The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

I.

up-at-battle's.

The family of Drawne was not distinguished till the time of the Reformation, when one Richard Drawne was rewarded for his holy zeal in the suppression of monasteries, by a large grant of confiscated church property, including the Abbey of St. Wilfred, with the manor-house, monastery and demesne lands of the same, amounting to four thousand three hundred acres. He did not live long to enjoy his honours, but died of a fever, leaving his daughter, Anne, sole heiress. In the reign of Edward VI. this lady married the Earl of Warbeck, and thus brought her great wealth to that ancient house which had become sadly impoverished for various but uninteresting causes. The heiress, however, was very tenacious of her female right, and left no legal loopholes by which her property could become one with the Warbeck peerage: the Drawne acres were an inheritance past comparison with any empty earldom. But during three centuries of struggle and change which followed, male heirs in direct succession never failed, and the Earls of Warbeck, by innocently anticipating the miraculous policy of the Vicar of Bray, not only held their possessions, but escaped the inconvenient glories of persecution and martyrdom.

At the time of our story, Henry Fitzgerald George Vandeleur Shannon was 15th Earl of Warbeck, and one Jane Shannon stood in the inconsiderable relation of niece to his lordship. Jane's father had been the fourth son of the late Earl—a kinship in itself sufficiently contemptible from the standpoint of the heir, but when the said fourth son married the daughter of a yeoman-farmer, he lost even the small right he had to twinkle in the Warbeck heaven, and was considered—not a fallen star, but no star at all.

Since the object of such just indignation and scorn was unable to earn his own bread (from the fact, no doubt, that he had half-killed himself writing a Prize Essay—"De Labore"), he lived on the charity of his yeoman father-in-law till, as he himself expressed it, he left a world where he was not wanted, to abide with that sleek host, the worm. In other words, he died of his own grim humour, assisted by a certain difficulty in breathing, a trouble in his liver, a pain in his head, and a grip at his left side. His wife, who was with child at the time of his death, postponed breaking her heart till she had brought forth her little one, and then she turned her sad face to the wall, and died also. The care of the child thus fell to the yeoman-farmer, who, by this time, may be said to have some claim on the reader's sympathy.

Samuel Battle—such was his name—came of sound stock. One John Battle and Matthew his brother had fought under Cromwell. Their descendants, under the Restoration, had, with two exceptions, abandoned the field of war for the more tranquil, if less conspicuous, honours of farming. Of the exceptions, one was a certain Anthony, a scholar and wit, who wrote some love verses and a comedy (compositions, which, dying to posterity, had left their reputation like some unhallowed spirit to haunt the family conscience); the other, Nicholas, was one of the some two thousand clergy who were expelled from their parishes for Nonconformity in 1662. It was from this Nicholas that Samuel Battle, the yeoman-farmer, took his descent. Jane Shannon was heiress, therefore, to many conflicting dispositions.

Battle's farm, or, as it was known in the district, "Up-at-Battle's," lay some eight miles to the east of Brentmore, a small watering-place in the south of England, noted for its scenery, its climate, and the sleep-bringing mission of its air. The farm-house was unpretentious, and though presenting to a town-trained eye an appearance of picturesque antiquity, it was, in fact, an extremely ugly cottage of the Victoria era, made to look rambling and picturesque by means of the numerous rooms, store-cupboards, and outhouses added to it during Battle's own lifetime. The property, when he first came into possession, had consisted of pasture-land, a small orchard, and a large yard. The greater part of the original homestead (built about 1700) had been destroyed by fire, and Battle's father, acting on the advice of a young and second wife, had completed the work of destruction, by building on its ruins the aforesaid Victorian cottage. An unkind rumour had it, that what remained of the best parlour of the first Mrs. Battle, could now be recognised in the most retired portion of the dwelling.

Samuel Battle, on coming into his inheritance, was not slow to show himself a man of singular energy, perseverance, and shrewdness: he was quick to see that letting land was more profitable than tilling it. He was also in favour of small plots and short leases—the advantages of which, as he was careful to point out to dubious tenants, cut both ways, although they might occasionally cut a bit deeper on one side than on the other. An enigmatic saying, which time and the increasing value of the ground made clear.

His education, culled as it was from the Scriptures, and guiltless of School Board trimmings, gave him a command of language, a stern dignity and sterner refinement, than could be found now in younger men of his station, who too often talk big words from their favourite newspaper, mistake insolence for independence, and swagger for good breeding. Dr. Johnson's saying that "the Devil was the first Whig" was the first article of Battle's political belief, and, a staunch Nonconformist, he so far availed himself of the right of private judgment that where his co-religionists read "Down with authority" he only discovered exhortations to obedience. He was, therefore, a Tory, but for no other reason than because he did not see how a professed Christian could be anything else. From which it would seem that if Samuel Battle did wrong he did it rightly.

At the time of which we write, the inmates of the farm-house numbered four, and were Battle himself, his spinster daughter Miss Caroline, his one grandchild Jane Shannon, and a young boy named De Boys Mauden, who was his nephew by marriage—a relative as distant as he was poor.

Jane was three years younger than De Boys, and when he first came to the farm-house, he was seven, and she, four. He was handsome, but she was a plain little creature, all eyes and legs, though the eyes had fire, and the legs were shapely.

This child as she grew up was taught to read and write, to add figures, to make butter and jam, to do plain sewing, and to work hideous patterns with Berlin wool on blue canvas. When she was nine, she was sent to a day-school, and had lessons in drawing, French, and music, and her education, on the whole, was no less thorough than that of many young ladies of fashion. She could write, "The gardener's wife has two children" in a foreign language, and she, too, in the course of time strummed Heller's "Tarentella," the "Moonlight" sonata, and Chopin's Valses. She played them to De Boys long before he had learnt the manners to listen.

She was brought up as a Dissenter, but her father had been a devout Catholic, and it had been promised that when she arrived at years of discretion, she would be given every opportunity to hear the claims of Catholicism. In the meantime, however, no pains were spared to warn her against Antichrist, the Mother of harlots, and idolatry; for the wives and daughters of the deacons thought it a terrible sign of more iniquitous practices to come, when it was known that she cherished her dead father's rosary and crucifix.

Jane's instructor in the useful arts, such as mending, darning, patchwork, and the like, was her aunt, Miss Caroline. Miss Caroline Battle was what men call a sensible woman, which is a way of saying that she did not attach too much weight to their smiles, although she could always smile in her turn. She was comely, too, with soft brown eyes and a pillow-likelike figure, which counteracted the occasional sharpness of her tongue. Miss Caroline, like happy Peter Bell, beheld but did not speculate: she tended her garden, watched the stars, and read two chapters of Scripture every night of her life. She kept hens, and ducks, and bees, and her butter was the pride of the country. She possessed a Maltese lace shawl, and an illustrated Shakespeare, also a set of Whitby jet ornaments, and an amethyst brooch. These treasures, however, she kept locked in her wardrobe because they were heirlooms, and as such were treasured in silver paper. For light literature she gave Jane "The Pilgrim's Progress," "Lady Audley's Secret," "Amy Herbert," "Paul and Virginia," "Roderick Random," "Æsop's Fables," "Robinson Crusoe," and, on Sunday afternoons and anniversaries, Dante's "Inferno," illustrated by Doré. The horrors of this last, while they struck misery to Jane's soul, were largely mitigated by the story of Francesca de Rimini, which, Miss Caroline thought, could only be edifying, since, from all she could gather, the whole Rimini family were in Hell, and burning examples of foreign immorality and its just reward. Why so gentle a being as Caroline Battle should take satisfaction, so deep-reaching that it amounted to pleasure, in a tale which for exciting pity and terror is hardly to be matched, can only be accounted for on the ground, that Hell and sin, as actualities, were so impossible to her imagination, that she believed in one and disapproved of the other as a child swallows medicine, and "hates" porridge.

To Jane, however, whose character was of a very different cast—for she saw everything through the rainbow haze of her own moods—the idea of being damned for love became so familiar and so fascinating, that to love without losing one's soul (if, indeed, such a thing were possible), seemed to her dull, spiritless, monotonous, and bumpkin like. To marry, to settle, to grow stout, and at the last to be "Jane, wife of the above, aged 74. Until the day break and the shadows flee away." Unthinkable prospect! But to float in the air through countless ages—a sight to inspire poets and make them swoon—that were a destiny worthy the name! She confided this opinion to De Boys, who agreed that it would be fine to swim in the winds; but he thought that a girl hanging on his neck would mar the gloriousness of the excursion. Such is the brutality of man at fourteen.

Quite early De Boys had shown a taste for learning, and had dreams very far removed from the walls, turnip-fields, and potato-beds of Up-at-Battle's. He held very pronounced views on literary style, and wrote numerous sermons in the manner of Gibbon, which Jane considered far superior to anything achieved by that historian himself. In gayer moments he attempted blank verse (in the Miltonic strain), and composed two acts of a tragedy—"Julius Caesar in Britain"—in which Jane declared that Julius Caesar sounded exactly like De Boys, particularly in a fine speech about women, which began, "Hence, pampered minions, born of pride and folly" and ended, "I scorn such soft-mouthed babblers." The third act (still un-written) he assured her would be the most tremendous of the five.

His own observation, helped by hints from the neighbours, had taught him very soon that he was living on charity, and a sense of gratitude to the Battles, no less than his own self-pride, filled him with a desperate ambition to be independent, and make a name. His father had been that sad anomaly, an accountant with a literary faculty; his mother was a poetess, who died in her effort to rhyme "love" with "drudgery." From both parents he inherited a desire for the vague, and a disgust for the tangible.

"Have you no pride?" he said to Jane one day, when she had seemed more amused than awed by his ambitious ideas.

"We must beware of pride," said Jane, who hoped she sounded humble.

"That is the right sort of pride—to feel that you come of honest people, and must bring no shame to them," said the boy, hotly. "I am not going to be the pauper of the family!"

"But you are a genius," said Jane. "How can you expect to be rich when you are a genius? I think you are very discontented."

De Boys sighed, but, remembering her good qualities as a fighter, pitied her weak sex and not her poor spirit.

Some months after the foregoing conversation, the curate of the parish, driven to his wits' end by the increasing wants of an increasing family, was inspired to offer young Mauden instruction in the Classics, in exchange for Miss Caroline's milk and butter. At first she had shrunk from this nefarious traffic in dairy produce and the Pagan authors, but no sooner had her common sense assured her that the plan was hugely to the lad's advantage, than she became as strongly convinced of its innocence as she had been of its impiety. She soothed her father's unreasonable prejudices, which were not in disfavour of learning as learning, but of the time wasted in its acquisition. If, as she pointed out, De Boys worked at his books when the rest of the family were sleeping, and if the curate had no better equivalent than Latin and Greek to offer in exchange for food, and if he was too proud to accept it as a gift—— Her opening statement alone occupied forty-five minutes. Battle, who had set his face against De Boys "poking out his eyes wi' night work," and could find no words to express his mean opinion of the dead languages as weighed against fresh butter, relented at the first harrowing picture conjured up to his imagination, by Miss Caroline's ingenious hints of the curate's half-fed family. Her last mournful prophecy that the unhappy man's two girls would die of consumption before the year was out, and the baby have "rickets," was so soul-piercing, that the worthy farmer not only gave his consent to the bargain in debate, but even admitted, that the curate might not be a prophet in sheep's clothing of the type we are so expressly warned against in the Sermon on the Mount.

De Boys, whose burrs of knowledge picked up in the Town Library, and in the local "Academy for Young Gentlemen," had only served to tease alike his intellect and his spirit, saw a special Providence in the tutor, who was thus dropped, as it were, from heaven for his guidance. He hardly knew whither his thoughts and plans were leading him: the something ahead was so vague in outline, and so far away, that though he daily approached it nearer, it only seemed part of the general distance, the bit of high mountain beyond many mountains, many roads and valleys. For the present he only knew he must work—work early and late, never despairing, yet never hoping too high—striving to do his best, but leaving it for others to say how good that best might be. Had he a talent, and was it the one he most coveted in the world?—Would he ever be a scholar? At last one day, between blushes and stammers, he asked his tutor whether—after thirty years or so of close application—he would know something. The Rev. Fitz Ormond O'Nelligan was one of those rare men, who, void of personal pretensions, are big with ambition for their friends. He slapped his pupil on the back with such force that had De Boys been a student of the weakling order, his earthly career would have ended on the spot.

"You will be the foinest Grecian in England," he said—"that is to say, if ye'll only be patient. At the Universitees now, the cry is all for mere lads, and a text which Bentlee would have approached with awe and riverince, and given the best years of his loife too, is now cobbled up by any schoolboy in six weeks or less. Avoid all such immoralitee. Fasten your oies on the gloreeous examples of the past, and if you are not noticed by this generation, there will be some roise up in the future, who will call your memoree blessed."

"What for?" said De Boys, who had fortunately mastered the art of grinning inside.

"For being the one scholar," said O'Nelligan, solemnly, "who had the humanitee to keep his wisdom out of print, and who did not regard the great masterpieces of antiquitee as so many doorposts for every dog to defile. The simile is used by Erasmus."

This encouragement, delivered in O'Nelligan's most impressive manner (impossible to describe, and only to be imagined by those who may have encountered an Irishman with the blood of two kings, eighteen earls, and a Christian martyr in his veins), gave De Boys the self-confidence which he was too modest to assume on his own warrant. It must be owned, however, that his tutor's instruction was, though solid, excessively dull. The one consuming passion of O'Nelligan's life was grammar, and for his pupil's leisure moments he had invented a game on Comparative Syntax, which, in his judgment, transcended chess, and threw whist on its death-bed. Mauden felt, therefore, to his own dismay, a something not wholly unlike relief when, after three years of hard reading, the excellent man confessed that he had taught him what he could, and that the time was now come for him to show his mettle at the University. De Boys rushed home, and with characteristic impetuosity blurted out at the dinner-table that he was going to Oxford.

"What time do you start?" said the gentle Miss Caroline, who wondered whether his journey could have anything to do with the cow.

"To Oxford!" thundered his uncle. "To Oxford! This comes of listening to a curate's great swelling words of vanity. You know what the Apostle Paul saith, that those who seemed to be somewhat, in conference added nothing to him. Take heed by his experience. To Oxford! And what will you find there? The lust of the eye, the pride of life, and the vain pursuit of vainer knowledge. The wise using their wisdom to confound the weak, working, not to the glory of God, but for the amazement of the sinner; each man a law unto himself, and all in conflict with the powers that be. Let me hear no more blether about Oxford!"

Having finished his harangue, which he had delivered with such fluency that Miss Caroline suspected it had long been prepared for some such crisis, he left the room. De Boys, a little pale but not less determined in expression, went about his usual afternoon employment, which, since it had all to do with the farm, made it seem as though "Up-at-Battle's" were, after all, the one reality in life, and his dream of a University career, a dream indeed, nay more, the very town of Oxford a figment of his imagination. At tea-time he did not feel hungry; he walked instead to his favourite peak on the cliff, and sat there, gazing gloomily at the dancing sea. He was roused by a tap on his shoulder: he turned and saw Jane.