If you were a lazy yachtsman, sliding on a summer’s day, before a gentle easterly breeze, over the long swell from the Atlantic, past the south-westerly shores of the Bristol Channel, you would find, after sailing all day beneath shoreless headlands of black slate, that the land suddenly fell away and sunk down, leaving, instead of beetling cliffs, a lovely amphitheatre of hanging wood and lawn, fronted by a beach of yellow sand — a pleasing contrast to the white surf and dark crag to which your eye had got accustomed.
This beautiful semicircular basin is about two miles in diameter, surrounded by hills on all sides, save that which is open to the sea. East and west the headlands stretch out a mile or more, forming a fine bay open to the north; while behind, landward, the downs roll up above the woodlands, a bare expanse of grass and grey stone. Half way along the sandy beach, a trout-stream comes foaming out of a dark wood, and finds its way across the shore in fifty sparkling channels; and the eye, caught by the silver thread of water, is snatched away above and beyond it, along a wooded glen, the radle of the stream, which pierces the country landward for a mile or two, till the misty vista is abruptly barred by a steep blue hill, which crosses the valley at right angles. A pretty little village stands at the mouth of the stream, and straggles with charming irregularity along the shore for a considerable distance westward; while behind, some little distance up the glen, a handsome church tower rises from among the trees. There are some fishing boats at anchor, there are some small boats on the beach, there is a coasting schooner beached and discharging coal, there are some fishermen lounging, there are some nets drying, there are some boys bathing, there are two grooms exercising four handsome horses; but it is not upon horses, men, boats, ship, village, church, or stream, that you will find your eye resting, but upon a noble, turreted, deep-porched, grey stone mansion, that stands on the opposite side of the stream, about a hundred feet above the village.
On the east bank of the little river, just where it joins the sea, abrupt lawns of grass and fern, beautifully broken by groups of birch and oak, rise above the dark woodlands, at the culminating point of which, on a buttress which runs down from the higher hills behind, stands the house I speak of, the north front looking on the sea, and the west on the wooded glen before mentioned — the house on a ridge dividing the two. Immediately behind again the dark woodlands begin once more, and above them is the moor.
The house itself is of grey stone, built in the time of Henry VIII. The facade is exceedingly noble, though irregular; the most striking feature in the north or sea front being a large dark porch, open on three sides, forming the basement of a high stone tower, which occupies the centre of the building. At the northwest corner (that towards the village) rises another tower of equal height; and behind, above the irregular groups of chimneys, the more modern cupola of the stables shows itself as the highest point of all, and gives, combined with the other towers, a charming air of irregularity to the whole. The windows are mostly long, low, and heavily mullioned, and the walls are battlemented.
On approaching the house, you find that it is built very much after the fashion of a college, with a quadrangle in the centre. Two sides of this, the north and west, are occupied by the house, the south by the stables, and the east by a long and somewhat handsome chapel, of greater antiquity than the rest of the house. The centre of this quad, in place of the trim grass-plat, is occupied by a tan lunging ring, in the middle of which stands a granite basin filled with crystal water from the hills. In front of the west wing, a terraced flower-garden goes step by step towards the stream, till the smooth-shaven lawns almost mingle with the wild ferny heather turf of the park, where the dappled deer browse, and the rabbit runs to and fro busily. On the north, towards the sea, there are no gardens; but a noble gravel terrace, divided from the park only by a deep rampart, runs along beneath the windows; and to the ast the deer-park stretches away till lawn and glade are swallowed up in the encroaching woodland.
Such is Ravenshoe Hall at the present day, and such it was on the 10th of June, 1831 (I like to be particular), as regards the still life of the place; but, if one had then regarded the living inhabitants, one would have seen signs of an unusual agitation. Bound the kitchen door stood a group of female servants talking eagerly together; and, at the other side of the court, some half-dozen grooms and helpers were evidently busy on the same theme, till the appearance of the stud-groom entering the yard suddenly dispersed them right and left; to do nothing with superabundant energy.
To them also entered a lean, quiet-looking man, aged at this time fifty-two. We have seen him before. He was our old friend Jim, who had attended Densil in the Fleet prison in old times. He had some time before this married a beautiful Irish Catholic waiting-maid of Lady Alicia’s, by whom he had a daughter, now five years old, and a son aged one week. He walked across the yard to where the women were talking, and addressed them.
“How is my lady tonight?” said he.
“Holy Mother of God!” said a weeping Irish house-maid, “she’s worse.”
“How’s the young master?”
“Hearty, a darling; crying his little eyes out, he is, a-bless him.”
“He’ll be bigger than Master Cuthbert, I’ll warrant ye,” said a portly cook.
“When was he born?” asked James.
“Nigh on two hours,” said the other speaker.
At this conjuncture a groom came running through the passage, putting a note in his hat as he went; he came to the stud-groom, and said hurriedly, “A note for Dr. Marcy, at Lanceston, sir. What horse am I to take?”
“Trumpeter. How is my lady?”
“Going, as far as I can gather, sir.”
James waited until he’ heard him dash full speed out of the yard, and then till he saw him disappear like a speck along the mountain road far aloft; then he went into the house, and, getting as near to the sick room as he dared, waited quietly on the stairs.
It was a house of woe, indeed! Two hours before, one feeble, wailing little creature had taken up his burthen, and begun his weary pilgrimage across the unknown desolate land that lay between him and the grave — for a part of which you and I are to accompany him; while his mother even now was preparing for her rest, yet striving for the child’s sake to lengthen the last few weary steps of her journey, that they two might walk, were it never so short a distance, together.
The room was very still. Faintly the pure scents and sounds stole into the chamber of death from the blessed summer air without; gently came the murmur of the surf upon the sands; fainter and still fainter came the breath of the dying mother. The babe lay beside her nd her arm was round its body. The old vicar knelt by the bed, and Densil stood with folded arms and bowed head, watching the face which had grown so dear to him, till the light should die out from it for ever. Only those four in the chamber of death!
The sighing grew louder, and the eye grew once more animated. She reached out her hand, and, taking one of the vicar’s, laid it upon the baby’s head. Then she looked at Densil, who was now leaning over her, and with a great effort spoke.
“Densil, dear, you will remember your promise?”
“I will swear it, my love.”
A few more laboured sighs, and a greater effort: “Swear it to me, love.”
He swore that he would respect the promise he had made, so help him God!
The eyes were fixed now, and all was still. Then there was a long sigh; then there was a long silence; then the vicar rose from his knees and looked at Densil. There were but three in the chamber now.
Densil passed through the weeping women, and went straight to his own study. There he sat down, tearless, musing much about her who was gone.
How he had grown to love that woman, he thought — her that he had married for her beauty and her pride, and had thought so cold and hard! He remembered how the love of her had grown stronger, year by year, since their first child was born. How he had respected her or her firmness and consistency; and how often, he thought, had he sheltered his weakness behind her strength! His right hand was gone, and he was left alone to do battle by himself!
One thing was certain. Happen what would, his promise should be respected, and this last boy, just born, should be brought up a Protestant as his mother had wished. He knew the opposition he would have from Father Mackworth, and determined to brave it. And, as the name of that man came into his mind, some of his old fierce, savage nature broke out again, and he almost cursed him aloud.
“I hate that fellow! I should like to defy him, and let him do his worst, I’d do it, now she’s gone, if it wasn’t for the boys. No, hang it, it wouldn’t do. If I’d told him under seal of confession, instead of letting him grub it out, he couldn’t have hung it over me like this. I wish he was — ”
If Father Mackworth had had the slightest inkling of the state of mind of his worthy patron towards him, it is very certain that he would not have chosen that very moment to rap at the door. The most acute of us make a mistake sometimes; and he, haunted with vague suspicions since the conversation he had overheard in the drawingroom before the birth of Cuthbert, grew impatient, and determined to solve his doubts at once, and, as we have seen, selected the singularly happy moment when poor passionate Densil was cursing him to his heart’s content.
“Brother, I am come to comfort you,” he said, opening the door before Densil had time, either to finish the sentence written above, or to say “Come in.” “This is a heavy affliction, and the heavier because — ”
“Go away,” said Densil, pointing to the door.
“Nay, nay,” said the priest, “hear me — ”
“Go away,” said Densil, in a louder tone. “Do you hear me? I want to be alone, and I mean to be. Go!”
How recklessly defiant weak men get when they are once fairly in a rage! Densil, who was in general civilly afraid of this man, would have defied fifty such as he now.
“There is one thing, Mr. Ravenshoe,” said the priest, in a very different tone, “about which I feel it my duty to speak to you, in spite of the somewhat unreasonable form your grief has assumed. I wish to know what you mean to call your son.”
“Because he is ailing, and I wish to baptise him.”
“You will do nothing of the kind, sir,” said Densil, as red as a turkey-cock. “He will be baptised in proper time in the parish church. He is to be brought up a Protestant.”
The priest looked steadily at Densil, who, now brought fairly to bay, was bent on behaving like a valiant man, and said slowly —
“So my suspicions are confirmed, then, and you have determined to hand over your son to eternal perdition ”
(he didn’t say perdition, he used a stronger word, which we will dispense with, if you have no objection).
“Perdition, sir?” bawled Densil; “how dare you talk of a son of mine in that free-and-easy sort of way? Why, what my family has done for the Church ought to keep a dozen generations of Ravenshoes from a possibility of perdition, sir. Don’t tell me.”
This new and astounding theory of justification by works, which poor Densil had broached in his wrath, was overheard by a round-faced, bright-eyed, curly-headed man about fifty, who entered the room suddenly, followed by James. For one instant you might have seen a smile of intense amusement pass over his merry face; but in an instant it was gone again, and he gravely addressed Densil.
“My dear Mr. Ravenshoe, I must use my authority as doctor, to request that your son’s spiritual welfare should for the present yield to his temporal necessities. You must have a wet-nurse, my good sir.”
Densil’s brow had grown placid in a moment beneath the doctor’s kindly glance. “God bless me,” he said, “I never thought of it. Poor little lad! poor little lad!”
“I hope, sir,” said James, “that you will let Norah have the young master. She has set her heart upon it”
“I have seen Mrs. Horton,” said the doctor, “and I quite approve of the proposal. I think it, indeed, a most special providence that she should be able to undertake it. Had it been otherwise, we might have been undone.”
“Let us go at once,” said the impetuous Densil. ‘ Where is the nurse? where is the hoy 1 “And, so saying, he hurried out of the room, followed by the doctor and James.
Mackworth stood alone, looking out of the window, silent. He stood so long that one who watched him peered from his hiding-place more than once to see if he were gone. At length he raised his arm and struck his clenched hand against the rough granite window-sill so hard that he brought blood. Then he moodily left the room.
As soon as the room was quiet, a child about five years old crept stealthily from a dark corner where he had laid hidden, and with a look of mingled shyness and curiosity on Iris face, departed quietly by another door.
Meanwhile, Densil, James, and the doctor, accompanied by the nurse and baby, were holding their way across the courtyard towards a cottage which lay in the wood beyond the stables. James opened the door, and they passed into the inner room.
A beautiful woman was sitting propped up by pillows, nursing a week-old child. The sunlight, admitted by a half-open shutter, fell upon her, lighting up her delicate features, her pale pure complexion, and bringing a strange sheen on her long loose black hair. Her face was bent down gazing on the child which lay on her breast, and at the entrance of the party she looked up, and displayed a large lustrous dark blue eye, which lighted up with nfinite tenderness as Densil, taking the wailing boy from the nurse, placed it on her arm beside the other.
“Take care of that for me, Norah,” said Densil. “It has no mother but you, now.”
“Acushla ma chree,” she answered, “bless my little bird. Come to your nest, alanna, come to your pretty brother, my darlin’.”
The child’s wailing was stilled now, and the doctor remarked, and remembered long afterwards, that the little waxen fingers, clutching uneasily about, came in contact with the little hand of the other child, and paused there. At this moment, a beautiful little girl, about five years old, got on the bed, and nestled her peachy cheek against her mother’s. As they went out, he turned and looked at the beautiful group once more, and then he followed Densil back to the house of mourning.
Reader, before we have done with those three innocent little faces, we shall see them distorted and changed by many passions, and shall meet them in many strange places. Come, take my hand, and we will follow them on to the end.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56