Friday, 21 September 2012

excessive sensibility


As we left town by the Abingdon Bridge,  Jules pointed out the old gaol, now being converted into flats; and, on the other side of the road, the Broad Face Inn, apparently so called to describe the appearance of someone who's been hanged. "They once hung an eight year old boy there," said Julie. "It might be the record for youngest person hanged."

 We were soon in Dorchester on Thames, a village which enjoyed the lack of through traffic that comes from being in a loop of the river. The abbey was huge, spacious and uncluttered. "I used to sing here," said Jules., "The acoustics are lovely."

She told us about this tomb. The young woman had killed herself, and unusually for that time was granted a Christian burial. Here's the inscription:

Reader!
If thou hast a Heart fam’d for
Tenderness and Pity, Contemplate
this Spot
In which are deposited the Remains

of a Young Lady, whose artless Beauty,
 innocence of Mind, and gentle Manners,
once obtained her the Love and
Esteem of all who knew her, But when
Nerves were too delicately spun to
bear the rude Shakes and Jostlings
which we meet with in this transitory
World, Nature gave way.
She sunk and died a Martyr to Excessive Sensibility.
MRS SARAH FLETCHER,
Wife of Captain FLETCHER,
departed this Life at the Village
of Clifton, on the of June 1799,
in the
29 year of her Age.
May her Soul meet that Peace in
Heaven, which this Earth denied her.

I recalled this tomb being described by Robert Gibbings, the engraver, publisher and author, in his book 'Till I End My Song'. He lived just across the river by Wittenham at the time of writing. Here's what he says.

Sarah Fletcher committed suicide, and according to the custom of that period she should have been buried at a cross-roads with a stake through her heart; but instead her body was given a place of honour in the abbey church. Her husband had not only been faithless to her but had proposed matrimony to a wealthy heiress, living at a distance, and had been accepted. Only at the last moment did Sarah hear of this; only just in time to stop the marriage ceremony did she arrive at the church. Then she returned to the big seventeenth-century house at Clifton Hampden where she had spent her married life and with her handkerchief and a piece of 'small-cord' hanged herself from a curtain rod in her bathroom."

The inscription on the abbey floor might reasonably have been the end of this unhappy episode, but that was not to be. As time went on the big house where Sarah had lived and died acquired the reputation of being haunted. Tenants stayed but a short time: the garden became a wilderness, the outbuildings fell to ruin. After some years, because of the low rental that was asked, the place became a school, and though the headmaster had heard rumours of eerie happenings he said nothing of them to his pupils. ‘There are always noises in old houses,’ was his answer to his own questionings. Then in the early hours of a morning the son of that headmaster, a seventeen-year-old boy who later became the Rev. Edward Crake, heard footsteps in the passage, his door was opened and he could hear the footsteps in his room; but though it was moonlight he could see nothing. The unseen walker went from the room and the door closed.

The boy said nothing to his parents of what had happened nor of similar occurrences during the night that followed; but on the third night he determined to leave his door open in order if possible to see the originator of the sounds. And, as he told the story in later years, ‘I had not long to wait; the footsteps of someone wearing high-heeled shoes came into my room; they approached the bed and then retreated. I sprang up and ran into the corridor, fully lighted by the moon, and there the figure of a young woman was made manifest to me. She was standing by one of the long windows and she was wearing a black silk cloak; her hair was bound with a purple-red ribbon. There was nothing dead about her; she seemed tremendously alive but her eyes were full of tears.

‘The next day,’ continued Mr Crake, ‘I mentioned what I had seen to one of the assistant masters and found that I had stumbled on what was common knowledge to the staff, though any hint of it had been withheld from the pupils. At a quarter to three every morning restless footsteps wander from the room in which Sarah Fletcher hanged herself.’

The speaker of these words died in 1915, but others of equal integrity, before and since his death, have told of the footsteps they have heard in that house in the early hours of the morning, and of the woman in a black cloak with tangled auburn hair who had looked out at them from noonday shadows or been seen in the half-shades of moontime.