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 10 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 10 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


quickly. 'One can see well enough what it is for!'

'Well, never mind; beggars mustn't be choosers. The reason or motive is
nothing to us, so that you obtain your desire.'

'I am not a beggar any longer,' said Lady Mottisfont, with proud mystery.

'What do you mean by that?'

Lady Mottisfont hesitated. However, it was only too plain that she did
not now jump at a restitution of one for whom some months before she had
been breaking her heart.

The explanation of this change of mood became apparent some little time
farther on. Lady Mottisfont, after five years of wedded life, was
expecting to become a mother, and the aspect of many things was greatly
altered in her view. Among the more important changes was that of no
longer feeling Dorothy to be absolutely indispensable to her existence.

Meanwhile, in view of her coming marriage, the Countess decided to
abandon the remainder of her term at Fernell Hall, and return to her
pretty little house in town. But she could not do this quite so quickly
as she had expected, and half a year or more elapsed before she finally
quitted the neighbourhood, the interval being passed in alternations
between the country and London. Prior to her last departure she had an
interview with Sir Ashley Mottisfont, and it occurred three days after
his wife had presented him with a son and heir.

'I wanted to speak to you,' said the Countess, looking him luminously in
the face, 'about the dear foundling I have adopted temporarily, and
thought to have adopted permanently. But my marriage makes it too
risky!'

'I thought it might be that,' he answered, regarding her steadfastly back
again, and observing two tears come slowly into her eyes as she heard her
own voice describe Dorothy in those words.

'Don't criticize me,' she said hastily; and recovering herself, went on.
'If Lady Mottisfont could take her back again, as I suggested, it would
be better for me, and certainly no worse for Dorothy. To every one but
ourselves she is but a child I have taken a fancy to, and Lady Mottisfont
coveted her so much, and was very reluctant to let her go . . . I am sure
she will adopt her again?' she added anxiously.

'I will sound her afresh,' said the baronet. 'You leave Dorothy behind
for the present?'

'Yes; although I go away, I do not give up the house for another month.'

He did not speak to his wife about the proposal till some few days after,
when Lady Mottisfont had nearly recovered, and news of the Countess's
marriage in London had just reached them. He had no sooner mentioned
Dorothy's name than Lady Mottisfont showed symptoms of disquietude.

'I have not acquired any dislike of Dorothy,' she said, 'but I feel that
there is one nearer to me now. Dorothy chose the alternative of going to
the Countess, you must remember, when I put it to her as between the
Countess and myself.'

'But, my dear Philippa, how can you argue thus about a child, and that
child our Dorothy?'

'Not _ours_,' said his wife, pointing to the cot. 'Ours is here.'

'What, then, Philippa,' he said, surprised, 'you won't have her back,
after nearly dying of grief at the loss of her?'

'I cannot argue, dear Ashley. I should prefer not to have the
responsibility of Dorothy again. Her place is filled now.'

Her husband sighed, and went out of the chamber. There had been a
previous arrangement that Dorothy should be brought to the house on a
visit that day, but instead of taking her up to his wife, he did not
inform Lady Mottisfont of the child's presence. He entertained her
himself as well as he could, and accompanied her into the park, where
they had a ramble together. Presently he sat down on the root of an elm
and took her upon his knee.

'Between this husband and this baby, little Dorothy, you who had two
homes are left out in the cold,' he said.

'Can't I go to London with my pretty mamma?' said Dorothy, perceiving
from his manner that there was a hitch somewhere.

'I am afraid not, my child. She only took you to live with her because
she was lonely, you know.'

'Then can't I stay at Deansleigh Park with my other mamma and you?'

'I am afraid that cannot be done either,' said he sadly. 'We have a baby
in the house now.' He closed the reply by stooping down and kissing her,
there being a tear in his eye.

'Then nobody wants me!' said Dorothy pathetically.

'Oh yes, somebody wants you,' he assured her. 'Where would you like to
live besides?'

Dorothy's experiences being rather limited, she mentioned the only other
place in the world that she was acquainted with, the cottage of the
villager who had taken care of her before Lady Mottisfont had removed her
to the Manor House.

'Yes; that's where you'll be best off and most independent,' he answered.
'And I'll come to see you, my dear girl, and bring you pretty things; and
perhaps you'll be just as happy there.'

Nevertheless, when the change came, and Dorothy was handed over to the
kind cottage-woman, the poor child missed the luxurious roominess of
Fernell Hall and Deansleigh; and for a long time her little feet, which
had been accustomed to carpets and oak floors, suffered from the cold of
the stone flags on which it was now her lot to live and to play; while
chilblains came upon her fingers with washing at the pump. But thicker
shoes with nails in them somewhat remedied the cold feet, and her
complaints and tears on this and other scores diminished to silence as
she became inured anew to the hardships of the farm-cottage, and she grew
up robust if not handsome. She was never altogether lost sight of by Sir
Ashley, though she was deprived of the systematic education which had
been devised and begun for her by Lady Mottisfont, as well as by her
other mamma, the enthusiastic Countess. The latter soon had other
Dorothys to think of, who occupied her time and affection as fully as
Lady Mottisfont's were occupied by her precious boy. In the course of
time the doubly-desired and doubly-rejected Dorothy married, I believe, a
respectable road-contractor - the same, if I mistake not, who repaired and
improved the old highway running from Wintoncester south-westerly through
the New Forest - and in the heart of this worthy man of business the poor
girl found the nest which had been denied her by her own flesh and blood
of higher degree.

* * * * *

Several of the listeners wished to hear another story from the
sentimental member after this, but he said that he could recall nothing
else at the moment, and that it seemed to him as if his friend on the
other side of the fireplace had something to say from the look of his
face.

The member alluded to was a respectable churchwarden, with a sly chink to
one eyelid - possibly the result of an accident - and a regular attendant
at the Club meetings. He replied that his looks had been mainly caused
by his interest in the two ladies of the last story, apparently women of
strong motherly instincts, even though they were not genuinely staunch in
their tenderness. The tale had brought to his mind an instance of a
firmer affection of that sort on the paternal side, in a nature otherwise
culpable. As for telling the story, his manner was much against him, he
feared; but he would do his best, if they wished.

Here the President interposed with a suggestion that as it was getting
late in the afternoon it would be as well to adjourn to their respective
inns and lodgings for dinner, after which those who cared to do so could
return and resume these curious domestic traditions for the remainder of
the evening, which might otherwise prove irksome enough. The curator had
told him that the room was at their service. The churchwarden, who was
beginning to feel hungry himself, readily acquiesced, and the Club
separated for an hour and a half. Then the faithful ones began to drop
in again - among whom were not the President; neither came the rural dean,
nor the two curates, though the Colonel, and the man of family, cigars in
mouth, were good enough to return, having found their hotel dreary. The
museum had no regular means of illumination, and a solitary candle, less
powerful than the rays of the fire, was placed on the table; also bottles
and glasses, provided by some thoughtful member. The chink-eyed
churchwarden, now thoroughly primed, proceeded to relate in his own terms
what was in substance as follows, while many of his listeners smoked.




DAME THE FIFTH - THE LADY ICENWAY
By the Churchwarden


In the reign of His Most Excellent Majesty King George the Third,
Defender of the Faith and of the American Colonies, there lived in 'a
faire maner-place' (so Leland called it in his day, as I have been told),
in one o' the greenest bits of woodland between Bristol and the city of
Exonbury, a young lady who resembled some aforesaid ones in having many
talents and exceeding great beauty. With these gifts she combined a
somewhat imperious temper and arbitrary mind, though her experience of
the world was not actually so large as her conclusive manner would have
led the stranger to suppose. Being an orphan, she resided with her
uncle, who, though he was fairly considerate as to her welfare, left her
pretty much to herself.

Now it chanced that when this lovely young lady was about nineteen, she
(being a fearless horsewoman) was riding, with only a young lad as an
attendant, in one o' the woods near her uncle's house, and, in trotting
along, her horse stumbled over the root of a felled tree. She slipped to
the ground, not seriously hurt, and was assisted home by a gentleman who
came in view at the moment of her mishap. It turned out that this
gentleman, a total stranger to her, was on a visit at the house of a
neighbouring landowner. He was of Dutch extraction, and occasionally
came to England on business or pleasure from his plantations in Guiana,
on the north coast of South America, where he usually resided.

On this account he was naturally but little known in Wessex, and was but
a slight acquaintance of the gentleman at whose mansion he was a guest.
However, the friendship between him and the Heymeres - as the uncle and
niece were named - warmed and warmed by degrees, there being but few folk
o' note in the vicinity at that time, which made a newcomer, if he were
at all sociable and of good credit, always sure of a welcome. A tender
feeling (as it is called by the romantic) sprang up between the two young
people, which ripened into intimacy. Anderling, the foreign gentleman,
was of an amorous temperament; and, though he endeavoured to conceal his
feeling, it could be seen that Miss Maria Heymere had impressed him
rather more deeply than would be represented by a scratch upon a stone.
He seemed absolutely unable to free himself from her fascination; and his
inability to do so, much as he tried - evidently thinking he had not the
ghost of a chance with her - gave her the pleasure of power; though she
more than sympathized when she overheard him heaving his deep drawn
sighs - privately to himself, as he supposed.

After prolonging his visit by every conceivable excuse in his power, he
summoned courage, and offered her his hand and his heart. Being in no
way disinclined to him, though not so fervid as he, and her uncle making
no objection to the match, she consented to share his fate, for better or
otherwise, in the distant colony where, as he assured her, his rice, and
coffee, and maize, and timber, produced him ample means - a statement
which was borne out by his friend, her uncle's neighbour. In short, a
day for their marriage was fixed, earlier in the engagement than is usual
or desirable between comparative strangers, by reason of the necessity he
was under of returning to look after his properties.

The wedding took place, and Maria left her uncle's mansion with her
husband, going in the first place to London, and about a fortnight after
sailing with him across the great ocean for their distant home - which,
however, he assured her, should not be her home for long, it being his
intention to dispose of his interests in this part of the world as soon
as the war was over, and he could do so advantageously; when they could
come to Europe, and reside in some favourite capital.

As they advanced on the voyage she observed that he grew more and more
constrained; and, by the time they had crossed the Line, he was quite
depressed, just as he had been before proposing to her. A day or two
before landing at Paramaribo, he embraced her in a very tearful and
passionate manner, and said he wished to make a confession. It had been
his misfortune, he said, to marry at Quebec in early life a woman whose
reputation proved to be in every way bad and scandalous. The discovery
had nearly killed him; but he had ultimately separated from her, and had
never seen her since. He had hoped and prayed she might be dead; but
recently in London, when they were starting on this journey, he had
discovered that she was still alive. At first he had decided to keep
this dark intelligence from her beloved ears; but he had felt that he
could not do it. All he hoped was that such a condition of things would
make no difference in her feelings for him, as it need make no difference
in the course of their lives.

Thereupon the spirit of this proud and masterful lady showed itself in
violent turmoil, like the raging of a nor'-west thunderstorm - as well it
might, God knows. But she was of too stout a nature to be broken down by
his revelation, as many ladies of my acquaintance would have been - so far
from home, and right under the Line in the blaze o' the sun. Of the two,
indeed, he was the more wretched and shattered in spirit, for he loved
her deeply, and (there being a foreign twist in his make) had been
tempted to this crime by her exceeding beauty, against which he had
struggled day and night, till he had no further resistance left in him.
It was she who came first to a decision as to what should be done - whether
a wise one I do not attempt to judge.

'I put it to you,' says she, when many useless self-reproaches and
protestations on his part had been uttered - 'I put it to you whether, if
any manliness is left in you, you ought not to do exactly what I consider
the best thing for me in this strait to which you have reduced me?'

He promised to do anything in the whole world. She then requested him to
allow her to return, and announce him as having died of malignant ague
immediately on their arrival at Paramaribo; that she should consequently
appear in weeds as his widow in her native place; and that he would never
molest her, or come again to that part of the world during the whole
course of his life - a good reason for which would be that the legal
consequences might be serious.

He readily acquiesced in this, as he would have acquiesced in anything
for the restitution of one he adored so deeply - even to the yielding of
life itself. To put her in an immediate state of independence he gave
her, in bonds and jewels, a considerable sum (for his worldly means had
been in no way exaggerated); and by the next ship she sailed again for
England, having travelled no farther than to Paramaribo. At parting he
declared it to be his intention to turn all his landed possessions into
personal property, and to be a wanderer on the face of the earth in
remorse for his conduct towards her.

Maria duly arrived in England, and immediately on landing apprised her
uncle of her return, duly appearing at his house in the garb of a widow.
She was commiserated by all the neighbours as soon as her story was told;
but only to her uncle did she reveal the real state of affairs, and her
reason for concealing it. For, though she had been innocent of wrong,
Maria's pride was of that grain which could not brook the least
appearance of having been fooled, or deluded, or nonplussed in her
worldly aims.

For some time she led a quiet life with her relative, and in due course a
son was born to her. She was much respected for her dignity and reserve,
and the portable wealth which her temporary husband had made over to her
enabled her to live in comfort in a wing of the mansion, without
assistance from her uncle at all. But, knowing that she was not what she
seemed to be, her life was an uneasy one, and she often said to herself:
'Suppose his continued existence should become known here, and people
should discern the pride of my motive in hiding my humiliation? It would
be worse than if I had been frank at first, which I should have been but
for the credit of this child.'

Such grave reflections as these occupied her with increasing force; and
during their continuance she encountered a worthy man of noble birth and
title - Lord Icenway his name - whose seat was beyond Wintoncester, quite
at t'other end of Wessex. He being anxious to pay his addresses to her,
Maria willingly accepted them, though he was a plain man, older than
herself; for she discerned in a re-marriage a method of fortifying her
position against mortifying discoveries. In a few months their union
took place, and Maria lifted her head as Lady Icenway, and left with her
husband and child for his home as aforesaid, where she was quite unknown.

A justification, or a condemnation, of her step (according as you view
it) was seen when, not long after, she received a note from her former
husband Anderling. It was a hasty and tender epistle, and perhaps it was
fortunate that it arrived during the temporary absence of Lord Icenway.
His worthless wife, said Anderling, had just died in Quebec; he had gone
there to ascertain particulars, and had seen the unfortunate woman
buried. He now was hastening to England to repair the wrong he had done
his Maria. He asked her to meet him at Southampton, his port of arrival;
which she need be in no fear of doing, as he had changed his name, and
was almost absolutely unknown in Europe. He would remarry her
immediately, and live with her in any part of the Continent, as they had
originally intended, where, for the great love he still bore her, he
would devote himself to her service for the rest of his days.

Lady Icenway, self-possessed as it was her nature to be, was yet much
disturbed at this news, and set off to meet him, unattended, as soon as
she heard that the ship was in sight. As soon as they stood face to face
she found that she still possessed all her old influence over him, though
his power to fascinate her had quite departed. In his sorrow for his
offence against her, he had become a man of strict religious habits, self-
denying as a lenten saint, though formerly he had been a free and joyous
liver. Having first got him to swear to make her any amends she should
choose (which he was imagining must be by a true marriage), she informed
him that she had already wedded another husband, an excellent man of
ancient family and possessions, who had given her a title, in which she
much rejoiced.

At this the countenance of the poor foreign gentleman became cold as
clay, and his heart withered within him; for as it had been her beauty
and bearing which had led him to sin to obtain her, so, now that her
beauty was in fuller bloom, and her manner more haughty by her success,
did he feel her fascination to be almost more than he could bear.
Nevertheless, having sworn his word, he undertook to obey her commands,
which were simply a renewal of her old request - that he would depart for
some foreign country, and never reveal his existence to her friends, or
husband, or any person in England; never trouble her more, seeing how
great a harm it would do her in the high position which she at present
occupied.

He bowed his head. 'And the child - our child?' he said.

'He is well,' says she. 'Quite well.'

With this the unhappy gentleman departed, much sadder in his heart than
on his voyage to England; for it had never occurred to him that a woman
who rated her honour so highly as Maria had done, and who was the mother
of a child of his, would have adopted such means as this for the
restoration of that honour, and at so surprisingly early a date. He had
fully calculated on making her his wife in law and truth, and of living
in cheerful unity with her and his offspring, for whom he felt a deep and
growing tenderness, though he had never once seen the child.

The lady returned to her mansion beyond Wintoncester, and told nothing of
the interview to her noble husband, who had fortunately gone that day to
do a little cocking and ratting out by Weydon Priors, and knew nothing of
her movements. She had dismissed her poor Anderling peremptorily enough;
yet she would often after this look in the face of the child of her so-
called widowhood, to discover what and how many traits of his father were
to be seen in his lineaments. For this she had ample opportunity during
the following autumn and winter months, her husband being a matter-of-
fact nobleman, who spent the greater part of his time in field-sports and
agriculture.

One winter day, when he had started for a meet of the hounds a long way
from the house - it being his custom to hunt three or four times a week at
this season of the year - she had walked into the sunshine upon the
terrace before the windows, where there fell at her feet some little
white object that had come over a boundary wall hard by. It proved to be
a tiny note wrapped round a stone. Lady Icenway opened it and read it,
and immediately (no doubt, with a stern fixture of her queenly
countenance) walked hastily along the terrace, and through the door into
the shrubbery, whence the note had come. The man who had first married
her stood under the bushes before her. It was plain from his appearance
that something had gone wrong with him.

'You notice a change in me, my best-beloved,' he said. 'Yes, Maria - I
have lost all the wealth I once possessed - mainly by reckless gambling in
the Continental hells to which you banished me. But one thing in the
world remains to me - the child - and it is for him that I have intruded
here. Don't fear me, darling! I shall not inconvenience you long; I
love you too well! But I think of the boy day and night - I cannot help
it - I cannot keep my feeling for him down; and I long to see him, and
speak a word to him once in my lifetime!'

'But your oath?' says she. 'You promised never to reveal by word or
sign - '

'I will reveal nothing. Only let me see the child. I know what I have
sworn to you, cruel mistress, and I respect my oath. Otherwise I might
have seen him by some subterfuge. But I preferred the frank course of
asking your permission.'

She demurred, with the haughty severity which had grown part of her
character, and which her elevation to the rank of a peeress had rather
intensified than diminished. She said that she would consider, and would
give him an answer the day after the next, at the same hour and place,
when her husband would again be absent with his pack of hounds.

The gentleman waited patiently. Lady Icenway, who had now no conscious
love left for him, well considered the matter, and felt that it would be
advisable not to push to extremes a man of so passionate a heart. On the
day and hour she met him as she had promised to do.

'You shall see him,' she said, 'of course on the strict condition that
you do not reveal yourself, and hence, though you see him, he must not
see you, or your manner might betray you and me. I will lull him into a
nap in the afternoon, and then I will come to you here, and fetch you
indoors by a private way.'

The unfortunate father, whose misdemeanour had recoiled upon his own head
in a way he could not have foreseen, promised to adhere to her
instructions, and waited in the shrubberies till the moment when she
should call him. This she duly did about three o'clock that day, leading
him in by a garden door, and upstairs to the nursery where the child lay.
He was in his little cot, breathing calmly, his arm thrown over his head,
and his silken curls crushed into the pillow. His father, now almost to
be pitied, bent over him, and a tear from his eye wetted the coverlet.

She held up a warning finger as he lowered his mouth to the lips of the
boy.

'But oh, why not?' implored he.

'Very well, then,' said she, relenting. 'But as gently as possible.'

He kissed the child without waking him, turned, gave him a last look, and
followed her out of the chamber, when she conducted him off the premises
by the way he had come.

But this remedy for his sadness of heart at being a stranger to his own
son, had the effect of intensifying the malady; for while originally, not
knowing or having ever seen the boy, he had loved him vaguely and


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 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 10 of 16)