Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3

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It was on the second day after F?tis had been deprived of his liberty, that the post brought a thick packet to Mr. Durnford in Bloomsbury Square, as he sat with Lavendale over a bottle of claret after the four o'clock dinner. The writing of the address was unfamiliar to him, and the characters had a blurred and irregular look, as if the hand that had traced them had scarce been steady enough to hold a pen.

He broke the seals hurriedly, eager to see the contents, for the post-mark was that of the next post town to Flamestead and Fairmile.

The letter contained an enclosure consisting of three other letters, the ink faded, and the paper yellowed by age. These were written in French, in a niggling mean little hand which Mr. Herrick had never seen before.

On the inside of the cover were these lines in the same illegible and tremulous scrawl as the outer inscription.

"Sir, – the hand of death is on me. Your wife never injured me, and I should like to do her a good turn before I die. The enclosed letters, which Squire Bosworth found on the person of your wife's father, were discovered by me in his bureau some years ago. They may help you to a fortune, and induce you to think more kindly of your humble servant, – Barbara Layburne."

Herrick hastily unfolded one of the three letters, and looked at the signature.

"By heaven, Lavendale, 'tis a strange world!" he exclaimed. "This letter is signed by the man who was here the other night, and his signature in this conjuncture, before I read a line of this correspondence, assures me that my suspicion is well founded."

"What suspicion?"

"One which I have hitherto hesitated to confide to you lest you should deem me a lunatic. I have for some time suspected that the likeness between Irene and the portrait you and I unearthed at Ringwood Abbey was something more than an accident – that there was a link between the story of Topsparkle's past life and my dear one's birth – and here in Philip Chumleigh's possession are letters bearing the signature of Topsparkle's tool and accomplice. Before I read them I am convinced they will confirm all my suspicions."

"Read, Herrick, read. Thou knowest I am more interested in thy fortunes than in my own – for thine are the more hopeful. Read, Herrick, I burn with impatience."

Durnford obeyed, and after a careful comparison of dates read the first letter, which was dated Florence, July 20th, 1705.

"Mademoiselle, – It is with the utmost regret that I am constrained to remonstrate with you upon the contents of your last letter addressed to your father, under cover to me, and forwarded at your urgent desire by the Rev. Mother, who, when she so far complied with your wish, was aware that she transgressed the rules laid down for her guidance by my honoured master, your guardian and benefactor, who desired that no communication should ever be addressed to him by you.

"Your address to a father who has long ceased to exist, can but be answered by the assurance that the noble Englishman who is generous enough to pay for your maintenance at the convent recognises no claim upon him of a nature such as you put forward in your vehement letter.

He has provided for you from your infancy, and will continue to provide for you so long as you deserve his bounty; but he cannot submit to be persecuted by appeals to his affection, or by your foolish desire to know the secret of your birth, a knowledge which you may be assured could not add to your satisfaction or peace of mind.

"Be advised, therefore, my dear young lady, by one who is cordially your friend. Pursue the even tenor of your way, and ask no indiscreet questions of any one. It would be well for you, perhaps, if the piety of your surroundings should lead you to renounce the vanities of a troublesome world, and to devote your life to the peaceful seclusion of the cloister. Should you make this election, your noble friend will doubtless contribute handsomely to the wealth of the convent in which your childhood and girlhood have been spent so happily. – Accept the assurance of my sincere respect, F?tis."

The second was a year later.

"Mademoiselle, – Your noble friend has been informed of a disgraceful intrigue in which you have engaged with an Englishman, who gained admission to the convent grounds under peculiar circumstances, and from whom you have received letters, conveyed to you by means which, although suspected, have not been as yet fully discovered by your custodians.

"I warn you that the pursuance of this intrigue must inevitably lead to your ruin, as your benefactor will consider himself absolved by your misconduct from all future claims upon him. But I hope to be able to assure him that you have renounced this folly and are in a fair way to renounce all other follies, and to devote your life to the service of God. You have before your eyes daily so many touching examples of the beauty of such a life, that it would be only natural your heart should yearn towards the cloister. – With heartfelt respect, F?tis."

The third letter was dated Florence, December, 1707.

"Madame, – My noble master commands me to inform you that he can recognise no further claim upon him, and that he can respond to no appeal from you or your husband, either in the present or in the future.

"He requests that he may be troubled by no further communications from you, F?tis."

"Devil!" exclaimed Lavendale, when he had heard the last of the letters, "nay, Satan himself, as I have read of him, has an amiable air as compared with this fish-blooded profligate – this worn-out rou?, whose heart must be of the consistence of a sliced cucumber. I have no doubt that Irene's mother was Topsparkle's daughter, the infant whom he sent to Buckinghamshire to be nursed, and doubtless carried off to the Continent with the rest of his goods and chattels when he left the country. And to think that he had not even one touch of tenderness for the child of the woman he murdered! There was no compunction – no remorse – not one sting of conscience to urge him to generosity. He could have seen the daughter starve with as unrelenting eyes as he saw the mother die."

"He is indeed a heartless dastard," said Herrick, "and I have no desire that my wife should profit by her kindred with him."

"O, but she shall profit, or at any rate he shall wince," cried Lavendale; "let me be your emissary, Herrick. 'Twill be easier for me to give him his jobation. I will make those old veins of his tingle; I will conjure up the vermilion of shame under that vizard of white lead. I will let him know what an English gentleman thinks of such conduct as his. God's death, but he shall feel again, as he felt forty years ago on the hustings at Brentford, when the mob rated him. If Hamlet spoke daggers to his mother, I will speak rotten eggs and dead puppy-dogs to this Topsparkle. And he is her husband. Her husband! O, shame! O, agony! Herrick, I was an ass, a poltroon, not to run away with her!"

That was an old argument which Durnford did not care to reopen. He gave Lavendale the letters, urged him to be temperate in his interview with Topsparkle. But little good could come of raking up the unholy past. There was no evidence strong enough to bring the millionaire's crimes home to him in any court of justice. F?tis might blab his own and his master's guilt in a moment of excitement and terror, but face to face with the law, would doubtless recant. The lapse of forty years gave Vyvyan Topsparkle the best possible security against the consequences of his guilt. The history of his crime might be guessed at, but could never be proved.

"I will talk to the wretch to-night," said Lavendale; "yes, this very night. It is Lady Judith's assembly, by the bye, and all the world will be in Soho Square."

"You can scarcely enter upon such a discussion at a party," said Herrick.

"O, but I will make an opportunity; Topsparkle shall take me to his private rooms. I am on fire till I tell that ancient reprobate my mind about him."

"And if he should challenge you?"

"As he challenged Churchill? Why, in that case I shall refuse like Churchill, and tell him that I only fight with gentlemen. But he will not challenge me. He will be too much afraid of my revelations when I tell him how F?tis has confessed to a murder committed at his master's instigation."

Each side in politics and all shades of opinions were to be found at Mr. Topsparkle's town house, as they were at Ringwood Abbey. Statecraft was represented by Walpole, who dropped in for a quarter of an hour, and who looked daggers at his sometime friend and ally, Mr. Pulteney; by Carteret and Bolingbroke; while literature had its representatives in Voltaire, whose epic poem, La Henriade, had been already tasted in private readings by the ?lite among his subscribers, although not to be published till next March; in Congreve and Gay; in the Scotch parson's son, Thomson, whose poem Winter was being read and admired by everybody; and in that scapegrace Savage, whom Queen Caroline protected and whom Lady Judith courted out of aggravation to respectable people. All the modish beauties were there, from the fair daughters and granddaughters of the house of Marlborough to Mrs. Pulteney, secure in unbounded influence over her husband and several other slaves, reckless of his reputation and of her own, and insolent in the consciousness of superior charms. It was a strange medley gathering; but Lady Judith never seemed more in her element than in a social pot-pourri of this kind. She looked gorgeous in amber and gold brocade and the famous Topsparkle diamonds, the necklace which Caroline had worn at her coronation, a string of single brilliants as large as small hazel nuts, of perfect shape and purest water. A cloud of ostrich feathers about her head and neck softened the glare of her gems and the gaudy colouring of her gown. She looked like a portrait by Velasquez, fresh from the painter's easel, in all the brilliancy of colour newly laid on.

Lord Lavendale she received with her easiest air. He found her surrounded by a circle of beaux and politicians, ambassadors and poets, keeping them all in conversation, alert and ready with answer and repartee at every turn of their talk.

The latest ridiculous anecdote about the King had put everybody into a good humour.

"You must take your fill of laughter and have done with it," said Lady Judith, "for I expect to hear my trumpeters strike up Handel's march at any moment, to do honour to our conquering hero's arrival. Their Majesties promised they would look in upon me after the opera."

"Then I hope you have ordered double your usual supper – plentiful as your banquets ever are," said Lord Carteret, "for it is a distinguishing mark of royalty to eat three times as much as the commonalty. The old Dowager of Orleans was always lamenting her son's excesses at the table – she has told me of his incautious gluttony with tears of affectionate concern, which his fatal apoplexy showed to be but too prophetic – and she assured me also that when the late king's body was opened it was found he was constructed on a different principle from his subjects, and had twice their capacity for digestion. It was hereditary with the Bourbon race to gorge: and our Hanoverians seem of the same kidney."

Lady Judith turned from his lordship to welcome Mrs. Robinson, who came fluttering in after her triumphs at the opera, with Lord Peterborough in attendance upon her steps, proud to be considered her slave, yet ashamed to confess himself her husband, so strong were the prejudices of that great world which worshipped Senesino and Farinelli, and squabbled acrimoniously about the rival merits of Cuzzoni and Faustina.

"My dearest Anastasia, I hear you surpassed yourself in Rinaldo," exclaimed Lady Judith. "Topsparkle was there till nearly the end of the third act, and came away hysterical with rapture." Then turning to Peterborough, with the fair Anastasia's hand in hers, "Is your lordship still in love with Bevis Mount and solitude?"

"Could I but tempt your ladyship to visit the wild romantic cottage where I pass my time, 'twould be no longer a hermit's cell, but the temple of Cytherea," answered Mordanto gaily, "the mere fact that you had been there, like a queen on her royal progress, would for ever idealise that humble dwelling."

"Have a care, my lord, lest I take you at your word some day, and put up at Bevis Mount for a night on my way from Ringwood to London. 'Twould be but to take the Winchester road instead of travelling by Salisbury, and it would be a prodigious joke to descend upon you as unexpectedly as if I were indeed the goddess and conveyed through the air by a team of doves."

"You should be received with adoration and rapture; yet I warn you that my Blenheim would scarce afford shelter for a fine lady's attendants, although it might be made into a not-unfitting bower for beauty unattended."

"O, my people should go to an inn, I would bring only Topsparkle to play propriety. How do you like his lordship's new toy, Anastasia?"

"You mean his cottage near Southampton? I have not seen it," answered the singer, with a cold proud air.

"Indeed, and can he like a dwelling you have not approved?"

"His lordship is eccentric in many things, my dear Lady Judith," replied Mrs. Robinson, and then she and her swain moved on and mingled with the crowd, making way for Lavendale.

"Your ladyship is in unusual spirits to-night," he said, after a few words of greeting.

"Yes, I am full of contentment. I met some friends of yours at the playhouse last night, that pretty Mrs. Bosworth and your fidus Achates, Mr. Durnford, and I was told all about their runaway marriage. 'Tis the prettiest thing I have heard of for ages, an heiress to renounce all her expectations for the lover of her choice. I saw how the land lay when they were together at Ringwood. But I am forgetting to congratulate you upon your success as an orator. Lord Carteret told me just now that you have astonished your own party and scared the Opposition, that you spoke better than Lord Scarborough, and that you are reckoned as a new element of strength in Walpole's forces."

"I shall be proud to be the ally of so great a man."

"What, you admire him as heartily as ever? You are not afraid of his overweening ambition? Lord Townshend has been moaning about the palace this modern Sejanus has built at Houghton, and which almost dwarfs the splendour of poor Townshend's own place, which he had hitherto considered the metropolis of Norfolk. Every stone that augments the grandeur of Houghton is a stone of offence to Townshend."

"He will have to swallow them, as Saturn swallowed the substitutes for his children," retorted Lavendale lightly; "Walpole's power has not yet attained its zenith."

"Do you play?" asked Lady Judith with a wave of her fan towards the crowded card-room.

Lavendale accepted the gesture as his dismissal.

At this moment the trumpets began to blare the stirring march from Judas Maccabeus, and the hero of Oudenarde came strutting up the steps, between the flare and flash of torches held by two rows of powdered footmen.

"You may strut, dapper George, but 'twill all be in vain;
We know 'tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign,"

muttered Bolingbroke, looking between the heads of the crowd, with scornful lip and angry eye, full of hatred for the dynasty that had shown him such scanty favour. "What a vulgar little beast it is, to call itself royal! – royal, forsooth! a twopenny German Elector transmogrified into King of Great Britain and Ireland! If ever this country was ripe for a republic, for a millennium of statesmen and warriors, 'twas when good old Anne shuffled off this mortal coil. Yet such a nation of sheep are we that we must needs import a royal family from Hanover rather than be governed by native talent!"

He turned from the curtseying truckling throng with a bitter sigh and a bitterer sneer, thinking how fine a triumvirate might have been formed in the year Fourteen, if he and Oxford and Marlborough had combined their forces. He told himself that he had been born either too late or too soon. He should have lived in the old Roman days when talent was power; or in some enlightened England of centuries to come, when all hereditary distinctions should be swept away to make a clear stage for genius and ambition.

Queen Caroline and a brace of young princesses moved about the rooms, with Lord Hervey and Mr. Topsparkle, Lady Hervey and Mrs. Clayton in attendance upon her majesty's footsteps; the master of the house proud to exhibit his curios and elucidate his pictures; Majesty showing herself supremely gracious, with a superficial smattering of art which went a long way in so charming a woman and so admirable a Queen. She had a smile for every one, kissed her hand to a score of friends, approved of Signor Duvetti's scraping on the violin, of Herr Altstiefel's organ tones on the 'cello, and of Signora Burletti's birdlike soprano in a scena of Lulli's and of Signor Omati's buffo bravura. There was a concert in progress in one of the inner apartments which the royalties honoured by their presence for at least a quarter of an hour, the princesses chattering all the time, and Princess Caroline so engrossed by the whispered nonsense of Lord Hervey, who happened to be standing behind her chair, as to be unconscious of her mother's reproachful frowns.

"I wonder whether the mature queen or the precocious princess is fondest of that man?" whispered Bolingbroke to Pulteney.

"O, the younger lady is fondest. She is romantically in love, while her mother uses Hervey as she uses all the world, for her own convenience and advantage," answered Pulteney; "yet I must needs wonder what is the charm of that sickly face and that effeminate manner, that all the women should adore him?"

"I think the charm is a kind of finnicking cleverness, a concatenation of petty talents which women understand. If Hervey had devoted himself to statecraft, he would have been a second-rate politician. His parts in great things would have seemed at best respectable; but by concentrating his abilities upon trivialities he appears a genius – and then, again, a man has but to flatter and fawn for the women to think him an intellectual giant, magnified by their vanity – just as a flea under a microscope seems a monster."

It was three o'clock in the morning, and Lady Judith's assembly was over, save for a few intimates who lingered in front of the fireplace in the hall, while the Swiss porter snored in his chair, and the last of the linkmen waited despairingly for the departure of the latest guest. A couple of chairs were waiting on the pavement outside – Lord Bolingbroke's and Lord Lavendale's. Tom Philter was the only other loiterer, and those spindleshanks of his were to carry him back to Gray's Inn Lane.

The royalties had eaten heavily and departed, much pleased with their entertainment.

"I thought the supper-table looked like a larder," said Lady Judith, fanning herself indolently, as she half reclined in a great carved oak chair. "Any one but a German would have been nauseated by such a plethora of food."

"But 'twas just what they like," replied Philter. "I saw your ladyship had all his Majesty's favourite dishes."

"I ought to know his tastes, after those wearisome dinners at Richmond Lodge, over which I have groaned in spirit on so many a Saturday," said Judith.

"Ah, I grant you, madam, those Richmond dinners are an abomination," retorted Philter, who would have forfeited five of his declining years to have been bidden to one.

"The king is as fond of punch as his lamented father, who used to get amicably drunk with Sir Robert every afternoon, after a morning's shooting in the New Park at Richmond last year, when the minister had a temporary lodging on the hill there," said Bolingbroke.

"In spite of the Duchess of Kendal and her Germans, who did their best to cut short that pleasant easy conviviality between his Majesty and Robin," said Philter.

And now Bolingbroke made his adieux, with that blending of stately grace and friendly familiarity which constitutes the charm of the grand manner, and little Philter tripped out at his heels, leaving Lavendale alone with his host and hostess. Judith looked at him furtively from under her drooping lashes, wondering for what purpose he had lingered so long. There had been no word of explanation between them since that broken appointment last summer. They had met only in public, and had simpered and chattered as if the most indifferent acquaintance. And now it seemed very strange to Judith, as a woman of the world, that Lavendale should make himself conspicuous by outstaying all her other guests.

"I have waited till the last, Mr. Topsparkle," said his lordship gravely, "in the hope that, late as the hour is, you would honour me with a few words in private."

"There is no hour in which I am not at your lordship's service," replied Topsparkle, with his airiest manner; yet there was a look of anxiety in his countenance which his wife noted.

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