Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter x.

A Tender Conscience.

So, for prudence’ sake, and for carefulness, and to avoid the charges of an open house, we remained at Blanchland until the New Year.

Before her departure, Lady Crewe held a long and very serious talk with Tom, the nature of which I was not told at the time. For many days afterwards he was graver than was his wont, and talked much about his place in the county; he reprimanded Mr. Hilyard, also, when he spoke of sport, for thinking of nothing more worthy his attention (whereas the poor man thought of sport not at all, save only to please his patron), and he made inquiry about the House of Commons, the duties and privileges of members, and how a gentleman may rise to eminence in that august assembly, from which I conjectured that some plan had been laid before him by my aunt. He spoke also of matrimony and of heiresses, saying that a man in his position, although his estates were embarrassed, might look as high as anyone, and that London was the place to find a rich gentlewoman —— not Northumberland, where the families were so large and the times grown so peaceful that of heiresses there were none in the whole county.

‘Sir,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘I know little concerning the ways of the great, yet I have walked in St. James’s Park and seen the ladies followed by the beaux, few of whom can be compared with your honour for comeliness and strength; while there are many who cut a fine figure in the park and the theatre, yet have never an acre of land in all their family.’

Tom was twenty-seven by this time, no longer in the first flush of manhood, but a handsome fellow still, though beginning a double chin and inclined to be corpulent. As regards the pursuit of an heiress, I never heard anything more about it, and conjecture that it was a part of her ladyship’s advice offered, but not carried into practice. In matters of gallantry, our North-country gentlemen are sadly to seek —— nor do the ladies expect it of them; and an heiress and a fine lady of London would have so many beaux following her, that a plain man would have very little chance, however good his family.

Presently, Tom grew tired of keeping his own counsel, and therefore told us —— I mean Mr. Hilyard as well as myself —— all that had passed. Her ladyship was, he said, most gracious and kind. She assured him that the restoration of her own family to their lost wealth and former position was all that she now lived for, saving her obedience to her husband; that she had no longer any hope of children, and that while Lord Crewe’s Northamptonshire property would go to his own nephews, nieces, and cousins, he had most generously given to her the bestowal of the Northumberland property, which she was resolved upon bequeathing entire to her dear nephew.

This was good hearing indeed. But better was to follow. The Manor House was to be maintained as before, and a reasonable allowance was to be made to Tom out of the revenues of the estate. He was, therefore, once more master of Bamborough, and we might still sit in the chancel without feeling that we were usurping that place of honour. All was to be Tom’s.

Yet there were conditions —— just and reasonable conditions I call them, and such as should have been accepted without a murmur. But men are so masterful, they brook not the thought of bridle or of rein. First, Tom was to remember that he was no longer a young man, and that such follies as sitting up all night drinking and singing in the company of young gentlemen whose expectations and fortunes were far below his own, should now cease; that on the retirement of his father he was to become Knight of the Shire in his place; that he was to go no more to races and matches where money is rashly and wickedly lost; that he was to take unto himself, in reasonable time, a wife of good stock and approved breeding; and that, finally, as regards politics and the Party, he was to take no important step, at any time, without her ladyship’s consent and approval.

These conditions Tom accepted, yet grumbled at them.

‘Why,’ he said, ‘I am already seven-and-twenty, and am still to be in leading-strings. As for drinking, Heaven knows it is not once a month that we have a bout —— is it, Tony? Well, two or three times at most; as for racing, if a gentleman have a good horse why should he not back him for a few pounds? Is one to be for ever counting up the pence and watching how they fly? As for a wife, all in good time. When Dorothy marries, perhaps, or when —— but Heaven sends wives.’

‘The conditions, sir,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘appear to me such as your honour would do wrong to refuse, because they can never be enforced; nor can her ladyship ascertain whether or no they have been obeyed, except as to the matter of Parliament, in which there can be no doubt that it would be greatly to your honour’s interest to learn something of the affairs of the nation, if only with a view to those great offices and positions of State which will, doubtless, some day be forced upon you.’

‘Well,’ Tom replied, ‘it is something to have in the house one who can talk a man into anything. Why, Tony, if her ladyship ordered me a flogging at the cart’s tail, I warrant you would make it out to be very much in my interest.’

We were not without company, especially in the autumn, for Hexhamshire and Allendale Commons abound with wild birds and game of all kinds: there are grouse, blackcock, partridge, bustard, wild-geese, ducks, water-rail, heron, peewit, teal, and snipe; also for those who care to shoot them there are eagles, hawks, falcons, kestrel, and kite; so that if gentlemen came there was always at least game for the table, and he who sits down to a coursed hare, a brace of partridges, a rabbit-pie, or from the farm a Michaelmas goose or fat capon, need not complain about his dinner.

They came, therefore, across the moors for the sake of the sport, or for friendship with Tom, or to enjoy the singing and play-acting of the jester, or perhaps some of them —— I know not —— on account of myself. It is nigh upon thirty years ago. Alas! the pleasant times are gone. Wherefore let me, without boastfulness, but with gratitude, remember the days of my youth, when men took pleasure in such beauty as had been granted to me. I could tell (but refrain, because this book is not about myself, but my brother) how Perry Widdrington and Ned Swinburne quarrelled about me, and were like to fight —— the foolish boys —— as if running each other through the ribs would make a girl love either of them any the better. I had a deal to do with them: for, first their honour was concerned; then they had said such words to each other as required, and would have, the shedding of blood; next —— they were old friends from childhood, and it was a shame for each to treat the other so —— they would be revenged; lastly, what right had either to interfere when it was plain that the other was in love with Dorothy?

I told these boys that they were a couple of fools; that if they fought I would never speak with either of them again; that as for their religion, they were undeserving the name of Christians, who must forgive one another; and that, if they wanted further speech of me, they must immediately shake hands and be brothers again. At last they consented, and, with melancholy faces, shook hands upon it. Why they were sad over it I know not, because this handshaking saved the life of one and might have given the other a bride; only that the lady, when their hands had been given, told them she was sorry, but she could take neither. So they went away glum, and would not forgive me for a long time. There was also young Tom Clavering, who gave much trouble, being more persistent than most, and had to be spoken to very plainly. I might certainly have married one of these young gentlemen; but I know not how the family pot would have been kept boiling, or a roof kept over our heads, for they were all younger sons, with a poor forty pounds a year at most for all their portion, and the great family house to live in while they pleased; and not one with any thought of bettering himself. Young men think that the pot is filled with wishing, and that love provides beef as well as kisses. They were brave and gallant boys; much I loved to see their hearty faces and hear their merry laugh: but I could not regard them with the favour which they wanted, and for a very good reason —— because there was another man who had already fired my heart, and insomuch that, beside him, all other men seemed small and mean.

This, then, was the manner of our life at Blanchland, among the ruins which the old monks had left, and their melancholy ghosts. Sometimes I, who was as strong of limb and as well able to do a day’s march as any, would go with the gentlemen when they went shooting. Pretty it is to watch the dogs put up the game —— the grouse running in the cover, the swift whirr of the coveys, and the snipe with their quick flight and their thousand twistings and turnings, designed to deceive the huntsman and to escape his shot. Sometimes I would don riding-dress (but not coat, hat, and wig, as some ladies are reported to do nearer London), and ride with them after the fox, well pleased if, as often happened, Master Reynard escaped the hounds, putting the hounds off the scent by crossing a stream; or, but this was seldom, I would get up early in the morning, and go with them otter-hunting, which is too rough a sport for a girl and too cruel, with the fighting of the dogs and the killing of the poor brute at the end. After every party there was the finish of the day, with the feast —— rough and plenty —— the flowing of small-ale, stout October, and whisky punch, and Mr. Hilyard always ready, after his first glass or two, to play Jack Merryman for the company; and the Rev. Mr. Patten, if he was there, ready to bow low at every remark which my brother might make, and to say ‘Hush!’ when he was going to speak, and to sigh when he had spoken as if Solomon himself had uttered out of his boundless wisdom another proverb. When the punch began to go round I withdrew.

One of the most frequent visitors, as I have said already, was this Reverend Robert Patten, Vicar of Allenhead, for whom at the very outset I conceived a violent dislike. He came, I doubt not, partly in order to ingratiate himself with one who had two livings in his gift, and partly in order, if possible, to obtain a recommendation to the Bishop, and partly in order to get, at another’s expense, as much drink as he could carry —— and more. For my own part, I deplore the practice of taking too much wine, even among gentlemen, but in a clergyman it is truly scandalous. As for the enmity between Mr. Hilyard and this disgraceful minister, that by no means abated, but quite the contrary; so that, after the formal greeting, they exchanged not a single word, both making as if the other were not present.

At last I asked Mr. Hilyard for the cause of this bad blood between them.

‘It seems to me,’ I said, ‘that Mr. Patten, whom I confess I like not, is open to no other charge than that of drunkenness, which alone should not make him hateful in your eyes. We must not, Mr. Hilyard, judge our brethren too severely.’

‘It is true,’ he said, ‘that the sight of his sleek face and thick lips makes me angry, and sometimes almost beyond myself. Yet I pray, Miss Dorothy, that you hold me excused.’

This I would not do, but pressed him to tell me all, which he did after much hesitation.

‘A Christian must not hate his brethren,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘but he may, I suppose, regard him with contempt. It is with contempt that I look upon Bob Patten. Know, therefore, Miss Dorothy, that we were at Oxford together, and of the same College. If I may say it without vanity, my parts were tolerable; but Bob was ever a dull dog. Had I not imitated the part of the Prodigal Son, I might now have been a grave and reverend Fellow —— perhaps the Tutor.’

He had already told me of his foolish conduct as regards the satire against one of his superiors.

‘Alas! the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil are greater to some than to others. There are, I am sure, many men who are tempted by none of the things which drive some of us to madness. I am myself drawn as by strong ropes whenever I hear the sound of a fiddle, the clinking of a glass, and the voices of those who laugh; if there is a church on one side of the street and a theatre on the other, I have no choice, but must needs go into the theatre. This was my ruin. Though I studied in the morning, I drank, and sang, and made verses in the evening. So I became known to the Proctors, and an object of suspicion.’

‘But what has this to do with Mr. Patten?’

‘Creeping Bob neither sang (because his voice was like the grating of rusty nails upon a slate), nor drank (because no one would give him or trust him), nor made merry (having been born on the shady side of the street), nor offended Proctors and Tutors, hoping maybe, but in this he hath been mistaken, to make up for muddy wit by nice morality, and perhaps to get a Fellowship and a fat College living. This conduct made him deservedly popular with his fellows, and gained him the glorious title of Creeping Bob. As he was then, so is he now.’

‘But, Mr. Hilyard, ought the prejudice of youthful days to be considered sufficient cause for so great a contempt?’

‘Nay —— but there is more. For certain small natural gifts’—— he assumed an air of humility which was nothing in the world but pride in a vizard ——‘which have been my plague; namely, that I could make epigrams (yet Martial himself was always a dependent on patrons, and lived in poverty) and verses (poets are allowed to be a ragged race) and orations, whether in Latin or in English, and either in the comical or the serious vein, and could in half an hour write more and better to the point than dull-witted pates such as Bob can do in a year —— I got a reputation, and was presently regarded with terror by every Doctor of Divinity and reverend person in the University, because whatever was whispered of scandal, as of one grave Professor being carried home brimful of punch, and another —— but these are old stories —— suffice it that the next day there was dished up, hot and hot, such a course of verses, satires, epigrams, and secret history as made the Fathers of the University tremble. And though they knew the hand which wrought these verses, they could not prove the fact.

‘Perhaps I had still escaped, but for a dastardly act of crowning treachery. For I had got safely to my third and last year, when I ought to have been presenting myself for a degree in Arts, with my string of syllogisms. Then, indeed, my life would have been different; instead of a servant —— whose fetters, Miss Dorothy, you have most generously covered with silk’—— he bowed low and his voice shook ——‘I say, generously covered with the finest silk, so that they have not galled the limbs of him that wears them, I might have been now a great preacher, or a grave scholar, a credit to my father’s care, and a monument and proof of answer to his prayers. Yet I lost all for the glory of a single set of verses.’

I knew already that he had committed this great madness. It seems incredible that young men can be found so eager for applause that they will even stake the hazard of a life upon the laughter of an hour. But this, Mr. Hilyard did.

‘As for my oration at Commemoration, that,’ he went on, ‘might have been passed over, though there were angry threats uttered. Yet it was allowed that a better oration than mine had never been made by any Terræ Filius in the memory of man. What did my business was a satire on the Vice–Chancellor, which the next day went about from College to College. There was no name to it, but everybody knew who wrote it. This gave them an excuse for bringing forward my speech before the Heads, and while one wanted me to be forgiven, and another to write me for two years in the Black Book, and another to send me down altogether, lo you! the President of my College settled the matter for me, for he lugged out of his pocket a letter in which the writer, whose name he withheld, said he felt moved by the extraordinary tenderness of his conscience to disclose the fact that the author of the satire was no other than Mr. Antony Hilyard, of his own College, and offered proof, not only as regarded the last production, but of every epigram and squib about which noise had been made for a whole twelvemonth. After that there was no more to do. They sent for me, the letter was read before my face, and I was expelled. The writer of the letter was no other than Creeping Bob. This the President himself afterwards told me. If I had been Aristides the Just they could not more unanimously have voted my expulsion.’

This, then, was the reason of his animosity. Certainly, no one can deny that it was a good and sufficient reason.

‘Doth Mr. Patten know ——’

‘I believe he knows it not. Yet, he who has once injured a man always fears that man, and would injure him again if he could. There is a way in which he could do me another wrong. I doubt not he will some day discover this method.’

‘But how can he hurt you now?’

‘When I was expelled, there was nothing for it but to run before my creditors in the town got wind of my misfortunes. It is ten years ago, but creditors never forget, and, were they to learn where to find me, a debtors’ prison would be my lot. If Mr. Patten is so officious as to tell anyone in Oxford —— well, at nineteen one is a fool, but sometimes folly is punished worse than crime. I had no right, being penniless, to have debts at all; nor should I, the son of a vintner, have presumed to wear white linen, lace ruffles, and silver buttons. Yet I did, trusting to pay when I was made a Fellow, as is the custom at the University. Wherefore I go daily in terror of the bailiffs, and at night lie down thinking that Newcastle Gaol is my certain end.’

‘Surely, a minister of the Church would not ——’

‘Bob Patten would if he thought of it. As for the mischief which he tries to work between his honour and myself, there, indeed, I defy him.’

So for the present the conversation came to an end. But I turned the matter over in my own mind, and watched the two. I saw that Mr. Patten still cast upon the man whom he had injured malignant scowls when he thought himself unobserved, and I found an opportunity to converse privately with him as well.

I began by asking him whether he had known Mr. Hilyard in former times.

He confessed that their acquaintance was of old times, when they were young and at the same College together; though, he added, they were never friends or of the same way of thinking. For which he piously thanked Heaven.

Thereupon, I asked him further if there were anything, so far as he remembered, against the private character of Mr. Hilyard —— other than might be alleged against any young man.

Here Mr. Patten hesitated. Presently, he said that as regards character a great deal might be said; but, indeed, a young man who was expelled the University for intolerable license, railing accusations, exaggerated charges, and unspeakable disrespect towards his superiors, had need of all that could be said for him; still, he would say nothing, only that, as he had reason to believe, there were many tradesmen of Oxford, honest creatures, who had trusted his word, and now would gladly know where Mr. Hilyard could be found.

Upon this I stopped him short, and informed him in plain language that, as no one could tell these tradesmen except himself, he must understand, once and for all, that the favour of Mr. Forster, if he hoped anything from it, depended on his observing silence.

‘Let there be,’ I added, ‘no letters of a “tender conscience,” Mr. Patten’—— at this he started and looked confused ——‘I say, let no letters of a “tender conscience” be written. Remember that. Should anything be done by Oxford people, it shall certainly be laid at your door, though, to be sure, a body would be sorry if a godly minister, such as yourself, should suffer from an injurious suspicion.’

Mr. Patten, who had turned first red and then pale, at mention of a letter of conscience, protested that he bore no malice towards Mr. Hilyard; and that, so far as the Oxford people were concerned, he had nothing to make or meddle in the matter.

Then I went farther. I said that Mr. Hilyard had now been in the family for a great many years; that he had always shown himself faithful, silent on occasion, and honest; that he was a gentleman of most ingenious mind and great parts; that not only Mr. Forster but also Lady Crewe entirely trusted him. Wherefore, if any distrust should arise in the minds of these, or either of these two, it could be none other than the work of a private enemy; and I plainly bade Mr. Patten beware, lest, through any hostility of his own, he should cause such a distrust, because, in such a case, he would have others besides Mr. Hilyard to encounter, and the truth should be wholly laid before the Bishop.

He protested again that nothing was farther from his thoughts than to create any such mischief; that he was a man who loved peace and friendship, and so forth. But he looked angry and troubled, his fat lips shook, and his small pig-like eyes winked.

Enough of this villain for the present.

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