Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3

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He turned to a flyleaf in a black-letter volume at his right hand; and on that, beginning in ink that had grown brown and pale with time, there appeared a calendar of years, and opposite each the name of a place.

This was the only record of the philosopher's existence. Lavendale's keen eye noted that it began early in the previous century, and that the handwriting was uniform throughout, though the colour of the ink varied. Could this man, whom he had guessed at about seventy years old, have really seen the beginning of the last century? Vincenti had been ever curiously reticent about his past life – had told his patron only one fact in his history, namely, that he was by birth and parentage a Venetian.

"No, my dear friend, you are not mistaken; I stayed longer in town than I intended when I left you. People seemed glad to see me – mere seeming, of course, since in that selfish town of ours there is not a mortal who cares a snap of the fingers for any other mortal; except lovers, and theirs is but a transient semi-selfish liking. But there is a fascination in crowds; and I saw a woman who has quite forgotten me, but whom I never can forget."

"How do you know she has forgotten you?"

"By her indifference."

"Assumed as likely as not. There is no such hypocrisy as a woman's. There are liars and traitors among men, I grant you, but with them falsehood is an acquired art. In a woman deceit is innate: a part of her very being. She will smile at you and lie to you with the virginal sweetness of sixteen as cleverly as with the wrinkled craftiness of sixty. Never believe in a woman's affectation of indifference. It is the safest mask for passion. They all wear it."

"If I thought that it were so: if I thought Judith Topsparkle still loved me – "

"Topsparkle!" muttered the old man, staring at him in blank wonder.

"Did I think those old embers were not quite extinct, did I think that one lingering spark remained, I would risk the world to rekindle them, would perish in the blaze, die in a savage triumph of love and despair, like Dido on her pyre. But no, she is a woman of fashion pure and simple, cares no more for me than Belinda cared for Sir Plume."

"Topsparkle!" repeated Vincenti; "whom do you know of that name?"

"Only the famous Vyvyan Topsparkle, dilettante, eccentric, and Cr?sus. A gentleman whose name is familiar, and even illustrious, in all the countries where works of art are to be seen and fine music is to be heard. A gentleman who left England forty years ago with a very vile reputation, and who has not improved it on the Continent; but we do not hang men of fabulous fortune: we visit them at their country houses, ride their horses, win their money at basset, and revile them behind their backs. Mr. Topsparkle is a very fine gentleman, and has been lucky enough to marry the loveliest woman in London, who has made his house the fashion."

"Vyvyan Topsparkle! I thought he had gone into a Portuguese monastery – turned Trappist, and repented of his sins.

I was told so ten years ago."

"Yes, I remember there was a rumour of that kind soon after I left the University. I believe the gentleman disappeared for some time, and stimulated the inventive powers of his friends by a certain mysteriousness of conduct; but I can assure you there is nothing of the monk about Mr. Topsparkle nowadays. He is altogether the fop and man of fashion, and, if wrinkles counted for nothing, would be almost a young man."

"He is a scoundrel, and may he meet with a scoundrel's doom!" muttered Vincenti gloomily.

"What, have you any personal acquaintance with him? Did you ever meet him in Italy?"

"Yes, more than forty years ago."

Lavendale flushed and paled again in his agitation. Here was one who perchance might help him to some clue to that old mystery, the scandal and suspected crime related by Tom Philter. He told Vincenti the story exactly as Philter had told it to him.

The old man listened intently, those dark eyes of his shining under the bushy white brows, shining with the reflected light of the fire, shining with a fiercer light from within.

"I have heard this story before," he said.

"And do you believe it? Do you believe there was foul play?"

"Yes, I believe Vyvyan Topsparkle was a murderer as well as a seducer. It is not true that his mistress was a dancing-girl. She was a girl of respectable birth, brought up in a convent – highly gifted, a genius, with the voice and face of an angel."

"Good Heaven, you speak of her with the utmost familiarity! Did you know her?"

There was a pause before the old man answered. He turned over the pages of the book he had been reading when Lavendale entered, and seemed for the moment as if he had forgotten the subject of their conversation.

"Did you know that unhappy girl?" Lavendale asked eagerly.

"I knew something of her people," answered Vincenti, without looking up. "They belonged to the trading class of Venice, but had noble blood in their veins. The father was a jeweller and something of an artist. The girl's disappearance made a scandal in Venice. She had but just left her convent school. It was not known where the seducer had taken her. A near relative followed them – tracked them to Paris – followed them from Paris to London – in time to see a coffin carried out of the house in Soho Square, and to hear dark hints of poison. He stayed in London for nearly a year; wore out his heart in useless efforts to discover any proof of the crime which was suspected by more than one, most of all by an apothecary who was called in to see the dying girl; tried to get an order for the exhumation of the body, but in vain. He was a foreigner, and poor; Mr. Topsparkle was an Englishman of large fortune. The government scented a Jacobite Jesuit in the Italian, or at any rate pretended to think him dangerous, and he had notice to leave the country. He left, but not before Topsparkle had fled from the blast of scandal. His attempt to become a senator confounded him. Slander had slept until the Brentford election."

"Yes, that chimes in with Philter's account," answered Lavendale. "Do you know what became of the girl's father?"

Vincenti shrugged his shoulders.

"Died, I suppose, of a broken heart. He was too insignificant to make any mark upon history."

"Well, I am quite ready to believe Mr. Topsparkle to be a double-dyed scoundrel – and yet I am going to sit at his table and sleep under his roof. That is what good company means nowadays. Nobody asks any searching questions about a host's character. If his wines and his cook are faultless, and his wife is handsome, every one is satisfied: and on this occasion Mr. Topsparkle's company is to be exceptionally distinguished. Swift is to be there, the Irish patriot and ecclesiastical Jack Pudding, who is just now puffed with importance at the success of his queer hook about giants, pigmies, and what not; and there is a talk of Voltaire, the young French wit, who has been twice beaten for his bon-mots, and twice a prisoner in the Bastille, and who is in England only because France is too hot to hold him. There is a promise of Bolingbroke, too, and a hint of my queer kinswoman, Lady Mary, who made such a figure the other night at the Prince's ball. We shall doubtless make a strange medley, and I would not be out of the fun for anything in this world, even though in his hot youth Mr. Topsparkle may have played the character of Othello with a phial of poison instead of a bolster. After all, Vincenti, jealousy is a noble passion, and a man may have worse motives for murder."

The old man made no answer, and as supper was announced at this moment, the conversation ended.

There was something in Lavendale's manner which told of a mind ill at ease, perchance even of a remorseful conscience; but he had the air of a man who defied Fate, and who meant to be happy in his own way.

To the belated peasant tramping homeward beside the lessor Avon, Ringwood Abbey in the December gloaming must have looked as like an enchanted palace as it is possible for any earthly habitation ever to look. Provided always that the peasant had heard of fairyland and its wonderful castles, which shine suddenly out upon wandering princes, luminous with multitudinous windows, and joyous with the buzz and clatter of an army of servants and a court of fine ladies and gentlemen. Ringwood Abbey was all ablaze with wax candles, and reflected its Gothic casements in yonder sedgy stream until it seemed to outshine the stars in the cold clear winter sky. This earthly illumination was so much nearer than the stars, and to the agricultural labourer tramping homeward after a day at the plough-tail was suggestive of pleasanter thoughts than were inspired by yonder cold and distant lights of heaven. Ringwood Abbey meant broken victuals in abundance, and money flung about recklessly by the Squire and his London guests. It meant horse and hound, and all the concomitants of a big hunting-stable. It meant custom for every little tradesman in the village, and charities on a large scale to the poor. It meant beauty and splendour and stateliness and music to gladden the eye and the ear. It meant bribery at elections, largesse at all times and seasons. It meant all that a large country house, carried on with a noble disregard of cost, can ever mean to the surrounding neighbourhood. Needless, therefore, to add that in this little corner of Hampshire, beside the lesser Avon, Mr. Topsparkle was a very popular gentleman, and Lady Judith a queen among women, a goddess to be worshipped by all who came but to the outermost edge of her enchanted circle.

It was the cheery eventide after a five-o'clock dinner. They dined late at this season on account of the hunting-men, and even then there were some eager sportsmen who would rather miss their dinner than draw bridle before the doom of Reynard; and these came in ravenous to the ten-o'clock supper, full of their adventures over heath and through stream, and a most intolerable nuisance to the non-hunting people.

My Lord Bolingbroke, lolling at ease yonder in a carved oak armchair, coquetting with Lady Judith, had once been the keenest of sportsmen, and was fond of hunting still, but not quite so reluctant to miss a day's sport as he had been a few years ago.

"Do you remember our wolf-hunt at La Source, the winter you were with us, Arouet?" he asked, following up a conversation half in French and half in English, in which he and Lady Judith, a young gentleman standing in front of the fireplace, and Lord Lavendale had been engaged for the last quarter of an hour. "I had some very fine hounds that Lord Gore sent me, and I was curious to see whether they would attack a wolf boldly, or sneak off as soon as he stood at bay. 'Twas a stirring business for men, horses, and hounds; but, after all, I think there is nothing better than a genuine British fox-hunt."

"In France we study the picturesque and romantic in sport," said the tall slim gentleman lounging in front of the wide medi?val fireplace, whom Bolingbroke addressed sometimes familiarly as Arouet, and anon by his newly assumed name of Voltaire. "You English seem only to regard the practical – so many miles ridden over, so many foxes slaughtered, so many pheasants shot. With you the chase is a matter of statistics; with us it is a royal ceremony, diversion for kings and courtiers. Our hunting-parties are as stately and picturesque under Louis as they were under Charlemagne. Ours is the poetry of the chase, yours the prose."

"True, my dear Voltaire, but for horseflesh and pedigree hounds we are as far your superiors as you excel us in gold-lace coats and jewelled hunting-knives, or in the noise and fuss of your cur?e; while for hard riding – well, you hunt for the most part in a country that scarcely admits of fine horsemanship."

"It is one of our misfortunes not to be a nation of centaurs, my lord," answered Voltaire lightly and in English, which he spoke admirably, although he dropped into his own language occasionally. "I envy you English gentlemen your superb capacity for outdoor sports and your noble independence of intellectual amusements. Of course I except your lordship from the category of average Englishmen, who devote their days to killing birds and beasts, and their evenings to the study of blood and murder tragedies by their favourite Shakespeare."

"0, don't be too hard upon our sturdy British taste, my dear friend. We read Shakespeare occasionally, I admit, but we very seldom act his plays. That pretty foolish comedy, As You Like It, has never been represented since the author's death; and I protest there are some love-making scenes in it that would not disgrace Dryden or Wycherley."

"Do you know, Monsieur de Voltaire, that I delight in Shakespeare?" said Lady Judith, who sat on a sofa by the fire, fanning herself with a superb listlessness, and leaning down now and then to caress her favourite pug.

"From the moment Lady Judith admires him he is sacred," said the Frenchman gaily; "but you must confess that there is a crudeness about his tragedies, an extravagance of blood and wounds and sudden death, which can hardly stand comparison with such calm and polished compositions as Ph?dre or Le Cid."

"I place Shakespeare infinitely higher than Racine or Corneille, and I consider his tragedies sublime," replied Judith, with the air of a woman who has the privilege of being positive even when she is talking nonsense.

"What, that refined and delicate Roman story, for instance —Titus Andronicus, and Lavinia with her bleeding stumps, and the profligate blackamoor?"

"0, we give you Lavinia and her stumps," cried Bolingbroke, laughing. "We repudiate Titus Andronicus. It is the work of an earlier playwright, to which Shakespeare only gave a few fine touches; and those flashes of genius have made the whole play pass for inspired."

"0, if you are going to repudiate everything coarse and brutal which passes for Shakespeare, and claim only the finer touches for his, you may succeed in establishing him as a great poet. Would that we might all be judged as leniently by future critics! What say you, Mr. Topsparkle? You are a man of cosmopolitan tastes, and have doubtless compared your native playwrights with those of other nations, from ?schylus downwards."

"I care not a jot for the whole mass of English literature," answered Topsparkle, snapping his taper fingers with an airy gesture; "and as for Shakespeare, I have never soiled my fingers by turning his pages. My mental stamina is not robust enough to cope with his monstrosities."

"And yet you revel in foreign coarseness; you devour Boccaccio and Rabelais," said his wife, with a scornful glance at the pinched painted face and frail figure airing itself before the wide old hearth, set off by a gray and silver brocade suit with scarlet shoulder-knots.

"Ah, my dear Judith, no woman can appreciate the grace of Boccaccio nor the wit of Rabelais. Your sex is seldom delicately critical. A butcher brute, like Shakespeare, pleases you because he conjures up scenes of blood and murder which your imagination can easily realise; but the niceties of wit are beyond your comprehension."

"I would rather have written the Rape of the Lock than all Shakespeare's plays and poems to boot. 'Tis the best mock-heroic poem that ever was written," said Voltaire, pleased to compliment Lord Bolingbroke by praising his friend. To the exile, the favour of the Lord of Dawley was not altogether unimportant, and Arouet had been on a footing of friendship with Bolingbroke and his wife for some years, a favoured guest at his lordship's ch?teau near Orleans. He had sat at Bolingbroke's feet, and imbibed his opinions.

The Henriade was still awaiting publication, and Francis Arouet had an eye to his subscription-list; a man at all times supple and adroit, ever able to make the best of every situation, dexterous alike as wit and poet, courtier, lover, speculator, flushed with the small social successes of his brilliant youth, secure in the friendship of royal duchesses and rou? princes, accepted in a society far above his birth, envied and hated by the malignant few – witness M. de Rohan's brutal retaliation – but petted and caressed by the many. Who could wonder that such a man, accustomed to float easily on the very crest of the wave, should be quite at home at Ringwood Abbey, oppressed neither by Bolingbroke's intellectual superiority nor by Lady Judith's insolent beauty?

"Nothing can excel perfection," answered Bolingbroke blandly. "My little friend's poem is an Y entire and perfect chrysolite; but it is perfection in miniature. I hope to see Pope excel on a larger scale and with a loftier theme. He is capable of writing a great philosophical poem, which shall place him above Lucretius."

"Hang up philosophy! I only care for Pope when he is personal," said Lady Judith. "He is like that other small creature, the adder, only of consequence when he stings."

"One would suppose he had stung you," retorted her husband.

"No, I have not yet been assailed in print. My time is to come, I suppose. But last summer, when all the world was at Twit'nam, there was not a day passed that I did not hear of some venomous shaft which Poet Pug had let fly at one of my friends. No doubt he is just as spiteful about me, only one's friends don't repeat such things to one's face."

"Not to such a face as yours, madam," said the Frenchman. "Malevolence itself must yield to the magic of incomparable charms."

The conversation meandered on in the same trifling strain, Lavendale silent for the most part, standing in the shadow of the carved oak mantelpiece and casting uneasy glances from time to time towards his hostess, who seemed too much occupied by Lord Bolingbroke to be aware of anybody else's presence, save when she flung some casual speech into the current of idle talk. It was but eight o'clock, and they had dined at five. Seldom did that deep drinker, Henry St. John, leave the table so early. To-night he had not stayed to finish his second bottle of Burgundy ere he joined Lady Judith in the drawing-room, and had given the signal for the breaking up of the party, much to the disappointment of Sir Tilbury Haskell, an honest Hampshire squire, who had heard of Bolingbroke as a four-bottle man, and had hoped to make a night of it in such distinguished company. Mr. Topsparkle had that Continental sobriety which is always offensive to Englishmen, and Voltaire was equally temperate. Sir Tilbury rolled his ponderous carcass to the billiard-room to snore on a sofa until supper-time, when there would be a well-furnished table for the sportsmen and more Champagne and Burgundy.

Bolingbroke was charmed with his hostess. That proud beauty, in its glorious prime of early womanhood, made him for the moment forgetful of his accomplished French wife, who was just then invalided at Bath, where he was to join her in a few days. It was not that he was unfaithful to his wife even in thought, but that his vanity hungered for new conquests. The triumphant Alcibiades of Anne's reign had become the boastful libertine who would fain be credited with new successes in the hour when he feels his seductive power on the wane.

This evening hour found Lord Bolingbroke in his lightest mood, warmed with wine, expansive, happy; but the cold winter daylight had seen him seated at his desk, thoughtful and laborious, writing the first number of the Craftsman, a newspaper of which he and William Pulteney were to be joint editors and proprietors, and which was to be launched almost immediately. That noble brow, now so bland and placid, had but a few hours ago been crowded with eager and vengeful thoughts, and was even at this moment but the smooth mask of an ambition that never slept, of a craft that never ceased from plotting, of a resolute determination to succeed at the expense of every finer feeling and of every loftier scruple. That deep and thrilling voice, which to-night breathed soft nothings into Judith's ear, had but a week ago been insinuating slanders against Walpole into the complacent ear of the King's favourite, her Grace of Kendal, ever a willing listener to the courtier who would weight his arguments with gold.

Lavendale watched yonder handsome profligate with a jealous eye. Yes, Judith listened as if with pleasure to those insidious addresses. The lovely eyes sparkled, the lovely lips smiled.

"She is an arrant coquette," thought Lavendale. "Years have made her charms only more seducing, her manners only more reckless. She may be laughing in her sleeve at yonder middle-aged Lothario; but it pleases her to fool him to the top of his bent – pleases her most, perhaps, to know that I am standing by and suffering damnable tortures."

Judith looked up at that moment, almost as if in answer to his thought, and their eyes met.

"I protest you have quite a disconsolate air, Lord Lavendale!" she exclaimed. "What has become of your charmer, and how is it you are not in close attendance upon her? I saw her wander off to the music-room directly after dinner, and I believe your umbra – Mr. What-d'ye-call-him – went with her. Mr. What-d'ye-call-him is fonder of music than you are."

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