Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3
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"My dear Mr. Ludderly, common humanity is the most uncommon virtue I know of; 'tis rarer than common sense. Pray let me hear more of your friend. Did he ever tell you of his wife's family and origin?"
"Very little. He was strangely silent about her, and as I knew he lamented her death with an intensity of grief that was singular in a young widower, I shrank from irritating an open wound by any impertinent questions. All I ever heard of the lady is that she was an Italian, and that if she had had her rights she would have enjoyed a handsome fortune. It is my private opinion that he stole her from her father's house, and so blighted her chance of wealth and favour."
"You do not know where they met, or where they were married?"
"No; I cannot tell you the where, but I have heard the how. They were united by an English parson whom Chumleigh met on his travels; a scamp, I take it, of your Parson Keith stamp. They were married in the house of a British consul. 'Twas a legal ceremonial; the knot could scarce have been more securely tied. Unhappily Death snapped it before the rich father could relent."
"Were pardon likely upon his part, surely the widower would have sued for it for the sake of his motherless infant?"
"Whether he sued and was refused, or never sued at all, I know not," answered Ludderly; "the man could hardly have been more secret than he was about his wife's history."
"Was he a friend of long standing?"
"No; he and I were only poverty's strange bedfellows. I picked him up one night sleeping under an archway in Holborn, penniless, dispirited, and took him home to my garret. I saw that he was a gentleman and a man of parts. I was just rich enough to give him a shelter from the wind and rain, and a supper of bread and cheese, and I had just influence enough to get him a little journeyman's work in the way of translation, as I found he was a linguist. 'Twas the year I brought out my Adventures of Fidelia, a Young Lady of Fortune, modelled upon Mrs. Manly's New Atalantis. 'Twas one of my prosperous years, and I would have kept that poor devil all the winter, could he but have pocketed his independence, and been content to share my loaf. But when I could get him no more work he grew restless and impatient, and nothing would serve him but he must go off to try his luck with his Hampshire relation. I doubt what pierced him sharpest was that he could not pay the nurse at Chelsea, and she was growing clamorous, and bade him provide otherwise for his orphan. That decided him, and he trudged off one fair September morning with the little girl nestling on his shoulder. I bore him company as far as Putney village, and there parted with him, little thinking 'twas for ever."
"He may have been more communicative to the child's nurse than to this friendly babbler," thought Durnford; and then he asked the nurse's name, which Ludderly happened to remember, because it reminded him of his favourite paper the Tatler, at that time being issued thrice weekly, and its wit and humour in all men's mouths.
"The creature's name was Wagstaff," he said, "which puts me in mind of Isaac Bickerstaff and his lucubrations.I had thoughts of starting a journal upon the same model, and flatter myself that with a smart fellow like Philter to help me, as Addison helped poor Dick, I could have run the Tatler hard. But I could not budge for want of capital. Your printer is such an inquisitive devil, always eager to see the colour of his employer's money."
"Her name was Wagstaff," repeated Durnford, not even affecting an interest in Mr. Ludderly's blighted ambitions, "and she lived at Chelsea, facing the Hospital for old soldiers?"
"Lived, and lives there to this day, for aught I know to the contrary," answered Ludderly.
"My dear sir, I am deeply beholden to you for so much information given with such friendly frankness. We must see more of each other. Will you dine with me at the Roebuck at four this afternoon, or will you honour me with your company at Drury Lane to see The Conscious Lovers, and sup at White's after the play?"
Herrick knew that to a man of Ludderly's stamp a dinner or a supper is ever a welcome attention.
"The play and the supper, by all means. I revel in the select company at White's, and though I am no gamester, there is an atmosphere in a place where they play high that flutters my breast with an emotion akin to rapture. I feel all the fever of the players without their risks."
"Mr. Ludderly, you are at once a wit and a philosopher. I shall look for you in the box-office at six o'clock. Till then, adieu."
Durnford hurried off, delighted to be free until evening. He had to go down to the House at three o'clock. There was no measure of importance in hand, but as a tyro he was eager to watch the progress of the session. He could not afford to neglect politics even for a day, but he was bent on discovering Belinda's nurse as early as possible.
It was not quite one by the clock in the newly-finished church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, which stood out spick and span in all the brightness of stone and marble not yet discoloured by London smoke or London weather. He set out to walk across St. James's Park and the Five Fields to Chelsea, and was in front of the Hospital within an hour. Chelsea had a pleasant rustic air, a country road thinly fringed with houses. The village was a holiday resort for the idle, famous for its Bun House, and for Barber Salter's museum of curiosities. Facing the broad open space in front of the Hospital, and at some considerable distance from that new and handsome edifice – begun by Charles II., but only finished under William and Mary – there was a row of old-fashioned cottages, including two or three of the humblest kind of shops. The corner house nearest the country was adorned with a sign setting forth that Mary Wagstaff, widow, was licensed to sell tea and tobacco; and the unpretending lattices exhibited a small assortment of elecampane, peppermint, clay pipes, pigtail tobacco, peg-tops, battledores, worsteds, and red-herrings.
"If Mary Wagstaff be not gathered to her fathers, and yonder sign the inheritance of a stranger, I am in luck," thought Durnford.
A gray-haired matron of obese figure waddled out of a little parlour at the back of the shop on the summons of a cracked bell which dangled from the half-door. Herrick did not waste time upon preliminaries, but at once stated his business.
Was the obese lady Mrs. Wagstaff? Yes. Did she remember a certain Mr. Chumleigh who left an infant girl at nurse with her nineteen years ago?
This question was like the opening of a sluice. Mrs. Wagstaff let loose a torrent of angry speech, which sounded as if she had been brooding upon her wrongs for all those nineteen years, and had never till this moment relieved herself by uttering them. Yet doubtless she had treated her gossips to many a lengthy disquisition upon the same theme over a supper of tripe or cow-heel.
"Well do I remember him, and with good cause," she began. "An arrant swindler as ever lived, yet with all the grand airs of a fine gentleman. And the care I took of that baby! and the money I laid out upon bread and milk to feed it!"
"But did Mr. Chumleigh never pay you anything?"
"O, he brought me dribs and drabs of money sometimes – a crown-piece or a half-guinea once in a way. There was never such a pauper; he looked half-starved; and would come with his long face and paltry excuses, when I had kept his brat till my patience was worn out – she was a sweet child, I will not deny, and I was very fond of her."
Mrs. Wagstaff rambled on with an air of being inexhaustible in speech, and Herrick listened with admirable patience. He wanted to hear all that she could tell him about the child's father, and was therefore content to listen to a great deal of extraneous matter respecting the nurse and her charge's infantine maladies.
"Ah, and bad work I had with her, for she was cutting her teeth all the time, and used to keep me awake night after night, walking up and down with her and singing to her. But she throve with me wonderful, and she was a fine healthy baby as ever was, though I doubt she'd been ill-used before she came to me."
"Ill-used, do you think?"
"Yes, sir, that was my very word, and I'm not going to take it back again," answered Mrs. Wagstaff defiantly. "I don't mean that her father ill-treated her, or her mother; but the poor little thing had been put out to one of those French nurses," with ineffable disgust, "a nice pack of trumpery, no better than your Leaguer ladies for morals. Mr. Chumleigh told me how he found out that the hussy who suckled his child was no better than she should be, and drank like a fish. And one night that she was nursing the baby, and making believe to rock it to sleep, when she was half asleep herself with Burgundy wine, she tilted her chair forward a little too far and tumbled over into the fire, baby and all, she did. The nurse was burnt worse than the child, and it's a wonder she lived to tell the tale: but the baby struck her poor little shoulder against a red-hot iron bar, and if she's alive she carries the scar to this day. 'Twas a deep brand just where the arm joins the shoulder, and I take it 'twill never wear out."
"How long was the little one with you?"
"Between nine and ten months. I kept her as long as I could, but my poor husband was living at that time, and he was a man of his word. Mr. Chumleigh was to pay me three-and-sixpence a week for the child, and he owed me over three pounds, when my good man lost patience, and threatened to throw the child into the street if I didn't get rid of it civilly. I was to deliver it back to its father, or take it to the constable. So I had no help but to tell Mr. Chumleigh he must fetch the child away, and I told him so point-blank the next time he came to see the little one. He was shabbier than ever, poor soul, and he looked pinched and hungry. I'd rather have offered him a dinner than flung his child upon his hands, but my good man was sitting in the parlour there, listening to every word I said; so I just told Mr. Chumleigh I could hold out no longer, he must just take the child and go about his business. He looked very sorrowful, and then he seemed to recover himself in a minute, and threw up his head with a proud air, as if he had been a nobleman. 'Very well, Mrs. Wagstaff,' he said: 'I grant you have been ill-treated, but it might have been better if you'd had more patience with me. Fortune must turn at last for the most miserable of us. I've a rich relation in the country. I must plod down to him and ask for a home for my motherless one. Sure he can't resist these sweet eyes.' I was almost crying when he shook hands and bade me good-bye, though I tried to be hard with him. 'If ever I can pay you my debt, madam, be sure I will,' says he; and so he went out at that door, with the child cooing in his arms, and I never saw more of him from that day to this."
"And never will, madam, on this side of Eternity," said Herrick gravely; "the poor creature sank upon that cruel journey on which your husband sent him."
"O sir, don't blame my husband! Remember, the poor gentleman owed us over three guineas. 'Tis a good deal for people in our station."
"Yet I'll warrant you had a few guineas in a stocking somewhere. 'Twould not have broken you if you had kept the child a little longer."
"No, sir, I don't say that it would have broken us – "
"Then it must go hard with you to remember how cruelly you dealt with an unfortunate gentleman. But I am not here to reproach you, madam. I came for information, and I thank you for having given it me so freely."
He tried to learn more of Chumleigh's character and circumstances, but here Mrs. Wagstaff's information was of the most limited order. The broken-down gentleman had been singularly silent about his past life. Mrs. Wagstaff only knew that he was a gentleman, and this knowledge she had by intuition, not being versed in the ways of gentlefolks, but finding in this one something that was not in the commonality.
Herrick went back to London feeling very well satisfied with his morning's work, though it would not seem that he had learnt much from nurse Wagstaff.
"There is at any rate the means of settling one doubt," he told himself, as he walked back by the Five Fields, a place of unhappy notoriety as a favourite duelling-ground; and duelling was still a prevailing fashion, though Steele and Addison had done their best to write it down in the Tatler, and though the mutual murder of the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Mohun in Hyde Park had not long ago given a shock to polite society.