30 October 2012

Shandy Hall

The Marbled Page

My wife, Eliza, and I, having recently returned to England from India, desired to visit the north and so, given that I knew of Eliza’s earlier interest in the writer, Parson Sterne, I resolved that, time permitting, we would pass by to meet the gentleman.

We had been away from this country for many years, and time had changed many things.  Our journey was swifter than anticipated and we were able to alight from our carriage in the late morning at the Fauconberg Arms, a modest inn just near St Michael’s Church, where our man was parson.

St Michael's Church, Coxwold

It was an easy walk, a quarter mile, to Shandy Hall.  I have to admit to apprehension and Eliza said perhaps we had better not.  She seemed confused, as if her youthful indiscretions were finally disturbing her.  We proceeded, and entered a yard next the coach-house.  The Hall seemed small, and almost as if it had been composed in different times, by differing means.  Although I thought I heard someone whistling Lillabullero, we could see no one but a cat, which led us to the kitchen door, which was ajar. 

There was no response to my knock, nor to my call, and yet I thought I heard the same whistled tune somewhere within the interior.  It would be a shame, I thought, to have come so far and not to complete the tryst.  I smiled at my joke – a triste tryst, to be tristramed in this way.  My wife held back, but I drew her in, and we stepped into the kitchen, where a fire smouldered in the grate, the deep ochre of the great surround warmer than the ashes.  It seemed a spacious house, as if it were larger inside than expected from without.  The cat, tail aloft, sailed on through the door to the right.  We followed, and found ourselves in a small study, books upon the table, ink blots hurried dabbed on paper, a portrait of himself over the mantelpiece.  A lamp feebly lit the gloom but I could read the words, “Viva la joia!” on the page, and underneath, “Fidon la tristessa!”   Someone had been here recently, and a glass of wine, half full, half empty, stood still warm by an open book of sermons.

Shandy Hall - the great fireplace end
We went through to the green panelled dining room, where I noticed that the clock had stopped, and thence into the comfortably furnished but cold parlour.  We found no-one, and continued into the garden, past the sweet pavilion and round to the sundial overlooking the countryside.  But even the sundial had stopped, as the sun itself had gone.  Eliza seemed relieved, and begged that we may return to the inn.  I myself had lost my earlier will to encounter my rival.  Something about the place, the way the garden wrapped around the house, the worn red brick of the Garden Front, the gentle cosiness within, the homeliness of the place endeared me to its master and I remembered his aphorism that, “True Shandeism…..makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully round.” 

The Garden Front
Then I heard a snatch of Lillabullero again, this time approaching, and I prepared to confront my wife’s correspondent.  But it was not Sterne, nor Shandy, Trim, nor Toby.  Not even Slop, nor indeed Yorrick..  It was in fact a gentleman without a wig or jacket, who bore something shiny in his right ear.  He had high cheek bones and bore a strong resemblance to a painting I had seen of the Reverend Sterne by Joshua Reynolds.  But he was not Sterne.  He introduced himself as Mr Patrick Wildgust, a curate for the Hall, who enquired politely what our business was.

The unwound sundial
When I explained that we had made a considerably lengthy journey to encounter Mr Laurence Sterne, he welcomed us warmly, but he needed to inform us that Mr Sterne no longer lived here, nor indeed anywhere, as he had contracted pleurisy and passed away in London, in 1768.  My wife turned pale, and searched for a kerchief to catch her tears.  I felt the journey had suddenly become too sentimental; the immortal Sterne was now mortalised and there was no turning the clock back, now his time was past.  We thanked the kindly Mr Wildgust for his information, and turned away, somewhat relieved, though somewhat triste as well. 

Shandy Hall - the Front Door

Before we regained the inn, we entered the churchyard and walked up the rise to the door.  The yard was full, but there was not a soul in sight.  A simple stone stood against the wall to commemorate the life and works of one whose ambition had been to write, “a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good – and all your heads too, - provided you understand it.”.  Within the porch an older stone, transported from St George’s, Bayswater, was engraved with an affectionate eulogy.  Then inside we stood for a moment by the box pews, where many a congregation would have heard him preach, and breathed the timeless air.

St Michael's - the view from the pulpit
Eliza, my dear wife, whom I had married when she was seventeen, took my arm, her shoulders convulsing in her sadness.  Back at the inn we asked for food and drink to revive our flagging spirits.  I would have a shandy.  No, make that two, please.  Two halves of bitter shandy……

Alas, Poor Yorrick!

Si quid urbaniuscul√® lusum a nobis…. Oro te, ne me male capias.

Daniel Draper
The East India Company

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