I do not know that there is in England a more complete gentleman’s residence than Ongar Park, nor could there be one in better repair, or more fit for immediate habitation than was that house when it came into the hands of the young widow. The park was not large, containing about sixty or seventy acres. But there was a home-farm attached to the place, which also now belonged to Lady Ongar for her life, and which gave to the park itself an appearance of extent which it would otherwise have wanted. The house, regarded as a nobleman’s mansion, was moderate in size, but it was ample for the requirements of any ordinarily wealthy family. The dining-room, library, drawing-rooms, and breakfast-room, were all large and well-arranged. The hall was handsome and spacious, and the bed-rooms were sufficiently numerous to make an auctioneer’s mouth water. But the great charm of Ongar Park lay in the grounds immediately round the house, which sloped down from the terrace before the windows to a fast-running stream which was almost hidden — but was not hidden — by the shrubs on its bank. Though the domain itself was small, the shrubberies and walks were extensive. It was a place costly to maintain in its present perfect condition, but when that was said against it, all was said against it which its bitterest enemies could allege.
But Lady Ongar, with her large jointure, and with no external expenses whatever, could afford this delight without imprudence. Everything in and about the place was her own, and she might live there happily, even in the face of the world’s frowns, if she could teach herself to find happiness in rural luxuries. On her immediate return to England, her lawyer had told her that he found there would be opposition to her claim, and that an attempt would be made to keep the house out of her hands. Lord Ongar’s people would, he said, bribe her to submit to this by immediate acquiescence, as to her income. But she had declared that she would not submit — that she would have house and income and all; and she had been successful. “Why should I surrender what is my own?” she said, looking the lawyer full in the face. The lawyer had not dared to tell her that her opponents — Lord Ongar’s heirs — had calculated on her anxiety to avoid exposure; but she knew that that was meant. “I have nothing to fear from them,” she said, “and mean to claim what is my own by my settlement.” There had, in truth, been no ground for disputing her right, and the place was given up before she had been three months in England. She at once went down and took possession, and there she was, alone, when her sister was communicating to Harry Clavering her plan about Captain Archie.
She had never seen the place till she reached it on this occasion; nor had she ever seen, nor would she now probably ever see, Lord Ongar’s larger house, Courton Castle. She had gone abroad with him immediately on their marriage, and now she had returned a widow to take possession of his house. There she was, in possession of it all. The furniture in the rooms, the books in the cases, the gilded clocks and grand mirrors about the house, all the implements of wealthy care about the gardens, the corn in the granaries and the ricks in the hay-yard, the horses in the stable, and the cows lowing in the fields — they were all hers. She had performed her part of the bargain, and now the price was paid to her into her hands. When she arrived she did not know what was the extent of her riches in this world’s goods; nor, in truth, had she at once the courage to ask questions on the subject. She saw cows, and was told of horses; and words came to her gradually of sheep and oxen, of poultry, pigs, and growing calves. It was as though a new world had opened itself before her eyes, full of interest; and as though all that world were her own. She looked at it, and knew that it was the price of her bargain. Upon the whole, she had been very lucky. She had, indeed, passed through a sharp agony — an agony sharp almost to death; but the agony had been short, and the price was in her hand.
A close carriage had met her at the station, and taken her with her maid to the house. She had so arranged that she had reached the station after dark, and even then had felt that the eyes of many were upon her as she went out to her carriage, with her face covered by a veil. She was all alone, and there would be no one at the house to whom she could speak; but the knowledge that the carriage was her own perhaps consoled her. The housekeeper who received her was a stout, elderly, comfortable body, to whom she could perhaps say a few words beyond those which might be spoken to an ordinary servant; but she fancied at once that the housekeeper was cold to her, and solemn in her demeanor.
“I hope you have good fires, Mrs. Button.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“I think I will have some tea; I don’t want anything else to-night.”
“Very well, my lady.”
Mrs. Button, maintaining a solemn countenance, would not go beyond this; and yet Mrs. Button looked like a woman who could have enjoyed a gossip, had the lady been a lady to her mind. Perhaps Mrs. Button did not like serving a lady as to whom such sad stories were told. Lady Ongar, as she thought of this, drew herself up unconsciously, and sent Mrs. Button away from her.
The next morning, after an early breakfast, Lady Ongar went out. She was determined that she would work hard; that she would understand the farm; that she would know the laborers; that she would assist the poor; that she would have a school; and, above all, that she would make all the privileges of ownership her own. Was not the price in her hand, and would she not use it? She felt that it was very good that something of the price had come to her thus in the shape of land, and beeves, and wide, heavy outside garniture. From them she would pluck an interest which mere money could not have given her. She was out early, therefore, that she might look round upon the things that were her own.
And there came upon her a feeling that she would not empty this sweet cup at one draught, that she would daily somewhat with the rich banquet that was spread for her. She had many griefs to overcome, much sorrow to conquer, perhaps a long period of desolation to assuage, and she would not be prodigal of her resources. As she looked around her while she walked, almost furtively, lest some gardener as he spied her might guess her thoughts and tell how my lady was revelling in her pride of possession — it appeared to her that those novelties in which she was to find her new interest were without end. There was not a tree there, not a shrub, not a turn in the walks, which should not become her friend. She did not go far from the house, not even down to the water. She was husbanding her resources. But yet she lost herself amidst the paths, and tried to find a joy in feeling that she had done so. It was all her own. It was the price of what she had done: and the price was even now being paid into her hand — paid with current coin and of full weight.
As she sat down alone to her breakfast, she declared to herself that this should be enough for her — that it should satisfy her. She had made her bargain with her eyes open, and would not now ask for things which had not been stipulated in the contract. She was alone, and all the world was turning its back on her. The relatives of her late husband would, as a matter of course, be her enemies. Them she had never seen, and that they should speak evil of her seemed to be only natural. But her own relatives were removed from her by a gulf nearly equally wide. Of Brabazon cousins she had none nearer than the third or fourth degree of cousinship, and of them she had never taken heed, and expected no heed from them. Her set of friends would naturally have been the same as her sister’s, and would have been made up of those she had known when she was one of Sir Hugh’s family. But from Sir Hugh she was divided now as widely as from the Ongar people, and, for any purposes of society, from her sister also. Sir Hugh had allowed his wife to invite her to Clavering, but to this she would not submit after Sir Hugh’s treatment to her on her return. Though she had suffered much, her spirit was unbroken. Sir Hugh was, in truth, responsible for her reception in England. Had he come forward like a brother, all might bave been well. But it was too late now for Sir Hugh Clavering to remedy the evil he had done, and he should be made to understand that Lady Ongar would not become a suppliant to him for mercy. She was striving to think how “rich she was in horses, how rich in broidered garments, and in gold,” as she sat solitary over her breakfast; but her mind would run off to other things, cumbering itself with unnecessary miseries and useless indignation. Had she not her price in her hand?
Would she see the steward that morning? No, not that morning. Things outside could go on for a while in their course as heretofore. She feared to seem to take possession with pride, and then there was that conviction that it would be well to husband her resources. So she sent for Mrs. Button, and asked Mrs. Button to walk through the rooms with her. Mrs. Button came, but again declined to accept her lady’s condescension. Every spot about the house, every room, closet and wardrobe, she was ready to open with zeal; the furniture she was prepared to describe, if Lady Ongar would listen to her; but every word was spoken in a solemn voice, very far removed from gossipping. Only once was Mrs. Button moved to betray any emotion. “That, my lady, was my lord’s mother’s room, after my lord died — my lord’s father that was; may God bless her.” Then Lady Ongar reflected that from her husband she had never heard a word either of his father or his mother. She wished that she could seat herself with that woman in some small upstairs room, and then ask question after question about the family. But she did not dare to make the attempt. She could not bring herself to explain to Mrs. Button that she had never known anything of the belongings of her own husband.
When she had seen the upper part of the house, Mrs. Button offered to convoy her through the kitchens and servants’ apartments, hut she declined this for the present. She had done enough for the day. So she dismissed Mrs. Button, and took herself to the library. How often had she heard that books afforded the surest consolation to the desolate. She would take to reading; not on this special day, hut as the resource for many days and months, and years to come. But this idea had faded and become faint, before she had left the gloomy, damp-feeling, chill room, in which some former Lord Ongar had stored the musty Volumes which he had thought fit to purchase. The library gave her no ease, so she went out again among the lawns and shrubs. For some time to come her best resources must be those which she could find outside the house.
Peering about, she made her way behind the stahles, which were attached to the house, to a farm-yard gate, through which the way led to the headquarters of the live stock. She did not go through, but she looked over the gate, telling herself that those barns and sheds, that wealth of straw-yard, those sleeping pigs and idle, dreaming calves, were all her own. As she did so, her eye fell upon an old laborer, who was sitting close to her, on a felled tree, under the shelter of a paling, eating his dinner. A little girl, some six years old, who had brought him his meal tied up in a handkerchief, was crouching near his feet. They had both seen her before she had seen them, and when she noticed them, were staring at her with all their eyes. She and they were on the same side of the farmyard paling, and so she could reach them and speak to them without difficulty. There was, apparently, no other person near enough to listen, and it occurred to her that she might at any rate make a friend of this old man. His name, he said, was Enoch Gubby, and the girl was his grandchild. Her name was Patty Gubby. Then Patty got up and had her head patted by her ladyship and received sixpence. They neither of them, however, knew who her ladyship was, and, as far as Lady Ongar could ascertain without a question too direct to be asked, had never heard of her. Enoch Gubby said he worked for Mr. Giles, the steward — that was for my lord, and as he was old and stiff with rheumatism he only got eight shillings a week. He had a daughter, the mother of Patty, who worked in the fields, and got six shillings a week. Everything about the poor Gubbys seemed to be very wretched and miserable. Sometimes he could hardly drag himself about, he was so bad with the rheumatics. Then she thought that she would make one person happy, and told him that his wages should be raised to ten shillings a week. No matter whether he earned it or not, or what Mr. Giles might say; he should have ten shillings a week.
So Enoch Gabby got his weekly ten shillings, though Lady Ongar hardly realized the pleasure that she had expected from the transaction. She sent that afternoon for Mr. Giles, the steward, and told him what she had done. Mr. Giles did not at all approve, and spoke his disapproval very plainly, though he garnished his rebuke with a great many “my lady’s.” The old man was a hanger-on about the place, and for years had received eight shillings a week, which he had not half earned. “Now he will have ten, that is all,” said Lady Ongar. Mr. Giles acknowledged that if her ladyship pleased, Enoch Gubby must have the ten shillings, but declared that the business could not be carried on in that way. Everybody about the place would expect an addition, and those people who did earn what they received, would think themselves cruelly used in being worse treated than Enoch Gubby, who, according to Mr. Giles, was by no means the most worthy old man in the parish. And as for his daughter — oh! Mr. Giles could not trust himself to talk about the daughter to her ladyship. Before he left her, Lady Ongar was convinced that she had made a mistake. Not even from charity will pleasure come, if charity be taken up simply to appease remorse.
The price was in her hand. For a fortnight the idea clung to her, that gradually she would realize the joys of possession; but there was no moment in which she could tell herself that the joy was hers. She was now mistress of the geography of the place. There was no more losing herself amidst the shrubberies, no thought of economizing her resources. Of Mr. Giles and his doings she still knew very little, but the desire of knowing much had faded. The ownership of the haystacks had become a thing tame to her, and the great cart-horses, as to every one of which she had intended to feel an interest, were matters of indifference to her. She observed that since her arrival a new name in new paint — her own name — was attached to the carts, and that the letters were big and glaring. She wished that this had not been done, or, at any rate, that the letters had been smaller. Then she began to think that it might be well for her to let the farm to a tenant; not that she might thus get more money, but because she felt that the farm would be a trouble. The apples had indeed quickly turned to ashes between her teeth!
On the first Sunday that she was at Ongar Park she went to the parish church. She had resolved strongly that she would do this, and she did it; but when the moment for starting came, her courage almost failed her. The church was but a few yards from her own gate, and she walked there without any attendant. She had, however, sent word to the sexton to say that she would be there, and the old man was ready to show her into the family pew. She wore a thick veil, and was dressed, of course, in all the deep ceremonious woe of widowhood. As she walked up the centre of the church she thought of her dress, and told herself that all there would know how it had been between her and her husband. She was pretending to mourn for the man to whom she had sold herself; for the man who through happy chance had died so quickly, leaving her with the price in her hand! All of course knew that, and all thought that they knew, moreover, that she had been foully false to her bargain, and had not earned the price! That, also, she told herself. But she went through it, and walked out of the church among the village crowd with her head on high.
Three days afterward, she wrote to the clergyman, asking him to call on her. She had come, she said, to live in the parish, and hoped to be able, with his assistance, to be of some use among the people. She would hardly know how to act without some counsel from him. The schools might be all that was excellent, but if there was anything required she hoped he would tell her. On the following morning the clergyman called, and, with many thanks for her generosity, listened to her plans, and accepted her subsidies. But he was a married man, and he said nothing of his wife, nor during the next week did his wife come to call on her. She was to be left desolate by all, because men had told lies of her!
She had the price in her hands, but she felt herself tempted to do as Judas did — to go out and hang herself.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01