Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3



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CHAPTER I
"IN OPPOSITION AGAINST FATE AND HELL."

"Herrick," said Lavendale suddenly next day, when the two friends were alone together in the Abbey hall, a spacious chamber, half armoury, half picture-gallery, rich alike in the damascened steel of Damascus and Toledo and in the angular saints and virgins of the early Italian painters; "Herrick, you are making love to my heiress; you are cutting off my advance to El Dorado; you are playing the part of a traitor."

"'Tis a true bill, Jack. I confess my crime, my treachery – what you will. I adore Irene Bosworth, for whom you care not a straw. I should love her as fondly were she a beggar-girl that I had found by the roadside – 'tis for herself I love her, and for no meaner reason. I loved her before you ever saw her face."

"Ho, ho! how secret you can be!"

"There are some things too holy to be canvassed with one who is seldom serious. Had I told you of my passion, you would have laughed at the love and the lover. I met that sweet girl in the wood one morning, met her again the next, adored her in the first hour we met, and went on loving her deeper with every meeting. And then you came home with your story of an heiress, and strutted like a peacock before her, irresistible, all-conquering, deeming it impossible that any other man could be loved while you were by. Was I to warn you of my silent rivalry? It is but within the last week I have told her of my love."

"And does she return it?"

"She tells me as much."

"Then, by Heaven, Herrick, I will not cross your loves. For no joining of lands and bettering of my estate will I be false at once to love and friendship. If Mr. Bosworth has a mind to extend his property, he can wait till I am dead and buy Lavendale Manor from the Jews. I doubt it will be deeply dipped by that time."

"Why talk of death in the flush of health and vigour?"

"Flushes are deceitful, Herrick; there is a kind of bloom that augurs more evil than Lord Hervey's sickly pallor, though I doubt if he prove long-lived. A short life and a merry one has ever been my motto. No, friend, I will not cross you; and if I can help your suit, I will."

"You may help me to some kind of preferment which may help my suit, if you have a mind."

"What, in the Church? Would you turn literary parson, like the Irish dean?"

"No; I have been too much a student of Toland and Tyndal to make a good priest. I want you to help me to the first vacant seat in which you have an interest. I believe I could be of some use to the Whigs."

"Then I will move heaven and earth to get you elected whenever the chance arises. Yes, you are a glorious speaker. I remember how you startled the infidels at the Hell Fire Club when you rose in your strength one midnight, and thundered out a peal of orthodoxy which would have done honour to a High Church bishop; not Tillotson himself, that orthodox bully, as Bolingbroke called him, could have been more eloquent.

Yes, I will help you, Herrick, if I can. There's my hand upon it."

"You were ever generous," said his friend gravely, as they shook hands; "but, alas, I fear you would hardly give up your heiress-hunt so readily if – "

"If I had not another quarry in view, eh, Herrick?" interrupted Lavendale, with that kind of feverish gaiety which in his nature alternated with periods of deep despondency. "Well, perhaps you are right, old friend. I am not a practised schemer, and can hardly hide my cards from one so familiar as my Herrick."

"Jack, I am afraid you are going to the devil."

"True, lad, and have been travelling on that journey for the last five years; ever since the Chichinette business. I might have pulled up just then, Herrick. I was tired of my old follies, sick to death of all our extravagances, smoking porters, breaking windows, beating watchmen, cock-pit and bear-garden, dicing and drinking. I meant to become a better man, and Judith Walberton's husband. But Wharton and his gang jeered at my reformation – twitted and taunted and teased and exasperated me into a braggadocio wager, and I lost her who should have been my redeeming angel."

"Nay, Jack, methinks that lady was never so angelic as you deemed her, and that she has too much of Lucifer's pride to rank with seraphs that have not fallen. She is a fine creature, but a dangerous friend for you; and you are a fatal companion for her. In a word, you ought not to be in this house. The same roof should not shelter you and Lady Judith."

"Grateful, after I have brought you here to play the traitor and court my mistress – vastly grateful, after I have surrendered the lady and her fortune!"

"Dear Jack, I was never your flatterer – should I flatter when I see you on the road to perdition?"

"What matter, if it be the only way to happiness? O, for some occult power by which I could read and rule the thoughts of her I love! There are moments when I fancy that I do so rule her – that I can creep into her heart, stir her bosom with the same fire that thrills my own, transfer every thought of my brain to hers. Our eyes have met in such moments – met across the babble and folly of the crowd, and I have known that we were reading each other's mind as plainly as in an open book. And then came that sleek profligate Bolingbroke, with his false handsome face and honeyed tongue, and her vanity or her caprice was at once engaged. Pleasant to have so great a man in leading-strings. She would as readily take fox-hunting, heavy-jowled, beef-eating Walpole for her flirt. She is made up of extravagance and vanity."

"She is a woman of fashion. What else would you have her but vain and extravagant? They are all cast in the same mould. Vanity, extravagance, and coquetry in youth; envy, malice, white lead, and ratafia in age. Believe me, Jack, thou hadst best go back to town!"

"Why, so I will, Herrick, when the Craftsman goes. They tell me that is the name of the new paper which Bolingbroke and Pulteney are plotting. I will not leave Henry St. John master of the field."

"He is old enough to be her father."

"He is handsome enough and seductive enough to be her lover. I swear I will not leave him on the ground. Ah, here comes our dilettante host, with his usual semiquaver and diminished-seventh air."

"What, gentlemen!" exclaimed Mr. Topsparkle, "is it possible two Englishmen can spend a morning without cock-fighting, donkey-racing, or some other equally national entertainment? Do you know that there are races at Stockbridge to-day, and that most of my friends have gone off on horseback or in coaches to see the sport? Shall I order another coach for you two?"

"I am profoundly obliged for the offer," said Lavendale, "but I had enough of horse-racing when I was in my teens. I contrived to lose a small fortune and exhaust the pleasures of the Turf before my majority. I have not the staying power of my Lord Godolphin, who frequented the racecourse to his dying day. But I could suggest an amusement, Mr. Topsparkle, if you have a spare half-hour to bestow upon me."

"All my hours are at your lordship's service."

"You are vastly kind. My friend Durnford and I are both burning with impatience to see your library – that is to say, those choicer books which are not shown to the outer world, the crypto-jewels of your collection."

"I shall be delighted to exhibit those gems to such fine judges. I always think of a rare book or curio as if it were a living thing, and could feel a slight. To an appreciative friend I am ever charmed to unlock my choicest cases: those in my own study, for instance, where I keep my private collection. Will you walk that way? I have been spending a wearisome hour there with my land-steward, and your presence will be an agreeable relief."

Lavendale and Durnford followed their host along a corridor to the further end of the house, where there was a spacious room fronting the south, but shaded by the old Gothic cloister upon which the windows opened. There was a glass door also opening into the cloister, and here on sunny mornings, and sometimes even in rainy weather, Mr. Topsparkle walked up and down, sometimes with a book, sometimes in meditative solitude.

The room was handsome and picturesque: the bookcases which lined the walls on all sides were of richly carved oak – the spoils of Flemish churches, the wreckage of old choir-stalls and demolished pulpits. The ceiling was also of oak, heavily bossed. The floor was polished oak, covered in part by a large Oriental carpet. Mr. Topsparkle had not been quite such a Goth as that Lord Westmoreland who built a Grecian front to one side of a fine old cloistered court at Apethorpe; but his taste was of the rococo order, and he had not altogether spared the monastic building which caprice, rather than veneration for antiquity, had tempted him to buy. He had built out an alcove at one end of the room, and had lighted it with painted windows from the wreck of an Italian palace – a patch of renaissance art stuck like a wen upon a purely medi?val building. This alcove Mr. Topsparkle loved better than any other part of his house. It was his own secret cell, in which he delighted to read or meditate, write letters, or survey his financial position, alone or with the attendance of his man of business. Rich as he was, Mr. Topsparkle was not above making more money. He had his dabblings and speculations on 'Change, and was, like Roland Bosworth, in advance of his contemporaries in clearness of insight and breadth of view.

To-day the appearance of this alcove indicated that he had lately been at work there. A large old-fashioned Dutch bureau stood open, the secr?taire littered with papers. It was a wondrous old piece of furniture which filled one side of the recess. The double doors were richly ornamented with the story of the Crucifixion and Entombment carved in high relief. These doors stood open, and the light from the painted window on the opposite side of the recess shone with prismatic hues upon the writing-desk, with its scattered papers and innumerable drawers and pigeon-holes.

"I fear we are intruders here at an awkward time, Mr. Topsparkle," said Lavendale, noting that appearance of recent occupation.

"No, upon my veracity. I have dismissed my man of business; I mean to work no more to-day."

"Hard that Cr?sus should have to labour," said Herrick lightly.

"My dear Durnford, be assured that if Cr?sus was as rich as we are told, he had been obliged to toil in the maintenance of his fortune, to look to the collection of king's taxes, and see that his people did not plunder him. 'Tis almost as hard labour to keep a fortune as to win one, and I doubt if any man is as happy as the miser who keeps his money in a hole under his pallet, and counts it every night. That, for pure enjoyment, is your true use of money. But let me show you my books."

He unlocked a case and displayed some of his treasures, – curious hooks in all languages, from classic Greek to modern French; from Anacreon to the author of the "Philippiques," those terrible lampoons upon the late Regent, published but a few years earlier in Paris. They were strange and unholy books some of them, the possession of which could not give any man the slightest pleasure, were it not the foolish pride of owning something rare and costly and unparalleled in wickedness. Mr. Topsparkle was intensely proud of them.

"You could never imagine the pains it has cost me to collect these rarities," he said, "and upon my soul I know not if they are worth having. 'Tis like those dulcimers in the music-room which belonged to Marguerite of Valois – Cl?ment Marot's Marguerite, you understand – and for which I gave a small fortune to a Jew dealer in Paris. What do you want, man, that you stand staring there?"

This abrupt question was addressed to a footman, who stood statue-like, just within the doorway, as if he dared not approach nearer his master's august presence. He had murmured some communication which had been unheard.

"Sir, my Lord Bolingbroke is in the billiard-room, and begs particularly for a few minutes' speech with you. He will not detain you longer. He has had some news from London which he would like to tell you."

"Tell his lordship I will be with him instantly. If you will excuse my brief absence, gentlemen? The books may amuse you while I am gone, but my choicest gems are yet to be shown. Or if you would like to defer to another morning – " he added, with an uneasy glance towards the alcove, which Lavendale was too preoccupied to perceive.

"No, no, my dear sir, we will wait for your return. There are books and pictures and curios here to amuse us for a week."

"I'll not be long," said Topsparkle, hurrying away.

The two young men strolled about the room, in which there was indeed plenty to interest and enchain the connoisseur in art-curiosities. Bronzes, medallions, coins, porcelain, loaded the tables, and adorned every available inch of space which was not filled by the books. The collector's passion for amassing specimens of every art and every school was exhibited in its fullest development.

Lord Lavendale came presently to the alcove. It was curtained off at times from the rest of the room by a fine old piece of Indian embroidery, a thick and heavy fabric in which gems of all kinds were embedded upon a ground of silken brocade mingled with a curious golden tissue. Lavendale and Durnford admired the curtain, which was drawn back to about a third of the opening, and then his lordship's quick glance lighted on the old oak cabinet.

"It is a shrine," he cried, "the back portion of an old Dutch altar, I take it, with some rare old picture for the reredos. That central panel is a door with a picture behind it. Did you ever see finer carving?"

"These doors are magnificent," said Durnford, looking at the two outer doors which had been flung back.

"Yes, the carving there is bold and spirited, but this is finer work. Here is the story of the Nativity, and the four kings with their offerings – the manger and the three beasts. You remember the old legend – how the ass brayed eamus, and the ox answered in his deep bass roar, ubi, and the lamb ba-ad 'Bethlehem.' Yes, here is the Virgin, and the humble cradle of Divinity."

"Let us see the picture behind the panel, if there is one. A Vandyke, perhaps," suggested Durnford. "Look, there is a key."

He pointed to a very small key in the outer moulding which framed the storied panel. Lavendale turned the key and drew back the door.

"My God!" cried Durnford; "Irene's portrait!"

It was no Vandyke – no sad and solemn picture of the Crucifixion, or the Descent from the Cross, no pale divine head with its coronal of thorns. It was only a woman's face, beautiful exceedingly, with golden-brown hair, and dark violet eyes under black lashes; a pale, sweet, almost perfect face, and the image of Irene Bosworth. And yet it was not Irene's portrait. A more deliberate inspection showed points of difference in the two faces. There was a startling resemblance, but not identity.

"What, you have discovered another of my secret treasures?" asked a soft and legato voice at Lavendale's elbow.

It was Mr. Topsparkle, who had re?ntered the room so quietly that neither of his guests had been aware of his approach. He was paler than usual under his paint, and had a somewhat troubled air, Durnford thought; but if he were vexed at finding them before the hidden picture, he gave no utterance to his vexation.

"A very beautiful head and very tolerably painted, eh, gentlemen?" he asked lightly.

"A lovely head and very finely painted," replied Lavendale; "but there is something that strikes me more forcibly than the beauty of the face or the skill of the painter." He looked fixedly at Mr. Topsparkle as he spoke.

"Indeed! And pray what is that?"

"Can't you guess?"

"No, upon my honour."

"The very remarkable likeness between that head and Mrs. Irene Bosworth."

Mr. Topsparkle put on his eyeglasses, and scrutinised the picture almost as if it were the first time of seeing it. While he looked, Lavendale was also looking, and his keen eye discovered the painter's signature, Paulo Villari; Venice, 1686.

"Your lordship is right," said Mr. Topsparkle, after a lengthy inspection. "There is certainly a something in outline and feature – and even in expression – which resembles Mrs. Bosworth. Strange that I should not have perceived it before; but although I write at this cabinet nearly every day, I very seldom open yonder door. I bought the picture in Italy so many years ago that I would, if possible, forget the date of the purchase."

"Did you know the original? It is obviously a portrait."

"Yes, I believe it was the portrait or a study of a very handsome model – the Fornarina of some young painter who never became as famous as Raffaelle. No, I did not know the lady. Those chance likenesses are very curious. I have half a mind to make Mrs. Bosworth a present of the picture – and yet I could hardly bring myself to rob this old cabinet of even a hidden treasure. You have been admiring the carving, I hope. It is the finest I ever discovered in nearly half a century of curio-hunting."

"Yes, it is exquisite," Lavendale answered absently.

He had been thinking of the date of the picture, and the place where it was painted. There was no doubt in his mind that this was the portrait of Topsparkle's Italian mistress, the unfortunate lady who had died mysteriously at the house in Soho Square. Topsparkle's pale and troubled look suggested the darkest memories.

The likeness to Irene was of course only a coincidence. Such chance resemblances are common enough. Yes, the face was a lovely one; and this was the face which John Churchill had admired in his dawn of manhood, he himself beautiful as a Greek god, full of strength and genius, a born leader and captain of men, a man of whom it was justly said that since the days of Alexander there had been no greater soldier.

Topsparkle closed and locked the door upon the picture, and put the key in his pocket.

"And pray what was his lordship's news, Mr. Topsparkle?" asked Durnford. "If it be not secret news, which it were an impertinence to ask."

"It is news all Europe must know before the week is out," answered Topsparkle, "although it reaches Bolingbroke by a private hand. He has correspondents all over the Continent, and is ever au courant."

"Your news, Mr. Topsparkle!" cried Lavendale. "Do not dally with our impatience. Has the Pretender landed on the rugged Scottish coast? Is Gibraltar taken?"

"No; 'tis but one unlucky old woman less in the world, one poor feeble light extinguished. Sophia of Zell, she who should have been Queen of England – the Electress Dowager of Hanover they call her – has died in her prison-house at Ahlen, and his lordship's informant tells him a curious story of her death-bed."

"Prithee, let us have it. I have a morbid passion for death-bed stories."

"'Tis said that in her last hour, after a long interval of silence and seeming unconsciousness, the dying woman lifted herself up suddenly in her bed, and in a firm clear voice called upon the spirit of her cruel husband to meet her before the judgment-seat within a year. Those round her were as scared as if they had seen a ghost from the grave. She lived but to speak those words, and fell back expiring with that summons on her lips."

"I do not envy his Majesty's feelings should he be told of that invitation," said Lavendale. "Whatever his virtues as a king, as a husband he has been pitiless. Never was girlish indiscretion atoned by so terrible an expiation as that living death of thirty desolate years. 'Tis a dastardly story."

"'Twas not altogether his fault. 'Twas his father's mistress, the Countess of Platen, who was at the root of the mischief. 'Twas she who set her spies upon the young Princess, and murdered K?nigsmark. 'Twas said the fury stamped her heel upon his face as he lay dying."

"The rage of slighted beauty has various ways of showing itself," said Durnford. "But if George as a young man was led into cruelty and injustice by others, his riper age might have inclined to mercy, and were it but for the sake of his daughter, Queen Sophia of Prussia, he should have had compassion upon his wife."

"I have heard the Prince's friends say that should his mother survive her tyrant, 'twas his design to restore her to honour and her title of Queen Dowager; but whatever good intentions his Royal Highness may have entertained on her account are now cut short by death."

"I believe he only gave out such an intention to tease his father," said Topsparkle. "There is an hereditary hatred between the fathers and sons of that house. Here is Prince Frederick, for instance, kept out of England, and frankly detested by both parents."

"Were George wise he would marry his grandson out of hand to his cousin the Princess Wilhelmina, and so fulfil one-half of the Quadruple Alliance. Frederick William is an unmannerly brute, and a miser withal; but he has a long head, and Prussia is steadily rising in the scale of power. England should buckle herself to that nation by every link possible."



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