Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3

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"I should be slow to believe a slander so circulated, and resting on such slight foundations," said Lavendale gravely.

"So should I, my lord, nor have I refused Mr. Topsparkle my friendship," answered Philter, with a grand air. "I spent a week at his country seat last winter; a most magnificent mansion, a medi?val abbey furnished with all the luxuries which modern art and the invention of a sybarite could devise. Mr. Topsparkle is a connoisseur, an enthusiast in painting and sculpture, porcelains, enamels, bronzes, and boule cabinets, and as he draws upon a kind of Fortunatus's purse, he can afford to gratify every fancy, however exorbitant. Nor does he stint the pleasures of his friends. Although no sportsman, he has the finest stud and the finest stable in Hampshire, and although an absolute ascetic in his eating and drinking, he has the best table and the best cellar of any gentleman of my acquaintance."

"I can easily credit that," said Lavendale, "since I opine you do not count your moneyed friends by the dozen."

"O, but there are varieties of the species," answered Philter, unabashed by the snub. "There are many who have a genius for making money, but few who possess the noble art of spending it. Indeed, I doubt if you ever get those two faculties united in the same person. The man who makes his own fortune has a silly greed for keeping it. Only in the second generation of money-getters do you find the royal art of the spender and the connoisseur. Now, our friend Topsparkle was born in the purple. He was swaddled in point d'Alen?on, and fed out of a parcel-gilt porringer."

"So you have been at Ringwood Abbey, Tom," said Lavendale, with a half-unconscious insolence. "The company there must be curiously mixed, I take it."

"So much the better for the company. 'Tis only in mixed society you find the true sparkle, the fire of clashing wits, the lightning flashes of adverse opinions. Yes, at Ringwood one finds every shade of opinion in politics, from the notorious Jack to the sleek Muggite – from satisfied placemen to discontented non-jurors. Bolingbroke was there last winter, the object of everybody's interest and curiosity, after his long exile. He is as handsome as ever, and almost as fascinating as when he bewitched half the women of fashion and quality, and yet was the abject slave of Clara, a nymph who sold oranges in the Court of Requests. Now he brags of his French wife and his farm near Uxbridge, a poor plaything of a place on which he has just spent a trifling twenty thousand or so. Here he grows turnips and affects Cincinnatus, pretends to have done with politics and to live only for breeding cattle and cultivating the classics. And no sooner had that sun sunk below the horizon than there rose a more prosperous luminary in the person of Walpole. Carteret, the all-accomplished, have I met there, and punning Pulteney, and hesitating Grafton, with his grand airs of royalty by the left hand; and in fact the society at Ringwood Abbey is but a new illustration of an ancient truth, that if a man be but rich enough, he can always keep the highest company in the land."

"And how do you pay your footing among all these grandees, Mr.

Philter? Do you write an acrostic for one, and a love-song for another, fetch and carry between peers and their mistresses, or comb shock-dogs for peeresses?"

"I hope you have not such a low idea of a journalist's status, my lord. Be assured that I do nothing to degrade the dignity of letters."

"What, not borrow a ten-pound note from St. John, or sell a political secret to Walpole? Be not offended, Tom; I must have my jest. 'Tis but gaiety of spirits that makes me impertinent. And at Ringwood, now, did you surprise no domestic mysteries, hear no hints about that tragedy you have suggested?"

"Not a word. All there seemed sunshine. Topsparkle adores his wife with an almost servile devotion, lives only upon her smiles, follows in her footsteps like her lap-dog. I believe in his heart of hearts he is jealous of poor pampered pug, and would not regret to see the little beast expire of a surfeit of cream and kisses."

"And she – is she happy?" asked Lavendale, relaxing from simulated gaiety to moodiness.

"There I dare not answer off-hand. Who can swear to a fine lady's happiness? Her heart is a close-locked coffer, of which only her abigail or her lover has the key. I can pledge myself to the brilliancy of Lady Judith's eyes and conversation, to the lightness of her foot in a minuet or a country dance, to her dash and courage in the hunting-field, her impertinence to her superiors in rank, up to the throne itself; I can testify to her superb recklessness in expenditure and her princely hospitality: but to pronounce whether she is happy or miserable must be left to her guardian angel, if she have one."

"Such a frivolous existence would be rather under the care of Belinda's ministering sylphs," said Durnford, as they turned into Bloomsbury Square.

It was after midnight, but Philter never refused a drink, so he accepted Lavendale's invitation to a bottle of some particularly choice Burgundy which had been laid down by his lordship's father. The bottle, with such a potent imbiber as Mr. Philter, led to a second, and as glass followed glass, the journalist talked more and more freely of the scandals of the town.

"But mark you, I have never heard a breath against Lady Judith," he said; "she has the reputation of Diana's coldness backed by Juno's pride. She never has bestowed favour on mortal; she would destroy a modern Act?on for a disrespectful look; she would pursue with direst wrath the Paris who dared to place her second in the royalty of beauty. And yet I believe she is human," added Philter, with a significant glance at Lord Lavendale, "and that a passionate heart beats under the snow of that majestic bosom."

"Pray do not suspect his lordship of any designs in that quarter," said Durnford bitterly. "He has only an eye for youth and simplicity. He is courting an heiress just escaped from the nursery."

"O, but there is always a charm in bread-and-butter for your thorough rou?," answered Philter, with a knowing air; "that hardened man about town Horace is never more enthusiastic than when he sings the half-fledged beauty shrinking from a lover's pursuit. I congratulate your lordship on the prospect of a match with youth, beauty, and bullion. I once thought my own mission would have been to marry money; but no less than three young women of fortune whom I had at various times in tow, and almost as good as anchored in the safe harbour of matrimony, got wind of certain conquests of mine which shall be nameless, and from my infidelities as a lover doubted my capacity to keep faith as a husband."

And having hiccoughed out this boast, Mr. Philter wiped his wine-stained lips and departed.


Lavendale mused and brooded upon that strange story of the man who had cheated him out of his sweetheart, if it could indeed be said that he owed the loss of Judith's hand to Mr. Topsparkle, when he had forfeited her affection by his own folly. But he was not the kind of man to reason closely upon such a matter, and he resented Judith's marriage as an act of inconstancy to himself, and Topsparkle's wealth as an impertinence. To think that the son of a City merchant should wallow in gold, entertain princes and politicians, while Lavendale groaned under the burden of an encumbered estate, and endured the curse of empty coffers!

He looked up old newspapers and magazines, called at Tom Philter's lodgings, and, with that gentleman's aid, raked over the gutter of the past for any scrap of scandal against Mr. Topsparkle; but he could discover no more than the journalist had told him in the first instance. There had been a lady in the house in Soho Square, nearly forty years ago, and that lady had been called Mrs. Topsparkle; but as she had never appeared in public with her lord, it had been concluded that she possessed no legal right to that name. John Churchill's encounter with Topsparkle had been town talk for a week or so, the conqueror of Blenheim and Malplaquet being at that period famous only for his personal beauty, and for the scandalous adventures of his early youth – an intrigue with a duchess, a chivalrous descent from an upper window – and an imputation of venality which went to prove that the avarice of the future hero was already engrained in the stripling of the present. The mysterious lady's sudden death, in the very flower of her youth, had imparted a fictitious interest, and she had made herself briefly famous by that untimely doom. The papers gave exaggerated descriptions of her beauty and broadly hinted that her fate had been as tragic as that of Desdemona. The Flying Post described how the Nickers had broken all Mr. Topsparkle's windows with halfpence, soon after the poor lady's funeral. Topsparkle was alluded to as the City Othello, and in one scurrilous print was denounced as an "und-t-ct-d ass-ss-n." However baseless the slander may have been, it had evidently been freely circulated, and Topsparkle's subsequent residence abroad for more than a generation had given a kind of colour to the foul charge. Nor was this vaguely defined tragedy the only dusky page in the millionaire's history. His general character had been vicious, his habits on the Continent had been reported as abominable. He had been an admiring follower in the footsteps of the Regent Orleans, and of lesser lights in the same diabolical firmament.

And this man was Judith's husband. Yet what was it to him whether she was happy or miserable? that old sweetheart of his, whose round white arms had been wreathed round his neck that night in the little Chinese room at Lady Skirmisham's, what time she swore she would be his wife, and urged him to be true to her. Well, he had not been true; he had played the fool with fortune, had sacrificed the one real love of his life to mere braggadocio and the idle vanity of an hour, and his reward was an empty heart.

Vainly did he try to fan those red embers into a new flame, to burn before a new altar. He would have been very glad to fall in love with Squire Bosworth's daughter. Again and again he told himself that she was younger and lovelier than Judith, and that in her love he might find the renewal of his wasted youth, find contentment and length of years more surely than in that sacred art which old Vincenti had cultivated with the enthusiast's devotion for nearly half a century, and which seemed to have brought him but little nearer to those three great mysteries which he sought to fathom: —

The secret of illimitable wealth by the transmutation of meaner metals into gold and silver.

The secret of prolonged existence, to be found in some universal panacea, guessed at, almost grasped, yet always escaping the seeker.

And thirdly, the secret of intellectual power – the intercommunion of flesh and deity, the link between this mortal clay and the ethereal world of angels and demons.

It seemed to Lavendale, in his dreams of the past and of the dead, in his vivid recalling of half-forgotten words, the touch, the kiss of long ago, that this communion between severed souls was not unknown to human sense. If it could thus be granted in our sleeping hours, why not also to our waking senses? To him there was something more than mere memory in the dreamer's commune with the dead.

Vincenti pored over his old black-letter books: Roger Bacon's "Cure of Old Age;" or the "Art of Distillation, or Practical Physick, together with the preparation of Precipiolum, the Universal Medicine of Paracelsus;" or the "Golden Work of Hermes Trismegistus, translated out of Hebrew into Arabick, then into Greek, afterwards into Latin;" very precious volumes these, in the old Venetian's sight, treasuries of the wisdom of Eastern sages, hoarded up in the dim distance of the remote past to be the guide of searchers after truth in the present.

His toil of nearly half a century had brought him to the threshold of the temple, but it had not enabled him to open the door of the sanctuary. The secret was still a secret, and he felt life waning. All those things which made this world pleasant to the common race of mortals Vincenti had sacrificed to the necromancer's grander idea of bliss; he had nothing to live for except the realisation of that one hope; and if he should die without having mastered even the meanest of those three great secrets, he must needs confess that he had lived and laboured in vain.

"Others may follow me," he said, with a simplicity of resignation that was almost heroic. "Others will read what I have written, and may profit by labours that have just missed fruition. The truth must be revealed, the secret must be found. It is only a question of time and patience."

Lavendale spent his days between London and country, rushing backwards and forwards by coach or on horseback, as whim prompted him, and in this autumn of 1726 he seemed of all men the most whimsical. London was dull and empty, half the fashionable world was at Twickenham, and the other half at Bath; yet there was always a chance of playing deep, or of getting involved in some political plot; there were always taverns, and chocolate-houses, and clubs in full swing, and a fever of party feeling in the air, which gave a certain amount of variety and excitement to life. Bolingbroke was in London, plotting hard, and there were bets as to whether he would succeed in undermining steady-going, steadfast Robert Walpole, the greatest financier England had ever known, and the only man of capacity wide enough to foresee the peril of the South Sea Company, when to all the rest of the world that rotten fabric seemed the enchanted palace and treasury of Plutus himself, containing gold enough to enrich every one of the money-god's votaries, down to the meanest.

That stubborn good sense of his on the occasion of the South Sea fever had established Robert Walpole's reputation as a safe minister, and the sober common sense of the nation was with him. He had shown himself an advocate for peace, and Bolingbroke, who in the days of Marlborough's triumphs in the Low Countries had cavilled at the continuance of the war, was now scornful of the Treasurer's pacific policy, and led the chorus of the disaffected to the tune of England's decay. Lavendale dined with Lord Bolingbroke more than once that autumn at his house in Pall Mall, the splendid mansion in Golden Square having passed into other hands during his lordship's exile. Lavendale was a Whig by birth and education, but his Whiggism was not strong enough to prevent his friendship with the most brilliant man of the age, or to exclude him from the most intellectual circle in England. He went down to Dawley, Bolingbroke's fancy farm near Uxbridge, where his lordship appeared to advantage in his favourite character of country squire, and where the ploughs and harrows painted in fresco on the walls of the hall indicated his bucolic bent. Here Lavendale made the acquaintance of the statesman's French wife, and here he met Pope and Swift, and Arouet de Voltaire, who had now established himself in the neighbourhood of London, a distinguished literary exile, and who was l'ami de la maison at Dawley.

In his wild youth, when good Queen Anne was sovereign of England, and the Mohawk Club in full swing, Lavendale had admired Henry St. John as the type and model of all that is finest in manhood. He had been then, in the insolence of power and floodtide of success, scheming for the restoration of the Stuarts, while affecting to favour the Hanoverian succession. He had ousted his old friend and patron the Duke of Marlborough, had allowed the conqueror of Ramillies and Blenheim, the man who had made our English arms as glorious as they had been in the days of the Henries and the Edwards, to be humiliated by that nation which his signal genius had elevated above all other nations. That great man, to whom England and England's Queen owed so much, had knelt at his sovereign's feet and besought her pardon and favour for his beautiful termagant, whose follies might have been forgiven for the sake of the husband who so blindly adored her. An ignominious end assuredly to royal friendship, and royal favour, and heroic genius unfortunately mated. Saddest page in the life of England's Captain-General, that scene in the palace, the kneeling conqueror, and the stubborn Queen's unrelenting wrath.

St. John, who once wrote himself down my Lord Marlborough's most devoted and grateful servant, had helped to bring about that humiliation and that fall from power. And then came Atropos with the fatal shears, and just when the traitor's hopes were highest, and he was to play, in a strictly diplomatic and unwarlike character, the great part of General Monk, and bring about a new Restoration, with more ringing of joy-bells and flinging of flowers, as on the glorious twenty-ninth of May, the Queen died, and the plotter's web was rent in pieces. "What a world it is, and how does Fortune banter us!" he cried, in bitterness of spirit. Then came loss of office, six months of rustic retirement, watching for any change of the wind setting Saint-Germain-wards, then the bill of attainder, and the sudden flight of one who dared not face his accusers. Oxford, whose timidity mid irresolution had been ridiculed by his high-spirited colleague, had faced the danger, and escaped it; while Bolingbroke, the high-minded and daring, had fled to France disguised as a French messenger. And now he was in England again, debonair, audacious, favoured by his Majesty's morganatic wife, her Grace of Kendal, flattering everybody, charming everybody by his graces of person, his witchery of manner, his matchless talents, his reckless liberality.

Lavendale could but admire the sinner now, as he had admired him ten years ago, only with a less unquestioning idolatry.

"I know he is an unprincipled scamp," he told Durnford, when his friend remonstrated with him upon those long nights of brilliant talk and deep drinking which he spent with the patriot. "I know he has been a reprobate in his conduct to women, flying at all game, from the young lady of fashion to the chance Egeria of the Mall; and he could drink us bottle-men all under the table and keep his head clear to the last; yes, go straight from the carouse to his office-table and pen diplomatic correspondence, no worse for his four bottles than if he had been drinking rose-water instead of champagne. But he drinks less now, and he can hardly run after women as he used to do, since his adoring wife watches him closer than ever Juno watched Jove."

"And in all probability with the same result."

"Nay, Herrick, he is too deeply immersed in statecraft to sacrifice to Venus. He and Pulteney have sworn an alliance. They call themselves Patriots, and are to start a newspaper before the year is out, with the help of that scamp Amhurst, whom you must remember at Oxford, where he was turned out of his college for profligacy and insubordination. I have half a mind to write for them."

"You, Lavendale! Are you going to rat – turn Jacobite?"

"No, but I am rather inclined to join the Hanoverian Tories. They have all the talents on their side. Walpole is too jealous of power. He will suffer no rival near the throne."

"I see that St. John has been poisoning your mind against the man to whom he owes his return from exile. But he who was ungrateful to Marlborough may well turn upon Walpole."

"I know not that he owes much to Walpole. In the first place, he was promised his pardon years ago – or at any rate told he might hope for everything – by the King; and now, instead of a free pardon, he returns on sufferance, and still languishes under the attainder which keeps him out of the senate. He who would shed such an unwonted blaze of light upon that dull firmament the House of Lords is constrained to grow turnips and train foxhounds at Dawley."

"But you find he is not content with foxhounds and turnips. He is to start a party paper which will doubtless breathe the very spirit of rancorous opposition, cavil at every measure, gird at the chief minister for everything he does and everything he does not do. Take my word for it, Jack, this country of ours, with those wide dependencies which make her chief greatness, was never in safer hands than it is under Robert Walpole. Never was the ship of state sailed by a cleverer skipper than Captain Robin."

"O, I hate the man," cried Lavendale contemptuously, "with his bluff country manners and his stuttering country speech. He is on the crest of the wave just now, after the treaty of Hanover; but wait till our friends of the opposition begin to interrogate financial matters, and you will see how heavily Sir Robert's popularity has been paid for out of the national exchequer. Why, it is said he spends a thousand a week at Houghton, to say nothing of the expenses of another establishment."

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