Thomas Hardy.

A group of noble dames, That is to say, The first Countess of Wessex--Barbara of the house of Grebe--The Marchioness of Stonehenge--Lady Mottisfont--The Lady Icenway--Squire Petrick's Lady--Anna, Lady Baxby--The Lady Penelope--The Duchess of Hamptonshire and The Honourable Laura online

. (page 1 of 16)
Online LibraryThomas HardyA group of noble dames, That is to say, The first Countess of Wessex--Barbara of the house of Grebe--The Marchioness of Stonehenge--Lady Mottisfont--The Lady Icenway--Squire Petrick's Lady--Anna, Lady Baxby--The Lady Penelope--The Duchess of Hamptonshire and The Honourable Laura → online text (page 1 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Transcribed from the 1920 Macmillan and Co. edition by David Price, email
[email protected]





A GROUP OF NOBLE DAMES


THAT IS TO SAY

THE FIRST COUNTESS OF WESSEX
BARBARA OF THE HOSE OF GREBE
THE MARCHIONESS OF STONEHENGE,
LADY MOTTIFONT SQUIRE PETRICK'S LADY
THE LADY ICENWAY ANNA, LADY BAXBY
THE LADY PENELOPE
THE DUCHESS OF HAMPTONSHIRE; AND
THE HONOURABLE LAURA

BY
THOMAS HARDY

'. . . Store of Ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence.' - L'ALLEGRO.

WITH A MAP OF WESSEX

MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
ST. MARTIN'S STREET, LONDON
1920

COPYRIGHT

_First Collected Edition_ 1891
_New Edition and reprints_ 1896-1900
_First published by Macmillan & Co._, _Crown_ 8vo, 1903
_Pocket Edition_ 1907 _Reprinted_ 1911, 1914, 1917, 1919, 1920

Contents:

Preface
Part I - Before Dinner
The First Countess of Wessex
Barbara of the House of Grebe
The Marchioness of Stonehenge
Lady Mottisfont
Part II - After Dinner
The Lady Icenway
Squire Petrick's Lady
Anna, Lady Baxby
The Lady Penelope
The Duchess Of Hamptonshire
The Honourable Laura




PREFACE


The pedigrees of our county families, arranged in diagrams on the pages
of county histories, mostly appear at first sight to be as barren of any
touch of nature as a table of logarithms. But given a clue - the faintest
tradition of what went on behind the scenes, and this dryness as of dust
may be transformed into a palpitating drama. More, the careful
comparison of dates alone - that of birth with marriage, of marriage with
death, of one marriage, birth, or death with a kindred marriage, birth,
or death - will often effect the same transformation, and anybody
practised in raising images from such genealogies finds himself
unconsciously filling into the framework the motives, passions, and
personal qualities which would appear to be the single explanation
possible of some extraordinary conjunction in times, events, and
personages that occasionally marks these reticent family records.

Out of such pedigrees and supplementary material most of the following
stories have arisen and taken shape.

I would make this preface an opportunity of expressing my sense of the
courtesy and kindness of several bright-eyed Noble Dames yet in the
flesh, who, since the first publication of these tales in periodicals,
six or seven years ago, have given me interesting comments and
conjectures on such of the narratives as they have recognized to be
connected with their own families, residences, or traditions; in which
they have shown a truly philosophic absence of prejudice in their regard
of those incidents whose relation has tended more distinctly to dramatize
than to eulogize their ancestors. The outlines they have also given of
other singular events in their family histories for use in a second
"Group of Noble Dames," will, I fear, never reach the printing-press
through me; but I shall store them up in memory of my informants' good
nature.

T. H.

_June_ 1896.




DAME THE FIRST - THE FIRST COUNTESS OF WESSEX
By the Local Historian


King's-Hintock Court (said the narrator, turning over his memoranda for
reference) - King's-Hintock Court is, as we know, one of the most imposing
of the mansions that overlook our beautiful Blackmoor or Blakemore Vale.
On the particular occasion of which I have to speak this building stood,
as it had often stood before, in the perfect silence of a calm clear
night, lighted only by the cold shine of the stars. The season was
winter, in days long ago, the last century having run but little more
than a third of its length. North, south, and west, not a casement was
unfastened, not a curtain undrawn; eastward, one window on the upper
floor was open, and a girl of twelve or thirteen was leaning over the
sill. That she had not taken up the position for purposes of observation
was apparent at a glance, for she kept her eyes covered with her hands.

The room occupied by the girl was an inner one of a suite, to be reached
only by passing through a large bedchamber adjoining. From this
apartment voices in altercation were audible, everything else in the
building being so still. It was to avoid listening to these voices that
the girl had left her little cot, thrown a cloak round her head and
shoulders, and stretched into the night air.

But she could not escape the conversation, try as she would. The words
reached her in all their painfulness, one sentence in masculine tones,
those of her father, being repeated many times.

'I tell 'ee there shall be no such betrothal! I tell 'ee there sha'n't!
A child like her!'

She knew the subject of dispute to be herself. A cool feminine voice,
her mother's, replied:

'Have done with you, and be wise. He is willing to wait a good five or
six years before the marriage takes place, and there's not a man in the
county to compare with him.'

'It shall not be! He is over thirty. It is wickedness.'

'He is just thirty, and the best and finest man alive - a perfect match
for her.'

'He is poor!'

'But his father and elder brothers are made much of at Court - none so
constantly at the palace as they; and with her fortune, who knows? He
may be able to get a barony.'

'I believe you are in love with en yourself!'

'How can you insult me so, Thomas! And is it not monstrous for you to
talk of my wickedness when you have a like scheme in your own head? You
know you have. Some bumpkin of your own choosing - some petty gentleman
who lives down at that outlandish place of yours, Falls-Park - one of your
pot-companions' sons - '

There was an outburst of imprecation on the part of her husband in lieu
of further argument. As soon as he could utter a connected sentence he
said: 'You crow and you domineer, mistress, because you are
heiress-general here. You are in your own house; you are on your own
land. But let me tell 'ee that if I did come here to you instead of
taking you to me, it was done at the dictates of convenience merely. H - -!
I'm no beggar! Ha'n't I a place of my own? Ha'n't I an avenue as
long as thine? Ha'n't I beeches that will more than match thy oaks? I
should have lived in my own quiet house and land, contented, if you had
not called me off with your airs and graces. Faith, I'll go back there;
I'll not stay with thee longer! If it had not been for our Betty I
should have gone long ago!'

After this there were no more words; but presently, hearing the sound of
a door opening and shutting below, the girl again looked from the window.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel-walk, and a shape in a drab greatcoat,
easily distinguishable as her father, withdrew from the house. He moved
to the left, and she watched him diminish down the long east front till
he had turned the corner and vanished. He must have gone round to the
stables.

She closed the window and shrank into bed, where she cried herself to
sleep. This child, their only one, Betty, beloved ambitiously by her
mother, and with uncalculating passionateness by her father, was
frequently made wretched by such episodes as this; though she was too
young to care very deeply, for her own sake, whether her mother betrothed
her to the gentleman discussed or not.

The Squire had often gone out of the house in this manner, declaring that
he would never return, but he had always reappeared in the morning. The
present occasion, however, was different in the issue: next day she was
told that her father had ridden to his estate at Falls-Park early in the
morning on business with his agent, and might not come back for some
days.

* * * * *

Falls-Park was over twenty miles from King's-Hintock Court, and was
altogether a more modest centre-piece to a more modest possession than
the latter. But as Squire Dornell came in view of it that February
morning, he thought that he had been a fool ever to leave it, though it
was for the sake of the greatest heiress in Wessex. Its classic front,
of the period of the second Charles, derived from its regular features a
dignity which the great, battlemented, heterogeneous mansion of his wife
could not eclipse. Altogether he was sick at heart, and the gloom which
the densely-timbered park threw over the scene did not tend to remove the
depression of this rubicund man of eight-and-forty, who sat so heavily
upon his gelding. The child, his darling Betty: there lay the root of
his trouble. He was unhappy when near his wife, he was unhappy when away
from his little girl; and from this dilemma there was no practicable
escape. As a consequence he indulged rather freely in the pleasures of
the table, became what was called a three bottle man, and, in his wife's
estimation, less and less presentable to her polite friends from town.

He was received by the two or three old servants who were in charge of
the lonely place, where a few rooms only were kept habitable for his use
or that of his friends when hunting; and during the morning he was made
more comfortable by the arrival of his faithful servant Tupcombe from
King's-Hintock. But after a day or two spent here in solitude he began
to feel that he had made a mistake in coming. By leaving King's-Hintock
in his anger he had thrown away his best opportunity of counteracting his
wife's preposterous notion of promising his poor little Betty's hand to a
man she had hardly seen. To protect her from such a repugnant bargain he
should have remained on the spot. He felt it almost as a misfortune that
the child would inherit so much wealth. She would be a mark for all the
adventurers in the kingdom. Had she been only the heiress to his own
unassuming little place at Falls, how much better would have been her
chances of happiness!

His wife had divined truly when she insinuated that he himself had a
lover in view for this pet child. The son of a dear deceased friend of
his, who lived not two miles from where the Squire now was, a lad a
couple of years his daughter's senior, seemed in her father's opinion the
one person in the world likely to make her happy. But as to breathing
such a scheme to either of the young people with the indecent haste that
his wife had shown, he would not dream of it; years hence would be soon
enough for that. They had already seen each other, and the Squire
fancied that he noticed a tenderness on the youth's part which promised
well. He was strongly tempted to profit by his wife's example, and
forestall her match-making by throwing the two young people together
there at Falls. The girl, though marriageable in the views of those
days, was too young to be in love, but the lad was fifteen, and already
felt an interest in her.

Still better than keeping watch over her at King's Hintock, where she was
necessarily much under her mother's influence, would it be to get the
child to stay with him at Falls for a time, under his exclusive control.
But how accomplish this without using main force? The only possible
chance was that his wife might, for appearance' sake, as she had done
before, consent to Betty paying him a day's visit, when he might find
means of detaining her till Reynard, the suitor whom his wife favoured,
had gone abroad, which he was expected to do the following week. Squire
Dornell determined to return to King's-Hintock and attempt the
enterprise. If he were refused, it was almost in him to pick up Betty
bodily and carry her off.

The journey back, vague and Quixotic as were his intentions, was
performed with a far lighter heart than his setting forth. He would see
Betty, and talk to her, come what might of his plan.

So he rode along the dead level which stretches between the hills
skirting Falls-Park and those bounding the town of Ivell, trotted through
that borough, and out by the King's-Hintock highway, till, passing the
villages he entered the mile-long drive through the park to the Court.
The drive being open, without an avenue, the Squire could discern the
north front and door of the Court a long way off, and was himself visible
from the windows on that side; for which reason he hoped that Betty might
perceive him coming, as she sometimes did on his return from an outing,
and run to the door or wave her handkerchief.

But there was no sign. He inquired for his wife as soon as he set foot
to earth.

'Mistress is away. She was called to London, sir.'

'And Mistress Betty?' said the Squire blankly.

'Gone likewise, sir, for a little change. Mistress has left a letter for
you.'

The note explained nothing, merely stating that she had posted to London
on her own affairs, and had taken the child to give her a holiday. On
the fly-leaf were some words from Betty herself to the same effect,
evidently written in a state of high jubilation at the idea of her jaunt.
Squire Dornell murmured a few expletives, and submitted to his
disappointment. How long his wife meant to stay in town she did not say;
but on investigation he found that the carriage had been packed with
sufficient luggage for a sojourn of two or three weeks.

King's-Hintock Court was in consequence as gloomy as Falls-Park had been.
He had lost all zest for hunting of late, and had hardly attended a meet
that season. Dornell read and re-read Betty's scrawl, and hunted up some
other such notes of hers to look over, this seeming to be the only
pleasure there was left for him. That they were really in London he
learnt in a few days by another letter from Mrs. Dornell, in which she
explained that they hoped to be home in about a week, and that she had
had no idea he was coming back to King's-Hintock so soon, or she would
not have gone away without telling him.

Squire Dornell wondered if, in going or returning, it had been her plan
to call at the Reynards' place near Melchester, through which city their
journey lay. It was possible that she might do this in furtherance of
her project, and the sense that his own might become the losing game was
harassing.

He did not know how to dispose of himself, till it occurred to him that,
to get rid of his intolerable heaviness, he would invite some friends to
dinner and drown his cares in grog and wine. No sooner was the carouse
decided upon than he put it in hand; those invited being mostly
neighbouring landholders, all smaller men than himself, members of the
hunt; also the doctor from Evershead, and the like - some of them
rollicking blades whose presence his wife would not have countenanced had
she been at home. 'When the cat's away - !' said the Squire.

They arrived, and there were indications in their manner that they meant
to make a night of it. Baxby of Sherton Castle was late, and they waited
a quarter of an hour for him, he being one of the liveliest of Dornell's
friends; without whose presence no such dinner as this would be
considered complete, and, it may be added, with whose presence no dinner
which included both sexes could be conducted with strict propriety. He
had just returned from London, and the Squire was anxious to talk to
him - for no definite reason; but he had lately breathed the atmosphere in
which Betty was.

At length they heard Baxby driving up to the door, whereupon the host and
the rest of his guests crossed over to the dining-room. In a moment
Baxby came hastily in at their heels, apologizing for his lateness.

'I only came back last night, you know,' he said; 'and the truth o't is,
I had as much as I could carry.' He turned to the Squire. 'Well,
Dornell - so cunning Reynard has stolen your little ewe lamb? Ha, ha!'

'What?' said Squire Dornell vacantly, across the dining-table, round
which they were all standing, the cold March sunlight streaming in upon
his full-clean shaven face.

'Surely th'st know what all the town knows? - you've had a letter by this
time? - that Stephen Reynard has married your Betty? Yes, as I'm a living
man. It was a carefully-arranged thing: they parted at once, and are not
to meet for five or six years. But, Lord, you must know!'

A thud on the floor was the only reply of the Squire. They quickly
turned. He had fallen down like a log behind the table, and lay
motionless on the oak boards.

Those at hand hastily bent over him, and the whole group were in
confusion. They found him to be quite unconscious, though puffing and
panting like a blacksmith's bellows. His face was livid, his veins
swollen, and beads of perspiration stood upon his brow.

'What's happened to him?' said several.

'An apoplectic fit,' said the doctor from Evershead, gravely.

He was only called in at the Court for small ailments, as a rule, and
felt the importance of the situation. He lifted the Squire's head,
loosened his cravat and clothing, and rang for the servants, who took the
Squire upstairs.

There he lay as if in a drugged sleep. The surgeon drew a basin-full of
blood from him, but it was nearly six o'clock before he came to himself.
The dinner was completely disorganized, and some had gone home long ago;
but two or three remained.

'Bless my soul,' Baxby kept repeating, 'I didn't know things had come to
this pass between Dornell and his lady! I thought the feast he was
spreading to-day was in honour of the event, though privately kept for
the present! His little maid married without his knowledge!'

As soon as the Squire recovered consciousness he gasped: ''Tis abduction!
'Tis a capital felony! He can be hung! Where is Baxby? I am very well
now. What items have ye heard, Baxby?'

The bearer of the untoward news was extremely unwilling to agitate
Dornell further, and would say little more at first. But an hour after,
when the Squire had partially recovered and was sitting up, Baxby told as
much as he knew, the most important particular being that Betty's mother
was present at the marriage, and showed every mark of approval.
'Everything appeared to have been done so regularly that I, of course,
thought you knew all about it,' he said.

'I knew no more than the underground dead that such a step was in the
wind! A child not yet thirteen! How Sue hath outwitted me! Did Reynard
go up to Lon'on with 'em, d'ye know?'

'I can't say. All I know is that your lady and daughter were walking
along the street, with the footman behind 'em; that they entered a
jeweller's shop, where Reynard was standing; and that there, in the
presence o' the shopkeeper and your man, who was called in on purpose,
your Betty said to Reynard - so the story goes: 'pon my soul I don't vouch
for the truth of it - she said, "Will you marry me?" or, "I want to marry
you: will you have me - now or never?" she said.'

'What she said means nothing,' murmured the Squire, with wet eyes. 'Her
mother put the words into her mouth to avoid the serious consequences
that would attach to any suspicion of force. The words be not the
child's: she didn't dream of marriage - how should she, poor little maid!
Go on.'

'Well, be that as it will, they were all agreed apparently. They bought
the ring on the spot, and the marriage took place at the nearest church
within half-an-hour.'

* * * * *

A day or two later there came a letter from Mrs. Dornell to her husband,
written before she knew of his stroke. She related the circumstances of
the marriage in the gentlest manner, and gave cogent reasons and excuses
for consenting to the premature union, which was now an accomplished fact
indeed. She had no idea, till sudden pressure was put upon her, that the
contract was expected to be carried out so soon, but being taken half
unawares, she had consented, having learned that Stephen Reynard, now
their son-in-law, was becoming a great favourite at Court, and that he
would in all likelihood have a title granted him before long. No harm
could come to their dear daughter by this early marriage-contract, seeing
that her life would be continued under their own eyes, exactly as before,
for some years. In fine, she had felt that no other such fair
opportunity for a good marriage with a shrewd courtier and wise man of
the world, who was at the same time noted for his excellent personal
qualities, was within the range of probability, owing to the rusticated
lives they led at King's-Hintock. Hence she had yielded to Stephen's
solicitation, and hoped her husband would forgive her. She wrote, in
short, like a woman who, having had her way as to the deed, is prepared
to make any concession as to words and subsequent behaviour.

All this Dornell took at its true value, or rather, perhaps, at less than
its true value. As his life depended upon his not getting into a
passion, he controlled his perturbed emotions as well as he was able,
going about the house sadly and utterly unlike his former self. He took
every precaution to prevent his wife knowing of the incidents of his
sudden illness, from a sense of shame at having a heart so tender; a
ridiculous quality, no doubt, in her eyes, now that she had become so
imbued with town ideas. But rumours of his seizure somehow reached her,
and she let him know that she was about to return to nurse him. He
thereupon packed up and went off to his own place at Falls-Park.

Here he lived the life of a recluse for some time. He was still too
unwell to entertain company, or to ride to hounds or elsewhither; but
more than this, his aversion to the faces of strangers and acquaintances,
who knew by that time of the trick his wife had played him, operated to
hold him aloof.

Nothing could influence him to censure Betty for her share in the
exploit. He never once believed that she had acted voluntarily. Anxious
to know how she was getting on, he despatched the trusty servant Tupcombe
to Evershead village, close to King's-Hintock, timing his journey so that
he should reach the place under cover of dark. The emissary arrived
without notice, being out of livery, and took a seat in the
chimney-corner of the Sow-and-Acorn.

The conversation of the droppers-in was always of the nine days'
wonder - the recent marriage. The smoking listener learnt that Mrs.
Dornell and the girl had returned to King's-Hintock for a day or two,
that Reynard had set out for the Continent, and that Betty had since been
packed off to school. She did not realize her position as Reynard's
child-wife - so the story went - and though somewhat awe-stricken at first
by the ceremony, she had soon recovered her spirits on finding that her
freedom was in no way to be interfered with.

After that, formal messages began to pass between Dornell and his wife,
the latter being now as persistently conciliating as she was formerly
masterful. But her rustic, simple, blustering husband still held
personally aloof. Her wish to be reconciled - to win his forgiveness for
her stratagem - moreover, a genuine tenderness and desire to soothe his
sorrow, which welled up in her at times, brought her at last to his door
at Falls-Park one day.

They had not met since that night of altercation, before her departure
for London and his subsequent illness. She was shocked at the change in
him. His face had become expressionless, as blank as that of a puppet,
and what troubled her still more was that she found him living in one
room, and indulging freely in stimulants, in absolute disobedience to the
physician's order. The fact was obvious that he could no longer be
allowed to live thus uncouthly.

So she sympathized, and begged his pardon, and coaxed. But though after
this date there was no longer such a complete estrangement as before,
they only occasionally saw each other, Dornell for the most part making
Falls his headquarters still.

Three or four years passed thus. Then she came one day, with more
animation in her manner, and at once moved him by the simple statement
that Betty's schooling had ended; she had returned, and was grieved
because he was away. She had sent a message to him in these words: 'Ask
father to come home to his dear Betty.'

'Ah! Then she is very unhappy!' said Squire Dornell.

His wife was silent.

''Tis that accursed marriage!' continued the Squire.

Still his wife would not dispute with him. 'She is outside in the
carriage,' said Mrs. Dornell gently.

'What - Betty?'

'Yes.'

'Why didn't you tell me?' Dornell rushed out, and there was the girl
awaiting his forgiveness, for she supposed herself, no less than her
mother, to be under his displeasure.

Yes, Betty had left school, and had returned to King's-Hintock. She was
nearly seventeen, and had developed to quite a young woman. She looked
not less a member of the household for her early marriage-contract, which
she seemed, indeed, to have almost forgotten. It was like a dream to
her; that clear cold March day, the London church, with its gorgeous


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryThomas HardyA group of noble dames, That is to say, The first Countess of Wessex--Barbara of the house of Grebe--The Marchioness of Stonehenge--Lady Mottisfont--The Lady Icenway--Squire Petrick's Lady--Anna, Lady Baxby--The Lady Penelope--The Duchess of Hamptonshire and The Honourable Laura → online text (page 1 of 16)