Living In Great Houses
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Now I will tell you a little—it can be but a little —about life in the "great houses," as they are called here. When you are asked to come to one, a train is suggested, and you are told that a carriage will be at the station to meet you. Some-how the footman manages to find you out. At —, which is a little station at which few people get out, had hardly left the train when a very respectable-looking person, not a footman, stept up to me and said, "Lord—'s carriage is waiting for you, sir." The carriage and the footman and coach-man were, of course, on the other side of the building. My drive from the station to — took quite as long a time as it took me to come down by rail from London, altho we went at a grand trot. The country was beautiful, stretching off on both sides in broad fields and meadows, darkened in lines by hedges, and in spots by clumps of trees. The roads were very narrow—they seemed rather like lanes—and this effect was increased by the high walls and hedges on either side. Two carriages had hardly room to pass in some places, with careful driving. Being in Lord —'s well-known carriage, I was quite in state, and the country folk, most of them, bowed to me as I went on; and of course I followed the apostolic injunction, and condescended unto men of low estate.
And, by the way, yesterday afternoon (for a day has passed since I began this letter, and I am now at —) Lady — drove me through their park and off to —, the dowager Lady —'s jointure house, and I had the honor of acknowledging for her all the numerous bobs and ducks she received from the tenants and their children. So, you see, I shall be in good training when I come into my estate. When and where I entered the park, either here or at —, I could not exactly make out. There were gates and gates, and the private grounds seemed to shade off gradually into the public. I know that the park extended far beyond the lodge. The house at is very ugly.
It was built by Inigo Jones, and, never handsome, was altogether spoiled by tasteless alterations in the last century. The ugliness of English country houses built at that time is quite inexpressible.
I ought to have said that the --s are in mourning; and it was very kind of them to invite me. I was met at the door by a dignified personage in black, who asked me if I would go up to Lady —'s room. She welcomed me warmly, said that Lord — had been called away for a few hours, and offered me tea from a tiny table at her side. And, by the way, you are usually asked to come at a time which brings you to five-o'clock tea. This gives you an opportunity to rub off the rough edge of strangeness, before you dress for dinner.
Lady —'s own room was large and hung with tapestry, and yet it was cosy and homelike. The hall is large and square, and the walls are covered with old arms. The staircase is good, but not so grand as others that I have seen; that at _____, for instance, where there was an oriel window on the first landing. This one has no landing; it is of polished oak, but is carpeted.
Lady — is a very attractive and elegant woman, sensible, sensitive, and with a soft, gentle way of speech and action, which is all the more charming, as she is tall. Her tea was good. She talked well, and we got on together very satisfactorily. Presently a nurse brought in her two little daughters. I thought she must have approved of her savage Yankee guest; for she encouraged them to come to me and sit upon my knees; and all mothers are shy about that. Soon in popped Lord , and gave me the heartiest welcome that I have received since I have been in England. He has altered somewhat since he was in New York; is grown a little stouter, and a very little graver, but is just the same frank, simple fellow as when you saw him. About seven o'clock I was asked if I would like to go up to my room. He went with me,—an attention which I found general; and "directly he had left me," according to the phrase here, a very fine-mannered person, in a dress coat and a white tie, appeared, and asked me for my keys.
I apprehended the situation at once, and submitted to his ministrations. He did everything for me except actually to wash my face and hands and put on my clothes. He laid everything that I could need, opened and laid out my dressing-case, and actually turned my stockings. Dinner at eight. I take in Lady —. Butler, a very solemn personage, but not stout nor red-faced. I have seen no stout, red-faced butler since I have been in England. Dining room large and handsome. Some good portraits. Gas in globes at the walls; candles on the table. Dinner very good, of course. Menu written in pencil on a porcelain card, with the formula in gilt and a coronet. Indeed, the very cans that came up to my bedroom with hot water were marked with coronet and cipher. I was inclined to scoff at this, at first, as ostentatious; but after all, as the things were to be marked, how could it be done better?
After dinner, a very pleasant chat in the drawing-room until about eleven o'clock, when Lord -- sent Lady — to bed. She shakes hands on bidding me good-night, and asks if half-past nine o'clock is too early for breakfast for me. I was tempted to say that it was, and to ask if it couldn't be postponed till ten; but I didn't. The drawing-room, by the way, altho it was handsome and cheerful, was far inferior in its show to a thousand that might be found in New York, many of which, too, are quite equal to it in comfort and in tasteful adornment. Lord — and I sit up awhile and chat about old times and the shooting on Long Island, and when I go to my room I find that, altho I am to stay but two days, my trunk has been unpacked and all my clothes put into the wardrobe and the drawers, and most carefully arranged, as if I were going to stay a month. My morning dress has been taken away.
In the morning the same servant comes, opens my window, draws my bed curtain, prepares my bath, turns my stockings, and in fact does every-thing but actually bathe and dress me, and all with a very pleasant and cheerful attentiveness. At a quarter past nine the gong rings for prayers. These are generally read by the master of the household in the dining-room, with the breakfast table laid; but here in a morning-room. After breakfast you are left very much to yourself. Business and household affairs are looked after by your host and hostess; and you go where you please and do what you like.
On Sunday I of course went to church with the family: a charming old church; tower of the time of Edward III.; some fine old monuments. We merely walked through the park a distance of about the width of Washington Square, passed through a little door in the park wall, and there was the church just opposite. It was Harvest Thanks-giving day, a festival recently introduced in England, in imitation of that which has come down to us from our Puritan forefathers. There was a special service; and the church was very prettily drest with oats, flowers, grass, and grapes, the last being substituted for hops, as it was too late for them. The offerings were for the Bulgarians; for everything now in England is tinged with the hue of "Turkish horrors."
After service Lord — took me to the chantry, where the tombs of the family are. It was to show me a famous statue, that of a Lady and her baby, at the birth of which she died, it dying soon, too. The statue is very beautiful, and is the most purely and sweetly pathetic work in sculpture that I ever saw. It had a special interest for me because I remembered reading about it in my boyhood; but I had forgotten the name of the subject, and I had no thought of finding it here in a little country church.