Tancred/Chapter IV


Montacute Castle

THE forest of Montacute, in the north of England, is the name given to an extensive district, which in many parts offers no evidence of the propriety of its title. The land, especially during the last century, has been effectively cleared, and presents, in general, a champaign view; rich and rural, but far from picturesque. Over a wide expanse, the eye ranges on cornfields and rich hedgerows, many a sparkling spire, and many a merry windmill. In the extreme distance, on a clear day, may be discerned the blue hills of the Border, and towards the north the cultivated country ceases, and the dark form of the old forest spreads into the landscape. The traveller, however, who may be tempted to penetrate these sylvan recesses, will find much that is beautiful, and little that is savage. He will be struck by the capital road that winds among the groves of ancient oak, and the turfy and ferny wilderness which extends on each side, whence the deer gaze on him with haughty composure, as if conscious that he was an intruder into their kingdom of whom they need have no fear. As he advances, he observes the number of cross routes which branch off from the main road, and which, though of less dimensions, are equally remarkable for their masterly structure and compact condition.

Sometimes the land is cleared, and he finds himself by the homestead of a forest farm, and remarks the buildings, distinguished not only by their neatness, but the propriety of their rustic architecture. Still advancing, the deer become rarer, and the road is formed by an avenue of chestnuts; the forest, on each side, being now transformed into vegetable gardens. The stir of the population is soon evident. Persons are moving to and fro on the side path of the road. Horsemen and carts seem returning from market; women with empty baskets, and then the rare vision of a stage-coach. The postilion spurs his horses, cracks his whip, and dashes at full gallop into the town of Montacute, the capital of the forest.

It is the prettiest little town in the world, built entirely of hewn stone, the well-paved and well-lighted streets as neat as a Dutch village. There are two churches: one of great antiquity, the other raised by the present duke, but in the best style of Christian architecture. The bridge that spans the little but rapid river Belle, is perhaps a trifle too vast and Roman for its site; but it was built by the first duke of the second dynasty, who was always afraid of underbuilding his position. The town was also indebted to him for their hall, a Palladian palace. Montacute is a corporate town, and, under the old system, returned two members to Parliament. The amount of its population, according to the rule generally observed, might have preserved it from disfranchisement, but, as every house belonged to the duke, and as he was what, in the confused phraseology of the revolutionary war, was called a Tory, the Whigs took care to put Montacute in Schedule A.

The town-hall, the market-place, a literary institution, and the new church, form, with some good houses of recent erection, a handsome square, in which there is a fountain, a gift to the town from the present duchess.

At the extremity of the town, the ground rises, and on a woody steep, which is in fact the termination of a long range of tableland, may be seen the towers of the outer court of Montacute Castle. The principal building, which is vast and of various ages, from the Plantagenets to the Guelphs, rises on a terrace, from which, on the side opposite to the town, you descend into a well-timbered inclosure, called the Home Park. Further on, the forest again appears; the deer again crouch in their fern, or glance along the vistas; nor does this green domain terminate till it touches the vast and purple moors that divide the kingdoms of Great Britain.

It was on an early day of April that the duke was sitting in his private room, a pen in one hand, and looking up with a face of pleasurable emotion at his wife, who stood by his side, her right arm sometimes on the back of his chair, and sometimes on his shoulder, while with her other hand, between the intervals of speech, she pressed a handkerchief to her eyes, bedewed with the expression of an affectionate excitement.

'It is too much,' said her Grace.

'And done in such a handsome manner!' said the duke.

'I would not tell our dear child of it at this moment,' said the duchess; 'he has so much to go through!'

'You are right, Kate. It will keep till the celebration is over. How delighted he will be!'

'My dear George, I sometimes think we are too happy.'

'You are not half as happy as you deserve to be,' replied her husband, looking up with a smile of affection; and then he finished his reply to the letter of Mr. Hungerford, one of the county members, informing the duke, that now Lord Montacute was of age, he intended at once to withdraw from Parliament, having for a long time fixed on the majority of the heir of the house of Bellamont as the signal for that event. 'I accepted the post,' said Mr. Hungerford, 'much against my will. Your Grace behaved to me at the time in the handsomest manner, and, indeed, ever since, with respect to this subject. But a Marquis of Montacute is, in my opinion, and, I believe I may add, in that of the whole county, our proper representative; besides, we want young blood in the House.'

'It certainly is done in the handsomest manner,' said the duke.

'But then you know, George, you behaved to him in the handsomest manner; he says so, as you do indeed to everybody; and this is your reward.'

'I should be very sorry, indeed, if Hungerford did not withdraw with perfect satisfaction to himself, and his family too,' urged the duke; 'they are most respectable people, one of the most respectable families in the county; I should be quite grieved if this step were taken without their entire and hearty concurrence.'

'Of course it is,' said the duchess, 'with the entire and hearty concurrence of every one. Mr. Hungerford says so. And I must say that, though few things could have gratified me more, I quite agree with Mr. Hungerford that a Lord Montacute is the natural member for the county; and I have no doubt that if Mr. Hungerford, or any one else in his position, had not resigned, they never could have met our child without feeling the greatest embarrassment.'

'A man though, and a man of Hungerford's position, an old family in the county, does not like to figure as a warming-pan,' said the duke, thoughtfully. 'I think it has been done in a very handsome manner.'

'And we will show our sense of it,' said the duchess. 'The Hungerfords shall feel, when they come here on Thursday, that they are among our best friends.'

'That is my own Kate! Here is a letter from your brother. They will be here to-morrow. Eskdale cannot come over till Wednesday. He is at home, but detained by a meeting about his new harbour.'

'I am delighted that they will be here to-morrow,' said the duchess. 'I am so anxious that he should see Kate before the castle is full, when he will have a thousand calls upon his time! I feel persuaded that he will love her at first sight. And as for their being cousins, why, we were cousins, and that did not hinder us from loving each other.'

'If she resemble you as much as you resembled your aunt ——' said the duke, looking up.

'She is my perfect image, my very self, Harriet says, in disposition, as well as face and form.'

'Then our son has a good chance of being a very happy man,' said the duke.

'That he should come of age, enter Parliament, and marry in the same year! We ought to be very thankful. What a happy year!'

'But not one of these events has yet occurred,' said the duke, smiling.

'But they all will,' said the duchess, 'under Providence.'

'I would not precipitate marriage.'

'Certainly not; nor should I wish him to think of it before the autumn. I should like him to be married on our wedding-day.'