Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter iii.

The Heir of Bamborough.

A noble inheritance indeed, even if one only had a moiety or half part! Not only did it include the manors of Bamborough and Blanchland, but also the Rectory and Monastery of Shotley, the Manor of Thornton, with houses at Alnwick and elsewhere, fishing-rights on Tweed and Derwent, and presentations to four livings and chapelries. Tom never wearied of enumerating his lands and possessions.

‘As to her ladyship,’ he said, ‘she may have children and she may not. If she have none, then the whole will be mine. And whatever happens, we shall live in the Manor House, Dorothy, and we will have a noble time —— you and I together. She has a dozen palaces and castles; she will surely not grudge me the simple Manor House of Bamborough.’

But as yet he wanted three years of twenty-one, and for the present he must needs have patience.

Presently, little by little, there began to leak out reports that all was not as it should be with the estate. For first we heard of a charge of £350 a year in favour of my uncle Will’s widow —— a monstrous and most greedy jointure, truly, when one considers that on many estates as large as that of Bamborough a poor £40 a year is all that a younger son or daughter may look for. Next we heard of a rent-charge of £500 a year created by the late Sir William Forster to pay for some of his profuse expenditure. This was bought up by Lord Crewe, no doubt at her ladyship’s expressed desire, for £10,000. But the Bishop was one of the most wealthy men in the kingdom, and could well afford even so great a sum. Here, however, was a goodly cantle cut out of the estate. Half the annual rent gone at once. Tom, for his part, showed little or no concern about it.

‘There remains,’ he said, ‘another £800 a year, besides the houses. There is a good deal to be done with the half of £800 a year. And I am the heir of Etherston as well.’

He looked on his heritage of Bamborough as a means for living as he wished until the Etherston property fell in.

Yet he ought to have felt that there is a sad falling-off from the £1,600 or so of revenue received by Sir William, to the enjoyment of only a moiety of £800 a year. There were other creditors and claims upon the estate also, of which we knew nothing, and happily, as yet, suspected nothing.

The heir of both Bamborough and Etherston was a much more important person than the heir of Etherston alone. Lady Crewe, who, to speak the truth, took little notice of her sister’s children while her brothers were living, now showed a very particular interest in Tom, and wrote many letters upon his course of life, both to him and to his father. She begged earnestly that he might go to Cambridge, pointing out that, although her nephew’s inclination lay not much, as she understood, in the direction of books, it would be well for him to make the acquaintance at that ancient seat of learning of the young men, his contemporaries, and to learn how matters of importance are regarded outside Northumberland. Tom, therefore, went to St. John’s College, as a gentleman commoner, with Mr. Hilyard for his tutor. Here, however, he remained but three or four terms. Then her ladyship pointed out that a country gentleman has to become a magistrate, so that it is most desirable for him to know law, and entreated him to enter at Lincoln’s Inn, and to reside in London for a part of each year, in order to study the Acts of Parliament and the powers of a justice of the peace. To this, however, Tom objected, saying that his father and his grandfather had been justices without going to Lincoln’s Inn, or knowing any law at all, and that, to his mind, a gentleman should not dirty his fingers with the quibbles and shifts of lawyers. In this opinion he continued, although he was reminded that one of his cousins had been Sir Thomas Forster, Justice of Common Pleas under King James I., and another, Sir Robert Forster, no less than Lord Chief Justice of England under Charles I. Then Lady Crewe wrote another letter, in which she clearly told her nephew that his rusticity and that of his friends was such as to unfit him for the posts of distinction open to the owner of Bamborough (her brothers, indeed, especially Ferdinando, had been gentlemen of courtly and finished manners, acquired among the most polite society of St. James’s): and that if he would neither study law nor letters, it behoved him, under proper tutelage, such as that of Mr. Hilyard, to travel into Italy, and so to acquire the manners of the great world. I knew not at the time, and none of us were courtiers enough to discern, that her ladyship, in taking all this trouble, was endeavouring to make Tom understand her design; namely, to make her nephew the successor of her brothers, and no loser by their prodigality, provided only he would show himself worthy of her bounty.

This project she never abandoned, being always most jealous for the honour of the Forsters, although the events which followed prevented her from carrying it into effect. Yet Tom was so foolish as to fall into a great rage upon receiving her letter, alleging that, as for his manners, he was not ashamed of them, and they were those of his father and his friends; that he was not, for his part, going to become a London beau; and as to travelling in foreign parts, to be sure the Prince was in France, but what had an English gentleman to learn from a set of mangy French and scurvy Italians? And as for distinction and the holding of high posts, he might show her ladyship some day that he was as capable of distinguishing himself as any man in Northumberland —— rusticity or no rusticity.

‘Thou wilt not be guided by the wisest of women, boy,’ my father said. ‘She is the wisest of women, because she is led by the most crafty and the wisest of men. Thou wilt neither to London nor to foreign lands, though here is Mr. Hilyard longing to go with thee. Well, stay-at-homes have little wit; ignorance breeds conceit. I have myself been to London and seen the Court; but as for thee, Tom, thou art pure rustic. Besides, though I am a simple and unlearned person, content to stay at home, they will not, I fear, suffer thee the same liberty. For thou hast more to lose; and where the carcase is, thither the eagles gather.’

Then Lady Crewe privately exhorted Mr. Forster to take care lest his son, through ignorance of the world, should be tempted into some rash enterprise, like that of Sir William Fenwick, who was executed for treason in the year 1696; to remember that fierce spirits were always abroad, endeavouring to stir up immature risings and to hatch foolish plots for the destruction of unhappy gentlemen; and to be assured that though her own favour and that of her husband would be continued to her nephew should he move prudently, that favour would certainly be withdrawn should rashness plunge him into difficulties with the Government: with much more to the same effect.

‘Her ladyship is right,’ cried my father. ‘None so hot for the Sovereign as my Lord Bishop till King William comes to the throne. Then he must needs run for it and try the air of France. Running is a very noble exercise when you are young. My lord is out of favour now, and he is getting old, and would fain stay where he is, and I think he would like to taste once more the sweetness of Court smiles; but still, one who loves the old House. This should be thy safest plan, Tom. Be guided by the Bishop. He will never go over to the other side, and yet he will never put his neck in the noose. Wherefore, my son, remember that conspiracies are hatched by men who have got nothing to lose; it is easy for a landless Irishman to talk wild and vapour, but for us, who have a name and an estate which we have held together for seven hundred years and more, the risk is too great. I do not say, neither, that we are to turn Whigs. We who fought for the Stuarts stand by them still. They made my grandfather Sheriff and Knight; they gave Sir Claudius the Manor of Bamborough; saving our religion, and our estates, Tom —— and our estates, boy, mind that —— we must follow the Stuarts always. When the voice of the country is clearly for the Prince, the Forsters will come with the rest. But when thwacks are going, let those who began get the first of the hammering, while we stand by and see which way the battle is likely to go. Therefore, when thou art of age, Tom, take care to write nothing, to promise nothing, to sign nothing. As for what may happen, we know nought. The Dutchman hath no children: let us wait; the Princess Anne may follow, but we know not. Let us wait, and meantime lie snug all.’

However, there were two years to wait before the coming of age, which was in the year 1702. By consent of Lady Crewe, Tom was allowed during this time to use the Manor House as if it was already his own, and many were the days which we spent in the old place, sometimes with Mr. Hilyard for tutor and companion, spending whole weeks there. The house was not larger than Etherston Hall, but it was, in a way, more splendid. There were portraits on the walls of Sir Claudius, Claudius his nephew, Sir William, his three sons, the wife of the eldest, my own mother, and my aunt, the beautiful Dorothy. Truly there never was a more lovely and charming face than that of this portrait, the original of which I had never seen. It represented her at the age of twenty or twenty-one. She had a face round rather than oval; a sweet, rounded, dimpled chin; a mouth more like a rosebud than the lips of a woman; light brown, curling hair, lying in a cluster about her forehead, which, Mr. Hilyard said, was too ample for the Greek idea of beauty, their Venus being low of forehead; the nose was full; the eyes were dark brown, and of a singular brightness. I reflected with inexpressible joy, when looking upon this sweet face, that my own eyes were of the same colour and brightness, and my own hair of the same hue, and the same tendency to twist and curl itself about my forehead. When gentlemen, past the age of thirty or so, came to the Manor House, they gazed at the portrait and sighed, remembering her beauty, and thinking, no doubt, how great a thing it would have been to marry so lovely a woman. When the young men came, they looked upon the portrait with such wonder as they might experience in looking upon that of Helen, Cleopatra, or fair Dido.

‘She moves,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘a goddess confessed. Never, since those fair women of old, has there been her like. Sometimes I think that the incomparable Sappho may have had those eyes, which are yours also, Miss Dorothy; and the chaste Lucretia that look, in which you yourself greatly resemble your aunt; and even Venus herself that dimpled chin, which I am glad to see remains still in the family.’

There were other portraits, but these were the best.

The house itself is of two stories, and is built in the modern fashion, having square sash windows, two on one side the door and one on the other. It looks from the front upon a triangular green, planted with a clump of trees, having the village pant at the end, and a field at the base. On the right is the church, and on the left is the broad street leading to the castle. At the back is a garden, not so big or so well provided as that of Etherston, because, by the seaside, everything will not grow; but it has a great store of herbs and fruit trees, with currants, gooseberries, and strawberries in season, lavender and other plants for strong waters and perfumes, and herbs for medicine: notwithstanding which, Nature hath been so benevolent as to plant things for suffering man’s solace in every hedge, so that, though there may be plenty of toothache in the world, there is also plenty of trefoil, yarrow, and groundsel-root; and, though one may catch a cough, there is no fear of using up all the ground-ivy; and, though men will cut themselves with knives and sickles, their wives can gather for nothing as much comfrey, self-heal, and valerian as will cure their wounds.

A goodly garden and ancient, with a trim lawn as well, on which bowls could be played; and a sundial, which had marked the flight of time for many hundreds of years; and a fountain, which was stopped, and would work no longer till Mr. Hilyard set it agoing; and then we marvelled how we could have found the garden perfect without the pleasant plash of that jet of water with its little arch like a rainbow, and its sparkle in the sun. In every season —— summer, winter, or autumn —— it was pleasant to walk in the garden, and to look over the low wall at the end, and the green meadow beyond it, upon the broad sea which stretches away till sea and sky meet. A stormy sea it is when the north-east winds blow, and many have been the wrecks upon the rocks and islets off the shore.

To live in the Manor House was in itself a help to cure our rustic ways of thought and speech. For not only were there portraits, but also pictures brought from abroad, pictures of Roman Catholic saints —— there was a martyr, I remember, set up as a target for the arrows of his persecutors; and others of hunting-parties, and of battles by sea and land. Mr. Hilyard would stand before these pictures and discourse with great learning to me upon the Italian, Spanish, French, and Dutch Schools, and the chief merits of each. There was also tapestry, but not much. Mr. Hilyard has told me of the famous tapestry which he has seen in the Palace of St. James. There was a cabinet full of curiosities brought home by travellers in foreign parts —— among them a stone picked up in the Garden of Gethsemane, and a garland of thorns bought in Jerusalem itself. This cabinet afforded Mr. Hilyard the opportunity of many a discourse. There were also books —— not one shelf only, as we had at Etherston —— but three or even four shelves. There was Baker’s ‘Chronicle,’ Holinshed’s ‘History,’ Sibbes’s ‘Soul’s Conflict,’ a volume of Jeremy Taylor, Camden’s ‘Britannia,’ Grey’s ‘Choregraphia,’ a ‘History of the Lives, Travels, and Sufferings of the Apostles,’ with pictures, very moving; Record’s ‘Arithmetic,’ the ‘Marrow of Mathematics,’ Hartmann’s ‘True Preserver of Health,’ Drake’s ‘World Encompassed,’ Evelyn’s ‘Gardener’s Almanack,’ the ‘Paradise Lost’ of Milton, the Plays of Shakespeare, Bacon’s ‘Essays,’ Quarles’s ‘Emblems,’ Butler’s ‘Hudibras,’ in which Mr. Hilyard greatly delighted —— I know not why, because I could never read it with pleasure —— and a great many more. I read in most of these books, and, I hope, sucked as much profit from them as was to be expected of a girl. To be sure, I had beside me always a most patient, learned, and kind commentator, who spared no pains to make me understand obscure passages, and to illustrate places which, before he spoke of them, seemed unintelligible. An ignorant reader is like a poor man with empty purse, who walks along a valley strewn with diamonds and precious stones, which he neglects because he knows not how priceless are the stones beneath his feet. Pity it was that Tom would neither read nor listen.

On Sundays, when we all went to church in the morning, there was a great and noteworthy difference after Tom became the half owner of Bamborough. For, as often happens in old churches, this of ours was divided and parcelled out among the gentry. The north transept belongs to the Greys of Howick; the south transept to the Radcliffes, although they are Papists; the north part of the nave belongs to the owners of the Lucker, the south to the Forsters of Etherston, and the chancel to the Forsters of Bamborough. While, therefore, my father, with madam and Jack and the children, sat in their pew below the pulpit, Tom, and I with him, and Mr. Hilyard, because he was the tutor, walked proudly into the chancel and sat in a great pew raised three feet above the ground, so that you mounted by steps. The seats were lined with red velvet, very worn. Above us hung our own scutcheon, showing the Radcliffe fleur-de-lys among the Etherston martlets; on the other side was the great marble monument of Sir Claudius, who died at Blanchland; and, hanging on the wall, the helmet and iron coat of some other Forster long since dead and gone. Beside us was the stone effigy, with crossed legs, called Sir Lancelot du Lac, concerning whom Mr. Hilyard had a great deal to say, as to whether he was not perchance a Forster, and thus misnamed from the tradition of some great exploit or deed of arms.

It is an old and crumbling chancel. Among other things it contains an ancient window, through which the unhappy lepers outside might formerly see the elevation of the Host within. Separating chancel from nave, was an open screen of carved white stone, a good deal broken. When we stood up for the reading of the Psalms and the singing of the hymn, I could see through this screen the back of the vicar at the reading-desk, and in the pew below the pulpit my father’s best Sunday wig in the crispest curl, and madam’s hat and ribbons. Beyond the pews of the gentlefolk were the seats of the common people, worn black and shiny by generations of the humble worshippers. I suppose that in heaven there are no velvet-lined pews, with steps to mount, and stoves to keep one warm in winter; but it seems fitting thus to separate gentle and simple, and doubtless even in heaven there are degrees —— one cannot understand that a prince and a scullion will ever sit side by side. As for me, I confess that it was with pride that I sat every Sunday beside Tom in the chancel, reflecting that, although my father was the head of the older stock, the noblest and best of the family came from Sir John, the great Warden of the March, and Governor of Bamborough Castle —— the most splendid possession of his grandchildren.

There was never a day, when I was at the Manor House, but I passed some of it within the old walls, clambering, exploring, and running from one broken chamber to another, until I knew every chamber and every vault in the great pile. When I climbed the broken stairs and stood upon the giddy top of the half-roofed keep, I used to look around me with such pride as a Percy should feel at Alnwick or at Arundel. I was prouder even than my brother of the stately place, though he never wearied of rehearsing the greatness of his folk. A noble castle, indeed! This is none other than the Castle of King Ida, called the Royal House. King Edwin lived here; miracles were worked here by saints for the preservation of the castle; William Rufus sat down before it; David Bruce was a prisoner in it; the breaches in the broken walls were caused by the cannon of the Yorkists. Why, whenever I read the history of England in Holinshed or Baker, I turned over the pages and looked out the places where the castle is mentioned, and then my foolish heart would glow with pride. But surely there could be no more delightful place for a young girl’s playground and place of meditation. The keep alone remains entire, out of all the towers, bastions, forts, and strong places which once stood here; but their ruins still stand. In some places there are broken stone steps leading up to chambers whose floors are gone, windows gaping wide, and roof long since torn off; in others there are deep dungeons, open now to the light of heaven. At night, I used to think the groans of dead prisoners still ascend to the sky. From the top of the keep one may look out to sea and behold the Farnes lying beneath one as on a map; to the north is Holy Island, with its ruined church and castle on a hill; to the south is black Dunstanburgh, where the Seeker may be seen nightly by those who look for him; and inland lie the fields and woods belonging to the Forsters. In early summer the rock on which the castle stands, black and terrible in the winter, is covered, wherever the least ruggedness affords space for a morsel of earth, with tufts of grass and flowers. There are the thrift, the bell campion, and the trefoil, crimson, white and blue, very pretty to look upon. Later on, the sandhills, about which the rabbits keep running all the year round in thousands, are covered with flowers of other kinds, the names of which I knew and their properties, thanks to Nurse Judith and Mr. Hilyard.

Often Mr. Hilyard came here with me, telling out of his vast knowledge stories of the days when this place, now so silent and ruinous, was filled with knights and valiant men-at-arms, when the courts resounded with the hoofs of horses, the voices of the soldiers, and the clank of iron heel. He could restore the castle as it used to be, and would mark out for me the inner bailly, the outer bailly, the portcullis, the postern, the outworks, the chapel, the stables, the kitchens, and all, until in imagination I knew the castle, as it was when the Percies were its governors. No others came to the old castle except myself and Mr. Hilyard; it was quite lonely and deserted. In stormy weather the waves leaped up to the very walls, while the gulls flew screaming and the wind whistled. In the evening, when the twilight fell, I would sit among the fallen stones, seeing in the shadows of the pile grim spirits of the dead, and hearing in the breeze the voices of departed saints, kings, knights, bishops, sad prisoners, brave men, and fair ladies, whose ancient joys and sufferings made this place as sacred as the churchyard.

As for Tom, he cared little about the antiquity of the castle or its past history; his chief desire being for the time to arrive when he could call the place his own and be out of tutelage, and his principal occupation being hunting of fox and of otter, riding, shooting, fishing, badger-drawing, bat-fowling, netting of partridges with the lanthorn, setting decoys for ducks, hawking on the seashore, stalking the wild bulls of Chillingham, cock-fighting, dog-fighting, with the other manly sports in which young men delight. He conversed much with grooms, keepers, feeders, and falconers, and was experienced in every kind of sport. He also took great pleasure, in those days, in the wild-fowl shooting on the islands; many a time he has taken me with him when he had no other companion (Mr. Hilyard’s stomach being unable to stand the motion of a boat). Then we would sail through the waves to those wild and desolate rocks covered with the nests of the sea-birds which rise screaming from under the feet of the rare visitor. The cries of the birds, the whirr of their wings, the whistling of the wind, the dashing of the waves, are the only sounds upon these lonely islands where St. Cuthbert built his hermitage. They are, indeed, a truly fitting place for the gloomy recluse, who (though doubtless a holy man) dared to call the half of the Lord’s creatures unclean, and forbade a woman even to set her foot upon the place where he resided. Many pious women have gone into voluntary retreat and hermitage, but one never yet, I believe, heard of a woman thus speaking of man as to call him unholy or unclean. The walls of St. Cuthbert’s house yet stand in ruins on his deserted island, but there are now no human beings within their shelter.

I learned to know all the birds by their flight, their cry, and their feathers —— the St. Cuthbert’s ducks who make nests of the sea-weed, the tomnoddies, the skouts, the guillemots, the shags, the kittiwakes, the gulls, the brockits, the rock-pigeons, the sea-larks, and the jackdaws who build in the rabbit-holes. In those days, who so brave and handsome as young Tom Forster, leaping lightly from rock to rock, fowling-piece in hand, his long hair tied in a ribbon, and blown behind him by the sea-breezes, his grey eyes bright, and his cheek ruddy? What but a splendid future could await a lad so gallant? As for the girl who ran beside him, as agile as her brother, dressed in short petticoats and thick shoes with woollen stockings, she was a slip of a thing then, with dark brown eyes (like those of her aunt), and long fair curls flying under her hat. Her brother, though he sometimes swore at his grooms and thrashed the stable-boys, never had a harsh or unkind word for her, nor she any thought for him but of tender and true affection. Pity it was that one of natural abilities so good would never read and acquire wisdom.

‘The man who reads not,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘may get skill and knowledge, but scarcely wisdom. The hind and herd are men of great skill and knowledge, the one in ploughing, sowing, and reaping, the other in cattle and the creatures of field and forest. So the old wife in the village learns the virtues of all the herbs that grow, and the sportsman learns the ways of the creatures whom he hunts. But without books one knoweth not his brother man, nor his own position and importance, nor the proportion which one thing beareth to another; as, for instance, the opinion of a Northumberland gentleman compared with the opinions of the City of London, or that of Will’s Coffee House. Thus the man of no books may easily consider his own importance to be much greater than it is in the eyes of others, and his own doctrines infallible, and his own way of thinking the only way possible for honest men. Especially there is the danger of overestimating his importance. It was the ignorance as well as the ambition of the thief Diophon which caused him to burst and die with envy because, on his way to be hanged, he found that one of his fellows was to be treated to a gallows higher than his own.’

I understood Mr. Hilyard to be talking of my brother Tom and his companions, wherefore I resented the likening of Tom unto the rogue Diophon, even though he was an ancient Greek; and he hastened to assure me that the comparison was not as to honesty but as to ignorance, which if it lead to self-conceit even in so base a person as a common thief, may much more do so in the case of a country gentleman of Northumberland.

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