Cleeve Court, known now as Cleeve Old Court, sits deep in a valley beside a brook and a level meadow, across which it looks southward upon climbing woods and glades descending here and there between them like broad green rivers. Above, the valley narrows almost to a gorge, with scarps of limestone, grey and red-streaked, jutting sheer over its alder beds and fern-screened waterfalls; and so zigzags up to the mill and hamlet of Ipplewell, beyond which spread the moors. Below, it bends southward and widens gradually for a mile to the market-town of Cleeve Abbots, where by a Norman bridge of ten arches its brook joins a large river, and their waters, scarcely mingled, are met by the sea tides, spent and warm with crawling over the sandbanks of a six-mile estuary.
Cleeve Old Court sees neither the limestone crags above nor the town below, but sits sequestered in its own bend of the valley, in its own clearing amid the heavy elms; so sheltered that, even in March and November, when the wind sings aloft on the ridges, the smoke mounts straight from its chimneys and the trees drip as steadily as though they were clocks and marked the seconds perfunctorily, with no real interest in the lapse of time. For the house, with its round-shouldered Jacobean gables, its stone-cropped roof, lichen-spotted plaster, and ill-kept yew hedge, has an air of resignation to decay, well-bred but spiritless, and communicates it to the whole of its small landscape. Our old builders chose their sites for shelter rather than for view; and this–and perhaps a well of exquisite water bubbling by the garden gate on the very lip of the brook–must explain the situation of the Old Court. Its present owner–being inordinately rich–had abandoned it to his bailiff, and built himself a lordly barrack on the ridge, commanding views that stretch from the moors to the sea. For this nine out of ten would commend him; but no true a Cleeve would ever have owned so much of audacity or disowned so much of tradition, and he has wasted a compliment on the perished family by assuming its name.
The last a Cleeve who should have inherited Cleeve Court returned to it for the last time on a grey and dripping afternoon in 1805–on the same day and at the same hour, in fact, when, hundreds of miles to the southward, our guns were banging to victory off Cape Trafalgar. Here, at home, on the edge of the Cleeve woods, the air hung heavy and soundless, its silence emphasised rather than broken now and again by the kuk-kuk of a pheasant in the undergrowth. Above the plantations, along the stubbled uplands, long inert banks of vapour hid the sky-line; and out of these Walter a Cleeve came limping across the ridge, his figure looming unnaturally.
He limped because he had walked all the way from Plymouth in a pair of French sabots–a penitential tramp for a youth who loathed walking at the best of times. He knew his way perfectly, although he followed no path; yet, coming to the fringe of the woodland, he turned aside and skirted the fence as if unexpectedly headed off by it. And this behaviour seemed highly suspicious to Jim Burdon, the under-keeper, who, not recognising his young master, decided that here was a stranger up to no good.
Jim’s mind ran on poachers this year. Indeed he had little else to brood over and very little else to discuss with Macklin, the head-keeper. The Cleeve coverts had come to a pretty pass, and, as things were going, could only end in worse. Here they were close on the third week in October, and not a gun had been fired. Last season it had been bad enough, and indeed ever since the black day which brought news that young Mr. Walter was a prisoner among the French. No more shooting-parties, no more big beats, no more handsome gratuities for Macklin and windfalls for Jim Burdon! Nevertheless, the Squire, with a friend or two, had shot the coverts after a fashion. The blow had shaken him: uncertainty, anxiety of this sort for his heir and only child, must prey upon any man’s mind. Still (his friends argued) the cure lay in his lifelong habits; these were the firm ground on which he would feel his footing again and recover himself–since, if so colourless a man could be said to nurse a passion, it was for his game. A strict Tory by breeding, and less by any process of intellectual conviction than from sheer inability to see himself in any other light, indolent and contemptuous of politics, in game-preserving alone he let his Toryism run into activity, even to a fine excess. The Cleeve coverts, for instance, harboured none but pheasants of the old pure breed, since extinct in England–the true Colchian–and the Squire was capable of maintaining that these not only gave honester sport (whatever he meant by this), but were better eating than any birds of later importation (which was absurd). The appearance–old Macklin declared–of a single green-plumed or white-ringed bird within a mile of Cleeve Court was enough to give him a fit: certainly it would irritate him more than any poacher could–though poachers, too, were poison.