Bright and joyous was the aspect of nature on a spring morning in the beautiful county of Somersetshire. The budding green on the trees was yet so light, that, like a transparent veil, it showed the outlines of every twig; but on the lowlier hedges it lay like a rich mantle of foliage, and clusters of primroses nestled below, while the air was perfumed with violets. Already was heard the hum of some adventurous bee in search of early sweets, the distant low of cattle from the pasture, the mellow note of the cuckoo from the grove,—every sight and sound told of enjoyment on that sunny Sabbath morn.
Yet let me make an exception. There was one spot which reserved to itself the unenviable privilege of looking gloomy all the year round. Nettleby Tower, a venerable edifice, stood on the highest summit of a hill, like some stern guardian of the fair country that smiled around it. The tower had been raised in the time of the Normans, and had then been the robber-hold of a succession of fierce barons, who, from their strong position, had defied the power of king or law. The iron age had passed away. The moat had been dried, and the useless portcullis had rusted over the gate. The loop-holes, whence archers had pointed their shafts, were half filled up with the rubbish accumulated by time. Lichens had mantled the grey stone till its original hue was almost undistinguishable; silent and deserted was the courtyard which had so often echoed to the clatter of hoofs, or the ringing clank of armour.
Silent and deserted—yes! It was not time alone that had wrought the desolation. Nettleby Tower had stood a siege in the time of the Commonwealth, and the marks of bullets might still be traced on its walls; but the injuries which had been inflicted by the slow march of centuries, or the more rapid visitation of war, were slight compared to those which had been wrought by litigation and family dissension. The property had been for years the subject of a vexatious lawsuit, which had half ruined the unsuccessful party, and the present owner of Nettleby Tower had not cared to take personal possession of the gloomy pile. Perhaps Mr. Auger knew that the feeling of the neighbourhood would be against him, as the sympathies of all would be enlisted on the side of the descendant of that ancient family which had for centuries dwelt in the Tower, who had been deprived of his birthright by the will of a proud and intemperate father.
The old fortress had thus been suffered to fall into decay. Grass grew in the courtyard; the wallflower clung to the battlements; the winter snow and the summer rain made their way through the broken casements, and no hand had removed the mass of wreck which lay where a furious storm had thrown down one of the ancient chimneys. Parties of tourists occasionally visited the gloomy place, trod the long, dreary corridors, and heard from a wrinkled woman accounts of the moth-eaten tapestry, and the time-darkened family portraits that grimly frowned from the walls. They heard tales of the last Mr. Bardon, the proud owner of the pile; how he had been wont to sit long and late over his bottle, carousing with jovial companions, till the hall resounded with their oaths and their songs; and how, more than thirty years back, he had disinherited his only son for marrying a farmer’s daughter. Then the old woman would, after slowly showing the way up the worn stone steps which led round and round till they opened on the summit of the tower, direct her listener’s attention to a small grey speck in the wide-spreading landscape below, and tell them that Dr. Bardon lived there in needy circumstances, in actual sight of the place where, if every man had his right, he would now be dwelling as his fathers had dwelt. And the visitors would sigh, shake their heads, and moralize on the strange changes in human fortunes.