An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 12

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EVERY family and village has had its scapegrace. The family ne'er-do-weel has been its greatest curse, and has torn down and dissipated in a few years what it has taken generations to set up; any fool can destroy—only the wise can build.

But it is not so much folly as lack of principle which constitutes the ne'er-do-weel. Many a good man is a stupid one, and his goodness saves his stupidity from carrying him and his family to ruin. And sometimes a clever man is a ne'er-do-weel, because his cleverness is undirected by principle.

Perhaps the most flagrant instance of the ne'er-do-weel among the aristocracy was that of Philip Duke of Wharton, the inheritor of a princely fortune, of extensive estates, and endowed by nature with brilliant talents, a man who forfeited everything simply because he was without principle, and died in abject poverty, the last of a race which had been the pride of the North of England; but he died in something worse than poverty—in dishonour. It was of him that Pope wrote these scathing lines:

"Clodis—the scorn and wonder of our days,
Whose ruling passion was the lust of praise;
Born with whate'er could win it from the wise,

Women or fools must like him, or he dies.

His passion still to covet general praise,

His life to forfeit it a thousand ways.
A tyrant to the wife his heart approves,
A rebel to the very king he loves;
He dies, sad outcast of each Church and State,
And harder still, flagitious, yet not great.
Ask you why Clodis broke through every rule?
'Twas all for fear the knaves should call him fool."

The present time shows us some of these among the inheritors of noble names and fortunes—men as foolish and unprincipled as the wretched Duke of Wharton, and who run through a hardly less disreputable course, to the disgrace of the name which has hitherto been held high in history.

In many a humbler family it is the same. It would seem as though occasionally a sport of some ignoble, sordid, selfish element broke out in a stock that has been noted for its self-respect, its goodness and generosity, and the wretched creature in which is this vein of baseness undoes in a few years everything that it has taken his ancestors many years of prudence, self-sacrifice, and forethought to construct.

The writer remembers the instance of a gentleman in the North of England of excellent abilities, of many extended estates, and of illustrious name.

He, however, had the misfortune to inherit his fortune early; he had lost his father and mother when quite a boy, and when he came into his estates he galloped through them, selling one property and mansion after another, till he came to spend his last days in a cottage.

Throughout, one had pitied the man rather than blamed him, because he had not been taught his duties to God and man at a mother's knee. But one day the writer said to him, "Well! I suppose that if we began life again, you and I, with our experiences, we should live very differently."

"Not a bit of it," he answered promptly, with a merry laugh, "I'd go through the same round to ruin again." After that, the spring of pity for the man dried up. A man who cannot learn by experience, who has no feeling for the shame and sorrow he has caused his family, deserves only contempt.

As a boy I remember seeing a painting of a young gentleman with a flat feeble face, and powdered hair, and laced coat. It was riddled with small holes. I asked the reason.

It was the portrait of the family scapegrace, who had alienated the paternal acres and mansion, and for three generations that picture had been used for the children to shoot darts at. So alone did that good-for-naught prove of the slightest use, in that to future generations he was held up as the butt of scorn and loathing in the family, as the one man who in a few years had wrecked what it had taken an illustrious ancestry many centuries to accumulate.

The first token of the course the scapegrace is going to take is when he begins to fell the stately trees that have been growing in his park about his estate for over a hundred years.

I will quote a scene from Coleman's capital comedy of The Poor Gentleman, which held up to detestation a man very common in that age.

"An apartment in Sir Charles Cropland's house.

Sir Charles Cropland at breakfast; his valet de chambre adjusting his hair.

"Sir Chas. What day of the month was it yesterday, when I left town?

"Valet. The first of April, Sir Charles.

"Sir Chas. Umph! When Mr. Warner (the steward) comes, show him in.

"Valet. I shall, Sir Charles. [Exit.

"Sir Chas. This same lumbering timber upon my ground has its merits. Trees are notes issued from the bank of Nature, and as current as those payable to Abraham Newland. I must get change for a few oaks, for I want cash consumedly. So, Mr. Warner.

Enter Warner.

"Warner. Your honour is right welcome into Kent. I am proud to see Sir Charles Cropland on his estate again. I hope you mean to stay on the spot for some time, Sir Charles?

"Sir Chas. A very tedious time. Three days, Mr. Warner.

"Warner. Ah, good sir! I wish you lived entirely upon the estate, Sir Charles. "Sir Chas. Thank you, Warner; but modern men of fashion find it devilish difficult to live upon their estates.

"Warner. The country about you is so charming!

"Sir Chas. Look ye, Warner, I must hunt in Leicestershire—for that's the thing. In the frosts and the spring months I must be in town at the clubs—for that's the thing. In summer I must be at the watering-places—for that's the thing. Now, Warner, under these circumstances, how is it possible for me to reside upon my estate? For my estate being in Kent——

"Warner. The most beautiful part of the country——

"Sir Chas. Curse beauty! My estate being in Kent——

"Warner. A land of milk and honey!——

"Sir Chas. I hate milk and honey.

"Warner. A land of fat!

"Sir Chas. Damn your fat! Listen to me. My estate being in Kent——

"Warner. So woody!——

"Sir Chas. Curse the wood! No, that's wrong for it's convenient. I am come on purpose to cut it.

"Warner. Ah! I was afraid so! Dice on the table, and then, the axe to the root! Money lost at play, and then, good luck! the forest groans for it.

"Sir Chas. But you are not the forest, and why the devil do you groan for it?

"Warner. I heartily wish, Sir Charles, you may not encumber the goodly estate. Your worthy ancestors had views for their posterity.

"Sir Chas. And I shall have views for my posterity. I shall take special care the trees shan't intercept their prospect. In short, Mr. Warner, I must have three thousand pounds in three days. Fell timber to that amount immediately."

A singular circumstance happened some years ago. I was told it by a timber merchant who was on the spot.

A respectable nobleman died, leaving a scapegrace son to inherit his title, estates, and wealth.

It was then that the Jews came down like vultures on the heir. They had lent him money on post-obits; and there was not enough to satisfy them. Accordingly the mandate went forth for the cutting-down and sale of the magnificent timber in the park—trees of centuries' growth.

The day of the sale arrived, and timber merchants had gathered from far and near, and the auctioneer was about to begin the sale of the trees—standing in their majesty. "By heaven!" said the dealer to me, "it made my heart ache to see them—the trees themselves looked like nobles—I say it made my heart ache, though I hoped to profit by them too."

Well, just as the sale began a telegraphic messenger came galloping up with an orange envelope.

The earl had shot himself.

The sale was stopped. The trees could not be felled. He had cut short his own worthless life, and each stick of timber, every one of which was more valuable than his miserable self, was saved.

"As the gaming and extravagance of the young men of quality has arrived now at a pitch never heard of, it is worth while to give some account of it," writes Horace Walpole in his last journals (1772). "They had a club at one Almacks in Pall Mall, where they played only for rouleaus of £50 each rouleau; and generally there was £10,000 in specie on the table. Lord Holland had paid about £20,000 for his two sons. Nor were the manners of the gamesters, or even their dresses for play, undeserving notice. They began by pulling off their embroidered clothes, and put on frieze great-coats, or turned their coats inside outwards for luck. They put on pieces of leather (such as is worn by footmen when they clean knives) to save their lace ruffles; and to guard their eyes from the light, and to prevent tumbling their hair, wore high-crowned straw hats with broad brims, and adorned with flowers and ribbons; masks to conceal their emotions when they played at quinze. Each gamester had a small, neat stand by him, with a large rim to hold his tea, or a wooden bowl with an edge of ormolu, to hold his rouleaus. They borrowed great sums of the Jews at exorbitant premiums. Charles Fox called his outward room, where these Jews waited till he rose, the Jerusalem Chamber. His brother Stephen was enormously fat; George Selwyn said he was in the right to deal with Shylocks, as he could give them pounds of flesh."

There is a charming old house in Throwleigh, Devon, called Wonson Manor, the ancient seat of the Knapmans, from whom it passed to the Northmores of Cleave, together with large estates in the neighbourhood.

William Northmore of Cleave, M.P. for Okehampton from 1713 to 1734, was a great gambler, and he lost at one sitting £17,000 on the turn of an ace of diamonds in a game of putt.

This led to forced sales and the loss of the ancestral acres and house of Well in South Tawton, and of nearly all the property in Throwleigh except the manor-house. William Northmore had an ace of diamonds painted in one of the panels of the wainscot of his bedroom, and every night before turning into bed he cursed the ace instead of saying his prayers. The ace is still shown. Now Wonson is also passed away.

There was in North Devon no more ancient family than Dowrish of Dowrish, whose authentic pedigree goes back to King John's reign, when Dowrish Keep was erected. The descent was direct from father to son for twenty generations, that is to say for five hundred years, always seated on the same acres and occupying the same house, that had indeed been added to, remodelled, but which was in itself a record of the lives and thoughts, ambitions, and discouragements of a family that had married into the best in the land, the de Helions, the Carews, the Fulfords, and the Northcotes.

Then, in graceless days, came the graceless
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wonson manor

fool who undid the work of twenty generations in one night. The manor of Kennerleigh belonged and had belonged to the Dowrishes for centuries.

One night the then squire and Sir Arthur Northcote were playing piquet. Mr. Dowrish, being eldest hand, held the four aces, four kings, and four queens, and promptly offered to bet his manor of Kennerleigh against £500, by no means its value even in those days, that he won the game. Sir Arthur took the bet, having a claim of carte blanche on his undiscarded hand. After Sir Arthur had discarded, he took up two knaves, and held two points of five each, each headed by the knave. Mr. Dowrish being about to declare, was stopped by Sir Arthur's claim for ten for carte blanche, which ruined his chances. The point fell to Sir Arthur, and two quints, who scored thus:

Carte blanche 10
Point 5
Two quints at 15 each 30
Repique 60
105 and game.

At the present day there would be holes to pick in this method of counting, as Mr. Dowrish on his side could have claimed his "fourteens" for aces, kings, and queens before allowing the sequences to count, but not so formerly, when the rule was absolute as to the order of counting, point, sequence, threes or fours of suits. So the manor was lost, and Kennerleigh belongs to Lord Iddesleigh at the present day.

In commemoration of the game, the table at which it was played was inlaid with representations of the two hands, and is now in Dowrish House, a mansion that has lost all its interest, having been remodelled in suburban villa style, but nobly situated and commanding a glorious view.

Gambling thus recklessly is an illustration of reversion to one of the strongest passions that actuates man in his lowest savage state. So the Alaskan natives. "They often pass whole days and nights absorbed in the occupation. Their principal game is played with a handful of small sticks of different colours, which are called by various names, such as the crab, the whale, the duck, and so on. The player shuffles all the sticks together, then, counting out a certain number, he places them under cover of bunches of moss. The object seems to be to guess in which pile is the whale, and in which the crab, or the duck. Individuals often lose at this trifling game all their worldly possessions. We are told of instances where, spurred on by excitement, a native risks his wife and children, and if he loses, they become the recognized property of the winner, nor would anyone think of interfering with such a settlement."[1]

A certain earl, when a young man, being fond of play, called on Beau Nash to gamble with him. Nash first won from him all his ready money, then the title deeds of his estates, and finally the very watch in his pocket, and the rings on his fingers all in one night. Nash thereupon read him a lecture on his incredible folly, and returned all his winnings, at the same time extracting from him a promise that he would never play again.

But it is not among the gentry only that the scapegraces are found, though such as are highly placed are most noticed. They are to be found in every class, and there is not a village which does not produce these sour fruit.

The generality of these scapegraces are simply scatter-brains, filled with exuberant spirits that carry them beyond the bounds that constrain the commonplace folk. If these fellows, full of animal spirits, effervescing with the joy of life, have principle and wise parents to advise them, they will turn out admirable men, useful members of society. The army or the navy is the profession to which they naturally gravitate, and first-rate soldiers and sailors they make. But this is if they have principle. Without that as a fly-wheel, they spin themselves out without doing good to themselves or to anyone else.

Compare some of the scamps we have known at school, in a parish, with the heavy, plodding lout, who is without go and without intelligence. Which makes the best man in the end? The scamp undoubtedly, if his scampishness springs out of exuberant spirits and there be no root of vice in the heart.

The heavy, plodding lout becomes a wholesome and useful member of society; but he is without freshness and energy.

We cannot doubt that some untoward circumstance sometimes throws a young fellow out of his proper course of life, and throughout his career he is conscious that he has got into the wrong groove. Then he either makes the best of it, or continues in sullen resentment with resistance at heart against the restraints and contrarieties he encounters—gets into difficulties, is cast out when too late to take up another course, and squanders life away in disorder or idle repenting. I knew a boy who, getting into a "row" at school, instead of waiting and receiving his punishment pluckily, and accepting it as deserved, ran away to sea.

I met him many years after, a sailor, and he said to me, "The blot of my life was that I did not accept the birch I had deserved. I cut away to sea. I have been now a seaman for fifteen years, and have never yet found my sea-legs. Whenever there is a capful of wind, and the water is a bit rough, I am sick as a dog. It is always the same. It stands against me. I hate the sea. But I made a fool of myself when I ran from school, and a fool I shall remain to the end."

"Not a bit," was my reply. "Like a sensible man, you have held to the profession you chose, and make the best of it. You win back thereby all the respect you threw away when you shirked your punishment."

There was every temptation to this young man to become a ne'er-do-weel, but he did not give way to the temptation. He recognized the fact that he had made a mistake, and he took the consequences like a man. But, then, it is, perhaps, one only in five of those who make these mistakes who has the courage to accept the results, and accommodate himself to them.

Where there is a sound substratum of healthy conscience and force of character, there one may always hope that a mistake in early life will right itself.

But if there be mere love of lawlessness, mere wilfulness, in the outbreaks of youth, then there is no redemption, the ne'er-do-weel boy remains a ne'er-do-weel to the end of the chapter.

I remember one such. I knew him as a boy, and confess to have entertained a liking for him; but his escapades passed all bounds of moderation. A good-natured, chestnut-haired boy he was, with clear, trembling blue eyes, a fair complexion somewhat marred by freckles, and straight, elastic figure. Unhappily this lad had not parents who taught their children what would do them good in life; nor kept them to the National School, where they might have acquired that which their parents neglected to inculcate.

The young fellow sometimes came to church, and then went into the gallery behind the choir. Now, in the choir sat a young fellow with a head covered with natural curls of a tow colour, on Sundays drenched in hair-oil. One Sunday the scapegrace thrust a lighted match into the mass of oiled curls, and the head blazed up at once.

The same ne'er-do-weel, whilst he was ringing the tenor bell, suddenly threw the loop of the rope over the neck of the next man, who was instantly whisked up against the belfry floor above and thrown down, and very nearly killed.

On again another occasion, he thrashed a fellow called "Old Straw" with a flail, saying that he was bent on finding if there was any good to be got out of him. He broke Straw's leg, and was sentenced by the magistrates to be put in the stocks.

That was the last occasion when stocks were used in England, and so angry was the squire at the revival of the stocks, that after the sentence had been carried out he had them chopped up and burnt.

The disgrace of the stocks was too much for our ne'er-do-weel; he left the parish and entered the army, but had to leave—he was a ne'er-do-weel under the colours as in fustian. Since then he has been about the world—a ne'er-do-weel everywhere.

The other day the church bell was tolling. It was for this ne'er-do-weel. He had returned home to die. The sole wish in the heart of the man with a wasted life was to lie, to cast down the wreck of his body, in the earth of the native parish which had bred him, and to have no headstone to mark the mound under which lay naught but the ashes of a ne'er-do-weel.

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  1. BALM, The New Eldorado, Boston, 1889, p. 199.