Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xi.

Daphne.

I have not yet spoken of our most honoured visitors, the three Radcliffe brothers. They all came often, but the eldest most often. The reason of his coming you shall presently discover. As for all the three, though they conformed to our customs, and especially in the hospitality for which the north is famous (to the destruction of many a fine estate), they loved not to sit long over their wine, and left the table when the night was yet young, and the bottle but just beginning. The example of Lord Derwentwater’s manners shamed our young gentlemen of their rusticity, though it drove them not from the whisky punch. Thus Tom, for instance, began to take part in discourse which was serious and grave, as ladies like it. With the assistance of Mr. Hilyard and my lord, we held a great many conversations on those curious matters —— theological, philosophical, scientific, and so forth —— which do most concern the soul. To recall some of these old conversations of a happy time, the question was once argued by us whether Abraham was not the first institutor of public schools; and again, why the Fallen Angel is called alike the Son of the Morning and the Prince of Darkness; and another, whether a good painter may not draw a face better and more beautiful than any yet made; and whether it is right for a good patriot, who loves his country, and should desire to beget children for its defence, to become a monk or a nun; whether eyes or tongue help most to love; why a wet sheet tied round a cask prevents the liquor from freezing in the hardest weather; whether the fall of Lucifer was the occasion of the creation of the world; what is the best argument to prove the existence of God; whether the death-watch gives a long or a short notice; why Alexander called his horse Bucephalus; how the flying of kites may be improved to the public advantage; why fish taken from the salt sea taste fresh; what sort of Government is best? who are Gog and Magog? why the stork is never found except in a Republic; who was the father of Louis XIV.? whether the best times are already past, or are yet to come —— with many other questions and curious problems, invented or found for us by Mr. Hilyard, who enriched every discussion with so great a flow of learning as astonished those able to follow and understand him. It was pleasing at these times to observe the shamefacedness of those gallant boys, Perry Widdrington and Ned Swinburne; how they listened, and pretended to be regarding the speaker and his manner of dealing with the subject in hand; and how, presently, they either fell asleep or stole gently away, and so to their tobacco and October.

‘My lord,’ said Tom, ‘is a gentleman of the finest breeding; yet, hang it, he won’t drink! He can ride with the best, and shoot with the best —— pity that so strong a man should have head so weak.’

‘In Paris,’ I replied, ‘it is, happily, not the fashion for gentlemen to drink.’

‘Na —— na. Fashion —— fashion! we gentlemen of the north care nothing for fashion. Drinking will never go out of fashion in this country. A man ought to sit with the company and see the bottle out, not to get up with a “By your leave, gentlemen,” and so off to the women before the toast goes round half-a-dozen times. Let me tell you, sister, my lord and his brothers will never be truly popular till they learn to take their glasses about with the rest.’

Tom was wrong, because the Earl’s good heart made him everywhere beloved. It is better, methinks, to carry all hearts by generosity and virtue than to be popular in a company of gentlemen for strength of head, like any Timothy Tosspot. Why, Mr. Hilyard was popular among those who knew nothing of his scholarship and fine qualities, because he was never known to fall under the table while there was another man still sitting up. Any brewer’s man may become popular for the same cause.

‘My Lord Derwentwater,’ said Mr. Hilyard himself, who was not, in spite of his own practice, a respecter of those who love strong drink —— see how men can admire virtue, and even love her, yet still practise what they despise! ‘My lord is all goodness, I think. He reads books; he hath received a liberal education from the Jesuit Fathers, and can quote from Tully, the Mantuan, and even the great Epicurean poet. It is long, indeed, since so great a nobleman was also so good a scholar. At the University of Oxford, alas! the sons of gentlemen and noblemen are encouraged to pass their time in any pursuit rather than reading. And in Northumberland the gentlemen have been too busy, until late years, upon their Border frays to regard learning greatly. My lord is truly a Phoenix among them. Pity that he still adheres to the old religion. Faith, Miss Dorothy, may surpass reason; but must not oppose it. Yet, as hath been well observed, religion lieth not so much in the understanding as in the practice.’

Thus it happened that on many occasions my lord would leave the gentlemen over their cups and sit with me, conversing on all kinds of subjects, such as his relations with the Prince, his life in Paris, and his projects for the future. He opened up his mind to me in such a way as only a young man, in the society of a woman whom he trusts, can open his mind. I may truly say that I found him always inclined to good works, of the most benevolent disposition, and full of kindness, without any meanness, vice, or blemish in his character. Why do I say these things? His nobleness is so well known that for me to add my testimony is but like carrying coals to Newcastle. One thing I learned very plainly, that my lord, though of so great a name and estate, desired nothing in the world so much as to remain in ease and retirement; to be what his great-grandfather had been (there is no happier lot in the world), a plain country gentleman, and so to live and die. Yet with such loyalty that he knew well, and acknowledged, that when the Prince’s followers made a serious effort, he too, at risk of all, must arise and go with them. Wherefore he prayed daily that the voice of the nation might pronounce —— yea, shout loudly —— for the Prince, so that a restoration, not a rebellion, might follow. But for vapouring conspirators he had no patience, and to such he would never listen.

‘It gives me pleasure,’ he said (so kindly was his heart) ‘to converse with you, fair Miss Dorothy; nowhere else do I find so kind a listener. For if I talk with my brother Frank, he presently flies into a rage at the country’s treatment of Catholics; and if to my aunts, they reproach me for lukewarmness towards the Church, whereas, Heaven knows —— but that may pass; and if to your brother, he falls into his cups, and then he may say one knows not what. There is wisdom in your face —— which I have made to blush —— forgive me. Dorothy,’ he whispered, ‘have your lovers never written any verses on your blushing cheeks?’

I told him that gentlemen in Northumberland do not make verses on ladies at all.

Afterwards I told this pretty compliment (which was made with all respect) to Mr. Hilyard, who laughed, and said that it was high time for the Muses to exchange Parnassus for the Cheviot, or for Spindleston Heugh at least.

Then my lord began to tell me of the ways in Paris, and how the ladies were called by names other than their own sometimes a name made by an anagram, and sometimes by a name taken from classical story.

‘As for you,’ he said, ‘you should be called Daphne, after the nymph who was turned into a laurel. Daphne or Dorothy, which may I call you?’

We were walking along the south bank of the stream, where it rises in a hill, and is covered with hanging woods. Tom was gone a-shooting, and, though it was late in the year, the yellow leaves were still upon the trees, and there were flowers yet among the grass.

‘Daphne, or Dorothy —— which?’

‘Oh! my lord, I am a plain country girl, and know not the language of gallantry.’

‘Heavens!’ he replied. ‘If such a face could be seen in the land where this language is talked! But that, fair Daphne, is impossible. The French ladies are gracieuses, but they have not the beautiful face and figure of our English women, any more than their country has the charms of this, which is surely the garden of all the world.’

Could any woman hear such things said to her for the first time, and by a man so young, so handsome, and so noble, and not lose her heart? Why, I am proud to think that this divine young man made love to me; it makes me happy to remember it. I confess that I was ready to give him my hand and my heart. I should be ashamed of myself now if I had not been ready, because it would argue a head so insensible that a negro of New Guinea would scorn. And yet, whether I be believed or no, I declare that I had no thought of securing a coronet and a great estate. This was so. I was a simple country girl, but of an honourable house; a Radcliffe could do a Forster no honour by marrying her. I was unused to the polite world, ignorant of courts, and untrained in arts of coquetry. Again, I had no knowledge of a woman’s power, nor could I lure a man; nor did I know aught of the strength and passion of love, jealousy, or rivalry, save for the things Mr. Hilyard read to me out of Ovid —— such as the stories of Cephalus and Procris, Hero and Leander, Sappho and Phaon. It was by no arts of mine that my lord was attracted to my side. Yet a woman is not a stock or a stone; and when I saw that he loved me —— why, truly, I need say no more.

Some days after he called me Daphne I found lying on my table, written in a feigned hand, a copy of most beautiful verses. Who could doubt the poet?

‘Like apple-blossom, white and red; Like hues of dawn, which fly too soon; Like bloom of peach, so softly spread; Like thorn of May and rose of June —— Oh, sweet! oh, fair! beyond compare, Are Daphne’s cheeks, Are Daphne’s blushing cheeks, I swear.

‘That pretty rose, which comes and goes, Like April sunshine in the sky, I can command it when I choose —— See how it rises if I cry, Oh, sweet! oh, fair! beyond compare, Are Daphne’s cheeks, Are Daphne’s blushing cheeks, I swear.

‘Ah! when it lies round lips and eyes, And fades away, again to spring, No lover, sure, could ask for more Than still to cry, and still to sing: Oh, sweet! oh, fair! beyond compare, Are Daphne’s cheeks, Are Daphne’s blushing cheeks, I swear.’

Never, sure, were verses more beautiful. I read them again and again. I took them to bed with me, just as a little maid takes her doll with her. I knew them all by heart, and blushed ——

‘That pretty rose, which comes and goes, Like April sunshine in the sky’—— whenever I said them to myself. Who could have written them but my lord? I waited for his next visit, and showed the lines to him, thinking he would have confessed. Ah! the pretender! He read them with an air of astonishment so natural that it might have imposed upon any, so that I did not dare charge him with what he was too modest to acknowledge.

‘Daphne,’ he said, ‘they are pretty verses indeed. I would I could find such rhymes to fit my thoughts. Prior himself hath never written better. Alas! why am I not a poet?’

So he read them again, and when he read the last lines,

‘Oh, sweet! oh, fair! beyond compare, Are Daphne’s cheeks, Are Daphne’s blushing cheeks, I swear,’ he stooped and kissed my hand, saying:

‘Ah! Dorothy, are there in all the world cheeks more sweet than thine?’

Thus we talked, and in such sweet discourse the days passed by. I have sometimes wondered whether Tom suspected that, while he was tramping the moors, fowlingpiece in hand, Lord Derwentwater was turning his sister’s head with compliments, and stealing away her heart. Mr. Hilyard knew and witnessed all, but I understand not why he grew every day more gloomy, insomuch that Tom declared he now wanted six glasses of punch at least before he became moderately cheerful. Why should he not, since he protested so much affection for me, be the happier for my happiness? And why should he, when I went singing, go with his head hanging? He ought, further, to have been happy because Lord Derwentwater noticed him kindly, condescended to ask his opinion on many matters of importance, and listened gravely to his conversation.

‘Such a man,’ he said, ‘would in France be a poet and wit in the service of some great lord, or he would be a hanger-on of ladies’ salons and ruelles, making verses for them, writing operas and comedies. He would be admitted to the suppers of princes, where he would sing and recite and play a thousand monkey tricks. He would be just such a man as Boisrobert, the favourite of the Cardinal fifty years ago, or Benserade, or Voiture, or any of them. He would be an abbé at least, and presently would get something, a canonry, a prebend’s stall, or even a parish. What can such a man do in England?’

Such a man might, Mr. Hilyard himself told me, go to London, find a patron, write plays, and perhaps obtain a place; or he might be the starving wit of a coffee-house, the hack of a publisher, and die in a garret.

‘It is melancholy,’ Lord Derwentwater continued, ‘to see so fine a scholar thus wasted and thrown away. Not,’ he added, ‘that any man can be thrown away to whom it is allowed to sit daily in your presence and to hear your voice. But a man of such vast reading, with a memory so prodigious, should have climbed high up the ladder by now. He should be a Court Chaplain, or a Dean; whereas what is the poor man but a Jack Pudding in the evening and a steward in the morning? A play-actor need not know Greek nor a steward Hebrew. And when Tom Forster marries —— what?’

‘Mr. Hilyard will always have one friend,’ I said. ‘Who loves me must love him too.’

‘I would love an ape for your sake,’ he replied. ‘Therefore I find it easy to love this ingenious gentleman and unfortunate scholar.’ So, one day, I ventured to ask the poor man why he grew so melancholy.

He said, first of all, that he was not melancholy, but brimful of spirits and joy, to prove which he heaved a deep sigh.

‘Nay,’ I said, ‘but I know the contrary. Tell me —— why, surely you, to whom I owe so much gratitude, cannot think I am careless of your concerns. Tell me, dear friend, if it is anything I can help.’

‘It is nothing that you can help,’ he said. ‘I am, in truth, the most ungrateful dog in the world not to be jumping about and singing all day to give you pleasure;’ and yet here he fetched another sigh. ‘I think of the future, when you will go and I remain. But since you will be happy, what matters it for me?’

‘Oh, Mr. Hilyard! I could not be happy if you were miserable. We have been companions so long. Do you think I could ever forget your readings and your talk, from which I have learned all I know? Nay —— but let me whisper one thing. See —— there is one who —— who —— pretends to find pleasure in my society. He knows very well that he who loves me must love my Mr. Hilyard as well.’

Mr. Hilyard hath a heart full of sensibility. He bowed and kissed my hand, and said nothing. But tears were running down his cheeks.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32