Herman Ludolphus Prior.

Six months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) online

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" that Miss Florence wern't looking well this morn-
ing. I know a young lady as catched typhus and
died from a place her guv'ness took her to."

"Very likely," said Mrs. Armitage. "I have
no fault to find with your management of the chil-
dren generally, Miss Secretan ; but I must beg that
this sort of thing is not repeated. As for Mr.
Charles, he can of course indulge his taste for low
society as much as he thinks fit."

Helen's face flushed indignantly, but she said
nothing. Burgess kept up the ball.

" I'd thought of speaking to you, Mem, about
that," she said. " It isn't for the sake of the broken
victuals, and I'm sure that the cook wouldn't mind
them no more nor I should when it's to do good to
some poor starvin' creature. But I think, Mem,


Master Charles didn't ought to go on as he do. You
were askin' about them partriches yesterday, Mem.
Mayhe you don't know that Master Charles 'ad took
the wing and breast, along with some bread and tea,
clown to one of them low places. I only hope there
ain't nothing else agoing on, Mem. You know what
young gentlemen are, Mrs. Armitage ; and you know
too what they creatures of the lower orders are
capable of. I don't say nothing, Mem, I only hope
it's all right,"

" Mamma," interposed Helen, " Burgess is quite
wrong about that partridge."

" Oh ! indeed, Miss," said Burgess, drawing her-
self up. " P'r'aps I've no eyes then. And p'r'aps I
doesn't know partrich when I sees it. And as sure
as Is'e a sitting here, Mem, I seed that bird took ;
for he'd put it in a basket in the hall, while he were
cutting the bread. ' Lor', ever,' says I, ' what's
that ? ' for I'd been with that dear darling boy here,
and just come out. ' That's never eggs, and them
so scarce ; tuppence each in the market, gone last
Saturday.' So I opened the basket ; and, sure
enough, there's the pieces of bird inside, dooed up
in a white cloth. Likewise also a packedge of tea."

VOL. i. 8


" The tea, Mamma," said Helen, " was some
Charles had bought himself, out of his own allow-
ance. As to the partridge, it was some that he helped
himself to at breakfast ; you were not downstairs that
morning, Mamma. I noticed he only ate a mouthful
or two, and then put it away, though he's so fond of
it. After breakfast, Charles came to me to find his
fishing-basket, which is what Burgess saw. And
then I packed it for him ; and he took the bird and
tea down to that poor woman in Old Gate Place, who
is dying of consumption."

"I do not see how that mends matters, Helen,"
said Mrs. Armitage. " It was just like Charles to
be so Quixotic. If the people want help, there's the
union and the parish doctors, without young gentle-
men taking their own meals down to them. It is
just this sort of thing which gives Mr. Armitage so
much uneasiness about Charles; he's not fit to be
trusted alone. Of course, I can't control either of
your movements beyond a certain point. You must
turn the place inside out, if you think fit. But
in your poor father's state of health I think you
might consider him more than you do. It's quite
shocking the way Charles slams the doors, and the


noise he is always making about the house. If you
knew what it is to suffer as Mr. Armitage does, you
would be more careful, I should suppose. It seems
so dreadful that he should be so constantly annoyed
and made uneasy by his own children."

"I do assure you, Mamma," Helen began.

"I cannot allow you to contradict me, Helen,"
said the step -mother. " In fact, you had better leave
the room now, as this conversation is very trying to
your poor little brother. As to the young ladies,
Miss Secretan, I must beg that you will be more
careful in future. I positively forbid their being
taken into any of the cottages, or any house whatever
without my knowledge. Yesterday the poor children
lost their walk altogether, besides other objections.
You had better start half-an-hour earlier to-day. And
avoid the town altogether, if you please."

I took my lecture in silence, and withdrew,
leaving the lady to smooth down her ruffled plumes,
and otherwise adjust matters with Burgess.

The country walk promised to be pleasant enough.
We fixed upon the familiar one to "Old Roar;" a
somewhat picturesque spot, about two miles from
the town, where the sandstone rock drops abruptly


from the footpath, and a small stream trickles over
the escarpment. Not much of a waterfall : but
better than " Black Gang Chine," and really capable
of making some noise in wet weather. Irrespective
of the waterfall, and in fair weather, the walk itself
is, or was it may be streets of villas now, for what I
know one of our favourites. A succession of country
lanes, meadow-paths, dives into unexpected hollows,
and entanglements in flower- studded copses.

We pursued our way, the two children and myself,
and were sufficiently happy. We became still happier
when an embarrassing pause at the bottom of a steep
descent brought us company.

The embarrassment itself was, it is true, of a

serious character. At the foot of the descent was a

brook, with a plank over it, and a stile beyond. The
brook was wide ; the plank narrow, and the stile wholly
unaccommodating. But these troubles might have
been surmounted : what was really appalling was
that, immediately on the other side of the stile, stood
a cow, looking over it in sheer aggravation, and with a
stony solemnity of aspect which was proof alike against
persuasions and menaces. We had exhausted every
phase of demonstration with our parasols, and were in


sheer despair, when, to our delight, the male voice
made itself audible at no great distance. A minute
afterwards, Charles, Mr. Fortescue, and Mr. Latrobe
came in single file down the path we had just de-
scended ; and the cow, seeing us thus reinforced,
prudently retired from the contest.

"A most obstinate engagement, Miss Secretan,"
said Charles, who had realised the position as we
came along; "and gallantly fought on both sides.
Isn't it wrong of the children's books ? I remember,
when I was a small boy, I used to learn, ' The cow ;
a^ useful domestic animal.' It ought to have been,
' The cow ; a quadruped of an unbridled ferocity
of disposition, and capable, by its very aspect, of
striking terror into the heart of the beholder. It is
usually gregarious ; but may often be found haunt-
ing solitary places, from which it emerges in the
pursuit of defenceless women and children, whose
carcases are trampled under the feet of the animal,
after being gored to pieces by its horns.' Did you
ever go to the Zoologicals, Louisa ? "

" No, never, Charles," said Louisa.

" Well then, don't. That's my advice. Judging
from the terror painted in your countenance just


now, my opinion is you'd collapse altogether at the
tigers. Sometimes however, Miss Secretan, the
female mind evinces great heroism under these
circumstances. Two years ago, a lady poked out
one of the beasts' eyes with her parasol. The old
lion, that was."

"You're very ungallant, Mr. Charles," I said.
"You ought to compassionate such timid and help-
less things as we are, instead of making a jest at us."

" But I don't call that being a timid and helpless
being, poking out a lion's eye. However, I have no
doubt the perpetrator was some horrid old spinster.
Don't you hate old maids, Miss Secretan ? "

" No, I've rather a passion for them. At any rate,
old bachelors are worse."

" What's that you're saying about old bachelors,
Miss Secretan ? " said Mr. Latrobe, to whom I had
been introduced a week or two before. '"I must
not allow my order to be traduced. Perhaps you
will think better of me if I help you over the
stile ; now that the enemy has evacuated the tcte-

" Where were you going ? " said Charles, as I
accepted the proffered civility. " Old Boar ? So


were we ; at any rate, in that direction. We'll join
your party, if Mr. Latrobe doesn't mind, and then you
will be secured from farther encounters. Will you
come, Mr. Fortescue ? "

Mr. Fortescue of course professed his willingness.
As the curate did the same, we walked together ; the
gentlemen from time to time stopping to do the
polite to us, but for the most part keeping the con-
versation in their own hands. Charles, I thought,
seemed in particularly good spirits, and somewhat
specially attentive to myself. He was perhaps anxious
to efface from my mind any impression of his abrupt
manner the day before.

" We have tempted Mr. Latrobe out to-day, Miss
Secretan," he said, while proffering his arm on one
of these occasions. " You have no conception of
the effort required for that purpose. Mr. Latrobe
is an inveterate hard reader, and, if he were not
baited occasionally, I believe 'would never stir from
his own study."

"You do not always hold out such attractions,
Charles," said Mr. Latrobe, " as falling in with a
party of young ladies."

" That is a compliment manufactured for the


occasion, sir," said Charles. "I assure you, Miss
Secretan, he is the most hardened book-worm, and
doesn't care for ladies the least. He would sooner
analyse a Greek particle, than look into the bluest
and softest eyes that were ever visible."

I saw the curate wince at this, and interposed
accordingly. Charles knew nothing whatever of

" You must have a great deal of interruption
from people calling upon you when you are studying,
Mr. Latrobe," I said.

"Well, Miss Secretan, I do, I do. But you
know that is one's proper work ; the properest of
all. I should not feel satisfied with any occupation
which prevented my attending to parish matters."

" Yes. But then you must so often be teased
with things which you are not really, specifically,
wanted for : begging letters and complaints of all
kinds, half of which ought to go to the doctor. I
wonder you do not take refuge in the very heart of
your landlady's premises. Mrs. Graves would pro-
tect you through fire and sword."

" That she would, and come off with flying
colours. I'm not alluding to her violet ribbons, Miss


Secretan, so pray don't impute it to me. But, do
you know, if I was disposed to burrow, it would
rather be in the opposite direction. I have just been
telling Charles and Mr. Fortescue of a curious dis-
covery I made yesterday."

" I am all impatience to hear it," I said.

" Well ; it did not lead to very much. Appa-
rently, only to some communication with the West
Hill ' caverns ; ' that place, you know, which they
illuminate occasionally. It was singular though how
I found the passage. You must know, Miss Secretan,
that an event of absorbing interest occurred to me
yesterday morning."

"You were married?" I asked thoughtlessly
enough. Ah ! thoughtlessly enough, in two senses. I
forgot for the moment, and was vexed to have done
so, Helen's recent confidences. And, I did not, how
should I? even in the most shadowy intuition of
thought, divine the deep import, to myself and to
every one then standing there, of the laughing, jest-
ing narrative by which my question was to be
answered. I will not interrupt it further ; only ask-
ing the reader, in addition, to take note of many
things which seem superficial ; to believe that neither


here nor in any past or future portion of my story,
have I knowingly set down for perusal one word or
incident which has not some bearing on the tragedy
in which it eventually resulted. I resume.

" You were married ? " I had incautiously asked.

" No, not that, Miss Secretan. But, I received a
post-office order for 51. You have no idea of the
agitation into which such an occurrence throws a

" I hope the visitation may become chronic," I
said. " But what has that to do with the ' caverns?' '

"I am going to tell you. As soon as I felt
capable of braving the public eye, I went to get the
order cashed ; and returned with four sovereigns and
two halves."

"With which he began to play pitch and toss,"
said Charles.

" Don't spoil my story, Master Charles : you
know it already. No, on reaching home, I took out
the money, and placed it in a drawer. That is, I
intended to do so. But one of the half-sovereigns
dropped ; and, of course, it rolled exactly where it
should not ; between the floor and the skirting-
board. Need I say that I have a tool-chest ; that


not a moment was lost in raising the plank, " and
hastening to the rescue of an object so justly clear to
me ? "

" You know, sir, you would give away your last
sixpence to a blind beggar," said Charles. " But go
on, Mr. Latrobe."

" I now come to a circumstance wholly unprece-
dented," said the curate. " On lifting the plank, I
found that it did not rest upon joists as usual, leaving
between itself and them that shallow cavity in which
dust and rat's bones usually accumulate, and in
which I expected to see my half-sovereign. Instead
of this, what appeared was ... a stone stair ! "

" Oh ! how beautiful," exclaimed Louisa. " I
daresay it was a dungeon."

"You shall hear," said Mr. Latrobe. "The
stair evidently led down to others ; and as the miss-
ing coin was not on the uppermost, it became neces-
sary to descend in quest of it."

"I do not quite understand," I said. " You are
not speaking now of the private staircase leading up
to your rooms ; the one that you enter from the
\Yest Hill steps?"

"Oh, no; that is quite different; not private at


all, excepting that my lodgings can be got at that
way without going through Mrs. Graves' domains.
That staircase is simple enough ; just opens into a
lobby from which there is a door into my study ; the
regular old story of the lodgings. But what I am
now speaking of is a new discovery altogether ; the
same side of my study as the lobby-door, but in the
opposite corner. You recollect, I daresay, that I
live in a kind of perch ; supported in mid air, like
Mahomet's tomb. "Well. One end of the perch is
let into Mrs. Graves' main premises. The other is
let into the sandstone rock of the' hill. Now, in this
rock, I have to-day learnt for the first time, there
exists, in addition to the excavation which forms
what you call the ' private staircase ; ' in other
words, which gives me and my parishioners entree to
my study, whenever I choose, without troubling
Mrs. Graves there exists, in addition to this, a
second excavation, forming the staircase I have just
discovered ; the first step of it lying, as I have
said, under the portion of the floor close to the

" I understand now perfectly," I said.

" Very well. Where did I leave off ? "


" The money had rolled down the stairs, and you
had to go after it," said Louisa.

" Just so, my dear. Not to roll though, I am
happy to say. However, I had some trouble in the
matter ; for, in order to get down, I had to remove a
large piece of the skirting, which was two or three
feet high ; wainscoting, in fact. I thought of send-
ing for the carpenter ; but then, I reflected thus. If
I do so, he will first insist on coming down to see
what is to be done. Then, he will go home, and
return with a boy, and a basket of tools. Then, he
will find that the precise tool he requires is not in
the basket, and will send the boy to fetch it. Then,
he will find that the boy doesn't come back, and will
go himself to fetch the boy. So, as this would have
been about a week's salary, even thus far, out of my
pocket, I moved the board myself."

"And, oh, Mr. Latrobe, please what did you
find?" said Louisa.

" Well, my dear, I found the half-sovereign,
which was the most important point. I also found
that the stairs led down to a door with a key in it
Louisa, I turned that key ! "

" Oh ! Mr. Latrobe, what was it ? "


"Yielding to the pressure of my hand, as ITr.
James's novels would say, the bolt slowly slid back-
wards ; and the door opening with a peculiarly harsh
and grating noise, admitted me into a subterranean
chamber of some extent. As the light which
descended from the opening in the floor gradually
penetrated the darkness of this locality, I had more
opportunity of observing its contents. I found that,
on two sides, it was partitioned off into cells, of a
magnitude sufficient to admit the human body only
in a stooping posture. Pieces of cord, splintered
wood, nails, hooks, and other implements of apparent
tortui'e, lay scattered about the floor. Vermin crept
on the mildewed walls. In short, I should have felt
no doubt of the purposes to which the place had been
applied in some remote period of priestcraft and
superstition, had it not been for a very perceptible
odour which still pervaded it. But your feelings must
not be further harrowed, young ladies. I had better
at once mention that the odour was that of saw-
dust. This circumstance, coupled with my laying
hold of a broken claret-bottle in the dark, convinced
me that I stood in what had formerly been a


" Was that all, Mr. Latrobe ? " said Louisa, pite-

" All, Miss Louisa ! I think it was a great deal :
it was a capital cellar, and it went to one's heart to
see it handed over to the black beetles. I suppose
when the house was converted into the curate's
lodgings, they thought it best not to put the young
man into the way of temptation ; and so floored over
the place. Or, more probably, they reflected that it
was not likely to be much wanted by its new occu-
pants, they not being usually blessed with incomes
which overflow in claret and champagne. However,
Louisa, as you are interested in the subject, I beg
to say that this was not quite 'all,' as you are
pleased to call it, although nearly so. At the further
end of the cellar there was another door ; with the
key also on the inside. Which key, had it admitted
of being turned, would doubtless, as I have said,
opened into the ' caverns,' or led to some com-
munication with them ; for it must have pene-
trated nearly to their latitude and longitude. But
the key was rusted in the lock, and positively
refused to open on any terms. So I left it to its
own devices."


" What can have been the use of this additional
entrance to the caverns ? " I asked.

" I don't know, Miss Secretan. If I had been
possessed of proper curiosity, of course I should have
asked Mrs. Graves ; but I am ashamed to say I did
not. They may have found it more convenient to
bring in the supplies to the cellar that way : some
former inmate may have bottled his own wine, and
the sandstone is excavated with the greatest ease.
By the way, it may be as well not to say anything to
Mrs. Graves. I did not fix the skirting up very
knowledgeably, and she might shame me into having
the carpenter after all. So keep your own counsel,

" All right, sir. What is your idea about these
caverns, Mr. Latrobe ? do you think they really lead
to Battle Abbey ?"

" Oh ! no, it is impossible. I believe they come
out on the further side of the hill ; and there can
be little doubt of their having communicated with
the Castle.. But the Abbey is too far."

" What is the distance ? " I asked.

" Six miles. Have you not seen it, Miss Secre-
tan ? It would be looking beautiful at present with


the autumn foliage? I wish we could get you
there ? "

"I am afraid it is not very feasible," I said, "I
must content myself with description. The Abbey is
inhabited, is it not ? "

" The lummiest drawing-room," said Charles ;
" made out of the old cloister, or refectory, or some-
thing. You see the stone pillars in it."

" I don't know that I care for that drawing-
room, Charles," said Mr. Latrobe. "While the
housekeeper is showing that, I generally take myself
off to the ruins at the back, which have not been
metamorphosed into company rooms. I am no
Puritan : balls and evening parties are all very well in
their proper place ; but I think it is horrid, even as
a matter of taste, to have them in the cloisters of an
abbey. Altogether, there are many ruins I prefer to
Battle. I do not mean only such first-class beauty
as Tintern or Fountains, but many of the smaller
ones. Llantony, in South Wales, is charming, for
instance ; buried away in the heart of dun moun-
tains, where there is nothing to clash with the pre-
sent stillness of the ruin, or the recollection of its
ancient uses. These were places dedicated to some-

VOL. i. 9


thing nobler than our modern every-day life : homes
of prayer and benediction ! "

"Do you think those old monks were of much
use, sir ? " said Charles.

" Every devoted life is of use," replied Mr.
Latrobe. " Even if the object be mistaken, or over-
strained, it is a visible witness of the higher relations
which we are only too apt to lose sight of. As to
the monasteries, it is easy enough to point out their
abuses ; but it is also clear, that, with all short-
comings, they afforded an asylum to religion without
which even its external semblance would have been
trampled out in those rude times. And they can-
not have lacked many blameless lives. If the inmates
of the cloister included hypocrites and worldlings ;
if the cowl was often assumed from superstition or
remorse, in weariness of existence, or as the refuge
of a mere earthly sorrow, still that cannot be the
whole account of the thing. Then, as now, there
must have been purer motives, loftier and more
devoted natures."

" I could understand some great act of self-
devotion," said Charles. " But a monk's life seems
such an easy-going matter."


" Well, I don't know. There is not much per-
sonal ease in hair-shirts, or in turning out to a cold
chapel at three in the morning. However, I was
rather deprecating a wholesale disparagement of
monasteries than holding them up as the highest
type of excellence. Every-day duties are quite
enough for the best of us ; it is almost too trite to
say so. As for such self-sacrifice as you speak of,
the occasions for .it are of course exceptional. But
they may come. They do come, sometimes, very
strangely, very unexpectedly. Come in that same
every-day life of ours, startling it into reality ; shaping
out of its mean elements untold forces, extremes
of agony and endurance. But really, Charles, you
have betrayed me into a homily. Miss Secretan will
take me for a field-preacher. As to Mr. Fortescue,
it is twenty minutes by the watch since he has said
anything ; or had the chance of doing so."

Mr. Fortescue had in fact been unusually silent
during the walk. He never spoke much, and was
liable to fits of abstraction ; but this morning he had
seemed even more pre-occupied than usual. He now
roused himself. He had been a well-contented
listener, he said. " Besides, the walk was a new


one to him. "Was this ' Old Boar ' we were coining

The pretty dingle, the thread of plashing water,
and the rock-basin into which it descends, all received
their due attention. And we scrambled down a steep
but fortunately dry path, to the foot of the fall ; and
ate a hearty lunch on seats improvised from the
shattered sandstone and twisted trunks.

When this was done, nothing would satisfy
Charles but that we must explore the stream higher
up, where there was another, although a less illustrious
fall. " He had discovered it one day, out shooting."
I positively refused for the two little girls, having
regard to the maternal displeasure on the score of
soiled gloves and torn frocks. Moreover, they were
palpably tired, and needed a short rest ; a fact
which they both vehemently contested until it was
ruled against them, and then at once admitted, with
the unblushingness peculiar to young ladies at their
time of life.

"But you will come, Miss Secretan," asked

" Quite impossible, Mr. Charles. I should be a
torn-boy to accompany you in any such expedition ; I


have no doubt it is a complete jungle all the way.
Besides, you would not wish me to leave my two
pupils here like babes in the wood. They might be
devoured by cannibals ; or carried off by ourang-
outangs ; or meet your friend, Mr. Jarvis Jones."

" As to the second difficulty," said Mr. Latrobe,
" I have not the slightest intention of going any
further, and shall be delighted to offer my poor pro-

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Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 6 of 15)