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HOME > Religious Fiction > The Death of the Moth, and other essays > Reflections at Sheffield Place ** Written in May 1937
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Reflections at Sheffield Place ** Written in May 1937
  The great ponds at Sheffield Place at the right season of the year are bordered with red, white and purple reflections, for rhododendrons are massed upon the banks and when the wind passes over the real flowers the water flowers shake and break into each other. But there, in an opening among the trees stands a great fantastic house, and since it was there that John Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, lived, since it was there that Gibbon stayed, another reflection imposes itself upon the water trance. Did the historian himself ever pause here to cast a phrase, and if so what words would he have found for those same floating flowers? Great lord of language as he was, no doubt he filled his mind from the fountain of natural beauty. The exactions of the DECLINE AND FALL meant, of course, the death and dismissal of many words deserving of immortal life. Order and seemliness were drastically imposed. It was a question, he reflected, “whether some flowers of fancy, some grateful errors, have not been eradicated with the weeds of prejudice.” Still his mind was a whispering gallery of words; the famous “barefooted friars” singing vespers may have been a recollection of Marlowe’s “And ducke as low as any bare-foot Fryar,” murmuring in the background. Be this as it may, to consider what Gibbon would have said had he seen the rhododendrons reflected in the water is an idle exercise, for in his day, late in the eighteenth century, a girl who looked out of the window of Sheffield Place saw not rhododendrons “but four young swans . . . now entirely grey” floating upon the water. Moreover, it is unlikely that he ever bestirred himself to walk in the grounds. “Gib,” that same girl, Maria Josepha Holroyd, remarked, “is a mortal enemy to any person taking a walk, and he is so frigid that he makes us sit by a good roasting Christmas fire every evening.” There he sat in the summer evening talking endlessly, delightfully, in the best of spirits, for no place was more like home to him than Sheffield Place, and he looked upon the Holroyds as his own flesh and blood.

Seen through Maria’s eyes Gibbon — she called him sometimes “Gib,” sometimes “le grand Gibbon,” sometimes “The Historian”— looked different from Gibbon seen by himself. In 1792 she was a girl of twenty-one; he was a man of fifty-five. To him she was “the tall and blooming Maria”; “the soft and stately Maria,” a niece by adoption, whose manners he could correct; whose future he could forecast —“That establishment must be splendid; that life must be happy”; whose style, especially one metaphor about the Rhine escaping its banks, he could approve. But to her he was often an object of ridicule; he was so fat; such a figure of fun “waddling across the room whenever she [Madame da Silva] appeared, and sitting by her and looking at her, till his round eyes run down with water”; rather testy too, an old bachelor, who lived like clockwork and hated to have his plans upset; but at the same time, she had to admit, the most delightful of talkers. That summer night he drew out the two young men who were staying in the house, Fred North and Mr. Douglas, and made them far more entertaining than they would have been without him. “It was impossible to have selected three Beaux who could have been more agreeable, whether their conversation was trifling or serious,” whether they talked about Greek and Latin or turtle soup. For that summer Mr. Gibbon was “raving” about turtles and wanted Lord Sheffield to have one brought from London. Maria’s gaze rested upon him with a mixture of amusement and respect; but it did not rest upon him alone. For not only were Fred North and Mr. Douglas in the room, and the swans on the pond outside and the woods; but soldiers were tramping past the Park gates; the Prince himself was holding a review; they were going over to inspect the camp; Mr. Gibbon and Aunt Serena in the post chaise; she, if only her father would let her, on horseback. But the sight of her father suggested other cares; he was wildly hospitable; he had asked the Prince and the Duke to stay; and as her mother was dead, all the catering, all the entertaining fell upon her. There was too something in her father’s face that made her look at Mr. Gibbon as if for support; he was the only man who could influence her father; who could bring him to reason; who could check his extravagance, restrain . . . But here she paused, for there was some weakness in her father’s character that could not be put into plain language by a daughter. At any rate she was very glad when he married a second time “for I feel delighted to think when sooner or later troubles come, as we who know the gentleman must fear . . .” Whatever frailty of her father’s she hinted at, Mr. Gibbon was the only one of his friends whose good sense could restrain him.

The relation between the Peer and the Historian was very singular. They were devoted. But what tie was it that attached the downright, self-confident, perhaps loose-living man of the world to the suave, erudite sedentary historian?— the attraction of opposites perhaps. Sheffield, with his finger in every pie, his outright, downright man of-the-world’s good sense, supplied the historian with what he must sometimes have needed — someone to call him “you damned beast,” someone to give him a solid footing on English earth. In Parliament Gibbon was dumb; in love he was ineffective. But his friend Holroyd was a member of a dozen committees; before one wife was two years in the grave he had married another. If it is true that friends are chosen partly in order to live lives that we cannot live in our own persons, then we can understand why the Peer and the Historian were devoted; why the great writer divested himself of his purple language and wrote racy colloquial English to Sheffield; why Sheffield curbed his extravagance and restrained his passions in deference to Gibbon; why Gibbon crossed Europe, in a post chaise to console Sheffield for his wife’s death; and why Sheffield, though always busied with a thousand affairs of his own, yet found time to manage Gibbon’s tangled money matters; and was now indeed engaged in arranging the business of Aunt Hester’s legacy.

Considering Hester Gibbon’s low opinion of her nephew and her own convictions it was surprising that she had left him any thing at all. To her Gibbon stood for all those lusts of the flesh, all those vanities of the intellect which many years previously she had renounced. Many years ago, many years before the summer night when they sat round the fire in the Library and discussed Latin and Greek and turtle soup, Hester Gibbon had put all such vanities behind her. She had left Putney and the paternal house to follow her brother’s tutor William Law to his home in Northamptonshire. There in the village of King’s Cliffe she lived with him trying to understand his mystic philosophy, more successfully putting it into practice; teaching the ignorant; living frugally; feeding beggars, spending her substance on charity. There at last, for she made no haste to join the Saints as her nephew observed, at the age of eighty-six she lay by Law’s side in his grave; while Mrs. Hutcheson, who had shared his house but not his love, lay in an inferior position at their feet. Every difference that could divide two human beings seems to have divided the aunt from the nephew; and yet they had something in common. The suburban world of Putney had called her mad because she believed too much; the learned world of divinity had called him wicked because he believed too little. Both aunt and nephew found it impossible to hit off the exact degree of scepticism and belief which the world holds reasonable. And this very difference perha............
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