Gateway to the Classics: Unknown to History by Charlotte Mary Yonge
Unknown to History by  Charlotte Mary Yonge

Evil Tidings

After giving orders for the repairs of the Mastiff,  and the disposal of her crew, Master Richard Talbot purveyed himself of a horse at the hostel, and set forth for Spurn Head to make inquiries along the coast respecting the wreck of the Bride of Dunbar,  and he was joined by Cuthbert Langston, who said his house had had dealings with her owners, and that he must ascertain the fate of her wares. His good lady remained in charge of the mysterious little waif, over whom her tender heart yearned more and more, while her little boy hovered about in serene contemplation of the treasure he thought he had recovered. To him the babe seemed really his little sister; to his mother, if she sometimes awakened pangs of keen regret, yet she filled up much of the dreary void of the last few weeks.

Mrs. Talbot was a quiet, reserved woman, not prone to gadding abroad, and she had made few acquaintances during her sojourn at Hull; but every creature she knew, or might have known, seemed to her to drop in that day, and bring at least two friends to inspect the orphan of the wreck, and demand all particulars.

The little girl was clad in the swaddling garments of Mrs. Talbot's own children, and the mysterious marks were suspected by no one, far less the letter which Susan, for security's sake, had locked up in her nearly empty, steel-bound, money casket. The opinions of the gossips varied, some thinking the babe might belong to some of the Queen of Scotland's party fleeing to France, others fathering her on the refugees from the persecutions in Flanders, a third party believing her a mere fisherman's child, and one lean, lantern-jawed old crone, Mistress Rotherford, observing, "Take my word, Mrs. Talbot, and keep her not with you. They that are cast up by the sea never bring good with them."

The court of female inquiry was still sitting when a heavy tread was heard, and Colet announced "a serving-man from Bridgefield had ridden post haste to speak with madam," and the messenger, booted and spurred, with the mastiff badge on his sleeve, and the hat he held in his hand, followed closely.

"What news, Nathanael?" she asked, as she responded to his greeting.

"Ill enough news, mistress," was the answer. "Master Richard's ship be in, they tell me."

"Yes, but he is rid out to make inquiry for a wreck," said the lady. "Is all well with my good father-in-law?"

"He ails less in body than in mind, so please you. Being that Master Humfrey was thrown by Blackfoot, the beast being scared by a flash of lightning, and never spoke again."

"Master Humfrey!"

"Ay, mistress. Pitched on his head against the south gate-post. I saw how it was with him when we took him up, and he never so much as lifted an eyelid, but died at the turn of the night. Heaven rest his soul!"

"Heaven rest his soul!" echoed Susan, and the ladies around chimed in. They had come for one excitement, and here was another.

"There! See but what I said!" quoth Mrs. Rotherford, uplifting a skinny finger to emphasise that the poor little flotsome had already brought evil.

"Nay," said the portly wife of a merchant, "begging your pardon, this may be a fat instead of a lean sorrow. Leaves the poor gentleman heirs, Mrs. Talbot?"

"Oh no!" said Susan, with tears in her eyes. "His wife died two years back, and her chrisom babe with her. He loved her too well to turn his mind to wed again, and now he is with her for aye." And she covered her face and sobbed, regardless of the congratulations of the merchant's wife, and exclaiming, "Oh! the poor old lady!"

"In sooth, mistress," said Nathanael, who had stood all this time as if he had by no means emptied his budget of ill news, "poor old madam fell down all of a heap on the floor, and when the wenches lifted her, they found she was stricken with the dead palsy, and she has not spoken, and there's no one knows what to do, for the poor old squire is like one distraught, sitting by her bed like an image on a monument, with the tears flowing down his old cheeks. 'But,' says he to me, 'get you to Hull, Nat, and take madam's palfrey and a couple of sumpter beasts, and bring my good daughter Talbot back with you as fast as she and the babes may brook.' I made bold to say, 'And Master Richard, your worship?' then he groaned somewhat, and said, 'If my son's ship be come in, he must do as her Grace's service permits, but meantime he must spare us his wife, for she is sorely needed here.' And he looked at the bed so as it would break your heart to see, for since old Nurse Tooke hath been doited, there's not been a wench about the house that can do a hand's turn for a sick body."

Susan knew this was true, for her mother-in-law had been one of those bustling, managing housewives, who prefer doing everything themselves to training others, and she was appalled at the idea of the probable desolation and helplessness of the bereaved household.

It was far too late to start that day, even had her husband been at home, for the horses sent for her had to rest. The visitors would fain have extracted some more particulars about the old squire's age, his kindred to the great Earl, and the amount of estate to which her husband had become heir. There were those among them who could not understand Susan's genuine grief, and there were others whose consolations were no less distressing to one of her reserved character. She made brief answer that the squire was threescore and fifteen years old, his wife nigh about his age; that her husband was now their only child; that he was descended from a son of the great Earl John, killed at the Bridge of Chatillon, that he held the estate of Bridgefield in fief on tenure of military service to the head of his family. She did not know how much it was worth by the year, but she must pray the good ladies to excuse her, as she had many preparations to make. Volunteers to assist her in packing her mails were made, but she declined them all, and rejoiced when left alone with Colet to arrange for what would be probably her final departure from Hull.

It was a blow to find that she must part from her servant-woman, who, as well as her husband Gervas, was a native of Hull. Not only were they both unwilling to leave, but the inland country was to their imagination a wild unexplored desert. Indeed, Colet had only entered Mrs. Talbot's service to supply the place of a maid who had sickened with fever and ague, and had to be sent back to her native Hallamshire.

Ere long Mr. Heatherthwayte came down to offer his consolation, and still more his advice, that the little foundling should be at once baptized—conditionally, if the lady preferred it.

The Reformed of imperfect theological training, and as such Joseph Heatherthwayte must be classed, were apt to view the ceremonial of the old baptismal form, symbolical and beautiful as it was, as almost destroying the efficacy of the rite. Moreover, there was a further impression that the Church by which the child was baptized, had a right to bring it up, and thus the clergyman was urgent with the lady that she should seize this opportunity for the little one's baptism.

"Not without my husband's consent and knowledge," she said resolutely.

"Master Talbot is a good man, but somewhat careless of sound doctrine, as be the most of seafaring men."

Susan had been a little nettled by her husband's implied belief that she was influenced by the minister, so there was double resolution, as well as some offence in her reply, that she knew her duty as a wife too well to consent to such a thing without him. As to his being careless, he was a true and God-fearing man, and Mr. Heatherthwayte should know better than to speak thus of him to his wife.

Mr. Heatherthwayte's real piety and goodness had made him a great comfort to Susan in her lonely grief, but he had not the delicate tact of gentle blood, and had not known where to stop, and as he stood half apologising and half exhorting, she felt that her Richard was quite right, and that he could be both meddling and presuming. He was exceedingly in the way of her packing too, and she was at her wit's end to get rid of him, when suddenly Humfrey managed to pinch his fingers in a box, and set up such a yell, as, seconded by the frightened baby, was more than any masculine ears could endure, and drove Master Heatherthwayte to beat a retreat.

Mistress Susan was well on in her work when her husband returned, and as she expected, was greatly overcome by the tidings of his brother's death. He closely questioned Nathanael on every detail, and could think of nothing but the happy days he had shared with his brother, and of the grief of his parents. He approved of all that his wife had done; and as the damage sustained by the Mastiff  could not be repaired under a month, he had no doubt about leaving his crew in the charge of his lieutenant while he took his family home.

So busy were both, and so full of needful cares, the one in giving up her lodging, the other in leaving his men, that it was impossible to inquire into the result of his researches, for the captain was in that mood of suppressed grief and vehement haste in which irrelevant inquiry is perfectly unbearable.

It was not till late in the evening that Richard told his wife of his want of success in his investigations. He had found witnesses of the destruction of the ship, but he did not give them full credit. "The fellows say the ship drove on the rock, and that they saw her boats go down with every soul on board, and that they would not lie to an officer of her Grace. Heaven pardon me if I do them injustice in believing they would lie to him sooner than to any one else. They are rogues enough to take good care that no poor wretch should survive even if he did chance to come to land."

"Then if there be no one to claim her, we may bring up as our own the sweet babe whom Heaven hath sent us."

"Not so fast, dame. Thou wert wont to be more discreet. I said not so, but for the nonce, till I can come by the rights of that scroll, there's no need to make a coil. Let no one know of it, or of the trinket—Thou hast them safe?"

"Laid up with the Indian gold chain, thy wedding gift, dear sir."

" 'Tis well. My mother!—ah me," he added, catching himself up; "little like is she to ask questions, poor soul."

Then Susan diffidently told of Master Heatherthwayte's earnest wish to christen the child, and, what certainly biased her a good deal, the suggestion that this would secure her to their own religion.

"There is something in that," said Richard, "specially after what Cuthbert said as to the golden toy yonder. If times changed again—which Heaven forfend—that fellow might give us trouble about the matter."

"You doubt him then, sir!" she asked.

"I relished not his ways on our ride to-day," said Richard. "Sure I am that he had some secret cause for being so curious about the wreck. I suspect him of some secret commerce with the Queen of Scots' folk."

"Yet you were on his side against Mr. Heatherthwayte," said Susan.

"I would not have my kinsman browbeaten at mine own table by the self-conceited son of a dalesman, even if he have got a round hat and Geneva band! Ah, well! one good thing is we shall leave both of them well behind us, though I would it were for another cause."

Something in the remonstrance had, however, so worked on Richard Talbot, that before morning he declared that, hap what hap, if he and his wife were to bring up the child, she should be made a good Protestant Christian before they left the house, and there should be no more ado about it.

It was altogether illogical and untheological; but Master Heatherthwayte was delighted when in the very early morning his devotions were interrupted, and he was summoned by the captain himself to christen the child.

Richard and his wife were sponsors, but the question of name had never occurred to any one. However, in the pause of perplexity, when the response lagged to "Name this child," little Humfrey, a delighted spectator, broke out again with "Little Sis."

And forthwith, "Cicely, if thou art not already baptized," was uttered over the child, and Cicely became her name. It cost Susan a pang, as it had been that of her own little daughter, but it was too late to object, and she uttered no regret, but took the child to her heart, as sent instead of her who had been taken from her.

Master Heatherthwayte bade them good speed, and Master Langston stood at the door of his office and waved them a farewell, both alike unconscious of the rejoicing with which they were left behind. Mistress Talbot rode on the palfrey sent for her use, with the little stranger slung to her neck for security's sake. Her boy rode "a cock-horse" before his father, but a resting-place was provided for him on a sort of pannier on one of the sumpter beasts. What these animals could not carry of the household stuff was left in Colet's charge to be despatched by carriers; and the travellers jogged slowly on through deep Yorkshire lanes, often halting to refresh the horses and supply the wants of the little children at homely wayside inns, their entrance usually garnished with an archway formed of the jawbones of whales, which often served for gate-posts in that eastern part of Yorkshire. And thus they journeyed, with frequent halts, until they came to the Derbyshire borders.

Bridgefield House stood on the top of a steep slope leading to the river Dun, with a high arched bridge and a mill below it. From the bridge proceeded one of the magnificent avenues of oak-trees which led up to the lordly lodge, full four miles off, right across Sheffield Park.

The Bridgefield estate had been a younger son's portion, and its owners had always been regarded as gentlemen retainers of the head of their name, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Tudor jealousy had forbidden the marshalling of such a meiné  as the old feudal lords had loved to assemble, and each generation of the Bridgefield Talbots had become more independent than the former one. The father had spent his younger days as esquire to the late Earl, but had since become a justice of the peace, and took rank with the substantial landowners of the country. Humfrey, his eldest son, had been a gentleman pensioner of the Queen till his marriage, and Richard, though beginning his career as page to the present Earl's first wife, had likewise entered the service of her Majesty, though still it was understood that the head of their name had a claim to their immediate service, and had he been called to take up arms, they would have been the first to follow his banner. Indeed, a pair of spurs was all the annual rent they paid for their estate, which they held on this tenure, as well as on paying the heriard horse on the death of the head of the family, and other contributions to their lord's splendour when he knighted his son or married his daughter. In fact, they stood on the borderland of that feudal retainership which was being rapidly extinguished. The estate, carved out of the great Sheffield property, was sufficient to maintain the owner in the dignities of an English gentleman, and to portion off the daughters, provided that the superfluous sons shifted for themselves, as Richard had hitherto done. The house had been ruined in the time of the Wars of the Roses, and rebuilt in the later fashion, with a friendly-looking front, containing two large windows, and a porch projecting between them. The hall reached to the top of the house, and had a waggon ceiling, with mastiffs alternating with roses on portcullises at the intersections of the timbers. This was the family sitting and dining room, and had a huge chimney never devoid of a wood fire. One end had a buttery-hatch communicating with the kitchen and offices; at the other was a small room, sacred to the master of the house, niched under the broad staircase that led to the upper rooms, which opened on a gallery running round three sides of the hall.

Outside, on the southern side of the house, was a garden of potherbs, with the green walks edged by a few bright flowers for beau-pots and posies. This had stone walls separating it from the paddock, which sloped down to the river, and was a good deal broken by ivy-covered rocks. Adjoining the stables were farm buildings and barns, for there were several fields for tillage along the river-side, and the mill and two more farms were the property of the Bridgefield squire, so that the inheritance was a very fair one, wedged in, as it were, between the river and the great Chase of Sheffield, up whose stately avenue the riding party looked as they crossed the bridge, Richard having become more silent than ever as he came among the familiar rocks and trees of his boyhood, and knew he should not meet that hearty welcome from his brother which had never hitherto failed to greet his return. The house had that strange air of forlornness which seems to proclaim sorrow within. The great court doors stood open, and a big, rough deer-hound, at the sound of the approaching hoofs, rose slowly up, and began a series of long, deep-mouthed barks, with pauses between, sounding like a knell. One or two men and maids ran out at the sound, and as the travellers rode up to the horse-block, an old gray-bearded serving-man came stumbling forth with "Oh! Master Diccon, woe worth the day!"

"How does my mother?" asked Richard, as he sprang off and set his boy on his feet.

"No worse, sir, but she hath not yet spoken a word—back, Thunder—ah! sir, the poor dog knows you."

For the great hound had sprung up to Richard in eager greeting, but then, as soon as he heard his voice, the creature drooped his ears and tail, and instead of continuing his demonstrations of joy, stood quietly by, only now and then poking his long, rough nose into Richard's hand, knowing as well as possible that though not his dear lost master, he was the next thing!

Mistress Susan and the infant were lifted down—a hurried question and answer assured them that the funeral was over yesterday. My Lady Countess had come down and would have it so; my lord was at Court, and Sir Gilbert and his brothers had been present, but the old servants thought it hard that none nearer in blood should be there to lay their young squire in his grave, nor to support his father, who, poor old man, had tottered, and been so like to swoon as he passed the hall door, that Sir Gilbert and old Diggory could but, help him back again, fearing lest he, too, might have a stroke.

It was a great grief to Richard, who had longed to look on his brother's face again, but he could say nothing, only he gave one hand to his wife and the other to his son, and led them into the hall, which was in an indescribable state of confusion. The trestles which had supported the coffin were still at one end of the room, the long tables were still covered with cloths, trenchers, knives, cups, and the remains of the funeral baked meats, and there were overthrown tankards and stains of wine on the cloth, as though, whatever else were lacking, the Talbot retainers had not missed their revel.

One of the dishevelled rough-looking maidens began some hurried muttering about being so distraught, and not looking for madam so early, but Susan could not listen to her, and merely putting the babe into her arms, came with her husband up the stairs, leaving little Humfrey with Nathanael.

Richard knocked at the bedroom door, and, receiving no answer, opened it. There in the tapestry-hung chamber was the huge old bedstead with its solid posts. In it lay something motionless, but the first thing the husband and wife saw was the bent head which was lifted up by the burly but broken figure in the chair beside it.

The two knotted old hands clasped the arms of the chair, and the squire prepared to rise, his lip trembling under his white beard, and emotion working in his dejected features. They were beforehand with him. Ere he could rise both were on their knees before him, while Richard in a broken voice cried, "Father, O father!"

"Thank God that thou art come, my son," said the old man, laying his hands on his shoulders, with a gleam of joy, for as they afterwards knew, he had sorely feared for Richard's ship in the storm that had caused Humfrey's death. "I looked for thee, my daughter," he added, stretching out one hand to Susan, who kissed it. "Now it may go better with her! Speak to thy mother, Richard, she may know thy voice."

Alas! no; the recently active, ready old lady was utterly stricken, and as yet held in the deadly grasp of paralysis, unconscious of all that passed around her.

Susan found herself obliged at once to take up the reins, and become head nurse and housekeeper. The old squire trusted implicitly to her, and helplessly put the keys into her hands, and the serving-men and maids, in some shame at the condition in which the hall had been found, bestirred themselves to set it in order, so that there was a chance of the ordinary appearance of things being restored by supper-time, when Richard hoped to persuade his father to come down to his usual place.

Long before this, however, a trampling had been heard in the court, and a shrill voice, well known to Richard and Susan, was heard demanding, "Come home, is she—Master Diccon too? More shame for you, you sluttish queans and lazy lubbers, never to have let me know; but none of you have any respect—"

A visit from my Lady Countess was a greater favour to such a household as that of Bridgefield than it would be to a cottage of the present day; Richard was hurrying downstairs, and Susan only tarried to throw off the housewifely apron in which she had been compounding a cooling drink for the poor old lady, and to wash her hands, while Humfrey, rushing up to her, exclaimed "Mother, mother, is it the Queen?"

Queen Elizabeth herself was not inaptly represented by her namesake of Hardwicke, the Queen of Hallamshire, sitting on her great white mule at the door, sideways, with her feet on a board, as little children now ride, and attended by a whole troop of gentlemen ushers, maidens, prickers, and running footmen. She was a woman of the same type as the Queen, which was of course enough to stamp her as a celebrated beauty, and though she had reached middle age, her pale, clear complexion and delicate features were well preserved. Her chin was too sharp, and there was something too thin and keen about her nose and lips to promise good temper. She was small of stature, but she made up for it in dignity of presence, and as she sat there, with her rich embroidered green satin farthingale spreading out over the mule, her tall ruff standing up fanlike on her shoulders, her riding-rod in her hand, and her master of the horse standing at her rein, while a gentleman usher wielded an enormous, long-handled, green fan, to keep the sun from incommoding her, she was, perhaps, even more magnificent than the maiden queen herself might have been in her more private expeditions. Indeed, she was new to her dignity as Countess, having been only a few weeks married to the Earl, her fourth husband. Captain Talbot did not feel it derogatory to his dignity as a gentleman to advance with his hat in his hand to kiss her hand, and put a knee to the ground as he invited her to alight, an invitation his wife heard with dismay as she reached the door, for things were by no means yet as they should be in the hall. She curtsied low, and advanced with her son holding her hand, but shrinking behind her.

"Ha, kinswoman, is it thou!" was her greeting, as she, too, kissed the small, shapely, white, but exceedingly strong hand that was extended to her; "So thou art come, and high time too. Thou shouldst never have gone a-gadding to Hull, living in lodgings; awaiting thine husband, forsooth. Thou art over young a matron for such gear, and so I told Diccon Talbot long ago."

"Yea, madam," said Richard, somewhat hotly, "and I made answer that my Susan was to be trusted, and truly no harm has come thereof."

"Ho! and you reckon it no harm that thy father and mother were left to a set of feckless, brainless, idle serving-men and maids in their trouble? Why, none would so much as have seen to thy brother's poor body being laid in a decent grave had not I been at hand to take order for it as became a distant kinsman of my lord. I tell thee, Richard, there must be no more of these vagabond seafaring ways. Thou must serve my lord, as a true retainer and kinsman is bound—Nay," in reply to a gesture, "I will not come in, I know too well in what ill order the house is like to be. I did but take my ride this way to ask how it fared with the mistress, and try if I could shake the squire from his lethargy, if Mrs. Susan had not had the grace yet to be here. How do they?" Then in answer, "Thou must waken him, Diccon—rouse him, and tell him that I and my lord expect it of him that he should bear his loss as a true and honest Christian man, and not pule and moan, since he has a son left—ay, and a grandson. You should breed your boy up to know his manners, Susan Talbot," as Humfrey resisted an attempt to make him do his reverence to my lady; "that stout knave of yours wants the rod. Methought I heard you'd borne another, Susan! Ay! as I said it would be," as her eye fell on the swaddled babe in a maid's arms. "No lack of fools to eat up the poor old squire's substance. A maid, is it? Beshrew me, if your voyages will find portions for all your wenches! Has the leech let blood to thy good-mother, Susan? There! not one amongst you all bears any brains. Knew you not how to send up to the castle for Master Drewitt? Farewell! Thou wilt be at the lodge to-morrow to let me know how it fares with thy mother, when her brain is cleared by further blood-letting. And for the squire, let him know that I expect it of him that he shall eat, and show himself a man!"

So saying, the great lady departed, escorted as far as the avenue gate by Richard Talbot, and leaving the family gratified by her condescension, and not allowing to themselves how much their feelings were chafed.

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