Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3
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"You talk, madam, like Lady Capulet."
"If I do, it is unawares, sir, for I have not the honour of that lady's acquaintance. Will you do me the favour to ring for candles, Mr. Durnford? My people neglect us in these strange quarters. Perhaps you would be agreeable to join us in a hand at quadrille, if you have nothing better to do with the next hour."
Herrick protested that there could not be any better employment for his evening. Her ladyship's people consisted of a man and a maid. The candles were brought by the man, who put out the cards and set the table with the air of performing a nightly duty; and the ladies and their beau sat down to that favourite and scientific game which preceded "whisk" in fashion and popularity.
"I am told the old Duchess of Marlborough prefers roly-poly to quadrille or ombre," said Herrick, as the cards were being dealt.
"O, there is a vein of vulgarity in that old woman which shows itself in everything she does," replied Lady Tredgold scornfully. "I detest the virago."
"And yet there is an element of greatness in her character," said Herrick. "Great talents, great beauty, great fortune, have all been hers: and she has been conspicuous in an age of lax morality as a woman of spotless virtue."
"O sir, it is an ill thing perhaps for any woman to say in the presence of unmarried daughters, but I own I agree with Joseph Addison that a woman has no right to practise every other vice on the ground that she possesses one virtue, even though that virtue of chastity is, I grant you, the chief merit in woman."
"I am with you there, madam, and agree that even sad Lucretia's modesty would scarce justify a woman in shrewing her husband, maligning her innocent granddaughter, and quarrelling with every member of her family: and yet I own to some touch of half-reluctant admiration for the mighty Sarah. Mr. Cibber told me once how it was his task to attend upon her at a supper in Nottingham Castle, about the time of King James's flight from this kingdom, and that her beauty appeared to him as an emanation of Divinity, rather than a mere earthly loveliness. And then she is such a magnificent virago. The woman who had the spunk to cut off her splendid tresses, the chief glory of her womanhood, and fling them across her husband's path in a freak of temper – "
"Was a hot-tempered simpleton, and I dare swear repented her wilfulness the moment 'twas done," said Mrs. Amelia. "All I know of the great Duchess is that she never deserved to have an all-conquering hero for her husband and a queen for her bosom friend."
"The handsomest, most fascinating man in Europe, into the bargain," said Mrs. Sophia. "Lord Chesterfield told me that all the graces met in the Duke of Marlborough's person."
"Very generous of his lordship," said Durnford. "It is rarely that an ugly man can appreciate masculine beauty."
"O, Chesterfield is a very obliging person," replied her ladyship, "and I am told they are delighted with him at the Hague.He will introduce the idea of elegance into the Dutch mind."
"Nay, madam," remonstrated Herrick, "it is not to be supposed that your Hollander is entirely devoid of elegance, or that Amsterdam has less appreciation of the beautiful than Athens had. It is only that in the Low Countries beauty takes a homelier form, and shows itself in an extremity of neatness and gracefulness of form in trifles – quaint architecture, shining hundred-paned lattices, every inch of ironwork deftly worked – cabinet pictures – brass and copper vessels – and cleanliness everywhere. There were streets and houses in Holland that enchanted me, even while my mind was still charged with pictures of Italy."
"I hate everything Dutch except their crockery and their furniture," said Lady Tredgold.
The game now began in earnest, and mother and daughters were soon absorbed in their cards. They played with all the intensity of practised gamesters; and though they only staked crown-pieces, they had an air as if life and death hung on the balance. They were much keener and perhaps better players than Herrick, who on this particular occasion played with reprehensible carelessness. He and his partner, Mrs. Amelia, lost steadily, whereupon the damsel gave him many a reproachful look, as her best cards were wasted by his bad play. At last, after a series of short impatient sighs and tappings of red-heeled shoes, the young lady flung down her cards in a passion. Even the knowledge that her mother and sister were spoiling the Egyptian was no consolation to her for the loss of her own coin, her kindred being female Harpagons in the exaction of their due.
"Pray forgive me, madam; I fear my wits were wandering," pleaded Herrick, with a penitent air. "In sober truth I am no lover of cards, and in pleasant company can scarce keep my mind to the game. I ought never to play with ladies – grace and beauty are dangerous distractions from the mathematics of quadrille."
Mrs. Amelia looked mollified, and took the whole of the compliment to herself. Lady Tredgold and Sophia were in admirable humour, for their pockets were weighed down by Mr. Durnford's crown-pieces. "We will play no more this evening," said her ladyship gaily; "my Amelia's temper is always impetuous at cards. It is her only failing, dear child, and she is too candid to hide her feelings. The band is to play to-night on the common. What if we put on our hoods, girls, and take a turn in the moonlight? Perhaps Mr. Durnford would escort us?"
Durnford avowed himself delighted at the privilege, so the three ladies muffled their powdered heads in black silk hoods, elegant with much ruching of lace and ribbon, and put on their cloaks. It was a lovely spring night, with the moon at the full, and all the fashionable visitors were promenading in little groups of two and three in the cool sweet air. A ripple of laughter, a babble of cheerful voices, mingled with the sound of the band, which was performing airs from Handel's last opera. Nothing could have been prettier than that picture of moonlit common, and little town built irregularly on the ridge of a low hill, scattered houses, quaint roofs, steeple and belfry, assembly rooms and baths, and the very smallest thing in the way of theatres, where great stars from London shone out now and then, a brief coruscation.
Mrs. Amelia was enchanted with the scene. She put on an air of almost infantine gaiety, and made as if she could have skipped for joy.
"It is ever so much prettier than the Bath," she cried. "Those great stone houses clustering round the Abbey have such a dismal look. The town seems to lie in the bottom of a pit. But here it is all open and airy, and so pretty and tiny, like a box of toys."
She and Durnford were a little way in advance of the other two, and their conversation had the air of a t?te-?-t?te.
"Is it really true that you have not seen my cousin since she was in London?" she asked presently, growing serious all at once. She was at that desperate stage in the existence of an idle, aimless, almost portionless woman, when to secure a husband is the one supreme object in life, and she had been thinking about Durnford all the evening from a matrimonial point of view. She saw in him the possibility of rescue from that dismal swamp of neglected spinsterhood in which she had waded so long. He was good-looking, well-bred, intellectual, and he was making his way in the world. What more could she hope for now in any suitor? The day for high hopes was long past. She knew that her mother and sister would rejoice to be rid of her, that her father would give her a hundred pounds or so, grudgingly, to buy gowns, and his blessing, with an air that would make it seem almost a curse. What could be expected from a genteel pauper tortured by chronic gout?
Full of vague hopes, she wanted to be certain of her ground, to be at least sure that all was over between Herrick and Irene. He paused so long before answering her question, that she was fain to repeat it.
"Is it really, really true?"
"True that I have not seen your cousin since she left London? Nay, madam, I am sure I never said as much. I only said I was forbidden to see her."
"That was a sophistical answer. Then you have seen her?"
"Do you want to get me into trouble, to make me betray myself and a lady? I will tell you this much, Mrs. Amelia: my suit seems just as hopeless to-night as it seemed last winter."
"Then don't you see that mamma is right – that it would be folly to pin all your hopes upon a girl who will be sold to the first gouty old duke or marquis who will do my uncle the honour to propose for her? But I believe you are still desperately in love with her."
"Six months' severance have not schooled me to forget her."
Amelia bit her lips, and tossed her head contemptuously. To think that a chit like that should possess the soul of a serious man past thirty, a man who should have chosen a sensible woman near his own age, if he wanted to be happy, and to make a figure in the world! Men are such idiots!
There was a bench near a cluster of hawthorn-trees on the common, and here Lady Tredgold and her younger daughter had seated themselves. It was at the end of the parade which the little world of Tunbridge had made for itself this season. Next year, perhaps, they would choose another spot for their promenade; fashion is so capricious.
As Amelia and her beau approached, the anxious mother beckoned with her fan. The dear young thing must not walk too long with her swain. That t?te-?-t?te patrolling might be remarked, and might spoil other chances. Maternal anxiety was perpetually on the alert.
"You must be tired, child," said her ladyship, as the promenaders drew near. "You have been running about all day."
Running about seemed a somewhat youthful phrase for a damsel of thirty, who wore three-inch heels and a hoop that would have handicapped Daphne. But Amelia made no objection, and seated herself at her mother's side, leaving ample space for Durnford.
The music came to them softened by distance, and the perfume of gorse and wild flowers was here untainted by the mixed odours of snuff and pulvillio which prevailed where the company clustered thicker.
"I have been finding out Mr. Durnford's secrets, mamma," said Amelia, with a laboured sprightliness. "He is still over head and ears in love with my young cousin."
"Indeed, child! But how durst you question or tease him?" returned the mother reprovingly. "Surely the gentleman has a right to be in love with whomsoever he pleases; and if his case is hopeless, it is not for us to remind him of his misfortunes."
"I can but wonder that amidst the galaxy of our Court belles Mr. Durnford could be dazzled by a star of secondary magnitude like Irene."
"To me, Mrs. Amelia, she appeared ever as Alpha, the first and the brightest."
"And do you really think her pretty?"
"Much more than pretty; that adjective would apply to a milliner's apprentice tripping down St. James's Street with a hat-box. Irene is to my mind the very incarnation of girlish loveliness."
"Surely her nose is too long."
"Not the infinitesimal fraction of an inch. Her nose is as perfect as Diana's. Praxiteles never moulded a more delicate feature. I know that ladies have a friendly good-humoured way of taking each other's charms and attractions to pieces, like the bits of a toy puzzle, and discussing and cheapening every feature; but all the feminine detraction that was ever uttered over a tea-table, out of sheer good-humour, would not lessen my admiration of Miss Bosworth by one tittle."
"She has a very handsome face," said Lady Tredgold, with a decided air, as if to put a stop to triviality, "but she has no figure."
"She does not exhibit her person to all the world, as so many of our fashionable beauties have a habit of doing," replied Durnford.
His heart was beating fast and furiously. He had brought the conversation – or it had in somewise drifted – to the very point which might serve his purpose, and he had a serious purpose in this philandering with Lady Tredgold and her daughters.
"My dear sir, it is useless to play the moralist in such an age as ours," retorted her ladyship impatiently. "If women have fine statuesque shoulders they will show them, and if they are ill-made or scraggy – which I thank Heaven neither of my girls are – they will order their gowns to be cut high and make a monstrous merit of modesty. My niece is not actually ill-made – her poor mother had an exquisite shape – but she is a willowy slip of a child with an undeveloped figure. Compare her, for instance, with your friend Lady Judith Topsparkle."
"Lady Judith is lovely, I grant," replied Durnford, "but your ladyship can hardly admire the lavish display of her charms to all the world. There was an artistic suggestion of nakedness in her loose Turkish robe at the masquerade last winter which provoked remarks I would rather not hear about any woman I respect – as I do Lady Judith. It would torture me to hear my wife so talked about."
"Should you be lucky enough to marry my cousin Irene, you need never fear too lavish a display of her shoulders," said Amelia cantankerously. "Be sure she will always cover them decently, especially her right shoulder."
"Come, come, child, there are things that should not be babbled about, however good-naturedly," remonstrated Lady Tredgold.
"Do you mean to insinuate that she is deformed?" asked Durnford, more intent than ever.
"No, she is straight enough, but she has a very ugly scar on her right shoulder, which will oblige her to maintain the exalted character for modesty which you give her till her dying day. There is such a thing, you see, Mr. Durnford, as making a virtue of necessity," added Amelia viperishly.
"A scar!" repeated Durnford; "the result of some accident in childhood, I conclude?"
"No doubt," answered her ladyship. "It looks like the cicatrice left by a very severe burn; but when I questioned my niece about it she could tell me nothing. The accident must have happened when she was almost a baby, for she has no memory of it."
"Did you never ask the Squire about it?"
"Never. His daughter was brought up in such a curious way until I found her a governess, that I fancy the matter must be rather a sore subject with my brother-in-law. In fact, his whole conduct as a husband and father was so strange that I could hardly trust myself to talk to him about his past life or his daughter's childhood. The presence of that odious woman – Mrs. Layburne, I think he calls her – in his house has always been an abomination to me; indeed, I doubt it helped to break my poor sister's heart. As to the child being neglected and coming to harm under the dominion of that woman, 'twas but natural, for no doubt the creature drinks. I am only surprised that she ever survived her infancy, as such a woman would be capable of murdering her in a fit of fury."
"Indeed, your ladyship, from what I have heard of Mrs. Layburne, I do not think she was unkindly disposed to Miss Bosworth," said Herrick. "She held herself aloof from all the household, sat and brooded in her own den, shut in from the world."
"'Twas her guilty conscience made her love solitude, no doubt. Hark! that is the last of the band. They are playing Dr. Bull's loyal melody. It is ten o'clock, I declare. Will you come back to our lodgings, Mr. Durnford, and partake of a sandwich and a syllabub?"
"Your ladyship is too kind: but I have to leave by the early coach to-morrow morning, and I think I had best go straight back to my inn."