Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3



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"The all-absorbing researches upon which I had now entered had gradually drifted me away from family life, and almost from natural human interest in my kindred or my fellow-men. I tried to resist the current, and was sometimes horrified at the thought that my heart was gradually hardening itself against those whom I had once loved; but it was in vain that I struggled against the magnetic attraction of the science which absorbed all my hopes and dreams and thoughts. There came a time when my son's voice had a far-away sound, even when he was close at my elbow talking earnestly to me, and when my granddaughter's lovely face was seen dimly like a face in a dream.

"There was but little sympathy between my son and me. He was an artist, a craftsman, whose genius lay in his fingers rather than in his brain. He had no leaning to abstract science, none of the eager curiosity of the discoverer. He was active and energetic, and wanted quick results; was ambitious, but with an ambition which to me seemed narrow and petty. He wanted to excel in the creation of beautiful objects, like Benvenuto Cellini – to be remembered as the maker of drinking-cups and monstrances. But though there was little resemblance in our tastes, there had been much affection between us as father and son, and I had mourned with him when he lost his young wife shortly after the birth of their only child. That child seemed to me the concentrated expression of all the best attributes in a highly-gifted and vanishing race. I could trace every quality and characteristic of her mind and nature to their source in the characters of her ancestry. I found in her all which her father lacked – an ardent sympathy with me in my loftiest aspirations, a yearning for knowledge beyond the narrow boundaries of common life, a profound belief in the supernatural. I would have given much to be allowed to train her, to make her the confidante and assistant of my labours, as Flamel's wife was to him; but Filippo was narrow-minded and priest-ridden, and he had a pious horror of my laboratory, and of experiments which his ignorance condemned as diabolical.

"Thus deprived of the one sympathiser whose society I should have cherished, my life grew daily more and more apart from that of surrounding humanity, and, absorbing as were the hopes and dreams that led me on from link to link in the chain of occult knowledge, there were yet times when I felt my isolation, and when the silence and gloom of my laboratory weighed heavily upon me.

"It was in vain that I sought relief in the society of the family sitting-room. The air of every-day life oppressed me even worse than the sense of isolation – or I may say that I felt my isolation most keenly when I was among my fellow-men. What I yearned for was not company, but sympathy. The companionship of those who had nothing in common with my pursuits only fatigued and irritated me.

"My one pleasure in the household room was Margharita's singing or playing.

There were quaint old sixteenth-century melodies which soothed me with an almost magical power. I have sat in the twilight listening to her with tears streaming down my cheeks. Her voice thrilled and yet calmed my troubled brain.

"My evening walks had but one motive, health. I had long made that a consideration, even when my studies were most enthralling; for I knew that the only way to long life was to husband the oil in the lamp. Every evening, in good or bad weather, I walked about the streets and quays of Venice, and generally ended my promenade by taking a cup of coffee at a respectable resort, where I heard all the news of the city and of the external world. It was not because I was interested in the world outside my laboratory that I listened keenly to the gossip of worldlings, but I was always on the watch for any new discovery or invention that might have some bearing on my pursuits. Science has many branches curiously interwoven, and the scientific world was at this period peculiarly active. I listened to discussions upon all the new facts and new theories which were upon men's tongues in those days – listened while ignorance dogmatised and folly argued, and religiously held my peace. I had no wish to be known as a disputant or an experimentalist. Scarcely half a dozen people in Venice knew of the existence of my laboratory. The Venetians are fonder of pleasure than of science – a gay and idle people, spending their nights in casinos, dividing their energies between the fever of high play and the excitement of secret intrigues; not a people to watch the progress of discovery with any profound interest. They gossiped about Newton and Descartes just in as light a tone as they discussed the last European war or the last revolt in Turkey.

"One evening the conversation was about an English millionaire who had hired a palace on the Canal Reggio, and whose wealth and splendour were the talk of the city. He was young, handsome, elegant, an accomplished musician, and a great linguist. He travelled with a secretary and twenty servants of different nationalities, and had engaged half a dozen gondoliers, and as many more miscellaneous attendants, in the city. One of the gossips whispered that, not content with the palace where he lived in an almost royal state and before the public eye, and where he received all the nobility of Venice, the Englishman had imitated our native manners so far as to engage a small suite of apartments in a quiet nook behind the Piazza, so hidden from the public eye that as yet even gossip had not been able to identify the exact position of this secret haven. Rumour asserted that there were days and nights when Mr. Topsparkle disappeared altogether from his palace, and was yet known not to have left the city. These mysterious disappearances might be easily accounted for in Venice, where it is a common thing for a wealthy profligate to provide himself with a secondary and secret establishment whose whereabouts is known only to the initiated.

"I had no interest in hearing of the rich Mr. Topsparkle, and listened with the utmost indifference to those minuter details of his life which the company at the coffee-house discussed with a keen relish, merely because this young man happened to be inordinately rich.

"It was not long after the advent of Mr. Topsparkle, and while the stories about his excellent manners and his worse than doubtful morals were still on every lip, that I met a young Frenchman at the coffee-house, whose conversation, addressed to a person at the next table, at once interested me.

"They were talking of the latest discovery in chemistry, which had been made at Munich by the great Johann Becher; and by the Frenchman's conversation I gathered that he was a good practical chemist, and had an intelligence which went far beyond his actual knowledge. He was just the order of neophyte to interest a worker who longs for some younger mind with which to share his developing ideas. Almost for the first time since I had frequented the coffee-house I joined unasked in the conversation of two strangers. I ventured to correct an assertion of the Frenchman's, and he received my correction with a modesty that delighted me. I enlarged upon the subject, and his interest was so much engaged that he walked with me to my door, listening respectfully to all I could tell him.

"We met again and again. The Frenchman told me that he had been educated as a chemist and apothecary, but, disliking the beaten tracks of medicine, had given up his profession, and was now maintaining himself by his attendance as secretary upon a travelling gentleman. I was so interested in the young man himself and his aspirations that I was entirely unconcerned as to his employer, and it certainly never occurred to me that he could be in the service of the rich Mr. Topsparkle.

"I asked my new friend his name. 'Louis,' he told me. 'What, Louis only – no surname?'

"He shrugged his shoulders. 'A waif, sir,' he said; 'there are many such in Paris.'

"I was content to accept him as a waif, and to know him only as Louis.

"After meeting him about a dozen times, I invited him to my laboratory, first exacting from him a promise that he should tell no one in Venice of anything that he saw there, or indeed of the existence of such a chamber under my son's roof.

"He came upon many evenings, and sometimes worked with me till daybreak. I was disappointed on finding that his chief interest was in the lower branches of chemistry – that his ardour for great discoveries was less than my own. He took an ardent delight in the more curious kinds of drugs, whether of a curative or a poisonous nature. He was keenly interested in the secrets of Don Antonio Medici, whose skill in poisons was famous in the early part of the century; and he pored with delight over the records of execution by poison as ordered by the Council of Ten; and in the experiences of Brother John of Ragusa, who suggested to the Tribunal various admirable methods of mysteriously causing death. He had strange theories about the poisons and medicines of the ancient world and of the Middle Ages, and asked my permission to experiment with certain vegetable and mineral poisons upon stray curs and rabbits which he brought secretly to my laboratory. I think it was his callousness to the pain of these animals which first gave me a feeling of revulsion against him.

"One evening, when he left me rather earlier than usual, the door of the family sitting-room was open as I conducted him down-stairs, and he was surprised at the beauty of my granddaughter's voice. She was seated at her harpsichord, singing an Agnus Dei, and he could see her in the lamplight as we passed the door. He pretended to be enraptured by her singing, but was discreet enough to make no remark upon her beauty, which was very striking as she sat with uplifted countenance, her face radiant in the lamplight, her soul looking out of her eyes in a religious ecstasy.

"A week passed after this, in which I saw Louis only on two evenings, during both of which he occupied himself chiefly in his study of toxicology. On one occasion, when I had been particularly disgusted by the tortures he had inflicted upon a helpless cur which he had captured in his evening walk, and upon which he had been trying the effect of small doses of aconite, I taxed him with the brutality and uselessness of his experiments.

"'I grant that the taste is somewhat morbid,' he said; 'but since I have been in Italy I have been studying the history of your Borgias and your Medicis, and I have a philosophical pleasure in imagining their ideas and realising their excitement in little. I can imagine now that this stray cur is a powerful enemy whose life I am slowly sapping. I can feel as your Italian Catherine, our Queen-mother, felt when her son's frail body wasted slowly under her diabolical arts, to make way for that other son whom she loved so much better.'

"'Such a woman was incapable of love!' I exclaimed; 'she was made up of policy and self-interest, and if she preferred Henry to Charles it was because she thought she could more easily govern France with Henry for her mouthpiece.'

"I was disgusted and angry. The pupil from whom I had hoped much had turned aside from the lofty heights of science to flirt with futilities, to dabble with the petty arts of the barber and the charlatan, the seller of poisoned gloves and poisoned handkerchiefs.

"'It was a pity you did not live in Catherine's time,' I said to him once; 'you would have rivalled Cosme Ruggieri in her favour, and would have made a handsome fortune.'

"'I fear I shall never grow rich by the transmutation of metals,' he answered.

"After this he worked no more at toxicology, and seemed to resume his interest in my own particular studies. He was a man of remarkable intelligence, and had a specious art of appearing interested, which won my affection and sympathy. I know now that he was an infidel in science as in everything else, and that he only used my laboratory and my knowledge as a means of perfecting himself in the art of secret murder. Whether he studied poisons with the deliberate intent to use them at the first profitable occasion, or whether his dark soul delighted in the power to do evil, without the actual intention of crime, I know not; but I know that before he left my laboratory he had acquired by reading and experiment the most minute knowledge of poisons, and their effects and evidences.

"About a week after that evening upon which Louis had seen my granddaughter at her harpsichord, my son told me with an air of triumph that the rich Mr. Topsparkle, the wealthiest Englishman who had ever visited Venice, had been to his shop, had looked at various examples of his workmanship, and had ordered a covered cup in parcel-gilt, set with agate and lapis-lazuli, after the manner of Cellini. My son took an artist's delight in the commission, and was almost indifferent to the profit which would be derived from his labour.

"'He is quite a young man,' he told me, 'but he has a wonderful knowledge of the fine arts. I believe he knows every masterpiece of Cellini's; for while we were discussing the form of the cup which I am to make for him he drew at least twenty different forms of cups and covers, all after Cellini, with the most careless pencil. He is an excellent draughtsman, but music, he tells me, is his chief passion.'

"A week later I was told that Mr. Topsparkle, having called to see the progress of his cup, had heard Margharita singing, and had asked to be introduced to the songstress. He had stayed for an hour listening to her, ravished by her talent.

"Had I been a man of the world I should at once have taken alarm, remembering what I had heard in the coffee-house as to the Englishman's character. But I was too completely absorbed in my own studies to be on the alert for any danger that did not menace the secrets of my laboratory. I heard what had happened without being impressed by it.

"After this Mr. Topsparkle was a frequent visitor to my son's sitting-room, but as he never saw my granddaughter alone the most careful father would scarcely conceive the possibility of danger.

"So insidious were the approaches of the seducer, so completely was the father hoodwinked, that the first indication of danger was the fall of a thunderbolt. One evening in late autumn, between sunset and darkness, Margharita disappeared. No one saw her leave the house, but she was gone; and as she never went out alone, but was always escorted by an old servant who had been her mother's nurse as well as her own, her absence created immediate alarm.

"My son was like a man distracted. He searched every public resort, went over the whole city on foot or in a gondola, visited his few friends, hunted every likely and unlikely place for some trace of his lost daughter, but found none. He came to me at ten o'clock in my laboratory, to ask my advice. He was half dead with fatigue, broken down with the agony of apprehension.

"The greatness of this calamity startled me into an awakened interest in the outer life around me. My sympathy with my son in his distress roused my reason to new action.

"'It must mean one of three things,' I told him: 'accident, suicide, or flight with a lover.'

"'What accident is possible? She could not have fallen out of a window or into the canal without our knowing all about it. Suicide is impossible. Lover she had none.'

"'Are you sure of that?'

"'She was never out of my sight. We have had no visitors – except the Englishman who came to hear her singing.'

"'Then the Englishman is the lover,' I said; and the thought flashed upon me with the force of conviction, 'it is the Englishman who has carried her off.'

"My unhappy son sprang to his feet in a paroxysm of despair.

"'It was I that brought him to her room. I was proud of his admiration of her genius,' he cried; 'I was fooled by his patronage, his art, his liberality, his specious tongue. But her lover – no, that is impossible. There was no opportunity for love-making. I was always there. The English signor was distant in his politeness; he respected her station and his own. He could not be her lover; I say it is impossible.'

"'Anything is possible to the practised seducer. It is to that man you must look for your daughter's fate.'

"'I will go to his house this instant,' said Filippo.

"'I will go with you.' And then recalling what I had heard at the coffee-house, I said, 'There are two houses which we have to search – the palace on the Canal Reggio, and that secret apartment which I have only heard of from people who knew not the locality. But if there is such an apartment, the scene of secret orgies, hidden infamies, it is for us to find it.'

"We went together, father and son, to the Canal Reggio. It was as I expected. Mr. Topsparkle was denied to us. He had left Venice early in the afternoon, his porter told us, and had gone in his gondola to one of the islands. The porter did not know to which island.

"We forced an entrance into the hall and adjoining rooms. The servants, who were mostly English, gave way before us, and I believe took us for members of the Venetian police upon an official visitation. They at first were inclined to remonstrate, but finally allowed us to go freely from room to room.

"We went through several reception-rooms, all lighted, all empty, and at the end of the suite came to a small doorway curtained with tapestry.

"My son flung back the curtain, and looking across his shoulder into the room I saw my neophyte Louis, sitting before a writing-desk, in the light of a powerful lamp. He started up and faced us with a scared look.

"'Scoundrel!' I cried, ''twas you who sent your master in quest of his prey. You were my lord's jackal. Where is my granddaughter? Take me to her without a moment's delay, or I will drag you to the tribunal to answer for the seduction of a Venetian citizen's daughter.'

"I tried to seize him by the throat as I would have done any other dog; but he evaded me, and would have slipped from the room by an inner door, when my son clutched him by the lapel of his coat, and held him there.

"'What do I know of your daughter, my good Vincenti,' he said lightly, 'except that she sings like a nightingale, and is one of the handsomest women I have seen in Venice? Such a one would count her lovers by the score. Why fix upon Mr. Topsparkle?'

"'There is no one else, and you know it,' I said; 'twas you who sent the seducer to our house. He never came there till you had marked the victim.'

"I then gave him his alternative: to take us straight to his master's secret lodgings, and surprise him there with his victim, or to go with us to the Venetian police. He refused to do either, and told us that the police would laugh at a charge founded upon such slight grounds.

"'The authorities of this city know too much about my master to assail him on such an accusation as yours,' said F?tis. He had his staff of lacqueys at his elbow. Violence would have been useless; so we were obliged to abandon the idea of taking this scoundrel to the head-quarters of the police. But my son stayed in the hall of the palace while I went to the chief of the police and gave him an account of my granddaughter's disappearance, and my suspicions as to the man who had lured her away.

"I saw at once, by the air with which he heard my complaint, that Mr. Topsparkle had secured the good graces of our timeserving officials, and that I should get no help here. I left the office choking with rage, and wandered about Venice all night, penetrating into the obscurest alleys, watching in doorways for the entrance and exit of mysterious visitors, waiting below lighted windows, listening to the sounds of music and singing, surprising more than one nocturnal orgy and secret rendezvous, but finding no trace of my son's runaway daughter. I went back to the house on the Reggio Canal in the early morning, and found Filippo sitting in the hall. There had been no attempt to drive him out with violence. The servants had laughed at his folly in waiting for their master.

"There is no need to recall every detail of a futile search. For three days and nights my son and I hunted Venice and the neighbouring islands for traces of the missing girl and her seducer, and the first evidence we came upon was the information of a gondolier who, on the evening of Margharita's flight, had seen Mr. Topsparkle's gondola embark three passengers on a small sailing vessel standing out at sea about a mile from the city. The birds were fled while we were searching for their nest in some secret corner of Venice.

"I went back to my laboratory after hearing this, and took out my granddaughter's horoscope, which I had not looked at since her childhood; I remembered only that the stars had foreboded evil. There were the signs of sudden death in a foreign land; early untimely death.

"I showed my son the result of my calculations, made within an hour of his daughter's birth; and I undertook, old as I was, to follow the fugitives, if it were possible for human intelligence to track them. I urged him to remain in Venice, to be on the spot to receive his lost child should she return to her home, and also to be on the alert for any evidence of Mr. Topsparkle's guilt which time might bring forth. I had travelled much, he but little. It was agony to me to leave my laboratory, to give up those researches which had daily become more precious to me; but I blamed myself as the indirect cause of my granddaughter's ruin, since it was I who had admitted the traitor F?tis within our doors.



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