Story type: Literature
“Papa,” said my sister Effie, one evening as we all sat about the drawing-room fire. One after another, as nothing followed, we turned our eves upon her. There she sat, still silent, embroidering the corner of a cambric hand-kerchief, apparently unaware that she had spoken.
It was a very cold night in the beginning of winter. My father had come home early, and we had dined early that we might have a long evening together, for it was my father’s and mother’s wedding-day, and we always kept it as the homeliest of holidays. My father was seated in an easy-chair by the chimney corner, with a jug of Burgundy near him, and my mother sat by his side, now and then taking a sip out of his glass.
Effie was now nearly nineteen; the rest of us were younger. What she was thinking about we did not know then, though we could all guess now. Suddenly she looked up, and seeing all eyes fixed upon her, became either aware or suspicious, and blushed rosy red.
“You spoke to me, Effie. What was it, my dear?”
“O yes, papa. I wanted to ask you whether you wouldn’t tell us, to-night, the story about how you–“
“Well, my love?”
“–About how you–“
“I am listening, my dear.”
“I mean, about mamma and you.”
“Yes, yes. About how I got your mamma for a mother to you. Yes. I paid a dozen of port for her.”
We all and each exclaimed Papa! and my mother laughed.
“Tell us all about it,” was the general cry.
“Well, I will,” answered my father. “I must begin at the beginning, though.”
And, filling his glass with Burgundy, he began.
“As far back as I can remember, I lived with my father in an old manor-house in the country. It did not belong to my father, but to an elder brother of his, who at that time was captain of a seventy-four. He loved the sea more than his life; and, as yet apparently, had loved his ship better than any woman. At least he was not married.
“My mother had been dead for some years, and my father was now in very delicate health. He had never been strong, and since my mother’s death, I believe, though I was too young to notice it, he had pined away. I am not going to tell you anything about him just now, because it does not belong to my story. When I was about five years old, as nearly as I can judge, the doctors advised him to leave England. The house was put into the hands of an agent to let–at least, so I suppose; and he took me with him to Madeira, where he died. I was brought home by his servant, and by my uncle’s directions, sent to a boarding-school; from there to Eton, and from there to Oxford.
“Before I had finished my studies, my uncle had been an admiral for some time. The year before I left Oxford, he married Lady Georgiana Thornbury, a widow lady, with one daughter. Thereupon he bade farewell to the sea, though I dare say he did not like the parting, and retired with his bride to the house where he was born–the same house I told you I was born in, which had been in the family for many generations, and which your cousin now lives in.
“It was late in the autumn when they arrived at Culverwood. They were no sooner settled than my uncle wrote to me, inviting me to spend Christmas-tide with them at the old place. And here you may see that my story has arrived at its beginning.
“It was with strange feelings that I entered the house. It looked so old-fashioned, and stately, and grand, to eyes which had been accustomed to all the modern commonplaces! Yet the shadowy recollections which hung about it gave an air of homeliness to the place, which, along with the grandeur, occasioned a sense of rare delight. For what can be better than to feel that you are in stately company, and at the same time perfectly at home in it? I am grateful to this day for the lesson I had from the sense of which I have spoken–that of mingled awe and tenderness in the aspect of the old hall as I entered it for the first time after fifteen years, having left it a mere child.
“I was cordially received by my old uncle and my new aunt. But the moment Kate Thornbury entered I lost my heart, and have never found it again to this day. I get on wonderfully well without it, though, for I have got the loan of a far better one till I find my own, which, therefore, I hope I never shall.”
My father glanced at my mother as he said this, and she returned his look in a way which I can now interpret as a quiet satisfied confidence. But the tears came in Effie’s eyes. She had trouble before long, poor girl! But it is not her story I have to tell.–My father went on:
“Your mother was prettier then than she is now, but not so beautiful; beautiful enough, though, to make me think there never had been or could again be anything so beautiful. She met me kindly, and I met her awkwardly.”
“You made me feel that I had no business there,” said my mother, speaking for the first time in the course of the story.
“See there, girls,” said my father. “You are always so confident in first impressions, and instinctive judgment! I was awkward because, as I said, I fell in love with your mother the moment I saw her; and she thought I regarded her as an intruder into the old family precincts.
“I will not follow the story of the days. I was very happy, except when I felt too keenly how unworthy I was of Kate Thornbury; not that she meant to make me feel it, for she was never other than kind; but she was such that I could not help feeling it. I gathered courage, however, and before three days were over, I began to tell her all my slowly reviving memories of the place, with my childish adventures associated with this and that room or outhouse or spot in the grounds; for the longer I was in the place the more my old associations with it revived, till I was quite astonished to find how much of my history in connection with Culverwood had been thoroughly imprinted on my memory. She never showed, at least, that she was weary of my stories; which, however interesting to me, must have been tiresome to any one who did not sympathize with what I felt towards my old nest. From room to room we rambled, talking or silent; and nothing could have given me a better chance, I believe, with a heart like your mother’s. I think it was not long before she began to like me, at least, and liking had every opportunity of growing into something stronger, if only she too did not come to the conclusion that I was unworthy of her.
“My uncle received me like the jolly old tar that he was–welcomed me to the old ship–hoped we should make many a voyage together–and that I would take the run of the craft–all but in one thing.
“‘You see, my boy,’ he said, ‘I married above my station, and I don’t want my wife’s friends to say that I laid alongside of her to get hold of her daughter’s fortune. No, no, my boy; your old uncle has too much salt water in him to do a dog’s trick like that. So you take care of yourself–that’s all. She might turn the head of a wiser man than ever came out of our family.’
“I did not tell my uncle that his advice was already too late; for that, though it was not an hour since I had first seen her, my head was so far turned already, that the only way to get it right again, was to go on turning it in the same direction; though, no doubt, there was a danger of overhauling the screw. The old gentleman never referred to the matter again, nor took any notice of our increasing intimacy; so that I sometimes doubt even now if he could have been in earnest in the very simple warning he gave me. Fortunately, Lady Georgiana liked me–at least I thought she did, and that gave me courage.
“That’s all nonsense, my dear,” said my mother. “Mamma was nearly as fond of you as I was; but you never wanted courage.”
“I knew better than to show my cowardice, I dare say,” returned my father. “But,” he continued, “things grew worse and worse, till I was certain I should kill myself, or go straight out of my mind, if your mother would not have me. So it went on for a few days, and Christmas was at hand.
“The admiral had invited several old friends to come and spend the Christmas week with him. Now you must remember that, although you look on me as an old-fashioned fogie–“
“Oh, papa!” we all interrupted; but he went on.
“Yet my old uncle was an older-fashioned fogie, and his friends were much the same as himself. Now, I am fond of a glass of port, though I dare not take it, and must content myself with Burgundy. Uncle Bob would have called Burgundy pig-wash. He could not do without his port, though he was a moderate enough man, as customs were. Fancy, then, his dismay when, on questioning his butler, an old coxen of his own, and after going down to inspect in person, he found that there was scarcely more than a dozen of port in the wine-cellar. He turned white with dismay, and, till he had brought the blood back to his countenance by swearing, he was something awful to behold in the dim light of the tallow candle old Jacob held in his tattooed fist. I will not repeat the words he used; fortunately, they are out of fashion amongst gentlemen, although ladies, I understand, are beginning to revive the custom, now old, and always ugly. Jacob reminded his honour that he would not have more put down till he had got a proper cellar built, for the one there was, he had said, was not fit to put anything but dead men in. Thereupon, after abusing Jacob for not reminding him of the necessities of the coming season, he turned to me, and began, certainly not to swear at his own father, but to expostulate sideways with the absent shade for not having provided a decent cellar before his departure from this world of dinners and wine, hinting that it was somewhat selfish, and very inconsiderate of the welfare of those who were to come after him. Having a little exhausted his indignation, he came up, and wrote the most peremptory order to his wine-merchant, in Liverpool, to let him have thirty dozen of port before Christmas Day, even if he had to send it by post-chaise. I took the letter to the post myself, for the old man would trust nobody but me, and indeed would have preferred taking it himself; but in winter he was always lame from the effects of a bruise he had received from a falling spar in the battle of Aboukir.
“That night I remember well. I lay in bed wondering whether I might venture to say a word, or even to give a hint to your mother that there was a word that pined to be said if it might. All at once I heard a whine of the wind in the old chimney. How well I knew that whine! For my kind aunt had taken the trouble to find out from me what room I had occupied as a boy, and, by the third night I spent there, she had got it ready for me. I jumped out of bed, and found that the snow was falling fast and thick. I jumped into bed again, and began wondering what my uncle would do if the port did not arrive. And then I thought that, if the snow went on falling as it did, and if the wind rose any higher, it might turn out that the roads through the hilly part of Yorkshire in which Culverwood lay, might very well be blocked up.
“The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have Know,
And what will my uncle do then, poor thing?
He’ll run for his port,
But he will run short,
And have too much water to drink, poor thing!
“With the influences of the chamber of my childhood crowding upon me, I kept repenting the travestied rhyme to myself, till I fell asleep.
“Now, boys and girls, if I were writing a novel, I should like to make you, somehow or other, put together the facts–that I was in the room I have mentioned; that I had been in the cellar with my uncle for the first time that evening; that I had seen my uncle’s distress, and heard his reflections upon his father. I may add that I was not myself, even then, so indifferent to the merits of a good glass of port as to be unable to enter into my uncle’s dismay, and that of his guests at last, if they should find that the snow-storm had actually closed up the sweet approaches of the expected port. If I was personally indifferent to the matter, I fear it is to be attributed to your mother, and not to myself.”
“Nonsense!” interposed my mother once more. “I never knew such a man for making little of himself and much of other people. You never drank a glass too much port in your life.”
“That’s why I’m so fond of it, my dear,” returned my father. “I declare you make me quite discontented with my pig-wash here.
“That night I had a dream.
“The next day the visitors began to arrive. Before the evening after, they had all come. There were five of them–three tars and two land-crabs, as they called each other when they got jolly, which, by-the-way, they would not have done long without me.
“My uncle’s anxiety visibly increased. Each guest, as he came down to breakfast, received each morning a more constrained greeting.–I beg your pardon, ladies; I forgot to mention that my aunt had lady-visitors, of course. But the fact is, it is only the port-drinking visitors in whom my story is interested, always excepted your mother.
“These ladies my admiral uncle greeted with something even approaching to servility. I understood him well enough. He instinctively sought to make a party to protect him when the awful secret of his cellar should be found out. But for two preliminary days or so, his resources would serve; for he had plenty of excellent claret and Madeira–stuff I don’t know much about–and both Jacob and himself condescended to manoeuvre a little.
“The wine did not arrive. But the morning of Christmas Eve did. I was sitting in my room, trying to write a song for Kate–that’s your mother, my dears–“
“I know, papa,” said Effie, as if she were very knowing to know that.
“–when my uncle came into the room, looking like Sintram with Death and the Other One after him–that’s the nonsense you read to me the other day, isn’t it; Effie?”
“Not nonsense, dear papa,” remonstrated Effie; and I loved her for saying it, for surely that is not nonsense.
“I didn’t mean it,” said my father; and turning to my mother, added: “It must be your fault, my dear, that my children are so serious that they always take a joke for earnest. However, it was no joke with my uncle. If he didn’t look like Sintram he looked like t’other one.
“‘The roads are frozen–I mean snowed up,’ he said. ‘There’s just one bottle of port left, and what Captain Calker will say–I dare say I know, but I’d rather not. Damn this weather!–God forgive me!–that’s not right–but it is trying–ain’t it, my boy?’
“‘What will you give me for a dozen of port, uncle?’ was all my answer.
“‘Give you? I’ll give you Culverwood, you rogue.’
“‘Done,’ I cried.
“‘That is,’ stammered my uncle, ‘that is,’ and he reddened like the funnel of one of his hated steamers, ‘that is, you know, always provided, you know. It wouldn’t be fair to Lady Georgiana, now, would it? I put it to yourself–if she took the trouble, you know. You understand me, my boy?’
“‘That’s of course, uncle,’ I said.
“‘Ah! I see you’re a gentleman like your father, not to trip a man when he stumbles,’ said my uncle. For such was the dear old man’s sense of honour, that he was actually uncomfortable about the hasty promise he had made without first specifying the exception. The exception, you know, has Culverwood at the present hour, and right welcome he is.
“‘Of course, uncle,’ I said–‘between gentlemen, you know. Still, I want my joke out, too. What will you give me for a dozen of port to tide you over Christmas Day?’
“‘Give you, my boy? I’ll give you–‘
“But here he checked himself, as one that had been burned already.
“‘Bah!’ he said, turning his back, and going towards the door; ‘what’s the use of joking about serious affairs like this?’
“And so he left the room. And I let him go. For I had heard that the road from Liverpool was impassable, the wind and snow having continued every day since that night of which I told you. Meantime, I had never been able to summon the courage to say one word to your mother–I beg her pardon, I mean Miss Thornbury.
“Christmas Day arrived. My uncle was awful to behold. His friends were evidently anxious about him. They thought he was ill. There was such a hesitation about him, like a shark with a bait, and such a flurry, like a whale in his last agonies. He had a horrible secret which he dared not tell, and which yet would come out of its grave at the appointed hour.
“Down in the kitchen the roast beef and turkey were meeting their deserts. Up in the store-room–for Lady Georgiana was not above housekeeping, any more than her daughter–the ladies of the house were doing their part; and I was oscillating between my uncle and his niece, making myself amazingly useful now to one and now to the other. The turkey and the beef were on the table, nay, they had been well eaten, before I felt that my moment was come. Outside, the wind was howling, and driving the snow with soft pats against the window-panes. Eager-eyed I watched General Fortescue, who despised sherry or Madeira even during dinner, and would no more touch champagne than he would eau sucrée, but drank port after fish or with cheese indiscriminately–with eager eyes I watched how the last bottle dwindled out its fading life in the clear decanter. Glass after glass was supplied to General Fortescue by the fearless cockswain, who, if he might have had his choice, would rather have boarded a Frenchman than waited for what was to follow. My uncle scarcely ate at all, and the only thing that stopped his face from growing longer with the removal of every dish was that nothing but death could have made it longer than it was already. It was my interest to let matters go as far as they might up to a certain point, beyond which it was not my interest to let them go, if I could help it. At the same time I was curious to know how my uncle would announce–confess the terrible fact that in his house, on Christmas Day, having invited his oldest friends to share with him the festivities of the season, there was not one bottle more of port to had.
“I waited till the last moment–till I fancied the admiral was opening his mouth; like a fish in despair, to make his confession. He had not even dared to make a confidante of his wife in such an awful dilemma. Then I pretended to have dropped my table-napkin behind my chair, and rising to seek it, stole round behind my uncle, and whispered in his ear:
“‘What will you give me for a dozen of port now, uncle?’
“‘Bah!’ he said, ‘I’m at the gratings; don’t torture me.’
“‘I’m in earnest, uncle.’
“He looked round at me with a sudden flash of bewildered hope in his eye. In the last agony he was capable of believing in a miracle. But he made me no reply. He only stared.
“‘Will you give me Kate? I want Kate,’ I whispered.
“‘I will, my boy. That is, if she’ll have you. That is, I mean to say, if you produce the true tawny.’
“‘Of course, uncle; honour bright–as port in a storm,’ I answered, trembling in my shoes and everything else I had on, for I was not more than three parts confident in the result.
“The gentlemen beside Kate happening at the moment to be occupied, each with the lady on his other side, I went behind her, and whispered to her as I had whispered to my uncle, though not exactly in the same terms. Perhaps I had got a little courage from the champagne I had drunk; perhaps the presence of the company gave me a kind of mesmeric strength; perhaps the excitement of the whole venture kept me up; perhaps Kate herself gave me courage, like a goddess of old, in some way I did not understand. At all events I said to her:
“‘Kate,’–we had got so far even then–‘my uncle hasn’t another bottle of port in his cellar. Consider what a state General Fortescue will be in soon. He’ll be tipsy for want of it. Will you come and help me to find a bottle or two?’
“She rose at once, with a white-rose blush–so delicate I don’t believe any one saw it but myself. But the shadow of a stray ringlet could not fall on her cheek without my seeing it.
“When we got into the hall, the wind was roaring loud, and the few lights were flickering and waving gustily with alternate light and shade across the old portraits which I had known so well as a child–for I used to think what each would say first, if he or she came down out of the frame and spoke to me.
“I stopped, and taking Kate’s hand, I said–
“‘I daren’t let you come farther, Kate, before I tell you another thing: my uncle has promised, if I find him a dozen of port–you must have seen what a state the poor man is in–to let me say something to you–I suppose he meant your mamma, but I prefer saying it to you, if you will let me. Will you come and help me to find the port?’
“She said nothing, but took up a candle that was on a table in the hall, and stood waiting. I ventured to look at her. Her face was now celestial rosy red, and I could not doubt that she had understood me. She looked so beautiful that I stood staring at her without moving. What the servants could have been about that not one of them crossed the hall, I can’t think.
“At last Kate laughed and said–‘Well?’ I started, and I dare say took my turn at blushing. At least I did not know what to say. I had forgotten all about the guests inside. ‘Where’s the port?’ said Kate. I caught hold of her hand again and kissed it.”
“You needn’t be quite so minute in your account, my dear,” said my mother, smiling.
“I will be more careful in future, my love,” returned my father.
“‘What do you want me to do?’ said Kate.
“‘Only to hold the candle for me,’ I answered, restored to my seven senses at last; and, taking it from her, I led the way, and she followed, till we had passed through the kitchen and reached the cellar-stairs. These were steep and awkward, and she let me help her down.”
“Now, Edward!” said my mother.
“Yes, yes, my love, I understand,” returned my father.
“Up to this time your mother had asked no questions; but when we stood in a vast, low cellar, which we had made several turns to reach, and I gave her the candle, and took up a great crowbar which lay on the floor, she said at last–
“‘Edward, are you going to bury me alive? or what are you going to do?’
“‘I’m going to dig you out,’ I said, for I was nearly beside myself with joy, as I struck the crowbar like a battering-ram into the wall. You can fancy, John, that I didn’t work the worse that Kate was holding the candle for me.
“Very soon, though with great effort, I had dislodged a brick, and the next blow I gave into the hole sent back a dull echo. I was right!
“I worked now like a madman, and, in a very few minutes more, I had dislodged the whole of the brick-thick wall which filled up an archway of stone and curtained an ancient door in the lock of which the key now showed itself. It had been well greased, and I turned it without much difficulty.
“I took the candle from Kate, and led her into a spacious region of sawdust, cobweb, and wine-fungus.
“‘There, Kate!’ I cried, in delight.
“‘But,’ said Kate, ‘will the wine be good?’
“‘General Fortescue will answer you that,’ I returned, exultantly. ‘Now come, and hold the light again while I find the port-bin.’
“I soon found not one, but several well-filled port-bins. Which to choose I could not tell. I must chance that. Kate carried a bottle and the candle, and I carried two bottles very carefully. We put them down in the kitchen with orders they should not be touched. We had soon carried the dozen to the hall-table by the dining-room door.
“When at length, with Jacob chuckling and rubbing his hands behind us, we entered the dining-room, Kate and I, for Kate would not part with her share in the joyful business, loaded with a level bottle in each hand, which we carefully erected on the sideboard, I presume, from the stare of the company, that we presented a rather remarkable appearance–Kate in her white muslin, and I in my best clothes, covered with brick-dust, and cobwebs, and lime. But we could not be half so amusing to them as they were to us. There they sat with the dessert before them but no wine-decanters forthcoming. How long they had sat thus, I have no idea. If you think your mamma has, you may ask her. Captain Calker and General Fortescue looked positively white about the gills. My uncle, clinging to the last hope, despairingly, had sat still and said nothing, and the guests could not understand the awful delay. Even Lady Georgiana had begun to fear a mutiny in the kitchen, or something equally awful. But to see the flash that passed across my uncle’s face, when he saw us appear with ported arms! He immediately began to pretend that nothing had been the matter.
“‘What the deuce has kept you, Ned, my boy?’ he said. ‘Fair Hebe,’ he went on, ‘I beg your pardon. Jacob, you can go on decanting. It was very careless of you to forget it. Meantime, Hebe, bring that bottle to General Jupiter, there. He’s got a corkscrew in the tail of his robe, or I’m mistaken.’
“Out came General Fortescue’s corkscrew. I was trembling once more with anxiety. The cork gave the genuine plop; the bottle was lowered; glug, glug, glug, came from its beneficent throat, and out flowed something tawny as a lion’s mane. The general lifted it lazily to his lips, saluting his nose on the way.
“‘Fifteen! by Gyeove!’ he cried. Well, Admiral, this was worth waiting for! Take care how you decant that, Jacob–on peril of your life.’
“My uncle was triumphant. He winked hard at me not to tell. Kate and I retired, she to change her dress, I to get mine well brushed, and my hands washed. By the time I returned to the dining-room, no one had any questions to ask. For Kate, the ladies had gone to the drawing-room before she was ready, and I believe she had some difficulty in keeping my uncle’s counsel. But she did.–Need I say that was the happiest Christmas I ever spent?”
“But how did you find the cellar, papa?” asked Effie.
“Where are your brains, Effie? Don’t you remember I told you that I had a dream?”
“Yes. But you don’t mean to say the existence of that wine-cellar was revealed to you in a dream?”
“But I do, indeed. I had seen the wine-cellar built up just before we left for Madeira. It was my father’s plan for securing the wine when the house was let. And very well it turned out for the wine, and me too. I had forgotten all about it. Everything had conspired to bring it to my memory, but had just failed of success. I had fallen asleep under all the influences I told you of–influences from the region of my childhood. They operated still when I was asleep, and, all other distracting influences being removed, at length roused in my sleeping brain the memory of what I had seen. In the morning I remembered not my dream only, but the event of which my dream was a reproduction. Still, I was under considerable doubt about the place, and in this I followed the dream only, as near as I could judge.
“The admiral kept his word, and interposed no difficulties between Kate and me. Not that, to tell the truth, I was ever very anxious about that rock ahead; but it was very possible that his fastidious honour or pride might have occasioned a considerable interference with our happiness for a time. As it turned out, he could not leave me Culverwood, and I regretted the fact as little as he did himself. His gratitude to me was, however, excessive, assuming occasionally ludicrous outbursts of thankfulness. I do not believe he could have been more grateful if I had saved his ship and its whole crew. For his hospitality was at stake. Kind old man!”
Here ended my father’s story, with a light sigh, a gaze into the bright coals, a kiss of my mother’s hand which he held in his, and another glass of Burgundy.