Mohawks: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3
The Squire's marriage made no difference in Mrs. Layburne's position, and brought no diminution of her authority. Lady Harriet had no longing for power, and was content to let the house be managed exactly as it had been before her coming. She saw that avarice was the pervading spirit of the household, but she made no complaint; and she was too innocent and simple-minded to have any suspicion of evil in the past history of her husband and his strange housekeeper. It was only when Lady Harriet was about to become a mother that she asserted herself so far as to insist upon some small expenditure upon the rooms which her baby was to occupy. Under her own directions the old nursery wing, in which generation after generation of Bosworths had been reared, was cleansed, renovated, and decorated, in the simplest fashion, but with taste and refinement.
The result of the little stranger's presence fully justified Mrs. Bridget in her opinion. Rena improved in spirits, and even grew more robust in health, from the hour of her little companion's advent. The two children were rarely asunder: they played together, fed together, slept together, took their airings in the same baby-carriage, which Bridget or the gardener's boy dragged about the park, or rolled and crawled together on the grass on sunny autumn mornings. Rena, who had been backward in all things, soon began to toddle, and soon began to prattle, moved by the example of her companion, who had a great gift of language. Bridget was proud of her sagacity, and speedily grew fond of the adopted child, though she always professed to be constant in her affection for Rena, who was certainly a less amiable infant. The little stranger was called Belinda, a name which the Squire had found in one of the dead man's manuscripts.
"It may have been her mother's name," said the Squire, and that was all, though he might have said more had he pleased.
Among those pamphlets and political manuscripts he had found three private letters, which to his mind suggested a domestic history, and which served to assure him that his daughter's companion was of gentle birth. He desired to know no more, and he had no intention of inquiring into her antecedents.
The wanderer had been lying in his nameless grave for a little over three years, and his orphan daughter had thriven apace in her new home. The two children had but rarely passed the gates of the park during those years, but they had been utterly happy together in that wooded wilderness, too young to languish for change of scene, renewing every day the childish pleasures of yesterday. They had not yet emerged from the fairyland of play into the cold arid world of work and reality. They played together all day long on the sunlit grass or under the dappled shadows of the trees in spring, summer, and autumn; in winter making a little paradise for themselves in the day nursery before the cheerful fire, into which they used to peer sometimes, with dilated eyes, seeing gnomes and fairies, and St. George and his dragon, and all the Seven Champions of Christendom, in the burning logs. The shining brass fender seemed to them like a glittering golden gate shutting in fairyland.
How did they know anything of St. George and his dragon, King Arthur, Melusine, and the gnomes and the fairies, at this tender age, when they hardly knew their letters, and certainly could not read these dear old stories for themselves? Easily explained. They had a living book in which they read every evening, and the book was Bridget. Mistress Bridget had more imagination than most of her class, and had spent her superfluous cash with the pedlar, in whose pack there was generally a department for light literature – curious paper-covered books, printed on coarsest paper, and with the roughest and rudest of illustrations; but the Seven Champions and all the old fairy tales were to be found among these volumes, and Bridget had gradually possessed herself of the whole realm of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies.
In the evening, when the stealthy shadows came creeping over the window, and shutting out the leafy wilderness beyond, the two children used to clamber on to Bridget's knee and ask for stories, and Bridget related those old legends with the uttermost enjoyment. That twilight interval before candles and bedtime was the pleasantest hour in her day.
So the children were happy, having, as it seemed, but one friend in the world, in the person of buxom Bridget. Mrs. Barbara Layburne but rarely condescended to enter the nurseries, and looked askant at the children if she happened to meet them in the corridors or hall. She did not even pretend to be fond of her master's daughter, and for the alien she had nothing but contempt. The Squire himself was at best an indifferent father. He seemed quite satisfied to hear that his daughter was well and happy, and seldom put himself out of the way to see her. Sometimes, riding across the park, he would come upon the two children in their play, and would pull up his horse and stop for a few minutes to watch them. There could not be a prettier picture than the two golden-haired children, in their white frocks and blue sashes, chasing each other across the sunlit sward, or squatted side by side in the deep pasture grass, making daisy-chains or buttercup-balls. Belinda looked the stronger of the two, the Squire thought. He knew her by her somewhat darker hair and rosier cheeks. His own motherless child had always a delicate air, though she had never had any serious illness.
It was late in the October of that third year when the children's peaceful days came to an end, like a tale that is told, never hereafter to be any more than a sad sweet memory of love and happiness that had been and was not.
The twilight was earlier than usual on that October evening, and night came up with a great threatening cloud like the outspread wing of a bad angel. Mrs. Barbara Layburne stood at the hall-door watching that lowering sky, and listening to the sough of the south-west wind, and thinking of that night just thirteen years ago – that night of tempest and gloom upon which she had first seen yonder elms and oaks in all their garnered might of foregone centuries, standing stern and strong against the threatening wrack. She thought of her life as it had been before that night, of her life as it had been since.
"Would anybody in London – those who knew me in my glory – believe that I would endure such a long slow martyrdom, a death in life?" she asked herself. "Well, perhaps they would believe, if they could fathom my motive."
The sound of footsteps startled her. Peering into the darkness of the long avenue, she saw a lad running under the trees, sheltering himself as best he might from the driving rain. She watched him as he came towards the house, and hailed him as he drew near. He was the son of the old gardener who lived at the lodge.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
"There is a man at the lodge very ill – dying, mother thinks – and he sent this for you, ma'am, and I was to give it into your own hands."
He handed her a scrap of paper, folded but not sealed. It was scrawled over in pencil, with a tremulous hand.
"Come to me at once, if you want to see me alive. – Roderick."
That was all.
"Is he tall, with dark eyes and hair?" she asked.
"Yes. You'd better come at once if you know anything about him. He's mortal bad. And mother said you'd best bring some brandy."
Barbara Layburne went hastily to the store-room, where everything was kept sternly under lock and key. Half the business of her life was to unlock and lock those presses and store-closets, doling out everything to the submissive cook, who still contrived somehow to have her pinch out of this and that. Barbara filled a small bottle with brandy, fetched her cloak and hood, and then went back to the hall, where the boy was waiting.
She went along the avenue, muffled in her gray cloth cloak, a ghostlike figure, the boy following her as fast as his legs would carry him. He declared afterwards that he had never seen any one walk so fast as Mrs. Layburne walked that stormy night, though the wind and rain were beating against her face and figure all the way.
There was a light burning dimly in the lodge as they drew near. The door was open, and the old gardener was standing on the threshold watching for them.
"Is he – dead?" gasped Barbara.
"No; but his breath is short and thick, just as if he was near his end, poor wretch. He ain't anybody belonging to you, is he, madam?"
"Not he," answered Barbara promptly; "but I know something about him. He's the son of an old servant who lived with me in my prosperous days. Where is he?"
"In the kitchen. He was shivering, so the missus thought he'd be better by the fire be-like."
The ground floor of the lodge consisted of two rooms, parlour and kitchen. Barbara went to the kitchen, which was at the back, the common living-room of the family. The parlour was for ornament and state – temple and shrine for the family Bible and the family samplers, laborious works of art which adorned the walls.
The sick man was lying in front of the fire, with an old potato-sack between him and the flagged floor. Barbara knelt beside him, and looked into his face, half in the red light of the fire, half in the yellow flare of the tallow candle.
His eyes were glassy and dim, his cheeks were flushed, his breath laboured and rattled as it came and went. Barbara Layburne knew the symptoms well enough. It was gaol fever – a low form of typhus. That tainted breath meant infection, and the gardener's cottage swarmed with children. He must be got away from there at once, unless they were all to die. Typhus in those days was always master of the field where he had once set up his standard.
The dim eyes looked at her piteously: the lips began to murmur inarticulately.
"Leave us together for a few minutes, Mrs. Bond, while I hear what the poor creature has to say, and think over what I had best do with him. There is no room for him here."
Mrs. Bond retired, shutting the door behind her.
"A TEDIOUS ROAD THE WEARY WRETCH RETURNS."
Mrs. Layburne poured out half a tumbler of brandy, propped the sick man's head upon her arm, and put the glass to his lips. He drank eagerly, gasping as he drank.
"Good!" he muttered, "that does me good, sister."
"Hush! not that word here, for your life."
"Not much use in saying it, eh! when it's no more than a word? Give me some more."
"No, you have had enough for the present. How long have you been out of prison?"
"How do you know I have been in prison?"
"Do you think I don't know gaol fever and gaol clothes? You have got them both upon you. You have escaped out of some gaol."
"Guildford, last night. I was in the infirmary; got out at midnight, when nurse and warder were both asleep. I had shammed dying, and they had given me over and made themselves comfortable for the night – topers both. I tore up my bed-clothes and let myself down out of the window, dropped into the governor's garden, as neatly as you like for a sick un, and trudged along the roads till daybreak, when I hid behind a haystack, dozed there, and shivered there, and had bad dreams there all day; then, with nightfall, up and on my legs again till I got here. And now perhaps you'll find me a corner to lie in somewhere."
"He must not see you, or you'll soon be in gaol again."
"Curse him!" growled Roderick, "bears malice, does he?"
"He is not likely to forget that you tried to murder him."
"I was in liquor, and there was a knife handy. Yes, if luck had favoured me that night, Squire Bosworth would have come to an early end, and your wrongs would have been righted."
"I would rather right them myself."
"Ah, but you are of a slavish temper, like all women, however high they pretend to hold themselves. You can live here, eat his bread, and be called his servant, you who for years had him at your feet, led him like your lap-dog. I have heard what the village people say of you. This is not the first time I have been in your neighbourhood."
"No, I thought as much. 'Twas you robbed the London coach last December."
"What! you knew my hand, did you, Bab?" he cried, with a hoarse chuckle. His glassy eyes shone with a new light: the brandy seemed to have rekindled the spark of life in him. "Yes; it was neatly done, wasn't it? That knoll above the road was a capital station, and the old fir-trunks hid us. There were only two of us, Bab, and we got clean off with the plunder. But it was my last lucky hit. Nothing has gone well with me since that night. I turned fine gentleman for a month or two on the strength of that haul, and let my hand lose its cunning. And then for the pettiest business you can conceive, a fopling's purse at the Opera, as skinny a purse as you ever saw, Bab, I got quodded, and narrowly escaped a rope. It was only one of your old admirers, who came forward and spoke to my character, who saved me from the gallows."
"Are you too ill to go on to some safer shelter, if I were to give you some money?" asked Barbara meditatively.
She was puzzled what she could do with him, if he must needs remain on the premises. She knew that Roland Bosworth would show him little mercy. They had always been foes, and one particular scene was distinctly present to her mind's eye, as she knelt there by the kitchen fire, looking down at the pinched face, with the glassy eyes and hectic cheeks.
It was a scene after supper, in a gaily-lighted room, cards and dice lying about on the tables, and on one a punchbowl, some lemons, and a big clasp-knife. The guests were gone, and they three were alone, and a quarrel had come about between Bosworth and Layburne, a quarrel beginning in a dispute about gains and losses at cards, and intensifying through bitterest speech to keenest, cruellest taunts, taunts flung by the brother in the face of his sister's lover; and then hatred took a more desperate form, and Roderick Layburne snatched up the Spanish knife – his own knife which he had produced a while ago to cut the lemons – and had tried to stab Bosworth to the heart.
The Squire was the bigger and stronger man, and flung his assailant aside – flung him out of the room and down the steep London staircase, to ruminate on his wrongs at the bottom; and from that night Mrs. Layburne's brother had never been admitted to her lodgings in the Haymarket.
This had happened just eighteen years ago, in the days when Barbara was a famous actress, known to the town as Mrs. Belfield, and had titled admirers by the score. They had never been more than admirers, those dukes and lords who applauded her nightly, and thought it honour and felicity to lose their money at hazard or lansquenet in her luxurious lodgings. The only man she had ever cared for was Roland Bosworth, though he had never been either the handsomest or the most agreeable man among her followers. But women who are admired by all the world have curious caprices; and it had been Mrs. Layburne's fancy to sacrifice herself and her career to the least distinguished of her admirers. She had her tempers, and did not make her lover's life a bed of roses. Thrice he had been upon the point of marrying her; and each time some wild outbreak of passion or some freak of folly had scared him away from the altar. Then the time came when he wearied of her storms and sunshines, and left her. She followed, content, as her brother said, to become a slave where she had once been a queen.
Roderick groped with his hand for the tumbler, and his sister poured out a little more of the brandy and gave it to him.
"That means the renewal of life," he said, "but not for long. No, Bab; not if you were to offer me a thousand guineas could I budge another mile, on foot or on horseback. I'm on the last stage of my last journey, Bab. The gaol doctor was right enough when he told them yesterday morning it was all over – only he didn't know what stuff I was made of, or how long it would take me to die. Lungs gone, heart queer – that was his verdict. And gaol fever for a gentle finisher. You must find me a corner to die in, Barbara: it's all I shall ever ask you for."
She thought deeply. Take him into the house by a back door, hide him in some room near her own? That might be done, but it would be too hazardous. And when the end should come, there would be the difficulty. It would be more perilous to remove the dead than to admit the living. And then to let putrid fever into the house? Who could tell where the evil would stop? Disinfectants and precautionary measures were almost unknown in those days. Fever came into a house and did its fatal work unopposed.
But there was one vast block of buildings at Fairmile Court, given over to emptiness, buildings which no one ever explored. The old hunting stables, where Roland Bosworth's grandfather had kept his stud, had been disused for the last half-century. Loose boxes, men's rooms, saddle-rooms, dog-kennels: there was space enough for a village hospital.
"If I can but make one of those rooms fairly comfortable!" she thought, remembering how bleak and desolate the rooms had looked when she explored them soon after her first coming.
"I must go and see what I can do," she said after a pause. "It is early yet, not eight o'clock. I will have you comfortably lodged by ten."
"The sooner the better, for it isn't over-pleasant lying on these stones. If it had not been for that taste of cognac I should be dead before now."
Barbara hurried away, begging the gardener and his wife to keep close till her return, and to be ready to help her then. They were neither now nor at any future time to breathe a word to mortal ears about anything which had happened or which might happen to-night. Then she hastened back to the house with those swift steps of hers, borne onward by the fever of excitement that burned within.
All was quiet at Fairmile Court. The Squire was luckily in London, not expected back till the end of the week. The few servants were snug in the kitchen, with closed doors. Barbara provided herself with a lantern and a bunch of keys, and went out to the old hunting stables, which were further from the house than those smaller stables now in use. She investigated room after room, little dens in which grooms had been lodged, until she found one that suited her. It was in a less dilapidated state than the others, and was provided with a fireplace, which the others were mostly without. The window looked away from all the other stables and the offices of the Court, and a light burning within would hardly attract notice. The smoke from the chimney would be almost hidden by the roof of a huge old brewery in the rear; and as the brewery was now used as a laundry, and fires almost always lighted there, the smoke from the lesser vent would in all probability be mingled with that from the tall and capacious shaft, and provoke no questions.
With her own hands, Barbara carried coals and wood and tinder-box, mattress and pillows, blanketing and linen, from the house to the groom's bedchamber, where the old furniture – a stump bedstead, a chest of drawers, and a chair or two – still remained. With her own hands she swept the chamber, lighted the fire, and made up the bed. The room had almost a comfortable look in the red glow of the fire. She toiled thus for nearly two hours, with many journeys to and fro in the wind and rain, and before the first stroke of ten, all was to her satisfaction. She had brought food and drink, all things that she could think of, for the sick man's comfort. It could hardly be much more luxurious than the prison infirmary from which he had escaped, but it had been his fancy to come there to die, and she could but indulge him. He was her junior by eleven years, and there was a time when she had loved him passionately, almost with a maternal love.
She went back to the lodge, and the gardener and she contrived a kind of impromptu ambulance out of an old truck, and a blanket which she had carried with her. The sick man's limbs seemed to have stiffened since he had crawled to that door, and had sunk exhausted upon that hearth.
"There isn't a crawl left in me," he said, as they lifted him on to the truck, and wrapped the blanket round him.
For nearly a fortnight he lay in that lonely room, his sister attending upon him, stealing to his lair again and again every day, often sitting up all night with him, nursing and ministering to him with inexhaustible patience. Her apprehension was of the hour when he should die, and there would be the business of removing him or of accounting for his presence in that place. It was an intense relief, therefore, when after a fortnight of unwearying attention, with a liberal use of brandy and strong soups, at an expenditure rare in that pinched household, Roderick so far recovered that he was quite capable of being moved to another shelter.
The hand of death was upon him – death's impress visible in hollow hectic cheeks, glassy eyes, and difficult breathing. Consumption was doing its subtle work, but typhus had been subjugated by good nursing.
No sooner had the fever left him than Mrs. Layburne planned how to get rid of the patient. She had the rickety, blundering, old family coach at her disposal whenever she wanted to go to the market-town to buy groceries and other necessaries for the household. Roderick was well enough to put on a suit of old clothes, some cast-off garments of the Squire's which had seen hard service. She helped him to dress, and then directed him what to do. He was to walk as far as he could along the avenue towards the park-gates – or, if he had strength enough, beyond the gates – and was to sit down by the roadside as a wayfarer who had sunk from fatigue. She would stop the coach, and, affecting to take compassion upon him as a stranger, would offer him a lift to Cranbrook, the market-town. Here she would set him down at the Lamb, a humble little inn she knew of, where, furnished by her with funds, he might remain till he was well enough to resume the struggle for existence. In her heart of hearts she knew that for him that struggle was nearly over, and that it was doubtful if he would ever leave the Lamb. She would have done all she could do for him, and Fate or Providence, God or the Devil, must do the rest. Mrs. Barbara's spiritual ideas were of a very obscure order, and ranked about as high as the tenets of the Indian Devil-dancers, or the Fetish-worshippers of the South Seas.
Roderick assented to her plan. What could he do but assent, having not another friend in the world, and being very anxious to leave that den in the old rat-haunted stables? The coach went lumbering along the avenue one fine afternoon while the Squire was up in London. Roderick had started a good hour before the coach, and he had contrived to tramp the whole length of the avenue, and pass the gardener's lodge, before the vehicle overtook him.
Barbara stopped the coach, and played her little drama of womanly compassion and charity. Old John Coachman wondered at this unaccustomed beneficence in the housekeeper; wondered still more when she opened the coach-door, and invited the tramp to ride beside her. So well had the gardener and his family kept madam's secret that the house-servants had heard nothing about that strange visitant of Mrs. Barbara's.
She pulled up her coach at the Lamb, and committed her brother, with payment in advance for a month's board and lodging, to the tender care of the landlady, who was a good homely soul, and so left him, with five guineas in his pocket, and the promise of future help, would he but lead an honest life, and keep out of gaol. Then she drove to the market-place, and did her shopping in the sleepy, low-ceilinged, old-established shops, where the tradesmen lived in a semi-darkness, and made a profit of from thirty to fifty per cent upon everything they sold.
"Thank God I am clear of that trouble!" ejaculated Mrs. Layburne, as the coach passed the Lamb again on its way out of the town.
She congratulated herself somewhat too soon, as she had not seen the end of evil; albeit the sick man only lingered for a few weeks longer, before he was carried to his nameless grave in Cranbrook Church.