Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3



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CHAPTER I
"ONE THAT DOTH WEAR HIMSELF AWAY IN LONENESS."

"Nothing?" asked the farmer, standing upon a heathery knoll, with his gun under his arm, and his two clever spaniels, Nell and Beauty, crouched dutifully at his feet.

"Nothing but this," answered the farmer's man, holding up a bundle of papers – pamphlets and manuscripts – dirty, crumpled, worn as if with much carrying to and fro over the face of the earth. They were tied up in a ragged old cotton handkerchief, and they had been carried in the breast-pocket of yonder wayfarer who lay stark and stiff, with his dead face staring up at the bright blue sky of early morning. A little child, a mere baby, lay asleep beside him, nestling against the arm that would never again shelter or defend her.

It was a bright clear morning late in September, just one hundred and seventy-seven years ago, the year of the battle of Malplaquet, and the earth was so much the younger and fairer by all those years – innocent of railroads, speculating builders, gasworks, dust-destructors, sewage-farms, and telephones – a primitive world, almost in the infancy of civilisation as it seems to us, looking back upon those slow-pacing days from this age of improvement, invention, transmutation, and general enlightenment.

It was a year for ever memorable in history. The bloody battle of Malplaquet had but just been fought: a deluge of blood had been spilt, and another great victory scored by the allies, at a cost of twenty thousand slain. Brilliant as that victory had been, there were some who felt that Marlborough's glory was waning. He was no longer in the flush and floodtide of popularity. There were those who grudged him his well-won honours, his ducal coronet, and palace at Woodstock. There were those who feared his ambition, lest he should make himself a military dictator, a second Cromwell, or even aspire to the crown. If ever England seemed ripe for an elective monarchy or a republic, it was surely just at this critical period: when widowed, childless Anne was wavering in the choice of her successor, and when poor young Perkin, the sole representative of legitimate royalty, was the chosen subject for every libellous ballad and every obscene caricature of the day.

Very fair to look upon was Flamestead Common upon that September morning, purple with heather, flecked here and there with golden patches of the dwarf furze that flowers in the late summer, and with here and there a glistening water-pool. The place where the dead man lay, stretched on a bank of sunburnt moss and short tawny turf, was at the junction of four roads. First, the broad high-road from London to Portsmouth, stretching on like a silvery ribbon over hill and valley, right and left of the little group yonder – the dead man and the sleeping child, and the two living men looking down at them both, burly farmer in stout gray homespun, and his hind in smock-frock and leather gaiters, a costume that has changed but little within the last two hundred years.

The labourer had left his bush-harrow in a field hard by the common at the call of his master, shouting from the little knoll above the road.

Matthew Bowman, the farmer, trudging across the common in the dewy morning-tide, bent on a little partridge-shooting in the turnips on the other side of this heathery waste, had lighted on this piteous group – a tramp, lying dead by the wayside, and an infant, unconscious of its desolation, lying asleep beside him.

What was to be done? Who was to take care of the dead, or the living? Neither could very well be left by the wayside. Something must be done, assuredly; but Matthew Bowman had no clear idea of what to do with father or child. He had made up his mind that the baby owned that dead man as father.

"You'd best take the little one home to my missus," he said at last, "and I'll go on to Flamestead and send the constable to look after this."

He pointed to the gaunt, ghastly figure, with bony limbs sharply defined beneath scantiest covering. A vagrant wayfarer, whose life for a long time past must have been little better than starvation, and at last the boundary-line between existence and non-existence had been passed, and the hapless wretch had sunk, wasted and famished, on the king's highway.

"What are you going to do with that baby, Bowman?" demanded an authoritative voice on the higher ground above that little knoll where the farmer was standing.

Bowman looked up, and recognised one who was a power in that part of the world; all the more powerful, perhaps, because his influence rarely took a benignant form, because it was the way of his life to hold his fellow-men aloof, to exact all and to grant nothing.

This was Squire Bosworth, Lord of the Manor of Flamestead and Fairmile, owner of the greater part of the land within ten miles of this hillocky wilderness, and a notorious misanthrope and miser; shunned by the gentlefolks of the neighbourhood as half-eccentric and half-savage, feared and hated by the peasantry, distrusted and scrupulously obeyed by his tenants.

His horse's hoofs had made no sound upon the sward and heather, and he had come upon the little group unawares. He was a man of about forty, with long limbs, broad slouching shoulders, strongly-marked features of a rugged cast, reddish-brown eyes under bushy brows, a determined chin, and a cruel mouth.

His voice awakened the child, who opened wide wondering eyes of heavenliest blue, looked about with a scared expression, and anon began to cry.

Mr. Bowman explained his intentions. He would have taken charge of the child for a day or so at his own homestead, while the authorities made up their minds what to do with it. The father would find a resting-place in the nearest churchyard, which was in the village of Flamestead, half a mile Londonwards.

"Let me look at the little one," said Bosworth, stretching out his hand, and taking the infant in his strong grasp as easily as if it had been a bird.

"A pretty baby," he said, soothing it with uncouth unaccustomed hand as he held it against his horse's neck. "About the size of my motherless girl yonder, and not unlike her – the same blue eyes and flaxen hair – but I suppose all babies are pretty much alike. Take it to Fairmile Court, fellow, and tell my housekeeper to look after it."

He handed the little bundle of humanity to the farm-labourer, who stared up at him in amazement. Kindness to nameless infancy was a new and altogether unexpected development in Squire Bosworth's character.

"Don't stand gaping there, man!" cried the Squire. "Off with you, and tell Mistress Layburne to take care of the child till further orders. And now, Bowman, what kind of a man is this, d'ye think, who has taken his last night's gratis lodging on Flamestead Common?"

"He looks like a beggar-man," said the farmer.

"Nay, Bowman, that is just what he does not look. A vagabond, if you like, a scapegrace, a spy, a rebel – but not a bred-and-born vagrant. There is the brand of Cain upon his forehead, friend; broken-down gentleman, the worst breed of scoundrel in all Britain."

The farmer looked down at the dead face somewhat ruefully, as if it hurt him to hear evil spoken of that clay there, which those locked lips could not answer. It was, indeed, by no means the kind of face common on the roadside – not the sturdy bulldog visage of tramp or mendicant. Those attenuated features were as regular in their lines as Greek sculpture; those hands, cramped in the death throe, were slender and delicate. The rags upon that wasted body had once been the clothes of a gentleman – or had at least been made by a fashionable tailor. The man had perished in his youth – not a thread of silver in the rich chestnut of the abundant hair, long, silken, falling in loose waves about the thin throat and pallid ears.

"A well-looking fellow enough before want and sickness came upon him," said the Squire. "Did you find anything about him to give a clue to his name or his belongings?"

"Nothing but this," said Bowman, handing his landlord the papers in the cotton handkerchief.

Squire Bosworth sat with thoughtful brow, looking over pamphlets and manuscripts.

"Just as I thought," he said at last: "the fellow was a plotter, a tool of the Muggite crew, a hack scribbler, sowing the seeds of civil war and revolution with big words and fine sentences, a little Latin and a little Greek. He found he could not live upon his trash – was on the tramp for Portsmouth, I dare swear, meaning to get out of the country, to make his way to America, perhaps, before the mast; as if his wasted carcass would be worth board and lodging where thews and sinews are wanted! Poor devil! a sorry end for his talents. I'll ride to the village and tell the constable to send for the body."

"And the baby, Squire?" urged Bowman. "Do you mean to adopt it?"

"Adopt! That's a big word, farmer, and means a good deal. I'll think about it, friend, I'll think about it. If it's a girl, perhaps yes. If it's a boy, decidedly no."

He rode off with the bundle of papers in his pocket, leaving his tenant full of wonder. What could the Squire, whose miserly habits and want of common humanity were the talk of the county, what could such as he mean by taking compassion upon a nameless brat picked up on the wayside? What magical change had come over his disposition which prompted Roland Bosworth to an act of charity?

Nothing was further than charity from the Squire's thoughts as he rode to Flamestead; but he was a man of reflective temper, and he always looked far ahead into the future. Ten months ago his fair young wife had died, leaving him an only child – a daughter of half a year old – and now the child was sixteen months old, and her nurse had told him that she began to pine in the silence and seclusion of a house which was like a hermitage, and gardens which were gloomy and lonesome as a desert wilderness. He had poohpoohed the nurse's complaint. "'Tis you, woman, who want more company, not that baby," he had said; but after this he had been more observant of his daughter, and he had noticed that the baby's large blue eyes shone out of a pale old-looking face, which was not what a baby's face should be. The eyes themselves had a mournful yearning look, as if seeking something that was never found.

"Babies never thrive in a house where there are no children," said the nurse; and the Squire began to believe her.

The child sickened soon after this with some slight infantile ailment, and Mr. Bosworth took occasion to question the doctor as to the nurse's theory. The medico admitted that there was some reason in the woman's view. Children always throve best who had the society of other children. Fairmile Court was one of the finest places within fifty miles of London, but it was doubtless somewhat secluded and silent – there was even an air of gloom. Mr. Bosworth had allowed the timber to grow to an extent which, looked at from the point of view of health and cheerfulness —

"I am not going to cut down my trees to gratify any doctor in Christendom!" cried the Squire savagely; "but if you say my little girl wants another little girl to play with her, one must be got."

This had all happened about a fortnight before that September morning when the fatherless baby was found sleeping so peacefully beside the dead. The Squire had shrunk from introducing a stranger's brat into that stately desolate home of his, which it had been the business of his later years to keep closed against all the world. In his solitary rides he had reconnoitred many a farmer's homestead where children swarmed; he had looked in upon his gamekeeper's and gardener's cottages, where it seemed to him there was ever a plethora of babies; but he could not bring himself to invite one of these superfluous brats to take up its abode with him, to lie cheek by jowl with his dead wife's fair young daughter – a child whose lineage was alike ancient and honourable on the side of mother and father. His soul revolted against the spawn of the day-labourer or even of the tenant-farmer; and he hated the idea of the link which such an adoption would make between him and a whole family of his inferiors.

Thus it happened that the finding of that friendless child upon the common seemed to Squire Bosworth as a stroke of luck. Here was a child who, judging from the dead father's type, was of gentle blood. Here was a child whom none could ever claim from him, upon whose existence no greedy father or harpy mother could ever found a claim to favours from him. Here he would be safe. The child would be his goods, his chattel, to deal with as he pleased – to be flung out of doors by and by, when his own girl was grown up, should it so please him, or should she deserve no more generous treatment.

He saw the village constable, arranged for inquest and burial, and then put his horse at a sharp trot, and rode back to Fairmile Court as fast as the animal would take him. The house lay some way from the high-road in a park of considerable extent, and where the timber and underwood had been allowed to grow as in a forest for the last half-century. The result was wild but beautiful; the place seemed rather a chase than a park. The fine old gardens surrounding the house had also been neglected, one gardener and a boy sufficing where once seven or eight men had laboured; but these gardens were beautiful even in neglect. The hedges of yew and cedar, the rich variety of shrubs, testified to a period when country gentlemen deemed no care or cost too much for the maintenance and improvement of their grounds – men of the school of Evelyn and Temple, with whom horticulture was a passion.

The house was a gloomy pile of gray stone, built in the reign of James I. Tall gables, taller chimney-stacks, heavily mullioned windows, and much overhanging greenery gave a picturesque air to the exterior; but within all was gloom – a gloom which had been deepening for the last ten years, when, after leading a wild life at the University, and a much wilder life in London, Roland Bosworth sobered down all of a sudden, left off spending money, renounced all the habits and all the acquaintances of his riotous youth, and began to look after his patrimonial estate. In order the better to do this he took up his abode at Fairmile Court, going up to London by the coach once a week to look after his business in the City, where he was a person of some importance on 'Change. The political arena offering few allurements to a man of his temperament, he had taken to stock-jobbing, which had lately come into fashion. By education he was a High Churchman and staunch Tory, as his father and grandfather had been before him, and his adherence to the tenets of Laud and Atterbury was all the more disinterested, as he rarely entered a tabernacle of any kind. He affected to be warmly attached to the exiled king, and he was one of those lukewarm Jacobites who contrived to carry on a mild philandering kind of connection with Saint-Germains, so cautious that it could be disavowed at any moment of danger – a feeble and wavering partisanship which helped to keep the cause of the Stuarts alive, and prevented it from ever succeeding.

Things had been going to ruin at Fairmile Court during his absence, money had been squandered by old servants, and his gamekeepers had been sleeping partners with a thriving firm of poachers. But the Squire introduced a new r?gime of strictest economy. He dismissed all the old servants, and was a hard taskmaster to the diminished household which he established in their place. At thirty years of age he had turned his back upon the town, a soured and disappointed man. At forty he had nearly doubled his fortune by successful speculations in the City, whither he went very often by coach or on horseback, as the fancy moved him. At seven-and-thirty he married the youngest daughter of a needy peer, whose father's necessities flung her into his arms. The uncongenial union, which involved parting from one she devotedly loved, broke the girl's heart, and she died ten months after the birth of her first child. On her death-bed, when weeping mother and conscience-stricken father stood beside her, sensible of the wrong they had done, she had no complaint to make against the hard, cold-hearted man whom she had sworn to honour and obey. He had not been unkind to her. He had loved her after his fashion, and he sat a little way off with covered face and head bowed in grief. He had loved her: but he had loved his money better, and he had done nothing to brighten her young life or to reconcile her to a forced marriage.

"You will be kind to Rena," she said faintly, with white lips, presently, as he bent over her, watching for that awful change which was to part them for ever. In his mind there was no ray of hope to light that parting hour. He was materialist to the core; the things which he valued and believed in were the hard realities of this world. The ethereal had no existence for him.

"You will be kind to Rena?"

Rena, short for Irene: that was the baby's name.

"Kind to her? yes, of course. She is all that will be left me."

"Except riches. O Roland, do not care more for your money than for her."

"She will be a great heiress," said Bosworth.

"Riches do not always bring happiness. Love her, be kind to her!"

Those were the last words the dying lips uttered. She dropped asleep soon after this, her head resting against her husband's shoulder, and so out of that dim land of slumber passed silently into that deeper darkness which living eyes have never penetrated.

The Squire flung his bridle to a groom who had been hanging about the drive watching for his master's return, and stalked into the stately old hall, panelled with age-blackened oak, adorned with many trophies of the battle-field and the chase, and further embellished with the portraits of Mr. Bosworth's ancestors, which he valued less than the canvas upon which they were painted. He was as proud as Lucifer, but his was not that kind of pride which fattens itself, ghoul-like, upon the dead. The captains and learned judges looming from those dark walls were to him the most worthless of all shadows. The hall was spacious and gloomy, and opened into a still more spacious dining-room, where the Squire had never eaten a dinner since he came of age. A noble saloon or music-room, painted white, and furnished exactly as it had been in the days of Charles II., opened on the other side of the hall; but the only apartments which the Squire occupied on this ground floor were three small rooms at the end of a long passage, which served him as dining-room, study, and office. A steep narrow little staircase built in the wall, which stair had once been a secret means of communication between upper and lower stories, conducted to the Squire's bedchamber and dressing-room. His child and her nurse had their abode in the opposite wing; and thus all the state rooms, constituting the centre and main body of the house, were given over to emptiness.

The establishment was on the smallest scale. There were less than half a dozen servants where there had once been twenty.

No portly powdered footman came to Mr. Bosworth's summons, but a little old man in a very shabby livery shambled along the passage at the sound of his master's bell.

"Has there been a child brought here?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Send Mrs. Layburne here."

The man shambled out again. The Squire flung off hat and riding-gloves, and seated himself by his solitary hearth. There were some logs smouldering there, for the September mornings were cool, and the Squire was of a chilly temper. The table was laid for a frugal breakfast of tea and toast; not by any means the kind of meal which would have satisfied the average country gentleman of that era; a scrivener's or a garreteer's breakfast rather.

The Squire poured himself out a cup of tea, and sat sipping it with an absent stir, and his eye upon the door.

It was flung open abruptly, and a woman entered, tall, with noble neck and shoulders, and the carriage of Dido herself – a magnificent ruin. No one could doubt that the creature had once been eminently beautiful; there were traces still of those vanished charms: eyes of velvety brown, full, fiery, splendid, and the outline of fine features. But the skin was withered and yellow, the raven hair was grizzled, some of the teeth had gone, and nose and chin had both become too prominent. The queen had degenerated into the hag.

She was shabbily and carelessly dressed in a black stuff gown, with laced bodice and muslin kerchief. She wore no cap, and her coarse unkempt hair was gathered into a loose knot on the top of her head.

"An extinct volcano," thought the student of character, as he looked at that haggard countenance, with its premature wrinkles and unhealthy pallor. "A slumbering volcano, rather," he might say to himself upon closer scrutiny.

"Well," said the Squire, "I sent you home a child."



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