Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3
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"You sent me some beggar's daughter, I should say, by her rags. I have washed her, and dressed her in some of Rena's clothes. What put it into your astute head to interfere with the people whose duty it may be to take charge of vagrants?"
"I don't usually act without a motive, as I think you know, Barbara. If the child is sound in wind and limb – a healthy child – I intend to adopt her. Rena wants a companion, I am told – "
"Nurse Bridget's fancy. I wonder you lend your ear to an ignorant country wench."
"The country wench is sustained by the doctor, and by facts. Rena has been drooping of late. Another baby's company may enliven her. Have you put them together?"
"Not I," protested Barbara; "it would have been more than my place is worth to act without orders. I never forget that I am a servant. You ought to know that."
"You tell me of it often enough," said the Squire, shrugging his shoulders. "The misfortune is that you never let me forget you were once something else."
"O, but the memory of it never ruffles your peace," sneered the woman, with a flashing glance at the stern, cold face. "It was so long ago, you see, Squire, and you have a knack of taking things coolly."
"Come and let us introduce the children to each other," said Bosworth, rising; and he followed Barbara Layburne to the further end of the house, where the sound of a crying baby indicated the neighbourhood of the nursery.
It was not the friendless waif who thus bewailed her inarticulate misery. The little stranger was asleep in Barbara's room on the upper story. It was the heiress who was lamenting her infantine woes. Buxom, apple-cheeked Bridget was marching up and down the room, trying to hush her to sleep.
"She's cutting another tooth, sir," she said apologetically.
"She seems to be everlastingly cutting teeth," muttered Bosworth, with a vexed air; "I never come to see her that she is not wailing. Fetch me the other child, Barbara; I want to see them together."
The other child was brought, newly awakened from the refreshing slumber that had been induced by her bath. Her large blue eyes explored the unknown room, full of a pleased wonder. There were bright-coloured chintz curtains, worsted-work shepherds and shepherdesses framed and glazed upon the flowered wall-papering. The nurseries were the brightest rooms in the rambling old house; had been brightened by the young mother before the coming of her baby.
The nameless child had a sweet placidity which appealed to the Squire.
"I suppose she has teeth to cut, too," he said, "but you see she doesn't cry."
"She cried loud enough while I was dressing her," retorted Barbara.
"Put them on the floor side by side," ordered the Squire.
The two infants were set down at his command. They were both at the crawling stage of existence, that early dawn in which humanity goes upon all fours. They seemed about the same size and age, as nearly as might be guessed.They had eyes and hair of the same colour, and had that resemblance common to pretty children. The heiress had a sicklier air than the waif, and was less beautiful in colouring.
"They would pass for twin sisters," said Bosworth; "come, now, Mistress Bridget, do you think you would know them apart?"
Bridget resented the suggestion as an insult to her affection and her intellect.
"I should know my own little darling anywheres," she said; "and this strange child ain't half so pretty."
"There's a mark she'll carry for life, anyhow," said Barbara Layburne, taking up the stranger, and baring the baby's right arm just where it joined the shoulder. "A burn or a scald, you see, Squire. I can't say which it is, but I don't think she'll outlive the scar."
Bosworth glanced at it indifferently.
"A deep brand," he said, and that was all.
He was watching his own child, who was staring at the intruder with looks of keenest interest. She had left off crying, and was crawling assiduously towards the baby-waif, whom Barbara Layburne had set down upon the floor a little way off. The two infants crawled to each other like two puppies, and climbed and tumbled over each other just as young animals might have done, obeying instinct rather than reason.
Presently the little lady uplifted her voice and crowed aloud, and then began to talk after her fashion, which was backward, as of a child brought up amidst gloom and silence.
"Gar, gar, gar!" she reiterated, in a gurgling monotone.
The other baby looked about her, and murmured piteously, "Dada, dada!" and seeing not him whom she sought, she began to cry.
"Another fountain!" exclaimed the Squire, turning upon his heel.
He stopped on the threshold to look back at nurse and children.
"You have had your whim, Mistress Bridget," he said, shaking his forefinger at her; "look you that no harm comes of it;" and with that he stalked away, and went back to his den, without so much as a word to Barbara Layburne, who looked after him with strangely wistful eyes.
Then, when the sound of his firm tread had died into silence, she too left the nurse and the babies, and stalked away to her own den.
"A pretty pair," muttered Bridget, as she squatted down upon the ground to play with her charges; but whether she meant the two babies, or the Squire and his housekeeper, remains an open question.
There had been a time when the presence of Squire Bosworth's housekeeper at Fairmile had caused some vague murmurs in the way of scandal; but time accustoms people to most things, and after ten years Mistress Barbara Layburne, with her flashing eyes and her unkempt hair, her majestic figure and her shabby gown, her imperious manners and her menial capacity, came to be accepted as only a detail in the numerous eccentricities of the Squire. Only such a man could have had such a housekeeper.
The tradition of her first appearance at Fairmile was still talked of, and sounded like a fairy tale. She had arrived there late at night, in a coach and four, during a thunderstorm which was still remembered in those parts. So might Medea have come to Jason in her fiery car drawn by dragons, said the parson, who was an Oxford scholar, and loved the classics. She had arrived in a velvet gown and jewels, with all the style of a lady of fashion. She had been closeted with the Squire for an hour, during which time the sound of their alternate voices in scorn and anger had never ceased. The storm within had raged no less furiously than the storm without. Then had the door been flung open by the Squire, and he had come out into the hall, where he gave an order that a room should be got ready for his unexpected visitor: and, the order given, he had dashed out of the house, mounted into the coach which was waiting before the portico, and had driven off upon the first stage to London, leaving the stranger mistress of the field.
The Squire did not return for a month, during which time the lady had gradually settled down into the position of housekeeper, her status assured by a letter in which Mr. Bosworth bade his old butler obey Mrs. Layburne in all matters connected with the interior of Fairmile Court. So henceforth it was Mrs. Layburne who gave the cook her orders, and who paid all the bills, and who doled out wages to coachman and gardener. She was every whit as great a niggard as her master, people said; and under her rule the miserly ways of the house began to take a settled form and consistency. Every superfluous servant was dismissed, all luxurious living was put down with a high hand, and the gloom which had fallen upon the abandoned house while Roland Bosworth was leading a life of riot and dissipation in London only grew deeper now that he had returned, a reformed rake, to the hearth of his forefathers.
He came back to Fairmile Court at the end of a month, nodded curtly to Mistress Barbara as he passed her in the hall, and took no more notice of her than of any other hireling. She had established herself in his house; but whatever claim she might have upon his friendship was but little honoured. There were occasional conferences in the little red parlour in which the Squire passed most of his indoor life; there were occasional storms; but there was never any touch of tenderness to provoke the scandal of the household as to the present relations of master and servant. As to what those relations had been in the past, the neighbourhood, from parson to innkeeper, from high to low, had its opinions and ideas; but nothing ever occurred to throw any clearer light upon the antecedents of the lady who had come to Fairmile in velvet and jewels, which she was never seen to wear again after that night of tempest. She seemed to age suddenly by twenty years within the first few months of her residence in that melancholy house. Her oval cheeks grew hollow, her complexion faded to a sickly sallow, her ebon hair whitened, and deep lines came in the wan face. She never left the boundary of the park; she never had a friend to visit her. A cloistered nun's life would have been far less lonely. If she was by birth and breeding a lady, as most people supposed, she had not a creature of her own grade with whom to hold converse. To the servants she rarely spoke, save in the way of business. She had her own den, as the Squire had his: she read a good deal; and sometimes of an evening, when the heavy oak shutters were all closed and barred, she would open the spinet – an instrument which had belonged to her master's mother – and sing to it in a strange language, in a wonderful deep voice, which thrilled those who heard her.
The Squire's marriage made no difference in Mrs. Layburne's position, and brought no diminution of her authority. Lady Harriet had no longing for power, and was content to let the house be managed exactly as it had been before her coming. She saw that avarice was the pervading spirit of the household, but she made no complaint; and she was too innocent and simple-minded to have any suspicion of evil in the past history of her husband and his strange housekeeper. It was only when Lady Harriet was about to become a mother that she asserted herself so far as to insist upon some small expenditure upon the rooms which her baby was to occupy. Under her own directions the old nursery wing, in which generation after generation of Bosworths had been reared, was cleansed, renovated, and decorated, in the simplest fashion, but with taste and refinement.
The result of the little stranger's presence fully justified Mrs. Bridget in her opinion. Rena improved in spirits, and even grew more robust in health, from the hour of her little companion's advent. The two children were rarely asunder: they played together, fed together, slept together, took their airings in the same baby-carriage, which Bridget or the gardener's boy dragged about the park, or rolled and crawled together on the grass on sunny autumn mornings. Rena, who had been backward in all things, soon began to toddle, and soon began to prattle, moved by the example of her companion, who had a great gift of language. Bridget was proud of her sagacity, and speedily grew fond of the adopted child, though she always professed to be constant in her affection for Rena, who was certainly a less amiable infant. The little stranger was called Belinda, a name which the Squire had found in one of the dead man's manuscripts.
"It may have been her mother's name," said the Squire, and that was all, though he might have said more had he pleased.
Among those pamphlets and political manuscripts he had found three private letters, which to his mind suggested a domestic history, and which served to assure him that his daughter's companion was of gentle birth. He desired to know no more, and he had no intention of inquiring into her antecedents.
The wanderer had been lying in his nameless grave for a little over three years, and his orphan daughter had thriven apace in her new home. The two children had but rarely passed the gates of the park during those years, but they had been utterly happy together in that wooded wilderness, too young to languish for change of scene, renewing every day the childish pleasures of yesterday. They had not yet emerged from the fairyland of play into the cold arid world of work and reality. They played together all day long on the sunlit grass or under the dappled shadows of the trees in spring, summer, and autumn; in winter making a little paradise for themselves in the day nursery before the cheerful fire, into which they used to peer sometimes, with dilated eyes, seeing gnomes and fairies, and St. George and his dragon, and all the Seven Champions of Christendom, in the burning logs. The shining brass fender seemed to them like a glittering golden gate shutting in fairyland.
How did they know anything of St. George and his dragon, King Arthur, Melusine, and the gnomes and the fairies, at this tender age, when they hardly knew their letters, and certainly could not read these dear old stories for themselves? Easily explained. They had a living book in which they read every evening, and the book was Bridget. Mistress Bridget had more imagination than most of her class, and had spent her superfluous cash with the pedlar, in whose pack there was generally a department for light literature – curious paper-covered books, printed on coarsest paper, and with the roughest and rudest of illustrations; but the Seven Champions and all the old fairy tales were to be found among these volumes, and Bridget had gradually possessed herself of the whole realm of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies.
In the evening, when the stealthy shadows came creeping over the window, and shutting out the leafy wilderness beyond, the two children used to clamber on to Bridget's knee and ask for stories, and Bridget related those old legends with the uttermost enjoyment. That twilight interval before candles and bedtime was the pleasantest hour in her day.
So the children were happy, having, as it seemed, but one friend in the world, in the person of buxom Bridget. Mrs. Barbara Layburne but rarely condescended to enter the nurseries, and looked askant at the children if she happened to meet them in the corridors or hall. She did not even pretend to be fond of her master's daughter, and for the alien she had nothing but contempt. The Squire himself was at best an indifferent father. He seemed quite satisfied to hear that his daughter was well and happy, and seldom put himself out of the way to see her. Sometimes, riding across the park, he would come upon the two children in their play, and would pull up his horse and stop for a few minutes to watch them. There could not be a prettier picture than the two golden-haired children, in their white frocks and blue sashes, chasing each other across the sunlit sward, or squatted side by side in the deep pasture grass, making daisy-chains or buttercup-balls. Belinda looked the stronger of the two, the Squire thought. He knew her by her somewhat darker hair and rosier cheeks. His own motherless child had always a delicate air, though she had never had any serious illness.
It was late in the October of that third year when the children's peaceful days came to an end, like a tale that is told, never hereafter to be any more than a sad sweet memory of love and happiness that had been and was not.
The twilight was earlier than usual on that October evening, and night came up with a great threatening cloud like the outspread wing of a bad angel. Mrs. Barbara Layburne stood at the hall-door watching that lowering sky, and listening to the sough of the south-west wind, and thinking of that night just thirteen years ago – that night of tempest and gloom upon which she had first seen yonder elms and oaks in all their garnered might of foregone centuries, standing stern and strong against the threatening wrack. She thought of her life as it had been before that night, of her life as it had been since.
"Would anybody in London – those who knew me in my glory – believe that I would endure such a long slow martyrdom, a death in life?" she asked herself. "Well, perhaps they would believe, if they could fathom my motive."
The sound of footsteps startled her. Peering into the darkness of the long avenue, she saw a lad running under the trees, sheltering himself as best he might from the driving rain. She watched him as he came towards the house, and hailed him as he drew near. He was the son of the old gardener who lived at the lodge.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
"There is a man at the lodge very ill – dying, mother thinks – and he sent this for you, ma'am, and I was to give it into your own hands."
He handed her a scrap of paper, folded but not sealed. It was scrawled over in pencil, with a tremulous hand.
"Come to me at once, if you want to see me alive. – Roderick."
That was all.
"Is he tall, with dark eyes and hair?" she asked.
"Yes. You'd better come at once if you know anything about him. He's mortal bad. And mother said you'd best bring some brandy."
Barbara Layburne went hastily to the store-room, where everything was kept sternly under lock and key. Half the business of her life was to unlock and lock those presses and store-closets, doling out everything to the submissive cook, who still contrived somehow to have her pinch out of this and that. Barbara filled a small bottle with brandy, fetched her cloak and hood, and then went back to the hall, where the boy was waiting.
She went along the avenue, muffled in her gray cloth cloak, a ghostlike figure, the boy following her as fast as his legs would carry him. He declared afterwards that he had never seen any one walk so fast as Mrs. Layburne walked that stormy night, though the wind and rain were beating against her face and figure all the way.
There was a light burning dimly in the lodge as they drew near. The door was open, and the old gardener was standing on the threshold watching for them.
"Is he – dead?" gasped Barbara.
"No; but his breath is short and thick, just as if he was near his end, poor wretch. He ain't anybody belonging to you, is he, madam?"
"Not he," answered Barbara promptly; "but I know something about him. He's the son of an old servant who lived with me in my prosperous days. Where is he?"
"In the kitchen. He was shivering, so the missus thought he'd be better by the fire be-like."
The ground floor of the lodge consisted of two rooms, parlour and kitchen. Barbara went to the kitchen, which was at the back, the common living-room of the family. The parlour was for ornament and state – temple and shrine for the family Bible and the family samplers, laborious works of art which adorned the walls.
The sick man was lying in front of the fire, with an old potato-sack between him and the flagged floor. Barbara knelt beside him, and looked into his face, half in the red light of the fire, half in the yellow flare of the tallow candle.
His eyes were glassy and dim, his cheeks were flushed, his breath laboured and rattled as it came and went. Barbara Layburne knew the symptoms well enough. It was gaol fever – a low form of typhus. That tainted breath meant infection, and the gardener's cottage swarmed with children. He must be got away from there at once, unless they were all to die. Typhus in those days was always master of the field where he had once set up his standard.
The dim eyes looked at her piteously: the lips began to murmur inarticulately.
"Leave us together for a few minutes, Mrs. Bond, while I hear what the poor creature has to say, and think over what I had best do with him. There is no room for him here."
Mrs. Bond retired, shutting the door behind her.