Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter vi.

The Chief Creditor.

It was in this way that our tutor remained with us. My brother never did a wiser thing, nor made a better bargain; for if Mr. Hilyard was serviceable before, he was ten times as serviceable now, by his care and watchfulness saving expense here and preventing waste there. He took, in a word, the conduct of all Tom’s affairs, showing himself as capable and competent in administration as he had been a faithful tutor.

For my own part (not to speak, more than can be helped, of the way in which his evenings were too often employed), I found him a much more delightful companion now that he had no occasion for the austerity of a tutor. Yet he preserved his gravity during the working hours of the day.

‘I may at some time of my life,’ he said, ‘take upon me the vows of Holy Orders, for which I have ever had an ardent desire. One would almost as soon preach in a London church as deliver verses on the boards of Drury Lane, except for the applause, which, in the Early Church, was not wanting. Wherefore I still cultivate the habit of a decorous carriage. Yet I confess to you, Miss Dorothy, that there have been moments, before Mr. Forster came of age, when I have had a vehement yearning upon me to put on, as I may say, the old Adam. That temptation has now disappeared.’

Probably, as he put on the natural Adam nearly every evening, the cause of the temptation was removed. ’Twas as if a gambler should cease to feel the desire for gambling in the morning after he had begun to gamble every night. Mr. Hilyard became, in fact, much more pleasant. He would play tender and moving airs upon the fiddle, and, though he reserved his powers of imitation and drollery for the gentlemen (ladies being too often unable to see anything to laugh at in what pleases men after supper), he would sometimes sing very sweetly such songs as ‘Love finds out the way,’ or ‘Jockey’s Lamentation.’ And often when we were alone, my brother being away with friends, he would beguile an evening with a scene from Shakespeare, which he would act and read with surprising force.

I need not speak of his powers wholly with admiration, because their exercise had led him, as will presently be seen, to disgrace and almost to ruin. It was, when one thinks of it, a truly dreadful thing for a man who was a scholar and student of theology, of great learning, noble parts, and true eloquence, to be carried away by a love of buffoonery and the desire to display a monkey-like power of imitation. A pretty reward, indeed, of his labours as tutor, to be made the Merry Andrew, Clown, and Tom Fool of the whole company whenever Tom gathered his friends together. Ought they not rather to be ashamed of seeing so learned a man thus lower himself? Yet they showed no signs of compunction or shame, but at each new monkey-trick they cheered the louder and laughed the longer. Happily, women are removed from this temptation (though we have plenty left). We do not desire to be continually laughing, and we cannot understand what there is in most things to laugh at, nor why, because men get together, they must be for ever singing, laughing, and making merry. Everybody will understand, however, that this strange thing was speedily bruited abroad, and that the possession of this entertaining Oxford scholar brought gentlemen to our house. My brother, easy and hospitable, loved to entertain his friends, and they, not to be behindhand, constantly returned the compliment, especially in the hunting season, so that there was seldom a week without a feast and a carouse.

My time, from the year 1707 to the year 1710, was spent chiefly with Tom at the Manor House. In the latter year Lord Derwentwater came home, which made a great change, as you will presently hear, for all of us. In the morning it was my duty, even when quite young, to order the household, so that I became, in course of time, a notable woman, skilled in the preparation of conserves, jellies, pies, cakes, biscuits, puddings, stuffings, strong waters, perfumes, and home-made wines; good at embroidery, and able to play the spinet with some freedom and delicacy; also, I could make and mend, cut out, fashion, sew, and trim with any woman: in such pursuits my forenoon was entirely occupied, as well as that of my still-room maid, who was no other than that Jenny Lee, the Midsummer Witch, when we all had our fortunes told —— I am bound to say that, whatever her subsequent conduct, she was the most faithful, dexterous, and zealous maid to me, and I never had the least fault to find with her. My old nurse, Judith (who had been Tom’s nurse as well, and loved not madam), sat all day long in her armchair, reposing after a life spent in faithful service. One morning she slept so long beside the fire that I tried to awaken her for dinner; but could not, for she had slept through her passage from this world to the next.

In the afternoon, dinner over, Mr. Hilyard would sometimes read aloud out of a book, or we would read French together, or he would discourse upon matters of high import; or he would walk with me in the castle, or upon the sands, or across the fields, finding always something of instrction. Let me never forget how much I am indebted to this good and patient man (good and patient all the day, that is; though in those days somewhat deboshed with drink at night). It is through him that I learned something of history, geography, knowledge of the world we live in, and the stars beyond; yea, even my humble gratitude to the Divine Designer and Architect of the Universe, was first inspired by this modest scholar, in pointing out the wonders of the earth and the motions of the heavenly bodies.

Very shortly after Tom came of age he received a letter from Lady Crewe, his coheir, which might have very seriously alarmed a man of a less sanguine and hopeful character. What Tom believed he held as matter of faith, out of which no one could shake him. Now he held, as clearly as the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church (but with much less reason), that the great estates he inherited were as inexhaustible as the mines of Potosi. There had been, it is true, and he knew it, three successive holders of the property, who all spent, every year, more than their yearly income. Further, he knew that Lord Crewe had bought in a rent-charge of £500 a year. And this letter ought to have made him consider his position very carefully; but it did not.

‘My dear Nephew and Coheir,’ her ladyship wrote ——‘It is with infinite pain that I hereby inform you that the creditors of my late brothers have taken such steps as will result in our estate being thrown into Chancery, the effect of which cannot but be disastrous to us both, though, in the long-run, we shall perhaps recover. As regards present expenses, we shall have to appoint some trustworthy servant as steward of the property till such time as the lawyers have done with it and the creditors are satisfied. And you may rest assured of my care that your income shall be sufficient for you to live at the Manor House, though not in the state which my brothers were able to maintain. You will have fewer horses and servants; you will not be able, at present, to bear the charges of a seat in Parliament; but you will continue (I will take care therefor) to live on your estates, and in your own house. And, should I remain unhappily a childless wife, you will, on my death, succeed to my moiety. Therefore, my dear nephew, bid little Dorothy take care that there be no waste in the kitchen; buy no more horses; make no bets; run no matches; keep my late brother’s cellar for days of company; provide your table chiefly by your gun; make no debts; and hope continually that the years of lean kine will be but few, and will soon pass away.

‘Your loving Aunt,

‘Dorothy Crewe.’

Tom read this letter slowly.

‘“Fewer horses!”’ he said. ‘Why, I have but half a dozen or so as it is. “Fewer servants!” Then who is to keep the poor varlets if I send them adrift? “Make no bets!” Why, my lady, there you must please to excuse me, for a gentleman must make bets. “Run no matches!” Well, not many. What does she mean by “lean kine”?’

‘Her ladyship refers to the dream of Pharaoh,’ said Mr. Hilyard.

‘Then I wish her ladyship would talk plain English. After all, it will be but a year or two, and then —— Tony, what the devil are you looking so glum about?’

‘Chancery,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘means more than a year or two. Lawyers are like that famous vampire-bat, said to exist in Hungary, which seizes on a creature, and never lets go while there is blood left.’

It is wonderful to relate that Tom never took the least trouble to find out what the liabilities were, or how long it would take to pay them off. Meanwhile, there was no change in his manner of living, save that he bought no more horses, hired no new servants, and restrained himself from those things which require a great outlay of money. I know not how the money was found for the daily charges, but I suppose that Lady Crewe could tell, for the estates were really thrown into Chancery, where they remained for six years. Mr. Hilyard, I believe, but am not certain, was appointed steward. Also I know now that, one after the other, the creditors were mostly bought up by Lord Crewe.

With wings thus clipped, supposed to be the owner of a great estate, of which he could enjoy nothing, Tom could not take the same position in the county as had been enjoyed by his predecessors. Yet there was always the generous hospitality of the north, and the great cellar of wine left by Mr. Ferdinando held out even against Tom’s friends, who were mostly young, and all of them gifted with a great appetite and thirst; and as long familiarity with danger makes one cease to believe in it(as a sailor puts forth to meet the perils of the seas without a thought upon them), so Tom went on, taking no heed for the morrow, as if the broad lands of Bamborough were really his own, as they had been Sir William’s. Yet, as I grew older, and could understand things better, I learned from Mr. Hilyard that his own expectancy for the future was gloomy indeed, for all of us —— for Tom, who might lose the greater part of his estate; for myself, who would lose, so to speak, whatever he lost; and for himself, because he would lose employment to his mind, and a patron who was generous in his way, though sometimes quick with his tongue, and so might be turned again upon the world to seek his fortune at five or six and thirty years of age, when a man ought to be settled in the way of life by which he earns his bread.

‘I doubt,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘whether, when all is done, there will remain for the coheirs enough to give a bare living to his honour. All will go to Lord Crewe, who, I hear, is buying up the remaining creditors. We know not what may be the intentions of his lordship, but he is growing old, and may die; or he may intend —— but, indeed, we know not what he may intend, except that it is poor work for a Forster of Bamborough to look to any man for patronage and support.’

Poor work, truly! even though that man was so near a connection as my lord!

Tom, then, took no thought for the future, believing that the estates would shortly be cleared of all encumbrances, and his inheritance become all his own. Nay, when letters came from the lawyers, written in the language or jargon employed by the members of that profession with intent to darken the judgment and confuse the mind of a plain person, my brother tossed them over to Mr. Hilyard, bidding him read them if he pleased, but not to vex him by rehearsing their purport, and so, with a whistle to his dogs, off to the sport which chiefly occupied his mind. Nor would he hear afterwards what the letters conveyed to him, though Mr. Hilyard shook his head and groaned, telling me privately that our affairs were going from bad to worse. Like master, like man; he, too, when the bottle went round, shook off dull care, and assumed that fool’s cap which belongs to all who willingly dwell in a fool’s paradise.

There came the time, however, when the storm, which had been gathering so long, burst upon us in great fury, finding one at least, and that the man most concerned, wholly unprepared.

It was one day in the early autumn of the year 1709, and in the afternoon. My brother was sitting at the open window, with a packet of flies in his hands (they were made for him by Mr. Hilyard), but half-asleep and nodding, as sometimes happened to him after his dinner and noonday potations of strong ale. He was then twenty-seven years of age. Six years had passed since he came into his own, which was now, alas! to be taken from him, though he had never really enjoyed more than the shadow and reputation of it. Yet they were six years of fatness, with plenty of feasting, drinking, hunting, shooting, and fishing, so that one may easily understand that Tom looked no longer the gallant and handsome lad who received the congratulations of his friends when he reached his twenty-first year. His cheeks were fuller, and he had already something of a double chin. Yet a comely man still.

I have always thought it a great happiness that Tom was in no hurry to be married. In this respect he resembled many others of his family. His uncles John and Ferdinando, for instance, never married at all, nor hath his brother Jack as yet taken a wife, though he is now (at the time I write) far advanced towards forty. Had Tom become a father of children, this and later troubles might have been more than one could bear.

Then there rode up to the door the post-boy, mounted on his little pony, and blowing his horn, at the noise of which Tom started and woke up; Mr. Hilyard, who held in his hand a book in Latin, laid it down and went out, and I put aside my sewing and waited for the news. We were less astonished than most at the arrival of a letter, because we were sometimes privileged to read Lady Swinburne’s latest London news. Now it may seem incredible, but it is nevertheless true, and I have experienced the same thing on the occasion of other misfortunes as great, that I felt quite certain beforehand, and while waiting for the letter, that it brought bad news.

‘Read it, Tony,’ said Tom, giving it back. ‘It is from her ladyship. Perhaps it is to say that all is now paid off, and the estate is clear.’

Mr. Hilyard opened the letter, which was a long one, with great care,drew a chair to the window, and there read it.

This most astonishing epistle fell upon us all like a thunderbolt in our midst, as one of the Allies’ shells at Oudenarde. Consider; for so many years there had been always before our eyes the prospect of a time when the estates should be free —— in a year or two, perhaps, more or less; what mattered? Sooner or later Tom would have his unencumbered moiety, and, as was reasonable to suppose, at my lady’s death the whole.

It was a truly dreadful letter. It informed us, in fact, that there was nothing left. Law and the creditors had swallowed all. A thing impossible to believe, and yet most true. There was nothing left. My aunt, in telling us this dreadful thing, talked obscurely about our remaining at the Manor House, with hints about affairs of importance not to be undertaken without communication with her. I was, for my own part, so bewildered, that I understood but half of what she said.

Now, when Mr. Hilyard read, Tom, who began by paying little heed first, sprang to his feet, and then turned white and then red, crying:

‘Read that again! Read that again!’ And when the letter ended with an exhortation to resignation, Tom sank into his chair, crying, ‘For Lord’s sake, Tony, tell me without her ladyship’s rigmarole —— Death and Furies! what have I to do with resignation? —— what it means.’

‘It means, sir,’ Mr. Hilyard replied, ‘briefly this: The Bamborough estates have been all, by order of the Lord Chancellor, sold for the benefit of the creditors. Lord Crewe hath bought the whole for the sum of £20,000, and the amount due to her ladyship and yourself, the lawyers and creditors having been paid, and the rent-charges provided for, is not more than £1,020, of which you, who take the moiety, will receive £510 exactly.’

Then there was silence, during which we looked anxiously at Tom, whose face was swollen, and so red that I feared he would have a fit of some kind.

‘So all is gone,’ he said, at length. ‘A goodly inheritance, indeed! Five hundred pounds!’

‘Your honour forgets,’ replied Mr. Hilyard, ‘that you are still the heir of Etherston. As to the land of the Bamborough Forsters, that seems to have taken unto itself wings. If one cannot trust in land, in what shall man place his trust?’

‘I am the heir of Etherston —— that is true. But my father’s estate can do little more than keep himself and his family. Shall I have to go back to him and live upon his bounty?’ To this, being greatly moved and beyond himself, he added many strong words and oaths, which may be passed over.

‘Not so, sir,’ said Mr. Hilyard. ‘With submission, if you go back, Miss Dorothy will go with you; and I must needs go back into the world, naked as I came into it at my birth. Therefore, I trust this will not happen. As for this house and all these lands, they are indeed the property of the Lord Bishop; but there seems a way —— nay, her ladyship herself indicates a way. You will remain here —— as her nephew.’

‘A fine way, truly! I am to be a beggar —— a pensioner —— a dependent upon my aunt.’

‘Nay; the eldest son of Mr. Thomas, and the grandson of Sir William Forster, must not be called by anyone a beggar, or a pauper, or a dependent, even though his aunt, who is wealthy, provide the expenses of his establishment. Her ladyship clearly signifies her desire that you should continue as if this purchase had not been made, and that you should live in the same style as at present, which is not, I am aware, the style befitting Mr. Ferdinando’s successor, or equal to the splendour of his state; but yet it is the style and manner of a gentleman, and equal to that of your honour’s father; and she further clearly specifies her intention, if I read her aright, that out of the revenues of the estates such a sum shall be reserved for your use as may be found necessary.’

‘Yes —— but on conditions.’

‘With submission, sir, again: on reasonable conditions. She desires only that no important step be taken by you without her consent. That is to say, and, by way of illustration, when you desire to marry, you would signify your intention to her ladyship. That is what you would naturally do towards your lamented mother’s sister.’

‘Tilly vally, Tony, that is not what her ladyship means. You know very well what she does mean.’

‘Then, sir,’ said Mr. Hilyard, apparently without attention to this interruption, ‘there is also the danger which threatens the whole country, and especially the north. Her ladyship, knowing your honour’s courage, loyalty, and daring, is right in fearing that you might be led into some rash enterprise, like the late Sir John Fenwick, in which you might lose not only your head but also your estates. This danger, sir, I for one, if I may venture to say so, have felt especially of late to be very great. Consider, that you are acknowledged by all to be by birth and position, as well as by abilities, foremost among the Protestant gentlemen of the north.’

‘That may be so, Tony,’ said Tom, softening. ‘I do not say that thou art wrong.’

‘A natural leader of the Cause, and of great daring.’

‘It is true,’ said Tom, wagging his head.

‘Round whom the people will rally.’

‘If not,’ said Tom, sitting down, ‘I should like to know round whom they will rally.’

‘Next,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘it is very well known that there hath been of late a great increase of agitation in the counties and in the towns. Private advices reach us from London of the clubs, of the enthusiasm for Dr. Sacheverell, and the loyalty even of the mob. Her ladyship desires, naturally, that when you take that step, which will go far to decide the victory of the Cause she hath at heart ——’

‘It will,’ cried Tom. ‘It must.’

‘She shall know beforehand, if only —— but this I guess —— in order that you may be enabled to make a fitting appearance in the field. A Forster may not be as magnificent as the Duke of Ormond, but he must be suitably equipped and followed.’

‘Why,’ said Tom, ‘if that is all her ladyship means ——’

‘What more, sir, may I ask, can she mean? As your honour’s aunt, she is anxious for your safety; as a woman, she reveres the head of her branch; also, as a woman, saving Miss Dorothy’s presence, having the power of the purse, she desires to keep it. As for what she intends, that is to me very certain. She hath been married more than ten years, and hath no children; she is already over forty; her husband is past seventy-five years of age, and will leave to his widow all he can, if he does not leave her all he has; her ladyship’s devotion to her own family is well known. To whom should she bequeath her wealth, save to your honour?’

‘True,’ said Tom, ‘it is natural. My lord is very rich.’

‘You will therefore become,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘before many years, the richest gentleman in the north.’

‘I shall then rebuild the castle, and live within its walls,’ said Tom.

‘You will certainly be able to do this, and to revive the old state of your ancestors, Sir John and Sir Claudius.’

‘I shall also restore the ancient Tower of Blanchland, and make a noble residence of it.’

‘Sir, the idea is worthy of the great position you will then hold.’

‘As for you, Tony, I have made up my mind. You shall take Holy Orders and become my chaplain, with two hundred pounds a year.’

‘Your honour is indeed generous.’

‘I shall also go into the House. By that time the Prince will have his throne. He will reward those who have been faithful to him.’

‘An earldom at least,’ said Mr. Hilyard.

‘At least,’ said Tom, kindling. ‘The Earl of Blanchland, ch? It would be as fine as the Earl of Derwentwater.’

‘Even at present,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘your honour may marry in any family you choose, being of so old and honourable a house. But then —— with Lord Crewe’s inheritance and the Sovereign’s favour —— of course you will be sworn of the Privy Council ——’

‘Of course,’ answered Tom proudly.

‘Earl of Blanchland, of His Majesty’s Privy Council; Knight of the Garter —— I think, my lord —— I mean, your honour —— we may say Knight of the Garter ——’

‘You may,’ said Tom, laying his fingers round his leg; ‘you may, sir.’

‘Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff of Northumberland; Hereditary Grand Warden of the March (an honour only to be asked for); Governor of the Castle of Bamborough; Lord of the Manor of Etherston ——’

‘I give that,’ said Tom, ‘to my brother Jack. It is not worth keeping.’

‘With all these distinctions, is there an heiress or a lady in all England but would rejoice at such an alliance?’

‘Gad!’ said Tom, ‘you put things as they should be put. Tony, your salary as my chaplain shall be four hundred, not two. You shall be a king among chaplains! But when you have the cassock and the bands, you will not cease from drinking and singing, will you?’

‘Sir,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘I shall be like unto Friar John des Entommeurs. In the gown I shall only drink the deeper.’

With such persuasion and artful show of hope did Mr. Hilyard soothe the disappointment of this dreadful blow, so that poor Tom, although without a penny (save his five hundred pounds), and dependent wholly upon the bounty of my aunt, felt himself in imagination exalted to the highest rank, and possessing all those distinctions which are most coveted.

‘Write to her ladyship, my good friend,’ he said, with the majesty of an Earl in his manner; ‘tell her in suitable terms that I agree to her proposals. Bring me the draft of the letter, and I will write it in my own hand, after I have corrected it. You can tell Jack, Dorothy, that I shall give him Etherston when the time comes.’

Alas! Jack has got Etherston, and has held it now for fourteen years. But what did poor Tom get?

Then —— the kind brother —— he thought upon his sister.

‘What shall I give thee, Dorothy?’ he asked. ‘Truly, if it depended upon me, thou shouldst have the finest husband in the world, and the richest dower.’

So he kissed me on the forehead, and left us.

‘Man,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘is ever allured by the things which are of least use to him. Who would be Earl and Knight of the Garter, and bear the weight and fardel of greatness? Who would not rather be a plain country gentleman, with an estate in land, a troop of friends, and a goodly cellar? His honour hath lost his whole substance. He hath remaining not one acre of land nor one shilling of revenue; yet is he happy, because he will now have continually before his eyes the inheritance of Lord Crewe.’

‘But you think ——’

‘Nay, I am sure. I have deceived him in nought, except in this. Her ladyship is, it is true, forty years of age, but she may very well live as long as her nephew. But to tell him this in his present mood would be the same as to kick over the basket of eggs out of which this mighty fortune was to be made. I have also hidden another thing, which I confess with shame. I am informed that Lord Derwentwater will certainly return early in the year. He is young and ardent; he will gather round him, no doubt, all the hot-brains and hair-brains of the county. Lady Crewe knows this, because she knows all. Who can tell what may happen? Is she not right to ensure that her nephew, if he risk his neck, shall risk nothing else?’

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