Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3
Irene was seated at the harpsichord, and Herrick Durnford was standing by her side; but the heiress was not unguarded, for Lady Tredgold sat near, slumbering peacefully behind her fan, and giving full play to the mechanism of her admirable digestive organs after a copious dinner. For the rest, the room was empty.
The singer was just finishing a dainty little ballad by Tom Durfey as Lavendale entered.
"Is it not pretty?" she asked, looking shyly up at Herrick, whose taciturn air vexed her a little and mystified her much.
"Yes, it is charming, like everything you sing."
"How dolefully you say that!" she exclaimed.
"Yes, I confess to being doleful, the very incarnation of gloom. O Rena, forgive me, I am the most miserable of men! Here I am in this great gaudy tavern, for such a house is no better than an inn – seeing you every day, hearing your voice, near you and yet leagues away – never daring to address you freely save in such a chance moment as this, while your vigilant kinswoman sleeps; here am I, your adorer, your slave, but a pauper who dare not ask for your heart, though his own is irrevocably yours. To ask you to marry me would be to ask you to ruin yourself irretrievably."
"You might at least venture the question," said Rena softly, looking down at the keys of the harpsichord. "Perhaps I have a mind to do some wild rash act that will beggar me. I am weary of hearing myself talked of as an heiress. My father has been very good to me, and I am very fond of him. I should fear much more to grieve him than to lose a fortune. I could not be a rebellious daughter; better that I should break my heart than break his: and he has told me that all his hopes of the future are centred in me. Could you not talk to him, could you not persuade him – ?" she added falteringly, touching the notes at random here and there in her confusion.
"Persuade him to accept a penniless newspaper hack for his only daughter's husband! Alas, I fear not, Rena. If I could but find some swift sudden way to fame and fortune – in the senate, for instance! A fine speaker may make his name in one debate, and stand out ever after from the common ruck; and I think I could speak fairly well on any question that I had at heart."
"O, pray be a speaker; go into Parliament directly!" exclaimed Rena eagerly.
"Dear child, it is not so easy. It needs money, which I have not, or powerful friends, and I have but one, who is also my rival. Alas, I fear a seat in Parliament is as unattainable for me as the moon. And the age of adventure is past, in which, a man might grow suddenly rich by dabbling in South Sea stock. 'Twas said the Prince of Wales made forty thousand pounds on 'Change at that golden season, and Lord Bolingbroke restored his fortune by a lucky purchase of Mississippi stocks. But it is all over now, Rena."
"I have heard it said 'twas by South Sea stock my father made the greatest part of his fortune," said the girl thoughtfully. "If it is so I wish he were poorer, for one must but think of those poor creatures who paid thousands for shares that proved scarce worth hundreds."
"That is only the fortune of Exchange Alley, Irene: and from the speculator's standpoint your father's honour is uncompromised and his conscience may be easy. Yet I grant 'tis no pleasant thought to consider those simple widows and foolish rustic spinsters who risked their all in that fatal adventure, fondly believing that an endless tide of wealth was to flow from those far-off seas, and that there was to be no ebb to that golden stream. But indeed, Irene, I would with all my heart you were poorer. I would Squire Bosworth had dabbled in all the rottenest schemes of those wild days, from the company for extracting silver from lead to the company for a wheel for perpetual motion, so long as his losses brought our fortunes level."
"You should not wish me poor," she answered. "If my father's wealth is but honestly come by, I should be proud to share some of it with one I loved. And if you can but persuade him – "
"Well, I will try, dearest, though I know that to avow my aim will be to banish me from this dear presence for ever – unless you can be bold enough to risk your fortune and disobey your father."
They had been talking in subdued tones so as not to awaken Lady Tredgold, at whom they glanced from time to time to make sure that her placid slumbers were unbroken. Lord Lavendale stood at the end of the room, in the shadow of the great organ, watching those two heads as they bent to each other, Herrick's arm on the back of Irene's chair, the girl's, head drooping a little, bowed by the weight of her modesty. He was quite able to draw his own inferences from such a group.
"Is it thus the land lies," he said to himself, "and shall I spoil sport by a loveless wooing – I, whose heart, or whatever remnant of heart is left, belongs to another? Better let youth and true love have their own way – unless Herrick is fortune-hunting. But I know him too well to suspect him of any sordid motive. He is a better man than I, though we have lived the same bad lives together."
He gave a little cough, and walked towards that central space where the lovers sat in front of the harpsichord. They started, and moved farther apart at the sound of his footsteps, and Lady Tredgold opened her eyes and blinked at the company like an owl, exclaiming, "Can I really have been asleep? That ballad of Rameau's is the sweetest thing I have heard for an age, Irene. Lord Lavendale, you must positively hear it: I know you love old French music."
"All melody from such lips is entrancing, and such lips can speak only music," said his lordship, bowing to Irene, who had risen, rosy red in her confusion, and who acknowledged his compliment with a low curtsy.