Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3



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"Why, Top," exclaimed one of these gentry – an easy-going young gentleman, who had spent a brace of fortunes, his own and his wife's, and so deemed he had earned the right to live upon his friends and the general public – "thou art younger by ten years than thou wert last week. Thou look'st like Hyperion new lighted on a heaven-kissing hill."

"And thou, Chambers, wast at the playhouse last night, I take it; and supped on champagne afterwards, and art not yet sober," answered Mr. Topsparkle somewhat coolly, as he seated himself at his favourite table.

"Thou hast hit the mark, Top. Invite me to a dish of tea, and sober me; I have not the price of one in my pocket."

"Sit down then, and behave decently while the Bohea is brewing."

"Pekoe, friend, Pekoe; nothing like Pekoe to clear the fumes of last night's wine. Do you hear, waiter; Mr. Topsparkle's chocolate ? la vanille, and a dish of your strongest Pekoe for Mr. Topsparkle's friend, with cream, scoundrel, with plenty of cream."

White's was full at this leisure hour before dinner, and there were many greetings for Mr. Topsparkle, of a less exuberant but no less friendly tone than that of Captain Chambers. He sipped his chocolate in a leisurely manner, looked about him, and listened, returned every salutation, kissed his hand to acquaintances at the further end of the room, and said very little. He was wondering which of all these men was most likely to be of use to him in the matter he had in hand. He wanted to obtain information of a peculiar character without appearing too curious on the subject. He wanted to be advised without asking for anybody's advice.

At any other time he would have received Captain Chambers's familiar advances with an icy reserve; but to-day he was inclined to be indulgent; for he told himself that Chambers was just the kind of scamp who might be useful in an emergency; a man who, with his last guinea, had parted with his last scruple, a perfect specimen of the relentless gentlemanly villain, without heart, conscience, or honour, a scourge to confiding tradesmen, a traitor to trusting women, a bad son, a bad husband, a worse father, and a very pleasant fellow to fill a gap at a dinner-party.

"How's your wife, Bob?" asked a man at the next table. "I saw her in the Ring a week ago in the old dowager's carriage, looking as ill as if she was going to die and give you the chance of an heiress."

"Egad, I shall have to commit bigamy if she doesn't; so for conscience' sake she ought to give up the ghost," answered Chambers. "I have been seriously meditating running off with an Irish heiress, under a false name, and settling in some corner of her barbarous country, where I could live upon her fortune, and escape all the vexations of this accursed town."

"I don't think you should anathematise a town, Bob, which has allowed you to cut a very pretty figure and to spend twice your fortune," said his friend.

"O, your damned shopkeepers have been civil enough," answered Chambers, lolling back in his chair and picking his teeth languidly.

"I had a bevy of them in my dressing-room every morning teasing me for orders long after I was absolutely insolvent. But 'twas my tailor finished me."

"Indeed! How was that? Surely he never caught you in so soft a mood as to pay him?"

"O, it was a bite of the most diabolical nature. 'Twas soon after I married that the fellow began to get importunate. I had run up a pretty long bill with him – birthday-suits, hunting clothes, an occasional hundred on my I O U – when I was hard up for card-money. Your West End snip is generally a money-lender in disguise. I suppose the total must have been close upon four figures; but I had never bothered myself about the matter. One morning the insolent rascal congratulated me upon having married an heiress. No doubt he knew Belle's poor little fortune to a guinea. I thanked him for his compliments in a manner which was as good as telling him to mind his own business, and next week he asked me for five or six hundred on account. 'Shillings, d'ye mean, sirrah?' says I. 'No, Captain, guineas,' says he; 'your bill, including money lent, is over twelve hundred.' This staggered me for I had not a sixpence of my own, and my wife's modest dowry of seven thousand pounds was tightly settled upon herself. I have always thought with Dick Steele that our new fashion of marriage-settlements is the most detestable form of bargaining that was ever invented. Mr. Snip looked black as thunder when I frankly confessed my inability to pay him till I dropped into an expected legacy from my East Indian godfather, who had long been ailing. Need I say that I invented the godfather and the legacy on the spot?"

"And was Snip satisfied to accept your Oriental security?"

"Alas, no. He told me that unless my wife would guarantee the payment of his bill he should be under the painful necessity of consigning me to the Fleet Prison and the tender mercies of that notorious friend of humanity, Governor Bambridge. The fellow was evidently in earnest, so to make a long story short, poor Belle consented to be responsible for the scoundrel's account, and all went merrily for the next three years, when, after worrying damnably with lawyers' letters, of which I naturally took no notice, he put in an execution, and had to be paid off in a lump sum of 6859l. 7s. 11-1/2d., and poor Belle found her fortune was altogether swamped by this one liability."

"How did she take it?" asked his friend.

"Like an angel; and I believe she would have been a loving wife to the end, in spite of all my peccadilloes, debts, cards, and women included; but the old Dowager came swooping down like Medea in her chariot, and carried her lost lamb back to the family fold in Golden Square, where they all pig together upon shoulders of mutton and cow-heel, but contrive to keep up a show of gentility in the way of a worn-out coach and a leash of hungry footmen."

"Very wonderful are the struggles of polite poverty," said the other; "but it is still more wonderful to me, Bob, how you contrive to keep out of the sponging-house, cribl? de dettes though you are."

"Ah, that is indeed a miracle," replied Chambers. "I sometimes catch myself wondering at the long-suffering of my creditors. Yet their patience is not altogether unrewarded. I have introduced some very pretty fellows to my old purveyors. There are innocent young gentlemen from the country who would never know where to go for their finery if there wasn't an experienced man of fashion to put them in the right path."

"Ay, Bob, we all understand your pleasant ways. When a man loses the ability to spend on his own account, he may still flourish as the source of spending in others. Tradesmen are always civil to Captain Rook if he visits them in company with Squire Pigeon."

"'Sdeath, Middleton, d'ye mean to insult me?" cried Chambers, with his hand on his sword.

"Nay, Captain, I did but respond in tune with your own ethics, which were never of the strictest."

"Faith, you're right, friend! I was never given to riding the high horse of morality. I spent my money like a gentleman, and any wife's money after it, and have earned the right to take things easily."

"Till you find yourself in the sponging-house, Bob. That evil day must come. All your creditors will not be equally placable."

"Whenever I get into the sponging-house, the odds are I shall be kicked out again for want of funds to make me worth keeping. Your sponging-house, kept by some dirty Jew, and waited on by a drab, is the most expensive hotel in London."

"Then they'll put you among the poor prisoners, and let you fetch and carry for those that are better off. 'Twill be a sorry end for Buck Chambers, the man who used to keep two servants to attend to his jackboots."

"Hang it! 'twas no superfluity of service. No man can be expected to do more than look after three horses or six pairs of boots."

"If they do nab you, Bob," said another friend, who had been attracted from a neighbouring table as the conversation grew louder, Mr. Topsparkle sipping his chocolate silently all the while, and listening in a half-abstracted mood, only reflecting within himself much as Romeo did about the apothecary, that here was a fellow who would do anything for gold; "if the limbs of the law do get you in their clutches, let us hope, for the sake of a world that could scarce exist pleasurably without you, that they won't put you into Marjory's."

"Marjory's! What, the sponging-house in Shoe Lane!" cried Chambers; "'tis an execrable den, but not a whit worse than their other holes. I have hobbed and nobbed with my friends in most of their rat-traps, and know the geography of them. I'd as lief be at Marjory's as anywhere else, if I must needs have the key turned upon me."

"Not just now, Bob; for there was an honest fellow – an Exeter tradesman up in London for a holiday, and arrested by mistake for another – who died of smallpox at Marjory's only yesterday morning; and they say the disease rages in the house, and has done for the last ten days."

The Captain sprang to his feet in a fury.

"And yet they go on taking prisoners there," he cried; "poor innocent wretches, whose only crime is to have lived like gentlemen! What a vile world we live in!"

"A vile world with a vengeance. Marjory's is a gold-mine for Bambridge. He claps all his prisoners into that hell, and makes them pay heavily before he allows them to be removed to the purgatory of another house, or the paradise of prison and chummage. This poor wretch from Exeter had not a stiver about him, so they refused to shift him. He was put in a room with three other men, one of whom was just recovering from the disease. The Exeter man took it badly, and died off-hand."

The Captain put on his hat.

"Farewell, friends," he said; "I'm off by to-night's fast coach to Bristol, and from thence to the wilds of Connemara. I was not born to be carrion for the vulture Bambridge."

He pulled himself together with a debonair movement, and staggered gaily out of the house, amidst the laughter of his friends.

"Was there ever such a good-humoured hardened villain?" exclaimed Middleton; "'tis a perpetual conundrum to me how he keeps out of gaol."

"He will get there some day," said a gentleman of clerical aspect; "our friend will have his pennyworth of prison, with a noose to follow."

Mr. Topsparkle paid his score, and sauntered away.

Not a word had he heard, nor had he made any inquiry, about madhouses, public or private; yet it seemed to him that he was wiser than when he entered the chocolate house, and that he knew all he wanted to know.

CHAPTER VII
THE SMILES OF NATURE AND THE CHARMS OF ART

Mr. F?tis slept until late in the afternoon, and awoke restored to his senses and so far recovered in his health as to be able to dress himself and go down-stairs. He was taking a cup of coffee strengthened with cognac in his wife's parlour when the Topsparkle orange and brown livery again enlivened the doorstep, and a note was handed in at the door.

It was a somewhat urgent summons from F?tis's patron and master.

"If you are well enough to come to me this afternoon, I should like to see you," wrote Mr. Topsparkle; "my messenger will get you a chair."

F?tis told the footman that he was able to walk, and would wait upon Mr. Topsparkle almost immediately. He followed the footman in about five minutes, and was at once admitted to his master's dressing-room, where he found Mr. Topsparkle sitting before the fire, in slippers and a crimson brocade n?glig?.

"My good F?tis, pray think me not inhuman in sending for you," he exclaimed, in his airiest manner, "but if you have vital power enough to put my head and complexion in order for the evening, it will be a real benevolence on your part. I am to go to an assembly at Henrietta's, and I don't want to look older than poor Mr. Congreve, who has the aspect of a sickly Methuselah."

"I do not believe her Grace thinks so, sir," said F?tis, going over to the toilet-table and beginning to arrange his arsenal of little china pots and crystal bottles, brushes and sponges, and hare's-feet.

"O, for her he is always Adonis. But he grows daily more wrinkled and mummified, and he paints as badly as Kneller at his worst, which is saying much," replied Topsparkle, seating himself in front of the glass, a Venetian mirror, framed in filagree silver, which ought to have reflected beauty as young and fresh as Belinda's. "And so, my poor friend," he continued with a sympathetic air, "you have been very ill. May I ask the nature of your malady?"

"I was as near death as I could be, I believe, sir," answered F?tis gloomily, still occupied with cosmetics and paint-brushes, and going on with his work as he spoke. "You will laugh at me doubtless when I tell you the cause of my indisposition, for you have a lighter nature than mine, or you could scarce live contentedly in this house."

"I have less education, and more philosophy, F?tis. That is the secret of my easier temper."

"I saw a ghost last night, sir," said F?tis, beginning his operations on his master's complexion.

"Indeed, my dear F?tis, I am told they swarm in the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury, where I hear you spent last midnight in most patrician society."

"How did you know where I spent my evening?" gasped F?tis.

"A little bird, my dear friend, a sweet little singing bird. Our London groves are vocal with such airy songsters. Pray keep your hand steady. God's curse, fellow, that wash of yours is revolting when 'tis not laid on smoothly. You are too thick over the right temple."

There was a pause, during which F?tis finished his ground-colour and outlined an eyebrow with a miniature-painter's pencil.

"And so you saw a ghost last night. Was it in Denmark Street, St. Giles's, as you reeled homewards after your orgy?"

"No, sir, 'twas before I left Lord Lavendale's house. I had supped with his lordship and Mr. Durnford – "

"A fellow I hate!" interrupted Topsparkle; "a sinister, prying knave!"

"We had played cards for an hour or so, and I had been sole winner. I was in excellent spirits, elated, rejuvenated by my good luck. I had to pass through a suite of cold and empty rooms, dark except for the candle carried by my companion, Durnford, and a gleam of light from a lamp on the staircase beyond. It was in this semi-darkness I saw the shape of her whose death we compassed, in that room yonder, forty years ago!"

He pointed to the door opening into Topsparkle's bedchamber.

"My good F?tis, you were drunk," said his master, without moving a muscle. "His lordship had plied you with wine till your highly imaginative mind was on the alert for phantoms. An effect of light and shade in a dusky room, a white curtain perchance, an optical delusion of some kind. I should have given you credit for more sense and less superstition."

"I tell you 'twas she, Margharita Vincenti. It was her face, sad, reproachful, as it has looked upon me many a time in this house. It was her figure, her attitude, standing there before me in the light of Mr. Durnford's uplifted candle, with all the reality of life."

"And yet in a trice the vision vanished, melted before your eyes?"

"Indeed I know not, sir, for terror overcame my senses, and I swooned."

"My good F?tis, you are in a very bad state of health. You need to be monstrously careful of yourself. These signs and wonders of yours presage lunacy. Give me the hand-mirror. No, your eyebrows are not so successful as usual. There is a gouty line in the arch of the left, and you have given me a scintilla too much rouge. Pray tone down that rosy-apple appearance to a more delicate peach bloom. I think you are falling off in the composition of your red. There is a purple tinge that is too conspicuously artificial. You are a chemist, and should know more of the amalgamation of colours. You should try to imitate nature, my good F?tis. And you tell me you saw my poor Margharita's ghost, and that 'twas Mr. Durnford who held the candle that lighted the vision?"

"It was just as I have told you."

"To be sure. And pray do you happen to remember a certain young lady, an heiress, who came to the Abbey last winter, and who was the living image of my poor Margharita – whom you must remember I indulged and treated with all possible kindness so long as she was faithful to me – and on whose account you might therefore spare me your reproaches."

"I cannot forget my crime, nor who prompted it."

"Plague take you, F?tis, why use hard words? 'Twas but a sleeping draught made a thought too powerful, so that the sleep became eternal. 'Twas euthanasia. Had that girl lived her fate would have been an evil one. She was on the downward slope when death stopped her. She had ceased to care for me, and was passionately in love with Churchill. Do you suppose he would have remained true to her when the vanity of conquest was over and her monotony of sweetness began to pall? Deserted by him, she would have fallen a prey to some coarser profligate, and then the side boxes, and the hospital or Bridewell. Faithless to me, there was nothing but death that could save her."

"You might have made her your wife."

"Because I found her false and fickle as a mistress! A pretty reason, quotha."

"To be made an honest woman would have steadied her; you might have given her the company of her child; that is ever a mother's safeguard."

"Pollute my house with the presence of a squalling baby! No, F?tis, endurance has limits. Pshaw! let us not harp upon this folly. Do you remember Mrs. Bosworth?"

"Yes; I saw her only at a distance. The likeness was certainly startling."

"And you did not know that the lady is now Mr. Durnford's wife? He stole her from her father's house t'other day, and Parson Keith married them."

"No; I had not heard that."

"And therefore could not guess that the ghost you saw in the dark room was no less a personage than Durnford's young wife, who by a freak of nature happens to be the living image of my dead mistress?"

"By heaven, it might have been so! I never guessed – I never thought – " faltered F?tis.

"Of course not. You have lost your head, my friend, since you took to cards and strong waters. Had you been content to drink like a gentleman, these fancies would never have addled your brains. I hope you betrayed yourself no more than by your swooning fit in Lavendale's presence. You held your tongue, I trust, when your senses returned?"

"I know not," answered F?tis, with an embarrassed air. "I left the house like a sleepwalker, scarce conscious of my own actions; nor do I know how I reached my own chamber."

"You are a sad fool, my dear F?tis, and, what is more, you are a dangerous fool," said Topsparkle, in his gentlest voice, and with a faint sigh. "The hand-glass again, please. Yes, that is better: the eyebrows have more delicacy than your first attempt. I want to appear at my best to-night. A man who has a beautiful wife should not look a scarecrow. You have a remarkable talent for touching up a face; a gift, F?tis, a gift. 'Tis an art that can be no more learnt than oratory or poetry. A man must be born with it. I am very sorry for you, my good Louis, sorry that tongue of yours is no more to be trusted. There, that will do. My valet can help me on with my wig. You are looking ill and tired. Get home as fast as you can."

"Indeed, sir, I am far from well."

"I can see it, my poor friend. Good-day to you. Tell my servant to bring me a dish of tea as you go out."

F?tis bowed and retired, gave his master's message to the footman sitting half asleep in the ante-room, and went out of the house.

He had not left the Square before he was stopped by two shabbily-clad men, one of whom tapped him on the shoulder.

"You are my prisoner, Mr. F?tis."

"Prisoner, fellow! you are joking."

"No, sir; this will show you there is no joke in the matter;" and the man produced a paper which Mr. F?tis read with a troubled brow.

"This can be very easily settled," he said after a pause; "'tis but a bagatelle. I had forgotten that Mr. Bevis had sued me. The account is such a paltry one, and I have put thousands into Bevis's pockets. It is but fifty pounds. If you will accompany me to yonder house on the other side of the Square, Mr. Topsparkle will oblige me with the cash."

"Can't do no such thing, your honour," growled the bailiff, in a voice thickened by hard living and strong drink. "My orders are to take you straight to the sponging-house. You can communicate with your friends when you're there."

"But the house is within a few paces, and I tell you I can get the money!"

"The law's the law, and it mustn't be tampered with," said the man, "and duty's duty, and it's mine to see you safe inside the lock. Call a coach, Jerry; there's a stand in Greek Street," and so, with his arm held in the dirty grasp of a bailiff, Mr. F?tis was marched off to a coach.

In that trouble of mind which had been growing on him of late he had indeed almost forgotten that judgment had been pronounced against him at the suit of Messrs. Bevis, wine merchants, of the Strand, whose account, though he made so light of it, was one of long standing. Messrs. Bevis had filled and refilled Mr. Topsparkle's cellars since his re-establishment in London, and F?tis had been the agent and intermediary in all purchases of wine, choosing, tasting, approving, and had been courted and fawned upon by the Messrs. Bevis and their clerks. And now on account of a trumpery fifty-odd pounds for goods supplied to himself, he was to be locked up in gaol! He was astounded at the ingratitude of these wretches.



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