For Lady Fareham and her sister September and October made a blank interval in the story of life — uneventful as the empty page at the end of a chapter. They spent those months at Fareham, a house which Hyacinth detested, a neighbourhood where she had never condescended to make friends. She condemned the local gentry as a collection of nobodies, and had never taken the trouble to please the three or four great families within a twenty-mile drive, because, though they had rank and consequence, they had not fashion. The haut gout of Paris and London was wanting to them.
Lord Fareham had insisted upon leaving London on the third of September, and had, his wife declared, out of pure malignity, taken his family to Fareham, a place she hated, rather than to Chilton, a place she loved, at least as much as any civilised mortal could love the country. Never, Hyacinth protested, had her husband been so sullen and ferocious.
“He is not like an angry man,” she told Angela, “but like a wounded lion; and yet, since your goodness took all the blame of my unlucky escapade upon your shoulders, and he knows nothing of De Malfort’s insolent attempt to carry me off, I see no reason why he should have become such a gloomy savage.”
She accepted her sister’s sacrifice with an amiable lightness. How could it harm Angela to be thought to have run out at midnight for a frolic rendezvous? The maids of honour had some such adventure half a dozen times in a season, and were found out, and laughed at, and laughed again, and wound up their tempestuous careers by marrying great noblemen.
“If you can but get yourself talked about you may marry as high as you choose,” Lady Fareham told her sister.
Early in November they went back to London, and though all Hyacinth’s fine people protested that the town stank of burnt wood, smoked oil, and resin, and was altogether odious, they rejoiced not the less to be back again. Lady Fareham plunged with renewed eagerness into the whirlpool of pleasure, and tried to drag Angela with her; but it was a surprise to both, and to one a cause for uneasiness, when his lordship began to show himself in scenes which he had for the most part avoided as well as reviled. For some unexplained reason he became now a frequent attendant at the evening festivities at Whitehall, and without even the pretence of being interested or amused there.
Fareham’s appearance at Court caused more surprise than pleasure in that brilliant circle. The statue of the Comandante would scarcely have seemed a grimmer guest. He was there in the midst of laughter and delight, with never a smile upon his stern features. He was silent for the most part, or if badgered into talking by some of his more familiar acquaintances, would vent his spleen in a tirade that startled them, as the pleasant chirpings of a poultry-yard are startled by the raid of a dog. They laughed at his conversation behind his back; but in his presence, under the angry light of those grey eyes, the gloom of those bent brows, they were chilled into submission and civility. He had a dignity which made his Puritanical plainness more patrician than Rochester’s finery, more impressive than Buckingham’s graceful splendour. The force and vigour of his countenance were more striking than Sedley’s beauty. The eyes of strangers singled him out in that gay throng, and people wanted to know who he was and what he had done for fame.
A soldier, yes, cela saute aux yeux. He could be nothing else than a soldier. A cavalier of the old school. Albeit younger by half a lifetime than Southampton and Clarendon, and the other ghosts of the troubles.
Charles treated him with chill civility.
“Why does the man come here without his wife?” he asked De Malfort. “There is a sister, too, fresher and fairer than her ladyship. Why are we to have the shadow without the sun? Yet it is as well, perhaps, they keep away; for I have heard of a visit which was not returned — a condescension from a woman of the highest rank slighted by a trumpery baron’s wife — and after an offence of that kind she could only have brought us trouble. Why do women quarrel, Wilmot?”
“Why are there any men in the world, sir? If there were none, women would live together like lambs in a meadow. It is only about us they fight. As for Lady Fareham, she is adorable, though no longer young. I believe she will be thirty on her next birthday.”
“And the sister? She had a wild-rose prettiness, I thought, when I saw her at Oxford. She looked like a lily till I spoke to her, and then flamed like a red rose. So fresh, so easily startled. ’Tis pity that shyness of youthful purity wears off in a week. I dare swear by this time Mrs. Kirkland is as brazen as the boldest of our young houris yonder,” with a glance in the direction of the maids of honour, the Queen’s and the Duchess’s, a bevy of chatterers, waving fans, giggling, whispering, shoulder to shoulder with the impudentest men in his Majesty’s kingdom; the men who gave their mornings to writing comedies coarser than Dryden or Etherege, and their nights to cards, dice, and strong drink; roving the streets half clad, dishevelled, wanton; beating the watch, and insulting decent pedestrians; with occasional vicious outbreaks which would have been revolting in a company of inebriated coal-heavers, and which brought these fine gentlemen before a too lenient magistrate. But were not these the manners of which St. Evremond lightly sang —
“‘La douce erreur ne s’appelait point crime;
Les vices délicats se nommaient des plaisirs.’”
“Mistress Kirkland has an inexorable modesty which would outlive even a week at Whitehall, sir,” answered Rochester. “If I did not adore the matron I should worship the maid. Happily for the wretch who loves her I am otherwise engaged!”
“Thou insolent brat! To be eighteen years of age and think thyself irresistible!”
“Does your Majesty suppose I shall be more attractive at six and thirty?”
“Yes, villain; for at my age thou wilt have experience.”
“And a reputation for incorrigible vice. No woman of taste can resist that.”
“And pray who is Mrs. Kirkland’s lover?”
“A Puritan baronet. One Denzil Warner.”
“There was a Warner killed at Hoptown Heath.”
“His son, sir. A fellow who believes in extempore prayer and republican government; and swears England was never so happy or prosperous as under Cromwell.”
“And the lady favours this psalm-singing rebel?”
“I know not. For all I have seen of the two she has been barely civil to him. That he adores her is obvious; and I know Lady Fareham’s heart is set upon the match.”
“Why did not Lady Fareham return the Countess’s visit?”
There was no need to ask what Countess.
“Be sure, sir, the husband was to blame, if there was want of respect for that lovely lady. I can answer for Lady Fareham’s right feeling in that matter.”
“The husband takes a leaf out of Hyde’s book, and forgets that what may be passed over in the Lord Chancellor, and a man of prodigious usefulness, is intolerable in a person of Fareham’s insignificance.”
“Nay, sir, insignificance is scarcely the word. I would as soon call a thunderstorm insignificant. The man is a volcano, and may explode at any provocation.”
“We want no such suppressed fires at Whitehall. Nor do we want long faces; as Clarendon may discover some day, if his sermons grow too troublesome.”
“The Chancellor is a domestic man; as your Majesty may infer from the size and splendour of his new house.”
“He is an expensive man, Wilmot I believe he got more by the sale of Dunkirk than his master did.”
“In that case your Majesty cannot do better than shift all the disgrace of the transaction on to his shoulders. Dunkirk will be a sure card to play when Clarendon has to go overboard.”
That incivility of Lady Fareham’s in the matter of an unreturned visit had rankled deep in the bosom of the King’s imperious mistress. To sin more boldly than woman ever sinned, and yet to claim all the privileges and honours due to virtue was but a trifling inconsistency in a mind so fortified by pride that it scarce knew how to reckon with shame. That she, in her supremacy of beauty and splendour, a fortune sparkling in either ear, the price of a landed estate on her neck — that she, Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine, should have driven in a windowless coach through dusty lanes, eating dirt, as it were, with her train of court gallants on horseback at her coach doors, her ladies in a carriage in the rear, to visit a person of Lady Fareham’s petty quality, a Buckinghamshire Knight’s daughter married to a Baron of Henry the Eighth’s creation! And that this amazing condescension — received with a smiling and curtsying civility — should have been unacknowledged by any reciprocal courtesy was an affront that could hardly be wiped out with blood. Indeed, it could never be atoned for. The wound was poisoned, and would rankle and fester to the end of that proud life.
Yet on Fareham’s appearance at Whitehall Lady Castlemaine distinguished with a marked civility, and even condescended, smilingly, as if there were no cause of quarrel, to inquire after his wife.
“Her ladyship is as pretty as ever, though we are all growing old,” she said. “We exchanged curtsies at Tunbridge Wells the other day. I wonder how it is we never get further than smiles and curtsies? I should like to show the dear woman some more substantial civility. She is buried alive in your stately house by the river, for the want of an influential friend to show her the world we live in.”
“Indeed, madam, my wife has all the pleasure she desires — her visiting-day, her friends.”
“And her admirers. Rochester is always hanging about your garden, or landing from his wherry, when I go by; or, if he himself be not visible, there are a couple of his watermen on your steps.”
“My Lord Rochester has a precocious wit which amuses my wife and her sister.”
“And then there is De Malfort — an impertinent, second only to Gramont. He and Lady Fareham are twin stars. I have seldom seen them apart.”
“Since De Malfort has the honour of being somewhat intimate with your ladyship, he has doubtless given you full particulars of his friendship for my wife. I assure you it will bear being talked about. There are no secrets in it.”
“Really; I thought I had heard something about a sedan which took the wrong road after Killigrew’s play. But that was the night before the fire. Good God! my lord, your face darkens as if a man had struck you. Whatever happened before the fire should have been burnt out of our memories by this time.”
“I see his Majesty looking this way, madam, and I have not yet paid my respects to him,” Fareham said, moving away, but a dazzling hand on his sleeve arrested him.
“Oh, your respects will keep; he has Miss Stewart giggling at his elbow. Strange, is it not, that a woman with as much brain as a pigeon can amuse a man who reckons himself both wise and witty?”
“It is not the lady who amuses the gentleman, madam. She has the good sense to pretend that he amuses her.”
“And no more understands a jest than she does Hebrew.”
“She is conscious of pretty teeth and an enchanting smile. Wit or understanding would be superfluous,” answered Fareham, bowing his adieu to the Sultana in chief.
There was a great assembly, with music and dancing, on the Queen’s birthday, to which Lord and Lady Fareham and Mistress Kirkland were invited; and again Angela saw and wondered at the splendid scene, and at this brilliant world, which calamity could not touch. Pestilence had ravaged the city, flames had devoured it — yet here there were only smiling people, gorgeous dress, incomparable jewels. The plague had not touched them, and the fire had not reached them. Such afflictions are for the common herd. Angela promenaded with De Malfort in the spacious banqueting-hall, with its ceiling of such prodigious height that the apotheosis of King James, and all the emblematical figures, triumphal cars, lions, bears and rams, corn-sheaves and baskets of fruit, which filled the panels, might as well have been executed by a sign-painter’s rough-and-ready brush, as by the pencil of the great Fleming.
“We are a little kinder to Rubens at the Louvre,” said De Malfort, noting her upward gaze; “for we allow his elaborate glorification of his Majesty’s grandfather and grandmother about half a mile of wall. But I forgot, you have not seen Paris, nor those acres of gaudy colouring which Henri’s vanity inflicted upon us. Florentine Marie, with her carnation cheeks and opulent shoulders — the Roman-nosed Béarnais, with his pointed beard and stiff ruff. Mon Dieu, how the world has changed since Ravaillac’s knife snapped that valiant life! And you have never seen Paris? You look about you with wide-open eyes, and take this crowd, this ceiling, those candlebra for splendour.”
“Can there be a scene more splendid?” asked Angela, pleased to keep him by her side, rather than see him devote himself to her sister; grateful for his attention in that crowd where most people were strangers, and where Lord Fareham had not vouchsafed the slightest notice of her.
“When you have seen the Louvre, you will wonder that any King, with a sense of his own consequence in the world, can inhabit such a hovel as Whitehall — this congeries of shabby apartments, the offices of servants, the lodgings of followers and dependents, soldiers and civilians — huddled in a confused labyrinth of brick and stone — redeemed from squalor only by one fine room. Could you see the grand proportions, the colossal majesty of the great Henri’s palace — that palace whose costly completion sat heavy upon Sully’s careful soul! Henri loved to build — and his grandson, Louis, inherits that Augustan taste.”
“You were telling us of a new palace at Versailles ——”
“A royal city in stone — white — dazzling — grandiose. The mortar was scarcely dry when I was there in March; but you should have seen the mi-careme ball. The finest masquerade that was ever beheld in Europe. All Paris came in masks to see that magnificent spectacle. His Majesty allowed entrance to all — and those who came were feasted at a banquet which only Rabelais could fairly describe. And then with our splendour there is an elegant restraint — a decency unknown here. Compare these women — Lady Shrewsbury yonder, Lady Chesterfield, the fat woman in sea-green and silver — Lady Castlemaine, brazen in orange velvet and emeralds — compare them with Condé‘s sister, with the Duchesse de Bouillon, the Princess Palatine ——”
“Are those such good women?”
“Humph! They are ladies. These are the kind of women King Charles admires. They are as distinct a race as the dogs that lie in his bed-chamber, and follow him in his walks, a species of his own creation. They do not even affect modesty. But I am turning preacher, like Fareham. Come, there is to be an entertainment in the theatre. Roxalana has returned to the stage — and Jacob Hall, the rope-dancer, is to perform.”
They followed the crowd, and De Malfort remained at Angela’s side till the end of the performance, and attended her to the supper-table afterwards. Fareham watched them from his place in the background. He stood ever aloof from the royal focus, the beauty, and the wit, the most dazzling jewels, the most splendid raiment. He was amidst the Court, but not of it.
Yes; the passion which these two entertained for each other was patent to every eye; but had it been an honourable attachment upon De Malfort’s side, he would have declared himself before now. He would not have abandoned the field to such a sober suitor as Denzil. Henri de Malfort loved her, and she fed his passion with her sweetest smiles, the low and tender tones of the most musical voice Fareham had ever listened to.
“The voice that came to me in my desolation — the sweetest sound that ever fell on a dying man’s ear,” he thought, recalling those solitary days and nights in the plague year, recalling those vanished hours with a fond longing, “that arm which shows dazzling white against the purple velvet of his sleeve is the arm that held up my aching head, in the dawn of returning reason; those are the eyes that looked down upon mine, so pitiful, so anxious for my recovery. Oh, lovely angel, I would be a leper again, a plague-stricken wretch, only to drink a cup of water from that dear hand — only to feel the touch of those light fingers on my forehead! There was a magic in that touch that surpassed the healing powers of kings. There was a light as of heaven in those benignant eyes. But, oh, she is changed since then. She is plague-stricken with the contagion of a profligate age. Her wings are scorched by the fire of this modish Tophet She has been taught to dress and look like the women around her — a little more modest — but after the same fashion. The nun I worshipped is no more.”
Some one tapped him on the shoulder with an ostrich fan. He turned, and saw Lady Castlemaine close at his elbow.
“Image of gloom, will you lead me to my rooms?” she asked, in a curious voice, her dark blue eyes deepened by the pallor that showed through her rouge.
“I shall esteem myself too much honoured by that office,” he answered, as she took his arm and moved quickly, with hurried footsteps, through the lessening throng.
“Oh, there is no one to dispute the honour with you. Sometimes I have a mob to hustle me to my lodgings, borne on the current of their adulation — sometimes I move through a desert, as I do to-night. Your face attracted me — for I believe it is the only one at Whitehall as gloomy as my own — unless there are some of my creditors, men to whom I owe gaming debts.”
It was curious to note that subtle change in the faces of those they passed, which Barbara Palmer knew so well — faces that changed, obedient to the weathercock of royal caprice — the countenances of courtiers who even yet had not learnt justly to weigh the influence of that imperial favourite, or to understand that she ruled their King with a power which no transient fancy for newer faces could undermine. A day or two in the sulks, frowns and mournful looks for gossip Pepys to jot down in his diary, and the next day the sun would be shining again, and the King would be at supper with “the lady.”
Perhaps Lady Castlemaine knew that her empire was secure; but she took these transient fancies moult serieusement. Her jealous soul could tolerate no rival — or it may be that she really loved the King. He had given himself to her in the flush of his triumphant return, while he was still young enough to feel a genuine passion. For her sake he had been a cruel husband, an insolent tyrant to an inoffensive wife; for her sake he had squandered his people’s money, and outraged every moral law; and it may be that she remembered these things, and hated him the more fiercely for them when he was inconstant. She was a woman of extremes, in whose tropical temperament there was no medium between hatred and love.
“You will sup with me, Fareham?” she said, as he waited on the threshold of her lodgings, which were in a detached pile of buildings, near the Holbein Gateway, and looking upon an enclosed and somewhat gloomy garden.
“Your ladyship will excuse me. I am expected at home.”
“What devil! Perhaps you think I am inviting you to a tête-à-tête. I shall have some company, though the drove have gone to the Stewarts’ in a hope of getting asked to supper — which but a few of them can realise in her mean lodgings. You had better stay. I may have Buckhurst, Sedley, De Malfort, and a few more of the pretty fellows — enough to empty your pockets at basset.”
“Your ladyship is all goodness,” said Fareham, quickly.
De Malfort’s name had decided him. He followed his hostess through a crowd of lackeys, a splendour of wax candles, to her saloon, where she turned and flashed upon him a glorious picture of mature loveliness, her complexion the peach in its ripest bloom, the orange sheen of her velvet mantua shining out against a background of purple damask curtains embroidered with gold.
The logs blazed and roared in the wide chimney. Warmth, opulence, hospitality, were all expressed in the brilliantly lighted room, where luxurious fauteuils, after the new French fashion, stood about, ready to receive her ladyship’s guests.
These were not long waited for. There was no crowd. Less than twenty men, and about a dozen women, were enough to add an air of living gaiety to the brilliancy of light and colour. De Malfort was the last who entered. He kissed her ladyship’s hand, looked about him, and recognised Fareham with open wonder.
“An Israelite in the house of Dagon!” he said, sotto voce, as he approached him. “What, Fareham, have you given your neck to the yoke? Do you yield to the charm which has subjugated such lighter natures as Villiers and Buckhurst?”
“It is only human to love variety. You have discovered the charm of youth and innocence.”
“Do you think it needs a modish Columbus to discover that? We all worship innocence, were it but for its rarity, as we esteem a black pearl or a yellow diamond above a white one. Jarni, but I am pleased to see you here! It is the most human thing I have known of you since you recovered of the contagion; for you have been a gloomier man from that time.”
“Be assured I am altogether human — at least upon the worser side of humanity.”
“How dismal you look! Upon my soul, Fareham, you should fight against that melancholic habit. Her ladyship is in the black sulks. We are in for a pleasant evening. Yet, if we were to go away, she would storm at us to-morrow; call us sycophants and time-servers, swear she would hold no further commerce with any manjack among our detestable crew. Well, she is a magnificent termagant. If Cleopatra was half as handsome, I can forgive Antony for following her to ruin at Actium.”
“There is supper in the music-room, gentlemen,” said Lady Castlemaine, who was standing near the fire in the midst of a knot of whispering women.
They had been abusing the fair Frances, and ridiculing old Rowley, to gratify their hostess. She knew them by heart — their falsehood and hollowness. She knew that they were ready, every one of them, to steal her royal lover, had they but the chance of such a conquest; yet it solaced her soreness to hear Miss Stewart depreciated even by those false lips —“She was too tall.” “Her Britannia profile looked as if it was cut out of wood.” “She was bold, bad, designing.” “It was she who would have the King, not the King who would have her.”
“You are too malicious, my dearest Price,” said Lady Castlemaine, with more good humour than had been seen in her countenance that evening. “Buckhurst, will you take Mrs. Price to supper? There are cards in the gallery. Pray amuse yourselves.”
“But will your ladyship neither sup nor play?” asked Sedley.
“My ladyship has a raging headache. What devil! Did I not lose enough to some of you blackguards last night? Do you want to rook me again? Pray amuse yourselves, friends. No doubt his Majesty is being exquisitely entertained where he is; but I doubt if he will get as good a supper as you will find in the next room.”
The significant laugh which concluded her speech was too angry for mirth, and the blackness of her brow forbade questioning. All the town knew next day that she had contrived to get the royal supper intercepted and carried off, on its way from the King’s kitchen to Miss Stewart’s lodgings, and that his Majesty had a Barmecide feast at the table of beauty. It was a joke quite in the humour of the age.
The company melted out of the room; all but Fareham, who watched Lady Castlemaine as she stood by the hearth in an attitude of hopeless self-forgetfulness, leaning against the lofty sculptured chimney-piece, one slender foot in gold-embroidered slipper and transparent stocking poised on the brazen fender, and her proud eyelids lowered as if there was nothing in this world worth looking at but the pile of ship’s timber, burning with many-coloured flames upon the silver andirons.
In spite of that sullen downward gaze she was conscious of Fareham’s lingering.
“Why do you stay, my lord?” she asked, without looking up. “If your purse is heavy there are friends of mine yonder who will lighten it for you, fairly or foully. I have never made up my mind how far a gentleman may be a rogue with impunity. If you don’t love losing money you had best eat a good supper and begone.”
“I thank you, madam. I am more in the mood for cards than for feasting.”
She did not answer him, but clasped her hands suddenly before her face and gave a heart-breaking sigh. Fareham paused on the threshold of the gallery, watching her, and then went slowly back, bent down to take the hand that had dropped at her side, and pressed his lips upon it, silently, respectfully, with a kind of homage that had become strange of late years to Barbara Palmer. Adorers she had and to spare, toadeaters and flatterers, a regiment of mercenaries; but these all wanted something of her — kisses, smiles, influence, money. Disinterested respect was new.
“I thought you were a Puritan, Lord Fareham.”
“I am a man; and I know what it is to suffer the hell-fire of jealousy.”
“Jealousy, yes! I never was good at hiding my feelings. He treats me shamefully. Come, now, you take me for an abandoned profligate woman, a callous wanton. That is what the world takes me for; and, perhaps, I have deserved no better of the world. But whatever I am ’twas he made me so. If he had been true, I could have been constant. It is the insolence of abandonment that stings; the careless slights, scarce conscious that he wounds. Before the eyes of the world, too, before wretches that grin and whisper, and prophesy the day when my pride shall be in the dust. It is treat ment such as this that makes women desperate; and if we cannot keep him we love, we make believe to love some one else, and flaunt our fancy in the deceiver’s face. Do you think I cared for Buckingham, with his heart of ice; or for such a snipe as Jermyn; or for a low-born rope-dancer? No, Fareham; there has been more of rage and hate than of passion in my caprices. And he is with Frances Stewart to-night. She sets up for a model of chastity, and is to marry Richmond next month. But we know, Fareham, we know. Women who ride in glass coaches should not throw stones. I will have Charles at my feet again. I will have my foot upon his neck again. I cannot use him too ill for the pain he gives me. There, go — go! Why did you tempt me to lay my heart bare?”
“Dearest lady, believe me, I respect your candour. My heart bleeds for your wrongs. So beautiful, so high above all other women in the capacity to charm! Ah, be sure such loveliness has its responsibilities. It is a gift from Heaven, and to hold it cheap is a sin.”
“There is nothing in this life can be held too cheap. Beauty, love — all trumpery! You would make life a tragedy. It is a farce, Fareham, a farce; and all our pleasures and diversions only serve to make us forget what worms we are. There, go — to cards — to supper — as you please. I am going to my bed-chamber to rest this throbbing head. I may return and take a hand at cards by-and-by, perhaps. Those fellows will game and booze till daylight.”
Fareham opened the door for her, as she went out, regal in port and air. She had moved him to compassion, even while she owned herself a wanton. To love passionately — and to see another preferred! There is a brotherhood in agony, that brings even opposite natures into sympathy. He passed into the gallery, a long low room, hung with modern tapestries, richly coloured, voluptuous in design. Clusters of wax tapers in gilded sconces lit up those Paphian pictures. There were several tables, at which the mixed company were sitting. Piles of the new guineas, fresh from his Majesty’s Mint, shone in the candle-light. At some tables there was a silent absorption in the game, which argued high play, and the true gambler’s spirit; at others mirth reigned — talk, laughter, animated looks. One of the noisiest was the table at which De Malfort was the most conspicuous figure; his periwig the highest, his dress the most sumptuous, his breast glittering with orders. His companions were Sir Ralph Masaroon, Colonel Dangerfield, an old Malignant, who had hibernated during the Protectorate, and had never left his own country, and Lady Lucretia Topham, a visiting acquaintance of Hyacinth’s.
“Come here, Fareham,” cried De Malfort; “there is plenty of room for you. I’ll wager Lady Lucretia will pass you her hand, and thank you for taking it.”
“Lady Lucretia is glad to be quit of such dishonest company,” said the lady, tossing her cards upon the table, and rising in a cloud of powder and perfume, and a flutter of lace and brocade. “If I were ill-humoured I would say you marked the cards! but as I’m the soul of good nature, I’ll only swear you are the luckiest dog in London.”
“You are the soul of good nature, and I am the luckiest dog in the universe when you smile upon me,” answered De Malfort, without looking up from his cards, as the lady posed herself gracefully at the back of his chair, leaning over his shoulder to watch his play. “I would not limit the area to any city, however big.”
Fareham seated himself in the chair the lady had vacated, and gathered up the cards she had abandoned. He took a handful of gold from his pocket, and put it on the table at his elbow, all with a somewhat churlish silence, that escaped notice where everybody was loquacious. De Malfort went on fooling with Lady Lucretia, whose lovely hand and arm, her strongest point, descended upon a card now and then, to indicate the play she deemed wisest.
Once he caught the hand and kissed it in transit.
“Wert thou as wise as this hand is fair it should direct my play; but it is only a woman’s hand, and points the way to perdition.”
Fareham had been losing steadily from the moment he took up Lady Lucretia’s cards; and his pile of jacobuses had been gradually passed over to De Malfort’s side of the table. He had emptied his pockets, and had scrawled two or three I.O.U.‘s upon scraps of paper torn from a note-book. Yet he went on playing, with the same immovable countenance. The room had emptied itself, the rest of the visitors leaving earlier than their usual hour in that hospitable house. Perhaps because the hostess was missing; perhaps because the royal sun was shining elsewhere.
Lackeys handed their salvers of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and the players refreshed themselves occasionally with a brimmer of clary; but no wine brightened Fareham’s scowling brow, or changed the glooiay intensity of his outlook.
“My cards have brought your lordship bad luck,” said Lady Lucretia, who watched De Malfort’s winnings with an air of personal interest.
“I knew my risk before I took them, madam. When an Englishman plays against a Frenchman he is a fool if he is not prepared to be rooked.”
“Fareham, are you mad?” cried De Malfort, starting to his feet. “To insult your friend’s country, and, by basest implication, your friend.”
“I see no friend here. I say that you Frenchmen cheat at cards — on principle — and are proud of being cheats! I have heard De Gramont brag of having lured a man to his tent, and fed him, and wined him, and fleeced him while he was drunk.” He took a goblet of claret from the lackey who brought his salver, emptied it, and went on, hoarse with passion. “To the marrow of your bones you are false, all of you! You do not cog your dice, perhaps, but you bubble your friends with finesses, and are as much sharpers at heart as the lowest tat-mongers in Alsatia. You empty our purses, and cozen our women with twanging guitars and jingling rhymes, and laugh at us because we are honest and trust you. Seducers, tricksters, poltroons!”
The footman was at De Malfort’s elbow now. He snatched a tankard from the salver, and flung the contents across the table, straight at Fareham’s face.
“This bully forces me to spoil his Point de Venise,” he said coolly, as he set down the tankard. “There should be a law for chaining up rabid curs that have run mad without provocation.”
Fareham sprang to his feet, black and terrible, but with a savage exultation in his countenance. The wine poured in a red stream from his point-lace cravat, but had not touched his face.
“There shall be something redder than Burgundy spilt before we have done!” he said.
“Sacre nom, nous sommes tombes dans un antre de betes sauvages!” exclaimed Masaroon, starting up, and anxiously examining the skirts of his brocade coat, lest that sudden deluge had caught him.
“None of your —— French to show your fine breeding!” growled the old cavalier. “Fareham, you deserved the insult; but one red will wash out another. I’m with your lordship.”
“And I’m with De Malfort,” said Masaroon. “He had more than enough provocation.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, no bloodshed!” cried Lady Lucretia; “or, if you are going to be uncivil to each other, for God’s sake get me to my chair. I have a husband who would never forgive me if it were said you fought for my sake.”
“We will see you safely disposed of, madam, before we begin our business,” said Colonel Dangerfield, bluntly. “Fareham, you can take the lady to her chair, while Masaroon and I discuss particulars.”
“There is no need of a discussion,” interrupted Fareham, hotly. “We have nothing to arrange — nothing to wait for. Time, the present; place, the garden, under these windows; weapons, the swords we wear. We shall have no witnesses but the moon and stars. It is the dead middle of the night, and we have the world all to ourselves.”
“Give me your rapier, then, that I may compare it with the Count’s. You are satisfied, monsieur? ’Tis you that are the offender, and Lord Fareham has the choice of weapons.”
“Let him choose. I will fight him with cannon — or with soap-bubbles,” answered De Malfort, lolling back in his chair, tilted at an angle of forty-five, and drumming a gay dance tune with his finger-tips on the table. “’Tis a foolish imbroglio from first to last: and only his lordship and I know how foolish. He came here to provoke a quarrel, and I must indulge him. Come, Lady Lucretia”— he turned to his fair friend, as he unbuckled his sword and flung it on the table —“it is my place to lead you to your chair. Colonel, you and your friend will find me below stairs in front of the Holbein Gate.”
“You are forgetting your winnings,” remonstrated the lady, pointing to the pile of gold.
“The lackeys will not forget them when they clear the room,” answered De Malfort, putting her hand through his arm, and leaving the money on the table.
Ten minutes later Fareham and De Malfort were standing front to front in the glare of four torches, held by a brace of her ladyship’s lackeys who had been impressed into the service, and the colder light of a moon that rode high in the blue-black of a wintry heaven. There was not a sound but the ripple of the unseen river, and the distant cry of a watchman in Petty France, till the clash of swords began.
It was decided after a brief parley that the principals only should fight. The quarrel was private. The seconds placed their men on a piece of level turf, five paces apart. They were bare-headed, and without coat or vest, the lace ruffles of their shirt-sleeves rolled back to the elbow, their naked arms ghastly white, their faces suggesting ghost or devil as the spectral moonlight or the flame of the flambeaux shone upon them.
“You mean business, so we may sink the parade of the fencing saloon,” said Dangerfield. “Advance, gentlemen.”
“A pity,” murmured Masaroon, “there is nothing prettier than the salute à la Française.”
Dangerfield handed the men their swords. They were nearly similar in fashion, both flat-grooved blades, with needle points, and no cutting edge, furnished with shell-guards and cross-bars in the Italian style, and were about of a length.
The word was given, and the business of engagement proceeded slowly and warily, for a few moments that seemed minutes; and then the blades were firmly joined in carte, and a series of rapid feints began, De Malfort having a slight advantage in the neatness of his circles, and the swiftness of his wrist play. But in these preliminary lounges and parries, he soon found he needed all his skill to dodge his opponent’s point; for Fareham’s blade followed his own, steadily and strongly, through every turn.
De Malfort had begun the fight with an insolent smile upon his lips, the smile of a man who believes himself invincible, while Fareham’s countenance never changed from the black anger that had darkened it all that night. It was a face that meant death. A man who had never been a duellist, who had raised his voice sternly against the practice of duelling, stood there intent upon bloodshed. There could be no mistake as to his purpose. The quarrel was an artificial quarrel — the object was murder.
De Malfort, provoked at the unexpected strength of Fareham’s fence, attempted a partial disarmament, after the deadly Continental method. Joining his opponent’s blade near the point, from a wide circular parry, he made a rapid thrust in seconde, carrying his forte the entire length of Fareham’s blade, almost wrenching the sword from his grasp; and then, in the next instant, reaching forward to his fullest stretch, he lunged at his enemy’s breast, aiming at the vital region of the heart; a thrust that must have proved fatal had not Fareham sprung aside, and so received the blow where the sword only grazed his ribs, inflicting a flesh-wound that showed red upon the whiteness of his shirt. Dangerfield tore off his cravat, and wanted to bind it round his principal’s waist; but Fareham repulsed him, and lashed into hot fury by the Frenchman’s uncavalier-like ruse, met his adversary’s thrusts with a deadly purpose, which drove De Malfort to reckless lunging and riposting, and the play grew fast and fierce, while the rattle of steel seemed never likely to end. Suddenly, timing his attack to the fraction of a second, Fareham dropped on his left knee, and planting his left hand upon the ground, sent a murderous thrust home under De Malfort’s guard, whose blade passed harmlessly over his adversary’s head as he crouched on the sward.
De Malfort fell heavily in the arms of the two seconds, who both sprang to his assistance.
“Is it fatal?” asked Fareham, standing motionless as stone, while the other men knelt on either side of De Malfort.
“I’ll run for a surgeon,” said Masaroon. “There’s a fellow I know of this side the Abbey — mends bloody noses and paints black eyes,” and he was off, running across the grass to the nearest gate.
“It looks plaguily like a coffin,” Dangerfield answered, with his hand on the wounded man’s breast. “There’s throbbing here yet; but he may bleed to death, like poor Lindsey, before surgery can help him. You had better run, Fareham. Take horse to Dover, and get across to Calais or Ostend. You were devilish provoking. It might go hard with you if he was to die.”
“I shall not budge, Dangerfield. Didn’t you hear me say I wanted to kill him? You might guess I didn’t care a cast of the dice for my life when I said as much. Let them find it murder, and hang me. I wanted him out of the world, and don’t care how soon I follow.”
“You are mad — stark, staring mad!”
The wounded man raised himself on his elbow, groaning aloud in the agony of movement, and beckoned Fareham, who knelt down beside him, all of a piece, like a stone figure.
“Fareham, you had better run; I have powerful friends. There’ll be an ugly stir if I die of this bout. Kiss me, mon ami. I forgive you. I know what wound rankled; ’twas for your wife’s sister you fought — not the cards.”
He sank into Dangerfield’s arms, swooning from loss of blood, as Masaroon came back at a run, bringing a surgeon, an elderly man of that Alsatian class which is to be found out of bed in the small hours. He brought styptics and bandages, and at once set about staunching the wound.
While this was happening a curtain had been suddenly pulled aside at an upper window in Lady Castlemaine’s lodgings, showing a light within. The window was thrown open, and a figure appeared, clad in a white satin night-gown that glistened in the moonlight, with a deep collar of ermine, from which the handsomest face in London looked across the garden, to the spot where Fareham, the seconds, and the surgeon were grouped about De Malfort.
It was Lady Castlemaine. She leant out of the window and called to them.
“What has happened? Is any one hurt? I’ll wager a thousand pounds you devils have been fighting.”
“De Malfort is stabbed!” Masaroon answered.
“Not dead?” she shrieked, leaning farther out of the window.
“No; but it looks dangerous.”
“Bring him into my house this instant! I’ll send my fellows to help. Have you sent for a surgeon?”
“The surgeon is here.”
The radiant figure vanished like a vision in the skies; and in three minutes a door was heard opening, and a voice calling, “John, William, Hugh, Peter, every manjack of you. Lazy devils! There’s been no time for you to fall asleep since the company left. Stir yourselves, vermin, and out with you!”
“We had best levant, Fareham,” muttered Dangerfield, and drew away his principal, who went with him, silent and unresisting, having no more to do there; not to fly the country, however, but to walk quietly home to Fareham House, and to let himself in at the garden door, known to the household as his lordship’s.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50