Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3
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"Why, Maman, he has a look of proud humility, but not a spark of vanity and foolishness. O, I see, you are looking at Lord Lavendale, in his velvet and satin. I was asking you about Mr. Durnford."
"Eh, child! what, the poor companion? Have you found time to spare him a glance, when that irresistible fopling shines and sparkles there as if he would put the very sunshine out of countenance by his brilliancy? Yes, the companion has an interesting face, very grave, yet there is a look about the corners of the mouth which bespeaks a cynical humour. He looks shabby beside his patron, and poor, and, as you say, pet, he has an air of proud humility which I rather like. It becomes a dependent to be proud."
"O, but he is no dependent. He is a writer; has written politics, and plays, and even verses," the girl answered eagerly.
"Why, child, when and where did you hear about him?"
"Dinner is served, sir," announced the old butler, whereby he unconsciously extricated Irene from a dilemma. Mademoiselle forgot the question she had asked before there was a chance of repeating it.
The dinner was much better than his lordship had anticipated, for Squire Bosworth had sent his housekeeper peremptory orders that the meal should be as good a one as could be provided on such short notice, and Mrs. Layburne knew him too well to disobey him. Rare old wines had been brought out of cobweb-festooned bins, and the good old strawberry-beds and raspberry-bushes had yielded their treasures for the dessert. Fish there was none attainable, but soup, and joints, and poultry were followed by a course of pastry and rich puddings, all in the abundant and solid fashion of the times.
Lavendale declared afterwards that he would have preferred the scantiness of Harpagon's table to this reeking profusion. "Nobody knows how to feed upon this side of the Channel," he complained. "For a man of delicate appetite, who can dine off the wing of a chicken and an olive or two, it is torture to be placed in front of a smoking sirloin, or to be asked to dive into the infinite capacities of a huge venison pie. I would rather sup on tripe or cow-heel with some of the wits and garretteers we know, than be sickened by the greasy abundance of a country gentleman's table."
But this grumbling came afterwards, and for talking's sake. Lavendale seemed very much in his element at the Squire's board, where he sat next the heiress, and talked to her of those London amusements of which she knew so little, even by hearsay.
"What, have you never seen a playhouse? never played the devil with a score or two of adorers at a masquerade?" he exclaimed.
"I have never been in London in my life," Rena answered simply.
"Impossible! Live within thirty miles of Paradise, and never try to enter its gates!"
"Your lordship forgets that my little girl yonder is not much more than a child, and knows much less of the world than many children."
"Faith, Mr.Bosworth, I believe that. There are children in London who could astonish your gray hairs: drawing-room playthings that are thought of no more consequence than a shock dog, and that nestle in their mothers' hoops open-eyed and open-eared to everything that is going on about them. I wonder little Pope in all his characters has never given us the modish child. But, seriously now, Miss Bosworth here is no longer a baby; she has been growing up, Squire, while you have looked the other way. You must take her to London next November; you must get her presented at Court, and let her have her fling in the winter."
"We'll think about it, my lord. How old are you, Irene?"
"I was eighteen last April, papa."
"Eighteen! Well, I suppose it is time you should see some good company. I shall have to take a house at the West End, and Mademoiselle must get her fan and mantilla, and prepare to play duenna. Would you like to spend a winter in London, Rena?"
Irene hesitated, glanced at Durnford, who, on the watch for any act of beneficence from those lovely eyes, responded with an adoring look, and a little nod of the head, which meant "Snap at the offer of a London season."
She remembered how he had told her he must get his living in town.
"O my dear father, there is nothing in the world I wish for so much."
The Squire sighed. This country seclusion was safe, and suited him best. He looked thoughtfully at Lavendale. He was young, though not in his first youth; he had a respectable title, and his estate joined that which would some day belong to Irene. A match between those two must needs be advantageous – if Lavendale would altogether reform his character, and if the estate were not too heavily encumbered. The country attorney, who looked after Lavendale's property, had assured Mr. Bosworth that the mortgages were mere bagatelles, and of recent date. Lavendale had been extravagant, but he had started with a handsome fortune in ready money, the accumulation of his minority. "Well, we will take a taste of town pleasures," said the Squire, after a pause, "if Lord Lavendale will be our cicisbeo and Mentor. I have not seen the inside of a playhouse since the beginning of the century, and they tell me there are now six theatres, where there used to be but two, and that masquerades are more fashionable than ever."
They all went back to the drawing-room together, in the French fashion, which Lavendale suggested as an improvement on English manners.
"I languish till I hear Miss Bosworth sing," he cried; and at her father's bidding, Irene seated herself at the harpsichord, and began a little song of Lully's with some old French words.
How full, and round, and rich the fresh young notes sounded to ears that had been sated by fine singing in the three great capitals of London, Paris, and Vienna! and with what tender expression the singer pronounced those simple childlike lines about Strephon, who had abandoned his hillside, and left his flock and Chloe lamenting! Strephon would be gone to-morrow, and Fairmile Park would be desolate without him. They might meet again in London in November – would so meet, most likely, for his lordship and Mr. Durnford were inseparables; but how was the yawning gulf between July and November to be bridged over? how was that great gap in time to be lived through? Irene sang song after song at his lordship's entreaty. He was not, like Mr. Topsparkle, fanatico per la musica, a creature who ran after prime donne, and thought an Italian tenor the noblest development of human genius; he could not sit at an organ and play for hours like a soul possessed by the spirit of melody; but he had a very genuine love of music, a good deal of taste, and a little knowledge, and he hung enraptured over the harpsichord, and gave Durnford innumerable agonies during every song Irene sang, agonies which poisoned the sweetness of her voice and the beauty of every melody. Scarlatti, was it? Corelli, Handel? Who cared what composer had woven that web in which his soul was caught and tortured? She was singing to Lavendale. It was to Lavendale her lovely eyes were lifted as she answered his questions between the songs. Lavendale was stealing her heart away from him, that heart which had been so nearly his.
"He has a potency with women which is almost diabolical. It may be his faith in himself which makes him irresistible, that certainty of conquering which almost always conquers, where there are good looks and a spice of wit to sustain audacity. Yes, he will win her, or he will race me hard for the prize; but by – ," and Herrick clenched his fist, with a big oath, sitting in a shadowy corner behind the harpsichord where nobody noted him, "he shall have a fight for it! I meant to deal honestly with her, but I won't be cheated out of her love. If I can't have her with fair play, I will try foul. I won't stand on one side and doff my hat while my friend leads her to the altar."
Such a reverie as this boded ill for innocent Irene yonder, smiling at the keys of her harpsichord, her whole soul in the music, heedless of Lord Lavendale's compliments, neither valuing them nor fearing them, as easy in her simplicity as a woman of fashion after her seventh season: ill, too, for Irene boded Lavendale's musing, which tended to a determination to win the heiress, and repair his fortunes with one triumphant stroke. He had been told of that great coup made by Mr. Bosworth during the South Sea craze – how he had bought largely when the shares were first issued; held gingerly, always on the alert for a catastrophe; and how he had played a vigorous part with the bulls in sending up the value of the stock to an almost fabulous point, and just when the town was maddest had sold his shares for exactly ten times the price at which he had bought them.
"God help the wretches who bought that rotten stock!" thought Lavendale. "He only knows how the blood of suicides and the tears of orphans may have stained that worthless paper – but that is Bosworth's business and not mine. She is the prettiest, sweetest soul I have seen for ages, and what would Lady Judith say if I faced her at f?te or ridotto with such beauty and freshness hanging on my arm, and a fortune behind it? That proud soul would be humbled at the thought of my triumph. I shall never forget her insolence as she passed me in the Park. Her pride infected the air of London for me. I would not go back to town if she were there; but the papers tell me she is queening it at Topsparkle's Abbey in Hampshire, with a houseful of grand company, all the old Tories and out-of-office gentry flattering and fawning upon her, and man?uvring for her husband's half-dozen boroughs."
Lord Lavendale's coach was announced at ten o'clock, and the two gentlemen took their leave.
"If you have more guns than birds next October, you and your friends are welcome to my pheasants, Lord Lavendale," said the Squire, as he escorted his neighbour to the hall. "I am no sportsman, and I keep no company. I hope we shall see more of you when you come back from town."
"Nay, Mr. Bosworth, thirty miles is not an overwhelming distance. I think I shall take a leaf out of your book and oscillate 'twixt town and country. I have an old house in Bloomsbury which ought to be aired occasionally; and I have a place here that has been too long abandoned to rats and solitude. Pray do not think that you are rid of me till October."
They parted with cordial hand-shakings, and an assurance on his lordship's part that there should be no difficulty about the peninsula of meadowland.
"By Heaven, Herrick, she is an angel!" cried Lavendale, when he and his friend were snug in the coach.
"You say that of every handsome woman you meet, from a duchess to a rope-dancer," growled Herrick.
"Ay, but there are many degrees in the angelic host, and there are fallen angels, and those whose wings are but slightly smirched. This one is pure and radiant as the seraph Abdiel when he left the revolted host, and flew straight to the throne of the Eternal. She is the divinest creature I ever met – "
"Not excepting Lady Judith!"
"Come, there is nothing divine about her. We are both agreed on that point. Never from her babyhood was she as pure and childlike as this heavenly recluse. She is adorable, Herrick, and if I have any charm or power with women – "
"O, the hypocrisy of that 'if'!" cried his friend, with a mocking laugh.
"Well, I will phrase it otherwise. Whatever influence I have over the softer sex shall be exerted to the utmost to win that lovely soul – "
"And her hundred thousand or million, or whatever it may be," sneered the other.
"And her fortune, which will help to set me up in respectability. Why, with such wealth I might hope to buy political followers enough to make me Prime Minister. But she is so completely lovely that I swear I should be over head and ears in love with her if she were a milkmaid."
"Yes, and would take her for your plaything and grow tired of her in a month, and forsake her and leave her to die heart-broken," said the other.
"Why, Herrick, you are all bitterness to-night. You have drunk just too much to be civil and too little to be good company. You are in the cantankerous stage of inebriety. Why should you begrudge me an heiress if I have the wit to win one? God knows I have never grudged you anything, and it is your own fault that we have not been more equal partakers of fortune."
"Forgive me, Jack, you are always generous to me: but it is because I know you have sometimes been ungenerous to women that I feel surly and sullen about this one. I know, too, that your heart belongs to Lady Judith – that were you to marry this dear innocent girl to-morrow you would desert her the day after, did that old love of yours but beckon you with her little finger. Would it not be wiser to be true to the ancient flame and see what kindly Fate may do for you? Mr. Topsparkle is past sixty and has lived hard. Why should you not wait till the inevitable reaper mows down that full-bottomed wig of his?"
"Nay, Herrick, 'tis ill waiting for dead men's shoes, and I doubt if Mr. Topsparkle's be not a better life than mine. He has taken care of himself and been cautious even in his pleasures, while I have defied Fate. There is something here," touching his breast, "which warns me that I must make the most of a short life."