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England - Oatlands Park

( Originally Published 1910 )

HARDLY in all England are there fifty acres which can hope to compete in varied interest with those which comprise the famous Oatlands Park in Surrey. Here some of the most illustrious personages of the Royal House of England have had a home ; here the most notable of the ladies who have borne the title of the Duchess of York nursed the sombre thought of a blighted life ; here the Princess Charlotte passed that honeymoon which was by such a short space removed from the tomb ; here may be found the most wonderful grotto in England ; here the most picturesque dogs' cemetery known to the history of canine sepulture ; and here men whose names are written high on the scroll of literary fame have committed to paper some of their most deathless work.

Oatlands, as hinted above, has had many Royal owners. The first to cast envious eyes on these richly-wooded glades was the masterful Henry VIII, and in his days a king had only to hint a desire to break the tenth commandment and that which he coveted was his. Oatlands, the much married Henry thought, would make an admirable addition to the adjacent Chace of Hampton, and the rightful owner promptly handed over the title-deeds in favour of another stretch of land in a less enviable neighbourhood.

Next in ownership of Oatlands came " Good Queen Bess," who is credited with having practised the masculine art of crossbow shooting in these meadows, and who certainly kept court here on many occasions. The Queen of Charles I followed, and then came Anne of Denmark, the Duke of Newcastle, and, lastly, the Duke of York, the second son of George III. The two dukes, as we shall see, are still linked with the history of Oatlands Park.

A Royal palace of goodly area was once embowered amid these lusty trees. It has vanished, even to the last stone, and the only record left of its existence is one of those quaint, perspective-defying plans upon which the draughtsmen of the olden time lavished so much painful labour. Even of the building first inhabited by the Duke of York nothing remains, a fire having swept it away a few years after the property came into his possession. Part of the new mansion he built in its place still survives at the rear of the present structure, and here may yet be seen and dwelt in the rooms occupied by the Princess Charlotte.

It was, as has been noted, as a bride on her honeymoon that the Princess Charlotte, in 1816, came to Oatlands. As the idol of the nation and the heir to the English throne her future career promised nothing but happiness. According to the testimony of the Comtesse de Boigne, who met her on intimate terms on several occasions, the Princess possessed a character of marked individuality. She affected the brusque manners attributed to Queen Elizabeth, even to the adoption of that monarch's oaths, and would probably have caused some consternation among the ministers of the English government had she succeeded to the throne. She declared that she would not and could not rule over England except on the condition that her husband should reign with her. " He shall be King or I never will be Queen." Of her personal appearance the Comtesse gives this picture : " Of her figure I can say nothing. All that could be seen was that she was tall and strongly made. Her hair was fair almost to the point of whiteness, and her eyes were porcelain blue ; eyelashes and eyebrows were invisible, and her complexion was uniformly white, without colour. The reader may cry, ` What insipidity ! It must have been a very inexpressive face.' Nothing of the kind. I have rarely observed a face of greater alertness and mobility ; her look was most expressive."

Most of the figures who loom large in the court history of George IV have slept under this roof and disported themselves on these lawns. Of course the King's brother, Thackeray's " big, burly, loud, jolly, cursing, courageous " Duke of York, was often here. But, though owner of Oatlands, he seems, when his affection for the Duchess cooled, to have used the place merely and mainly as a week-end resort. All that even Sir Walter Scott could say, despite that purblind loyalty which made him so valiant a champion of the worthless Regent, was that the Duke of York lived with his Duchess " on terms of decency, but not of affection."

Ile is not a very clearly-defined figure on the page of history, that same Duke of York, yet there is one story told of him which leaves a pleasant memory. Mounting his horse one morning at the door of Oatlands he saw a poorly clad woman slowly wending her way down the avenue. " Who is that ? " he demanded of a servant near by. " Nobody, your Royal Highness, but a soldier's wife a-begging." " And pray, sir," rejoined the Duke, " what is your mistress? "

Beau Brummel, too, " favourite, rival, enemy, superior " of George IV, as Thackeray terms him, was often a guest at Oatlands. The Duchess had a great liking for the poor Beau, and he diplomatically cultivated her regard by an occasional present of a dog, the surest way to that lonely woman's heart.

Hither also often came Charles Greville, the industrious compiler of those fascinating " Memoirs ; " and Oatlands and its strange medley of life in the early years of the last century may be repictured from his pages. The week end parties were often large, and one of the principal amusements of the guests was to sit up playing whist till four o'clock in the morning. " On Sundays," he continues, " we amused ourselves with eating fruit in the garden, and shooting at a mark with pistols, and playing with the monkeys. I bathed in the cold bath in the grotto, which is as clear as crystal and as cold as ice. Oatlands is the worst managed establishment in England : there are a great many servants, and nobody waits on you ; a vast number of horses, and none to ride or drive."

On another visit Greville set himself the task of painting his hostess. " The Duchess," he noted in that capacious diary of his, " seldom goes to bed, or, if she does, only for an hour or two ; she sleeps dressed upon a couch, sometimes in one room, sometimes in another. She frequently walks out very late at nights, or rather early in the morning, and she always sleeps with open windows. She dresses and breakfasts at three o'clock, afterwards walks out with all her dogs, and seldom appears before dinner-time. At night, when she cannot sleep, she has women to read to her. The Duchess of York is clever and well informed ; she likes society, and dislikes all form and ceremony; but in the midst of the most familiar intercourse she always preserves a certain dignity of manner. Those who are in the habit of going to Oatlands are perfectly at their ease with her, and talk with as much freedom as they would to any other woman, but always with great respect. Her mind is not perhaps the most delicate ; she shows no dislike to coarseness of sentiment or language, and I have often seen her very much amused with jokes, stories, and allusions which would shock a very nice person. But her own conversation is never polluted with anything the least indelicate or unbecoming. She is very sensible to little attentions, and is annoyed if anybody appears to keep aloof from her or to shun conversing with her. Her dogs are her greatest interest and amusement, and she has at least forty of various kinds. She is delighted when anybody gives her a dog, or a monkey, or a parrot, of all of which she has vast numbers ; it is impossible to offend or annoy her more than by ill using any of her dogs, and if she were to see anybody beat or kick any one of them she would never forgive it."

Not often did the foppish Regent darken the doors of his sister in law at Oatlands. He took no pains, " first gentleman of Europe," though his flatterers termed him, to conceal his dislike of his brother's choice, and the Duchess, on her part, returned the sentiment with interest. That, at any rate, is one fact to be placed to her credit.

But though the Regent was not fond of the mistress of Oatlands, the grotto in her grounds, which was erected by the Duke of Newcastle at a cost of forty thousand pounds, appealed to his taste with irresistible force. It would, to a man who was the cause of so many countless thousands being spent on his gaudy Pavilion at Brighton. One of the chambers in this Oatlands grotto was once put by the Regent to a notable use. Here, in the apartment now known as the Duchess' boudoir, he gave a lavish supper to the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia, and other princely warriors, after the battle of Waterloo, and in celebration of that memorable victory. In its present carpetless and rather earthy condition, this unique chamber hardly rises to the reputation which its primary cost creates in in the mind ; but it is easy to imagine what a transformation it might undergo if it were placed for a few hours in the hands of an upholsterer with artistic tastes.

At first sight it seems hardly credible that the Duke of Newcastle can have squandered forty thousand pounds on the Oatlands grotto, even although it did give occupation to three builders for twenty years. There are, however, more apartments in this amorphous structure than a casual inspection would lead one to imagine. Beneath the apartment in which the Regent gave his Waterloo supper is a chamber known as the Duchess of York's bathroom, where Charles Greville had his ice cold tub, and where the Duchess was wont to superintend the ablutions of those dogs who lie so quietly now in the graveyard outside. A winding passage leads from one corner of the bath-room to the gaming-saloon, where the visitor stumbles across the one association of the Duke of York with the grotto. It is not an association to his honour. In this hidden chamber, where the light of the outer world struggles vainly with the inner darkness, where the per-fumes of flowers and the songs of birds do not penetrate, the Duke of York squandered his inheritance on the gambler's table. A few yards away there is a cave-like chamber such as might be the abode of genii able to restore the lost gold for the recompense of a human soul. As the visitor reaches this limit of his quest, he realizes that no artist in weird sensations could have devised a more fitting climax.

For all the associations of the Regent's Waterloo supper, and the gambling revelry of the Duke of York, it is the presence of the Duchess of York and her dumb companions which most dominates this peaceful grotto now. She, poor soul, the " small, fair lady " whom the Comtesse de Boigne always remembered, has been dead these eighty years, and lies in the church yard yonder under a massive Chantry monument. On the village green close by stands a lofty column inscribed with her virtues, a record which only a stray passer-by stops now and then to read. And her dogs sleep on, too, beneath the tiny tombstones which stud the grass around the grotto.

Perhaps it is easy to read what the world calls eccentricity into that character-sketch of the Duchess which Greville gives, and especially into that wholesale devotion to the canine race of which he speaks. But would it not be wiser to pause and consider the excuses there may have been in this case ? A native of another land — the Duchess was born Princess Royal of Prussia — mated to a husband whose intrigues with a mistress were the talk of the town and the burden of debate in the House of Commons ; condemned to pass countless solitary hours in her Surrey home ; it is hardly surprising that she should turn for consolation elsewhere. And, in that event, what wiser choice could she have made for companionship than that of

The poor dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his master's own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone?

As these faithful companions of the solitary woman passed away one by one they were honoured with burial and headstone in that sheltered little dell which dips down behind the Oatlands grotto. It is a resting place which might make man himself " half in love with easeful death." Only two of the tombstones bear anything in the nature of an epitaph ; the rest are simply inscribed with a name. The longest epitaph is that " To the Memory of Julia," which reads thus :

Here Julia rests, and here each day
Her mistress strews her grave with flowers,
Mourning her death, whose frolic play
Enlivened oft the lonesome hours.
From Denmark did her race descend,
Beauteous her form and mild her spirit;
Companion gay, and faithful friend
May ye who read have half her merit.

Among the most notable associations which Oatlands has gathered to itself in years nearer our own day must be recorded the facts that here Mot-ley laboured at certain parts of his " Dutch Re-public," and that here Zola found a secure hiding-place when France was in hue and cry after the writer of J'accuse. Motley has not recorded his opinion of the Oatlands grotto and dogs' cemetery, but Zola has. The grotto had no attractions for him, but he often found his way to the little cemetery at its side. It reminded him of the green islet in the Seine at Médan, where he buried his own dumb companions, and of the faithful dog who had pined and died because he heard his master's footsteps no more.

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