The Spike or Victoria University College Review Silver Jubilee 1924
Links with the Past
Links with the Past
"Narrow were the ways, the walking—
Narrow ways are well to tread
When there's moss beneath the footsteps,
It was a fortunate day for me when the two Miss Drakes decided that they could take me as a paying guest for the summer term. Not knowing them, I might have known Oxford only as a town with beautiful old college buildings, a "gently-flowing" river, shops full of extravagant fashions and gay colours in men's clothing, the "young gentlemen" themselves of the University, the aborigines with their broad speech and slow wits, "tea-houses," bicycles, charabancs and "personally conducted tours"—"only this and nothing more." I would have known too much and not enough. I would never have had that warm feeling of intimacy with the old grey stones and streets had I never known my octogenarian gray ladies of Banbury Road.
Once inside the Miss Drakes' gate (a gate that was always locked at 10 o'clock for fear of burglars) one saw Oxford in a different light. The house, to the vulgar eye, was not much more than a collection of "curiosities." But such as they were, Miss Sarah Drake knew them through and through—each painted Madonna, every bit of carved ivory, all the reproductions of crosses, fonts and reredoses. She showed me wonderful old books of the Bayeux Tapestry—a curious Horn-Book, and much more that I do not remember. But there they were in the mass, making their massive impression. If I single out one set for mention—the greatest wonder and horror of them all—it must be a series of wax females (each under a glass dome) "dressed by my late aunt," said Miss Sarah, "to represent women of each period of our history. Each one is correct to the smallest detail."
The house and all it contained had come to the ladies from their uncle "the late Professor." The Professor had designed the house himself—perhaps that is why nothing but passages open on to the sunny side—why there were so many different levels on each floor and consequently, steps in all kinds of dark corners. By his will, he left his nieces the use of everything for 50 years. "There are only 30 more to go," says Miss Sarah (aged 86), "and then we shall have to fend for ourselves." The ghost of the Professor hangs over the house. I do not think that his nieces feel quite safe from him yet.
Miss Sarah, with outstretched hands and reassuring smile, was the first to greet me. A fine old face, under a trim white lace cap. Her sprightliness prevented one from thinking that she was her age (but when she came in from her daily marketing, a gray look was on her face that made one wish that she would take life less strenuously). She always wore a white starched collar, a lace cravat, and a black satin dress of a most uncommon shape. Miss Alice provided a contrast. She was the delicate member of the family—who, a giddy young thing of 84, had done little but follow the fashions for many a year. Like her sister, very compassionate, Miss Alice had been known to reprimand a carrier for cruelty to his horse and then go to bed for a week with heart attack. All her spare money went (in a sort of playing at secrecy) to clothe and educate the children of an ex-cook page 22 fallen on evil days. Miss Alice used to sit at one end of the long table (they kept their places when no one else was there to fill the long space between) and she reiterated all that her more robust sister had to say... "Miss Mary? Oh yes—an exceedingly nice girl!"
Miss Sarah, as I have said, was 86, and (except on the excursions of the Oxford Ladies' Archaeological and Brass-rubbing Society) had never been out of Oxford for 70 years. In one way or another she had known most of the celebrities of those years. Autographed photos of Dean Burgon and Goldwin Smith hung on the walls. Mr. Ruskin was a constant visitor. The ladies of Oxford resented Mr. Ruskin's temerity in trying to instruct them in the laws of household management. One morning Ruskin appeared looking very pleased with himself to say that he had that morning actually got up and lit his own fire. "But," said Miss Sarah "did you clean the fireplace and lay the fire? There's nothing much in putting a match to a piece of paper."
Every morning about 11, a quaint old fellow with a long white beard and a stoop came in to get the Miss Drakes' copy of the "Times." He was a don and a college librarian—who, it seemed, had been for 40 years pining away with desire for Miss Sarah. However he had been little able to push his own way in the world. "As for me," said Miss Sarah, "I'd rather be an independent spinster than a married prop"! Yet every morning when he comes there is a glass of warm milk or wine put ready, to console him for his loss.
The ladies are by no means well-off, but they contrive to commend themselves to their old friends with regular gifts. In due season a bunch of grapes or asparagus accompanied by the cards of both ladies is despatched to the Dean of Christchurch, or the President of Magdalen. No churchman observes the feasts prescribed by his calendar more punctually than Miss Sarah her calendar of gifts.
The sisters (one of whom, Mrs. Sharpe, has not yet appeared in our brief chronicle) live much in public. Their most absorbing interest is in the Oxford Ladies' Archaeological and Brass Rubbing Society. Miss Sarah, Miss Alice and Mrs. Sharpe themselves fill no fewer than five of the offices of the Society—providing both a quorum and an absolute majority in committee. Not a church within 50 miles but the ladies have scaled its walls, scoured its font and rubbed its brasses. Now they are themselves by way of becoming links with the past they have uprooted and uprubbed.
The sisters, each in her own way, keep alive the "sentiment of Royalty." Miss Sarah goes once a year to a garden party at St. James'—and the gloves that have shaken hands with the Prince of Wales are laid away to sleep in lavender—no more to touch a common hand. Miss Alice, denied the privilege of intimacy with the Reigning House—yet contrives to follow their doings at a distance. Upon the Prince of Wales she showers her constant affection. Every morning she turns to the "Times" to find what he has done the day before, and this she enters in a diary set apart for the purpose.
Mrs Sharpe in her excess of devotion to the House of Windsor, on at least one day of the year entertains the delusion that she is herself a member of it—she throws herself into the observance of Alexandra Day—organizes the making and selling of roses—page break
and finally decorated with them, drives through the streets at the head of a procession, smiling approval on the town.
Much more could I write of my ancient ladies, but let them rest—as soon in truth they will, beneath the grey city they have served, if without distinction, yet with instancy and charity and a single heart. If you would know the city's secret, find them out before it is too late.