Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3

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"Yes, the witch's brew has worked," said Durnford; "the magician has you in his toils. You could not have a more fatal counsellor or a more dangerous friend than Henry St. John."

"Not a word against him, Herrick; he is my friend."

Durnford bowed and held his peace. He was a staunch Walpolian, and had a sincere and honest regard for that great man which was entirely independent of self-interest. But as he was now writing regularly for one of the Whig journals, his friend affected to think him a party hack, and made light of all his warnings.

The friends dined at Fairmile Court about half a dozen times during the summer and early autumn, but Lavendale had not yet declared himself as a suitor either to the father or to the daughter; although there was enough encouragement in the Squire's manner to bring about such a declaration. The feelings of the young lady herself were at that period generally regarded as a secondary consideration; but even here there was nothing on the surface to discourage a suitor. Irene welcomed Lord Lavendale and his friend with her brightest smile, seemed glad at their coming and sorry when they went. She had a bewitching air of gaiety at times which almost caught Lavendale's wavering heart; she had in other moments a pensive manner that made her seem even more beautiful than in those joyous moods. And yet he faltered in his purpose and hung back, and told himself that there was no need for haste when a man is to seal a lifelong doom.

Herrick, meanwhile, held his peace, save for an occasional word or two with his beloved, just the assurance that she was true to him and cared nothing for his brilliant friend. He dared ask no more than this. He was working hard and honestly, had thoughts of trying for a seat in Parliament at the next general election, if his friends would help him to a borough. He had flung himself heart and soul into politics, and had abjured drink, gaming, and all those other follies which in those days went by the name of pleasure.

And now came wintry evenings and London fogs. The linkmen were busy again, there were assemblies for every night in the week, sometimes as many as seven upon one night, and women of ton went to half a dozen parties of an evening. Fashionable beauty's sedan was a feature in the dimly-lighted streets, escorted by running footmen armed with blunderbusses and carrying torches; cheery the flare of those torches across the darkness of night, with an occasional glimpse of beauty's face behind the glass, briefest vision of sparkling eyes, flashing gems, patches, vermilion, and powder. Now came the season of Italian opera. Society began to rave and dispute about tall lanky Farinelli with his seraphic voice, and short squabby Cuzzoni, also seraphic, and paid at a rate which made Court pensioners seem the veriest paupers; albeit that this was the golden age for place-hunters, whereby Sir Robert Walpole was able by and by to provide snug sinecures of two or three thousand a year for his younger son Horace provision almost more generous on the part of Sir Robert than of the nation, were all things considered.

Now came the season of masked balls, much affected by King George, and by his son's lesser but gayer Court at Richmond and Leicester Fields. Lavendale was well received at Richmond Lodge, where Pope and his literary friends were in great favour, and where the lovely Mary Lepel was now shining as Lady Hervey; where Chesterfield, Bathurst, Scarborough, and Hervey were the chief ornaments, all paying homage to the wit and wisdom of clever Princess Caroline, a lady of wide reading and strong opinions upon most points, yet astute enough always to play second fiddle to that dull dogged husband of hers, flattering him with subtlest flatteries, and maintaining her ascendency in spite of all rivalries; a calm, clever, far-seeing woman, of extraordinary power of mind and strength of purpose, standing firm as a rock amidst the quicksands of Court life; a woman of noble disposition, whose youth had known dependence and poverty, yet who had refused the heir to the German Empire rather than turn Papist.

At Lord Lavendale's advice, Squire Bosworth took lodgings in Arlington Street, over against Little St. James's Park, and brought his daughter to London, where she was presented to his Majesty by her aunt, Lady Tredgold, who treated herself and daughters to a London season, chiefly at Mr. Bosworth's expense, in order to perform this duty. Herrick heard of this London visit with an agonised heart: heard how Rena had been presented on the Prince's birthday, and had been admired at the birthnight ball. The town would change his wood-nymph into a fine lady; that sweet simplicity which was her highest charm would perish in the atmosphere of courts. How could he hope that she would be true to him when once she discovered the power of her position as an heiress and a beauty? She would be surrounded by fops and flatterers, run after by every adventurer in London. "And I shall rank among the meanest of them," thought Herrick. "What can I seem to her but an adventurer, when once she becomes worldly-wise and learns to estimate her own value? She will think that I tried to trap her into an engagement; she will begin to despise me."

Agitated by these fears and doubts, Herrick found it hard to work as steadfastly and courageously as he had been working. He found it harder still to withstand the allurements of society, the chocolate-house and the green cloth, the dice-box and the bottle; more especially as Lavendale was always at his side, tempting him, accusing him of having turned dullard and miser.

"For whom are you toiling, or for what?" his lordship asked lightly. "Do you aspire to be a poet and diplomatist, like Prior, to write verses and sign treaties, and live hand in glove with statesmen and princes? Or do you want to be the petted darling of fine ladies, like Gay? Or do you think it is in you to turn satirist, and rival Pope? – who wrote me the genteelest letter you can imagine this morning, by the way, although scarce able to hold a pen for two maimed and useless fingers, having been turned over in Bolingbroke's chariot as he was driving through the lanes between Dawley and Twit'nam on a cursedly dark night. And cursed lanes they are in bad weather, as I can affirm, having ridden through them when the mud was up to my horse's hocks. Come, Herrick, you were not made to play the anchorite. There is to be a masquerade at Heidegger's opera-house to-night, and my divinity, my wife that is to be, will be there, her first public ball. Come and be bottle-holder. I think I ought to declare myself to-night. A masquerade is a capital place for a declaration. I have been reading Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. What a pity that fellow's comedies are so seldom acted! There is good stuff in the worst of them."

The masked ball at the opera-house was the gayest scene in London. Every one was there, and royalty was conspicuous, first in the person of the old King, "a taciturn, rather splenetic elderly gentleman," in a snuff-coloured suit with silk stockings to match, no finery but his blue ribbon and diamond shoe-buckles, accompanied as usual by her maypole Grace of Kendal, lank, ungainly, and plain, but dear to Majesty by long habit, homely Joan to royal Darby. Her grace reigned alone since the death of the Countess of Darlington, another German lady with English title and estates, who had fattened upon the wealth of Britannia; an obese elderly person, with round staring black eyes, reputed to have been in early life an amazing beauty. The more well informed of the German courtiers believed the tie between this lady and the King to be purely platonic, that she was indeed his Majesty's half-sister – an illegitimate daughter of the old Elector by his infamous mistress, the Countess of Platen.

The young Court, too, was there: handsome, high-bred Caroline, with her fine aquiline features and her clear, far-seeing eyes; meek Mrs. Howard, with a long-suffering air of submission to royal caprices, not by any means the triumphant style of a ma?tresse en titre; brilliant hoydenish Mary Bellenden, now Mrs. Campbell; and sparkling Frenchified Mary Lepel, wife of John Lord Hervey; Chesterfield, airing his new title, and laying about him ruthlessly with that reckless wit which spared neither friend nor kinsfolk, heedless how deep he cut; affecting the airs of a universal conqueror also, pretending even to favours from women of the highest fashion, rank, and beauty, despite a squat ungainly person and an ugly face.

Herrick entered late upon this brilliant scene. He had waited to finish his work at the newspaper office, a dark little printer's workshop near Smithfield, and had hastily washed off the grime of the City and flung on a domino over his every-day clothes. It was a kind of pilgrim's cloak which he wore, and he had put on a pilgrim's hat like Romeo's, and carried a pilgrim's staff, when he went in quest of his Juliet.

For the first quarter of an hour his keen eyes failed to distinguish her amidst that ever-moving, ever-changing mob of masqueraders: princes and peasants, soldiers and chimney-sweepers, French cooks, Italian harlequins and columbines, Venetians, Turks, Dutchmen, and Roman emperors. The glitter and confusion of that undulating crowd, swaying to the sound of lightest music, baffled and bewildered him; but all of a sudden, in the stately movements of a minuet, he saw a form which at a glance revealed the slender gracefulness of his wood-nymph. No other form he had ever seen upon this earth had that airy motion and exquisitely unconscious elegance.

Yes, it was she, dressed as Diana, with a diamond crescent upon her brow, and her soft auburn hair coiled at the back of the perfectly shaped head, a careless curl or two hanging loosely from the coils. Her classic drapery of white and silver clothed her modestly from shoulder to ankle, revealing only the slender feet in silver sandals. In an age of monstrous headdresses and naked shoulders, powder and patches, that classic form and simply braided hair had all the charm of singularity.

Herrick glanced from his beloved to her partner. A slim, elegant-looking man in a Venetian suit, black velvet and gold, with jewelled stiletto – Lavendale without doubt. Yes, that was his dashing air of unconquerable self-possession, the easy consciousness of superiority. He offered his hand to his partner when the dance was over, and led her through the crowd, talking to her animatedly as they moved along. Herrick could see that he was pointing out the celebrities in the mob, giving his tongue full license as he described their characteristics, no doubt in a series of antitheses, as was the fashion in those days, when a modish wit depicted every man or woman of his acquaintance as a bundle of opposite qualities, a creature made up of contradictions, and as impossible as sphinx or chim?ra.

Herrick followed them closely. He was able to follow unobserved in that crowded assembly; moreover it was a legitimate action to follow any woman at a masquerade. The entertainment was invented for assignations and imbroglios, mystifications and illicit love-making. He followed close enough to hear the drift of his friend's conversation, if not the very words, and it relieved that sore heart of his to be assured that there was no serious love in all that flow of talk, only gallantry and compliment, scandal and satire.

"There goes my Lord Chesterfield, who just escapes being as ugly as Caliban, with that huge Polyphemus head of his, yet affects elegance and pretends to be irresistible with women. Heidegger himself – the ugliest man in London – might almost as fitly assume the airs of an Adonis. But there is Carteret, the most accomplished man in England, with more languages in his head than were ever spoken at Babel; I must seize an opportunity for presenting him to you. He is a great man, and would be a great minister if Walpole were not jealous of him. Have you seen Mrs. Howard – the shepherdess in pink – forty years old, and as deaf as a post? Her royal shepherd was glaring at us from that box yonder while you were dancing. And at the back of that large box over the stage you may see Majesty itself, sitting in shadow with a couple of Turks in attendance upon him, and the Duchess of Kendal in the front of the box."

"I thought kings and princes would have a grander air, would stand out more from the common people," said Rena. "I did not expect to see the King in his royal robes and crown, but I am vexed to find him so very plain-looking and humdrum! I don't believe Charles I. had ever that common look."

"We only know Charles as Vandyke painted him," said Lavendale. "I daresay were I to conjure up his ghost for you, in his habit as he lived, you would find him a somewhat insignificant person, with a long narrow face and attenuated features. You would not recognise in him the kingly figure on the white horse before which you stood so admiringly at Hampton Court Palace yesterday. But let us talk of something more interesting than kings and emperors. Let us talk of our dear selves. I have a very serious theme to discuss with you, and I thought in this light mock world, where every one is bent upon folly, you and I would be more alone than in a wood. Dare I speak freely, Irene? Will it be to seal my doom if I venture boldly?"

He had drawn the slight figure nearer to his side with a sudden caressing movement, favoured by the jostling of the crowd. Durnford grew savagely angry at that bold caress, and could scarce restrain himself from laying violent hands upon his friend; would not, perhaps, have forborne to part them, had not Rena herself started away with a half-frightened, half-indignant gesture.

But lo! at that very moment, just as Lavendale turned lightly towards the retreating nymph, bold as Apollo in pursuit of Daphne, he started and stood stock-still, as if changed into stone by some apparition of terror.

And yet it was not a terrific vision. It was only a woman, passing tall among women, with the form and carriage of Juno; a woman in a Turkish dress, glittering from brow to waistband with a galaxy of diamonds, which flashed from the gorgeous background of an embroidered robe. The lovely arms, of Parian whiteness, were bare to the shoulder; the lovely bust was but little hidden by the loose outer robe and narrow inner vest of cloth of gold. A long gauze veil fell from the jewelled turban which the lady wore, in proud defiance, or in happy ignorance, of Oriental restrictions.

This sultana of the hour was Lady Judith Topsparkle, and it was but the second time Lavendale had met her since they parted in the little Chinese room at Lady Skirmisham's.

While he stood dumfounded, scarce daring to lift his eyes to those flashing orbs which were shining upon him out of the sultana's little velvet mask, Irene drew still further away from him, unheeded, and Durnford slid in between them and slipped her hand through his arm.

"May the humblest of pilgrims be Miss Bosworth's guardian and defender in this unmannerly mob?" he asked tenderly.

She started, with a faintly tremulous movement which thrilled him with triumphant gladness. Only at the tone or touch of one she secretly loves is a woman so moved.

"Mr. Durnford!" she exclaimed. "How did you recognise me?"

"How did you know me so quickly, in spite of my mask?"

"By your voice, of course."

"And I you by a hundred things: by every turn of your head; by every line of your figure; by the atmosphere that breathes around you; by the halo of light which to my eye hovers perpetually round your head; by a deep delight that steals over me when you are near. And you have been in London a week and I have not seen you, and yet I have passed your door twenty times a day. Cruel, never to discover me from your window, never to make an excuse for five minutes' civility: were it but to drop an old fan in the gutter and let me pick it up for you, or to send Sappho out of doors to be all but run over, so that I might rescue her from under a coach and six at peril of this paltry life of mine."

"Sappho is at Fairmile. My father would not let me bring her. He has promised me a pug. Why did you not pay us a visit of your own accord?"

"I was afraid. I have waited, sneak as I am, for Lavendale to take me with him."

"But why?" she asked, with divinest innocence.

"Lest the Squire should suspect me of being in love with you, and forbid me his door."

This suggestion overpowered her, and she was silent. Durnford too was silent, in a delicious pause of rapturous contentment, as he moved slowly through the crowd with his divinity on his arm.

"Is your father here to-night?" he asked presently.

"O no. He hates all such places. My aunt, Lady Tredgold, brought me. My two cousins are here, dressed as Polish peasants, but I have lost them all in the crowd. My aunt is playing cards somewhere, I believe. She left me in charge of Lord Lavendale."

"And now you are in my charge, and I shall give you up to no one but your aunt."

"My cousins told me that she will play quadrille all night if we let her alone. We shall have to go and fetch her when it is time to go home."

"That will not be till the sun is high. And then if your cousins are girls of spirit they won't be too anxious for going home. We might drive to Islington and breakfast in the gardens there by sunrise, if it were but warmer weather. Let us be happy while we can."

"I am very happy to-night," answered Rena, with delicious simplicity. "When I first came I thought this scene enchanting."

"And you don't think it less enchanting now?" asked Herrick, in a pleading tone. "Surely my presence has not spoiled it for you?"

"Indeed, no: I am very glad to see you again."

And so they wandered on, in and out amidst that giddy crowd, jostling against statesmen and fine ladies, princes and potentates; and so lost in the delight of each other's presence that they were scarce conscious of being in company. For them that crowd of maskers was but as a gallery of pictures, mere scenic decoration, of no significance.

Lord Lavendale had been swallowed up in the throng, had vanished from their sight altogether, he and his Turkish lady. By one half-haughty, half-gracious movement of her Oriental fan she had beckoned, and he had followed, as recklessly as Hamlet followed his father's spectre, scarcely caring whither it led him, even were it to sudden, untimely death.

This Oriental lady only led the way to one of the side-rooms of the theatre – rooms where maskers supped, or gambled, or flirted, or plotted, as circumstance and character impelled them. This room into which Lavendale followed the sultana was devoted to cards, and two ladies and two gentlemen were squabbling over quadrille by the light of four tall wax candles.

Both gentlemen had removed their masks, and in one of them Lavendale recognised Mr. Topsparkle. That painted parchment face of his was scarcely more natural than a mask, and had something the look of one, Lavendale thought, in the flickering light of those tall dim candles.

Lady Judith turned and made him a curtsy.

"Now does your lordship know who I am?" she asked.

"I knew you from the first instant of our meeting. Is there any woman in London who has the imperial air of Lady Judith Topsparkle? Could a mask hide Juno, do you think?"

"I suppose not. One ought to muffle oneself in a domino if one wanted to be unrecognised. But I question if any of us women come here with that view. We are too vain. We want everybody to say, 'How well she is looking to-night! she is positively the finest woman in the room!'"

She had sunk upon a low divan, in a careless attitude which was full of a kind of regal grace.

"I forget if you and my husband know each other?" she asked lightly.

There was not the faintest sign of emotion in her tone or her manner. Careless lightness, the airy indifference of a fashionable acquaintance, could not be more distinctly indicated.

"I have not yet had the felicity of being made known to Mr. Topsparkle," Lavendale answered, with that perfect manner of his which was exquisitely courteous, and yet gave the lady indifference for indifference.

"O, but you must know each other. You have so many ideas in common – you are both travellers, both eccentrics, both much cleverer than the common herd of humanity. Vyvyan, put down your cards for a moment if you can; here is Lord Lavendale, who complains that you have not waited upon him since he returned from the East."

"I am vastly to blame," replied Topsparkle, shifting his cards to his left hand and offering the right to Lavendale, a pallid attenuated hand, decorated with a choice intaglio and one other ring, a twice-coiled snake with a black diamond in its head, which looked like a gem with a history; "I am stricken with remorse at the idea of my neglect. But his lordship's appearance in London has been meteoric rather than regular, and I have been for the most part in the country."

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