Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3



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He had married two out of three daughters well, but not brilliantly. Judith was the youngest of the three, and she was the flower of the flock. She had been foolish, very foolish, about Lord Lavendale, and a faint cloud of scandal had hung over her name ever since her affair with that too notorious rake. They had ridden together with foxhounds and harriers in the level fields round Hampton Court, had sat ever side by side in the royal barge, had been partners at basset, companions on all possible occasions; and the town had not been too indulgent about the lady's preference for such an unblushing reprobate. Admirers she had by the score; but since the Lavendale entanglement there had been no serious advances from any suitor of mark.

But now Mr. Topsparkle, one of the wealthiest commoners in Great Britain, was obviously smitten with Lady Judith's perfections, and had a keen air which seemed to mean business, Lord Bramber thought. He had obtained an introduction to the Earl within the last half-hour, and had not concealed his admiration for the Earl's daughter. He had entreated the honour of a formal introduction to the exquisite creature with whom he had conversed on sportive terms last night at the Assembly Rooms.

Lady Judith acknowledged the introduction with the air of a queen, to whom courtiers and compliments were as the gadflies of summer. She fanned herself listlessly, and stared about her while Mr. Topsparkle was talking.

"I vow, there is Mrs. Margetson!" she exclaimed, recognising an acquaintance across the crowd; "I have not seen her for a century. Heavens, how old and yellow she is looking! – yellower even than you, Mattie;" this last by way of aside to her plain cousin.

"I hope you bear me no malice for my pertinacity last night, Lady Judith," murmured Topsparkle insinuatingly.

"Malice, my good sir! I protest, I never bear malice. To be malicious one's feelings must be engaged, and you would hardly expect mine to be concerned in the mystifications of a dancing-room."

She looked over his head as she talked to him, still on the watch for familiar faces among the crowd, smiling at one, bowing to another, kissing her hand to a third. Mr. Topsparkle was savage at not being able to engage her attention. At Venice, whence he had come lately, all the women had courted him, hanging upon his words, adoring him as the keenest wit of his day.

He was an attenuated and rather effeminate person, exquisitely dressed and powdered, and not without a suspicion of rouge upon his hollow cheeks, or of Vandyke brown upon his delicately pencilled eyebrows. He, like Lord Bramber, presented the wreck of manly beauty; but whereas Bramber suggested a three-master of goodly bulk and tonnage, battered, but still weather-proof and seaworthy, Topsparkle had the air of a delicate pinnace which time and tempest had worn to a mere phantasmal barque, that the first storm would scatter into ruin.

He had hardly the air of a gentleman, Judith thought, considering him keenly all the while she seemed to ignore his existence.

He was too fine, too highly trained for the genuine article: he lacked that easy inborn grace of the man in whom good manners are hereditary. There was nothing of the cit about him: but there was the exaggerated elegance, the exotic grace of a man who has too studiously cultivated the art of being a fine gentleman; who has learnt his manners in dubious circles, from petites ma?tresses and prime donne, rather than from statesmen and princes.

On this and on many a subsequent meeting, Lady Judith was just uncivil enough to fan the flame of Vyvyan Topsparkle's passion. He had begun in a somewhat philandering spirit, not quite determined whether Lord Bramber's daughter was worthy of him; but her hauteur made him her slave. Had she been civil he would have given more account to those old stories about Lavendale, and would have been inclined to draw back before finally committing himself. But a woman who could afford to be rude to the best match in England must needs be above all suspicion. Had her reputation been seriously damaged she would have caught at the chance of rehabilitating herself by a rich marriage. Had she been civil to him Mr. Topsparkle would have haggled and bargained about settlements; but his ever-present fear of losing her made him accede to Lord Bramber's exactions with a more than princely generosity, since but few princes could afford to be so liberal. He had set his heart upon having this woman for his wife: first, because she was the handsomest and most fashionable woman in London; and secondly, because, so far as burnt-out embers can glow with new fire, Mr. Topsparkle's battered old heart was aflame with a very serious passion for this new deity.

So there was a grand wedding from the Earl's house in Leicester Fields; not a crowded assembly, for only the very ?lite of the modish world were invited. The Prince and Princess of Wales honoured the company with their royal presence, and there were the great Sir Robert, the classic Pulteney, the all-accomplished Carteret, John Hervey and his newly-wedded wife – in a word, all that was brightest and best at that junior and more popular Court of Leicester House. Mr. Topsparkle felt that he had cancelled any old half-forgotten scandals as to his past life, and established himself in the highest social sphere by this alliance. As Vyvyan Topsparkle, the half-foreign eccentric, he was a man to be stared at and talked about; but as the husband of Lord Bramber's daughter he had a footing – by right of alliance – in some of the noblest houses in England. His name and reputation were hooked on to old family trees; and those great people whose kinswoman he had married could not afford to have him maligned or slighted. In a word, Mr. Topsparkle felt that he had good value for his magnificent settlements.

Was Lady Judith Topsparkle happy, with all her blessings? She was gay; and with the polite world gaiety ranks as happiness, and commands the envy of the crowd. Nobody envies the quiet matron whose domestic life flows onward with the placidity of a sluggish stream. It is the butterfly queen of the hour whom people admire and envy. Lady Judith, blazing in diamonds at a Court ball, beautiful, daring, insolent, had half the town for her slaves and courtiers. Even women flattered and fawned upon her, delighted to be acknowledged as her acquaintance, proud to be invited to her parties, or to dance attendance upon her in public assemblies.

She had been married three years, and her behaviour as a wife had been exemplary. Scandal had never breathed upon her name. The lampooners and caricaturists, a very coarse-minded crew under George I., had not yet bespattered her with their filth. They could only exaggerate her frivolities, caricature the cut of a train, the magnitude of a hoop, or the shape of her last new hat with its towering ostrich feathers, which obscured the view of the stage from the people who sat behind her in the side-boxes. They wrote about her appearances in the Park or at the Opera, about her parties and her high play, her love of horse-racing, and of the royal admirers of her charms; they wrote about her "Day," and the belles and beaux who thronged to her drawing-rooms to ogle and chatter scandal or politics, with the ever-increasing laxity of manners which had set in after the death of good Queen Anne; but not the boldest pamphleteer in Grub Street had dared to assail her virtue.

"Wait till Lavendale comes back from the East," said Tom Philter, the party hack and newspaper scribbler, who pretended to have inherited the dignified humour of Addison and the easy graces of Prior, "and then you fellows will have plenty to write about 'Lady J – , the beautiful wife of a well-known City Cr?sus, himself once notorious for – ' We know the style. And you, Jemmy," to the caricaturist, "can draw such cartoons as thy soul loveth, 'How the lady and her lover were surprised by old Moneybags in the little back parlour of an India House in the City.' It will be a glorious time for you scandal-mongers when his lordship reappears; and I heard t'other day he had been seen at Vienna on his homeward route."

"Lady Judith is much too wise to have anything to say to such a scapegrace," said Jem Ludderly, the accomplished manufacturer of fashionable lampoons, who lived in May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane, and saw the great world from the railings of the Park or the pit of the patent theatres.

"Love is never wise," sighed Philter.

"She may have been in love with him five years ago, when he was the handsomest man in town. I know they were monstrous friendly at Hampton Court, when she was maid of honour to the Princess during the Regency; indeed, I fancied at one time she was going the way of poor Sophia Howe, and that we should hear of her running off with Lavendale without benefit of clergy. But his lordship cut her, and she has had plenty of time to forget him," replied Ludderly.

"And she has not forgotten," said Philter, with a tragic air. He had tried the stage in his youth, and had failed ignominiously, yet still affected something of the dramatic air. "She is not the type of woman that forgets. Passion flames in those starry eyes of hers; unconquerable resolve gives form to those exquisite lips. Cleopatra must have had just such a carriage of the head, just such a queenly neck. All those charms imply an inborn imperiousness of will. She is a woman to sacrifice a world for the man she loves; and let Lavendale but reappear and act remorse for the past, and she will fling herself into his arms, casting Topsparkle and his wealth to the winds."

"I am told that her settlements were so artfully framed that if she were to elope to-morrow she would still be a rich woman."

"O, you are told!" cried Philter disdainfully, strong in his social superiority, which was based upon an occasional condescending invitation to the house of some great man whom his supple quill had served; "and pray by whom are you told? By some scrivener's clerk, I suppose?"

"By the clerk of the lawyer who drew up the settlement," answered Mr. Ludderly, with a dignified air; "and I doubt if you, Mr. Philter, with all your fashionable acquaintance, could have much better authority."

"If the clerk lied not he was very good authority," said Philter. "But be sure of one thing, Jemmy: if Lady Judith has to lose all the world for love, she will lose it. I am a student of women's faces, Jemmy, and I know what hers means. I was at a ball with those two not long before they quarrelled. It was at Lady Skirmisham's – her ladyship always sends me a card – "

"She would be very ungrateful if she didn't," interrupted Jemmy Ludderly, with a somewhat sulky air, "seeing that her husband is about the stupidest man in London; one of those hereditary dolts whom family influence foists upon the country, and that you are always writing him up as an oracle."

"There are worse men than Lord Skirmisham in the Cabinet, Jemmy. Well, as I was saying, it was my luck to be in Lady Judith's train of admirers at the Skirmisham ball, and late in the evening I came by chance into a little boudoir sort of room between the ballroom and the garden, where those two were alone together. It was a room hung with Chinese figured stuff, and there was but a transparent silk curtain where there should have been a door. She was clasped to his heart, Jemmy, sobbing upon his breast; he was swearing to be true and loyal to her, blaspheming in his passion, like the impious profligate he is, and invoking curses on his head if he should ever deceive her. I stood behind the curtain for but a few seconds watching them, but there was a five-act tragedy in the passion of those moments. 'Be only faithful to me, dear love,' she said, looking up at him, with those violet eyes drowned in tears. 'There is no evil in this world or the next I would not dare for you; there is no good I would not sacrifice for you. Only be true; to a traitor I will grant nothing.'"

"Lucky dog," said Ludderly.

"Say rather swine, before whose cloven feet the richest pearl was cast in vain," sighed the sentimental Philter. "Then came talk of ways and means. His lordship was in low water financially, and had a diabolical reputation as a member of the famous Mohawk Club; Lord Bramber would not hear of him as a match for his daughter. But there was always accommodating Parson Keith, and the little chapel in Curzon Street. 'If the worst comes, we will marry in spite of them,' he said; and then came more vows, and sighs, and a farewell kiss or two, and I stole away before they parted, lest they should surprise me. It was less than a month from that night when everybody was talking of Lavendale's intrigue with the little French dancer Chichinette, and the house that he had furnished for her by the water at Battersea; and how they went there in a boat after the opera, with fiddles playing and torches flaring, and how his lordship entertained all his friends there, and had Chinese lanterns and fireworks after the fun was all over at Vauxhall. He made himself the talk of the town by his folly, as he had often done before; and I doubt he went near to break Lady Judith's heart."

"She would be a fool if she ever noticed him again after such treatment," said Ludderly.

"Ay, but a woman who loves blindly is a fool in all that concerns her love, be she never so wise in other matters; and to love like that once is to love for ever."

Lady Judith knew not how these scribblers discussed her, anatomising her old heart-wounds, speculating upon her future conduct. She knew not even that Lord Lavendale had returned from the East – where he had been following in the footsteps of an eccentric kinswoman, and where, if report lied not, he had acquired new notoriety by breaking into a harem, and running a narrow risk of his life in the daring adventure. Lady Judith's first knowledge of his lordship's return was when she met him face to face in the Ring one fine morning, both of them on foot: she with her customary wake of fops and flatterers; he lounging arm in arm with his friend and travelling companion Herrick Durnford, who was said to be a little worse as to morals and principles than my lord himself.

In spite of that grand self-possession, that unflinching courage, and glorious audacity, which were in her race, a heritage whereof no spendthrift father could rob her, Lady Judith blanched at the sight of her old lover. A look of pain, of anger, almost of terror, came into the beautiful eyes, so large, so lustrous, so exquisitely shadowed by those ebon fringes when she had a mind to veil them.

But that look was momentary; she commanded herself in the next instant, saluted Lord Lavendale with the haughtiest inclination of her head, and swept onward, passing him as if he had been the lowest thing that could have checked her progress or engaged her attention.

"She would have looked longer at a stray cur than she looked at me," said Lavendale to his companion, standing stock-still, planted, as it were, in his shame and mortification, as if that look of Lady Judith's had transfixed him.

"Why should she look at you?" asked the other. "You did your very uttermost towards breaking her heart, and if you did not succeed, 'tis that women are made of sterner stuff than men think. She owes you nothing but contempt."

Mr. Durnford was not one of those parasites who live and fatten upon a patron. He was a man of good birth and mean fortune, but he had too much pride to associate with Lavendale save on equal terms. He would have perished rather than descend to the position of led captain. He shared his friend's vices, but he never flattered them.

"She was always as proud as Lucifer, and I suppose she is prouder now she has the spending of Topsparkle's money. What a glorious creature she is, Herrick! Her beauty has ripened within the last five years as a flower-garden ripens between May and July – developing day by day into a richer glow and flush of summer beauty. She is the most glorious creature on this earth, I swear. The Sultan's almond-eyed favourite, she they called the Star of the Bosphorus, is but a kitchen-wench to her."

"She might have been your wife had you behaved decently," said Durnford.

"Yes, she was to have been mine; and I lost her – for what, Herrick? For a whim, for a wager, for the triumph of ousting a rival. You don't suppose I ever cared for that little French devil! But to cheat Philip Wharton out of his latest conquest – to win five thousand from Camden of the Guards, who swore that I had no chance against Wharton – for the mere dash and swagger of the thing, Herrick – to get myself more talked about than any man in London, I carried off the little lady who had made herself the rage of the hour, and tried to think that I was over head and ears in love with her. In love with her – with a woman who ate garlic at every meal, and swore strange oaths in Gascon! 'P?ca?re!' she used to cry – 'P?ca?re!' in her southern twang – and I was ruining my fortune and my reputation for such a creature!"

"You had your whim," sneered Durnford. "You won Camden's five thousand."

"Every penny of which Chichinette devoured, with another five thousand to boot."

"Naturally. But you had your fancy, and you got yourself more lampooned and caricatured than any man in England, except the king. You came next to his Majesty in the supremacy of ridicule. And you lost Lady Judith Walberton."

"If she had cared for me she would have forgiven that passing scandal. A man must sow his wild oats."

"You were supposed to have sowed yours before you fell in love with Lady Judith. I have always told you, Lavendale, that I honour that lady for her renunciation of you. You will not make me budge from that. If she had loved you less she might have more easily forgiven you."

"Well, I can whistle her down the wind to prey at fortune. She has been wise after her generation, has married a rich old rake instead of a poor young one. A reformed rake, 'tis said, makes the best husband, and that's why the women are ever so ready to pardon sinners. I would have been good to her had she but trusted me, Herrick, after that escapade. There should not have been a happier wife in England. But 'tis past, 'tis done with, lad. Thank Heaven, there are passions worth living for besides love."

"The passion of the gamester, for instance – to sit till three and four o'clock every morning at loo or faro!" suggested Herrick Durnford, with that easy, indifferent air of his, half-scornful, half-jocose, with which he made light of follies that he shared.

"Ah, but there are keener pleasures than loo and faro," said Lavendale, with an earnest look; "there are higher stakes to play for than paltry hundreds and thousands, nobler prizes to be won – gains that would set a man on a level with the gods."

"Dreams, Lavendale, idle dreams, visions, will-o'-the-wisps that have lured wiser men than you to the edge of the grave – only to leave him face to face with grim death, and he, poor fool! after a long life wasted over alembics, burned out over the fires of his crucible – ay, with the elixir vit? within his grasp – falls as easy a prey to the King of Terrors at last as the most ignorant tiller of the fields."

"If they are dreams, they have seemed realities to the wisest men this earth ever saw – Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Paracelsus. If they were believers – "

"Were they believers? Across the lapse of centuries how can we tell how much of this was verity and how much falsehood – where the searcher after truth left off and the impostor began? Pshaw, Jack! we live in too prosaic an age to be fooled by those old-world delusions. Is there a man or woman in this park who would not think Lord Lavendale qualified for Bedlam, if it were known that he travelled with an old Venetian necromancer in his train, and that he had a serious expectation of discovering first the transmutation of metals, and then the elixir of life?"

"That were a noble discovery for all the race of man; for it is an anomaly in Nature that a man's life should be so brief as it is – that his intellect should take at least thirty years to ripen, and that he should be thought to die full of years if he lives on till eighty – to say nothing of those accidents and contingencies which cut him off in his prime. No, there is error somewhere, friend. Man is too grand a creature for so limited a career. He dies ever with his mission unfulfilled, his task uncompleted. There must be, somewhere amid the mysteries of Nature, the secret of prolonged existence. Paracelsus looked for it and failed; but the world is two hundred years older since his time, and Vincenti is as deep a student as Paracelsus. But it is not that sublime secret for which I pine. My life is too worthless for me to care much about extending it; but there are occult powers for which my soul longs with a passionate longing – extended powers of will and mind, Herrick. The power to enter regions where this body of mine cannot reach – to steal as an invisible spirit into the presence of her I love, breathe in her ear, thrill her every nerve, impel her with my sovereign will to think and feel and move as I will her, draw her to me as the magnet draws iron. She passed me just now with royal disdain; but if I had that mystic power she could not despise me – she must obey, she must love – my spirit would dominate hers as the moon rules the tides."



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