self-serving servant, you were a very convenient and useful person so long as you knew how to hold your tongue, but now you have turned babbler you must be provided for accordingly. The wife can be easily dealt with. She is vain, silly, and selfish, and can be bought cheap."

Mr. Topsparkle was now in St. James's Street, in front of White's chocolate house, which was one of his chief resorts when he wanted to kill time between the morning undress saunter in the Mall and the afternoon parade in the Ring. 'Twas here he heard the latest news of the town, such floating scandals as had not yet been transfixed by the Flying Post or the St. James's Journal; and it was here he met the innumerable gentlemen who were pleased to be bosom friends with one of the richest men in London.



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