I HAD intended to have gone into a family history of the Ravenshoes, from the time of Canute to that of her present Majesty, following it down through every change and revolution, both secular and religious; which would have been deeply interesting, but which would have taken more hard reading than one cares to undertake for nothing. I had meant, I say, to have been quite diffuse on the annals of one of our oldest commoner families; but, on going into the subject, I found I must either chronicle little affairs which ought to have been forgotten long ago, or do my work in a very patchy and inefficient way. When I say that the Ravenshoes have been engaged in every plot, rebellion, and civil war, from about a century or so before the Conquest to 1745, and that the history of the house is marked by cruelty and rapacity in old times, and in those more modern by political tergiversation of the blackest dye, the reader will understand why I hesitate to say too much in reference to a name which I especially honour. In order, however, that I may give some idea of what the hereditary character of the family is, I must just lead the reader’s eye lightly over some of the principal events of their history.
The great Irish families have, as is well known, a banshee, or familiar spirit, who, previous to misfortune or death, flits moaning round the ancestral castle. Now although the Ravenshoes, like all respectable houses, have an hereditary lawsuit; a feud, (with the Humbys, of Hele); a ghost (which the present Ravenshoe claims to have repeatedly seen in early youth); and a buried treasure: yet I have never heard that they had a banshee. Had such been the case, that unfortunate spirit would have had no sinecure of it, but rather must have kept howling night and day for nine hundred years or so, in order to have got through her work at all. For the Ravenshoes were almost always in trouble, and yet had a facility of getting out again, which, to one not aware of the cause, was sufficiently inexplicable. Like the Stuarts, they had always taken the losing side, and yet, unlike the Stuarts, have always kept their heads on their shoulders, and their house over their heads. Lady Ascot says that, if Ambrose Ravenshoe had been attainted in 1745, he’d have been hung as sure as fate: there was evidence enough against him to hang a dozen men. I myself, too, have heard Squire Densil declare, with great pride, that the Ravenshoe of King John’s time was the only Baron who did not sign Magna Charta; and, if there were a Ravenshoe at Runnymede, I have not the slightest doubt that such was the case. Through the Rose wars, again, they were always on the wrong side, whichever that might have been, because your Ravenshoe, mind you, was not bound to either side in those times, but changed as he fancied fortune was going. As your Ravenshoe was the sort of man who generally joined a party just when their success was indubitable — that is to say, just when the reaction against them was about to set in — he generally found himself among the party which was going down hill, who despised him for not joining them before, and opposed to the rising party, who hated him because he had declared against them. Which little game is common enough in this present century among some men of the world, who seem, as a general rule, to make as little by it as ever did the Ravenshoes.
Well, whatever your trimmers make by their motion now-a-days, the Ravenshoes were not successful either at liberal conservatism, or conservative liberalism. At the end of the reign of Henry VII. they were as poor as Job, or poorer. But, before you have time to think of it, behold, in 1530, there comes you to court a Sir Alured Ravenshoe, who incontinently begins cutting in at the top of the tune, swaggering, swearing, dressing, fighting, dicing, and all that sort of thing, and, what is more, paying his way in a manner which suggests successful burglary as the only solution. Sir Alured, however, as I find, had done no worse than marry an old maid (Miss Hincksey, one of the Staffordshire Hinckseys) with a splendid fortune; which fortune set the family on its legs again for some generations. This Sir Alured seems to have been an audacious rogue. He made great interest with the king, who was so far pleased with his activity in athletic sports that he gave him a post in Ireland. There our Ravenshoe was so fascinated by the charming manners of the Earl of Kildare that he even accompanied that nobleman on a visit to Desmond; and, after a twelvemonth’s unauthorized residence in the interior of Ireland, on his return to England he was put into the Tower for six months to “consider himself.”
This Alured seems to have been a deuce of a fellow, a very good type of the family. When British Harry had that difference we wot of with the Bishop of Rome, I find Alured to have been engaged in some five or six Romish plots, such as, had the king been in possession of facts, would have consigned him to a rather speedy execution. However, the king seems to have looked on this gentleman with a suspicious eye, and to have been pretty well aware what sort of man he was, for I find him writing to his wife, on the occasion of his going to Court — “The King’s Grace looked but sourly upon me, and said it should go hard, but that the pitcher which went so oft to the well should be broke at last. Thereto I making answer, ‘that that should depend on the pitcher, whether it were iron or clomb,’ he turned on his heel, and presently departed from me.”
He must have been possessed of his full share of family audacity to sharpen his wits on the terrible Harry, with such an unpardonable amount of treason hanging over him. I have dwelt thus long on him, as he seems to have possessed a fair share of the virtues and vices of his family — a family always generous and brave, yet always led astray by bad advisers. This Alured built Ravenshoe House, as it stands to this day, and in which much of the scene of this story is laid.
They seem to have got through the Gunpowder Plot pretty well, though I can show you the closet where one of the minor conspirators, one Watson, lay perdu for a week or so after that gallant attempt, more I suspect from the effect of a guilty conscience than any thing else, for I never heard of any distinct charge being brought against him. The Forty-five, however, did not pass quite so easily, and Ambrose Ravenshoe went as near to lose his head as any one of the family since the Conquest. When the news came from the north about the alarming advance of the Highlanders, it immediately struck Ambrose that this was the best opportunity for making a fool of himself that could possibly occur. He accordingly, without hesitation or consultation with any mortal soul, rang the bell for his butler, sent for his stud-groom, mounted every man about the place (twenty or so), armed them, grooms, gardeners, and all, with crossbows and partizans from he armoury, and rode into the cross, at Stonnington, on a market day, and boldly proclaimed the Pretender king. It soon got about that “the Squire ” was making a fool of himself, and that there was some fun going; so he shortly found himself surrounded by a large and somewhat dirty rabble, who, with cries of “Well done, old rebel!” and “Hurrah for the Pope!” escorted him, his terror-stricken butler and his shame-stricken grooms, to the Crown and Sceptre. As good luck would have it, there happened to be in the town that day no less a person than Lord Segur, the leading Roman Catholic nobleman of the county. He, accompanied by several of the leading gentlemen of the same persuasion, burst into the room where the Squire sat, overpowered him, and, putting him bound into a coach, carried him off to Segur Castle, and locked him up. It took all the strength of the Popish party to save him from attainder. The Church rallied right bravely round the old house, which had always assisted her with sword and purse, and never once had wavered in its allegiance. So, while nobler heads went down, Ambrose Ravenshoe’s remained on his shoulders.
Ambrose died in 1759.
John (Monseigneur) in 1771.
Howard in 1800. He first took the Claycomb hounds.
Petre in 1820. He married Alicia, only daughter of Charles, third Earl of Ascot, and was succeeded by Densil, the first of our dramatis personae — the first of all this shadowy line that we shall see in the flesh. He was born in the year 1783, and married, first in 1812, at his father’s desire, a Miss Winkleigh, of whom I know nothing; and second, at his own desire, in 1823, Susan, fourth daughter of Lawrence Petersham, Esq., of Fairford Grange, county Worcester, by whom he had issue —
Cuthbert, born 1826.
Charles, born 1831.
Densil was an only son. His father, a handsome, careless, good-humoured, but weak and superstitious man, was entirely in the hands of the priests, who during his life were undisputed masters of Ravenshoe. Lady Alicia was, as I have said, a daughter of Lord Ascot, a Staunton, as staunchly Protestant a house as any in England. She, however, managed to fall in love with the handsome young Popish Squire, and to elope with him, changing not only her name, but, to the dismay of her family, her faith also, and becoming, pervert-like, more actively bigoted than her easy-going husband. She brought little or no money into the family; and, from her portrait, appears to have been exceedingly pretty, and monstrously silly.
To this strong-minded couple was born, two years after their marriage, a son, who was called Densil.
This young gentleman seems to have got on much like other young gentlemen till the age of twenty-one, when it was determined by the higher powers in conclave assembled that he should go to London and see the world; and so, having been cautioned duly how to avoid the flesh and the devil, to see the world he went. In a short time intelligence came to the confessor of the family, and through him to the father and mother, that Densil was seeing the world with a vengeance; that he was the constant companion of the Right Honourable Viscount Saltire, the great dandy of the Radical Atheist set, with whom no man might play picquet and live; that he had been upset in a tilbury with Mademoiselle Vaurien of Drury-lane at Kensington turnpike; that he had fought the French emigre, a Comte De Hautenbas, apropos of the Vaurien aforementioned — in short, that he was going on at a deuce of a rate: and so a hurried council was called to deliberate what was to be done.
“He will lose his immortal soul,” said the priest.
“He will dissipate his property,” said his mother.
“He will go to the devil,” said his father.
So Father Clifford, good man, was despatched to London, with post horses, and ordered to bring back the lost sheep vi et armis. Accordingly, at ten o’clock one night, Densil’s lad was astounded by having to admit Father Clifford, who demanded immediately to be led to his master.
Now this was awkward, for James well knew what was going on upstairs; but he knew also what would happen sooner or later to a Ravenshoe servant who trifled with the priest, and so he led the way.
The lost sheep which the good father had come to ind was not exactly sober this evening, and certainly not in a very good temper. He was playing ecarte with a singularly handsome, though supercilious-looking man, dressed in the height of fashion, who, judging from the heap of gold beside him, had been winning heavily. The priest trembled and crossed himself — this man was the terrible, handsome, wicked, witty, Atheistical, radical Lord Saltire, whose tongue no woman could withstand, and whose pistol no man dared face; who was currently believed to have sold himself to the deuce, or, indeed, as some said, to be the deuce himself.
A more cunning man than poor simple Father Clifford would have made some commonplace remark and withdrawn, after a short greeting, taking warning by the impatient scowl that settled on Densil’s handsome face, Not so he. To be defied by the boy whose law had been his word for ten years past never entered into his head, and he sternly advanced towards the pair.
Densil inquired if anything were the matter at home. And Lord Saltire, anticipating a scene, threw himself back in his chair, stretched out his elegant legs, and looked on with the air of a man who knows he is going to be amused, and composes himself thoroughly to appreciate the entertainment.
“Thus much, my son,” said the priest; “your mother is wearing out the stones of the oratory with her knees, praying for her first-born, while he is wasting his substance, and perilling his soul, with debauched atheistic companions, the enemies of God and man.”
Lord Saltire smiled sweetly, bowed elegantly, and took snuff.
“Why do you intrude into my room and insult my guests?” said Densil, casting an angry glance at the priest, who stood calmly like a black pillar, with his hands folded before him. “It is unendurable.”
“Quern Deus vult” &c. Father Clifford had seen that scowl once or twice before, but he would not take warning. He said —
“I am ordered not to go westward without you. I command you to come.”
“Command me! command a Ravenshoe!” said Densil, furiously.
Father Clifford, by way of mending matters, now began to lose his temper.
“You would not be the first Ravenshoe who has been commanded by a priest; ay, and has had to obey too,” said he.
“And you will not be the first jack-priest who has felt the weight of a Ravenshoe’s wrath,” replied Densil, brutally.
Lord Saltire leant back, and said to the ambient air, “I’ll back the priest, five twenties to one.”
This was too much. Densil would have liked to quarrel with Saltire, but that was death — he was the deadest shot in Europe. He grew furious, and beyond all control. He told the priest to go to (further than purgatory); grew blasphemous, emphatically renouncing the creed of his forefathers, and, in fact, all other reeds. The priest grew hot and furious too, retaliated in no measured terms, and finally left the room with his ears stopped, shaking the dust off his feet as he went. Then Lord Saltire drew up to the table again, laughing.
“Your estates are entailed, Ravenshoe, I suppose?” said he.
“Oh! It’s your deal, my dear fellow.”
Densil got an angry letter from his father in a few days, demanding full apologies and recantations, and an immediate return home. Densil had no apologies to make, and did not intend to return till the end of the season. His father wrote, declining the honour of his further acquaintance, and sending him a draft for fifty pounds to pay his outstanding bills, which he very well knew amounted to several thousands. In a short time the great Catholic tradesmen, with whom he had been dealing, began to press for money in a somewhat insolent way; and now Densil began to see that, by defying and insulting the faith and the party to which he belonged, he had merely cut himself off from rank, wealth, and position. He had defied the partie pretre, and had yet to feel their power. In two months he wain the Fleet prison.
His servant (the title “tiger” came in long after this), a half groom, half valet, such as men kept in those days — a simple lad from Ravenshoe, James Horton by name — for the first time in his life disobeyed orders; or, on being told to return home by Densil, he firmly declined doing so, and carried his top boots and white neckcloth triumphantly into the Fleet, there pursuing his usual avocations with the utmost nonchalance.
“A very distinguished fellow that of yours, Curly ” (they all had nicknames for one another in those days), said Lord Saltire. “If I were not Saltire, I think I would be Jim. To own the only clean face among six hundred fellow-creatures is a preeminence, a decided preeminence. I’ll buy him of you.”
For Lord Saltire came to see him, snuff-box and all. That morning Densil was sitting brooding in the dirty room with the barred windows, and thinking what a wild free wind would be sweeping across the Downs this fine November day, when the door was opened, and in walks me my lord, with a sweet smile on his face.
He was dressed in the extreme of fashion — a long-tailed blue coat with gold buttons, a frill to his shirt, a white cravat, a wonderful short waistcoat, loose short nankeen trousers, low shoes, no gaiters, and a low-crowned hat. I am pretty correct, for I have seen his picture, dated 1804?. But you must please to remember that his lordship was in the very van of the fashion, and that probably such a dress was not universal for two or three years afterwards. I wonder if his well-known audacity would be sufficient to make him walk along one of the public thoroughfares in such a dress, tomorrow, for a heavy bet — I fancy not.
He smiled sardonically — “My dear fellow,” he said, “when a man comes on a visit of condolence, I know it is the most wretched taste to say, ‘I told you so;' but do me the justice to allow that I offered to back the priest five to one. I had been coming to you all the week, but Tuesday and Wednesday I was at Newmarket; Thursday I was shooting at your cousin Ascot’s; yesterday I did not care about boring myself with you; so I have come today because I was at leisure and had nothing better to do.”
Densil looked up savagely, thinking he had come to insult him; but the kindly compassionate look in the piercing grey eye belied the cynical curl of the mouth, and disarmed him. He leant his head upon the table, and sobbed.
Lord Saltire laid his hand kindly on his shoulder, and said —
“You have been a fool, Ravenshoe; you have denied the faith of your forefathers. Pardieu, if I had such an article, I would not have thrown it so lightly away.”
“You talk like this? Who next? It was your conversation led me to it. Am I worse than you? What faith have you, in God’s name?”
“The faith of a French Lycee, my friend; the only one I ever had. I have been sufficiently consistent to that, I think.”
“Consistent, indeed,” groaned poor Densil.
“Now, look here,” said Saltire; “I may have been to blame in this. But I give you my honour,
I had no more idea that you would be obstinate enough to bring matters to this pass, than I had that you would burn down Ravenshoe House because I laughed at it for being old-fashioned. Go home, my poor little Catholic pipkin, and don’t try to swim with iron pots like Wrekin and me. Make submission to that singularly distingue-looking old turkey-cock of a priest, kiss your mother, and get your usual autumn’s hunting and shooting.”
“Too late! too late, now!” sobbed Densil.
“Not at all, my dear fellow,” said Saltire, taking a pinch of snuff; “the partridges will be a little wild of course — that you must expect; but you ought to get some very pretty pheasant and cock-shooting. Come, say yes. Have your debts paid, and get out of this infernal hole. A week of this would tame the devil, I should think.”
“If you think you could do anything for me, Saltire.”
Lord Saltire immediately retired, and reappeared, leading in a lady by her hand. She raised the veil from her head, and he saw his mother. In a moment she was crying on his neck; and, as he looked over her shoulder, he saw a blue coat passing out of the door, and that was the last of Lord Saltire for the present.
It was no part of the game of the priests to give Densil a cold welcome home. Twenty smiling faces were grouped in the porch to welcome him back; and among them all none smiled more brightly than the old priest and his father. The dogs went wild with joy, and is favourite peregrine scolded on the falconer’s wrist, and struggled with her jesses, shrilly reminding him of the merry old days by the dreary salt marsh, or the lonely lake.
The past was never once alluded to in any way by any one in the house. Only Squire Petre shook hands with faithful James, and gave him a watch, ordering him to ride a certain colt next day, and see how well forward he could get him. So next day they drew the home covers, and the fox, brave fellow, ran out to Parkside, making for the granite walls of Hessitor. And, when Densil felt his nostrils filled once more by the free rushing mountain air, he shouted aloud for joy, and James’s voice along side of him said —
“This is better than the Fleet, sir.”
And so Densil played a single-wicket match with the Holy Church, and, like a great many other people, got bowled out in the first innings. He returned to his allegiance in the most exemplary manner, and settled down into the most humdrum of young country gentlemen. He did exactly what every one else about him did. He was not naturally a profligate or vicious man; but there was a wild devil of animal passion in him, which had broken out in London, and which was now quieted by dread of consequences, but which he felt and knew was there, and might break out again. He was a changed man. There was a gulf between him and the life he had led before he went to London. He had tasted of liberty (or rather, not to profane that Divine ord, of licentiousness), and yet not drunk long enough to make him weary of the draught. He had heard the dogmas he was brought up to believe infallible turned to unutterable ridicule by men like Saltire and Wrekin; men who, as he had the wit to see, were a thousand times cleverer and better informed than Father Clifford or Father Dennis. In short, he had found out, as a great many others have, that Popery won’t hold water, and so, as a pis alter, he adopted Saltire’s creed — that religion was necessary for the government of States, that one religion was as good as another, and that, ceteris paribus, the best religion was the one which secured the possessor £10,000 a year; and therefore Densil was a devout Catholic.
It was thought by the allied powers that he ought to marry. He had no objection, and so he married a young lady, a Miss Winkleigh — Catholic, of course — about whom I can get no information whatever. Lady Ascot says that she was a pale girl, with about as much air as a milkmaid; on which two facts I can build no theory as to her personal character. She died in 1816, childless; and in 1820 Densil lost both his father and mother, and found himself, at the age of thirty-seven, master of Ravenshoe, and master of himself.
He felt the loss of the old folks most keenly, more keenly than that of his wife. He seemed without a stay or holdfast in the world, for he was a poorly-educated man, without resources; and so he went on moping and brooding until good old Father Clifford, who loved him early, got alarmed, and recommended travels. He recommended Rome, the cradle of the faith, and to Rome he went.
He stayed in Rome a year; at the end of which time he appeared suddenly at home with a beautiful young wife on his arm. As Father Clifford, trembling and astonished, advanced to lay his hand upon her head, she drew up, laughed, and said, “Spare yourself the trouble, my dear sir; I am a Protestant.”
I have had to tell you all this, in order to show you how it came about that Densil, though a Papist, bethought of marrying a Protestant wife to keep up a balance of power in his house. For, if he had not married this lady, the hero of this book would never have been born; and this greater proposition contains the less, “that, if he had never been born, his history would never have been written, and so this book would have had no existence.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10