Chapter I

Rolf Boldrewood

‘THEN, by Heaven! I’ll leave the country. I won’t stop here to be bullied for doing what scores of other fellows have done and nothing thought about it. It’s unjust, it’s intolerable—‘

Thus spoke impetuous Youth.

‘I should say something would depend upon the family tradition of the “other fellows” to whom you refer. In ours gambling debts and shady transactions with turf-robbers happen to be forbidden luxuries.’

Thus spoke philosophic Age, calm, cynical, unsparing.

No power of divination was needed to decide that the speakers were father and son; no prophet to discover, on one side, sullen defiance following a course of reckless folly; on the other, wounded family pride and long-nursed consuming wrath.

As the rebellious son stood up and faced his sire, it was curious to mark the similarity of the inherited lineaments brought out more clearly in his moments of rage and defiance.

Both men were strong and sinewy, dark in complexion, and bearing the ineffaceable impress of gentle nurture, leisure, and assured position. The younger man was the taller, and of a frame which, when fully developed, promised unusual strength and activity. More often than the converse, does it obtain that the son, in outward appearance or mental constitution, reproduces his mother’s attributes or those of her male relatives; the daughter, in complemental ratio, inheriting the paternal traits. But in this case Nature had strongly adhered to the old-established formula ‘like father like son,’ for whoso looked on Mervyn Trevanion, of Wychwood—the head of one of the oldest families in Cornwall—could not doubt for one moment that Launcelot Trevanion was his son.

If all other features had been amissing or impaired, the eyes alone, which contributed the most striking and peculiar features in both faces, would have been sufficient to establish the relationship, not only because they were, in both faces, identical in colour and form, but because of the strange, almost unnatural lustre which glowed in them in that moment of excitement; neither large nor especially bright, they were scarcely remarkable under ordinary circumstances—of the darkest gray in colour and deeply-set under thick and overhanging eyebrows. A stranger might well overlook them, but, when turned suddenly in anger or surprise, a steady searching light commenced to glow in them which was discomposing, if not alarming. Even in a quick glance such as mere badinage might provoke, they were strange and weird of regard. Lighted up by the deeper passions, those who had been in the position to witness their effect spoke of it as unearthly and, in a sense, appalling.

In the family portraits, which for centuries had adorned the walls of the long gallery in Wychwood, the same feature could be distinctly traced. There was a legend, indeed, of the ‘wicked’ squire—one of the hard-drinking, duelling, dicing, dare-devils of the second Charles’ day—who had so terrified his young wife—a gentle girl whose wealth had been the fatal attraction in the alliance—that she had fallen down before him in a fit, and never afterwards recovered health or reason.

All through Cornwall and the neighbouring counties they were known as the ‘Trevanion eyes.’ There was a hint of demoniacal possession in the first ancestor, who had brought them into the family from abroad, and a legendary compact with the Enemy of mankind, from whom the fiendish glare had been derived. Since the birth of the first Mervyn, ‘the wicked squire,’ the eldest son had inherited the same peculiar regard as regularly as to him had come the estate and most enviable rent-roll.

A saying had long been current among the county people that when the lands went to a younger son, this remarkable and, as they held, unlucky feature would be removed from the family of Trevanion as suddenly as it had entered it. But up to this time, no break in the succession, de male en male, had ever occurred.

Launcelot Trevanion (mostly called Lance) was the eldest son of this ancient house. There were two younger boys—Arthur and Penrhyn—respectively fourteen and twelve years old; but a cousin, early orphaned, was the only girl in that silent and gloomy hall. Her beauty—she was the fairest flower of a race of which the women were proverbially lovely—irradiated Wychwood Hall, while her enforced gaiety charmed the saturnine Sir Mervyn out of many a fit of his habitual gloom. With the neighbours, the villagers, the friends of the house, she enjoyed a popularity as universal as unaffected, and not unfrequently had the remark been made by individuals of all these sections of provincial society, that Estelle Chaloner had, in a measure, thrown herself away, as the phrase runs, by betrothing herself to her wild cousin Lance; that she was too bright and bonnie a creature to become the mate of any Trevanion of Wychwood—hard, unyielding, and, in some sense, ill-fated as they had all been since the days of the first Sir Launcelot, no one knew how many centuries ago.

Certainly they had not been a fortunate or a prosperous family. Possessed originally of immense estates, and boasting an ancestry and military suzerainté—long anterior to the Conquest—undeniably brave, chivalrous, and daring to the point of desperation, they had uniformly espoused the wrong side in every important conflict. They had suffered from attainder, they had regained their lands only to lose them again. Bit by bit they had lost one fair manor after another, until, at last, Wychwood Hall and manor, a fine but heavily-mortgaged estate, were all that remained out of the vast dominion which stretched, according to time-worn charters still in the muniment room of the Hall, from Tintagel to the Devonshire border.

Estelle Chaloner, in whose veins ran several strains of Trevanion blood, had a character curiously compounded of the qualities of both families; outwardly resembling the Chaloners, who were a fair, blue-eyed race, more conspicuous for the grace and charm of social life than for the sterner traits, she possessed, unsuspectedly, a large infusion of the ancestral Trevanion nature.

In early youth those strongest tendencies and proclivities which come by inheritance are chiefly latent Like the seedlings of a tropical forest they remain for years almost hidden by undergrowth. But when successive summers have stirred sap and rind, the deeply-rooted scions commence to assert themselves, towering over, and eventually, it may be, dwarfing the plants of earlier maturity.

Estelle and her cousin Lance had been playmates and friends since earliest infancy. There were but three years between them; like twins they had grown up with a curious similarity of thought and feeling, though of strongly contrasted temperaments. Then the divergent stage was reached when the girl begins to tread the path which leads to the goal of womanhood, when the boy essays the freedom of speech and act which mould the future man.

She was so gentle, he so haughty, yet were they alike in fearlessness, in love of dogs and horses, in passionate attachment to field-sports and the teachings of animated nature. Wanderers in the summer woods, fishing in the brook, climbing the old tower of the ruined church, what an Eden-like season of unstinted freedom was that of their early youth! It was a sorrowful day for both when Lance was sent to a public school and Estelle was relegated to a prim, high-salaried governess who stigmatised nearly all out-door exercise as unladylike, and forbade field-sports as being destructive to the hope of mental progress.

But though separated for the greater part of the year, there were still the precious vacation intervals when the cousins met and wandered in untrammelled freedom. Thus they rode and rambled, drove the young horses in the mail-phaeton to Truro—the market town—fished and hunted, shot and ferreted, she walking with the guns, none caring to make them afraid.

It had chanced in the year preceding Lance’s unlucky quarrel with his father that they told each other of the love which had grown up with their lives, and which was to make a portion of them for evermore.

And now this rupture between the stern father and the stubborn son threatened the wreck of her young life’s happiness. She had repeatedly warned Lance of the imprudence of his conduct, and laid before him the danger which he was too headstrong and reckless to forecast for himself; had long since reminded him that of all youthful follies and outbreaks, for some unexplained reason, his father was especially intolerant of those connected with the turf. The very mention of a racecourse seemed sufficient to arouse a paroxysm of rage. Why he was thus affected by the concomitants of a popular sport which country gentlemen, as a rule, regard in the light of a pardonable relaxation, was not known to any of his household. Sir Mervyn was not so strait-laced in other matters as to make it incumbent upon him to frown down horse-racing for the sake of consistency. Still the fact remained. Any hint of race-meetings by Lance was viewed with the utmost disfavour. No animal suspected of a turn of speed was ever permitted lodgings in the Wychwood stables, spacious as they were. And now the sudden bringing to light of Lance’s serious loss of money by bets at a recent county meeting, with moreover a proved part-ownership of the unsuccessful quadruped, had raised to white heat his sire’s slow gathering, yet slower subsiding anger. Thus it came to pass that after one other stormy interview in which the elder man had heaped reproaches without stint upon the younger, the son had declared his resolution of ‘quitting England, and taking his chance of a livelihood in some country where he would at least be free from the galling interference of an unreasonably severe father, who had never loved him, and who refused him the ordinary indulgence of his youth and station.’

‘In the extremely improbable event of your quitting a comfortable home for a life of labour and privation,’ the elder man said slowly and deliberately, ‘I beg you distinctly to understand that I shall make you no allowance, nor even suffer your cousin to do so, should she be weak enough to wish it, and you sufficiently mean to accept it. Sink or swim by your own efforts. I shall never hold out a hand to save you.’

Then the son gazed at the sire, looking him full and steadfastly in the face for some seconds before he answered. Had there been a painter to witness the strange and unnatural scene, he might have noted that the light which blazed in the old man’s eyes shot forth at times an almost lurid gleam, as from a hidden fire, while the youth’s regard was scarcely less fell in its intensity.

‘It is possible, even probable,’ he said, ‘that we may never meet again on earth. You have been hard and cruel to me, but I am not wholly unmindful of our relationship. Careless and extravagant I may have been—neither worse nor better than hundreds of men of my age and breeding, and may well have angered you. I had resolved, partly persuaded by Estelle, to humble myself and ask your pardon. That state of mind has passed—passed for ever. I shall leave Wychwood to-morrow, and if anything happens to me in Australia, where I am going, remember this—if evil comes to me, on your head be it with my last words, in my dying hour, I shall curse and renounce you, as I do now.’

As the boy spoke the last dreadful words, the older man, transported almost beyond himself, made as though he could have advanced and struck him. But with a strong effort he restrained himself.

The younger never relaxed the intensity of his gaze, but with a slow and measured movement approached the door, then halting for a moment said—‘Enjoy your triumph to the uttermost—think of me homeless and a wanderer if it pleases you. But as repentant or forgiving, never—neither in this world nor the next.’

Before the last words were concluded, Sir Mervyn turned his face with studied indifference to the window, and gazed upon the park, over which the last rays of the autumnal sun cast a crimson radiance. For a few moments only the solar beams glowed above the horizon; the landscape with strange suddenness assumed a pale, even sombre tone. A faint chill wind rustled the leaves of the great lime-tree, which stood on the edge of the lawn, and caused a few of the leaves to fall. When the squire looked around, Launcelot Trevanion was gone. He turned again to the window; mechanically his eye ranged over the lovely landscape, the far-stretching champaign of the park—one of the largest in the county, the winding river, the blue hills, the distant sea.

‘What a madman the boy is,’ he groaned out, to leave all this for a few hot words—and I too! Who is the wiser? I wonder. Will he be mad enough to keep his word? He is a stubborn colt—a true descendant of old Launcelot the wizard. If he fails to gather gold, as these fools expect, a voyage and a year’s experience of what poverty and a rough life mean will be no bad teaching.’

‘For what is anger but a wild beast?’ quotes the humorist. How many a man has, to his cost, been assured of this fact by personal experience. A wild beast truly, which tears and rends those whom nature itself fashions to be cherished.

With most men, reason resumes her sway, after a temporary dethronement, when regret, even remorse, appears on the scene. The consequences cf the violence of act or speech into which the choleric man may have been hurried, stalk solemnly across the mental stage. Were but recantation, atonement, possible, forgiveness would be gladly sued for. But in how many instances is it too late? The sin is sinned. The penalty must be paid. Pride, dumb and unbending, refuses to acknowledge wrong-doing, and thus hearts are rent, friends divided, lifelong misery and ruin ensured, oftentimes by the act of those who, in a different position, would have yielded up life itself in defence of the victim of an angry mood.

It was not long before the inhabitants of Truro, and, indeed, the country generally, were fully aware that there had been a violent quarrel between Sir Mervyn and his eldest son.

‘The family temper again,’ said the village wiseacres, as they smoked their pipes at night at the ‘King Arthur,’ ‘the squire and the young master are a dashed sight too near alike to get on peaceably together. But they’ll make it up again, the quality makes up everything nowadays.’

‘Blamed if I know,’ answered Mark Hardred, the gamekeeper of Wychwood, who, though not a regular attendant at the ‘King Arthur,’ thought it good policy to put in an appearance there now and then, ‘there’s a many of ’em like our people, just as dogged and worse, I’m feared Mr. Lance won’t come back in a hurry, more’s the pity.’

‘He’s a free-handed young chap as ever I see,’ quoth the village rough-rider, ‘it’s a pity the old squire don’t take a bit slacker on the curb rein, as to the matter of a bet now and then, all youngsters as has any spirit in ’em tries their luck on the turf. But he’ll come back surely, sure-ly.’

’He said straight out to the squire as he’d be off to Australia, where the goldfields has broke out so ’nation rich, along o’ the papers, and it’s my opinion to Australia he’ll go,’ replied the keeper. ‘I never knew him go back of his word. He’s main obstinate.’

‘I can’t abear folks as is obstinate,’ here interpolated the village wheelwright, a red-faced solemn personage of unmistakable Saxon solidity of face and figure. ‘I feel most as if I could kill ’em. I’d a larruped it out of him if I’d been the vather of un, same as I do my Mat and Mark.’

This produced a general laugh, as the speaker was well known to be the most obstinate man in the parish, and his twin boys, Matthew and Mark, inheriting the paternal characteristic in perfection, in spite of their father’s corrections, which were unremitting, were a true pair of wolf cubs, taking their unmerciful punishment mutely and showing scant signs of improvement.

‘I must be agoing,’ said the keeper, putting on his fur cap. ‘I feel that sorry for Mr. Lance that I’d make bold to speak to the squire myself if he was like other people. But it’d be as much as my place was worth. It’ll be poor Miss ’Stelle that the grief will fall on. Good-night all.’ And the sturdy, resolute keeper, whose office had succeeded from father to son for generations at Wychwood, tramped out into the night.

Nevermore - Contents    |     Chapert II

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