Some seventy years ago, when that coarse, choleric, good-natured old gentleman, William IV., had just vacated the throne of Britain; when sanitation and popular education were not; when, with luck, one could still find noble lords to frank one’s letters, and, without it, might still fight a duel or be imprisoned for debt; when the railway system was in its hopeful infancy, and the stage-coach in a vigorous old age; when Islington was a country suburb, and the only fault of Tottenham and Highgate was to be too remote and rural; when policemen were called “peelers
,” and omnibuses “shillibeers
”; when all young men looked (only looked) immeasurably more serious and respectable than any young men do now; when young ladies bought, and wore on each side of the face, three little curls, and daily ironed them out upon the kitchen table to keep them crisp and fresh; when a large public really supposed that in Mrs. Hemans
burnt the divine fire, and that “Thaddeus of Warsaw
” was a work of genius; — in these darkly remote ages the village of Basset lay a hundred coach miles from London, five from the little town of Dilchester, and three from any other village. The word “lay” is used advisedly; for though Basset may be identified, it will not be found. In the old man one can indeed trace the boy; but, not the less, the boy — with the boy’s spirit and the boy’s heart — is gone for ever.
Basset had a much too large Norman church, which the piety of a châtelaine
of Basset Manor — tempus George III. — had “improved” with two galleries.
Without the church was the village green, where the local louts mooned and spat on Sunday mornings during the service. On the green were the disused stocks, and a large slimy pond, which the village always drank and never connected with the typhus which, by some special dispensation of Providence, was not always epidemic.
Looking on the green were some charmingly picturesque, thatched cottages, with roses creeping up them, and within, too often, nameless vice and disease — the fruits of over-crowding. Then there was the dame school
— which really did no harm; the public-house — which did a great deal — though it looked pastoral and guileless enough, with the old, smock-frocked Hodges
smoking their long clay pipes and drinking their ale out of mugs, on the rude bench outside the door.
The doctor’s low, red house had a flagged path up to it, and homely flowerbeds on either side of the path — tended by the doctor’s good lady
, with her skirt well pinned up, and an expression of dogged resolution upon her face. The very small, genteel, cottage near the doctors — the obsolete and expressive word “genteel” was much in vogue then — belonged to Miss Pilkington, who was the daughter (of course) of a late Rector of Basset, who had lived very comfortably and hospitably, keeping his horses and carriages like a gentleman, and had left his daughters useless and portionless. The Rectory was a large, roomy place — rather sunless and damp, only nobody bothered about aspects in 1837 — with a capital garden and a paddock.
On rising ground, looking down on the village, stood the low, rambling house that belonged to Sir John Railton, a real, live baronet, who used periodically to try to endure the quiet and tedium of Basset, invariably discover it was not to be done, let the Chantry, and return to Crockford’s and Newmarket. A couple of prosperous farms — these were the days of Protection
— also overlooked the village.
About half a mile from it — old, grey stone, Elizabethan — lay Basset Manor. It had a long row of sunny bedrooms and a cheerful parlour on its upper floor, and, on its lower, dark, oak-panelled living-rooms and vast, rambling kitchens. Without, there were first-rate stables, lawns and bowling-green, grass paths through the high-walled kitchen garden, and beds of untidy flowers. Here, the Squires of Basset had reigned since the days of Queen Anne, sometimes doing that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, and sometimes that which was good, but more often doing nothing in particular, except enjoy themselves.
Just about the time of the demise of King William, young Harry Latimer attained his majority, and his mother, who had long reigned, but not ruled, at Basset Manor, died.
From her portrait — that of a youngish woman, with a vague blue eye and a pretty, feeble face — it is easy to account for the lax, hospitable, happy-go-lucky character the Manor attained in her day; and also for a certain spoiled obstinacy which lay deep down in the character of her son.
Every person in Basset went into mourning when she died, and, of course, Harry and his household into the most lugubrious mourning of all. Then he set up to her memory in Basset church, just above the Manor pew, a huge and dreadful tablet, on which were inscribed, in the richest tombstone English, the virtues she had never possessed.
He used to read that inscription during the Morning Service for many Sundays after her death, with some emotion and a comfortable sense of having amply done his duty. After a while he gave it a bow of mental acknowledgment only; and at last entirely forgot its presence, and the colourless personality it commemorated; yawned rather obviously through the sermon, winked a cheery blue eye at a friend in the gallery, and was himself again.
Presently he had a lively coming of age dinner-party at the Manor, and a headache next morning — and came into his own.
It is impossible to imagine a braver and jollier figure than Harry Latimer at one and twenty. With his fair head and ruddy English face, his well-set person, already inclining to a little stoutness, his capital seat on a horse, his first-rate animal spirits, his generous share of pluck and daring, and his love of sport and the open — he might have sat for the typical British country gentleman of that day, but that he was not sufficiently thick-headed.
True, Squire Harry never opened a book and only skimmed a newspaper, but he had a shrewd enough mind, though it was chiefly devoted to finding himself new pleasures. For this young gentleman had plenty of money for his amusements without working for it, and an estate which was not too extensive for a single agent to manage — or to mismanage — unassisted.
About ten, then, every day — except on a hunting morning — the Squire came down to his breakfast, opened the post-bag, threw the bills on to a side-table, and screwed the moral advice from an aunt — his mother’s elder and sterner sister — into a ball and aimed it neatly at the fire, or the fireplace. He spread open the little Times — yesterday’s — on the sideboard, and gained an idea of its contents (which was all he wanted) as he cut himself cold beef.
His real interests were confined to Basset; as all Basset’s real interests were in itself. Naturally, when one had to endure the long discomforts of a stage-coach, or the heavy expenses of posting, to reach one’s relations, one seldom attempted to reach them; and when the recipient of their verbose, heavy-weighted letters had to pay the postage there was less than no inducement to keep up a correspondence. While, as for news of foreign countries, Harry, in common with many Englishmen of his class of that day, had never seen any, and despised them; honestly pitied benighted persons who spoke any language but his own; and had been taught by Mrs. Latimer that English would be the mother-tongue of heaven.
The agent, a thin-lipped and shifty-faced person, arrived before Harry had finished his second cup of coffee. Those blue eyes of the Squire were by no means defective in penetration of character, but it would have been a confounded nuisance to be always suspecting everybody, so Harry comfortably assumed — on the principle of the negligent mother, who invariably finds paragons of nurses and governesses to do her own duty by her children — that the agent was honest and diligent, and listened with half an ear to his dull stories of land drainage and tumbling cottages.
Mr. Phillips had his morning dram; and sometimes Harry also — and Harry went out to the stables.
A love and a knowledge of horseflesh had been in the blood of the Latimers since Latimers there were. There was stabling for a dozen horses in the great stables of Basset Manor, and generally eight or ten in possession of them. The stalwart, handsome boy, with his beautiful roan mare, Victoria — his coming-of-age present to himself — nosing up to him for the contents of the breakfast sugar-basin, which he always prodigally emptied into his pocket, would have been a worthy subject for that very rising genius Mr. Landseer
. The stables were much the best kept part of Harry’s household. The grooms and ostlers knew their master’s knowledge of their business; and the extreme freedom of his expletives — a freedom he shared with better men than himself — kept them up to the mark.
In the garden he was frankly uninterested. Flowers were the business of women, and Harry would as soon have blacked his own boots as worked in his own garden. So he simply strolled round it, quite unobservant, with his couple of pepper-and-salt dandie pups
at his heels. Sometimes he threw a silver fourpenny bit and a good-natured word to the dirty, grinning urchin who was sweeping up the leaves, and who knew quite well that the fourpenny and the good-nature were dependent, not in the least on his own conduct, but entirely on his master’s feelings at the moment.
As Harry’s housekeeping consisted simply and entirely in sending the cook a glass of port when the dishes were good, and returning them with contumely to the kitchen when they were bad, it did not occupy much of his day; but occasionally the cook, a tall, thin lady, to whom her master would by no means have dared to give a congé
, appeared in the dining-room with a sheaf of bills, at the sum total of which Harry always grumbled, in the sanguine hope that the grumbling would reduce their amount for future occasions.
Then he played with the dandies, Dim and Tim, and wrote half a letter; played with the dandies again, tore up the half letter, and decided to write the whole tomorrow, and by the that time Victoria was at the door. It was only on these leisurely non-hunting days that he had time to ride her easily along the narrow country lanes or the turnpike road to the five-mile distant market-town.
For Harry was the most regular, as he was the straightest rider to hounds in the county; the jolliest and most fearless, of a brave and jolly age, in the hunting-field. He was Master of the Hounds at one and twenty, and the Hunt breakfasts at Basset Manor in those days are still proudly remembered in the village. The garden-boy — he of the grin and the fourpence — is an old man now, and can still recall something of those fine, pleasant, chilly English mornings, with the men in pink, and the impatient dogs and horses, fretting to be gone, on the drive in front of the Manor windows. On the excellent personal testimony of the kitchenmaid, sister to the garden boy, no other Hunt breakfast-table groaned under viands so many and costly as did Harry’s. On the word of the county, he was one of the most popular Masters it ever knew, with his fair, flushed face, and his loud, good spirits; and yet, withal, taking his sport with the gravity and earnestness befitting an Englishman.
But on frosty days, or in the non-hunting season, Harry and Victoria — Dim and Tim having been left in tears in the dining-room — rode leisurely through Basset village.
All the smock-frocked Hodges greeted him as he went by, and were proud of such a well set-up young lord, and Harry had a salute, with his riding-whip, and a pleasant word for everybody. His heart and pocket were always open to the tales of woe the old grannies, with many an apologizing curtsey, stopped to tell him. As he gave his guinea or his florin without investigating the story, he was immensely popular with those sufferers — the largest class — whose stories do not bear being pried into, and as he was irrevocably good-natured an incurably sanguine, he really had not the least difficulty in honestly believing what he was told.
When, in one of his own outlying cottages — a most picturesque, rose-covered place, quite unfit for decent human habitation — a man lay dying of typhus, the Squire put a couple of bottles of port — the remedy in those days for every human ill — into the deep pockets of his riding-coat, and pleased the sufferer by the present far more than if he had rebuilt the cottage, whose insanitary condition, neither Harry nor, indeed, any one else held responsible for the suffering.
Sometimes, in the country lanes, he would meet old Dr. Benet, trotting calmly by in his gig
. “Hie! doctor,” says Harry, and bethinking himself that there is no time like the present, and that he has felt the most uncommon painful twinges in that left foot lately, pulls up, and takes a little “nonsense and advice.”
To be sure, if the advice took the form, as it sometimes did (for Dr. Benet was perfectly honest as well as shrewd), of “patience and flannel
,” or a few glasses less in the evening, Harry changed the subject, waved his whip in a farewell salute, and remembered, as he rode off, the abysmal depths of ignorance the faculty often displayed, and the ghastly mistakes the cleverest made at times, and had his usual quantity of port at night. Whereas, if Dr. Benet did not mention the port as a probable cause of the ailment, Harry comfortably considered it might be a cure — and had a couple of glasses extra.
Sometimes, for he was really exceedingly kind-hearted, he trotted around of an afternoon and paid his respects to Miss Pilkington, at the genteel cottage near the doctor’s. She was tremblingly delighted at his visit — almost all old women loved Harry, and but too many young. He spread a zone of masculine largeness and untidiness in her narrow, prim parlor; and when she anxiously produced cake and wine — these were the dark ages before afternoon tea — he delighted her by finishing the whole cake with his healthy, young appetite, and swallowed a couple of glasses of her unique feminine brand of sherry wine as if he liked it. He further prescribed for her canary; it had lost all its feathers, and looked so undressed and indecent she had covered up its cage with a handkerchief, a proceeding which caused her guest to roar with laughter, and enjoy himself vastly. When he went away, he seemed to take with him free air and the sunshine.
His visit, and the pleasant things it came naturally to him to say, lay warm about Rachel Pilkington’s heart, and she did not know, or at least not for a long time, that with the Squire, as with many other people, out of sight was entirely out of mind, and that for him there was no such thing as a past or a future, but only the present moment.
Now and again, riding by the Rectory gate put him in mind of the grim old Parson, and he rode up to the windows of the study — falsely so called in this instance — and thumped on them with that ever-useful riding-crop.
The Parson was a straight shot, and had a military history before his clerical, so Harry could respect him, with self-respect. While, if church-going had been any passport to his favour, he should certainly have liked Harry, who was regular in attendance there, and if the sermon were less dull than usual, actually listened to it, with a hand on each knee, and a rather surprised expression of countenance; sang the psalm lustily, with great enjoyment to himself; while once — at least once — when a young man from Dilchester had occupied the pulpit, and been very pathetic over a Ragged School
, a close observer might have surprised a moisture in Harry’s blue eyes.
If Harry’s religion affected his emotions rather than his conduct, emotionalism is, after all, the whole religion of persons far more professedly devout than the Squire of Basset.
Perhaps as often as once a week, when there was nothing to hunt or shoot, Harry rode, or drove his phaeton
— he was an adept at the ribbons — into Dilchester. There, he would stand about in the courtyard of the old inn, “The Case is Altered,” and take bets with the other idlers (waiting, as he was, for the arrival of the coach from London) as to the probability of these new railroads, beginning to be opened all over the country, ousting the good old coaches out of it at last. Harry, who had on every subject that delightful facility for believing that what he did not wish could not possibly come to pass, quite refused to foresee the decline of horseflesh; so did the landlord, also a stout, sanguine person.
At last, with a fine cracking of whips, and a cheery noise and bustle, in comes the coach to a minute; the frozen passengers descended from the roof, and the asphyxiated ones inside were pulled out from masses of bags and bundles by the guard. The old coachman used to point out Harry to the passengers, with a sort of proprietary pride in him and his smart phaeton and cobs
. Harry had an easy, all-men-are-equal air with the coachman, as he had with everybody; with the landlord’s arch and ogling daughter, and the ostler, whom he had just damned impatiently for some neglect of duty. The parcels of things he had ordered from London — a fine new coat from the crack tailor in Jermyn Street among them — were packed into the phaeton; Harry drove off; and the idlers looked after him, and envied, and lazily admired him.
Not seldom of an evening there was a jolly bachelor party at Basset Manor.
At half-past five, Harry and a half a dozen neighbouring squires sat down to dine — and were still sitting at half-past eight. Intoxication as a fashionable vice had passed, or was fast passing, away, and Harry and his friends were certainly not intoxicated. But the quantity they drank would as certainly suffice to lay their degenerate grandsons under the table; and that the liveliness of the parties was largely born of the bottle need not be denied. Tim, the smaller dandie, used to search on the floor, lest the revelers should luckily and inadvertently have dropped anything toothsome. Dim would sit on the hearth, with his vast, wide head very much on one side, gravely considering the lords of creation enjoying their noble and rational pleasures.
Occasionally, the party played cards; once they stole out and caught a couple of poachers, red-handed, in the very act, in Harry’s modest preserves.
Of course, Harry cursed the offenders at the moment, and, equally of course, let them off in the sequel; a prosecution being such a confounded lot of trouble! But though Harry seldom took any except for his pleasures, it must be accounted to him for righteousness that for them he took often a very great deal, that he enjoyed with a refreshing heartiness and simplicity, and was neither bored nor fastidious in his amusements. If the Basset dinner-table was overladen, it may be remembered that its host had often been walking all day among the turnips, with a shooting lunch consisting of absolutely nothing but a hunch of bread and cheese, stuffed into his pocket. He would drive himself a dozen miles in his phaeton in the teeth of a black North-Easter; and it is certainly on record that one eventful night, in a bitter midwinter, muffled to the eyes, he rode to Dilchester to the assembly ball, through the deepest snow in years.
The ball-room was uncomfortably stuffy and crowded when he got there; wax candles in great glass lustres
lit the scene, and often shed showers of wax over the good-tempered dancers; the fiddlers in a gallery made up in energy what they lacked in tune and time, and the supper was principally distinguished by an untidy plenty. But what did that matter? Harry was the best dancer and the handsomest man in the room; and a steward presently introduced him to Miss Mary Matthews, of Clayton Hall, near Dilchester, aged eighteen, and vastly enjoying herself at her very first ball, under the fond and strict chaperonage of a mother in a cap and a grey silk gown, sitting on a daïs and watching, not the party, but Mary at it.
was a very slight little creature, not really pretty, but with such bright curls and such a bright face that she conveyed an impression of prettiness. The family history records that she was dressed in white muslin — which was then not simply a synonym for the obsolete virtues, but a stiff fabric actually worn by young women at balls. Her feet beneath it, in the satin slippers she had made herself, were aching to be dancing and off. Harry loved, first, her freshness and vigour, her naïf
and new delight in the party and in life; and she loved Harry — principally because she was at the age to love somebody, and so far had scarcely spoken a dozen times to any man under fifty except her writing-master, who had been twice widowed, and was of a homely, eruptive countenance.
Let it be added that Pollie was now, as she was ever, a most generous, candid, quick-tempered, honourable and intelligent little person, with her bright wits certainly not stifled by study, and with a mind and heart, like the age in which she lived, full of beginnings and possibilities.
She danced all the dances with Harry she could, with Madam — herself aged about thirty-eight, but feeling and seeming older than a woman of sixty does now — conscientiously regarding her from the daïs. At the end of the evening — an immensely long evening, and seeming so dreadfully short! — it was Harry who handed Madam and Pollie to their landau
, with old John-Coachman
, in his flaxen wig, and with his fat, friendly face smiling from his box at our Miss and the good-looking Squire in his swallow-tails and the handsomest waistcoat the eye of man ever saw.
It was Harry who, the very next day, sat down to compose a most serious letter — making savage threats of kicking Dim and Tim when they interrupted him — in which he set forth in very manly terms the state of his heart and his fortune, and begged the leave of her mother to pay his addresses to Miss Mary Matthews at once.
Miss Mary Matthews being fatherless, her mother had to take counsel with a pompous and worldly uncle, with a stock and fob, who looked very sharply and narrowly into Harry’s money affairs, and piously hoped for the best regarding Harry’s character, or shared the common, convenient belief that men “for the most, become much more the better for being a little bad.” Then the Squire rode over to Clayton Hall on Victoria, and some very thin excuse about the character of a housemaid; and Pollie came out to the door, with the curls shading a very becoming blush, gave Victoria some sugar, and heard something, in spite of the curls, that Harry bent over to say in her ear.
After that, came a solemn dinner — a partie carrée
at Clayton Hall — when the uncle and Mrs. Matthews sustained a dull conversation à deux, and Harry and Pollie tried hard to catch glimpses of each other round the great épergne containing trifle, which occupied the middle of the table. The next day Harry brought Pollie a little pearl ring. The two were alone together perhaps three hours — for three minutes a time — during their courtship.
Once, indeed, Harry drove Pollie and her mother over to Basset Manor, and announced his lovelorn and philistine intention of building Pollie a sham Gothic arbour in the garden, and replacing the excellent old Georgian furniture in the drawing-room with a suite in rosewood and crimson satin; and on this occasion the pair were actually in sole possession of each other for half an hour, while Madam Matthews went to inspect the linen cupboards. But what use was half an hour, with Harry bewitched and intoxicated with Pollie’s extreme vivacity, and Pollie in love with love?
Presently, Madam, who was nothing if not good and conscientious, made her daughter sit down with her and sew at a most excellent, serviceable trousseau, and, as they worked, set forth to the spirited Pollie the “mild and compliant mind” the ideal wife always exhibited.
Finally, there was a wedding, with the bells ringing, and all Dilchester en fête
; a wedding-breakfast, with speech-making and incessant health-drinkings; and at last the phaeton and that pair of spanking cobs at the door, the luggage strapped up at the back, the bridegroom in his great, caped driving-coat, the bride with her face blooming and glowing under a beaver bonnet, the cobs dancing to be off — shoes, rice, cheers — and Harry and Pollie had driven — into futurity.