Miss Jemima Stanbury, the aunt of our friend Hugh, was a maiden lady, very much respected, indeed, in the city of Exeter. It is to be hoped that no readers of these pages will be so unEnglish as to be unable to appreciate the difference between county society and town society, the society, that is, of a provincial town, or so ignorant as not to know also that there may be persons so privileged, that although they live distinctly within a provincial town, there is accorded to them, as though by brevet rank, all the merit of living in the county. In reference to persons so privileged, it is considered that they have been made free from the contamination of contiguous bricks and mortar by certain inner gifts, probably of birth, occasionally of profession, possibly of merit. It is very rarely, indeed, that money alone will bestow this acknowledged rank; and in Exeter, which by the stringency and excellence of its well-defined rules on such matters, may perhaps be said to take the lead of all English provincial towns, money alone has never availed. Good blood, especially if it be blood good in Devonshire, is rarely rejected. Clergymen are allowed within the pale though by no means as certainly as used to be the case; and, indeed, in these days of literates, clergymen have to pass harder examinations than those ever imposed upon them by bishops’ chaplains, before they are admitted ad eundem among the chosen ones of the city of Exeter. The wives and daughters of the old prebendaries see well to that. And, as has been said, special merit may prevail. Sir Peter Mancrudy, the great Exeter physician, has won his way in, not at all by being Sir Peter, which has stood in his way rather than otherwise, but by the acknowledged excellence of his book about saltzes. Sir Peter Mancrudy is supposed to have quite a metropolitan, almost a European reputation and therefore is acknowledged to belong to the county set, although he never dines out at any house beyond the limits of the city. Now, let it be known that no inhabitant of Exeter ever achieved a clearer right to be regarded as ‘county,’ in opposition to ‘town,’ than had Miss Jemima Stanbury. There was not a tradesman in Exeter who was not aware of it, and who did not touch his hat to her accordingly. The men who drove the flies, when summoned to take her out at night, would bring oats with them, knowing how probable it was that they might have to travel far. A distinct apology was made if she was asked to drink tea with people who were simply ‘town’. The Noels of Doddescombe Leigh, the Cliffords of Budleigh Salterton, the Powels of Haldon, the Cheritons of Alphington — all county persons, but very frequently in the city — were greeted by her, and greeted her, on terms of equality. Her most intimate friend was old Mrs MacHugh, the widow of the last dean but two, who could not have stood higher had she been the widow of the last bishop. And then, although Miss Stanbury was intimate with the Frenches of Heavitree, with the Wrights of Northernhay, with the Apjohns of Helion Villa, a really magnificent house, two miles out of the city on the Crediton Road, and with the Crumbies of Cronstadt House, Saint Ide’s, who would have been county people, if living in the country made the difference, although she was intimate with all these families, her manner to them was not the same, nor was it expected to be the same, as with those of her own acknowledged set. These things are understood in Exeter so well!
Miss Stanbury belonged to the county set, but she lived in a large brick house, standing in the Close, almost behind the Cathedral. Indeed it was so close to the eastern end of the edifice that a carriage could not be brought quite up to her door. It was a large brick house, very old, with a door in the middle, and five steps ascending to it between high iron rails. On each side of the door there were two windows on the ground floor, and above that there were three tiers of five windows each, and the house was double throughout, having as many windows looking out behind into a gloomy courtyard. But the glory of the house consisted in this, that there was a garden attached to it, a garden with very high walls, over which the boughs of trees might be seen, giving to the otherwise gloomy abode a touch of freshness in the summer, and a look of space in the winter, which no doubt added something to the reputation even of Miss Stanbury. The fact for it was a fact that there was no gloomier or less attractive spot in the whole city than Miss Stanbury’s garden, when seen inside, did not militate against this advantage. There were but half-a-dozen trees, and a few square yards of grass that was never green, and a damp ungravelled path on which no one ever walked. Seen from the inside the garden was not much; but, from the outside, it gave a distinct character to the house, and produced an unexpressed acknowledgment that the owner of it ought to belong to the county set.
The house and all that was in it belonged to Miss Stanbury herself, as did also many other houses in the neighbourhood. She was the owner of the ‘Cock and Bottle,’ a very decent second class inn on the other side of the Close, an inn supposed to have clerical tendencies, which made it quite suitable for a close. The choristers took their beer there, and the landlord was a retired verger. Nearly the whole of one side of a dark passage leading out of the Close towards the High Street belonged to her; and though the passage be narrow and the houses dark, the locality is known to be good for trade. And she owned two large houses in the High Street, and a great warehouse at St. Thomas’s, and had been bought out of land by the Railway at St. David’s much to her own dissatisfaction, as she was wont to express herself, but, undoubtedly, at a very high price. It will be understood therefore, that Miss Stanbury was wealthy, and that she was bound to the city in which she lived by peculiar ties.
But Miss Stanbury had not been born to this wealth, nor can she be said to have inherited from her forefathers any of these high privileges which had been awarded to her. She had achieved them by the romance of her life and the manner in which she had carried herself amidst its vicissitudes. Her father had been vicar of Nuncombe Putney, a parish lying twenty miles west of Exeter, among the moors. And on her father’s death, her brother, also now dead, had become vicar of the same parish — her brother, whose only son, Hugh. Stanbury, we already know, working for the ‘D. R.’ up in London. When Miss Stanbury was twenty-one she became engaged to a certain Mr Brooke Burgess, the eldest son of a banker in Exeter or, it might, perhaps, be better said, a banker himself; for at the time Mr Brooke Burgess was in the firm. It need not here be told how various misfortunes arose, how Mr Burgess quarrelled with the Stanbury family, how Jemima quarrelled with her own family, how, when her father died, she went out from Nuncombe Putney parsonage, and lived on the smallest pittance in a city lodging, how her lover was untrue to her and did not marry her, and how at last he died and left her every shilling that he possessed.
The Devonshire people, at the time, had been much divided as to the merits of the Stanbury quarrel. There were many who said that the brother could not have acted otherwise than he did; and that Miss Stanbury, though by force of character and force of circumstances she had weathered the storm, had in truth been very indiscreet. The results, however, were as have been described. At the period of which we treat, Miss Stanbury was a very rich lady, living by herself in Exeter, admitted, without question, to be one of the county set, and still at variance with her brother’s family. Except to Hugh, she had never spoken a word to one of them since her brother’s death. When the money came into her hands, she at that time being over forty, and her nephew being then just ten years old, she had undertaken to educate him, and to start him in the world. We know how she had kept her word, and how and why she had withdrawn herself from any further responsibility in the matter.
And in regard to this business of starting the young man she had been careful to let it be known that she would do no more than start him. In the formal document, by means of which she had made the proposal to her brother, she had been careful to let it be understood that simple education was all that she intended to bestow upon him ‘and that only,’ she had added, ‘in the event of my surviving till his education be completed.’ And to Hugh himself she had declared that any allowance which she made him after he was called to the Bar, was only made in order to give him room for his foot, a spot of ground from whence to make his first leap. We know how he made that leap, infinitely to the disgust of his aunt, who, when he refused obedience to her in the matter of withdrawing from the Daily Record, immediately withdrew from him, not only her patronage and assistance, but even her friendship and acquaintance. This was the letter which she wrote to him:
‘I don’t think that writing radical stuff for a penny newspaper is a respectable occupation for a gentleman, and I will have nothing to do with it. If you choose to do such work, I cannot help it; but it was not for such that I sent you to Harrow and Oxford, nor yet up to London and paid 100 pounds a year to Mr Lambert. I think you are treating me badly, but that is nothing to your bad treatment of yourself. You need not trouble yourself to answer this, unless you are prepared to say that you will not write any more stuff for that penny newspaper. Only I wish to be understood. I will have no connection that I can help, and no acquaintance at all, with radical scribblers and incendiaries.
The Close, Exeter, April 15, 186—.’
Hugh Stanbury had answered this; thanking his aunt for past favours, and explaining to her or striving to do so that he felt it to be his duty to earn his bread, as a means of earning it had come within his reach. He might as well have spared himself the trouble. She simply wrote a few words across his own letter in red ink: ‘The bread of unworthiness should never be earned or eaten;’ and then’ sent the letter back under a blank envelope to her nephew.
She was a thorough Tory of the old school. Had Hugh taken to writing for a newspaper that had cost sixpence, or even threepence for its copies, she might perhaps have forgiven him. At any rate the offence would not have been so flagrant. And had the paper been conservative instead of liberal, she would have had some qualms of conscience before she gave him up. But to live by writing for a newspaper! and for a penny newspaper!! and for a penny radical newspaper!!! It was more than she could endure. Of what nature were the articles which he contributed it was impossible that she should have any idea, for no consideration would have induced her to look at a penny newspaper, or to admit it within her doors. She herself took in the John Bull and the Herald, and daily groaned deeply at the way in which those once great organs of true British public feeling were becoming demoralised and perverted. Had any reduction been made in the price of either of them, she would at once have stopped her subscription. In the matter of politics she had long since come to think that every thing good was over. She hated the name of Reform so much that she could not bring herself to believe in Mr Disraeli and his bill. For many years she had believed in Lord Derby. She would fain believe in him still if she could. It was the great desire of her heart to have some one in whom she believed. In the bishop of her diocese she did believe, and annually sent him some little comforting present from her own hand. And in two or three of the clergymen around her she believed, finding in them a flavour of the unascetic godliness of ancient days which was gratifying to her palate. But in politics there was hardly a name remaining to which she could fix her faith and declare that there should be her guide. For awhile she, thought she would cling to Mr Lowe; but, when she made inquiry, she found that there was no base there of really well-formed conservative granite. The three gentlemen who had dissevered themselves from Mr Disraeli when Mr Disraeli was passing his Reform bill, were doubtless very good in their way; but they were not big enough to fill her heart. She tried to make herself happy with General Peel, but General Peel was after all no more than a shade to her. But the untruth of others never made her untrue, and she still talked of the excellence of George III and the glories of the subsequent reign. She had a bust of Lord Eldon before which she was accustomed to stand with hands closed and to weep or to think that she wept.
She was a little woman, now nearly sixty years of age, with bright grey eyes, and a strong Roman nose, and thin lips, and a sharp-cut chin. She wore a head-gear that almost amounted to a mob-cap, and beneath it her grey hair was always frizzled with the greatest care. Her dress was invariably of black silk, and she had five gowns: one for church, one for evening parties, one for driving out, and one for evenings at home and one for mornings. The dress, when new, always went to church. Nothing, as she was wont to say, was too good for the Lord’s house. In the days of crinolines she had protested that she had never worn one — a protest, however, which was hardly true; and now, in these later days, her hatred was especially developed in reference to the head-dresses of young women. ‘Chignon’ was a word which she had never been heard to pronounce. She would talk of ‘those bandboxes which the sluts wear behind their noddles;’ for Miss Stanbury allowed herself the use of much strong language. She was very punctilious in all her habits, breakfasting ever at half-past eight, and dining always at six. Half-past five had been her time, till the bishop, who, on an occasion, was to be her guest, once signified to her that such an hour cut up the day and interfered with clerical work. Her lunch was always of bread and cheese, and they who lunched with her either eat that or the bread without the cheese. An afternoon ‘tea’ was a thing horrible to her imagination. Tea and buttered toast at half-past eight in the evening was the great luxury of her life. She was as strong as a horse, and had never hitherto known a day’s illness. As a consequence of this, she did not believe in the illness of other people, especially not in the illness of women. She did not like a girl who could not drink a glass of beer with her bread and cheese in the middle of the day, and she thought that a glass of port after dinner was good for everybody. Indeed, she had a thorough belief in port wine, thinking that it would go far to cure most miseries. But she could not put up with the idea that a woman, young or old, should want the stimulus of a glass of sherry to support her at any odd time of the day. Hot concoctions of strong drink at Christmas she would allow to everybody, and was very strong in recommending such comforts to ladies blessed, or about to be blessed, with babies. She took the sacrament every month, and gave away exactly a tenth of her income to the poor. She believed that there was a special holiness in a tithe of a thing, and attributed the commencement of the downfall of the Church of England to rent charges, and the commutation of clergymen’s incomes. Since Judas, there had never been, to her thinking, a traitor so base, or an apostate so sinful, as Colenso; and yet, of the nature of Colenso’s teaching she was as ignorant as the towers of the cathedral opposite to her.
She believed in Exeter, thinking that there was no other provincial town in England in which a maiden lady could live safely and decently. London to her was an abode of sin; and though, as we have seen, she delighted to call herself one of the county set, she did not love the fields and lanes. And in Exeter the only place for a lady was the Close. Southernhay and Northernhay might be very well, and there was, doubtless a respectable neighbourhood on the Heavitree side of the town; but for the new streets, and especially for the suburban villas, she had no endurance. She liked to deal at dear shops; but would leave any shop, either dear or cheap, in regard to which a printed advertisement should reach her eye. She paid all her bills at the end of each six months, and almost took a delight in high prices. She would rejoice that bread should be cheap, and grieve that meat should be dear, because of the poor; but in regard to other matters no reduction in the cost of an article ever pleased her. She had houses as to which she was told by her agent that the rents should be raised; but she would not raise them. She had others which it was difficult to let without lowering the rents, but she would not lower them. All change was to her hateful and unnecessary.
She kept three maid-servants, and a man came in every day to clean the knives and boots. Service with her was well requited, and much labour was never exacted. But it was not every young woman who could live with her. A rigidity as to hours, as to religious exercises, and as to dress, was exacted, under which many poor girls altogether broke down; but they who could stand this rigidity came to know that their places were very valuable. No one belonging to them need want for aught, when once the good opinion of Miss Stanbury had been earned. When once she believed in her servant there was nobody like that servant. There was not a man in Exeter could clean a boot except Giles Hickbody and if not in Exeter, then where else? And her own maid Martha, who had lived with her now for twenty years, and who had come with her to the brick house when she first inhabited it, was such a woman that no other servant anywhere was fit to hold a candle to her. But then Martha had great gifts, was never ill, and really liked having sermons read to her.
Such was Miss Stanbury, who had now discarded her nephew Hugh. She had never been tenderly affectionate to Hugh, or she would hardly have asked him to live in London on a hundred a year. She had never really been kind to him since he was a boy, for although she had paid for him, she had been almost penurious in her manner of doing so, and had repeatedly-given him to understand, that in the event of her death not a shilling would be left to him. Indeed, as to that matter of bequeathing her money, it was understood that it was her purpose to let it all go back to the Burgess family. With the Burgess family she had kept up no sustained connection, it being quite understood that she was never to be asked to meet the only one of them now left in Exeter. Nor was it as yet known to any one in what manner the money was to go back, how it was to be divided, or who were to be the recipients. But she had declared that it should go back, explaining that she had conceived it to be a duty to let her own relations know that they would not inherit her wealth at her death.
About a week after she had sent back poor Hugh’s letter with the endorsement on it as to unworthy bread, she summoned Martha to the back parlour in which she was accustomed to write her letters. It was one of the theories of her life that different rooms should be used only for the purposes for which they were intended. She never allowed pens and ink up into the bed-rooms, and had she ever heard that any guest in her house was reading in bed, she would have made an instant personal attack upon that guest, whether male or female, which would have surprised that guest. Poor Hugh would have got on better with her had he not been discovered once smoking in the garden. Nor would she have writing materials in the drawing-room or dining-room. There was a chamber behind the dining-room in which there was an inkbottle, and if there was a letter to be written, let the writer go there and write it. In the writing of many letters, however, she put no confidence, and regarded penny postage as one of the strongest evidences of the coming ruin.
‘Martha,’ she said, ‘I want to speak to you. Sit down. I think I am going to do something.’ Martha sat down, but did not speak a word. There had been no question asked of her, and the time for speaking had not come. ‘I am writing to Mrs Stanbury, at Nuncombe Putney; and what do you think I am saying to her?’
Now the question had been asked, and it was Martha’s duty to reply.
‘Writing to Mrs Stanbury, ma’am?’
‘Yes, to Mrs Stanbury.’
‘It ain’t possible for me to say, ma’am, unless it’s to put Mr Hugh from going on with the newspapers.’
‘When. my nephew won’t be controlled by me, I shan’t go elsewhere to look for control over him; you may be sure of that, Martha. And remember, Martha, I don’t want to have his name mentioned again in the house. You will tell them all so, if you please.’
‘He was a very nice gentleman, ma’am.’
‘Martha, I won’t have it; and there’s an end of it. I won’t have it. Perhaps I know what goes to the making of a nice gentleman as well as you do.’
‘Mr Hugh, ma’am.’
‘I won’t have it, Martha. And when I say so, let there be an end of it.’ As she said this, she got up from her chair, and shook her head, and took a turn about the room. ‘If I’m not mistress here, I’m nobody.’
‘Of course you’re mistress here, ma’am.’
‘And if I don’t know what’s fit to be done, and what’s not fit, I’m too old to learn; and, what’s more, I won’t be taught. I’m not going to have my house crammed with radical incendiary stuff, printed with ink that stinks, on paper made out of straw. If I can’t live without penny literature, at any rate I’ll die without it. Now listen to me.’
‘I have asked Mrs Stanbury to send one of the girls over here.’
‘To live, ma’am?’ Martha’s tone as she asked the question, showed how deeply she felt its importance.
‘Yes, Martha; to live.’
‘You’ll never like it, ma’am.’
‘I don’t suppose I shall.’
‘You’ll never get on with it, ma’am; never. The young lady’ll be out of the house in a week; or if she ain’t, somebody else will.’
‘You mean yourself.’
‘I’m only a servant, ma’am, and it don’t signify about me.’
‘You’re a fool.’
‘That’s true, ma’am, I don’t doubt.’
‘I’ve sent for her, and we must do the best we can. Perhaps she won’t come.’
‘She’ll come fast enough,’ said Martha. ‘But whether she’ll stay, that’s a different thing. I don’t see how it’s possible she’s to stay. I’m told they’re feckless, idle young ladies. She’ll be so soft, ma’am, and you.’
‘Well; what of me?’
‘You’ll be so hard, ma’am!’
‘I’m not a bit harder than you, Martha; nor yet so hard. I’ll do my duty, or at least I’ll try. Now you know all about it, and you may go away. There’s the letter, and I mean to go out and post it myself.’
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26