Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 5.

Ranford

MASTER CHARLES, blessed with a placid temper and a splendid appetite, throve amazingly. Before you knew where you were, he was in tops and bottoms; before you had thoroughly realized that, he was learning his letters; then there was hardly time to turn round, before he was a rosy-cheeked boy of ten.

From the very first gleam of reason, he had been put solely and entirely under the care of Mr. Snell, the old vicar, who had been with his mother when she died, and a Protestant nurse, Mrs. Varley. Faithfully had these two discharged their sacred trust; and, if love can repay such services, right well were they repaid.

A pleasant task they had, though, for a more lovable little lad than Charles there never was. His little heart seemed to have an infinite capacity of affection for all who approached him. Everything animate came before him in the light of a friend, to whom he wished to make himself agreeable, from his old kind tutor and nurse down to his pony and terrier. Charles had not arrived at the time of life when it was possible for him to quarrel about women; and so he actually had no enemies as yet, but was welcomed by pleasant and kind faces wherever he went. At one time he would be at his father’s knee, while the good-natured Densil made him up some fishing tackle; next you would find him in the kennel with the whipper-in, feeding the hounds, half-smothered by their boisterous welcome; then the stables would own him for a time, while the lads were cleaning up and feeding; then came a sudden flitting to one of the keeper’s lodges ; and anon he would be down on the sands wading with half a dozen fisher-boys as happy as himself but welcome and beloved everywhere.

Sunday was a right pleasant day for him. After seeing his father shave, and examining his gold-topped dressing-case from top to bottom amusements which were not participated in by Cuthbert, who had grown too manly he would haste through his breakfast, and with his clean clothes hurry down the village towards the vicarage, which stood across the stream near the church. Not to go in yet, you will observe, because the sermon, he well knew, was getting its finishing touches, and the vicar must not be disturbed. No, the old stone bridge would bring him up; and there he would stay looking at the brown crystal-clear water rushing and seething among the rocks, lying dark under the oak-roots, and flashing merrily over the weir, just above the bridge; till " flick! " a silver bar would shoot quivering into the air, and a salmon would light on the top of the fall, just where the water broke, and would struggle on into the still pool above, or be beaten back by the force, to resume his attempt when he had gained breath. The trout, too, under the bridge, bless the rogues, they knew it was Sunday well enough how they would lie up there in the swiftest places, where glancing liquid glorified the poor pebbles below into living amber, and would hardly trouble themselves to snap at the great fat, silly stoneflies that came floating down. Oh! it was a terrible place for dawdling was that stone bridge, on a summer sabbath morn.

But now would the country folks come trooping in from far and near, for Ravenshoe was the only church for miles, and however many of them there were, every one had a good hearty West-country greeting for him. And, as the crowd increased near the church door, there was so much to say and hear, that I am afraid the prayers suffered a little sometimes.

The villagers were pleased enough to see the lad in the old carved horsebox (not to be irreverent) of a pew, beneath the screen in the chancel, with the light from the old rose window shining on his curly brown hair. The older ones would think of the haughty beautiful lady who sat there so few years ago, and oftentimes one of the more sagacious would shake his head and mutter to himself, "Ah! if he were heir."

Any boy who reads this story, and I hope many will read it, is hereby advertised that it is exceedingly wrong to be inattentive in church in sermon time. It is very naughty to look up through the windows at the white clouds flying across the blue sky, and think how merrily the shadows are sweeping over the upland lawn, where the pewits’ nests are, and the black cock is crowing on the grey stones among the heather. No boy has any right to notice another boy’s absence, and spend sermon-time in wondering whether he is catching crabs among the green and crimson sea-weed on the rocks, or bathing in the still pool under the cliff. A boy had better not go to church at all if he spends his time in thinking about the big trout that lies up in one of the pools of the woodland stream, and whether he will be able to catch a sight of him again by creeping gently through the hazel and king fern. Birds’ nests, too, even though it be the ringousel’s, who is to lay her last egg this blessed day, and is marked for spoliation tomorrow, should be banished from a boy’s mind entirely during church time. Now, I am sorry to say, that Charley was very much given to wander in church, and, when asked about the sermon by the vicar next day, would look rather foolish. Let us hope that he will be a warning to all sinners in this respect.

Then, after church, there would be dinner, at his father’s lunch time, in the dark old hall, and there would be more to tell his father and brother than could be conveniently got through at that meal; then there was church again, and a long stroll in the golden sunshine along the shore. Ah, happy summer sabbaths!

The only two people who were ever cold to Charley, were his brother and Mackworth. Not that they were openly unkind, but there was between both of them and himself an indefinable gulf, an entire want of sympathy, which grieved him sometimes, though he was as yet too young to be much troubled by it. He only exhausted all his little axis of pleasing towards them to try and win them; he was indefatigable in running messages for Cuthbert and the chaplain; and once, when kind grandaunt Ascot (she was a Miss Headstall, daughter of Sir Cingle Headstall, and married Lord George Ascot, brother of Lady Alicia, Densil’s mother) sent him a pineapple in a box, he took it to the priest and would have had him take it. Mackworth refused it, but looked on him not unkindly for a few minutes, and then turned away with a sigh. Perhaps he was trying to recall the time so long, long ago, when his own face was as open and as innocent as that. God knows I Charles cried a little, because the priest wouldn’t take it, and, having given his brother the best slice, ate the rest in the stable, with the assistance of his foster brother and two of the pad grooms. Thereby proving himself to be a lad of low and dissipated habits.

Cuthbert was at this time a somewhat good-looking young fellow of sixteen. Neither of the brothers was what would be called handsome, though, if Charley’s face was the most pleasing, Cuthbert certainly had the most regular features. His forehead was lofty, although narrow, and flat at the sides; his cheek bones were high, and his nose was aquiline, not ill-formed, though prominent, starting rather suddenly out below his eyes; the lips were thin, the mouth small and firmly closed, and the chin short and prominent. The tout ensemble was hardly pleasing even at this youthful period; the face was too much formed and decided for so young a man.

Cuthbert was a reserved methodical lad, with whom no one could find fault, and yet whom few liked. He was studious and devout to an extent rare in one so young; and, although a capital horseman and a good shot, he but seldom indulged in those amusements, preferring rather a walk with the steward, and soon returning to the dark old library to his books and Father Mackworth. There they two would sit, like two owls, hour after hour, appearing only at meals, and talking French to one another, noticing Charley but little; who, however, was always full of news, and would tell it, too, in spite of the inattention of tins strange couple. Densil began to respect and be slightly afraid of his eldest son, as his superior in learning and in natural abilities; but I think Charles had the biggest share in his heart.

Aunt Ascot had a year before sent for Cuthbert to pay her a visit at Ranford, her son’s, Lord Ascot’s place, where she lived with him, he being a widower, and kept house for him. Ranford, we all know, or ought to know, contains the largest private racing stud in England, and the Ascot family for many generations had given themselves up entirely to sporting — so much so, that their marriages with other houses have been to a certain extent influenced by it; and so poor Cuthbert, as we may suppose, was quite like a fish out of water. He detested and despised the men he met there, and they, on their parts, such of them as chose to notice him, thought him a surly young bookworm; and, as for his grandaunt, he hated the very sound of that excellent lady’s voice. Her abruptness, her homoeopathic medicines, her Protestantism (which she was always airing), and her stable-talk, nearly drove him mad; while she, on the other hand, thought him one of the most disagreeable boys she had ever met in her life. So the visit was rather a failure than otherwise, and not very likely to be repeated. Nevertheless, her ladyship was very fond of young faces, and so, in a twelvemonth, she wrote to Densil as follows:—

“I am one mass of lumbago all round the small of my back, and I find nothing like opodeldoc after all. The pain is very severe, but I suppose you would comfort me, as a heretic, by saying it is nothing to what I shall endure in a few years’ time. Bah! I have no patience with you Papists, packing better people than yourselves off somewhere in that free-and-easy way-By-the-bye, how is that father confessor of yours, Markworth, or some such name — mind me, Ravenshoe, that fellow is a rogue, and you being, like all Ravenshoes, a fool, there is a pair of you. Why, if one of Ascot’s grooms was to smile as that man does, or to whine in his speech as that man does, when he is talking to a woman of rank, I’d have him discharged on the spot, without warning, for dishonesty.

“Don’t put a penny on Ascot’s horse at Chester; he will never stay over the Cup course. Curfew, in my opinion, looks by no means badly for the Derby; he is scratched for the Two Thousand — which was necessary, though I am sorry for it, &c. &c. &c.

“I wish you would send me your boy, will you? Not the eldest: the Protestant one. Perhaps he mayn’t be such ah insufferable coxcomb as his brother.”

At which letter Densil shook his honest sides with uproarious laughter. “Cuthbert, my boy,” he said, “you have won your dear aunt’s heart entirely; though she, being determined to mortify the flesh with its affections, does not propose seeing you again, but asks for Charley. The candour of that dear old lady increases with her age. You seem to have been making your court too, father; she speaks of your smile in the most unqualified terms.”

“Her ladyship must do me the honour to quiz me,” said Mackworth. “If it is possible to judge by her eye, she must like me about as well as a mad dog.”

“For my part, father,” said Cuthbert, curling up the corners of his thin lips sardonically, “I shall be highly content to leave my dear aunt in the peaceable enjoyment of her favourite society of grooms, horse-jockies, blacklegs, dissenting ministers, and suchlike. A month in that house, my dear Charley, will qualify you for a billiard-marker; and, after a course of six weeks, you will be fit to take the situation of croupier in a low hell on a racecourse. How you will enjoy yourself, my dear!”

“Steady, Cuthbert, steady,” said his father; “I can’t allow you to talk like that about your cousin’s house. It is a great house for field sports, but there is not a better conducted house in the kingdom.”

Cuthbert lay over on the sofa to fondle a cat, and then continued speaking very deliberately, in a slightly louder voice, —

“I will allow my aunt to be the most polite, intellectual, delicate-minded old lady in creation, my dearest father, if you wish it; only, not having been born (I beg her pardon, dropped) in a racing stable, as she was herself, I can hardly appreciate her conversation always. As for my cousin, I consider him a splendid sample of an hereditary legislator. Charley, dear, you won’t go to church on Sunday afternoon at Ranford; you will go into the croft with your cousin Ascot to see the chickens fed. Ascot is very curious in his poultry, particularly on Sunday afternoon. Father, why does he cut all the cocks’ tails square?”

“Pooh, pooh,” said Densil, “what matter; many do it, besides him. Don’t you be squeamish, Cuthbert — though, mind you, I don’t defend cock-fighting on Sunday.

Cuthbert laughed and departed, taking his cat with him.

Charles had a long coach journey of one day, and then an awful and wonderful journey on the Great Western Railway as far as Twyford — alighting at which place, he was accosted by a pleasant-looking, fresh-coloured boy, dressed in close-fitting cord trousers, a blue handkerchief, spotted with white, and a Scotch cap; who said —

“Oh! I’m your cousin Welter. I’m the same age as you, and I’m going to Eton next half. I’ve brought you over Tiger, because Punch is lame, and the station-master will look after your things; so we can come at once.”

The boys were friends in two minutes; and, going out, there was a groom holding two ponies — on the prettiest of which Charley soon found himself seated, and jogging on with his companion towards Henley.

I like to see two honest lads, just introduced, opening their hearts to one another, and I know nothing more pleasant than to see how they rejoice as each similarity of taste comes out. By the time these two had got to Henley Bridge, Lord Welter had heard the name of every horse in the Ravenshoe stables, and Charley was rapidly getting learned in Lord Ascot’s racing stud. The river at Henley distracted his attention for a time, as the biggest he had seen, and he asked his cousin, “Did he think the Mississippi was much bigger than that now?” and Lord Welter supposed, “Oh dear yes, a great deal bigger,” he should say. Then there was more conversation about dogs and guns, and pleasant country places to ride through; then a canter over a lofty breezy clown, and then the river again, far below, and at their feet the chimneys of Ranford.

The house was very full; and, as the boys came up there was a crowd of phaetons, dog-carts, and saddle-horses, for the people were just arriving home for dinner after the afternoon drive, and, as they had all been to the same object of attraction that afternoon, they had all come in together and were loitering about talking, some not yet dismounted, and some on the steps. Welter was at home at once, and had a word with every one; but Charles was left alone, sitting on his pony, feeling very shy; till, at last, a great brown man with a great brown moustache, and a gruff voice, came up to him and lifted him off the horse, holding him out at arm’s length for inspection.

“So you are Curly Ravenshoe’s boy, hey?” said he.

“Yes, sir.”

“Ha!” said the stranger, putting him down, and leading him towards the door; “just tell your father you saw General Mainwaring, will you, and that he wanted to know how his old friend was.”

Charles looked at the great brown hand which was in his own, and thought of the Affghan war, and of all the deeds of renown that that hand had done, and was raising his eyes to the general’s face, when they were arrested half-way by another face, not the general’s.

It was that of a handsome, grey-headed man, who might have been sixty, he was so well conserve, but who was actually far more. He wore his own white hair, which contrasted strongly with a pair of delicate thin black eyebrows. His complexion was florid, with scarcely a wrinkle, his features were fine and regular, and a pair of sparkling dark grey eyes gave a pleasant light to his face. His dress was wondrously neat, and Charles, looking on him, guessed, with a boy’s tact, that he was a man of mark.

“Whose son did you say he was, general?” said the stranger.

“Curly’s!” said Main waring, stopping and smiling.

“No, really!" said the other; and then he looked fixedly at Charles and began to laugh, and Charley, seeing nothing better to do, looked up at the grey eyes and laughed too, and this made the stranger worse; and then, to crown the joke, the general began to laugh too, though none of them had said a syllable more than what I have written down; and at last the ridiculous exhibition finished up by the old gentleman taking a great pinch of snuff from a gold box, and turning away.

Charles was much puzzled, and was still more so when, in an hour’s time, having dressed himself and being on his way downstairs to his aunt’s room, who had just come in, he was stopped on a landing by this same old gentleman, beautifully dressed for dinner, who looked on him as before.

He didn’t laugh this time, but he did worse. He utterly “dumbfoundered” Charley by asking abruptly —

“How’s Jim?”

“He is very well, thank you, sir. His wife Norah nursed me when mamma died.”

“Oh, indeed,” said the other; “so he hasn’t cut your father’s throat yet, or anything of that sort?”

“Oh dear no,” said Charles, horrified; “bless you, what can make you think of such things? Why, he is the kindest man in the world.”

“I don’t know,” said the old gentleman, thoughtfully;

“that excessively faithful kind of creature is very apt to do that sort of thing. I should discharge any servant of mine who exhibited the slightest symptoms of affection as a dangerous lunatic; “with which villainous sentiment he departed.

Charles thought what a strange old gentleman he was for a short time, and then slid down the banisters. They were better banisters than those at Ravenshoe, being not so steep, and longer: so he went up, and slid down again;* after which he knocked at his aunt’s door.

It was with a beating heart that he waited for an answer. Cuthbert had described Lady Ascot as such a horrid old ogress, that he was not without surprise when a cheery voice said, “Come in,” and, entering a handsome room, he found himself in presence of a noble-looking old lady, with grey hair, who was netting in an upright, old-fashioned chair.

“So you are Charles Ravenshoe, eh?” she began. “Why, my dear, you must be perished with cold and hunger. I should have come in before, but I didn’t expect you so soon. Tea will be here directly. You ain’t a beauty, my dear, but I think I shall like you. There never was but one really handsome Ravenshoe, and that was poor Petre, your grandfather. Poor Alicia made a great fool of herself, but she was very happy with him. Welter, you naughty boy, be still.”

* The best banisters for sliding down are broad oak ones, with a rib in the middle. This new narrow sort, which is coming in, are wretched.

The Right Honourable Viscount “Welter wanted his tea, and was consequently troublesome and fractious. He had picked a quarrel with his grandmother’s terrier, which he averred had bitten him in the leg, and he was now heating the poker, in order, he informed the old lady, to burn the place out, and prevent hydrophobia. Whether he would have done so or not, we shall never know now, for, tea coming in at that moment, he instantly sat down at table, and called to Charles to do likewise.

“Call Miss Adelaide, will you, Sims?” said Lord Ascot; and presently there came tripping into the room the loveliest little blonde fairy, about ten years old, that ever you saw. She fixed her large blue eyes on Charley, and then came up and gave him a kiss, which he, the rogue, returned with interest, and then, taking her seat at the table, she turned to Welter, and hoped he was going to be good.

Such, however, it soon appeared, was not his lordship’s intention. He had a guest at table, and he was bound in honour to show off before him, besides having to attend to his ordinary duty of frightening his grandmother as nearly into fits as was safe. Accordingly, he began the repast by cramming buns into his mouth, using the handle of his knife as a rammer, until the salvation of his life appeared an impossibility, at which point he rose and left the room with a rapid, uneven step. On his reappearance he began drinking, but, having caught his grandmother’s eye over his teacup, he inked at her, and then held his breath till he was purple, and she begun to wring her hands in despair. All this time he was stimulated by Charles’s laughter and Adelaide’s crying out, continually, “Oh, isn’t he a naughty boy, Lady Ascot? oh, do tell him not to do it.” But the crowning performance of this promising young gentleman — the feat which threw everything else into the shade, and which confirmed Charley in his admiration of his profound talents — was this. Just as a tall, grave, and handsome footman was pouring water into the teapot, and while her ladyship was inspecting the operation with all the intense interest of an old tea-maker, at that moment did Lord Welter contrive to inflict on the unfortunate man a pinch on the leg, of such a shrewdly agonising nature as caused him to gnash his teeth in Lady Ascot’s face, to cry aloud, “Oh, Lord!” to whirl the kettle within an inch of her venerable nose, and finally, to gyrate across the room on one leg, and stand looking like the king of fools.

Lady Ascot, who had merely seen the effect, and not the cause, ordered him promptly to leave the room, whereupon “Welter explained, and afterwards continued to Charles, with an offhand candour quite his own, as if no such person as his grandmother was within a hundred miles —

“You know, Charley, I shouldn’t dare to behave like this if my tutor was at home; she’d make nothing of telling him, now. She’s in a terrible wax, but she’ll be all right by the time he comes back from his holidays; won’t you, grandma?”

“You wicked boy,” she replied, “I hope Hawtrey will cure you; Keate would have, I know.”

The boys slid on the banisters; then they went to dessert. Then they went upstairs, and looked over Welter’s cricket apparatus, fishing tackle, and so on; and then they went into the billiard-room, which was now lighted up and full of guests.

There were two tables in the room, at one of which a pool was getting up, while the other was empty. Welter was going to play pool, and Charles would have liked to do so too, being a very tolerable player; only he had promised his old tutor not to play for money till he was eighteen, and so he sat in the corner by the empty table, under the marking-board, with one leg gathered under him, and instantly found himself thinking about the little girl he had seen upstairs.

Once or twice he was surprised to find himself thinking so much about her, but he found it a pleasant subject, too, for he had sat in his corner more than half an hour without changing it, when he became aware that two men were taking down cues from the rack, and were going to play at his table.

They were his two friends of the afternoon, General Mainwaring and the grey-headed man who laughed. When they saw him they seemed glad, and the old gentleman asked him why he wasn’t playing.

“I musn’t play pool,” he answered. “I should like to mark for you.”

“Well said, my hero,” said the general: “and so Jim’s an honest man, is he?”

Charles saw that the old gentleman had told the general what had passed on the stairs, and wondered why he should take such an interest in him; but he soon fell to thinking about little Adelaide again, and marking mechanically though correctly.

He was aroused by the general’s voice — “Who did you mark that last miss to, my little man?” he said.

“To the old gentleman,” said Charles, and then blushed at the consciousness of having said a rude thing.

“That is one for you, Methusaleh,” said the general.

“Never mind,” said the old gentleman, “I have one great source of pride, which no one can rob me of; I am twelve years older than I look.”

They went on playing. “By-the-by,” said the general, “who is that exceedingly pretty child that the old lady has got with her?”

“A child she has adopted,” said the old gentleman. “A granddaughter of an old friend who died in poverty. She is a noble-hearted old soul, the jockey, with all her absurdities.”

“Who was she?” said the general. “(That was rather a fluke, was it not? ) ”

“She? Why, a daughter of old Cingle Headstall’s, the mad old Cheshire baronet — you don’t remember him, of course, but your father knew him. Drove his tandem round and round Berkeley Square for four hours on a foggy night, under the impression he was going home to Hounslow, and then fired at the watchman who tried to put him right, taking him for a highwayman. The son went to France, and was lost sight of in the revolution; so the girl came in for what money there was: not very much, I take it. This poor thing, who was pretty and clever enough, but without education, having been literally brought up in a stable, captivated the sagacious Ascot, and made him a capital wife.”

“I suppose she’ll portion this girl, then; you say she had money?”

“H’m,” said the old gentleman, “there’s a story about the aforesaid money, which is told in different ways, but which amounts to this, that the money is no more. Hallo, our marker is getting sleepy.”

“Not at all, sir,” said Charles. “If you will excuse me a moment I will come back.”

He ran across to Lord Welter, who was leaning on his cue. “Can you tell me,” said he, “who is that old gentleman? ”

“Which old gentleman?”

“That one, with the black eyebrows, playing with General Mainwaring. There, he is taking snuff.”

“Oh, him?” said Welter; “that is Lord Saltire.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/henry/ravenshoe/chapter5.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44