Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXIII

Lord Castlewood

In the morning, when I was called again to see my afflicted cousin — Stixon junior having gladly gone to explain things for me at Bruntsea — little as I knew of any bodily pain (except hunger, or thirst, or weariness, and once in my life a headache), I stood before Lord Castlewood with a deference and humility such as I had never felt before toward any human being. Not only because he bore perpetual pain in the two degrees of night and day — the day being dark and the night jet-black — without a murmur or an evil word; not only because through the whole of this he had kept his mind clear and his love of knowledge bright; not even because he had managed, like Job, to love God through the whole of it. All these were good reasons for very great and very high respect of any man; and when there was no claim whatever on his part to any such feeling, it needs must come. But when I learned another thing, high respect at once became what might be called deep reverence. And this came to pass in a simple and, as any one must confess, quite inevitable way.

It was not to be supposed that I could sit the whole of my first evening in that house without a soul to speak to. So far as my dignity and sense of right permitted, I wore out Mr. Stixon, so far as he would go, not asking him any thing that the very worst-minded person could call “inquisitive,” but allowing him to talk, as he seemed to like to do, while he waited upon me, and alternately lamented my hapless history and my hopeless want of taste.

“Ah, your father, the Captain, now, he would have knowed what this is! You’ve no right to his eyes, Miss Erma, without his tongue and palate. No more of this, miss! and done for you a-purpose! Well, cook will be put out, and no mistake! I better not let her see it go down, anyhow.” And the worthy man tearfully put some dainty by, perhaps without any view to his own supper.

“Lord Castlewood spoke to me about a Mrs. Price — the housekeeper, is she not?” I asked at last, being so accustomed to like what I could get, that the number of dishes wearied me.

“Oh yes, miss,” said Stixon, very shortly, as if that description exhausted Mrs. Price.

“If she is not too busy, I should like to see her as soon as these things are all taken away. I mean if she is not a stranger, and if she would like to see me.”

“No new-comers here,” Mr. Stixon replied; “we all works our way up regular, the same as my lad is beginning for to do. New-fangled ways is not accepted here. We puts the reforming spirits scrubbing of the steps till their knuckles is cracked and their knees like a bean. The old lord was the man for discipline — your grandfather, if you please, miss. He catched me when I were about that high —”

“Excuse me, Mr. Stixon; but would he have encouraged you to talk as you so very kindly talk to me, instead of answering a question?”

I thought that poor Stixon would have been upset by this, and was angry with myself for saying it; but instead of being hurt, he only smiled and touched his forehead.

“Well, now, you did remind me uncommon of him then, miss. I could have heard the old lord speak almost, though he were always harsh and distant. And as I was going for to say, he catched me fifty years agone next Lammas-tide; a pear-tree of an early sort it was; you may see the very tree if you please to stand here, miss, though the pears is quite altered now, and scarcely fit to eat. Well, I was running off with my cap chock-full, miss —”

“Please to keep that story for another time,” I said; “I shall be most happy to hear it then. But I have a particular wish, if you please, to see Mrs. Price before dark, unless there is any good reason why I should not.”

“Oh no, Miss Erma, no reason at all. Only please to bear in mind, miss, that she is a coorous woman. She is that jealous, and I might say forward —”

“Then she is capable of speaking for herself.”

“You are right, miss, there, and no mistake. She can speak for herself and for fifty others — words enough, I mean, for all of them. But I would not have her know for all the world that I said it.”

“Then if you do not send her to me at once, the first thing I shall do will be to tell her.”

“Oh no, miss, none of your family would do that; that never has been done anonymous.”

I assured him that my threat was not in earnest, but of pure impatience. And having no motive but downright jealousy for keeping Mrs. Price from me, he made up his mind at last to let her come. But he told me to be careful what I said; I must not expect it to be at all like talking to himself, for instance.

The housekeeper came up at last, by dint of my persistence, and she stopped in the doorway and made me a courtesy, which put me out of countenance, for nobody ever does that in America, and scarcely any one in England now, except in country-dancing. Instead of being as described by Stixon, Mrs. Price was of a very quiet, sensible, and respectful kind. She was rather short, but looked rather tall, from her even walk and way of carrying her head. Her figure was neat, and her face clear-spoken, with straight pretty eyebrows, and calm bright eyes. I felt that I could tell her almost any thing, and she would think before she talked of it. And in my strong want of some woman to advise with — Betsy Bowen being very good but very narrow, and Mrs. Hockin a mere echo of the Major until he contradicted her, and Suan Isco, with her fine, large views, five thousand miles out of sight just now — this was a state of things to enhance the value of any good countenance feminine.

At any rate, I was so glad to see her that, being still ungraduated in the steps of rank (though beginning to like a good footing there), I ran up and took her by both hands, and fetched her out of her grand courtesy and into a low chair. At this she was surprised, as one quick glance showed; and she thought me, perhaps, what is called in England “an impulsive creature.” This put me again upon my dignity, for I never have been in any way like that, and I clearly perceived that she ought to understand a little more distinctly my character.

It is easy to begin with this intention, but very hard indeed to keep it up when any body of nice ways and looks is sitting with a proper deferential power of listening, and liking one’s young ideas, which multiply and magnify themselves at each demand. So after some general talk about the weather, the country, the house, and so on, we came to the people of the house, or at any rate the chief person. And I asked her a few quiet questions about Lord Castlewood’s health and habits, and any thing else she might like to tell me. For many things had seemed to me a little strange and out of the usual course, and on that account worthy to be spoken of without common curiosity. Mrs. Price told me that there were many things generally divulged and credited, which therefore lay in her power to communicate without any derogation from her office. Being pleased with these larger words (which I always have trouble in pronouncing), I asked her whether there was any thing else. And she answered yes, but unhappily of a nature to which it was scarcely desirable to allude in my presence. I told her that this was not satisfactory, and I might say quite the opposite; that having “alluded” to whatever it might be, she was bound to tell me all about it. That I had lived in very many countries, in all of which wrong things continually went on, of which I continually heard just in that sort of way and no more. Enough to make one uncomfortable, but not enough to keep one instructed and vigilant as to things that ought to be avoided. Upon this she yielded either to my arguments or to her own dislike of unreasonable silence, and gave me the following account of the misfortunes of Lord Castlewood:

Herbert William Castlewood was the third son of Dean Castlewood, a younger brother of my grandfather, and was born in the year 1806. He was older, therefore, than my father, but still (even before my father’s birth, which provided a direct heir) there were many lives betwixt him and the family estates. And his father, having as yet no promotion in the Church, found it hard to bring up his children. The eldest son got a commission in the army, and the second entered the navy, while Herbert was placed in a bank at Bristol — not at all the sort of life which he would have chosen. But being of a gentle, unselfish nature, as well as a weak constitution, he put up with his state in life, and did his best to give satisfaction.

This calm courage generally has its reward, and in the year 1842, not very long before the death of my grandfather at Shoxford, Mr. Herbert Castlewood, being well-connected, well-behaved, diligent, and pleasing, obtained a partnership in the firm, which was, perhaps, the foremost in the west of England. His two elder brothers happened then to be at home, Major and Commander Castlewood, each of whom had seen very hard service, and found it still harder slavery to make both ends meet, although bachelors. But, returning full of glory, they found one thing harder still, and that was to extract any cash from their father, the highly venerated Dean, who in that respect, if in no other, very closely resembled the head of the family. Therefore these brave men resolved to go and see their Bristol brother, to whom they were tenderly attached, and who now must have money enough and to spare. So they wrote to their brother to meet them on the platform, scarcely believing that they could be there in so short a time from London; for they never had travelled by rail before; and they set forth in wonderful spirits, and laughed at the strange, giddy rush of the travelling, and made bets with each other about punctual time (for trains kept much better time while new), and, as long as they could time it, they kept time to a second. But, sad to relate, they wanted no chronometers when they arrived at Bristol, both being killed at a blow, with their watches still going, and a smile on their faces. For the train had run into a wall of Bath stone, and several of the passengers were killed.

The sight of his two brothers carried out like this, after so many years of not seeing them, was too much for Mr. Herbert Castlewood’s nerves, which always had been delicate. And he shivered all the more from reproach of conscience, having made up his mind not to lend them any money, as a practical banker was compelled to do. And from that very moment he began to feel great pain.

Mrs. Price assured me that the doctors all agreed that nothing but change of climate could restore Mr. Castlewood’s tone and system, and being full of art (though so simple, as she said, which she could not entirely reconcile), he set off for Italy, and there he stopped, with the good leave of his partners, being now valued highly as heir to the Dean, who was known to have put a good trifle together. And in Italy my father must have found him, as related by Mr. Shovelin, and there received kindness and comfort in his trouble, if trouble so deep could be comforted.

Now I wondered and eagerly yearned to know whether my father, at such a time, and in such a state of loneliness, might not have been led to impart to his cousin and host and protector the dark mystery which lay at the bottom of his own conduct. Knowing how resolute and stern he was, and doubtless then imbittered by the wreck of love and life, I thought it more probable that he had kept silence even toward so near a relative, especially as he had seen very little of his cousin Herbert till he had found him thus. Moreover, my grandfather and the Dean had spent little brotherly love on each other, having had a life-long feud about a copy-hold furze brake of nearly three-quarters of an acre, as Betsy remembered to have heard her master say.

To go on, however, with what Mrs. Price was saying. She knew scarcely any thing about my father, because she was too young at that time to be called into the counsels of the servants’ hall, for she scarcely was thirty-five yet, as she declared, and she certainly did not look forty. But all about the present Lord Castlewood she knew better than any body else, perhaps, because she had been in the service of his wife, and, indeed, her chief attendant. Then, having spoken of her master’s wife, Mrs. Price caught herself up, and thenceforth called her only his “lady.”

Mr. Herbert Castlewood, who had minded his business for so many years, and kept himself aloof from ladies, spending all his leisure in good literature, at this time of life and in this state of health (for the shock he had received struck inward), fell into an accident tenfold worse — the fatal accident of love. And this malady raged the more powerfully with him on account of breaking out so late in life. In one of the picture-galleries at Florence, or some such place, Mrs. Price declared, he met with a lady who made all the pictures look cold and dull and dead to him. A lovely young creature she must have been (as even Mrs. Price, who detested her, acknowledged), and to the eyes of a learned but not keen man as good as lovely. My father was gone to look after me, and fetch me out of England, but even if he had been there, perhaps he scarcely could have stopped it; for this Mr. Castlewood, although so quiet, had the family fault of tenacity.

Mrs. Price, being a very steady person, with a limited income, and enough to do, was inclined to look down upon the state of mind in which Mr. Castlewood became involved. She was not there at the moment, of course, but suddenly sent for when all was settled; nevertheless, she found out afterward how it began from her master’s man, through what he had for dinner. And in the kitchen-garden at Castlewood no rampion would she allow while she lived. I asked her whether she had no pity, no sympathy, no fine feeling, and how she could have become Mrs. Price if she never had known such sentiments. But she said that they only called her “Mistress” on account of her authority, and she never had been drawn to the opposite sex, though many times asked in marriage. And what she had seen of matrimony led her far away from it. I was sorry to hear her say this, and felt damped, till I thought that the world was not all alike.

Then she told me, just as if it were no more than a bargain for a pound of tallow candles, how Mr. Herbert Castlewood, patient and persistent, was kept off and on for at least two years by the mother of his sweet idol. How the old lady held a balance in her mind as to the likelihood of his succession, trying, through English friends, to find the value and the course of property. Of what nation she was, Mrs. Price could not say, and only knew that it must be a bad one. She called herself the Countess of Ixorism, as truly pronounced in English; and she really was of good family too, so far as any foreigner can be. And her daughter’s name was Flittamore, not according to the right spelling, perhaps, but pronounced with the proper accent.

Flittamore herself did not seem to care, according to what Mrs. Price had been told, but left herself wholly in her mother’s hands, being sure of her beauty still growing upon her, and desiring to have it admired and praised. And the number of foreigners she always had about her sometimes made her real lover nearly give her up. But, alas! he was not quite wise enough for this, with all that he had read and learned and seen. Therefore, when it was reported from Spain that my father had been killed by bandits — the truth being that he was then in Greece — the Countess at last consented to the marriage of her daughter with Herbert Castlewood, and even seemed to press it forward for some reasons of her own. And the happy couple set forth upon their travels, and Mrs. Price was sent abroad to wait upon the lady.

For a few months they seemed to get on very well, Flittamore showing much affection for her husband, whose age was a trifle more than her own doubled, while he was entirely wrapped up in her, and labored that the graces of her mind might be worthy to compare with those more visible. But her spiritual face and most sweet poetic eyes were vivid with bodily brilliance alone. She had neither mind enough to learn, nor heart enough to pretend to learn.

It is out of my power to describe such things, even if it were my duty to do so, which, happily, it has never been; moreover, Mrs. Price, in what she told me, exercised a just and strict reserve. Enough that Mr. Castlewood’s wedded life was done with in six months and three days. Lady Castlewood, as she would be called, though my father still was living and his cousin disclaimed the title — away she ran from some dull German place, after a very stiff lesson in poetry, and with her ran off a young Englishman, the present Sir Montague Hockin. He was Mr. Hockin then, and had not a half-penny of his own; but Flittamore met that difficulty by robbing her husband to his last farthing.

This had happened about twelve years back, soon after I was placed at the school in Languedoc, to which I was taken so early in life that I almost forget all about it. But it might have been better for poor Flittamore if she had been brought up at a steady place like that, with sisters and ladies of retreat, to teach her the proper description of her duties to mankind. I seemed now in my own mind to condemn her quite enough, feeling how superior her husband must have been; but Mrs. Price went even further, and became quite indignant that any one should pity her.

“A hussy! a hussy! a poppet of a hussy!” she exclaimed, with greater power than her quiet face could indicate; “never would I look at her. Speak never so, Miss Castlewood. My lord is the very best of all men, and she has made him what he is. The pity she deserves is to be trodden under foot, as I saw them do in Naples.”

After all the passion I had seen among rough people, I scarcely could help trembling at the depth of wrath dissembled and firmly controlled in calm clear eyes under very steadfast eyebrows. It was plain that Lord Castlewood had, at any rate, the gift of being loved by his dependents.

“I hope that he took it aright!” I cried, catching some of her indignation; “I hope that he cast her to the winds, without even a sigh for such a cruel creature!”

“He was not strong enough,” she answered, sadly; “his bodily health was not equal to it. From childhood he had been partly crippled and spoiled in his nerves by an accident. And the shock of that sight at Bristol flew to his weakness, and was too much for him. And now this third and worst disaster, coming upon him where his best hope lay, and at such a time of life, took him altogether off his legs. And off his head too, I might almost say, miss; for, instead of blaming her, he put the fault entirely upon himself. At his time of life, and in such poor health, he should not have married a bright young girl: how could he ever hope to make her happy? That was how he looked at it, when he should have sent constables after her.”

“And what became of her — the mindless animal, to forsake so good and great a man! I do hope she was punished, and that vile man too.”

“She was, Miss Castlewood; but he was not; at least he has not received justice yet. But he will, he will, he will, miss. The treacherous thief! And my lord received him as a young fellow-countryman under a cloud, and lent him money, and saved him from starving; for he had broken with his father and was running from his creditors.”

“Tell me no more,” I said; “not another word. It is my fate to meet that — well, that gentleman — almost every day. And he, and he — oh, how thankful I am to have found out all this about him!”

The above will show why, when I met my father’s cousin on the following morning — with his grand, calm face, as benevolent as if he had passed a night of luxurious rest instead of sleepless agony — I knew myself to be of a lower order in mind and soul and heart than his; a small, narrow, passionate girl, in the presence of a large, broad-sighted, and compassionate man.

I threw myself altogether on his will; for, when I trust, I trust wholly. And, under his advice, I did not return with any rash haste to Bruntsea, but wrote in discharge of all duty there; while Mrs. Price, a clear and steadfast woman, was sent to London to see Wilhelmina Strouss. These two must have had very great talks together, and, both being zealous and faithful, they came to many misunderstandings. However, on the whole, they became very honest friends, and sworn allies at last, discovering more, the more they talked, people against whom they felt a common and just enmity.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31