THE BARONY OF DESMOND.
I wonder whether the novel-reading world—that part of it, at least, which may honour my pages—will be offended if I lay the plot of this story in Ireland! That there is a strong feeling against things Irish it is impossible to deny. Irish servants need not apply; Irish acquaintances are treated with limited confidence; Irish cousins are regarded as being decidedly dangerous; and Irish stories are not popular with the booksellers.
For myself, I may say that if I ought to know anything about any place, I ought to know something about Ireland; and I do strongly protest against the injustice of the above conclusions. Irish cousins I have none. Irish acquaintances I have by dozens; and Irish friends, also, by twos and threes, whom I can love and cherish—almost as well, perhaps, as though they had been born in Middlesex. Irish servants I have had some in my house for years, and never had one that was faithless, dishonest, or intemperate. I have travelled all over Ireland, closely as few other men can have done, and have never had my portmanteau robbed or my pocket picked. At hotels I have seldom locked up my belongings, and my carelessness has never been punished. I doubt whether as much can be said for English inns.
Irish novels were once popular enough. But there is a fashion in novels, as there is in colours and petticoats; and now I fear they are drugs in the market. It is hard to say why a good story should not have a fair chance of success whatever may be its bent; why it should not be reckoned to be good by its own intrinsic merits alone; but such is by no means the case. I was waiting once, when I was young at the work, in the back parlour of an eminent publisher, hoping to see his eminence on a small matter of business touching a three-volumed manuscript which I held in my hand. The eminent publisher, having probably larger fish to fry, could not see me, but sent his clerk or foreman to arrange the business.
“A novel, is it, sir?” said the foreman.
“Yes,” I answered; “a novel.”
“It depends very much on the subject,” said the foreman, with a thoughtful and judicious frown—”upon the name, sir, and the subject;—daily life, sir; that’s what suits us; daily English life. Now your historical novel, sir, is not worth the paper it’s written on.”
I fear that Irish character is in these days considered almost as unattractive as historical incident; but, nevertheless, I will make the attempt. I am now leaving the Green Isle and my old friends, and would fain say a word of them as I do so. If I do not say that word now it will never be said.
The readability of a story should depend, one would say, on its intrinsic merit rather than on the site of its adventures. No one will think that Hampshire is better for such a purpose than Cumberland, or Essex than Leicestershire. What abstract objection can there then be to the county Cork?
Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most beautiful part of Ireland is that which lies down in the extreme south-west, with fingers stretching far out into the Atlantic Ocean. This consists of the counties Cork and Kerry, or a portion, rather, of those counties. It contains Killarney, Glengarriffe, Bantry, and Inchigeela; and is watered by the Lee, the Blackwater, and the Flesk. I know not where is to be found a land more rich in all that constitutes the loveliness of scenery.
Within this district, but hardly within that portion of it which is most attractive to tourists, is situated the house and domain of Castle Richmond. The river Blackwater rises in the county Kerry, and running from west to east through the northern part of the county Cork, enters the county Waterford beyond Fermoy. In its course it passes near the little town of Kanturk, and through the town of Mallow: Castle Richmond stands close upon its banks, within the barony of Desmond, and in that Kanturk region through which the Mallow and Killarney railway now passes, but which some thirteen years since knew nothing of the navvy’s spade, or even of the engineer’s theodolite.
Castle Richmond was at this period the abode of Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, who resided there, ever and always, with his wife, Lady Fitzgerald, his two daughters, Mary and Emmeline Fitzgerald, and, as often as purposes of education and pleasure suited, with his son Herbert Fitzgerald. Neither Sir Thomas nor Sir Thomas’s house had about them any of those interesting picturesque faults which are so generally attributed to Irish landlords and Irish castles. He was not out of elbows, nor was he an absentee. Castle Richmond had no appearance of having been thrown out of its own windows. It was a good, substantial, modern family residence, built not more than thirty years since by the late baronet, with a lawn sloping down to the river, with kitchen gardens and walls for fruit, with ample stables, and a clock over the entrance to the stable yard. It stood in a well-timbered park duly stocked with deer,—and with foxes also, which are agricultural animals much more valuable in an Irish county than deer. So that as regards its appearance Castle Richmond might have been in Hampshire or Essex; and as regards his property, Sir Thomas Fitzgerald might have been a Leicestershire baronet.
Here, at Castle Richmond, lived Sir Thomas with his wife and daughters; and here, taking the period of our story as being exactly thirteen years since, his son Herbert was staying also in those hard winter months; his Oxford degree having been taken, and his English pursuits admitting of a temporary sojourn in Ireland.
But Sir Thomas Fitzgerald was not the great man of that part of the country—at least, not the greatest man; nor was Lady Fitzgerald by any means the greatest lady. As this greatest lady, and the greatest man also, will, with their belongings, be among the most prominent of our dramatis personæ, it may be well that I should not even say a word of them.
All the world must have heard of Desmond Court. It is the largest inhabited residence known in that part of the world, where rumours are afloat of how it covers ten acres of ground; how in hewing the stones for it a whole mountain was cut away; how it should have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, only that the money was never paid by the rapacious, wicked, bloodthirsty old earl who caused it to be erected;—and how the cement was thickened with human blood. So goes rumour with the more romantic of the Celtic tale-bearers.
It is a huge place—huge, ungainly, and uselessly extensive; built at a time when, at any rate in Ireland, men considered neither beauty, aptitude, nor economy. It is three stories high, and stands round a quadrangle, in which there are two entrances opposite to each other. Nothing can be well uglier than that great paved court, in which there is not a spot of anything green, except where the damp has produced an unwholesome growth upon the stones; nothing can well be more desolate. And on the outside of the building matters are not much better. There are no gardens close up to the house, no flower-beds in the nooks and corners, no sweet shrubs peeping in at the square windows. Gardens there are, but they are away, half a mile off; and the great hall door opens out upon a flat, bleak park, with hardly a scrap around it which courtesy can call a lawn.
Here, at this period of ours, lived Clara, Countess of Desmond, widow of Patrick, once Earl of Desmond, and father of Patrick, now Earl of Desmond. These Desmonds had once been mighty men in their country, ruling the people around them as serfs, and ruling them with hot iron rods. But those days were now long gone, and tradition told little of them that was true. How it had truly fared either with the earl, or with their serfs, men did not well know; but stories were ever being told of walls built with human blood, and of the devil bearing off upon his shoulder a certain earl who was in any other way quite unbearable, and depositing some small unburnt portion of his remains fathoms deep below the soil in an old burying-ground near Kanturk. And there had been a good earl, as is always the case with such families; but even his virtues, according to tradition, had been of a useless namby-pamby sort. He had walked to the shrine of St. Finbar, up in the little island of the Gougane Barra, with unboiled peas in his shoes; had forgiven his tenants five years’ rent all round, and never drank wine or washed himself after the death of his lady wife.
At the present moment the Desmonds were not so potent either for good or ill. The late earl had chosen to live in London all his life, and had sunk down to be the toadying friend, or perhaps I should more properly say the bullied flunky, of a sensual, wine-bibbing, gluttonous—king. Late in life, when he was broken in means and character, he had married. The lady of his choice had been chosen as an heiress; but there had been some slip between that cup of fortune and his lip; and she, proud and beautiful, for such she had been—had neither relieved nor softened the poverty of her profligate old lord.
She was left at his death with two children, of whom the eldest, Lady Clara Desmond, will be the heroine of this story. The youngest, Patrick, now Earl of Desmond, was two years younger than his sister, and will make our acquaintance as a lad fresh from Eton.
In these days money was not plentiful with the Desmonds. Not but that their estates were as wide almost as their renown, and that the Desmonds were still great people in the country’s estimation. Desmond Court stood in a bleak, unadorned region, almost among the mountains, half way between Kanturk and Maccoom, and the family had some claim to possession of the land for miles around. The earl of the day was still the head landlord of a huge district extending over the whole barony of Desmond, and half the adjacent baronies of Muskerry and Duhallow; but the head landlord’s rent in many cases hardly amounted to sixpence an acre, and even those sixpences did not always find their way into the earl’s pocket. When the late earl had attained his sceptre, he might probably have been entitled to spend some ten thousand a year; but when he died, and during the years just previous to that, he had hardly been entitled to spend anything.
But, nevertheless, the Desmonds were great people, and owned a great name. They had been kings once over those wild mountains; and would be still, some said, if every one had his own. Their grandeur was shown by the prevalence of their name. The barony in which they lived was the barony of Desmond. The river which gave water to their cattle was the river Desmond. The wretched, ragged, poverty-stricken village near their own dismantled gate was the town of Desmond. The earl was Earl of Desmond—not Earl Desmond, mark you; and the family name was Desmond. The grandfather of the present earl, who had repaired his fortune by selling himself at the time of the Union, had been Desmond Desmond, Earl of Desmond.
The late earl, the friend of the most illustrious person in the kingdom, had not been utterly able to rob his heir of everything, or he would undoubtedly have done so. At the age of twenty-one the young earl would come into possession of the property, damaged certainly, as far as an actively evil father could damage it by long leases, bad management, lack of outlay, and rack-renting;—but still into the possession of a considerable property. In the mean time it did not fare very well, in a pecuniary way, with Clara, the widowed countess, or with the Lady Clara, her daughter. The means at the widow’s disposal were only those which the family trustees would allow her as the earl’s mother: on his coming of age she would have almost no means of her own; and for her daughter no provision whatever had been made.
As this first chapter is devoted wholly to the locale of my story, I will not stop to say a word as to the persons or characters of either of these two ladies, leaving them, as I did the Castle Richmond family, to come forth upon the canvas as opportunity may offer. But there is another homestead in this same barony of Desmond, of which and of its owner—as being its owner—I will say a word.
Hap House was also the property of a Fitzgerald. It had originally been built by an old Sir Simon Fitzgerald, for the use and behoof of a second son, and the present owner of it was the grandson of that man for whom it had been built. And old Sir Simon had given his offspring not only a house—he had endowed the house with a comfortable little slice of land, either cut from the large patrimonial loaf, or else, as was more probable, collected together and separately baked for this younger branch of the family. Be that as it may, Hap House had of late years been always regarded as conferring some seven or eight hundred a year upon its possessor, and when young Owen Fitzgerald succeeded to this property, on the death of an uncle in the year 1843, he was regarded as a rich man to that extent.
At that time he was some twenty-two years of age, and he came down from Dublin, where his friends had intended that he should practise as a barrister, to set up for himself as a country gentleman. Hap House was distant from Castle Richmond about four miles, standing also on the river Blackwater, but nearer to Mallow. It was a pleasant, comfortable residence, too large no doubt for such a property, as is so often the case in Ireland; surrounded by pleasant grounds and pleasant gardens, with a gorse fox covert belonging to the place within a mile of it, with a slated lodge, and a pretty drive along the river. At the age of twenty-two, Owen Fitzgerald came into all this; and as he at once resided upon the place, he came in also for the good graces of all the mothers with unmarried daughters in the county, and for the smiles also of many of the daughters themselves.
Sir Thomas and Lady Fitzgerald were not his uncle and aunt, but nevertheless they took kindly to him;—very kindly at first, though that kindness after a while became less warm. He was the nearest relation of the name; and should anything happen—as the fatal death-foretelling phrase goes—to young Herbert Fitzgerald, he would become the heir of the family title and of the family place.
When I hear of a young man sitting down by himself as the master of a household, without a wife, or even without a mother or sister to guide him, I always anticipate danger. If he does not go astray in any other way, he will probably mismanage his money matters. And then there are so many other ways. A house, if it be not made pleasant by domestic pleasant things, must be made pleasant by pleasure. And a bachelor’s pleasures in his own house are always dangerous. There is too much wine drunk at his dinner parties. His guests sit too long over their cards. The servants know that they want a mistress; and, in the absence of that mistress, the language of the household becomes loud and harsh—and sometimes improper. Young men among us seldom go quite straight in their course, unless they are, at any rate occasionally, brought under the influence of tea and small talk.
There was no tea and small talk at Hap House, but there were hunting-dinners. Owen Fitzgerald was soon known for his horses and his riding. He lived in the very centre of the Duhallow hunt; and before he had been six months owner of his property had built additional stables, with half a dozen loose boxes for his friends’ nags. He had an eye, too, for a pretty girl—not always in the way that is approved of by mothers with marriageable daughters; but in the way of which they so decidedly disapprove.
And thus old ladies began to say bad things. Those pleasant hunting-dinners were spoken of as the Hap House orgies. It was declared that men slept there half the day, having played cards all the night; and dreadful tales were told. Of these tales one-half was doubtless false. But, alas, alas! what if one-half were also true?
It is undoubtedly a very dangerous thing for a young man of twenty-two to keep house by himself, either in town or country.
Categories: English Literature