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MRS. SOPHIA'S FEUD
'O'er all there hung the shadow of a fear, A sense of mystery the spirit daunted, And said as plain as whisper in the ear, The place is haunted.'--HOOD.
We had a houseful at Christmas. The Rev. Charles Henderson, a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, lately ordained a deacon, had been recommended to us by our London vicar, and was willing not only to take charge of the parish, but to direct my studies, and to prepare Martyn for school. He came to us for the Christmas vacation to reconnoitre and engage lodgings at a farmhouse. We liked him very much--my mother being all the better satisfied after he had shown her a miniature, and confided to her that the original was waiting till a college living should come to him in the distant future.
Admiral Griffith could not tear himself from his warm rooms and his club, but our antiquarian friend, Mr. Stafford, came with his wife, and revelled in the ceilings of the mullion room, where he would much have liked to sleep, but that its accommodations were only fit for a bachelor.
Our other visitor was Miss Selby, or rather Mrs. Sophia Selby, as she designated herself, according to the becoming fashion of elderly spinsters, which to my mind might be gracefully resumed. It irked my father to think of the good lady's solitary Christmas at Bath, and he asked her to come to us. She travelled half-way in a post- chaise, and then was met by the carriage. A very nice old lady she was, with a meek, delicate babyish face, which could not be spoilt by the cap of the period, one of the most disfiguring articles of head gear ever devised, though nobody thought so then. She was full of kindness; indeed, if she had a fault it was the abundant pity she lavished on me, and her determination to amuse me. The weather was of the kind that only the healthy and hardy could encounter, and when every one else was gone out, and I was just settling in with a new book, or an old crabbed Latin document, that Mr. Stafford had entrusted to me to copy out fairly and translate, she would glide in with her worsted work on a charitable mission to enliven poor Mr. Edward.
However, this was the means of my obtaining some curious enlightenments. A dinner-party was in contemplation, and she was dismayed at the choice of the fashionable London hour of seven, and still more by finding that the Fordyces were to be among the guests. She was too well-bred to manifest her feelings to her hosts, but alone with me, she could not refrain from expressing her astonishment to me, all the more when she heard this was reciprocity for an invitation that it had not been possible to accept. Her poor dear uncle would never hear of intercourse with Hillside. On being asked why, she repeated what Chapman had said, that he could not endure any one connected with Mrs. Hannah More and her canting, humbugging set, as the ungodly old man had chosen to call them, imbuing even this good woman with evil prejudices against their noble work at Cheddar.
'Besides this, Fordyces and Winslows could never be friends, since the Fordyces had taken on themselves to dispute the will, and say it had been improperly obtained.'
'Mrs. Winslow's--Margaret Fordyce that was. She was the heiress, and had every right to dispose of her property.'
'But that was more than a hundred years ago!'
'So it was, my dear; but though the law gave it to us--to my uncle's grandfather (or great-grandfather, was it?)--those Fordyces never could rest content. Why, one of them--a clergyman's son too--shot young Philip Winslow dead in a duel. They have always grudged at us. Does your papa know it, my dear Mr. Edward? He ought to be aware.'
'I do not know,' I said; 'but he would hardly care about what happened in the time of Queen Anne.'
It was curious to see how the gentle little lady espoused the family quarrel, which, after all, was none of hers.
'Well, you are London people, and the other branch, and may not feel as we do down here; but I shall always say that Madam Winslow's husband's son had every right to come before her cousin once removed.'
I asked if we were descended from her, for, having a turn for heraldry and genealogy, I wanted to make out our family tree. Mrs. Sophia was ready to hold up her hands at the ignorance of the 'other branch.' This poor heiress had lost all her children in their infancy, and bequeathed the estate to her stepson, the Fordyce male heir having been endowed by her father with the advowson of Hillside and a handsome estate there, which Mrs. Selby thought ought to have contented him, 'but some people never know when they have enough;' and, on my observing that it might have been a matter of justice, she waxed hotter, declaring that what the Winslows felt so much was the accusation of violence against the poor lady. She spoke as if it were a story of yesterday, and added, 'Indeed, they made the common people have all sorts of superstitious fancies about the room where she died--that old part of the house.' Then she added in a low mysterious voice, 'I hear that your brother Mr. Griffith Winslow could not sleep there;' and when the rats and the wind were mentioned--'Yes, that was what my poor dear uncle used to say. He always called it nonsense; but we never had a servant who would sleep there. You'll not mention it, Mr. Edward, but I could not help asking that very nice housemaid, Jane, whether the room was used, and she said how Mr. Griffith had given it up, and none of the servants could spend a night there when they are sleeping round. Of course I said all in my power to dispel the idea, and told her that there was no accounting for all the noises in old houses; but you never can reason with that class of people.'
'Did you ever hear the noises, Mrs. Selby?'
'Oh, no; I wouldn't sleep there for thousands! Not that I attach any importance to such folly,--my poor dear uncle would never hear of such a thing; but I am such a nervous creature, I should lie awake all night expecting the rats to run over me. I never knew of any one sleeping there, except in the gay times when I was a child, and the house used to be as full as, or fuller than, it could hold, for the hunt breakfast or a ball, and my poor aunt used to make up ever so many beds in the two rooms, and then we never heard of any disturbance, except what they made themselves.'
This chiefly concerned me, because home cosseting had made me old woman enough to be uneasy about unaired beds; and I knew that my mother meant to consign Clarence to the mullion chamber. So, without betraying Jane, I spoke to her, and was answered, 'Oh, sir, I'll take care of that; I'll light a fire and air the mattresses well. I wish that was all, poor young gentleman!'
To the reply that the rats were slaughtered and the wind stopped out, Jane returned a look of compassion; but the subject was dropped, as it was supposed to be the right thing to hush up, instead of fostering, any popular superstition; but it surprised me that, as all our servants were fresh importations, they should so soon have become imbued with these undefined alarms.
My father was much amused at being successor to this family feud, and said that when he had time he would look up the documents.
Mrs. Sophia was a sight when Mr. Fordyce and his son and daughter- in-law were announced; she was so comically stiff between her deference to her hosts and her allegiance to her poor dear uncle; but her coldness melted before the charms of old Mr. Fordyce, who was one of the most delightful people in the world. She even was his partner at whist, and won the game, and that she DID like.
Parson Frank, as we naughty young ones called him, was all good- nature and geniality--a thorough clergyman after the ideas of the time, and a thorough farmer too; and in each capacity, as well as in politics, he suited my father or Mr. Henderson. His lady, in a blonde cap, exactly like the last equipment my mother had provided herself with in London, and a black satin dress, had much more style than the more gaily-dressed country dames, and far more conversation. Mr. Stafford, who had dreaded the party, pronounced her a sensible, agreeable woman, and she was particularly kind and pleasant to me, coming and talking over the botany of the country, and then speaking of my brother's kindness to poor Amos Bell, who was nearly recovered, but was a weakly child, for whom she dreaded the toil of a ploughboy in thick clay with heavy shoes.
I was sorry when, after Emily's well-studied performance on the piano, Mrs. Fordyce was summoned away from me to sing, but her music and her voice were both of a very different order from ordinary drawing-room music; and when our evening was over, we congratulated ourselves upon our neighbours, and agreed that the Fordyces were the gems of the party.
Only Mrs. Sophia sighed at us as degenerate Winslows, and Emily reserved to herself the right of believing that the daughter was 'a horrid girl.'
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