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My Lady Ludlow
By Elizabeth Gaskell
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1995 Academy Chicago Publishers
All rights reserved.
I am an old woman now, and things are very different to what they were in my youth. Then we, who travelled, travelled in coaches, carrying six inside, and making a two day's journey out of what people now go over in a couple of hours with a whizz and a flash, and a screaming whistle, enough to deafen one. Then letters came in but three times a week; indeed, in some places in Scotland where I have stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month; but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short, jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken. Well, well! they may all be improvements — I dare say they are; but you will never meet with a Lady Ludlow in these days.
I will try and tell you about her. It is no story: it has as I said, neither beginning, middle, nor end.
My father was a poor clergyman with a large family. My mother was always said to have good blood in her veins; and when she wanted to maintain her position with the people she was thrown among — principally rich democratic manufacturers, all for liberty and the French Revolution-she would put on a pair of ruffles, trimmed with real old English point, very much darned to be sure — but which could not be bought new for love or money, as the art of making it was lost years before. These ruffles showed, as she said, that her ancestors had been Somebodies, when the grandfathers of the rich folk, who now looked down upon her, had been Nobodies — if, indeed, they had any grandfathers at all. I don't know whether any one out of our own family ever noticed these ruffles — but we were all taught as children to feel rather proud when my mother put them on, and to hold up our heads as became the descendants of the lady who had first possessed the lace. Not but what my dear father often told us that pride was a great sin; we were never allowed to be proud of anything but my mother's ruffles; and she was so innocently happy when she put them on — often, poor dear creature, to a very worn and threadbare gown — that I still think, even after all my experience of life, they were a blessing to the family. You will think that I am wandering away from my Lady Ludlow. Not at all. The lady who owned the lace, Ursula Hanbury, was a common ancestress of both my mother and my Lady Ludlow. And so it fell out, that when my poor father died, and my mother was sorely pressed to know what to do with her nine children, and looked far and wide for signs of willingness to help, Lady Ludlow sent her a letter, proffering aid and assistance. I see that letter now: a large sheet of thick yellow paper, with a straight broad margin left on the left-hand side of the delicate Italian writing — writing which contained far more in the same space of paper than all the sloping, or masculine handwritings of the present day. It was sealed with a coat of arms — a lozenge — for Lady Ludlow was a widow. My mother made us notice the motto, "Foy et Loy", and told us where to look for the quarterings of the Hanbury arms before she opened the letter. Indeed, I think she was rather afraid of what the contents might be; for, as I have said, in her anxious love for her fatherless children, she had written to many people upon whom, to tell truly, she had but little claim; and their cold hard answers had many a time made her cry, when she thought none of us were looking. I do not even know if she had ever seen Lady Ludlow: all I knew of her was that she was a very grand lady, whose grandmother had been half-sister to my mother's great-grandmother; but of her character and circumstances I heard nothing, and doubt if my mother was acquainted with them.
I looked over my mother's shoulder to read the letter; it began "Dear Cousin Margaret Dawson," and I think I felt hopeful from the moment I saw those words. She went on to say — stay, I think I can remember the very words —
"Dear cousin Margaret Dawson, — I have been much grieved to hear of the loss you have sustained in the death of so good a husband, and so excellent a clergyman as I have always heard that my late cousin Richard was esteemed to be."
"There!" said my mother, laying her finger on the passage, "read that aloud to the little ones. Let them hear how their father's good report travelled far and wide, and how well he is spoken of by one whom he never saw. Cousin Richard, how prettily her ladyship writes! Go on, Margaret!" She wiped her eyes as she spoke, and laid her fingers on her lips, to still my little sister, Cecily, who, not understanding anything about the important letter, was beginning to talk and make a noise.
"You say you are left with nine children. I too should have had nine, if mine had all lived. I have none left but Rudolph, the present Lord Ludlow. He is married, and lives for the most part in London. But I entertain six young gentlewomen at my house in Connington, who are to me as daughters — save that, perhaps, I restrict them in certain indulgences in dress and diet that might be befitting in young ladies of a higher rank, and of more probable wealth. These young persons — all of condition, though out of means — are my constant companions, and I strive to do my duty as a Christian lady towards them. One of these young gentlewomen died (at her own home, whither she had gone upon a visit) last May. Will you do me the favour to allow your eldest daughter to supply her place in my household? She is, as I make out, about sixteen years of age. She will find companions here who are but a little older than herself. I dress my young friends myself, and make each of them a small allowance for pocket-money. They have but few opportunities for matrimony, as Connington is far removed from any town. The clergyman is a deaf old widower; my agent is married; and as for the neighbouring farmers, they are, of course, below the notice of the young gentlewomen under my protection. Still, if any young woman wishes to marry, and has conducted herself to my satisfaction, I give her a wedding dinner, her clothes, and her house linen. And such as remain with me to my death will find a small competency provided for them in my will. I reserve to myself the option of paying their travelling expenses — disliking gadding women, on the one hand; on the other, not wishing by too long absence from the family home to weaken natural ties.
"If my proposal pleases you and your daughter — or rather, if it pleases you, for I trust your daughter has been too well brought up to have a will in opposition to yours — let me know, dear cousin MargaretDawson, and I will make arrangements for meeting the young gentlewoman at Cavistock, which is the nearest point to which the coach will bring her."
My mother dropped the letter and sat silent.
"I shall not know what to do without you Margaret."
A moment before, like a young untried girl as I was, I had been pleased at the notion of seeing a new place, and leading a new life. But now — my mother's look of sorrow, and the children's cry of remonstrance: "Mother, I won't go," I said.
"Nay! but you had better," replied she, shaking her head. "Lady Ludlow has much power. She can help your brothers. It will not do to slight her offer."
So we accepted it, after much consultation. We were rewarded — or so we thought — for afterwards, when I came to know Lady Ludlow, I saw that she would have done her duty by us, as helpless relations, however we might have rejected her kindness — by a presentation to Christ's Hospital for one of my brothers.
And this was how I came to know my Lady Ludlow.
I remember well the afternoon of my arrival at Hanbury Court. Her ladyship had sent to meet me at the nearest post-town at which the mail-coach stopped. There was an old groom inquiring for me, the ostler said, if my name was Dawson — from Hanbury Court, he believed. I felt it rather formidable; and first began to understand what was meant by going among strangers, when I lost sight of the guard to whom my mother had intrusted me. I was perched up in a high gig with a hood to it, such as in those days was called a chair, and my companion was driving deliberately through the most pastoral country I had ever yet seen. By-and-by we ascended a long hill, and the man got out and walked at the horse's head. I should have liked to walk, too, very much indeed; but I did not know how far I might do it; and, in fact, I dared not speak to ask to be helped down the deep steps of the gig. We were at last at the top — on a long, breezy sweeping, unenclosed piece of ground, called, as I afterwards learned, a Chase. The groom stopped, breathed, patted his horse, and then mounted again to my side.
"Are we near Hanbury Court?" I asked.
"Near! Why, Miss! we've a matter of ten mile yet to go."
Once launched into conversation, we went on pretty glibly. I fancy he had been afraid of beginning to speak to me, just as I was to him; but he got over his shyness with me sooner than I did mine with him. I let him choose the subjects of conversation, although very often I could not understand the points of interest in them: for instance, he talked for more than a quarter of an hour of a famous race which a certain dog-fox had given him, above thirty years before; and spoke of all the covers and turns just as if I knew them as well as he did; and all the time I was wondering what kind of an animal a dog-fox might be.
After we left the Chase, the road grew worse. No one in these days, who has not seen the byroads of fifty years ago, can imagine what they were. We had to quarter, as Randal called it, nearly all the way along the deep-rutted, miry lanes; and the tremendous jolts I occasionally met with made my seat in the gig so unsteady that I could not look about me at all, I was so much occupied in holding on. The road was too muddy for me to walk without dirtying myself more than I liked to do, just before my first sight of my Lady Ludlow. But by-and-by, when we came to the fields in which the lane ended, I begged Randal to help me down, as I saw that I could pick my steps among the pasture grass without making myself unfit to be seen; and Randal, out of pity for his steaming horse, wearied with the hard struggle through the mud, thanked me kindly, and helped me down with a springing jump.
The pasture fell gradually down to the lower land, shut in on either side by rows of high elms, as if there had been a wide grand avenue here in former times. Down the grassy gorge we went, seeing the sunset sky at the end of the shadowed descent. Suddenly we came to a long flight of steps.
"If you'll run down there, Miss, I'll go round and meet you; and then you'd better mount again, for my lady will like to see you drive up to the house."
"Are we near the house?" said I, suddenly checked by the idea.
"Down there, Miss," replied he, pointing with his whip to certain stacks of twisted chimneys rising out of a group of trees, in deep shadow against the crimson light, and which lay just beyond a great square lawn at the base of the steep slope of a hundred yards, on the edge of which we stood.
I went down the steps quietly enough. I met Randal and the gig at the bottom; and, falling into a side road to the left, we rode sedately round, through the gateway, and into the great court in front of the house.
The road by which we had come lay right at the back.
Hanbury Court is a vast red-brick house — at least, it is cased in part with red bricks; and the gatehouse and walls about the place are of brick — with stone facings at every corner and door, and window, such as you see at Hampton Court. At the back are the gables, and arched doorways, and stone mullions, which show (so Lady Ludlow used to tell us) that it was once a priory. There was a prior's parlour, I know — only we called it Mrs Medlicott's room; and there was a tithe-barn as big as a church, and rows of fishponds, all got ready for the monks' fastingdays in old time. But all this I did not see till afterwards. I hardly noticed, this first night, the great Virginian Creeper (said to have been the first planted in England by one of my lady's ancestors) that half covered the front of the house. As I had been unwilling to leave the guard of the coach, so did I now feel unwilling to leave Randal, a known friend of three hours. But there was no help for it; in I must go; past the grand-looking old gentleman holding the door open for me, on into the great hall on the right hand, into which the sun's last rays were sending glorious red light — the gentleman was now walking before me — up a step on to the dais, as I afterwards learned that it was called — then again to the left, through a series of sitting-rooms, opening one out of another, and all of them looking into a stately garden, glowing, even in the twilight, with the bloom of flowers. We went up four steps out of the last of these rooms, and then my guide lifted up a heavy silk curtain, and I was in the presence of my Lady Ludlow.
She was very small of stature and very upright. She wore a great lace cap, nearly half her own height, I should think, that went round her head (caps which tied under the chin, and which we called 'mobs', came in later, and my lady held them in great contempt, saying people might as well come down in their nightcaps). In front of my lady's cap was a great bow of white satin ribbon; and a broad band of the same ribbon was tied tight round her head, and served to keep the cap straight. She had a fine Indian muslin shawl folded over her shoulders and across her chest, and an apron of the same; a black silk mode gown, made with short sleeves and ruffles, and with the tail thereof pulled through the placket-hole, so as to shorten it to a useful length: beneath it she wore, as I could plainly see, a quilted lavender satin petticoat. Her hair was snowy white, but I scarcely saw it, it was so covered with her cap; her skin, even at her age, was waxen in texture and tint; her eyes were large and dark blue, and must have been her great beauty when she was young, for there was nothing particular, as far as I can remember, either in mouth or nose. She had a great gold-headed stick by her chair; but I think it was more as a mark of state and dignity than for use; for she had as light and brisk a step when she chose as any girl of fifteen, and, in her private early walk of meditation in the mornings, would go as swiftly from garden alley to garden alley as any one of us.
She was standing up when I went in. I dropped my curtsey at the door, which my mother had always taught me as a part of good manners, and went up instinctively to my lady. She did not put out her hand, but raised herself a little on tiptoe, and kissed me on both cheeks.
"You are cold, my child. You shall have a dish of tea with me." She rang a little hand-bell on the table by her, and her waiting-maid came in from a small anteroom; and as if all had been prepared, and was awaiting my arrival, brought with her a small china service with tea ready made, and a plate of delicately cut bread and butter, every morsel of which I could have eaten, and been none the better for it, so hungry was I after my long ride. The waiting-maid took off my cloak, and I sat down, sorely alarmed at the silence, the hushed footfalls of the subdued maiden over the thick carpet, and the soft voice and clear pronunciation of my Lady Ludlow. My teaspoon fell against my cup with a sharp noise, that seemed so out of place and season that I blushed deeply. My lady caught my eye with hers — both keen and sweet were those dark-blue eyes of her ladyship's.
"Your hands are very cold, my dear; take off those gloves" (I wore thick serviceable doeskin, and had been too shy to take them off unbidden), "and let me try and warm them — the evenings are very chilly." And she held my great red hands in hers — soft, warm, white, ring-laden. Looking at last a little wistfully into my face, she said — "Poor child! And you're the eldest of nine! I had a daughter who would have been just your age; but I cannot fancy her the eldest of nine." Then came a pause of silence; and then she rang her bell, and desired her waiting-maid, Adams, to show me to my room.
Excerpted from My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell. Copyright © 1995 Academy Chicago Publishers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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