Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3
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They were in the street by this time, or rather that mixture of town and country which lay between Bloomsbury and Golden Square. The rain had ceased, the sky had cleared, and the moon was high, a night such as footpads and highwaymen love not. In this clear summer weather there were fewer murders and robberies than in the long dark nights of autumn and winter, and even that favourite haunt of London banditti, Denmark Street, St. Giles's, might be passed with safety.
Golden Square was then one of the newest and handsomest squares in London. It had been built towards the close of the last reign, and it was here that St. John in his brief day of power had furnished and decorated a splendid mansion, from which disgrace drove him across the Channel, a fugitive in an ignominious disguise, six months after the late Queen's death, to return on sufferance only the other day, after long years of exile, with honours shorn and mind embittered; to return as clever, as unscrupulous, and as mischievous in his impotent maturity as ever he had been in his active and brilliant youth.
The chocolate-house was full of company when the two gentlemen entered. Although London was supposed to be empty at this time of the year, there was always a section of society which preferred the town to the country – wits, journalists, actors, garreteers, reprobates of all kinds, to whom rusticity was revolting, and the song of the nightingale an intolerable monotony. The King's Theatre was closed for the dull season, but there had been a company of French players at the new theatre on the opposite side of the Haymarket, and these had been the occasion of a good deal of talk, and some ill-feeling among the more bigoted British playgoers; for sturdy John Bull bore almost as deep a grudge against the French comedians as against Heidegger's Italian singers, who were paid better than bishops or Cabinet Ministers.
The company was curiously mixed on this particular evening. At one table sat a little group of fashionable gentlemen, including a brace of peers and a baronet; at another a knot of pamphleteers, in which Mr. Philter was conspicuous by the loudness of his voice and the arrogance of his opinions.
"A new poem by the Poet Pug," he cried, in answer to a grave-looking gentleman opposite him; "a satirical epic better than anything he ever writ before, say you, sir? Whoever told you of such a work was fooling you. Why, the man's vein was exhausted a year ago. His tiny talent reached its apogee in 'The Rape of the Lock.' And to talk of a satirical epic from that effete little hunchback, whose meretricious Muse was at best but a jackdaw stalking in borrowed plumes, a mere tricky adapter of Horace and Boileau, who by the aid of a little Latin, less French, and a great deal of audacity, contrived to take the town!"
"Nay, 'twas not so much by his verse as by the magnitude of his libels and the pettiness of his amours that our Alexander the Little contrived to conquer notoriety," said Philter's umbra, fat little Jemmy Ludderly, who was supposed to live upon tripe and cow-heel at the cheap eating-houses in Clare or Newport Market, except when the swaggering Philter treated him at the West End.
"You are not an admirer of Mr.Pope, sir," remarked the grave gentleman.
"No, sir. I knew his master, Dryden. I have sat at Wills's coffee-house many a night with glorious John."
"No man is glorious till after death," said the other. "I have a notion that with posterity Pope will enjoy a more universal popularity than his great predecessor; there may be less grandeur and force in his verses, but there is more music and a finer wit. I can scarce contain my indignation against the kennel of petty curs, poetasters, caricaturists, and half-fledged wits, who are for ever libelling so great a master of his art, and who pretend to despise the finest mind in England because it has the misfortune to be allied to a misshapen body."
"I see, sir, you are a close friend of the poet's."
"I am something more, sir," replied the other, with dignity; "I am his publisher."
"Then I have the honour of addressing Mr. Lintot."
"The same, sir."
Lord Lavendale took his place at an unoccupied table, nodding to an acquaintance here and there as he passed. His entrance made a kind of faint flutter in the assembly, every one looking up from cards or conversation, pipe or glass, to note him as he went by. His person was known to almost everybody in London, and his long absence and the rumours of strange adventures in Eastern Europe had made him an object of general curiosity. People were of different opinions as to how many duels he had fought, and how many women he had run away with; but all were agreed that his course in foreign countries had been that of a malignant star, the harbinger of dishonour and death.
"I was told Lavendale had grown old and ugly," said Lord Liskeard, a Tory peer and bosom friend of Bolingbroke, to a Whig baronet; "but to my mind he looks as handsome and as young as he did the year he stole Chichinette from the Duke of Wharton."
"Lavendale is like a beauty in her third or fourth season," answered Sir Humphrey Dalmaine. "He looks his best by candlelight."
Lavendale ordered a bowl of punch, and presently invited Mr. Philter to his table, who made no difficulty about leaving his friend Ludderly, and came over at once, charmed to hob and nob with a lord.
"Fill your glass, Tom, and tell us the news of the town," said Lavendale. "You are better than a gazette."
"I should be sorry to be as bad as the best of them, your lordship, for I never looked at a newspaper yet, Whig or Jacobite, Flying Post or St. James's Journal, that was not a tissue of lies. I heard t'other day that Lord Bolingbroke was incubating a new journal in the interests of faction and of treachery."
"Do you know what new plot that shifty politician and her Grace of Kendal are hatching?" inquired Lavendale.
"Nothing of any moment. There has been a dead level of stagnation in Jacobite plots since the great conspiracy four years ago, when Bishop Atterbury was sent to prison, and when the Irish priest Neynoe let himself down from a two-story window by a rope of bed-clothes, leapt into the Thames, and escaped the hangman by the less discreditable fate of a watery grave. It was somewhat strange that those two arch-plotters, his Grace of Rochester and Harry St. John, should meet and cross each other at Calais, one going into exile, and t'other returning from it. Since that famous explosion of ill-directed zeal we have had nothing worth talking about in the way of plots, though you may be sure neither his Grace of Rochester nor my Lord Bolingbroke has been idle, and that the Channel between them has been crossed pretty often by letters from the Pretender's friends."
"And for domestic news?" asked Lavendale. "Leave this great chessboard, upon which princes, bishops, and Cabinet Ministers are trying to over-reach and countermarch each other, and tell us of that little world of pleasure and fashion in which we are really interested."
"There is not much stirring, except that Lady Polwhele has at last thrown off Captain Asterley. She allowed him to marry a rich tallow-chandler's daughter, upon the strict understanding that he was to ill-treat or at least neglect his wife. The tallow-chandler's daughter was young and pretty, wore her own teeth and her own hair; and Asterley was so perverse as to get fond of her, broke several appointments with her ladyship, and was foolish enough to boast of his wife's approaching maternity, which Lady Polwhele considered a premeditated insult to herself. They quarrelled, the Countess was vehement to hysteria, and Asterley appeared next day with a scratched face. A fine Angora tom-cat of her ladyship's, seeing his mistress in hysterics, and fancying her aggrieved, had flown at the supposed assailant, and clawed him from temple to chin. So the story goes: but if ever human nails tore human countenance, those talons which clawed Asterley grew at the roseate tips of Lady Polwhele's taper fingers."
"It is like you and the town to say so," said Durnford, laughing.
"I grant that the town and I always think the worst of everybody; and that is why we are generally right. By the bye, I suppose you have heard that Lady Judith and her elderly Cr?sus have been falling out?"
"Indeed!" said Lavendale, interested in a moment. "Was it about a lover?"
"A lover! No, Dian herself is not colder than Lady Judith Topsparkle, unless it were to Endymion. Of course there always is the Endymion, if one but knew where to put one's hand upon him." Mr. Philter's fingers rested airily for an instant or so on Lavendale's velvet cuff as he spoke. "No, 'twas no jealousy that roused the citizen once removed: only avarice. The quarrel was about a game at basset, at which the lady lost something over five thousand pounds. But surely Lady Judith has a right to an expensive amusement on her side, since she is most obligingly indulgent to the gentleman's musical craze, and allows him to invite all Heidegger's crew to Ringwood Abbey, where Handel is the family idol, and where there is squalling enough to explode the roof and rouse the ghosts of all the monks from their graves."
"Play is as high as ever, then, I conclude?" said Durnford.
"Higher; people seem more eagerly bent upon losing their money now there is less money to lose, and everybody crying out that the country is on the brink of ruin. They play in the green-rooms of the theatres, at the Bath, at Leicester House, and at St. James's – everywhere. The Duke of Devonshire lost an estate t'other night at that same game of basset which nearly parted Mr. Topsparkle and his beautiful wife."
"And was the breach healed? Are they friends again?" asked Durnford.
Lavendale sat silent, with a brooding air, listening intently under those finely marked brows of his.
He had beautiful eyes, large, lustrous, of a bluish-gray, with dark lashes, eyes which had haunted the memories of the women who had loved him, even after love was dead. He had delicately cut features, a sensitive mouth, a beautifully moulded but somewhat womanish chin. It was the face of poet and dreamer, rather than of statesman, warrior, or deep thinker; yet he had none of the effeminacy of Lord Hervey, nor yet that nobleman's sickly pallor. But there was no bloom of health upon his face; his cheeks were hollow, and a hectic flush gave fire and brightness to eyes which had at other times a haggard and weary look.
"O, they are friends again, be sure," answered Philter gaily, refilling his glass with the silver ladle, which had King William's head on a crown-piece embedded in the bowl. "Topsparkle adores his wife, and is the veriest slave to her caprices. And even if he were less devoted he would hardly venture to rebel. A man of his doubtful antecedents cannot afford to wage domestic war."
"Are Mr. Topsparkle's antecedents so very bad?" asked Durnford, Lord Lavendale still keeping silence.
Mr. Philter bent across the table to answer confidentially. "I believe there is only one man in London who knows how bad, and he has just entered this room," he said, with a jerk of his thumb across his shoulder: "mum's the word."
Lavendale and Durnford looked at the new-comer. He was elderly, but well preserved, wore the most fashionable style of peruke, and had as fine a complexion as white lead and vermilion could give him, set off by elaborate patches. His mouse-coloured grosgrain suit was trimmed with a narrow edging of silver braid, his waistcoat buttons were filigree silver. His mouse-coloured silk stockings and red-heeled shoes were perfection. Nothing could be more subdued or gentlemanlike than the man's costume, nothing more graceful and unobtrusive than his air. He carried a tortoiseshell eyeglass, with which he gravely regarded the assembly as he glided sinuously through the narrow space between the tables towards one particular corner.
"That is Monsieur F?tis, Mr. Topsparkle's valet, secretary, and ?me damn?e," said Philter. "He has been in the gentleman's service for the last forty years. They were young men together. Some say he is a natural son of Topsparkle the elder by a French actress, but that is a foolish tradition. He has done Topsparkle's dirty work for forty years, been secret as the grave, and as faithful as a man who knows his interest lies in fidelity. And now he has a house in Poland Street, a useful kind of establishment, half lodging-house, half hotel, and wholly hospitable, which is rumoured to yield him two or three thousand a year. And yet he is content to curl Mr. Topsparkle's wig, and train Mr. Topsparkle's eyebrows, and apply hare's-foot and lip-salve, as submissively as the veriest drudge at twenty pound a year."
"The bond between them must be close," remarked Durnford, while Lavendale still sat brooding, with lowered eyelids and thoughtful brow.
"Be sure it is close as crime can make it," answered Philter. "There is no bond I know of that will keep service or friendship faithful for forty years, unless it be a guilty secret."
He had drawn his chair close between Lavendale and Durnford at the beginning, and now spoke with head bent and voice lowered confidentially, so that there was little risk of his being overheard by any one beyond that table. Yet the conversation hardly seemed of a kind to be carried on in a public room.
Lavendale rose suddenly and took up his hat.
"Are you going to play to-night, Mr. Philter?" he asked.
"Your lordship ought to know that a man who lives by his pen can have very little cash to risk at the gaming-table. I come here only to see the world."
"Then if you have seen enough of it for to-night, what say you to our walking homewards together? I think your lodgings lie somewhere near Bloomsbury."
"Your lordship is right. I have some pleasant airy rooms in the Gray's Inn Road, overlooking the old Inn garden and Lord Bacon's catalpa-tree, where I shall be enchanted to see you two gentlemen any afternoon that you will drop in upon me for a dish of tea, and will condescend to listen to an act or so of a new comedy which only cabal and self-interest have kept off the boards of Lincoln's Inn."
The three men left the tavern together, Tom Philter highly elated at being seen in the company of a man of Lavendale's rank and fashion. He could not help swaggering a little as he picked his way through the room, with elbows jauntily elevated, and slim court rapier swaying at his side, and hat cocked lightly over the left eyebrow.
"Now, Mr. Philter," said Lavendale, when they were in the shadowy street, where the lamps were unlit when the moon was at the full, albeit Luna is a somewhat capricious luminary, given to dodging behind clouds, "tell me what you mean about Vyvyan Topsparkle and his guilty secrets. You seem to be on such familiar terms with the valet that you must needs know something about the master. You and Monsieur F?tis have often hob-nobbed together, I take it."
"No, my lord, I do not chink glasses with valets, but I have supped at his house with some of the best company in London. 'Twas a pied-?-terre of Wharton's when he was in his glory; and 'twas there I met the Duke of Bolton and pretty Mrs. Fenton, a poor actress but a sweet little woman, and most disinterestedly devoted to his grace."
"Pshaw, Philter! Who believes in an actress's disinterestedness? But it is not at a ducal supper-party you would hear queer stories of Mr. Topsparkle. No one talks of the past or of the future in such uproarious society as that. Every man lives for the present moment; his hopes and his ambition are bounded by the eyes and lips that are smiling at him; his views of life are as sparkling and as transient as the bubbles on a glass of champagne, and as rosy as the deepest glow of Burgundy. You must have had better opportunities of drawing Monsieur F?tis!"
"F?tis is not a man to be drawn, my lord. Walpole himself could not extort a secret from him. He has thriven too well by fidelity to turn traitor. My intelligence comes from higher sources."
"I understand; from some friendly housemaid's attic, no doubt," laughed Lavendale. "Don't be angry, Philter; I forgive you the sources if you will but give me your intelligence. I would give much to know that fribble's past career, with all its dark mysteries."
"That is a tangled web which will take time to unravel," answered the oracle.
"I am willing to devote time, money, patience, anything, to the unravelment!"
"I have no positive information; only vague hints which might afford a clue to a man who would take the pains to follow it."
"I am that man!" exclaimed Lavendale, putting his arm through that of Philter, who regretted that they were not in broad daylight and Bond Street. "Man," said he, "in such a quest I am a sleuth-hound."
"Well, my lord," rejoined Philter, "there is a queer story of Topsparkle's early youth which I have heard elderly men harp upon – a beautiful woman, commonly supposed to be an opera singer, whom he brought from Italy with him just before the Revolution, and kept immured in that great rambling house of his in Soho Square. The lady was reported to be exquisitely beautiful, but as she never appeared in public the town had no opportunity of judging for itself; yet she was not the less talked about, and perhaps all the more admired, for being invisible. Then came a report that John Churchill, at that time in the bloom of his irresistible youth, flushed with his conquests of duchesses, had been seen hanging about the house; that Topsparkle was mad with jealousy, had challenged Churchill, had been laughed at and insulted, his challenge flung in his teeth. 'If a man of your quality offends me I always horsewhip him, but as you haven't offended me I have nothing to say to you,' Churchill is reported to have said in a public assemblage. 'I hope you don't suppose that the fortune your worthy alderman-father amassed by the petty chicaneries of trade can ever put you on a duelling level with gentlemen.' I had this speech verbatim from my grandfather, who was present on the occasion."
"And did Topsparkle swallow the affront?"
"There was a row, and he wanted to maul the young Alcibiades; but friends and bystanders intervened, and Churchill, for the lady's sake, assured Topsparkle on his honour, that if he had been seen in Soho Square at unseemly hours, the Hero whose tower he had scaled was not Mrs. Topsparkle. The citizen's son appeared to be satisfied at this assurance, peace was made, and the town thought no more of Mr. Topsparkle's lady till a fortnight later, when a funeral was seen to leave his house in Soho Square, and a brief notice in the news-letter informed the world at large that Margharita, lady of Vyvyan Topsparkle, Esquire, had deceased on such and such a day, after twenty-four hours' illness, aged twenty-one."
"Did any one suspect foul play?" asked Lavendale.
"Society is given to that kind of suspicion; and the lady's death occurred in an agitating time, when the minds of men were full of Jesuit plots, supposititious babies, poison, and treason. I have read some curious paragraphs in the newspapers of that year, in which the suspicious circumstances of Mrs. Topsparkle's death were hinted at, together with various insinuations and innuendoes questioning the lady's character, and suggesting that she had no legal claim to the name of Topsparkle. But it was only when Topsparkle ventured to stand for Brentford as a high Tory in the beginning of William's reign that the Whig pamphleteers and lampooners let fly their venomed arrows. Then it was broadly stated that Mr. Topsparkle had run away with an Italian dancing-girl – she was no longer a singer, you will mark: that would have been too reputable. He had stolen her out of a booth where she was Columbine to an itinerant Harlequin; he had brought her to London, shut her up in his house in Soho Square, surprised her treachery with a gentleman of good birth and superior personal attractions, best known to society for former favours bestowed upon him by her Grace of Cleveland, and had made away with her, whether by bowstring or poisoned bowl the lampooners averred not, but bills setting forth this scandal were freely distributed in Brentford. Mr. Topsparkle was challenged with his guilt on the hustings, and narrowly escaped being mauled by the mob. It was altogether a very ugly experience in the way of electioneering adventures, and you can hardly wonder that Topsparkle's ardour for parliamentary fame cooled from that hour."
"Did he do nothing to refute this slander?" asked Durnford.
"A great deal – and too little. He laid a criminal information against the least cautious of his libellers, and got him put in the pillory; but public feeling was altogether against the libelled gentleman, and the pillory was as a bower of roses to the venal scribbler, who doubtless had written just what he was told to write by Topsparkle's political opponent. Perhaps, had Topsparkle stayed in England and held his own boldly, the scandal would have passed as the mere scum of the political cauldron; but as he sneaked off to the Continent almost immediately afterwards, under pretence of offering his allegiance to the Royal Exile, most people were of opinion that the story was not altogether a baseless fabrication, and, taken in conjunction with the rest of Mr. Topsparkle's experiences and his personal character, the suspected tragedy put the finishing touch to a ripening reputation, and kept him out of the way of his fellow-countrymen for over thirty years."
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