1. An Ancient Castle
It was during the last century, and before the spirit of revolution had effected any change in the manners of our forefathers, that the events took place, which are about to be recorded in this little volume.
At that period there existed in the wild border country, which lies between England and Scotland, an ancient castle, of which only one tower, a few chambers in the main building, certain offices enclosed in high buttressed walls, and sundry out-houses hanging as it were on those walls, yet remained. This castle had once been encircled by a moat which had been suffered to dry itself up, though still the little stream which used to fill it when the dams were in repair, murmured and meandered at the bottom of the hollow, and fed the roots of many a water plant and many a tree whose nature delights in dank and swampy soils. The verdure, however, which encircled this ancient edifice, added greatly to the beauty, when seen over the extent of waste and wild in which it stood. There can be no doubt but that the ancient possessors of this castle, which, from the single remaining barrier, and the name of the family, was called Dymock's tower, had been no other than strong and dangerous free-booters, living on the plunder of the neighbouring kingdom of Scotland. Every one knows that a vast extent of land, waste or at best but rudely cultivated, had once belonged to the Lords of Dymock; but within a few years this family had fallen from affluence, and were at length so much reduced, that the present possessor could hardly support himself in any thing like the state in which he deemed it necessary for his father's son to live. Mr. Dymock was nearly thirty years of age, at the time our history commences; he had been brought up by an indolent father, and an aunt in whom no great trusts had been vested, until he entered his teens, at which time he was sent to Edinburgh to attend the classes in the college; and there, being a quick and clever young man, though without any foundation of early discipline, or good teaching, and without much plain judgment or common sense, he distinguished himself as a sort of genius.
One of the most common defects in the minds of those who are not early subjected to regular discipline is, that they have no perseverance; they begin one thing, and another thing, but never carry anything on to any purpose, and this was exactly the case with Mr. Dymock. Whilst he was in Edinburgh he had thought that he would become an author; some injudicious persons told him that he might succeed in that way, and he began several poems, and two plays, and he wrote parts of several treatises on Mathematics, and Physics, and Natural History; the very titles of these works sound clever, but they were never finished. Dymock was nearly thirty when his father died; and when he came to reside in the tower, his mind turned altogether to a new object, and that was cultivating the ground, and the wild commons and wastes all around him: and if he had set to work in a rational way he might have done something, but before he began the work he must needs invent a plough, which was to do wonderful things, and, accordingly, he set to work, not only to invent this plough, but to make it himself, or rather to put it together himself, with the help of a carpenter and blacksmith in the neighbourhood. But before we introduce the old blacksmith, who is a very principal person in our story, we must describe the way in which Mr. Dymock lived in his tower.
His aunt, Mrs. Margaret Dymock, was his housekeeper, and so careful had she always been, for she had kept house for her brother, the late laird, that the neighbours said she had half-starved herself, in order to keep up some little show of old hospitality. In truth, the poor lady was marvellously thin, and as sallow and gaunt as she was thin. Some old lady who had stood for her at the font, in the reign of Charles the Second, had, at her death, left her all her clothes, and these had been sent to Dymock's tower in several large chests. Mrs. Margaret was accordingly provided for, for life, with the addition of a little homespun linen, and stockings of her own knitting; but, as she held it a mighty piece of extravagance to alter a handsome dress, she wore her godmother's clothes in the fashion in which she found them, and prided herself not a little in having silks for every season of the year. Large hoops were worn in those days, and long ruffles, and sacks short and long, and stomachers, and hoods, and sundry other conceits, now never thought of; but Mrs. Margaret thought that all these things had a genteel appearance, and showed that those who bought them and those who inherited them had not come of nothing.
Mrs. Margaret, however, never put any of these fine things on, till she had performed her household duties, looked into every hole and corner in the offices, overlooked the stores, visited the larder, scullery and hen-yard, weighed what her three maids had spun the day before, skimmed the milk with her own hands, gathered up the candle ends, and cut the cabbage for the brose; all which being done, and the servants' dinner seen to, and it must be confessed, it was seldom that they had a very sumptuous regale, she dressed herself as a lady should be dressed, and sate down to her darning, which was her principal work, in the oval window in the chief room in the castle. Darning, we say, was her principal work, because there was scarcely an article in the house which she did not darn occasionally, from the floor-cloth to her own best laces, and, as money was seldom forthcoming for renewing any of the finer articles in the house capable of being darned, no one can say what would have been the consequence, if Mrs. Margaret had been divested of this darning propensity.
How the old lady subsisted herself is hardly known, for it often happened that the dinner she contrived for her nephew, was barely sufficient for him, and although on these occasions she always managed to seem to be eating, yet had Mr. Dymock had his eyes about him, he could not but have seen that she must often have risen from the table, after having known little more than the odour of the viands. Nothing, however, which has been said of Mrs. Margaret Dymock goes against that which might be said with truth, that there was a fund of kindness in the heart of the venerable spinster, though it was sometimes choked up and counteracted by her desire to make a greater appearance than the family means would allow.
Besides the three maids in the kitchen, there were a man and a boy without doors, two or three lean cows, a flock of sheep which were half starved on the moor, a great dog, and sundry pigs and fowls living at large about the tower; and, to crown our description, it must be added, that all the domestic arrangements which were beyond the sphere of Mrs. Margaret were as ill managed as those within her sphere were capitally well conducted; however, as Mr. Dymock said to her one day when she ventured to expostulate with him on this subject, "Only have a little patience, my good aunt, when I have completed what I am now about, for instance my plough, you will see how I will arrange every thing. I cannot suffer these petty attentions and petty reforms to occupy me just now; what I intend to do will be done in a large way; I mean not only to repair but to restore the castle, to throw the whole of my lands to the north into a sheep-walk, to plant the higher points, and to convert the south lands into arable. But my first object is the plough, and that must be attended to, before everything else; the wood-work is all complete, but a little alteration must be made in the coulter, and after all, I apprehend I must do it myself, as old Shanty is as stupid as his own hammer."
Mrs. Margaret hinted that every man had not the ingenuity of her nephew; adding, however, that old Shanty was as worthy and God-fearing a man as any on the moor.
"I do not deny it," replied Mr. Dymock, "but what has worth and God-fearing to do with my plough. I have been trying in vain to make him understand what I want done, and am come to the resolution of going myself, taking off my coat, and working with him; I should make a better blacksmith in a week, than he has in forty years."
Mrs. Margaret lifted up her hands and eyes, and then fetching a deep sigh, "That I should have lived to hear that," she exclaimed; "the last representative of the house of Dymock proposing to work at a blacksmith's forge!"
"And why not? Mrs. Margaret," replied the nephew, "does a gentleman lower himself when he works merely for recreation, and not for sordid pelf; you have heard of Peter the Great?"
"Bless me, nephew," replied the spinster, bridling, "where do you think my ears have been all my life, if I never heard of Peter the Great!"
"You know then, that he worked with his own hands at a blacksmith's forge," returned the nephew.
"I know no such thing," said Mrs. Margaret, "and if the Romans say so, I account it only another of their many lies; and I wonder they are not ashamed to invent tales so derogotary to the honour of him they call their head!"
"Pshaw!" said the laird; "I am not speaking of the Pope, but of the Czar of all the Russias!"
"Well! well! Dymock;" returned Mrs. Margaret, "I only wish that I could persuade you from committing this derogation. However, if you must needs work with Shanty, let me beg you to put on one of your old shirts; for the sparks will be sure to fly, and there will be no end of darning the small burns."
"Be assured aunt," said Mr. Dymock, "that I shall do nothing by halves; if I work with Shanty, I shall put on a leathern apron, and tuck up my sleeves."
"All this does not suit my notions," replied Mrs. Margaret: but her nephew had risen to leave her, and there was an end to the argument.
As Mr. Dymock had told his aunt; so he did: he went to Shanty's forge, he dressed himself like the old master himself, and set fairly to work, to learn the mysteries of the trade; mysteries which, however, as far as Shanty knew them, were not very deep.