Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3



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CHAPTER II
"I STAND UPON THE GROUND OF MINE OWN HONOUR."

Lavendale left Ringwood Abbey more than ever in love with his former mistress, and savagely jealous of her other admirers, from Bolingbroke downwards. But it was against her husband that his hatred was deadliest. Those dark stories of Mr. Topsparkle's youth and ripening years had taken a strong grip upon Lavendale's mind. He had been a profligate himself, and his own wild youth gave him but little justification for setting up as a moralist; but Lavendale's sins had been the vices of an accomplished gentleman, sunning his follies in the full blaze of notoriety, parading his amours, his gambling adventures and duels, advertising all his laxities of conduct and opinion, glorying in his shame; while Topsparkle's vices had been dark and secret, obscure as the rites of an antique religion, only guessed at dimly by the multitude.

To Lavendale the very presence of the man inspired loathing, albeit Mr. Topsparkle was generally esteemed a very pretty fellow, and a wonder of careful preservation and artistic treatment.

"By lamplight our dear Topsparkle might pass for forty-five," said Bolingbroke, discussing his late host at White's one evening after the opera, "and yet I have reason to know that he is nearer seventy than sixty – and upon my soul, gentlemen, it is a very meritorious thing for a man of seventy to pass for young. 'Tis not so easy as you young gentlemen think."

"There is a quiet elegance about Topsparkle which is very taking," said Mr. Chevenix, a prosperous barrister; "and when one remembers that his father made his money in the City, and that he is only one generation removed from hides and tallow – "

"There you are mistaken, my dear Chevenix," interposed Asterley; "the elder Topsparkle was a drysalter."

"And pray does not that mean hides and tallow? I thought they were all one," said Chevenix, with a languid fine-gentleman air.

"Alderman Topsparkle was a very clever fellow," said Bolingbroke. "You are not to suppose that he made his vast fortune all in the beaten way of trade, out of pickles and saltpetre. 'Tis said he speculated largely on 'Change; and it is also said that before the Peace of Utrecht he used to buy up all the spoiled gunpowder in the country and sell it again to a very great man, whose name I would be the last to mention for two good reasons. He is dead; and he was once my friend."

"Nothing like a long war for enriching clever tradesmen," said Chevenix. "Now, I really think it very estimable in Topsparkle, considering his low origin, that he manages to pass for almost a gentleman."

"I know he is much genteeler than many of us, and far more courteous," said Bolingbroke.

"Ah, that is his chief mistake. He overdoes the courtly air. He is monotonous in his gentility, and has none of the easy variety which belongs to high breeding. He has all the faults of a novice in the art of good manners."

That refined air and superficial polish, which satisfied society at large, revolted Lord Lavendale.

He hated mincing manners in any man, but most of all in Vyvyan Topsparkle. He hated the man's small white hands and smooth feminine tones of voice, hated his pencilled eyebrows and white-lead complexion, his slim waist and attenuated legs.

He told himself that this aversion of his was but a natural instinct, an innate revulsion of the mind at the aspect of hidden sin; yet in his heart of hearts it was as Judith's husband he hated this man. He thought of him as her owner, the wretch who had bought her with his fortune, who held her captive by the malignant power of his ill-gotten wealth – who in the privacy of domestic life might insult and bully her, for anything Lavendale knew to the contrary. That smooth Janus countenance had doubtless its darker side; and he who in public was ever the adoring husband might be a tyrant in private.

Stimulated by this ill-feeling, Lavendale was more than ever bent on ferreting out the secret of Mr. Topsparkle's early life, and the fate of that Italian mistress whom he had for a little while acknowledged as his wife. He had exhausted all his own and Philter's powers of research, and had come by no proof or even circumstantial evidence of guilt. There was but one person likely to know all Mr. Topsparkle's secrets, and he would be unlikely to reveal them. That person was F?tis, the confidential valet, whom Lavendale had met sometimes in the corridors at Ringwood Abbey, looking the very essence of discretion and respectful dumbness.

"Difficult to get a man to speak when all his interests are in favour of silence," thought Lavendale.

He communicated his perplexities to his friend Durnford. Since his lordship's renunciation of Irene they were more brotherly together than ever they had been.

"And I, too, am devoured with curiosity about Topsparkle's past life," said Herrick; "that hidden picture with its strange likeness to the girl I love has mystified me consumedly. 'Tis but a chance likeness, of course, since we can trace Irene's lineage into the remote past without coming upon any track of an Italian marriage. I have examined the Bosworth family-tree – you must have noticed it framed and glazed in the dining-parlour – and there is not a foreign twig in all its ramifications. Yet when I ponder on my dear one's passion for music, her ardent impulsive temperament, her southern style of beauty, I am at a loss to comprehend how that sober British tree can have put forth so bright a flower. In any case I should like to know more about that lovely girl whose picture is hidden in Mr. Topsparkle's sanctum. By his pallor when he caught us looking at the portrait, one might guess he has painful memories of the original."

Lady Tredgold carried her niece back to London, and Irene re?ntered the glittering circle of fashion and folly, and mixed with women among whom high principles and virtuous inclinations were as exceptional as the Pitt diamond among gems. The rage for play had spread like a leprous taint through the whole fabric of society. Women sat night after night squabbling over cards, and were ready to stab each other with the golden bodkins they wore in their hair, if Spadillio was unkind, or Manillio in the hand of an adversary. Lady Tredgold was an inveterate gamester, but dared not play high, and was fain to affect the society of ladies of limited means, who could only afford to ruin themselves and their families in a small way. Yet if her losses were not large, her temper suffered as severely as if she had been losing thousands; while she was careful not to parade her winnings before her lean and hard-featured daughters, who had something of the harpy in their natures, and were always pestering their mother for new clothes or pocket-money. They, too, were fond of cards, despite the awful example furnished by their parent; they, too, had their losses, which had to be supplied somehow. Card-money was in those days a necessity of fashionable existence. Better to be buried alive in some rustic vicarage, combing lap-dogs and reading Mrs. Behn or Mrs. Manly, than to be launched in a London drawing-room with an empty purse.

Rena, whose purse was always full, declined to play, whereupon she was characterised as cold and proud and witless, a beautiful nonentity, a woman altogether wanting in spirit.

"You should gamble, child; 'tis the only excitement in life," said Lady Judith, tapping the heiress on the cheek at a fine house in Gerard Street, where the tables were set for ombre and basset.

"It is an excitement that seems to make nobody happy, madam," answered Rena quietly. "So I would as soon be dull."

"What a prude your heiress is!" Judith said to Lavendale, a few minutes after: "she glides about a room looking as if she were a being of superior mould, and had nothing in common with mortals."

"She is but a child just escaped from the nursery," answered Lavendale lightly, "and doubtless her soul is overwhelmed with wonder."

"Nay, I would not mind if she were shy and abashed among us," retorted Judith, "for I admit that we are somewhat startling to a novice. It is her impertinent assurance which annoys me. That calm half-unconscious air of superiority would provoke a saint."

"If there were any saints in our set to be provoked," said Lavendale; "but I don't think there is anything saintly to be met with in a West End card-room."

"Look at her now, as she stands with her elbow leaning on yonder mantelpiece, not deigning even to pretend to listen to Mr. Dapperwit's compliments. I wonder, for my part, that he wastes his cleverness upon a creature of ice. Where did she get that cold impregnable air?"

"From the gods, whose daughter she should be, if looks could vouch for a pedigree," answered Lavendale, delighted to tease the woman he adored.

"O, I beg your lordship's pardon," said Judith, with a curtsy. "I forgot for the moment that I was criticising the future Lady Lavendale."

"Don't apologise. We are not plighted yet, and that impregnable air of Mrs. Bosworth may keep me off as well as her other lovers."

"What, are you not engaged yet?"

"No, nor ever likely to be, Judith, as you know very well."

They were in a doorway between a secondary drawing-room and a third room still smaller – jostled and hemmed in by the crowd. He could snatch her hand and clasp it for a moment unperceived. Their eyes met as the crowd drifted them nearer, met in fond entanglement, and Judith's alabaster bosom glowed with a sudden blush like the crimson light of a winter dawn reflected upon snow. It was but an instantaneous betrayal of passionate feeling on either side; yet from that moment the possibility of pretence or concealment was over. Each knew that the old fires still burned. Light words and lighter laughter and all the studied arts of coquetry could henceforward avail nothing.

The crowd which had drifted them together speedily jostled them apart; Lady Judith passed on in a bevy of fashion and chatter, talking as loud as her friends, and with just as much elegant inanity.

Everybody decided that evening that Irene was dull. A pity that so much beauty and wealth should be thrown away upon a simpleton. She had not even that hoydenish audacity, that knack of saying improper things innocently, which could alone make simplicity interesting to well-bred people. She was not in the least amusing. She was only beautiful: and one might say as much of a statue.

Irene looked with dreamy eyes upon that strange and brilliant crowd, caring very little what anybody thought of her. Already she was tired of that gay world which had dazzled her so at first: or rather it seemed only fair to her when her lover was near. When Herrick came into one of those crowded rooms – approaching her suddenly, perhaps, and unawares – her eyes shone out like twin stars. But if he were not there, all was dull and dreary, and the company seemed to her no better than an assemblage of grimacing puppets, moving on wires. She liked Lord Lavendale because he was Herrick's friend, and she always brightened when she talked to him, a fact which Judith's keen eye had noted.

It was not always that Herrick received a card for the assemblies to which Lady Tredgold and her girls were bidden. He was too proud to go into society as Lavendale's satellite, so he only frequented those houses where he was asked on his own account as a young man of parts and much promise; and it was in the best houses that he was oftenest seen. His letters in the Whig journals had attracted attention, and his talent shone out all the more conspicuously because most of the best writers had gone over to the Opposition, disgusted by Walpole's neglect of literature. His name was becoming familiar among the ranks of journalists; but journalism was then in its infancy, and was but poorly paid, while the writers of books, unless the book was as famous as Gulliver's Travels or Pope's Iliad, might count upon years of toil and privation before they attained even a competence.

Herrick's outlook, therefore, was far from hopeful, and he delayed the avowal of his passion to Irene's father with a hesitation which he himself denounced as cowardly.

He felt that love once avowed, hands and hearts pledged for life, there should be no more secrecy. Concealment was a dishonour to his innocent mistress.

"I must beard the lion," he said to himself; "come the worst, I can but steal her by a Mayfair marriage. He can never lock her up so close, or carry her so far away, or hide her so cunningly that love would not follow and find her. I will at least give him the chance of acting generously."

So one morning, in cold blood, Mr. Durnford waited upon Squire Bosworth at his lodgings in Arlington Street, at an hour when he knew, by private information obtained from Irene over-night, that the gentleman would be at home.

He was shown into a parlour where Mr. Bosworth was drinking chocolate and reading the St. James's Weekly Journal, a Tory paper; for he was still at heart attached to the exiled family, although self-interest and the Stock Exchange made him a zealous adherent to Walpole. To that great financier he could not refuse his allegiance.

He received Herrick with a cold civility which was not encouraging. Lady Tredgold had hinted her suspicions about Durnford, and put the Squire on his guard.

"Can I do anything in the City for you, sir?" asked Bosworth; "I should be glad to oblige any friend of my friend Lord Lavendale."

"Nothing, sir, unless you could put me up to some trick of winning a fortune suddenly, without any capital to speculate with. But I take it that it is beyond even your power, and I must trust such poor talents as I may possess, backed by industry, to make my way in the world. Mr. Bosworth, it is ill beating about the bush when a man has a weak cause to advocate. In four words, sir, I love your daughter."

"Indeed, sir! You are vastly civil and mightily candid. And may I ask do you design to maintain Mrs. Bosworth by your pen, as a political pamphleteer, and to lodge her in a three-pair back in Grub Street?"

"I think we could both be happy, sir, even in a garret, with no better view than the chimney-stacks, and no better fare than bread and cheese."

"What, sir! you have dared to steal my daughter's heart – you, an arrant pauper?"

"There was no stealing, Mr. Bosworth. Our hearts came together unawares – flew towards each other like two young birds on St. Valentine's Day. Let me have her, sir, because she loves me, and because there is no other man on this earth who can ever love her more truly than I do. Forget that she is a great fortune, and remember that if I am poor I am well-born, and that the world says I am not without ability. The arena of public life is open to all comers. Lavendale has promised me his interest at the next election. In the House of Commons I should be at least a gentleman – "

"You are not there, sir, yet. Why, you talk as if you were a Pelham, and had but to ask and have! Let there be no more fooling between us, I beg. I don't want to lose my temper if I can help it. My daughter is a great fortune, as well as a very handsome girl, and I mean her to marry either rank or wealth. I want the fortune which I have made – slowly, laboriously in part, and in part by sudden strokes of luck – to remain behind me as an enduring monument when I am dust. I want the security of a great name and a large landed estate. I can afford to buy them both, and my daughter is handsome enough to marry well, were she only a milkmaid. I have been disposed to look kindly on Lavendale, because our estates join; but his fortune is shattered, his reputation is bad, and his title a paltry one. Such a girl as mine should mate with a duke, and could I find a respectable duke a bachelor, I would offer her to him. These are my views, Mr. Durnford. You have been candid with me, and I am pleased to reciprocate your candour."

"You give me no hope, sir?"

"None. And mark you, sir, you may think it a clever thing to run away with my daughter, as Wortley Montagu did with the Duke of Kingston's girl. Remember that in such a case your wife will be penniless. I will leave every shilling and every acre I own to a hospital; and I will never look upon my disobedient daughter's face again. If you love her, as you pretend, you will not attempt to reduce her to beggary."

"No, sir. It would be a cowardly thing to do. But if ever the day come when I am secure of five hundred a year, you may be very sure that I shall ask her to choose between love and fortune. Perhaps she will renounce her inheritance just as willingly as Lady Mary Pierrepoint renounced hers."

"If she is as crackbrained a person she may perhaps oblige you," answered the Squire, "but until this morning I have had reason to consider her a sensible girl. And now, sir, as I am due in Change Alley before noon, I must ask you – "

"I have the honour to wish you good-morning, sir."

They saluted each other stiffly and parted. Herrick felt that he had injured his chance of winning Irene by stealth, yet his conscience was relieved from a burden. He could face the world better. And who can separate youth from hope? He trusted to the unforeseen. Something would happen, some kindly chance would favour him and Irene. Mr. Bosworth would lose his head, perhaps, and ruin himself on the Stock Exchange. What could be greater bliss than to see his beloved reduced to poverty by no fault of his?

CHAPTER III
"THEY WERE BORN POOR, LIVED POOR, AND POOR THEY DIED."

Squire Bosworth sent his daughter back to Fairmile under close guardianship, and gave up the Arlington Street lodgings, much to the disgust of Lady Tredgold and her daughters, who enjoyed their free quarters at the West End, and the fever of London drawing-rooms.

Even the gaieties of Bath, balls public and private, in Harrison's great room, breakfasts of fifty and sixty people, and card-tables nightly, morning parade upon the Gravel Walk or in the Abbey Gardens, the afternoon lounge in the galleries of the tennis-court, the ever-changing company at the White Hart lodgings, the high play, and all the other diversions of that delightful city, which had been characterised by a puritanical contemporary as "a valley of pleasure and a sink of iniquity" – even these dissipations of the rich and idle were as nothing to that concentrated blaze of pleasure and polite profligacy which illumined the little world of Leicester Fields, Soho, Golden Square, and St. James's.

Before he left town Mr. Bosworth called on Lord Lavendale in Bloomsbury Square, and charged him with having screened his friend's underhand pursuit of Irene.

"When I admitted Mr. Durnford to my house I believed that, as your lordship's friend, he must needs be a man of honour," said the Squire. "He rewards my confidence by making surreptitious love to my daughter and heiress!"

Lavendale warmly defended his friend; praised his talents; assured Mr. Bosworth that Durnford was likely to do well in the world; to win fame and fortune before he reached life's meridian.

"I shall not be here to see him at the top of the ladder, my lord," answered the Squire grimly. "I want to marry my daughter to a man who has no such troublesome ascent to make; I want something better than castles in the air in return for solid guineas and broad acres. My daughter's husband must bring his share of good things. If he has not wealth he must at least have rank and high birth."

"Durnford is of a good old west-country family."

"A beggarly parson's penniless son. My dear lord, the matter will not bear discussion. Warn your friend that I am adamant, and that 'twere but to waste time and thought to try to move me. There may be other good matches more attainable than my daughter. Let him look about him, and find another outlet for his enterprise in heiress-hunting."

"You insult me, Mr. Bosworth, when you insult my friend. He is a man of honour, and his passion for your daughter is entirely independent of her fortune. He deplores the ill-gotten wealth that parts him from her."

This was a home-thrust for the Squire, who clapped his hand upon his sword-hilt as if he would have challenged his host there and then, but thought better of it instantly, and bade Lord Lavendale a stiff good-morning.

Herrick rode down to Lavendale Manor next day, reached his friend's house by nightfall, passed a sleepless night, and went prowling round the fence that divided Fairmile Park from the Manor grounds all next day. He loitered and rambled from sunrise till sundown, hanging about in likely spots where he and Irene had met last summer; but there was no sign of his mistress. She was under close watch and ward, poor soul, Lady Tredgold and her daughters being her gaolers for the nonce. They were to stay till the Squire relieved guard; and then the old family coach, which had been built for Lady Tredgold when she married, was to carry them on towards Bath. Weary and heart-sick after that disappointing day, Herrick stole to the lodge at dusk, and dropped in upon the old gardener's wife. He had been crafty enough to make friends with her last summer, and had dropped more than one of his hard-earned guineas into her horny palm; so he was welcome. She told him all the news, and promised to convey a letter to Miss Bosworth, if he would only give her leave to wait for an opportunity.



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