Mary Braddon.

Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3



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"And the only opposition was from Mr. Shippen – Downright Shippen, as Pope called him – the Jacobite who ventured to describe the late King as a stranger to our language and constitution, and was sent to the Tower for his insolence," said Durnford.

"Well, there is one to whom his late Majesty's fatal apoplexy – caused, Dean Swift tells me, by a melon – has dealt a death-blow, one whom I could almost pity, unprincipled and shifty as he has ever been."

"Do you mean Bolingbroke?" asked Durnford.

"Whom else could I mean? The brightest, wisest, meanest of mankind. Assuredly he has quite as good a right to that description as Bacon ever had, though Pope, who adores him, would never believe it. How marvellously does his career illustrate that old vulgar saw which tells us honesty is the best policy! Never did Nature and fortune so smile upon a man as upon Harry St. John, who was Secretary at War at twenty, and Secretary of State at thirty, who had the ear of his Queen and the admiration of all England, and might have kept both could he only have been honest. Twice has death ruined his schemes when they were ripest. He had plotted to bring over the Chevalier, had the Stuart succession in his pocket as it were, the Queen on the very point of recognising her brother's claim; and lo! Death seizes his royal mistress, and grins at him across her shoulder. Again, but yesterday, when, after years of exile, still as keenly ambitious as in his brilliant youth, he had bought her Grace of Kendal's favour, and had his foot planted, ready to throw that stout wrestler Robin, again grim death intervenes and reduces the Duchess to a cipher: and Lady Bolingbroke's hand-over of eleven thousand to the Duchess's niece has to be written down as a loss in the St. John ledger."

"O, but Bolingbroke got something for his money. But for that bribe to Lady Walsingham he might never have been able to come back to England, nor his wife, Madame de Vilette, to get her fortune out of Sir Matthew Decker's clutches, who pretended that, as Lord Bolingbroke's wife, her money was forfeited to the Crown under her husband's attainder. Whereupon Madame swore she was not married to his lordship, though all her friends knew she was; a perjury for which the banker should at least bear half the lady's punishment in Tartarus, whether it be vulture or wheel."

"My Lord Bolingbroke is not the only person who has lost by the old King's fatal apoplexy," said Philter. "There is the divorced Lady Macclesfield's daughter, brazen, beautiful Miss Brett, the only Englishwoman whom his Majesty ever condescended to admire, a regular Spanish beauty, black as Erebus, and with a temper to match. But no doubt you know her."

"I have seen her," said Durnford.

"That poor young lady loses a coronet. She was to have been made a countess on the King's return from Hanover, and she gave herself the airs of a queen in anticipation of her new dignity. And now death blasts her hopes; but as she is a fine woman with a fine fortune, I make no doubt she will find some convenient gentleman to marry her before long."

The new reign gave an impetus to the world of fashion which made that dazzling globe spin faster on its axis.

There was a growing recklessness in expenditure among the aristocracy, albeit his Majesty King George II. was reputed the meanest of men, with a keener passion for counting his guineas than ever prince had for spending them; as economic a soul as that sturdy Hohenzollern, King Frederick William of Prussia, who had so clipped and pared and diminished the pay and pensions of courtiers, and the profits of Court harpies of all kinds, a few years ago when he came to his kingdom. King George could scarcely cut down his expenses with so free a hand, seeing his privy purse had been so well filled for him; and Queen Caroline was a woman of cultivated mind and catholic tastes, the disciple and correspondent of Leibnitz, the patroness of Berkeley and Swift, the bosom friend of John Lord Hervey, and was disposed to do things in a grand style.

The Duchess of Kendal retired to her house near Hounslow, and mourned her royal lover in solitude, haunted by a raven in whose material presence her sentimental fancy recognised the spirit of the dead King. The younger Court was the focus of wit and beauty; Lady Hervey, Mrs. Campbell, n?e Bellingham, the Duchess of Kingston, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Swift, Gay, Hervey, Carteret, sparkled and coruscated there. That Court atmosphere pervaded the fashionable life of London.

In that world of fashion and folly Lady Judith Topsparkle shone with ever-increasing brilliancy, with ever-widening notoriety. She had chained the young French wit Arouet to her side, like a falcon on a lady's wrist, and held him captive. She had the grim Irish Dean for her friend and confidant. Bolingbroke swore he adored her only a little less than his wife: and Lady Bolingbroke, who knew her lord's weakness for beauty, looked on with indulgence at those public coquettings which were too open to mean mischief. She knew that with her brilliant Harry gallantry might still prevail; but passion was a thing of the past. Had she not compared him to the ruin of a Roman aqueduct? A noble monument, but the water had long ceased to flow! Better that dear Henry should be composing epigrams or paying elaborate compliments to a frivolous young woman of rank than that his volatile fancy should be straying after an orange-seller, or some expensive Miss of the Anna Maria Gumley type – that insolent beauty who was said to have been once on the best possible terms with Harry St. John, and who was now the wife of Harry's friend, William Pulteney.

Mr. Topsparkle saw his wife's surroundings, and made no complaint. Among so many admirers there was no suspicion of a serious lover. It pleased him that when the French wit had refused his much-desired company to some of the finest houses in London, he was to be found in Soho Square – that Lord Bolingbroke would post all the way from Dawley, and go back after midnight by a dark road, in order to dine with Lady Judith and her set; it pleased him that Swift should glower and grumble in front of his hearth, pretending to despise all mankind, yet at heart the supplest courtier of them all, cringing to Lady Suffolk and fawning upon the Queen, negotiating the gift of a poplin gown to that royal lady with as much pains as if it had been the treaty of Hanover, hoping, despairing, plotting, hating, with a fiercer passion than is common to common men. Before Swift's scathing tongue and Swift's awful frown, even Lady Judith bowed her lofty crest. She fawned upon him, as he fawned upon the Queen and prime minister, and as the dog fawns upon his master, conscious of an undeniable superiority. With Voltaire she might presume to trifle – that light mocking nature of his encouraged trifling; but with Swift she was ever serious. And the Dean was himself of an unusually gloomy temper at this time, dangerous alike to friend and enemy, sparing no one with that bitter tongue of his, finding no pleasure in the things that pleased other people. Lord Bolingbroke said 'twas his tenderness of heart which made him such a savage. He was plunged in gloom on account of his sweet companion and prot?g?e, Mrs. Johnson, who was slowly sinking into the grave.

"Which he has dug for her," said Voltaire, who knew the story. "I do not wonder that your famous Irish wit has his dark moments, or that his thoughts sometimes waver between the woman whose heart is broke and the woman whose heart is breaking. I am quite ready to admit, with his lordship and Mr. Pope, that Swift is a staunch friend, and the cleverest squib-writer in Europe: I prostrate myself before a genius greater even than Rabelais; but I cannot esteem him a generous lover."

"Do you not think he may have suffered even more than these simple, tender-hearted creatures, who were too officious in their love and too feeble in their sorrow?" speculated Bolingbroke. "I doubt that great heart of his has been wrung in many a silent agony. He loved Stella from her childhood with a protecting fatherly affection – "

"I always mistrust fatherly affection in a man who is not a father," interjected Voltaire.

"And if his fancy sometimes trifled in playful endearments," continued his lordship, "as even a father might trifle with his best-beloved child, I doubt if he was ever betrayed into a direct avowal of love. And then, touched and flattered by Vanessa's worship – "

"His fatherly affection found another daughter in the amiable heiress, a daughter at whose table he dined agreeably two or three times a week," said Voltaire. "Your Dean had ever a thrifty mind. I remember, my lord, your capital story of trapping him into paying for an inn dinner – how his reverence resented the bite. And he found new endearments and a new name for this wealthy Dutch lady, and somewhat neglected his elder daughter in her favour, and wrote a poem to celebrate their learned loves, and fooled the innocent fond creature into the belief she was to be Mrs. Dean – only to enlighten her with savage bluntness one day when she had dared to interrogate her rival, wishing with a natural curiosity to know which of them had the strongest claim upon Cadenus. He frowned her into an ague of terror that ended in her untimely death, and so freed himself of an importunate adorer; but I doubt if he has been particularly happy since that last look from despairing Vanessa. Should Providence ever give me such fond affection from an intelligent woman I would be her slave, would endure her every caprice, bear with her even were she the veriest termagant. There is no limit to the debt of gratitude which a man of honour owes to the woman who loves him."

"Would you have gratitude go so far as to wink at infidelity?" asked Bolingbroke, possibly with some lingering remembrance of the fair and faithless Clara, whose inconstant soul could not keep true even to Henry St. John in his noontide of youth and wit and beauty.

Lady Judith admired Swift and adored Voltaire. That airy sarcastic nature suited her temper to a marvel. The Frenchman's presence gave a philosophic air to her receptions. The talk was of Descartes and Berkeley, of Leibnitz and Newton, and of those smaller spluttering lights, forgotten now, that transient coruscation of learned atheism, which illumined the earlier half of the eighteenth century. The talk was of Moses and the opera-house, wavering betwixt legislation from Sinai and Heidegger's latest prima donna: and Judith had something to say about everything, were the subject ever so lofty and remote from woman's scope, or so low as to be tainted by foulness and unfit for a woman's discussion. Her arrogance attacked the highest themes; her audacity recoiled not from the lowest. Her manners had the light insolence of Millamant, secure in sensuous charms and mental superiority.

Mr. Topsparkle looked on and admired. Yes, this was the woman for whom he had sighed, having long ago outworn that kind of love which requires reciprocity in the object. Lady Judith's calm civility and ladylike tolerance sufficed him, her airs and graces and elegant insolence to all mankind enchanted him. So long as she was faithful, and injured his self-esteem by no preference for another, he was content. She might not love him, but she was the chief sultana of his harem, and had so far conducted herself as a sultana without speck or reproach.

He had heard old stories about Lavendale: how he and Judith had loved fiercely and fondly, made themselves the talk of the town for at least three weeks, an elopement seemingly impending, a furious father threatening direst vengeance, and much talk of coaches-and-six waiting at street-corners on those moonless nights when London was abandoned to darkness and the linkman; he had heard how they had quarrelled and parted on account of Chichinette; and he was resigned to know that there was this one romantic and even blameworthy page in his wife's history. Knowing as much, he had been studiously civil to Lavendale, and had gone so far as to invite him to Ringwood. It pleased that crafty soul of his to have his ci-devant rival under his roof, and to be able to watch him keenly. He had so watched, and had seen nothing amiss. And now, as this first season of King George II.'s reign wore on, Mr. Topsparkle was content that his wife's former lover should make one in her cluster of satellites, should hand her fan, or advise her play at ombre or quadrille, at tray-ace or basset.

"My wife has a whole kennel of puppies perpetually sprawling at her feet," he said one night to a circle of friends at White's Chocolate-house, "of whom Bolingbroke is chief bow-wow, now that her old admirer, Chesterfield, is at the Hague. Who would take that brilliant trifler, Harry St. John, for Walpole's most malignant foe, and the boldest conspirator that ever hatched treason; or who would suppose that this modern Cincinnatus, who pretends to have renounced politics in favour of hayforks, is in reality the chief of the Opposition, the busy plotting brain of which Wyndham and the Pulteneys are but the mouthpieces?"

At the opera and at the opera-house masquerades, Judith and Lavendale were often together, but they were rarely alone. It would have almost seemed as if anything more than the lightest flirtation must have been impossible under such conditions. And yet under that light demeanour, deep in the hearts of both of them, there glowed a passionate love; and yet amidst that maelstrom of pleasure, that wild and wicked whirlpool of cards and dice, and lascivious talk, and idlest vanity, and profligate extravagance, to each one of these impassioned lovers it seemed as if the world held only that one other – for Judith, Lavendale; for Lavendale, Judith. That crowded, bustling outer world and all its inhabitants showed shadowy as the throng of supernumerary witches in Macbeth. In the constant intoxication of a passionate love, Judith saw all faces dimly, heard all voices faintly, moved and spoke and smiled and played her pretty part as woman of quality and fashion, with mere automatic movements, doing the right thing at the right moment by mere force of habit, as a creature too well brought up to err against the code of politeness either by omission or commission. Never was she lovelier in Bolingbroke's eyes than as he sat beside her at dinner one summer afternoon, drinking deep of Mr. Topsparkle's choicest champagne, and delighted at the idea that the graces of his maturer manhood had power to captivate so charming a woman. And yet all the while it was as much as Judith knew with whom she was talking, since her ears and eyes and the fitful fluttering of her heart were all for him whose hand had snatched and pressed hers surreptitiously in the little bustle at entering the dining-room, and who now sat at the further end of the table, pretending to be interested in an alderman's account of Sir Robert Walpole's latest attack upon the privileges and liberties of the City.

The company at dinner were numerous, including Lady Polwhele and the Asterleys, Mrs. Asterley improved in manners and worldly wisdom by a winter in good society, and by many very sharp reproofs from the Dowager. Little Tom Philter had been bidden, as a man who must be tolerated occasionally, lest he should spit venom at one's fair name in the newspapers. Lady Judith was beginning to be sensitive about seeing her name in print, and was growing monstrously civil to the Grub Street fraternity. She had been written about and hinted at for her high play and her passion for lotteries. She had been the subject – designated by initials – of a ballad headed "On revient toujours," and she had been told that Mr. Pope had hit her character off to the life in an essay now in course of composition. The sketch had been read to privileged friends, every word told; her virtues and failings were perpetuated by that unerring touch which made mere words seem as round and fixed and perfect as a statue in marble. This afternoon, while they were dining, she taxed Bolingbroke with having seen and approved the satire.

"Dearest Lady Judith, do you think I could approve one word of depreciation, were you the subject?" protested his lordship. "Our little friend certainly showed me some lines – bright, incisive, antithetical, in his usual style; for though he laughs at Hervey's seesaw, he is not himself averse from the false glitter of antithesis – lines descriptive of a modish beauty, Belinda married perhaps; but they could no more represent you than they could embody a goddess. Who can describe the undescribable?"

"I am growing accustomed to malevolence," said Judith, "and from little men it gives me no pain. But I have admired Mr. Pope as a wit and a genius, and I should not like to see myself lampooned by him."

"I will make him send you the page to-morrow, and it shall be cancelled if you disapprove a single line."

"You are always chivalrous. I saw some verses of yours the other day, addressed to some young person who seems to have been not quite a woman of quality; and they are so pretty that I could but regret your lordship had ever ceased to cultivate the Muses."

"I have found those famous ladies like other women, dear madam, mightily inconstant. What lines of mine could you have seen, I wonder?"

The world-famous statesman, the masterly writer, smiled with the gratified air of a schoolboy scribbler at this praise of his juvenile verses.

"O, it was a mere bagatelle, an address to a lady whose Christian name was Clara. The lines had the flavour of youth, and must have been written ages ago. 'Twas the fervid feeling of the prose that pleased me:

 
'To virtue thus, and to thyself restored,
By all admired, by me alone adored,
Be to thy Harry ever kind and true,
And live for him who more than dies for you.'
 

I hope Clara was worthy of that tender appeal."

"She was not, madam. She was a – nay, I dare not tell you what she was; but Henry St. John might have been a better man if Clara had been a better woman. There is no such blight upon a young heart as to discover it has given itself to an unworthy mistress; to love on, blindly, madly, long after the object is known to be false and worthless; to hope against hope, to forgive again and again, only to be again and again offended; to accept every lie rather than face the horrid truth that one is betrayed; to tear a false love out of one's heart as mandrakes are torn from earth, with wounds and shriekings. Can the man who loves and is loved by beauty and virtue ever enough esteem his own happiness or his mistress's merit? I who have loved lewdness and deceit will answer that he never can. His blessings are beyond and above all computation. His gratitude should be as infinite."

The company were to repair to the new Spring Garden, otherwise Vauxhall, soon after dinner, and the weather being exquisite for such excursions, it had been decided that they were to go by water. Their chairs would carry them to Westminster, and thence a barge would convey them to Vauxhall. The excursion had been devised by Lady Polwhele, who was always ready for any dissipation, and who spent as much of her handsome income as she could spare from the gaming-table upon pleasure and fine company. She had invited herself and her satellites to dine in Soho, and she had invited Mr. Topsparkle and his guests to sup at Vauxhall, where there were snug little arbours with curious signs – the Checker, King's Head, Dragon, Royal George – where cosy little parties supped cheerily on minced chicken and champagne or hung beef and Burton ale. Here, a few years ago, the Mohawks had made many a raid, storming the arbours where women were supping unattended, struggling for kisses with slender girls or portly matrons, pulling off masks and rumpling silk hoods, smashing punch-bowls and upsetting tables. Here Lavendale had been leader of many a fray. But he was tamed now, and full of other thoughts as he sat in the barge watching the sunset paint the river, while Lady Polwhele and Mrs. Asterley talked at the top of their voices, and while Judith pretended to listen to the honeyed tones of Bolingbroke or the vinegar treble of Mr. Topsparkle, who was grumbling at the soft west wind which breathed coolness along the rippling water, and threatened him with a return of his rheumatism.

"You should not have come with us if you were afraid of catching cold," said Judith impatiently.

"Upon my word, you are vastly civil. You drag a man at your heels like a spaniel to every foolish place of – no-entertainment – and then tell him he should have stayed at home."

"'Twas Lady Polwhele made the party, not I."

"Where you go I must go," answered Topsparkle, in a lowered voice; "your remnant of reputation must be cared for by somebody. You do nothing to preserve it."

"Nor will you maintain it by playing spy or gaoler," retorted Judith scornfully. "Had you not better call a boat and go back to Westminster? I shall be at home soon after midnight. I promise you not to elope with Lord Bolingbroke. I have too much regard for his charming French wife."



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