Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3



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CHAPTER VII
"HOW SWEET AND INNOCENT'S THE COUNTRY MAID!"

Rena appeared at the promised hour next day, as punctually as if she had been indeed that spirit of the woodland to whom Herrick likened her. He showed her the contents of his sketch-book, told her more about his travels, and they talked gaily and happily for nearly an hour, when she started, looked at her watch, and vowed that she would be late for dinner, and that her governess would be waiting for her.

"Did you tell your governess of our rencontre yesterday, and how your dogs barked at me?" asked Durnford carelessly, yet with a keen look in his dark gray eyes.

She blushed and looked down.

"No," she faltered shyly: "she might have forbidden me to come to-day, and I wanted so much to see the sketches. Will you mind if I tell her to-day? I think I must tell her," she pleaded, with bewitching na?vet?. "Do you know that I never had a secret from her before?"

"Be sure if you do tell her she will forbid you ever to be civil to me again," said Durnford; "there will be an end of all our pleasant gossip across this dear old rail."

"Is it wrong, then, for me to talk to you?"

"Your governess would think it wrong: your father would shut you up and keep you on bread and water rather than leave you at liberty to talk to me."

"Why?" she asked, with a look of distress.

"Because you are a wealthy heiress and I am a poor devil – hack scribbler – living by my wits."

"But you are not a bad man?" half compassionatingly, half in terror.

"There have been many worse; yet I am far from perfect. You will never hear one word of evil from my lips, or inspire one base thought in my mind. To you I shall be all goodness."

"Then Mademoiselle cannot object to my seeing you now and then; I'll bring her here to-morrow. She can't walk so far, but I have a pony-carriage in which I sometimes drive her round the park."

"Don't!" pleaded Herrick, clasping her hand for the first time. "Do not, for pity's sake, dispel my happy dream; do not breathe one word of your new friend to any one. Be assured it would end everything. You would fade for ever from my life, like some lovely paradisaic vision, and leave me in everlasting darkness. Let me see you now and then, just as we have met to-day. It cannot last long; I must go back to London shortly with my friend Lavendale. I shall be swallowed in the vortex of London life, full of temptations and wickednesses of every kind. Be my good angel while you can. Elderly people like your father and your governess would never be able to understand our friendship: how pure, how holy, how secure for you, how elevating for me. Do not tell your governess of my existence, Miss Bosworth, or at least tell her not until you feel there is danger or discredit in my acquaintance."

He drew himself up and took off his hat after the loftier gallantry of those days, with a dignity that impressed the inexperienced girl.

She felt somehow that he was to be trusted; just as in the first moment of their acquaintance she had turned to him with an instinctive confidence, at once admitting him to her friendship.

"I am afraid it is wrong to have a secret from my good old governess, be it ever so small a one," she said, "but I will try to oblige you, sir."

She made him a low curtsy in response to his stately bow, and ran off as lightly as a fawn, her white gown flashing amidst the trees as she melted from Herrick's vision.

After this there were many meetings, long confidences, much talk of the past and of the present, but no hint about the future; interviews at which the dogs were the only assistants, their gambols making interludes of sportiveness in the midst of gravity. Herrick kept a close watch upon himself, and breathed not one word of love, he knew instinctively that to reveal himself as a lover would be to scare his innocent mistress, and end this sweet midsummer dream of his in terror and confusion. It was as her friend, her trusted companion, that he won her young heart, and when, on the eve of his return to London, they parted – with paleness and tears held back on her side, and on his with all the tokens of passion kept in check – it was still as her friend that he bade her good-bye.

"When I come back to Lavendale it may perchance be in a new character," he said, "would fortune only favour me."

"Why should you wish to change?" she asked. "Or is it that you are thinking of some new book or play which is to make you famous?"

Herrick blushed, recalling that play which had done most for his renown. He felt at this moment that he would rather put his right hand in the flames like Cranmer than win money or fame by such another production. But he was a creature of impulses, and the good impulses had just now the upper hand. He felt purified, lifted out of himself, in this virginal presence.

Yet as he walked back to the Manor after that tender parting – tender, albeit no word of love was spoken – his thoughts, in spite of himself, took an earthlier strain.

She had paled when they parted, and there had been a look in her eyes which revealed the dawn of love. He could not doubt that she was fond of him. Why should he not have her? A post-chaise at a handy point, a few passionate words of entreaty, tears, despair, a threat of suicide perhaps, and then off to London as fast as horses could carry them, and to handy Parson Keith, who had just set up that little chapel in Mayfair which was to be the scene of so many distinguished marriages, dukes and beauties, senators and dukes' daughters, and who boasted that his chapel was better than a bishopric. Why should he not so win her? There was no chance that he would ever win her by any fairer means. And if he, Herrick, from highflown notions of honour hung back and let her be taken to London by the Squire, she would be run after by all the adventurers in town, a mark for the basest stratagems, or perchance given to some worn-out rou? with a high-sounding title – money trucked against strawberry-leaves.

No, these strained notions of chivalry became not a penniless devil, a man who, as his enemies said, had to go tick for the paper on which he wrote his lampoons. If he meant to win her he should win her how and when he could, should strike at once and boldly, as your true Irish heiress-hunter stalks his quarry, seizing the first propitious moment, taking fortune's golden tide at the flood.

He told himself this, and even began to meditate his plan of attack, but in the next instant relented, remembering her innocence, her trustfulness.

"No, I will not steal her," he said. "She shall be mine if passion and resolve can win her; but she shall be mine of her own free will. She shall not be hustled or entrapped into marriage. She shall come to my arms freely as a queen who mates with a subject. She shall come to me and say, 'You, Herrick Durnford, have I chosen above all other men to share my heart and my fortune.' Yes, by Heaven, she shall ask me to marry her. There is nothing less than that which could justify a proud penniless man in marrying a woman of fortune."

Those boisterous spirits who had known Mr. Durnford in Vienna and Paris, the boon companions who had gamed and drunk and roystered with him in the most dissipated haunts of those two dissipated cities, would assuredly hardly have recognised their sometime associate in the man who sauntered slowly through the woodland, with hands deep in pockets, bent head and dreaming eyes, full of the vision of a brighter, better, and more profitable life, which should bring him nearer the girl he loved. What would he not do for her sake, what would he not sacrifice, what might he not achieve? With such a pole-star to guide him, surely a man might navigate the roughest sea.

"I will do that which I have never yet done," he said to himself, "I will work with all my might and main. I have trifled with whatever parts Heaven has wasted on me; I have been careless of my own gifts, have contrived to get bread and cheese out of the mere scum that floats atop of my mind. I will go on another principle henceforward. I will dig deep, and if there be any genuine metal in the mine, by Heaven it shall be worked to the uttermost! If a man can win independence by his brains and an inkpot, it shall go hard if I am for ever a pauper. Rich I can never be: fortunes are not made out of books: but I will earn an honest living; and then if she love me well enough to say, 'My heart and fortune are yours, Herrick,' I will not blush to accept the prize, and to wear it boldly before all the world."

Sweet musings, which made the hum of summer insects and waving of summer boughs seem the very harmony of Paradise to that fond dreamer. Yet ever and anon athwart his tender reverie there came a darkening cloud of doubt.

"Dreams, Herrick, dreams!" he muttered in self-scorn. "Who knows that to-morrow night you will not be roaring drunk in some West End tavern, having lost your last shilling at hazard, or perchance breaking crowns and beating the watch, in company with some tearing midnight ramblers we wot of?"

Not one word had Durnford breathed to Lavendale about his wood-nymph. He too well knew his friend's frivolity and inconstant fancies with regard to women. A lovely heiress would have seemed a natural prey to the rou? who had ever exercised a potent fascination over the weaker sex, and who deemed himself invincible. Lavendale had his own pursuits at the Manor: yawned and dawdled through the day, took a hand at piquet with Durnford of an evening, sat deep into the night in the old chapel-room with the Italian student, poring over monkish manuscripts and medi?val treatises in dog Latin. Lavendale cared but little for Nature in her mildest aspects. The mountain and the torrent, stormy volcanoes, all that is wild and wonderful in Nature, had a charm for his eager soul; but the leafy glades of Surrey, the low hills and winding river, interested him no more than an enamelled picture on a snuffbox.

"I cannot conceive what you can find to amuse you morning after morning among my oaks and beeches," he exclaimed to Durnford. "You must be horribly hipped, and you will be glad to go back to London, I take it, even though the town must be almost empty of good company."

And now on this fair June morning, after taking his farewell of Irene, Herrick was surprised to see Lavendale riding along the avenue leading to the Manor House at an hour when that gentleman was generally lounging on a sofa, sipping his midday chocolate and dallying with the Flying Post or Read's Weekly Journal.

"Why, Jack, what took your lordship out so early?" he asked, emerging from a by-path, and overtaking the sauntering horse.

"Business, Herrick, business, which means money. I have been with the village lawyer, who wrote to apprise me of an offer made by my neighbour, Mr. Bosworth, for a paddock or two adjoining his home farm – conterminous land, the fellow called it, all but worthless to me, he insinuated, and tried to make me believe it grows only docks, when it is to my knowledge as rich a pasture as any in Surrey, but to Mr. Bosworth it would be useful, to complete his ring-fence. 'Hang his ring-fence!' says I; 'what is he that his estate should be made perfect to the detriment of mine? If he wants my meadow he will have to pay for it as if it were a gold-mine in Peru.' While I was talking in comes the Squire himself, and was vastly agreeable, professing himself charmed to renew my acquaintance after so many years. He remembered seeing me with my mother, he said, when I used to ride my pony beside her carriage, and when I was the prettiest little lad in the county. Curse his impudence for remembering me and my prettiness! And then he began to talk about the meadows. They make a little promontory or peninsula, it seems, that runs into his estate, which he has been extending on all sides ever since he owned it, and spoils the look of his territory on the map. I played him nicely, pretending to be the soul of good-nature, meaning to get a usurer's profit on my land if I consent to sell, and it ended in his asking me to dine with him to-day, and my accepting on condition that I take my friend with me. 'Where I go my friend Durnford must be made welcome,' says I. So you are booked, Herrick, for a bad dinner, since they all say that our neighbour is a skinflint."

Herrick flushed crimson with delight. To dine under the roof that sheltered her, to sit at meat with her perhaps, see her sweetly smiling at him on the other side of the board, his wood-nymph become mortal, and eating and drinking like mere vulgar clay!

"Why, Herrick, you look as pleased as if you were asked to a state dinner at Leicester House, or to hob and nob with the chiefs of the Whig party! I thought you would be put out at having our London trip postponed for twenty-four hours."

"I have no passion for the distractions of St. James's, where I always feel a fish out of water, and I have a certain curiosity about this Squire Bosworth, whom I take to be a character."

"How pat you have his name!"

"I have a good memory for names."

"Well, hold yourself in readiness, and put on your smartest suit. Squire Hunks dines at four. I fancy it will be a Barmecide feast, such as little Pope hits off in an unpublished lampoon upon certain kinsfolk of mine. But there is a daughter, it seems, and she is to sing to us after dinner."

"What, she sings!" cried Herrick, enraptured.

"Ay, she sings, man! Why should she not sing? Half the shes in England can pipe up some kind of strain, though with ten out of every dozen that which delights the performer excruciates her audience. But Miss Bosworth is an heiress, Herrick, and I mean to admire, screech she even more hoarsely than our pied peacocks yonder."

"You mean to court Miss Bosworth, perhaps?" said Herrick, drawing himself up stiffly.

"I mean to do as the whim seizes me – you know I was ever a creature of whim. 'Twas a whim lost me my true love Judith: and if a whim can catch me a pretty heiress, it will be but one sharp turn of fortune's wheel from despair to rapture."

"How do you know that she is pretty?" grumbled Herrick, racked with jealousy.

"I have ears, friend, and other men have tongues. 'Twas old Hunks's lawyer sang the praises of young Miss's beauty. She is lovely, it seems, and not an atom like her father, which would indeed have been an altogether impossible conjunction."

Herrick went back to the Manor with his bosom torn by conflicting emotions – fear lest his friend should turn into his rival, joy at the thought that he was to spend some blessed hours in his idol's company. He felt as if he could hardly live till four o'clock, so fluttered was his heart with fond expectancy. He took out his best clothes and brushed them carefully, and sighed over their shabbiness. The suit of dove-coloured velvet, silver braided, and touched here and there with scarlet, had been a handsome suit enough more than a year ago in Vienna, where it was made: but it had passed through many a rough night of pleasure, bore the stain of wine-splashes, and a burnt spot on one of the lapels from the ashes of somebody's pipe. It had the air of a coat that had lived hard, and seen bad company. Herrick flung it aside with an oath.

"I will not wear so debauched a garment," he cried; "my gray cloth coat is honest. I would rather look like a yeoman or a scrivener than like a broken-down rake."

"Why, Durnford, man, you are dressed worse than a Quaker!" exclaimed Lavendale, radiant in claret-coloured velvet coat and French-gray satin waistcoat and smalls.

"And you are vastly too smart for a country dinner-table," said Herrick.

"O, but one cannot be too fine when one is going courting. Young misses adore pretty colours and gay clothes. I think I see the motive of your sober gray. It is pure generosity, a sacrifice to friendship; you would let me dazzle without a rival."

"Dazzle to your heart's content; shine out, butterfly. I thought a few weeks ago that you had a heart."

"You were wrong. I had a heart till Judith broke it. That was three years ago. Since she jilted me I have had nothing here but an insatiable passion called vanity, always hungering for new conquests. I am like Alexander, and lament when a day has passed without a victory. I pant to conquer the Squire's daughter. I can picture her, Herrick, a chubby-cheeked rustic beauty, all white muslin and blue ribbons."

The Lavendale coach had been ordered out to carry the two young men to Fairmile Court with all due ceremony.

"It smells as mouldy as a mausoleum," said his lordship, as he stepped into the carriage.

Fairmile Court had a less neglected and desolate aspect than it had worn fifteen years before, when the Squire adopted the vagrant's baby. The very presence of girlhood in the gray old house seemed to have brightened it. Mademoiselle Latour's influence had also been for good; governess and pupil had contrived to inspire the scanty household with a love of neatness and order; and their own deft hands had dusted and polished the quaint old furniture, and had filled great bowls of common garden flowers, and glorified the old fireplaces with beau-pots, and had worked wonders without spending an extra shilling of the Squire's beloved money. All this had been done without any resistance offered by Mrs. Barbara Layburne, who as long as she enjoyed substantial power, ruled over the store-closets and wine-cellars, paid tradesmen and servants, and regulated supplies of all kinds, cared not who beautified rooms which she never entered, or cultivated flowers which she never looked at. As the years went by, she had retired more and more within herself, spending her days in the solitude of that little wainscoted parlour which she had chosen for her retreat on her first coming to Fairmile. It was almost the smallest, and assuredly the dismallest, room in the house, at the end of a long dark passage, and overlooking the stable-yard. Here she lived apart from all the household, and with no companion save that old harpsichord which startled the stillness sometimes late in the evening, accompanying a contralto voice of exceptional power even in its decay. Those occasional strains of melody had a ghostlike sound to Irene's ear, and always saddened her. Indeed, Mrs. Barbara's personality had ever been one of the overshadowing influences of the girl's life. She shrank with an involuntary recoil from any intercourse with that strange wreck of the past. The pale stern face with its traces of lost beauty chilled her soul.

"I do not think you can be many years younger than Mrs. Layburne," the girl said to her governess one day.

"I doubt if she is not my junior by some years, pet."

"And yet you never give me the idea of being old, and she seems as if her youth and all its happiness must have come to an end a century ago."

"Ah, that is because my youth was a very calm and quiet business, Rena, while I doubt hers was full of incident and passion. She is an extinct volcano, my dear. The fires were all burnt out years ago, and only the dark grim mountain remains, enclosing nothing but ashes and hollowness. Such women are like corpses that walk about after the spirit has fled. Mrs. Layburne must have ceased to live long ago."

The two gentlemen were ushered into a long, low drawing-room, oak-panelled and somewhat dark, the heavy mullioned windows being designed rather for ornament than light. Some of the furniture had been new when the house was new, other things were heirlooms from an older house, and a few trifles had been added in the tea-drinking reign of that good Queen and conscientious woman who had been translated from a troubled kingdom to a peaceful one just twelve years ago. There was a harpsichord at the further end of the room, and seated near it were two ladies who rose at the entrance of the visitors, while Squire Bosworth, who had been standing with his back to the flower-bedecked hearth, came over to receive them.

"Welcome to Fairmile Court, my Lord Lavendale; your servant, Mr. Durnford," said Bosworth, as he shook hands with his guests; "my daughter, Miss Bosworth, Mademoiselle Latour."

The little old lady in gray satinet made a curtsy which bespoke Parisian elegance of the highest water, and to which Herrick responded with one of his French bows. Lavendale had eyes only for the heiress.

"Lovely as the lady in Comus," he said to himself, "and knows about as much of the world and its ways, I doubt. By Heaven, she is foredoomed as a prize to the boldest!"

Herrick and Irene greeted each other with a charming ceremony. Both being prepared, they acted their parts admirably.

"What do you think of him, Maman?" whispered the girl to her governess, when those two had retired from the masculine group.

"He has too much the look of a fine gentleman," answered Mademoiselle, with her eyes upon Lavendale, "and he carries his head with an invincible air which always makes me detest a man. Do you remember that story I told you of Lauzun, who married la grande Mademoiselle? – 'Louise de Bourbon, ?tez-moi mes bottes.' Does he not look just the kind of man to make a princess of the royal blood take his boots off, were she fool enough to marry him?"



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