I was just in the act of humming the above verse, when the following
announcement was put into my hand—
“Regimental Orders.—Head-quarters, Maidstone, December 31st.
“As the regiment is to be held in readiness for foreign service in
spring, captains of troops will report to Lieutenant and Adjutant
Studhome, for the information of the commanding officer, on the state of
the saddlery, the holsters and lance-buckets; and the horses must be all
re-shod under the immediate inspection of the veterinary surgeon and
“Leave of absence to the 31st proximo is granted to Lieutenant Newton
Calderwood Norcliff, in consequence of his urgent private affairs.”
“Hah! this is what most concerns _me_,” I exclaimed, as I read the
foregoing, and then handed the order-book, a squat vellum-bound quarto,
to the orderly-serjeant who was in waiting.
“Any idea of where we are likely to go, sir?” he asked.
“The East, of course.”
“So say the men in the barracks; for the present, good-bye, sir,” said
he, as he wheeled about on his spurred heel, and saluted; “I wish you a
“Thanks, Stapylton,” said I; “and now to be off by the night train for
London and the north. Ugh! the last night of December; I shall have a
cold journey of it.”
Despatching my man, Willie Pitblado—of whom more hereafter—to the
mess-house to report that I should not dine there that evening, I
proposed at once to start for home, resolved to make the most of the
favour granted me—leave between returns, as it is technically termed.
I propose to give the story of my own adventures, my experiences of
life, or autobiography (what you will); and this I shall do, in the face
of a certain writer, who asserts, with some truth, doubtless, that she
does not “believe that there was, or could be in the world, a wholly
true, candid, and unreserved biography, revealing all the dispositions,
or even, without exception, _all the facts of any existence_. Indeed,”
she adds, “the thing is next to impossible; since, in that case, the
subject of the biography must be a man or woman without reserve, without
delicacy, and without _those secrets_ which are inevitable even to the
most stainless spirit.”
With all due deference to this fair writer, I beg to hope that such a
candid spirit may exist; and that, without violating the delicacy of
this somewhat (externally) fastidious age on the one hand, and without
prudish or hypocritical reserve on the other, I, Mr. Newton Norcliff,
will relate the plain, unvarnished story of a cavalry subaltern’s life
during the stirring events of the last ten years.
My regiment was a lancer one. I need not designate it further; though,
by the way, it has always struck me as somewhat peculiar in our cavalry
of the line, that while we have our Scottish corps, the famous old
Greys, and no less than three Irish, we have not one English regiment,
provincially designated as such.
I despatched a note of thanks to the colonel, handed over my cattle to
the care of my friend Jack Studhome, the adjutant, and had a hasty
interview with Saunders M’Goldrick, our Scots paymaster—not that I wish
the reader to infer that he was my chief factor and reliance (heaven
help those in a dragoon regiment who find him so!).
Glad to escape, even for the brief period of a month, from the monotony
of routine parades, the stable duty, the barrack life, and useless
hurly-burly of Maidstone—to be free from all bother, mess, band, and
ball committees, courts-martial, and courts of inquiry; from having to
remember when this parade took place, and when that particular drill,
and all that sort of thing—glad, I say, to escape from being saluted by
soldiers and sentinels at every turn and corner, and to be once again
lord of my own proper person, I relinquished my gay lancer trappings,
and resumed the less pretending mufti of the civilian—a suit of warm and
strong heather-mixture tweed—and about nine o’clock P.M. found myself,
with some light travelling baggage, my gun-case, railway rugs, &c. (in
care of Willie Pitblado, who was attired in very orthodox livery—boots,
belt, and cockade), awaiting the up train for London, at the Maidstone
station, and enjoying a last friendly chat and a cigar with Studhome, as
we promenaded to and fro on the platform, and talked of the different
work that would soon be cut out for us, too probably, about the time my
short leave expired.
The British fleet was already in the Bosphorus; the field of Oltenitza
had seen the terrible defeat of the Russians by the troops of Omar
Pasha, generalissimo of the Porte, avenge the recent naval massacre at
Sinope. Ere long, the Turks were to be again victorious at Citate.
General Luders was about to force his way into the Dobrudcha; Britain,
France, Russia, Turkey, and Sardinia were gathering their hosts for the
strife; and amid these serious events, that absurdity might not be
wanting, the sly broad-brims and popularity-hunters of the Peace Society
sent a deputation to the Emperor Nicholas, to expostulate with him on
the wickedness of his ways.
“Egad! if the weather proves cold here, what will you find it at home,
in Scotland?” said Studhome, as we trod to and fro; for there is no
knocking the idea out of an Englishman’s head that the distance of some
four hundred miles or so must make a more than Muscovite difference in
soil and temperature; but it was cold—intensely so.
The air was clear, and amid the blue ether the stars sparkled brightly.
Snow, white and glistening, covered all the roofs of the houses and the
line of the railway, and the Medway shone coldly, like polished silver,
under the seven arches of its bridge, in the light of the rising moon;
and now, with a shrill, vicious whistle, and many a rapidly iterated
grunt and clank, came the iron horse that was to bear me on my way, as
it tore into the station, with its mane of smoke, and its red
bull’s-eyes that shed two steady flakes of light along the snow-covered
line of rails.
The passengers were all muffled to their noses, and their breath coated
and obscured the glasses of the carefully-closed windows.
Pitblado brought me _Punch_, the _Times_, and “Bradshaw,” and then
rushed to secure his second-class seat; Studhome bade me farewell, and
retired to join Wilford, Scriven, and some others of the corps, who
usually met at a billiard-room, near the barracks, leaving me to arrange
my several wrappers, and enjoy the society of one whom he laughingly
termed my railway belle—a stout female with a squalling imp, whom,
notwithstanding my secret and confidential tip of half-a-crown, the
deceitful guard had thrust upon me; and then, with another shriek and a
steady and monotonous clanking, the train swept out of the station. The
town vanished with its county court house, barracks, river, and the fine
tower of All Saints’ Church; and in a twinkling I could survey the
snow-covered country stretching for miles on each side of me, as we
scoured along the branch line to the Paddock Wood, or Maidstone Road
Junction, of the London and Dover Railway, where I got the up train from
Swiftly went the first-class express. The fifty-six miles were soon
done, and in an hour I was amid the vast world, the human wilderness of
London, even while worthy Jack Studhome’s merry smile and hearty
good-bye seemed to linger before me. How glorious it is to travel thus,
with all the speed and luxury that money in these our days can command!
A hundred years hence how will they travel—our grandchildren? Heaven
I was now four-and-twenty. I had been six years with the lancers, and
already the novelty of the service—though loving it not the less—was
gone; and I was glad, as I have said, to escape for a month from a life
of enforced routine, and the nightly succession of balls, card and
supper parties among the garrison hacks or _passé_ belles, whose names
and flirtations are standing jokes at the messes of our ungrateful
lancers, hussars, and dragoon guards, wherever they are stationed, from
Calcutta to Colchester, and from Poonah to Piershill.
A day soon passed amid the whirl of London, and night saw me once more
seated in the _coupé_ of a well-cushioned carriage for the north.
This time I was alone, and had the ample seat all to myself, thereon to
lounge with all the ease of a sybarite; and with the aid of a
brandy-flask, cigars, and warm wrappers and plaids, prepared for the
dreary journey of a winter night.
On, on went the train!
Lights, crimson and green, flashed at times out of the darkness. Here
and there the tall poplars of the midland counties stood up, like
spectres in the moonlight, above the snow-clad meadows. Hollowly we
rumbled through the subterranean blackness of a tunnel; out in the snow
and moonlight again, amid other scenes and places. Anon, a hasty shout
from some pointsman would make me start when just on the eve of dropping
asleep; or it might be a sudden stoppage amid the lurid glare of
furnaces, forges, and coalpits, where, night and day, by spells and
gangs the ceaseless work went on. Then it was the shrill whistling and
clanking of the train, the bustle, running to and fro of men with
lanterns, the banging of doors, tramping, and voices, with the clink of
hammers upon the iron wheels, as their soundness was tested, which
announced that we were at Peterborough, at York, or Darlington.
But every station, whether we tarried or rushed past it, seemed
wonderfully alike. There were always repetitions of the same glazed
advertisements in gilt frames; the same huge purple mangold-wurzel, with
its tuft of green leaves; the same man in the hat and surtout, with the
alpaca umbrella, under the ceaseless shower of rain; Lea and Perrin’s
sauce-bottles; somebody else’s patent shirt; the florid posters of
_Punch_, the _Illustrated News_, and the _London Journal_; and the same
parti-coloured volumes of railway literature.
Rapidly we rushed through England. Yorkshire and its Ridings were left
behind, and now the Borders, the old land of a thousand battles and a
thousand songs, drew near—the brave green Borders, with all their solemn
hills, upheaved in the light of the faded stars.
Grey dawn of the coming day saw us traversing the fertile Merse, with
glimpses of the gloomy German sea, tumbling its whitened waves upon
bleak promontories of rock, such as Dunbar, Fastcastle, and the bare,
black headland of St. Abb. Then, as I neared home, and saw the sun
brightening on the snow-covered summits of Dirlton and Traprainlaw, many
an old and long-forgotten idea, and many a sad and affectionate thought
of the past years, came back to memory, in the dreary hour of the early
I have said I was but four-and-twenty then. When I had last traversed
that line of rail, it was in the sweet season of summer, when the
heather was purple on the Lammermuirs; and a sea of golden grain clothed
all the lovely valley of the Tyne. I was proceeding to join my
regiment, a raw, heedless, and impulsive boy, with bright hope and vague
ambition in his heart, and with a poor mother’s tears yet wet upon his
I had been six years with the lancers, and four of these were spent in
India. While there, my dear mother died; and the memory of the last
time when I saw her kind and affectionate face, and heard her broken
voice, as she prayed God to bless my departing steps, came vividly,
powerfully, and painfully before me.
It was on the morning when I was to leave home and her to join the
corps. Overnight, with all a boy’s vanity and glowing satisfaction, I
had contemplated my gay lancer trappings, had buckled on my sword,
placed the gold cartouche-belt and glittering epaulettes on my
At that moment I would not have exchanged my cornetcy for the kingdom of
Scotland. These alluring trappings were the last things I thought of
and looked on ere my eyes were closed by slumber, and the grey dawn of
the next eventful day saw them still lying unpacked on the floor, when
my poor mother, pale, anxious, unslept, and with her sad eyes full of
tears, and her heart wrung with sorrow, stole softly into my room, to
look for the last time upon her sleeping boy, and her mournful and
earnest face was the first sight that met my waking eyes, when roused by
a tear that dropped upon my cheek.
I started up, and all the consciousness of the great separation that was
to ensue—the terrible wrench of heart from heart that was to come—burst
upon me. Then sword and epaulettes, cap and plume, and the lancers,
were forgotten; and throwing my arms around her neck, as I had done in
the days of childish grief, I wept like the boy I was, rather than the
man I had imagined myself to be.
I was going home now; but I should see that beloved face no more, and
her voice was hushed for ever.
In that home were others, who were kind and gentle, and who loved me
well, awaiting my arrival, and to welcome me. And there was my cousin
Cora Calderwood—she was unmarried still.
Cora I was about to see again. It seemed long, long since we had last
met, though we had frequently corresponded, for my uncle had a horror of
letter-writing; and certain it was that she had inspired the first
emotion of love in my schoolboy heart, and during my sojourn in India,
and amid the whirl and gaiety of barrack-life at Bath, at Maidstone, at
Canterbury and elsewhere, her image had lingered in my mind, more as a
pleasing memory connected with ideas of Scotland and my home, rather
than with those of a passionate or enduring attachment.
Indeed, I had just been on the point of forming that elsewhere; but now,
having no immediate attraction beside me, I began to wonder whether Cora
had grown up a beauty; how tall she was, whether she was engaged, and so
forth; whether she still remembered with pleasure the young playmate who
had left her sorely dissolved in tears, half lover and wholly friend.
As we progressed northward, and crossed the Firth of Forth, the snow
almost entirely disappeared, save on the lofty summits of the Ochil
mountains, whose slopes looked green and pleasant in the meridian sun;
and my friend Studhome, had he been with me, might have been much
surprised in finding the atmosphere warmer north of Stirling Bridge than
we found it at Maidstone—so variable is our climate.
We changed carriages at Stirling, where I was to imbibe some hot coffee,
while Pitblado looked after my baggage, and swore in no measured terms
at the slowness of an old, cynical, and hard-visaged porter, on whose
brass badge was engraved a wolf—the badge of Stirling.
“Now then, look alive, you old duffer!” I heard Willie shouting.
“Ou, aye!” replied the other slowly, with a grin on his weather-beaten
and saturnine face; “ye think yoursel’ a braw chiel in your mustaches
and laced jacket—there was a time when I thocht mysel’ one too.”
“What do you mean?” asked Pitblado, whose dragoon air even his livery
failed to conceal.
“Mean!” retorted the other; “why, I mean that at the point o’ the
bayonet I helped to carry Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo to boot; and now,
for sax baubees, I’m thankfu’ to carry your bag. Sae muckle for
“It is not very encouraging, certainly,” said my man, with a smile.
“Ten years’ service, two wounds, and a deferred pension of threepence
per diem,” growled the other, as he threw my traps, with an oath, on the
roof of the carriage.
“What regiment, my friend?” I inquired.
“The old Scots brigade, second battalion, sir,” he replied, with a
salute, as I slipped a trifle into his hand.
“The weather seems open and fine here.”
“Aye,” said he, with another saturnine grin; “but a green yule maketh a
In five minutes more we were _en route_, sweeping along the little
lonely branch line, that through grassy glens, where the half-frozen
runnels oozed or gurgled among withered reeds and bracken bushes, led us
into the heart of Fife—”the kingdom,” as the Scots call it; not that it
ever was so in any time of antiquity, but because the peninsular county
contains within its compact and industrious self every means and
requisite for the support of its inhabitants, independent of the produce
of the whole external world—at least, such is their boast.
I was drawing nearer and nearer home; and now my heart beat high and
happily. Every local feature and casual sound, the little thatched
cottages, with rusty, antique risps on their doors,[*] and the clatter
of the wooden looms within, were familiar to me. We swept past the
quaint town, and the tall, gaunt castle of Clackmannan, where its aged
chatelaine—the last of the old Bruce line—_knighted_ Robert Burns, with
the sword of the victor of Bannockburn, saying, dryly, that she “had a
better right to do it than _some people_,” and ere long I saw the spires
that overshadow the graves of Robert I. and many a Scottish monarch, as
we glided past Dunfermline, old and grey, with its glorious ruined
palace, where Malcolm drank the blood-red wine, and where Charles I. was
born, and its steep, quaint streets covering the brow of a sloping ridge
that ends abruptly in the wooded glen of Pittencrief.
[*] The old Scottish tirling-pin—to be found now nowhere save in Fife—in
lieu of bells and knockers.
My delight was fully shared in by Willie Pitblado, my servant, the son
of old Simon, my uncle’s keeper. He was a lancer in my troop, for whom
I had procured a month’s furlough; thus the hedgerows where he had
bird-nested, the fields where he had sung and whistled at the plough,
the farm-gates on which he had swung for hours—a truant boy from
school—the woods of Pitrearie and Pittencrief, the abbey’s old grey
walls, and the square tower that covers Bruce’s grave, were all hailed
by Willie as old friends; and strange to say, his Doric Scotch came back
to his tongue with the air he breathed, though it had been nearly
well-nigh quizzed out of him by our lancers, nearly all of whom were
He was a smart, handsome, and soldier-like fellow, who bade fair to be
“the rage” among the servant-girls at the old house, the home-farm, and
the adjacent village, and a source of vexation to their hobnailed
A few miles beyond the old city I quitted the train, and leaving him to
follow with my baggage in a dog-cart, I struck across the fields by a
near path that I remembered well, and which I knew would bring me
straight to Calderwood Glen, the residence of my uncle, Sir Nigel—save
Cora, almost the last relation I had now on earth.