Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3
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"I am not afraid of your eloping – with Bolingbroke," said Topsparkle grimly. He folded his roquelaure across his chest and leaned back against the cushions, with the determined air of a man who does not mean to be tricked by a coquette. Lady Judith was reckless, and her husband was not so blind as he pretended to be, or as the town thought him. Above all things he was watchful, but his watchfulness rarely avowed itself as plainly as to-night. Judith glanced at him uneasily, wondering at this little blaze of unexpected fire, this sudden spurt of jealousy on the part of one who had so long seemed the personification of well-bred indifference.
The stars were up when Lady Judith's party landed, stars above in a clear summer heaven, and below the twinkling radiance of a thousand lampions, tiny glimmering glass cups of oil in which burnt the feeblest of wicks, and yet in those days esteemed a splendid illumination. Perhaps the gardens, with their bosquets and little wildernesses – in which 'twas said a mother might lose herself while she was looking for her daughter – were all the pleasanter lit by those tremulous glowworm lamps, mere dots of brightness amidst the shadowy leafage. For lovers or for intrigue of all kinds they were ever so much better adapted than the cold searching glare of electric lamps. That dimly lighted garden, with its music of nightingales, was the chosen trysting-place of lovers, high and low, fortunate or unhappy. Forbidden loves found here their safest rendezvous; elopements and Fleet marriages were planned by the dozen every night the gardens opened. Here adventurers sought their prey; and here rich widows surrendered to penniless ensigns or cureless clerics, third-rate actors or Grub Street scribblers, as the case might be. The band was playing a pot-pourri from Handel's favourite operas in the gayest part of the garden, where the company who had no intrigues on hand were parading with a stately air, fluttering fans, shrugging shoulder-knots, and exchanging small-talk. Above those darker walks where lovers strolled softly, the nightingales poured forth their melancholy melodies, lovelier even than those of Handel. And in one of these wilderness walks, between eleven o'clock and midnight, Judith and Lavendale were gliding ghostlike among the shadows, her hand within his arm, her head inclining towards, nay, almost resting against, his shoulder.
"Let it be soon, love," he was pleading; "soon, at once, to-night, this night of all nights, night for ever blessed, as that when Jove stopped the sun – would I were Jove, for love's sake! Let us fly to-night. Post-horses to Dover, through the summer night; how sweet a journey, between fields of clover and budding hops, and the young corn waving silvery under silver stars! I have travelled that road so often in desolation, when I had only Nature to comfort me, that I think I know every field and every copse. Let me make the journey for once in bliss, with my beloved in my arms.Then to-morrow 'tis but to charter a cutter, and across to any port we may settle upon; then southward as the swallows fly, and as lightly as they. We would not stop till we came to Cintra, where I know of a villa amidst orange and lemon trees, that is like a bower in paradise. Glimpses of the sea shine up at one through every break in the foliage, far, far below, wondrously beautiful. It is a place where I have wandered for hours, thinking of you, in a rapture of melancholy."
"It would be sweet to be there with you, dear love," she murmured, in low languid tones.
His arm was round her waist, her head upon his bosom, and a nightingale was singing close by, as if their love had made itself a living voice.
"It would be heaven, dearest," he answered eagerly; "why then should we delay? Why should we not start this night?"
"For a hundred reasons," she said, freeing herself suddenly from his encircling arm, and resuming something of her usual manner, the self-possessed air of a woman of the world. "First, because I would not make too great a scandal, and to fly from these gardens to-night with all those people in my train – "
"Love, there must be scandal whenever that odious tie be flung off," he urged; "and what can scandal matter in a society where almost every other man or woman you meet is a rake avowed or a profligate in secret? You will be worlds above the very best of them when you have broken your bondage; a purer, loftier spirit, mated with him you love, wearing no mask of hypocrisy, asking no favour of a world we both despise. Let not the thought of scandal stop you."
"There are other reasons. For one, I cannot run away without my clothes."
"Clothes can be bought anywhere."
"Not my clothes," answered Judith lightly. "Do you suppose I could live in any gown that was not made by Mrs. Tempest? She sent me home a lutestring nightgown of the sweetest sea-green only yesterday. I must take that with me whenever I go. You don't know how well I look in it."
"Incomparable, love, I am assured; like Venus Anadyomene with the green shining water rippling over her round white limbs. Well, we will wait for the lutestring nightgown, if needs must, and half a dozen pack-horse loads of gowns and furbelows, if you will; only let our flight be immediate. I can live no longer without you."
"And I scarce exist without you, dearest," she answered frankly. "I move to and fro like a sleepwalker; I answer questions at random; I betray myself twenty times an hour, were there any one shrewd enough to observe me. I am lost, overwhelmed in the deep whirlpool of love."
"Let it be to-morrow night. I will have a coach-and-four waiting at the end of Gerard Street – "
"Too fashionable, too conspicuous a spot."
"Or in the darkest corner of Leicester Fields. We can put on another pair of leaders in the Kent Road, and then as fast as they can go to Dover. You must find some way of getting rid of Topsparkle for an hour or two."
"Not to-morrow night. That is impossible. He is to take me to Duchess Henrietta's concert. He is very punctilious about these entertainments, and has a passion for appearing in great houses with me."
"Run away from the concert."
"No, no, no, that were as awkward as from these gardens. I am thinking of my gowns. They must be got off somehow in a wagon, sent as if they were for Ringwood Abbey – old clothes to be worn out among rustics, I can say – and you must tell me where to send the trunks; to some inn on the Dover road, I suppose, whence they can follow us to France. My diamonds I can take with me."
"Leave every stone of them behind you, dearest, if they are Topsparkle's property."
"They are not. He gave them to me as a free gift."
"Dear love, I would as soon see you decked with serpents, like Medusa. Leave your cit his dirty jewels and his dirty wealth. You and I can be happy amidst our orange-groves without either. The fireflies are brighter than your diamonds."
"What, part me from my famous jewels! Well, perhaps you are right. I should hate to wear them, for they would remind me of the giver. I have a set of garnets that belonged to my poor mother, which I verily believe are more becoming, though they are almost worthless. And I can wear them with honour."
"I would sell my last acre to buy diamonds for that fair neck, if you hanker after them."
"But I don't. You shall decorate me with orange-bloom. We will be completely Arcadian in our paradise. And when we are tired of orange-groves and sea-view, you can carry me to Rome or Vienna, or to Turkey, like your wild kinswoman."
"You shall order me whithersoever you please. I will be as obedient as the genius of the lamp in those newly-discovered Arabian tales we were all reading at Ringwood last winter."
"Lady Judith, the minced chicken has been waiting for the last hour, and we are all famishing," said a sharp voice at her ladyship's elbow, and Mr. Philter tripped by her side.
"I apologise to the chicken, or rather to the company," answered Judith lightly. How lucky that Lavendale's arm was no longer round her waist, her head no longer reclining upon his Ramillies cravat! "Is it really very late?"
"On the stroke of midnight."
"How delightful! the very hour for ghosts, and this dark walk would lend itself to the habits of phantoms. Would we could meet some gentle spirit!"
"You had better come to the King's Head, where the supper-table might tempt even a ghost to become again mortal. There can be no gentler spirit than champagne cooled with ice after the new mode. They are all dying of hunger, and sent me to hunt for you. I was to bring you to them alive or dead. I doubt if they cared which. Hunger is so horribly selfish."
"I had no idea it was so late. The nightingales and Lord Lavendale's witty discourse have beguiled me into forgetfulness."
They hurried to that gayer part of the gardens where the arbours sparkled with wax candles and jewels and beauty, and where the air was musical with laughter. All yonder had been silence and shadow: all here was rattle and animation. Supper had begun at the King's Head, on Mr. Topsparkle's insistance that they should wait no longer for his wife. Lavendale and Lady Judith carried the matter off so lightly that there seemed no room for scandal; but that keen observer, Tom Philter, noted some ugly twitchings of Mr. Topsparkle's mouth and eyebrows.
Some airy shafts Lady Judith could not escape.
"What a glorious thing is a spotless reputation!" cried Lady Polwhele, radiant and loquacious after her first half-bottle of champagne. "Had it been Asterley and I, now, who had lost ourselves for an hour in those dark walks where the nightingales sing so sweetly, people would have been ever so ill-natured about us: but Lady Judith is like Diana, her name stands for chastity. Even Lavendale's ill-repute cannot damage her. How fares it with you and your Surrey heiress, by the bye, Lavendale?"
"Off, madam, done with like the old worn-out moons that doubtless go to some rubbish-heap in the sky. She would have none of me."
"She was a foolish girl. She might do worse than marry an agreeable reprobate like you. I swear reprobates are the pleasantest beings on this earth. They flatter one's amour propre. One never need feel ashamed before them. Fill me another brimmer, Asterley," said the Dowager, holding out her glass, and leaning across the table with a freedom of attitude which accentuated that absence of tucker whereof the Guardian had discoursed in mild reproof a dozen years before. That sly humourist and gentle moralist, Joseph Addison, had vanished from this earthly scene, and the tucker or modesty-piece, as he had called it, was not reinstated; nor had either the manners or the morals of fashionable beauty improved since the moralist's time.
Judith took the chair that had been reserved for her, and drank a glass of champagne. Her throat was parched, her eyes were burning, her hands icy cold. A few minutes ago and she had known no physical sensations. She had been an ethereal essence, made up of fervid imagination and passion's white heat, lifted to the empyrean; and now she was a woman again, weighed down with the consciousness of guilty intentions, burdened with the foreshadowing of shame. To-night she could hold her head high, look down with scornful toleration upon the flighty Dowager yonder, whose damaged reputation had been town-talk for the last ten years: but what of the day after to-morrow, when she, the unapproachable coquette, the universal tormentor, should be known to all the world as Mr. Topsparkle's runaway wife and Lord Lavendale's mistress? Would there be any mercy for her who had carried herself so proudly, allowing her tongue to riot in ill-natured speeches and wanton scorn of the weak? Who would spare her? She scarce knew which would be worse, the pity of the women or the laughter of the men. Topsparkle had often told her the gossip of the clubs. She knew how those generous creatures of the stronger sex talk of the fallen among the weaker sex; how ruthlessly they assail that frail sister who has suffered any flaw in the armour of her honour; how much unkinder they are to the woman who was proud and virtuous yesterday, and who sits apart in her guilt and misery to-day, the Niobe of a slaughtered reputation, than to the hardened female rake who leads half the town in her train and defies scandal.
She, Judith Topsparkle, could expect no mercy. She had had too many adorers not to have a hundred enemies. Every fop whose prayers she had rejected, whose sighs she had laughed at, would feel himself avenged in her fall. Her shame would be the open delight of the town. Such a thought for a proud woman was agony. And yet, with her eyes open, with worldly knowledge and experience to show her the depth of the abyss into which she was going down, she meant to give herself to her lover. Deliberately, resolutely, she would put her hand in his and say to him, "For good or evil, I am yours." It had come to this. Life was intolerable without him. She had never ceased to love him. From the hour of her first girlish vows that love had possessed her heart and mind, had been growing day by day in depth and power. Separation had been one long slow agony, a living death; reunion had seemed the renewal of life. And their love had been fed and fostered by daily meetings. Mr. Topsparkle's indulgence and the agreeable laxity of modern manners had been fatal. The flame of that unholy love had mounted, blazed, surrounded this impetuous woman like an atmosphere of fire. She lived only to love and be loved by Lavendale.
Of her future as a dishonoured wife, as Lavendale's mistress, she thought but vaguely. She could not see beyond the fiery present. She could not sit deliberately down and question herself about the years to come; how and where those years were to be spent, by what name she was to be called, or what her old age – that age which should be honourable – was to be like. She thought of the ignominy of the present: she thought of the bliss of the present: but of the future, in that giddy whirl of brain and senses, she could not think.
She and her lover had been interrupted by Mr. Philter before they could complete their plans; yet she was not less resolved upon flight. In the midst of the riot of the supper-table, amidst a fire of repartee from Bolingbroke and audacious nonsense from Lady Polwhele, and the last town scandal from Captain Asterley, and a meandering stream of childish babble from his wife, these guilty lovers found time to whisper and plot their treason against the husband, who sat in a corner of the arbour, with his head against the wooden partition, and his eyes closed, enjoying a gentle slumber after the champagne and chicken.
"He is to dine in the City the day after to-morrow," whispered Judith; "that will be our opportunity. I shall be my own mistress that evening. Stay, I have asked some women to play ombre, but I can swear I am ill and put them off early in the afternoon."
"Then I will be with you as soon as it is dark – between nine and ten will be safest – and take you on foot to the carriage, which I will have stationed at some safe corner. Your trunks had better be sent to the Bell at New Cross. I will find you a wagon and send for them at any hour you name."
"It had best be about eight in the evening, when Topsparkle will be safe in the City, drinking punch and hearing loyal speeches at the Guildhall. How sound he sleeps! I have not often seem him doze after supper. He generally seems the very incarnation of vigilance – a creature that knows not what it is to sleep."
Lady Polwhele was rising hastily amidst a confusion of tongues. The wax candles had burned low in their sockets, everything on the table had a profligate air, as after an orgy: empty bottles, broken glass, crumpled napkins, wine-stained table-cloth.
"Your lordship is simply incorri-corri-gibber," protested the Dowager, lunging at the great Tory with her fan.
"Have a care, Lady Polwhele. Incorrigible is not an easy word to pronounce at two o'clock in the morning."
"Yet you can say it, villain."
"I have always been noted for a sound head and a steady tongue."
"Faith, were your principles but as sound as your head you might be Treasurer now instead of that lubberly Norfolk squire," said her ladyship, somewhat thickly. "And then we should not all be given over to the Muggites."
"Your ladyship forgets that I am a Muggite," remarked Lavendale laughingly.
"No, I don't forget you, scaramouch. I never forget old friends" – with more fan-tappings. "And I mean to trap you an heiress yet. You shall marry bullion, Lavendale, as sure as I am one of the cleverest women in London. Look at Asterley there. 'Twas I got him his City wife, and 'tis I am training her for the Court and good company. See how sleek and bloated my Benedick begins to look, fattened by the consciousness of a full purse, as well as by the physical effects of a well-stocked larder. But you look lean and haggard, Lavendale. I prescribe an heiress."
"Wake up, Topsparkle," cried Asterley, anxious to stop his patroness's loquacity. "The boatmen have had their night's rest, and the moon is high. Put on your roquelaures, gentlemen, and you ladies wrap your mantuas close round you. Even a July night is cold on the river."
"I have never found a July night too warm anywhere in this atrocious climate," said Topsparkle, waking with a shiver. "The earth in this latitude is only half cooked. There is no sun worth speaking of. 'Tis a raw, bleak, uncomfortable world, invented for the profit of woollen-drapers and furriers. Let me help you on with your mantua, Judith, and then let us all get home as fast as we can. 'Twas foolish to come here by water, but 'tis mad to return that way."
"Music and moonlight," murmured Lady Polwhele, with a maudlin air. "Nothing in this world so delicious as music and moonlight. I hope you brought your flute, Asterley."
"He has it in his pocket, your ladyship," vouched the buxom young wife, who was passing proud of her husband's trivial accomplishments.
"The flute! Lord forbid!" cried Topsparkle. "We are sure of a fit of the shivers, and it needs but Asterley's flute to give us the ague."
At last they were all out of the arbour, Lady Polwhele lurching a little as she leaned on Bolingbroke's arm, and so down to the water-side and to the gilded barge with its eight rowers, which slipped noiselessly from the shadowy shore under the summer moon.
"The moon rises late, does she not?" asked Lavendale, looking up at that silver lamp hanging in mid-heaven.
How pale he looked in that clear white light! how hollow and worn the oval of his face! how attenuated those delicate features! Judith saw only the love-light in those adoring eyes.
"The moon rises between eleven and twelve," replied Mr. Philter, who always knew, or pretended to know, everything. It is so easy to be wise in polite society. A man has but to answer with sufficient assurance and a quiet air of precision to be believed in by the ignorant majority.