Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3



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"O, damn it, sir! we must bow to genius wherever we find it," said Topsparkle peevishly; "we have nothing to do with hearts. Swift is the cleverest man in the three kingdoms, and can make or mar a ministry. He dined at Chelsea t'other day, and I am told Sir Robert means to give him the next English bishopric that falls in."

Durnford went to Ringwood, rather to please his friend than for his own pleasure; though it was to his interest as a rising politician to be a guest in a house where there were so many notable people.

To his astonishment Lady Judith received him with smiles, gave him an almost caressing welcome, presented him to her most distinguished visitors, and let them see she wished him to be favoured. However her wounds might rankle, she concealed them completely under that smiling radiant countenance which shed sunlight upon her little world.

 
"Ausa et jacentem visere regiam
Vultu sereno,"
 

mused Durnford. "She has all Cleopatra's audacious pride as well as Cleopatra's power to charm. I cannot wonder that Lavendale adores her."

He told his friend that he need not be uneasy about his divinity. "So far as seeming can show, her ladyship is happy," he wrote, "and has forgotten her disappointed love. There is no such chameleon as a woman of fashion. I left her a heart-broken Ariadne. I find her as gay as Lady Lurewell. Ah, my dear Jack, would thou couldst transfer those warm affections of thine to some honourable object, and that I might see thee as happy as I am in my love for Irene!"

There was some comfort for Lavendale in this letter, or at least the assurance that Judith had neither abandoned herself to despair nor was the victim of open tyranny on the part of Mr. Topsparkle. A jealous husband must needs suppress all rancorous feeling in a house full of company, and surrounded by a circle of brilliant friends, Judith would be all-powerful to resist marital oppression, were the gentleman disposed to be cruel. Lavendale argued that if Topsparkle meant mischief he would have secluded his wife altogether from that great world in which she possessed so much influence. He would have carried her off to the Continent, to some baronial castle in Germany, or to his Venetian palace, where she would hear nothing by day or night except the lapping of the water against the stones or the monotonous song of the gondolier. That she was still in the public eye, still the cynosure of such men as Bolingbroke and Swift, argued that her liberty was in no peril, her life subjugated by no vindictive tyranny.

This was well; but was it well that she could live and be gay without him, that she could surrender the sweet dream they had dreamt, and recover all her old air of happiness, while for him life was so dull a burden, and time one long agony of regret? Was it well that some women should be such light and buoyant creatures, while others break their hearts so easily?

"She was born so," he said to himself; "a beautiful radiant apparition, perfection from top to toe, except for the want of a heart.

That organ was omitted in her composition." He tried to distract himself from all such bitter fancies in the laboratory, where Vincenti was delighted to have him for pupil and assistant. Lavendale went to work with new earnestness, and had the air of an adept rather than of a neophyte merely flirting with science.

Vincenti had recovered from that short sharp touch of fever, which had been but the perturbation of the overworked brain acting upon a fragile body. A few days and nights of rest, so complete as to seem almost suspension of being, had exercised a revivifying effect, and the student looked and moved and spoke with such a renewal of energy that he might fairly be said to appear ten years younger than before his illness.

"I told you that I was on the threshold of success," he said, when Lavendale remarked the change in him; "from the prolongation of life in easy stages by a few years gained now and then, to the prolongation of life into infinity, which shall make the adept immortal, is but a natural sequence; but the day will come when chemistry and Hawksbee's electric machine will abolish death. What is death but the going out of a light? and if we can so contrive that the light shall burn for ever – "

"O, horrible contingency, most hideous possibility!" exclaimed Lavendale. "A world peopled with Wandering Jews – a population of Barbarossas, with minds worn to one dull level in the dismal experiences of centuries; with memories over-charged, hearts dead to all warm affection. If science can bring about such a universe, science must be an emanation of the devil."

"When you are as old as I am, and the king of terrors is standing at your shoulder, you may be glad of a weapon with which to strike him off," said Vincenti.

"I shall not live to be old, friend. My doom is fixed."

"Why do you say that?"

"A dream – a fancy."

"Trust to neither dream nor fancy. Let me cast your nativity. You have often refused me – for what reason I know not."

"For a very simple one. I have always had a conviction that I was not born to be fortunate or happy; and evil fortune comes with so sure and swift a foot that he would be a fool who would add the needless agony of expectation to the inevitable doom."

"But since you have brooded over a dream, a mere disturbance of the brain, it were better to consult the stars."

"No, Vincenti. For myself I will seek no further knowledge. 'Tu ne qu?sieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi, finem Di dederint.' But in this house you may easily discover the hour of my birth, which you have often asked me when we were abroad, and which I had forgotten. The old family Bible is in the next room, and in that I know my father recorded the date and hour of my advent here, as it had been the custom in his family to record all such events, however insignificant in their influence upon the world. If you choose to satisfy your own curiosity – "

"To satisfy my own keen interest in your welfare, you should say, my lord," replied the Italian eagerly. "Yes, if the day and hour are there correctly entered, I will cast your nativity."

"Do so, but breathe not a word to me of the result; I would not be wiser than I am."

"I will be dumb."

"The Bible is with other folios in the lowest shelf on the right hand of the fireplace."

"I will find it."

No more was said upon the subject, but although Lavendale had sternly forbidden the student to tell him the result of his calculations, the matter haunted him for a long time after their discussion. He looked next day to see if the dust which lay thick upon the top of the folio Bible had been stirred, and he saw that the book had been removed and replaced again. It was altered in position, and set further back in the bookcase than it had been the day before.

After this he found himself wondering when and where Vincenti would trace his horoscope, but for several nights afterwards they were both engaged till daybreak in the progress of experiments which needed much time and patience. It did not seem as if Vincenti were eager for an opportunity to question the stars upon his patron's fate, and Lavendale was inclined to think that the desire to do so had faded out of his mind.

For his own part he was determined to seek no further revelation than that which had been vouchsafed to him, and in which he firmly believed. From his mother's gentle spirit, and from that source alone, would he accept the prophecy of his doom.

"To rejoin her, to be at peace with her, to begin a new life at her knees, to be a little child again, melted to tears at her voice, soothed by the touch of her hand," he thought, "that were indeed to be in heaven. My mind can conceive no higher paradise. I am not attuned to the company of angels and archangels, but I could be superlatively happy in the companionship of a purified being whom I knew and adored on earth, and whose unfading presence would in itself constitute my heaven."

One night when their experiments had been more than usually successful, and Vincenti expanded from his customary reserve, he spoke upon a subject to which he but rarely alluded. That subject was one of which Lavendale was keenly anxious to know more – the experimentalist's past life.

The old man had been speaking of a successful experiment made forty years ago at Venice.

"How near I seemed to the realisation of my boldest dreams at that time!" he exclaimed, in a trance of memory; "what mighty mysteries, what potent secrets seemed within my grasp! yet forty years have gone since then, and my progress has been by infinitesimal stages! And yet it is progress. I can look back and count the milestones on the road – only it is a long road, Lavendale, a long road!"

There was a silence. Vincenti was deep in thought. Lavendale forbore from any word which could stem the current of memory, for he saw that it was running in the direction of that period in the experimentalist's history about which he was keenly curious – the period of his acquaintance with Vyvyan Topsparkle.

"I had a pupil, too, in those days," he said, "an assistant who was far beyond you in skill, for he had been educated as a chemist; but O, what a villain, what a consummate traitor and scoundrel! How I loved that man, loved him as the incarnation of my own knowledge! I had trained him, I had illumined that quick receptive mind, which was all darkness till I opened the book of occult knowledge before his startled eyes! He had trodden only in beaten tracks, along the level roads of earth, till then. I took him out upon the mountain-tops of science! I set him face to face with the stars! And he repaid me! Great Ruler of the universe, Thou knowest how that devil turned and rent me!"

"He was the man I have most cause to hate – Vyvyan Topsparkle!" Lavendale cried eagerly, forgetful of everything in his eager curiosity.

"Topsparkle! what do you know of Topsparkle? Ah, I remember. He stole your betrothed."

"No, friend. He did not steal, he bought her," said Lavendale bitterly. "Women of fashion are not stolen. They have their price like other marketable goods; their fathers and mothers are the hucksters. But this pupil of yours – was he not Vyvyan Topsparkle? He has the air of a man who has dabbled in magic."

"Vyvyan Topsparkle never passed the threshold of my laboratory. The man I speak of was his servant and tool, and a darker villain than himself, surpassing him in all things, in cleverness and craft and unscrupulous wickedness. Satan himself, not any other devil in hell, could surpass him."

"Do you mean his ?me damn?e, his valet and familiar, F?tis?"

"Yes, F?tis; a man of extraordinary capacity, a man who might have excelled as a scientific chemist had he been less infamous in character, a man of unbounded talent, who has perverted every gift to the basest uses. I was at once his master and his dupe."

"Tell me all you know of him, and let me help you to your revenge if he ever wronged you," said Lavendale eagerly. "I had good reason for hating the master, but I had no prejudice against the valet; and yet, from the moment I first saw him in a London chocolate-house to the last time he passed me in Topsparkle's hall in Soho Square, I have recoiled instinctively from that sleek waxen-faced Frenchman, as from some noisome vermin, whose worst propensities I only guessed at. I loathe him as I loathe a rat, without knowing why. If he has committed any crime in the past which can be brought home to him in the present let me help to bring about retribution."

"There are crimes not easy to prove. I know him to be the vilest of men, the subtle go-between, the corrupter of innocence. I believe him to have been a secret poisoner."

"You think he was concerned in the death of Topsparkle's Italian mistress?"

"I believe him to have been her murderer. He is by far the bolder villain. His master's self-love would have stopped at murder. He would not have risked the gallows even in the white heat of jealousy. He might suggest a crime, but would hardly be bold enough to execute it."

"Tell me all you suspect, and your grounds for suspicion," urged Lavendale; "you know that you can trust me – you know I am your friend."

"The only friend I have had for more than forty years," answered the old man, with a look of extreme tenderness, as if all of humanity that remained in him spoke in those few words. "Yes, you were a friend to old age, and sickness, and poverty, three things which the selfish worldling hates. You, the man of pleasure, turned out of your pathway to succour helplessness, burdened yourself with the fate of a stranger, lengthened out the days which were so nearly done, renewed the almost expiring flame. I owe you all I am and all I hope to be. My success, if it ever come, will be your work."

"Trust me, then; hide nothing from me of that past life of yours with which Vyvyan Topsparkle was associated. You can do me no greater service than to help me to the comprehension of that man's character. I thirst for the knowledge. It can do me no good, perhaps. What can I do to save my love from the master to whom she is sold in bondage? That tie cannot be broken, save by her ruin and disgrace! She must wear her golden fetters to the end. But I want to know – I want to know."

He was speaking in broken sentences, full of passionate excitement, pacing backwards and forwards across the empty space in front of the furnaces. The high wide windows were luminous with the first faint glow of dawn. In that clear light both faces looked wan and haggard; but the face of the pupil was touched with indications of decay which showed not in the wrinkled visage of the master. The face of the young man told of life that had been wasted, health and vigour for ever gone. The face of the old man told only of time and labour, a parchment mask, lighted by the flame of hope and expectancy, keen, intent, watchful.

"I will trust you fully," answered Vincenti, after a long pause. "I have always intended to perpetuate my knowledge of that man's infamy, and of his instrument in baseness, Louis F?tis. If I have trifled with my purpose it has been that I have sacrificed all earthly thoughts to the hope of the discoverer – merged all individual griefs in the anxiety of the searcher after truth. And then I had been told that Topsparkle was in a monastery, doing penance for his wicked life – anticipating Divine Judgment by the scourge and the hair-shirt – and I could afford to let my revenge sleep. But your description of his renewed youth, his insolence of wealth and splendour, his triumph in the possession of a handsome wife and the flattery of the town, was too much for my patience. Yes, that roused the sleeping lion. I have thought of him much since that night – I have thought of her who loved and trusted him."

"She was of your own blood!" exclaimed Lavendale; "I guessed as much even that night when you first spoke of her. You would have scarcely felt a stranger's wrong so keenly."

"You were right. She was my granddaughter, my only son's only daughter – the crystallisation of many generations which had been slowly dwindling to a point. She came of one of the good old families of Venice, a race as old as the Medicis, and more honourable, for it was unstained by treachery or crime. Shortly after her father's death, when the memory of that double murder was still fresh in my mind, when grief was still at its keenest period, I wrote out a record of the wicked story, which you shall read."

"At once?"

"Yes, there is no occasion for delay. The paper is in yonder chest, and I can easily find it for you. Read it, and imprint every word upon your memory, and then bring me back the manuscript. I have not yet made up my mind as to its ultimate destination. Vyvyan Topsparkle's guilt is beyond the reach of the law, but I may at least unmask him."

"True," said Lavendale, "the publication of that story would brand him with infamy, and all but the very lowest class of fawners and sycophants must needs fall away from him. But to revive that half-forgotten slander would be to degrade Lady Judith. As matters now stand she can at least enjoy the price for which she was bought: splendour, luxury, modish society, the consideration of the great world. Take from her those advantages, and she were indeed desolate."

"You blow hot and cold," said Vincenti. "A little while ago you were eager to be revenged upon the man who stole your sweetheart."

"Yes, if I could strike him without injuring her; but reflection tells me that I cannot. Her position as a fine lady is her most vulnerable point. To degrade him were to abase her. But pray let me have your manuscript. I will restore it in an hour, unless it is much longer than I suppose."

"No; it is not a long story," answered Vincenti, going over to an old oak chest which he had filled with books and papers.

The manuscript was in an iron strong-box at the bottom of the chest. Vincenti had to remove a heap of papers before he arrived at the box, which he unlocked with a key that hung on his watch-chain. The manuscript consisted of about half a quire of letter-paper, closely covered with a small regular penmanship, the ink paled by the passage of years.

"That record was written forty years ago," said Vincenti, as he gave it to Lord Lavendale.

"And you were then old enough to have a grown-up granddaughter," said Lavendale, curious about a subject upon which he had never dared directly to question his friend.

"I was then seventy years of age. You see that however imperfect my knowledge may be, I have at least learnt the secret of prolonging life beyond its ordinary limits."

"You are a wonderful man."

"I have not wasted vital power upon the follies men call pleasure," replied Vincenti calmly, as he went back to his alembic, and concentrated his attention upon the process in hand.

It was in some wise a relief, in some wise a disappointment to the disciple, to discover the exact measure of the master's existence. He had half expected to be told of a life stretching backward into the darkness of past centuries, an existence that had begun in the age of the earlier experimentalists, while chemistry was still in its infancy; a memory which could recall the living presence of Albertus Magnus or Nicolas Flamel. The years which Vincenti claimed to have lived were beyond the common limit, but were not more than a man of exceptional vigour and exceptional temperance might contrive to enjoy upon this planet, spinning out his thread of life by the careful avoidance of every perilous influence. There was nothing necessarily supernatural in the fact that Vincenti had reached his hundred and tenth year, and had but the appearance of seventy-five.

CHAPTER XII
"BY FOREIGN HANDS THY DYING EYES WERE CLOSED."

Alone in his library Lavendale devoured the contents of the manuscript. It was written in Italian, a language he knew perfectly, and in which he often conversed with the adept.

"In the year 1686, being the year before last, I, Nicolino Vincenti, goldsmith, lived at Venice, on the Grand Canal, with my only son Filippo Vincenti, and his only child and most beloved daughter Margharita, a girl of remarkable beauty and as remarkable talent; I may say that she was born with the gift of music, since she gave token of musical genius at so early an age that it seemed rather a reminiscence of the heavenly spheres than knowledge acquired upon earth. She had been educated at a convent, where her gifts had been highly cultivated. She sang better than La Boverina, who was then prima donna at the Venetian Opera House, and she played the harpsichord with exquisite taste. It was her father's delight to hear her play and sing, his pride and pleasure to watch her growing beauty; and had he been in independent circumstances he would have given his whole life to her companionship; but he had his business as goldsmith and jeweller, upon which he was dependent for the means of life. He had saved a little money, just enough to secure him from an old age of penury; but he was not rich, and never hoped to be rich. He was too much of an artist, too much above the average tradesman in intellect and refinement, ever to make a fortune. He had not the mercantile bent of mind.

"At this time I, Nicolino Vincenti, after practising the goldsmith's craft during the earlier years of manhood, and learning many secrets concerning the properties of precious metals and their meaner alloys, had withdrawn myself altogether from that craft, and devoted all my energies and all my means to experimental chemistry. I had a spacious laboratory upon an upper floor over my son's shop and dwelling-house; and here I spent almost the whole of my time, having a pallet in a corner where I lay after late watchings, rather than disturb the sleeping household by descending to my bedchamber on the lower floor. Gradually as the years went on I came to live almost entirely in my laboratory, which I only left for an occasional stroll in the twilit streets, or at the importunity of my granddaughter, who would sometimes insist upon my spending an hour in the family sitting-room.



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