Tancred/Chapter II

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The House of Bellamont

THE Duke of Bellamont was a personage who, from his rank, his blood, and his wealth, might almost be placed at the head of the English nobility. Although the grandson of a mere country gentleman, his fortunate ancestor, in the decline of the last century, had captivated the heiress of the Montacutes, Dukes of Bellamont, a celebrated race of the times of the Plantagenets. The bridegroom, at the moment of his marriage, had adopted the illustrious name of his young and beautiful wife. Mr. Montacute was by nature a man of energy and of an enterprising spirit. His vast and early success rapidly developed his native powers. With the castles and domains and boroughs of the Bellamonts, he resolved also to acquire their ancient baronies and their modern coronets. The times were favourable to his projects, though they might require the devotion of a life. He married amid the disasters of the American war. The king and his minister appreciated the independent support afforded them by Mr. Montacute, who represented his county, and who commanded five votes in the House besides his own. He was one of the chief pillars of their cause; but he was not only independent, he was conscientious and had scruples. Saratoga staggered him. The defection of the Montacute votes, at this moment, would have at once terminated the struggle between England and her colonies. A fresh illustration of the advantages of our parliamentary constitution! The independent Mr. Montacute, however, stood by his sovereign; his five votes continued to cheer the noble lord in the blue ribbon, and their master took his seat and the oaths in the House of Lords, as Earl of Bellamont and Viscount Montacute. This might be considered sufficiently well for one generation; but the silver spoon which some fairy had placed in the cradle of the Earl of Bellamont was of colossal proportions. The French Revolution succeeded the American war, and was occasioned by it. It was but just, therefore, that it also should bring its huge quota to the elevation of the man whom a colonial revolt had made an earl. Amid the panic of Jacobinism, the declamations of the friends of the people, the sovereign having no longer Hanover for a refuge, and the prime minister examined as a witness in favour of the very persons whom he was trying for high treason, the Earl of Bellamont made a calm visit to Downing Street, and requested the revival of all the honours of the ancient Earls and Dukes of Bellamont in his own person. Mr. Pitt, who was far from favourable to the exclusive character which distinguished the English peerage in the last century, was himself not disinclined to accede to the gentle request of his powerful supporter; but the king was less flexible. His Majesty, indeed, was on principle not opposed to the revival of titles in families to whom the domains without the honours of the old nobility had descended; and he recognised the claim of the present Earls of Bellamont eventually to regain the strawberry leaf which had adorned the coronet of the father of the present countess. But the king was of opinion that this supreme distinction ought only to be conferred on the blood of the old house, and that a generation, therefore, must necessarily elapse before a Duke of Bellamont could again figure in the golden book of the English aristocracy.

But George the Third, with all his firmness, was doomed to frequent discomfiture. His lot was cast in troubled waters, and he had often to deal with individuals as inflexible as himself. Benjamin Franklin was not more calmly contumacious than the individual whom his treason had made an English peer. In that age of violence, change and panic, power, directed by a clear brain and an obdurate spirit, could not fail of its aim; and so it turned out, that, in the very teeth of the royal will, the simple country gentleman, whose very name was forgotten, became, at the commencement of this century, Duke of Bellamont, Marquis of Montacute, Earl of Bellamont, Dacre, and Villeroy, with all the baronies of the Plantagenets in addition. The only revenge of the king was, that he never would give the Duke of Bellamont the garter. It was as well perhaps that there should be something for his son to desire.

The Duke and Duchess of Bellamont were the handsomest couple in England, and devoted to each other, but they had only one child. Fortunately, that child was a son. Precious life! The Marquis of Montacute was married before he was of age. Not a moment was to be lost to find heirs for all these honours. Perhaps, had his parents been less precipitate, their object might have been more securely obtained. The union' was not a happy one. The first duke had, however, the gratification of dying a grandfather. His successor bore no resemblance to him, except in that beauty which became a characteristic of the race. He was born to enjoy, not to create. A man of pleasure, the chosen companion of the Regent in his age of riot, he was cut off in his prime; but he lived long enough to break his wife's heart and his son's spirit; like himself, too, an only child.

The present Duke of Bellamont had inherited something of the clear intelligence of his grandsire, with the gentle disposition of his mother. His fair abilities, and his benevolent inclinations, had been cultivated. His mother had watched over the child, in whom she found alike the charm and consolation of her life. But, at a certain period of youth, the formation of character requires a masculine impulse, and that was wanting. The duke disliked his son; in time he became even jealous of him. The duke had found himself a father at too early a period of life. Himself in his lusty youth, he started with alarm at the form that recalled his earliest and most brilliant hour, and who might prove a rival. The son was of a gentle and affectionate nature, and sighed for the tenderness of his harsh and almost vindictive parent. But he had not that passionate soul which might have appealed, and perhaps not in vain, to the dormant sympathies of the being who had created him. The young Montacute was by nature of an extreme shyness, and the accidents of his life had not tended to dissipate his painful want of self-confidence. Physically courageous, his moral timidity was remarkable. He alternately blushed or grew pale in his rare interviews with his father, trembled in silence before the undeserved sarcasm, and often endured the unjust accusation without an attempt to vindicate himself. Alone, and in tears alike of woe and indignation, he cursed the want of resolution or ability which had again missed the opportunity that, both for his mother and himself, might have placed affairs in a happier position. Most persons, under these circumstances, would have become bitter, but Montacute was too tender for malice, and so he only turned melancholy. On the threshold of manhood, Montacute lost his mother, and this seemed the catastrophe of his unhappy life. His father neither shared his grief, nor attempted to alleviate it. On the contrary, he seemed to redouble his efforts to mortify his son. His great object was to prevent Lord Montacute from entering society, and he was so complete a master of the nervous temperament on which he was acting that there appeared a fair chance of his succeeding in his benevolent intentions. When his son's education was completed, the duke would not furnish him with the means of moving in the world in a becoming manner, or even sanction his travelling. His Grace was resolved to break his son's spirit by keeping him immured in the country. Other heirs apparent of a rich seignory would soon have removed these difficulties. By bill or by bond, by living usury, or by post-obit liquidation, by all the means that private friends or public offices could supply, the sinews of war would have been forthcoming. They would have beaten their fathers' horses at Newmarket, eclipsed them with their mistresses, and, sitting for their boroughs, voted against their party. But Montacute was not one of those young heroes who rendered so distinguished the earlier part of this century. He had passed his life so much among women and clergymen that he had never emancipated himself from the old law that enjoined him to honour a parent. Besides, with all his shyness and timidity, he was extremely proud. He never forgot that he was a Montacute, though he had forgotten, like the world in general, that his grandfather once bore a different and humbler name. All merged in the great fact, that he was the living representative of those Montacutes of Bellamont, whose wild and politic achievements, or the sustained splendour of whose stately life had for seven hundred years formed a stirring and superb portion of the history and manners of our country. Death was preferable, in his view, to having such a name soiled in the haunts of jockeys and courtesans and usurers; and, keen as was the anguish which the conduct of the duke to his mother or himself had often occasioned him, it was sometimes equalled in degree by the sorrow and the shame which he endured when he heard of the name of Bellamont only in connection with some stratagem of the turf or some frantic revel. Without a friend, almost without an acquaintance, Montacute sought refuge in love. She who shed over his mournful life the divine ray of feminine sympathy was his cousin, the daughter of his mother's brother, an English peer, but resident in the north of Ireland, where he had vast possessions. It was a family otherwise little calculated to dissipate the reserve and gloom of a depressed and melancholy youth; puritanical, severe and formal in their manners, their relaxations a Bible Society, or a meeting for the conversion of the Jews. But Lady Katherine was beautiful, and all were kind to one to whom kindness was strange, and the soft pathos of whose solitary spirit demanded affection.

Montacute requested his father's permission to marry his cousin, and was immediately refused. The duke particularly disliked his wife's family; but the fact is, he had no wish that his son should ever marry. He meant to perpetuate his race himself, and was at this moment, in the midst of his orgies, meditating a second alliance, which should compensate him for his boyish blunder. In this state of affairs, Montacute, at length stung to resistance, inspired by the most powerful of passions, and acted upon by a stronger volition than his own, was planning a marriage in spite of his father (love, a cottage by an Irish lake, and seven hundred a-year) when intelligence arrived that his father, whose powerful frame and vigorous health seemed to menace a patriarchal term, was dead.

The new Duke of Bellamont had no experience of the world; but, though long cowed by his father, he had a strong character. Though the circle of his ideas was necessarily contracted, they were all clear and firm. In his moody youth he had imbibed certain impressions and arrived at certain conclusions, and they never quitted him. His mother was his model of feminine perfection, and he had loved his cousin because she bore a remarkable resemblance to her aunt. Again, he was of opinion that the tie between the father and the son ought to be one of intimate confidence and refined tenderness, and he resolved that, if Providence favoured him with offspring, his child should ever find in him absolute devotion of thought and feeling.

A variety of causes and circumstances had impressed him with a conviction that what is called fashionable life was a compound of frivolity and fraud, of folly and vice; and he resolved never to enter it. To this he was, perhaps, in some degree unconsciously prompted by his reserved disposition, and by his painful sense of inexperience, for he looked forward to this world with almost as much of apprehension as of dislike. To politics, in the vulgar sense of the word, he had an equal repugnance. He had a lofty idea of his duty to his sovereign and his country, and felt within him the energies that would respond to a conjuncture. But he acceded to his title in a period of calmness, when nothing was called in question, and no danger was apprehended; and as for the fights of factions, the duke altogether held himself aloof from them; he wanted nothing, not even the blue ribbon which he was soon obliged to take. Next to his domestic hearth, all his being was concentrated in his duties as a great proprietor of the soil. On these he had long pondered, and these he attempted to fulfil. That performance, indeed, was as much a source of delight to him as of obligation. He loved the country and a country life. His reserve seemed to melt away the moment he was on his own soil. Courteous he ever was, but then he became gracious and hearty. He liked to assemble 'the county' around him; to keep 'the county' together; 'the county' seemed always his first thought; he was proud of 'the county,' where he reigned supreme, not more from his vast possessions than from the influence of his sweet yet stately character, which made those devoted to him who otherwise were independent of his sway.

From straitened circumstances, and without having had a single fancy of youth gratified, the Duke of Bellamont had been suddenly summoned to the lordship of an estate scarcely inferior in size and revenue to some continental principalities; to dwell in palaces and castles, to be surrounded by a disciplined retinue, and to find every wish and want gratified before they could be expressed or anticipated. Yet he showed no elation, and acceded to his inheritance as serene as if he had never felt a pang or proved a necessity. She whom in the hour of trial he had selected for the future partner of his life, though a remarkable woman, by a singular coincidence of feeling, for it was as much from her original character as from sympathy with her husband, confirmed him in all his moods.

Katherine, Duchess of Bellamont, was beautiful: small and delicate in structure, with a dazzling complexion, and a smile which, though rare, was of the most winning and brilliant character. Her rich brown hair and her deep blue eye might have become a dryad; but her brow denoted intellect of a high order, and her mouth spoke inexorable resolution. She was a woman of fixed opinions, and of firm and compact prejudices. Brought up in an austere circle, where on all matters irrevocable judgment had been passed, which enjoyed the advantages of knowing exactly what was true in dogma, what just in conduct, and what correct in manners, she had early acquired the convenient habit of decision, while her studious mind employed its considerable energies in mastering every writer who favoured those opinions which she had previously determined were the right ones.

The duchess was deep in the divinity of the seventeenth century. In the controversies between the two churches, she could have perplexed St. Omers or Maynooth. Chillingworth might be found her boudoir. Not that her Grace's reading was confined to divinity; on the contrary, it was various and extensive. Puritan in religion, she was precisian in morals; but in both she was sincere. She was so in all things. Her nature was frank and simple; if she were inflexible, she at least wished to be just; and though very conscious of the greatness of her position, she was so sensible of its duties that there was scarcely any exertion which she would evade, or any humility from which she would shrink, if she believed she were doing her duty to her God or to her neighbour.

It will be seen, therefore, that the Duke of Bellamont found no obstacle in his wife, who otherwise much influenced his conduct, to the plans which he had pre-conceived for the conduct of his life after marriage. The duchess shrank, with a feeling of haughty terror from that world of fashion which would have so willingly greeted her. During the greater part of the year, therefore, the Bellamonts resided in their magnificent castle, in their distant county, occupied with all the business and the pleasures of the provinces. While the duke, at the head of the magistracy, in the management of his estates, and in the sports of which he was fond, found ample occupation, his wife gave an impulse to the charity of the county, founded schools, endowed churches, received their neighbours, read her books, and amused herself in the creation of beautiful gardens, for which she had a passion.

After Easter, Parliament requiring their presence, the courtyard of one of the few palaces in London opened, and the world learnt that the Duke and Duchess of Bellamont had arrived at Bellamont House, from Montacute Castle. During their stay in town, which they made as brief as they well could, and which never exceeded three months, they gave a series of great dinners, principally attended by noble relations and those families of the county who were so fortunate as to have also a residence in London. Regularly every year, also, there was a grand banquet given to some members of the royal family by the Duke and Duchess of Bellamont, and regularly every year the Duke and Duchess of Bellamont had the honour of dining at the palace. Except at a ball or concert under the royal roof, the duke and duchess were never seen anywhere in the evening. The great ladies indeed, the Lady St. Julians and the Marchionesses of Deloraine, always sent them invitations, though they were ever declined. But the Bellamonts maintained a sort of traditional acquaintance with a few great houses, either by the ties of relationship, which, among the aristocracy, are very ramified, or by occasionally receiving travelling magnificoes at their hospitable castle.

To the great body, however, of what is called 'the world,' the world that lives in St. James' Street and Pall Mall, that looks out of a club window, and surveys mankind as Lucretius from his philosophic tower; the world of the Georges and the Jemmys; of Mr. Cassilis and Mr. Melton; of the Milfords and the Fitz-Herons, the Berners and the Egertons, the Mr. Ormsbys and the Alfred Mountchesneys, the Duke and Duchess of Bellamont were absolutely unknown.

All that the world knew was, that there was a great peer who was called Duke of Bellamont; that there was a great house in London, with a courtyard, which bore his name; that he had a castle in the country, which was one of the boasts of England; and that this great duke had a duchess; but they never met them anywhere, nor did their wives and their sisters, and the ladies whom they admired, or who admired them, either at ball or at breakfast, either at morning dances or at evening déjeuners. It was clear, therefore, that the Bellamonts might be very great people, but they were not in 'society.'

It must have been some organic law, or some fate which uses structure for its fulfilment, but again it seemed that the continuance of the great house of Montacute should depend upon the life of a single being. The duke, like his father and his grandfather, was favoured only with one child, but that child was again a son. From the moment of his birth, the very existence of his parents seemed identified with his welfare. The duke and his wife mutually assumed to each other a secondary position, in comparison with that occupied by their offspring. From the hour of his birth to the moment when this history opens, and when he was about to complete his majority, never had such solicitude been lavished on human being as had been continuously devoted to the life of the young Lord Montacute. During his earlier education he scarcely quitted home. He had, indeed, once been shown to Eton, surrounded by faithful domestics, and accompanied by a private tutor, whose vigilance would not have disgraced a superintendent of police; but the scarlet fever happened to break out during his first half, and Lord Montacute was instantly snatched away from the scene of danger, where he was never again to appear. At eighteen he went to Christ-church. His mother, who had nursed him herself, wrote to him every day; but this was not found sufficient, and the duke hired a residence in the neighourhood of the university, in order that they might occasionally see their son during term.