The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth
One morning Lady Dashfort had formed an ingenious scheme for leaving Lady Isabel and Lord Colambre tete-a-tete; but the sudden entrance of Heathcock disconcerted her intentions. He came to beg Lady Dashfort's interest with Count O'Halloran, for permission to hunt and shoot on his grounds.--'Not for myself, 'pon honour, but for two officers who are quartered at the next town here, who will indubitably hang or drown themselves if they are debarred from sporting.'
'Who is this Count O'Halloran?' said Lord Colambre. Miss White, Lady Killpatrick's companion, said 'he was a great oddity;' Lady Dashfort, 'that he was singular;' and the clergyman of the parish, who was at breakfast, declared 'that he was a man of uncommon knowledge, merit, and politeness.'
'All I know of him,' said Heathcock, 'is, that he is a great sportsman, with a long queue, a gold-laced hat, and long skirts to a laced waistcoat.' Lord Colambre expressed a wish to see this extraordinary personage; and Lady Dashfort, to cover her former design, and, perhaps, thinking absence might be as effectual as too much propinquity, immediately offered to call upon the officers in their way, and carry them with Heathcock and Lord Colambre to Halloran Castle.
Lady Isabel retired with much mortification, but with becoming grace; and Captain Benson and Captain Williamson were taken to the count's. Captain Benson, who was a famous whip, took his seat on the box of the barouche, and the rest of the party had the pleasure of her ladyship's conversation for three or four miles: of her ladyship's conversation--for Lord Colambre's thoughts were far distant; Captain Williamson had not anything to say; and Heathcock nothing but, 'Eh! re'lly now!--'pon honour!'
They arrived at Halloran Castle--a fine old building, part of it in ruins, and part repaired with great judgment and taste. When the carriage stopped, a respectable-looking man-servant appeared on the steps, at the open hall-door.
Count O'Halloran was out a-hunting; but his servant said 'that he would be at home immediately, if Lady Dashfort and the gentlemen would be pleased to walk in.'
On one side of the lofty and spacious hall stood the skeleton of an elk; on the other side, the perfect skeleton of a moose-deer, which, as the servant said, his master had made out, with great care, from the different bones of many of this curious species of deer, found in the lakes in the neighbourhood. The brace of officers witnessed their wonder with sundry strange oaths and exclamations.--'Eh! 'pon honour--re'lly now!' said Heathcock; and, too genteel to wonder at or admire anything in the creation, dragged out his watch with some difficulty, saying, 'I wonder now whether they are likely to think of giving us anything to eat in this place?' And, turning his back upon the moose-deer, he straight walked out again upon the steps, called to his groom, and began to make some inquiry about his led horse. Lord Colambre surveyed the prodigious skeletons with rational curiosity, and with that sense of awe and admiration, by which a superior mind is always struck on beholding any of the great works of Providence.
'Come, my dear lord!' said Lady Dashfort; 'with our sublime sensations, we are keeping my old friend, Mr. Alick Brady, this venerable person, waiting, to show us into the reception-room.'
The servant bowed respectfully--more respectfully than servants of modern date.
'My lady, the reception-room has been lately painted--the smell of paint may be disagreeable; with your leave, I will take the liberty of showing you into my master's study.'
He opened the door, went in before her, and stood holding up his finger, as if making a signal of silence to some one within. Her ladyship entered, and found herself in the midst of an odd assembly: an eagle, a goat, a dog, an otter, several gold and silver fish in a glass globe, and a white mouse in a cage. The eagle, quick of eye but quiet of demeanour, was perched upon his stand; the otter lay under the table, perfectly harmless; the Angora goat, a beautiful and remarkably little creature of its kind, with long, curling, silky hair, was walking about the room with the air of a beauty and a favourite; the dog, a tall Irish greyhound--one of the few of that fine race which is now almost extinct--had been given to Count O'Halloran by an Irish nobleman, a relation of Lady Dashfort's. This dog, who had formerly known her ladyship, looked at her with ears erect, recognised her, and went to meet her the moment she entered. The servant answered for the peaceable behaviour of all the rest of the company of animals, and retired. Lady Dashfort began to feed the eagle from a silver plate on his stand; Lord Colambre examined the inscription on his collar; the other men stood in amaze. Heathcock, who came in last, astonished out of his constant 'Eh! re'lly now!' the moment he put himself in at the door, exclaimed, 'Zounds! what's all this live lumber?' and he stumbled over the goat, who was at that moment crossing the way. The colonel's spur caught in the goat's curly beard; the colonel shook his foot, and entangled the spur worse and worse; the goat struggled and butted; the colonel skated forward on the polished oak floor, balancing himself with outstretched arms.
The indignant eagle screamed, and, passing by, perched on Heathcock's shoulders. Too well-bred to have recourse to the terrors of his beak, he scrupled not to scream, and flap his wings about the colonel's ears. Lady Dashfort, the while, threw herself back in her chair, laughing, and begging Heathcock's pardon. 'Oh, take care of the dog, my dear colonel!' cried she; 'for this kind of dog seizes his enemy by the back, and shakes him to death.' The officers, holding their sides, laughed, and begged--no pardon; while Lord Colambre, the only person who was not absolutely incapacitated, tried to disentangle the spur, and to liberate the colonel from the goat, and the goat from the colonel; an attempt in which he at last succeeded, at the expense of a considerable portion of the goat's beard. The eagle, however, still kept his place; and, yet mindful of the wrongs of his insulted friend the goat, had stretched his wings to give another buffet. Count O'Halloran entered; and the bird, quitting his prey, flew down to greet his master. The count was a fine old military-looking gentleman, fresh from the chace: his hunting accoutrements hanging carelessly about him, he advanced, unembarrassed, to the lady; and received his other guests with a mixture of military ease and gentleman-like dignity.
Without adverting to the awkward and ridiculous situation in which he had found poor Heathcock, he apologised in general for his troublesome favourites. 'For one of them,' said he, patting the head of the dog, which lay quiet at Lady Dashfort's feet, 'I see I have no need to apologise; he is where he ought to be. Poor fellow! he has never lost his taste for the good company to which he was early accustomed. As to the rest,' said he, turning to Lady Dashfort, 'a mouse, a bird, and a fish, are, you know, tribute from earth, air, and water, for my conqueror--'
'But from no barbarous Scythian!' said Lord Colambre, smiling. The count looked at Lord Colambre, as at a person worthy his attention; but his first care was to keep the peace between his loving subjects and his foreign visitors. It was difficult to dislodge the old settlers, to make room for the newcomers; but he adjusted these things with admirable facility; and, with a master's hand and master's eye, compelled each favourite to retreat into the back settlements. With becoming attention, he stroked and kept quiet old Victory, his eagle, who eyed Colonel Heathcock still, as if he did not like him; and whom the colonel eyed, as if he wished his neck fairly wrung off. The little goat had nestled himself close up to his liberator, Lord Colambre, and lay perfectly quiet, with his eyes closed, going very wisely to sleep, and submitting philosophically to the loss of one half of his beard. Conversation now commenced, and was carried on by Count O'Halloran with much ability and spirit, and with such quickness of discrimination and delicacy of taste, as quite surprised and delighted our hero. To the lady, the count's attention was first directed: he listened to her as she spoke, bending with an air of deference and devotion. She made her request for permission for Major Benson and Captain Williamson to hunt and shoot in his grounds; this was instantly granted.
'Her ladyship's requests were to him commands,' the count said. 'His gamekeeper should be instructed to give the gentlemen, her friends, every liberty, and all possible assistance.'
Then turning to the officers, he said he had just heard that several regiments of English militia had lately landed in Ireland; that one regiment was arrived at Killpatrickstown. He rejoiced in the advantages Ireland, and he hoped he might be permitted to add, England, would probably derive from the exchange of the militia of both countries; habits would be improved, ideas enlarged. The two countries have the same interest; and, from the inhabitants discovering more of each other's good qualities, and interchanging little good offices in common life, their esteem and affection for each other would increase, and rest upon the firm basis of mutual utility.'
To all this Major Benson and Captain Williamson made no reply.
'The major looks so like a stuffed man of straw,' whispered Lady Dashfort to Lord Colambre; 'and the captain so like the knave of clubs, putting forth one manly leg.'
Count O'Halloran now turned the conversation to field sports, and then the captain and major opened at once.
'Pray now, sir?' said the major, 'you fox-hunt in this country, I suppose; and now do you manage the thing here as we do? Over night, you know, before the hunt, when the fox is out, stopping up the earths of the cover we mean to draw, and all the rest for four miles round. Next morning we assemble at the cover's side, and the huntsman throws in the hounds. The gossip here is no small part of the entertainment; but as soon as we hear the hounds give tongue--'
'The favourite hounds,' interposed Williamson.
'The favourite hounds, to be sure,' continued Benson; 'there is a dead silence, till pug is well out of cover, and the whole pack well in; then cheer the hounds with tally-ho! till your lungs crack. Away he goes in gallant style, and the whole field is hard up, till pug takes a stiff country; then they who haven't pluck lag, see no more of him, and, with a fine blazing scent, there are but few of us in at the death.'
'Well, we are fairly in at the death, I hope,' said Lady Dashfort; 'I was thrown out sadly at one time in the chace.'
Lord Colambre, with the count's permission, took up a book in which the count's pencil lay, Pasley on the Military Policy of Great Britain; it was marked with many notes of admiration, and with hands pointing to remarkable passages.
'That is a book that leaves a strong impression on the mind,' said the count.
Lord Colambre read one of the marked passages, beginning with, 'All that distinguishes a soldier in outward appearance from a citizen is so trifling--' but at this instant our hero's attention was distracted by seeing in a black-letter book this title of a chapter:
'Burial-place of the Nugents.'
A smart pinch on his elbow from his major, who stood behind him, stopped the captain short, as he pronounced the word Mr. Like all awkward people, he turned directly to ask, by his looks, what was the matter?
The major took advantage of his discomfiture, and, stepping before him, determined to have the fishing to himself, and went on with--
'Count O'Halloran, I presume you understand fishing too, as well as hunting?'
The count bowed: 'I do not presume to say that, sir.'
'But pray, count, in this country, do you arm your hook this ways? Give me leave;' taking the whip from Williamson's reluctant hand, 'this ways, laying the outermost part of your feather this fashion next to your hook, and the point next to your shank, this wise, and that wise; and then, sir,--count, you take the hackle of a cock's neck----'
'A plover's topping's better,' said Williamson.
'And work your gold and silver thread,' pursued Benson, 'up to your wings, and when your head's made, you fasten all.'
'But you never showed how your head's made,' interrupted Williamson.
'The gentleman knows how a head's made; any man can make a head, I suppose; so, sir, you fasten all.'
'You'll never get your head fast on that way, while the world stands,' cried Williamson.
'Fast enough for all purposes; I'll bet you a rump and dozen, captain; and then, sir,--count, you divide your wings with a needle.'
'A pin's point will do,' said Williamson.
The count, to reconcile matters, produced from an Indian cabinet, which he had opened for the lady's inspection, a little basket containing a variety of artificial flies of curious construction, which, as he spread them on the table, made Williamson and Benson's eyes almost sparkle with delight. There was the dun-fly, for the month of March; and the stone-fly, much in vogue for April; and the ruddy-fly, of red wool, black silk, and red capon's feathers.
Lord Colambre, whose head was in the burial-place of the Nugents, wished them all at the bottom of the sea.
'And the green-fly, and the moorish-fly!' cried Benson, snatching them up with transport; 'and, chief, the sad-yellow-fly, in which the fish delight in June; the sad-yellow-fly, made with the buzzard's wings, bound with black braked hemp, and the shell-fly for the middle of July, made of greenish wool, wrapped about with the herle of a peacock's tail, famous for creating excellent sport.' All these and more were spread upon the table before the sportsmen's wondering eyes.
'Capital flies! capital, faith!' cried Williamson.
'Treasures, faith, real treasures, by G--!' cried Benson.
'Eh! 'pon honour! re'lly now,' were the first words which Heathcock had uttered since his battle with the goat.
'My dear Heathcock, are you alive still?' said Lady Dashfort; 'I had really forgotten your existence.'
So had Count O'Halloran, but he did not say so.
'Your ladyship has the advantage of me there,' said Heathcock, stretching himself; 'I wish I could forget my existence, for, in my mind, existence is a horrible bore.'
'I thought you was a sportsman,' said Williamson.
'And a fisherman?'
'Why, look you there, sir,' pointing to the flies, 'and tell a body life's a bore.'
'One can't always fish, or shoot, I apprehend, sir,' said Heathcock.
'Not always--but sometimes,' said Williamson, laughing; 'for I suspect shrewdly you've forgot some of your sporting in Bond Street.'
'Eh! 'pon honour! re'lly now!' said the colonel, retreating again to his safe entrenchment of affectation, from which he never could venture without imminent danger.
''Pon honour,' cried Lady Dashfort, 'I can swear for Heathcock, that I have eaten excellent hares and ducks of his shooting, which, to my knowledge,' added she, in a loud whisper, 'he bought in the market.'
'Emptum aprum!' said Lord Colambre to the count, without danger of being understood by those whom it concerned.
The count smiled a second time; but politely turning the attention of the company from the unfortunate colonel by addressing himself to the laughing sportsmen, 'Gentlemen, you seem to value these,' said he, sweeping the artificial flies from the table into the little basket from which they had been taken; 'would you do me the honour to accept of them? They are all of my own making, and consequently of Irish manufacture.' Then, ringing the bell, he asked Lady Dashfort's permission to have the basket put into her carriage.
Benson and Williamson followed the servant, to prevent them from being tossed into the boot. Heathcock stood still in the middle of the room taking snuff.
Count O'Halloran turned from him to Lord Colambre, who had just got happily to the burial-place of the Nugents, when Lady Dashfort, coming between them, and spying the title of the chapter, exclaimed--
'What have you there?--Antiquities! my delight!--but I never look at engravings when I can see realities.'
Lord Colambre was then compelled to follow, as she led the way into the hall, where the count took down golden ornaments, and brass-headed spears, and jointed horns of curious workmanship, that had been found on his estate; and he told of spermaceti wrapped in carpets, and he showed small urns, enclosing ashes; and from among these urns he selected one, which he put into the hands of Lord Colambre, telling him that it had been lately found in an old abbey-ground in his neighbourhood, which had been the burial-place of some of the Nugent family.
'I was just looking at the account of it, in the book which you saw open on my table.--And as you seem to take an interest in that family, my lord, perhaps,' said the count, 'you may think this urn worth your acceptance.'
Lord Colambre said, 'It would be highly valuable to him--as the Nugents were his near relations.'
Lady Dashfort little expected this blow; she, however, carried him off to the moose-deer, and from moose-deer to round-towers, to various architectural antiquities, and to the real and fabulous history of Ireland, on all which the count spoke with learning and enthusiasm. But now, to Colonel Heathcock's great joy and relief, a handsome collation appeared in the dining-room, of which Ulick opened the folding-doors.
'Count, you have made an excellent house of your castle,' said Lady Dashfort.
'It will be, when it is finished,' said the count. 'I am afraid,' added he, smiling, 'I live like many other Irish gentlemen, who never are, but always to be, blest with a good house. I began on too large a scale, and can never hope to live to finish it.'
''Pon honour! here's a good thing, which I hope we shall live to finish,' said Heathcock, sitting down before the collation; and heartily did he eat of grouse pie, and of Irish ortolans, which, as Lady Dashfort observed, 'afforded him indemnity for the past, and security for the future.'
'Eh! re'lly now! your Irish ortolans are famous good eating,' said Heathcock.
'Worth being quartered in Ireland, faith! to taste 'em,' said Benson.
The count recommended to Lady Dashfort some of 'that delicate sweetmeat, the Irish plum.'
'Bless me, sir--count!' cried Williamson, 'it's by far the best thing of the kind I ever tasted in all my life: where could you get this?'
'In Dublin, at my dear Mrs. Godey's; where only, in his Majesty's dominions, it is to be had,' said the count. The whole dish vanished in a few seconds. ''Pon honour! I do believe this is the thing the queen's so fond of,' said Heathcock.
Then heartily did he drink of the count's excellent Hungarian wines; and, by the common bond of sympathy between those who have no other tastes but eating and drinking, the colonel, the major, and the captain were now all the best companions possible for one another.
Whilst 'they prolonged the rich repast,' Lady Dashfort and Lord Colambre went to the window to admire the prospect; Lady Dashfort asked the count the name of some distant hill.
'Ah!' said the count, 'that hill was once covered with fine wood; but it was all cut down two years ago.'
'Who could have been so cruel?' said her ladyship.
'I forget the present proprietor's name,' said the count; 'but he is one of those who, according to the Clause of Distress in their leases, lead, drive, and carry away, but never enter their lands; one of those enemies to Ireland--these cruel absentees!' Lady Dashfort looked through her glass at the mountain; Lord Colambre sighed, and, endeavouring to pass it off with a smile, said frankly to the count--
'You are not aware, I am sure, count, that you are speaking to the son of an Irish absentee family.--Nay, do not be shocked, my dear sir; I tell you only, because I thought it fair to do so; but let me assure you, that nothing you could say on that subject could hurt me personally, because I feel that I am not, that I never can be, an enemy to Ireland. An absentee, voluntarily, I never yet have been; and as to the future, I declare--'
'I declare you know nothing of the future,' interrupted Lady Dashfort, in a half-peremptory, half-playful tone--'you know nothing; make no rash vows, and you will break none.'
The undaunted assurance of Lady Dashfort's genius for intrigue gave her an air of frank imprudence, which prevented Lord Colambre from suspecting that more was meant than met the ear. The count and he took leave of one another with mutual regard; and Lady Dashfort rejoiced to have got our hero out of Halloran Castle.