Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xv.

New Year’s Day.

On the day of the New Year, which is the day for giving and receiving presents, there was so great an exchange of pretty things that I cannot enumerate them. For everybody gave something, if it were only a little trifle worked by hand. Thus, my lord presented Tom with a hunter, and Tom gave him a fowling-piece which had belonged to his uncle Ferdinando. Though the general joy at the master’s return was so great that the tables groaned beneath the presents offered to him, yet I think he gave far more than he received. That was ever his way —— to give more than he received, whether in friendship, trust, and confidence, or in rich presents, or in love. It is a happy disposition, showing that its owner is already half prepared for heaven. As for myself, I was made nothing short of rich by the many beautiful and costly things that were bestowed upon me. Tom gave me a pair of gloves, the Lady Mary a small parcel of pointlace of Valenciennes, the Lady Katharine a piece of most beautiful brocade, saying that she was too old for such gauds and vanities, which became young and beautiful gentlewomen, and her maid should give me counsel how best to make it up. Mr. Howard gave me a book from the library containing the ‘Meditations’ of Thomas à Kempis. Alas! I paid little heed at the time to the wise and comforting words of that precious book, though now, next to one other, it is my greatest consoler. (I also find some of the ‘Thoughts’ of Monsieur Pascal worthy the attention of those who would seek comfort from religion.) Frank gave me a silver chain —— it had been his grandmother’s —— for hanging keys and what not upon; and Mr. Errington gave me a pretty little ring set with an emerald, saying that he had bought it for the first Dorothy Forster twenty years before, but she would have none of him or of his gifts.

‘Wherefore, my dear,’ he said, ‘although an emerald speaks of love returned, let me bestow it upon one beautiful enough to be Dorothy’s daughter.

‘“O daughter, fairer than thy mother fair,” as says some poet, but I forget which, because it is thirty years since I left off reading verses. Very likely it was Suckling or Waller.’

‘Sir,’ said Mr. Hilyard officiously, ‘your honour does the Latin poet Horace the honour to quote him —— through an unknown translation.’

‘Gad,’ replied Mr. Errington, ‘I knew not I was quoting Latin. I am infinitely obliged to you, sir, for the assistance of your learning. It shall be Horace, since you say so. But much finer things, I doubt not, have been said about beautiful women by our English poets. Can you, sir, who know the poets, as well as everything else’ —— Mr. Errington was one of those gentlemen who regard scholarship as a kind of trade, to be followed by the baser sort, as indeed it chiefly is, and as a means of rising ——‘can you, sir, help us to something from an English poet with which we may compliment the beauty of this young lady?’

‘The language of gallantry,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘was not affected by Shakespeare, our greatest poet; yet there is one passage which I submit to your honour. It is in his sonnets, wherein the poet says:

‘“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee Calls back the lovely April of her person.’”

‘Very good, sir,’ said Mr. Errington. ‘Fair Dorothy, Shakespeare was a prophet.’

Lord Derwentwater alone gave me nothing, which I thought strange. But presently, when the first business and agitation about the gifts were over, he begged me to examine with him some of the treasures and heirlooms of the house.

The hall was full of strange things and treasures brought together from every part of the world; by Radcliffes who had travelled in far countries, even to Constantinople and the Holy Land; by Radcliffes who had crossed the ocean, and seen the two Americas and the savage Indians; by Radcliffes who had plundered Scottish castles and Scottish towns in the old times; by Radcliffes who had bought beautiful things in Italy, and by those who had bought them in London. The walls were covered with pictures; not only portraits, but also those pictures which men strangely love to paint, of half-clothed shepherdesses, nymphs, satyrs, and so forth; illustrations of stories from Ovid and the ancient poets, some of which Mr. Hilyard had read to me; together with other pictures, to my poor understanding, equally foolish —— to wit, the martyrdom and torture of saints, as the shooting of St. Sebastian with arrows; the roasting of St. Lawrence upon a gridiron (this was very fine and much-praised picture by an Italian master, whose name I have forgotten; but it made your flesh creep ever afterwards even to think of that poor writhing wretch); the angles in heaven, all sitting in a formal circle; the beheading of St. Peter, and so forth. I know not why these things should be portrayed, unless, as is wisely done in Fox’s ‘Book of Martyrs,’ in order to show, by lively pictures of the poor creatures in the flames, what one religion is capable of doing, and the other of enduring. Besides the pictures, there were suits of armour, both chain-armour, very beautifully wrought, and armour of hammered iron, with a whole armoury of weapons hanging like trophies upon the walls, such as pikes, lances, spears, bows and arrows, crossbows, guns and firelocks of all kinds, strange instruments for tearing knights out of their saddles, battleaxes, maces, and swords of every kind. At my request, my lord once dressed himself in one of the suits of chain-armour, and put on his head an iron helmet, with side or cheek pieces, and a machine for protecting the face. With a battleaxe in his hand, he looked most martial and commanding; yet I laughed to see the long wig below the helmet, flowing over the shoulders and the chain-armour. To each age its fashions; since the politeness of the present generation commands gentlemen no longer to wear their own hair, but a full wig, whereby the aged may look young, and the young disguise their youth and inexperience, there must seem something ludicrous when the dress of our ancestors is assumed even for a moment. It was not, however, to see these things, which stood exposed to the view of all who came, that I was asked to accompany my lord. We went to see those treasures which were kept under lock and key in cabinets and cupboards, and even in secret places known only to Mrs. Busby, the housekeeper, who came with us, bearing the keys.

Lady Mary came, too. Her sister, Lady Katharine, the most gentle and pious of women, was in the chapel, where she spent a great part of each day in prayer and meditation. Certainly, if ever there was a saint in the Church of Rome, she was one. Though we are bound not to accept the doctrine of Purgatory (which seems to me the least harmful of human inventions, as regards religion), yet I have always thought, in considering the life of this pious woman, that there could be no fires of Purgatory for her. Her sister was as gentle, but not so pious (yet a good woman, and obedient to the Church).

‘My dear,’ she said, ‘we have many pretty things to show you. No doubt the Forsters have also got together, both at Bamborough and Etherston, things as curious and more valuable, for we are not ignorant that you have been longer in the county. But our collections are allowed to be very fine.’

They were indeed very fine. We have nothing to compare with them, either at Etherston or at Bamborough.

There were old brocades, stiff with gold and silver; gloves set with pearls; shoebuckles with diamonds; embroidered and jewelled garters; damasks, flounced stuffs, rich silks, every kind of woman’s dress from the time of Henry VI., or even older, to the present day. The housekeeper laid them out with pride, saying, ‘This belonged to Lady Radcliffe, your lordship’s grandmother, who was a daughter of Sir William Fenwick; and this was part of the bridal dress of Anne Radcliffe, who married Sir Philip Constable; and these were the late Lady Swinburne’s gloves’—— and so on. She had, besides, a story to tell of every one; how this lady was a widow and a beauty; and this one ran away, and another was married against her will, and another a widow almost as soon as she was a bride; such tales as an old housekeeper loves to gather together and to store up.

‘Women,’ says Mr. Hilyard, ‘are the historians, as they are the guardians of the household.’

‘These,’ said the Earl, ‘are the ladies’ collections. My own mother’—— his face darkened when he spoke of his mother (at which I wonder not)——‘hath added nothing; but my grandmother and her predecessors have all contributed something of their finery to make this collection the better. Great pity it is when a family lets all be scattered abroad and lost.’

Then we were shown the cabinets, where were locked up the trinkets, ornaments, and things in gold. Here were rings of all kinds —— some old and rudely set, but with large stones; some with posies and devices; some with coats of arms; some with stories belonging to them and some without. Also there were bracelets of all kinds —— of plain beaten gold, of chains in gold, of rings, of serpents; of Saracen, Turkish, Indian, Venetian, and Florentine work; also necklaces of silver and of gold —— plain and set with

emeralds, diamonds, rubies, opal, sapphires, and all other precious stones, egrets, étuis, and chains of all kinds, even the thin and delicate chain of pure soft gold from India —— one never saw so brave a show. Then there were miniatures in gold frames set with pearls, of the Radcliffe ladies, including my own great-grandmother, the heiress of Blanchland. A comely and beautiful race they were. Next there were snuff-boxes collected by the late Earl, who died in the year 1705. There were dozens of these, mostly with lids beautifully painted, but the pictures such as please not a woman’s eye, being like those on the walls, of half-dressed nymphs and shepherdesses. Dear me! A man who wants to take snuff can surely take it quite as well out of a tin or brass snuff-box, such as our gentlemen use, as out of a box with a heathen goddess sprawling outside, dressed as heathen goddesses were accustomed to dress.

‘It is,’ said Mr. Hilyard once, talking the nonsense that even learned men sometimes permit themselves ——‘it is an excuse for painting the ideal, model, and fountain of beauty. It has been held that from Venus —— namely feminine beauty —— are born not only the train of Loves, petulant and wanton, but also the nine Muses, who are, in fact, Poetry, Music, Dancing, Acting, Gallantry, Courtesy, Politeness, Courtship, and Intrigue, and not Thalia and her sisters at all, unless they can be proved to have those attributes.’

This foolish talk I refused to hear. Did ever a woman wish to see represented the stalwart form and sturdy calves of her lover? How, then, did we get our love for poetry, dancing, and the rest of it, including coquetry?

I cannot tell all that was in this cabinet of wonders. But in the lowest drawers there lay —— fans! Oh, Heaven! Fans! I never knew before that there were in the whole wide world so many fans. They were all painted, and some of them most beautifully. There were fans with flowers on them, so life-like that you stooped to breathe the perfume of the rose or the mignonette; there were fans with rustic scenes —— swains and shepherdesses dancing round a maypole.

‘Do they dance so in France, my lord?’ I asked.

‘Nay,’ he replied gravely. ‘They dance, indeed, but it is to forget the terrors of tomorrow, and to rejoice over the certainty of to-day’s dinner. There is laughter, but not much joy, in the peasant’s dance.’

So I laid that down, and took up another. Upon it was the tale of the Sirens and Ulysses. Oh! I knew the story, and wonderful it was to see the oarsmen rowing silent and careless, neither seeing nor hearing, while Ulysses, bound to the mast, strained forward to catch the music, after which he would fain have followed like a slave if he could. It was a moral piece, and I looked at it with admiration. The next —— but I cannot run through them all —— was the Judgment of Paris —— the shepherd, a very noble youth, with something of the look of my lord upon him; while as for the goddesses, not one of them, to my thinking, deserved an apple so much as —— but we may not judge, and it seemed to please his lordship. Then there were more swains and shepherdesses, very sweet and pretty, with grass like velvet, and dresses (though they had been tending sheep) as clean and neat as if just out of the band-box.

‘Ah! if one could find such a country,’ I said, ‘one would willingly turn milkmaid.’

‘And I,’ said my lord, ‘would even be turned into a shepherd to be companion to such a milkmaid.’

Then there was a fan of Pierrot, Harlequin, and Columbine. It brought your heart into your mouth only to see such merry, careless faces, as if there were no such thing as trouble, or anxiety, or exiled princes, or rival churches, or wicked people, and all that one had to do was to tell stories continually, laugh, dance, sing, and make merry. I never saw before such happiness depicted on simple white silk. It made me think, somehow, of Mr. Hilyard in the evening. After this fan, I cared little about the rest, though the parting of Achilles and Briseis was sad, and the death of Cleopatra tragic.

‘Now,’ said my lord, smiling kindly, as was his wont when he was doing something generous ——‘now that you have seen our pretty things, remember that you have not received my étrenne. Will it please you make a choice?’

I know not whether by accident or design, but Lady Mary and the housekeeper were engaged among the silks and old brocades, and we were alone.

‘Oh, my lord!’ I said, ‘I cannot take any of these beautiful things. They belong to your house and to your family. They must not leave you.’

‘Take all,’ he whispered. ‘Oh, Dorothy! take all; and yet, they need not leave me, if in taking them you take me too.’

Alas! what could a girl say? I knew not what to say; for in the great joy of that moment I remembered not —— nay, all this time I thought not about it, being in a Fool’s Paradise —— what stood between us.

‘Oh, my lord!’ was all I could whisper.

But he stooped and kissed my fingers, and I think that Lady Mary saw him, for she came back quickly, a little glow upon her faded cheek and a brightness in her eyes; but said nothing, only presently took my hand in hers and pressed it kindly.

Well, there was no help; she joined her nephew in forcing presents upon me. I chose the fan with Harlequin, Columbine, and Pierrot upon it. Why, it lies beside me still, with its three once happy, laughing faces. Long ago they too have been driven out of their Fool’s Paradise, like me. The silk has faded; the pictured faces smile no more —— they have lost their youth —— they are wrinkled —— they have forgotten how to laugh. when I die, I should like that fan to be buried with me.

Other things they gave me —— a ring, a bracelet —— what matters now? —— with kind words, and praise of beauty and sweet looks. A sensible girl knows very well that this flattery is bestowed out of goodness of heart, and with the desire of pleasing her; it does not turn her head more than the passing sunshine of the moment, though it makes her cheek to glow, her eyes to brighten, and her lips to tremble.

‘There were never,’ whispered the fond young lover, ‘never, I swear, finer eyes or sweeter lips.’

In the evening, when I opened my fan, a paper fell out. My lord picked it up and gave it me. Oh! it was another set of verses, and in the same feigned handwriting as the first. He read them, affecting as much surprise as on the former occasion:

‘Learn, nymphs, from wondrous Daphne’s art

    The uses of the fan,

Designed to play a potent part

    When she undoes a man.

As when the silly trout discerns

    The artificial fly,

And rises, bites, and too late learns

    The hook that lies hard by;

So man, before whose raptured gaze

    The fan in Daphne’s arms,

Now spreads, now shuts, and now displays,

    And now conceals her charms,

Falls, like that silly fish, a prey,

    Yet happier far than he,

Adores the hand outstretched to slay,

    And dies in ecstasy.’

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