The characters are diverse and strong in these books. Walpole clearly believed in women with character, because the book is full of them. Not so outrageous to be incredible, but more women who will not be meek rugs for spouses or family members. History and famous characters sometimes slip in to add color and historical context. Vivid descriptions of the countryside, especially the lake region. Even now, ridges and lakes penetrate in all directions of life.
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LIFE AT ULDALE
SUNWOODS IN COCKERMOUTH
FIREWORKS OVER THE LAKE
DEATH OF DAVID
QUARREL AND FLIGHT
FRANCIS RIDES OVER
THE CRIMSON BIRD
HAPPINESS IN LONDON
THE HERRIES BALL
THE OLD MAN OF THE SEA
THE BIRD OF BRIGHT PLUMAGE
PAYING A CALL ON MRS. SOUTHEY
GONE TO EARTH
WILL HERRIES DINES AT WESTAWAYS
JUDITH IN PARIS
MOTHER AND SON
JUDITH RETURNS TO ULDALE
ROUND OF THE MOON
FRANCIS IN LONDON
The old woman and the new-born child were the only living things in the house.
The old woman, Mrs. Henny, had finished her washing and laying-out of the bodies of the child’s father and of the child’s mother. She had done it alone because she had been afraid to leave the house with no one alive in it save the new-born child. Now she was exhausted and, in spite of her labour, fearfully chilled, for the snow, although it fell now more lightly, was piled high about the doors and windows as if, with its soft thick fingers, it wished to strangle the house.
She was very cold, so she drank some gin, although it was not as a rule her weakness. The bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Herries lay, the eyes decently closed, the pale hands folded, each in its proper bed.
A fine heat burnt through Mrs. Henny’s old body. The gin was good. Then her head fell forward and she slept.
The old house rattled and squealed in the wind that was rising up now that the snow had almost ceased to fall. Feet seemed to creep up and down the stairs, fingers were at the windows, but the dead and Mrs. Henny slept on.
Then, in the room where the old woman, the child, and its mother were, from the window a piece of glass, very old and dark green like weeded water, was loosened with the wind and fell tinkling to the boards. The snow blew in like a live thing and the room was icily chilled.
The child that had been sleeping felt the cold and began to cry, a shrill cry on one note. But Mrs. Henny heard nothing, the gin holding her fast.
Squire Gauntry–little Tom Gauntry–riding along the Borrowdale path just below the house on the farther side of the little bridge, heard the cry. It was strange that from so weak a creature the cry should be so clear. He heard it, and he pulled up his horse; the six hounds who were with him stopped also. The snow had but just ceased to fall and for the first time that day. It was so unusual in that country for there to be so heavy a fall that he halted and looked about him in wonderment. The roofs of Rosthwaite, all the hills, the fields were buried in the white smooth covering, and now, for the first time, light began to break through. The grey stuff of the snowy sky was torn and a faint green field spread over the dim hills, and the snow began shyly to sparkle. The wind blew the top of the snow into little smoking spirals. Some rooks flew, like black leaves, cawing, breaking the sacred silence. The green field spread.
Herries, the house, raised on its little hill, to Gauntry’s right, seemed to be overwhelmed by the snow, huddled, shapeless, helpless, and out of that white shapelessness this thin, desolate, tiny cry continued.
Gauntry was eager to be home; his high black riding-coat was heavy with snow, he was weary and chilled, but there was something in that cry that moved him. A hard-bitten little man, leading always his own life and telling everyone else to go to the devil, nevertheless he was sentimental too: so he turned his horse, crossed the bridge over the stream, and, followed by the six hounds, guided the animal through the snow, and, striking with his whip on the gate of the courtyard, holloaed three times.
There was no answer at all. The silence settled down again. There was no sound but the thin persisting cry. He hesitated as to his next step. He had met Herries once and again, but had no intimacy with him. Indeed, no one had. He was said to be a queer customer, one not easy to deal with, one who would not thank you for uninvited interference.
Gauntry was just like that himself, and, for that very reason, had always felt a sympathy with Herries. He liked a man who told the world to go to the devil: it was what the world was meant for. Nevertheless, he was tired, cold, thirsty. Why should he put himself about for a man who would only curse him?
Then something about the stillness of the house hit his attention. The place was but a ruin in any case; under the snow he could fancy how the boards creaked and the chimneys rocked.
He dismounted from his horse, pushed wide the old, grumbling gate, the snow falling thickly from it, then, followed in silence by the hounds, crossed the courtyard.
The house-door was unbarred. The iron handle turned easily. He entered, to be met by two rusted suits of armour stationed at the foot of the stairs. Still there was silence everywhere, save for the lament of the child.
How cold the house was! He shivered, drawing his cloak tighter about him. Then again he holloaed. No answer. Where the devil were they hiding? Not a sound, not even a clock-tick. Up the creaking stairs he went, the dogs padding after him.
He came to a room hung with faded brown tapestries; there was a portrait of a wicked-looking old man in the dress of Elizabethan times, dead ashes in the stone fireplace, remains of a meal, bread, a mutton bone, on the table.
He called again: ‘Herries! Herries!’ but this time softly. Something in the place constrained him. Lord! how cold the house was!
A narrow wooden stair led higher, so on he went, the hounds following, crowding one another on the stair but making no sound.
At the stairhead there was a room. He pushed the door, entered, then stood there looking.
First he was aware that the snow was blowing in through a broken window, and then that a child lay in a wooden cradle. It was the child’s cry he had heard. Then he saw that in a chair near the bed an old woman was asleep, and at her side was a bottle, tumbled over, spilling its contents on the floor. Then, stepping forward, he saw farther. On the bed a woman was lying. He saw at once that she was dead. Her red hair was spread about the pillow, her eyes were closed, and in her face there was a look of great peace and contentment.
Mrs. Herries! He had heard of her many a time, but had never seen her. She had been a gipsy girl when Herries married her. She had run away from him, and then returned. Herries’ second wife, the only woman, they said, whom he had ever loved. Gauntry bent forward and touched reverently the cold, thin hands. Yes, she was dead. Where, then, was Herries? Roughly he shook the old woman by the shoulder, but she would not stir. Only her old head rolled. He called softly ‘Herries!’, then went to the cradle, and the infant, who must be but newly born, at once ceased to cry.
He went to the door and listened, then seeing a room close by pushed softly into it. Herries himself was lying in bed there. Going closer Gauntry saw that he, too, was dead–an old man, his face scarred, but he, too, seemed to smile in great contentment and happiness.
Both, then? Both dead? He turned back to the other room, again shook the old woman, but saw that the drink held her fast. He stood there wondering what he should do, while the hounds sat on their haunches by the door and watched him.
Through the dusk the snow sparkled like diamonds, and somewhere a solitary bird began its chirping. The infant did not cry, but seemed to watch him.
‘Old woman!’ he cried. ‘Wake up! Wake up!’
But she would not wake. What must he do? The child must not be left here in this bitter cold: he could see that it was very warmly wrapped. Every preparation had been made for its coming. Poor woman! Poor Mrs. Herries! Died in child-birth maybe, and Herries himself dying in the next room. Strange end to a strange life!
A tenderness seized him as he looked at that thin childish face, those thin delicate hands! What lovely hair she had! Herries had loved her, they said, almost to madness.
Well, someone must be told. Herries’ son, David Herries, at Uldale must be told. Someone in Rosthwaite village must be fetched. But he could not leave that child there to start its melancholy cry so soon as he was gone. No, he could not. Very delicately for so dried and rough a little man he picked up the child, wrapping round it its warm bedding. Were it warm enough it would not suffer. They were hardy children in Gauntry’s world. He was pleased that the child did not cry, but lay there in his arms contentedly.
Then he went out, down the stairs, across the courtyard, led the horse with one hand, and so, followed by the hounds, crossed the little bridge.
He knocked on the first cottage-door in Rosthwaite. An old, wrinkled woman opened it. He told her of what he had found. She exclaimed something incoherently of witches and warlocks; another woman came, they chattered together. Two men joined them.
After many wonderings, forebodings and murmurs they started off up the hill to the house, in a group together as though they were afraid.
He stood there, considering. He did not wish to leave the child. It would be late when he was home. He would take it to his own place, Stone Ends, that night, and the family at Uldale should have it in the morning.
Yes, he did not want to leave it. Poor baby; it trusted him and seemed to watch him lest he should go away. Both dead in the one hour! He was helped to his horse, the child lifted to him by a village girl, then he called to the hounds and rode away. The infant, warm under the thick wrapping, uttered no sound.
LIFE AT ULDALE
In the autumn of the year 1785 David Herries was sixty-six years of age, his wife Sarah forty-seven, his children, Francis twenty-five, Deb twenty-three and Will fifteen; his little half-sister, Judith Herries, was eleven.
They all lived at Fell House, Uldale. Uldale is on the farther side of Skiddaw and looks over the moor to the Solway Firth. The sprawling flanks of Skiddaw spread between Uldale and the town of Keswick.
In 1785 Marie Antoinette was playing hide-and-seek with her ladies in the gardens of Versailles, William Pitt was Prime Minister of England, Jane Austen was ten years old, and a Keswick boy of sixteen had just been hanged for stealing a leg of mutton. Nevertheless, this is a poor way of reckoning history, especially at Uldale, where the crops mattered and cock-fighting mattered and old Mrs. Monnasett had only this very moment died.
History, of course, begins anywhere and everywhere. For Judith Herries it began, perhaps, when little Tom Gauntry found her squealing under the closed and lifeless eyes of both her parents. She never reckoned it so; she reckoned that it began on this autumn day when, after looking at Mrs. Monnasett’s corpse, she was whipped by her half-brother David.
This at once shows the ludicrousness of her position. She was eleven years old, and yet was sister to David Herries, who was sixty-six, and, yet more absurd, aunt, or at any rate half-aunt, to Francis, who was twenty-five, and Deb, who was twenty-three.
To make the matter more complicated yet and surely most improper, she was in love with her nephew Francis. For excuse you may say that she loved and hated alternately everyone around her a hundred times a day.
One of the disgraceful colours to this first notable event in Judith Herries’ life was that Mrs. Monnasett was but just dead and lying in state in the Blue Room. It was, indeed, because Mrs. Monnasett lay there that the trouble began.
Fell House was a pleasant building, square-shaped, its brick rose-coloured, a walled-in garden, many fruit trees, the farm buildings with all the animals and the odours, a Gothic temple beyond the lawn, pigeons in the loft, swelling downs stretching almost to the sea, Skiddaw against the windows, and the road where the coaches ran not so far away that you could not hear the horses.
Life for Judith should have been agreeable there. They all wished to love her, and there was nothing in the world that she liked better than to be loved, but it had all been spoilt for her from the very beginning because she preferred so infinitely the life at Stone Ends, where Uncle Gauntry drank, hunted, beat her, loved her, taught her to ride, to hunt, to prepare the birds for cock-fighting and to learn everything there was to learn about men and women.
She was only eleven, but she knew more, far more, about everything than her half-niece Deb, who was twenty-three, or that other Deborah, her half-sister, who was married to a clergyman at Cockermouth and had two grown sons.
Uldale was by far too tame for her, and yet she loved them all and yearned for them all to love her. She knew, though, even at this age (she had known it long ago), that they could not really love her, for her mother had been a gipsy woman taken by her father off the fells and married by him when he was already an old man. She knew that David and Deborah, his children, had been ashamed of this marriage and had despised him for it. (They had not despised him for it. She would learn that one day.) Oh yes, they could not love her at Uldale, because she was the daughter of a gipsy and had been found one day dancing naked on the roof and could swear most horribly. But at Stone Ends they did not mind whose daughter she was and allowed her to do whatever she pleased.
Now on this afternoon in October they had but just finished dinner, Mrs. Herries, Deb, Will and Judith. Mr. Herries and Francis had ridden to Newlands to see about a piece of land. Mrs. Monnasett was to be buried the following day. The house was quite still. Mrs. Herries went to the China Room to write a letter to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Sunwood of Cockermouth. Deb was for the dairy, Will away on some secret purpose of his own. No one needed Judith. She stood, listening to the stillness of the house, half-way up the staircase, her fingers in her lip, considering. She was an odd little creature, even as odd little creatures go. She was very small, although made in excellent proportion, save that her red hair, which hung in ringlets, seemed weighty for her head. Her complexion was pale and would always be so: she had the horse-features of all the Herries, prominent nose and cheek-bones. She was, in fact, no beauty, but there was very much character in her bright and challenging eyes, the resoluteness of her mouth. When she smiled she could be very winning. She could also look exceedingly impertinent, and, when angry, with her red hair, her pale face, and perfectly balanced, lightly swinging body, she could seem a flying fury. She had tiny hands and feet; of these already she was boastfully proud.
She was dressed in a red bodice with silver buttons and a small orange hoop. She wore red shoes. This was her best dress, bought for her in Carlisle on a birthday by David Herries, who alternately loved and hated her. She was supposed to wear this grand dress only on very special occasions; she put it on most days of the week, but although she wore it so often it was as fresh as when it was new. She had, from the first, that gift of being as clean and spotless in all her circumstances as a piece of china. That was a dirty age, but Judith had always a passion for washing; no water was too cold for her; she was so hardy that nothing ever ailed her. One out of every three children at this time died before it was four years of age. Judith had never known an ache or a pain. They said that it was because Tom Gauntry had carried her on the very day that she was born through all the snow and ice from Borrowdale to Stone Ends. If that hadn’t killed her, nothing would.
She stood, swinging a red shoe, sucking her thumb, and considering. She had intended to go to the corner of the road and watch for the of Mr. Herries and Francis. She loved Francis madly, passionately, although he was her nephew. She loved his thin delicate body, his pale austere face with the dreaming eyes, the soft gentle voice. He should have been a woman, people said, and that was why so few understood him, but Judith understood him and she would willingly (she thought) die for him. She would not, of course, in reality die for anyone, having now and always a fierce and tenacious hold on life. But she fancied that if he said (in his soft dreaming voice) ‘Judith, pray jump from yonder window and break all your bones,’ she would jump. The fact that he considered her very little, scarcely ever thought of her, made no difference. She loved him only the more fiercely. He and Uncle Gauntry were the gods of her fiery, agitated, dramatic world.
As she stood there the stillness of the house forced itself ever more upon her attention. She had intended to go to the road, but what an opportunity this was to creep in and look at Mrs. Monnasett! She had seen dead people before. There was the boy in Bassenthwaite village who had been beaten by his master and had suddenly (most ungratefully) died; she had been walking with Will and they had come on him lying against the Cross on the Common. There had been the beggar who came to their door one summer night to ask for food, and he had fallen dead while walking away up the hill. She was no stranger to death, and thought, in a general way, little of it. But Mrs. Monnasett was different. Judith had known her all her life. She had been nurse and tyrant and friend to all the children. She had been, there for years, ever since Francis and Deborah were born, and what a strange woman she had been, with the hairy mole on her cheek, the strange stories that she used to tell, the songs that she used to sing, the ghosts she had seen and the witches she had known, and, more than all, the little gold box that she carried with the charm of a snake’s skin and the queer-smelling foreign root; would she have that little box with her yet, even though she were dead?
Judith had thought that the charm would prevent her from ever dying. She would live for ever. But no, she had not. She was dead now and the worms would eat her. Had she the little box yet with her? Judith considered. She and Will had been forbidden to go near the room, but that forbidding only made the matter more charming. She would have a whipping, but she had had many, and when David Herries whipped her she had only to sob in a certain strangling way and he was always sorry for her and would kiss her and let her have a pinch of snuff out of his box. Yes, the risk was nothing. Softly she stole up the stairs.
As it happened, Mrs. Sarah Herries was at that same moment writing of Judith to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Deborah Sunwood. She sat in the China Room, pleasant and sunny, the low windows looking across to Skiddaw. The room was handsomely furnished with some pagodas and vessels of Chelsea china, in which were set coloured sprigs of artificial flowers. The walls were hung with a Chinese wallpaper and, to quote an old Herries journal, ‘A looking-glass, enclosed in a whimsical frame of Chinese paling, stood upon a Japan table over which was spread a coverlet of the finest chintz.’ Yes, a pretty room, burnished now with the last orange glow of the setting sun, for it was after five, and Sarah Herries must light the candles.
She stood there a moment watching the trembling flame, a handsome woman in a rose-coloured hoop, wearing her own hair, a fine bosom, and the face stout a trifle, but kindly, good-humoured and patient.
She was thinking, perhaps, as she held the snuffer in her hand and glanced at her broad figure in the looking-glass, that her life had been cast in pleasant places since that day so many years ago when David had snatched her out of Wasdale and fought her uncle on the Stye Head Pass.
She was thinking of that and of her Will, whom she adored, and her Francis, whom she adored not quite so much, and of her fat good-natured Deborah, whom, because she took a trifle after herself, she loved a little less... yes, ever so little less. And then her thoughts turned, as they always did were they given any freedom at all, to her beloved, worshipped David, the fire, the heat, the passion of her happy life, still the most handsome of all human creatures although he might be stout now, still the best of all humans although he might on occasion drink himself under the table or lose at faro with Squire Osmaston and the others the money that he had put aside for the purchase of Brandon’s field. Her eyes were wet a trifle, the candle-flame danced mistily as she sat herself down in the dark Irish Chippendale chair to write to her sister Deborah.
There was nothing in the world that she liked better than to write to Deborah, for she understood so precisely the importance of everything that Sarah thought important, was interested in all the cures that Sarah practised on the children, thrilled to the heart when she heard that wicked Cousin Pelham, now nearly seventy and old enough to reform (but he never would), had sent Sarah all the way from London by coach and carrier a Chippendale bookcase with a Gothic design in the cornice and rosettes on the lower panels.
Yes, Deborah understood everything, and most especially did she understand about Judith.
This, then, was the letter’s first part, the candle-flame trembling, the China paper dancing, the outer world fading to a silver star and the white tone of the climbing road.
My dearest Sister–I hope that you were not disappointed of your lodgings in Kendal and that the boys took care for you. I can give but little account of these last days for, as you know, we have had Kate Morris’s children with us while the house in Keswick was set to order. Their visit had like to have been fatal to me for they not being acquainted with the Semblance of Manners nor trained indeed to anything but having their own Way perfectly in all things that were bad enough without our Judith’s added wickedness to excite them.
There is also now Mrs. Monnasett dead in the House and last Tuesday the new Coachman that we had from Mr. Newsom of Newlands was drunk returning Home from Penrith and the postillions also and like to have overturned us on a gallop against a Post coming through Threlkeld.
However, dearest Deborah, you are aware that my Nature is both Tranquil and Harmonious and that if I might but be sure that the Beneficient Creator is not on occasion busied with His Attention in other more interesting Directions I would not trouble for drunken Coachmen or anything else.
Mrs. Monnasett is to be buried to-morrow forenoon.
I am happy that I consider nothing more disagreeable than Learning in a Female for Mr. Huxtable the Tutor of Kate’s children has been here a week and found us all Savages save Francis.
With him he must talk Greek and all the Indian Languages and has Mr. Young’s Night Thoughts at his Finger End and Mr. Pope’s Essay on Man sprouting from his Eyeballs–a Man heavy of figure and such a Comedy on a Horse that it would do you good to see. But Judith who must always carry everything too far put a Cracker under his Chair and a Mouse in his Wig for which David whipped her, but not I fear so severely as she merited. But Mr. Huxtable showed no Impatience, reminding us that Alexander the Great and Diogenes were Characters alike for their indifference to Trifles the one holding the World as his Tub, the other his Tub as the World or some such Nonsense.
And now in Seriousness, my dearest Sister, I have been so gravely disturbed over Judith that last Tuesday I was blooded and on two occasions my throat has been excoriated.
For the Child has a Devil that there’s no exorcising. She is now high and now low and not altogether bad; David indeed swears that she is not bad at all and has as good a Heart as anyone in this house, which may be in Truth enough save that if she has a Heart she has also a Temper and a Disposition to Evil that I swear poor child is as great a Trouble to Herself as it is to Us.
I have no doubt as I have often said to you before but that it had its commencement in Mr. Gauntry’s love for her as a Baby. We have forbidden her his Place for the Present. I have no Need to tell you, Sister, of the scandalous Conduct now current in Stone Ends. It is the Talk of the Countryside. The last Time Judith was there they had been wanting to make her drink with him and I must not be ingreateful to the Squire when I acknowledge that he will not have her contaminated and in any Case she can with a marvellous Discretion for a child of her years manage the whole Establishment at Stone Ends that she has under her little finger. It is Managing that she is always after and has been from a Baby. All the satisfaction that I have is that she has not yet learnt the Fashion of managing me nor ever will, but to see that Chit of a Child with her red hair and Herries Nose giving orders to my Will and Deb is so Unnatural as to be only partly Decent. Monnasett could deal with her and would have it that her Temper was from her Consciousness of and Uneasiness at her unlikely Parentage, but I have not seen her so Sensitive but have found again and again a brutal insensibility to the wants and opinions of others.
For the present she is in a Pretty Tantrum because she is forbidden Mr. Gauntry’s and if we do not watch her she will be over there in a trivet. She has found out, I fancy, that I am not to be feared although I am not yet assured that she has found out that I am to be loved. But am I indeed? She is too odd a changeling for either David or myself to be certain of our Hearts towards her. It was the same with her mother, poor Mirabell, who as you will well remember, dearest Sister, never loved me because I was too Settled a Wife and Domestic a Woman for her. And this Child also could be in her turn Domestic when she wished. She is in fact of a Mixture so odd that it needs a more perceiving Woman than myself to fathom her only it is Plain enough that she must have her Way in everything and Dominate all those around her. Then, granted her Desires, she will let her Heart speak and has a Generosity that is not to be checked. Nevertheless I am filled with Fears for the future. As she grows her Nature becomes more clear with every hour and this house is in a Turmoil over her...
As to your Complaint, gentle purging is to be advised; no vomits but if your stomach flags four to eight drops of Elixir of Vitriol is excellent and if feverish three spoonfuls of a decoction of the bark by boyling one ounce and a half in a quart of water to a pint. I must tell you, dearest Deborah, that since the days that Cupid set Hercules to the distaff he has not had a nobler conquest than mine over the straightening of the cupboard-room in the new...
The remainder of this letter has nothing for our purpose.
It is Herries history, however, that at the moment when Mrs. Sarah Herries was doing her best to place Judith upon paper, the same Judith was with the utmost gentleness and caution opening the door of the Blue Room where Mrs. Monnasett was lying.
Entering, she was both pleased and sensually alarmed by the dim candle-fluttering light that hung about the room, making the blue pagodas on the wallpaper, the high tallboy, seem of infinite mystery, and the blue tester hangings and overlay of the bed sway in some dimly felt stirring of the breeze. Not that she was frightened. Judith did not know now, did not, for many years, know what it was to be afraid. The day would come, and in a room not unlike this present one, when, hearing her beloved Francis enter the hall below, she would know, but that was not yet.
She approached the bed; it was one that had always most especially attracted her with its reeded and fluted columns, delicately carved with acanthus leaves. There were very few things, even at this early age, that she did not notice. The candles were standing at the bed-head, and Mrs. Monnasett, very yellow against the white of the pillow, her black hair spread, her large strong hands neatly folded, lay there, her lips curved in a sardonic smile. So, Judith reflected, often in real life she had smiled as though she knew more, far, far more than anyone around her. And so, indeed, Judith was very sure that she did. If she had not been an actual witch she had been as near to it as not to matter. Judith had known that all the domestics and hands about the farm had thought her one. Yes, she had known everything, and now what did she know? Did Death tell you anything more? She looked as though, behind those closed eyelids, she were seeing a thousand things. A fire burned in the room. It was hot, and there was a faint cloying smell of corruption. Judith came very close, stood on her toes because the bed was high, and touched with her warm fingers the dead hand. It was not only cold like iron but hard like iron. Where was Mrs. Monnasett now? With God? Asking God questions? Telling Him, perhaps, things that He did not know. But, above all, had she the little gold box with her? Judith did not intend to steal it, only to see whether they would bury it with her.
She looked about the dim dark room, sniffing the faint decaying odour like a little dog. The heavy curtains at the windows fluttered, the blue pagodas on the wall seemed to run a race, the fire crackled and sputtered, mice would be behind the wainscot, but none of these disturbed Mrs. Monnasett, who lay there, growing surely with every moment more yellow, and the mole black upon her cheek, smiling her secret smile because of the things she knew that others didn’t. But had she the little gold box with her? Had she? Had she? Judith must know.
She stood at her tallest, leaned over and, with a shiver of excitement at her daring, felt with her hand, under the clothes, in the hollow of Mrs. Monnasett’s breasts.
She had scarcely touched that chill flesh when there was a voice at the doorway, a voice of horror and disgust.
She nearly lost her balance and, half tumbling, started away from the bed to see Mrs. Herries, holding high a lighted candle, in the doorway. The child assumed at once the attitude that she always had when she was set for trouble. She flung her head back, held her hands behind her and waited.
‘Judith! Come out of here.’
She followed Mrs. Herries from the room. In the passage she stood by the door like some small wild animal ringed about with enemies.
‘What were you doing there?’
‘Nothing! That is a lie!’
‘I wasn’t doing anything.’
‘You wicked child! You had been forbidden to enter the room.’
‘You confess your disobedience?’
‘And at the bed you were touching–’ Sarah Herries’ voice broke in her disgust and revulsion.
‘I wished to look at Mrs. Monnasett–and bid her farewell.’
Sarah Herries sighed. This strange child! But there was feeling there, tenderness. The child had heart. And all would have been well had not that odd impulse to absolute honesty that would, throughout Judith’s life, force from her such inconvenient avowals burst from her now:
‘I wished to see whether Mrs. Monnasett had yet with her the gold box with the charms.’
‘You wished to see–what?’
‘Whether she had yet the little gold box with the charms.’
‘You would see...’ Mrs. Herries broke off. Her nature was kindly, wise, tolerant, but she did not understand this child any better than in the earlier days she had understood the mother. And just as then elements would arise that sickened some sound English normality in her, so now with Judith there would be often moments when she hated this child, in reality hated her so that she wished her out of her house and her family, a thousand miles away, never to return.
She felt this revulsion now, a sort of sickness. To search the corpse for a gold box–a child of eleven. She was afraid of what she might do, so she said: ‘Go to your room and wait there until I come to you.’
Judith, without a word, turned and went.
Her room was a small one under the roof. From her window she could see the road, the hills, the woods that stretched towards Bassenthwaite. Here she had her treasures–a candle-stand that Francis had given her, a china jar, old and cracked, but with lovely orange flowers on it, that she had begged from Mrs. Monnasett, two ‘babies’–rag dolls from her own babyhood–a fox’s brush that Tom Gauntry had sent her, a piece of China silk, a faded and stained battle-piece in a black frame that she had found in a cellar, a treatise on cock-fighting, and a Bible that Reuben Sunwood had presented to her last Christmas-time. Here she would sit on a small oak-panelled arm-chair and watch from the window the outside world that she so desperately loved.
Now she banged the door behind her, kicked off her red shoes and stood scowling. She hated Fell House and everyone in it save Francis. She knew that she had been wrong to go and look at Mrs. Monnasett, and more wrong still to touch her. Her immaculate honesty forbade her to blame Mrs. Herries for any injustice. She had been right to be angry, the punishment that would follow would be just. She was so much wickeder than all the others, as she very well knew. Here was no portrait of a poor, ill-treated little girl. They tried to love her; it was her own fault that they could not. But with every breath that she drew she was longing for Tom Gauntry–the odd, rambling, ill-shaped house with the smell of dogs and horses and drink and dung and cooking food and musty curtains, with the noise and laughter and songs, with the freedom and airy indulgence as though all the doors and windows were for ever open–that was her life, that the place into which she had been taken on the very first day of her existence, and Uncle Tom with his twisted brown face and twisted brown body, his funny bow-legs and his hoarse whisper and his cry to the hounds and his oaths and angers–he understood her as no one else in the world did... And then, cutting across that picture, as so often it did, was another one, quite opposite, that made her understand the Herries decency of Uldale, made her, in certain moods, finely handy about the place, in the store cupboards, the dairies, so that she could sew and bake and clean with the best of them, and understood too when Will (for whom she did not really care) would tell her, with all the gravity of a grown man, of how he would advance the Herries family and have money in all the banks and buy land everywhere–all this she could understand and believe in.
Yes, but at this precise moment she was a little girl of eleven in one of her hellish tempers, one of her incoherent rages, so that she could swear in proper Cumberland just like any of the girls or men about the place, so that she was mad to be out of the house and over the fells, sniffing the peat, hearing the water of the mountain-streams run and the tug of the sheep at the grass and the sharp bark of the sheep-dogs...
She turned, her eyes furious and her little feet stamping, at the sound of the open door. Francis Herries had come in.
At the sight of him she forgot for a moment all her trouble. He was still in his riding-clothes. He must have come straight to her after his arrival. His face was so beautifully peaked and serious under his brown wig, his legs in their riding-boots so handsomely shaped and his eyes so far away, so mysterious...
She drew her breath sharply as she always did when she saw anything that seemed to her beautiful. How she loved him! And he, from his great height, looked down gravely to the odd little figure with the defiant mouth and the red hair and rebellion in every inch of her.
He slapped his whip against his thigh.
‘Father is coming shortly to beat you. I thought I’d best prepare you.’ Then he smiled, a lovely winning smile which, in anyone more self-conscious, must have been artificial. But Francis Herries, as he never thought of himself, never thought of his smile either.
‘I know.’ Her eyes devoured him. ‘I don’t care as long as you’ve come.’
‘What have you done, you little devil? Why can’t you be good?’
‘I can’t be good,’ she answered defiantly, ‘because my father married a gipsy. And I’m happy he did,’ she added.
This was an old familiar statement of hers. She was always dragging in the gipsy. It seemed to Francis to be in bad taste, so he said again:
‘What have you done this time?’
‘I went in to see Mrs. Monnasett.’
The thought and image of death, so familiar as to be less than nothing at all to the men and women of his time, always affected Francis Herries with a queer tremor of mystery and horror. It seemed to him revolting that this child should have been in Mrs. Monnasett’s room.
‘Why must you do that?’ he asked.
‘To see if she had her little gold box.’
‘A box of spells that she had.’
He said nothing and turned to the door.
With a little tremor in her voice she said: ‘Please punish me.’
He turned back. ‘Punish you?’
She broke out passionately, an unusual passion for so young a child.
‘I didn’t know that it was wrong, but if you had told me not I would never have gone. Punish me and you will see. I will do anything you tell me, stand in icy water or let the rats in the cellar gnaw me or sleep in the stable.’
He looked at her, met the intense absorbed devotion of her eyes, and was greatly touched. When he could come out of his dreams and notice human beings he loved them, loved all humanity. He was humble also, and found it strange that anyone should care for him. This small child, standing there, in her stockinged feet and coloured hoop, adoring him, moved him. They were friends from that moment, although neither realised that it was just then that their long alliance was formed. He spoke lamely enough:
‘Punish you? No. Why should I punish you?’
They could say no more because at that moment David Herries came in. He carried a riding-whip, was in his riding-clothes, looked exceedingly sheepish. He had been always of great size and immense strength. Now, at sixty-six, he was beginning to be corpulent, had a red face and something of a belly, but looked very much the same kindly, obstinate, unimaginative boy who had, nearly thirty years before, carried his Sarah away from the dark house in Wasdale.
He looked sheepish because he hated this business. Francis went out. Judith bent over the chair and he whipped her. Neither said a word until it was over. She replaced her little clothes, then stood, her lip trembling, because she was very near to tears but would not cry, near the window.
Her stockings were crooked, which seemed to David very pathetic, and without knowing it she had her hand on her back where it was sore.
He filled the room with his great bulk, and his red face was creased with kindliness. He scratched his bare head, pushing his wig a little awry. He talked because he saw that she was near to tears.
‘Now, Judith, why must you do such a thing? ’Tisn’t decent to be in the death-chamber, and it was against all orders, as you very well knew. Now, then, it is over, isn’t it? Never to be spoken of again...’
He went and picked her up and kissed her. Had he known it (and it had been always one of David’s weaknesses that he was not clever at perceiving things), this was, of everything that he could do, the thing that she detested most.
To be picked up, like a tiny baby, to be dangled in the air, to be held close to this huge man and feel his bristly cheek and smell the odour of liquor and horses, to have her neck pricked by the sharp buttons of his coat, and, worst of all, to have his great heart hammering in her ear, this was the final ignominy!
She stayed passive, only when he would kiss her mouth she turned her head aside. He put her down with a grunting sigh. She was a problem, this child, just as her mother Mirabell had been before her. He did not understand her at all.
He looked at her, smiled an awkward, clumsy smile, muttered, ‘We shall say no more about the thing,’ and stumped away.
She stood there, considering. She did not want to see any of them ever again, save Francis. Somewhere a clock sounded six. A cart rattled down the Fell road. She went to the window and looked out. It was almost dark; the hills were shadows against shadow.
Then she smiled.
She knew what she would do.
She was so made that once a plan came to her nothing in the world was ever going to stop her, and every pulse of her body beat to that one purpose.
She flung back the narrow diamond-paned window, found a cloak and a shawl, left the red shoes for thick country ones. No time was wasted, and as she worked for her purpose her small mouth was set, her chin was out. Nothing was to stop her in such a mood. She didn’t think of consequences (she was never to think of them as she should do), recked little that this second disobedience in one evening meant trouble for her more serious, perhaps, than any that she had yet encountered.
She had been out of that window before. There was still light enough for her to see the old crooked water-pipe that jerked an arm round the farther end of her casement, then there was the water-butt, then the stone passage leading to the stable. But she had a long descent on that pipe. She clung to it with hands and feet, her chin and nose rasped by its casing. Her small legs trembled, the shawl blew against her face, she felt (or imagined that she felt) spiders’ thread in her hair, then her feet found the water-butt, she held her body together and jumped.
She fell on her hands and knees, and the black cat, Solomon, ran from under her very feet, scrambling up the monkey-tree. Her knees were bleeding, her hoop under her cloak was torn. But she stood, holding her breath like a proper conspirator, to hear whether the noise had made any stir. There was no sound but the owl hooting. It seemed that a breath of light had blown back again into the sky. Over the garden wall, the Caldbeck fells were outlined as though a row of candles were lit behind them.
It was the moon; later that moon would strengthen, and the freshening wind would blow the stars up. All the garden scents were crowding the night air. She was very cheerful indeed, and, pulling the cambric tight about her face again, stepped across the irregular paving of the yard, called very softly, ‘Barnabas! Barnabas!’ At once the little black horse with the white star on his forehead put his head over the paling. In another moment she had unbarred the door and was leading him out, stroking his nose.
Barnabas understood perfectly what she wanted. She mounted the black outside the gate and, her legs spread very wide, her hair flying, was away up the road. A mile later, the first delirium of freedom passed, she began to consider ghosts, witches and warlocks. She was not afraid, but there was the man with the face like a rat, the woman with two heads, the lost soul of Judas that whimpered like an infant, the old woman with a rat on her shoulder, the lovely lady on the skeleton horse, the old woman with three beards, the soldier who had lost his head in the wars and carried it in his handless arms, the coach with the eight devils and the fiery horses, the lady of Caldbeck who walked searching for the child that she had murdered.
And worse, perhaps, in actual fact, than any of these, the highway robber who had been hung in chains on the path between Thistlebottom and Whelpo, although there were now only his bones remaining.
She was not afraid of any of them, but she repeated aloud to herself the Lord’s Prayer and so much of the Creed as she could remember, and then the names of the places near her home–Ireby, Snittlegarth, Binsey, Aughertree, Nevin Tarn, Orthwaite, Over Water, Braefell, Branthwaite. It comforted her that Barnabas trotted comfortably along as though he knew precisely his destination, but it comforted her yet more when she met a cheerful gang of pack-horses, the bell-horse first with his pleasant noise. They were carrying peat from the moors in halts, old-fashioned wicker-baskets that were very soon now to give way to carts.
Judith called out to the men as she passed them, waving her hand, and they talked that night about the witch that had greeted them (on a black horse) and had waved in the air hands shining with flame.
Stone Ends, Tom Gauntry’s place, was a mile beyond Caldbeck. She made no further encounter. The clock of Caldbeck Church struck seven as she trotted through the deserted little street.
On the dark road beyond Caldbeck she met two drunken soldiers who stood in the road and waved at her. They had a lantern; one had a wooden leg. She leaned forward on to Barnabas’ mane and cursed them in good Cumbrian. She called them ‘Hulkers’ and ‘Lubbers’ and ‘Dummle-heads.’ She told them that they gave her ‘a nasty dwallow taste in her mouth’ and that they’d better ‘jump up and knep a daisy.’ She must have astonished them, perched on the horse, her red hair flying about in the uncertain circumference of the lantern that waved in their drunken hands. At any rate, they did nothing, and stood aside to let Barnabas by.
So she arrived at Stone Ends. This was a rough-cast building of no height, with an outside gallery and stair. There were mullioned windows, great trees overhanging the mossy slates and round thick chimneys. There was a garden with a clipped hedge, the fells everywhere beyond, a rough plot of flowers, some out-buildings, a sundial, a little stream.
Lights burnt in the windows, but Judith did not need a light. This little place had been familiar to her since her babyhood, her only true home. She tied Barnabas to the gate and went cautiously to the porch. She was not certain how she would be received. Old Gauntry was not always the perfect host, especially when taken unawares. Riding Barnabas so soon after the beating had not improved the soreness of her seat. She did not want another whipping, nor to be sent directly back to Uldale again. So, with her ear to the heavy door, she listened. Little listening was needed. The chorus of revelry was clear enough. They would have been hunting, she decided, and were now in process of becoming drunk as soon as possible. That did not frighten her. She had heard often enough: ‘Now this is a fine fox we’ve killed and it munna be a dry one.’ The important thing was to ascertain the stage of drunkenness at which they had arrived. She knew that between the first and second hour they would all be in a state of exceeding friendliness.
She was, however, given no time to consider. The door opened and Wull shoved his hairy head out. Wull (or William Flint as was his proper name) stood to Tom Gauntry as the Fool stands to his King. Judith would never forget the agitation with which she had first beheld him. In her babyhood she had been told that he was the Hobthross, the Brownie who lurks in old houses–works all night for the family to whom he has attached himself, stretches himself before the fire, churns the milk for the girls, and can be heard singing at his tasks. A kindly spirit, but wild to look at, with his shock of hair, his broad ugly face, his misshapen limbs. Just so was ‘Wull,’ and when she was an infant he would love to pull faces at her until she howled with rage. She was never frightened of him, but only angry. Later he became her friend, then her warm ally. He poked his ugly head out at her now.
‘Wull! Wull!’ she whispered.
Sometimes he was a complete fool, sometimes most intelligent. He would tell her about himself with a broad grin: ‘Ah’m nobbut a bit goffish.’ It was probable that he was not ‘goffish’ at all, but knew exactly what he was doing. When he saw who it was he let her in. The house-place was filled with dogs and smelt like a midden. Judith did not mind the smell in the least. The dogs were everywhere; every kind of dog. They ran at her when they saw her, barking and tumbling all over her. Some of the hounds were bigger than she. They all knew her. One, a spaniel bitch, Clara, adored her, had followed her once almost all the way back to Uldale.
When Clara saw her she was in an ecstasy of happiness, springing up and down, yapping on a shrill high note, her beautiful large eyes beaming with joy. Judith asked Wull how many gentlemen there were in there. He didn’t know; about twenty maybe. They had had a grand day’s hunting and had killed over by High Hesket. He cuffed the dogs and quieted them, but the noise had been heard. The room door opened and Tom Gauntry came out. He stood with his funny crooked legs straddling. He was very fairly drunken. When he saw Judith he gave a loud ‘Yoicks! Yoicks! Tally-ho! Tally-ho!’ and they came crowding to the door. Judith recognised a number she knew–young Osmaston, Squire Watson, old Birkmyre, Statesman Peel–also two ladies.
Gauntry came over to her and picked her up and carried her shoulder-high into the room where they were dining. Oddly enough, what she hated in David Herries she liked in Uncle Tom.
‘And why the hell have you come?’ he asked her.
‘Because I wanted,’ she answered.
From her height she looked over the scene, which was for her no new one. The room was not large. They were crowded about the round table upon whose shining surface the candles guttered grease. Food was piled everywhere–mutton, beef, puddings; wine was spilt on the table, and almost the first thing that Judith noticed was the naked head of old Dunstable, robbed of its wig, lying forward in a puddle of wine. He had succumbed already.
Most of them had not. Sitting now, sharp-eyed, on a chair beside Uncle Gauntry, she saw very quickly that there were two boys there, boys of about her own age. It was not unusual that boys should be there, and one of them she knew, little Johnny Peel, two years younger than herself. It would later be said of him that he was ‘lang in the leg an’ lish as a lizard,’ and someone in the Gentleman’s Magazine was to record that ‘he seems to have come into this world only to send foxes out of it.’ He was of Caldbeck village, but there was no hunt already that he wasn’t attending within any radius from Penrith to Cockermouth, Cockermouth to Carlisle. It was said of him already that he could do thirty miles in the day and not be tired of it; later on it was to be fifty. But Judith knew that boy before; he didn’t interest her. The other was another matter. She had not hitherto allowed her young life to be much encumbered with boys. On the whole she despised them; of late especially her real worship of Francis Herries had veiled her sight.
But this boy struck through to her deep consciousness. How often afterwards she was to look back to this moment when, as she sat perched up on the chair beside Tom Gauntry, her little sharp eyes flashed across to the table to the equally sharp eyes of that small, black-haired, bullet-headed urchin, who was grabbing any food that he could see. Very characteristic that Judith’s first vision of him should be of greedy rapacity! But (also how characteristic of him!) it was not merely greed. While he snatched at meat and bread and the thick pastry of the beef-pie his little black eyes were flashing about him, humorous, contemptuous, but as alive as fire-balls!
‘Who’s that?’ Judith asked of Gauntry. He was, as she had hoped, at the cheerful side of his drinking, singing a catch, shoving food into his mouth, exchanging bawdy stories with all and sundry.
‘That!’ he laughed, following her eyes. ‘That’s the Frenchy! There’s his mama!’ pointing a chicken-bone at a lady farther along the table. There were only two women here, one of them the wife of young Squire Osmaston, a flaxen-haired, broad-bosomed, opulent lady at the moment chucking Sam Newton under the chin. This other was different. She sat upright like a maypole and was black as a raven. Marvellous black eyes, she had, a lovely shapely bosom, and silver ornaments in her dark hair, which was her own and unpowdered. You could see, Judith decided, that she was the little boy’s mother. They would be French then. Judith had heard of Paris, where silks and brandy came from. She had seen a print of the French Queen dancing in a great hall lit with flambeaux. This lady looked as though she could be a queen were she given the opportunity.
The noise and confusion now were very great. Old Dunstable had slipped beneath the table.
Wilson of Ireby was standing on his chair proposing healths; fat Dick Conyngham of Penrith and a thin young man with a crooked nose were embracing. Voices rose and fell, then suddenly the chorus, everyone joining together:
Then chink and clink your glasses round And drink to the Devil below the ground. The more you drink the better you be And kiss the lasses upon your knee. Chink, clink! Chink, clink! The Devil himself can’t drink like me.
Then young Drayton of Keswick, whose sweet tenor was famous for miles around, stood up and sang the song of ‘Beauty Bathing’:
Beauty sat bathing by a spring Where fairest shades did hide her; The winds blew calm, the birds did sing, The cool streams ran beside her. My wanton thoughts enticed mine eye To see what was forbidden: But better memory said, fie! So vain desire was chidden: Hey nonny nonny O! Hey nonny nonny!
Into a slumber then I fell, When fond imagination Seemèd to see, but could not tell Her feature or her fashion. But ev’n as babes in dreams do smile, And sometimes fall a-weeping, So I awaked as wise this while As when I fell a-sleeping: Hey nonny nonny O! Hey nonny nonny!
The beauty of the words, of the voice, seemed for a moment to sober them.
Hey nonny nonny O! Hey nonny nonny!
they sang, and down the fat cheeks of Dick Conyngham drunken tears were coursing.
No one appeared to think it strange that the child should be there. Most of them knew her; she seemed to belong to the place, and for many of them that happy time was now approaching when nothing anywhere seemed strange, when the candles on their silver stalks swam like gold roses in a shimmering haze, and the moon, now delicately rising beyond the uncurtained windows, was quadrupled in its pure serenity; now, through the open door, the dogs were coming in to pick up what trifles they might from the scattered floor, and a thousand clocks were ticking their friendly chatter on a thousand walls. No one thought of the child, not even Gauntry himself; only Clara, the spaniel bitch, coming in with the rest, had found her and was sitting behind her chair.
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