Birds of Prey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Matthew Haygarth’s Resting-Place.

I found the house at Dewsdale without difficulty. It is a stiff, square, red-brick dwelling-place, with long narrow windows, a high narrow door, and carved canopy; a house which savours of the Tatler and Spectator; a house in which the short-faced gentleman might have spent his summer holidays after Sir Roger’s death. It stands behind a high iron gate, surmounted by a handsome coat of arms; and before it there lies a pleasant patch of greensward, with a pond and a colony of cackling geese, which craned their necks and screamed at me as I passed them.

The place is the simplest and smallest of rural villages. There is a public-house — the Seven Stars; a sprinkling of humble cottages; a general shop, which is at once a shoemaker’s, a grocer’s, a linen draper’s, a stationer’s, and a post office. These habitations, a gray old church with a square tower, half hidden by the sombre foliage of yews and cedars, and the house once inhabited by the Haygarths, comprise the whole of the village. The Haygarthian household is now the rectory. I ascertained this fact from the landlord of the Seven Stars, at which house of entertainment I took a bottle of soda-water, in order to sonder le terrain before commencing business.

The present rector is an elderly widower with seven children; an easy good-natured soul, who is more prone to bestow his money in charity than to punctuality in the payment of his debts.

Having discovered thus much, I rang the bell at the iron gate and boarded the Haygarthian mansion. The rector was at home, and received me in a very untidy apartment, par excellence a study. A boy in a holland blouse was smearing his face with his inky fingers, and wrestling with a problem in Euclid, while his father stood on a step-ladder exploring a high shelf of dusty books.

The rector, whose name is Wendover, descended from the step-ladder and shook the dust from his garments. He is a little withered old man, with a manner so lively as to be on the verge of flightiness. I observed that he wiped his dusty palms on the skirts of his coat, and argued therefrom that he would be an easy person to deal with. I soon found that my deduction was correct.

I presented Sheldon’s card and stated my business, of course acting on that worthy’s advice. Could Mr. Wendover give me any information relating to the Haygarth family?

Fortune favoured me throughout this Dewsdale expedition. The rector is a simple garrulous old soul, to whom to talk is bliss. He has occupied the house five-and-thirty years. He rents it of the lord of the manor, who bought it from John Haygarth. Not a stick of furniture has been removed since our friend Matthew’s time; and the rev. intestate may have wrestled with the mysteries of Euclid on the same old-fashioned mahogany table at which I saw the boy in brown holland.

Mr. Wendover left his books and manuscripts scattered on the floor of the study, and conducted me to a cool shady drawing-room, very shabbily furnished with the spindle-legged chairs and tables of the last century. Here he begged me to be seated, and here we were ever and anon interrupted by intruding juveniles, the banging of doors, and the shrill clamour of young voices in the hall and garden.

I brought all the diplomacy of which I am master to bear in my long interview with the rector; and the following is a transcript of our conversation, after a good deal of polite skirmishing:—

Myself. You see, my dear sir, the business I am concerned in is remotely connected with these Haygarths. Any information you will kindly afford me, however apparently trivial, may be of service in the affair I am prosecuting.

The Rector. To be sure, to be sure! But, you see, though I’ve heard a good deal of the Haygarths, it is all gossip — the merest gossip. People are so fond of gossip, you know — especially country people: I have no doubt you have remarked that. Yes, I have heard a great deal about Matthew Haygarth. My late clerk and sexton — a very remarkable man, ninety-one when he died, and able to perform his duties very creditably within a year of his death — very creditably; but the hard winter of ‘56 took him off, poor fellow, and now I have a young man. Old Andrew Hone — that was my late clerk’s name — was employed in this house when a lad, and was very fond of talking about Matthew Haygarth and his wife. She was a rich woman, you know, a very rich woman — the daughter of a brewer at Ullerton; and this house belonged to her — inherited from her father.

Myself. And did you gather from your clerk that Matthew Haygarth and his wife lived happily together?

The Rector. Well, yes, yes: I never heard anything to the contrary. They were not a young couple, you know. Rebecca Caulfield was forty years of age, and Matthew Haygarth was fifty-three when he married; so, you see, one could hardly call it a love-match. [Abrupt inroad of bouncing damsel, exclaiming “Pa!“] Don’t you see I’m engaged, Sophia Louisa? Why are you not at your practice? [Sudden retreat of bouncing damsel, followed by the scrambling performance of scale of C major in adjoining chamber, which performance abruptly ceases after five minutes.] You see Mrs. Haygarth was not young, as I was about to observe when my daughter interrupted us; and she was perhaps a little more steadfast in her adherence to the newly arisen sect of Wesleyans than was pleasing to her husband, although he consented to become a member of that sect. But as their married life lasted only a year, they had little time for domestic unhappiness, even supposing them not to be adapted to each other.

Myself. Mrs Matthew Haygarth did not marry again?

The Rector. No; she devoted herself to the education of her son, and lived and died in this house. The room which is now my study she furnished with a small reading-desk and a couple of benches, now in my nursery, and made it into a kind of chapel, in which the keeper of the general shop — who was, I believe, considered a shining light amongst the Wesleyan community — was in the habit of holding forth every Sunday morning to such few members of that sect as were within reach of Dewsdale. She died when her son was nineteen years of age, and was buried in the family vault in the churchyard yonder. Her son’s adherence to the Church of England was a very great trouble to her. [Inroad of boy in holland, very dejected and inky of aspect, also exclaiming “Pa!“] No, John; not till that problem is worked out. Take that cricket-bat back to the lobby, sir, and return to your studies. [Sulky withdrawal of boy.] You see what it is to have a large family, Mr. — Sheldon. I beg pardon, Mr. ———

Myself. Hawkehurst, clerk to Mr. Sheldon.

The Rector. To be sure. I have some thoughts of the Law for one of my elder sons; the Church is terribly overcrowded. However, as I was on the point of saying when my boy John disturbed us, though I have heard a great deal of gossip about the Haygarths, I fear I can give you very little substantial information. Their connection with Dewsdale lasted little more than twenty years. Matthew Haygarth was married in Dewsdale church, his son John was christened in Dewsdale church, and he himself is buried in the churchyard. That is about as much positive information as I can give you; and you will perhaps remark that the parish register would afford you as much. After questioning the good-natured old rector rather closely, and obtaining little more than the above information, I asked permission to see the house.

“Old furniture and old pictures are apt to be suggestive,” I said; “and perhaps while we are going over the house you may happen to recall some further particulars relating to the Haygarth family.”

Mr. Wendover assented. He was evidently anxious to oblige me, and accepted my explanation of my business in perfect good faith. He conducted me from room to room, waiting patiently while I scrutinised the panelled walls and stared at the attenuated old furniture. I was determined to observe George Sheldon’s advice to the very letter, though I had little hope of making any grand melodramatic discovery in the way of documents hidden in old cabinets, or mouldering behind sliding panels.

I asked the rector if he had ever found papers of any kind in forgotten nooks and corners of the house or the furniture. His reply was a decided negative. He had explored and investigated every inch of the old dwelling-place, and had found nothing.

So much for Sheldon’s idea.

Mr. Wendover led me from basement to garret, encountering bouncing daughters and boys in brown holland wherever we went; and from basement to garret I found that all was barren. In the whole of the house there was but one object which arrested my attention, and the interest which that one object aroused in my mind had no relation to the Haygarthian fortune.

Over a high carved chimney-piece in one of the bedchambers there hung a little row of miniatures — old-fashioned oval miniatures, pale and faded — pictures of men and women with the powdered hair of the Georgian period, and the flowing full-bottomed wigs familiar to St. James’s and Tunbridge-wells in the days of inoffensive Anne. There were in all seven miniatures, six of which specimens of antique portraiture were prim and starched and artificial of aspect. But the seventh was different in form and style: it was the picture of a girlish face looking out of a frame of loose unpowdered locks; a bright innocent face, with gray eyes and marked black eyebrows, pouting lips a little parted, and white teeth gleaming between lips of rosy red; such a face as one might fancy the inspiration of an old poet. I took the miniature gently from the little brass hook on which it hung, and stood for some time looking at the bright frank face.

It was the picture of Charlotte Halliday. Yes; I suppose there is a fatality in these things. It was one of those marvellous accidental resemblances which every man has met with in the course of his life. Here was this dead-and-gone beauty of the days of George the Second smiling upon me with the eyes and lips of Philip Sheldon’s stepdaughter!

Or was it only a delusion of my own? Was my mind so steeped in the thought of that girl — was my heart so impressed by her beauty, that I could not look upon a fair woman’s face without conjuring up her likeness in the pictured countenance? However this may be, I looked long and tenderly at the face which seemed to me to resemble the woman I love.

Of course I questioned the rector as to the original of this particular miniature. He could tell me nothing about it, except that he thought it was not one of the Caulfields or Haygarths. The man in the full-bottomed Queen–Anne wig was Jeremiah Caulfield, brewer, father of the pious Rebecca; the woman with the high powdered head was the pious Rebecca herself; the man in the George-the-Second wig was Matthew Haygarth. The other three were kindred of Rebecca’s. But the wild-haired damsel was some unknown creature, for whose presence Mr. Wendover was unable to account.

I examined the frame of the miniature, and found that it opened at the back. Behind the ivory on which the portrait was painted there was a lock of dark hair incased in crystal; and on the inside of the case, which was of some worthless metal gilded, there was scratched the name “Molly.”

How this Molly with the loose dark locks came to be admitted among the prim, and pious Caulfields is certainly more than I can understand.

My exploration of the house having resulted only in this little romantic accident of the likeness to Charlotte, I prepared to take my departure, no wiser than when I had first crossed the threshold. The rector very politely proposed to show me the church; and as I considered that it would be well to take a copy of the Haygarthian entries in the register, I availed myself of his offer. He despatched a maid-servant to summon his clerk, in order that that functionary might assist in the investigation of the registers. The girl departed on this errand, while her master conducted me across his garden, in which there is now a gate opening into the churchyard.

It is the most picturesque of burial-grounds, darkened by the shadow of those solemn yews and spreading cedars. We walked very slowly between the crumbling old tombstones, which have almost all grown one-sided with time. Mr. Wendover led me through a little labyrinth of lowly graves to a high and ponderous iron railing surrounding a square space, in the midst of which there is a stately stone monument. In the railing there is a gate, from which a flight of stone step leads down to the door of a vault. It is altogether rather a pretentious affair, wherein one sees the evidence of substantial wealth unelevated by artistic grace or poetic grandeur.

This is the family vault of the Caulfields and Haygarths.

“I’ve brought you to look at this tomb,” said the rector, resting his hand upon the rusted railing, “because there is rather a romantic story connected with it — a story that concerns Matthew Haygarth, by the bye. I did not think of it just now, when we were talking of him; but it flashed on my memory as we came through the garden. It is rather a mysterious affair; and though it is not very likely to have any bearing upon the object of your inquiry, I may as well tell you about it — as a leaf out of family history, you know, Mr. Hawkehurst, and as a new proof of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.”

I assured the rector that I should be glad to hear anything he could tell me.

“I must premise that I only tell the story as I got it from my old clerk, and that it may therefore seem rather indistinct; but there is an entry in the register yonder to show that it is not without foundation. However, I will waste no more words in preamble, but give you the story, which is simply this:"—

The rector seated himself on a dilapidated old tombstone, while I leaned against the rails of the Haygarth vault, looking down upon him.

“Within a month or two of Matthew Haygarth’s death a kind of melancholy came over him,” said the rector. “Whether he was unhappy with his wife, or whether he felt his health declining, is more than I can say. You must remember that my informant was but a lad at the time of which I speak, and that when he talked to me about the subject sixty years afterwards he was a very old man, and his impressions were therefore more or less vague. But upon certain facts he was sufficiently positive; and amongst the circumstances he remembered most vividly are those of the story I am going to tell you.

“It seems that within a very few weeks of Matthew’s death, his wife, Rebecca Haygarth, started on an expedition to the north, in the company of an uncle, to hear John Wesley preach on some very special occasion, and to assist at a love-feast. She was gone more than a fortnight; and during her absence Matthew Haygarth mounted his horse early one morning and rode away from Dewsdale.

“His household consisted of three maids, a man, and the lad Andrew Hone, afterwards my sexton. Before departing on his journey Mr. Haygarth had said that he would not return till late the next evening, and had requested that only the man (whose name I forget) should sit up for him.” He was punctiliously obeyed. The household, always of early habits, retired at nine, the accustomed hour; and the man-servant waited to receive his master, while the lad Andrew, who slept in the stables, sat up to keep his fellow-servant company.

“At ten o’clock Mr. Haygarth came home, gave his horse into the charge of the lad, took his candle from the man-servant, and walked straight upstairs, as if going to bed. The man-servant locked the doors, took his master the key, and then went to his own quarters. The boy remained up to feed and groom the horse, which had the appearance of having performed a hard day’s work.

“He had nearly concluded this business when he was startled by the slamming of the back door opening into the courtyard, in which were the stables and outhouses. Apprehending thieves, the boy opened the door of the stable and looked out, doubtless with considerable caution.

“It was broad moonlight, and he saw at a glance that the person who had opened the door was one who had a right to open it. Matthew Haygarth was crossing the courtyard as the lad peeped out. He wore a long black cloak, and his head drooped upon his breast as if he had been in dejection. The lad — being, I suppose, inquisitive, after the manner of country lads — made no more ado, but left his unfinished work and crept stealthily after his master, who came straight to this churchyard — indeed to this very spot on which we are now standing.

“On this spot the boy Andrew Hone became the secret witness of a strange scene. He saw an open grave close against the rails yonder, and he saw a little coffin lowered silently into that grave by the sexton of that time and a strange man, who afterwards went away in a mourning coach, which was in waiting at the gate, and in which doubtless the stranger and the little coffin had come.

“Before the man departed he assisted to fill up the grave; and when it was filled Matthew Haygarth gave money to both the men — gold it seemed to the lad Andrew, and several pieces to each person. The two men then departed, but Mr. Haygarth still lingered.

“As soon as he fancied himself alone, he knelt down beside the little grave, covered his face with his hands, and either wept or prayed, Andrew Hone could not tell which. If he wept, he wept silently.

“From that night, my sexton said, Matthew Haygarth faded visibly. Mistress Rebecca came home from her love-feast, and nursed and tended her husband with considerable kindness, though, so far as I can make out, she was at the best a stern woman. He died three weeks after the event which I have described, and was buried in that vault close to the little grave.” I thanked Mr. Wendover for his succinct narrative, and apologised for the trouble I had occasioned him.

“Do not speak of the trouble,” he answered kindly; “I am used to telling that story. I have heard it a great many times from poor old Andrew, and I have told it a great many times.”

“The story has rather a legendary tone,” I said; “I should have scarcely thought such a thing possible.”

The rector shrugged his shoulders with a deprecating gesture.

“In our own day,” he replied, “such an occurrence would be almost impossible; but you must remember that we are talking of the last century — a century in which, I regret to say, the clergy of the Church of England were sadly lax in the performance of their duties. The followers of Wesley and Whitefield could scarcely have multiplied as they did if the flocks had not been cruelly neglected by their proper shepherds. It was a period in which benefices were bestowed constantly on men obviously unfitted for the holy office — men who were gamblers and drunkards, patrons of cock-pits, and in many cases open and shameless reprobates. In such an age almost anything was possible; and this midnight and unhallowed interment may very well have taken place either with the consent or without the knowledge of the incumbent, who, I am told, bore no high character for piety or morality.”

“And you say there is an entry in the register?”

“Yes, a careless scrawl, dated Sept. 19th, 1774, recording the burial of one Matthew Haygarth, aged four years, removed from the burial-ground attached to the parish church of Spotswold.”

“Then it was a reinterment?”

“Evidently.”

“And is Spotswold in this county?”

“Yes; it is a very small village, about fifty miles from here.”

“And Matthew Haygarth died very soon after this event?”

“He did. He died very suddenly — with an awful suddenness — and died intestate. His widow was left the possessor of great wealth, which increased in the hands of her son John Haygarth, a very prudent and worthy gentleman, and a credit to the Church of which he was a member. He only died very lately, I believe, and must therefore have attained a great age.”

It is quite evident that Mr. Wendover had not seen the advertisement in the Times, and was ignorant of the fact that the accumulated wealth of Haygarths and Caulfields is now waiting a claimant.

I asked permission to see the register containing the entry of the mysterious interment; and after the administration of a shilling to the clerk — a shilling at Dewsdale being equal to half a crown in London — the vestry cupboard was opened by that functionary, and the book I required was produced from a goodly pile of such mouldy brown leather-bound volumes.

The following is a copy of the entry:—

“On Thursday last past, being ye 19 Sep’tr, A.D. 1774, was interr’d ye bodie off onne Matthewe Haygarthe, ag’d foure yeres, remoov’d fromm ye Churcheyarde off St. Marie, under ye hil, Spotswolde, in this Co. Pade forr so doeing, sevven shill.”

After having inspected the register, I asked many further questions, but without eliciting much further information. So I expressed my thanks for the courtesy that had been shown me, and took my departure, not wishing to press the matter so closely as to render myself a nuisance to the worthy Wendover, and bearing in mind that it would be open to me to return at any future time.

And now I ask myself — and I ask the astute Sheldon — what is the meaning of this mysterious burial, and is it likely to have any bearing on the object of our search? These are questions for the consideration of the astute S.

I spent my evening in jotting down the events of the day, in the above free-and-easy fashion for my own guidance, and in a more precise and business-like style for my employer. I posted my letter before ten o’clock, the hour at which the London mail is made up, and then smoked my cigar in the empty streets, overshadowed by gaunt square stacks of building and tall black chimneys; and so back to my inn, where I took a glass of ale and another cigar, and then to bed, as the worthy Pepys might have concluded.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/birds_of_prey/book4.2.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31