My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter II.

Before I tell you about Mr. Gray, I think I ought to make you understand something more of what we did all day long at Hanbury Court. There were five of us at the time of which I am speaking, all young women of good descent, and allied (however distantly) to people of rank. When we were not with my lady, Mrs. Medlicott looked after us; a gentle little woman, who had been companion to my lady for many years, and was indeed, I have been told, some kind of relation to her. Mrs. Medlicott’s parents had lived in Germany, and the consequence was, she spoke English with a very foreign accent. Another consequence was, that she excelled in all manner of needlework, such as is not known even by name in these days. She could darn either lace, table-linen, India muslin, or stockings, so that no one could tell where the hole or rent had been. Though a good Protestant, and never missing Guy Faux day at church, she was as skilful at fine work as any nun in a Papist convent. She would take a piece of French cambric, and by drawing out some threads, and working in others, it became delicate lace in a very few hours. She did the same by Hollands cloth, and made coarse strong lace, with which all my lady’s napkins and table-linen were trimmed. We worked under her during a great part of the day, either in the still-room, or at our sewing in a chamber that opened out of the great hall. My lady despised every kind of work that would now be called Fancy-work. She considered that the use of coloured threads or worsted was only fit to amuse children; but that grown women ought not to be taken with mere blues and reds, but to restrict their pleasure in sewing to making small and delicate stitches. She would speak of the old tapestry in the hall as the work of her ancestresses, who lived before the Reformation, and were consequently unacquainted with pure and simple tastes in work, as well as in religion. Nor would my lady sanction the fashion of the day, which, at the beginning of this century, made all the fine ladies take to making shoes. She said that such work was a consequence of the French Revolution, which had done much to annihilate all distinctions of rank and class, and hence it was, that she saw young ladies of birth and breeding handling lasts, and awls, and dirty cobblers’-wax, like shoe’-makers’ daughters.

Very frequently one of us would be summoned to my lady to read aloud to her, as she sat in her small withdrawing-room, some improving book. It was generally Mr. Addison’s “Spectator;” but one year, I remember, we had to read “Sturm’s Reflections” translated from a German book Mrs. Medlicott recommended. Mr. Sturm told us what to think about for every day in the year; and very dull it was; but I believe Queen Charlotte had liked the book very much, and the thought of her royal approbation kept my lady awake during the reading. “Mrs. Chapone’s Letters” and “Dr. Gregory’s Advice to Young Ladies” composed the rest of our library for week-day reading. I, for one, was glad to leave my fine sewing, and even my reading aloud (though this last did keep me with my dear lady) to go to the still-room and potter about among the preserves and the medicated waters. There was no doctor for many miles round, and with Mrs. Medlicott to direct us, and Dr. Buchan to go by for recipes, we sent out many a bottle of physic, which, I dare say, was as good as what comes out of the druggist’s shop. At any rate, I do not think we did much harm; for if any of our physics tasted stronger than usual, Mrs. Medlicott would bid us let it down with cochineal and water, to make all safe, as she said. So our bottles of medicine had very little real physic in them at last; but we were careful in putting labels on them, which looked very mysterious to those who could not read, and helped the medicine to do its work. I have sent off many a bottle of salt and water coloured red; and whenever we had nothing else to do in the still-room, Mrs. Medlicott would set us to making bread-pills, by way of practice; and, as far as I can say, they were very efficacious, as before we gave out a box Mrs. Medlicott always told the patient what symptoms to expect; and I hardly ever inquired without hearing that they had produced their effect. There was one old man, who took six pills a-night, of any kind we liked to give him, to make him sleep; and if, by any chance, his daughter had forgotten to let us know that he was out of his medicine, he was so restless and miserable that, as he said, he thought he was like to die. I think ours was what would be called homoeopathic practice now-a-days. Then we learnt to make all the cakes and dishes of the season in the still-room. We had plum-porridge and mince-pies at Christmas, fritters and pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, furmenty on Mothering Sunday, violet-cakes in Passion Week, tansy-pudding on Easter Sunday, three-cornered cakes on Trinity Sunday, and so on through the year: all made from good old Church receipts, handed down from one of my lady’s earliest Protestant ancestresses. Every one of us passed a portion of the day with Lady Ludlow; and now and then we rode out with her in her coach and four. She did not like to go out with a pair of horses, considering this rather beneath her rank; and, indeed, four horses were very often needed to pull her heavy coach through the stiff mud. But it was rather a cumbersome equipage through the narrow Warwickshire lanes; and I used often to think it was well that countesses were not plentiful, or else we might have met another lady of quality in another coach and four, where there would have been no possibility of turning, or passing each other, and very little chance of backing. Once when the idea of this danger of meeting another countess in a narrow, deep-rutted lane was very prominent in my mind I ventured to ask Mrs. Medlicott what would have to be done on such an occasion; and she told me that “de latest creation must back, for sure,” which puzzled me a good deal at the time, although I understand it now. I began to find out the use of the “Peerage,” a book which had seemed to me rather dull before; but, as I was always a coward in a coach, I made myself well acquainted with the dates of creation of our three Warwickshire earls, and was happy to find that Earl Ludlow ranked second, the oldest earl being a hunting widower, and not likely to drive out in a carriage.

All this time I have wandered from Mr. Gray. Of course, we first saw him in church when he read himself in. He was very red-faced, the kind of redness which goes with light hair and a blushing complexion; he looked slight and short, and his bright light frizzy hair had hardly a dash of powder in it. I remember my lady making this observation, and sighing over it; for, though since the famine in seventeen hundred and ninety-nine and eighteen hundred there had been a tax on hair-powder, yet it was reckoned very revolutionary and Jacobin not to wear a good deal of it. My lady hardly liked the opinions of any man who wore his own hair; but this she would say was rather a prejudice: only in her youth none but the mob had gone wigless, and she could not get over the association of wigs with birth and breeding; a man’s own hair with that class of people who had formed the rioters in seventeen hundred and eighty, when Lord George Gordon had been one of the bugbears of my lady’s life. Her husband and his brothers, she told us, had been put into breeches, and had their heads shaved on their seventh birthday, each of them; a handsome little wig of the newest fashion forming the old Lady Ludlow’s invariable birthday present to her sons as they each arrived at that age; and afterwards, to the day of their death, they never saw their own hair. To be without powder, as some underbred people were talking of being now, was in fact to insult the proprieties of life, by being undressed. It was English sans-culottism. But Mr. Gray did wear a little powder, enough to save him in my lady’s good opinion; but not enough to make her approve of him decidedly.

The next time I saw him was in the great hall. Mary Mason and I were going to drive out with my lady in her coach, and when we went down stairs with our best hats and cloaks on, we found Mr. Gray awaiting my lady’s coming. I believe he had paid his respects to her before, but we had never seen him; and he had declined her invitation to spend Sunday evening at the Court (as Mr. Mountford used to do pretty regularly — and play a game at picquet too —), which, Mrs. Medlicott told us, had caused my lady to be not over well pleased with him.

He blushed redder than ever at the sight of us, as we entered the hall and dropped him our curtsies. He coughed two or three times, as if he would have liked to speak to us, if he could but have found something to say; and every time he coughed he became hotter-looking than ever. I am ashamed to say, we were nearly laughing at him; half because we, too, were so shy that we understood what his awkwardness meant.

My lady came in, with her quick active step — she always walked quickly when she did not bethink herself of her cane — as if she was sorry to have us kept waiting — and, as she entered, she gave us all round one of those graceful sweeping curtsies, of which I think the art must have died out with her — it implied so much courtesy; — this time it said, as well as words could do, “I am sorry to have kept you all waiting — forgive me.”

She went up to the mantelpiece, near which Mr. Gray had been standing until her entrance, and curtseying afresh to him, and pretty deeply this time, because of his cloth, and her being hostess, and he, a new guest. She asked him if he would not prefer speaking to her in her own private parlour, and looked as though she would have conducted him there. But he burst out with his errand, of which he was full even to choking, and which sent the glistening tears into his large blue eyes, which stood farther and farther out with his excitement.

“My lady, I want to speak to you, and to persuade you to exert your kind interest with Mr. Lathom — Justice Lathom, of Hathaway Manor —”

“Harry Lathom?” inquired my lady — as Mr. Gray stopped to take the breath he had lost in his hurry — “I did not know he was in the commission.”

“He is only just appointed; he took the oaths not a month ago — more’s the pity!”

“I do not understand why you should regret it. The Lathoms have held Hathaway since Edward the First, and Mr. Lathom bears a good character, although his temper is hasty —”

“My lady! he has committed Job Gregson for stealing — a fault of which he is as innocent as I— and all the evidence goes to prove it, now that the case is brought before the Bench; only the Squires hang so together that they can’t be brought to see justice, and are all for sending Job to gaol, out of compliment to Mr. Lathom, saying it his first committal, and it won’t be civil to tell him there is no evidence against his man. For God’s sake, my lady, speak to the gentlemen; they will attend to you, while they only tell me to mind my own business.”

Now my lady was always inclined to stand by her order, and the Lathoms of Hathaway Court were cousins to the Hanbury’s. Besides, it was rather a point of honour in those days to encourage a young magistrate, by passing a pretty sharp sentence on his first committals; and Job Gregson was the father of a girl who had been lately turned away from her place as scullery-maid for sauciness to Mrs. Adams, her ladyship’s own maid; and Mr. Gray had not said a word of the reasons why he believed the man innocent — for he was in such a hurry, I believe he would have had my lady drive off to the Henley Court-house then and there; — so there seemed a good deal against the man, and nothing but Mr. Gray’s bare word for him; and my lady drew herself a little up, and said —

“Mr. Gray! I do not see what reason either you or I have to interfere. Mr. Harry Lathom is a sensible kind of young man, well capable of ascertaining the truth without our help —”

“But more evidence has come out since,” broke in Mr. Gray. My lady went a little stiffer, and spoke a little more coldly:—

“I suppose this additional evidence is before the justices: men of good family, and of honour and credit, well known in the county. They naturally feel that the opinion of one of themselves must have more weight than the words of a man like Job Gregson, who bears a very indifferent character — has been strongly suspected of poaching, coming from no one knows where, squatting on Hareman’s Common — which, by the way, is extra-parochial, I believe; consequently you, as a clergyman, are not responsible for what goes on there; and, although impolitic, there might be some truth in what the magistrates said, in advising you to mind your own business,”— said her ladyship, smiling — “and they might be tempted to bid me mind mine, if I interfered, Mr. Gray: might they not?”

He looked extremely uncomfortable; half angry. Once or twice he began to speak, but checked himself, as if his words would not have been wise or prudent. At last he said —“It may seem presumptuous in me — a stranger of only a few weeks’ standing — to set up my judgment as to men’s character against that of residents —” Lady Ludlow gave a little bow of acquiescence, which was, I think, involuntary on her part, and which I don’t think he perceived — “but I am convinced that the man is innocent of this offence — and besides, the justices themselves allege this ridiculous custom of paying a compliment to a newly-appointed magistrate as their only reason.”

That unlucky word “ridiculous!” It undid all the good his modest beginning had done him with my lady. I knew as well as words could have told me, that she was affronted at the expression being used by a man inferior in rank to those whose actions he applied it to — and truly, it was a great want of tact, considering to whom he was speaking.

Lady Ludlow spoke very gently and slowly; she always did so when she was annoyed; it was a certain sign, the meaning of which we had all learnt.

“I think, Mr. Gray, we will drop the subject. It is one on which we are not likely to agree.”

Mr. Gray’s ruddy colour grew purple and then faded away, and his face became pale. I think both my lady and he had forgotten our presence; and we were beginning to feel too awkward to wish to remind them of it. And yet we could not help watching and listening with the greatest interest.

Mr. Gray drew himself up to his full height, with an unconscious feeling of dignity. Little as was his stature, and awkward and embarrassed as he had been only a few minutes before, I remember thinking he looked almost as grand as my lady when he spoke.

“Your ladyship must remember that it may be my duty to speak to my parishioners on many subjects on which they do not agree with me. I am not at liberty to be silent, because they differ in opinion from me.”

Lady Ludlow’s great blue eyes dilated with surprise, and — I do think — anger, at being thus spoken to. I am not sure whether it was very wise in Mr. Gray. He himself looked afraid of the consequences but as if he was determined to bear them without flinching. For a minute there was silence. Then my lady replied —“Mr. Gray, I respect your plain speaking, although I may wonder whether a young man of your age and position has any right to assume that he is a better judge than one with the experience which I have naturally gained at my time of life, and in the station I hold.”

“If I, madam, as the clergyman of this parish, am not to shrink from telling what I believe to be the truth to the poor and lowly, no more am I to hold my peace in the presence of the rich and titled.” Mr. Gray’s face showed that he was in that state of excitement which in a child would have ended in a good fit of crying. He looked as if he had nerved himself up to doing and saying things, which he disliked above everything, and which nothing short of serious duty could have compelled him to do and say. And at such times every minute circumstance which could add to pain comes vividly before one. I saw that he became aware of our presence, and that it added to his discomfiture.

My lady flushed up. “Are you aware, sir,” asked she, “that you have gone far astray from the original subject of conversation? But as you talk of your parish, allow me to remind you that Hareman’s Common is beyond the bounds, and that you are really not responsible for the characters and lives of the squatters on that unlucky piece of ground.”

“Madam, I see I have only done harm in speaking to you about the affair at all. I beg your pardon and take my leave.”

He bowed, and looked very sad. Lady Ludlow caught the expression of his face.

“Good morning!” she cried, in rather a louder and quicker way than that in which she had been speaking. “Remember, Job Gregson is a notorious poacher and evildoer, and you really are not responsible for what goes on at Hareman’s Common.”

He was near the hall door, and said something — half to himself, which we heard (being nearer to him), but my lady did not; although she saw that he spoke. “What did he say?” she asked in a somewhat hurried manner, as soon as the door was closed —“I did not hear.” We looked at each other, and then I spoke:

“He said, my lady, that ‘God help him! he was responsible for all the evil he did not strive to overcome.’”

My lady turned sharp round away from us, and Mary Mason said afterwards she thought her ladyship was much vexed with both of us, for having been present, and with me for having repeated what Mr. Gray had said. But it was not our fault that we were in the hall, and when my lady asked what Mr. Gray had said, I thought it right to tell her.

In a few minutes she bade us accompany her in her ride in the coach.

Lady Ludlow always sat forwards by herself, and we girls backwards. Somehow this was a rule, which we never thought of questioning. It was true that riding backwards made some of us feel very uncomfortable and faint; and to remedy this my lady always drove with both windows open, which occasionally gave her the rheumatism; but we always went on in the old way. This day she did not pay any great attention to the road by which we were going, and Coachman took his own way. We were very silent, as my lady did not speak, and looked very serious. Or else, in general, she made these rides very pleasant (to those who were not qualmish with riding backwards), by talking to us in a very agreeable manner, and telling us of the different things which had happened to her at various places — at Paris and Versailles, where she had been in her youth — at Windsor and Kew and Weymouth, where she had been with the Queen, when maid-of-honour — and so on. But this day she did not talk at all. All at once she put her head out of the window.

“John Footman,” said she, “where are we? Surely this is Hareman’s Common.”

“Yes, an’t please my lady,” said John Footman, and waited for further speech or orders. My lady thought a while, and then said she would have the steps put down and get out.

As soon as she was gone, we looked at each other, and then without a word began to gaze after her. We saw her pick her dainty way in the little high-heeled shoes she always wore (because they had been in fashion in her youth), among the yellow pools of stagnant water that had gathered in the clayey soil. John Footman followed, stately, after; afraid too, for all his stateliness, of splashing his pure white stockings. Suddenly my lady turned round and said something to him, and he returned to the carriage with a half-pleased, half-puzzled air.

My lady went on to a cluster of rude mud houses at the higher end of the Common; cottages built, as they were occasionally at that day, of wattles and clay, and thatched with sods. As far as we could make out from dumb show, Lady Ludlow saw enough of the interiors of these places to make her hesitate before entering, or even speaking to any of the children who were playing about in the puddles. After a pause, she disappeared into one of the cottages. It seemed to us a long time before she came out; but I dare say it was not more than eight or ten minutes. She came back with her head hanging down, as if to choose her way — but we saw it was more in thought and bewilderment than for any such purpose.

She had not made up her mind where we should drive to when she got into the carriage again. John Footman stood, bare-headed, waiting for orders.

“To Hathaway. My dears, if you are tired, or if you have anything to do for Mrs. Medlicott, I can drop you at Barford Corner, and it is but a quarter of an hour’s brisk walk home.”

But luckily we could safely say that Mrs. Medlicott did not want us; and as we had whispered to each other, as we sat alone in the coach, that surely my lady must have gone to Job Gregson’s, we were far too anxious to know the end of it all to say that we were tired. So we all set off to Hathaway. Mr. Harry Lathom was a bachelor squire, thirty or thirty-five years of age, more at home in the field than in the drawing-room, and with sporting men than with ladies.

My lady did not alight, of course; it was Mr. Lathom’s place to wait upon her, and she bade the butler — who had a smack of the gamekeeper in him, very unlike our own powdered venerable fine gentleman at Hanbury — tell his master, with her compliments, that she wished to speak to him. You may think how pleased we were to find that we should hear all that was said; though, I think, afterwards we were half sorry when we saw how our presence confused the squire, who would have found it bad enough to answer my lady’s questions, even without two eager girls for audience.

“Pray, Mr. Lathom,” began my lady, something abruptly for her — but she was very full of her subject — “what is this I hear about Job Gregson?”

Mr. Lathom looked annoyed and vexed, but dared not show it in his words.

“I gave out a warrant against him, my lady, for theft — that is all. You are doubtless aware of his character; a man who sets nets and springes in long cover, and fishes wherever he takes a fancy. It is but a short step from poaching to thieving.”

“That is quite true,” replied Lady Ludlow (who had a horror of poaching for this very reason): “but I imagine you do not send a man to gaol on account of his bad character.”

“Rogues and vagabonds,” said Mr. Lathom. “A man may be sent to prison for being a vagabond; for no specific act, but for his general mode of life.”

He had the better of her ladyship for one moment; but then she answered —

“But in this case, the charge on which you committed him is for theft; now his wife tells me he can prove he was some miles distant from Holmwood, where the robbery took place, all that afternoon; she says you had the evidence before you.”

Mr. Lathom here interrupted my lady, by saying, in a somewhat sulky manner —“No such evidence was brought before me when I gave the warrant. I am not answerable for the other magistrates’ decision, when they had more evidence before them. It was they who committed him to gaol. I am not responsible for that.”

My lady did not often show signs of impatience; but we knew she was feeling irritated, by the little perpetual tapping of her high-heeled shoe against the bottom of the carriage. About the same time we, sitting backwards, caught a glimpse of Mr. Gray through the open door, standing in the shadow of the hall. Doubtless Lady Ludlow’s arrival had interrupted a conversation between Mr. Lathom and Mr. Gray. The latter must have heard every word of what she was saying; but of this she was not aware, and caught at Mr. Lathom’s disclaimer of responsibility with pretty much the same argument which she had heard (through our repetition) that Mr. Gray had used not two hours before.

“And do you mean to say, Mr. Lathom, that you don’t consider yourself responsible for all injustice or wrong-doing that you might have prevented, and have not? Nay, in this case the first germ of injustice was your own mistake. I wish you had been with me a little while ago, and seen the misery in that poor fellow’s cottage.” She spoke lower, and Mr. Gray drew near, in a sort of involuntary manner; as if to hear all she was saying. We saw him, and doubtless Mr. Lathom heard his footstep, and knew who it was that was listening behind him, and approving of every word that was said. He grew yet more sullen in manner; but still my lady was my lady, and he dared not speak out before her, as he would have done to Mr. Gray. Lady Ludlow, however, caught the look of stubborness in his face, and it roused her as I had never seen her roused.

“I am sure you will not refuse, sir, to accept my bail. I offer to bail the fellow out, and to be responsible for his appearance at the sessions. What say you to that, Mr. Lathom?”

“The offence of theft is not bailable, my lady.”

“Not in ordinary cases, I dare say. But I imagine this is an extraordinary case. The man is sent to prison out of compliment to you, and against all evidence, as far as I can learn. He will have to rot in gaol for two months, and his wife and children to starve. I, Lady Ludlow, offer to bail him out, and pledge myself for his appearance at next quarter-sessions.”

“It is against the law, my lady.”

“Bah! Bah! Bah! Who makes laws? Such as I, in the House of Lords — such as you, in the House of Commons. We, who make the laws in St. Stephen’s, may break the mere forms of them, when we have right on our sides, on our own land, and amongst our own people.”

“The lord-lieutenant may take away my commission, if he heard of it.”

“And a very good thing for the county, Harry Lathom; and for you too, if he did — if you don’t go on more wisely than you have begun. A pretty set you and your brother magistrates are to administer justice through the land! I always said a good despotism was the best form of government; and I am twice as much in favour of it now I see what a quorum is! My dears!” suddenly turning round to us, “if it would not tire you to walk home, I would beg Mr. Lathom to take a seat in my coach, and we would drive to Henley Gaol, and have the poor man out at once.”

“A walk over the fields at this time of day is hardly fitting for young ladies to take alone,” said Mr. Lathom, anxious no doubt to escape from his tete-a-tete drive with my lady, and possibly not quite prepared to go to the illegal length of prompt measures, which she had in contemplation.

But Mr. Gray now stepped forward, too anxious for the release of the prisoner to allow any obstacle to intervene which he could do away with. To see Lady Ludlow’s face when she first perceived whom she had had for auditor and spectator of her interview with Mr. Lathom, was as good as a play. She had been doing and saying the very things she had been so much annoyed at Mr. Gray’s saying and proposing only an hour or two ago. She had been setting down Mr. Lathom pretty smartly, in the presence of the very man to whom she had spoken of that gentleman as so sensible, and of such a standing in the county, that it was presumption to question his doings. But before Mr. Gray had finished his offer of escorting us back to Hanbury Court, my lady had recovered herself. There was neither surprise nor displeasure in her manner, as she answered —“I thank you, Mr. Gray. I was not aware that you were here, but I think I can understand on what errand you came. And seeing you here, recalls me to a duty I owe Mr. Lathom. Mr. Lathom, I have spoken to you pretty plainly — forgetting, until I saw Mr. Gray, that only this very afternoon I differed from him on this very question; taking completely, at that time, the same view of the whole subject which you have done; thinking that the county would be well rid of such a man as Job Gregson, whether he had committed this theft or not. Mr. Gray and I did not part quite friends,” she continued, bowing towards him; “but it so happened that I saw Job Gregson’s wife and home — I felt that Mr. Gray had been right and I had been wrong, so, with the famous inconsistency of my sex, I came hither to scold you,” smiling towards Mr. Lathom, who looked half-sulky yet, and did not relax a bit of his gravity at her smile, “for holding the same opinions that I had done an hour before. Mr. Gray,” (again bowing towards him) “these young ladies will be very much obliged to you for your escort, and so shall I. Mr. Lathom, may I beg of you to accompany me to Henley?”

Mr. Gray bowed very low, and went very red; Mr. Lathom said something which we none of us heard, but which was, I think, some remonstrance against the course he was, as it were, compelled to take. Lady Ludlow, however, took no notice of his murmur, but sat in an attitude of polite expectancy; and as we turned off on our walk, I saw Mr. Lathom getting into the coach with the air of a whipped hound. I must say, considering my lady’s feeling, I did not envy him his ride — though, I believe, he was quite in the right as to the object of the ride being illegal.

Our walk home was very dull. We had no fears; and would far rather have been without the awkward, blushing young man, into which Mr. Gray had sunk. At every stile he hesitated — sometimes he half got over it, thinking that he could assist us better in that way; then he would turn back unwilling to go before ladies. He had no ease of manner, as my lady once said of him, though on any occasion of duty, he had an immense deal of dignity.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17