Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3

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"The honour of making Mr. Topsparkle's acquaintance is only more precious because it has been deferred," answered Lavendale; and the two gentlemen, after having shaken hands with effusion, acknowledged each other's compliments with stately bows.

Mr. Topsparkle resumed his play, and Lavendale seated himself on the divan beside Lady Judith.

"Shall I attend you to the dancing-room?" he asked.

"No, I am sick to death of the crowd and the heat, and all those fine people," she answered, taking off her mask, and letting him see the loveliness he had once adored. "Did you observe Miss Thornleigh as Iphigenia?" she asked carelessly.

"I beheld an exquisite vision of nakedness, like Eve before the fall, at which all the world was gazing. I thought it was meant for our universal mother!"

"No, it was Iphigenia."

"I stand corrected. Then a scanty drapery of silvery gauze and a fillet round the brow mean Iphigenia. Now can I understand why Diana rejected the young lady by way of holocaust, and substituted a hind at the final moment. Such unclothed loveliness must have appalled the modest goddess."

Lady Judith laughed behind her fan, and shrugged her beautiful shoulders in the loose Turkish robe, which was decency itself in comparison with Miss Thornleigh's audacious transparency of raiment. Everything is a question of degree, and to be half naked in those days was only modish; but there was a boundary-line, and the beautiful Miss Thornleigh was considered to have overstepped it.

They talked of their acquaintance upon that crowded stage yonder, discussed the scandals of the hour, the curious marriages – an elderly lady to her footman, a gentleman of rank to an orange-girl – there had been a passion for oranges ever since the days of Nell Gwynne.

"I believe to sell oranges is the only passport to a fine gentleman's favour," said Judith. "I almost wish I had begun life with a basket, like the famous Clara, princess of the Court of Requests. I would give much to have inspired such a passion in such a man as Henry St. John."

"It is not too late, even without the oranges," answered Lavendale, smiling at her. "If St. John was too easily melted, be sure Bolingbroke is not altogether adamant."

"O, but he has a farm and a French wife, and has turned respectable. The fiery St. John of Queen Anne's time, the hawk that swooped on every dove, is altogether extinct; there is no such person."

"Are there not rivers in Damascus?" asked Lavendale with lowered voice, drawing nearer to her as he spoke. "Are there none who can love as St. John loved – not wasting that exquisite passion upon an inconstant orange-wench, but burning his lamp of life before a higher altar, worshipping, adoring at a purer shrine?"

"Heavens, what rodomontade we are talking!" cried Lady Judith, starting up from her divan, and moving quickly to the door. "The very air of these dances is full of a jargon which even sensible people fall into unawares.

Come, why do you not ask my hand for a minuet? I think you and I have danced one ages ago, and that our steps went in decent time."

"Think! Ah, I forgot how short is memory in a lady of fashion."

"O, we have so many caprices to blot the tablet. Now a new singer, and anon a new colour in lutestring, or a new style of headdress, or a new game at cards. Life is a series of transformations. Here is poor Dick Steele, struck down with paralysis, and gone to end his days in Cheshire, he who was the wittiest man in London when I first knew this town. I heard of his malady only to-night. Life is full of sad changes. One can hardly remember oneself of a few years ago, much less one's friends. But I swear I should have known your lordship anywhere."

"I am proud to be so far honoured."

They re?ntered the busy scene at a pause between two dances. Everybody was walking about. The dazzle and glitter of that moving throng showed dimly through an all-pervading cloud of powder and dust, like a tropical haze on a marshy shore; the Babel of voices was bewildering to the ear.

"There goes Peterborough with Anastasia Robinson on his arm. I can swear to the turn of her head, though she has muffled herself in sables as a Russian Czarina."

"If she knew what a cook-maid the present Empress of Russia is, the lady would hardly aspire to be mistaken for her."

"O, it is only to make us all sick with envy at the splendour of her sables. His lordship bought them for her in Paris. They are worth a king's ransom. 'Tis said he allows her a hundred guineas a month, but I am sure she must spend three times as much."

"You make me feel as if I were one of the Seven Sleepers," exclaimed Lavendale. "Is not Mrs. Robinson the very pink and pattern of virtue; so chaste and cold a being that even the too tender wooing of Senesino in an opera – mere stage love-making – wounded and offended her?"

"That is perfectly true; but it is no less true that she smiles upon Lord Peterborough. Who could withstand a warrior and a hero? The man who conquered a province with a mere handful of troops must needs be irresistible to a weak woman. She is living at Parson's Green with her mother; but as Peterborough spends most of his life there, people will talk."

"In spite of the mother?"

"In spite of the mother," echoed Judith. "However, it is hinted they are privately married, and there are those among us who still continue to receive Mrs. Robinson under that charitable supposition; ourselves, for instance. Topsparkle is such a fanatic about music that I hardly dare question a soprano's reputation, or hint that a tenor has the air of having sprung from the gutter. At Ringwood Abbey we receive every one who can sing or play to perfection, without reference to character. I myself own to a prejudice in favour of those ladies who are still at their first or second lover, in preference to those who have ruined half the pretty fellows in town. But Bononcini and Handel are the two people who really choose our society. We have our Bononcini set and our Handel set, and are Italian or German as those great masters dictate. But you must come to Ringwood some day and judge for yourself. How do you like my husband?"

This was asked abruptly, with the lightest, most impertinent air.

"Mr. Topsparkle's courtesy to me just now renders me too much his debtor to be disinterested. I am already a partial critic. But I am told by the indifferent world that he is a most accomplished gentleman."

"Yes, he is very clever. But it is a fantastical kind of cleverness. He plays the organ divinely, knows ever so many modern languages, and writes French almost as well as Monsieur le Voltaire. He has un-Englished himself by his long residence on the Continent, and must be judged by a foreign standard of taste."

"So long as he has succeeded in making you happy – " began Lavendale, in a lowered voice.

"Do I not look happy?" she asked, with smiling lips under the little velvet mask.

"You look gloriously handsome. That radiant surface is too dazzling for me to penetrate deeper. Who could question those lovely lips when they smile, or dare hint that silvery laughter might be artificial? I will believe anything those lips tell me."

"Then you may believe that Mr. Topsparkle is vastly kind, and that he has loaded me with all the luxuries women live for nowadays: lutestring gowns, Brussels lace, diamonds, pug-dogs, black footmen, and a Swiss porter. If he cannot always insure me peace of mind it is the fault of my capriciousness, and not any lack of kindness in him. My bosom is racked at this moment by the thought of the lottery. I may win ten thousand pounds, or draw nothing but blanks. I have wasted a competence in buying up other people's tickets, for I dreamt I won the ten thousand pound prize, and I have been in a fever of expectation from that hour."

"I hope you will not be too much disappointed should the dream prove false: one of those deluding visions by which the Homeric gods lead their victims into deadly peril."

"If that dream do not come true, I swear I will never sleep again; never more trust myself in the land of lying shadows."

"The company all seem crowding to one spot. Shall we go?"

"Yes, this instant. It is nearly time for the lottery."

She took his arm, leaning on it in her eager haste, and her lovely arm was pressed against his heart, beating passionately with all the old fever. It was an unholy fever, for in his heart of hearts he knew that she was not a good woman, that she had deteriorated sorely since their last parting, that wealth and pride of place and the flatteries of a modish mob had perverted all of good that had been left in her nature in those old days when she was Lady Judith Walberton. Her reckless conversation, her air of audacity, which seemed to challenge the rekindling of old fires, shocked even while it captivated him. There was a strange mixture of love and pity in his mind as he gazed upon this beautiful, brilliant, and perhaps lost creature.

The lottery was attended by a maddened crowd, almost reproducing upon a small scale the fever and folly of that famous South Sea scheme, which but six years ago had spread ruin and sorrow over the land, as if it had been some scaly monster come up out of the sea to devour the inhabitants of the earth. The monster's name was Avarice or Cupidity, most fatal among all fiery dragons that feed upon the flesh of men. And now the same foul beast in little was preying upon this modish crowd. There were women who had pledged their diamond earrings to buy tickets; there were sadder sisters who had bartered their honour: and for how many was the agony of disappointment inevitable!

For Lady Judith among others. Her eleven numbers were all blanks. She pushed her way through the mob in a towering passion.

"The whole thing is a cheat!" she exclaimed. "I believe the prize-winner goes halves with the proprietor of the lottery. There must be trickery somewhere. Did you see how delighted Lady Mary Montagu was at winning a paltry fifty pounds? That woman is as mean as Shylock or Harpagon, or as wicked old Sarah herself. I had eleven tickets, every one of them, as I thought, a lucky number: one was my age doubled; the other, Topsparkle's multiplied by nine; another had three sevens in it; another, four threes. I had chosen them with the utmost discretion; and to think there was not a winning number among the whole heap! I gave Lady Wharton a ruby ring for her ticket, one of the finest in my jewel-case, the true pigeon's-blood colour, and the creature has jewed me out of that lovely gem for a scrap of waste pasteboard. I am provoked beyond measure!"

"But, dear Lady Judith, with inordinate wealth at your command, and with the most indulgent of husbands for your purse-bearer, is it worth your while to gamble?"

"Is any pleasure worth one's while?" she retorted mockingly. "They are all empty; they are all Dead Sea apples that turn to dust and ashes. One may as well take diversion one way as another. Topsparkle thinks he is happy when he has collected a pack of squalling Italians or sourcrout-eating Germans under his roof; and yet they contrive to keep him in a fever, by their bickerings and grumblings and envyings, from the moment of arrival to the moment of departure. Will you help me to find my chair? I suppose there will be some of my men in the vestibule, if they are not all drunk at some low mug-house."

"I will answer for finding you a couple of sober chairmen. You will not wait for Mr. Topsparkle?"

"I would not disturb his game for worlds; for though he pretends I am the only gamester in the family, he has a passion for quadrille. He learnt the taste in the south of France, where they play hardly anything else."

They went to the vestibule, where Lady Judith Topsparkle's running footmen were lolling against the wall or lounging about in company with a crowd of other lacqueys, all slightly the worse for twopenny ale, but fairly steady upon their well-fed legs, nevertheless. Lady Judith's liveries of orange and brown were distinguishable by their sombre richness among gaudier suits of blue and silver or peach-blossom and gold.

"My roquelaure," she said to one of her men, a gigantic blackamoor who had served in the Royal Schloss at Berlin, and had been tempted away from his Prussian Majesty's service by larger offers from Mr. Topsparkle. His startling appearance had fascinated the wealthy Englishman, who was instantly eager to add this exotic grace to his household.

The giant spread a fur-lined cloak over her ladyship's shoulders, a cloak of paduasoy which enveloped the tall form from the throat to the feet.

"Let us go and look for my chair," she exclaimed impatiently. "This vestibule reeks of lamp-oil and black footmen."

Lavendale accompanied her swift footsteps out into the portico. Sedan-chairs were standing in quadruple ranks, coaches and chariots blocked the road, shining meteoric with the blaze of their lamps and the glitter of their harness, horses champing, snorting, pawing, in impatience to be moving through the cold crisp air. There was a slight frost, a faint gray fog, and, above, a new moon rode fast in a sky of steely blue, broken by dark clouds.

"I hate to be smothered in a chair after escaping from a stifling assembly-room," said Lady Judith, "and the night seems positively enchanting. Would you have the courage to walk home with me?"

"It needs the courage of a lion, yet I will face the peril for the sake of such company. But will those dainty little Turkish slippers which I observed just now keep out the cold and damp?"

"O, they are more substantial than they look, and the stones seem quite dry. I am not afraid. Juba, tell my chairmen I am going to walk."

Juba, Lady Judith's particular personal attendant, was quick to marshal his men. Two went in advance of their mistress with blazing torches, two others followed, while Juba marched at the head of the little procession by way of advanced guard.

Thus attended, and leaning upon Lord Lavendale's arm, Lady Judith's progress by way of Gerard Street to Soho Square had a picturesque air which is unknown in our matter-of-fact age of well-lit streets and miniature broughams. Everything in those days was on a grandiose scale; and if people spent a good deal of money, they at least had their full value in show and glitter. Those running footmen with their flaming torches, that huge blackamoor with his splendid livery, made a display that would have graced the semi-Oriental state of a Roman Empress in the decadence of the Empire.

Gerard Street was alive with gaiety and fashion – beaux and belles arriving and departing, torches flaming, harness rattling, sedans setting down or taking up their freight at every door, footmen lounging against every railing, link-boys rushing to and fro, making believe that the night was dark, though the cold crescent moon kept peeping out from amidst those black scurrying clouds and putting those resin-dropping links to shame.

Windows blazed with the light of many candles, and shadows flitted across many a blind. From some houses there came a gust of noise – laughter, babble, and the rattle of dice; from another, sounds of music now classic, then modern and fashionable. There was no such thing as solitude for Lavendale and Lady Judith in that walk through one of the most fashionable quarters of the town, no possibility of anything compromising or sentimental. Their talk was of the lightest – the very thistledown of polite conversation – with no more purpose or depth of meaning than there is in Mr. Pope's letters to Lady Mary written a few years before this time.

What a beautiful, frivolous, gracious creature she seemed in Lavendale's eyes as she walked by his side, moving with swift footsteps through the cold night! She carried herself superbly at all times, and walked like Dian or Atalanta. Sir Robert himself had praised her carriage, and talked of her as "a splendid mover," as if she had been one of his Norfolk hunters. She wore her mask still, and her head was muffled in her Turkish "asmack," and her long furred mantle reached to her heels. Yet there was hardly a man at the Court end of London who would have failed to recognise the lady whom a legion of admirers at White's and at the Cocoa Tree toasted as a queen among women, and whose name had been written with a diamond on one of the toast-glasses at the Kit-Kat Club when she was fifteen.

"Tell me some of your Eastern adventures," she exclaimed presently. "I have been telling you all about our town scandals, and you have told me positively nothing of your travels. Is it true that you broke into the seraglio at Constantinople, and were set upon by a dozen blackamoors as big as Juba, and very nearly killed in the scuffle?"

"Just about as true as the most startling adventures of Marco Polo or Sir John Mandeville. I saw no more of the seraglio than the cypress-tops in the garden that surround it, and a glimpse of the palace itself through the foliage."

"But is it not true that you brought home a Circassian slave, a peerless beauty, and that you have her under lock and key at Lavendale Manor?"

"That also belongs to the Marco Polo order of adventures. No, Lady Judith, the burnt-out ashes of a heart are not to be rekindled by almond-eyed beauties with thick waists and squabby figures; I saw nothing in the East half so lovely as that which I left in the West."

"And yet we are taught to think the Orient is full of loveliness. Here we are at my door. Will you come in and wait for Mr. Topsparkle? I daresay I shall have company, for I told half a dozen of my dearest friends they might take their chocolate with me after the masquerade."

The Soho Square of 1726 was a place of palaces, but its fashion was already waning. Monmouth House, a royal mansion built by Wren for the luckless Duke, had fallen from Lord Bateman's occupation to a public auction-room; and there were other signs of decay which indicated that Golden Square to the south, and the newly planned Cavendish Square, almost in the country, were disputing the palm with Soho, which was beginning to assume a dilapidated air; like old Lady Orkney, or any other famous Court beauty of a bygone generation.

Mr. Topsparkle's house was the largest and most regal-looking after Monmouth House. It was approached by a double flight of steps, and its pilastered balconies, pedimented windows, and Grecian cornice gave a stately air to a building which in spaciousness and elevation was magnificent.

But if the outer appearance of the mansion was noble and imposing, its interior decoration made it one of the richest and most wonderful houses in London. In all his journeyings about the face of the earth Mr. Topsparkle had amused himself by the collection of curios; and as his purse was long and his taste universal, he had gathered together the most heterogeneous assemblage of the beautiful and the ugly that had ever been amassed by one man or exhibited under one roof.

The spacious hall which Lavendale entered at Lady Judith's invitation was hung with Venetian tapestry from the palace of a fourteenth-century Doge, and almost black with age. But as a relief against that sombre background there hung a unique collection of Moorish and Indian arms, while the foreground of the room was enlivened with everything frivolous and elegant in the way of china monsters, Meissen porcelain, carved ivory, French fans and bonbon-boxes, filigree-silver caskets, bronze statuettes, gold snuffboxes, and Indian gods, all scattered, as it were, haphazard upon a variety of small tables of more or less eccentric designs. On the left of this hall opened a suite of drawing-rooms which served also as one continuous picture-gallery, and which contained a collection of French and Italian masters acknowledged to be one of the best in England. On the right was the dining-room – an immense apartment, which better deserved the name of banqueting-hall. Here everything was of carved oak, ponderous, gigantic, and strictly Dutch, and here the pictures were by Dutch and Flemish painters. A replica of Rubens' "Descent from the Cross" hung over the sideboard, and the rest of the wall was a mosaic of cabinet pictures, every one a gem.

The hall was lighted with clusters of wax candles in bronze candelabra dotted here and there about the tables, and making only islets of light in the gloom of those dark walls, against which Moorish breast-plates and Indian targets flashed and gleamed with faintly phosphorescent brightness. But at one end of the hall there was an enormous wood fire, which made a rosy atmosphere all round it; and it was in this roseate glow that Judith seated herself, sinking into a capacious armchair covered with stamped and gilt leather: a chair in which it was supposed Count Egmont had sat when he was tried for his life in the Town Hall at Brussels.

She flung off cloak and mask, and appeared in all the brilliancy of gold brocade and diamonds, a beautiful dazzling apparition which seemed hardly human in that fairy-like fire-glow. She touched a little bell, and her lacqueys began to arrange a table for chocolate; and before it could be brought three of her lady friends came trooping in, also cloaked and masked, with two gentlemen in attendance upon them.

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