The rude hall rocks—they come, they come,—|
The din of voices shakes the dome;—
stalk the various forms, and, drest
In varying morion, varying vest,
All march with haughty step—all proudly shake the crest.
To gain some idea of the person who held this language, you must suppose, my dear Tresham, a man aged about sixty, in a hunting suit which had once been richly laced, but whose splendour had been tarnished by many a November and December storm. Sir Hildebrand, notwithstanding the abruptness of his present manner, had, at one period of his life, known courts and camps; had held a commission in the army which encamped on Hounslow Heath previous to the Revolution—and, recommended perhaps by his religion, had been knighted about the same period by the unfortunate and ill-advised James II. But the Knight’s dreams of further preferment, if he ever entertained any, had died away at the crisis which drove his patron from the throne, and since that period he had spent a sequestered life upon his native domains. Notwithstanding his rusticity, however, Sir Hildebrand retained much of the exterior of a gentleman, and appeared among his sons as the remains of a Corinthian pillar, defaced and overgrown with moss and lichen, might have looked, if contrasted with the rough unhewn masses of upright stones in Stonhenge, or any other Druidical temple. The sons were, indeed, heavy unadorned blocks as the eye would desire to look upon. Tall, stout, and comely, all and each of the five eldest seemed to want alike the Promethean fire of intellect, and the exterior grace and manner, which, in the polished world, sometimes supply mental deficiency. Their most valuable moral quality seemed to be the good-humour and content which was expressed in their heavy features, and their only pretence to accomplishment was their dexterity in field sports, for which alone they lived. The strong Gyas, and the strong Cloanthus, are not less distinguished by the poet, than the strong Percival, the strong Thorncliff, the strong John, Richard, and Wilfred Osbaldistones, were by outward appearance.
But, as if to indemnify herself for a uniformity so uncommon in her productions, Dame Nature had rendered Rashleigh Osbaldistone a striking contrast in person and manner, and, as I afterwards learned, in temper and talents, not only to his brothers, but to most men whom I had hitherto met with. When Percie, Thornie, and Co. had respectively nodded, grinned, and presented their shoulder rather than their hand, as their father named them to their new kinsman, Rashleigh stepped forward, and welcomed me to Osbaldistone Hall, with the air and manner of a man of the world. His appearance was not in itself prepossessing. He was of low stature, whereas all his brethren seemed to be descendants of Anak; and while they were handsomely formed, Rashleigh, though strong in person, was bull-necked and cross-made, and from some early injury in his youth had an imperfection in his gait, so much resembling an absolute halt, that many alleged that it formed the obstacle to his taking orders; the Church of Rome, as is well known, admitting none to the clerical profession who labours under any personal deformity. Others, however, ascribed this unsightly defect to a mere awkward habit, and contended that it did not amount to a personal disqualification from holy orders.
The features of Rashleigh were such, as, having looked upon, we in vain wish to banish from our memory, to which they recur as objects of painful curiosity, although we dwell upon them with a feeling of dislike, and even of disgust. It was not the actual plainness of his face, taken separately from the meaning, which made this strong impression. His features were, indeed, irregular, but they were by no means vulgar; and his keen dark eyes, and shaggy eyebrows, redeemed his face from the charge of commonplace ugliness. But there was in these eyes an expression of art and design, and, on provocation, a ferocity tempered by caution, which nature had made obvious to the most ordinary physiognomist, perhaps with the same intention that she has given the rattle to the poisonous snake. As if to compensate him for these disadvantages of exterior, Rashleigh Osbaldistone was possessed of a voice the most soft, mellow, and rich in its tones that I ever heard, and was at no loss for language of every sort suited to so fine an organ. His first sentence of welcome was hardly ended, ere I internally agreed with Miss Vernon, that my new kinsman would make an instant conquest of a mistress whose ears alone were to judge his cause. He was about to place himself beside me at dinner, but Miss Vernon, who, as the only female in the family, arranged all such matters according to her own pleasure, contrived that I should sit betwixt Thorncliff and herself; and it can scarce be doubted that I favoured this more advantageous arrangement.
“I want to speak with you,” she said, “and I have placed honest Thornie betwixt Rashleigh and you on purpose. He will be like—
Feather-bed ’twixt castle wall|
And heavy brunt of cannon ball,
while I, your earliest acquaintance in this intellectual family, ask of you how you like us all?”
“A very comprehensive question, Miss Vernon, considering how short while I have been at Osbaldistone Hall.”
“Oh, the philosophy of our family lies on the surface—there are minute shades distinguishing the individuals, which require the eye of an intelligent observer; but the species, as naturalists I believe call it, may be distinguished and characterized at once.”
“My five elder cousins, then, are I presume of pretty nearly the same character.”
“Yes, they form a happy compound of sot, gamekeeper, bully, horse-jockey, and fool; but as they say there cannot be found two leaves on the same tree exactly alike, so these happy ingredients, being mingled in somewhat various proportions in each individual, make an agreeable variety for those who like to study character.”
“Give me a sketch, if you please, Miss Vernon.”
“You shall have them all in a family-piece, at full length—the favour is too easily granted to be refused. Percie, the son and heir, has more of the sot than of the gamekeeper, bully, horse-jockey, or fool—My precious Thornie is more of the bully than the sot, gamekeeper, jockey, or fool—John, who sleeps whole weeks amongst the hills, has most of the gamekeeper—The jockey is powerful with Dickon, who rides two hundred miles by day and night to be bought and sold at a horse-race—And the fool predominates so much over Wilfred’s other qualities, that he may be termed a fool positive.”
“A goodly collection, Miss Vernon, and the individual varieties belong to a most interesting species. But is there no room on the canvas for Sir Hildebrand?”
“I love my uncle,” was her reply: “I owe him some kindness (such it was meant for at least), and I will leave you to draw his picture yourself, when you know him better.”
“Come,” thought I to myself, “I am glad there is some forbearance. After all, who would have looked for such bitter satire from a creature so young, and so exquisitely beautiful?”
“You are thinking of me,” she said, bending her dark eyes on me, as if she meant to pierce through my very soul.
“I certainly was,” I replied, with some embarrassment at the determined suddenness of the question, and then, endeavouring to give a complimentary turn to my frank avowal—“How is it possible I should think of anything else, seated as I have the happiness to be?”
She smiled with such an expression of concentrated haughtiness as she alone could have thrown into her countenance. “I must inform you at once, Mr. Osbaldistone, that compliments are entirely lost upon me; do not, therefore, throw away your pretty sayings—they serve fine gentlemen who travel in the country, instead of the toys, beads, and bracelets, which navigators carry to propitiate the savage inhabitants of newly-discovered lands. Do not exhaust your stock in trade;—you will find natives in Northumberland to whom your fine things will recommend you—on me they would be utterly thrown away, for I happen to know their real value.”
I was silenced and confounded.
“You remind me at this moment,” said the young lady, resuming her lively and indifferent manner, “of the fairy tale, where the man finds all the money which he had carried to market suddenly changed into pieces of slate. I have cried down and ruined your whole stock of complimentary discourse by one unlucky observation. But come, never mind it—You are belied, Mr. Osbaldistone, unless you have much better conversation than these fadeurs, which every gentleman with a toupet thinks himself obliged to recite to an unfortunate girl, merely because she is dressed in silk and gauze, while he wears superfine cloth with embroidery. Your natural paces, as any of my five cousins might say, are far preferable to your complimentary amble. Endeavour to forget my unlucky sex; call me Tom Vernon, if you have a mind, but speak to me as you would to a friend and companion; you have no idea how much I shall like you.”
“That would be a bribe indeed,” returned I.
“Again!” replied Miss Vernon, holding up her finger; “I told you I would not bear the shadow of a compliment. And now, when you have pledged my uncle, who threatens you with what he calls a brimmer, I will tell you what you think of me.”
The bumper being pledged by me, as a dutiful nephew, and some other general intercourse of the table having taken place, the continued and business-like clang of knives and forks, and the devotion of cousin Thorncliff on my right hand, and cousin Dickon, who sate on Miss Vernon’s left, to the huge quantities of meat with which they heaped their plates, made them serve as two occasional partitions, separating us from the rest of the company, and leaving us to our tête-à-tête. “And now,” said I, “give me leave to ask you frankly, Miss Vernon, what you suppose I am thinking of you!—I could tell you what I really do think, but you have interdicted praise.”
“I do not want your assistance. I am conjuror enough to tell your thoughts without it. You need not open the casement of your bosom; I see through it. You think me a strange bold girl, half coquette, half romp; desirous of attracting attention by the freedom of her manners and loudness of her conversation, because she is ignorant of what the Spectator calls the softer graces of the sex; and perhaps you think I have some particular plan of storming you into admiration. I should be sorry to shock your self-opinion, but you were never more mistaken. All the confidence I have reposed in you, I would have given as readily to your father, if I thought he could have understood me. I am in this happy family as much secluded from intelligent listeners as Sancho in the Sierra Morena, and when opportunity offers, I must speak or die. I assure you I would not have told you a word of all this curious intelligence, had I cared a pin who knew it or knew it not.”
“It is very cruel in you, Miss Vernon, to take away all particular marks of favour from your communications, but I must receive them on your own terms.—You have not included Mr. Rashleigh Osbaldistone in your domestic sketches.”
She shrunk, I thought, at this remark, and hastily answered, in a much lower tone, “Not a word of Rashleigh! His ears are so acute when his selfishness is interested, that the sounds would reach him even through the mass of Thorncliff’s person, stuffed as it is with beef, venison-pasty, and pudding.”
“Yes,” I replied; “but peeping past the living screen which divides us, before I put the question, I perceived that Mr. Rashleigh’s chair was empty—he has left the table.”
“I would not have you be too sure of that,” Miss Vernon replied. “Take my advice, and when you speak of Rashleigh, get up to the top of Otterscope-hill, where you can see for twenty miles round you in every direction—stand on the very peak, and speak in whispers; and, after all, don’t be too sure that the bird of the air will not carry the matter, Rashleigh has been my tutor for four years; we are mutually tired of each other, and we shall heartily rejoice at our approaching separation.”
“Mr. Rashleigh leaves Osbaldistone Hall, then?”
“Yes, in a few days;—did you not know that?—your father must keep his resolutions much more secret than Sir Hildebrand. Why, when my uncle was informed that you were to be his guest for some time, and that your father desired to have one of his hopeful sons to fill up the lucrative situation in his counting-house which was vacant by your obstinacy, Mr. Francis, the good knight held a cour plénière of all his family, including the butler, housekeeper, and gamekeeper. This reverend assembly of the peers and household officers of Osbaldistone Hall was not convoked, as you may suppose, to elect your substitute, because, as Rashleigh alone possessed more arithmetic than was necessary to calculate the odds on a fighting cock, none but he could be supposed qualified for the situation. But some solemn sanction was necessary for transforming Rashleigh’s destination from starving as a Catholic priest to thriving as a wealthy banker; and it was not without some reluctance that the acquiescence of the assembly was obtained to such an act of degradation.”
“I can conceive the scruples—but how were they got over?”
“By the general wish, I believe, to get Rashleigh out of the house,” replied Miss Vernon. “Although youngest of the family, he has somehow or other got the entire management of all the others; and every one is sensible of the subjection, though they cannot shake it off. If any one opposes him, he is sure to rue having done so before the year goes about; and if you do him a very important service, you may rue it still more.”
“At that rate,” answered I, smiling, “I should look about me; for I have been the cause, however unintentionally, of his change of situation.”
“Yes; and whether he regards it as an advantage or disadvantage, he will owe you a grudge for it—But here comes cheese, radishes, and a bumper to church and king, the hint for chaplains and ladies to disappear; and I, the sole representative of womanhood at Osbaldistone Hall, retreat, as in duty bound.”
She vanished as she spoke, leaving me in astonishment at the mingled character of shrewdness, audacity, and frankness, which her conversation displayed. I despair conveying to you the least idea of her manner, although I have, as nearly as I can remember, imitated her language. In fact, there was a mixture of untaught simplicity, as well as native shrewdness and haughty boldness, in her manner, and all were modified and recommended by the play of the most beautiful features I had ever beheld. It is not to be thought that, however strange and uncommon I might think her liberal and unreserved communications, a young man of two-and-twenty was likely to be severely critical on a beautiful girl of eighteen, for not observing a proper distance towards him. On the contrary, I was equally diverted and flattered by Miss Vernon’s confidence, and that notwithstanding her declaration of its being conferred on me solely because I was the first auditor who occurred, of intelligence enough to comprehend it. With the presumption of my age, certainly not diminished by my residence in France, I imagined that well-formed features, and a handsome person, both which I conceived myself to possess, were not unsuitable qualifications for the confidant of a young beauty. My vanity thus enlisted in Miss Vernon’s behalf, I was far from judging her with severity, merely for a frankness which I supposed was in some degree justified by my own personal merit; and the feelings of partiality, which her beauty, and the singularity of her situation, were of themselves calculated to excite, were enhanced by my opinion of her penetration and judgment in her choice of a friend.
After Miss Vernon quitted the apartment, the bottle circulated, or rather flew, around the table in unceasing revolution. My foreign education had given me a distaste to intemperance, then and yet too common a vice among my countrymen. The conversation which seasoned such orgies was as little to my taste, and if anything could render it more disgusting, it was the relationship of the company. I therefore seized a lucky opportunity, and made my escape through a side door, leading I knew not whither, rather than endure any longer the sight of father and sons practising the same degrading intemperance, and holding the same coarse and disgusting conversation. I was pursued, of course, as I had expected, to be reclaimed by force, as a deserter from the shrine of Bacchus. When I heard the whoop and hollo, and the tramp of the heavy boots of my pursuers on the winding stair which I was descending, I plainly foresaw I should be overtaken unless I could get into the open air. I therefore threw open a casement in the staircase, which looked into an old-fashioned garden, and as the height did not exceed six feet, I jumped out without hesitation, and soon heard far behind the “hey whoop! stole away! stole away!” of my baffled pursuers. I ran down one alley, walked fast up another; and then, conceiving myself out of all danger of pursuit, I slackened my pace into a quiet stroll, enjoying the cool air which the heat of the wine I had been obliged to swallow, as well as that of my rapid retreat, rendered doubly grateful.
As I sauntered on, I found the gardener hard at his evening employment, and saluted him, as I paused to look at his work.
“Good even, my friend.”
“Gude e’en—gude e’en t’ye,” answered the man, without looking up, and in a tone which at once indicated his northern extraction.
“Fine weather for your work, my friend.”
“It’s no that muckle to be compleened o’,” answered the man, with that limited degree of praise which gardeners and farmers usually bestow on the very best weather. Then raising his head, as if to see who spoke to him, he touched his Scotch bonnet with an air of respect, as he observed, “Eh, gude safe us!—it’s a sight for sair een, to see a gold-laced jeistiecor in the Ha’garden sae late at e’en.”
“A gold-laced what, my good friend?”
“Ou, a jeistiecor1—that’s a jacket like your ain, there. They hae other things to do wi’ them up yonder—unbuttoning them to make room for the beef and the bag-puddings, and the claret-wine, nae doubt—that’s the ordinary for evening lecture on this side the border.”
“There’s no such plenty of good cheer in your country, my good friend,” I replied, “as to tempt you to sit so late at it.”
“Hout, sir, ye ken little about Scotland; it’s no for want of gude vivers—the best of fish, flesh, and fowl hae we, by sybos, ingans, turneeps, and other garden fruit. But we hae mense and discretion, and are moderate of our mouths;—but here, frae the kitchen to the ha’, it’s fill and fetch mair, frae the tae end of the four-and-twenty till the tother. Even their fast days—they ca’ it fasting when they hae the best o’ sea-fish frae Hartlepool and Sunderland by land carriage, forbye trouts, grilses, salmon, and a’ the lave o’t, and so they make their very fasting a kind of luxury and abomination; and then the awfu’ masses and matins of the puir deceived souls—But I shouldna speak about them, for your honour will be a Roman, I’se warrant, like the lave.”
“Not I, my friend; I was bred an English presbyterian, or dissenter.”
“The right hand of fellowship to your honour, then,” quoth the gardener, with as much alacrity as his hard features were capable of expressing, and, as if to show that his good-will did not rest on words, he plucked forth a huge horn snuff-box, or mull, as he called it, and proffered a pinch with a most fraternal grin.
Having accepted his courtesy, I asked him if he had been long a domestic at Osbaldistone Hall.
“I have been fighting with wild beasts at Ephesus,” said he, looking towards the building, “for the best part of these four-and-twenty years, as sure as my name’s Andrew Fairservice.”
“But, my excellent friend, Andrew Fairservice, if your religion and your temperance are so much offended by Roman rituals and southern hospitality, it seems to me that you must have been putting yourself to an unnecessary penance all this while, and that you might have found a service where they eat less, and are more orthodox in their worship. I dare say it cannot be want of skill which prevented your being placed more to your satisfaction.”
“It disna become me to speak to the point of my qualifications,” said Andrew, looking round him with great complacency; “but nae doubt I should understand my trade of horticulture, seeing I was bred in the parish of Dreepdaily, where they raise lang-kale under glass, and force the early nettles for their spring kale. And, to speak truth, I hae been flitting every term these four-and-twenty years; but when the time comes, there’s aye something to saw that I would like to see sawn,—or something to maw that I would like to see mawn,—or something to ripe that I would like to see ripen,—and sae I e’en daiker on wi’ the family frae year’s end to year’s end. And I wad say for certain, that I am gaun to quit at Cannlemas, only I was just as positive on it twenty years syne, and I find mysell still turning up the mouls here, for a’ that. Forbye that, to tell your honour the evendown truth, there’s nae better place ever offered to Andrew. But if your honour wad wush me to ony place where I wad hear pure doctrine, and hae a free cow’s grass, and a cot, and a yard, and mair than ten punds of annual fee, and where there’s nae leddy about the town to count the apples, I’se hold mysell muckle indebted t’ye.”
“Bravo, Andrew! I perceive you’ll lose no preferment for want of asking patronage.”
“I canna see what for I should,” replied Andrew; “it’s no a generation to wait till ane’s worth’s discovered, I trow.”
“But you are no friend, I observe, to the ladies.”
“Na, by my troth, I keep up the first gardener’s quarrel to them. They’re fasheous bargains—aye crying for apricocks, pears, plums, and apples, summer and winter, without distinction o’ seasons; but we hae nae slices o’ the spare rib here, be praised for’t! except auld Martha, and she’s weel eneugh pleased wi’ the freedom o’ the berry-bushes to her sister’s weans, when they come to drink tea in a holiday in the housekeeper’s room, and wi’ a wheen codlings now and then for her ain private supper.”
“You forget your young mistress.”
“What mistress do I forget?—whae’s that?”
“Your young mistress, Miss Vernon.”
“What! the lassie Vernon?—She’s nae mistress o’ mine, man. I wish she was her ain mistress; and I wish she mayna be some other body’s mistress or it’s lang—She’s a wild slip that.”
“Indeed!” said I, more interested than I cared to own to myself, or to show to the fellow—“why, Andrew, you know all the secrets of this family.”
“If I ken them, I can keep them,” said Andrew; “they winna work in my wame like harm in a barrel, I’se warrant ye. Miss Die is—but it’s neither beef nor brose o’ mine.”
And he began to dig with a great semblance of assiduity.
“What is Miss Vernon, Andrew? I am a friend of the family, and should like to know.”
“Other than a gude ane, I’m fearing,” said Andrew, closing one eye hard, and shaking his head with a grave and mysterious look—“something glee’d—your honour understands me?”
“I cannot say I do,” said I, “Andrew; but I should like to hear you explain yourself;” and therewithal I slipped a crown-piece into Andrew’s horn-hard hand. The touch of the silver made him grin a ghastly smile, as he nodded slowly, and thrust it into his breeches pocket; and then, like a man who well understood that there was value to be returned, stood up, and rested his arms on his spade, with his features composed into the most important gravity, as for some serious communication.
“Ye maun ken, then, young gentleman, since it imports you to know, that Miss Vernon is”—
Here breaking off, he sucked in both his cheeks, till his lantern jaws and long chin assumed the appearance of a pair of nut-crackers; winked hard once more, frowned, shook his head, and seemed to think his physiognomy had completed the information which his tongue had not fully told.
“Good God!” said I—“so young, so beautiful, so early lost!”
“Troth ye may say sae—she’s in a manner lost, body and saul; forby being a Papist, I’se uphaud her for”—and his northern caution prevailed, and he was again silent.
“For what, sir?” said I sternly. “I insist on knowing the plain meaning of all this.”
“On, just for the bitterest Jacobite in the haill shire.”
“Pshaw! a Jacobite?—is that all?”
Andrew looked at me with some astonishment, at hearing his information treated so lightly; and then muttering, “Aweel, it’s the warst thing I ken aboot the lassie, howsoe’er,” he resumed his spade, like the king of the Vandals, in Marmontel’s late novel.
|1. Perhaps from the French Juste-au-corps. [back]|