It was Saturday, the first of September, and the hot dry weather having continued with but trifling changes throughout the month, the atmosphere was at its sultriest, and the burnt grass in the parks looked as if even the dews of morning and evening had ceased to moisten it, while the arid and dusty foliage gave no feeling of coolness, and the very shadows cast upon that parched ground seemed hot. Morning was sultry as noon; evening brought but little refreshment; while the night was hotter than the day. People complained that the season was even more sickly than in the plague year, and prophesied a new and worse outbreak of the pestilence. Was not this the fatal year about which there had been darkest prophecies? 1666! Something awful, something tragical was to make this triplicate of sixes for ever memorable. Sixty-five had been terrible, sixty-six was to bring a greater horror; doubtless a recrudescence of that dire malady which had desolated London.
“And this time,” says one modish raven, “’twill be the quality that will suffer. The lower ‘classis’ has paid its penalty, and only the strong and hardy are left. We. have plenty of weaklings and corrupt constitutions that will take fire at a spark. I should not wonder were the contagion to rage worst at Whitehall. The buildings lie low, and there is ever a nucleus of fever somewhere in that conglomeration of slaughter-houses, bakeries, kitchens, stables, cider-houses, coal-yards, and over-crowded servants’ lodgings.”
“One gets but casual whiffs from their private butcheries and bakeries,” says another. “What I complain of is the atmosphere of his Majesty’s apartments, where one can scarce breathe for the stench of those cursed spaniels he so delights in.”
Every one agreed that the long dry summer menaced some catastrophic change which should surprise this easy-going age as the plague had done last year. But oh, how lightly that widespread calamity had touched those light minds! and, if Providence had designed to warn or to punish, how vain had been the warning, and how soon forgotten the penalty that had left the worst offenders unstricken!
There was to be a play at Whitehall that evening, his Majesty and the Court having returned from Tunbridge Wells, the business of the navy calling Charles to council with his faithful General —the General par excellence, George Monk, Duke of Albemarle, and his Lord High Admiral and brother —par excellence the Duke. Even in briefest residence, and on sternest business intent, with the welfare and honour of the nation contingent on their consultations, to build or not to build warships of the first magnitude, the ball of pleasure must be kept rolling. So Killigrew was to produce a new version of an old comedy, written in the forties, but now polished up to the modern style of wit. This new-old play, The Parson’s Widow, was said to be all froth and sparkle and current interest, fresh as the last London Gazette, and spiced with allusions to the late sickness, an admirable subject, and allowing a wide field for the ridiculous.
Hyacinth was to be present at this Court function; but not a word was to be said to Angela about the entertainment.
“She would only preach me a sermon upon Fareham’s tastes and wishes, and urge me to stay away because he abhors a fashionable comedy,” she told De Malfort, “I shall say I am going to Lady Sarah’s to play basset. Ange hates cards, and will not desire to go with me. She is always happy with the children, who adore her.”
“Faute de mieux.”
“You are so ready to jeer! Yes, I know I am a neglectful mother. But what would you have?”
“I would have you as you are,” he answered, “and only as you are; or for choice a trifle worse than you are; and so much nearer my own level.”
“Oh, I know you! It is the wicked women you admire — like Madame Palmer.”
“Always harping upon Barbara. ‘My mother had a maid called Barbara.’ His Majesty has — a lady of the same melodious name. Well, I have a world of engagements between now and nine o’clock, when the play begins. I shall be at the door to lift you out of your chair. Cover yourself with your richest jewels — or at least those you love best — so that you may blaze like the sun when you cast off the nun’s habit. All the town will be there to admire you.”
“All the town! Why, there is no one in London!”
“Indeed, you mistake. Travelling is so easy nowadays. People tear to and fro between Tunbridge and St James’s as often as they once circulated betwixt London and Chelsea. Were it not for the highwaymen we should be always on the road.”
Angela and her niece were on the terrace in the evening coolness. The atmosphere was less oppressive here by the flowing tide than anywhere else in London; but even here there was a heaviness in the night air, and Henriette sprawled her long thin legs wearily on the cushioned bench where she lay, and vowed that it would be sheer folly for Priscilla to insist upon her going to bed at her usual hour of nine, when everybody knew she could not sleep.
“I scarce closed my eyes last night,” she protested, “and I had half a mind to put on a petticoat and come down to the terrace. I could have come through the yellow drawing-room, where the men usually forget to close the shutters. And I should have brought my theorbo and serenaded you. Should you have taken me for a fairy, chère, if you had heard me singing?”
“I should have taken you for a very silly little person who wanted to frighten her friends by catching an inflammation of the lungs.”
“Well, you see, I thought better of it, though it would have been impossible to catch cold on such a stifling night I heard every clock strike in Westminster and London. It was light at five, yet the night seemed endless. I would have welcomed even a mouse behind the wainscot. Priscilla is an odious tyrant,” making a face at the easy-tempered gouvernante sitting by; “she won’t let me have my dogs in my room at night.”
“Your ladyship knows that dogs in a bed-chamber are unwholesome,” said Priscilla.
“No, you foolish old thing; my ladyship knows the contrary; for his Majesty’s bed-chamber swarms with them, and he has them on his bed even — whole families — mothers and their puppies. Why can’t I have a few dear little mischievous innocents to amuse me in the long dreary nights?”
By dint of clamour and expostulation the honourable Henriette contrived to stay up till ten o’clock was belled with solemn tone from St. Paul’s Cathedral, which magnificent church was speedily to be put in hand for restoration, at a great expenditure. The wooden scaffolding which had been necessary for a careful examination of the building was still up. Until the striking of the great city clock, Papillon had resolutely disputed the lateness of the hour, putting forward her own timekeeper as infallible — a little fat round purple enamel watch with diamond figures, and gold hands much bent from being pushed backwards and forwards, to bring recorded time into unison with the young lady’s desires — a watch to which no sensible person could give the slightest credit. The clocks of London having demonstrated the futility of any reference to that ill-used Geneva toy, she consented to retire, but was reluctant to the last.
“I am going to bed,” she told her aunt, “because this absurd old Prissy insists upon it, but I don’t expect a quarter of an hour’s sleep between now and morning; and most of the time I shall be looking out of the window, watching for the turn of the tide, to see the barges and boats swinging round.”
“You will do nothing of the kind, Mrs. Henriette; for I shall sit in your room till you are sound asleep,” said Priscilla.
“Then you will have to sit there all night; and I shall have somebody to talk to.”
“I shall not allow you to talk.”
“Will you gag me, or put a pillow over my face, like the Blackamoor in the play?”
The minx and her governess retired, still disputing, after Angela had been desperately hugged by Henriette, who brimmed over with warmest affection in the midst of her insolence. They were gone, their voices sounding in the stillness on the terrace, and then on the staircase, and through the great empty rooms, where the windows were open to the sultry night, while the host of idle servants caroused in the basement, in a spacious room with a vaulted roof, like a college hall, where they were free to be as noisy or as drunken as they pleased. My lady was out, had taken only her chair, and running footmen, and had sent chairmen and footmen back from Whitehall, with an intimation that they would be wanted no more that night.
Angela lingered on the terrace in the sultry summer gloom, watching solitary boats moving to and fro, shadowy as Charon’s. She dreaded the stillness of silent rooms, and to be alone with her own thoughts, which were not of the happiest. Her sister’s relations with De Malfort troubled her, innocent as they doubtless were: innocent as that close friendship of Henrietta of England with her cousin of France, when they two spent the fair midsummer nights roaming in palace gardens, close as lovers, but only fast friends. Malicious tongues had babbled even of that innocent friendship; and there were those who said that if Monsieur behaved liked a brute to his lovely young wife, it was because he had good reason for jealousy of Louis in the past, as well as of De Guiche in the present. These innocent friendships are ever the cause of uneasiness to the lookers-on. It is like seeing children at play on the edge of a cliff. They are too near danger and destruction.
Hyacinth, being about as able to carry a secret as to carry an elephant, had betrayed by a hundred indications that a plot of some kind was being hatched between her and De Malfort. And to-night, before going out, she had made too much fuss about so simple a matter as a basset-party at Lady Sarah’s, who had her basset-table every night, and was popularly supposed to keep house upon her winnings, and to have no higher code of honour than De Gramont had when he invited a brother officer to supper on purpose to rook him.
Mr. Killigrew’s comedy had been discussed in Angela’s hearing. People who had been deprived of the theatre for over a year were greedy and eager spectators of all the plays produced at Court; but this production was an exceptional event. Killigrew’s wit and impudence and impecuniosity were the talk of the town, and anything written by that audacious jester was sure to be worth hearing.
Had her sister gone to Whitehall to see the new comedy, in direct disobedience to her husband, instead of to so accustomed an entertainment as Lady Sarah’s basset-table? And was that the only mystery between Hyacinth and De Malfort? Or was there something else — some ghost-party, such as they had planned and talked about openly till a fortnight ago, and had suddenly dropped altogether, as if the notion were abandoned and forgotten? It was so unlike Hyacinth to be secret about anything; and her sister feared, therefore, that there was some plot of De Malfort’s contriving — De Malfort, whom she regarded with distrust and even repugnance; for she could recall no sentiment of his that did not make for evil. Beneath that gossamer veil of airy language which he flung over vicious theories, the conscienceless, unrelenting character of the man had been discovered by those clear eyes of the meditative onlooker. Alas! what a man to be her sister’s closest friend, claiming privileges by long association, which Hyacinth would have been the last to grant her dissolute admirers of yesterday, but which were only the more perilous for those memories of childhood that justified a so dangerous friendship.
She was startled from these painful reflections by the clatter of horses’ hoofs on the paved courtyard east of the house, and the jingle of sword-belt and bit, sounds instantly followed by the ringing of the bell at the principal door.
Was it her sister coming home so early? No, Lady Fareham had gone out in her chair. Was it his lordship returning unannounced? He had stated no time for his return, telling his wife only that, on his business in Paris being finished, he would come back without delay. Indeed, Hyacinth had debated the chances of his arrival this very evening with half a dozen of her particular friends, who knew that she was going to see Mr. Killigrew’s play.
“Fate cannot be so perverse as to bring him back on the only night when his return would be troublesome,” she said.
“Fate is always perverse, and a husband is very lucky if there is but one day out of seven on which his return would be troublesome,” answered one of her gossips.
Fate had been perverse, for Angela heard her brother-in-law’s deep strong voice talking in the hall, and presently he came down the marble steps to the terrace, and came towards her, white with Kentish dust, and carrying an open letter in his hand. She had risen at the sound of the bell, and was hurrying to the house as he met her. He came close up to her, scarcely according her the civility of greeting. Never had she seen his countenance more gloomy.
“You can tell me truer than those drunken devils below stairs,” he said. “Where is your sister?”
“At Lady Sarah Tewkesbury’s.”
“So her major-domo swears; but her chairmen, whom I found asleep in the hall, say they set her down at the palace.”
“Yes, at Whitehall. There is a modish performance there to-night, I hear; but I doubt it is over, for the Strand was crowded with hackney coaches moving eastward. I passed a pair of handsome eyes in a gilded chair, that flashed fury at me as I rode by, which I’ll swear were Mrs. Palmer’s; and, waiting for me in the hall, I found this letter, that had just been handed in by a link, who doubtless belonged to the same lady. Read, Angela; the contents are scarce long enough to weary you.” She took the letter from him with a hand that trembled so that she could hardly hold the sheet of paper.
“Watch! There is an intrigue afoot this night; and you must be a greater dullard than I think you if you cannot unmask a deceitful ——”
The final word was one which modern manners forbid in speech or printed page. Angela’s pallid cheek flushed crimson at the sight of the vile epithet. Oh, insane lightness of conduct which made such an insult possible! Standing there, confronting the angry husband, with that detestable paper in her hand, she felt a pang of compunction at the thought that she might have been more strenuous in her arguments with her sister, more earnest and constant in reproof. When the peace and good repute of two lives were at stake, was it for her to consider any question of older or younger, or to be restrained by the fear of offending a sister who had been so generous and indulgent to her?
Fareham saw her distress, and looked at her with angry suspicion.
“Come,” he said, “I scarce expected a lying answer from you; and yet you join with servants to deceive me. You know your sister is not at Lady Sarah’s.”
“I know nothing, except that, wherever she is, I will vouch that she is innocently employed, and has done nothing to deserve that infamous aspersion,” giving him back the letter.
“Innocently employed! You carry matters with a high hand. Innocently employed, in a company of she-profligates, listening to Killigrew’s ribald jokes — Killigrew, the profanest of them all, who can turn the greatest calamity this city ever suffered to horseplay and jeering. Innocently employed, in direct disobedience to her husband! So innocently employed that she makes her servants — and her sister — tell lies to cover her innocence!”
“Hector as much as you please, I have told your lordship no lies; and, with your permission, I will leave you to recover your temper before my sister’s return, which I doubt will happen within the next hour.”
She moved quickly past him towards the house.
“Angela, forgive me ——” he began, trying to detain her; but she hurried on through the open French window, and ran upstairs to her room, where she locked herself in.
For some minutes she walked up and down, profoundly agitated, thinking out the position of affairs. To Fareham she had carried matters with a high hand, but she was full of fear. The play was over, and her sister, who doubtless had been among the audience, had not come home. Was she staying at the palace, gossiping with the maids-of-honour, shining among that brilliant, unscrupulous crowd, where intrigue was in the very air, where no woman was credited with virtue, and every man was remorseless?
The anonymous letter scarcely influenced Angela’s thoughts in these agitated moments — that was but a foul assault on character by a foul-minded woman. But the furtive confabulations of the past week must have had some motive; and her sister’s fluttered manner before leaving the house had marked this night as the crisis of the plot.
Angela could imagine nothing but that ghostly masquerading which had, in the first place, been discussed freely in her presence; and she could but wonder that De Malfort and her sister should have made a mystery about a plan which she had known in its inception. The more deeply she considered all the circumstances, the more she inclined to suspect some evil intention on De Malfort’s part, of which Hyacinth, so frank, so shallow, might be too easy a dupe.
“I do little good doubting and suspecting and wondering here,” she said to herself; and after hastily lighting the candles on her toilet-table, she began to unlace the bodice of her light-coloured silk mantua, and in a few minutes had changed her elegant evening attire for a dark cloth gown, short in the skirt, and loose in the sleeves, which had been made for her to wear upon the river. In this costume she could handle a pair of sculls as freely as a waterman.
When she had put on a little black silk hood, she extinguished her candles, pulled aside the curtain which obscured the open window, and looked out on the terrace. There was just light enough to show her that the coast was clear. The iron gate at the top of the water-stairs was seldom locked, nor were the boat-houses often shut, as boats were being taken in and out at all hours, and, for the rest, neglect and carelessness might always be reckoned upon in the Fareham household.
She ran lightly down a side staircase, and so by an obscure door to the river-front. No, the gate was not locked, and there was not a creature within sight to observe or impede her movements. She went down the steps to the paved quay below the garden terrace. The house where the wherries were kept was wide open, and, better still, there was a skiff moored by the side of the steps, as if waiting for her; and she had but to take a pair of sculls from the rack and step into the boat, unmoor and away westward, with swiftly dipping oars, in the soft summer silence, broken now and then by sounds of singing — a tipsy, unmelodious strain, perhaps, were it heard too near, but musical in the distance — as the rise and fall of voices crept along a reach of running water.
The night was hot and oppressive, even on the river. But it was better here than anywhere else; and Angela breathed more freely as she bent over her sculls, rowing with all her might, intent upon reaching that landing-stage she knew of in the very shortest possible time. The boat was heavy, but she had the incoming tide to help her.
Was Fareham hunting for his wife, she wondered? Would he go to Lady Sarah’s lodgings, in the first place; and, not finding Hyacinth there, to Whitehall? And then, would he remember the assembly at Millbank, in which he had taken no part, and apparently no interest? And would he extend his search to the ruined abbey? At the worst, Angela would be there before him, to prepare her sister for the angry suspicions which she would have to meet. He was not likely to think of that place till he had exhausted all other chances.
It was not much more than a mile from Fareham House to that desolate bit of country betwixt Westminster and Chelsea, where the modern dairy-farm occupied the old monkish pastures. As Angela ran her boat inshore, she expected to see Venetian lanterns, and to hear music and voices, and all the indications of a gay assembly; but there were only silence and darkness, save for one lighted window in the dairyman’s dwelling-house, and she thought that she had come upon a futile errand, and had been mistaken in her conjectures.
She moored her boat to the wooden landing-stage, and went on shore to examine the premises. The revelry might be designed for a later hour, though it was now near midnight, and Lady Sarah’s party had assembled at eleven. She walked across a meadow, where the dewy grass was cool under her feet, and so to the open space in front of the dairyman’s house — a shabby building attached like a wen to the ruined refectory.
She started at hearing the snort of a horse, and the jingling of bit and curb-chain, and came suddenly upon a coach-and-four, with a couple of post-boys standing beside their team.
“Whose coach is this?” she asked.
“Mr. Malfy’s, your ladyship.”
“The French gentleman from St. James’s Street, my lady,” explained the other man.
“Did you bring Monsieur de Malfort here?”
“No, madam. We was told to be here at eleven, with horses as fresh as fire; and the poor tits be mighty impatient to be moving. Steady, Champion! You’ll have work enough this side Dartford,”— to the near leader, who was shaking his head vehemently, and pawing the gravel.
Angela waited to ask no further questions, but made straight for the unglazed window, through which Mr. Spavinger and his companions had entered.
There was no light in the great vaulted room, save the faint light of summer stars, and two figures were there in the dimness — a woman standing straight and tall in a satin gown, whose pale sheen reflected the starlight; a woman whose right arm was flung above her head, bare and white, her hand clasping her brow distractedly; and a man, who knelt at her feet, grasping the hand that hung at her side, looking up at her, and talking eagerly, with passionate gestures.
Her voice was clearer than his; and Angela heard her repeating with a piteous shrillness, “No, no, no! No, Henri, no!”
She stayed to hear no more, but sprang through the opening between the broken mullions, and rushed to her sister’s side; and as De Malfort started to his feet, she thrust him vehemently aside, and clasped Hyacinth in her arms.
“You here, Mistress Kill-joy?” he muttered, in a surly tone. “May I ask what business brought you? For I’ll swear you wasn’t invited.”
“I have come to save my sister from a villain, sir. But oh, my sweet, I little dreamt thou hadst such need of me!”
“Nay, love, thou didst ever make tragedies out of nothing,” said Hyacinth, struggling to disguise hysterical tears with airy laughter. “But I am right glad all the same that you are come; for this gentleman has put a scurvy trick upon me, and brought me here on pretence of a gay assembly that has no existence.”
“He is a villain and a traitor,” said Angela, in deep, indignant tones. “Dear love, thou hast been in danger I dare scarce think of. Fareham is searching for you.”
“Fareham! In London?”
“Returned an hour ago. Hark!”
She lifted her finger warningly as a bell rang, and the well-known voice sounded outside the house, calling to some one to open the door.
“He is here!” cried Hyacinth, distractedly. “For God’s sake, hide me from him! Not for worlds — not for worlds would I meet him!”
“Nay, you have nothing to fear. It is Monsieur de Malfort who has to answer for what he has done.”
“Henri, he will kill you! Alas, you know not what he is in anger! I have seen him, once in Paris, when he thought a man was insolent to me. God! The thunder of his voice, the blackness of his brow! He will kill you! Oh, if you love me — if you ever loved me — come out of his way! He is fatal with his sword!”
“And am I such a tyro at fence, or such a poltroon as to be afraid to meet him? No, Hyacinth, I go with you to Dover, or I stand my ground and face him.”
“You shall not!” sobbed Hyacinth. “I will not have your blood on my head! Come, come — by the garden — by the river!”
She dragged him towards the window; he pretending to resist, as Angela thought, yet letting himself be led as she pleased to lead him. They had but just crossed the yawning gap between the mullions and vanished into the night, when Fareham burst into the room with his sword drawn, and came towards Angela, who stood in shadow, her face half hidden in her close-fitting hood.
“So, madam, I have found you at last,” he said; “and in time to stop your journey, though not to save myself the dishonour of a wanton wife! But it is your paramour I am looking for, not you. Where is that craven hiding?”
He went back to the inhabited part of the house, and returned after a hasty examination of the premises, carrying the lamp which had lighted his search, only to find the same solitary figure in the vast bare room. Angela had moved nearer the window, and had sunk exhausted upon a large carved oak chair, which might be a relic of the monkish occupation. Fareham came to her with the lamp in his hand.
“He has given me a clean pair of heels,” he said; “but I know where to find him. It is but a pleasure postponed. And now, woman, you had best return to the house your folly, or your sin, has disgraced. For to-night, at least, it must needs shelter you. Come!”
The hooded figure rose at his bidding, and he saw the face in the lamplight.
“You!” he gasped. “You!”
“Yes, Fareham, it is I. Cannot you take a kind view of a foolish business, and believe there has been only folly and no dishonour in the purpose that brought me here?”
“You!” he repeated. “You!”
His bearing was that of a man who staggers under a crushing blow, a stroke so unexpected that he can but wonder and suffer. He set down the lamp with a shaking hand, then took two or three hurried turns up and down the room; then stopped abruptly by the lamp, snatched the anonymous letter from his breast, and read the lines over again.
“‘An intrigue on foot ——’ No name. And I took it for granted my wife was meant. I looked for folly from her; but wisdom, honour, purity, all the virtues from you. Oh, what was the use of my fortitude, what the motive of self-conquest here,” striking himself upon the breast, “if you were unchaste? Angela, you have broken my heart.”
There was a long pause before she answered, and her face was turned from him to hide her streaming tears. At last she was able to reply calmly —
“Indeed, Fareham, you do wrong to take this matter so passionately. You may trust my sister and me. On my honour, you have no cause to be angry with either of us.”
“And when I gave you this letter to read,” he went on, disregarding her protestations, “you knew that you were coming here to meet a lover. You hurried away from me, dissembler as you were, to steal to this lonely place at midnight, to fling yourself into his arms. Tell me where he is hiding, that I may kill him; now, while I pant for vengeance. Such rage as mine cannot wait for idle forms. Now, now, now, is the time to reckon with your seducer!”
“Fareham, you cover me with insults!”
He had rushed to the door, still carrying his naked sword; but he turned back as she spoke, and stood looking at her from head to foot with a savage scornfulness.
“Insult!” he cried. “You have sunk too low for insult. There are no words that I know vile enough to stigmatise such disgrace as yours! Do you know what you have been to me, Angela? A saint — a star; ineffably pure, ineffably remote; a creature to worship at a distance; for whose sake it was scarce a sacrifice to repress all that is common to the base heart of man; from whom a kind word was enough for happiness — so pure, so far away, so detached from this vile age we live in. God, how that saintly face has cheated me! Mock saint, mock nun; a creature of passions like my own but more stealthy; from top to toe an incarnate lie!”
He flung out of the room, and she heard his footsteps about the house, and heard doors opened and shut. She waited for no more; but, being sure by this time that her sister had left the premises, her own desire was to return to Farebam House as soon as possible, counting upon finding Hyacinth there; yet with a sick fear that the seducer might take base advantage of her sister’s terror and confused spirits, and hustle her off upon the fatal journey he had planned.
The boat lay where she had moored it, at the foot of the wooden stair, and she was stepping into it when Fareham ran hastily to the bank.
“Your paramour has got clear off,” he said; and then asked curtly, “How came you by that boat?”
“I brought it from Fareham House.”
“What! you came here alone by water at so late an hour! You heaven-born adventuress! Other women need education in vice; but to you it comes by nature.”
He pulled off his doublet as he stepped into the boat; then seated himself and took the sculls.
“Has your lordship not left a horse waiting for you?” Angela inquired hesitatingly.
“My lordship’s horse will find his stables before morning with the groom that has him in charge. I am going to row you home. Love expectant is bold; but disappointed love may lack courage for a solitary jaunt after midnight. Come, mistress, let us have no ceremony. We have done with that for ever — as we have done with friendship. There are thousands of women in England, all much of a pattern; and you are one of them. That is the end of our romance.”
He bent to his work, and rowed with a steady stroke, and in a stubborn silence, which lasted till it was more strangely broken than such angry silence is apt to be.
The tide was still running up, and it was as much as the single oarsman could do, in that heavy boat, to hold his own against the stream.
Angela sat watching him, with her gaze rooted to that dark countenance and bare head, on which the iron-grey hair waved thick and strong, for Fareham had never consented to envelop his neck and shoulders in a mantle of dead men’s tresses, and wore his own hair after the fashion of Charles the First’s time. So intent was her watch, that the objects on either shore passed her like shadows in a dream. The Primate’s palace on her right hand, as the boat swept round that great bend which the river makes opposite Lambeth Marsh; on her left, as they neared London, the stern grandeur of the Abbey and St. Margaret’s. It was only as they approached Whitehall that she became aware of a light upon the water which was not the reflection of daybreak, and, looking suddenly up, she saw the fierce glare of a conflagration in the eastern sky, and cried —
“There is a fire, my lord! — a great fire, I doubt, in the city.”
The long roof and massive tower of St Paul’s stood dark against the vivid splendour of that sky, and every timber in the scaffolding showed like a black lattice across the crimson and sulphur of raging flames.
Fareham looked round, without moving his sculls from the rowlocks.
“A great fire in verity, mistress! Would God it meant the fulfilment of prophecy!”
“What prophecy, sir?”
“The end of the world, with which we are threatened in this year. God, how the flames rage and mount! Would it were the great fire, and He had come to judge us, and to empty the vials of His wrath upon profligates and seducers!”
He looked at the face opposite, radiant with reflected rose and gold, supernal in that strange light, and, oh, so calm in every line and feature, the large dark eyes meeting his with a gaze that seemed to him half indignant, half reproachful.
“Oh, what hypocrites these women are!” he told himself. “And all alike — all alike. What comedians! For acting one need not go to the Duke’s or the King’s. One may see it at one’s own board, by one’s own hearth. Acting, nothing but acting! And I thought that in the universal mass of falsehood and folly there were some rare stars, dwelling apart here and there, and that she was one of them. An idle dream! Nature has made them all in one mould, and it is but by means and opportunity that they differ.”
Higher and higher rose that vast sheet of vivid colour; and now every tower and steeple was bathed in rosy light, or else stood black against the radiant sky — towers illuminated, towers in densest shadow; the slim spars of ships showing as if drawn with pen and ink on a sulphur background — a scene of surpassing splendour and terror. Fareham had seen Flemish villages blazing, Flemish citadels exploding, their fragments hurled skyward in a blue flame of gunpowder; but never this vast arch of crimson, glowing and growing before his astonished gaze, as he paddled the boat inshore, and stood up to watch the great disaster.
“God has remembered the new Sodom,” he said savagely. “He punished us with pestilence, and we took no heed. And now He tries us with fire. But if it come not yonder,” pointing to Whitehall, which was immediately above them, for their boat lay close to the King’s landing-stage —“if, like the contagion, it stays in the east and only the citizens suffer, why, vive la bagatelle! We — and our concubines — have no part in the punishment. We, who call down the fire, do not suffer it”
Spellbound by that strange spectacle, Fareham stood and gazed, and Angela was afraid to urge him to take the boat on to Fareham House, anxious as she was to span those few hundred yards of distance, to be assured of her sister’s safety.
They waited thus nearly an hour, the sky ever increasing in brilliancy, and the sounds of voices and tramp of hurrying feet growing with every minute. Whitehall was now all alive — men and women, in a careless undress, at every window, some of them hanging half out of the window to talk to people in the court below. Shrieks of terror or of wonder, ejaculations, and oaths sounding on every side; while Fareham, who had moored the boat to an iron ring in the wall by his Majesty’s stairs, stood gloomy and motionless, and made no further comment, only watched the conflagration in dismal silence, fascinated by that prodigious ruin.
It was but the beginning of that stupendous destruction, yet it was already great enough to seem like the end of all things.
“And last night, in the Court theatre, Killigrew’s players were making a jest of a pestilence that filled the grave-pits by thousands,” Fareham muttered, as if awaking from a dream. “Well, the wits will have a new subject for their mirth — London in flames.”
He untied the rope, took his seat and rowed out into the stream. Within that hour in which they had waited, the Thames had covered itself with traffic; boats were moving westward, loaded with frightened souls in casual attire, and with heaps of humble goods and chattels. Some whose houses were nearest the river had been quick enough to save a portion of their poor possessions, and to get them packed on barges; but these were the wise minority. The greater number of the sufferers were stupefied by the suddenness of the calamity, the rapidity with which destruction rushed upon them, the flames leaping from house to house, spanning chasms of emptiness, darting hither and thither like lizards or winged scorpions, or breaking out mysteriously in fresh places, so that already the cry of arson had arisen, and the ever-growing fire was set down to fiendish creatures labouring secretly at a work of universal destruction.
Most of the sufferers looked on at the ruin of their homes, paralysed by horror, unable to help themselves or to mitigate their losses by energetic action of any kind. Dumb and helpless as sheep, they saw their property destroyed, their children’s lives imperilled, and could only thank Providence, and those few brave men who helped them in their helplessness, for escape from a fiery death. Panic and ruin prevailed within a mile eastward of Fareham House, when the boat ground against the edge of the marble landing-stage, and Angela alighted and ran quickly up the stairs, and made her way straight to the house. The door stood wide open, and candles were burning in the vestibule. The servants were at the eastern end of the terrace watching the fire, too much engrossed to see their master and his companion land at the western steps.
At the foot of the great staircase Angela heard herself called by a crystalline voice, and, looking up, saw Henriette hanging over the banister rail.
“Auntie, where have you been?”
“Is your mother with you?” Angela asked.
“Mother is locked in her bed-chamber, and mighty sullen. She told me to go to bed. As if anybody could lie quietly in bed with London burning!” added Papillon, her tone implying that a great city in flames was a kind of entertainment that could not be too highly appreciated.
She came flying downstairs in her pretty silken deshabille, with her hair streaming, and flung her arm round her aunt’s neck.
“Ma chatte, where have you been?”
“On the terrace.”
“Fi donc, menteuse! I saw you and my father land at the west stairs, five minutes ago.”
“We had been looking at the fire.”
“And never offered to take me with you! What a greedy pig!”
“Indeed, dearest, it is no scene for little girls to look upon.”
“And when I am grown up what shall I have to talk about if I miss all the great sights?”
“Come to your room, love. You will see only too much from your windows. I am going to your mother.”
“Ce n’est pas la peine. She is in one of her tempers, and has locked herself in.”
“No matter. She will see me.”
“Je m’en doute. She came home in a coach-and-four nearly two hours ago, with Monsieur de Malfort; and I think they must have quarrelled. They bade each other good night so uncivilly; but he was more huffed than mother.”
“Where were you that you know so much?”
“In the gallery. Did I not tell you I shouldn’t be able to sleep? I went into the gallery for coolness, and then I heard the coach in the courtyard, and the doors opened, and I listened.”
“No, I was not inquisitive. I was only vastly hipped for want of knowing what to do with myself. And I ran to bid her ladyship good morning, for it was close upon one o’clock; but she frowned at me, and pushed me aside with a ‘Go to your bed, troublesome imp! What business have you up at this hour?’ ‘As much business as you have riding about in your coach,’ I had a mind to say, mais je me tenais coy; and made her ladyship la belle Jennings’ curtsy instead. She sinks lower and rises straighter than any of the other ladies. I watched her on mother’s visiting-day. Lord, auntie, how white you are! One might take you for a ghost!”
Angela put the little prattler aside, more gently, perhaps, than the mother had done, and passed hurriedly on to Lady Fareham’s room. The door was still locked, but she would take no denial.
“I must speak with you,” she said.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50