London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 14

The Millbank Ghost.

One of the greatest charms of London has ever been the facility of getting away from it to some adjacent rustic or pseudo-rustic spot; and in 1666, though many people declared that the city had outgrown all reason, and was eating up the country, a two-mile journey would carry the Londoner from bricks and mortar to rusticity, and while the tower of St Paul’s Cathedral was still within sight he might lie on the grass on a wild hillside, and hear the skylark warbling in the blue arch above him, and scent the hawthorn blowing in untrimmed hedge-rows. And then there were the fashionable resorts — the gardens or the fields which the town had marked as its own. Beauty and wit had their choice of such meeting-grounds between Westminster and Barn Elms, where in the remote solitudes along the river murder might be done in strict accordance with etiquette, and was too seldom punished by law.

Among the rendezvous of fashion there was one retired spot less widely known than Fox Hall or the Mulberry Garden, but which possessed a certain repute, and was affected rather by the exclusives than by the crowd. It was a dilapidated building of immemorial age, known as the “haunted Abbey,” being, in fact, the refectory of a Cistercian monastery, of which all other remains had disappeared long ago. The Abbey had flourished in the lifetime of Sir Thomas More, and was mentioned in some of his familiar epistles. The ruined building had been used as a granary in the time of Charles the First; and it was only within the last decade that it had been redeemed from that degraded use, and had been in some measure restored and made habitable for the occupation of an old couple, who owned the surrounding fields, and who had a small dairy farm from which they sent fresh milk into London every morning.

The ghostly repute of the place and the attraction of new milk, cheese cakes, and syllabubs, had drawn a certain number of those satiated pleasure-seekers who were ever on the alert for a new sensation, among whom there was none more active or more noisy than Lady Sarah Tewkesbury. She had made the haunted Abbey in a manner her own, had invited her friends to midnight parties to watch for the ghost, and to morning parties to eat syllabubs and dance on the grass. She had brought a shower of gold into the lap of the miserly freeholder, and had husband and wife completely under her thumb.

Doler, the husband, had fought in the civil war, and Mrs. Doler had been a cook in the Fairfax household; but both had scrupulously sunk all Cromwellian associations since his Majesty’s return, and in boasting, as he often did boast, of having fought desperately and been left for dead at the battle of Brentford, Mr. Doler had been careful to suppress the fact that he was a hireling soldier of the Parliament. He would weep for the martyred King, and tell the story of his own wounds, until it is possible he had forgotten which side he had fought for, in remembering his personal prowess and sufferings.

So far there had been disappointment as to the ghost. Sounds had been heard of a most satisfying grimness, during those midnight and early morning watchings; rappings, and scrapings, and scratching on the wall, groanings and meanings, sighings and whisperings behind the wainscote; but nothing spectral had been seen; and Mrs. Doler had been severely reprimanded by her patrons and patronesses for the unwarrantable conduct of a spectre which she professed to have seen as often as she had fingers and toes.

It was the phantom of a nun — a woman of exceeding beauty, but white as the linen which banded her cheek and brow. There was a dark story of violated oaths, priestly sin, and the sleepless conscience of the dead, who could not rest even in that dreadful grave where the sinner had been immured alive, but must needs haunt the footsteps of the living, a wandering shade. Some there were who disbelieved in the traditions of that living grave, and who even went so far as to doubt the ghost; but the spectre had an established repute of more than a century, was firmly believed in by all the children and old women of the neighbourhood, and had been written about by students of the unseen.

One of Lady Sarah’s parties took place at full moon, not long after the visit to Deptford, and Lord Fareham’s barge was again employed, this time on a nocturnal expedition up the river to the fields near the haunted Abbey, to carry Hyacinth, her sister, De Malfort, Lord Rochester, Sir Ralph Masaroon, Sir Denzil Warner, and a bevy of wits and beauties — beauties who had, some of them, been carrying on the beauty-business and trading in eyes and complexion for more than one decade, and who loved that night season when paint might be laid on thicker than in the glare of day.

The barge wore a much more festive aspect under her ladyship’s management than when used by his lordship for a daylight voyage like the trip to Deptford. Satin coverlets and tapestry curtains had been brought from Lady Fareham’s own apartments, to be flung with studied carelessness over benches and tabourets. Her ladyship’s singing-boys and musicians were grouped picturesquely under a silken canopy in the bows, and a row of lanterns hung on chains festooned from stem to stern, pretty gew-gaws, that had no illuminating power under that all-potent moon, but which glittered with coloured light like jewels, and twinkled and trembled in the summer air.

A table in the stern was spread with a light collation, which gave an excuse for the display of parcel-gilt cups, silver tankards, and Venetian wine-flasks. A miniature fountain played perfumed waters in the midst of this splendour; and it amused the ladies to pull off their long gloves, dip them in the scented water, and flap them in the faces of their beaux.

The distance was only too short, since Lady Fareham’s friends declared the voyage was by far the pleasanter part of the entertainment. Denzil, among others, was of this opinion, for it was his good fortune to have secured the seat next Angela, and to be able to interest her by his account of the buildings they passed, whose historical associations were much better known to him than to most young men of his epoch. He had sat at the feet of a man who scoffed at Pope and King, and hated Episcopacy, but who revered all that was noble and excellent in England’s past.

“Flams, mere flams!” cried Hyacinth, acknowledging the praises bestowed on her barge; “but if you like clary wine better than skimmed milk you had best drink a brimmer or two before you leave the barge, since ’tis odds you’ll get nothing but syllabubs and gingerbread from Lady Sarah.”

“A substantial supper might frighten away the ghost, who doubtless parted with sensual propensities when she died,” said De Malfort. “How do we watch for her? In a severe silence, as if we were at church?”

“Aw would keep silence for a week o’ Sawbaths gin Aw was sure o’ seeing a bogle,” said Lady Euphemia Dubbin, a Scotch marquess’s daughter, who had married a wealthy cit, and made it the chief endeavour of her life to ignore her husband and keep him at a distance.

She hated the man only a little less than his plebeian name, which she had not succeeded in persuading him to change, because, forsooth, there had been Dubbins in Mark Lane for many generations. All previous Dubbins had lived over their warehouses and offices; but her ladyship had brought Thomas Dubbin from Mark Lane to my Lord Bedford’s Piazza in the Convent Garden, where he endured the tedium of existence in a fine new house in which he was afraid of his fine new servants, and never had anything to eat that he liked, his gastronomic taste being for dishes the very names of which were intolerable to persons of quality.

This evening Mr. Dubbin had been incorrigible, and had insisted on intruding his clumsy person upon Lady Fareham’s party, arguing with a dull persistence that his name was on her ladyship’s billet of invitation.

“Your name is on a great many invitations only because it is my misfortune to be called by it,” his wife told him. “To sit on a barge after ten o’clock at night in June — the coarsest month in summer — is to court lumbago; and all I hope is ye’ll not be punished by a worse attack than common.”

Mr. Dubbin had refused to be discouraged, even by this churlishness from his lady, and appeared in attendance upon her, wearing a magnificent birthday suit of crimson velvet and green brocade, which he meant to present to his favourite actor at the Duke’s Theatre, after he had exhibited himself in it half a dozen times at Whitehall, for the benefit of the great world, and at the Mulberry Garden for the admiration of the bona-robas. He was a fat, double-chinned little man, the essence of good nature, and perfectly unconscious of being an offence to fine people.

Although not a wit himself, Mr. Dubbin was occasionally the cause of wit in others, if the practice of bubbling an innocent rustic or citizen can be called wit. Rochester and Sir Ralph Masaroon, and one Jerry Spavinger, a gentleman jockey, who was a nobody in town, but a shining light at Newmarket, took it upon themselves to draw the harmless citizen, and, as a preliminary to making him ridiculous, essayed to make him drunk.

They were clustered together in a little group somewhat apart from the rest of the company, and were attended upon by a lackey who brought a full tankard at the first whistle on the empty one, and whom Mr. Dubbin, after a rapid succession of brimmers, insisted on calling “drawer.” It was very seldom that Rochester condescended to take part in any entertainment on which the royal sun shone not, unless it were some post-midnight marauding with Buckhurst, Sedley, and a band of wild coursers from the purlieus of Drury Lane. He could see no pleasure in any medium between Whitehall and Alsatia.

“If I am not fooling on the steps of the throne, let me sprawl in the gutter with pamphleteers and orange-girls,” said this precocious profligate. “I abhor a reputable party among your petty nobility, and if I had not been in love with Lady Fareham off and on, ever since I cut my second teeth, I would have no hand in such a humdrum business as this.”

“There’s not a neater filly in the London stable than her ladyship,” said Jerry, “and I don’t blame your taste. I was side-glassing her yesterday in Hi’ Park, but she didn’t seem to relish the manoeuvre, though I was wearing a Chedreux peruke that ought to strike ’em dead.”

“You don’t give your peruke a chance, Jerry, while you frame that ugly phiz in it.”

“Why not buffle the whole company, my lord?” said Masaroon, while Mr. Dubbin talked apart with Lady Euphemia, who had come from the other end of the barge to warn her husband against excess in Rhenish or Burgundy. “You are good at disguises. Why not act the ghost and frighten everybody out of their senses?”

“Il n’y a pas de quoi, Ralph. The creatures have no sense to be robbed of. They are second-rate fashion, which is only worked by machinery. They imitate us as monkeys do, without knowing what they aim at. Their women have virtuous instincts, but turn wanton rather than not be like the maids of honour; and because we have our duels their men murder each other for a shrugged shoulder or a casual word. No, I’ll not chalk my face or smear myself with phosphorus to amuse such trumpery. It was worth my pains to disguise myself as a German Nostradamus, in order to fool the lovely Jennings and her friend Price — who won’t easily forget their adventures as orange-girls in the heart of the city. But I have done with all such follies.”

“You are growing old, Wilmot. The years are telling upon your spirits.”

“I was nineteen last birthday, and ’tis fit I should feel the burden of time, and think of virtue and a rich wife.”

“Like Mrs. Mallet, for example.”

“Faith, a man might do worse than win so much beauty and wealth. But the creature is arrogant, and calls me ‘child;’ and half the peerage is after her. But we’ll have our jest with the city scrub, Ralph; not because I bear him malice, but because I hate his wife. And we’ll have our masquerading some time after midnight; if you can borrow a little finery.”

Mr. Dubbin was released from his lady’s sotto voce lecture at this instant, and Lord Rochester continued his communication in a whisper, the Honourable Jeremiah assenting with nods and chucklings, while Masaroon whistled for a fresh tankard, and plied the honest merchant with a glass which he never allowed to be empty.

The taste for masquerading was a fashion of the time, as much as combing a periwig, or flirting a fan. While Rochester was planning a trick upon the citizen, Lady Fareham was whispering to De Malfort under cover of the fiddles, which were playing an Italian pazzemano, an air beloved by Henrietta of Orleans, who danced to that music with her royal brother-in-law, in one of the sumptuous ballets at St. Cloud.

“Why should they be disappointed of their ghost,” said Hyacinth, “when it would be so easy for me to dress up as the nun and scare them all? This white satin gown of mine, with a few yards of white lawn arranged on my head and shoulders ——”

“Ah, but you have not the lawn at hand to-night, or your woman to arrange your head,” interjected De Malfort quickly. “It would be a capital joke; but it must be for another occasion and choicer company. The rabble you have to-night is not worth it. Besides, there is Rochester, who is past-master in disguises, and would smoke you at a glance. Let me arrange it some night before the end of the summer — when there is a waning moon. It were a pity the thing were done ill.”

“Will you really plan a party for me, and let me appear to them on the stroke of one, with my face whitened? I have as slender a shape as most women.”

“There is no such sylph in London.”

“And I can make myself look ethereal. Will you draw the nun’s habit for me? and I will give your picture to Lewin to copy.”

“I will do more. I will get you a real habit.”

“But there are no nuns so white as the ghost.”

“True, but you may rely upon me. The nun’s robes shall be there, the phosphorous, the blue fire, and a selection of the choicest company to tremble at you. Leave the whole business to my care. It will amuse me to plan so exquisite a jest for so lovely a jester.”

He bent down to kiss her hand, till his forehead almost touched her knee, and in the few moments that passed before he raised it, she heard him laughing softly to himself, as if with irrepressible delight.

“What a child you are,” she said, “to be pleased with such folly!”

“What children we both are, Hyacinth! My sweet soul, let us always be childish, and find pleasure in follies. Life is such a poor thing, that if we had leisure to appraise its value we should have a contagion of suicide that would number more deaths than the plague. Indeed, the wonder is, not that any man should commit felo de se, but that so many of us should take the trouble to live.”

Lady Sarah received them at the landing-stage, with an escort of fops and fine ladies; and the festival promised to be a success. There was a better supper, and more wine than people expected from her ladyship; and after supper a good many of those who pretended to have come to see the ghost, wandered off in couples to saunter along the willow-shaded bank, while only the more earnest spirits were content to wait and watch and listen in the great vaulted hall, with no light but the moon which sent a flood of silver through the high Gothic window, from which every vestige of glass had long vanished.

There were stone benches along the two side walls, and Lady Sarah’s prévoyance had secured cushions or carpets for her guests to sit upon; and here the superstitious sat in patient weariness, Angela among them, with Denzil still at her side, scornful of credulous folly, but loving to be with her he adored. Lady Fareham had been tempted out-of-doors by De Malfort to look at the moonlight on the river, and had not returned. Rochester and his crew had also vanished directly after supper; and for company Angela had on her left hand Mr. Dubbin, far advanced in liquor, and trembling at every breath of summer wind that fluttered the ivy round the ruined window, and at every shadow that moved upon the moonlit wall. His wife was on the other side of the hall, whispering with Lady Sarah, and both so deep in a court scandal — in which the “K” and the “D” recurred very often — that they had almost forgotten the purpose of that moonlight sitting.

Suddenly in the distance there sounded a long shrill wailing, as of a soul in agony, whereupon Mr. Dubbin, after clinging wildly to Angela, and being somewhat roughly flung aside by Denzil, collapsed altogether, and rolled upon the ground.

“Lady Euphemia,” cried Mrs. Townshend, a young lady who had been sitting next the obnoxious citizen, “be pleased to look after your drunken husband. If you take the low-bred sot into company, you should at least charge yourself with the care of his manners.”

The damsel had started to her feet, and indignantly snatched her satin petticoat from contact with the citizen’s porpoise figure.

“I hate mixed company,” she told Angela, “and old maids who marry tallow-chandlers. If a woman of rank marries a shopkeeper she ought never to be allowed west of Temple Bar.”

This young lady was no believer in ghosts; but others of the company were too scared for speech. All had risen, and were staring in the direction whence that dismal shriek had come. A trick, perhaps, since anybody with strong lungs — dairymaid or cowboy — could shriek. They all wanted to see something, a real manifestation of the supernatural.

The unearthly sound was repeated, and the next moment a spectral shape, in flowing white garments, rushed through the great window, and crossed the hall, followed by three other shapes in dark loose robes, with hooded heads. One carried a rope, another a pickaxe, the third a trowel and hod of mortar. They crossed the hall with flying footsteps — shadowlike — the pale shape in distracted flight, the dark shapes pursuing, and came to a stop close against the wall, which had been vacated by the scared assembly, scattering as if the king of terrors had appeared among them — yet with fascinated eyes fixed on those fearsome figures.

“It is the nun herself!” cried Lady Sarah, apprehension and triumph contending in her agitated spirits; for it was surely a feather in her ladyship’s cap to have produced such a phantasmal train at her party. “The nun and her executioners!”

The company fell back from the ghostly troop, recoiling till they were all clustered against the opposite wall, leaving a clear space in front of the spectres, whence they looked on, shuddering, at the tragedy of the erring Sister’s fate, repeated in dumb show. The white-robed figure knelt and grovelled at the feet of those hooded executioners. One seized and bound her, with strange automatic action, unlike the movements of living creatures, and another smote the wall with a pickaxe that made no sound, while the third waited with his trowel and mortar. It was a gruesome sight to those who knew the story — a gruesome, yet an enjoyable spectacle; since, as Lady Sarah’s friends had not had the pleasure of knowing the sinning Sister in the flesh, they watched this ghostly representation of her suffering with as keen an interest as they would have felt had they been privileged to see Claud Duval swing at Tyburn.

The person most terrified by this ghostly show was the only one who had the hardihood to tackle the performers. This was Mr. Dubbin, who sat on the ground watching the shadowy figures, sobered by fear, and his shrewd city senses gradually returning to a brain bemused by Burgundy.

“Look at her boots!” he cried suddenly, scrambling to his feet, and pointing to the nun, who, in sprawling and writhing at the feet of her executioner, had revealed more leg and foot than were consistent with her spectral whiteness. “She wears yaller boots, as substantial as any shoe leather among the company. I’ll swear to them yaller boots.”

A chorus of laughter followed this attack — laughter which found a smothered echo among the ghosts. The spell was broken; disillusion followed the exquisite thrill of fear; and all Lady Sarah’s male visitors made a rush upon the guilty nun. The loose white robe was stripped off, and little Jerry Spavinger, gentleman jock, famous on the Heath, and at Doncaster, stood revealed, in his shirt and breeches, and those light riding-boots which he rarely exchanged for a more courtly chaussure.

The monks, hustled out of their disguise, were Rochester, Masaroon, and Lady Sarah’s young brother, George Saddington.

“From my Lord Rochester I expect nothing but pot-house buffoonery; but I take it vastly ill on your part, George, to join in making me a laughing-stock,” remonstrated Lady Sarah.

“Indeed, sister, you have to thank his light-headed lordship for giving a spirited end to your assembly. Could you conceive how preposterous you and your friends looked sitting against the walls, mute as stockfish, and suggesting nothing but a Quaker’s meeting, you would make us your lowest curtsy, and thank us kindly for having helped you out of a dilemma.”

Lady Sarah, who was too much of a woman of the world to quarrel seriously with a Court favourite, furled the fan with which she had been cooling her indignation, and tapped young Wilmot playfully on that oval cheek where the beard had scarce begun to grow.

“Thou art the most incorrigible wretch of thy years in London,” she said, “and it is impossible to help being angry with thee or to help forgiving thee.”

The saunterers on the willow-shadowed banks came strolling in. Lady Fareham’s cornets and fiddles sounded a March in Alceste; and the party broke up in laughter and good temper, Mr. Dubbin being much complimented upon his having detected Spavinger’s boots.

“I ought to know ’em,” he answered ruefully. “I lost a hundred meggs on him Toosday se’nnight, at Windsor races; and I had time to take the pattern of them boots while he was crawling in, a bad third.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50