London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 22

At the Manor Moat.

Solid, grave, and sober, grey with a quarter of a century’s neglect, the Manor House, in the valley below Brill, differed in every detail from the historical Chilton Abbey. It was a moated manor house, the typical house of the typical English squire; an E-shaped house, with a capacious roof that lodged all the household servants, and clustered chimney-stacks that accommodated a great company of swallows. It had been built in the reign of Henry the Seventh, and was coeval with its distinguished neighbour, the house of the Verneys, at Middle Claydon, and it had never served any other purpose than to shelter Englishmen of good repute in the land. Souvenirs of Bosworth field — a pair of huge jack-boots, a two-handed sword, and a battered helmet — hung over the chimney-piece in the low-ceiled hall; but the end of the civil war was but a memory when the Manor House was built. After Bosworth a slumberous peace had fallen on the land, and in the stillness of this secluded valley, sheltered from every bleak wind by surrounding hills and woods, the gardens of the Manor Moat had grown into a settled beauty that made the chief attraction of a country seat which boasted so little of architectural dignity, or of expensive fantasy in moulded brick and carved stone. Plain, sombre, with brick walls and heavy stone mullions to low-browed windows, the Manor House stood in the midst of gardens such as the modern millionaire may long for, but which only the grey old gardener Time can create.

There was more than a mile of yew hedge, eight feet high, and three feet broad, walling in flower garden and physic garden, the latter the particular care of the house-mothers of previous generations, the former a paradise of those old flowers which bloom and breathe sweet odours in the pages of Shakespeare, and jewel the verse of Milton. The fritillary here opened its dusky spotted petals to drink the dews of May; and here, against a wall of darkest green, daffodils bloomed unruffled by March winds.

Verily a garden of gardens; but when Angela came there in the chill February there were no flowers to welcome her, only the long, straight walks beside those walls of yew, and the dark shining waters of the moat and the fish-pond, reflecting the winter sun; and over all the scene a quiet as of the grave.

A little colony of old servants had been left in the house, which had escaped confiscation, albeit the property of a notorious Malignant, perhaps chiefly on account of its insignificance, the bulk of the estate having been sold by Sir John in ‘44, when the king’s condition was waxing desperate, and money was worth twice its value to those who clung to hope, and were ready to sacrifice their last jacobus in the royal cause. The poor little property — shrunk to a home-farm of ninety acres, a humble homestead, and the Manor House — may have been thought hardly worth selling; or Sir John’s rights may have been respected out of regard for his son-in-law, who, on the maternal side, had kindred in high places under the Commonwealth, a fact of which Hyacinth occasionally reminded her husband, telling him that he was by hereditary instinct a rebel and a king-slayer.

The farm had been taken to by Sir John’s steward, a man who in politics was of the same easy temper as the Vicar of Bray in religion, and was a staunch Cromwellian so long as Oliver or Richard sat at Whitehall, or would have tossed up his cap and cheered for Monk, as Captain–General of Great Britain, had he been called upon to till his fields and rear his stock under a military despotism. It mattered little to any man living at ease in a fat Buckinghamshire valley what King or Commonwealth ruled in London, so long as there was a ready market at Aylesbury or Thame for all the farm could produce, and civil war planted neither drake nor culverin on Brill Hill.

The old servants had vegetated as best they might in the old house, their wages of the scantiest; but to live and die within familiar walls was better than to fare through a world which had no need of them. The younger members of the household had scattered, and found new homes; but the grey-haired cook was still in her kitchen; the old butler still wept over his pantry, where a dozen or so of spoons, and one battered tankard of Heriot’s make, were all that remained of that store of gold and silver which had been his pride forty years ago, when Charles was bringing home his fair French bride, and old Thames at London was alight with fire-works and torches, and alive with music and singing, as the city welcomed its young Queen, and when Reuben Holden was a lad in the pantry, learning to polish a salver or a goblet, and sorely hectored by his uncle the butler.

Reuben, and Marjory, the old cook, famous in her day as any cordon-bleu, were the sole representatives of the once respectable household; but a couple of stout wenches had been hired from the cluster of labourers’ hovels that called itself a village; and these had been made to drudge as they had never drudged before in the few days of warning which prepared Reuben for his master’s return.

Fires had been lighted in rooms where mould and mildew had long prevailed; wainscots had been scrubbed and polished till the whole house reeked of bees-wax and turpentine, to a degree that almost overpowered those pervading odours of damp and dry rot, which can curiously exist together. The old furniture had been made as bright as faded fabrics and worm-eaten wood could be made by labour; and the leaping light of blazing logs, reflected on the black oak panelling, gave a transient air of cheerfulness to the spacious dining-parlour where Sir John and his daughter took their first meal in the old home. And if to Angela’s eye, accustomed to the Italian loftiness of the noble mansions on the Thames, the broad oak crossbeams seemed coming down upon her head, there was at least an air of homely snugness in the low darkly coloured room.

On that first evening there had been much to interest and engage her. She had the old house to explore, and dim childish memories to recall. Here was the room where her mother died, the room in which she herself had first seen the light — perhaps not until a month or so after her birth, since the seventeenth-century baby was not flung open-eyed into her birthday sunshine, but was swaddled and muffled in a dismal apprenticeship to life. The chamber had been hung with “blacks” for a twelvemonth, Reuben told her, as he escorted her over the house, and unlocked the doors of disused rooms.

The tall bedstead with its red and yellow stamped velvet curtains and carved ebony posts looked like an Indian temple. One might expect to see Buddha squatting on the embroidered counterpane — the work of half a lifetime. When the curtains were drawn back, a huge moth flew out of the darkness, and spun and wheeled round the room with an awful humming noise, and to the superstitious mind might have suggested a human soul embodied in this phantasmal greyness, with power of sound in such excess of its bulk.

“Sir John never used the room after her ladyship’s death,” Reuben explained, “though ’tis the best bed-chamber. He has always slept in the blue room, which is at the furthest end of the gallery from the room that has been prepared for madam. We call that the garden room, and it is mighty pretty in summer.”

In summer! How far it seemed to summer-time in Angela’s thoughts! What a long gulf of nothingness to be bridged over, what a dull level plain to cross, before June and the roses could come round again, bringing with them the memory of last summer; and the days she had lived under the same roof with Fareham, and the evenings when they had sat in the same room, or loitered on the terrace, pausing now and then beside an Italian vase of gaudy flowers to look at this or that, or to watch the mob on the river; and those rare golden days, like that at Sayes Court, which she had spent in some excursion with Fareham and Henriette.

“I hope madam likes the chamber we have prepared for her?” the old man said, as she stood dreaming.

“Yes, my good friend, it is very comfortable. My woman complained of the smoky chimney in her chamber; but no doubt we shall mend that by-and-by.”

“It would be strange if a gentlewoman’s servant found not something to grumble about,” said Reuben; “they have ever less work to do than any one else in the house, and ever make more trouble than their mistresses. I’ll settle the hussy, with madam’s leave.”

“Nay, pray, Mr. Reuben, no harshness. She is a willing, kind-hearted girl, and we shall find plenty of work for her in this big house where there are so few servants.”

“Oh, there’s work enough for sure, if she’ll do it, and is no fine city madam that will scream at sight of a mouse, belike.”

“She is a girl I had out of Oxfordshire.”

“Oh, if she comes out of Oxfordshire, from his lordship’s estate, I dare swear she is a good girl. I hate your London trash; and I think the great fire would have been a blessing in disguise if it had swept away most of such trumpery.”

“Oh, sir, if a Romanist were to say as much as that!” said Angela, laughing.

“Oh, madam, I am not one of they fools that say because half London was burnt the Papishes must have set it on fire. What good would the burning of it do ’em, poor souls? And now they are to pay double taxes, as if it was a sure thing their faggots kindled the blaze. I know how kind and sweet a soul a Papish may be, though she do worship idols; for I had the honour to serve your ladyship’s mother from the hour she first entered this house till the day I smuggled the French priest by the back stairs to carry her the holy oils. Ah! she was a noble and lovely lady. Madam’s eyes are of her colour; and, indeed, madam favours her mother more than my Lady Fareham does.”

“Have you seen Lady Fareham of late years?”

“Ay, madam, she came here in her coach-and-six the summer before the pestilence, with her two beautiful children, and a party of ladies and gentlemen. They rode here from his Grace of Buckingham’s new mansion by the Thames — Clefden, I think they call it; and they do say his Grace do so lavish and squander money in the building of it, that belike he will be ruined and dead before his palace be finished. There were three coaches full, with servants and what not. And they brought wine, and capons ready dressed, and confectionery, and I helped to serve a collation for them in the garden. And after they had feasted merrily, with a vast quantity of sparkling French wine, they all rushed through the house like madcaps, laughing and chattering, regular French magpies, for there was more of ’em French than English, her ladyship leading them, till she comes to the door of this room, and finds it locked, and she begins to thump upon the panels like a spoilt child, and calls, ‘Reuben, Reuben, what is your mystery? Sure this must be the ghost-chamber! Open, open, instantly.’ And I answered her quietly, ”Tis the chamber where that sweet angel, your ladyship’s mother, lay in state, and it has never been opened to strangers since she died.’ And all in the midst of her mirth, the dear young lady burst out weeping, and cried, ‘My sweet, sweet mother! I remember the last smile she gave me as if it was yesterday.’ And then she dropped on her knees and crossed herself, and whispered a prayer, with her face close against the door; and I knew that she was praying for her lady-mother, as the way of your religion is, madam, to pray for the dead; and sure, though it is a simple thing, it can do no harm; and to my thinking, when all the foolishness is taken out of religion the warmth and the comfort seem to go too; for I know I never used to feel a bit more comfortable after a two hours’ sermon, when I was an Anabaptist.”

“Are you not an Anabaptist now, Reuben?”

“Lord forbid, madam! I have been a member of the Church of England ever since his Majesty’s restoration brought the Vicar to his own again, and gave us back Christmas Day, and the organ, and the singing-boys.”

Angela’s life at the Manor was so colourless that the first blossoming of a familiar flower was an event to note and to remember. Life within convent walls would have been scarcely more tranquil or more monotonous. Sir John rode with his hounds three or four times a week, or was about the fields superintending the farming operations, walking beside the ploughman as he drove his furrow, or watching the scattering of the seed. Or he was in the narrow woodlands which still belonged to him, and Angela, taking her solitary walk at the close of day, heard his axe ringing through the wintry air.

It was a peaceful, and should have been a pleasant, life, for father and for daughter. Angela told herself that God had been very good to her in providing this safe haven from tempestuous seas, this quiet little world, where the pulses of passion beat not; where existence was like a sleep, a gradual drifting away of days and weeks, marked only by the changing note of birds, the deepening umber on the birch, the purpling of beech buds, and the starry celandine shining out of grassy banks that had so lately been obliterated under the drifted snow.

“I ought to be happy,” she said to herself of a morning, when she rose from her knees, and stood looking across the garden to the grassy hills beyond, while the beads of her rosary slipped through her languid fingers —“I ought to be happy.”

And then she turned from the sunny window with a sigh, and went down the dark, echoing staircase to the breakfast parlour, where her own little silver chocolate-pot looked ridiculously small beside Sir John’s quart tankard, and where the crisp, golden rolls, baked in the French fashion by the maid from Chilton, who had been taught by Lord Fareham’s chef, contrasted with the chine of beef and huge farmhouse loaf that accompanied the knight’s old October.

After all his Continental wanderings Sir John had come back to substantial English fare with an unabated relish; and Angela had to sit down, day after day, to a huge joint and an overloaded dish of poultry, and to reassure her father when he expressed uneasiness because she ate so little.

“Women do not want much food, sir. Martha’s rolls, and our honey, and the conserves old Marjory makes so well, are better for me than the meat which suits your heartier appetite.”

“Faith, child, if I played no stouter a part at table than you do, I should soon be fit to play living skeleton at Aylesbury Fair. And I dubitate as to your diet-loaves and confectionery suiting you better than a slice of chine or sirloin, for you have a pale cheek and a pensive eye that smite me to the heart. Indeed, I begin to question if I was kind to take you from all the pleasures of the town to be mewed up here with a rusty old soldier.”

“Indeed, sir, I could be happier nowhere than here. I have had enough of London pleasures; and I was meditating upon returning to the convent, when you came to put an end to all my perplexities; and, sir, I think God sent you to me when I most needed a father’s love.”

She went to him and knelt by his chair, hiding her tearful eyes against the cushioned arm. But, though he could not see her face, he heard the break in her voice, and he bent down and lifted her drooping head on his breast, and kissed the soft brown hair, and embraced her very tenderly.

“Sweetheart, thou hast all a father’s love, and it is happiness to me to have thee here; but old as I am, and with so little cunning to read a maiden’s heart, I can read clear enough to know thou art not happy. Whisper, dearest. Is it a sweetheart who sighs for thy favours far off, and will not beard this old lion in his den? My gentle Angela would make no ill choice. Fear not to trust me, my heart. I will love whom you love, favour whom you favour. I am no tyrant, that my sweet daughter should grow pale with keeping secrets from me.”

“Dear father, you are all goodness. No, there is no one — no one! I am happy with you. I have no one in the world but you, and, in a so much lesser degree of love, my sister and her children —”

“And Fareham. He should be to you as a brother. He is of a black melancholic humour, and not a man whom women love; but he has a heart of gold, and must regard you with grateful affection for your goodness to him when he was sick. Hyacinth is never weary of expatiating upon your devotion in that perilous time.”

“She is foolish to talk of services I would have given as willingly to a sick beggar,” Angela answered, impatiently.

Her face was still hidden against her father’s breast; but she lifted her head presently, and the pale calmness of her countenance reassured him.

“Well, it is uncommon strange,” he said, “if one so fair has no sweetheart among all the sparks of Whitehall.”

“Lord Fareham hates Whitehall. We have only attended there at great festivals, when my sister’s absence would have been a slight upon her Majesty and the Duchess.”

“But my star, though seldom shining there, should have drawn some satellites to her orbit. You see, dearest, I can catch the note of Court flattery. Nay, I will press no questions. My girl shall choose her own partner; provided the man is honest and a loyal servant of the King. Her old father shall set no stumbling-block in the high-road to her happiness. What right has one who is almost a pauper to stipulate for a wealthy son-in-law?”

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