Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3

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"My eldest boy works in the garden," she said, "and Mrs. Bosworth always takes notice of him. He'll find a time for giving her your letter."

Herrick wrote his letter that night, a long and exhaustive letter, entreating his beloved to stand firm, to believe in the potency of true love, and to refuse to yield her heart or her hand to any man till he should come forward to win it.

"So soon as I am sure of a modest competence, Rena, I will find the way to make you my wife, and we will laugh at your father's fortune. I will not ask you to wed beggary; but it shall go hard if within two years I am not secure of an income that will suffice for wedded lovers. Two years will not seem an eternity, even though we are forced to dwell apart. Your image will be the companion of all my hours; 'twill stand at my elbow and guide my hand as I write; 'twill flit beside me as I trudge about the town; 'twill comfort, and inspire, and guide, and protect me. It will be to me as an armour against all evil."

He waited about at Lavendale, haunting the park-rails by day, and visiting the gardener's lodge at sundown for full five days. It took the gardener's boy all that time to find an opportunity for delivering his letter. Then there were two more days before Irene could see the boy alone and return her answer. But at last that blessed reply came, full of assurances of fidelity.

"I shall never be an undutiful daughter, or cease to think with love and gratitude of my father," she wrote in conclusion; "but my hand and my heart are my own, and those I will give to none but you."

Comforted and sustained by this letter, Herrick went back to London, and established himself there in a modest lodging of his own in a court leading out of Russell Street, Covent Garden, hard by those classic coffee-houses where all the wits and politicians of the day were wont to meet in rooms which but lately had echoed the laughter of Steele and the quieter sallies of Addison. The greatest of Queen Anne's wits had passed away; but the world of letters was still illumined by Pope, and Bolingbroke, and Swift, and Warburton, and Berkeley, and a whole galaxy of wit, erudition, and natural genius. Chief among them all perhaps was that lively Frenchman, whose vivid pen touched perfection in every line of literature, who was by turns poet, philosopher, historian, political economist, trifler, critic, and theologian, and with whom an airy grace, a supreme audacity, and an incomparable clearness of style, served instead of the deeper thought and wider erudition of Clarke or Berkeley.

In such society no intellectual man could be unhappy, and Herrick Durnford was frankly accepted in this charmed circle. He was on good terms alike with the Ministry and with the Opposition. He dined and slept at Dawley at the beginning of the week, and drank Sir Robert's port on a Saturday evening. He loved Bolingbroke as a noble specimen of highly gifted humanity, despite his many faults; but he honoured Walpole as a master of statecraft, the minister who had the interests of the people and the country most at heart, and who knew how to maintain the prestige of England without plunging her into war.

Walpole had been struck by Herrick's letters in the Flying Post, had asked him to dinner, and had even introduced him to Mrs. Skerritt. This last honour meant real friendship. Molly Skerritt had read the letters to her dearest friend Lady Mary, and the two had agreed that they were clever enough to have been written by Swift. Mrs. Skerritt suggested that dear Sir Robert should give Mr. Durnford the very next vacant borough. A man who could write so well ought to be a good speaker, and good speakers were wanted now that all the best orators had gone over to the Opposition.

"The finest of them all is that poor fellow you keep muzzled yonder in his fancy farm at Uxbridge," said Mrs. Molly, somewhat pertly.

She was beautiful, and her admirer was stout, clumsy, and commonplace-looking; so she could afford to take liberties.

"Would to God I could muzzle his pen as easily as I can keep him out of the House of Lords!" answered Walpole. "The fellow is an arrant traitor, and this Craftsman of his will wreck the country, unless I can be a match for him and that renegade Pulteney."

When Molly Skerritt put in her word in an aspirant's favour his chances of promotion were no longer chimerical. The borough was soon found, and within six weeks of Mrs. Skerritt's recommendation Herrick Durnford was elected for Bossiney in Cornwall, a charming little nomination borough, then in the disposal of Sir John St. Aubyn, a staunch Whig and Walpolian. The late member had been a ponderous Cornish squire who always voted as he was told, and rarely spoke. His vote was useful, his speech might have been damaging. This worthy member having expired unpretentiously of an apoplexy, Walpole sent his young friend Durnford down to Bossiney with a letter of introduction to Sir John St. Aubyn. That gentleman took his young friend round to the half a dozen tenant farmers who constituted the free and independent electors of Bossiney; Herrick drank their cider, which was nearly as bad as that he had tasted in Brittany, kissed their wives, who were buxom and fresh-complexioned, praised their horses, patted their dogs, and was returned unanimously at the polling-place, which was on a hillock beside the high-road, the central point of an imaginary village. Tradition averred that Bossiney had once been an important town, but its streets and market-place, church and chapel, had disappeared as completely as the submerged city of Lyonesse.

Herrick entered the House determined that the member for Bossiney should no longer rank among dumb-dogs. Despite his success at the University as an after-supper speaker, he was not a great orator, not a man to thrill the House, but he was a clever debater, and he knew when and how to raise a laugh against his antagonist. He was skilled in all the passes of senatorial fence; for as some men are by instinct orators, so are some by instinct debaters. He had a knack of asking damaging questions, and seemed almost as keen on financial subjects as his illustrious chief.

His contributions to the Flying Post were as frequent as before he became a senator, and were more telling, for he had now the knowledge which he had lacked before. It was high treason in those days to report the proceedings of the House; but a man who knew what was happening there could give the public some benefit from his knowledge without infringing that mysterious law which protected the senate. He answered those brilliant diatribes against the government which Bolingbroke and Pulteney were daily contributing to the Craftsman; and his answers, though they may have lacked the matured style and lofty grace of him who wrote the Patriot King, were neither insignificant nor impotent. Men read them and talked about them, and the writer who signed himself "An Honest Englishman" was fast becoming a recognised power in the world of politics.

Neither senate nor literature kept Herrick from thinking of his betrothed. He rode down to Lavendale at least once in a fortnight, saw the friendly lodge-keeper, fee'd her useful son, and exchanged letters with Irene. On one occasion he was so happy as to see her by the old moss-grown park-rail. The watch and ward over her, kept scrupulously by kind old Mademoiselle Latour, had been relaxed so far as to allow of her riding her pony about the park; and so the lovers met, clasped hands, touched lips, and vowed to be true to each other till death. And again, as he looked at the lovely face, Herrick was struck by Irene's likeness to that hidden portrait in Mr. Topsparkle's cabinet.

"If it is an accidental likeness, 'tis the most wonderful accident that ever came within my knowledge," he said to himself, as he sauntered back to the Manor; "but there are times when I doubt if it can be an accident. It is not a likeness in feature only, but there are characteristic points in each face which match exactly – family marks, as it were, which indicate a particular race."

Upon his next visit he chanced for the first time to find company at the gardener's lodge, in the person of Mrs. Bridget, the nurse, who had been to Kingston in the coach for a day's holiday, and whom the return coach had just deposited at the lodge.

The nurse was loquacious, and inclined to be confidential towards one whom she knew as the beloved of her adored young mistress. From her, for the first time, Herrick heard the exact story of the finding of the dead man and the living child on the common, and how the foundling and the heiress had played together like twin cherries on one stalk till death parted them.

Herrick was deeply interested in those points of the story which were new to him. He had heard of that infantine companionship from Rena, but she, who but vaguely remembered it, could only describe vaguely, and the story so told had been dim and shadowy. He questioned Mrs. Bridget closely, and encouraged her to dwell with a morbid diffuseness on the particulars of the orphan's illness and death. She described how both children had been brought to death's door.

"'Twas lucky the heiress recovered, and not the nameless waif," said Herrick, looking at her closely.

She returned his gaze with equal steadfastness; but he noticed that her lips whitened.

"'Twould have been a hard thing for Squire Bosworth to lose his only daughter," he went on, "while the orphan's death could matter very little to any one."

"It mattered to the poor little dear that was left behind," answered Mrs. Bridget. "She fretted sorely for her playfellow."

Herrick went back to town that night with a fixed belief and a fixed determination. He felt that he had now one more business added to the multitude of his pursuits; and that business was to find out the parentage of the nameless orphan and the history of her unlucky father. It would be no easy task, since he had to start from zero. He had no clue to the man's identity save the place and date of his death, and Mrs. Bridget's description, derived at secondhand through Farmer Bowman, of the dead man's appearance.

It was to Tom Philter, that living register of other people's business, that he applied himself in the first instance on the very next occasion of their meeting at the Roebuck. They dined at adjacent tables, and Herrick invited Mr. Philter to join him in a pint of claret when his steak was despatched.

Philter had lived by his pen from the age of eighteen to a well-preserved nine-and-forty; and if the waif's father were, as it was supposed, a political scribbler, it was likely Philter would know something about him.

"If I know of one such starving wretch as you describe, I know of fifty," said Philter, when he had heard all that Durnford could tell him. "They were hatched on the hotbed of the Revolution, and swarmed like emmets on a nest in the Queen's time, which has been called the golden age for men of letters, because a lucky few had rich patrons, and made fortunes by venal pens. For one man that could live by literature there have always been ninety-nine that have narrowly escaped actual starvation. And it seems that this one man of yours did verily die of want on the Queen's highway. A hard case undoubtedly. A young, well-looking man, tramping about the country with a year-old baby; a strange spectacle. No, I can recall no man of my acquaintance that would have burdened himself so over-conscientiously with his domestic obligations while there was an unguarded doorstep on which he could deposit them. Truth to tell, Mr. Durnford, I have been tolerably successful as wit and journalist for the last twenty years, and I have given the hungry brotherhood a wide berth. They are bloodsuckers, my dear sir, bloodsuckers of the most tenacious order. Your vampire cannot hold a candle to them for voracity. 'Twas only yesterday afternoon I refused a crown to that hotheaded sot Savage, whose fine-lady mother ought to keep her brat out of the gutter.' 'Go to mamma, my dear fellow,' says I: 'a man of your rank, with a mother who is a fortune and has been a countess should not be hard up for five shillings.' I think I hit him pretty hard there, Durnford."

"I think you had more than five shillings' worth without paying your score," answered Herrick. "I am very sorry for Dick Savage, who has talents, and is about the hardest-used wretch I ever met with. The worst stepmother in a fairy tale was never crueller than Colonel Brett's wife, and yet I daresay she will fatten and prosper, and live to a ripe old age."

"She was a bold hussy," said Philter: "a woman who would brazen her shame before the House of Lords, in order to divorce herself from a husband she hated, can at least claim credit for strength of character."

"Which she shows now in denying herself to her son, the innocent witness of her dishonour, and the avowed ground for her divorce."

"I doubt by the time she had survived her passion for Lord Rivers she had exhausted her regard for his offspring," said Philter carelessly.

"Nay, she betrayed her indifference from the hour of his birth, handed him over at once to his grandmother, Lady Mason, who immediately transferred him to a foster-nurse, with whom he languished in obscurity through his joyless boyhood, until his mother had him apprenticed to a cobbler in Holborn, having previously, by a most malignant lie, deprived him of a provision which Lord Rivers on his death-bed desired to bequeath him. Poor Dick has told me the story at least a dozen times."

Durnford parted with the journalist in disappointment and disgust. He knew not to whom else he could apply for help in his investigation of an unknown past. He knew not where else to turn for information, was altogether at a loss how to proceed, when a chance glimpse of Jemmy Ludderly's ferret-face in the eighteenpenny gallery at a revival of Steele's Conscious Lovers reminded him that here was one who belonged to a lower grade of letters, or, at all events, to a less prosperous group of scribblers and artists, than that pseudo-fashionable circle which Mr. Philter adorned. Ludderly claimed no acquaintance with modish beauties or elderly demi-reps, waved no clouded cane, affected no mincing walk, flourished no amber snuffbox, neither scented himself with pulvilio nor expended a month's pay on a periwig. Mr. Ludderly wore the same suit of clothes from January to December, and on to a second January and a second December, would they but endure as long. Whatever money he earned he spent upon the inner rather than the outer man, drank deep in cosy tavern parlours when he was in funds, and toasted his herring or his rasher in the solitude of his garret when he was hard up, and managed to maintain a contented spirit at all times. Nothing short of absolute hunger could have spoilt his temper.

Durnford called in May's Buildings next day, and unearthed the caricaturist and lampooner in his kennel. It was Mr. Ludderly's usual breakfast-hour, and he was meekly cooking his morning rasher in an easy attire of shirt and breeches, with ungartered stockings, and the most dilapidated slippers Herrick had ever seen off a dust-heap. But the man of letters was in no wise embarrassed by his unsophisticated surroundings. He received his visitor with a friendly air, and insisted on vacating the one serviceable chair for his accommodation, while he balanced himself adroitly upon a seat from whose wooden framework the worn-out rushes hung in a picturesque fringe.

"Don't mention it," said Jimmy, when Herrick apologised for disturbing him. "There is the bed yonder," pointing to the disordered pallet with its ragged patchwork coverlet, "a most comfortable seat at all times. Pardon me if I am for the moment preoccupied by the preparation of my modest meal," laying down his toasting-fork, and filling a little black teapot from the steaming kettle. "I am no sybarite or epicure, but I can offer you a cup of the choicest tea in London. 'Tis bohea, at a guinea a pound, from the Barber's Pole in Southampton Street. 'Twas given me t'other day by a dear creature whose latest adventure offered particular attractions to the comic Muse, but for whose sweet sake I restrained my wit."

"Boileau could not have been more gallant. And was Thalia gagged for a pound of bohea?"

"O sir, I do not say there was no solider consideration. The tea was the tilly in. I beg you to taste a dish of it."

He brought a second cup and saucer from a corner cupboard, which was at once larder, cellar, and pantry, and poured out some tea for his guest.

"I thought you were addicted to somewhat stronger liquor, Mr. Ludderly," said Durnford. "Burgundy, Champagne, or Hollands, for instance."

"My dear sir, over-night I will steep myself in an ocean of Burgundy, and will sing you that fine old French drinking-song;" and he trolled in a worn-out baritone,

"'Beau nez, dont les rubis ont coust? mainte pipe
De vin blanc et clairet,
Et duquel la couleur richement participe
De rouge et violet.'

"But I am no morning dram-drinker. 'Tis from the teapot I take my noontide inspiration. Yet I know not if bohea be not as fatal to the nerves as Hollands. I have heard that Lord Bristol attributes his son Hervey's ill-health to the use of that detestable and poisonous plant tea. Those were his very words, as told me by no less a person than Lord Hervey's valet, who frequents my favourite tavern. Well, if 'tis poison, 'tis a pleasant poison, and keeps the brain alive while it kills the body. I learnt the habit of bohea-bibbing from a sprig of good family who chummed with me twenty years ago in this very garret. He was a delicate effeminate creature, brought up gingerly by a widowed mother, and then flung upon the world to waste a small patrimony and starve when it was gone."

Durnford put down his cup hastily and stared the speaker in the face.

"A friend of twenty years back!" he said. "What became of him?"

Ludderly shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head.

"I know not, unless he went as sailor or soldier, and flung away a life which he could not maintain as a civilian. He had sunk pretty low when he became my fellow-lodger, and was trying to live by his pen. He had inherited a strong attachment to the King over the water, and wrote on the losing side, a fatal mistake, till he turned his coat at my advice, and scribbled for the Whigs. I am at heart a friend to the Stuarts, but I have got my bread by abusing them. Half my living at one time was made out of Father Peter and the warming-pan."

"How long is it since you saw this gentleman?"

"He disappeared from my ken in the autumn of the year nine, the year of Malplaquet. He left London on a pilgrimage to a wealthy relative in Hampshire, whom he fancied his destitution might move to pity; but I thought that if the gentleman were a man of the world, he was more likely to set his dogs at my poor friend than to take him in and feed him. He was very low by that time, and he had an impediment to a relation's hospitality which I should deem fatal."

"What kind of impediment?"

"A motherless baby of a year and a half old – you need not blush, sir, 'twas born in wedlock – the offspring of a foolish runaway match made abroad, where my friend was bear-leader to a young nobleman."

"By heaven, it is the very man!" cried Herrick. "I thought as much from the beginning. Was not your friend's wife called Belinda?"

"That was her name. Many a night have I heard him utter it, half-strangled in a sob, as he lay dreaming. The poor girl died in childbirth at Montpellier, where they were living for cheapness. What do you know of him?"

"Nothing – except that if he was the man I think, he died on the Portsmouth road, died of want and exhaustion, and was found lying stark and cold, with his baby daughter beside him."

"Do you know the date of his death?"

"Yes, 'twas the twenty-eighth of September."

"And it was on the fifteenth he took his child from her nurse at Chelsea, over against Mrs. Gwynne's Hospital, and started on his wild-goose chase after a kinsman's benevolence. He thought his relative would melt at sight of the child, which shows how little he knew of the world, poor wretch! Doubtless he arrived at his destination, had the door shut upon him, civilly or uncivilly – 'twould be the same as to result – and turned his face Londonwards again, to tramp back to his den here, where he knew there was at least shelter for him. He was weak and ill when he left London, and he was all but penniless, and intended to make the journey on foot. I am not surprised that he died on the road. I am not surprised; but even after eighteen years, I am sorry."

Honest Jemmy wiped a tear or two from his unwashed cheek with the back of a grimy hand.

"Where did they find him, sir?" he asked, after a brief silence.

"On Flamestead Common, thirty miles from London."

"He had come all the way from his kinsman's seat on the other side of Winchester. The man was a distant cousin of his father's. 'Twas not a close tie; but common humanity might have afforded him at least a temporary shelter."

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