Page:Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II Dec 1859 to June 1860.pdf/553

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540

ONCE A WEEK.

[June 2, 1860.


barren,” lay in dark blue tone beneath a heavy thunder-cloud, and the avenue of trees was discernible, which leads through the domain of the Chaworths to the ancient hall, with all its sad associations and regrets. Sadder still were the thoughts with which we turned to the extreme right of the landscape and discerned, through the grey mist of the falling rain, the village and tower of Hucknall, where lie the mortal remains of the pilgrim poet, brought from the far distant marshes of Missolonghi, to rest in the chancel of one of the least picturesque of our country churches.

As the storm was coming up quickly over the hills, we hastened across the park; at a sudden, turning in the road, the abbey with its lake and overhanging woods presented the view, rendered so familiar in the illustrated editions of Byron’s works, or in the more faithful delineations of his own graphic pen. The gothic entrance passed, we were conducted to the library, a room in which the artist and antiquary must delight; and there cannot be a fitter place than this—the favourite apartment of Colonel Wildman, the late possessor of the abbey—to render all respect to his memory, and to express a hope, now that the approaching sale of Newstead is occupying public attention, that this sanctuary of genius may continue to be as faithfully guarded by its future occupants. With all his misfortunes Byron was happy in these two respects—first, that his ancestral home, in which he took so much pride, was rescued from ruin by becoming the property of his old friend and schoolfellow; secondly, that his poetical works, that richer heritage of his mind, were consigned to those who have most liberally published them to the world in editions, remarkable for their variety, completeness, and richness of illustration.

From the library we were led by a dark panelled corridor to the different chambers, each bearing the name of some royal or illustrious visitor. As in many other show-places, there is the usual exhibition of family pictures, cabinets and chimney-pieces of exquisite workmanship, old china and faded tapestry. But these were not the object of our visit, and in traversing the grand drawing-room, we were glad to have our thoughts called from other subjects to the remembrance of him whose genius has given a more recent charm and interest to the abbey of Newstead. Here is preserved the cup, made by the poet’s desire, from the cranium of a monk; it is mounted in silver, and engraved upon it, is that brilliant anacreontic which the subject suggested to his wild imagination. As we made a hasty sketch of the cup, we could not contemplate, without revulsion, such a relic consigned to such use, nor was this feeling diminished by the gloom of that vast room, once the monks’ dormitory, while the pale lightning glanced through the high windows, and the surrounding silence was made more impressive by the thunder without, and the roaring of the full-leaved elms bending to the fitful wind.

On entering the grand hall, our fancy went back to the time of the young poet, when a wolf and a bear were janitors at the door, not in the mock savageness of the sculptor’s art, but alive in chained and worried ferocity. There, too, is the high, over-hanging chimney-piece, under which such a fire was kindled on the first night of Byron’s arrival at Newstead, that the safety of the abbey was endangered. A group of heedless dependents caroused in the centre of the hall; while their young lord, breaking sherds from the neglected hearth, showed the precision of his aim by scaring the bats from the timber roof, reddened from the blaze below. It is difficult to realise such a scene in the present hall, with its rich Gothic screen and music gallery, resplendent with polished oak, armour, and heraldic device. This, as well as other parts of the abbey, at the time of Byron’s accession to the property, was a scene of melancholy degradation. The predecessor of the poet, rightly surnamed “The Wicked Lord Byron,” had denuded the estate, destroyed the deer, felled the noblest trees, “condemned to uses vile” the most sacred and fair portions of the abbey; and at last, with difficulty, found a place in the vast building impervious to the weather, where he could close a life of the most daring profligacy. To such an inheritance did the young poet succeed.

From the hall a winding staircase leads to the abbot’s lodgings, one room of which was Byron’s sleeping chamber. At the desire of Colonel Wildman, every article of furniture has remained in the same state and position as left by the poet; there is a melancholy interest in such identity: in the heavy bedstead with its gilded coronets; the favourite pictures of his college at Cambridge; the portraits of his faithful valet Murray, and of gentleman Jackson the pugilist, hanging on the faded paper of the walls. Before the oriel window which lights the room, and overlooks the lake and woods, stands his writing-table, with inkstand, &c., and near it, on a dressing-table, is a toilette glass; and we doubt not that it must have occurred to many a fair visitant how often his handsome features were reflected there.

Of all the precincts of this “vast and venerable pile,” the cloisters are the most interesting and picturesque. They enclose a small turf quadrangle, in the centre of which stands a Gothic fountain, surmounted with grotesque figures, “here a monster, there a saint.” The slender jets falling from grim “mouths of granite made” into the circular basin beneath, break with their monotonous splash the indescribable stillness of the scene. Awaiting the passing of the storm, time was given to reflect on the many scenes and generations which have passed away since those graceful arches were first chiselled by the skilful masons of that early age, at the command of the repentant Henry, who founded Newstead, like many other abbeys in England, in expiation of the murder of à Beckett. What variety of men and events! We could imagine the abbot, with his reverend conclave, in that small but exquisitely proportioned chapter-house now used as the chapel. We could see the cowled monks, descending the staircase of the strangers’ hall, to distribute alms and sustenance to the poor and wayfaring. The stones of that uneven pavement have sunk over the accumulated dust of abbot and monk, and time has left no record of them, save the marks of the brasses abstracted from their graves. And then, in later years, we could picture the desecration of that spot. Alas!