Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3



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Irene enjoyed everything, and, being nearly as innocent as Una, saw no evil under that fair outward surface of high-born society. Life flowed so smoothly and pleasantly under that superficial elegance; everybody spoke sweetly, wit was current coin, and music of the highest quality seemed the very atmosphere in which these people lived. It was but for the King to set the fashion, and everybody adored music; just as in Charles I.'s time everybody had been more or less fanatical about painters and painting. Rena moved from scene to scene with a sublime unconsciousness of evil, and late at night, or over their chocolate in the morning, would describe all she had seen and heard to her devoted governess, who shared in none of her amusements except the opera and an occasional concert, but who was always sympathetic and interested in all she heard.

"You seem to meet Lord Lavendale wherever you go," Mdlle. Latour said on one occasion, when his lordship's name had been mentioned by her pupil with perfect frankness.

"We are always meeting all the same people. When I go into a crowded room now, I seem to know everybody in it. I feel quite surprised at the sight of a stranger."

"Just as if you were an experienced fine lady," laughed Mademoiselle; "how quickly my woodland nymph has accustomed herself to the ways of this crowded fashionable town! But to return to Lord Lavendale: if you do not meet him oftener than you do other people, I think that at least you enjoy more of his society. You and he are often talking together, Mrs. Amelia told me."

"O yes, we are very good friends," the girl answered carelessly. "I think he is pleasanter than most people."

"Heart-whole, and likely to remain so, as far as Lavendale is concerned," thought the little Frenchwoman with satisfaction; for she knew too much of his lordship's past history to approve of him as a suitor for her beloved pupil.

After a pause she said,

"By the bye, Rena, Mr. Durnford called yesterday when you were out with Lady Tredgold. It is the fifth time he has called and found you gone abroad."

Irene blushed crimson.

"O, why did you not beg him to stop till I came home?" she asked.

"My dear child, this is not my house. I have no right to give invitations."

"Yes, you have. You could have detained him if you had liked. The fifth visit! What must he think of me?"

"He confessed that he thought you somewhat a gad-about. He told me that he tried to waylay you in public resorts – in the Ring, or at the auction-rooms; but even there he had been unfortunate: when he went west, you had gone east."

Irene looked piteously disappointed.

"Five times! and I have not been told of one of those visits!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Why was that?"

"Because your aunt's footmen forgot all about it, I daresay," replied Mademoiselle. "Footmen have a knack of forgetting such visitors, especially when the visitor wears a shabby coat and may forget to emphasise his inquiries with a crown.

I doubt you would never have heard of this last visit, if I had not happened to come in from my walk in St. James's Park just as Mr. Durnford knocked at the door. He stopped for a few minutes' chat on the doorstep. I told him you were to be at the opera to-night."

"Then perhaps he will go there!" cried Rena, suddenly becoming radiant, and confirming the shrewd little Frenchwoman in a suspicion which she had harboured for some time.

What a pity that Herrick Durnford was poor, and without rank or lineage to counterbalance his poverty! She knew that Squire Bosworth would favour Lavendale's suit, and would in all probability disinherit his daughter if she presumed to marry a penniless scribbler. Mdlle. Latour had enjoyed opportunities of studying the character of both these young men, and she had decided that Durnford's was the nobler nature, though there was assuredly some good in Lavendale.

CHAPTER XI
"AND BEAUTY DRAWS US WITH A SINGLE HAIR."

Christmas was near at hand, the fox-hunting season was in full swing, and Lady Judith and Mr. Topsparkle had made up a large party for sport and music at Ringwood Abbey. Her Grace of Marlborough and Mr. Congreve were to be there; Sir Robert Walpole had promised to spend half a week away from the charms of his own beloved Houghton and his still dearer Molly Skerritt. The two spendthrift Spencers were asked, and Chesterfield; while Bolingbroke, whom Lady Judith pretended to admire more than any man living, was to be the chief star among so many luminaries.

Lady Judith affected to have taken a fancy to the new heiress, and was so pressing in her invitation to Lady Tredgold to bring her sweet niece to Ringwood for the Christmas holidays, that the good lady could not resist the temptation to visit at a house which she had so often joined in rancorously abusing for its riotous extravagance and corrupt taste. But as Lady Judith had pointedly ignored the two gaunt daughters in her invitation, Lady Tredgold considered herself under no obligation to be grateful. She left the daughters in Arlington Street under the charge of Mdlle. Latour, and started for Ringwood with Rena and two maids in a coach and six. Had she been travelling at her own expense, she might have managed the journey with four horses, bad as the roads were; but as Mr. Bosworth had to pay, she considered six indispensable. Had the journey been at her own cost, she might even have gone in the great heavy Salisbury coach, which, although periodically surprised by highwaymen between Putney and Kingston, or on Bagshot Heath, was perhaps somewhat safer in its strength of numbers than any private conveyance.

On this occasion she took a couple of footmen armed with blunderbusses, hid her own and the heiress's jewels in a little leather bag under the seat, and put her trust in Providence for the rest. Despite of these precautions and of her six horses she might, perchance, have fared badly, had it not been for an unexpected reinforcement in the persons of Lavendale and Durnford, who overtook the carriage on Putney Common in the sharp frosty morning of December 21.

They were both well mounted on powerful roadsters, and followed by two grooms upon horses of scarcely inferior quality; gentlemen and servants were both armed.

Irene blushed and sparkled at sight of the two cavaliers, and Lavendale, spoiled by a decade of successes, made sure those smiles were for him.

"You are early on the road, ladies," he exclaimed gaily, "considering that it was past two this morning ere you plunged the Ridotto in untimely gloom by your departure. There were some blockheads who put down that diminished lustre to a sudden failure of the wax candles; but I knew 'twas but two pairs of eyes that had ceased to shine upon the assembly. Pray how far do you propose travelling to-day, Lady Tredgold?"

"Only as far as Fairmile. We are to lie at my brother's house to-night, and pursue our journey at eight o'clock to-morrow morning. It is odious rising so early in winter. My niece and I dressed by candlelight, and the watchman was crying half-past six o'clock and a frosty morning when my maid came to wake me. It seemed but half an hour since I left the Ridotto."

"'Tis those short nights that shorten the measure of life, madam," said Durnford gravely. "Mrs. Bosworth will be older by ten years for the pleasures of a single season."

Her ladyship honoured the speaker with a slow, supercilious stare, and deigned no other answer.

"0, but there are some things worth wasting life for, Mr. Durnford," replied Irene, smiling at him; "the opera, for instance. I would barter a year of my old age for one night of Rinaldo or Theseus."

"A lady of eighteen is as free with the treasure of long life as a minor with his reversion," said Durnford. "Both are spendthrifts. But I, who have passed life's zenith, which with a man I take to be thirty, am beginning to be chary of my declining years. I hope to win some prize out of life's lottery, and to live happy ever after, as they say in fairy tales. Now I conclude that 'ever after' in your story-book means a hale old age."

"Give me the present hour and its pleasures," cried Lavendale, "a bumper of rattle and excitement, filled to the brim, a long deep draught of joy, and no for-ever-after of old age and decline, in which to regret the golden days of youth. There should be no arri?re pens?e on such a morning as this, with a bright winter sun, a good trotting-horse, and beauty's eyes for our lode-stars."

"How does your lordship happen to be travelling our way?" asked Lady Tredgold.

"For the simplest of all reasons: I and my friend Durnford here are both bound for the same destination."

"You are going to Ringwood Abbey! How very curious, how very pleasant!" exclaimed the lady, in her most gracious tones; then she added with a colder air, and without looking at the person of whom she spoke, "I was not aware that Mr. Durnford was acquainted with Mr. Topsparkle."

Durnford was absorbed in the landscape, and made no reply to the indirect question.

"Mr. Topsparkle is ever on the alert to invite clever people to his house," said Lavendale, "and Lady Judith has a rage for literature, poetry, science, what you will. She is a student of Newton and Flamsteed, and loves lectures on physical science such as Desaguliers gave the town when Durnford and I were boys. Lady Judith is devoted to Mr. Durnford."

"I am charmed to learn that literature is so highly appreciated," said her ladyship stiffly.

She made up her mind that Herrick Durnford was dangerous – a fortune-hunter, doubtless, with a keen scent for an heiress; and she had observed that her niece blushed when he addressed her.

She could not, however, be openly uncivil to so close a friend of Lord Lavendale's, so the journey progressed pleasantly enough; the horsemen trotting beside the carriage like a bodyguard for a while, and then dropping behind to breathe their cattle, or cantering in advance now and then when there came a long stretch of level turf by the wayside.

They all stopped at Kingston for an early dinner, and it was growing towards dusk when the coach and six fresh horses started on the second stage of the journey. The progress became slower from this point. The road was dark, and had the reputation of being a favourite resort for highwaymen. Lady Tredgold had never yet been face to face with one of those monsters, but she had an ever-present terror of masked and armed marauders springing out upon her from every hedge. It was but last year that Jonathan Wild had paid the penalty of his crimes, and Jack Sheppard had swung the year before; and though neither of these had won his renown upon the road, Lady Tredgold vaguely associated those great names with danger to travellers. It was not so very long since the Duke of Chandos had been stopped by five highwaymen on a night journey from Canons to London; nor had her ladyship forgotten how the Chichester mail had been robbed of the letter-bags in Battersea Bottom; nor that robbery on the road at Acton, by which the wretches made off with a booty of two thousand pounds. And she had the family diamonds under the seat of the carriage, tied up in a rag of old chintz to make the parcel seem insignificant; and her point lace alone was worth a small fortune.

She counted her forces, and concluded that so long as they all kept together no band of robbers would be big enough or bold enough to attack them.

"Don't leave us, I entreat, dear Lord Lavendale," she urged, as they crossed Esher Common. "We will drive as slow as ever you like, so as not to tire your saddle-horses. Tell those postboys to go slower."

"Have no fear, madam," answered Lavendale gaily. "Our hacks are not easily tired. We will stick by you as close as if we were gentlemen of the road and had hopes of booty."

So they rode cheerily enough towards Fairmile. It was broad moonlight by the time they came to Flamestead Common; a clear, cold, winter moon, which lighted up every hillock and gleamed silvery upon the tiny waterpools.

Durnford had been riding close beside the coach, talking of music and plays with Irene; but as they approached this open ground where the light was clearest, he observed a change in her countenance. Those lovely eyes became clouded over, those lovely lips ceased to smile, and his remarks were responded to briefly, with an absent air.

"Why are you silent, dearest miss?" he asked. Lady Tredgold was snoring in her corner of the carriage, Lavendale was riding on the farther side of the road, and those two seemed almost alone. "Does yonder cold, pale planet inspire you with a gentle melancholy?"

"I was thinking of the past," she answered gravely, looking beyond him towards that irregular ground where flowerless furze-bushes showed black against the steel-blue sky.

"You can have no past to inspire sad thoughts. You are too young."

"One is never too young for sorrow. The memory of a companion I loved very dearly is associated with this spot."

And then she told him the story of her little adopted sister, as she had heard it often from her nurse Bridget – the little fair-haired child who seemed like her own reflection charmed into life – the happy days and evenings they two had spent together, and how death came untimely and snapped that golden thread.

"I like to look upon the place where my father found her, and the place where she lies in her little grave," said Rena, straining her eyes, first towards the Common which they were now leaving, and then further afield to the low Norman tower of Flamestead Church.

Lady Tredgold woke suddenly when her niece relapsed into silence, and inquired where they were.

"Within half an hour of home, madam," answered Rena.

"Home!" and her ladyship, still half asleep, thought of that stately stone mansion in the fair white city of Bath, where her husband was left in solitude to nurse his gout and lament his wife's absence. Not but that Bath was a very pleasant place for a solitary man in those days, being the resort of fashion, wit, and beauty, statesmen and soldiers, men of letters and fine gentlemen, an ever-shifting gallery of faces, a various assembly of well-bred people, who all found it necessary from time to time to repair to "the Bath." Golden age for England when Continental spas were known only to the few, and when fashionable people were not ashamed to enjoy themselves on English soil. Had not the distinguished, erratic Lord Peterborough himself been seen hurrying through those busy streets from the market to his lodgings, with a cabbage under one arm and a chicken under the other, blue ribbon and star on his breast all the same? A city of considerable latitude both as to manners and morals.

"O, you mean Fairmile," muttered her ladyship, with a disappointed air; for though she loved a season in London at somebody else's cost, she had a passion for Bath, which to her was veritably home, and in her slumberous state she had fancied herself just entering that delightful city. "I hope the beds will be aired. There was plenty of time for that queer, grim housekeeper to get my letter."

"You need have no fear, aunt. Mrs. Layburne is not an agreeable woman, but she is a very good manager. The servants all fear and obey her."

"That is just the sort of person one wants to look after a household. Your good, easy-tempered souls are no use, and they are generally arrant cheats into the bargain. Do you lie at the Manor to-night, Lord Lavendale?"

Lavendale had been riding as in a dream, with head bent, and rein loose in a careless hand. A horse less sure-footed than his famous black Styx might have stumbled and thrown him. He was thinking of Lady Judith Topsparkle; wondering why she had so urgently invited him to Ringwood Abbey, when, if she had his sense of peril, she would assuredly have avoided his company. It might be that for her the past was utterly past; so completely forgotten that she could afford to indulge herself in the latest whim of the moment. What but a whim could be her friendship for him, her eagerness to mate him with wealth and beauty? How completely indifferent must she have become to those old memories which had still such potency with him!

"Why, if she can forget, so can I," he told himself. "Should Horace be truer than Lydia to an expired love? and yet, and yet, were Thracian Chloe ten times as fair, one of those old familiar glances from Lydia's starry eyes would send my blood to fever-point."

The gentlemen escorted the coach to the very door of Mr. Bosworth's house, much to Lady Tredgold's contentment, as she suspected marauders even among the old elm-trunks in Fairmile avenue. Arrived at the house, her ladyship honoured Lord Lavendale with a cordial invitation to supper; but as she ignored his companion Lavendale declined her hospitality, on the ground that the horses had done so heavy a day's work that they must needs require the comfort of their own stables. And so the two gentlemen said good-night, and rode away to Lavendale Manor, after promising to be in attendance upon the ladies at eight next morning.

Nurse Bridget was in the hall, eager to welcome her dear charge, from whom she had never been parted until this winter. Nurse and nursling hugged each other affectionately, and then Bridget put back Irene's black silk hood, and contemplated the fair young face in warmest admiration.

"You have grown prettier than ever," she exclaimed, "and taller too; I protest you are taller. I hope your ladyship will pardon me for loving my pet too much to be mannerly," she added, curtsying to Lady Tredgold.

"There is nothing, my good creature, unmannerly in affection. Yes, Miss Bosworth has certainly grown; and then she has had her stays made by my French staymaker, and that improves any young woman's figure and gives a taller air. I hope they have got us a decent supper. I am positively famished. And I hope there are good fires, for my niece and I have been starved this last two hours. The night is horribly cold. And have you aired a room for my maids?"

"Yes, my lady," and "Yes, my lady," said Bridget, with low curtsies, in reply to all these eager questions; and then Lady Tredgold and her niece followed the fat old butler – he had contrived to keep fat by sheer inactivity, in spite of Mrs. Layburne's meagre housekeeping – to the long white drawing-room, where there was a blazing log fire, and where Irene flew to her harpsichord and began to play the Sparrow Symphony from Rinaldo. There are moments of happiness, joyous impulses in the lives of women, which can only find expression in music.

CHAPTER XII
"LOVE IN THESE LABYRINTHS HIS SLAVES DETAINS."

At Lavendale Manor there was no note of expectancy, no stir among the old servants. His lordship had given no intimation of his return. The grooms had to rouse their underlings in the stable from the state of beery somnolence which followed upon a heavy supper. The butler bustled his subordinates and sent off the housemaids to light fires in all the rooms his lordship affected, and in the bedroom and dressing-room known as Mr. Durnford's, and urged cook and scullions to be brisk in the preparation of a pretty little supper. Happily there was a goose hanging in the larder, ready to be clapped on the spit, and this, with the chine which had been cooked for the servants' dinner, and a large venison pasty, with half a dozen speedy sweet dishes, would make a tolerable supper for two gentlemen. The old Italian never joined his patron at meals. He fed apart upon a diet of his own choosing, and on principles laid down by Roger Bacon and Paracelsus – taking only the lightest food, and selecting all those roots and herbs which conduce to long life.

Lavendale went straight to the old chapel, without even waiting to take off his boots. The student's attitude amidst his books and crucibles might have suggested that he had been sitting there like Frederick Barbarossa in his cave, ever since that summer evening upon which his lordship had with equal suddenness burst in upon his studies.

"Well, old friend, how do thy researches thrive? Is Hermes propitious?" asked Lavendale gaily. "Hast thou hit upon an easy way of manufacturing diamonds, or turning vulgar lead into the golden rain in which Dana?'s ravisher veiled his divinity? Art thou any nearer the great secret?"

"Do you remember the infinitely little to which distance is reduced in that fable of Achilles and the tortoise?" asked Vincenti; "and how by descending to infinitesimals the logician gives the idea of progress, and thus establishes a paradox? My progress has been infinitely little; but yes, I think there has been something gained since we parted."

The sigh with which his sentence closed was not indicative of triumph. The finely cut features were drawn with thought and care; the skin, originally a pale olive, was withered and yellow, and had a semitransparent look, like old parchment. Death could hardly be more wan and wasted than life appeared in this searcher into the dark mysteries of man and Nature.

"You have been absent longer than usual," said the old man, "or at least it seems to me that it has been so. I may be mistaken, for I keep no actual count of time – except this bare record of years."



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