Among all the great old commoner families of the south of England, who have held the lands of their fore-fathers through every change of dynasty and religion, the Buckleys of Clere stand deservedly high among the brightest and the oldest. All down the stormy page of this great island’s history one sees, once in a about a hundred years, that name in some place of second-rate honour at least, whether as admiral, general, or statesman; and yet, at the beginning of this present century, the representative of the good old family was living at Clere House, a palace built in the golden times of Elizabeth, on 900L. a-year, while all the county knew that it took 300L. to keep Clere in proper repair.
The two Stuart revolutions had brought them down from county princes to simple wealthy squires, and the frantic efforts made by Godfrey Buckley, in the “South Sea” scheme to retrieve the family fortunes, had well nigh broke them. Year by year they saw acre after acre of the broad lands depart, and yet Marmaduke Buckley lived in the home of his ancestors, and the avenue was untouched by axe or saw.
He was a widower, with two sons, John and James. John had been to sea from his earliest youth, and James had joined his regiment a year or more. John had been doing the state good service under his beloved Collingwood; and on the 19th October 1805, when Nelson and Collingwood made tryst to meet at the gates of hell, John Buckley was one of the immortals on the deck of the “Royal Sovereign.” And when the war fog rolled away to leeward, and Trafalgar was won, and all seas were free, he lay dead in the cockpit, having lived just long enough to comprehend the magnitude of the victory.
Brave old Marmaduke was walking up and down the terrace at Clere uneasy and impatient. Beside him was the good old curate who had educated both the boys, and wearily and oft they turned to watch down the long vista of the ancient avenue for the groom, who had been despatched to Portsmouth to gain some tidings of the lieutenant. They had heard of the victory, and, in their simple way, had praised God for it, drinking a bottle of the rarest old wine to his Majesty’s health and the confusion of his enemies, before they knew whether they themselves were among the number of the mourners. And now, as they paced the terrace, every moment they grew more anxious and uneasy for the long delayed intelligence.
Some trifle took them into the flower-garden, and, when they came back, their hearts leapt up, for the messenger was there dismounted, opening the gate. The curate ran down the steps, and taking a black-edged letter from the sorrowful groom, gave it into the trembling hands of the old man with a choking sob. He opened it and glanced over it, and then, throwing it towards his friend, walked steadily up the steps, and disappeared within the dark porch.
It was just three hasty lines from the great Collingwood himself. That brave heart, in the midst of the din of victory, had found time to scrawl a word to his old schoolmate, and tell him that his boy had died like a hero, and that he regretted him like a son.
The old man sat that evening in the western gallery, tearless and alone, brooding over his grief. Three times the curate had peeped in, and as often had retreated, fearful of disturbing the old man’s solemn sorrow. The autumn sun had gone down in wild and lurid clouds, and the gallery was growing dark and gloomy, when the white figure of a beautiful girl entering silently at the lower door came gliding up the darkening vista, past the light of the windows and the shadow of the piers, to where the old man sat under the high north window, and knelt at his feet, weeping bitterly.
It was Agnes Talbot, the daughter of his nearest neighbour and best friend, whom the curate had slyly sent for, thinking in his honest heart that she would make a better comforter than he, and rightly; for the old man, bending over her, lifted up his voice and wept, speaking for the first time since he heard of his bereavement, and saying, “Oh, my boy, my boy!”
“He is gone, sir,” said Agnes, through her tears; “and gone the way a man should go. But there is another left you yet; remember him.”
“Aye, James,” said he; “alas, poor James! I wonder if he knows it. I wish he were here.”
“James is here,” said she. “He heard of it before you, and came posting over as fast as he could, and is waiting outside to know if you can see him.”
The door at the lower end of the gallery opened, and a tall and noble-looking young man strode up and took his father’s hand.
He was above the ordinary height of man, with a grand broad forehead and bold blue eyes. Old Marmaduke’s heart warmed up as he parted his curling hair, and he said,
“Thank God, I’ve got one left still! The old house will not perish yet, while such a one as you remains to uphold it.”
After a time they left him, at his own request, and walked out together through the dark rooms towards the old hall.
“Agnes, my beloved, my darling!” said James, drawing his arm round her waist; “I knew I should find you with him like a ministering angel. Say something to comfort me, my love. You never could love John as I did; yet I know you felt for him as your brother, as he soon would have been, if he had lived.”
“What can I say to you, my own?” she replied, “save to tell you that he fell as your brother should fall, amongst the foremost, fighting for his country’s existence. And, James, if you must go before me, and leave me a widow before I am a bride, it would render more tolerable the short time that would be left me before I followed you, to think that you had fallen like him.”
“There will be a chance of it, Agnes,” said James, “for Stuart, they say, is going to Italy, and I go with him. There will be a long and bloody war, and who knows how it will end? Stay you here quiet with the old man, my love, and pray for me; the end will come some day. I am only eighteen and an ensign; in ten years I may be a colonel.”
They parted that night with tears and kisses, and a few days afterwards James went from among them to join his regiment.
From that time Agnes almost lived with old Marmaduke. Her father’s castle could be seen over the trees from the windows of Clere, and every morning, wet or dry, the old man posted himself in the great north window of the gallery to watch her coming. All day she would pervade the gloomy old mansion like a ray of sunlight, now reading to him, now leading him into the flower-garden in fine weather, till he grew quite fond of flowers for her sake, and began even to learn the names of some of them. But oftenest of all she would sit working by his side, while he told her stories of times gone by, stories which would have been dull to any but her, but which she could listen to and applaud. Best of all she liked to hear him talk of James, and his exploits by flood and field from his youth up; and so it was that this quiet couple never tired one another, for their hearts were set upon the same object.
Sometimes her two sisters, noble and beautiful girls, would come to see him; but they, indeed, were rather intruders, kind and good as they were. And sometimes old Talbot looked round to see his old friend, and talked of bygone fishing and hunting, which roused the old man up and made him look glad for half a day after. Still, however, Agnes and the old curate were company enough for him, for they were the only two who loved his absent son as well as he. The love which had been divided between the two, seemed now to be concentrated upon the one, and yet this true old Briton never hinted at James’ selling out and coming home, for he said that the country had need of every one then, more particularly such a one as James.
Time went on, and he came back to them from Corunna, and spending little more than a month at home, he started away once more; and next they heard of him at Busaco, wounded and promoted. Then they followed him in their hearts along the path of glory, from Talavera by Albuera and Vittoria, across the Pyrenees. And while they were yet reading a long-delayed letter, written from Toulouse at midnight — after having been to the theatre with Lord Wellington, wearing a white cockade — he broke in on them again, to tell them the war was well-nigh over, and that he would soon come and live with them in peace.
Then what delightful reunions were there in the old gallery window, going over all the weary campaigns once more; pleasant rambles, too, down by the river-side in the sweet May evenings, old Marmaduke and the curate discreetly walking in front, and James and Agnes loitering far behind. And in the succeeding winter after they were married, what pleasant rides had they to meet the hounds, and merry evenings before the bright wood-fire in the hall. Never were four people more happy than they. The war was done, the disturber was confined, and peace had settled down upon the earth.
Peace, yes. But not for long. Spring came on, and with it strange disquieting rumours, growing more certain day by day, till the terrible news broke on them that the faithless tyrant had broke loose again, and that all Europe was to be bathed in blood once more by his insane ambition.
James had sold out of the army, so that when Agnes first heard the intelligence she thanked God that her husband at least would be safe at home during the storm. But she was soon to be undeceived. When the news first came, James had galloped off to Portsmouth, and late in the evening they saw him come riding slowly and sadly up the avenue. She was down at the gate before he could dismount, and to her eager inquiries if the news were true, he replied,
“All too true, my love; and I must leave you this day week.”
“My God!” said she; “leave me again, and not six months married? Surely the king has had you long enough; may not your wife have you for a few short months?”
“Listen to me, dear wife,” he replied. “All the Peninsular men are volunteering, and I must not be among the last, for every man is wanted now. Buonaparte is joined by the whole army, and the craven king has fled. If England and Prussia can combine to strike a blow before he gets head, thousands and hundreds of thousands of lives will be spared. But let him once get firmly seated, and then, hey! for ten years’ more war. Beside the thing is done; my name went in this morning.”
She said, “God’s will be done;” and he left his young bride and his old father once again. The nightingale grew melodious in the midnight woods, the swallows nestled again in the chimneys, and day by day the shadows under the old avenue grew darker and darker till merry June was half gone; and then one Saturday came the rumour of a great defeat.
All the long weary summer Sabbath that followed, Agnes and Marmaduke silently paced the terrace, till the curate — having got through his own services somehow, and broken down in the “prayer during war and tumults,”— came hurrying back to them to give what comfort he could.
Alas! that was but little. He could only speculate whether or not the duke would give up Brussels, and retire for reinforcements. If the two armies could effect a union, they would be near about the strength of the French, but then the Prussians were cut to pieces; so the curate broke down, and became the worst of the three.
Cheer up, good souls! for he you love shall not die yet for many long years. While you are standing there before the porch, dreading the long anxious night, Waterloo has been won, and he — having stood the appointed time in the serried square, watching the angry waves of French cavalry dash in vain against the glittering wall of bayonets — is now leaning against a gun in the French position, alive and well, though fearfully tired, listening to the thunder of the Prussian artillery to the north, and watching the red sun go down across the wild confusion of the battle-field.
But home at Clere none slept that night, but met again next morning weary and harassed. All the long three days none of them spoke much, but wandered about the house uneasily. About ten o’clock on the Wednesday night they went to bed, and the old man sleeps from sheer weariness.
It was twelve o’clock when there came a clang at the gate, and a sound of horses’ feet on the gravel. Agnes was at the window in a moment.
“Who goes there?” she cried.
“An orderly from Colonel Mountford at Portsmouth,” said a voice below. “A letter for Mr. Buckley.”
She sent a servant to undo the door; and going to the window again, she inquired, trembling —
“Do you know what the news is, orderly?”
“A great victory, my dear,” said the man, mistaking her for one of the servants. “Your master is all right. There’s a letter from him inside this one.”
“And I daresay,” Mrs. Buckley used to add, when she would tell this old Waterloo story, as we called it, “that the orderly thought me a most heartless domestic, for when I heard what he said, I burst out laughing so loud, that old Mr. Buckley woke up to see what was the matter, and when heard, he laughed as loud as I did.”
So he came back to them again with fresh laurels, but Agnes never felt safe, till she heard that the powers had determined to chain up her BETE NOIR, Buonaparté, on a lonely rock in the Atlantic, that he might disturb the world no more. Then at last she began to believe that peace might be a reality, and a few months after Waterloo, to their delight and exultation, she bore a noble boy.
And as we shall see more of this boy, probably, than of any one else in these following pages, we will if you please appoint him hero, with all the honours and emoluments thereunto pertaining. Perhaps when I have finished, you will think him not so much of a hero after all. But at all events you shall see how he is an honest upright gentleman, and in these times, perhaps such a character is preferable to a hero.
Old Marmaduke had been long failing, and two years after this he had taken to his bed, never to leave it again alive. And one day when the son and heir was rolling and crowing on his grandfather’s bed, and Agnes was sewing at the window, and James was tying a fly by the bedside, under the old man’s directions; he drew the child towards him, and beckoning Agnes from the window spoke thus:—
“My children, I shan’t be long with you, and I must be the last of the Buckleys that die at Clere. Nay, I mean it, James; listen carefully to me: when I go, the house and park must go with me. We are very poor as you well know, and you will be doing injustice to this boy if you hang on here in this useless tumble-down old palace, without money enough to keep up your position in the county. You are still young, and it would be hard for you to break up old associations. It got too hard for me lately, though at one time I meant to do it. The land and the house are the worst investment you can have for your money, and if you sell, a man like you may make money in many ways. Gordon the brewer is dying to have the place, and he has more right to it than we have, for he has ten acres round to our one. Let him have the estate and found a new family; the people will miss us at first, God bless ’em, but they’ll soon get used to Gordon, for he’s a kindly man, and a just, and I am glad that we shall have so good a successor. Remember your family and your ancestors, and for that reason don’t hang on here, as I said before, in the false position of an old county family without money, like the Singletons of Hurst, living in a ruined hall, with a miserable overcropped farm, a corner of the old deer park, under their drawing-room window. No, my boy, I would sooner see you take a farm from my lord, than that. And now I am tired with talking, and so leave me, but after I am gone, remember what I have said.”
A few days after this the old man passed peacefully from the world without a sigh.
They buried him in the family vault under the chancel windows. And he was the last of the Buckleys that slept in the grave of his forefathers. And the old arch beneath the east window is built up for ever.
Soon after he was gone, the Major, as I shall call him in future, sold the house and park, and the few farms that were left, and found himself with twelve thousand pounds, ready to begin the world again. He funded his money and made up his mind to wait a few years and see what to do; determining that if no other course should open, he would emigrate to Canada — the paradise of half-pay officers. But in the meantime he moved into Devonshire, and took a pretty little cottage which was to let, not a quarter of a mile from Drumston Vicarage.
Such an addition to John Thornton’s little circle of acquaintances was very welcome. The Major and he very soon became fast friends, and noble Mrs. Buckley was seldom a day without spending an hour at least, with the beautiful, wilful, Mary Thornton.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56