Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter i.

The Eve of St. John.

Those who are so happy as to be born and to live out their appointed time in the North Country are not only removed from the luxuries and vices of London, but also from that wicked modern fashion of scoffing at the things which lie beyond man’s comprehension, and should therefore be accounted sacred. We of Northumberland certainly do not pretend disbelief in what is sufficiently proved, but cannot be understood. Almost everybody (every woman, indeed, without exception) has seen, some time or other, strange and wonderful things which cannot be explained. Some, it is true, have endeavoured to reason these things away by pretending the insensible and brute action of chance (among them, Mr. Hilyard tells me, a great Latin poet, named Lucretius), which is incredible unless we allow the round world and all that is therein to have been itself constructed and set a-going by accident. Others, still living, attribute the stories which abound among us to foolish credulity and ignorant superstition; unto such persons there is no answer but the evidence of things related and testified. Others again, whose opinion is to be received with respect, think they perceive in them the workings of man’s Chief Enemy. Let me, however, for my own part, following the expressed opinion of Mr. Hilyard and what I believe to have been that of my lord the late bishop, continue to think that what is permitted, though it be not understood, must be received with reverence and without too close scrutiny, as doubtless intended for no other purpose than a merciful one, videlicet, the admonition of the guilty and the encouragement of the virtuous.

To those, again, who ask (seeking to throw discredit upon these beliefs by means of an idle laugh) why the things of which I speak are more common in the north than in the south of England —— that is to say, why ghosts, spectres, witches, warlocks, elves, demons, fairies or faws, waufs, warnings, and other strange manifestations and mysterious powers, continue in the North Country, yet are rarely reported from the Home counties or south of Tyne —— I would venture to reply that (supposing the fact to be so) I know, indeed, of no other reason for the undoubted favour shown to us in this respect than the great superiority of Northumbrians over all other Englishmen in the matter of valour, strength, loyalty, and learning —— I mean, of course, when they apply themselves to study, for, as everybody knows, the gentlemen of the north are fonder of sport than of books. As for the piety of my people, much might be said and much confessed or allowed. We have, doubtless, the reputation of being hard drinkers and ready strikers; and we are also accused of smuggling and cattle-lifting. These charges are doubtless true, and cannot be denied, though of late years there has been amendment, and one should remember that there has never been a time until the present when a Northumberland man could look for continued peace or respite from fighting; nor could a rich man lie down at night with any certainty that he might not awake in the morning to find himself a poor man, his cattle lifted and his barns fired; nor could he fall asleep with an assurance that he would not be roused at night by the blazing turf, and have to boot and saddle and ride after marauders, pistol in holster, sword by side, and firelock on shoulder. This has made a race of men quick to fight and careless of life, since, willy nilly, they went daily in peril; and many families there are whose men, until a hundred years ago, never knew what it was to die in their beds. So much must be allowed my countrymen as an excuse for their readiness to strike. As to their drinking, true it is that the gentry drink much wine of France and Spain, Rhenish, claret, and mountain, with brandy, usquebaugh, Hollands, ale, cider, punch, mum, cordials, and strong waters of every kind, while the common sort follow the example of their betters as far as they can afford (in which I blame them not): but still our rough country fellows are not, so far as I know, so drunken as the rabble of London.

And as for religion, I dare maintain that no gentlemen in England go to church with greater regularity than those of Northumberland, or more dutifully repeat the responses; while the country people, though there are many parts where there is no church at all for them, do still keep up with zeal the observance, with all customary marks of respect, of the great days of the Church —— that is to say, feasting on New Year’s Day and Candlemas, fighting their cocks on Shrove Tuesday, eating parched peas on Carling Sunday, carrying round the plough at Christmas, getting up to see the sun dance at Easter Day, on May Day beating the bounds, according to ancient custom of the Church; and all with the drinking of ale continually, both small ale and October, according to their means, and plenty of honest quarter-staff, bull and badger baiting, wrestling and boxing, to keep up the spirits of the people. Moreover, there are among us, though many staunch Catholics, few, indeed, of the vermin who, under the name of Independents, Nonconformists, Whigs, and what not, have within the last eighty years murdered one King, driven another from his throne, and do still keep a third from the noble inheritance and earthly crown which are his by Divine Right. These reasons seem to me quite sufficient, without further inquiry, to account for the great blessings which we of the North Country enjoy in the shape of visits and messages from the dead, supernatural warnings, with omens, prognostications, and the spirit of prophecy. As regards fairies and certain strange spectres which are reported to linger among our old ruins, I say nothing: first, because I cannot understand the purpose served in the Great Universal Scheme by the race of fairies; and next, because, as regards the spectres, it is a thing incomprehensible to me why the ghosts of mere obscure and lowlyborn persons, such as Cuddy the Reaper or Nelly the Knocker, should be allowed so great a distinction as to continue among us, although it is seemly and becoming that the souls of great persons, such as that of the late Countess of Derwentwater (which I hear hath been recently reported to have been seen by many at Dilston) should be allowed to remain on earth as long as they please, either for the sake of weeping over the past, or of lingering in spots formerly loved, until they can take their place in Heaven.

On the Eve of St. John, in the year 1703, when Thomas Forster, Esquire, of Etherston, the elder, was Sheriff for Northumberland, I, Dorothy, his daughter, was at the Manor House, Bamborough, where I was staying under charge of my old nurse Judith, in order to see the Midsummer Fire. ’Twas the same year in which my elder brother Thomas, coming of age, entered into possession of that noble inheritance of the Bamborough estates, to which he was heir in coparceny with my aunt Dorothy, Lady Crewe. The estates included the village and Manor House, with the castle by the sea, and a great many other lands, manors, farms, and houses, of which an account shall presently be given. The house on this evening was filled with his companions, come to see the famous midnight fire; and after the manner of young gentlemen, they were killing the time between supper and twelve of the clock with drinking and singing.

The fire was built every year upon the seashore north of the castle, where a broad space of level sand lies between the links and the water, uncovered even at high tide. The custom of the St. John Baptist’s Fire goeth back beyond the memory of man —— it is so ancient that its origin is lost: it is so much esteemed that the folk would no more think of letting it be forgotten or neglected than the girls would forget to dream of husbands on St. Agnes’ Eve, or to hide the men’s shoes on Easter morning. Mr. Hilyard, who hath always something to say concerning the ancient world, will have it that the Midsummer Fire is nothing in the world but a pagan rite, videlicet, a fire built and lit in honour of the god Baal, and of Phoenician origin; that is to say, it came from Tyre, of which city Hiram once was king, whose sailors navigated the world in the service of Solomon, as is very well known, bringing to the harbours of the Holy Land gold from India and tin from Britain. For which reason, he saith, and in lasting remembrance of that wise prince, the Church hath done well to continue the practice, and to place under the protection of St. John Baptist that rite which formerly was part of the worship of a false god, and would, therefore, without such protection, lay open those who practise it to the wiles and temptations of the enemy.

From all quarters the people come a holiday-making, and to see the Bamborough Fire. They come from Lucker and from Spindleton, from the Sea Houses of North Sunderland, from Belford, which is six miles away, and from Ellingham, which is ten. It is the chief annual festival at Bamborough, even greater than the Hagameny carrying of the plough at Alnwick; the gipsies come and set up tents upon the sands; there is always a travelling show or two, with men who do strange things, and booths where gingerbread is sold; and there is all day long cock-fighting, with cudgelling, quarter-staff, and wrestling. The rustics come at daybreak, the farmers ride into the place early in the day, and there is a vast deal of drinking, eating, and singing long before the time comes for firing the pile. The younger men build up the pile with wood, artfully laying dry branches and twigs over and among the big logs, so as to raise a sudden and lofty flame; the boys look on and run about, and tease and fight each other; the girls are making wreaths and garlands with midsummer rush, vervain, and St. John’s wort; the older women and matrons stand together and talk. It is a subject for gratitude to think how simple are the pleasures of country women, since a long talk is, to most, their chief relaxation and delight; their husbands, poor souls, must still be drinking or smoking tobacco, or looking on at fights or banging each other with quarter-staves. As for the older men, if they are of the better sort, they sit together in the inn; and if they are of the lower kind, they commonly lean against door-posts, each with a pannikin in his hand, and slowly drink and slowly speak (because a rustic’s words are few, though his wisdom is great) in the soft Northumbrian burr, which I, for one, have ever loved so much, and cannot, if I would, lay aside. The ingenious Mr. De Foe hath lately called it a ‘hollow jawing in the throat,’ which is, by his leave, a rude and ignorant way of describing it, and more fitly applied to the rough talk of the Border Scotch. It is a way of speaking which cannot be set down on paper, therefore all that follows is written as if it had been spoken in the mincing, affected way of St. James’s Street, or the rough tongue of the London mob.

‘Oh, nurse!’ I cried, ‘when will it be midnight?’

‘Patience, lass,’ replied the old woman. ‘Time is a sluggard for the young, but for the old he gallops.’

I was sitting in the parlour with my old nurse Judith, waiting impatiently for the time; the loud talk of the gentlemen was heard from the dining-room. Presently my eyelids began to close, and my restless fingers became still. Then my head fell upon the tall back of the chair, and I was asleep. Nurse let me sleep till the clock struck two-quarters after eleven, when she awoke me, put on my hat, and tied a handkerchief about my neck, and so we sallied forth. As we left the house, the cold air, the shouts of the people outside, and the singing of the gentlemen within ——

‘When candlesticks they serve for bells;

    And frying-pans they use for ladles;

And in the sea they dig for wells;

    And porridge-pots they use for cradles ——’

completely awakened me, and I shivered, threw up my head, and felt no more sleepiness, and ran, laughing and shouting, to the sand-hills from which I was to see the show.

The night was clear, with never a cloud, and a bright full moon riding in the sky —— yet in this season, even at midnight, it is so light that there needs no moon. The wind had dropped, and the waves, which sometimes break so high and terrible on this coast, were now little ripples which rolled along the sand in a whisper. Above the sands the great castle stood, a grand sight to behold, its rugged walls either showing white in the moonlight, or, where in deep shadow, black and gloomy, until the red blaze of the bonfire presently lit them up, and made them yet more awful.

The sands were crowded with the noisy people. In the midst stood the great pile waiting for the torch. Everybody was talking, laughing, shouting, and singing. Upon the sea there lay a broad belt of white moonlight, very pretty to look upon. To me, thinking of what Mr. Hilyard had told me, it seemed that perhaps when King Solomon’s sailors came they may have built their idolatrous fire on the same place, and by the light of the same moon. But perhaps there were then as yet no Forsters in Northumberland. They are, it may be admitted, of later date than the age of Solomon and King Hiram. Perhaps, too, there was no castle. It seemed to me a great pity that Solomon’s sailors should come so far and not be able to see the castle after all; and this, although they had the glories of the Temple should they get home in safety to the ports of Joppa, Sidon, and Tyre. But then the clock struck twelve, and suddenly the fire blazed up, and in a moment seized on the whole of the pile, and rolled upward in vast great tongues of flame, with a cracking and roaring very frightful to behold and hear.

‘Thus,’ said Mr. Hilyard once, ‘thus the false prophets on Carmel danced and shouted round their altars; through such a fire the children were passed.’

Indeed, when one remembers the wild faces of the men and women who leaped about that fire, there remains no doubt that in the madness caused by the blaze and roar of the flames, and the drink they had taken, and the shouts and dancing, it needed little to make even our own people toss their little ones through the flames, as, it is said, but I know not with what truth, is done to this day by the wild Kerns of Ireland.

In half-an-hour the first fury of the flames was spent, the small branches being all burnt, and there remained only the steady burning of the big logs. And then the young men began to leap with shouts across the fire, and the girls threw their wreaths upon it and sang again, and again danced round and round the pile.

‘Let us go, Judith,’ said I, frightened by all this shouting.

‘Wait, child,’ the old woman replied. ‘Wait, my dearie; they are going to bring out the Midsummer Witch. We will go down and learn thy fortune.’

At this point, indeed, there was a rush of the boys, always the most zealous in every ceremony or public entertainment, across the sands, over which was now seen approaching a procession of half-a-dozen girls, walking slowly, and singing a kind of hymn. In their midst, as one could presently discern, there walked a girl dressed all in white, and veiled from head to foot. Her companions were carrying, according to custom, wreaths of vervain, midsummer rush, St. John’s wort, and mother-wort.

”Tis Jenny Lee,’ said Nurse Judith, half to herself. ‘They told me she was to be the St. John’s Eve Witch. A proper witch, I warrant. As for her father, sure he gave a love-drink to her mother, else how should an honest farmer’s wench go follow a gipsy tramp, even though he wedded her in church and called himself the king of his thievish people, and was, as a body might say, as well set up a man with as fine a leg as a woman can desire, and as proud as Lucifer —— Lord forgive us! And on Midsummer Eve!’ She looked round as if she expected something fearful with claws and fiery eyes, and crossed herself —— a Papistical custom, but common in Northumberland. ‘If you want a witch, you needn’t go farther than his daughter. They say she can do things already for which in the old times a poor old woman would be burned —— my own great-grandmother for one, in King James’s time. But that’s a hundred years ago, and the world is changed. Witches can come and go without let or hindrance, which is a shame in a Christian country. Yet it is a blessed thing to live in times when there is no fear of being burned for a witch when you are only old and toothless. Did I tell you, my dearie, how I once saw a witch fly across the moon, broomstick and all?’

She had often told me that story; but even at that tender age I could not believe how a cloud, as it seemed to everybody else, should be to her a witch astride of a broomstick.

‘To tell fortunes,’ Judith went on, ‘one must either be a witch or a gipsy. Jenny is both gipsy and witch, they say. Look! Here comes his honour with the gentlemen and Mr. Hilyard.

As the procession came across the sands, the white-veiled figure looking strange and ghastly in the moonlight, the gentlemen came out of the house and walked arm-in-arm down the street towards the shore. My brother Tom, it may be supposed, had taken a glass more than the strength of his head allowed, for he staggered a little as he went. With him were two or three of his friends —— Ned Swinburne and Jack Swinburne, brothers of Sir William of Capheaton; Mad Jack Hall, of Otterbourne, whose presence always foreboded misfortune to the Forsters; young Mr. Peregrine Widdrington, brother to my lord; and Mr. Antony Hilyard, Tom’s former tutor. They all trooped along together, noisily laughing.

By this time the girls had placed the Midsummer Witch on a sort of throne or stool of state covered with red cloth and flowers.

‘The Midsummer Witch must be a maid,’ said Judith, ‘and a firstborn child, else the spell will not work.’

They placed in her hand a vessel of some kind with a long and narrow neck.

‘It is filled with water,’ continued Judith, ‘drawn by herself from the sea on this very evening. Now, child, double thumb and come along.’

Everybody knows that to double your thumb in your right hand averts danger. I complied, and thus secured we ran down the hillock, and joined the group.

The villagers were standing round their newly-made witch in a respectful ring, the middle of which was occupied by Tom and his friends.

‘Now, fair witch and pretty sorceress,’ said he, pretending not to know the veiled girl, ‘tell us our fortunes, and we will reward thee with a kiss, if your ghostship allows us to see your face.’

But everybody knew very well who was the witch.

‘Your honour must put something of your own in the jar,’ said Judith.

Meantime the veiled girl sat as if she heard nothing; in her lap the jar, and her hands folded round it.

‘Drop your ring in it,’ whispered Judith. ‘No need to tell her your name or the name of any gentleman. She is veiled, and cannot see.’

Mr. Forster drew a signet-ring, engraved with his arms, from his finger, and placed it in the narrow-necked jar.

‘Now,’ he said, laughing, ‘tell me the fortune of the ring and its owner.’

She put her hand into the vessel, and took out the ring. Then she replied slowly, as if she were looking for words fitting the fortune she was to tell:

‘Great place, great chase: near the grave, yet one to save.

Great name, great blame; far off to die, at home to lie.’

That was a strange fortune: what could it mean?

‘I said she was a witch,’ murmured Judith. ‘Take back your ring, sir.’

The girl held out her open hand. Strange! the stone had fallen from the ring, and lay upon her palm.

‘Lucky,’ said my brother, ‘that it did not fall in the sand. The sea-water loosened it. “Great name,”’ he continued, a little sobered; ‘what is it? “Great blame,” or “great fame” ——“far off to die”—— well, what man can die more than once? “At home to lie”—— one would wish to lie with one’s own people. “Great blame!”—— who cares for blame? A good fortune this. Now, Ned, try your luck.’

Mr. Edward Swinburne, a young man of my brother’s age or thereabouts, stepped forward, and placed a piece of money in the jar.

Said the girl, taking out the money:

‘Prison walls and prison bed;

Who lies there is stark and dead.’

‘I wish to heaven, Tom,’ said the young man angrily, ‘that we had stayed at home, and sat out t’other bottle.’

Then Perry Widdrington took his place.

The oracle was more pleasant to hear. The voice of the girl was low, and she never moved the whole time:

‘Danger by land and danger by sea:

Yet your death at last in your bed shall be.’

‘Thank you for nothing, witch,’ said Peregrine, stepping back.

‘As for me,’ said mad Jack Hall, whom none of the Forsters, except Tom, loved, because his presence seems to bode misfortune to us —— besides, a man of forty had no business drinking and carousing with these young men ——‘as for me, I will have none of thy fortune, good nor bad. There’s plenty good and plenty bad in the locker. Good or bad, what matters, so there’s beef on board and drink in can?’

His rosy face looked as if he had already taken as much drink out of the can as he could well hold.

‘Come, brave toper —— come, my lusty Tony,’ cried the lad Peregrine, clapping Mr. Hilyard on the shoulder: ‘try thy fortune, man!’

The young man ought to have shown more reverence to the scholar, but learning and Perry Widdrington did not indeed regard each other with respect. Besides, the truth is that Mr. Hilyard was himself somewhat inclined to stagger as he went.

Mr. Hilyard was a young man then, although so learned. Perhaps he was about five or six and twenty. He wore no hat, his wig was awry and out of curl; his cheeks were red, his neckcloth was disordered; he stood behind the others, as if he did not by right of birth (which was the case) belong to them. His merry laughing face, when the fire lit it up, seemed filled with the joy of wine and song: the poet Anacreon (whose verses he afterwards translated) could not have been more jovial to look upon. His nose was broad, his lips full; his eyes were large, his figure short and squab.

‘My fortune?’ he asked, with a laugh —— though why should he laugh over so grave a matter as his own fate? ‘My fortune? What better fortune than to drink and royster among the gentlemen of Northumberland?’

However, he placed a coin in the girl’s jar, and waited as if he was ready for anything besides that fortune might have for him.

‘Fortune has no more to give me,’ Mr. Hilyard said presently. ‘Or, if anything, she keeps it concealed in a basket, as the Egyptian his secret, who, to one asking, replied, “Since thou seest it covered what impudence is this, to inquire into a hidden thing?” Keep silence, priestess.’

But the girl gave his fortune:

‘Love a fair girl all your life,

Yet shalt never have a wife.

Thou shalt rise and she shall fall;

Fear not —— thou wilt top them all.’

‘Why,’ cried Mr. Hilyard, ‘here is an excellent fortune indeed! Good Sybil, I thank thee. Yet Haman rose and topped them all. So did Stylites, and so doth Steeple Jack. So does every poor devil at Tyburn Tree. Nevertheless, I thank thee. Delphic oracles are ever obscure. And there are many ways of rising —— did one only know them.’

‘Enough fooling,’ said my brother. ‘Judith, give the girl a shilling for her trouble.’ He tossed her the coin. ‘Come, Ned —— come, Peregrine —— come, Jack! Let us go back and crack t’other bottle.’

They returned as they had come, arm-in-arm, tramping up the road, and the scholar began to sing as they went. He had a clear, sweet voice:

‘He drank till night, and he drank till noon,

    The thirst in his gullet was such;

He never could drink a drop too soon —— too soon:

        And never, never, never —— no —— never ——

        Never a drop too much.’

I whispered, ‘Judith,’ when they were quite gone, ‘let me now try my fortune, too. Is it not my turn now?’

But Judith was shaking her head.

‘That shall you not,’ she said angrily. ‘Here is a fine Midsummer Witch for you, with her bad luck for everybody! Heard one ever the like? I would duck her in the sea for two straws. And for all these gallant gentlemen, too!’

‘Oh, nurse!’ But the oracle sat as if she heard not. ‘Nurse, I must have my fortune told —— I must indeed.’

‘Yes —— yes,’ cried the women of the village, pressing round. ‘Miss Dorothy’s fortune! Let us have Miss Dorothy’s fortune, too.’

Judith gave way. She was as curious as the rest to know what this wonderful Midsummer Witch would say. Yet she was afraid.

‘Hast ever a crooked pin about thee, child?’ she asked. ‘So —— this will do. Drop it in the jar. Now —— double thumb again, child.’

The girl once more put her hand into the jar, and brought out the pin. As for me, I waited in a strange expectancy. Oh, what would she give me? For the moment I felt as if this farmer’s wench, whose father was but a common gipsy, actually knew the will of Heaven and could control the future. Impious thought! And yet —— it is truly wonderful —— one knows not how —— one cannot say why —— the predictions of humble women are so often fulfilled. Nurse Judith’s greatgrandmother —— the one who was burned for a witch —— predicted, as everybody still remembers, the tempest which blew down the roof of Belford Church, and on her way to the stake foretold a sudden and violent death for him who bore witness against her. Wonderful to relate, the man was, only a year afterwards, done to death in a fray with the Redesdale men. Yet that little Jenny Lee, a milkmaid, a dairymaid, who dropped me a curtsey when she passed me —— that she should —— it was impossible! What she said, however, was ambiguous enough for any fortune:

‘Lovers one, and two, and three,

Lovers of high and of low degree,

None of them all shall her husband be.’

If none of my lovers was to become my husband, I thought, whom should I have to marry?

‘Poor lass!’ the women murmured. ”Tis a strange unlucky night for the quality.’

It is a foolish thing that one should remember such a childish play, but I never forgot any of the fortunes told on that Midsummer Eve. Nor, I think, did my nurse, as long as she lived, which was for ten years more. But now Judith dragged me away roughly, though the oracle had not yet finished telling the fortunes.

‘Come, child,’ she said. ‘It is bed-time. Fuss enough made about a girl; silly talk —— though ’tis St. John’s Eve and all. Come, Dorothy! a maid of ten has got nothing to do with lovers. Lovers, indeed! Who ever heard of such things?’

She, however, did heed them very much, for her lips kept muttering as we came away from the great fire, round which the country people were now pressing and crowding together to know their fortune. What Jenny told them, I know not, but there now arose shouts of laughter. Yet to me it seemed as if they ought not to laugh when such melancholy fortunes had been told, and while the great fire —— the fire of Baal —— was still burning clear and bright, a terrible thing to look upon, just as it had done long ago when Solomon’s sailors landed here, before King Ida built the castle, and before ever a Forster was seen in the North Country.

‘“Far off to die, at home to lie,”’ Judith muttered. ‘What did the child mean? Where did she learn it? I hope his honour may not be disturbed by such a thing.’

His honour was not, because, with his companions, he was put to bed that night too drunk to remember anything.

‘Why, to be sure,’ the nurse went on, ‘it is only a play. And yet it is an old play, and we must never let it drop, or bad luck will come to us. Nobody knows who is abroad on such a night as this. Spirits whisper —— I felt a cold breath on my own cheek just now. ’Tis a fearful night. Say prayers, my dear, and get to sleep.’

Late as I had gone to bed, I was up betimes and dressed by six. When I went down the stairs I found Mr. Hilyard already up, and talking with no other than the girl Jenny Lee herself at the door.

I know not whether he had been, like the others, drunk the night before. He was quite sober now, and composed and grave in his manner, as becomes a scholar and was his wont in the morning. But his eyes were red, as sometimes happens after much wine.

‘Come, girl,’ he was saying, ‘thou shalt not put me off with nonsense. Who taught thee the rhymes?’

Jenny was a tall girl of twelve or thirteen, who might have been seventeen, so well grown was she. Judith called her a gipsy: her father, who was dead, belonged to that race. She had a gipsy’s black hair and bright black eyes; also a gipsy’s swarthy skin, red lips, and white teeth. She bore on her head a pail of milk. When Mr. Hilyard spoke to her she looked confused, and hesitated.

‘Come,’ he said. ‘Here is little Miss Dorothy. As you hope for any favour from this young lady, tell us where you learned those fortunes.’

‘Perhaps they were whispered by the spirits,’ said the girl impudently. ‘Everybody knows that on St. John’s Eve the good people are about.’

‘Perhaps they were not whispered. Perhaps I know where they came from.’

I suppose there was something in his look which she read, because she dropped her eyes.

‘Telling misfortunes to gentlefolk is no laughing matter, my girl. Such prophecies sometimes bring their own fulfilment. It is recorded of Marius —— but that concerns thee not. Who was it, Jenny?’

‘Granny,’ she whispered. ‘Granny. Oh, she is a proper witch!’

‘Of course, I know it,’ he replied. ‘Yet I saw none of your people among the gipsies yesterday.’

She replied that, in fact, they were in trouble, one of them having been unjustly hanged for stealing a sheep (the whole tribe being ready to swear an alibi), and another having been recently flogged through the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed; and that as regards Bamborough, the last time they were camped in that place there were so many complaints about pigs, geese, and even cows dying suddenly and mysteriously (their bodies being taken away by the gipsies and eaten), and so many threats of throwing the old woman into the pond for a witch, that they were afraid of coming any nearer. She was indeed —— I knew her well —— a most wonderful and terrible old woman to look at, being doubled up with rheumatism, and wrinkled and puckered in the face very curiously, yet with a pair of coal-black eyes which shone like fire.

‘She cast the fortunes of the gentlemen and Miss Dorothy with the cards,’ Jenny Lee went on; ‘and yours too, sir. Oh, granny’s words come true —— every one!’

‘Where did your people come from last?’ asked Mr. Hilyard.

‘They came from Lancashire, by way of Shotley; and they are going to Wooler first, and then across the Cheviots and to Jedburgh.’

‘From Lancashire.’

Mr. Hilyard stroked his chin and looked grave. Presently he began to speak with her eagerly in a tongue which I did not understand. Yet I knew very well that it was the language of the gipsy folk, and that Mr. Hilyard could talk it, being a most ingenious gentleman who could speak many languages, such as Dutch and French, and even thieves’ tongue, which they call Canting. This he learned in London, while lurking (at great risk of being knocked o’ the head) among the thieves and rogues of that great and wicked city. I believe there were also other weighty reasons, known to Oxford vintners and others who had trusted him, why for a time he should lie snug. You will hear presently how a person so learned and of such curious accomplishments became a resident in our house, and our dependent.

After a serious talk, Jenny went away, dropping me a curtsey without letting the pail fall from her head, or a drop of milk to be spilled. Then Mr. Hilyard hemmed twice, and said:

‘I was saying to the girl, Miss Dorothy, that the poultry of Bamboroughshire must not be stolen, or rogues will meet their deserts.’

This he may have said among other things, but I knew very well indeed that he had sent a much more important message. In those days of unquiet, when there were secret communications and letters constantly passing from hand to hand, and especially between Lancashire and Northumberland, even a child could understand that in some way or other Mr. Hilyard and the old gipsy woman were concerned in letter-carrying.

‘It is strange,’ he went on, speaking gravely, and with his eyes fixed, as if he was reading from a book, which was his way ——‘it is strange that the girl doth not forget the language of her father’s people, though her mother brought her away so young. Much I fear that when she grows older she will leave the ways of Christian folk and follow with the camp. ’Tis a strange wild people! Nor hath it ever been made certain whence they came or where they were first seen, though some say Bohemia and some say Egypt. As for their language, which I have been at some pains to learn, that seems to have in it something of the Chaldæan. Meantime forget, child, the pretended oracles of this gipsy Delphic. As for his honour, your brother, he will doubtless in some way achieve greatness, as his grandfather before him, Sir William, sheriff of the country; and what the witch says is true, that great name brings great blame. Themistocles is recorded to have compared himself to a tree, the leaves of which are plucked by every passer-by; yet in days of heat they all run to it for shelter. And as for prophecy, every man is Faber Fortunoe, or maker of his own fortune, which is the reason why some do spoil themselves in haste and hurry of making; so that we may admire the wisdom of Vespasian, who stamped his coin with a dolphin and an anchor, and the legend, Soon enough if well enough. Forget the oracles, child: seek not to know the intentions of Providence: and doubtless when your brother and the gentlemen are ready to take their breakfast, they will have forgotten, by reason of the potency of his honour’s port, the predictions of last night.’

It is, indeed, as difficult to keep a gentleman of Northumberland from wine as a woman from talk.

‘The goats of Candia,’ Mr. Hilyard resumed, stroking his chin, and changing his manner, ‘being shot with an arrow, straightway choose the herb dittany in order to cure the wound; the tortoise, having eaten a viper, seeks for wild marjoram; the dragon, when his sight fails, cleans his eyes with fennel. Cranes, for the good of the stomach, drink sea-water. The wise man, Miss Dorothy, after a bottle or two of port overnight, taketh a tankard of small-beer in the morning.’

He disappeared, in search of his remedy, and I saw him no more that morning. At noon the gentlemen took their breakfast, and presently rode away all together, laughing and shouting, and I never heard from any of them mention or remembrance of this oracle of St. John’s Eve.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51