Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 50.

Shreds and Patches.

LORD Welter was now Lord Ascot. I was thinking at one time that I would continue to call him by his old title, as being the one most familiar to you. But, on second thoughts, I prefer to call him by his real name, as I see plainly that to follow the other course would produce still worse confusion. I only ask that you will bear his change of title in mind. The new Lady Ascot I shall continue to call Adelaide, choosing rather to incur the charge of undue familiarity with people so far above me in social position, than to be answerable for the inevitable confusion which would be caused by my speaking, so often as I shall have to speak, of two Ladies Ascot, with such a vast difference between them of age and character.

Colonel Whisker, a tenant of Lord Ascot’s, had kindly laced his house at the disposal of his Lordship for his father’s funeral. Never was there a more opportune act of civility, for Ranford was dismantled: and the doors of Casterton were as firmly closed to Adelaide as the gates of the great mosque at Ispahan to a Christian.

Two or three days after Lord Ascot’s death, it was arranged that he should be buried at Ranford. That night the new Lord Ascot came to his wife’s dressing-room, as usual, to plot and conspire.

“Ascot,” said she, “they are all asked to Casterton for the funeral. Do you think she will ask me?”

“Oh dear, no,” said Lord Ascot.

“Why not?” said Adelaide. “She ought to. She is civil enough to me.”

“I tell you I know she won’t. He and I were speaking about it today.”

He was looking over her shoulder into the glass, and saw her bite her lip.

“Ah,” said she. “And what did he say?”

“Oh, he came up in his infernal, cold, insolent way, and said that he should be delighted to see me at Casterton during the funeral, but Lady Hainault feared that she could hardly find rooms for Lady Ascot and her maid.”

“Did you knock him down? Did you kick him?

Did you take him by the throat and knock his hateful head against the wall?” said Adelaide, as quietly as if she was saying “How d’ye do?”

“No, my dear, I didn’t,” said Lord Ascot. “Partly, you see, because I did not know how Lord Saltire would take it. And remember, Adelaide, I always told you that it would take years, years, before people of that sort would receive you.”

“What did you say to him?”

“Well, as much as you could expect me to say. I sneered as insolently, but much more coarsely than he could possibly sneer; and I said that I declined staying at any house where my wife was not received. And so we bowed and parted.”

Adelaide turned round and said, “That was kind and manly of you, Welter. I thank you for that, Welter.”

And so they went down to Colonel Whisker’s cottage, for the funeral. The Colonel probably knew quite how the land lay, for he was a man of the world, and so he had done a very good-natured action just at the right time. She and Lord Ascot lived for a fortnight there, in the most charming style; and Adelaide used to make him laugh, by describing what it was possible the other party were doing up at solemn old Casterton. She used to put her nose in the air and mitate young Lady Hainault to perfection. At another time slie would imitate old Lady Hainault and her disagreeable sayings equally well She was very amusing that fortnight, though never affectionate. She knew that was useless; but she tried to keep Lord Ascot in good humour with her. She had a reason. She wanted to get his ear. She wanted him to confide entirely to her the exact state of affairs between Lord Saltbe and himself. Here was Lord Ascot dead, Charles Ravenshoe probably at Alyden in the middle of the cholera, and Lord Saltire’s vast fortune, so to speak, going a-begging. If he were to be clumsy now — now that the link formed by his father, Lord Ascot, between him and Lord Saltire was taken away — they were ruined indeed. And he was so terribly outspoken!

And so she strained her wits till her face grew sharp and thin, to keep him in good humour. She had a hard task at times; for there was something laying up in the deserted house at Ranford which made Lord Ascot gloomy and savage now and then, when he thought of it. I believe that the man, coarse and brutal as he was, loved his father, in his own way, very deeply.

A night or so after the funeral, there was a dressing-room conference between the two; and, as the conversation which ensued was very important, I must transcribe it carefully.

When he came up to her, she was sitting with her hands folded on her lap, looking so perfectly beautiful that Lord Ascot, astonished and anxious as he was at that moment, remarked it, and felt pleased at, and proud of, her beauty. A greater fool than she might probably have met him with a look of love. She did not. She only raised her great eyes to his, with a look of intelligent curiosity.

He drew a chair up close to her and said —

“I am going to make your hair stand bolt up on end, Adelaide, in spite of your bandoline.”

“I don’t think so,” said she; but she looked startled, nevertheless.

“I am. What do you think of this?”

“This? I think that it is the Times newspaper. Is there anything in it?”

“Read,” said he, and pointed to the list of deaths. She read.

“Drowned, while bathing in Ravenshoe Bay, Cuthbert Ravenshoe, Esq., of Ravenshoe Hall. In the faith that his forefathers bled and died for. — E.I.P.”

“Poor fellow!” she said quietly. “So hes gone, and brother William, the groom, reigns in his stead. That is a piece of nonsense of the priests about their dying or the faith. I never heard that any of them did that. Also, isn’t there something wrong about the grammar?”

“I can’t say,” said Lord Ascot. I was at Eton, and hadn’t the advantage that you had of learning English grammar. Did you ever play the game of trying to read the Times right across, from one column to another, and see what funny nonsense it makes?”

“No. I should think it was good fun,”

“Do it now.”

She did. Exactly opposite the announcement of Cuthbert’s death, was the advertisement we have seen before — Lord Saltire’s advertisement for the missing register.

She was attentive and eager enough now. After a time, she said, “Oho!”

Lord Ascot said, “Hey! what do you think of that, Lady Ascot?”

“I am all abroad.”

“I’ll see if I can fetch you home again. Petre Ravenshoe, in 1778, married a milkmaid. She remembered the duties of her position so far as to conveniently die before any of the family knew what a fool he had made of himself; but so far forgot them, as to give birth to a boy, who lived to be one of the best shots, and one of the jolliest old cocks I ever saw — Old James, the Ravenshoe keeper. Now my early beloved grandmother Ascot is, at this present speaking, no less than eighty-six years old, and so, at the time of the occurrence, was a remarkably shrewd girl of ten. It appears that Peter Ravenshoe, sneaking away here and there with his pretty Protestant wife, out of the way of the priests, and finding life unendurable, not having had a single chance to confess his sins for two long years, came to the good-natured Sir Cingle Headstall, grandmamma’s papa, and opened his griefs, trying to persuade him to break the mattei to that fox-hunting old Turk of a father of his, Howard. Sir Cingle was too cowardly to face the old man for a time; and, before the pair of them could summon courage to speak, the poor young thing died at Manger Hall, where they had been staying with the Headstalls some months. This solved the difficulty, and nothing was said about the matter. Petre went home. They had heard reports about his living with a woman and having had a baby born. They asked very few questions about the child or his mother, and of course it was all forgotten conveniently, long before his marriage with my grandaunt. Lady Alicia Staunton, came on the tapis, which took place in 1782, when grandma was fourteen years of age. Now grandma had, as a girl of ten, heard this marriage of Petre Ravenshoe with Maria Dawson discussed in her resence, from every point of view, by her father and Petre. Night and morning, at bed-time, at mealtimes, sober, and very frequently drank. She had heard every possible particular. When she heard of his second marriage (my mouth is as dry as dust with this talking; ring the bell, and send your maid down for some claret and water) — when she heard of his second marriage, she never dreamt of saying anything, of course — a chit of fourteen with a great liability to having her ears boxed. So she held her tongue. When afterwards my grandfather made love to her, she held it the tighter, for my grandaunt’s sake, of whom she was fond. Petre, after a time, had the boy James home to Ravenshoe, and kept him about his own person. He made him his gamekeeper, treated him with marked favour and so on; but the whole thing was a sort of misprision of felony, and poor silly old grandma was a party to it.”

“You are telling this very well. Ascot,” said Adelaide. “I will, as a reward, go so far out of my usual habits as to mix you some claret and water. I am not going to be tender, you know; but I’ll do so much. Now that’s a dear, good fellow; go on.”

“Now comes something unimportant, but inexplicable. Old Lady Hainault knew it, and held her tongue. How or why is a mystery we cannot fathom, and don’t ant to. Grandma says that slie would have married Petre herself, and that her hatred for grandma came from the belief that grandma could have stopped the marriage with my grandannt by speaking. After it was over, she thinks that Lady Hainanlt had sufficient love left for Petre to hold her tongue. But this is nothing to the purpose. This James, the real heir of Ravenshoe, married an English girl, a daughter of a steward on one of our Irish estates, who had been born in Ireland and was called Norah. She was, you see, Irish enough at heart; for she committed the bull of changing her own child, poor dear Charles, the real heir, for his youngest half-brother, William, by way of bettering his position, and then confessed the whole matter to the priest. Now this new discovery would blow the honest priest’s boat out of the water; but:— ”

“Yes!”

“Why, grandma can’t, for the life of her, remember where they were married. She is certain that it was in the north of Hampshire, she says. Why or wherefore, she can’t say. She says they resided the necessary time and were married by licence. She says she is sure of it, because she heard him, more than once, say to her father that he had been so careful of poor Maria’s honour, that he sent her from Ravenshoe to the house of the clergyman who married them. ho was a friend of his; farther than this she knows nothing.”

“Hence the advertisement, then. But why was it not inserted before?”

“Why, it appears that, when the whole esclandre took place, and when you, my Lady Ascot, jilted the poor fellow for a man who is not worth his little finger, she communicated with Lord Saltire at once, and the result was that she began advertising in so mysterious a manner that the advertisement was wholly unintelligible. It appears that she and Lord Saltire agreed not to disturb Cuthbert till they were perfectly sure of everything. But, now he is dead. Lord Saltire has insisted on instantly advertising in a sensible way. So you see his advertisement appears actually in the same paper which contains Cuthbert’s death, the news of which William got the night before last by telegraph.”

“William, eh? How does he like the cup being dashed from his lips like this?”

Lord Ascot laughed. “That exgroom is a born fool. Lady Ascot. He loves his foster-brother better than nine thousand a year. Lady Ascot. He is going to start to Varna, and hunt him through the army and bring him back.”

“It is incredible,” said Adelaide.

“I don’t know. I might have been such a fool myself once, who knows?”

“Who knows indeed,” thought Adelaide, “who knows now?” “So,” she said aloud, “Charles is heir of Ravenshoe after all.”

“Yes. You were foolish to jilt him.”

“I was. Is Alyden healthy?”

“You know it is not. Our fellows are dying like dogs.”

“Do they know what regiment he is in?”

“They think, from Lady Hainault’s and Mary Corby’s description, that it is the 140th.”

“Why did not William start on this expedition before?”

“I don’t know. A new impulse. They have written to all sorts of commanding officers, but he won’t turn up till he chooses, if I know him right.”

“If William brings him back?”

“Why, then he’ll come into nine, or more probably twelve thousand a year. For those tin lodes have turned up trumps.”

“And the whole of Lord Saltire’s property?”

“I suppose so.”

“And we remain beggars?”

“I suppose so,” said Lord Ascot. “It is time to go to bed. Lady Ascot.”

This is exactly the proper place to give the results of William’s expedition to Varna. He arrived there just after the army had gone forward. Some men were left behind invalided, among whom were two or three of the 140th. One of these William selected as being a likely man from whom to make inquiries.

He was a young man, and, likely enough, a kind-hearted one; but when he found himself inquired of by a handsome, well-dressed young gentleman, obviously in search of a missing relative, a lying spirit entered into him, and he lied horribly. It appeared that he had been the intimate and cherished comrade of Charles Horton (of whom he had never heard in his life). That they had ridden together, drunk together, and slept side by side. That he had nursed him through the cholera, and then (seeing no other way out of the maze of falsehood in which he had entangled himself), that he assisted to bury him with his own hands. Lastly, lying on through mere recklessness, into desperation, and so into a kind of sublimity, he led William out of the town, and pointed out to him Charles’s untimely grave. When he saw William pick some dry grass from the grave, when he saw him down on his knees, with his cheek on the earth, then he was sorry for what he had done. And, when he was alone, and saw William’s shadow pass across the blazing white wall, for one nstant, before he went under the dark gateway of the town, then the chinking gold pieces fell from his hand on the burning sandy ground, and he felt that he would have given them and ten times more, to have spoken the truth.

So Charles was dead and buried was he? Not quite yet, if you please. Who is this riding, one of a gallant train, along the shores of the bay of Eupatoria towards some dim blue mountains? Who is this that keeps looking each minute to the right, at the noble fleet which is keeping pace with the great scarlet and blue rainbow which men call the allied armies? At the great cloud of smoke floating angrily seaward, and the calm waters of the bay beaten into madness by three hundred throbbing propellers?

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