Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3



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Yes, he recalled those tender monitions with an aching heart. Not once had the memory of those words held him back from sin; and yet he had always remembered, only too late. If in the dim after-world she were conscious of his follies, of his guilt, how would she look upon this last sin?

"Has she memory or consciousness in that unknown world?" he asked himself; "or was that sweet nature but a part of the universal soul which has been reabsorbed into the infinite from which it came? O God, could I but know! Has she whom I loved any individual existence beyond the veil?"

He stood with clasped hands and bent head, recalling those unforgotten tones, the mother's smile, even the caressing touch of taper fingers lightly resting on his brow and hair. He stood thus brooding till he was startled by a faint fluttering sound in the air near him, and looking suddenly upward he saw a white dove which had flown in at one of the open windows.

There was nothing particularly strange in such an apparition in the neighbourhood of woods full of wild pigeons; and yet the sight thrilled him. He stood watching the bird as it slowly fluttered across the room a little way above his head, now in moonlight, now in shadow – he remembered afterwards that the candles seemed at this time to give no light – and fluttered on till it was lost in the shadows at the further end of the room.

Then slowly – the bird having vanished – there grew out of the shadows a vague luminous form, first only a spot of dim tremulous radiance, and then gradually an appearance as of a woman's shape, faintly outlined – a white-robed form, dimly defined against darkest shadow. It quivered there for moments which seemed to that startled gazer a long lapse of time, and faint as the light was, it dazzled him. He could hardly endure the strange radiance, yet could not withdraw his gaze.

Faintly, as if from far distance, unlike any sound his ears had ever heard, there came these words: "Repent, Lavendale, repent! Prepare for death!"

It was his mother's voice, or a faint echo of what her voice had been in life. Those unearthly tones were at once strange and familiar – familiar enough to move him to tears, yet so strange as to overpower him with terror.

Cold sweat-drops broke out upon his forehead, and he fell swooning to the ground.

CHAPTER IX
"AND, LO! MY WORLD IS BANKRUPT OF DELIGHT."

Lord Lavendale lay late on the morning after his arrival at the Manor. It had been late when he crept up to his room, tremulous from the effects of his fainting-fit, which he had shaken off as best he might, without help of any kind. A sleepless night was followed by a drowsy morning.

"Tell Mr. Durnford to come to me directly he arrives," he said to the servant who waited upon him at the Manor, "and let me be awakened if I am asleep when he comes."

And then he turned his head to the wall and dozed, or thought, with his eyes shut.

"My dearest Lavendale, you are not often such a sluggard," exclaimed Herrick, coming into the room between twelve and one.

"I hope you are not ill."

"No, I am not ill," answered his lordship, sitting up in bed, and facing his friend in the bright sunshine.

"You say you are not ill, but you are as white as a ghost. What have you been doing with yourself, Jack?"

"Raking, Herrick, raking! A long night at Vauxhall with Lady Polwhele and her crew, a debauch of champagne and minced chicken; the Dowager cooked the mess herself, I believe, over a spirit-lamp, though I was not there to see. Dark walks, nightingales and folly, and home by water under the moonlight. A pretty sight enough, those twinkling gardens, and the cold, bright moonlit river beyond."

"There must have been something more than nightingales and champagne, Jack, or you would not have that ghastly look. There is something very much amiss."

"There is something very much amiss, and I want you to set it right for me. What was friendship invented for except to get a fellow out of scrapes?"

"I have ever been your ?me damn?e, Lavendale," answered Herrick, betwixt jest and earnest. "It is the fashion to say that Lord Lavendale would have been a virtuous youth had not that scamp Durnford led him astray."

"And yet I swear you were always the better of the two, and have oftener played Mentor than Mephistopheles. But now you have become a senator the town begins to respect you. You are no longer Lavendale's alter ego– the careless rake and spendthrift. You are a young man with a career, a great future before you. And now, Herrick, I want you to save me from my own selfish passion, my own reckless folly, and to save one who is well-nigh as reckless, and whom I love better than myself."

"Lady Judith Topsparkle."

"What, you know, then?"

"I know nothing more than all the town knows – that at the rate you and Lady Judith are travelling you must both go to perdition sooner or later, unless you make a sudden pull-up. When one sees children picking flowers upon the edge of an abyss, one may easily guess the result."

"And we are not children, and we knew the abyss was there. We have been wilfully blind, audacious, desperate. Herrick, we are pledged to be each other's ruin here and hereafter. Can a man of honour, do you think, recall such a pledge – break his word to the lady he has sworn to destroy?"

"Perhaps from a modish point of view he would be a poltroon and a perjurer; but as a gentleman and a Christian he would do well to be forsworn."

"I am to carry off Lady Judith this night, Herrick; coach and horses are ordered, relays bespoke all along the road, the lady's trunks are packed. I have raised five thousand, by way of a first instalment, upon this place. Everything is ready. Shall I not seem a base hound if I draw back?"

"I know not what you will seem; but if you can save the lady's honour – "

"She is spotless, Herrick. We have been near the abyss, not over it."

"Save her, then, at any cost."

"What, at the cost of rage and mortification to her? For I doubt she has set her heart upon destroying herself for my sake – would rather endure poverty and degradation with me than queen it as the wife of Topsparkle. But this must not be, Herrick. There is a reason, an unanswerable reason, why I should not spoil her life for a few short months of bliss."

"There are a hundred reasons. Why speak so mysteriously of one?"

"Because it is the strongest, and in some wise mysterious. I am doomed, Herrick. I have been warned that I had best prepare myself for the grave. I have but a short time to live."

"What a foolish fancy! And from whom comes the mysterious warning? From your familiar, Vincenti?"

"Not from him. He promises me length of days, if I will but school myself to the adept's scanty regimen. My warning came from a Higher Source, and from an authority I cannot question. Do not let us discuss the matter, Herrick. It allows of no argument, and is too sacred for question. It is enough for you to know that I have been warned. My days have shrunk to the briefest space. I am not a man to spoil any woman's life."

"You have had some mysterious dream? You were ever a dreamer."

"Yes, I have had a dream."

"'Twas your guardian angel sent the vision if it can deter you from contemplated evil. By heaven, Jack, I believe every man has his Pacolet, his guardian and friend, for ever trying to save him from his own baser inclinations."

"Yet that friendly guardian spirit of whom poor Dick Steele wrote so pleasantly was, after all, but a feeble protector, and was impotent against human folly and self-will. I believe, Herrick, that in most men there is an innate respect for virtue, accompanied by a natural leaning towards vice. Mind and conscience pull one way – heart and senses tug the other; and in most cases the flesh and the Devil get the victory. And now will you do me this favour – will you save Judith from me, and me from myself?"

"I will do anything in this world to so holy an end."

"Then you will go to Judith this evening at dusk, when Mr. Topsparkle is to be in the City, and you will give her a letter from me. You will sustain that letter by whatever moral lecture you may feel moved to deliver; and you will so act that she will understand that, though my passion is unchanged, my resolution is irrevocable. Say nothing of an early doom; for did she know my motive, her generosity would be eager for self-sacrifice – she would be in haste to fling herself away upon a dying man. Let me even appear to her a coward, a prig, a pious renegade from love and fidelity – anything, so that you save her from the ruin we had planned."

"Trust me, my dear Lavendale. I will perform this mission with all my heart. Could I not go at once – as soon as a horse can be saddled – and see the lady before the evening?"

"Too perilous. She is rash and impetuous. She might betray herself by some burst of passion. It were best that you should not see her till Topsparkle be off the premises, and her afternoon visitors despatched. 'Twere safest, I think, for you to wait till near sunset."

"That will suit me better, for then I may hope to get a glimpse of my mistress, in spite of her guardian and gaoler, good little Mademoiselle Latour."

"How will you manage to let her know of your vicinity, since you dare not approach the house, for fear of her churlish father?"

"O, I have a Mercury in the shape of a gardener's boy, who will contrive to let her know I am near the old trysting-place, if she be out of doors; and she spends most of her life in the garden this summer weather."

"Happy lovers, whose very ruses are innocent, and have a flavour of Arcady! Ah, Herrick, how I envy you!"

"Dear friend, it is not too late for you to be as happy as I am. There are plenty of virtuous women in this world, some as lovely as Irene, from among whom the irresistible Lavendale might choose a new mistress."

"Might? It is too late, Herrick. The passing bell of love and hope has sounded. I never loved but one woman, and her I outraged by a profligate's motiveless folly. There – go to your divinity, and be back in time for your journey to London. You can take any horse you like; your own nag can stay till you return to-morrow. I shall be all impatience to hear how Judith received you."

An hour later and Herrick and Irene were standing on each side of the oak paling, as they had stood at their first meeting, under summer boughs, with the dogs for their sole companions. It was a little more than a year since that accidental meeting, and although they were wholly pledged to each other, they seemed no nearer the possibility of union than they had been a year ago.

"Charlie brought me your little note, and I stole away from poor Mademoiselle, who has a headache, and was obliged to lie down after my music-lesson. She suffers so much from the heat."

"And you – "

"O, I love it. I ought to have been an Indian. I love to sit in the sun and read Shakespeare."

"'Twas I taught you to love Shakespeare, was it not?" he asked fondly.

"'Twas you first talked to me of him. And then I saw Mr. Booth act. That was glorious. The characters seemed to have a new life after that: they live and move before me when I read the plays, as they never did before. How well you are looking, Herrick! Are you working as hard as ever?"

"Harder, dearest. I write more than ever, and I have the House for my only recreation. Don't look frightened, Rena; hard work suits me. I thrive upon it. I have two secrets to tell you, love."

"Secrets – not dreadful ones?" she asked, with clasped hands.

"Far from dreadful. First, I am beginning to save money. Yes, Rena, I have a hundred pounds in the bank. Secondly, I have written a play, and Colley Cibber and his committee at Drury Lane have promised to produce it for me in the autumn."

"O Herrick, how delightful! Let me see your play. You have brought it, haven't you?"

"No, dearest; the manager has the manuscript."

"What is it about?"

"Love and lovers."

"Is it a tragedy?"

"No, sweetest, I am too happy in the assurance of your love to be tragic, even upon paper. It is a comedy, as light as Wycherley, but without his coarseness. I have written, not for vizard masks and modish ladies, but for virtuous wives and daughters. There is not a blush from the rise of the curtain to the epilogue; but for all that, Mr. Cibber believes the play will take."

"I feel sure it is better than anybody else's play."

"That were to say too much; but I doubt if it is quite the worst thing that was ever put on the stage."

"What is it called?"

"The Old Story."

They were strolling side by side, with only that post and rail fence between them, which scarcely seemed a boundary. The dogs gambolled round them, snapping at summer flies, fighting with each other every now and then, in a friendly way, with playful growls and yelps of delight, as if the gladness of life in the abstract must needs be expressed somehow.

"And now tell me, dearest, have your tyrants abated their tyranny? Are you as closely watched as ever?"

"Not quite. Mrs. Layburne is ill, and she was the only gaoler I dreaded. Of course it is hard not to be able to see you, except by stealth. But dear Mademoiselle and my good old nurse Bridget are always kind, even though they must obey my father's orders. And then I try to be happy, and to feel confident of your love, and I hope that Providence will break down all barriers by and by. I can be patient, hoping this."

"And you do not sigh for town and town pleasures?"

"No, Herrick. The town was delightful when you were there, and I could see you almost every day. Without you the gayest place would be dreary. If I am to be sad I would rather suffer my sadness among these dear old woods which are a part of my life. I suppose it is in one's nature to love the place in which one was born."

"Yes, dearest, it would seem so," replied Herrick, suddenly thoughtful.

And then after a pause he asked, "What ails Mrs. Layburne?"

"I fear it is a consumption. She has a terrible cough, and she has wasted away sadly since last winter. I could never like her; but there is something about her that makes me feel more sorry for her than I ever felt for any one else in my life. She seems the very spirit of despondency. Her presence fills the house with gloom; and yet she rarely leaves her own little parlour, where she sits alone, without books or needlework, or any occupation to distract her mind. She sits and broods, Bridget says. No one can remember having ever seen her smile since she first came here. It is an awful life."

"Does your father's doctor visit her?"

"Yes, the old doctor sees her now and then – very much against her will, I believe, but my father has ordered him to attend her. He told Mademoiselle that the case was hopeless. She has been slowly wasting away for years; and a severe cold she caught last winter has fastened upon her lungs, and must end in death."

"Your father is sorry, no doubt, to lose so faithful a servant."

"My father never speaks of her. Once when I talked to him about her illness he had such an angry look that I have never spoken of her in his hearing since then; but I would do anything I could for her comfort, poor soul. Mademoiselle and Bridget are very attentive to her, or at least as attentive as she will suffer them to be. She is a strange person."

They talked of a pleasanter theme after this, talked as lovers talk – of each other – an inexhaustible subject; and after less than an hour of this sweet converse it was time for them to part – Rena to hurry back to her governess, Herrick to return to the Manor in time for his long ride to London.

CHAPTER X
"FORGET, RENOUNCE ME, HATE WHATE'ER WAS MINE."

Mr. Topsparkle had gone to the City dinner, and Lady Judith had closed her doors against the butterfly acquaintance whose visiting hours could scarce be kept within reasonable limits, so eminently social was that age in which ladies of quality met every evening to ruin each other at cards or dice.

The sun was setting, and Judith was alone in her favourite parlour, a fine panelled room on the first floor, with three tall narrow windows facing westward; a room fit for a palace, with ceiling and doors painted by Gillot, and with a chimney-piece by Grinling Gibbons, crowded with rarest Indian cups and platters, and innumerable monsters and gods in jade and ivory, ebony, bronze, and porcelain. The sofa and chairs were of Gobelin tapestry, brought over by Mr. Topsparkle, and were the exact copy of a set that had been made for Madame de Montespan. Everywhere appeared evidences of wealth and taste. The Princess of Wales had no such apartment. The Duchess of Kendal would have sold the curios and rich furniture, had they been hers to turn into cash. Lady Judith scorned her surroundings as if they had been dirt. She had always talked contemptuously of her husband's rage for the arts, but the town took that air of hers for suppressed pride. But of late she had felt something worse than scorn for these costly treasures; she had felt absolute hatred for every object associated with the man she loathed.

"Why could I not have married Lavendale, to live in a hut or a gipsy's van?" she thought; and it seemed to her as if all the luxuries in which she had rioted, the cup of pleasure which she had drained to the dregs, had been odious to her from the very beginning. It was a phase of ingratitude, perhaps, to which runaway wives are subject.

"Thank God, I shall be far away from this rubbish to-morrow," she said to herself, pacing up and down the room, impatient for the hour which should bring her freedom. "How my soul pants for solitude and simplicity – that sweet solitude of two who in heart and mind are as one! O, the delight of the long, careless journey to the sunny South! The rapture of strange inns, where no one will know me as Lady Judith Topsparkle; the fortune of the road, good or ill; bad dinners, sour wines, garrulous landlords, changing landscapes, sea, mountain, wood, valley – and my beloved always by my side – in sunlight and moonlight, in calm and in storm!"

She looked at the S?vres timepiece on the mantelshelf. How slowly the hands moved! She almost thought they must have stopped, and went across to listen for the beat of the pendulum. Yes, the clock was going regularly enough: it was she whose life went so fast. No swing of the pendulum could keep pace with that passionate heart of hers.

The sun was down; the western sky had reddened to blood colour. Hark! there was a step on the stairs. His, of course. She stood with throbbing heart, ready to sink into his arms.

No, it was not his step. It was firm, and light, and quick – a young man's step, but not his. There was no melody she had known all her life more familiar to her ear than Lavendale's footstep. She could not be mistaken in that.

A footman opened the door and announced Mr. Durnford.

Lady Judith turned with an air of haughty interrogation. Her frown and the angry flash from her dark eyes asked plainly by what right he approached her at such an hour. And then she remembered the closeness of the friendship between Durnford and Lavendale, and her heart sank with a sudden fear.

"Is his lordship ill?" she asked eagerly, as if the world knew but one lordship.

"No, madam; but I come from him. I am the bearer of a letter."

He took a sealed letter from his breast-pocket and handed it to her.

She snatched it from him, and turned to the window, where there was just light enough to read it, her bosom heaving, her cheeks whitening to the hue of her powdered hair.

The letter was all tenderness: a letter of renunciation and farewell, eloquent with saddest feeling: a letter which to a less imperious nature might have been salvation. But Judith wanted to go to perdition her own way; and on a woman bent upon losing her soul for her lover, all unselfish reasoning must needs be wasted.

"Have I counted the cost?" she asked herself, "and if not I, why should he be so punctilious? Lavendale! Lavendale, whose very name is a synonym for dissipation and debauchery – for him to turn mentor and lecture me! O, it is too much!" and then, turning fiercely upon Durnford, she exclaimed,

"This is your work, sir."

"Indeed, no, madam."

"Indeed, yes, sir. You know all about this letter. You stood by his elbow while he wrote – you dictated it. 'Tis your new-fledged sobriety that has come between my love and me. What, after his letter of yesterday, burning with passion, he writes to-day like a schoolmaster, and preaches of repentance and the fear of a lifelong remorse. What is my remorse to him, if it ever came, when he has my love – my soul's devoted illimitable love? Why, I would hang upon the wheel beside him, hang there and suffer. I would endure the torments that slew Ravaillac, the tortures Brinvilliers suffered, for his sake; and shall I fear the scorn of a little world in which there are scarce half a dozen virtuous women? Mr. Durnford, to speak freely, since you doubtless know all that has passed between his lordship and me – I can tell you that I have counted the cost, and esteem it a bagatelle. So I pray you take back my lord's letter, which your virtue has inspired, and bid him come to me at once. I want to see him, and not wise sentences dictated by another."



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