My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter IV.

I think my lady was not aware of Mr. Horner’s views on education (as making men into more useful members of society), or the practice to which he was putting his precepts in taking Harry Gregson as pupil and protege; if, indeed, she were aware of Harry’s distinct existence at all, until the following unfortunate occasion. The anteroom, which was a kind of business-place for my lady to receive her steward and tenants in, was surrounded by shelves. I cannot call them book-shelves, though there were many books on them; but the contents of the volumes were principally manuscript, and relating to details connected with the Hanbury property. There were also one or two dictionaries, gazetteers, works of reference on the management of property; all of a very old date (the dictionary was Bailey’s, I remember; we had a great Johnson in my lady’s room, but where lexicographers differed, she generally preferred Bailey).

In this antechamber a footman generally sat, awaiting orders from my lady; for she clung to the grand old customs, and despised any bells, except her own little hand-bell, as modern inventions; she would have her people always within summons of this silvery bell, or her scarce less silvery voice. This man had not the sinecure you might imagine. He had to reply to the private entrance; what we should call the back door in a smaller house. As none came to the front door but my lady, and those of the county whom she honoured by visiting, and her nearest acquaintance of this kind lived eight miles (of bad road) off, the majority of comers knocked at the nail-studded terrace-door; not to have it opened (for open it stood, by my lady’s orders, winter and summer, so that the snow often drifted into the back hall, and lay there in heaps when the weather was severe), but to summon some one to receive their message, or carry their request to be allowed to speak to my lady. I remember it was long before Mr. Gray could be made to understand that the great door was only open on state occasions, and even to the last he would as soon come in by that as the terrace entrance. I had been received there on my first setting foot over my lady’s threshold; every stranger was led in by that way the first time they came; but after that (with the exceptions I have named) they went round by the terrace, as it were by instinct. It was an assistance to this instinct to be aware that from time immemorial, the magnificent and fierce Hanbury wolf-hounds, which were extinct in every other part of the island, had been and still were kept chained in the front quadrangle, where they bayed through a great part of the day and night and were always ready with their deep, savage growl at the sight of every person and thing, excepting the man who fed them, my lady’s carriage and four, and my lady herself. It was pretty to see her small figure go up to the great, crouching brutes thumping the flags with their heavy, wagging tails, and slobbering in an ecstacy of delight, at her light approach and soft caress. She had no fear of them; but she was a Hanbury born, and the tale went, that they and their kind knew all Hanburys instantly, and acknowledged their supremacy, ever since the ancestors of the breed had been brought from the East by the great Sir Urian Hanbury, who lay with his legs crossed on the altar-tomb in the church. Moreover, it was reported that, not fifty years before, one of these dogs had eaten up a child, which had inadvertently strayed within reach of its chain. So you may imagine how most people preferred the terrace-door. Mr. Gray did not seem to care for the dogs. It might be absence of mind, for I have heard of his starting away from their sudden spring when he had unwittingly walked within reach of their chains: but it could hardly have been absence of mind, when one day he went right up to one of them, and patted him in the most friendly manner, the dog meanwhile looking pleased, and affably wagging his tail, just as if Mr. Gray had been a Hanbury. We were all very much puzzled by this, and to this day I have not been able to account for it.

But now let us go back to the terrace-door, and the footman sitting in the antechamber.

One morning we heard a parleying, which rose to such a vehemence, and lasted for so long, that my lady had to ring her hand-bell twice before the footman heard it.

“What is the matter, John?” asked she, when he entered,

“A little boy, my lady, who says he comes from Mr. Horner, and must see your ladyship. Impudent little lad!” (This last to himself.)

“What does he want?”

“That’s just what I have asked him, my lady, but he won’t tell me, please your ladyship.”

“It is, probably, some message from Mr. Horner,” said Lady Ludlow, with just a shade of annoyance in her manner; for it was against all etiquette to send a message to her, and by such a messenger too!

“No! please your ladyship, I asked him if he had any message, and he said no, he had none; but he must see your ladyship for all that.”

“You had better show him in then, without more words,” said her ladyship, quietly, but still, as I have said, rather annoyed.

As if in mockery of the humble visitor, the footman threw open both battants of the door, and in the opening there stood a lithe, wiry lad, with a thick head of hair, standing out in every direction, as if stirred by some electrical current, a short, brown face, red now from affright and excitement, wide, resolute mouth, and bright, deep-set eyes, which glanced keenly and rapidly round the room, as if taking in everything (and all was new and strange), to be thought and puzzled over at some future time. He knew enough of manners not to speak first to one above him in rank, or else he was afraid.

“What do you want with me?” asked my lady; in so gentle a tone that it seemed to surprise and stun him.

“An’t please your ladyship?” said he, as if he had been deaf.

“You come from Mr. Horner’s: why do you want to see me?” again asked she, a little more loudly.

“An’t please your ladyship, Mr. Horner was sent for all on a sudden to Warwick this morning.”

His face began to work; but he felt it, and closed his lips into a resolute form.

“Well?”

“And he went off all on a sudden like.”

“Well?”

“And he left a note for your ladyship with me, your ladyship.”

“Is that all? You might have given it to the footman.”

“Please your ladyship, I’ve clean gone and lost it.”

He never took his eyes off her face. If he had not kept his look fixed, he would have burst out crying.

“That was very careless,” said my lady gently. “But I am sure you are very sorry for it. You had better try and find it; it may have been of consequence.

“Please, mum — please your ladyship — I can say it off by heart.”

“You! What do you mean?” I was really afraid now. My lady’s blue eyes absolutely gave out light, she was so much displeased, and, moreover, perplexed. The more reason he had for affright, the more his courage rose. He must have seen — so sharp a lad must have perceived her displeasure; but he went on quickly and steadily.

“Mr. Horner, my lady, has taught me to read, write, and cast accounts, my lady. And he was in a hurry, and he folded his paper up, but he did not seal it; and I read it, my lady; and now, my lady, it seems like as if I had got it off by heart;” and he went on with a high pitched voice, saying out very loud what, I have no doubt, were the identical words of the letter, date, signature and all: it was merely something about a deed, which required my lady’s signature.

When he had done, he stood almost as if he expected commendation for his accurate memory.

My lady’s eyes contracted till the pupils were as needle-points; it was a way she had when much disturbed. She looked at me and said —

“Margaret Dawson, what will this world come to?” And then she was silent.

The lad, beginning to perceive he had given deep offence, stood stock still — as if his brave will had brought him into this presence, and impelled him to confession, and the best amends he could make, but had now deserted him, or was extinct, and left his body motionless, until some one else with word or deed made him quit the room. My lady looked again at him, and saw the frowning, dumb-foundering terror at his misdeed, and the manner in which his confession had been received.

“My poor lad!” said she, the angry look leaving her face, “into whose hands have you fallen?”

The boy’s lips began to quiver.

“Don’t you know what tree we read of in Genesis? — No! I hope you have not got to read so easily as that.” A pause. “Who has taught you to read and write?”

“Please, my lady, I meant no harm, my lady.” He was fairly blubbering, overcome by her evident feeling of dismay and regret, the soft repression of which was more frightening to him than any strong or violent words would have been.

“Who taught you, I ask?”

“It were Mr. Horner’s clerk who learned me, my lady.”

“And did Mr. Horner know of it?”

“Yes, my lady. And I am sure I thought for to please him.”

“Well! perhaps you were not to blame for that. But I wonder at Mr. Horner. However, my boy, as you have got possession of edge-tools, you must have some rules how to use them. Did you never hear that you were not to open letters?”

“Please, my lady, it were open. Mr. Horner forgot for to seal it, in his hurry to be off.”

“But you must not read letters that are not intended for you. You must never try to read any letters that are not directed to you, even if they be open before you.”

“Please, may lady, I thought it were good for practice, all as one as a book.”

My lady looked bewildered as to what way she could farther explain to him the laws of honour as regarded letters.

“You would not listen, I am sure,” said she, “to anything you were not intended to hear?”

He hesitated for a moment, partly because he did not fully comprehend the question. My lady repeated it. The light of intelligence came into his eager eyes, and I could see that he was not certain if he could tell the truth.

“Please, my lady, I always hearken when I hear folk talking secrets; but I mean no harm.”

My poor lady sighed: she was not prepared to begin a long way off in morals. Honour was, to her, second nature, and she had never tried to find out on what principle its laws were based. So, telling the lad that she wished to see Mr. Horner when he returned from Warwick, she dismissed him with a despondent look; he, meanwhile, right glad to be out of the awful gentleness of her presence.

“What is to be done?” said she, half to herself and half to me. I could not answer, for I was puzzled myself.

“It was a right word,” she continued, “that I used, when I called reading and writing ‘edge-tools.’ If our lower orders have these edge-tools given to them, we shall have the terrible scenes of the French Revolution acted over again in England. When I was a girl, one never heard of the rights of men, one only heard of the duties. Now, here was Mr. Gray, only last night, talking of the right every child had to instruction. I could hardly keep my patience with him, and at length we fairly came to words; and I told him I would have no such thing as a Sunday-school (or a Sabbath-school, as he calls it, just like a Jew) in my village.”

“And what did he say, my lady?” I asked; for the struggle that seemed now to have come to a crisis, had been going on for some time in a quiet way.

“Why, he gave way to temper, and said he was bound to remember, he was under the bishop’s authority, not under mine; and implied that he should persevere in his designs, notwithstanding my expressed opinion.”

“And your ladyship —” I half inquired.

“I could only rise and curtsey, and civilly dismiss him. When two persons have arrived at a certain point of expression on a subject, about which they differ as materially as I do from Mr. Gray, the wisest course, if they wish to remain friends, is to drop the conversation entirely and suddenly. It is one of the few cases where abruptness is desirable.”

I was sorry for Mr. Gray. He had been to see me several times, and had helped me to bear my illness in a better spirit than I should have done without his good advice and prayers. And I had gathered from little things he said, how much his heart was set upon this new scheme. I liked him so much, and I loved and respected my lady so well, that I could not bear them to be on the cool terms to which they were constantly getting. Yet I could do nothing but keep silence.

I suppose my lady understood something of what was passing in my mind; for, after a minute or two, she went on:—

“If Mr. Gray knew all I know — if he had my experience, he would not be so ready to speak of setting up his new plans in opposition to my judgment. Indeed,” she continued, lashing herself up with her own recollections, “times are changed when the parson of a village comes to beard the liege lady in her own house. Why, in my grandfather’s days, the parson was family chaplain too, and dined at the Hall every Sunday. He was helped last, and expected to have done first. I remember seeing him take up his plate and knife and fork, and say with his mouth full all the time he was speaking: ‘If you please, Sir Urian, and my lady, I’ll follow the beef into the housekeeper’s room;’ for you see, unless he did so, he stood no chance of a second helping. A greedy man, that parson was, to be sure! I recollect his once eating up the whole of some little bird at dinner, and by way of diverting attention from his greediness, he told how he had heard that a rook soaked in vinegar and then dressed in a particular way, could not be distinguished from the bird he was then eating. I saw by the grim look of my grandfather’s face that the parson’s doing and saying displeased him; and, child as I was, I had some notion of what was coming, when, as I was riding out on my little, white pony, by my grandfather’s side, the next Friday, he stopped one of the gamekeepers, and bade him shoot one of the oldest rooks he could find. I knew no more about it till Sunday, when a dish was set right before the parson, and Sir Urian said: ‘Now, Parson Hemming, I have had a rook shot, and soaked in vinegar, and dressed as you described last Sunday. Fall to, man, and eat it with as good an appetite as you had last Sunday. Pick the bones clean, or by — no more Sunday dinners shall you eat at my table!’ I gave one look at poor Mr. Hemming’s face, as he tried to swallow the first morsel, and make believe as though he thought it very good; but I could not look again, for shame, although my grandfather laughed, and kept asking us all round if we knew what could have become of the parson’s appetite.”

“And did he finish it?” I asked.

“O yes, my dear. What my grandfather said was to be done, was done always. He was a terrible man in his anger! But to think of the difference between Parson Hemming and Mr. Gray! or even of poor dear Mr. Mountford and Mr. Gray. Mr. Mountford would never have withstood me as Mr. Gray did!”

“And your ladyship really thinks that it would not be right to have a Sunday-school?” I asked, feeling very timid as I put time question.

“Certainly not. As I told Mr. Gray. I consider a knowledge of the Creed, and of the Lord’s Prayer, as essential to salvation; and that any child may have, whose parents bring it regularly to church. Then there are the Ten Commandments, which teach simple duties in the plainest language. Of course, if a lad is taught to read and write (as that unfortunate boy has been who was here this morning) his duties become complicated, and his temptations much greater, while, at the same time, he has no hereditary principles and honourable training to serve as safeguards. I might take up my old simile of the race-horse and cart-horse. I am distressed,” continued she, with a break in her ideas, “about that boy. The whole thing reminds me so much of a story of what happened to a friend of mine — Clement de Crequy. Did I ever tell you about him?”

“No, your ladyship,” I replied.

“Poor Clement! More than twenty years ago, Lord Ludlow and I spent a winter in Paris. He had many friends there; perhaps not very good or very wise men, but he was so kind that he liked every one, and every one liked him. We had an apartment, as they call it there, in the Rue de Lille; we had the first-floor of a grand hotel, with the basement for our servants. On the floor above us the owner of the house lived, a Marquise de Crequy, a widow. They tell me that the Crequy coat-of-arms is still emblazoned, after all these terrible years, on a shield above the arched porte-cochere, just as it was then, though the family is quite extinct. Madame de Crequy had only one son, Clement, who was just the same age as my Urian — you may see his portrait in the great hall — Urian’s, I mean.” I knew that Master Urian had been drowned at sea; and often had I looked at the presentment of his bonny hopeful face, in his sailor’s dress, with right hand outstretched to a ship on the sea in the distance, as if he had just said, “Look at her! all her sails are set, and I’m just off.” Poor Master Urian! he went down in this very ship not a year after the picture was taken! But now I will go back to my lady’s story. “I can see those two boys playing now,” continued she, softly, shutting her eyes, as if the better to call up the vision, “as they used to do five-and-twenty years ago in those old-fashioned French gardens behind our hotel. Many a time have I watched them from my windows. It was, perhaps, a better play-place than an English garden would have been, for there were but few flower-beds, and no lawn at all to speak about; but, instead, terraces and balustrades and vases and flights of stone steps more in the Italian style; and there were jets-d’eau, and little fountains that could be set playing by turning water-cocks that were hidden here and there. How Clement delighted in turning the water on to surprise Urian, and how gracefully he did the honours, as it were, to my dear, rough, sailor lad! Urian was as dark as a gipsy boy, and cared little for his appearance, and resisted all my efforts at setting off his black eyes and tangled curls; but Clement, without ever showing that he thought about himself and his dress, was always dainty and elegant, even though his clothes were sometimes but threadbare. He used to be dressed in a kind of hunter’s green suit, open at the neck and half-way down the chest to beautiful old lace frills; his long golden curls fell behind just like a girl’s, and his hair in front was cut over his straight dark eyebrows in a line almost as straight. Urian learnt more of a gentleman’s carefulness and propriety of appearance from that lad in two months than he had done in years from all my lectures. I recollect one day, when the two boys were in full romp — and, my window being open, I could hear them perfectly — and Urian was daring Clement to some scrambling or climbing, which Clement refused to undertake, but in a hesitating way, as though he longed to do it if some reason had not stood in the way; and at times, Urian, who was hasty and thoughtless, poor fellow, told Clement that he was afraid. ‘Fear!’ said the French boy, drawing himself up; ‘you do not know what you say. If you will be here at six tomorrow morning, when it is only just light, I will take that starling’s nest on the top of yonder chimney.’ ‘But why not now, Clement?’ said Urian, putting his arm round Clement’s neck. ‘Why then, and not now, just when we are in the humour for it?’ ‘Because we De Crequys are poor, and my mother cannot afford me another suit of clothes this year, and yonder stone carving is all jagged, and would tear my coat and breeches. Now, tomorrow morning I could go up with nothing on but an old shirt.’

“‘But you would tear your legs.’

“‘My race do not care for pain,’ said the boy, drawing himself from Urian’s arm, and walking a few steps away, with a becoming pride and reserve; for he was hurt at being spoken to as if he were afraid, and annoyed at having to confess the true reason for declining the feat. But Urian was not to be thus baffled. He went up to Clement, and put his arm once more about his neck, and I could see the two lads as they walked down the terrace away from the hotel windows: first Urian spoke eagerly, looking with imploring fondness into Clement’s face, which sought the ground, till at last the French boy spoke, and by-and-by his arm was round Urian too, and they paced backwards and forwards in deep talk, but gravely, as became men, rather than boys.

“All at once, from the little chapel at the corner of the large garden belonging to the Missions Etrangeres, I heard the tinkle of the little bell, announcing the elevation of the host. Down on his knees went Clement, hands crossed, eyes bent down: while Urian stood looking on in respectful thought.

“What a friendship that might have been! I never dream of Urian without seeing Clement too — Urian speaks to me, or does something — but Clement only flits round Urian, and never seems to see any one else!”

“But I must not forget to tell you, that the next morning, before he was out of his room, a footman of Madame de Crequy’s brought Urian the starling’s nest.”

“Well! we came back to England, and the boys were to correspond; and Madame de Crequy and I exchanged civilities; and Urian went to sea.”

“After that, all seemed to drop away. I cannot tell you all. However, to confine myself to the De Crequys. I had a letter from Clement; I knew he felt his friend’s death deeply; but I should never have learnt it from the letter he sent. It was formal, and seemed like chaff to my hungering heart. Poor fellow! I dare say he had found it hard to write. What could he — or any one — say to a mother who has lost her child? The world does not think so, and, in general, one must conform to the customs of the world; but, judging from my own experience, I should say that reverent silence at such times is the tenderest balm. Madame de Crequy wrote too. But I knew she could not feel my loss so much as Clement, and therefore her letter was not such a disappointment. She and I went on being civil and polite in the way of commissions, and occasionally introducing friends to each other, for a year or two, and then we ceased to have any intercourse. Then the terrible Revolution came. No one who did not live at those times can imagine the daily expectation of news — the hourly terror of rumours affecting the fortunes and lives of those whom most of us had known as pleasant hosts, receiving us with peaceful welcome in their magnificent houses. Of course, there was sin enough and suffering enough behind the scenes; but we English visitors to Paris had seen little or nothing of that — and I had sometimes thought, indeed, how even death seemed loth to choose his victims out of that brilliant throng whom I had known. Madame de Crequy’s one boy lived; while three out of my six were gone since we had met! I do not think all lots are equal, even now that I know the end of her hopes; but I do say that whatever our individual lot is, it is our duty to accept it, without comparing it with that of others.

“The times were thick with gloom and terror. ‘What next?’ was the question we asked of every one who brought us news from Paris. Where were these demons hidden when, so few years ago, we danced and feasted, and enjoyed the brilliant salons and the charming friendships of Paris?

“One evening, I was sitting alone in Saint James’s Square; my lord off at the club with Mr. Fox and others: he had left me, thinking that I should go to one of the many places to which I had been invited for that evening; but I had no heart to go anywhere, for it was poor Urian’s birthday, and I had not even rung for lights, though the day was fast closing in, but was thinking over all his pretty ways, and on his warm affectionate nature, and how often I had been too hasty in speaking to him, for all I loved him so dearly; and how I seemed to have neglected and dropped his dear friend Clement, who might even now be in need of help in that cruel, bloody Paris. I say I was thinking reproachfully of all this, and particularly of Clement de Crequy in connection with Urian, when Fenwick brought me a note, sealed with a coat-of-arms I knew well, though I could not remember at the moment where I had seen it. I puzzled over it, as one does sometimes, for a minute or more, before I opened the letter. In a moment I saw it was from Clement de Crequy. ‘My mother is here,’ he said: ‘she is very ill, and I am bewildered in this strange country. May I entreat you to receive me for a few minutes?’ The bearer of the note was the woman of the house where they lodged. I had her brought up into the anteroom, and questioned her myself, while my carriage was being brought round. They had arrived in London a fortnight or so before: she had not known their quality, judging them (according to her kind) by their dress and their luggage; poor enough, no doubt. The lady had never left her bedroom since her arrival; the young man waited upon her, did everything for her, never left her, in fact; only she (the messenger) had promised to stay within call, as soon as she returned, while he went out somewhere. She could hardly understand him, he spoke English so badly. He had never spoken it, I dare say, since he had talked to my Urian.”

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