Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3
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"How early you left!" said Lady Polwhele, a stout matron of fifty, revealing a bedaubed complexion and a galaxy of patches; "I saw you sneak away. Do you know that I won twenty pound? I feel in the seventh heaven. It is odiously little to win, but it may be the turning-point of my bad luck. I have been losing persistently at every venture I have made ever since my wretched South Sea bonds, when I ought to have sold out and didn't. I could have sold them at nine hundred, Asterley, and can you believe that I was fool enough to keep them till they dropped to a hundred and twenty? The idiots about me declared there must inevitably be as rapid a rise as there had been a fall. Would you believe it, Ted?"
"I have heard the story so often that it has become an article of faith with me," answered Mr. Asterley, with a bored look. He, too, had taken off his mask, and revealed a small-featured, effeminate face and a faded complexion. He had not taken to paint yet, and he looked as if he had not slept for a week. His city-bred wife was one of Lady Polwhele's companions, for that worthy dowager had patched up a peace with her old admirer, and finding she could not dispense with the assiduities of the husband, now submitted to the society of the wife as a necessary evil. She was said to be forming Mrs. Asterley. But if the pupil was docile, the material was of the coarsest, or so her ladyship declared in confidence to at least fifty particular friends. "I think if any one could make a fine lady out of a handsome dairymaid I ought to be able to do it," she told her intimates, when she was bemoaning Mrs. Asterley's incorrigible vulgarity.
"You have trained so many fine gentlemen that it must be agreeable to work on the other sex by way of variety," said her confidante.
"O, I have always liked to have boys of good family about me to fetch and carry," answered Lady Polwhele carelessly. "They are better than black footmen; they want no wages, and they have not that horrid African odour which makes so many fine houses smell like a zoological garden. But for Ted Asterley's sake I should really like to make his wife presentable. Her high-mettled prancing at the last birthnight ball nearly set the room in a roar. Captain Bloodyer told me that her steps in the country dance reminded him of nothing but a dealer's horse being taught to step high over bundles of straw in a livery-yard. If the creature would only be quiet there might be some hope for her, but her plebeian blood has furnished her with a stock of animal spirits which must be her ruin."
Mrs. Asterley's spirits had not abandoned her even at three o'clock in the morning. This was her first visit to the famous house in Soho, and she ran about the room exclaiming at everything.
"Dear, what a funny room," she cried, "with all those crooked knives and pretty old dish-covers on the wall! I thought they kept the like of them in the butler's pantry, but they're mighty pretty against that carpet-work."
Then coming to a sudden stop before Lady Judith, and giggling shyly, she exclaimed, "Lord, how I should love a room just like this, your la'ship! It has such a sweet pretty murderous kind of an air, just like Bluebeard's chamber, where he kept his wives' heads.I shall ask papa to let me furnish a room the same pattern, so I shall."
"Pray do, Mrs. Asterley. The frame will charmingly suit the picture. You have a vapourish artistic air which would be admirably set off by antique furniture."
"My dear Belle, Mr. Topsparkle's old Venetian tapestry is both priceless and unique," said her husband reprovingly.
"What, that old carpet-work on the walls? I thought they had that for cheapness."
"My sweetest love, you have no more manners than a pig," said Asterley, but with an indulgent smile at his buxom wife's low-bred simplicity which was gall and wormwood to Lady Polwhele.
"O, but when one is blest with a wealthy father it is so natural to suppose he can get one anything one fancies by paying for it. I am sure I should have thought as much if my poor dear papa had not been a pauper," said Lady Judith, with languid good-nature. "You must go to Canons or Stowe, my dear Mrs. Asterley, and look about you. You will see some very pretty ideas for rooms, which will put you in the right way of furnishing your new house."
"But we have not taken a house yet. We are in a lodging over a tallow-chandler's in the Haymarket. It is dreadful on melting days. Yet they say Mr. Addison wrote his poem on Blenheim next door. I used to think Blenheim was a battle, but Teddie says 'tis a poem."
"My sweet child, if you were to talk a little less and listen a little more, there might be some hope of your arriving at an understanding of many things that are now dark to you," said Lady Polwhele severely; and then she peered about in the great dusky apartment, and suddenly descried Lord Lavendale sitting a little way behind Lady Judith, and quite in shadow.
"As I live, it is Lavendale!" she cried; "the very man I have been pining to see these centuries. Come and sit by me on this couch, you dear pretty fellow, and tell me where you have hidden yourself since you came from the East."
"In the dismal seclusion of my father's favourite estate, and the only remnant of his property which his son's follies have left intact," answered Lavendale gravely.
"Did not I tell you so, Asterley?" exclaimed her ladyship; "there is no help for it, you see. He must marry an heiress. Did not I say so, Asterley? You and I must find him an heiress."
"Forgive me, Lady Polwhele, if I submit that although you and my friend Asterley are doubtless admirable caterers, I would rather be my own purveyor."
"O, but heiresses are almost as extinct as the dodo. An only child of wealthy parents is the veritable black swan. And Asterley is such a diplomatist with women."
"Egad, his lordship is in the right in rejecting a lady of my choosing," simpered Asterley. "The odds are I should have insinuated my own image into the warmest corner of the dear creature's heart before I introduced my principal. Agents and proxies are always dangerous in love or matrimony."
"Would it surprise Mr. Asterley to hear that the heiress is found already?" asked Judith languidly, looking downward at the jewelled Moorish salver and chocolate service of German china which Juba and his minions had arranged on the table in front of her. The copper chocolate-pot was of curious shape, and was supposed to be as ancient as the destruction of Pompeii, and to have held some witch's concoction in the way of a philtre for love or hate. There was a tiny spirit-lamp under it, which burned with a diabolical blue flame.
"Found already, while Lavendale has been hiding in Surrey?" cried the dowager. "You astound me!"
"Yes, the young lady danced at the birthnight ball, and was the observed of all observers for her grace and beauty. Everybody was asking where she had learnt to walk a minuet with such a mixture of ease and stateliness, till Mary Campbell, who has the impudence of the devil, went about asking questions, and ferreted out the new beauty's history. She is the daughter of Squire Bosworth, Lord Lavendale's next-door neighbour, a curious old money-grubber who made a hundred thousand pounds in that odious South Sea scheme which beggared so many women of fashion and disgraced not a few: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for instance, who still trembles at the very name of that unlucky Frenchman whose money she ventured and lost."
"And whose very warm advances she must at one time have encouraged," suggested Lady Polwhele. "Poor Molly would never have been so frightened had there not been something more than money transactions between her and Monsieur R?mond. But pray tell us more of the heiress."
"She is as simple as Wycherley's country wife, but much more genteel," replied Lady Judith lightly, while Juba carried round the chocolate, and while Lavendale sat on thorns. "She has learnt to sing and dance from a lame old Frenchwoman, who taught Lady Tredgold's gaunt daughters – "
"And never succeeded in teaching them to step to the music," said Asterley.
"But this girl is a born sylph, and a musician by instinct. Topsparkle has heard of her singing, though he has never seen her, and he wants me to ask her to Ringwood. Surely you must have observed her, Lady Polwhele?"
"I was not at the birthnight; my dearest pug had a fit of the colic so severe that I trembled lest every breath should be his last. I would not have left him for a galaxy of kings and princes."
"But you must have seen her to-night. A slim, nymph-like creature, disguised as Diana, with a silver crescent in her hair. She and Lavendale were the prettiest couple in the room."
"Lady Judith is bent upon rekindling the ashes of a long-extinguished vanity," said Lavendale.
"But you do not deny the South Sea heiress. You plead guilty to serious intentions," said Lady Polwhele, shaking her fan at his lordship in a kittenish manner.
"Gold and spices from southern seas have a pleasant sound, your ladyship," replied Lavendale easily, "and the young lady herself is as much too good for me as I am too bad for her."
"O, but a country-bred girl always doats upon a rake."
"'Tis only natural a rustic lass should be fond of making hay. I suppose it is that kind of innocent wooden rake your ladyship means. Gaudentem patrios findere sarculo agros."
"No, sir, a battered, hardened, brazen, half-ruined, infidel man of fashion," answered the dowager; "that is the object a country wench admires. If you are reformed, be sure you have spoiled your chances. You cannot be too wicked to please sweet simplicity. It is only experienced women of the world, like Lady Judith and me, who have a relish for virtue."
"And then only in the abstract, I'll be sworn," cried Asterley, coming to the tray for a second cup of chocolate, and devouring cakes out of a silver filigree basket. "You relish virtue in your Locke or your Addison – a stately preachment of morality in elegant Saxon-English, but you like a man to be – a man. There is Lord Bolingbroke, for instance. Is he not the highest example of manly perfection? Facile primus. An easy first in everything: first in pleasure, idleness, and debauchery, as he is first in learning, diplomacy, and statesmanship."
"And in lies and craft," said Lady Judith scornfully; "there he is – what do you call it? —primus inter primos. I would rather have Walpole for my type of manliness. A coarser stuff, if you will, but a far more honest fabric; no such mixture of gold and tinsel, strength and rottenness."
"I forgot that your ladyship belongs to the Whig faction," said Asterley.
"O, I tie myself to no politics. If the Chevalier were a MAN, I would rather have him to rule us than this little German king. But the little Hanoverian is at least honest, and has shown his mettle against the Turks, while the Stuarts are as false as they are feeble: ingrates to their friends and trucklers to their foes."
While she was speaking, there came a great ringing of the hall-bell, and the sound of a chair setting down outside; and then the double doors were opened, and between a lane of footmen Mr. Topsparkle sauntered in.
He had not condescended to any further disguise than a crimson damask domino, which he flung off as he entered, revealing a suit of tawny velvet embroidered with gold thread, with ruffles and cravat of finest Malines lace, his small pinched features almost overshadowed by the fulness of his somewhat old-fashioned periwig. He saluted the company with an air of being enraptured at seeing them, which was de rigueur in that age of compliment and all-pervading artificiality.
"I vow it is our divine Lady Polwhele, looking at least a decade younger than when these eyes last beheld her."
"Why, you foolish Topsparkle, 'twas but t'other day we met and quarrelled for a china monster – a green dragon with a hollow stomach for burning pastilles – at the auction-room over the way."
"Ah, but that was by daylight, and a woman's beauty when she has once passed thirty is too delicate and evanescent for sunshine and open air. Buxom wenches of twenty may endure the glare and the breeze: it only makes them a trifle more blowsy; but for the refined, the intellectual, the ethereal loveliness of womanhood, there must be chastened light and gorgeous surroundings. This room becomes you as her rainbow and her peacocks become Juno, or as the sea-foam sets off Aphrodite."
"Flatterer!" sighed her ladyship, tapping him playfully with her fan; "you were always incorrigible. I have not forgotten the wicked things you said to me seven years ago, when we met in Venice. Come, prince of lies, show me your last new picture; you are always adding gems to your collection."
"Nay, I have forsworn painting, and live only for music. I bought a little dulcimer t'other day which belonged to good Queen Bess. Come and look at it."
Lady Polwhele followed him into the picture-gallery, which had been brilliantly lighted in the expectation of droppers-in after the masquerade. And now came more setting down of chairs, swearing at chairmen, quarrelling of link-boys, and loud ringing at the hall-bell, and some of the most modish people in London came sauntering in to sip Lady Judith's chocolate or Mr. Topsparkle's Tokay. The rooms were almost full before Lord Lavendale left; and amidst that coming and going of guests, and idle compliments and idle laughter, he had found himself several times in close converse with Judith, they two, as they had often been before, alone amidst the babble of the crowd.
She congratulated him with a prettily serious air, almost maternal, or at least sisterly, upon his approaching marriage. She told him that he had chosen wisely in selecting so lovely a girl, with a fortune large enough to pay off his mortgages and start him afresh in life.
"I protest there is nothing settled," he said. "What you have heard is but the town gossip – words without meaning. I have said not a word to the lady. I grant you that her father has been monstrously civil to me, that he is rich while I am poor, and that our estates join. Upon my honour there is no more than this."
"0, but you have only to speak and to win. I have set my heart upon seeing your fortune mended. I have been poor myself, and know how hard it is for a patrician to be penniless. I shall ask Harpagon and his daughter to Ringwood. He is an odious miser, they tell me."
"He has lived in rather a shabby way, and I believe that to accumulate wealth is his ruling passion; but I doubt he would be willing to spend liberally upon occasion. He has been a misanthrope rather than a miser, Alceste rather than Harpagon."
"Whatever he is I will endure him, for his pretty daughter's sake."
"You are ever gracious and obliging. Good-night."
"Good-morning, for it has just chimed four."
They saluted each other with stateliest courtesy, and Lavendale left, but not to go straight back to Bloomsbury. Late as it was, he felt there was still a chance of company and play at White's chocolate-house; so it was westward to St. James's Street he betook himself, there to lose a few of those loose guineas which he always had in his pocket, albeit he was practically a pauper.