Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xii.

Frank Radcliffe.

The second of the brothers came seldom. He was a grave lad: he neither laughed nor made merry, nor rode a-hunting like his two brothers. In figure he was the tallest of the three; but stooped in walking, so that he seemed the shortest. He was possessed of a strange melancholy, of which he was never quite free, although sometime he would seem to shake it off and talk bravely for a while. He was like his uncle, Colonel Thomas Radcliffe, in his temperament, being as moody and as full of strange fancies.

‘It is a disease,’ said Mr. Hilyard, speaking of Francis Radcliffe’s melancholia, ‘for which there is no known remedy, while the causes are subtle and manifold. The patients are subject to strange fancies and illusions; some have thought themselves made of glass and others of feathers; some are held down with fear, and others inflated like bladders with wild hopes; some suffer the curse of Apuleius, in that dead men’s bones are always held before them: a strange disease indeed. Yet melancholy men, as Aristotle insisteth, are often witty.’

Mr. Hilyard, therefore, regarded this young gentleman with a peculiar curiosity, and loved nothing so much as to talk with him and learn his thoughts. First of all he discovered that this boy was strangely given to the study of all books which he could find upon the unseen world, such as book on oracles, conjuring, of spirits, predictions, astrology, and so forth. On meeting encouragement he opened his mind to Mr. Hilyard and took counsel with him. There was no subject in the world, I believe, in which our most ingenious Oxford scholar was not versed. Therefore Frank learned from him how to conjure spirits, raise the dead, cast nativities, and so forth, and that is to say, all that books can teach.

‘Which is,’ Mr. Hilyard said, ‘everything except the essential. I mean, Mr. Radcliffe, that you may question the stars, but you must read their answer yourself, because they are silent; and you may question the dead —— these books tell you how —— but I doubt if they will reply.’

Nevertheless they began to amuse themselves with casting horoscopes and nativities, erecting celestial figures and the houses of heaven; Mr. Hilyard all the time protesting that the thing was a foolish invention, and useful only in that it taught something of the planetary courses. Yet he, like his pupil, watched anxiously for the event; and when, not in one case only, that of Frank himself, but also of the Earl and my brother Tom, the future which they hoped to find lovely and fortunate came out gloomy and threatening, all the signs menacing, Mr. Hilyard became terrified and would have no more of it, saying that though it was a vain thing, yet to continue in it might be the sin of tempting Providence, such as that committed by Saul; and that as for him, he would ask of the stars no more. Now if the future they had seen in this mirror of coming time had been bright and happy, would they have ceased to inquire? I think not; and strange it is that this thing which so many learned men and philosophers teach us to despise, is yet on occasion believed in even by themselves.

We had many conversations upon these subjects, which, like the tales of ghosts, are always curious to people of every age and rank. Mr. Hilyard, after speaking of the practice among the ancients, one day discoursed upon the common and vulgar methods practised by people in all countries and in times ancient and modern.

‘Some, for instance,’ he said, ‘look in a magic ball of glass, when they see not only the future but also the present, and what is being done in far countries. Others fill a basin with water, and behold the same as in a mirror. Others read the future by dreams, and others by cards; while by the flight and number of birds, the crowing of cocks, the first words heard in the morning, the luck of the day is determined. Some have placed barley on the letters of the alphabet, and noted the order in which a fowl will pick up the ears.’

‘My maid Jenny,’ I said, ‘reads fortunes by the hand.’

‘It is palmistry,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘and a most curious art, though, like the rest, it is vain and useless; while, it hath been held by some, the Lord hath stamped the future of man upon every feature, so that, if we could learn it, we might read in the curve of an eyebrow, the lines of the lips, the turn of the chin, a sure and certain prognostic of what will happen to us before we die. With your permission, Miss Dorothy, we will examine the girl in this matter.’

Jenny was called, and I asked her first to read my hand. She replied, looking ashamed, that she had read it many times; but when I commanded her to tell me what she saw there, she hesitated and changed colour, and then replied, like a gipsy at a fair when you cross her hand with a groat, that there was a fair young gentleman of a great estate, and that she saw a wedding-ring and happiness as long as a summer day, with beautiful children. But it was manifest that she said what she thought would please me. Then Mr. Hilyard bade her look at Mr. Frank’s hand, into which she peered long and with a strange curiosity. After a while she dropped his hand, and turned to Mr. Hilyard, saying:

‘Now yours, sir,’ and read it glibly as if from a book, saying, ‘The line of life is long, but the course of love is crossed. There is wealth for you, and honour; but no wife and no children. No one hath everything.’

‘But mine,’ cried Frank ——‘what is mine?’

But she replied not, running away. When afterwards I rebuked her, she acknowledged that she could not tell him what she read, so bad and unlucky it was. She also told me that her grandmother, the old gipsy woman of whom I have spoken, had also told the fortune of Mr. Frank by cards, and that it came the same as her own telling, which made me marvel.

‘Ask no more,’ said Mr. Hilyard; ‘and you, girl, keep these things to yourself, else the people will get strange notions into their heads.’

The people had already got into their heads strange notions. First this girl of mine had filled the place with the terror of the ghosts she saw. Next it was said that she was a witch, and ought to be thrown into a pond. Perhaps that would have been done, but for fear of us. Then it was said that she had bewitched a certain young fellow of the place named Job Oliver, a hind. They told Mr. Hilyard that Job would do whatever foolish things Jenny told him to do; that he would sometimes rise when she was not in the company, and say that Jenny called him, and so go to her; that he looked not as he was wont to look, but went about with eyes distracted and trembling hands.

‘She is a witch,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘just as all women are witches; and she hath bewitched this foolish lad. But the only arts, I think, are those which she practises in common with all her sex, namely, her eyes and her face. In a word, the fellow is in love.’

I spoke to her on the subject, and she confessed, though she looked confused, that it was as Mr. Hilyard said, and that if the man chose to be in love with her she could not help it; perhaps he did and said foolish things, but she could not help that either; and he must do what he pleased. The girl was saucy about it, but yet one could not reprove her, because it makes every woman saucy and self-conceited, when a man is in love with her. When she crossed the quadrangle or entered any of their houses, the people looked askance and put thumb in fingers, but yet were monstrous civil, because they feared her. Witch or not, she did none of them any harm (I do not believe that a pig which died at this time was overlooked by her, though this was charged upon her). As for Job, after we went away he presently recovered, looked about him, became once more a cheerful wight, forgot his enchantress, and married another woman, who made him happy in such sort as rustics understand happiness; that is to say, every year a thumping boy or girl, and every Sunday a great dish of fat bacon. And as for Jenny herself, she paid no heed to what was thought, but went about with an impudent answer for all except her mistress, and a saucy laugh, and singing as she went, as if there was no such thing in the world at all as witchcraft, and she had no powers and gifts above those generally conferred upon young maids —— namely, the bewitching of eyes and face, soft speech, and lovely limbs. Yet all the time a deceitful hussy. I knew not then, though I learned afterwards, that she met Frank Radcliffe secretly, and taught him, I believe, her arts of prediction, and even sent him to see her wicked old grandmother (who I am quite sure was another Witch of Endor), when the camp came once to Hexham. What they told him, between them, I know not; but in the end it became manifest what a gipsy woman can do when a young gentleman is foolish enough to listen to her wiles.

Not knowing these things, I begged Frank to give up this pursuit of his, as a useless, idle, and curious practice. He acknowledged that the priest gave him similar admonition, but yet that he continued, though he knew that he was wrong. Religion forbids it, that is most sure; if the art were sure and certain, he is foolish, indeed, who seeks to know the coming misery, or anticipates the coming happiness. Let us only live in the present, looking forward with sure and certain hope to the life where there will be no shedding of tears or thought of trouble. Why could not Frank let the future alone? The present, which he spoiled by this curiosity, should have been to him full of happiness, because he had everything that the world has to give —— youth, health, strength, riches, and a good heart. What more doth God give to any?

‘Why,’ said Frank, ‘what am I to do? There is nothing in this country for a Catholic gentleman to do. We may not hold commissions in the army; we cannot act as magistrates; we cannot enter the Universities; we cannot go into Parliament; we can hold no office, and are cut off from all employment. What wonder if some of us sit down to drink and hunt, and nothing more? Why should the country be afraid of a handful of gentlemen who have kept their old faith?’

Truly it was a hard case; yet what to do? We must not have the Pope’s subjects in our Houses of Parliament.

‘Well,’ he went on, ‘what am I to do with myself? I am a younger son, with a younger son’s portion —— enough, but not great riches. You have shut up all the doors; you treat us with suspicion and contempt; you call us Papists. I knew not till we came home how despised a creature is an English Catholic.’

‘Nay,’ I said, for the young man had worked himself into a passion, and the tears were in his eyes, ‘you have but to ride through any village in Northumberland to see the contempt with which a Radcliffe is regarded. Fie, Master Frank! you have been abroad so long that you know not the English heart. It may be, as you say, that the Catholics are excluded from civil rights. Is it not because it is believed that you love Pope first and King second? But it cannot be that there is nothing for you to do.’

‘Oh yes,’ he said bitterly, ‘there is always something. I may go to Douay, and so presently come back with shaven crown, and even be made some day, if I am fortunate, a Bishop in partibus.’

All this was true. There were here three brothers rich in gifts and graces. The eldest should have been a great statesman, the second a great scholar, and the third a soldier.

Yet because their grandfather chose to remain in the old religion, when the people were ordered to change for the new (because it is foolish to suppose that all the country gentlemen and the very rustics and hinds had wit and learning wherewith to argue for or against the faith), they were all condemned to idleness. Wherefore the eldest, who had the estates, the wealth, and the power, resolved on spending his life in good works, and the advancement of the poor committed to his trust; and the second became melancholy, and troubled himself about things hidden from mankind; and the third —— he was only a boy as yet —— was going to become a beau, and to follow all the pleasures of the town. Why, what a waste of gifts was here! And all for the Mass which stood between.

‘As for my lord,’ said Tom, ‘he is very well. He rides as straight as can be expected. His shooting will improve, and no doubt he will learn to put his money on matches and fights, though at present he cares little about such sport. And as for Charles, it is a promising boy and well-plucked. But as for Frank, he does nothing at all; he will neither laugh, nor sing, nor drink, nor hunt —— what is to be done with him? Tony, he loves your company. Can you make nothing of him? Can you not even make him drink?’

‘Indeed, sir,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘the English law opens to a young gentleman who is a Papist no opportunity at all for distinction. He must therefore either be made a priest or remain a sportsman. He has his choice between a saint and a cock-fighter. Mr. Frank, though born to be a scholar, has little calling to the saintly profession, and none at all for cock-fighting. So that unless he changes his disposition or his creed, he is likely to remain in his present melancholy.’

‘As for the cure of melancholy,’ Mr. Hilyard went on, ‘there are many things enumerated by the learned Burton. Borage, for instance, or bugloss, of which Helena’s famous bowl was made, after drinking which she felt no grief or remorse; marigold, put into broth; hop, which may be infused into ale, and taken by melancholy men with advantage; betony, the root of which is sovereign for the causing of mirth; penny-royal, wormwood, and other herbs, any of which may be taken by Mr. Francis without fear.’

‘Give him,’ said Tom, ‘a bowl of punch after a day’s hunting; make him dance after a pretty woman. A fig for all your herbs, and broths, and messes, Tony! Betony for the causing of mirth! Why, then, to-night, instead of whisky punch you may have a mess of betony.’

But Frank Radcliffe’s case was beyond the reach of herbs, and not even a bowl of punch would help —— partly because he could not drink punch.

I spoke about him to my lord, who owned that he could do nothing for his brother.

‘There is among us a strain of melancholy. My uncle, Thomas Radcliffe, hath it, and cannot be cured, though he wears a chalcedony in a ring, and hath taken medicines of all kinds, both simple and mineral, yet none to cure him. I doubt not Frank will be like him. Yet it is a good sign that he sometimes leaves the library to come here. The law, of which he justly complains, is hard upon us all. Yet we cannot alter it by crying. The Jesuit Fathers made of him a great scholar, and wanted to make him one of themselves, and in the end a priest —— nay, perhaps a Bishop, or even a Cardinal. Higher than that one need not look unless one is an Italian, when the Triple Crown itself of Christ’s Vicar on earth is possible. It is long since we had a Bishop in the family, and a Cardinal never. But if Frank will not, he must content himself with having such amusements as he can find for himself which will please a simple scholar and a private gentleman. He will grow wiser and merrier in time as he grows older. Meantime, we are as yet strangers in the country, and have much to learn. For the people are not like the people whence we have come; the gentlemen are not like those at St. Germain’s; the ladies are not like those my mother (who hath never seen the north) taught me to expect —— namely, hoops and patches and courtesies and fine sayings, instead of Arcadian shepherdesses, and the charms of Nature —— and fair Dorothy.’

Alas! To think that the melancholy of this unhappy young gentleman was caused by so humble and insignificant a person as my maid Jenny. Yet, strange as it seems, there is, in fact, no person in the world so humble and so insignificant —— not even a shepherd boy, a hind, a stable-help, a scullion —— but he can do mischief. The story how one was so desirous to achieve fame and so helpless by himself, being dull of understanding and unlearned, that he was fain to fire and destroy the noblest temple in Asia Minor, the ruins of which remain to this day, and have been seen by travellers, is, I think, an allegory.

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