Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LI

Life Sinister

When business and the little cares of earthly life awoke again, every one told me (to my great surprise and no small terror at first, but soon to increasing acquiescence) that I was now the mistress of the fair estates of Castlewood, and, the male line being extinct, might claim the barony, if so pleased me; for that, upon default of male heirs, descended by the spindle. And as to the property, with or without any will of the late Lord Castlewood, the greater part would descend to me under unbarred settlement, which he was not known to have meddled with. On the contrary, he confirmed by his last will the settlement — which they told me was quite needless — and left me all that he had to leave, except about a thousand pounds distributed in legacies. A private letter to me was sealed up with his will, which, of course, it would not behoove me to make public. But thus much — since our family history is, alas! so notorious — in duty to him I should declare. He begged me, if his poor lost wife — of whom he had never spoken to me — should re-appear and need it, to pay her a certain yearly sum, which I thought a great deal too much for her, but resolved to obey him exactly.

Neither the will nor the letter contained any reference to my grandfather, or the possibility of an adverse claim. I could not, however, be quit of deep uneasiness and anxiety, but stanchly determined that every acre should vanish in folds of “the long robe” rather than pass to a crafty villain who had robbed me of all my kindred. My hatred of that man deepened vastly, as he became less abstract, while my terror decreased in proportion. I began to think that, instead of being the reckless fiend I had taken him for, he was only a low, plotting, cold-blooded rogue, without even courage to save him. By this time he must have heard all about me, my pursuit of him, and my presence here — then why not come and shoot me, just as he shot my grandfather?

The idea of this was unwelcome; still, I felt no sort of gratitude, but rather a lofty contempt toward him for not having spirit to try it. In Shoxford church-yard he had expressed (if Sexton Rigg was not then deceived) an unholy wish to have me there, at the feet of my brothers and sisters. Also he had tried to get hold of me — doubtless with a view to my quietude — when I was too young to defend myself, and left at haphazard in a lawless land. What was the reason, if his mind was still the same, for ceasing to follow me now? Was I to be treated with contempt as one who had tried her best and could do nothing, as a feeble creature whose movements were not even worth inquiry? Anger at such an idea began to supersede fear, as my spirits returned.

Meanwhile Major Hockin was making no sign as to what had befallen him in Paris, or what Cosmopolitan Jack was about. But, strangely enough, he had sent me a letter from Bruntsea instead of Paris, and addressed in grand style to no less a person than “The right honorable Baroness Castlewood”— a title which I had resolved, for the present, neither to claim nor acknowledge. In that letter the Major mingled a pennyweight of condolence with more congratulation than the post could carry for the largest stamp yet invented. His habit of mind was to magnify things; and he magnified my small grandeur, and seemed to think nothing else worthy of mention.

Through love of the good kind cousin I had lost, even more than through common and comely respect toward the late head of the family, I felt it impossible to proceed, for the present, with any inquiries, but left the next move to the other side. And the other side made it, in a manner such as I never even dreamed of.

About three weeks after I became, in that sad way, the mistress, escaping one day from lawyers and agents, who held me in dreary interview, with long computations of this and of that, and formalities almost endless, I went, for a breath of good earnest fresh air, beyond precinct of garden or shrubbery. To me these seemed in mild weather to temper and humanize the wind too strictly, and take the wild spirit out of it; and now, for the turn of the moment, no wind could be too rough to tumble in. After long months of hard trouble, and worry, and fear, and sad shame, and deep sorrow, the natural spring of clear youth into air and freedom set me upward. For the nonce there was nothing upon my selfish self to keep it downward; troubles were bubbles, and grief a low thief, and reason almost treason. I drank the fine fountain of air unsullied, and the golden light stamped with the royalty of sun.

Hilarious moments are but short, and soon cold sense comes back again. Already I began to feel ashamed of young life’s selfish outburst, and the vehement spring of mere bodily health. On this account I sat down sadly in a little cove of hill, whereto the soft breeze from the river came up, with a tone of wavelets, and a sprightly water-gleam. And here, in fern and yellow grass and tufted bights of bottom growth, the wind made entry for the sun, and they played with one another.

Besting here, and thinking, with my face between my hands, I wondered what would be the end. Nothing seemed secure or certain, nothing even steady or amenable to foresight. Even guess-work or the wider cast of dreams was always wrong. To-day the hills and valleys, and the glorious woods of wreathen gold, bright garnet, and deep amethyst, even that blue river yet unvexed by autumn’s turbulence, and bordered with green pasture of a thousand sheep and cattle — today they all were mine (so far as mortal can hold ownership)— tomorrow, not a stick, or twig, or blade of grass, or fallen leaf, but might call me a trespasser. To see them while they still were mine, and to regard them humbly, I rose and took my black hat off — a black hat trimmed with mourning gray. Then turning round, I met a gaze, the wildest, darkest, and most awful ever fixed on human face.

“Who are you? What do you want here?” I faltered forth, while shrinking back for flight, yet dreading or unable to withdraw my gaze from his. The hollow ground barred all escape; my own land was a pit for me, and I must face this horror out. Here, afar from house or refuge, hand of help, or eye of witness, front to front I must encounter this atrocious murderer.

For moments, which were ages to me, he stood there without a word; and daring not to take my eyes from his, lest he should leap at me, I had no power (except of instinct), and could form no thought of him, for mortal fear fell over me. If he would only speak, would only move his lips, or any thing!

“The Baroness is not brave,” he said at last, as if reproachfully; “but she need have no fear now of me. Does her ladyship happen to know who I am?”

“The man who murdered my grandfather.”

“Yes, if you put a false color on events. The man who punished a miscreant, according to the truer light. But I am not here to argue points. I intend to propose a bargain. Once for all, I will not harm you. Try to listen calmly. Your father behaved like a man to me, and I will be no worse to you. The state of the law in this country is such that I am forced to carry fire-arms. Will it conduce to your peace of mind if I place myself at your mercy?”

I tried to answer; but my heart was beating so that no voice came, only a flutter in my trembling throat. Wrath with myself for want of courage wrestled in vain with pale, abject fear. The hand which offered me the pistol seemed to my dazed eyes crimson still with the blood of my grandfather.

“You will not take it? Very well; it lies here at your service. If your father’s daughter likes to shoot me, from one point of view it will be just; and but for one reason, I care not. Don’t look at me with pity, if you please. For what I have done I feel no remorse, no shadow of repentance. It was the best action of my life. But time will fail, unless you call upon your courage speedily. None of your family lack that; and I know that you possess it. Call your spirit up, my dear.”

“Oh, please not to call me that! How dare you call me that?”

“That is right. I did it on purpose. And yet I am your uncle. Not by the laws of men, but by the laws of God — if there are such things. Now, have you the strength to hear me?”

“Yes; I am quite recovered now. I can follow every word you say. But — but I must sit down again.”

“Certainly. Sit there, and I will stand. I will not touch or come nearer to you than a story such as mine requires. You know your own side of it; now hear mine.

“More than fifty years ago there was a brave young nobleman, handsome, rich, accomplished, strong, not given to drink or gambling, or any fashionable vices. His faults were few, and chiefly three — he had a headstrong will, loved money, and possessed no heart at all. With chances in his favor, this man might have done as most men do who have such gifts from fortune. But he happened to meet with a maiden far beneath him in this noble world, and he set his affections — such as they were — upon that poor young damsel.

“This was Winifred Hoyle, the daughter of Thomas Hoyle, a farmer, in a lonely part of Hampshire, and among the moors of Rambledon. The nobleman lost his way, while fishing, and being thirsty, went to ask for milk. What matter how it came about? He managed to win her heart before she heard of his rank and title. He persuaded her even to come and meet him in the valley far from her father’s house, where he was wont to angle; and there, on a lonely wooden bridge across a little river, he knelt down (as men used to do) and pledged his solemn truth to her. His solemn lie — his solemn lie!

“Such love as his could not overleap the bars of rank or the pale of wealth — are you listening to me carefully? — or, at any rate, not both of them. If the poor farmer could only have given his Winifred 50,000 pounds, the peer would have dropped his pride, perhaps, so far as to be honest. But farmers in that land are poor, and Mr. Hoyle could give his only child his blessing only. And this he did in London, where his simple mind was all abroad, and he knew not church from chapel. He took his daughter for the wife of a lord, and so she took herself, poor thing! when she was but his concubine. In 1809 such tricks were easily played by villains upon young girls so simple.

“But he gave her attestation and certificate under his own hand; and her poor father signed it, and saw it secured in a costly case, and then went home as proud as need be for the father of a peer, but sworn to keep it three years secret, till the king should give consent. Such foul lies it was the pride of a lord to tell to a farmer.

“You do not exclaim — of course you do not. The instincts of your race are in you, because you are legitimate. Those of the robbed side are in me, because I am of the robbed. I am your father’s elder brother. Which is the worse, you proud young womam, the dastard or the bastard?”

“You have wrongs, most bitter wrongs,” I answered, meeting fierce eyes mildly; “but you should remember that I am guiltless of those wrongs, and so was my father. And I think that if you talk of birth so, you must know that gentlemen speak quietly to ladies.”

“What concern is that of mine? A gentleman is some one’s son. I am the son of nobody. But to you I will speak quietly, for the sake of your poor father. And you must listen quietly. I am not famous for sweet temper. Well, this great lord took his toy to Paris, where he had her at his mercy. She could not speak a word of French; she did not know a single soul. In vain she prayed him to take her to his English home; or, if not that, to restore her to her father. Not to be too long about it — any more than he was — a few months were enough for him. He found fault with her manners, with her speech, her dress, her every thing — all which he had right, perhaps, to do, but should have used it earlier. And she, although not born to the noble privilege of weariness, had been an old man’s darling, and could not put up with harshness. From words they came to worse, until he struck her, told her of her shame, or rather his own infamy, and left her among strangers, helpless, penniless, and brokenhearted, to endure the consequence.

“There and thus I saw the light beneath most noble auspices. But I need not go on with all that. As long as human rules remain, this happy tale will always be repeated with immense applause. My mother’s love was turned to bitter hatred of his lordship, and, when her father died from grief, to eager thirst for vengeance. And for this purpose I was born.

“You see that — for a bastard — I have been fairly educated; but not a farthing did his lordship ever pay for that, or even to support his casual. My grandfather Hoyle left his little all to his daughter Winifred; and upon that, and my mother’s toil and mine, we have kept alive. Losing sight of my mother gladly — for she was full of pride, and hoped no more to trouble him, after getting her father’s property — he married again, or rather he married for the first time without perjury, which enables the man to escape from it. She was of his own rank — as you know — the daughter of an earl, and not of a farmer. It would not have been safe to mock her, would it? And there was no temptation.

“The history of my mother and myself does not concern you. Such people are of no account until they grow dangerous to the great. We lived in cheap places and wandered about, caring for no one, and cared for by the same. Mrs. Hoyle and Thomas Hoyle we called ourselves when we wanted names; and I did not even know the story of our wrongs till the heat and fury of youth were past. Both for her own sake and mine my mother concealed it from me. Pride and habit, perhaps, had dulled her just desire for vengeance; and, knowing what I was, she feared — the thing which has befallen me. But when I was close upon thirty years old, and my mother eight-and-forty — for she was betrayed in her teens — a sudden illness seized her. Believing her death to be near, she told me, as calmly as possible, every thing, with all those large, quiet views of the past, which at such a time seem the regular thing, but make the wrong tenfold blacker. She did not die; if she had, it might have been better both for her and me, and many other people. Are you tired of my tale? Or do you want to hear the rest?”

“You can not be asking me in earnest,” I replied, while I watched his wild eyes carefully. “Tell me the rest, if you are not afraid.”

“Afraid, indeed! Then, for want of that proper tendance and comfort which a few pounds would have brought her, although she survived, she survived as a wreck, the mere relic and ruin of her poor unhappy self. I sank my pride for her sake, and even deigned to write to him, in rank and wealth so far above me, in every thing else such a clot below my heel. He did the most arrogant thing a snob can do — he never answered my letter.

“I scraped together a little money, and made my way to England, and came to that house — which you now call yours — and bearded that noble nobleman — that father to be so proud of! He was getting on now in years, and growing, perhaps, a little nervous, and my first appearance scared him. He got no obeisance from me, you may be certain, but still I did not revile him. I told him of my mother’s state of mind, and the great care she required, and demanded that, in common justice, he, having brought her to this, should help her. But nothing would he promise, not a sixpence even, in the way of regular allowance. Any thing of that sort could only be arranged by means of his solicitors. He had so expensive a son, with a very large and growing family, that he could not be pledged to any yearly sum. But if I would take a draft for 100 pounds, and sign an acquittance in full of all claims, I might have it, upon proving my identity.

“What identity had I to prove? He had taken good care of that. I turned my back on him and left the house, without even asking for his curse, though as precious as a good man’s blessing.

“It was a wild and windy night, but with a bright moon rising, and going across this park — or whatever it is called — I met my brother. At a crest of the road we met face to face, with the moon across our foreheads. We had never met till now, nor even heard of one another; at least he had never heard of me. He started back as if at his own ghost; but I had nothing to be startled at, in this world or the other.

“I made his acquaintance, with deference, of course, and we got on very well together. At one time it seemed good luck for him to have illegitimate kindred; for I saved his life when he was tangled in the weeds of this river while bathing. You owe me no thanks. I thought twice about it, and if the name would have ended with him, I would never have used my basket-knife. By trade I am a basket-maker, like many another ‘love-child.’

“However, he was grateful, if ever any body was, for I ran some risk in doing it; and he always did his very best for me, and encouraged me to visit him. Not at his home — of course that would never do — but when he was with his regiment. Short of money as he always was, through his father’s nature and his own, which in some points were the very opposite, he was even desirous to give me some of that; but I never took a farthing from him. If I had it at all, I would have it from the proper one. And from him I resolved to have it.

“How terrified you look! I am coming to it now. Are you sure that you can bear it? It is nothing very harrowing; but still, young ladies —”

“I feel a little faint,” I could not help saying; “but that is nothing. I must hear the whole of it. Please to go on without minding me.”

“For my own sake I will not, as well as for yours. I can not have you fainting, and bringing people here. Go to the house and take food, and recover your strength, and then come here again. I promise to be here, and your father’s daughter will not take advantage of my kindness.”

Though his eyes were fierce (instead of being sad) and full of strange tempestuous light, they bore some likeness to my father’s, and asserted power over me. Reluctant as I was, I obeyed this man, and left him there, and went slowly to the house, walking as if in a troubled dream.

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