Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3



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"I was in liquor, and there was a knife handy. Yes, if luck had favoured me that night, Squire Bosworth would have come to an early end, and your wrongs would have been righted."

"I would rather right them myself."

"Ah, but you are of a slavish temper, like all women, however high they pretend to hold themselves. You can live here, eat his bread, and be called his servant, you who for years had him at your feet, led him like your lap-dog. I have heard what the village people say of you. This is not the first time I have been in your neighbourhood."

"No, I thought as much. 'Twas you robbed the London coach last December."

"What! you knew my hand, did you, Bab?" he cried, with a hoarse chuckle. His glassy eyes shone with a new light: the brandy seemed to have rekindled the spark of life in him. "Yes; it was neatly done, wasn't it? That knoll above the road was a capital station, and the old fir-trunks hid us. There were only two of us, Bab, and we got clean off with the plunder. But it was my last lucky hit. Nothing has gone well with me since that night. I turned fine gentleman for a month or two on the strength of that haul, and let my hand lose its cunning. And then for the pettiest business you can conceive, a fopling's purse at the Opera, as skinny a purse as you ever saw, Bab, I got quodded, and narrowly escaped a rope. It was only one of your old admirers, who came forward and spoke to my character, who saved me from the gallows."

"Are you too ill to go on to some safer shelter, if I were to give you some money?" asked Barbara meditatively.

She was puzzled what she could do with him, if he must needs remain on the premises. She knew that Roland Bosworth would show him little mercy. They had always been foes, and one particular scene was distinctly present to her mind's eye, as she knelt there by the kitchen fire, looking down at the pinched face, with the glassy eyes and hectic cheeks.

It was a scene after supper, in a gaily-lighted room, cards and dice lying about on the tables, and on one a punchbowl, some lemons, and a big clasp-knife. The guests were gone, and they three were alone, and a quarrel had come about between Bosworth and Layburne, a quarrel beginning in a dispute about gains and losses at cards, and intensifying through bitterest speech to keenest, cruellest taunts, taunts flung by the brother in the face of his sister's lover; and then hatred took a more desperate form, and Roderick Layburne snatched up the Spanish knife – his own knife which he had produced a while ago to cut the lemons – and had tried to stab Bosworth to the heart.

The Squire was the bigger and stronger man, and flung his assailant aside – flung him out of the room and down the steep London staircase, to ruminate on his wrongs at the bottom; and from that night Mrs. Layburne's brother had never been admitted to her lodgings in the Haymarket.

This had happened just eighteen years ago, in the days when Barbara was a famous actress, known to the town as Mrs.

Belfield, and had titled admirers by the score. They had never been more than admirers, those dukes and lords who applauded her nightly, and thought it honour and felicity to lose their money at hazard or lansquenet in her luxurious lodgings. The only man she had ever cared for was Roland Bosworth, though he had never been either the handsomest or the most agreeable man among her followers. But women who are admired by all the world have curious caprices; and it had been Mrs. Layburne's fancy to sacrifice herself and her career to the least distinguished of her admirers. She had her tempers, and did not make her lover's life a bed of roses. Thrice he had been upon the point of marrying her; and each time some wild outbreak of passion or some freak of folly had scared him away from the altar. Then the time came when he wearied of her storms and sunshines, and left her. She followed, content, as her brother said, to become a slave where she had once been a queen.

Roderick groped with his hand for the tumbler, and his sister poured out a little more of the brandy and gave it to him.

"That means the renewal of life," he said, "but not for long. No, Bab; not if you were to offer me a thousand guineas could I budge another mile, on foot or on horseback. I'm on the last stage of my last journey, Bab. The gaol doctor was right enough when he told them yesterday morning it was all over – only he didn't know what stuff I was made of, or how long it would take me to die. Lungs gone, heart queer – that was his verdict. And gaol fever for a gentle finisher. You must find me a corner to die in, Barbara: it's all I shall ever ask you for."

She thought deeply. Take him into the house by a back door, hide him in some room near her own? That might be done, but it would be too hazardous. And when the end should come, there would be the difficulty. It would be more perilous to remove the dead than to admit the living. And then to let putrid fever into the house? Who could tell where the evil would stop? Disinfectants and precautionary measures were almost unknown in those days. Fever came into a house and did its fatal work unopposed.

But there was one vast block of buildings at Fairmile Court, given over to emptiness, buildings which no one ever explored. The old hunting stables, where Roland Bosworth's grandfather had kept his stud, had been disused for the last half-century. Loose boxes, men's rooms, saddle-rooms, dog-kennels: there was space enough for a village hospital.

"If I can but make one of those rooms fairly comfortable!" she thought, remembering how bleak and desolate the rooms had looked when she explored them soon after her first coming.

"I must go and see what I can do," she said after a pause. "It is early yet, not eight o'clock. I will have you comfortably lodged by ten."

"The sooner the better, for it isn't over-pleasant lying on these stones. If it had not been for that taste of cognac I should be dead before now."

Barbara hurried away, begging the gardener and his wife to keep close till her return, and to be ready to help her then. They were neither now nor at any future time to breathe a word to mortal ears about anything which had happened or which might happen to-night. Then she hastened back to the house with those swift steps of hers, borne onward by the fever of excitement that burned within.

All was quiet at Fairmile Court. The Squire was luckily in London, not expected back till the end of the week. The few servants were snug in the kitchen, with closed doors. Barbara provided herself with a lantern and a bunch of keys, and went out to the old hunting stables, which were further from the house than those smaller stables now in use. She investigated room after room, little dens in which grooms had been lodged, until she found one that suited her. It was in a less dilapidated state than the others, and was provided with a fireplace, which the others were mostly without. The window looked away from all the other stables and the offices of the Court, and a light burning within would hardly attract notice. The smoke from the chimney would be almost hidden by the roof of a huge old brewery in the rear; and as the brewery was now used as a laundry, and fires almost always lighted there, the smoke from the lesser vent would in all probability be mingled with that from the tall and capacious shaft, and provoke no questions.

With her own hands, Barbara carried coals and wood and tinder-box, mattress and pillows, blanketing and linen, from the house to the groom's bedchamber, where the old furniture – a stump bedstead, a chest of drawers, and a chair or two – still remained. With her own hands she swept the chamber, lighted the fire, and made up the bed. The room had almost a comfortable look in the red glow of the fire. She toiled thus for nearly two hours, with many journeys to and fro in the wind and rain, and before the first stroke of ten, all was to her satisfaction. She had brought food and drink, all things that she could think of, for the sick man's comfort. It could hardly be much more luxurious than the prison infirmary from which he had escaped, but it had been his fancy to come there to die, and she could but indulge him. He was her junior by eleven years, and there was a time when she had loved him passionately, almost with a maternal love.

She went back to the lodge, and the gardener and she contrived a kind of impromptu ambulance out of an old truck, and a blanket which she had carried with her. The sick man's limbs seemed to have stiffened since he had crawled to that door, and had sunk exhausted upon that hearth.

"There isn't a crawl left in me," he said, as they lifted him on to the truck, and wrapped the blanket round him.

For nearly a fortnight he lay in that lonely room, his sister attending upon him, stealing to his lair again and again every day, often sitting up all night with him, nursing and ministering to him with inexhaustible patience. Her apprehension was of the hour when he should die, and there would be the business of removing him or of accounting for his presence in that place. It was an intense relief, therefore, when after a fortnight of unwearying attention, with a liberal use of brandy and strong soups, at an expenditure rare in that pinched household, Roderick so far recovered that he was quite capable of being moved to another shelter.

The hand of death was upon him – death's impress visible in hollow hectic cheeks, glassy eyes, and difficult breathing. Consumption was doing its subtle work, but typhus had been subjugated by good nursing.

No sooner had the fever left him than Mrs. Layburne planned how to get rid of the patient. She had the rickety, blundering, old family coach at her disposal whenever she wanted to go to the market-town to buy groceries and other necessaries for the household. Roderick was well enough to put on a suit of old clothes, some cast-off garments of the Squire's which had seen hard service. She helped him to dress, and then directed him what to do. He was to walk as far as he could along the avenue towards the park-gates – or, if he had strength enough, beyond the gates – and was to sit down by the roadside as a wayfarer who had sunk from fatigue. She would stop the coach, and, affecting to take compassion upon him as a stranger, would offer him a lift to Cranbrook, the market-town. Here she would set him down at the Lamb, a humble little inn she knew of, where, furnished by her with funds, he might remain till he was well enough to resume the struggle for existence. In her heart of hearts she knew that for him that struggle was nearly over, and that it was doubtful if he would ever leave the Lamb. She would have done all she could do for him, and Fate or Providence, God or the Devil, must do the rest. Mrs. Barbara's spiritual ideas were of a very obscure order, and ranked about as high as the tenets of the Indian Devil-dancers, or the Fetish-worshippers of the South Seas.

Roderick assented to her plan. What could he do but assent, having not another friend in the world, and being very anxious to leave that den in the old rat-haunted stables? The coach went lumbering along the avenue one fine afternoon while the Squire was up in London. Roderick had started a good hour before the coach, and he had contrived to tramp the whole length of the avenue, and pass the gardener's lodge, before the vehicle overtook him.

Barbara stopped the coach, and played her little drama of womanly compassion and charity. Old John Coachman wondered at this unaccustomed beneficence in the housekeeper; wondered still more when she opened the coach-door, and invited the tramp to ride beside her. So well had the gardener and his family kept madam's secret that the house-servants had heard nothing about that strange visitant of Mrs. Barbara's.

She pulled up her coach at the Lamb, and committed her brother, with payment in advance for a month's board and lodging, to the tender care of the landlady, who was a good homely soul, and so left him, with five guineas in his pocket, and the promise of future help, would he but lead an honest life, and keep out of gaol. Then she drove to the market-place, and did her shopping in the sleepy, low-ceilinged, old-established shops, where the tradesmen lived in a semi-darkness, and made a profit of from thirty to fifty per cent upon everything they sold.

"Thank God I am clear of that trouble!" ejaculated Mrs. Layburne, as the coach passed the Lamb again on its way out of the town.

She congratulated herself somewhat too soon, as she had not seen the end of evil; albeit the sick man only lingered for a few weeks longer, before he was carried to his nameless grave in Cranbrook Church.

CHAPTER III
"AND TO THE VIEWLESS SHADES HER SPIRIT FLED."

It was a habit with the two little girls, when the weather was bad and they could not ramble far afield in the spacious park, to take their exercise anywhere they could about the old rambling house, chasing each other up and down the corridors, skipping and dancing in the great unused reception-rooms, penetrating into every nook and corner, fearless, inquisitive, full of life and fun; but the sport which they enjoyed most of all was a game of hide-and-seek in the offices, the wood-sheds, and breweries, and disused coach-houses, kennels, and stabling. This was their sovereign domain, a region in which no one had ever interfered with their rights. Here they could be as noisy and as boisterous as they pleased, could give full indulgence to the riotous spirits of childhood. Mrs. Bridget was a kind nurse, but she was by no means a watchful one. The doctor had told her that it was good for children to run wild, most especially for little Rena, whose brain was in advance of her years; and Bridget acted upon this advice in a very liberal spirit. She was an arrant gossip, and would spend hours in the kitchen, with her arms folded in her apron, talking to the cook and housemaids, while her charges amused themselves as they listed in the house, or in the offices outside the house.

"They can't come to any harm," said Bridget. "They are not like mischievous boys, who would go climbing out of windows and getting into dangerous places. My little dears only run about and play prettily together."

A shout, a rush of little feet, and a peal of childish laughter in the passage outside the great stone kitchen would emphasise Bridget's remark.

No, they had never come to any harm in those rambling desolate stables, brewhouses, and wood-houses, till about three days after Roderick Layburne's departure, when, in a grand game of hide-and-seek, which had lasted over an hour, Linda, flushed and breathless with exercise and excitement, crept into the room which the sick man had occupied, and seated herself to rest upon the bed he had lain upon for fourteen weary days and fourteen restless nights.

She wondered a little at the tokens of recent occupation, such as she had never seen in any of these rooms before: ashes in the grate, a pipkin on one hob and a saucepan on the other, empty cups and jugs on a little table, and blankets on the bed where she was sitting.

She was too young to reason upon these evidences.

"Some one lives here," she told herself simply, but had no fear of the unknown personage. She waited so long for Rena to discover her hiding-place that she fell asleep at last, nestling down among those fever-tainted blankets. Rena found her there slumbering soundly, half an hour later, after having examined every hole and corner in her search, and crying with vexation at the difficulty of the quest.

It was not till ten days later that the evil result began to show itself. First Linda began to droop, and then Rena, each falling ill with exactly the same symptoms. The old doctor shook his head solemnly, "Scarlet fever, with the rash suppressed," he pronounced like an oracle; and immediately began to starve and to physic them, almost as if he were voluntarily working in unison with that deadly fever which was burning up their young blood.

The Squire was in an agony when he heard of his daughter's danger. He had seemed a careless and an indifferent father, and had seen very little of his child in those infantile years. He had no sympathy with childhood, could not understand its ways and ideas, knew not what to say to his little daughter or how to amuse her. It had been sufficient for him to know that she was near at hand, and that she was thriving.

But at the idea of peril he was like a madman. Barbara Layburne was surprised at the violence of his feelings. She looked at him with a curious air of suppressed cynicism.

"I had no idea you were so wrapped up in that baby," she said.

"Then you might have known as much. What else have I in this world to care for – to toil for – "

"Pray be reasonable, Mr. Bosworth. We all know that you love money for its own sake – not for those who are to come after you."

"Yes, but to know that when I am gone my wealth must be scattered to the four winds – that no grandchildren of mine will inherit all that I have slaved for; that no grandson of mine will assume my name, and hand it down to his son with the wealth. I have amassed, and which he should increase! Money fructifies of itself when there is but common prudence in the possessor. It is to my daughter's children I look for the reward of all my toils, the perpetuation of my name: and if she dies, the cord snaps, and all is over. I shall have to leave my money to a hospital or an almshouse. Horrid thought!"

"Horrid thought, indeed, for Squire Bosworth to contemplate his fortune as a means of blessing to the helpless!"

"You have a scathing tongue, Mrs. Barbara, and I sometimes think you have a malignant mind to set the tongue wagging. I never met but one woman who was true and pure and noble to the heart's core, and that was the sweet saint whom Fate snatched away from me."

"And who never loved you," sneered Barbara. "That is to the credit of her wisdom."

"Ay; but she was better to me than the women who have pretended to love me – women whose love has been a curse. Do not speak of her. Your lips befoul her."

And then he went to the chamber where the children were lying in their two little beds side by side. It had been impossible to part them; they would have fretted themselves to death in severance. And as they were both sick of the same fever, there seemed no need for keeping them in separate rooms.

The windows were curtained, the room kept in semi-darkness, as was the fashion in those days. Invalids were supposed to thrive best in the gloom. Every breath of air was excluded, and a large fire burned merrily in the grate, where divers messes and potions were stewing. An odour of drugs pervaded the room. The Squire could hardly draw his breath in that stifling atmosphere. But fresh air in a fever! Heaven forbid!

Bosworth sat by his child's bedside for a few minutes, holding the little burning hand in his, suffering an agony of helplessness and apprehension. What could his hoards do for her? Cr?sus himself could not have bought an hour's respite for the little life that seemed ebbing away. How thick and laboured was her breathing!

"Surely she would do better with more air," said her father; but the nurses assured him that a puff of cold wind would be deadly. They dared not open a window. The nurses were Bridget and a woman from the village, who had a reputation for skill in all diseases. But the chief nurse was Barbara Layburne, who had taken up her abode in a room adjoining the sick-chamber, and who scarcely ceased from her watching by day or night.

She had heard the history of that fatal game at hide-and-seek, and how Rena had discovered Linda fast asleep on a bed in one of the rooms in the deserted stable. She knew too well what the fever meant, with its suppressed eruption – knew that she was to blame for the evil, by her carelessness after the sick man's departure. She had kept so close in her own den, had taken so little notice of the children, that she had never known of their occasional inroads upon the disused stables. Had she known more of children's ways, she would have known that it is just in such deserted regions that they love to play. Imagination is free amidst emptiness and solitude; and a child's fancy will convert a barn or a wood-shed into an enchanted palace.

"I will post to London and get the cleverest doctor in the town," exclaimed Bosworth.

It was the one only thing his money could do for that perishing child. He bent down and kissed the dry lips, inhaling the putrid breath, almost wishing that it might poison him if she were not to recover, and that they two might be laid in the same grave with the young mother. And then he left the sick-room, ordered a horse for himself, and another for his groom. The groom was to gallop on ahead to the market-town, and order a post-chaise to be in readiness for his master. The Squire was in London soon after nightfall, and at his club, inquiring for the doctor who was cleverest in fever cases. He was told of Dr. Denbigh in Covent Garden, a youngish man, but a great authority on fevers; and to Covent Garden he went between eleven o'clock and midnight.



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