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The Old Manor House:

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CHAPTER I.

In an old Manor House in one of the most southern counties of England, resided some few years since the last of a family that had for a long series of years possessed it. Mrs. Rayland was the only survivor of the three co-heiresses of Sir Hildebrand Rayland; one of the first of those to whom the title of Baronet had been granted by James the First. The name had been before of great antiquity in the county—and the last baronet having only daughters to share his extensive possessions, these ladies had been educated with such very high ideas of their own importance, that they could never be prevailed upon to lessen, by sharing it with any of those numerous suitors who for the first forty or fifty years of their lives surrounded them; and Mrs. Barbara the eldest, and Mrs. Catharine the youngest, died single—one at the age of seventy, and the other at that of sixty-eight: by which events the second, Mrs. Grace, saw herself at the advanced age of sixty-nine sole inheritor of the fortunes of her house, without any near relation, or indeed any relation at all whom she chose to consider as entitled to possess it after her death.

About four miles from the ancient and splendid seat she inhabited, dwelt the only person who could claim any affinity with the Rayland family; this was a gentleman of the name of Somerive; 2 who was considered by the people of the country as heir at law, as he was the grandson of one of the sisters of Sir Hildebrand; but Mrs. Rayland herself, whose opinion was more material, since it was all at her own disposal, did not by any means seem to entertain the same idea.

The venerable lady, and her two sisters, had never beheld this their relation with the eyes of friendly interest; nor had they ever extended towards him that generous favour which they had so much the power to afford, and which could not have failed to prove very acceptable; since he had married early in life, and had a family of two sons and four daughters to support on the produce of an estate, which, though he farmed it himself, did not bring in a clear five hundred pounds a year.

Various reasons, or rather prejudices, had concurred to occasion this coolness on the part of the ladies towards their cousin.—Their aunt, who had married his ancestor, had, as they had always been taught, degraded herself extremely, by giving herself to a man who was a mere yeoman.—The son of this union had however been received and acknowledged as the cousin of the illustrious heiresses of the house of Rayland; but following most plebeian-like the unaspiring inclination of his own family, he had fallen in love with a young woman who lived with them as companion; when it was believed that, as he was a remarkably handsome man, he might have lifted his eyes with impunity to one of the ladies, his cousins: this occasioned an estrangement of many years, and had never been forgiven.—The recollection of it returned with acrimonious violence, when the son of this imprudent man imitated his father, five-and-twenty years afterwards, and married a woman who had nothing to recommend her but beauty, simplicity, and goodness.

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However, notwithstanding the repeated causes of complaint which this luckless family of Somerive had given to the austere and opulent inhabitants of Rayland Hall, the elder lady had on her death-bed recollected, that though debased by the alloy of unworthy alliances, they carried in their veins a portion of that blood which had circulated in those of the august personage Sir Orlando de Rayland her grandfather; and she therefore recommended Mr. Somerive and his family, but particularly his youngest son (who was named, by reluctantly obtained permission, after Sir Orlando), to the consideration of her sisters, and even gave to Mr. Somerive himself a legacy of five hundred pounds; a gift which her sisters took so much amiss (though they possessed between them a yearly income of near twice five thousand) that it had nearly rendered her injunction abortive; and they treated the whole family for some time afterwards with the greatest coolness, and even rudeness; as if to convince them, that though Mrs. Rayland had thus acknowledged their relationship, it gave them no claim whatever on the future kindness of her surviving sisters.

For some years afterwards the dinners, to which in great form the whole family were invited twice a year, were entirely omitted, and none of them admitted to the honour of visiting at the Hall, but Orlando, then a child of nine or ten years old; and even his introduction was principally owing to the favour of an old lady, the widow of a clergyman, who was among the ancient friends of the family, that still enjoyed the privilege of being regularly sent for in the old family coach, once a year; a custom which, originating in the days of Sir Hildebrand, was still retained.

This lady was a woman of sense and benevolence, 4 and had often attempted to do kind offices to the Somerive family with their rich maiden relations: but the height of her success amounted to no more than obtaining a renewal of the very little notice that had ever been taken of them, after those capricious fits of coldness which sometimes happened; and once, some time after the death of the elder Mrs. Rayland, bringing Orlando to the Hall in her hand (whom she had met by chance fishing in a stream that ran through their domain), not without being chidden for encouraging an idle child to catch minnows, or for leading him all dirty and wet into their parlour, at a time when the best embroidered chairs, done by the hands of dame Gertrude Rayland, were actually unpapered, and uncovered for the reception of company.

There was indeed in the figure, face and manner of Orlando, something so irresistible, that if Mesdames Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megara had seen him, they would probably have been softened in his favour—And this something, had always so pleaded for him with the three equally formidable ladies his relations, that notwith­standing the opposition of their favourite maid, who was in person and feature well worthy to make the fourth in such a group, and the tales of their old and confidential butler, who did not admire the introduction of any competitor whatever, Orlando had always been in some degree of favour—even when father, mother and sisters were shut out, and his elder brother entirely disclaimed as a wild and incorrigible boy, who had been caught in the fact of hunting divers cats, and shooting one of their guinea hens—Orlando, though not at all less wild than his brother, and too artless to conceal his vivacity, was still endured—A new half-crown from each of the ladies was presented to him on every 5 return to school, together with abundance of excellent advice; and if any one observed that he was a remarkably handsome boy, the ladies never contradicted it; though, when the same observation was made as to the rest of the family, it was declared to be most absurd, and utterly unfounded in truth.—To the beauty indeed of any female the ladies of Rayland Hall had a particular objection, but that of the Miss Somerives was above all obnoxious to them—Nor could they ever forget the error the grandfather of these children had committed in marrying for her beauty the young woman, whose poverty having reduced her to be their humble companion, they had considered as an inferior being, and had treated with supercilious insolence and contempt—To those therefore to whom her unlucky beauty was transmitted, they bore irrecon­cileable enmity, even in the second generation; and had any one been artful enough to have suggested that Orlando was like his grandmother, it would probably have occasioned the loss even of the slight share of favour he possessed.

When Orlando was about twelve years old, the younger of the three antique heiresses died: she left not however even a small legacy to the Somerive family, but gave every thing she possessed to her surviving sister. Yet even by this lady, though the coldest and most unsociable tempered of the three, Orlando was not entirely forgotten—she left him the bible she always used in her closet, and ten pounds to buy mourning; the other members of his family were not even named.

One only of the Mrs. Raylands now remained; a woman who, except regularly keeping up the payment of the annual alms, which had by her ancestors been given once a year to the poor of her parish, was never known to have done a voluntary 6 kindness to any human being: and though she sometimes gave away money, it was never without making the wretched petitioner pay most dearly for it, by many a bitter humiliation—never, but when it was surely known, and her great goodness, her liberal donation to such and such people, were certainly related with exaggeration, at the two market-towns within four or five miles of her house.

With a very large income, and a great annual saving, her expences were regulated exactly by the customs of her family.—She lived, generally alone, at the Old Hall, which had not received the slightest alteration, either in its environs or its furniture, since it was embellished for the marriage of her father Sir Hildebrand, in 1698.

Twice a year, when courts were held for the manors, there were tenants feasts—and twice there was a grand dinner, to which none were admitted but a neighbouring nobleman, and the two or three titled people who resided within ten miles.—Twice too in the course of the year the family of Somerive were invited in form; but Mrs. Rayland generally took the same opportunity of asking the clergy of the surrounding country with their wives and daughters, the attorneys and apothecaries of the adjoining towns with theirs, as if to convince the Somerives that they were to expect no distinction on account of the kindred they claimed to the house of Rayland.—And indeed it was on these occasions that Mrs. Rayland seemed to take peculiar pleasure in mortifying Mrs. Somerive and her daughters, who dreaded these dinner days as those of the greatest penance; and who at Christmas, one of the periods of these formal dinners, have blest more than once the propitious snow; through which that important and magisterial personage, 7 the body coachman of Mrs. Rayland, did not choose to venture himself, or the six sleek animals of which he was sole governor; for on these occasions it was the established rule to send for the family, with the same solemnity and the same parade that had been used ever since the first sullen and reluctant recon­ciliation between Sir Hildebrand and his sister; when she dared to deviate from the fastidious arrogance of her family, and to marry a man who farmed his own estate—and who, though long settled as a very respectable land-owner, had not yet written ‘Armiger’ after his name.

But when the snow fell not, and the ways were passable; or when in summer no excuse was left, and the rheumatism of the elder, or the colds of the younger ladies could not be pleaded; the females of the family of Somerive were compelled to endure, in all their terrific and tedious forms, the grand dinners at the Hall. And though on these occasions the mother and the daughters endeavoured, by the simplicity of their dress, and the humility of their manners, to disarm the haughty dislike which Mrs. Rayland never took any pains to conceal, they never could obtain from her even as much common civility as she deigned to bestow on the ladies who were not connected with her; and Mr. Somerive had often been so much hurt by her supercilious behaviour towards his wife and daughters, that he had frequently resolved they should never again be exposed to endure it. But these resolutions his wife, hateful as the ceremony was to her, always contrived to prevail upon him to give up, rather than incur the hazard of injuring her family by an unpardonable offence against a capricious and ill-natured old woman, who, however oddly she behaved, was still by many people believed to intend giving all her fortune to those who had undoubtedly 8 the best claim to it; others indeed thought, with more appearance of probability, that she would endow an hospital, or divide it among public charities.

When the young Orlando was at home, and accompanied his family in these visits, the austere visage of Mrs. Rayland was alone seen to relax into a smile—and as he grew older, this partiality was observed evidently to increase, insomuch that the neighbours observed, that whatever aversion the old Lady had to feminine beauty, she did not detest that which nature had very liberally bestowed on Orlando.—He was seventeen, and was not only one of the finest looking lads in that country, but had long since obtained all the knowledge he could acquire at a neighbouring grammar school; from whence his father now took him, and began to consider of plans for his future life.—The eldest son, who would, as the father fondly hoped, succeed to the Rayland estate, he had sent to Oxford, where he had been indulged in his natural turn to expence; and his father had suffered him to live rather suitably to what he expected than to what he was sure of.—In this Mr. Somerive had acted extremely wrong; but it was from motives so natural, that his error was rather lamented than blamed. An error however, and of the most dangerous tendency, he had now discovered it to be; young Somerive had violent passions, and an under­standing very ill suited to their management.—He had early in life seized with avidity the idea, which servants and tenants were ready enough to communicate, that he must have the Rayland estate; and had very thoughtlessly expressed this to those who failed not to repeat it to their present mistress, tenacious of her power, and jealous of every attempt to encroach on her property.—He had besides trespassed on some 9 remote corners of her manors; and her game-keeper had represented him as a terrible depredator among her partridges, pheasants, and hares. These offences, added to the cat-chases, and tying canisters to the tails of certain dogs, of which he had been convicted in the early part of his life, had made so deep an impression against him, that now, whenever he was at home, the family were never asked; and insensibly, from calling now and then to enquire after her while Mrs. Rayland lay ill of a violent fit of the gout, Orlando had been admitted to drink his tea at the Hall; then to dine there; and at last, as winter came on with stormy evenings and bad roads, he had been allowed to sleep in a little tapestry room, next to the old library at the end of the north wing—a division of the house so remote from that inhabited by the female part (or indeed by any part) of the family, that it could give no ideas of indecorum even to the iron prudery of Mrs. Rayland herself.

Though Orlando was of a temper which made it impossible for him to practise any of those arts by which the regard of such a woman could be secured; and though the degree of favour he had obtained was long rather a misery than a pleasure to him; his brother beheld the progress he made with jealousy and anger, and began to hate Orlando for having gained advantages of which he openly avowed his disdain and contempt.—As his expences, which his father could no longer support, had by this time obliged him to quit the university, he was now almost always at home; and his sneering reproaches, as well as his wild and unguarded conversation, rendered that home every day less pleasant to Orlando—while the quiet asylum he had obtained at the Hall, in a room adjoining to that where a great collection of books 10 were never disturbed in their long slumber by any human being but himself, endeared to him the gloomy abode of the Sybil, and reconciled him to the penance he was still obliged to undergo; for he was now become passionately fond of reading, and thought the use of such a library cheaply earned by acting as a sort of chaplain, reading the psalms and lessons every day, and the service in very bad weather; with a sermon on Sunday evening. And he even gradually forgot his murmurings at being imprisoned on Sundays and on Fridays in the great old long-bottomed coach, while it was dragged in a most solemn pace either to the next parish church, which was indeed at but a short distance from the mansion, or to that of a neighbouring town, whither, on some propitious and sunny days of summer, the old lady loved to proceed in state, and to display to her rustic or more enlightened neighbours a specimen of the magnificence of the last century. But as history must conceal no part of the truth, from partiality to the hero it celebrates, it must not be denied that the young Orlando had, though insensibly and almost unknown to himself, another motive for submitting with a good grace to pass much of his time in a way, for which, thinking as he thought, the prospect of even boundless wealth could have made him no compensation.—To explain this, it may be necessary to describe the persons who from his ninth year, when he became first so much distin­guished by Mrs. Rayland, till his eighteenth, composed the houshold, of which he, during that period, occasionally made a part.

Notes and Corrections: Chapter I

the three co-heiresses
[Primogeniture applied only to sons. If a man left nothing but daughters, his property was normally divided among them.]

to marry a man who farmed his own estate
[Where “farmed” means “hired day laborers to do the work”.]

composed the household
text has houshold
[Corrected from 2nd edition.]


The confidential servant, or rather companion and femme de charge of Mrs. Rayland

The Old Manor House:
Introduction and Contents

 

The original of this text is in the public domain—at least in the U.S.
My notes are copyright, as are all under-the-hood elements.
If in doubt, ask.