Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3



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CHAPTER VI
"YET WOULD I WISH TO LOVE, LIVE, DIE WITH THEE."

Three miles and a quarter from Fairmile Court, as the crow flies, stands Lavendale Manor, one of the oldest seats in Surrey. It had been a Cistercian grange in the reign of Stephen, and had been an appendage of one of the most flourishing monastic institutions in England when the Reformation cut short the monks and all their works, good or evil, and confiscated the grange, with its fifteen hundred acres of woods and farmlands, in favour of one of the king's strongest supporters. From that nobleman's hands it had passed to another and still nobler house, and then by marriage to Sir John Porlock, a west-country baronet of good family, one of the most brilliant among the younger lights of Charles II.'s Court, a friend of Dorset and Rochester, whose son became a power among the Whig party in the House of Commons at the beginning of William's reign, and was raised to the Peerage with the title of Baron Lavendale. The first Lord Lavendale died a year after his royal master, leaving an only son of eight years old to be brought up by a widowed mother. Unhappily, that best and purest of women died before her son attained manhood, and an impulsive light-hearted lad of fifteen was abandoned to the care of tutors, servants, and parasites in general; whereby a character which might easily have been shaped and guided for good was given over as a prey to the powers of evil.

Lavendale Manor, with its noble Italian gardens laid out by the famous French gardener, Le N?tre, in the reign of Charles II., and its extensive park, had been but little less neglected for the last ten years than the neighbouring domain of Fairmile. During Lavendale's minority, stewards and servants had been unanimous in doing as little work as possible, and getting the most that could be got out of the estate; and from the time of his majority the owner of that estate had been doing his utmost to impoverish and even to ruin it. The fountains and statues which Sir John Porlock had brought from Rome, the old dining-hall and carved stone porch which dated from the time of the martyred Becket, clipped yew-tree walls, pyramids, and obelisks of greenery, old things and new, had alike suffered neglect; mosses and lichens had crept over fountain and Greek gods, and ivy had forced its intrusive tendrils amidst the carven arches and clustered columns of the old Gothic porch.

The house itself had been decently kept, and Lavendale came back to his old home to find a certain appearance of preparedness and comfort in the fine old rooms, with their curious admixture of furniture, English, French, and Dutch, the latter preponderating with its somewhat clumsy bulk and variegated inlaying; great tulip-wood cabinets, which reminded Lavendale of the coat of many colours in that story of Joseph and his brethren which he remembered poring over again and again in that dim long ago when he was a little lad at his mother's knees, and had pious readings for Sundays.

Too soon had come the time when Sunday reading and Sunday as a day apart from other days had ceased to be for Lord Lavendale, and when he was in the first rank of fashionable infidels – the men who borrowed their opinions from Henry St. John, and welcomed the new light called Voltaire, a star just then showing pale and clear above the horizon.

It was late in the evening when Lavendale and Durnford arrived at the Manor House. They had ridden from Bloomsbury – a thirty-mile ride – and had baited their horses at Kingston. The servants were retiring for the night when the great bell rang under the stone porch, and all the household was on the alert in a minute or two, deferentially receiving a master whom they could have wished had found his way to the other side of the Stygian stream rather than to disturb the placidity of their after-supper repose. Footmen were sent flying to lay a table, and sleepy cook and kitchen-wench explored the larder. While supper was being prepared, Lord Lavendale went to the farther end of the house, to a spacious vaulted apartment that had been a refectory in the days of the Cistercians, but was now a library. Beyond it there was a still larger room which had been a chapel, and, never converted to any secular purpose, had been left to bats, spiders, and emptiness.

Lavendale had seen lights in the windows of this room as he rode up to the house, and he guessed that Signor Vincenti, chemist, student, and discoverer, was at work there.

"Well, old mole!" he said gaily, as he opened the heavy oaken door, and stood looking at the Italian, who sat huddled up in a huge armchair beside a table loaded and scattered with volumes of all shapes and sizes, under the strong light of a curiously-shaped metal lamp, which made a central spot of vivid brightness in the great shadowy room. "You see we have not left you long to your solitary studies and your beloved seclusion. Durnford and I have come to badger you."

"'Twould be hard if you could not come to your own house, my lord," answered the old man quietly, looking up with luminous dark eyes which seemed all the more brilliant because of the snowy whiteness of the thick eyebrows and the long, drooping locks which fell over the forehead. "I will own that solitude and silence have been very precious to me in this noble old mansion. Yes, silence is a priceless boon to the searcher. In the silence of the living we can feel the companionship of the dead."

Those last words had a subduing effect upon Lavendale. He laid aside hat and whip, came slowly across the room, and seated himself opposite the Italian.

"You have felt the influence of those who have gone before," he said; "of the dead who once lived and loved, and were glad and sorry, in this house."

"Yes, there never was yet an old house that was not eloquent with spirit voices. There is one gentle shade that has been near me often in these old rooms of yours – a tender, mournful soul, over-charged with sorrow."

"It is so easy for you to say these things," said Lavendale doubtingly. "You have heard me talk of my mother so often."

"You questioned and I answered," replied the old man. "If it please you to think me a charlatan, you are welcome to your opinion. I have neither gain nor honour to win from you or any man living. K I have my ends and aims, which neither you nor mortal man can aid. If I fail or if I succeed, I do it alone. Human clay cannot help me."

"Why should this house in which I was born have voices which you can hear, and yet for me hold only silence – for me who love every stone in the fabric, for me who have wept the most passionate tears in my life for her I lost here?"

"Because between the disembodied soul and you there is the barrier of the flesh; because you have given yourself up to sensuous things and sensuous pleasures; have eaten and drunk and delighted in the lowest pleasures of your kind. How should such as you hope to hold communion with the clear light of the soul released from clay? You must bring yourself nearer the condition of the dead before you can feel their influence."

"Sublimise myself by the extinguishment of every earthly passion? Nay, my ethereal friend, at two-and-thirty that is not so easy. There is something here," lightly touching his breast, "which pleads too ardently for poor humanity – the heart, Vincenti, the passionate heart of manhood. Do not believe those who tell you that the bad Lord Lavendale has been altogether the slave of his senses. I never loved but once with true fervour. All the rest has been vanity and confusion, the follies of a fop who wanted to lead the fashion, and ever to be first in depravity."

"You have been staunch in friendship," said Vincenti: "I can answer for that. It was a happy hour for me when you found me laid up with fever at an inn at Prague. In a situation which would have made any other Englishman shun me, you succoured and rescued me."

"One eccentricity the more in an eccentric career, my friend. I found a treasure by the wayside; and if you can but hold out long enough to make the great discovery on the threshold of which so many an adept has given up the ghost – "

"Let us not speak of that," interrupted the old man nervously; "there are some things too sublime to be debated as your English Parliament debates a vote of credit or a declaration of war. Those who have gone down to the grave have carried too many of their secrets with them. The approach to the great secret is clouded with darkness, beset with difficulty. Yet who that has searched the secrets of Nature can doubt that there is somewhere in her mysterious realm the vital fire which can prolong the life of man, as surely as there are mineral and vegetable powers which can regulate the blood in the veins, and permeate man's whole frame with healing influences? Is there anything more miraculous in the idea of life prolonged indefinitely than in the spectacle of a fever-patient cured at the point of death? or of a brain distraught restored to sense and calmness by the physician's art?"

Lord Lavendale devoted the next morning to an interview with his steward, and while master and man were closeted in his lordship's study, Herrick Durnford set out for a long morning's ramble in the park, pleased to be free and alone – a privilege which he rarely enjoyed, as Lavendale hated solitude.

It was a lovely morning, with all the freshness of spring and all the brightness of summer. There had been cold winds all through April, and the woods had worn their wintry russet longer than usual; but now all at once, like the unfolding of a scene in fairyland, the trees had burst into leaf, and endless varieties of vernal colour shone radiant against the cloudless blue of a May morning. Herrick, who worshipped Nature's loveliness, and who had been pent in cities of late, felt almost drunken with rapture as he roamed in those dewy glades, where every turn of the path revealed some new picture. He had some touch of poetry in his soul, which still lingered there after a youth of folly; and as the years went on there had come graver hours, in which the vanity and evil of his life had been as plain to his eyes as it had ever been in the sight of his worst enemy. He had been baptised Herrick at the desire of his mother, who was a descendant of the poet's family; and now on this fair May morning, amidst the changeful lights and shadows, his sympathy with Nature was keen as that of him who sang the glory of the daffodil and the brief beauty of the rose.

He had been wandering for a couple of hours flinging himself on the turf now and again, lying at full length upon his back, and looking up into the unfathomable blue, listening to the skylark soaring above his head, or to the monotonous tap of the woodpecker nearer his ear, or to the too persistent cuckoo, or to the multitudinous hum of that lower life which revelled amidst the grasses and wild flowers where he lay. Life on such a morning is as exhilarating as strong wine; Nature's loveliness mounts to a man's brain, and makes him oblivious of all the cares and sorrows of existence.

Herrick Durnford's life was by no means free from care at this period. There was the sordid care of not being sure of a livelihood in the years to come, the knowledge that he had passed the meridian line of youth without having achieved even the commencement of a career. And yet he had begun so well, had made his mark at Trinity College, Cambridge, among some of the cleverest young men of his day, had been on the point of taking honours, when he fell in with Lavendale and his set, and, fascinated by the touch-and-go wit and reckless spirits of that profligate circle, had given himself up to pleasure, and just missed distinction.

The eldest son of a country parson with a numerous family, utterly without patrimony, Herrick had contrived to maintain his independence so far by the use of his pen. He had turned his hand to most of the varieties of literature: had written verses, plays, political pamphlets, and even a cookery-book, and his brilliant style and fashionable connections had insured him the countenance of the publishers and the favour of the public. Whether he wrote at Istamboul, Vienna, or Rome, Herrick had always the same tone of good society, and the same air of knowing every detail of the latest scandal. That he had dressed up old stories from the scandalous memoirs of the French Court, and adapted them to Mr. Pulteney and Miss Anna Maria Gumley, or the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Bellenden, or General Churchill and Mrs. Oldfield, was to the credit of his intelligence. "When the public want a new scandal I contrive to find it for them," he said; "and if invention fail, I can at the worst resuscitate an old one."

His plays had been performed with various degrees of success; but one, Faint Hearts and Fair Ladies, a kind of salad or olla podrida made up of scraps from Davenant, Moli?re, Wycherley, and Lope de Vega, had run five-and-thirty nights, had been denounced from the pulpit by Bishop Gibson, virulently abused by Jeremy Collier, and had made Mr. Durnford's reputation as a dramatist. When reproached for the reckless licentiousness of his dialogue and the immorality of his plot, Herrick shrugged his shoulders, and replied that his play was not written to be read at family prayers, nor intended for a Christmas present for school-misses of seventeen.

And now, having in some measure emptied his bag, feeling very little of the writer's impulse left in him, Herrick contemplated a future which had somewhat a dreary aspect. What was he to do for an honest living? The learned professions were closed against him. It was too late to think of law or medicine. Many a man in his position would have drifted naturally to the Church, or would have taken advantage of Lavendale's power to bestow preferment on his bosom friend. But Durnford was not base enough to carry his unbelief to the pulpit or the altar. The Church was closed against him for ever by that melancholy materialism which had crept over him since he left college – a mind always questioning Nature and never finding any satisfactory answer.

There had been hours of despondency when he had thought of leaving England for ever, and casting in his lot with Bishop Berkeley at his new university of Bermuda; but although the bill had been passed for the endowment of the university, Walpole had not yet advanced the 20,000l. promised, and the Bermuda scheme was still in the clouds.

No, there was nothing for him but his pen – unless he could turn mountebank and air his handsome person on the stage. Actors were all the fashion just now, the pets and playthings of society. Or unless he could get into Parliament and sell himself to the chief of his party. Sir Robert, the great trafficker, was still in power, but his throne was tottering, and it was said that when his fall should come it would be more terrible than that of Wolsey. Ruin, impeachment, death even, loomed in that dark future for him under whose rule England had been great among the nations. There were some who said, "If Walpole escape, Strafford was indeed a martyr."

"No, it is my pen that must support me," Herrick told himself, rambling at ease by Chase and common-land, feeling as if that fresh morning air were inspiration, and that genius and power were reviving in him. "After all, 'tis the one easy vagabond mode of life that suits my character and temperament. The lowest garreteer, the meanest hack that ever scribbled for Curl or Lintot, is more his own master than the Queen's counsel who has to fawn upon solicitors, or the parson who must preach lies once a week and prate platitudes at the deathbeds of all his parishioners. Yes, by my pen will I live; if it is a hand-to-mouth existence, it is at least free. Fancies and original notions will come to me in my garret, as the ravens came to the prophet in his cave. There is a mysterious power which feeds the invention of poor devils who have to live by their wits. An author's mind may be blank to-day, yet to-morrow teem with schemes and suggestions. And who shall say that I may not some day be famous? Joseph Addison was no better off than I am now when good luck visited him in his garret up three pairs of stairs, in the person of Godolphin's messenger with a commission for an epic on Blenheim."

He had been wandering in the wildest part of the Chase, scaring the young pheasants from their feeding-ground, when he came suddenly upon the rough post and rail fence which divided the Lavendale domain from Fairmile Park; and he stopped, started, and clasped his hands at sight of a face and figure which seemed more like the embodiment of a musing poet's ecstasy than a being of commonplace flesh and blood.

A girlish face looked at him from a background of oak-branches, a girlish form was leaning upon the moss-grown rail, while a couple of dogs – a Newfoundland and an Irish setter – stood up with their fore-paws on the rail, and barked their loudest at the stranger.

"Down, Sappho!" to the setter; "down, Cato, down!" said the girl, laying her white hand first on one curly head and then on the other. "They won't hurt you, sir," apologetically to the stranger, for whose blood both dogs seemed panting. "I am sorry they should be so disagreeable. Sappho, how can you? Don't you see the gentleman is not a tramp?"

Durnford looked at her, speechless with admiration. There was a freshness of youthful beauty here which came upon him like a revelation: the oval face, with its ivory tint and pale blush-rose bloom, the large violet eyes, with dark lashes, and the wavy golden hair. Never had he seen such colouring out of Italy or an Italian picture. The face was so much more Italian than English, and yet there was a sweet simplicity which was entirely native to this British soil, a candid girlish innocence, as of a girl not too closely guarded nor too much counselled by age and experience.

Those large velvety eyes looked up at him in perfect confidence.

"I thank you, madam, I am not afraid of your dogs. Down, Sappho! See, this brown, curly-eared lady is friends with me at once, and Cato looks civiller than he did just now. I have a passion for fine dogs like these, and an Irish setter is my prime favourite of all the canine race."

"My father had this one brought over from Ireland," said the girl; "she is very clever after game, but he says I am spoiling her."

"I can imagine that your kindness may have an enervating effect," said Durnford, smiling.

"But she's so clever in other ways. She begs for toast so prettily every morning at breakfast, and my governess has taught her ever so many tricks. Sappho, what will you do for your king?"

This was asked severely. Sappho looked bored, hesitated, snapped at a passing fly, and then flung herself on the ground, and sprawled there, with her tail wagging vehemently.

"Sappho!" remonstrated the girl, and the tail was quiet.

"Dulce et decorum est– " said Durnford, while Irene took a lump of sugar out of her apron-pocket and rewarded her favourite.

"That's more than some patriots get for their devotion," he said, laughing; and then he went on tentatively, "I think I must have the honour of conversing with Mr. Bosworth's daughter."

She answered in the affirmative; and then, in the easiest way, they drifted into conversation, walking side by side in shade and shine, with the stout oak rail between them. Durnford talked of his recent travels; Irene told him about her governess, and the last of her music and books. It all came about as naturally as if they had both been children. They spent half an hour thus, and then parted, promising to be at the same spot at the same hour next day, when Durnford was to bring his sketch-book and show her the pencil records of his wanderings. Irene had not the slightest idea that there was anything wrong in such an arrangement. She was utterly without shyness, as she was utterly without knowledge of evil.

Durnford went back to the Abbey, feeling as Endymion might have felt after conversing with Diana. "She is as beautiful as the Goddess of Chastity, and even more innocent," he said to himself. "Lives there the traitor base enough to wrong such purity? And she is heiress to old Bosworth's fortune, which rumour has exaggerated into a million. He made money in the South Sea scheme, and he has been lucky on 'Change ever since, 'tis said – yet these stock-jobbers often end by wrecking the palace they have reared. If she is an heiress she is not for me, save by the baseness of an elopement and a Mayfair marriage; and that were to take the vilest advantage of girlish innocence and heavenly confidence. But how fast I am running on! Because I have fallen over head and ears in love with her in the first half-hour of our acquaintance, am I such a fool as to suppose she is just as ready to fall in love with me – with a battered rake of thirty? Why, to her, doubtless, I seem a middle-aged man – a grave and philosophical personage with whom she may safely converse, as with the village doctor or the village parson. If I had appeared before her like a fine gentleman, in all the glory of Spitalfields velvet and embroidery, powder and patches, she would have fled from me, like Daphne from Ph?bus; but my careless gray suit and unpowdered hair, and my careworn looks, suggested only mature years and discretion. Will she come to-morrow, I wonder? and how shall I live for twenty-four weary hours without her?"



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