Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3



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"I can assure your ladyship I had no part in that letter. 'Twas my friend's own impulse moved him to write. It is by his wish I am here to bring you his farewell."

"Pshaw! I tell you, sir, I see through it all. Your protestations are useless. Go and send his lordship to me this instant."

"That were not easy, madam. Lord Lavendale is at his place in Surrey, thirty miles from London."

"He is thirty miles off, when I have been expecting him here every moment, when I have made all my plans – looked my last at this hateful house – was ready to fling on my cloak and go with him. O, the trickster, the poltroon, to play fast and loose with the woman who loves him! Tell your master, sir, that he is no gentleman, or he would never have penned that letter."

"I have no master, madam; and I protest, my friend Lavendale was never a truer gentleman than when he renounced a lady whom he adores."

"I do not believe in his adoration. He has basely lied to me. It was a caprice – a transient fancy – an amusement – a wager, perhaps. Yes, a wager, like his affair with Chichinette. He has wagered a thousand or so that he would bring me to the brink of an elopement, and now he and his friends are laughing at me."

"You know his heart too well to suspect him of such baseness, madam. Believe me that it is in your interest alone that letter was written. Lord Lavendale's absence to-night is the highest proof he can give you of his love – a self-sacrificing love."

"He is a coward – a coward to strike such a blow! He knows how I love him." She burst into tears, and fell sobbing upon her sofa, her face hidden, her hands clasped above her head, all her body shaken by the vehemence of her grief.

O, bright dream that she had dreamt – never to be realised! That glorious vision of life in sunny lands, a life that should have been an endless love-song – gay, flowing, melodious as a ballad by Suckling or Prior. The journey, whose every stage fancy had pictured; the fetterless existence, unoppressed by the restraints of ceremony, or the formalities of a Court – life lived for its own sake, not to please the public eye. And he baulked her every hope; he flung her back upon the husband she loathed – the splendour of which she was sick unto death. He told her that for her sake it was best they should part; that reputation is the jewel of a woman's life; that he had reflected in solitude and silence upon the sacrifice she had been about to make for him; and that reflection had convinced him he would be a scoundrel to accept such a sacrifice. Loving her passionately, devoted to her with all his heart, honour constrained him to bid her adieu for ever.

"Coward, coward, coward!" she hissed between her clenched teeth, when there came a lull in her storm of grief.

Then she rose in her wrath, tall as Juno, straight as a dart, and faced Herrick with a sardonic smile.

"Well, sir, we have played out our comedy (his lordship and I), and the play is somewhat shorter than I fancied it would be; the curtain is down, and the candles are out; the spectators can all go home again.

If 'twas not a wager on his lordship's side, 'twas almost as pretty a device any way. I acknowledge that you and he are winners: you have had the best of me."

She made him a low curtsy, one of those graceful sweeping curtsies of the patch and powder period which are an extinct art. She swept the ground with her brocade train and rose again, swan-like, or like a new Venus rising from billows of silk and lace. She had dashed the tears from her cheeks, and when the footman came in presently to light the candles in the sconces, there was no sign of grief upon her face, save its unnatural pallor, and the hectic spot on each cheek which intensified that livid whiteness.

"Is it an impertinence to wish you good-night, Mr. Durnford?" she asked, when the servant had retired.

"Nay, Lady Judith, I would not trespass on your courtesy for another moment." He bowed, and was departing, when she stopped him.

"There was a wagon to carry my trunks to New Cross," she said. "It will look foolish if my luggage is diverted that way while I – "

"The wagon has been stopped, madam. I saw to that an hour ago."

"Then there is no more to be said, and his lordship need apprehend no ill-consequences from his – jest."

"Lady Judith, I am convinced you know better than – "

"I know nothing, sir, except that I have been fooled," she answered, her eyes flashing angry fire at him from under the darkly-pencilled brows. "Why are you such ages in taking your leave? Good-night, sir, good-night."

She pulled a bell-rope with an impetuous hand, which sent a loud ringing through the silent house. Two lacqueys flew to answer her summons, thinking there was something amiss.

"The door!" she said. "Show Mr. Durnford to his chair."

The moment he was gone she flung herself upon her sofa, tore down the elaborate edifice of powdered locks, plucked open her bodice, and abandoned herself to a fit of hysteria. She lay, face downwards, on the sofa in her disorder and dejection, like Cleopatra after Actium, when C?sar's swift galleys had come down upon her, and all the intoxication of false hope was over.

She lay thus for about a quarter of an hour – a long agony – and then rose suddenly and hurried to her dressing-room, which was the adjoining apartment.

Here she changed her brocade for an Indian silk nightgown, bathed her swollen eyelids with scented water, and gathered up her streaming locks before she rang for her maid.

"I have changed my mind, Z?lie," she said; "I shall go to Lady Townley's drum. My headache is cured."

Z?lie expressed herself enchanted, despatched messengers right and left for her ladyship's hair-dresser and her ladyship's chairmen, lighted the candles in her ladyship's powdering-closet, brought forth jewel-cases, satin trains, brocaded sacques, embroidered petticoats, for choice.

"I will wear white," said Judith, without so much as a side-glance at that heap of finery; "nothing but white. I have a foolish fancy, Z?lie. I should like to look a bride."

"Her ladyship has always a bridal air, a fresh young beauty which shines out amidst all other faces," protested the Frenchwoman.

"Fresh! Young!" cried Judith. "Don't mock me, girl! I feel like the Witch of Endor. But for sport I'll dress as a bride."

And so, dazzling in white satin and white velvet, with a string of priceless pearls twisted amidst her powdered hair, and a plume of snowy ostrich feathers drooping upon her ivory shoulders, Lady Judith Topsparkle appeared at Lady Townley's drum, which was an assemblage of all the best people in town. Chesterfield was there, big with his mission to the Hague, and his successes among burgomasters' fat wives. Hervey and his beautiful young wife were among the gayest spirits; and Pulteney, punning in Greek, flushed with his fourth bottle; and Bolingbroke, whose easy equability no potations could ever disturb.

The bucks and beaux all gathered round that radiant creature, whose insolence charmed them more than the amiability of other women, and who could keep them all at a distance, yet draw them as the magnet draws iron; could have them fluttering about her and following her from room to room, yet never say too kind a word or return too ardent a glance. To one only had she been kind; for one only had those brilliant eyes melted to softness.

To-night she was at her gayest. Every one noticed her vivacity; the women with malevolent shrewdness.

"Lady Judith must have been losing at cards," said one. "There is an affectation in that arrogant mirth of hers which hides some secret agony."

"She may have been backing race-horses at Newmarket," replied another. "I have heard her betting with Chesterfield."

"Or she may have quarrelled with Lavendale," hazarded a cantankerous mother of three plain daughters.

"What, is that affair begun again?"

"It began the day he came back to England, I believe. They took up the story at the very page where they left off. The only difference was Mr. Topsparkle, and he seems the essence of good-nature."

Durnford looked in late at the party, after a stormy sitting in the House, where Walpole was fighting for his Excise Bill, and he was astounded at beholding Lady Judith the centre of an adoring circle. He had left a Niobe, he found a Juno, flaming in all the glory of her peacock car. Mr. Topsparkle came on from Soho Square when he heard his wife had changed her mind and had gone to Lady Townley's. She could not be too frivolous or too expensive for his humour, though he drew the line at gambling debts. It was when she was grave that he suspected her. And he had suspected her the other night at Vauxhall. That disappearance in the dark walks with Lavendale had roused his ire, for at heart he had always been jealous of that old lover; and then under a feigned somnolence he had watched those two whispering together at the supper-table in the King's Head arbour, and he had made up his mind that there was mischief. He had hinted his suspicions to his wife that night after their return to Soho, and injured innocence had taken the most vehement form in that offended lady. Recriminations of the bitterest kind had followed: he had reproached her with her extravagance, her passion for dice, cards, lotteries, and race-horses; he had taunted her with the poverty of her girlhood, her concealed eagerness to trap a rich husband.

"Was I eager for you?" she asked insultingly. "Did you not kneel at my feet, amidst the other dirt, before I would have you?"

"O, you played your part cleverly," he answered; "you knew that a man of my stamp was to be won by seeming independence. You were too old a huckster not to know your market."

"Sell me again," she cried, "if you think you bought me too dear! Sell me to the highest bidder. There is not a man in town to whom I would not sooner belong than to you."

"To your old lover Lavendale, for instance."

"Ay, to Lavendale. I would rather be his slave than your queen."

"But I have not quite done with you yet. You had better be patient, and wait till you are my widow." The argument grew more and more acrimonious, and finally Mr. Topsparkle announced his intention of carrying off his wife to Ringwood.

"You can play the queen there within narrower bounds," he said.

"You mean that it will be easier to watch me?"

"That is just what I mean. You are too wild a bird to fly without a string."

After this Mr. Topsparkle had a little conversation with his ancient, M. F?tis, who, in London, oscillated between Soho Square and his own particular establishment in Poland Street, where he had a plump French wife, who carried on the business in his absence: a native of P?rigord, with a fine eye and nose for truffles, and who was said to cook certain dishes better than any chef at the Court end of the town. M. F?tis undertook to keep his eye on her ladyship. She was not the first sultana he had guarded for his sultan. 'Twas he who met Mr. Topsparkle as he alighted from his chair after the Guildhall dinner, with the intelligence that Lady Judith had recovered her spirits and had gone to Lady Townley's assembly.

"Has she had any visitors since I went out?" asked Topsparkle.

"Only Mr. Durnford. He came at dusk and stayed about half an hour."

"About half an hour!" echoed his master testily. "You have a watch, sir, and might have timed the gentleman accurately."

Topsparkle had his wig recombed and his complexion revived before he went on to Golden Square, and appeared there as white as Lord Hervey, and radiant with smiles.

"How our City Cr?sus grins!" exclaimed Pulteney to a friend, "and what a death's-head grin it is!

 
'Quin et Ixion Tityosque vultu
Risit invito – '
 

One could imagine a shade in Tartarus with just such a ghastly smile. And how lovely his young wife looks to-night, lovely enough to keep that poor old atomy in perpetual torment!"

CHAPTER XI
"AND WE SHALL FADE, AND LEAVE OUR TASK UNDONE."

Lavendale stayed at his Surrey manor for more than a month, seeing no one but his old Italian friend and the servants who waited upon him, and never once going beyond the boundary of his own domain. For some days after his interview with Herrick Durnford he existed in a kind of apathy, interested in nothing, but living for the most part in his own chamber, brooding dreamily upon that luminous form which had shone upon him out of the midnight shadows, and that spirit voice which had seemed to him so familiar and yet so strange. In every syllable he had recognised his mother's tones, and in that faint phantasmal semblance of life he had beheld the outline of his mother's graceful figure and classic head. Not for an instant did he doubt that his mother's shade had been with him in the room where so much of their united lives had been spent, or that the warning of his early doom had been the emanation of his mother's mind.

He, the infidel, the student of Toland and Tindale, the friend and associate of Voltaire, had been at once subjugated by his first experience of a world beyond the world of sense. He did not accept that shadowy visitant as an evidence of revealed religion; but it was to him at least something more than a projection of his own imagination. It was to him an assurance of a love beyond the grave, of a spiritual link between those who have loved each other on earth, a sympathy which corruption cannot destroy or worms devour. Out of darkness and dust his mother's voice had called to him, "Prepare for death." She who had taught him the Gospel at her knees now called upon him, who had lived as an infidel, to die as a Christian.

Not for an instant did he doubt that warning. It was not the first; but all previous warnings had been purely physical. That sudden agony which had seized him on two or three occasions at long intervals within the last three or four years had warned him of organic disease. His heart had been tortured by that acute anguish which tells of the hardening of the valves; and though the fit had passed quickly, cured by a medicine which Vincenti had prepared for him, it had left him weakened and depressed. He had never cared to question Vincenti as to the cause of that pain, or to consult any better qualified adviser; but he knew that the symptom must point to some organic evil, something of which the end might be death.

And now, having deliberately renounced that which he deemed his final chance of happiness, he sat alone in that spacious library where he had seen the vision, and brooded over the past, the fatal irrevocable past, with all its storm and fury and its small sum of happiness, and wondered, with a half-apathetic wonder, what his life would have been like if he had been a good Christian.

"It is hard to argue by analogy, since the type is so rare in the world I have lived in," he mused. "The good Christian is a modest creature, who generally hides his light under a bushel, though the Gospel warns him against such self-extinguishment. I have known sceptics of every colour, from the Queen, who patronises churchmen and philanders with philosophers, to Bolingbroke, who fears neither man nor God; but of Christians how few! There was Addison, whose boasted Christianity was at best a matter of temperament – nature had given him an easy disposition and a love of sound Oporto. There was Steele, full of pious aspirations and pot-house inclinations, always sinning and for ever repenting. There is our mock Diogenes, Jonathan Swift! Shall I count that supple courtier and arrogant place-hunter, that bold renegade, a disciple of Him whose gospel was meekness and whose life was spent in doing good? Shall I call bluff Walpole a Christian? No; in all true Christianity there must be a touch of asceticism, and there is nothing of the ascetic in our fox-hunting Treasurer. Even Atterbury is not altogether free from the taint of worldliness, and would rather play king-maker amidst the turmoil of plot and counterplot than educate himself for heaven in the obscurity of exile. The ideal Christian is an extinct species; and methinks the most pious man I know is old Vincenti yonder, with his solemn reverence for that terrible name which the lips of the adept dare not utter. Only among the votaries of the sacred art is that profound conception of God – a God whose very name, written within the symbol of the Trinity, can move mountains, transmute metals, change and overthrow the four elements. Yes, that is the highest religion I have ever met with since the childlike faith of my mother. Would I could believe, as that old man believes, in the mystery of a master mind ruling and pervading the universe! But to believe only in clay – mere corruptible flesh, which the worms are to eat within a given number of years – that means contempt for good and recklessness in evil."

Night after night, through the slow changes of two moons, did Lavendale watch in the room where he had seen his mother's spirit; but the luminous shape appeared no more, although the mind of the watcher was attuned to the supernatural. He had told no one of the thing which he had seen, not even the Italian, whose researches he had of late been assisting. He found the only distraction from gloomy thoughts in the patient watching of experiments, the ministering service of the laboratory. Here Judith's image haunted him less persistently, here he could for a while forget all things except the secrets of alchemy.

He had heard several times from Durnford, who was in the thick of political strife, and was hand in glove with the Treasurer. Lady Judith had been carried off to Ringwood Abbey as her husband had threatened, and was queening it there over a distinguished party. Durnford had been invited, and had gone there at Lavendale's importunate request. "Tell me that she is not sunk in misery, nor ill-treated by a jealous tyrant," he wrote. "I am agonised by apprehensions of the evil my folly may have brought upon her. The monster of jealousy has been awakened, and by my heedlessness. Should she suffer wrong or contumely, and I not be near to defend her, I should feel that my sacrifice was all in vain – that it would have been better to defy Fate and snatch her to this longing breast. If you will not be my friend in this, if you cannot be my second self and watch and protect her for me, I will not answer for the consequences. I cannot command my actions should I find that she is wretched. See for yourself that all is well with her, and I shall be at peace."

This, which was not the first adjuration of a like character, impelled Durnford to accept Mr. Topsparkle's pressing invitation, given at the St. James's Coffee House, where the gentleman spent an occasional evening when caprice called him from the country to the town.

"Your hospitality would tempt an anchorite," said Herrick, when Topsparkle grew urgent; "but I know not how her ladyship will receive me. I believe she is at heart a Tory, and that my Whiggish principles inspire her with disgust."

"Pshaw, my dear sir! women know nothing of principles. They believe only in persons and things. Judith is a Tory because my Lord Bolingbroke has the tongue of the first tempter, and would lure all the women in England to his side could he but have their ears as he has Judith's. And then there is Swift, whose magnetic gray eyes and fierce black brows command all womankind to think as he wishes. That fiery spirit was in full sway at Ringwood when I left them t'other day, making jingling rhymes about everything, and hectoring and domineering over everybody; all rollicking spirits one hour, all gloom the next. I should never be surprised to hear of that man as a patient in Bedlam."

"He has need for an occasional gloomy fit," said Durnford, "if he ever thinks of the woman who died and the woman who is dying of his cruelty."

"O, fie now! they say he is wondrous civil to Mrs. Johnson, and that if he keeps her somewhat shabbily and has denied her the satisfaction of marriage, he writes her the prettiest letters imaginable in a kind of baby-language which is unintelligible to everybody but themselves."

"If his secret language is anything like his occasional verses it must be exceedingly modest and appropriate for the perusal of a lady," said Durnford.

"O, the Dean has a somewhat libertine fancy, and is mighty outspoken," answered Topsparkle; "but I am told Mrs. Esther can relish a jest, and even pay our modern Rabelais in his own coin. But you will allow that 'Cadenus and Vanessa,' the poem he wrote in honour of Miss Vanhomrigh, is modesty itself."

"'Tis the most insidious devilish compliment that was ever penned," cried Durnford indignantly. "'Tis sage experienced five-and-forty gloating over the trusting passion of innocent eighteen. I cannot restrain my indignation when I remember that warm-hearted impetuous girl, bold in her ignorance of wrong, whose love he deliberately won and as deliberately slighted when 'twas won. If ever there was murder done on this earth, 'twas Swift's assassination of Miss Vanhomrigh. I had the facts in all their naked cruelty from his bosom friend Sheridan. I cannot admire the genius of a Titan when it is allied with the heart of a savage."



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