There was nothing about Carne's Hold that would have suggested to the mind of the passing stranger that a curse lay upon it. Houses to which an evil history is attached lie almost uniformly in low and damp situations. They are embedded in trees; their appearance is gloomy and melancholy; the vegetation grows rank around them, the drive is overgrown with weeds and mosses, and lichens cling to the walls. Carne's Hold possessed none of these features. It stood high up on the slope of a hill, looking down into the valley of the Dare, with the pretty village of Carnesford nestling among its orchards, and the bright stream sparkling in the sunshine.
There was nothing either gloomy or forbidding about its architecture, and the family now simply called their abode The Carnes; the term "Hold" that the country people applied to it was indeed a misnomer, for the bombardiers of Essex had battered the walls of the old fortified house, and had called in the aid of fire to finish the work of destruction. The whole of the present structure was therefore subsequent to that date; it had been added to and altered many times, and each of its owners had followed out his own fancies in utter disregard of those of his predecessors; consequently the house represented a medley of diverse styles, and, although doubtless an architectural monstrosity, was picturesque and pleasing to the eye of men ignorant of the canons of Art.
There were no large trees near it, though a clump rose a few hundred yards behind it, and took away the effect of bareness it would otherwise have had. The garden was well kept, and bright with flowers, and it was clear that no blighting influence hung over them, nor, it would be thought, over the girl, who, with a straw hat swinging in one hand, and a basket, moved among them. But the country people for six miles round firmly believed that a curse lay on Carne's Hold, and even among the county families no one would have been willing to give a daughter in marriage to an owner of the place.
Carnesford, now a good-sized village, had once been a tiny hamlet, an appanage of Carne's Hold, but it had long since grown out of leading strings, and though it still regarded The Carnes with something of its old feudal feeling, it now furnished no suit or service unless paid for so doing. Carnesford had grown but little of late years, and had no tendency to increase. There was work enough in the neighbourhood for such of its inhabitants as wanted to work, and in summer a cart went daily with fruit and garden produce to Plymouth, which lay about twenty miles away, the coast road dipping down into the valley, and crossing the bridge over the Dare at Carnesford, and then climbing the hill again to the right of The Hold.
Artists would sometimes stop for a week or two to sketch the quaint old-fashioned houses in the main street, and especially the mill of Hiram Powlett, which seemed to have changed in no way since the days when its owner held it on the tenure of grinding such corn as the owners of The Hold required for the use of themselves and their retainers.
Here, where the Dare ran into the sea, was a fishing village as yet untouched, and almost unknown even to wandering tourists, and offering indeed no accommodation whatever to the stranger beyond what he might, perchance, obtain in the fishermen's cottages.
The one drawback to Carnesford, as its visitors declared, was the rain. It certainly rained often, but the villagers scarcely noticed it. It was to the rain, they knew, that they owed the bright green of the valley and the luxuriousness of their garden crops, which always fetched the top price in Plymouth market; and they were so accustomed to the soft mist brought up by the south-west wind from over the sea that they never noticed whether it was raining or not.
Strangers, however, were less patient, and a young man who was standing at the door of the "Carne's Arms," just as the evening was closing in at the end of a day in the beginning of October, 1850, looked gloomily out at the weather. "I do not mind when I am fishing," he muttered to himself; "but when one has once changed into dry clothes one does not want to be a prisoner here every evening. Another day like this, and I shall pack up my traps and get back again on board."
He turned and went back into the house, and, entering the bar, took his seat in the little sanctum behind it; for he had been staying in the house for a week, and was now a privileged personage. It was a snug little room; some logs were blazing on the hearth, for although the weather was not cold, it was damp enough to make a fire pleasant. Three of the landlord's particular cronies were seated there: Hiram Powlett, the miller; and Jacob Carey, the blacksmith; and old Reuben Claphurst, who had been the village clerk until his voice became so thin and uncertain a treble that the vicar was obliged to find a successor for him.
"Sit down, Mr. Gulston," the landlord said, as his guest entered. "Fine day it has been for fishing, and a nice basket you have brought in."
"It's been well enough for fishing, landlord, but I would rather put up with a lighter basket, and have a little pleasanter weather."
The sentiment evidently caused surprise, which Jacob Carey was the first to give expression to.
"You don't say, now, that you call this unpleasant weather, sir? Now I call this about as good weather as we could expect in the first week of October – warm and soft, and in every way seasonable."
"It may be all that," the guest said, as he lit his pipe; "but I own I don't care about having the rain trickling down my neck from breakfast-time to dark."
"Our fishermen about here look on a little rain as good for sport," Hiram Powlett remarked.
"No doubt it is; but I am afraid I am not much of a sportsman. I used to be fond of fishing when I was a lad, and thought I should like to try my hand at it again, but I am afraid I am not as patient as I was. I don't think sea life is a good school for that sort of thing."
"I fancied now that you might be a sailor, Mr. Gulston, though I didn't make so bold as to ask. Somehow or other there was something about your way that made me think you was bred up to the sea. I was not sure about it, for I can't recollect as ever we have had a sailor gentleman staying here for the fishing before."
"No," Mr. Gulston laughed, "I don't think we often take to the rod. Baiting a six-inch hook at the end of a sea-line for a shark is about the extent to which we usually indulge; though sometimes when we are at anchor the youngsters get the lines overboard and catch a few fish. Yes, I am a sailor, and belong, worse luck, to the flagship at Plymouth. By the way," he went on, turning to Jacob Carey, "you said last night, just as you were going out, something about the curse of Carne's Hold. That's the house up upon the hill, isn't it? What is the curse, and who said it?"
"It is nothing sir, it's only foolishness," the landlord said, hastily. "Jacob meant nothing by it."
"It ain't foolishness, John Beaumont, and you know it – and, for that, every one knows it. Foolishness indeed! Here's Reuben Claphurst can tell you if it's nonsense; he knows all about it if any one does."
"I don't think it ought to be spoken of before strangers," Hiram Powlett put in.
"Why not?" the smith asked, sturdily. "There isn't a man on the country-side but knows all about it. There can be no harm in telling what every one knows. Though the Carnes be your landlords, John Beaumont, as long as you pay the rent you ain't beholden to them; and as for you, Hiram, why every one knows as your great-grandfather bought the rights of the mill from them, and your folk have had it ever since. Besides, there ain't nothing but what is true in it, and if the Squire were here himself, he couldn't say no to that."
"Well, well, Jacob, there's something in what you say," the landlord said, in the tone of a man convinced against his will; but, indeed, now that he had done what he considered his duty by making a protest, he had no objection to the story being told. "Maybe you are right; and, though I should not like it said as the affairs of the Carnes were gossiped about here, still, as Mr. Gulston might, now that he has heard about the curse on the family, ask questions and hear all sorts of lies from those as don't know as much about it as we do, and especially as Reuben Claphurst here does, maybe it were better he should get the rights of the story from him."
"That being so," the sailor said, "perhaps you will give us the yarn, Mr. Claphurst, for I own that you have quite excited my curiosity as to this mysterious curse."
The old clerk, who had told the story scores of times, and rather prided himself on his telling, was nothing loth to begin.
"There is something mysterious about it, sir, as you say; so I have always maintained, and so I shall maintain. There be some as will have it as it's a curse on the family for the wickedness of old Sir Edgar. So it be, surelie, but not in the way they mean. Having been one of the officers of the church here for over forty year, and knowing the mind of the old parson, ay, and of him who was before him, I always take my stand on this. It was a curse, sure enough, but not in the way as they wants to make out. It wouldn't do to say as the curse of that Spanish woman had nowt to do with it, seeing as we has authority that curses does sometimes work themselves out; but there ain't no proof to my mind, and to the mind of the parsons as I have served under, that what they call the curse of Carne's Hold ain't a matter of misfortune, and not, as folks about here mostly think, a kind of judgment brought on them by that foreign, heathen woman. Of course, I don't expect other people to see it in that light."
This was in answer to a grunt of dissent on the part of the blacksmith.
"They ain't all had my advantages, and looks at it as their fathers and grandfathers did before them. Anyhow, there is the curse, and a bitter curse it has been for the Carnes, as you will say, sir, when you have heard my story.
"You must know that in the old times the Carnes owned all the land for miles and miles round, and Sir Marmaduke fitted out three ships at his own expense to fight under Howard and Blake against the Spaniards.
"It was in his time the first slice was cut off the property, for he went up to Court, and held his own among the best of them, and made as brave a show, they say, as any of the nobles there. His son took after him, and another slice, though not a big one, went; but it was under Sir Edgar, who came next, that bad times fell upon Carne's Hold. When the troubles began he went out for the King with every man he could raise in the country round, and they say as there was no man struck harder or heavier for King Charles than he did. He might have got off, as many another one did, if he would have given it up when it was clear the cause was lost; but whenever there was a rising anywhere he was off to join it, till at last house and land and all were confiscated, and he had to fly abroad.
"How he lived there no one exactly knows. Some said as he fought with the Spaniards against the Moors; others, and I think they were not far from the mark, that he went out to the Spanish Main, and joined a band of lawless men, and lived a pirate's life there. No one knows about that. I don't think any one, even in those days, did know anything, except that when he came back with King Charles he brought with him a Spanish wife. There were many tales about her. Some said that she had been a nun, and that he had carried her off from a convent in Spain, but the general belief was – and as there were a good many Devonshire lads who fought with the rovers on the Spanish Main, it's likely that the report was true – that she had been the wife of some Spanish Don, whose ship had been captured by the pirates.
"She was beautiful, there was no doubt about that. Such a beauty, they say, as was never seen before or since in this part. But they say that from the first she had a wild, hunted look about her, as if she had either something on her conscience, or had gone through some terrible time that had well-nigh shaken her reason. She had a baby some months old with her when she arrived, and a nurse was engaged from the village, for strangely enough, as every one thought at the time, Sir Edgar had brought back no attendant either for himself or his lady.
"No sooner was he back, and had got possession of his estates, being in that more lucky than many another who fought for the Crown, than he set to work to rebuild The Hold; living for the time in a few rooms that were patched up and made habitable in the old building. Whatever he had been doing while he was abroad, there was no doubt whatever that he had brought back with him plenty of money, for he had a host of masons and carpenters over from Plymouth, and spared no expense in having things according to his fancy. All this time he had not introduced his wife to the county. Of course, his old neighbours had called and had seen her as well as him, but he had said at once that until the new house was fit to receive visitors he did not wish to enter society, especially as his wife was entirely ignorant of the English tongue.
"Even in those days there were tales brought down to the village by the servants who had been hired from here, that Sir Edgar and his wife did not get on well together. They all agreed that she seemed unhappy, and would sit for hours brooding, seeming to have no care or love for her little boy, which set folk more against her, since it seemed natural that even a heathen woman should care for her child.
"They said, too, there were often fierce quarrels between Sir Edgar and her, but as they always talked in her tongue, no one knew what they were about. When the new house was finished they moved into it, and the ruins of the old Hold were levelled to the ground. People thought then that Sir Edgar would naturally open the house to the county, and, indeed, some entertainments were given, but whether it was that they believed the stories to his disadvantage, or that they shrank from the strange hostess, who, they say, always looked on these occasions stately and cold, and who spoke no word of their language, the country gentry gradually fell away, and Carne's Hold was left pretty much to its owners.
"Soon afterwards another child was born. There were, of course, more servants now, and more state, but Lady Carne was as much alone as ever. Whether she was determined to learn no word of English, or whether he was determined that she should not, she at any rate made no attempt to acquire her husband's language, and many said that it was a shame he did not get her a nurse and a maid who could speak her tongue; for in the days of Charles there were foreigners enough in England, and there could have been no difficulty in procuring her an attendant of her own religion and race.
"They quarrelled more than ever; but the servants were all of opinion that whatever it was about it was her doing more than his. It was her voice to be heard rising in passionate tones, while he said but little, and they all agreed he was polite and courteous in his manner to her. As for her, she would walk for hours by herself up and down the terrace, talking aloud to herself, sometimes wringing her hands and throwing her arms wildly about. At this time there began to be a report among the country round that Lady Carne was out of her mind.
"She was more alone than ever now, for Sir Edgar had taken to making journeys up to town and remaining for weeks at a time, and there was a whisper that he played heavily and unluckily. So things went on until the third child was born, and a fortnight afterwards a servant from The Hold rode through the village late at night on his way for the doctor, and stopped a moment to tell the news that there was a terrible scene up at The Hold, for that during a momentary absence of the nurse, Lady Carne had stabbed her child to death, and when he came away she was raving wildly, the efforts of Sir Edgar and two of the servants hardly sufficing to hold her.
"After that no one except the inmates of The Hold ever saw its mistress again; the windows in one of the wings were barred, and two strange women were brought down from London and waited and attended on the poor lady. There were but few other servants there, for most of the girls from about here soon left, saying that the screams and cries that rang at times through the house were so terrible that they could not bear them; but, indeed, there was but small occasion for servants, for Sir Edgar was almost always away. One night one of the girls who had stayed on and had been spending the evening with her friends, went home late, and just as she reached the house she saw a white figure appear at one of the barred windows.
"In a moment the figure began crying and screaming, and to the girl's surprise many of her words were English, which she must have picked up without any one knowing it. The girl always declared that her language made her blood run cold, and was full of oaths, such as rough sailor-men use, and which, no doubt, she had picked up on ship-board; and then she poured curses upon the Carnes, her husband, the house, and her descendants. The girl was so panic-stricken that she remained silent till, in a minute or two, two other women appeared at the window, and by main force tore Lady Carne from her hold upon the bars.
"A few days afterwards she died, and it is mostly believed by her own hand, though this was never known. None of the servants, except her own attendants, ever entered the room, and the doctor never opened his lips on the subject. Doubtless he was well paid to keep silence. Anyhow, her death was not Sir Edgar's work, for he was away at the time, and only returned upon the day after her death. So, sir, that is how the curse came to be laid on Carne's Hold."
"It is a terrible story," Mr. Gulston said, when the old clerk ceased; "a terrible story. It is likely enough that the rumour was true, and that he carried her off, after capturing the vessel and killing her husband, and perhaps all the rest of them, and that she had never recovered from the shock. Was there ever any question as to whether they had been married?"
"There was a question about it – a good deal of question; and at Sir Edgar's death the next heir, who was a distant cousin, set up a claim, but the lawyer produced two documents Sir Edgar had given him. One was signed by a Jack Priest, who had, it was said, been one of the crew on board Sir Edgar's ship, certifying that he had duly and lawfully married Sir Edgar Carne and Donna Inez Martos; and there was another from a Spanish priest, belonging to a church at Porto Rico, certifying that he had married the same pair according to Catholic rites, appending a note saying that he did so although the husband was a heretic, being compelled and enforced by armed men, the town being in the possession of a force from two ships that had entered the harbour the night before. As, therefore, the pair had been married according to the rites of both Churches, and the Carnes had powerful friends at Court, the matter dropped, and the title has never since been disputed. As to Sir Edgar himself, he fortunately only lived four years after his wife's death. Had he lived much longer, there would have been no estate left to dispute. As it was, he gambled away half its wide acres."
"And how has the curse worked?" Mr. Gulston asked.
"In the natural way, sir. As I was saying before it has just been in the natural way, and whatever people may say, there is nothing, as I have heard the old parson lay down many a time, to show that that poor creature's wild ravings had aught to do with what followed. The taint in the blood of Sir Edgar's Spanish wife was naturally inherited by her descendants. Her son showed no signs of it, at least as far as I have heard, until he was married and his wife had borne him three sons. Then it burst out. He drew his sword and killed a servant who had given him some imaginary offence, and then, springing at his wife, who had thrown herself upon him, he would have strangled her had not the servants run in and torn him off her. He, too, ended his days in confinement. His sons showed no signs of the fatal taint.
"The eldest married in London, for none of the gentry of Devonshire would have given their daughter in marriage to a Carne. The others entered the army; one was killed in the Low Countries, the youngest obtained the rank of general and married and settled in London. The son of the eldest boy succeeded his father, but died a bachelor. He was a man of strange, moody habits, and many did not hesitate to say that he was as mad as his grandfather had been. He was found dead in his library, with a gun just discharged lying beside him. Whether it had exploded accidentally, or whether he had taken his life, none could say.