Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xiii.

Christmas Eve.

Now I come to tell of a fortnight of so much happiness that I can never forget it, or tire of remembering it. Every day —— nay, every hour of that happy time, lives still in my mind, though it is now nearly thirty years ago, and I, who was then eighteen, am now well-nigh fifty, and am no more beautiful. This matters not, and before long, if it please merciful Heaven, I shall be beautiful again. This time was so happy to me because it changed an admirer into a lover, and a woman who waits for love into a woman who has received love. Call me not an old maid, I pray you, though I am no wedded wife and mother of a husband’s children, because I have enjoyed the love of a man and exchanged with him those sweet endearments which are innocent and lawful between a young man and a maid who love each other. She alone is an old maid who hath never been wooed; into whose eyes no lover hath gazed to rob her of her heart; whose hands have never been pressed; whose ears have never listened to the fond exaggerations with which a lover pleads his passion, and tries to tell how great and deep it is, though words fail. But, as for me, I have been loved by many, and I have loved one —— yea, I have loved him —— alas! alas! —— with all my heart and with all my soul; yet, I hope and pray, with innocency of heart, so that this my passion may not be laid to my charge, for though I loved him well, I loved, or tried to love, my God better. And this, too, I will show you.

The time was Christmas. My lord kept open house at Dilston for his friends and cousins, as many as chose to come (but he invited Tom and me); his farmers and tenants, and all the poor people around, even counting those of Hexham, so generous he was. During all the time from Christmas to Candlemas there was nothing but the roasting of beef and the eating of it, with the drinking of ale and everyday amusements such as men of all sorts and conditions love: as quarterstaff, cudgels, wrestling, fighting with dogs and cocks, and so forth; the people of the town flocking to see it —— the gentlemen not ashamed of getting a bloody crown from a rustic champion; the rustics proud to prove their mettle before the gentlemen, and pleased to drink to them afterwards. A busy and lively time —— the maids running about to see the shows, and more eager to witness a wrestling-match than to do the dairy-work; the grooms talking and playing with the girls, and no one reproaching them; no one zealous for work but the cooks and serving-women, who had a hard time of it, poor souls, continually roasting, boiling, laying of cloths, bringing of meat, carving it for hungry men, carrying pails of beer and pouring it out into the brown jugs with their great heads of foam. Yet none grumbled: the more they served the merrier they became. Cooks are only happy when they are at work; between whiles they are irritable, short of temper, and grumbling at the hardships of their lots and the shortcomings of scullions. But when they are bending over stew-pots and griddles, they are truly happy. Perhaps a sense of the blessings of plenty at such times is felt by their souls, so that, in a way we little regard, they may be lifted upward by the contemplation of a rib or sirloin, with fat and lean in goodly show. I have seen a cook gaze upon a leg of mutton with tears in her eyes, as one who hears a sweet strain of music, or considers the picture of a handsome man.

A girl who goes on a visit to so grand a house as Dilston, among ladies who have lived in London and gentlemen who know the splendours of a Court, is naturally troubled about her clothes, and thinks a great deal beforehand of the fine things she has to show. It would have gone hard with me, whose frocks were all of country-make and most of rough and cheap material (my petticoats for daily wear of homespun), but for the late visit of Lady Crewe. For I had no pin-money of my own, or any allowance from my father, who considered that I now belonged to Tom and her ladyship. Fortunately I am clever with my needle, and so was my maid Jenny. Tom, poor fellow, had no money to give, because he spent it all in his amusements; all, that is, which he got from Durham. Besides, most men, though they are careful about their flowered waistcoats and gold buckles, seem to think that for women brocade grows wild on every hedge, and satin hangs in rolls from every tree. Now before she went away Lady Crewe called me to her room, and then,after causing me to be measured (which showed that we were both of a height), she brought out a great parcel of fine things —— treasures, they seemed to me —— saying kindly:

‘Child, the granddaughter of Sir William Forster, of Bamborough, should be able to go as fine as her neighbours. Since thy brother loves to have thee with him, it shall be the care of thy mother’s sister to see thee dressed becomingly on occasion, so that no one, gentle or simple, may think that a Forster is not as good a lady as any in the county.’

Had it not been for this munificent gift, which came in pudding-time, so to speak, I should have gone to Dilston crying instead of laughing, because my petticoats were so short and my best frock so shabby. Alas! we grow old, and fine things, which once set off rosy cheeks and bright eyes, only serve now to hide the ravages of time.

So that, thanks to the kindness of Lady Crewe, I could reflect without dismay upon the grand dresses of the ladies Katharine and Mary; and though the day on which we rode across the dark moor to Dilston was so cold, with driving sleet and a bitter wind, that my horse was led and my face kept covered with a hood, my heart was quite warm when I remembered that on one of the pack-horses behind (I was fain to brave the blast in order to look back and see that the animal had not been blown away) were safely packed my silk-quilted petticoat, altered to fit my waist, and none could tell that it was not new; my French girdle, very pretty; my sable tippet lined with Italian lute-string; my velvet frock, made for Lady Crewe in London by a Court dressmaker, and very cunningly altered for me by Jenny —— that girl should have made her fortune in dressmaking; my cambric and laced handkerchiefs, laced tuckers and ruffles, French kid gloves, very fine (Tom gave me these, having bought them at Newcastle one day when he rode and won a match of twenty pounds a side); my satin apron; my French à-la-mode hood; my petticoat and mantua of French brocade; my cherry-coloured stays; and, for morning wear, my frocks of painted lawn, checkered shade, and watered tabby. As for my head-dress, I had considered this important subject with Jenny, and resolved that I would wear (as most suitable for my age and unmarried condition) a low coiffure, with falling lappets, such as Jenny could easily arrange, even though the elder ladies should think fit to appear every day in high commodes. I was also happy in the possession of an étui, which had been my grandmother’s —— a vastly pretty thing, with a gold watch, and places for scissors, knife, pencil, ivory tablets, box for thimble, another for aromatic vinegar, and a third for perfume (my favourite was from childhood the same as Lady Crewe’s, namely, bergamot), and a multitude of pretty, old-fashioned things worked in gold, such as little birdcages, eggs, tiny anchors, and so forth, and a seal with the family coat of arms and the Forster legend:

‘Let us dearly then hold To mind their worthiness, That which our parents old Hath left us to possess.’ Enough said of a simple girl’s finery, though in truth it made me happy at the time to think that I could stand among great ladies and not be ashamed of my homely dress. Perhaps it makes me happy still (or rather less sorrowful) to remember the things which caused my first happiness. Mr. Hilyard (he came with us) says that a great Italian poet declares that the memory of past gladness makes more sad the present sorrow. It is presumptuous to set up an opinion against a poet; but this is very certain, that there is one woman to whom all her consolation (besides the hope of the future) lies in the memory of the past. Why is joy, which comes so rarely and flies so swiftly, given to men except to be a lasting memory and consolation? The summer of our North Country is short, and the winter is long; yet all the year round we think of the sunshine, and in the cold winter eat with gratitude the fruits and harvests of the summer. So should it be with our hours, days, or years of happiness. In the cold winter which follows —— love fled, friends dead, fortune lost, pride destroyed —— our hearts should be warmed and our pains consoled by the mere thinking upon the vanished joys, just as I still think upon my stay at Dilston. Shall not an old man comfort himself with thinking of his former strength, and an old woman with the thought of her former beauty? I myself, being now in middle life and no longer comely, remember with grateful joy that my beauty once gave pleasure to all who looked upon it, loveliness in woman being, like the gracious sunshine, a gift for all alike, even to those who value it least and are insensible to its delight. To be sure, in those days I knew nothing of the pleasure which all men feel, rich and poor, young and old alike, though some are more insensible than others, in the contemplation of a lovely woman, so that some have beautiful faces painted on their snuff-boxes, and do gaze upon them constantly, even to the wasting of their time and the troubling of their heads, as the Greek gazed upon and fell in love with, and pined for, his statue, until Venus changed the marble into flesh; though it hath never been related that a miracle was wrought with a snuff-box, and one has never heard that a painted face has been transformed into a beauteous damsel.

Well, Dilston was reached at least, after that cold ride; and you may be sure that Tom Forster bawled lustily for hot mulled ale. We found the castle full of the Radcliffes, and all the great house astir with guests and servants and preparations for the feast.

My expectations proved true. The ladies Katharine and Mary were richly dressed indeed; yet with something sombre and nun-like, as was said to be affected by Madame de Maintenon, the French King’s wife. The gentlemen were dressed in the plain Northumberland fashion, except the Earl and his two brothers, who, after the manner in which they were brought up, dressed with great richness; even Charles, the youngest —— who was not yet at his full height, and only fifteen years of age, and wore his own hair tied behind with a crimson ribbon —— had a silk coat, a flowered waistcoat, white silk stockings, and red-heeled shoes. Everybody was so good as to compliment me on the appearance which I made. Even the ladies kindly said that, though my maid was only a country girl, she had so dressed my hair as to give it a modish look, and that no one could have looped my frock better, or shown a richer petticoat.

‘It is the first Christmas we have spent at home,’ said the Earl. ‘We must forget none of the old customs of the country. Besides, they are all Catholic customs, which is another reason for keeping them up.’

‘Mr. Hilyard, my lord,’ I said, ‘will have it that many of these are pagan, though transferred to Catholicism, and long ago adopted by the Church.’

He laughed, and called me an obstinate little Puritan.

The supper was served in the great hall, decked with holly and mistletoe; a Yule-log was blazing upon the hearth; the side-tables were dazzling with the Radcliffe plate; and the tables were covered with Yule-cakes, which are, in the north, shaped like a baby, and Christmas pies in form of a cradle, not to speak of goose-pies, shrid or mince pies, caraway-cakes, brawn, sirloins, turkeys, capons, hams and gammons, pheasants, partridges, hares, and everything good and fit for man’s delight. When all was ready and the company assembled, they brought in the boar’s head, maids and men following, all lustily singing ——

‘Nowell, Nowell. Tidings good I have to tell.’

There were but moderate potations at the supper, but some of the gentlemen made up for it afterwards; and when supper was done, the company all left the table together and sat down to cards, which must never be omitted on Christmas Eve, if you never touch a card on any other day. There was a basset-table, and a quadrille-table, and a pool of commerce. I played at the last with my lord, Charles, and others; and I won twelve shillings, which made me tremble to think what I should have done if I had lost so much. Indeed, I had not so much as twelve shillings in the world. After the cards we played another game —— everybody to say what most he loved and least he liked. In such a history as this it would be folly to record how my lord vowed that most he loved Dorothy’s smiles, and most he dreaded Dorothy’s frowns. Nevertheless, it must be owned that these compliments are pretty things; they keep up the spirits and courage of a girl, and her good opinion of herself, which is a great thing. Mr. Errington, of Beaufront, who was one of the company, said many pleasant things, pretending to be twenty years younger, and to mistake me for my aunt, the beautiful Dorothy Forster, whose suitor he had been. Of course I knew that he flattered me; but yet I was pleased. To have such pretty things said by so old a man is like a sweet golden russet of last year in the month of April. As for Charles Radcliffe, that mad boy swore loudly that he would be Miss Dorothy’s knight, and pranced about singing, with gestures like a Frenchman, that sweet old song:

‘Charmante Gabrielle, Percé de mille dards, Quand la gloire m’appelle A la suite de Mars, Cruelle départie! Malheureux jour! Que ne suis je sans vie Ou sans amour!’

‘We are in England, Charles,’ said his brother; ‘we are at home. Let us have no French songs.’

For some of the gentlemen looked dissatisfied. The language of gallantry and compliment was not greatly to their liking, and Tom even burst out a-laughing at hearing his sister so praised and complimented. This made me blush far more than any compliment. One does not except of a brother the praises and flatteries of a suitor; but at least he should not be wholly insensible to a sister’s beauty, or laugh at men who praise it. But then Tom always loved his gun, his horse, his dog, and his bottle better than any woman. Presently he went away, with most of the others, to sit over the wine, and there were only left my lord and his brothers, the ladies, Mr. Howard, the old priest, and Mr. Errington; and these, left to themselves, sat about the fire and told stories suitable to the time of year.

Strange, indeed, that men should be so venturesome as to doubt the truth of what hath been most abundantly proved! Yet Lord Derwentwater laughed at the stories of the Northumberland ghosts, for no other reason than that they had no ghosts at St. Germain’s. But Mr. Howard, who had lived in the county before, and knew, shook his head, and the ladies looked at each other with surprise, and Mr. Errington solemnly reproved this doubter.

‘My lord,’ he said, ‘there is not a Northumbrian, man, woman, or child, that believes not in the appearance of apparitions; nay, most of us have ourselves seen them. You have spent your youth in towns and Courts where, to be sure, there is little chance of meeting fairies. When you have learned the savage wildness of the moors, the solitude of the woods, and the silence of the long winter nights, you will speedily be converted, and doubt no more. Northumberland, without her ghosts and fairies, would be but half populated.’

‘Truly,’ said the Earl, ‘one ghost, methinks, were as efficacious as a hundred for the conversion of a doubter.’

He then spread a cushion on the carpet, and sat or lay upon it at my feet, saying:

‘In France they call them old wives’ tales. Let us hear of our North-country ghosts from young lips. Tell us some of your most frightful, Miss Dorothy.’

Thus invited, I was greatly confused; but with the assistance of Mr. Errington, who helped me, and suggested one history after the other, I boldly began upon the stories current among the people, and substantiated by evidence which cannot be denied: videlicet, that of the persons who themselves have seen the visions and appearances described.

The Earl knew nothing. He had been allowed to grow up in a most astonishing ignorance of the county ghosts. As for his brother Frank, he already knew something, having perhaps learned it (though of this I was then ignorant) of Jenny Lee and of others, being a youth of inquiring mind, who asked questions. It was astonishing to think that a Radcliffe should grow to years of manhood without having heard even of the Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, or the Seeker of Dunstanburgh, or the fairies brought to Fawdon Hill by the Crusaders, or of King Arthur at Sewingshields, the Monk of Blinkburn, Jeannie of Haselrigg, or Meg of Maldon.

‘Let us all,’ said my lord, ‘go seek in Dunstanburgh, and dig into the earth at Sewingshields. Yet stay, how would King Arthur agree with the Prince, should both return together? Methinks we must first consult his Highness. Go on, fair story-teller.’

Then I began to tell of things more certain; not so ancient, and witnessed by people still surviving. Then the two old ladies, who knew better than myself the stories of Northumberland, nodded their heads, caught each other by the hands, held their breath, shook forefingers at their nephew, and asked in the pauses between the stories, ‘Was there ever before a Radcliffe who had to be taught these things at one-and-twenty?’ Pretty it was to see how much these ladies thought of their nephew, and how their kind eyes rested upon him with happiness.

Also, while I told my tales, I saw how Frank listened, with large sad eyes, and sighed, as if for the mere pleasure of listening to such stories, as one who was for ever considering how to converse with the dwellers of the other world. It was plain that he was ready to believe —— ay! and even to see —— whatever he was told. Of such are those who most frequently behold spectres, see visions, and have strange dreams. He breathed quickly; he sighed; he looked round him as if in the dark depths of the great hall, and among the figures in armour, behind the tapestry, there lurked the very shades and appearances about which we were speaking. As for old Mr. Errington, he reminded me of this story and of that, filled up the details, wagged his head, and, like the Lady Mary, shook his forefinger at my lord —— the Didymus or Unbeliever. There was also Mr. Howard, the priest —— an old man, too, of venerable aspect. He sat with his chin upon his hand, less occupied with the stories than with gazing upon the young lord of all, as he lay at my feet, the red light of the fire playing upon his face, which was upturned to look upon mine.

Simple things, yet terrible, are the omens and appearances in this haunted county.

I trembled while I told of the ghostly and shadowy hearse which, especially in the winter nights, rolls slowly and silently —— an awful thing to see —— up and down the roads till it comes to the house where the death is going to happen, and how the farmer once going home from market saw the hearse stop at his own door, and knew that one of his family would die. There were six tall sons, each one strong and brave, and three daughters, each one beautiful; and there was his wife. Which would be taken? The rest of that story is enough to convert the greatest scoffer, as well as to turn the sinner to repentance. Then there is the wauf, or figure of the person about to die seen by another person. Surely it is a most dreadful thing to have the power of seeing the wauf, for if one sees it, there arises a doubt and difficult question: should the person who is to die be told of it, or not? If he be told, he may fall into despair; and if not, then a great opportunity of seeking grace for the soul is lost. There is also the brag, which may assume whatever shape it pleases, as a calf, or a bundle of wood, or a hare, or a rick of hay, or anything which its tricksy and mischievous imagination may choose to order, to confound and tease a poor man or woman. And then there are the actual ghosts, whose number is in our country legion —— such as Jethro Burnet, the miser, who walks to lament the loss of his money-bags; the wretch who hanged himself, and hath since found no rest; the poor girl who was murdered, and the man who murdered her —— the former beside the pool wherein she was cast, and the latter by the gibbet, at Amble, where he was hanged in chains; Meg of Maldon, who walks of a night between Maldon and Hartington; the poor wretched woman who wanders on Hexham Moor at night, shrieking and crying (at Blanchland she could be heard plainly when the wind was high) because she killed her child with neglect, and now suffers —— one knows not for how long —— this misery. All these things were certainly intended for our admonition and warning. Again, there are the white figures which sometimes appear to fly from under the foot of the belated traveller; there is the strange and well-authenticated story of Nelly the Knocker; that of the Ghost of Silky; that of the fairy changing the little dwarf Hobbie; how a lad going forth one night to walk with his sweetheart, found her changed into the Devil; with many other strange and true stories, showing what may be expected, and hath already been witnessed in the county.

They listened, as has been told. They looked fearfully about the room. No one thought that in five short years Dilston Hall itself would be left to decay, and, in ten years more, another mournful figure would be added to the troop of Northumberland ghosts.

‘This,’ said my lord, when I finished, ‘is a fitting North-country termination of a Christmas feast; to sit after supper and tell bugbear tales. Fair narrator! you have so well done your part, that henceforth, I promise you, I will accept them all. I doubt no longer. If I were to meet Silky herself, I should not be surprised. If I heard Nelly the Knocker, or saw Meg of Maldon walking in the corridor, or the ghost of my great — grandmother ——’

‘Nephew,’ said Lady Katharine gently, ‘do not mock; the spirits of our ancestors may be round us at this moment, with our guardian angels. Vex them not, lest when we go to join them, they meet us with angry countenance.’

‘Enough of ghosts,’ said Mr. Howard. ‘To-morrow is Christmas. It is always the time to think about the next world, and sometimes we may hear these tales, which, true or not, help to keep faith alive; and these are times, Master Frank’—— he laid his hand upon the boy’s shoulder ——‘when we must rejoice in the present, feast, make other people joyful, and be glad ourselves.’

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